The Frock-Coated Communist


I’ve had The Condition of the Working Class in England by my bedside table for months now. I pick it up about once a week and read two pages before I fall asleep. Unfortunately I can’t make any progress with its incredible density. I know it is a groundbreaking work of urban ethnography and all that, but at the moment it is losing out to the latest John Grisham.  


My ongoing guilt about not making it through Engels’ masterwork prompted me to pick up Tristram Hunt’s biography of him the other week. It is an excellent read that combines personal, political, social and intellectual history into a fascinating amalgam. I now know more about Marx and Engels’ critique of Hegel, engagement in the emergent socialist movement and love lives than I ever expected to. It is enormously thought provoking and prompts all sorts of ideas about the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. You could use it as a springboard to explore the state of the left, the collapse of the banking system or the role of intellectuals in political movements. However, I’m predictably going to put down a few thoughts about Engels’ career.


Engels was born into a successful Barmen commercial family. His early life saw him combining work as a clerk and then a soldier with intellectual interests in atheism, Hegel and romanticism. Whilst doing national service he attached himself to the vibrant Berlin-based circle of the Young Hegelians meeting Marx and many others who would go on to play a role in European ideas and politics over the next fifty years. He then took up a post in the family firm in Manchester before becoming a wandering free-thinking, hiker and aspiring 1848 revolutionary. Financial pressure forced him back to Manchester and the family business where he played a part in running a mill whilst supporting Marx and his family whilst he wrote Das Kapital. Finally in late middle-age he sold his stake in the family business and retired to write and politically organise for the rest of his life.


This is a pretty crude summary of an amazing life (read Hunt’s book for more), but what it highlights for me is the role of a number of factors in determining Engels career that often don’t get much attention in writing about career and career decision making. I’ll list the ones that occur to me here:


1.       Class. Engels was ultimately only able to pursue his intellectual and political interests because his background gave him access to regular well-paid work. His ability to finance Marx and to spend periods outside of the labour market all owe a huge debt to the financial and social capital amassed by his family.

2.       History. Much of Engels life and career is driven by historical, economic and technological changes that were outside of his control. A career frequently spans half a century and it is therefore important that theories about career recognise this historical dimension. Change is likely to happen and significant historical events (war, revolution, change in government, economic crisis etc) are likely to happen.

3.       Belief/Political commitment. Engels story is ultimately one of pursuing a strongly held belief. He did this to the exclusion of his immediate happiness and found roles in the labour market that did not fit him particularly well. He had a narrative arc for his life that went beyond a professional identity and he pursued his real passions essentially as an amateur and a supporter of Marx.

4.       Friendship. Engels’ career can’t be understood by looking at him as an individual. His relationship with Marx and his faith in Marx’ ideas provided the key context for his career decision making.


Engels’ ideas undoubtedly merit some examination. I’ll return to The Condition… next time I’m feeling like a challenge. Hunt’s book also provides a valuable introduction to some of Engels’ other writings. However, his life is also instructive as it reminds us that “career satisfaction/success” can come in many forms and that it is determined as much by the conditions in which an individual finds themselves as by the decisions of the individual.





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