The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844
It is 150 years since Friedrich Engels wrote his classic The Condition of the Working Class in 1844. He described in graphic detail the wretched lives that workers were forced to lead at that time, and he looked forward to the early ending of the capitalist system and its replacement by socialism. His hopes have not been realised, and today we may ask two questions: (1) in what ways and to what extent have the conditions of the working class changed since he wrote? And (2) is the call to abolish the capitalist system and replace it by socialism as valid today as it was then?
In 1844 the Industrial Revolution was approaching its zenith. Engels vividly documents the sordid conditions in the working class districts of the great towns; the effect of competition (“the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society”); the immigrant Irish workers willing to take even lower wages than the impoverished English working class; the poor health and short lives that were the rule, and the drunkenness and depravity that were common; the factory hands exploited long hours in filthy and often dangerous conditions, by day and night, women and children as well as men.
There is no doubt that working and living conditions in Britain have vastly improved for the working class in the last 150 years. Workplaces are cleaner and safer, hours of work are generally shorter, homes better constructed and furnished, health improved and longevity extended. Yet in some ways the situation has not changed that much. This is what Engels wrote about London:
“The turmoil of the streets have something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels . . . 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, within a limited space . . . the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot, and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains.”
Today most workers have more than a bare existence, but the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. We are encouraged by the system to pursue our private interest and this does lead to isolation and brutal indifference, mitigated only by the collective efforts to resist the inequalities and the injustices.
The stern realities of capitalist employment are the same now as then. We work if an employer can see a profit in employing us, otherwise we don’t. The current version of the system is more than hitherto. Relatively high paid managers do the dirty work of the capitalist class by hiring and firing workers, organising their exploitation and breaking their strikes. Such is the anarchy of the system that managers are sometimes called on to fire other managers.
On the second question of whether the call to socialism is as relevant today as in Engel’s time there can be little doubt. Defenders of capitalism point to the improvement in the material conditions of life for the mass of people over the last century or so. Certainly most workers are better housed, better fed and better clothed than they were. How much this is due to the beneficence of the ruling class and how much to their opportunities to extract profits from getting workers to improve their own conditions is another matter.
But working-class life is still far from ideal, still far from the life that is possible if production for profit were replaced by production solely to meet needs. More purchasing power entails poverty of another kind, that of economic insecurity, of worry about losing the job on which “prosperity” depends. And we must not forget that, even if the material conditions of working class have improved in the economically “advanced” countries, many workers and their families in the Third World still suffer deprivations comparable to, if not worse than, those described by Engels.
In 1844 there might have been some excuse for not demanding an immediate end to the system that produced poverty for the mass and riches for the few: the wealth produced by workers was far less abundant. Today there is no such excuse. We have the means – the knowledge, the accumulated capital, the technology and the willing workers – to meet all the reasonable needs of all the world’s population. What stands in the way is the support given to the profit system.
Engels understood well the nature of socialism, even though he was over-optimistic about when it would come. He wrote of “the moment when the workers resolve to be bought and sold no longer” and of “the abolition of the class antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat”. The language may be archaic but the thinking was and is sound. Socialism is not out of date. It is more needed and more practically possible than ever.