Is Engels’ “Conditions of the Working Class” still relevant today?

January 9, 2014 in History by Geary Middleton

Marx’s Razor contributes a helpful look at Engels’ Condition of the English Working Class and its lessons for today.

Engels-1839

Friedrich Engels in 1839

It was in 1845 that Engels’ “Condition of the English Working Class” was published, and whilst it may not be applicable to Manchester today, parallels can certainly be drawn to modern China. Engels witnessed first hand the horrors of developing capitalism during his two year stay in Manchester as a student, whilst detailing them in order to write a book on what he had seen.

Young Friedrich was sent to Manchester by his parents in 1842, with the intent of ridding him of radical views. His father was a conservative textile manufacturer from the Rhineland, and was becoming increasingly worried by the circle of Young Hegelians Engels had been associating with in Berlin. Whilst the young Friedrich should have been obediently performing his military service, he was actually in the beer rooms and lecture halls of Berlin University where the philosophies of Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss were fiercely debated, and lots of beer was consumed! All of which led him to abandon his Protestantism for Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, prior to then associating with the “communist rabbi” Moses Hess. Hess taught the young Friedrich that capitalism was just as dehumanising a force as Christianity. So what did this “communist rabbi” suggest as a solution? Socialism: the abolition of private property and an end to alienation that resulted from the capitalist economy.

England would lead the march towards socialism, it would provide the tinder which would light the revolutionary fires of proletarian revolution. Why? Because England was where the industrial revolution had begun. The industrial revolution had left a colossal divide between rich and poor- between those who owned the means of production, and those who didn’t. England, being the first country to have a bourgeois and industrial revolution was where the proletariat was most advanced. Engels planned to utilise his two years in one of the main industrial cities of the country to collect the material evidence he needed to prove his political theories.

From 1842-1844, Engels lived a sort of double life- he worked during the day at the Ermen & Engels mill in Salford, before stepping foot into the squalid dwellings of the Manchester proletarians at night time.
“I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port-wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure-hours almost exclusively to intercourse with plain working men”, to put it in his own words. He visited the Owenite Halls of Science, conversed with Chartists, watched a brickmakers’ riot, and his Irish lover Mary Burns have him a tour of the city, showing him the human cost of capitalist society.

On the south-side of the city, very close to Oxford road, was the place where the majority of Manchester’s 40,000 Irish Immigrants resided; the area was aptly named “Little Ireland”. Burns’ fellow-countrymen were the most exploited, worst paid and cruelly treated of all the city’s residents. Engels describes it as follows: “The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”

The young Friedrich was relentless in his recording the “social war” (as he put it) waged by the bourgeoisie on the workers of the industrial city. Workplaces – mills, mines, factories, farms – all were home to horrific crimes. “Women made unfit for childbearing, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generations wrecked, afflicted with disease and infirmity, purely to fill the purses of the bourgeoisie.” Engels was furious at Manchester’s bourgeois: “I once went into Manchester with a bourgeois, and spoke to him of … the frightful condition of the working people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good morning, sir.”

Engels describes the city’s layout as a “planless, knotted chaos of houses”, yet he was all too aware of the unpleasant logic behind the city’s structure, which made sure the bourgeoisie never had to see what they had caused to happen. Manchester’s bourgeoisie lived in the “breezy heights” of Cheetham Hill and Broughton. They could travelalong Deansgate into town “without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left.” Engels understood that the city’s architectural design and layout – its streets, houses, factories, and warehouses – were expressions of social and political power. The class war between bourgeois and proletariat was clear to see in street design, transport system and planning process.

It was 1845 by the time the book was published in Leipzig- Engels wrote the book back at home in Barmen. The book’s initial reception was unenthusiastic, with a few grudging reviews in the bourgeois press. It was only published in England in 1892, with a preface from Engels attempting to save British socialism from the misdirection of the Fabians and William Morris.

This book is not just of historical interest, or a way to see how the co-founder of scientific socialism came to hold the views which he is famous for. With Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC countries, as they are known) experiencing just the kind of rapid economic growth that transformed British society in the 1800s – villages and towns turning into cities, peasants swapping fields for factories and becoming workers, and mass exploitation all to grind out higher GDP and increase profits – Engels’ book, to answer the title of this article, is immensely relevant. In what is one of the largest mass migrations of people in history, around 120 million Chinese peasants have, since 1980, moved from the countryside to the city, and to read accounts of contemporary urban China is to read Engels’ account of Victorian Manchester, only modernised and sino-fied. Cancer rates soar along polluted waterways; rivers are turned black by industrial waste; water is unsafe to drink; acid rain strips forests; approximately 300,000 die prematurely each year from air pollution; a generation of children is being brought up with high levels of lead poisoning. China, like Manchester in 1844, has the title “the workshop of the world”, and the special economic zone of Shanghai appears scarily similar to 1840s Manchester.

Compare Engels’ account of a spinning mill- “In the cotton and flax spinning mills there are many rooms in which the air is filled with fluff and dust … The usual consequences of inhaling factory dust are the spitting of blood, heavy, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughing and sleeplessness … Accidents occur to operatives who work in rooms crammed full of machinery”- with an account of a migrant worker in China 2000- “There is no fixed work schedule. A 12-hour workday is minimum. Our legs are always hurting. There is no place to sit on the shop floor. The machines do not stop during our lunch breaks. Three workers in a group will just take turns eating, one at a time … The shop floor is filled with thick dust. Our bodies become black working day and night indoors. When I get off from work and spit, it’s all black.”

The reader may think capitalism has progressed from the horrors of the industrial revolution which are described in Engels’ book, yet this is not the case. Capitalism, no matter what mask it puts on, creates the accumulation of massive wealth at one pole and the accumulation of poverty, despair and misery at the other pole. The social war Engels writes about has not ceased, but in the west it has become less obvious than work related deformations (which still occur in the BRIC countries). The austerity measures enforced by the western bourgeoisie assault the few gains of the proletariat, and the proletariat puts up little resistance. The social war has existed, both hidden and open, since the formation of classes and will continue for as long as classes exist. Players in the game change; victors become the defeated and the new victors take their place; old classes are transformed into new ones with the changing of the mode of production, but the social war continues. Yet, for the first time in history there are now only two camps which have a part to play in current society. Thus the social war is drawing to an end: either a destruction of the species, or of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat, after destroying or absorbing all other classes, will abolish itself as a class; the state has now completely withered away, having no class to control it; we now have socialism: the free association of equals, cooperative labour, and common property.

We are left with two choices- the proletariat can seize the means of production and begin it’s journey on the road to socialism, or capitalism’s destructive nature will destroy the earth, rendering it inhabitable; we are left with the choice of socialism or barbarism.