on 13 June 2015
In 1842, Friedrich Engels was sent by his father to Manchester, England. It was hoped a short apprenticeship in the family-owned Ermen & Engels mill would cure Engels of his burgeoning radicalism, which had blossomed under the tutelage of the Young Hegelians in Berlin. According to Tristram Hunt, who introduces this Penguin Classics edition, Engels's father yearned for his son to 'embrace his destiny as a righteous capitalist' (p.6). But all Engels père managed to achieve was the further radicalisation of his wayward progeny, who now had the chance to witness capitalist exploitation firsthand. In fact, it was an invaluable move for Engels, because it offered a gruelling education, and one that undoubtedly cemented his zest for emancipatory politics. And that project of proletarian emancipation underscores everything in this book, which is a seething and epochal denunciation of the capitalist mode of production.
Engels dedicates the book 'To the Working Classes of Great Britain' (p.32). He presents his work as a 'faithful picture' (ibid) of proletarian struggle, and wastes no time in pinpointing the bourgeois enemy, who intend 'nothing else but to enrich themselves by your labour...and to abandon you to starvation as soon as they cannot make a profit' (p.33). Yet it's in the 'Preface to the First German Edition' that Engels states his materialist methodology. For Engels, the 'German theoreticians' (p.35) of communism and socialism knew far too little of the real world, which ensured their theoretical abstractions started out from 'preposterous judgements concerning the condition of the workers' (ibid). Engels aimed to redress this oversight by diving into the whirlpool of English working-class existence, for proletarian conditions existed in 'their classical form, in their perfection, only in the British Isles' (p.34), and thus The Condition of the Working Class in England is his testament to the destitution of the Victorian masses.
The Condition covers working-class life in all its manifestations. After detailing the rise of the industrial proletariat, Engels investigates the pernicious effects of urbanisation on all those toiling under the whip of industrial capitalism. The bourgeoisie may try to compartmentalise the city, hoping to 'conceal from the eyes of the wealthy...the misery and grime which form the complement to their wealth' (p.86), but 'poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich' (p.70). Yet, for a city like London, such degradation ensured that many had been 'forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation' (p.68) populating their city, a city of wonder they couldn't enjoy. Engels, however, saves his real ire for Manchester, for here the working classes live in 'measureless filth and stench' (p.98), and in a condition that has reached the 'lowest stage of humanity' (ibid), and where only the most 'physically degenerate race, robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically to bestiality, could feel comfortable and at home' (p.100).
Engels situates his polemic among the slums of Manchester and its environs. And once he's limned the city in great detail for the reader (complete with maps and diagrams), he explores the effects of Irish immigration on working-class jobs, the rampant lack of education ('Compulsory school attendance does not exist' (p.139)), the prevalence of drunkenness, the increasing atheism (which, Engels argues persuasively, is a result of capitalist ideology, for if 'Money is the god of this world' (p.143) then when 'the bourgeois takes the proletarian's money from him...[he] makes a practical atheist of him' (p.143)), and, finally, the proletariat's perceived 'sexual irregularities, brutality, and disregard for the rights of property' (p.151). But why is this? Put simply, Engels divides England into two 'great hostile camps' (to the quote the Communist Manifesto, written in1848), and shows that the 'workers speak other dialects, have other thoughts and ideals, other customs and moral principles, a different religion and other politics than those of the bourgeoisie' (p.150). They are a product of their environment, a commodity manufactured by the capitalists. And because the government is shown to be the perpetual and 'obedient servant of the bourgeoisie' (p.140), there is no chance for working-class hardships to be heard. They have no control, no money, and no access to the means of production, so their enslavement ensures the two classes are forever irreconcilable - only revolution can destroy the bourgeoisie and bring about the Promised Land of Communism.
And Engels is in no doubt about the inevitability of revolution in the British Isles. Early on, Engels writes of how the 'middle class dwells upon a soil that is honeycombed...the speedy collapse of which is as certain as a mathematical or mechanical demonstration' (p.63). The book is littered with such comments. For instance, in the chapter entitled 'Labour Movements', Engels decrees that the workers must 'strive to escape from this brutalizing condition' (p.223), and that the 'only possible solution is a violent revolution, which cannot fail to take place' (p.262), an apocalyptic 'war of the poor against the rich' (p.291). In fact, Engels says that 'Prophecy is nowhere so easy as in England' (ibid), where the 'revolution must come' (ibid), because the proletarian can 'save his manhood only through hatred and rebellion against the bourgeoisie' (p.223). In short, it's a done deal.
So why was there no English rebellion? For Engels, the momentum was slowed by the trade unions and their increasing complicity with capitalism. The trade unions may've been working-class 'schools of war' (p.233) but the 'long series of defeats for the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories' (p.226) hit morale hard and crushed revolutionary fervour. Compromise was now the method in dealing with the employer, and the proletariat, fearing violent upheaval, took what they could get. Yet Engels felt they kept missing their chance to break the stranglehold of competition, which wormed its way through the working class and undermined its solidarity. For Engels, competition was the 'completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society' (p.111). And this tactic was 'the sharpest weapon [used] against the proletariat in the hands of the bourgeoisie' (ibid), who happily placed the workers in direct competition with one another (with performance related bonuses and suchlike). Engels just couldn't get over the proletariat's acceptance of such a crass and divisive system, and such a total absorption of the ideology of competition. Writing a preface to the first English edition in 1892, which shows how long the work took to reach its intended audience, Engels bemoans the palsy-walsy relationship between the employers and the trade unions. What had been hotbeds of subversive valour were now comfortable institutions on 'exceedingly good terms' (p.45) with their paymasters. But, in Engels's view, the unions had lost touch with the masses they were formed to represent - they'd become 'an aristocracy among the working class' (ibid), who argued from 'a relatively comfortable position' (ibid), a position they accepted as 'final' (ibid).
Yet this feeling of finality, and this utter subjugation of the proletariat to the existing order, rankled with Engels, and no one can doubt the authenticity of his rage. But it can be a little overbearing. For instance, he just cannot accept that, with life being utterly miserable, the small handouts from the bosses were a godsend to the workers. They may not have been much, but they alleviated the worry, if only momentarily. Yes, they were still being exploited, but they were being exploited to a lesser degree. The trade unions are a democratic movement and they represent the views of their members. If the members don't want to go on strike or stir revolt, they don't - the union bigwigs cannot call the shots, and that is why the unions have survived, albeit with smaller numbers. Despite Engels's empathy with the workers, he couldn't understand their distaste for further bloodshed, which he mistook for apathy. Historically, the trade unions have always bargained for reform rather than revolt, and it's this reformist approach that validates their much needed presence on the political scene - without them we would be worse off. Yet the demands of the trade unions, both then and now, echo that of Benjamin Kunkel, who recently wrote that 'Our political demand should be for...a larger mass of labor [being] more lightly exploited'. For what, exactly, and where, exactly, is the alternative? But to Engels, and most Marxists, such a line is anathema and borders on the verge of outright nonsense.
These minor criticisms, however, do not detract from the consistent tone of the book, which is one of complete outrage. Engels can be a bit savage at times (especially when dealing with the Irish), but it's hard to doubt his sincerity. Published when he was just twenty four, the book carries all the hallmarks of youth, although it also shows the precocious grasp Engels had of social forces and the drift of industrial capitalism. Yet a number of his predictions failed to come true. He may've viewed the English bourgeoisie as a class 'so deeply demoralized, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, [and] so incapable of progress' (p.275) that they'd surely wilt and die, but he was wrong - they have adapted to the changing circumstances with the greatest of ease, and much to the annoyance of all working-class movements. He also underestimated the English proletariat's willingness to compromise. He spoke of the destruction of the family, and of how every member (regardless of age) was forced into employment, but it was that very need to look after the family and all its members that played such a huge role in avoiding any unnecessary carnage - it was the only thing they could control. But Engels missed this important point entirely.
But Engels was right to document the corrupting influence of money, thereby acknowledging the gruesome rapacity that befalls those seeking to accumulate it at the expense of all else. In the final chapter, 'The Attitude of the Bourgeoisie towards the Proletariat', Engels declares that 'In the presence of...avarice and lust of gain, it is not possible for a single human sentiment or opinion to remain untainted' (ibid). For Engels, and to adapt Marx's later argument, the class that controls the base controls the superstructure, and thus the ugly taint of bourgeois avarice permeates the entire world. For instance, 'It is quite obvious that all legislation is calculated to protect those who possess property against those who do not. Laws are necessary only because there are persons in existence who own nothing' (p.279), and who Engels knows never will. But this simplistic thought would undergo a process of maturation after the publication of this book, and would see its fiery culmination in the seminal Communist Manifesto, co-authored with Karl Marx. Nevertheless, the sparkling and angry clarity of this insight remains undimmed, and its relevance is evermore apparent in today's globalised age.
Even so, in 1845, Engels's work was revolutionary stuff, and Marx happily promoted the value of his partner's book. In a footnote to Capital, published over twenty years later in 1867, Marx singles out Engels's work for its clear and prescient understanding of the capitalist mode of production, and also for how 'wonderfully' it 'painted the circumstances in detail'. It is has been receiving such plaudits ever since, and Eric Hobsbawn, writing a 1969 introduction to the book, concluded that it 'remains an indispensable work and a landmark in the fight for the emancipation of humanity'. This may sound like hyperbole, but the work, as Hunt rightly admits, 'shocks the reader...with the unvarnished horrors of laissez-faire industrialization and urbanization' (p.1). And this process of industrialisation is an ongoing process, and one that entails the 'accumulation by dispossession' decried by David Harvey. So what's changed since 1845? Not a lot. The backdrop of the penury has simply shifted, and the English proletarians toiling in 19th Century Manchester have been replaced by those labouring in the factories of 21st Century India and China. And it's this perpetual system of working-class exploitation that renders Engels's book timeless.