United States and World Politics

Traitors to the Ruling Class

By Jon Hochschartner

There are folks out there who are sympathetic to socialist ideas, but because of their class origins are unsure if there is a place in the movement for them. Maybe they were born into families of small or large-scale capitalists. Maybe, like me, they were born into comparative privilege but don’t fit quite so neatly into the class divisions emphasized by socialists.

For these people, it’s sometimes helpful to learn of influential anti-capitalists who betrayed their economic interests on behalf of revolutionary workers. To that end, I will highlight two socialists of different tendencies, Frederick Engels and Peter Kropotkin, whose treason to the exploitive classes was particularly dramatic.

Many are familiar with Engels as the collaborator of Karl Marx, the preeminent communist who wrote Das Capital. Fewer may be aware that Engels, while striving for working-class revolution, was himself a capitalist. His father owned textile operations in both Germany and England. Engels managed a family mill in Manchester.

“As part-owner of the mill,” according to historian Mike Dash, “he eventually received a 7.5 percent share in Ermen & Engels’ rising profits, earning £263 in 1855 and as much as £1,080 in 1859—the latter a sum worth around $168,000 today.”

Engels used his fortune to bankroll radical causes and support revolutionaries, such as his close friend Marx.

“Even before he became relatively wealthy,” Dash continues, “Engels frequently sent Marx as much as £50 a year—equivalent to around $7,500 now, and about a third of the annual allowance he received from his parents.”

However necessary his income might have been to finance the work of Marx and others, Engels was clearly a reluctant business owner. His office duties encroached on his socialist activism and writing. Besides the opportunity costs involved, Engels loathed the position simply as a way to spend his time. According to biographer Tristram Hunt, Engels’ letters include frequent references to “accursed commerce” and “filthy commerce.” Writing to Marx, Engels confessed, “I am bored to death here.” Of course Engels was aware his occupation would also undermine his political arguments.

“You wait and see,” Hunt quotes him telling Marx, “the louts will be saying, what’s that Engels after, how can he speak in our name and tell us what to do, the fellow’s up there in Manchester exploiting the workers, etc. To be sure, I don’t give a damn about it now, but it’s bound to come.”

Peter Kropotkin, the influential anarcho-communist who spent years in prison for his activism, was born into the Russian aristocracy. In addition to huge landholdings, his father owned approximately 1,200 serfs.

“Kropotkin’s ancestors had been grand princes of Smolensk in medieval Russia, descended from a branch of the Rurik clan, which had ruled in Muscovy before the advent of the Romanovs,” writes Paul Avrich.

According to writer Roger N. Baldwin, at age twelve Kropotkin stopped using his noble title after being exposed to republican thought, and “even rebuked his friends, when they so referred to him.”

In his memoir, Kropotkin described his lavish upbringing with no small amount of sarcasm.

“We were a family of eight, occasionally of ten or twelve; but fifty servants at Moscow, and half as many more in the country, were considered not one too many,” Kropotkin wrote. “Four coachmen to attend a dozen horses, three cooks for the masters and two more for the servants, a dozen men to wait upon us at dinner-time...and girls innumerable in the maid-servants’ room, how could any one do with less than this?”

After reading about the class background of Engels and Kropotkin, who both made enormous contributions to their respective socialist tendencies, one hopes that those, whose families belong to either the exploitive classes or comparatively privileged economic groups that are less clearly delineated in anti-capitalist theory, who are flirting with radicalism, will not feel their origins bar them from working for a better world.

Those in the socialist movement from the lower rungs of the capitalist system will be understandably suspicious of the sincerity of better-off comrades. In fact, the latter might have to go to greater lengths to prove their commitment to working-class liberation. But the trust and respect of the former can be earned, as shown by Engels and Kropotkin.

Via Email, September 14, 2013