On Saturday 2 October I took 40 people on the ‘Engels and Marx in Manchester’ walk for the Cornerhouse (the arts centre in Manchester) and the Abandon Normal Devices festival. Along for the ride was Phil Collins, who’s got a centrepiece film in the Marxism Today element of the Festival.
Since leaving Genesis and concentrating on his solo career, Phil’s been doing lots of independent film-making.
Ok, I lie. This Phil Collins isn’t that Phil Collins, the drummer of dubious reputation, but a good lad who’s been to see how the former East Germany remembers - especially through its education - the years of twisted communism it lived under.
On the tour were journalists from all over the place, French folk, German guests of Phil, people with accents I didn’t recognise, students from Manchester, definitely some Spanish and Italians, and loads of locals, as well as Brits from as far away as Leeds, Holmfirth and Liverpool who’d come expressly because they were fascinated by the subject of the tour.
“It’s amazing the crowds that a dead German communist brings out,” I said. “So how many are Marxists?”
About ten people put up their hands. At that point I should have asked them each to define what that means and see if I got similar answers. But the tour had to get underway. We were a little late with people turning up without tickets, but since they had come some distance I couldn’t leave them behind. After they’d promised to come back and pay we set off.
We went on a trail through the site of Little Ireland, past the best ‘dark’ view of Manchester, via the Mechanics Institute, through Chinatown, Albert Square, Southgate Street (where Engels had his office), to the Royal Exchange and then onto Chetham’s Library where the charming security guard, Jim, let us into the courtyard so we could look at the bay window in the Library where Marx and Engels studied – according to a letter from the latter to the former.
An Irish visitor, obviously very politicised, and an interested and interesting man, at one point asked if I were getting remunerated for the tour.
“I’m very capitalist,” I said, “you should never work for free, it devalues the work.”
“Not capitalist,” he rebuked me gently with a look, “you're merely receiving the just desserts of a worker.”
Exactly. I revealed that my background was a liberal family of mill-owners who went bust in the 1950s which was rather too soon for me. I revealed that we had a bust of John Bright, the father of Free Trade ideology, the Manchester School, on our landing – a school of thought particularly reviled by communists. They didn’t hold it against me.
The good news for a guide about this tour is the nature of the main man: Friedrich Engels.
This was one lovable man. He might have been a prime mover behind Communism along with Marx but his ideal was far removed from the doctrine of party power that became the Soviet abuse of that dream. In Engels’ idea Man became perfected, a less selfish being harnessing the forces unleashed by industrialisation for the common good.
At the same time Engels’ story is moving and dramatic by turn, one of struggle, of fight, protest, personal sacrifice and tragedy.
But whatever his failings it’s his character that spins you over to his side every time.
“What is the vice you excuse most?” asked one of Marx’s daughters in confessions she extracted from Engels and Marx in English. “Excess of any kind,” said Engels. “Gullibility,” said Marx. “Your idea of misery?” “To go to the dentist,” said Engels. “Submission,” said Marx. “Your favourite motto?” “De omnibus dubitandum (doubt everything),” said Marx. “Take it easy,” said Engels, no doubt gently mocking his serious friend – and also being a bit hippy and 1968 for 1868.
There were unexpected encounters on the tour too.
As we walked down Deansgate I got talking to a lady from Leeds and her friend from Manchester.
“When you go in the Town Hall,” asked the Manchester lady, “do you show people the International Brigade monument from the Spanish Civil War?”
“Depends on the group,” I said, “why?”
“My father was Sam Wild. Have you heard of him?”
I was amazed, Wild was one of the heroes of the International Brigade. His Spanish Civil War story is courageous and disturbing, revealing what war does to people, how it changes or destroys them. But he was an important name in that conflict.
His daughter was called Dolores, her father had liked the actress Dolores del Rio, “which was a bit of a disadvantage growing up when I did in Manchester,” said Dolores.
Later I mentioned how Engels’ partner was Mary Burns, born in Tipperary, who was stanchly Irish Nationalist, and how Engels had been in Manchester when a breakout of some Fenian leaders on Hyde Road led to the death of Police Sergeant Brett. Three Irishmen were eventually hanged for the murder of Brett, problem is that none of the three hanged were guilty of the crime. The story was relevant because although Engels had sympathy, through Mary Burns and later her sister Lydia, he felt that such struggles were small beer compared to the greater one between proletariat and bourgeoisie.
“I’m related to one of the people who was hanged,” said another woman on the tour. I meant to speak to her at the end of the two hours and ten minutes stroll across the city, but by the time I’d finished fielding other questions I think she’d gone. A guiding missed opportunity to maybe get an unusual angle on the story.
One of the other questions was from a French journalist who asked me, “So with the current economic difficulties have you seen more and more people interested in Marxism and Communism on your tours?”
“People have always been interested in the story of Engels and Marx in Manchester, but as a historical event, rather than as living ideology,” I said. “So no, I’ve seen no re-emergence of passion, perhaps that is the right word, in Engels and Marx’s ideas.”
After all as Marx and Engels frequently re-iterate, the British, in particular, usually run a mile when we see an ideology peeping its head round the corner. History teaches us that since the shock of the English Civil War, we have dealt with our problems in a pragmatic, empirical manner without reference to the big idea or eternal truths.
It’s our shield and our Achilles heel at the same time.
Oh and city life made me smile, when at one end of Marks and Spencer there was a Pro-Palestinian protest group, or rather about seven of them, with banners condemning M&S's pro-Isreali stance. Meanwhile at the other end of New Cathedral Street there were several hundred St Helens and Wigan rugby league fans in for the Superleague Final at Old Trafford singing rude but good-humoured songs at each other. Another conversation point for our overseas visitors - rugby league, what was that?
It's been an interesting couple of weeks on the guiding front, definitely dominated by Germans. On Tuesday two weeks ago I took around some Housing Association bosses from Lower Saxony and Hanover, two days later I took around some financial consultants from Hanover. Both groups were here on business. Small world.