Gavin McCrea: I wanted to punish Engels for betraying ideals but revenge was his

When I set out to write a novel from the perspective of Lizzie Burns, for whom the enemy of Victorian family values capitulated, my intentions were not altogether virtuous

Late on September 11th, 1878, the communist philosopher Friedrich Engels summoned a local clergyman, the Rev WB Galloway, to his house in Primrose Hill, London. Engels led Galloway to an upstairs bedroom where his lover, Lizzie Burns, lay dying in her bed, and instructed him to marry them. Despite knowing that Engels was an atheist and Lizzie a Catholic, Galloway obliged. He united the couple by a special licence in a ceremony performed according to the rites of the Church of England. The few hours that Engels spent as Lizzie’s husband, before she died in the early hours of September 12th, would be Engels’s only experience of marriage. Although he had had other relationships, he had always refused to marry, and after Lizzie he did not marry again.

A few years after this event, in 1884, Engels, by then an ageing man tended by a similarly ageing maid, published The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In this text Engels collected, clarified and extended ideas about marriage and sexual relations from a number of sources, primarily Karl Marx’s unpublished notebooks, in order to launch a fierce assault on the Victorian bourgeois family. Through an examination of pre-capitalist family forms, Engels set out to explode the myth that the monogamous, “nuclear” household had existed since the beginning of human society and was the only “natural” form for intimate human relations. Instead he argued that family was a social structure that was made and remade over time according to changing material conditions. It was the economic system of a given era that determined how the family looked and functioned. No fixed idea of family could or would be valid for all times.

According to Engels, primitive human societies were not patriarchal but communistic, that is, organised around a system of shared land rights and communal sexual relationships. Because this system permitted promiscuous sexual behaviour, a child’s lineage could only be established with any certainty along the matrilineal line, which meant that women were treated with a high degree of respect and enjoyed greater social authority.

With the emergence of the capitalist mode of production, however, communality was replaced with private property and the division of labour, which gave rise to the monogamous family based on a system of inheritance from fathers to children, and in turn to a new, degraded role for women. In the interests of preserving the integrity of the capitalist inheritance system, fathers demanded paternity be established beyond doubt, which necessitated the elimination of female promiscuity. The unavoidable outcomes of this restriction on female sexuality were adultery (sanctioned for the male only) and prostitution. For Engels, prostitution was not an aberration; it did not signal the failure of monogamous marriage; on the contrary it was marriage’s inevitable other half, the opposite pole of the same state of society.


There was possible only one honest and equitable model of sexual relations, and that was “sex love”, which, Engels claimed, could be found solely among the working classes: “[H]ere all the foundations of typical monogamy are cleared away. Here there is no property, for the preservation and inheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were established; hence there is no incentive to make this male supremacy effective.” Released from the burden of private capital and the need to pass it onto their children, the proletariat could enjoy free and just partnerships. They could marry for love instead of material gain. In the absence of monogamy and male domination, adultery and prostitution were virtually unknown.

If sex love could flourish only among the proletariat, it followed that exploitative bourgeois marriage could only be fully dissolved by the transition from a capitalist economic system to a communist one: “With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not.” Under communism, inheritable wealth would be turned into social property, which would eradicate the need for monogamous marriage and the nuclear family, and a new order of sexual freedom would thrive. Since marriage could be entered into with no other motive than love, it would naturally prove monogamous – for men also. There would no longer be a market for prostitution. Without the anxiety of material loss, the dissolution of unhappy relationships would be relatively painless. In sum, sexual unions in a post-capitalist society would look and function much like its primitive forbears.

Unsurprisingly, given that the experience of communism in a number of countries in the twentieth century failed to bring about the changes in family form that Engels described, Origin is not taken very seriously in academic circles today. Anthropologists question the validity of Engels’s observations about pre-capitalist family forms. Historians dismiss his view that equitable gender relationships prospered among the oppressed working class. Feminists point out that many advances in women’s rights were concurrent with a more active participation in capitalism, the very system that Engels condemns as inherently oppressive.

From my perspective as a writer of fiction, however, the most interesting criticisms of Origin are those which stoop to judge its arguments against Engels’s private opinions and personal behaviour. Can Engels’s feminist postures in Origin be authentic if in private he expressed distaste for female suffrage? Does the fact that Engels frequented prostitutes as a young man undermine his call for female autonomy in relationships? What are we to make of the misogynistic abuse to which Engels subjects a number of intelligent political women in his letters? Were Engels’s relationships with working-class women really enactments of the principle of sex love or were they just plain exploitative? Was Engels’s last-minute decision to marry Lizzie a noble act or a hypocritical one? In my view as a novelist, Engels’s Origin cannot be so easily disregarded precisely because it raises this question of the gap between ideals and events, between thought and action, between public and private – a question whose myriad nuances can only be properly explored in fiction.

When I set out to write a novel from the perspective of Lizzie Burns – the woman for whom the enemy of Victorian family values finally capitulated – my intentions were not altogether virtuous. I was driven, at least initially, by the desire to punish Engels for his inability to live up to his ideals. I wanted to take revenge on his genius by showing how it did not “come true” in the world. To this end, I pried into Engels’s life with an intensity of scrutiny from which no one would emerge unscathed. Long hours I spent prising out Engels’s contradictions and submitting them to stringent moral tests. It turned out, however, that I was denied my revenge – or perhaps it was Engels who got his revenge on me – for no matter how thoroughly I proved his hypocrisy, his greatness did not diminish.

What was really hypocritical, I realised, was my whole attitude to greatness. I was grateful for its manifestations, while being appalled by the behaviour of the people who were responsible for them. Indeed I enjoyed being appalled. It was with pleasure that I indulged in moral recriminations against those who have contributed most to our culture, our knowledge, our political and social arrangements. I believed they ought to be better people, and then I was glad when they were not, for seeing that greatness had a human face assuaged the fear I felt in front of it.

So if my novel began as an act of revenge, it did not stay that way for long. As I observed Engels through my character Lizzie’s eyes; as my opinion of him moved and shifted in line with Lizzie’s changing emotional and mental states, I came to understand along with Lizzie that no one – not Christ, not Buddha, certainly not Engels – has ever lived according to his ideas, and it is disingenuous of us to expect them to. There is no way to be that corresponds with how we think, what we believe. It is impossible to find the road to our own ideals. And perhaps those who truly understand this without ever letting go of their ideal, perhaps they are fated to live more audaciously, more immodestly, more brashly, more hypocritically than those who have no ideal at all.

“Philosophers abhor marriage,” wrote Engels’s contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche. “What great philosopher hitherto has been married? Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer – they were not; more, one cannot even imagine them married.” As for Engels, perhaps the philosopher who abhorred marriage more than any other, I could not imagine him married either – until, that is, I imagined being the woman he eventually did marry. Then it was easy. Who would say “no” to Lizzie Burns?