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The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – August 3, 2009
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About the Author
David McLellan is a leading scholar of Marx and Marxism, and the editor of Marxism: Essential Writings (#10.95) and Selected Writings (#14.95).
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Instead of seeing “In England’s Green and Pleasant Land,” Engels would be “Among these dark Satanic mills” to use two of the lines from William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient times.” Engels is forthright in what he wanted to achieve, and that was more than a mere “abstract” knowledge of working class conditions. To accomplish this: “I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port wine and the champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working Men.”
Engels starts at the beginning, about how those dark satanic mills came to be. It was in 1764 that James Hargreaves invented the Jenny, for spinning yarn with more than one spool. In 1771, 5 million tons of cotton were imported into England, by 1840, the tonnage had increased 100-fold. A labo(u)r saving device, for sure. But it did not work out that way. Grinding, mindless, crushing labo(u)r only increased. And the wealth derived from all that work was co-opted by the few. The Industrial Revolution, as it was labeled, spanned far more than textiles, and included steel, railroads and significant changes in agriculture. The invention of the steam engine, by Watts, was also critical in the tremendous shift in societal and economic relationships.
I’ve marked virtually every page of this work, highlighting some of Engels observations. Consider: “The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to the utmost extreme.” “… the Bishop of London called attention to this most poverty-stricken parish, people at the West End knew as little of it as of the savages of Australia or the South-Sea Islands.” The rhetoric can be scathing: “Care has been taken to give the brutal profit-greed of the bourgeois a hypocritical, civilized form, to restrain the manufacturers through the arm of the law from too conspicuous villainies, and thus to give them a pretext for self-complacency parading their sham philanthropy.”
In painful, painful detail, he describes the hovels that the workers lived in, their poor diet, the terrible health-effects on their lives. This work could be read simply as a work on public health. The various diseases, in particular, tuberculosis, and the physical deformities caused by working such long hours in difficult postures. In Sheffield, they ground metal blades, and those worker’s life expectancy was a full decade less than other workers, due to the inhalation of metal particles. Sanitation facilities were often simply non-existent. Engels provides plenty of statistics… perhaps too many for a reader almost two centuries removed, but the “proportionality” of some, sear today. Sexual harassment is topical; Engels says of the power of factory owners over female workers: “The threat of discharge suffices to overcome all resistance in nine cases out of ten, if not ninety-nine out of a hundred…” Immigration is also topical; Engels concludes that Irish immigration was permitted in order to lower the wages of the English working-class. Hum. A familiar ring, on both counts. He also covers the inadequacy, and often uselessness of grossly deficient educational systems. Hum. Redux.
Though most of his analysis is of the textile industry in Manchester, he devotes sections to the mining industry (horrendous!) and the transformation of the agricultural section into one of day-laborers. There are also chapters on the labor movements of the time, particularly The Chartists, and the various rebellions and strikes. Another chapter is on the bourgeois attitude towards the workers, that seem to be ripped from the current actions in Albuquerque to outlaw street beggars. Engels re-prints a letter from “The Manchester Guardian” from a “Lady” complaining about the hassles of dealing with street beggars. Oh… the hardships.
In two years, early in his youth, Engels obtained an understanding of the essential societal power relations and managed to articulate that understanding in a remarkable and lucid manner. He provided a reasonable definition for “murder,” and indicted the entire ruling class for how it was killing the working class. He predicted revolution, probably no later than 1852… one that never came. In the preface to his English editions, one for America, one for England, that were written four decades later, he never addressed why the revolution did not come. For that, and too many stats that I had to skip over, I cannot give it the full 6-star rating, but it should be considered an essential 5-star, plus, analysis, that remains all-too-relevant today… but who amongst us would predict a revolution in 2026?