The condition of the working class

The Covid pandemic has brought into relief the persisting inequities of capitalism and the terrible conditions of life it inflicts on millions of workers, including in the so-called ‘advanced’ capitalist countries. Sozialistische Organisation Solidaritaet, the German section of the CWI, has reprinted the first systematic expose of capitalism written by Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, at a time, in 1840s Britain, when it was still a relatively new and dynamic system. Below is the introduction to the new volume, written by LENNY SHAIL.

In 1863 while working away at what was to become Das Kapital, Karl Marx took time out to refresh himself again with his comrade and closest friend’s early masterpiece The Condition of the Working Class in England.

In his almost daily letter exchange to Engels, Marx commented, “What power, what incisiveness and what passion drove you to work in those days. That was a time when you were never worried by academic scholarly reservations! Those were the days when you made the reader feel that your theories would become hard facts if not tomorrow then at any rate on the day after”.

The book was the first to be published by either of the two great collaborators, and it is timely that Sozialistische Organisation Solidaritaet is reprinting it for current and future generations given the conditions and struggles facing the working class across the world today that are in many cases identical to that of the horrifying conditions illuminated by the 24 years-old Friedrich Engels.

Engels was born on 28 November 1820 in what is now Wuppertal, Germany. His family were wealthy, strict Christians and owned cotton-textile mills in Germany and Salford, near Manchester, in England. However, even as a teenager Engels rejected the conservative life and religious conventions he was meant to follow. Sent to the German industrial cities of Elberfeld and Bremen to learn the family business, a teenage Engels was radicalised by the horrors experienced by the emerging working-class men and women in these early industrial centres.

In his letters from Elberfeld, he wrote: “Terrible poverty prevails among the lower classes, particularly the factory workers in Wuppertal; syphilis and lung diseases are so widespread as to be barely credible; in Elberfeld alone, out of 2,500 children of school age 1,200 are deprived of education and grow up in the factories – merely so that the manufacturer need not pay the adults, whose place they take, twice the wage he pays a child”.

“But the wealthy manufacturers have a flexible conscience, and causing the death of one child more or one less does not doom a pietist’s soul to hell, especially if he goes to church twice every Sunday”.

While carrying out his military service in Berlin, Engels encountered and began to associate with the ‘Young Hegelians’, as did a young Karl Marx – although they would not meet in person till 1842, and it was not until their second meeting in 1844 that they realised their analysis of and conclusions about capitalism were the same. But it was Engels’ experiences and work in Manchester and Salford that placed him firmly on the standpoint and in the heart of the working class that was developing rapidly internationally.

Brought to Salford in 1842 to work as a clerk in his father’s factory, Engels spent every second of his free time immersing himself in the lives, work, homes and bars, of the immensely poor and oppressed working class of the city.

Addressing the British workers, he writes, “I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your everyday life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors. I have done so: 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 workingmen”.  [In the language of his day ‘workingmen’ included working women – LS].

He was helped into this world by a young Irish immigrant factory worker Mary Burns, who would become his partner both in life and in struggle. Engels rejected the norms and expectations of his class background to live with Mary.

Contemporary echoes

While observing the slums of Manchester in close detail, Engels took notes of its horrors, notably child labour, the despoiled environment, and overworked and impoverished labourers. He sent a trilogy of articles to Marx. These were published in the Rheinische Zeitung and then in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, chronicling the conditions among the working class in Manchester. He later collected these articles when he returned to Germany in what was published as The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Over 175 years have passed since Friedrich Engels when introducing this masterpiece challenged the British ruling class to dispute the horrifying conditions and lives he had seen and recorded: “Twenty-one months I had the opportunity to become acquainted with the English proletariat, its strivings, its sorrows and its joys… What I have seen, heard and read has been worked up in the present book. I am prepared to see not only my standpoint attacked in many quarters but also the facts I have cited, particularly when the book gets into the hands of the English… But without a moment’s hesitation I challenge the English bourgeoisie to prove that even in a single instance of any consequence for the exposition of my point of view as a whole I have been guilty of any inaccuracy, and to prove it by data as authentic as mine”.

And yet still, so many years later much of the suffering and conditions of Engels time exists still today in all corners of the world. Recent figures tell of 689 million people living in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 a day – and 1.3 billion people, 22% of the world’s population, in multi-dimensional poverty which includes 644 million children.

Experiences such as this from a Chinese migrant worker in Shenzhen: “There is no fixed work schedule. A 12-hour workday is a minimum. Our legs are always hurting. There is no place to sit on the shop floor. The machines do not stop during our lunch breaks. Three workers in a group will just take turns eating, one at a time… The shop floor is filled with thick dust. Our bodies become black working day and night indoors. When I get off from work and spit, it’s all black”.

This is the daily toil of millions of working people across the globe in 2021 and differs little from the terrifying scenes that the young Engels encountered in 1840s Manchester: “In the cotton and flax spinning mills there are many rooms in which the air is filled with fluff and dust… The usual consequences of inhaling factory dust are the spitting of blood, heavy, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughing and sleeplessness… Accidents occur to operatives who work in rooms crammed full of machinery”. Yet it is not just the neo-colonial world that such similarities can be found.

Poverty and health

“Insufficient satisfaction of the vital needs is what prepares the frame for contagion and epidemic”, comments Engels about the squalid conditions in the new urbanised towns on 1800s Britain. In a book written all the way back in 1844, the link is made between the poor living standards of the working class, poor health, and the easy spread of sickness and disease. Cholera, typhus, and smallpox repeatedly flared up in towns and cities. Engels discusses a fever ravaging through London caused by “ill-built, ill-kept streets”.

Not much different to the accelerated spread of Covid-19 in the poorest areas of Britain where millions still live in cramped and overpopulated conditions. And the murky often illegal working conditions the poorest workers face day in day out still in industries like the garment and meat-packing workplaces where they were forced to work throughout the pandemic whether they had the virus or not – all in the name of profit!

Engels often points out the horrendous and tragic situation facing the high Irish immigrant populations in England, most often or not who worked in the most dangerous of jobs and lived in the worst of the worst slums of the rapidly developing industrial towns and centres of industrial Britain. For immigrant workers in Britain little has changed today.

Air pollution in big cities and pollution is an international crisis, but Engels was writing on the same subject over 170 years ago, and especially the impact on children’s health: “It shows in Dr Barham’s intelligent report how the inhalation of an atmosphere containing little oxygen, and mixed with dust amid the smoke of blasting powder, such as prevails in the mines, seriously affects the lungs, disturbs the action of the heart, and diminishes the activity of the digestive organs”. These consequences of capitalism are not new. They continue to have a very real impact on people’s health – the worst is faced by the poorest in society.

There are clearly big differences between how most working-class people in Britain lived in the 19th century compared to today. Even by the 1895 edition of the book, working-class conditions had changed drastically. Over the following decades, technological, economic, and medical development – combined with the willingness of the working class to struggle – pulled people out of these conditions, in the main. Sick pay, the NHS, weekends, and the welfare state were either won through battles with the bosses and government, or were granted through fear of mass revolt.

But extreme poverty has not been eradicated, even in the richest economies in the world. In 2018, 600 homeless people died on the streets in the UK. In the last ten years child poverty has escalated with over 30% of children living in poverty – in the inner city areas this rises to over 50%. Malnutrition amongst the poorest in Britain has once again become a major crisis, with many tragic deaths caused by starvation being reported increasingly across the UK.

Engels commented on the plight of homelessness: “They who have some kind of a shelter are fortunate, fortunate in comparison with the utterly homeless. In London fifty thousand human beings get up every morning, not knowing where they are to lay their heads at night”. In Britain since 2010 the rough sleeping figure has increased by 52%, and figures from 2019 found over 280,000 people in England alone are homeless – Covid will have increased that even more!

Since 2010, cuts to health and social care have been linked to 120,000 deaths. On top of that, we have had the pandemic – where the poorest areas have seen the highest death rates. Engels said: “The fury of the plague has fallen almost exclusively on the working class”, and the same is true today. Keyworkers, such as bus drivers, have seen deaths around three times the average.

Alongside poor living standards and overcrowding allowing disease to flourish, Engels assesses in detail the long-term health impact of poverty wages. The impact on people’s height, development and health are all covered.

Many people could not work much past 45, because they worked such long hours on a poor diet. From the East End of London to northern towns, squalid living conditions are exposed. There was so much sickness and disease that ‘sanitary police’ were introduced. But even if they closed and cleaned possible areas of outbreak, it could not solve the huge problems of poverty, overcrowding and lack of healthcare.

Not a manifesto

Compiled by Engels when he was just 24 years old, The Condition of the Working Class was never meant to be a manifesto. It was an early exploration by Engels of this newly developing working class in the then world centre of the industrial revolution – the first factory in Britain had only been built in 1769.

Engels himself in the preface of the first English edition in1892 commented that much of the analysis in the book was lacking and part of his own political development: “It will be hardly necessary to point out that the general theoretical standpoint of this book – philosophical, economic, political – does not exactly coincide with my standpoint of today. Modern international socialism, since fully developed as a science, chiefly and almost exclusively through the efforts of Marx, did not as yet exist in 1844”.

“My book represents one of the phases of its embryonic development; and as the human embryo, in its early stages, still reproduces the gill-arches of our fish-ancestors, so this book exhibits everywhere the traces of the descent of Modern Socialism from one of its ancestors, German philosophy. Thus great stress is laid on the dictum that Communism is not a mere party doctrine of the working-class, but a theory compassing the emancipation of society at large, including the capitalist class, from its present narrow conditions. This is true enough in the abstract, but absolutely useless, and sometimes worse, in practice”.

Of course, Engels still points to the wealth and resources that could be used to alleviate poverty. Condemning the “social murder” committed by the ruling class – allowing workers to live in such poverty while the rich get richer – he said that the only real solution is to “surrender the administration of the common interests to the labouring class”.

This book exposes the dire living conditions of working people in the most advanced capitalist country at that time but also how the development of industry and a growing working class created ‘capitalism’s grave diggers’, which Engels highlights. It is a lesson for the working class that a struggle against capitalism is needed to change our living conditions: “The proletarian, who has nothing but his two hands, who consumes today what he earned yesterday, who is subject to every possible chance, and has not the slightest guarantee for being able to earn the barest necessities of life, whom every crisis, every whim of his employer may deprive of bread, this proletarian is placed in the most revolting, inhuman position conceivable for a human being”.

“The slave is assured of a bare livelihood by the self-interest of his master, the serf has at least a scrap of land on which to live; each has at worst a guarantee for life itself. But the proletarian must depend upon himself alone, and is yet prevented from so applying his abilities as to be able to rely upon them… to keep his head above water in this whirlpool… he can do solely in rebellion against the class which plunders him so mercilessly and then abandons him to his fate, which strives to hold him in this position so demoralising to a human being”.

Workers’ organisation

But Engels observations on life and conditions are not all that can be related to today. He dedicates a chapter to the question of the labour and trade union movement, an early analysis on the issue of how socialists work within trade unions. Many of the issues and tasks facing the working class that Engels raises still hold true today and his writings are still extremely relevant.

One illuminating observation gives a glimpse of the potential gigantic strength of the British working class that still hold true today: “These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching”.

“They are the military school of the working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided… one finds that all the proletarians of the towns and of country manufacture have united in associations, and have protested from time to time, by means of a general strike, against the supremacy of the bourgeoisie”.

“And as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English [Engels means Britain – LS]… It is said on the Continent that the English, and especially the working-men, are cowardly, that they cannot carry out a revolution because, unlike the French, they do not riot at intervals, because they apparently accept the bourgeois regime so quietly. This is a complete mistake. The English working-men are second to none in courage; they are quite as restless as the French, but they fight differently” – through organisation.

Engels also raises the question of the need for independent political representation for the working class and the need for socialists to participate in building a mass working-class party to fight to change society along socialist lines, which still remains a central and urgent task for the Socialist Party and its co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) today.

The book has some of Engels’ first points on how socialists work amongst the masses, and how such a mass workers’ party could come about, in many ways touching upon elements of the transitional method that Leon Trotsky later developed in the 1930s and that we in the CWI have centred our methods and programme around. “Hence it is evident that the working-men’s movement is divided into two sections, the Chartists and the Socialists”, he writes. “The Chartists are theoretically the more backward, the less developed, but they are genuine proletarians all over, the representatives of their class”.

“The Socialists are more far-seeing, propose practical remedies against distress, but, proceeding originally from the bourgeoisie, are for this reason unable to amalgamate completely with the working-class. The union of Socialism with Chartism, the reproduction of French Communism in an English manner, will be the next step, and has already begun. Then only, when this has been achieved, will the working-class be the true intellectual leader of England. Meanwhile, political and social development will proceed, and will foster this new party, this new departure of Chartism”.

In his later preface to the English edition of 1892, Engels shares his enthusiasm over the early development of what was to become the Labour party. Many of the points he makes around these early stages of how a workers’ party could breakthrough still hold true even as the Labour Party has since developed from the later decades of the 20th century into a fully rounded out capitalist party and is no longer the workers’ party Engels describes. “Since I wrote the above, six months ago, the English working-class movement has again made a big step forward. The parliamentary elections which took place the other day have given formal notice to both official parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, that both of them would thereafter have to reckon with a third party, the workers’ party”.

“This workers’ party is only just being formed; its elements are still occupied with casting off traditional prejudices of every sort – bourgeois, old trade-unionist and even doctrinaire-socialist – so that they may finally be able to get together on a basis common to all of them. And yet the instinct to unite which they followed was already so great that it produced election results hitherto unheard-of in England. In London two workers stood for election, and openly as Socialists at that; the Liberals did not dare to put up their own men against them and the two Socialists won by overwhelming and unexpected majorities”.

“The spell which the superstitious belief in the ‘great Liberal Party’ cast over the English workers for almost 40 years is broken. They have seen by dint of striking examples that they, the workers, are the decisive power in England if they only want to be and know what they want; and the elections of 1892 marked the beginning of such knowing and wanting… the English workers’ party will surely be sufficiently constituted to put an early end to the seesaw of the two old parties, who have been succeeding each other in office and by this very means perpetuating the rule of the bourgeoisie”.

Foundations of a world view

In 1895, following Engels’s death, Lenin succinctly summed up what set his and Marx’s ideas apart: “He was the first to say that the proletariat is not only a suffering class; that it is, in fact, the disgraceful economic condition of the proletariat that drives it irresistibly forward and compels it to fight for its ultimate emancipation. And the fighting proletariat will help itself”.

In some respects, Engels anticipated Marx on the role of the working class and socialism. This was gained through his experience in England in particular, in the early 1840s, of the Chartist movement – the first independent movement of the working class historically.

Engels’ experiences in north-west England and the subsequent publication of this book helped inspire and lay the basis for the cornerstone of Marx and Engels’ work – that it was the working class that would be the key force in society, and that as it became a class-for-itself, could transform society along socialist lines – an idea that for its time was revolutionary in itself but was rooted in Marx and Engels’ method of analysis.

Marx and Engels had, at almost the same time, evolved from acceptance of the ‘idealist’ philosophy of their great teacher Hegel to the ideas of ‘dialectical materialism’. ‘Dialectics’ is the method of thought which seeks to understand the all-sided character, contradictions and interaction of events and processes. They “turned Hegel upside down” and put him “from standing on his head firmly back on his feet”, thereby rejecting Hegel’s idealist standpoint.

Hegel believed ideas and thoughts came from outside of the evolution of nature, humankind and social relations, and were quasi-religious. But Marx and Engels argued that ideas and people’s consciousness are expressions of material forces shaping individuals and societies. That is, they are products of social struggles, events, developments in the economy, relations between social classes, etc. These are the driving impulses of history.

Engels died in 1895. Like his best friend and comrade Karl Marx, his contribution to the struggles of the working class is as important today as when he lived. Capitalism has taken society forward immensely. All around us we see the huge steps forward in technology, science and understanding. Yet, we live in a world in which living standards, life expectancy, health and the ability to enjoy life are being driven back. In many parts of the world the terrible living and working conditions which Engels witnessed in Manchester are not much different even today.

A reading or rereading of The Condition of the Working Class in England will inspire a greater determination to fight in the interest of working class and poor in the same way it inspired Marx. The book helped direct Engels and Marx towards the analysis, ideas and methods that underpinned their future great works like The Communist Manifesto and Capital and the task for socialists to build working class parties across the world to change society along socialist lines.

Only through a successful socialist revolution, which Engels and Marx fought for, can humanity begin to utilise and plan all the enormous science, technology and abundance of wealth that exists through the historical labour of workers in class society. Then, when ‘workers of the world unite’, it will be possible to create a harmonious world where the horrors of capitalism are firmly put into the dustbin of history.