A new church in Podgorica in Montenegro has a lovely fresco depicting our good friends, Marx, Engels and Tito, enjoying the warmth of hell (more here).

Marx, Engels and Tito in Hell

(ht cp)

At long last, after almost four years of couch-surfing, hanging about in odd corners, taking up floor space … MEGA has a home. Since 2009, I’ve been collecting, borrowing, begging and possessing the available volumes of the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe.



It took a bit of work, especially finding pieces of wood (which I never buy) long enough for a high bookshelf.


It reaches almost to the ceiling:


But it does mean that instead of sorting through piles of books, I can simply walk over to the shelf and find what I need:


That is, if it is in the volumes of MEGA published thus far (about half out of 112 double volumes):

IMG_9673 (2)a

I guess that’s why the Werke is across the room:


Note where the three flowers have chosen to grow.

I have already scheduled this item for the agenda at the next strata meeting over here, since I like the thought of nine apartments agreeing to setting up a similar gathering of the gang. Should be a cinch, especially since I managed to wrangle the all-important secretary position. Is not the secretary the most important member of the party? (ht sk)

What are the best things to see in St. Petersburg (aka Leningrad)? I would suggest the Smolny Institute, which was the nerve centre of the Russian Revolution.

Before the institute lies the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, where children play and parents talk beneath Marx’s warm gaze:

And where Engels maintains his interest in the role of religion:

I would also suggest Mars Field, where the red flag still flies:

And where Anatoly Lunacharsky, The God-builder, has penned some poems, now engraved in stone, to the heroes of the revolution and the civil war:

Add to that a visit to the cruiser Aurora:

Still standing close to its crucial location during the revolution:

One may stand by the gun that fired the shot to signal the storming of the Winter Palace:

Or you may ponder Lenin’s crotch before the Finland Station:

And so on:

(with thanks to Sergey)

Sit and ponder the universe? Lean back in a chair and look skyward? Rub the soap in your crotch while in the shower and pause for an insight?

Marx, for one, would pace up and down the room. Paul Lafargue notes that Marx would rest by doing so, while Henry Hyndman observes: ‘Marx had a habit when at all interested in the discussion of walking actively up and down the room, as if he were pacing the deck of a schooner for exercise’. Engels had the same habit. Imagine the scene, especially after Engels managed to escape the ‘huckstering’ of the family firm in Manchester: Marx would pace in one direction, puffing on a cigarette, Engels would pace parallel to Marx but in the opposite direction, puffing on a pipe, while both would engage in animated discussion.

As for Lenin, Krupskaya notes: ‘When writing, he would usually pace swiftly up and down the room, whispering what he was going to write’. Then he would leap into the seat at his desk and rapidly write down what he had just whispered to himself. 45 volumes of Collected Worksthat’s a shitload of whispering.

Gotta hand it to parents and the thrill of naming an addition to the species, especially so in revolutionary times. So it was after the Russian Revolution. Apart from the obligatory rush of kids called Marks, Engelina, Stalina, Ninel (Lenin backwards) and Melor (Marx, Engels, Lenin, October Revolution), the more creative include:

Barrikada, Parizhkommuna, Dinamit, Ateist, Avangarda, Tekstil, Industriya, Dinamo, Monblan (Mont Blanc), Singapur (?).

However, my favourites are: Traktorina, Elektrifikatsiya and Giotin. Hate to meet the adult version of the last guy on the wrong side of the tracks … with a name like ‘Guillotine’.

That indefatigable bunch, the International Socialists, have just published the latest issue of their journal, ISJ. You may notice that I have snuck in the back with a piece on Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels.

It begins with:

In a recent and reasonably popular biography, Tristram Hunt charges Friedrich Engels with a series of class and gender contradictions: he condemned prostitution but enjoyed it himself; he looked askance at marriage and yet married Lizzy Burns on her deathbed; he was fully in favour of education for women and universal suffrage but could not tolerate the likes of Annie Besant or the women’s rights campaigner Gertrud Guillaume-Schack; he lived a double life as cotton lord and revolutionary communist, a mill-owning Marxist who was objectively a bourgeois … In short, Engels was a hypocrite …


Issue 133


The crisis wears on

Alex Callinicos

The rebirth of our power? After the 30 November mass strike

Charlie Kimber

The Occupy movement and class politics in the US

Megan Trudell

Interview: Working people have no interest in saving the euro

Costas Lapavitsas

The Egyptian workers’ movement and the 25 January Revolution

Anne Alexander

Libya at the crossroads

Simon Assaf

Revolution against “progress”: the TIPNIS struggle and class contradictions in Bolivia

Jeffery R Webber

“Take that, Maynard G Krebs!”: the Beat Generation

Adam Marks

Engels’s contradictions: a reply to Tristram Hunt

Roland Boer

I am in the midst of proof corrections for Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology, a hefty tome which is due out in March with Brill and later with Haymarket. So in yet another moment of shameless self-promotion, a section of the preface:

I have put off writing this book for too long, daunted by the endless volumes of Marx’s and Engels’s writings. At long last I opened the first volume of their collected works. Over the next eight months I read the whole lot, instead of the select pieces I had read until then, finishing the last volume on the evening before boarding a freighter-ship bound for New Zealand in June 2008. Vast, tiring and exhilarating, it was one of the great reading experiences I have ever had.

From the nooks and crannies of their youth, with bad poetry, love-letters, angry and worried parents, the story unwound in volume after volume. Marx soon showed up as an obsessive and brilliant writer who cared nothing for his health, even when there was a long history of unstable health on his side of the family. Engels, by contrast, obviously knew how to enjoy himself and unwind: good beer, fine wine, exquisite tobacco and women, mixed in with long-distance hiking and a love for swimming. We follow them through the obstacle course of early political journalism in the face of censorship, arrests and exile in Paris, Brussels and then London. I found myself enticed by Engels’s background, one that was so similar to my own, as well as his remarkable ability with languages (I have come across French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, Frisian, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Devanagari or Sanskrit, as well as classical Hebrew and Greek). While Engels passed through his hawkish phase and wrote some amazing pieces on battles, campaigns, and the histories of matters such as infantry, rifles and castles, Marx buried himself in piles of economic data and wrote endless notebooks working out his breakthrough-theories. As Marx peaked and burned himself out with the monumental first volume of Capital, Engels kept the whole show together, maintaining his partnership in the firm in Manchester, sending Marx endless pound notes in the post, until at last he could retire and set up both Marx and himself in relative comfort. The formality of intellectual work and the immediacy of journalism finally make way for the intensely personal correspondence. Here, Marx’s obsession with his declining health – especially the interminable reports on those famous carbuncles – shows up starkly (if before he disregarded his health now it is at the centre of his attention), as does Engels’s patience and irrepressibly jovial take on life. And this is how the story closes, with Engels dutifully ensuring Marx’s legacy through a mountain of editorial work on Marx’s unfinished manuscripts (not always understanding them) and yet utterly enthused by the strides taken by the working-class and socialist movement.

When I began writing, I became conscious of the fact that Marx and Engels too were primarily writers. I started to gain respect for Engels as a writer. At times, he may have been too categorical and doctrinaire, not quite shining as bright as Marx, but, at other times, his texts sparkle with insight and observation. Unlike Marx’s intense and obsessive prose, Engels could have a lightness of touch and way of turning a phrase that draws one in. I have read his accounts of the walk from Paris to Berne in Switzerland many times, the travel notes on Sweden and Denmark, his glorious description of the cotton-bale that passes through so many handlers and merchants (swindlers) before reaching Germany, or his letters full of comments on smoking, drinking and women, or indeed his continuous doodles, portraits and battle scenes. Only Engels could write, ‘… now I can shit in peace and then write to you in peace. … Damn, there’s somebody sitting in the lavatory and I am bursting’.[1] No wonder he lived to a good age. His motto, written in young Jenny’s notebook would have helped: ‘Your favourite virtue – jollity; Motto – take it easy’.[2]

Often, Engels had to remind Marx to get some fresh air and exercise instead of sitting on a broken chair at a worn desk in order to write. For Marx was driven by a demanding muse, one that allowed him three or four hours sleep a night, rushed breaks for meals and those endless cups of coffee and reams of tobacco. There are plenty of notes in the letters about working all night, or for thirty hours straight until his eyes were too sore to go further, or Jenny taking over letter-writing since he had dropped from sheer exhaustion. No wonder he became so ill – liver, carbuncles, sores, abscesses, rheumatism, lungs (the letters are full of them) – and no wonder he recovered when on the sea at Margate where he ate well, went for long walks (up to 27 kilometres to Canterbury), swam everyday and slept. He was already sick from overwork in his 30s, was alternating between periods of enforced rest and frenetic writing in his 40s, was spent after Capital appeared at the age of 49, and he could not write anything substantial after that. He was lucky to get to 65.

The image Marx’s father, Heinrich, had of his son in Berlin pretty much sums up the way Marx wrote: ‘God’s grief!!! Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp; running wild in a scholar’s dressing-gown and with unkempt hair instead of running wild over a glass of beer’.[3] Or, in Marx’s own words:

The writer does not look at all on his work as a means. It is an end in itself; it is so little a means for him himself and for others that, if need be, he sacrifices his existence to its existence. He is, in another way, like the preacher of religion who adopts the principle: ‘Obey God rather than man’.[4]

The result was that Marx’s texts are often rushed, dense, endless and written in that atrocious hand. Yet he could also rise from that tangle and produce extraordinarily brilliant stretches of text, such as the Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France, but it came less naturally to him. I find myself caught in between, preferring Engels as a writer over against Marx, but then taken up with Marx’s sheer originality. And I must confess that I too often succumb to that demanding muse.

[1] Engels 1839ff, p. 411; Engels 1839gg, p. 354.

[2] Engels 1868k, p. 541.

[3] Marx (Heinrich) 1837, p. 688.

[4] Marx 1842i, p. 175.

Does anyone know the address in Berlin of the former Hippel Cafe, where the Young Hegelians (or ‘The Free’) used to meet and carouse all night – Marx and Engels among them for a while in the late 1830s?

(Engels’s own sketch of a night at the cafe).

As I mentioned earlier, I have just been at the Renmin University Summer Institute on Theology and the Humanities (in Beijing), where I was a keynote speaker. One of the many discussions I had (especially in response to my paper on Lenin and the Gospels) turned on the relationship between Marxism and Christianity. Three different questions made me think a bit more:

1. Is Marxism a secularised version of Christian (or indeed Jewish) history?

I have had a go at answering this one at the level of Marx’s texts in an article in Mediations. The short answer here is that Marx and Engels set themselves against the dominantly eschatological nature of communism at the time (Moses Hess et al). However, what about the oft-repeated opinion, first proposed by Karl Löwith early last century? At a general level, Marxism partakes of a historical narrative drawn originally from Jewish and Christian thought: this world is a fallen one, the messiah/saviour will come (the proletariat) and bring in the millennium and heaven on earth (communism). Apart from the fact that our dear Karl L. doesn’t actually work with any texts, this seems an obvious position to many.

This position has at least two problems. First, you may make the same point about any political and economic project: liberalism, feminism, anarchism, conservatism … at which point it becomes meaningless. Second, the whole argument assumes that Christian thought is the origin of this narrative and that everyone has borrowed it in various fashions. Crap, since that absolutises Christianity. Instead, the theological or biblical shape of this narrative is but one form it may take.

All the same, there is some connection between a Marxist theory of history and Christianity, but at an unexpected level. You find it in the forgotten pages on Max Stirner in The German Ideology, pages that constitute the engine room of historical materialism. In response to Stirner’s search for a lever of history – the ego, of which Christ is the model, minus the theological trappings – Marx and Engels develop a very different approach. The lever is not the proletariat but contradiction itself. The way modes of production crunch into other ones is through internal contradictions that eventually bring the older one undone. It is certainly a very different lever of history, but the question remains whether Marx and Engels actually develop something completely new. My sense is that they get halfway: contradiction is a novel lever of history, but it remains a lever.

2. How then do Marxism and Christianity relate?

Through the history of revolutions. Engels knew it, Kautsky knew it. Christianity has inspired and provided the mechanisms for one revolution after another before the modern period. Communism carries on the memory and practice of such revolutions, now in another key.

3. When will a Christian communist be found in China?

Apart from pointing out that I was there, however briefly, I referred to the work of a Chinese friend of mine (Chin Kenpa) who has discovered a group of Chinese Christian communists from the 1920s. The key is that they developed Christian communism without reference to work outside China and well before the ruptures of the 60s and 70s elsewhere. Here you have a distinctly Chinese contribution to the relations between Marxism and Christianity. Apart the publication of the Chinese version of their writings, we are also planning an English translation.

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