15 Aralık 2010 Çarşamba

Friedrich Engels’ “The Condition of the Working Class in England”

Many writers of modern social history have often praised Engels’ book The Conditions of the Working Class in England” (1845), ranking it as one of the great examples of modern political and economic analysis as well as one of the greatest and earliest masterpieces of urban sociology -this sociological aspect being my area of research in this assignment. As McLellan points out, this book retains its force as a classic of early social geography and pioneering study of the effects early uncontrolled industrialization.[1] It is also Engels’ first book, written during his residence in Manchester between 1842 and 1844. Manchester was then at the very heart of the Industrial Revolution and Engels compiled his study from his own detailed observations. In his book, Engels’ discussion revolves around a number of themes that analyze the miserable conditions of the working class in England by showing examples of what kind of a living the working class is able to make in this very pre-industrialized country at the year of 1840s. Therefore, in this prologue it would be appropriate to indicate that the author is highly concerned about the plight of the industrial workers in the England of the early 1840s. In this paper, with which I will make an attempt to introduce to the reader not the economic side of the medallion rather its social projections, I will purport to explain how a “social murder” as Engels puts it, is committed by the society in England and how we might observe the consequences of this societal crime by taking a glance at the living conditions of the working class in the pre-industrialization years of 1840s in England. Let me explore this social murder and what should be understood from the conception.

Engels makes a definition of ‘murder’ as “When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another, such injury that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder” (p. 106). Thereafter, his claim is that such a definition properly fits the situation of the working class in England in 1840s when he maintains that,

I have … 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 … society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions. That it knows the consequences of its deeds; that its act is therefore, not mere manslaughter, but murder…(p. 107).

That’s why, if we are to mention the ultimate findings of Engels’ research before presenting to the reader the means through which he comes up with that result, it would be tenable to assert that for the author, the society as a whole is somehow committing this “murder” when they overlook the appalling living conditions that the working people are suffering and do not feel a responsibility to help render better these people’s lives.

Having revealed this, now let me take into consideration how Engels asserts the lack of city planning especially in the settling areas of the working class has an impact on the miserable, unhealthy living conditions of these people and how it can be used as a metaphor of their sufferings. In the chapter titled “The Great Towns”, Engels strives to scrutinize under what conditions the people of working class in England of 1840s make a living in the urban district of Manchester. The method the author employs while carrying out his study appears to be peripatetic in the sense that he strives to reveal the horrors of industrial urbanism by merely walking around. While conducting a tour in various neighborhoods of proletarian Manchester, he explicitly points out his observations of appalling living conditions of the working class so that he renders his assertions reasonable. According to Engels, there was a connection between the physical decrepitude of the urban infrastructure and the alienation and despair of the urban poor. Hence, in The Great Towns, he stresses the ‘degradation’ of the working class with regard to the “hypocritical town planning” in the city of Manchester. From Engels’ point of view, the lack of city planning especially in the great cities under the force of capitalism was insulating the middle class from the sight of squalor and suffering. In other words, according to Engels, space was organized in such a way that would properly serve the interests of the advantageous class, that is to say the bourgeoisie. Even after his death in 1895, this view has been the prevailing one among the academic milieu. As a consequence, many scholars[2] have attempted to clarify the inner-city development, which was an issue first coined in and identified by Engels.

In The Great Towns, Engels first introduces to the reader the “tacit agreement” which organizes the streets in order to keep each person on his/her own side of the pavement. This way, he argues, no one delays the opposing streams of the crowd. For Engels, this tacit agreement ultimately isolates the individual in his/her private interest, in some cases making him/her become even offensive. Engels indicates that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking constitute the fundamental principle of society. From Engels’ point of view, this isolation brings about the “social war” that is the war of each against all. One might refer to this social war as a corollary of the capitalist system because in this war people regard each other as only useful subjects. In this regard, they exploit each other and in the end the stronger acquires for himself/herself a better position. If we are to clarify, Engels maintains,

… the stronger treads the weaker under foot, and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains. (Engels, p.48).

I think such an explanation of the form of relations between people clearly explains us the very nature of the capitalist society. In such a system, it is clear from Engels’ arguments that all the disadvantages fall upon the poor whereas the ones who control the means of subsistence and production implement their policies -which in some cases might even become arbitrary. This is Engels’ starting point in The Great Towns, through which he investigates the wretched living conditions of the working-men in Manchester of the mid 1840s. While taking into consideration the living conditions of the working class, Engels firstly asserts that these workers in the city of Manchester had no property of their own. Therefore, Engels indicates that they had to live or survive wholly upon wages, which usually “went from hand to mouth”. As a corollary, they had no chance to save money for their future. More than that, if they were able to find a job to maintain their lives with the wages paid, they were regarded as “lucky”. In his study, Engels acquaints the reader with his observations of the dwellings of the workers, the interior arrangement of the dwellings, the clothing of the workers, the food they had to eat and so forth. Having stayed in Manchester from 1842 to 1844, Engels claims that the dwellings of the workers were inappropriately built because the construction of the buildings had not been carried out according to a plan/project. For Engels, therefore the industrial workers in the England of the early 1840s had to live at any place they could afford to pay for, and for the most part that “home” was like a “hole”.

… the more madly was the work of building up carried on, without reference to the health or comfort of the inhabitants, with sole reference to the highest possible profit on the principle that no hole is so bad but that some poor creature must take it who can pay for nothing better. (Engels, p. 53).

As one might comprehend from Engels’ concern, the construction of the dwellings was not paid much importance in the sense that ultimately it was for the “less valuable” or “secondary” component of the capitalist system, that corresponded to the workers. Notwithstanding the fact that they were the ones to take direct involvement in the process of production by working intensively, the harsh and inconvenient conditions they were living under had not been important enough even to be discussed. Hence, these conditions were not even dealt with for the most part, nor improved by the “winners” –that was the bourgeoisie- of the system. Therefore, it was not even a matter whether the dwellings were kept in suitable and healthy conditions or not. The filthy cottages were not even provided with the slightest reference to ventilation. It was also a fact that the workers had to live in dwellings where the inhabitants were confined to the smallest place possible. However, despite such scanty living conditions, the workers had no other choice except than becoming a “homeless”. In other words, they had to appropriate that much “blessing” of the capitalist system if they could find a house that they could shelter in. Otherwise, they would be subject to the insecure environment that was going the rounds outside.

A further dimension Engels takes into account is related to the nourishment of the workers. He states that every working-man was constantly exposed to loss of work and food and many of them perished as a result of that. At times, the food was insufficient in quantity and in some cases the result was death by starvation. In particular, the children of the working class people are comparatively more subject to the diseases as a result of insufficient nourishment. In this respect, Engels writes “The food of the laborer, indigestible enough in itself, is utterly unfit for young children, and he has neither means nor time to get his children more suitable food … Nearly all workers have stomachs more or less weak, and are yet forced to adhere to the diet which is the root of the evil.” (p. 112). In his book, Engels explicitly tells the reader that during his residence in England, at least twenty or thirty people had died of simple starvation under the most revolting circumstances. In addition to that, Engels maintains that even the workers who could afford to buy some food were not nourished in an appropriate way because the food was often almost unfit for use and would result in diseases. Engels maintains his argument by indicating that the life standards for the workers at the time were underfoot that is to say the external views of the workers was also underfoot. Their clothing was generally scanty, and that of great multitudes was in rags. For Engels, it was nothing else but the capitalist system itself to blame for all these miserable and filthy conditions of the working-men’s dwellings in Manchester of the mid 1840s. The dwellings, as far as one might comprehend from Engels’ writings, were constructed with reference solely to the profit secured by the contractor.

In order to show how these miserable conditions have their effect on the death-rates, Engels illustrates his argument with some statistical data gathered at that time by a physician, Dr. Holland, who had carried out an investigation in Chorlton-on-Medlock, a suburb of Manchester. In his conduct of study, Dr. Holland divides the houses and streets into three classes each, and as Engels points out (p. 117), gathers the following variations in the mortality rates. From these statistical data, Engels makes the inference that the mortality in the streets of the second class is 18% greater, and in the streets of the third class is 68% greater than that of the mortality rate in the streets of the first class whereas the mortality in the houses of the second class is 31% greater, and in the houses of the third class is 78% greater than the mortality rates in the houses of the first class. It is a fact that the conditions Engels describes in his study prove to form the basis for the social realist tradition in literature which focuses on the ugly realities of contemporary life and sympathizes with the working class people.

It seems beneficial to read the book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in order to understand Engels’ pattern of thinking and how he develops systematic perspectives on modern societies and produces a critical discourse on modernity, thus inaugurating the problematic of modern social theory. In the last analysis, Engels’ assertion is that the appalling living conditions of the working class could only be improved by the abolition of private property and the creation of a communist society. In conclusion, I think in his masterpiece Engels successfully acquaints the reader with the living conditions of the working class in the context of pre-industrialized society of England in the mid-1840s. He achieves to put forward the reality of the plight of the industrial workers and assiduously analyzes the living conditions of the workers by formulating the wanderings that he had gathered during his two-years-long residence in Manchester. The personal nature of his insights and his account of the life of the victims of the early industrial age should be regarded valuable even for today because, although I have argued that his theories have not hitherto become the hard fact, the findings of his analysis of the working class in Manchester between the years of 1842 and 1844 can be appraised as an example in front, for us to compare and contrast the current conditions of the working people to that of 150 years ago and open further discussions to ratiocinate how far we have gone to ameliorate the living conditions of the working classes all over the world. Is not this the ultimate goal of science: a vocation with the aim of positively contributing to practical and personal life? In this context to that of the laborer!


- Friedrich Engels, “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, Edited with an Introduction by McLellan David, Oxford University Press, 1993.

- Heiko Khoo, “China: Capitalism means war against the working class”, Available online at http://www.marxist.com/Asia/china_war_workers.htm.

[1] McLellan David, Introduction Section of “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, (XiX), Oxford University Press, 1993.

[2] These scholars include Saltaire and Port Sunlight in the United Kingdom, Lowell and Pullman in the United States and so forth. A common concern of theirs was the urban parks movement. Therefore, they have dealt with the construction of ideal company towns in the context of industrialized cities.

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