Friedrich Engels’ classic work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, was written in 1844 when Engels was only twenty-four years old. As the son of a German industrialist who maintained operations in England, Engels was able to gain first-hand knowledge of the horrible social conditions of the early Industrial Revolution. This early work by Engels provides the reader with a riveting set of observations. The influence of nineteenth-century thought on Engels' writing showed the grim realities of what it meant to be a working-class person in the mid-nineteenth century. Life during this time is sharply depicted. It was because of these observations that Engels became a committed communist and revolutionary. The combined factors of the horrid conditions imposed upon the working class, and the indifference of the wealthy and powerful to their suffering, led Engels to the conclusion that only revolutionary action would influence global societal standards to the establishment of a more equitable social system.
The picture Engels paints of working-class life is bleak. Workers normally labor for twelve hours a day. The factories where they work do not have proper ventilation, and working people are extremely susceptible to a wide variety of diseases. They are treated with harsh discipline while in the factories, and the formation of unions or going on strike is illegal. The labor conditions imposed on workers are also very dangerous. Workers who have become disabled, or maimed in industrial accidents, are a common sight in the cities where the working class is concentrated. The life expectancy of workers is rather low, and a worker is typically no longer able to perform labor after age forty. Women and even small children are also exploited by the “bourgeoisie” in the factories and mines. Often, the women and children will have to work when the father in a family is so physically decrepit that he can no longer support his family.
Engels describes how the condition of the working class actually deteriorated after the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Even peasants working on rural plantations often had more freedom, dignity, and better working conditions that these early industrial workers. Engels’ horror at the conditions of the working class is clearly intensified by the casual indifference of the British elite to their plight. He describes how the rise of bourgeois commercial society has degraded relationships between human beings. Society now revolves around the simple act of making money, and these commercial values are destroying any sense of community or solidarity among human beings. Engels complains that even the quality of architecture and other expressions of cultural life have been diminished by the growth of early capitalist society. He regards every aspect of human society as being undermined by the new values of profit and money-making.
Engels is outraged that members of the wealthy class, who have profited immensely from these horrible conditions, claim exemption from criticism for having simply donated to charity or established poor houses. He considers the English bourgeoisie to be extraordinarily arrogant, and willing to inflict any conceivable harm on the workers, the poor, and society as a whole in exchange for the slightest economic advantage. He notes that any effort by the workers to have their grievances heard is immediately dismissed by the employer class. When the workers try to organize in their own defense, they are met with state repression.
Engels believes this situation will eventually erupt into a full-blown revolution. As the workers increase in number and their needs continue to go unmet, there will eventually be an uprising by the working class, or “proletariat.” Engels states: “The war of the poor against the rich will be the bloodiest ever waged.” (Engels, 1844) He sees no hope for peacefully resolving this class conflict and predicts, “The classes are divided more and more sharply, the spirit of resistance penetrates the workers, the bitterness intensifies, the guerrilla skirmishes become concentrated in more important battles, and soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion.” (Engels, 1844). This was a very prescient observation on the part of Engels. The labor uprisings that would develop over the course of the rest of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century, were indeed rather bloody and violent. Further, the revolutions led by Communists that occurred after Engels’ lifetime very often produced great bloodshed and violent purges. When viewed from the perspective of historical hindsight, Engels’ book foretold much about the future to come.
Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. 1845. Moscow: Institute of Marxism-Leninism, 1969. Print.