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MRS. ENGELS: A Historical Primer

This one's a historical novel. Honestly, we don't read too much historical fiction. But as such, it's full of realpolitik figures and events. Yes, some of it goes down in the background. Here's a key set.

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883). Although we think of him today as an economist (developing an alternative system to capitalism), he mostly thought of himself as a philosopher and a historian (he went to college at Bonn to study law). Although Prussian, his preoccupation was instead with English society, particularly the kind of dog-eat-child capitalism Dickens depicted. In fact, Marx's life work was not so much an "alternate" system to the economic engine of capitalism but instead a critique of it. Marx saw capitalism as the necessary step before the final revolution in which labor (the proletariat, the working classes) would come to control their own destiny without an overlord, ownership class. But it's that little word which you might have missed--"necessary"--which caused (and still causes) so many problems. It indicates that there's a set, determined sequence of events, one following the other in an established order. It's all fated (as it were, despite Marx's atheism), all laid out. Even today among his followers, his most contentious point was and is that notion of what's termed "historical determinism"--that is, certain historical forces (for example, society in distinct classes like the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) will inevitably result in foreseen historic changes (the development of a state in which workers, not capitalists, control the economic levers). It's that fatalism, almost Calvinistic, that has proven so controversial; for it allows all sorts of abuses in the name of its greater good (as elsewhere, religious zealots can massacre thousands, even millions in the name of bringing about some future world order/peace they see in the offing). In the end, Marx's greatest achievement was that he changed the way we see our world, no matter what else we think about his theories. His works teach us to see the world symbolically--that is, what happens in the world is the surface expression (a metaphor, perhaps) of deeper processes that remain just out of sight. Think even now of the way people talk about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and other presidential candidates: as if they are nodes that point to larger, underlying problems or forces that the enlightened can see. We do it so much, it now seems natural. It wasn't before Marx. Today, we interpret history as a complex interplay of symbol systems. The rise of Nazism was because . . . as exemplified by. . . .  The fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire was because . . . as exemplified by. . . .  We sometimes even see history as inevitable, a bow to Marx's notion of historical determinism. In the end--and this may be the really revolutionary bit--Marx read history as Freud read the psyche: as a story, a plot, with a beginning, a middle, and (here's the rub) an end. And it's impossible to see history as anything but a symbolically charged story after him. We now routinely, almost naturally make a narrative out of events--and out of ourselves--not just from the events themselves but using those events as metaphors of deeper, unseen forces at play. In so many ways, Marx and Freud created the modern world. As I've said dozens of times in our group, we live in the wreckage of the nineteenth century.

Frederick Engels (1820 - 1895). In many ways, Engels is the spark that got the Marx/Engels partnership off the ground, both by financing Marx through periods of his life and by providing a necessary kick into political activism, not just philosophy. Together, of course, they wrote "The Communist Manifesto," perhaps the single most important piece of writing to come out of the nineteenth century. We still bob in its wake. Engels was indeed the son of a wealthy German family. He met Marx for the first time in 1842, on his way to the family factories in Manchester. Neither initially liked the other. Marx thought Engels a bit of a dandy. And perhaps he was. By all accounts, he was a rather spoiled child who was indeed radicalized by his time spent overseeing the Manchester mills his family partly owned. And the woman who radicalized him, by all accounts, was one of the Burns sisters. How he met these two remains a bit of a mystery. Gavin McCrea fills in some of the details in his novel to make a fuller story but we do know that Mary Burns led him around the Irish ghettos of Manchester, deepening and changing his notions of economics and the historical forces at play on labor and the working classes. He and Mary were together almost twenty years, until her death in 1863. In many ways, her insights prompted him to write his seminal work, "The Condition of the Working Class in England." Although he didn't yet have a working theory of revolution and its future state, he predicted a grim industrial nightmare for the West. His absences in MRS. ENGELS that so bedevil Mary early on are not necessarily just trips home. He is becoming further radicalized in Paris clubs and Brussels associations. And he is beginning to collaborate more fully with Marx, his first publisher. Engels himself saw a historical spirit, a world destiny, that would eventually find its way into Marx's writings. Engels also first makes the claim that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce," a claim Marx himself would pick up and make famous. Engels indeed supported Marx in the 1870s as the older scholar was finishing up his magnum opus, "Das Kapital." Marx died with the work unfinished. Engels edited the second and third volumes into shape and then compiled the remainder into what is now seen as a large appendix to the work.

Lydia "Lizzie" Burns (1827 - 1878). In truth, we know next to nothing about her except that she was Engels' consort after the death of her sister, Mary, his former consort. McCrea himself in an interview says she "floats through drawing rooms" in the historical record without leaving much of a trace. For the record, Engels was not opposed to marriage as an institution--he felt that the current economic system stymied its natural development. However, he did marry Lizzie in the last minutes of her life, mostly to satisfy her final wishes which were rooted in her Catholicism. But while they were hale and healthy, they both snubbed convention and apparently reveled in being an unmarried pair in London society, in some ways like George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, contemporaries of Burns and Engels. After her death, Engels wrote, "My wife was a real child of the Irish proletariat and her passionate devotion to the class in which she was born was worth much more to me--and helped me more in times of stress--than all the elegance of an educated, artistic middle-class bluestocking."

The Paris Commune (1871). Any attempt to write about the commune in this short space will prove silly. Suffice it to say, France had been in political turmoil for years, besieged both by bad politics after Napoleon Bonaparte's death and its wily neighbors who had designs on its territory. After Louis-Phillipe Napoleon had himself installed as Emperor Napoleon III of the so-called "Second Empire" in 1852, some stability came to the country but only at the cost of rather repressive social structures. In fact, France was little more than a very chic capital surrounded by poverty and blight. And well-armed Prussia was a constant thorn in its side. War broke out between the two--eventually France was defeated at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. However, that didn't end things. After the emperor and empress fled Paris, a new national government was founded, based largely on the city's more radical politicians. Prussia marched on toward Paris and began a four-month, brutal siege. After complicated political machinations, including the disarming of the French army but not the far more politically radical National Guard, a commune was founded in Paris on 18 March 1871, a radicalized form of government that Marx called "the dictatorship of the proletariat." It was rank idealism, an attempt to institute social justice almost by fiat, to solve the problems of the slums with intellectuals in control. In "The Civil War in France," Marx wrote: "Working men's Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators' history has already been nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them." But it was not to last. The commune collapsed two months later because of internal squabbling between communists (thus, the word we use today) and anarchists, as well as external pressures, including some from the United States. But it was the first truly leftist government established in the West, at first a great signal that Marx and Engels were right, then later a glaring statement of their shortcomings. Is liberty inevitable? Is it the same for everyone? Still, even today, red flags from the Paris Commune adorn Lenin's tomb. It's not a mistake that the novel is set during this frenzied time. 

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