Thursday, April 30, 2009

In praise of Friedrich Engels

Many years ago I struggled through Stage II Political Philosophy, for which I had to read not only a lot of Marx but also some Engels. It was the most boring guff I have ever read, and that’s saying something. I assumed that they must have been crashing bores themselves. That probably is true of Marx, but a different picture of the co-author of The Communist Manifesto emerges from this piece in the Spectator by Tristram Hunt, author of The Frock-Coated Communist, a new biography of Engels to be published tomorrow (May Day, naturally). We learn that on his 70th birthday:
‘We kept it up till half past three in the morning,’ he boasted to Laura Lafargue, daughter of his old friend Karl Marx, ‘and drank, besides claret, sixteen bottles of champagne — that morning we had had 12 dozen oysters.’

This was not an isolated act of indulgence. During the 1870s his Primrose Hill home had become a popular venue for socialist excess. ‘On Sundays, Engels would throw open his house,’ recalled the communist August Bebel. ‘On those puritanical days when no merry men can bear life in London, Engels’s house was open to all, and no one left before 2 or 3 in the morning.’ Pilsner, claret, and vast bowls of Maitrank — a May wine flavoured with woodruff — were consumed while Engels sang German folk-songs or drunkenly recited ‘The Vicar of Bray’.
He was also a bit of a shagger:
‘If I had an income of 5,000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces,’ he wrote to the more monogamous Marx. ‘If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes, well and good!’
He was no chardonnay socialist – he was a champagne communist. Even Cactus Kate might have enjoyed his company.

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