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The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – August 3, 2009
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"This is a very nicely-produced edition at a price practical for course use. David McClellan's introduction is clear and useful."--J. Boyden, Tulane University
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Ironically, Engels wrote his book while working at his father's Manchester cotton mills from 1842 to 1844. Textile manufacturing, especially cotton, was then the backbone of Great Britain's industrial might. Engels, on occasion, actually worked side by side with those who labored in the cotton mills, and he visited them in their homes and wherever else they might gather, including churches, taverns, and rooming houses. While conditions were a bit worse among workers in agriculture and especially mining, the circumstance of those who worked in factories, such as those owned by Engels' wealthy bourgeois father, were unthinkably deplorable. For readers who have had their world view shaken by Katherine Boo's account of slum life in Mumbai, it may seem impossible that conditions were far worse among English laborers in 1844, but according to Engels' account, that was certainly the case. Slum life in Mumbai is relatively comfortable when compared with Manchester and other English cities and towns in 1844.
Working sixteen hours a day and not infrequently even longer was commonplace for English laborers, with the meager compensation they received in exchange for their efforts varying with periodically changing economic conditions. Work places were hazardous, often lethally so, both with regard to the frequency of serious accidents and the closeted, polluted, and otherwise foul air breathed in unventilated buildings. In addition, discipline enforced by overseers hired for their uncompromising brutality, was harsh and arbitrary. Child labor, some as young as four or five, was commonplace, and women were subjected to the same destructive industrial regime as men. The work itself was typically tedious and repetitive, reducing men, women, and children to the status and condition of simple machines, until a machine was invented to do the same work even more cheaply. Then the workers were displaced, and thrown into the streets. As a result, starvation was not uncommon.
All this is easy to report, though it's difficult to do so without sounding a bit histrionic. However, even more frightening and deplorable was the actual condition of the people who survived this way of working and the meager nutrition and barely livable places of habitation it provided. Engels describes them as stunted in growth, with narrow chests, underdeveloped physiques, gray skin, and deformities of the arms and legs whose particular nature was determined by the unnatural bodily positions and movements required by the tasks to which they were tied. Engels' descriptions are frightfully vivid and endorsed by physicians and disinterested others, but most unexpected and compelling are the intellectual costs of wage labor.
Most of us in any society have a common stock of knowledge, things we unself-consciously know, without giving it a moment's thought, and we assume that others know as well. In this regard, however, English laborers were stunningly deficient. Many knew little or nothing of the world outside the demands of the workplace, their grotesquely deficient homes, and perhaps a roadhouse where they purchased spirits. Many if the younger ones, teens as well as those we today might call tots, didn't know that there was any other way of life. Ask them if they're tired or hungry, and the blank stares elicited by the query bespoke lack of understanding. The Hell of the workplace and the damp, dirt-floored, unheated, unfurnished, unventilated discomfort of their homes was all they knew or could imagine. And as noted above, miners and agricultural workers were worse off still. Life was lived according to a Malthusian prescription: short, nasty, and diseased. Just when it seemed that the natural price of labor could be no lower, an economic crisis would occur, and wages, unemployment rates, and the abysmally inhuman circumstances of the working class would deteriorate still further. Nevertheless, enough survived and enough reproduced to keep laborers on the job, with members of the ominously threatening surplus labor pool waiting to take their places.
Engels was convinced that circumstances such as these could not prevail indefinitely. Come the next economic crisis, or the one after that, and the more intelligent and worldly workers would lead the others in a violent revolution.
In time, however, world political and economic relationships changed, the self-interested bourgeoisie may have recognized that its interests were best served by workers whose prospects included more than a short and miserable life, and government intervention became more effective. What followed was still remotely distant from a workers' paradise, but there was no violent revolution in England. First published in German, in the Preface to the English edition (1885) of The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engel's refers the reader to Marx's Capital for a thorough account of these developments.
The Condition of the Working Class in England is not an unreliable, ideologically driven, Marxist polemic. It is a very well written piece of scholarship replete with documentation and reports of first-hand observations made by professionals and men of means who had no stake in contributing to a politicized fictional account of life among wage laborers. It is to Engels' credit that the book, while fairly long, is not redundant, citing the same outrages and abuses again and again. Engels keeps it interesting, enabling the reader to see the consequences of the economic savagery of the ostensibly civilized bourgeoisie. Engels acknowledges, moreover, that in a competitive capitalist economic environment, a war of all against all, survival as a bourgeois demanded unmitigated ruthlessness, whatever the consequences for the working class. The alternative was to eventually sink into the working class one's self.
As for the natural price of labor, I can't express its value in monetary terms, but it's certainly lower than I had ever imagined. In a world where those who don't die in infancy are old at thirty and dead at forty, and in the interim they are commodities unmercifully exploited by the bourgeoisie, the concept of the natural price of labor seems antiquated, misleading, and beside the point, which may explain why Engels didn't use it in this book. Perhaps those born dead were the lucky ones.