Review of 'Marx and Engels: Collected Works Volume 48', Lawrence and Wishart £45
Engels' letters are a delight to read. Here we have him as active as ever as he approaches the age of 80. He is immersed in editing volume two of Capital, which involves him working his way through hundreds of pages of nearly illegible handwriting despite his own diminishing eyesight.
He finds time to pour out advice to the rapidly growing socialist movement in Germany. Its leaders Walter Liebknecht, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein are in continual correspondence with him when they are not actually staying at his house in Regents Park Road. So too are Marx's daughter and son in law, the Lafargues, who were central to rebuilding the socialist movement in Paris as it recovered from the defeat of the Commune. He enthuses at a new wave of workers' struggles in the US, and especially the strikes of London's dockers and gas workers, in which Eleanor, one of Marx's other daughters, played a key role.
He rejoices that ideas that seemed to have only a dozen followers in Britain when Marx died are now dominant in a growing movement that can hold a successful international congress in Paris only six years later. He throws himself into the arguments and tactical manoeuvres necessary to free the new movement from the dead weight of old habits and ideas. 'No movement', he writes, 'causes so much fruitless work as one that is still at the sectarian stage, for everything then revolves around tittle tattle.' Elsewhere he complains, in words which many will echo today, 'It has always been our fate that the more we show we are ready to work together with honest and sincere people as long as they stand on a truly workingman's platform - no matter how imperfect - the rogues and adventurers whose company we decline denounce us as intolerant, domineering and exclusive.' He notes that he had to take months off from doing other things to help make the Paris conference a success.
He was less successful in his efforts when it came to the socialist movement in Britain. The first ostensibly Marxist party was the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman. It tried, briefly, to build a revolutionary movement out of mass agitation among the unemployed. But when this failed it turned almost exclusively to making socialist propaganda and standing (unsuccessfully) in elections to this end, while having a completely condescending attitude to strikes and trade union issues. Engels backed the split-away Socialist League of William Morris and Belfort Bax, only to see this fall under anarchist influence and remain just as disdainful of the strike movement that erupted in the late 1880s.
In the end Engels placed his hopes in a group around Eleanor Marx and her partner, Edward Aveling. It attracted trade unionists like the engineering worker Tom Mann who were central to the role of the workers' struggles of the late 1880s. They helped found Britain's biggest trade unions and encouraged the establishment of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s (Aveling was on its executive and Mann briefly its secretary). But they were unable to create a Marxist organisation able to challenge the Social Democratic Federation and overcome its failings. It was not for 30 years, until after the Russian Revolution, that such a party was formed.
The letters are not just about current political controversy. There is, for instance, a brilliant page and a half summary of the reasons for the collapse of the Jacobins at the height of the French Revolution in 1794.
Another page-long passage on realism in literature extols Balzac as a superior novelist to Zola despite his reactionary political beliefs - and then goes on to tell how he has provided 'a complete history of French society from which I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period.'
People who read Marx and Engels usually start off with The Communist Manifesto or other short pamphlets. They then progress to some version of the selected writings. But to really appreciate the sheer breadth of vision, learning and insight of either Marx or Engels, you need to at least dip into the collected works. They are a treasure trove for anyone interested in socialist ideas, the growth of the workers' movement, history, economics, 19th-century politics and a score of other questions - as well as showing the sheer humanity of the pair, with their emotions, their foibles, their occasional prejudices, their endless identification of the struggles of the oppressed, and their sheer zest for life.