“That a class which lives under the conditions already sketched and is so ill provided with the most necessary means of subsistence cannot be healthy, and can reach no advanced age, is self-evident… How is it possible, under such conditions, for the lower class to be healthy and long lived?” —Friedrich Engels, The Conditions of the Working Class in England.
In 1844, Engels presented his recently-published Condition of the Working Class in England to Karl Marx. He had written the monograph from his apartment in what is now the Whitworth Park Student Halls of Residence. We wanted to know whether his statement would resonate with local students so we set out to summarise his work and to ask them.
Photo: The University of Manchester
A blue plaque fronts Leamington House, Whitworth Park. When they took up residence, Engels and Marx had just arrived from Brussels to visit the leaders of Britain’s Chartist movement. Having developed their philosophical position, Engels arrived at the conclusion that “the condition of the working class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movements of the present because it is the highest and most unconcealed pinnacle of the social misery existing in our day.”
According to a recent study, Manchester is one of Britain’s most “working class” cities with a high factor of so-called “emergent service workers” and “precarious proletariat”. If Engels’ underlying thesis is still at all relevant, it should resound more with our peers than with any other random sample of British people.
We put this point to our peers with an initially mixed reaction. Most responses to the theme of Marxism, or even socialism, were somewhat apathetic. A substantial number had not heard of Marx, let alone Engels. To some, the ideologies of “Marxism” or “socialism” seemed intimidating. We saw plenty of tentative shrugs.
“The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men.”
When pressed on the question of class more generally, however, people grew more vocal and, in parts, visibly angry. It is estimated that, nationally, one million people rely on food banks. Child poverty in Manchester is at a 120-year high. Early last semester, Manchester hosted one of the year’s largest demonstrations. Over 60,000 people marched in protest against cuts to public services and the ‘austerity’ initiatives of the Conservative government.
It is commonly accepted that young people in England vote in low numbers. The political consequence of this is that government spending is directed away from youth initiatives; 350 youth centres have been closed since 2012 as a result of spending cuts. All the while the tax evasion and avoidance of large multinational corporations have further focused the public eye on the subject of grave economic inequality.
Hence the landslide election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party on an anti-austerity platform. We witnessed, in microcosm, the national success of the latest radical Labour evolution on our local tour.
The positive embrace of Corbyn’s success was tangible around campus. The ‘Westminster bubble’ appeared synonymous with political injustice and inequality. The Corbyn brand was celebrated as a welcome alternative.
Political injustice was still felt to relate thematically to class identity. A marked separation of ‘elite’ and ‘nonelite’ was felt viscerally and appeared, until recently, to have no solution. Corbyn’s success was, to many, symbolic of a larger political fight—one for social justice—which they felt could now, feasibly, be won.
Why Engels? Why now?
The viciousness of the political non-voting circle is unpleasant. Yet this has not stopped people advocating political positions in other ways. Though the political act of “non-voting” is undoubtedly counterproductive, it is not so for want of trying. As a hub of political initiatives and ideas, Manchester overwhelmingly qualifies.
Flyers and posters for talks and marches are commonplace around the city. Students make up majorities at most events. Engels may well have been proud of the place he once called home, a century and a half down the line. Yet, one does not have to call himself a Marxist in order to recognise that the contradictions of capitalism that Marx and Engels once highlighted are once again emerging as issues of a public conscience. The observations, specifically of Engels, were markedly astute for their time and have not lost their relevance—his work, therefore, deserves revisiting.
Marx (with Engels’ assistance) took 17 years to complete his magnum opus, Das Kapital. The underlying point of the work, however, was summarised in Engels’ original Working Class in England back in 1844 in which he observed that “people regard each other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot; and that the powerful few… seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains.” This line seems entirely relevant in today’s political climate where rampant inequality has emerged as—in Obama’s words—the “defining issue of our time.”
Without the involvement of the 19th century’s great capitalist sceptics, serious debate about a world in which the richest 1 per cent owns as much wealth as all others has been stymied. Engels’ legacy, forgotten so often, lives on—if subconsciously—in Britain’s radical heartland. This is the time to bring it back.