Book Review: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Friedrich Engels

This is my first follow-up to having read The Communist Manifesto at the start of the year. These two are in fact in the same volume along with a third work (Socialism: Scientific and Utopian) which I intend to review later. Of the three works, this is by far the most extensive, though it falls significantly short of the length of Marx’s Das Kapital.

The title of the book gives a clue as to its nature. It is a book of observations based on Engels own experience, backed up by secondary reports from the locations and the times concerned. This edition, though, is prefaced by a much older Engels. At the time the book was written, Friedrich was 24 years old and full of the zeal of youth. So this preface is an old man looking back at his younger self. In so doing, there is an element of reproof, no longer convinced that the full force of the predictions made were wholly warranted, given the evidence presented. There is also an acknowledgement that many of the complaints have been, if not invalided, ameliorated to some extent. Yet he remains somewhat defiant, somewhat proud that some of what he prophesied came about.

Leaving behind the older Engels, we then move back to the man who wrote the first draft of the book in the 1840s. He begins with an idea of what he imagines history to be. It’s not a fantastic start, as he imagines some kind of golden past in the pre-industrial age. Full of sweeping statements and devoid of evidence, the very critically minded may well be inclined to throw the book down in disgust at this point. I would encourage against this, though, as much of what follows is far more creditworthy.

The book looks at a broad overview to begin with before getting narrower and more focused. Throughout, Engels peppers his work with citations, anecdotes and other references, each of which, to their own degree, add weight, colour and texture to his argument.

His central thesis is that the condition of the working classes is conducive to ill health and an early death. Yet the condition that they find themselves in is not by accident, but has been allowed, encouraged and maintained by the bourgeois classes. As such, the proposition is that it amounts to widespread state-sponsored murder.

He takes the reader on a tour of some of the cities in England, giving a vivid picture of life for the working classes in each of these. One thing that emerges is how the design of the cities has enabled the poor to be hidden away, largely out of sight from the middle and upper classes, as well as from visitors to the city who don’t look hard enough. The conditions described are horrific. Engels doesn’t write as passionately as one might expect, if one thought that this was a particularly polemical work. Of course, there are moments of polemic in it, but for the most part it is a very serious, sober-minded study. In effect, the facts are left to speak for themselves. I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live in such conditions and the only word that came readily to mind was ‘unbearable’.

After having done his initial survey, he brings together his observations together in a chapter entitled ‘Results’. For those who have read some Hobsbawm this style will be familiar. Here is where we find some Engels’ most damning statements, but he consistently backs up his more controversial conclusions with sufficient evidence to support the argument.

After this, we narrow in and look at some specific examples of industry. In particular, we look at the rise of the factories and the life within them, the agricultural working class and miners. In so doing, we also get to see some more of the politics that was going on behind the scenes to create the conditions witnessed. A fair discussion is made of the Poor Laws, the legacy of Malthus and the development of laws surrounding working hours and the employment of children.

For those who are dismissive of trade unionism and the labour movement in general, this should be essential reading. It is an excellent explanation of why they were needed in the first place.

For me, reading it in 2014, one cannot but help think in terms of our current political situation. Some significant caution is needed, though, lest our willingness to condemn the actions of our present government lead us to anachronisms. For while no reasonable person doubts the increase in the use of foodbanks and the link to current evil regime IDS*, the precise condition of the working class today is significantly different from what it was in 1844. Even Engels admits that they were improved by 1892. Yet the good work that the labour movement has had in determining better living and working standards is over. My personal view, though, is that the political party whose name best embodies that legacy no longer has policies which seek to continue progress in the same vein.

My proposal then would be that, in a similar way that Thomas Picketty has written Capital in the 21st century, as an updating of Marx, an updating of Engels may well be in order. There is certainly plenty of evidence that one could cite in support of an updated but similar hypothesis. As yet, though, I am not aware of any single author who has examined, collated and presented a case today with the level of rigour and passion as Engels did 170 years ago. If anyone might, my bet would be on Owen Jones.

Returning to the book in question, what might we say by means of conclusion? It is indicative of a sorry state of affairs that it had to be written, but necessary it was. Engels insists on viewing everything through the lens which separates all people into bourgeois and proletariat, which, as I commented on in my review of The Communist Manifesto, is not always a reasonable way of viewing the world. But to critique that aspect should not distract us from the heart of the book, which is well-researched, well-reasoned and passionately argued. At the time it was written, it was seen as an invective against the ruling classes. Now, it serves as an illuminating window into our past. We ought to put all resources we can into ensuring that we never slip back and allow the poorest in society to be subject to such conditions, though I fear that if we open our eyes to countries currently going through their own industrial revolutions, then the echoes may be all too clear.

*Note that I was requested by a conservative blogger (soon to be an ex-blogger) on Twitter to not use the word evil, whereupon I replied that to not use it would not be honest. Having no reasonable argument to use, given the weight of evidence against them, their petulant response was to unfollow me!

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2 responses to “Book Review: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Friedrich Engels

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