Before I go on, I would just like to make a few comments about the earlier write-up provided here by Elanthius. While it certainly makes a number of valid points (he/she is spot on about the inaccuracy of Engel’s predictions, for example), some of the statements cannot go unaddressed. Engel’s grasp of social history was a few notches above, to borrow a phrase, “pants”, and as I shall go on to argue, I take him to be a thinker of great importance. As for: “This wasn't the first Socialist book but it was sort of the first really big one”, I could provide you with a list of key socialists texts written before Engel’s was even born. You may wish to refer to the work of Robert Owen or Charles Fourier for examples. That aside, please don‘t let my or any other remarks put you off reading this book.
Friedrich Engels can be considered perhaps amongst the unluckiest men in sociological history. It is true that his far more esteemed and influential friend, Mr Karl Marx, possessed a natural talent for rhetoric and the formation of ideas that left not only Engels, but the majority of social thinkers of this or any age, standing. It is telling that within the opening two sentences of this review, I feel compelled to draw comparisons between the two men. We have for so long been given the impression that Engels was, to all intents and purposes, a tenacious barnacle attached to the underbelly of Marx’s mighty hull. Yet, in Conditions Of The Working Class, a very different picture emerges. Engels, still a young man at the age of twenty four, was not yet closely connected with Marx, and yet expresses many of the ideas that would be common to both their bodies of work. What seems surprising on coming to this work is that the difference between them seems to be more in style than in substance. What Engels lacks is Marx’s extraordinary talent for sloganeering, the singular power of assertion that made his argument so utterly irrefutable. In terms of historical and social insight, however, Engels can be equally valid, perhaps even more specific in his analysis.
In terms of his methodology, Engels is at times exhaustively rigorous, and at others bewilderingly vague. His diagrams of Mancunian street plans seem to show the hallmarks of painstaking research. With the benefits of modern communications technology, and the abundance of books available to us on every topic, the acquisition and use of statistical data might seem commonplace to us. However, Engels lived in an age when facts and figures had not yet become common currency, particularly to one living in Manchester. In spite of this, when not grounded in provable fact, Engels seems to simply apply his imagination to painting a portrait of working class Britain. He assumes the feminisation of the factory workforce will lead inevitably to promiscuity and moral degradation. This may indeed be true, but such an assertion underlines two fundamental aspects of Engels character. Firstly, he is a fundamentally conservative man with regards to personal liberty and character. He might reject religion as a means of controlling behaviour, and yet he sees one of civilisation’s most important functions as to control the baser instincts of its citizens. Secondly, he can at times make assumptions about behaviour. Like Marx, whose dialectic was supposedly based on the natural course of human nature, he ascribes the different classes properties and traits which can be applied broadly, and which will be carried out mechanistically.
So what unique insights into the life of the working class does Engels offer to us? With the benefit of hindsight, some of his discoveries can seem perhaps a touch obvious to the modern reader. His chapter on “Competition” is, because of all we have learnt between now and then, largely redundant. His concept of “All against all” in modern society now appears to be a simply self-evident, even celebrated fact. We are now blessed with the less elegant, yet perhaps more illustrative allusion: “A dog eat dog world”. Engels, on the other hand, was writing at a time when such a society was still largely in its infancy. Capitalism had of course existed before this point, but it still had several stages of evolution to pass through before metamorphosing into the economic model we are so familiar with today. What he was witnessing was the birth of a new form of society, one in which the constrictive boundaries of past societal forms were being cast aside in favour of free enterprise and opportunity. A libertarian would argue that such a society must automatically make its people by nature more free. The growth of egalitarian thought during the 18th century, particularly in both America and France, seem to promise that the collapse of feudalism and class was upon us, and that tyranny and monarchy were not far behind. To Engels, this was hypocrisy. He argued that such a society would liberate a few, via the generation of wealth, and these would be the very people who would talk loudly of “equality” and “all men being created equal”. One is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s incisive enquiry: “Why is it that the strongest calls for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?”. Engels notes the way in which other social groups have been harmed by the industrial revolution. He links urbanisation to rises in prostitution and infant mortality, as well as diminishing the female role in the family. Immigrants, too, he claims have suffered as result of the change. The exponential growth of ghetto’s that he perceived in many major cities seemed to suggest that foreigners were simply a cheap source of labour, not worthy of integration into society.
He occasionally gives himself a way as a man born into the very class he chooses to criticise. He certainly seems eager to help the poor, and wishes them well, but does not appear to trust them to handle their own affairs. Indeed, he rather gives the impression of disliking the working class, at least at a personal level. While he does speak of the oppressed masses becoming the “imagination of society”, he seems to imply a need for ideologues such as himself, to instruct the masses on how to achieve these. It is his preference to preach to the people, “Working men!” At times, he can be painfully patronising. He idealises the pre-industrial worker, “leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity”. How does he hope to support this view? Does he deny that for many in Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution, life was one of brutal serfdom? When considering agricultural workers, his ideas are based on a tiny cross section of fairly comfortable, land owning farmers. These do not correlate to the class he discusses as the “working class in Britain”. To compare the lifestyles of one class in one period, to another class in a latter one is essentially a fallacy. The conditions he talks about would apply to those far poorer than the rural folk he examines in the early stages of his thesis.
He is right to point out the squalor and disease of the new centres of production, but what of the advantages they could provide society? On this count, we might consider Engels to be a little short sighted. It is undoubtedly true that the primary motivation for development was the greed of bourgeoisie, and the desire to make themselves yet richer. Yet, over the long term, it would produce many innovations to improve standards of living for all but the very poorest. A factory might not be a dignified place to work, it conditions might be dangerous and pay may be low, but if that factory is capable of producing affordable medicines for thousands of people, is not the net result a positive one? Engels is right to assert that the growth in efficiency was of great benefit to the wealthy, and the state, in providing resources to reinforce their power and status. Ultimately, however, he would have to concede that (putting the issue of pollution aside for a moment) mass production improved the lives of the majority in the western world over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
That said, Engels is no Luddite technophobe. Indeed, he perceived technology as a potential method of empowering the masses. What he truly opposed was the ownership of such innovations by the bourgeoisie. Indeed, it would be some time before the workers could even hope to “control the means of production”. The limiting factor in his hopes for a revolution in the Britain of the time was that of the British working class themselves. Largely unskilled for the modern age, and almost universally uneducated, the specialised knowledge required for actual running of the industrial revolution still lay in the hands of the tycoons and technocrats. Engels seems to acknowledge that a revolution at the time could not be economic or cultural, it could have no subtlety. An author, no matter how skilled, could not hope to mobilise an illiterate class. If and when (and Engels felt no doubt as to “if”) the revolution came, it would surely be a bloody uprising, reflecting more an ugly minded discontentment than any unification of class ideology.
In assessing Engels achievement in the writing of this book, we must return to the idea with which we began: if all that has gone afterwards has served to diminish its apparent importance to us, then at the very least we can marvel at a twenty four year old mind capable of producing such a deft piece of social document. Much more than this, it establishes Friedrich Engels as one of the most overlooked thinkers of his time.