From the belly of the beast
Engels' great muckraking work on the heart of the Industrial Revolution captures the fluidity and chaos of capitalist society--and the power of the class that can defeat it.
FREDERICK ENGELS was born into a prosperous mill-owning family in Barmen, Germany, in 1820. Although his upbringing was carefree and loving, by the time he hit puberty, Engels rejected his parents' small-town Protestant religious mindset. After apprenticing in the family business, he went to Berlin in the late 1830s to complete his compulsory military service, spending most of his time sitting in on lectures at the University of Berlin and carousing with a group of radicals known as the Young Hegelians.
Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.
Horrified by his son's bouts of drinking and raucous defiance of the Berlin authorities, Engels' pious father sent him to work as a manager in the family textile factory in Manchester, England. But Engels subverted his father's designs by falling in love with an Irish Catholic revolutionary named Mary Burns, immersing himself in the working-class movement, and amassing a wealth of data from inside the factory in order to expose the secrets of capitalist exploitation.
The product of Engels' 21 months in Manchester, The Condition of the English Working Class, is one of the great muckraking books of all time. However, The Condition is not only a powerful denunciation of capitalist conditions; it is also a pioneering theoretical work which demonstrates that Engels was an active partner in the development of revolutionary socialism--what has come to be known as "Marxism." In fact, he elaborated many of its key tenets before Marx himself.
In The Holy Family, Marx wrote, "It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with its being, it will be historically compelled to do." (p. 37, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 4. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975)
This is an extraordinarily expansive and daring statement, but it was most certainly not based on firsthand knowledge of industrial capitalism. Marx had by then caught only a glimpse in Paris of "what the proletariat is." Engels, on the other hand, came face to face with the real thing in Manchester.
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How Capitalism Works
Engels insists that socialists cannot be content to speculate in the abstract. "A knowledge of the proletarian conditions is absolutely necessary to be able to provide solid ground for socialist theories." (p. 302, CW, Vol. 4) Therefore, he begins his Introduction with a fast-moving account of the radical changes capitalism has wrought in England:
The history of the proletariat in England begins with the second half of the last century [the 18th century], with the invention of the steam engine and of machinery for working cotton. Those inventions gave rise, as is well known, to an industrial revolution. (p. 307, CW, Vol. 4)
This revolution destroyed the rural, agricultural way of life; it pulled hundreds of thousands of Irish poor into British cities, and it made the United Kingdom the world's pre-eminent economic power. Machines, steam power and cotton created the proletariat.
What is responsible for this transformation? Engels sums it up in a one-word chapter title, "Competition": "Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything...is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes." (p. 375, CW, Vol. 4)
Whereas Adam Smith saw this process as one-sidedly increasing the "Wealth of Nations," even if he decried some of its social consequences, Engels--before Marx--offers a sophisticated explanation of why capitalist competition could give rise to great riches while simultaneously producing crippling crises and slumps. Putting his detailed readings in political economy and his experience in the factory manager's office to use, Engels demonstrates the relationship between wages as commodities and unemployment on the one hand, and free-market competition and cyclical commercial crises on the other:
In the present unregulated production and distribution of the means of subsistence, which is carried on not directly for the sake of supplying needs, but for profit, in the system under which everyone works for himself to enrich himself, disturbances inevitably arise at every moment...Everything is done blindly, as guesswork, more or less at the mercy of accidents...A crisis usually recurs once in five years after a brief period of activity and general prosperity. (pp. 381-382, CW, Vol. 4)
What is the consequence of all this? In a terrifying chapter called "The Great Towns," Engels details the grim conditions that powered Britain's empire. Today, we have become accustomed to gigantic metropolises. But in Engels' days, there was nothing like industrial England on the planet. London's population of 2.5 million was more than twice as big as Paris, eight times bigger than Berlin and New York City and 12 times bigger than Rome.
Engels, who had lived in Berlin, described the shock of encountering the behemoth for the first time:
This colossal centralization, this heaping together of two and a half millions of human beings at one point, has multiplied the power of this two and half million a hundred fold; has raised London to the commercial capital of the world...all of this is so vast, so impressive, that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England's greatness. (p. 328, CW, Vol. 4)
It is Engels' contention that socialism, if it is to mean anything, must leave behind academic squabbles over philosophy and find a way to take root in this new world.
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While Engels appreciates the power of England's industrial revolution, he is even more impressed with the toll it takes on the working class that makes it all possible:
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 realizes for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature...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. (p. 329, CW, Vol. 4)
Marx had attacked the alienation imposed on humanity by capitalism in his 1844 Manuscripts, but those essays still bore the marks of philosophical contemplation and his disgust at the stultifying emptiness of German intellectual life. Here, Engels discovers the depths to which capitalist brutalization can sink into disease and dirt and blood and sewage. Dispensing with any romanticism, he exposes how these conditions generally overwhelm the working class:
Since capital, the direct or indirect control of the means of subsistence and production, is the weapon with which this social warfare is carried on, it is clear that all the disadvantages of such a state must fall upon the poor...If he can get no work, he may steal, if he is not afraid of the police, or starve, in which case the police will take care that he does so in a quite an inoffensive manner. (p. 330, CW, Vol. 4)
In the chapter simply titled "Results,", Engels charges the rich with committing "social murder" against the poor by means of 14-hour work days, air pollution and respiratory afflictions, disease born by contaminated water supplies, addiction and street violence, shocking infant and maternity mortality rates, child labor and neglect, illiteracy, industrial accidents and deadly tenement fires and collapses. (p. 394, CW, Vol. 4)
But these are not the only results. Through no desire of their own, hundreds of thousands of workers were thrust into a terrifying new world. They were the victims, not the beneficiaries of England's rise. But they were a special class of victims--victims with enormous potential power.
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What the Proletariat Is
If the centralization of population stimulates and develops the property-holding class, it forces the development of the workers yet more rapidly. The workers begin to feel as a class, as a whole; they begin to perceive that, though feeble as individuals, they form a power united...the consciousness of oppression awakens, and the workers attain social and political importance. The great cities are the birthplaces of labor movements..." (p. 418, CW, Vol. 4)
Here, Engels puts flesh on the bones of Marx's vision of a class with radical chains. He goes beyond the abstract idea that a class with nothing "ought" to overturn everything and points to the real social dynamics and lived conditions which make possible a new type of human solidarity--a "view peculiar to the workers." Class consciousness won't come from the lecture hall, Engels makes clear, but from a critical self-awareness of the possibilities of unity that arise out of the very conditions that capitalism has created in the great cities.
For Engels, class struggle--and, specifically, strikes--holds the key to creating this new awareness among workers. Despite the fact that they were normally beaten in their struggles by the superior power of employers and the state, strikes transformed working-class people. In the chapter "Labor Movements," he writes:
Thus were the workingmen forced once more, in spite of their unexampled endurance, to succumb to the might of capital. But the fight had not been in vain. First of all, this nineteen weeks strike had torn the miners of the North of England forever from the intellectual death in which they had hitherto lain; they have left their sleep, are alert to defend their interests, and have entered the movement of civilization, and especially the movement of the workers. (p. 545, CW, Vol. 4)
Engels does not rule out the possibility of reform, but believes the main obstacle to social progress is that "the bourgeoisie will not take warning." Thus, "all hope of a peaceful solution of the social question for England must be abandoned. The only possible solution is a violent revolution, which cannot fail to take place." (p. 545-547, CW, Vol. 4)
However, even as Engels looks to the working class to make this revolution, he continues to stress a separation between what Marx called the "head" and the "heart" of the revolution--seemingly reserving for the intelligentsia (or at least only a small group of enlightened workers) the role of leadership:
I think that before the outbreak of open, declared war of the poor against the rich, there will be enough intelligent comprehension of the social question among the proletariat, to enable the communistic party, with the help of events, to conquer the brutal element of the revolution...And as Communism stands above the strife between bourgeoisie and proletariat, it will be easier for the better elements of the bourgeoisie (which are, however, deplorably few, and can look for recruits only among the rising generation) to unite with it than with purely proletarian Chartism. (p. 582, CW, Vol. 4)
Here, Engels sees communism as a political point of view which he does not necessarily directly connect to the struggles of the working class. In fact, he goes so far as to say that communism, ostensibly because of its general opposition to the alienation suffered by all classes under capitalism, will be more palatable to the bourgeoisie than what he calls "purely proletarian Chartism," a name referring to the mass workers movement demanding a Charter of Rights in the 1830s and 1840s in England.
No doubt part of the reason for this dualism in Engels' thinking has to do with the general problem of the development of political consciousness in an oppressed class. However, it also has to be said that Engels was simultaneously a sharp enough observer of the obstacles to working-class unity to take them seriously and enough of an elitist (at this stage) to draw pessimistic conclusions as to workers' ability to overcome these divisions without the intervention of some external political force.
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What Divides "What the Proletariat Is"
As for the divisions between working-class people, in addition to the symptoms of the social crises referenced above (crime, addiction, etc.), Engels addresses race, immigration and gender.
The most important omission in Engels' work is the absence of any discussion of African slavery in the New World. Despite the fact that Manchester existed almost solely because of King Cotton in the American South, Engels entirely ignores actually existing slavery. Wrong-headedly, he argues that industrial workers "are worse slaves than the Blacks in America, for they are more sharply watched, and yet it is demanded of them that they shall live like human beings, shall think and feel like men!" (p. 468, CW, Vol. 4)
African slavery had only been outlawed in the British Empire in 1834, so it was common for radicals to compare the plight of workers in England to that of slaves in the colonies or in the United States. If criticism of "white slavery" was at times an effective rhetorical device, it also has to be said that it served to downplay the critical distinctions between free labor and chattel slavery, and tended to skirt around (or worse) the question of race and racism.
Although it is important to keep in mind this shortcoming, Engels makes fascinating use of the idea of "race" (by which he means different European nationalities) to describe the extreme social hostility between the working class and the bosses:
The mixing of the more facile, excitable, fiery Irish temperament with a stable, reasoning, persevering English must, in the long run, be productive only of good for both. The rough egotism of the English bourgeoisie would have kept its hold upon the working class much more firmly if the Irish nature, generous to a fault, ruled primarily by sentiment, had not intervened, and softened the cold, rational English character in part by mixture of the races, and in part by the ordinary conduct of life. In view of all this, it is not surprising that the working class has gradually become a race which is wholly apart from English bourgeoisie. (p. 419, CW, Vol. 4)
Here, Engels argues that the English working class not only suffers from miserable conditions, it even suffers from a loss of English-ness. In a very real way, Engels is describing the making of the working class as an international social entity, not simply in its ideas, but in its literal human composition. So if he suffers from occasional blind spots and forgets to place the working class in Manchester in its global context, he is clearly opening the door to future insights in these regards.
This is all the more remarkable since Engels readily accepts some of the worst stereotypes of Irish immigrants:
Drink is the only thing which makes the Irishman's life worth having, drink and his cheery carefree temperament; so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness. The southern facile character of the Irishman, his crudity, which places him but little above the savage, his contempt for all humane enjoyments, which his very crudeness makes him incapable of sharing, his filth and poverty, all favor drunkenness. (p. 391-392, CW, Vol. 4)
Engels then counterposes this ugly prejudice to his praise for the supposedly upright moral character of the skilled section of the English working class.
On the one hand, Engels is here demonstrating that he had not yet freed himself from the ugliest national and racial conceptions upon which European capitalism, colonialism and slavery were built. On the other hand, even as he decries the supposed national failings of the Irish, he condemns English landlords for what he calls the "most brutal plundering of the Irish people," and he ends up in predicting that the Irish immigrant workers in England may yet act as "a leaven which will produce its own results in the future." (p. 560, CW, Vol. 4)
This call for unity between English and Irish workers jostles uncomfortably with his derogatory remarks. However, even mired in his prejudice, Engels understands that immigration must be a permanent component of industrial capitalism and identifies the fact that there can be no such thing as a purely local or national working class. His last word on the subject is his support for "the conquest of national independence" for Ireland from England, a conviction no doubt taught to him by Mary Burns and one he ardently retained for the remainder of his life.
As with race and immigration, in many ways, Engels' views on gender may often appear to us as quite backwards. For instance, he sometimes writes as if the working class were entirely composed of men: "Since, as we have seen, no single field for the exercise of his manhood is left to him, save his opposition to the whole conditions of his life, it is natural that exactly in his opposition he should be most manly, noblest, most worthy of sympathy." (p. 502, CW, Vol. 4) This is clearly not a matter of "he" serving as a universal pronoun. Engels really is only thinking of men in this case.
Yet these sorts of comments must be balanced by his exposure of the fact that the English working class was largely composed of women, as well as young girls and boys. In fact, Engels finds that out of 419,590 textile factory workers in Britain in 1839, 242,296 were women or girls. Thus, more than 60 percent of the people who powered the industrial revolution in Britain were female. (p. 436, CW, Vol. 4)
Even if Engels couldn't entirely come to grips with all the implications flowing from this, the fact remains that he recognized the proletariat, Marx's class with radical chains, as involving women from its very beginnings.
Combined with the deadly conditions in the factories and slums, this massive participation by women in the factory system led to a rapid breakdown in traditional gender roles in the family. As Engels notes, "in many cases the family is not wholly dissolved by the employment of the wife, but turned upside down. The wife supports the family, the husband sits at home, tends the children, sweeps the room and cooks. This case happens very frequently; in Manchester alone, many hundred such men could be cited, condemned to domestic occupations. (p. 438, CW, Vol. 4)
By all accounts, Engels rejected the Puritanical morals of his parents when it came to sexuality. However, this seems to have initially merely manifested as a rejection on his part of monogamy and traditional marriage. In a time before contraception, this could easily veer towards a simple self-serving justification for a young man who hoped to enjoy an exciting sex life.
And although Engels clearly enjoyed shocking his middle-class German audience by citing instances of gender role reversals, at times, he appears to condemn the breakdown of the distinctions between the sexes. For example, with respect to men staying at home and doing domestic labor, he writes:
Can anyone imagine a more insane state of things...? And yet this condition, which unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness without being able to bestow upon the man true womanliness, or the woman true manliness--this condition which degrades, in the most shameful way, both sexes, and, through them, humanity, is the last result of our much praised civilization. (p. 439, CW, Vol. 4)
This sounds very much like hostility towards capitalism's tendency, at this stage in history, to break down gender roles. Yet Engels produces the most unexpected and revolutionary of conclusions, "We must admit that so total a reversal of the position of the sexes can have come to pass only because the sexes have been placed in a false position from the beginning. If the reign of the wife over the husband, as inevitably brought about by the factory system, is inhuman, the pristine rule of the husband over the wife must have been inhuman, too." (p. 439, CW, Vol. 4)
In other words, Engels recognizes that a simple return to "normal" gender relations can only mean a return to the "inhuman" oppression of women.
So what are we to make of all this? In The Condition, Engels is clearly overwhelmed at times by all he sees and experiences. If his recognition of the proletariat as a potential social force capable of undoing the British Empire shines through, he's equally aware of the challenges it faces.
Capital drew together millions of workers and subjected them to a dizzying barrage of physical disease, psychological anxiety and brute force. These workers--as Engels so clearly demonstrates, even where his analysis falls short--were never homogenous with respect to nationality, age and gender.
If Engels expected a shorter resolution to this conflict than history was to provide, he succeeded in capturing the fluidity and chaos which saturates every level of capitalist society. That insight, combined with a revolutionary outrage at the suffering it engenders, makes this book more relevant today than perhaps at any time since its first publication.
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Next time, read Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach and Marx and Engels' The German Ideology, Vol. 1, Preface and Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks (I-IV). All together, it's about 70 pages.