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Friedrich Engels and Gothic Marxism: A Fairy-Tale Introduction


This article positions Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) in the critical tendency called ‘Gothic Marxism’. In most critical commentary on the subject, that tendency is epitomised by the spectropoetics of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) and by Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) monsterpiece – the first volume of Capital (1867). The article provisionally regards Engels’s first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), as the Ur-text for ‘Gothic Marxism’. Among other momentous turns, Condition morphed Eugène Sue’s social supernaturalism and Thomas Carlyle’s ‘real-phantasmagory’ towards Communism. It mashed-up eldritch, monstrous and nightmarish figures; anticipated Marx and Engels’s apprehension of bourgeois society’s sorcery in the Manifesto as well as Marx’s depiction of Capital as vampiric; and exposed bourgeois fairy tales – in the industrial pastoralism of Andrew Ure’s fanciful philosophy, child factory workers became ‘lively elves’ – as bloodthirsty apologias for ‘social murder’. The article foregrounds the supernatural register and revolutionism of Engels’s work and, especially, the subterranean metaphor of his and Marx’s shared Gothic imaginary. It contends that Engels’s critical engagement with Gothic supernaturalism was integral to his scientific-socialist struggle to articulate underground passages up through and beyond the ideologically-naturalised precarity of Capital’s encrusted monstrosity. It concludes that the Manifesto, like Condition, adapted Gothic horripilation for pedagogical and polemical purposes, to incite the living dead to unbury themselves collectively by revolution from below. A coda speculates that Gothic scholar Frederick S. Frank’s sub-category ‘grotto gothic’ could be applied to extensively elucidate Engels and Marx’s representation, across Capital’s three volumes, of the proletariat as ‘encaved’ in a capitalist underworld and of the revolutionary potential embodied by that subterranean class.

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