Engels, Women and Contradictions

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


3 thoughts on “Engels, Women and Contradictions

    1. Anything by Progress, even in a church book stall, is worth it. They usually ask you to write (on the back matter) with any suggestions to improve their publishing. The world was a better place when Progress was publishers. Actually, I have a slight Progress fetish, in case you hadn’t noticed.

  1. Here’s an e-mail I have just sent to the ISJ :

    Reading Roland Boer’s “Engels’s contradictions: a reply to Tristram Hunt” in the last issue of ISJ, I was struck at the way “grisette” is unproblematically translated as “prostitute”.

    This is is itself problematic. Dictionaries and contemporary literature depict the grisette as a young working-class woman, often a seamstress, with a love of independence. In Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (which Marx and Engels wrote about at length in The Holy Family) the character of Rigolette is often refered to as “la grisette”. Now, Rigolette is not a prostitute. She is a hard working seamstress. What she does have is her own room, and a disregard for convention – in particular as regards relationships and marriage. But Sue describes how Rigolette “only chose lovers in her own class, that is, she only chose them among her neighbours, and this equality as regards the rent was far from chimerical”.

    Other writers, such as Musset et Murger describes how grisettes would occasionaly sell their charms for entertainment, or even become full-time prostitutes – but “prostitute” is not the basic meaning of “grisette”.

    Surely this goes some way towards explaining why Engels could celebrate the company of grisettes (which he may well have bought dinner to) and their fighting spirit in 1848 : it seems to me he was celebrating different aspects of young working-class women, in a not so contradictory fashion.

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