Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845, Penguin edn, pp.284-287) Essay

The document chosen for analysis is a famous work from one of the most prominent political-theorists of the nineteenth-century. The Condition of the Working Class in England can be regarded as the foundation for contemporary left-wing political theory and the inspiration for later Marxist thinking that produced the subsequent works; The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. The Condition of the Working Class in England was authored during the years 1842-1844 whilst Friedrich Engels was staying at his father’s Manchester textile factory during the height of the Industrial Revolution.

During this time, the city and the rest of the country saw massive economic growth that fuelled large social and industrial change. Engels’ primary focus throughout the work is centred on the workers themselves, the conditions in which they lived and the effects that capitalism had upon the society around them. Through his observations, Engels’ can gain first-hand insight into the day-to-day lives of the working-classes and the effects the change in law had upon them. In this analysis, I wish to determine the primary motive of Friedrich Engels in writing The Condition of the Working Class in England.

It is interesting to note that this work was not published in its subject country for almost three decades after it was written and it was first published in Engels’ native Germany. England at the time was the world’s preeminent capitalist power at the height of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Was Engels intention a warning to the German people about the apparent evils of Capitalism? It would not be difficult to assume that his opposition to the New Poor Law stemmed from his anti-capitalist politics.

In foresight, it is safe to speculate what Engels believed the New Poor Law to be; an instrumental policy keeping close to the interests of the bourgeoisie who sought to teach the poor the value of industry and the virtues of an obedient working-life. The social condition of England was therefore ripe for Engels’ documentation, spurred on by the prospect of social revolution in England after reading Die europaische Triarchie by Moses Hess Engels seized the opportunity to further his political ends in England.

A brief historiography of both the Old and New Poor Law’s is appropriate in order to provide some background context to the focus of the document. The Poor Law Amendment Act was legislated in 1834 and broke the two-hundred and thirty one years covered by the Old Poor Law. Known as the New Poor Law, this act had taken a bold new direction in the relief of poverty and treatment of the poor, bringing about the first notions of ‘less eligibility’ which defined the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories .

The previous system worked by dividing paupers into settlements that would provide them with relief from the particular parish they were associated with, or at least this was how it was meant to operate. This system was inherently expensive and difficult to administer due to settlement disputes. Fraser suggests “The growth of cities themselves, increased mobility, and sudden influxes of distressed Irish all created complex problems which revolved around settlement. This indicates that the logistics involved in the day-to-day running of the Old Poor Law were made more difficult with often ambiguous changes made via statute acts. The Act of 1662 invites particular criticism due to its accretion of settlement laws already placed in previous acts. Fraser notes; “The act empowered magistrates to order the removal back to their parish of settlement of any person coming into the parish to inhabit a tenement with a yearly value of less than ?10 upon a complaint being made to a magistrate, within forty days of the person’s intrusion, by the churchwardens or overseers of the parish.

The reality of removals was often a long, complex and expensive affair that could be drawn out over a period of months or even years; the required search to find a person’s parish of settlement may have been stretched out over generations of family members, thus making removal often impractical and expensive. Another factor which facilitated the case for change was economic; the settlement system was a direct hindrance to the workings of what was essentially a free-market economy that restricted labour mobility. For a eneral idea of the increasing costs; “In 1785 the cost of poor relief was just under ?2,000,000, by 1803 it was over ?4,000,000, and by 1817 almost ?8,000,000 – almost quadrupling in little more than three decades… ” These figures help illuminate the urgent need for the restructuring of the Poor Law. Engels begins with a statement that “all relief in money and provisions was abolished; the only relief allowed was admission to the workhouses immediately built. ” This statement is largely inaccurate: its claim of the workhouse being the only source of relief is not true.

Whereas during the Old Poor Law, the poor were provided with relief via the parish/settlement system, the new system pioneered the workhouse as the main agent of poor relief. Although the workhouse was the intended system, there were other modes available and many features of the old law applied, charitable organisations still provided relief for example. The New Poor Law’s ‘decentralised’ approach granted considerable freedom to the local boards of guardians that implemented the law, meaning that the workhouse system was not the sole provider of relief in many areas.

Engels’ comment on the workhouses being designed as a deterrent “to frighten away every one” is questionable although he is correct in the suggestion that workhouses were aesthetically designed to make an impression on the poor. Through reading the document it soon becomes apparent of Engels’ tendency to make sweeping generalisations that paint often the worst picture possible. The conditions of the workhouse, according to Engels, are the result of Malthusian ingenuity, a reference to the economist Thomas Malthus, a statement that is pure assumption.

The conditions of each workhouse varied due to the flexibility afforded to the boards of guardians. Rose argues: “Workhouse conditions varied according to the generosity and efficiency of the board of guardians and the ability and humanity of the master and matron. ” This meant that the conditions of the workhouse were markedly different from place-to-place. Thomas Archer reports on his findings of a North-east London workhouse as: “a clean, cheerful place with a light-airy nursery, a well-equipped playground for the children, and a reading room for the old men. Archers’ description is not one we can attribute to all workhouses but is a far cry from the examples Engels chose to highlight. For comparison, it is alleged that at a workhouse in Andover: “the half-starved inmates gnawed at the rotting bones they had been given to crush as a work task. ”

Following examples on either end of the scale: “Most Victorian workhouses fell between the two extremes, giving their inmates accommodation in sanitary but bleak wards and food in the shape of a stodgy and frequently ill-cooked diet. It is clear that workhouse conditions could vary wildly from the example provided by Engels’ account, a notion that Himmelfarb cements further: “Questions have been raised about the accuracy of Engels’ citation of documents and the accuracy of the documents themselves, about the bias in his selection of sources and the bias in the sources themselves, about the representativeness of his examples and the validity of his generalisations. The document continues with the logistical aspects of the workhouse being highlighted by Engels who claims that “families are broken up” to prevent the “superfluous” inmates from “multiplying” and “demoralised parents from influencing their young”. The issue raised is largely accurate: there is well documented evidence to suggest that the typical workhouse followed a segregation policy.

Driver suggests that:“In 1842, the Commissioners’ Workhouse Rules Order specified a minimum classification of workhouse inmates into seven classes: aged and infirm men, able-bodied men over fifteen years of age, boys between seven and fifteen, aged and infirm women, able-bodied women over fifteen, girls between seven and fifteen and children under seven. To add to this system, the different categories of pauper were to be assigned “a ward or separate building and yard… ‘without communication with those of any other class’ ” So, the claims made by Engels can be verified but the reasons for the separation may not be for the reasons he suggests. Driver continues to highlight that “The spatial separation of workhouse populations was intended to function in at least three ways: as a basis for appropriate treatment; as a deterrent to pauperism; and as a barrier against contagion, moral as well as physical. What we learn from the last quotation is that the typical workhouse was separated for reasons other than what Engels suggests; risk factors such as the spread of disease had to be taken into account as well as separation for the moral and physical reasons put forward by Engels. Engels held the belief that social revolution in England was imminent. By spending time in the world’s preeminent capitalist power, he could document the suffering and disparity of a capitalist society; England was the perfect example.

Engels sought to warn Germany and the rest of the world, he felt he was predicting the future of England and that of unfettered capitalism. Engels’ concern with the New Poor Law was his understanding of its instrumental power; a device that sought to keep the balance of power firmly within the hands of the powerful. The notions of ‘less eligibility’ define capitalism perfectly; competition and a dog-eat-dog culture are its core characteristics and also key elements of the New Poor Law. The ideologies of both entwine immaculately.

The erratic manner of Engels’ writing can be indicative of an often erratic personal life littered with contradictions. Testament to his often wild exaggerations and, paradoxically, astute reportage, the life of Friedrich Engels was often inconsistent. He enjoyed a life of relative indulgence compared that that of his charges; by the time The Condition of the Working Class in England was published in England Engels annual income was close to ?3000. He also once confessed that his idea of “paradise” was a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1848, I assume his subjects rarely got the chance to share his passion.

The personal life of Friedrich Engels should not obscure the objective here, for what he gets wrong is this document still provides the historian with valuable information, and what he does well is also beneficial. If we view the document with the foresight of Engels’ political ambitions then we can take much from it. His powerful, emotive language and imagery is no doubt designed to resonate within the reader’s mind. His skilful descriptions portray a capitalist society severed between wealth and squalor likened to Dickens’ Hard Times, a symbolic attack on the often invisible ‘evils’ of capitalism.

What this document does best is to highlight what others were talking about at the time. Although guilty of exaggerations and tendencies to highlight the worst examples, the focus on the New Poor Law as an instrument of social engineering and the societal effects of capitalism were the beginnings of a fledging political theory that went on to dominate half of the planet. The idea Engels had of other countries following England’s capitalist model was inspired thinking which did materialise, with the same system present in most of the developed world.

This document therefore provides a wealth of insight into what Engels and his contemporaries believed the Poor Laws were, therefore providing historians with a valuable insight into the psyche of one of the world’s most prominent political theorists and philosophers. The same questions of capitalism asked by Engels in 1845 are being asked by the likes of Noam Chomsky in 2012. With reference to the current crisis engulfing the modern world, the question must be asked: has anything really changed?