Marx and Engels


in Economics, Politics

Reading a book review, I was surprised to learn that the lifestyle of Karl Marx and his entire family was bankrolled by Friedrich Engels running his family’s Manchester textile mills, which he had previously condemned as terribly inhumane to their workers:

Engels left Manchester to work with Marx on the “Communist Manifesto” and the two of them spent the late 1840s criss-crossing Europe to chase the continental revolutions of the time, ending up in England. Marx had started work on “Das Kapital”, but there was a problem. He had by then acquired an aristocratic German wife, a clutch of small children and aspirations for a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, but no means of support.

Engels (whose name resembles the word for “angel” in German) offered an astoundingly big-hearted solution: he would go back to Manchester to resume life in the detested family cotton business and provide Marx with the money he needed to write his world-changing treatise. For the next 20 years Engels worked grumpily away, handing over half his generous income to an ever more demanding Marx. He also collaborated intensively on the great work, contributing many ideas, practical examples from business and much-needed editorial attention. When at last volume I of “Das Kapital” was finished, he extricated himself from the business and moved to London to be near the Marx family, enjoying life as an Economist-reading rentier and intellectual.

He also raised an illegitimate son of Marx. It is surely ironic that the most famous critic of capitalism lived by virtue of his friend practicing it in one of its most notoriously cruel forms.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh ilnyckyj August 23, 2009 at 2:18 pm

It is interesting that Marx depended on Engel’s money earned from ownership of Manchester textile mills which Marx condemned. It reminds of Thoreau claiming to be independent of material needs but depending on his sister to pay off his debt so that he could avoid incarceration.

Milan August 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Engels also criticized the textile mills, in a tract he wrote when he was 24.

Milan August 23, 2009 at 5:41 pm

I think Marx was being much more hypocritical than Thoreau.

Thoreau had no way of changing the power and behaviour of the state. Even if he opted out of all government services (though some you cannot really opt out from, like the defence of the territory of your state), they would still have made him pay taxes.

Marx, on the other hand, could presumably have sustained himself and his family without relying on the profits from textile mills. He might have had less time for writing, etc, but it would have been entirely within his power to abstain from involvement in the immoral business.

The book review doesn’t say anything about whether Engels did anything to make working conditions better in the mills.

Tristan August 24, 2009 at 4:15 am

Isn’t this the kind of hypocrisy which we like to dismiss when we talk about Gore and global warming?

I think hypocrisy is almost always irrelevant for thinkers. If their thinking can lead to the opposite of what it intends, you should be able to find that in the text – not through recourse to biographical anecdotes.

This post seems to me falls into the category of various unconvincing reasons to dismiss Marx rather than engage.

oleh August 24, 2009 at 6:05 am

I do not believe that hypocrisy should almost always be irrelevant to thinkers. Thinkers or philosophers should not be immune from pointing out differences between their actions and their words. For example if Ghandi preached non-violence but supported himself by selling guns, I would find that interesting and relevant. I believe that Ghandi did support the participation of Indians in the First World War in the hope that such participation might help towards Indian independence. I expect Marx would justify his reliance on the profits from the work of Manchester textile workers as something he needed to accomplish his work. However, I do not see such reliance on capitalist profits by the first “Marxist” as irrelevant.

I also find it interesting that the excerpt indicates that Marx aspired “to a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, but had no means of support”.

Milan August 24, 2009 at 8:15 am

Al Gore could not influence global climate change policy-making without doing a lot of travel.

Having his family work for a living probably wouldn’t have severely impacted Marx’s ability to write.

I agree that what people write can be more important than their biography, but the economic arrangement the Marxes lived on still strikes me as rather distasteful.

Tristan August 24, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Marx explicitly was not a “Marxist”, and in general, “Marxists” are relatively poor readers of Marx.

The reason such hypocrisy is irrelevant is simply that Marx’s historical claims (that are not especially normative) could hardly be made less likely true if he profited from the stage of history, the decline of which Marx concerned himself with.

This kind of criticism is predicated on the idea that Marx is another leftist critic, who thought capitalism is “immoral”. This just isn’t true – Marx isn’t a “critic” of capitalism in the modern sense, he tried to investigate whether the system of capitalism had inborn contradictions. This isn’t a moral issue – which is why he thought of himself as a Scientist.

Sure, Marx thought Capitalism produced terrible suffering, but that suffering alone is not enough to bring on its destruction, nor is it alone enough to make it preferable to feudalism or communism. Communism, if Marx’s next stage of history were to rise out of objective contradictions (pretty controversial claim today) would not be without suffering. Nor would it be without objective contradictions, necessarily. Since Marx is a Hegelian, he properly can’t make such predictive claims about movements of Spirit which have not happened yet.

But, since no one reads Marx seriously today (which might have more to do with general equilibrium theory than the popularity of revolutionary factions, I think I’ve talked about this in various discussions on economics), it’s completely normal that claims like “Marx thought capitalism was immoral” would have a high degree of truthiness.

alena August 24, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Did not Thomas Jefferson have slaves in his household? Yet he spoke so eloquently against slavery and released his slaves upon his death. It shows that human beings seek their comfort first and their actions do not always reflect their words.

Milan August 24, 2009 at 1:48 pm

There is a section in Michael Ignatieff’s essay “The Narcissism of Minor Difference” that speaks directly about Jefferson:

“Similarly, when the Founding Fathers of the new American republic setout to conceive a new state, they worked with equally constrained assumptions about difference. They restricted their community to white, propertied Christian males, and this in a society that included slaves. Such blindness is often held against the Founding Fathers and especially against that slaveholding liberal, Thomas Jefferson. Blindness it certainly was, and yet perhaps a necessary blindness. They liberal fiction might never have been conceived had it been required to include everyone: women, blacks, the propertyless, non-Christians, and adolescents. The liberal thought experiment would have been abandoned as a preposterous and even dangerous flight of fancy had political community been obliged to encompass all the observable human differences of late eighteenth-century society. Had liberal theorists not been able to take for granted the stabilizing impact of common ethnic, religious, and sexual origins in the composition of their polity, they would never have believed that such polities could cohere as systems of individual rights and interests. The civic compact they envisaged was conceivable only in the context of these shared assumptions.”

Milan August 24, 2009 at 1:58 pm


Do you think Marx considered the Manchester textile mills immoral, or ever had any moral qualms about living off their profits? Does either question have any historical or philosophical importance, or are the answers merely biographical?

While I haven’t read Engels’ “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844,” secondary sources suggest that he had moral qualms about doing the work he did.

Tristan August 25, 2009 at 2:09 pm


Marx considered what you and I call “morality” to be an aspect of Capitalism (as an age of history). So, sure he might have considered them immoral, but to him this would be on the same level as his desire to maintain a middle class lifestyle. My point is that Marx’s theory is very far from a moralist one, so while you might not like the fact Marx acted immorally, it does not present any contradiction to his critique of capitalism.

Milan August 25, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Just as I think we can legitimately think less of Jefferson today for being a slave owner, I think we can think less of Marx for living off the profit of textile mills.

Whether that has any importance for the interpretation of his writing, I don’t really know.

Tristan August 26, 2009 at 12:56 am

Is your argument really, “we shouldn’t take seriously theorists who today we find morally repugnant”? Because the list of who is left will be remarkably short. I would certainly not donate to any University which moralized its cannon in this way.

Milan August 26, 2009 at 8:10 am

I am not saying Marx shouldn’t be taken seriously, but perhaps that the context of his life has relevance for the interpretation of his work (as with any author).

Tristan August 27, 2009 at 11:17 am

What kind of relevance? Well, that would depend on what the work is about.

For instance, perhaps the most important logician of modern times was a stark raving Nazi, but this hardly ever gets mentioned because hardly anyone thinks that this fact is helpful in interpreting his work.

So, if Marx does not pretend to stand “outside” of capitalism and claim it to be “immoral”, it is hard to see how us calling Marx “immoral” for living off capitalism’s brutal excesses contradicts or puts into question any of Marx’s claims.

oleh September 1, 2009 at 4:38 am


Do most Marxists know that Marx lived a parasitic existence living off the labour of Manchester textile workers?

Would most Marxists consider this relevant in determining if whether to honour and celebrate Marx?

How would a Marxist feel about learning of this?

I will try to remember to ask a Marxist these questions when the opportunity arises.

Tristan September 3, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Marx would be pretty opposed, I think, to “marxism” if its defining feature was honour and celebration. If “marxism” means a particular tradition of criticizing (which properly understood means interrogating, not desecrating) the current mode of economic relations, then it might be something serious enough to consider.

It’s quite important to realize, both if one is interested in reading Marx, or if one is just concerned with remaining aware of how the red scare is still used to push certain pro-business agendas, that Marx does not think capitalists are evil because they are immoral. Specifically, he argued that it is the economic relations that we enter into which make us engage in actions which we ourselves consider immoral. Marx’s life, according to this information, is just one more example of that, not more significant than any other capitalist from that era who might have loved and been nice to his children, yet lived off the suffering of others.

In other words, if “marxist” means someone who is familiar with Marx’s critique of capitalist economic relations, then they likely would find nothing surprising at all Marx’s own unethical economic relations with textile producers.

Since Marx’s analysis of economic relations asserts that moral relations are a product of economic relations, a real “marxist” wouldn’t be particularly interested in how he or anyone “felt” about this injustice – except insofar as this feeling of injustice is one of the objective contradictions that destabilizes capitalist economic relations – and according to a historical-determinism reading of Marx will result “inevitably” in the “overthrow of capitalism” and its replacement with a new mode of economic relation. I do not know of any serious marxists today who believe in historical determinism – the overwhelming view now is that the notion of historical determinism, the idea that capitalism will “inevitably” collapse, more than likely contributes to capitalism’s ability to re-absorb its contradictions rather than have them lead to greater and greater collapses.

. September 9, 2009 at 11:33 am

Marxist critique of Crayola Factory Tour

“A very swell Marxist deconstruction of the The Crayola Factory: A Hands-on Discovery Center. Slightly self-depreciating, somewhat wry, very erudite and extremely accurate. Complex but very, very good.”

. September 9, 2009 at 11:37 am

“Try to imagine how wide the splatter pattern would be when Karl Marx’s head explodes at the idea of a privately held corporate marketing theme park that performed a simulacrum of the labor-alienating process of industrialized manufacturing; in order to approximate a distant childhood experience of watching a television show which romanticized the original, actual alienating manufacturing process; which nostalgia is induced to stimulate consumption of the corporation’s product; which is, in fact, an endless array of craft supplies for children, the very embodiment of the much-praised artisan and the educational ideal of creativity and self-expression; which all happen to be available for sampling and experimentation right here at the theme park, which by now is revealed to be a sprawling demand generation engine, and damned if you’re gonna drive this far and not get something to take home besides memories and a couple of gloppy paintings made with giant rubber fish: 2 months and counting.”

Milan May 11, 2010 at 10:33 am

This is also documented on p.80 of the hardcover edition of: Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History.

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