The Condition of the Working Class in England

engels condition of the working class017(1)In the words of my partner, a corker. It left me with a number of impressions.

The most overpowering is just rage and sadness at how the industrial revolution decimated lives. Half of children dead by the age of 5, average life expectancy from 45 to 50, the malnutrition, cold, damp, misshapen bodies, impotency and infertility, lost limbs, lost lives.

‘The English working men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong? (38)

No. They are not wrong, and Engels’s goal with this work is to prove it. He writes:

I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the working-men’s organs, with perfect correctness, characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions (107).

The second is just how much this must have contributed to Marx’s thinking in writing Capital, I read it and throughout the empirical and social research I found so many echoes (but they must be considered previews really) of Marx’s more theoretical work making sense of it, bringing its insights into order and revealing a deeper structural functioning. Editor and author of the introduction Dave McLellan notes that it was one of Engels’s articles on this political economy of the factories which first awoke Marx’s interest in economics when he received it as editor of the radical German journal to which Engels was submitting it. I can’t help but think that these two works should be more tightly linked, particularly for those like myself who are nervy of theory too removed from concrete fact. I like to think now, of this being the first volume of their work throughout the volumes of Capital, the understanding of raw suffering and misery, the initial grasping of the roles played by competition (given an entire chapter which proposes that capitalism consists of a never-ending movement between crisis and prosperity and this requires a reserve army of workers) and constantly improving technology, that drove them to fully theorise these things much more elaborately and certainly at far remove from the actual conditions described here. Some of them are revisited in Capital itself, but I found this to be far more persuasive, both why a bigger theory of capitalism was so desperately needed, and to dig into the way it has functioned to impact worker’s lives and how they have struggled against it (which Capital never gets to…).

Third, the character of Engels himself. In the opening dedication ‘To the Working Classes of Great Britain’, he writes

‘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 the intercourse with plain Working Men(9)

I can think of no more hilarious opening, and McLellen does right in pointing out (as Engels points out himself in his 1885 preface), how young Engels was: only 24 when he researched and wrote this between 1843-45 while working at his father’s thread factory in Manchester. How imbued he was with the idealism of the Young Hegelians and the even more radical politics of Hess and Marx. He remains in many ways a man of his time and class, with many a cringe-worthy sentence on the nature of the Irish and the stupidity of the working man, and the most amazing failure to see any revolutionary potential in the thousands of women and child workers. He sees instead a fundamentally unnatural system where women work and men actually take care of the home (OMG! the horror!).

Can anyone imagine a more insane state of things?…this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness…(155)

On the working classes? He confuses arrests with criminality for example, completely failing to recognise the use of police and prison to dominate and contain. It is hard imagining him treating any factory as an intellectual equal. For the Irish, he does note that it is primarily as an exploited country and as immigrants that they are used to force wages and demands down. But there is a brutal judgment of their humanity running through everything:

In short, the Irish have discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are making the English workers acquainted with it. Filth and drunkeness, too, they have brought with them (103)

Fourth, the key observations of the city and its form that he makes. On Manchester:

The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with outspoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity (57)

He looks at the full layout of the city, with each class inhabiting its sections, and large thoroughfares separating them, lined with shops and activity and closing off from view the inner courts and closes:

The finest part of this arrangement is this, that the members of the money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the laboring districts to their place of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. …they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement to their wealth (58).

The descriptions of thousands of people crammed into tiny closes with pigs and no sewage facilities or drainage or running water are heart breaking.

If anyone wishes to see in how little a space a human being can move, how little air–and such air!–he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither (65)

He diagrams the closes and courts, the new rows being thrown up shoddily by speculative builders and the methods and materials they use. He also sees them, like Lefebvre long after him, as the birthplaces of struggle:

The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trade Unions, Chartism, and Socialism. The great cities have transformed the diseases of the social body, which appears in chronic form in the country, into an acute one, and so made manifest its real nature and the means of curing it. Without the great cities and their forcing influence upon the popular intelligence, the working class would be far less advanced than it is. Moreover, they have destroyed the last remnants of the patriarchal relation between working men and employers…(133)

And finally, the accounts of struggle to recover humanity through theft, arson, murder by despairing individuals, and the struggle to organise into unions and associations, to win political change through chartism. There is so much to admire here, even though Engels own theoretical belief in the inevitability of defeat is at war with the hopefulness inspired by worker struggle:

The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation (224)

He describes long strikes and gun battles. The ‘Rebecca’ disturbances in Wales, in which agricultural workers donned women’s clothing and black face to conduct their rebellion. he prophesied revolution coming at any minute.

He was wrong of course, at least about the imminence of revolution. It reminds me of reading Angela Davis writing in the 60s, that firm belief that change is around the corner. Writing his preface 40 years later, I found it fascinating to discover that that part of his explanation for this failure is the rise of England as the manufacturing hub of a globalised world, exporting to all of Europe and creating a demand for its goods as far away as Africa. This caused the manufacturers to make a compact with workers (my word), raising wages and improving conditions so as not to interrupt production and wildly rising profits with growing markets whose demand outstripped supply. The beginnings of a newly reorganising chains of production and a growing globalisation.

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