Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England originally in German in 1845. Engels wrote it while he visited Manchester from 1842-1844. Karl Marx met Engels for the first time in 1844, leading him to read The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Marx was deeply impressed by the text.
The Condition of the Working Class in England was considered a classic in his contemporary Germany, causing many readers to be shocked at the appalling conditions of the working class in England. The work didn’t make a great impact on England since it was not published until the end of the 19th century; however, it has since become influential with scholars studying 19th century British industrialization.
The English translation was done by an American woman, Florence Kelley, and was authorized by Engels, who also wrote a new preface. This translation was published in 1887 in New York and 1891 in London.
For my list, I focused on the following chapters from The Condition of the Working Class in England: “Preface,” “Introduction,” “The Industrial Proletariat,” “The Great Towns,” and “Competition.”
Engels’s overall argument is that industrialization, capitalism, and wage labor have made workers (the proletariat) worse off. In particular, he highlights the decline in health and morality in the British working class. The decline in health comes from the worker’s inability to always procure necessary food, nutrition, and suitable house. Morality declines when, in order to prevent starvation and/or death, working class members are pushed into crime, engaging in theft and prostitution.
Notes & Quotes
- Engels repeatedly references slavery, arguing that the British worker “is, in law and in fact, the slave of the property-holding class, so effectually a slave that he is sold like a piece of goods, rises and falls in value like a commodity…The only difference as compared with the old, outspoken slavery is this, that the worker of today seems to be free because he is not sold once for all, but piecemeal by the day, the week, the year, and because no one owner sells him to another, but he is forced to sell himself in this way instead, being the slave of no particular person, but of the whole property-holding class.” It might be interesting to compare Engels’s text with American abolitionist texts, such as Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Whittier’s “The Slave-Ships.” Stowe references the British working class in Uncle Tom as southern slave-holders point to the British system as one that is more cruel than the system of slavery in America. Engels desired a complete overthrow of the system rather than a gradual shift or slight change, just as many abolitionists desired. Engels shows in Conditions how the working class can take part in the revolution, while abolitionists never painted such a picture because of the deep-set fears in America of a violent slave mutiny, as seen in Nat Turner’s confessions and Melville’s Benito Cerino. Later in Conditions, Engels states that the wage slaves actually have a more difficult time than the chattel slaves because they are expected to “live like human beings, shall think and feel like men!” Yikes.
- Engels ends the “Introduction” by threatening what he viewed as an inevitable violent mutiny against the capitalists buy the working class: “Hence also the deep wrath of the whole working-class, from Glasgow to London, against the rich, by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate, a wrath which before too long a time goes by, a time almost within the power of man to predict, must break out into a revolution in comparison with which the French Revolution, and the year 1794, will prove to have been child’s play.” This is written in the gothic mode: both the working class and the wrath they feel is repressed, however it is growing and boiling over. Soon, this wrath will experience a violent return and the bourgeoisie will be forced to confront it.
- In “The Great Towns” chapter, Engels describes the major industrial cities like London and Manchester through the vein of the urban gothic: “A town, such as London, where a man may wander for hours together without reaching the beginning of the end, without meeting the slightest hint which could lead to the inference that there is open country within reach, is a strange thing…But the sacrifices which all this has cost become apparent later. After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others. The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels…. 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 the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.”
- He describes the fact that many working-class people are left to die by starvation and that all members of the working class are made to feel fear regarding the possibility that they could be fired and left to starve at any moment. Engels uses the term that the “English working-men” use to describe the above as a “social murder.” The working men that Engels spoke to “accuse our whole society of perpetuating this crime perpetually.” I immediately think of contemporary urban gothic texts like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as more modern (neoliberal) texts like American Psycho, all which feature murders and/or deaths of the poor who have been left to die on the streets of London and New York City. This forces the reader to question whether the guilt lies on the urban monster himself (Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray, or Patrick Bateman) or on the society that allows human beings to die on its streets.
- In “Competition,” Engels explains how, by being made desperate for a wage, the working class competes against each other. He notes that this is also helped by the capitalist’s disdain and refusal for worker’s unions. The language that Engels uses places his vision of working class competition under capitalism within the realm of Jane Elliott’s survival game that she claims dominants late capitalist culture:
This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes… The proletarian is, therefore, in law and in fact, the slave of the bourgeoisie, which can decree his life or death. It offers him the means of living, but only for an “equivalent”, for his work. It even lets him have the appearance of acting from a free choice, of making a contract with free, unconstrained consent, as a responsible agent who has attained his majority.
I wonder how this competition for ‘survival’ (social darwinism?) is represented in 19th century literature. In neoliberal fiction, according to Elliott, it is typically envisioned as a game. Perhaps it comes through as the vision of the jungle-like and ferocious city that Prendick sees at the end of Dr. Moreau? Or the feeling of isolation in urban gothic texts? The failure of moral characters in The Story of an African Farm?