Engels on the English working-class
“The Condition of the Working Class in England” is a profoundly important book because it reveals the raw empirical data that confronted the young Engels. Out of the panorama of misery and class oppression that he observed in England in the 1840s, he came to the conclusion that proletarian revolution was necessary.
He wrote the book when he was 24 years old and working at a branch of his father’s cotton mills in Manchester, England. At the time, he was being deeply influenced by Hegel’s philosophy as many of the young European radical democrats of those days were. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves how liberating Hegelianism was to that generation, the most radical of whom were called Young Hegelians. They were a group of young intellectuals who wanted to apply Hegel’s dialectic as a blowtorch against the existing religious and political establishment.
During a trip to Cologne in 1841, Engels met with the editors of the Rheinische Zeitung, a radical newspaper founded by industrialists to spread their liberal, free-trade ideas. The newspaper was founded by a Young Hegelian named Moses Hess, who had the nickname the “Red Rabbi”. Hess’s communism was influenced by Saint-Simon’s utopian socialism, a predecessor to the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels. Hess met the young Engels and wrote of their meeting, “We talked of questions of the day. Engels, who was revolutionary to the core when he met me, left as a passionate Communist.”
In David McLellan’s introduction to the Penguin edition of the “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, he groups the work with such literary masterpieces as Charles Dicken’s “Hard Times” or Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Mary Barton”. What I was reminded of when reading it was more recent works such as Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” or any of Jonathan Kozol’s titles. Engels intends to hold a magnifying-glass up against the urban squalor and suffering that met the newly emerging English proletariat. His outrage stands out on practically every page.
In the opening chapter “The Great Towns”, Engels describes the alienation that afflicts the London of 1840. “The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of this great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of each which one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.”
Some things do not change. This could easily describe the streets of Manhattan in 1996.
Nearly all of Engels’ attention is devoted however to the state of working-class neighborhoods. He takes the reader on a walking tour of the “great towns” with the intention of showing him or her the reality of working-class life, almost like a Dantesque tour of Inferno. Page after page describes the unspeakable horror of working-class neighborhoods. His description of the Old Town in Manchester is particularly memorable:
“The south bank of the Irk is here very steep and between 15 and 30, feet high. On this declivitous hillside there are planted three rows of houses, of which the lowest rise directly out of the river, while the front walls of the highest stand on the crest of the hill in Long Millgate. Among them are mills on the river, in short, the method of construction is as crowded and disorderly here as in the lower part of Long Millgate. Right and left a multitude of covered passages lead from the main street into numerous courts, and he who turns in thither gets into a filth and disgusting grime, the equal of which is not to be found–especially in the courts which lead down to the Irk, and which contain unqualifiedly the most horrible dwellings which I have yet beheld. In one of these courts there stands directly at the entrance, at the end of the covered passage, a privy without a door so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement. This is the first court on the Irk above Ducie Bridge–in case anyone should care to look into it. Below it on the river are several tanneries which fill the whole neighborhood with the stench of animal putrefaction. Below Ducie Bridge the only entrance to most of the houses is by means of narrow, dirty stairs and over heaps of refuse and filth. The first court below Ducie Bridge, known as Allen’s Court, was in such a state at the time of the cholera that the sanitary police ordered it evacuated, swept, and disinfected with chloride of lime. Dr. Kay gives a terrible description of the state of this court at that time. Since then, it seems to have been torn away and rebuilt; at least looking down from Ducie Bridge, the passer-by sees several ruined walls and heaps of debris with some newer houses. The view from this bridge, mercifully concealed from mortals of small stature by a parapet as high as a man, is characteristic for the whole district. At the bottom flows, or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse, which it deposits on the shallower right bank. In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise 40 or 50 feet above the surface of the stream. But besides this, the stream itself is checked by every few paces by high weirs, behind which slime and refuse accumulate and rot in thick masses. Above the bridge are tanneries, bonemills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighboring sewers and privies. It may be easily imagined, therefore, what sort of residue the stream deposits. Below the bridge you look upon the piles of debris, the refuse, filth, and offal from the courts on the steep left bank; here each house is packed close behind its neighbor and a piece of each is visible, all black, smoky, crumbling, ancient, with broken panes and window- frames. The background is furnished by old barrack-factory buildings. On the lower right bank stands a long row of houses and mills; the second house stand so low that the lowest floor is uninhabitable, and therefore without windows or doors. Here the background embraces the pauper burial-ground, the station of the Liverpool and Leeds railway, and, in the rear of this, the Workhouse, the ‘Poor-Law Bastille’ of Manchester, which, like a citadel, looks threateningly down from behind its high walls and parapets on the hilltop, upon the working-people’s quarter below.”
I submit this rather long passage to you in the hopes that it remains etched in your mind as we proceed through our cyber-seminar. This was the reality of working-class living conditions that confronted Engels and Marx. Keep this image in mind and compare it to suburban working-class neighborhoods in 1996 in England, Australia, the United States, etc. Is there any similarity whatsoever?
While we are considering the differences in how people were housed then and now, let us also try to understand what it meant to be a textile worker in the 1840s. In the chapter “Single Branches of Industry: Factory-Hand”, Engels describes the living hell that was afforded the factory worker of those days.
This is a time when people all worked twelve hours a day and more for pittance wages in unsafe, unhealthy environments. They had no job security and were highly regimented on the job, their every move controlled by the boss.
This is a period when there is a surplus of workers relative to the demand, and when these workers are not permitted to form unions. This made them at the mercy of the factory-owners. Engels reports how children are particularly exploited. Children of elementary school age are also forced to work twelve hours a day, while facing flogging and other forms of mistreatment on the job.
Those who can survive their textile mill jobs often come away crippled since they are slaves to the machinery which is operated at a break- neck pace. Engels states that he had seldom traveled the streets of Manchester without seeing at least three or four people suffering from one deformity or another. Their “knees are bent inward and backwards, the ankles deformed and thick, and the spinal column often bent forwards or to one side.”
The factories themselves are inhospitable to health and well-being. Their atmosphere is “as a rule, at once damp and warm, usually warmer than is necessary, and, when the ventilation is not very good, impure, heavy, deficient in oxygen, filled with dust and the smell of the machine oil, which almost everywhere smears the floor, sinks into it, and becomes rancid.”
So it is no surprise that the combination of long hours at back- breaking labor in insufferable working conditions that causes early mortality in the factories. “The men wear out very early in consequence of the conditions under which they live and work. Most of them are unfit for work at 40 years, a few hold out to 45, almost none to 50 years of age. This is caused not only by the general enfeeblement of the frame, but also very often by a failure of the sight, which is a result of mule-spinning, in which the operative is obliged to fix his gaze upon a long row of fine, parallel threads, and so greatly to strain the sight.”
These are workers who can barely support a family when they work. They are forced to live in the miserable conditions Engels describes in the Old City of Manchester near the Irk River. When the husband can work no longer, the wife and children, who if not already working themselves, are forced to go to work in order to survive. There is no disability or health insurance, private pensions, Social Security, or welfare. If you lose a job, there is only the poor-house. It is against the law to strike so concessions from the boss are impossible to extract.
These then were the conditions of the working-class in England when Engels came to the conclusion that proletarian revolution was necessary. He is unstinting in his condemnation of the bourgeoisie. They are slave-masters in effect. The factory system “ends all freedom in law and in fact. The operative must be in the mill at half-past five in the morning; if he comes a couple of minutes too late, he is fined; if he comes ten minutes too late, he is not let in until breakfast is over, and a quarter of the day’s wages is withheld, though he loses only two and one-half hours’ work out of twelve. He must eat, drink, and sleep at command.”
Engels makes the comparison with chattel slavery in the US specific when he says, “They are worse slaves than the Negroes in America, for they are more sharply watched, and yet it is demanded of them that they shall live like human beings, shall think and feel like men! Verily, this they can do only under glowing hatred towards their oppressors, and towards that order of things which places them in such a position, which degrades them as machines.”
Let us stop and consider this comparison with chattel slavery, since it is key to understanding the whole enterprise of Engels and Marx. I think it is essential to see them as the moral and political equivalents of the American abolitionists. The horrors of wage slavery were a palpable and omnipresent reality in the England of 1840 just as chattel slavery was in the US during the same period. Anybody with a conscience and a belief in social justice had to be for the abolition of either system. You can group “Conditions of the Working Class in England” not only with Dickens’ “Hard Times” but with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
There were differences as how to accomplish an end to wage or chattel slavery. Some advocated a gradualist approach, while others were for revolutionary overthrow of the systems. Engels’ was an abolitionist who was for the eradication of wage slavery immediately. He and Marx made the unique contribution of showing how the victims of this system would have the power of numbers and strategic location to accomplish this task themselves. The slavery abolitionists had a tougher job in front of them because the slaves were a minority and lacked the social power to carry out this task themselves. It was only with the development of inter-capitalist rivalries between North and South that this became feasible. Marx, the wage-slave abolitionist, wrote passionately on behalf of the North in the American Herald Tribune.
Do we face a similar phenomenon today? Do working people in their majority live in horrible housing, working twelve hours a day without any safety net at all? What is the actual condition of the working-class in the England, Australia or the USA of today? Are these conditions in any way comparable to those that Engels observed in the 1840s?
I recall when becoming a Trotskyist in 1967 that this was one of the first questions I asked a very bright person by the name of Les Evans, who was giving a new members class I was taking. “Les,” I asked him, “what would cause autoworkers in New Jersey to want to make a revolution?”
His answer was one that I believe is fairly standard in the Trotskyist current today. He answered that the autoworker of 1967 took certain things for granted, such as the 8 hour day, the right to strike, social security, health insurance, decent, affordable housing, etc. If you started taking that away from them, then you just might well see a development of revolutionary consciousness.
But haven’t we been seeing this for the last fifteen years or so? Isn’t this what the “downsizing” phenomenon about? Yet where is the shift in consciousness? Where is the growth of socialist workers? People like Jon Flanders and Louis Godena have been toiling away for years talking the good talk and walking the good walk. How many workers have become communists as a result?
Isn’t it entirely possible that the expectations raised by the Communist Manifesto do not relate to objective conditions today? Isn’t it incumbent on us as Marxists to describe these conditions accurately, since intelligent political action has to be based on an honest assessment of objective conditions?
In the latest Village Voice, Doug Henwood’s good friend Robert Fitch wrote a smirking article on the state of Marxism-Leninism in the US today. The postmodernish Voice is just the right place for that sort of thing, I suppose. Fitch castigates all of these left groups for not sending their membership into the unions. I might give old Robert a piece of mind when I see him next, since it is exactly “sending” people into the unions which destroyed much of the US left in the 1970s and 1980s.
The reason for this, of course, is that the bastions of basic industry such as mining, coal, auto and steel are not necessarily the places where there is the most openness to socialist ideas today. Having spent a very brief amount of time in a steel-mill in Kansas City in the late 1970s convinced me of this. What was even more convincing is that every single member of that branch who was working in industry at that time has left the party and taken up jobs in a variety of trades and professions totally unrelated to the conversion of the working-class to socialism. It is only the faithful who believe that the General Motors plant in the state where you live will be propitious for the formation of a revolutionary communist cell today.
In the next part of this discussion on Engels, I want to suggest some ways in which “The Conditions of the Working Class in England” can be useful today. This involves taking a step back from the actual empirical evidence that confronted him in 1840 and looking more at the methodology he employed. I believe that there are some genuine lessons there that will be useful in the construction of an authentic revolutionary left for the late 20th century.
Engels on the English working-class