Chapter 8. Engels

  • Friedrich Engels and “The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844”
  • Engels gave Marx diametrically opposed information 
  • Error in the “sob story”
  • Engels’ Intention and Tactic
  • Contemporary Criticism by German Academics

We do have to explain a contradiction. In this investigation, we have seen that a large part of the factory population had a decent life, with earnings of 20 to 30 shillings per family, enough bread and meat, reasonable housing, and without bad treatment in their workplace. A minority were treated very badly, either by their employers or by the economic and social system.

But Friedrich Engels paints a different picture, absolutely bad:

“Such are the various working-people’s quarters of Manchester as I had occasion to observe them personally during twenty months.  If we briefly formulate the result of our wanderings, we must admit that 350,000 working-people of Manchester and its environs live, almost all of them, in wretched, damp, filthy cottages, that the streets which surround them are usually in the most miserable and filthy condition, laid out without the slightest reference to ventilation, with reference solely to the profit secured by the contractor.  In a word, we must confess that in the working-men’s dwellings of Manchester, no cleanliness, no convenience, and consequently no comfortable family life is possible; that in such dwellings only a physically degenerate race, robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically to bestiality, could feel comfortable and at home.” 

(Engels, 1845, The Great Towns, p. 63)

            The explanation for the difference is:

  1. the majority of people had an average or good life;
  2. a minority of the people had a very bad life;
  3. the individual cases presented by Engels, as to the horrible circumstances of the poor, are practically all true;
  4. Engels carefully selected the information for his book, to give a uniformly negative impression.

Engels gave Marx diametrically opposed information 

First we show that Engels did know that the working class with employment ate well, ……… :

“From Lancashire, December 20. 

The condition of the working class in England is becoming daily more precarious. At the moment, true, it does not seem to be so bad; most people in the textile districts have work; for every 10 workers in Manchester there is perhaps only one unemployed (*), the proportion is probably the same in Bolton and Birmingham, and when the English worker is employed he is satisfied. And he can well be satisfied, at any rate the textile worker, if he compares his lot with the fate of his comrades in Germany and France. The worker there earns just enough to allow him to live on bread and potatoes; he is lucky if he can buy meat once a week. Here he eats beef every day and gets a more nourishing joint for his money than the richest man in Germany. He drinks tea twice a day and still has enough money left over to be able to drink a glass of porter at midday and brandy and water in the evening. This is how most of the Manchester workers live who work a twelve-hour day.”

(Engels, Friederich (signed as “X”); The Condition of the Working Class in England; Written December 20, 1842, Published in the “Rheinische Zeitung”, No. 359, December 25, 1842; Marx and Engels Collected Works, digital edition Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, Volume 2, p. 378)

(*) But in the “Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844”, he says: “when I came to Manchester at the end of November 1842, there were everywhere crowds of unemployed working-men at the street corners, and many mills were standing idle.” 

(German edition of 1845, pp. 113-114)

…… had good incomes, ….. :

“…. But the colonies are far from being large enough to consume all the products of England’s immense industry, while everywhere else English industry is being increasingly ousted by the German and French. The blame for this, of course, does not lie with English industry, but with the system of protective tariffs, which has made the prices of all prime necessities, and with them wages, disproportionately high. But these wages also make the prices of English products extremely high compared with those of continental industry. Thus, England cannot escape the necessity of restricting her industry.

(Engels, Friederich (signed as “X”), The Internal Crises, Written November 30, 1842; Published in the “Rheinische Zeitung”, No. 344, December 10, 1842; Marx and Engels Collected Works, digital edition Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, Volume 2, p. 370)

…… were well informed about politics, and used their free time well ….. :

“While the Church of England lived in luxury, the Socialists did an incredible amount to educate the working classes in England. At first one cannot get over one’s surprise on hearing in the Hall of Science the most ordinary workers speaking with a clear understanding on political, religious and social affairs; but when one comes across the remarkable popular pamphlets and hears the lecturers of the Socialists, for example Watts in Manchester, one ceases to be surprised. The workers now have good, cheap editions of translations of the French philosophical works of the last century, chiefly Rousseau’s Contrat social, the Système de la Nature and various works by Voltaire, and in addition the exposition of communist principles in penny and twopenny pamphlets and in the journals. The workers also have in their hands cheap editions of the writings of Thomas Paine and Shelley. Furthermore, there are also the Sunday lectures, which are very diligently attended; thus during my stay in Manchester I saw the Communist Hall [“Manchester Hall of Science”], which holds about 3,000 people, crowded every Sunday, and I heard there speeches which have a direct effect, which are made from the special viewpoint of the people, and in which witty remarks against the clergy occur. It happens frequently that Christianity is directly attacked and Christians are called “our enemies”.

In their form, these meetings partly resemble church gatherings; in the gallery a choir accompanied by an orchestra sings social hymns; these consist of semi-religious or wholly religious melodies with communist words, during which the audience stands. Then, quite nonchalantly, without removing his hat, a lecturer comes on to the platform, on which there is a table and chairs; after raising his hat by way of greeting those present, he takes off his overcoat and then sits down and delivers his address, which usually gives much occasion for laughter, for in these speeches the English intellect expresses itself in superabundant humour. In one corner of the hall is a stall where books and pamphlets are sold and in another a booth with oranges and refreshments, where everyone can obtain what he needs or to which he can withdraw if the speech bores him. From time to time tea-parties are arranged on Sunday evenings at which people of both sexes, of all ages and classes, sit together and partake of the usual supper of tea and sandwiches; on working days dances and concerts are often held in the hall, where people have a very jolly time; the hall also has a café.”

(Engels, Friederich, Letters from London, Schweizerischer Republikaner No. 46, June 9, 1843, Letter III; Marx and Engels Collected Works, digital edition Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, Volume 3, p. 379)

…… and, far from working very long hours, in 1843 had the working week reduced from 6 days to 5 ½ days, by a voluntary decision of the manufacturers and shop owners in Manchester.       

Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday, November 4th, 1843;; British Newspaper Archive

This occurred while Engels was working in Manchester, in the sales area of a cotton mill.

A large part of the pessimistic descriptions of the workers’ living conditions in Manchester is taken over from the short book “The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester” (1832) by Dr. Francis Kay. The booklet also gives detailed quantitative data as to the sanitation problems in each Police District. This would seem to give evidential bases for Engels’ statement about the 350,000 people in Greater Manchester living in horrible conditions. But Dr. Kay’s book does not refer to the totality of the conurbation (354,000 persons in the 1841 Census), but only to the Old Township (163,000). The suburbs had a more normal standard of living:  

(Taken from the Prologue of Dr. Kay’s booklet)

Obviously, Engels knew that Dr. Kay’s booklet referred only to the Old Township (it gives data only for the 14 Police Districts). He had no excuse, as he lived in Manchester for nearly two years. 

But, further, the movement to the suburbs had accelerated from 1832 to 1842 at least:

“The great disparity of increase of the three districts under notice [Manchester, Salford, Chorlton] is to be attributed to the centre of Manchester becoming, from year to year, less occupied as family dwellings; for, though its multitude of compact buildings are like a bee-hive by day, yet they are household residences of a very few; the great body of occupiers living in the outskirts, or in the more airy parts of other unions. The comparatively diminished rate of increase in Manchester may, in some degree, be affected by the working classes themselves gradually forsaking their cellar and other confined buildings for the more clean and airy cottages, which have of late years been so numerously built out of the township, as in Chorlton and Hulme. The greater increase in the other two unions are to be accounted for on converse circumstances, – from the inhabitants forsaking the interior of the town, and living in the outskirts; either from views of health, economy, or being displaced from their town dwellings by the extension of warehouses and manufacturing establishments.”

(Love, 1842, pp. 24-25) 

[Actually, the descriptions of Dr. Kay as to the filthy habits of the workers were exaggerated, as they referred principally to the Irish:

            “Have you seen the work of Dr. Kay on the statistics of Manchester, as to the state of the operatives of that town?” “Yes, I know Dr. Kay, and I believe what he says is correct; but he gives the matter as it now stands, knowing nothing of former times; his picture is a very deplorable one. I am assured that my view of it is correct by many Manchester operatives whom I have seen; they inform me that his narration relates almost wholly to the state of the Irish, but that the condition of a vast number of the people was nearly as bad some years ago, as he describes the worst portion of them to be now. Any writer or inquirer will be misled unless he has the means of comparing the present with former times.”

(Mr. Francis Place, political and educational reformer, Evidence to the Select Committee on Education in England and Wales, 1835, p. 72)]

The municipal authorities in Manchester made a large number of improvements in the sanitary condition of the city between 1830 and 1840. They were congratulated in writing by the rapporteur of the “Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Population”, who wrote that they had done more than any other local authority in England.

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Population, 1840, 17. Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, Comment by Charles Mott, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, p. 243)

We further know that Engels was perfectly informed about the levels of wages in England and abroad, because he quotes, with approval, a book by a Mr. Symonds, Arts and Artisans at Home and Abroad: with Sketches of the Progress of Foreign Manufacturers, whose first six pages give a large list of typical earnings for each industry and job description in England. Engels only quotes monetary figures of earnings in three positions in his text, and never compares earnings with a budget of expenses (food, rent, clothing).

Engels wrote a number of articles in the socialist magazine “Vorwärts!” in 1843 and 1844, about “The Condition of England”(“Die Lage Englands”). He writes over four pages on the wonderful effects of the new inventions on new industries, and the size of these industries. He does not mention any mistreatment of the workers, either by the business owners, or by the economic system. He does however say that the main effect of these improvements is to decrease the price of all the products, and thus make them available to a larger number of people:            

“The effects of the original industrial impulse are infinite. The movements of one branch of industry affect all the others. The newly created forces require sustenance, as we have just seen; the newly created working population has new living conditions and new necessities. The mechanical advantages of manufacture reduce the price of the article, and thus make the living necessities and – as a result – the cost of labour, cheaper; all other products can be sold cheaper and thus reach an expanded market, in function of this cheapness. Given the example of the advantageously used mechanical instruments, this is gradually copied in all industry branches, the progression of civilisation, which is the unfailing effect of all industrial improvements, creates new requirements, new industry branches, and thereby new improvements.”   

(Friedrich Engels, Die Lage Englands, “Vorwärts!”, no. 73 of 11th September 1844,, p. 563)

(Translation by this author)

Error in the “sob story”

Next we have to examine the well-known “sob story”, about a worker who – due to the changes in the textile factories – is unable to find a job, and whose wife has to work 12 hours a day in the cotton mill.

«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.  It is easy to imagine the wrath aroused among the working-men by this reversal of all relations within the family, while the other social conditions remain unchanged. There lies before me a letter from an English working-man, Robert Pounder, Baron’s Buildings, Woodhouse, Moorside, in Leeds (the bourgeoisie may hunt him up there; I give the exact address for the purpose), written by him to Oastler: 

He relates how another working-man, being on tramp, came to St. Helens, in Lancashire, and there looked up an old friend.  He found him in a miserable, damp cellar, scarcely furnished; and when my poor friend went in, there sat poor Jack near the fire, and what did he, think you? why he sat and mended his wife’s stockings with the bodkin; and as soon as he saw his old friend at the door-post, he tried to hide them.  But Joe, that is my friend’s name, had seen it, and said: “Jack, what the devil art thou doing?  Where is the missus?  Why, is that thy work?” and poor Jack was ashamed, and said: “No, I know this is not my work, but my poor missus is i’ th’ factory; she has to leave at half-past five and works till eight at night, and then she is so knocked up that she cannot do aught when she gets home, so I have to do everything for her what I can, for I have no work, nor had any for more nor three years, and I shall never have any more work while I live;” and then he wept a big tear.  Jack again said: “There is work enough for women folks and childer hereabouts, but none for men; thou mayest sooner find a hundred pound on the road than work for men – but I should never have believed that either thou or any one else would have seen me mending my wife’s stockings, for, it is bad work.  But she can hardly stand on her feet; I am afraid she will be laid up, and then I don’t know what is to become of us, for it’s a good bit that she has been the man in the house and I the woman; it is bad work, Joe;” and he cried bitterly, and said, “It has not been always so.” “No,” said Joe; “but when thou hadn’t no work, how hast thou not shifted?”  “I’ll tell thee, Joe, as well as I can, but it was bad enough; thou knowest when I got married I had work plenty, and thou knows I was not lazy.” “No, that thou wert not.”  “And we had a good furnished house, and Mary need not go to work.  I could work for the two of us; but now the world is upside down.  Mary has to work and I have to stop at home, mind the childer, sweep and wash, bake and mend; and, when the poor woman comes home at night, she is knocked up.  Thou knows, Joe, it’s hard for one that was used different.”  “Yes, boy, it is hard.”  And then Jack began to cry again, and he wished he had never married, and that he had never been born; but he had never thought, when he wed Mary, that it would come to this.  “I have often cried over it,” said Jack.  Now when Joe heard this, he told me that he had cursed and damned the factories, and the masters, and the Government, with all the curses that he had learned while he was in the factory from a child.»

(Engels, 1845, pp. 144-146, English translation in E. P. Thompson)

The problem with this story is that St. Helen’s did not have any cotton mills at that date; there had been one from 1810, but it was closed before 1830. Thus the wife in this story could not have been working in a cotton mill. St. Helens did have coal mining, plate glass making, salt mining, copper smelting, chemicals, and brewing. There would have been sufficient possibilities of work for the man. It is not clear why Engels made this mistake.  

Engels’ Intention and Tactic

What was Engels’ aim in writing the book? To send a “message” to the German industrialists and bourgeoisie:

“I am up to my eyebrows in English newspapers and books upon which I am drawing for my book on the condition of the English proletarians. I expect to finish it by the middle or the end of January, having got through the arrangement of the material, the most arduous part of the work, about a week or a fortnight ago. I shall be presenting the English with a fine bill of indictment [in the German text: “Sündenregister”]; I accuse the English bourgeoisie before the entire world of murder, robbery and other crimes on a massive scale, and I am writing an English preface which I shall have printed separately and sent to English party leaders, men of letters and members of Parliament. That’ll give those fellows something to remember me by. It need hardly be said that my blows, though aimed at the panniers, are meant for the donkey, namely the German bourgeoisie, to whom I make it plain enough that they are as bad as their English counterparts, except that their sweat-shop methods are not as bold, thorough and ingenious.”

(Engels, Letters to Marx, 19 November 1844; Marx and Engels Collected Works, digital edition Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, Volume 27, p. 10;

German text:; p. 10)

The important word is “Sündenregister”, which is literally a “list of sins committed”. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the Devil was watching you, and that every time that you committed a sin, he would write it down. Today, the central data bank of driving offenses in Germany, situated in Flensburg, is generally known as the “Sündenregister”. 

But the fact that you commit some sins does not mean that you are an evil person; the fact that you pass the traffic lights twice does not mean that you deliberately drive without care. Equally the fact that in Manchester in 1844, a considerable number of persons were hungry, lived in horrible conditions, and had very low incomes, does not mean that “…. 350,000 working-people of Manchester and its environs live, almost all of them, in wretched, damp, filthy cottages, that the streets which surround them are usually in the most miserable and filthy condition.”  

So what is the procedure behind this method of presenting the facts? Engels is not “playing fair”. He is not being “objective”. He wants to win the argument. This is called by Marx, “Critique by street-fighting” (“Kritik im Handgemenge”).

“The Critique, which addresses this content, is the Critique by street-fighting and in street-fighting the issue is not, whether the opponent is a noble, a worthy, or an interesting opponent, rather the idea is to land the blow on him.” 

(Translation by this author)

(Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, hrsg. von Arnold Ruge und Karl Marx. Paris 1844; Zur Kritik der Hegel’schen Rechts-Philosophie, Karl Marx, p. 74)

Another strange point is that Engels never translated his book to English. There was a German-language edition in Germany in 1845, and a reprint in 1848. The book was translated to English by an American socialist woman in 1885 (Engels asked to see the translation before it was published), and printed in America in 1887, and in the United Kingdom in 1891. He lived for 40 years in England, but did not translate and publish the book. In his first years, he could have used the money! This means that from 1845 no one in Germany could criticize the content, unless they had been to England, and until 1887 no one in England could criticize it, unless they could read German, and had bought the book in Germany. 

Contemporary Criticism by German Academics

But we do have two cases of German persons who visited Manchester at that time, and were not in agreement with the general tendency of Engels’ book. According to the definitive German biography of Engels, by Gustav Mayer in 1920, two liberal economists went to England to see how the workers lived.

“….. Victor Aimé Huber, who visited the English textile districts in 1844, and Bruno Hildebrand who in 1846 took notes of their appearance. ….. They accepted that Engels’ presentation “in total” was in agreement with what they themselves had confirmed after repeated inspections and after personal acquaintance with the authentic sources about the condition of the English proletariat, but they objected, that Engels painted everything unconditionally Black and Blackest, that he wrote down the bad characteristics as sharp and shrill as possible, the better characteristics as smudgy and distorted as possible. “The individual data are true, the totality is false”, was the judgement of Hildebrand. Huber deplored that the text was written with bile, in some cases using blood and fire to give the impression of murder and arson. Hildebrand described a so one-sided description of only the dark side of the British industry and the workers’ world as just as untenable, as would be the case if statistics of human health were to be based only on observations in the hospitals.”      

(Mayer, 1920, Erster Band, Friedrich Engels in seiner Frühzeit, 1820 bis 1851, pp. 208-209) (Translation by this author)

Apparently, Engels was conscious that there was a risk, if English people were to obtain the book. He wrote in the Prologue of the German edition: “I am prepared to see not only my standpoint attacked in many quarters but also the facts I have cited, particularly when the book gets into the hands of the English.” But we do not know if he meant: “the English will attack the book, because it shows how bad their country is”, or: “the English will attack the book, because it is a falsification of the facts”.

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