Works of Frederick Engels 1886
Source: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, New York, 1887;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
The book which is herewith submitted to the English-speaking public in its own language, was written rather more than forty years ago. The author, at the time, was young, twenty-four years of age, and his production bears the stamp of his youth with its good and its faulty features, of neither of which he feels ashamed. That it is now translated into English, is not in any way due to his initiative. Still he may be allowed to say a few words, “to show cause” why this translation should not be prevented from seeing the light of day.
The state of things described in this book belongs to-day in many respects to the past, as far as England is concerned. Though not expressly stated in our recognized treatises, it is still a law of modern Political Economy that the larger the scale on which Capitalistic Production is carried on, the less can it support the petty devices of swindling and pilfering which characterize its early stages. The pettifogging business-tricks of the Polish Jew, the representative in Europe of commerce in its lowest stage, those tricks that serve him so well in his own country, and are generally practiced there, he finds to be out of date and out of place when he comes to Hamburg or Berlin; and again the Commission Agent, who hails from Berlin or Hamburg, Jew or Christian, after frequenting the Manchester Exchange for a few months, finds out that in order to buy cotton-yarn or cloth cheap, he, too, had better drop those slightly more refined but still miserable wiles and subterfuges which are considered the acme of cleverness in his native country. The fact is, those tricks do not pay any longer in a large market, where time is money, and where a certain standard of commercial morality is unavoidably developed, purely as a means of saving time and trouble. And it is the same with the relation between the manufacturer and his “hands.” The repeal of the Corn-laws, the discovery of the Californian and Australian gold-fields, the almost complete crushing-out of domestic handweaving in India, the increasing access to the Chinese market, the rapid multiplication of railways and steam-ships all over the world, and other minor causes have given to English manufacturing industry such a colossal development, that the status of 1844 now appears to us as comparatively primitive and insignificant. And in proportion as this increase took place, in the same proportion did manufacturing industry become apparently moralized. The competition of manufacturer against manufacturer by means of petty thefts upon the workpeople did no longer pay. Trade had outgrown such low means of making money; they were not worth while practicing for the manufacturing millionaire, and served merely to keep alive the competition of smaller traders, thankful to pick up a penny wherever they could. Thus the truck-system was suppressed; the Ten Hours’ Bill was enacted, and a number of other secondary reforms introduced — much against the spirit of Free Trade and unbridled competition, but quite as much in favor of the giant-capitalist in his competition with his less favored brother. Moreover, the larger the concern, and with it the number of hands, the greater the loss and inconvenience caused by every conflict between master and men; and thus a new spirit came over the masters, especially the large ones, which taught them to avoid unnecessary squabbles, to acquiesce in the existence and power of Trades Unions, and finally even to discover in strikes — at opportune times — a powerful means to serve their own ends. The largest manufacturers, formerly the leaders of the war against the working-class, were now the foremost to preach peace and harmony. And for a very good reason, The fact is, that all these concessions to justice and philanthropy were nothing else but means to accelerate the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, for whom the niggardly extra extortions of former years had lost all importance and had become actual nuisances; and to crush all the quicker and all the safer their smaller competitors who could not make both ends meet without such perquisites. Thus the development of production on the basis of the capitalistic system has of itself sufficed — at least in the leading industries, for in the more unimportant branches this is far from being the case — to do away with all those minor grievances which aggravated the workman’s fate during its earlier stages. And thus it renders more and more evident the great central fact, that the cause of the miserable condition of the working class is to be sought, not in these minor grievances, but in the Capitalistic System itself. The wage-worker sells to the capitalist his labor-force for a certain daily sum. After a few hours’ work he has reproduced the value of that sum; but the substance of his contract is, that he has to work another series of hours to complete his working day; and the value he produces during these additional hours of surplus labor is surplus value which costs the capitalist nothing but yet goes into his pocket. That is the basis of the system which tends more and more to split up civilized society into a few Vanderbilts, the owners of all the means of production and subsistence, on the one hand, and an immense number of wage-workers, the owners of nothing but their labor-force, on the other. And that this result is caused, not by this or that secondary grievance, but by the system itself — this fact has been brought out in bold relief by the development of Capitalism in England since 1847.
Again, the repeated visitations of cholera, typhus, small-pox and other epidemics have shown the British bourgeois the urgent necessity of sanitation in his towns and cities, if he wishes to save himself and family from falling victims to such diseases. Accordingly, the most crying abuses described in this book have either disappeared or have been made less conspicuous. Drainage has been introduced or improved, wide avenues have been opened out athwart many of the worst “slums” I had to describe. “Little Ireland” has disappeared and the “Seven Dials,” are next on the list for sweeping away. But what of that? Whole districts which in 1844 I could describe as almost idyllic have now, with the growth of the towns, fallen into the same state of dilapidation, discomfort and misery. Only the pigs and the heaps of refuse are no longer tolerated. The bourgeoisie have made further progress in the art of hiding the distress of the working class. But that, in regard to their dwellings, no substantial improvement has taken place, is amply proved by the Report of the Royal Commission “on the Housing of the Poor,” 1885. And this is the case, too, in other respects. Police regulations have been plentiful as blackberries; but they can only hedge in the distress of the workers, they cannot remove it.
But while England has thus outgrown the juvenile state of capitalist exploitation described by me, other countries have only just attained it. France, Germany, and especially America, are the formidable competitors who at this moment — as foreseen by me in 1844 — are more and more breaking up England’s industrial monopoly. Their manufactures are young as compared with those of England, but increasing at a far more rapid rate than the latter; but curious enough, they have at this moment arrived at about the same phase of development as English manufacture in 1844. With regard to America, the parallel is indeed most striking. True, the external surroundings in which the working class is placed in America are very different, but the same economical laws are at work, and the results, if not identical in every respect, must still be of the same order. Hence we find in America the same struggles for a shorter working-day, for a legal limitation of the working time, especially of women and children in factories; we find the truck system in full blossom, and the cottage-system, in rural districts, made use of by the “bosses” as a means of domination over the workers. At this very moment I am receiving the American papers with accounts of the great strike of 12,000 Pennsylvanian coal-miners in the Connellsville district, and I seem but to read my own description of the North of England colliers’ strike of 1844. The same cheating of the work-people by false measure; the same truck system; the same attempt to break the miners’ resistance by the Capitalists’ last, but crushing, resource, the eviction of the men out of their dwellings, the cottages owned by the companies.
There were two circumstances which for a long time prevented the unavoidable consequences of the Capitalist system from showing themselves in the full glare of day in America. These were the easy access to the ownership of cheap land, and the influx of immigration. They allowed, for many years, the great mass of the native American population to “retire” in early manhood from wage-labor and to become farmers, dealers, or employers of labor, while the hard work for wages, the position of a proletarian for life, mostly fell to the lot of immigrants. But America has outgrown this early stage. The boundless backwoods have disappeared, and the still more boundless prairies are fast and faster passing from the hands of the Nation and the States into those of private owners. The great safety-valve against the formation of a permanent proletarian class has practically ceased to act. A class of life-long and even hereditary proletarians exists at this hour in America. A nation of sixty millions striving hard to become — and with every chance of success, too — the leading manufacturing nation of the world — such a nation cannot permanently import its own wage-working class; not even if immigrants pour in at the rate of half a million a year. The tendency of the Capitalist system towards the ultimate splitting-up of society into two classes, a few millionaires on the one hand, and a great mass of mere wage-workers on the other, this tendency, though constantly crossed and counteracted by other social agencies, works nowhere with greater force than in America; and the result has been the production of a class of native American wage-workers, who form, indeed, the aristocracy of the wage-working class as compared with the immigrants, but who become conscious more and more every day of their solidarity with the latter and who feel all the more acutely their present condemnation to life-long wage-toil, because they still remember the bygone days, when it was comparatively easy to rise to a higher social level. Accordingly the working class movement, in America, has started with truly American vigor, and as on that side of the Atlantic things march with at least double the European speed, we may yet live to see America take the lead in this respect too.
I have not attempted, in this translation, to bring the book up to date, to point out in detail all the changes that have taken place since 1844. And for two reasons: Firstly, to do this properly, the size of the book must be about doubled, and the translation came upon me too suddenly to admit of my undertaking such a work. And secondly, the first volume of “Das Kapital,” by Karl Marx, an English translation of which is about to appear, contains a very ample description of the state of the British working class, as it was about 1865, that is to say, at the time when British industrial prosperity reached its culminating point. I should, then, have been obliged again to go over the ground already covered by Marx’s celebrated work.
It will be hardly necessary to point out that the general theoretical standpoint of this book — philosophical, economical, political — does not exactly coincide with my standpoint of to-day. Modern international Socialism, since fully developed as a science, chiefly and almost exclusively through the efforts of Marx, did not as yet exist in 1844. My book represents one of the phases of its embryonic development; and as the human embryo, in its early stages, still reproduces the gill-arches of our fish ancestors, so this book exhibits everywhere the traces of the descent of Modern Socialism from one of its ancestors, German philosophy. Thus great stress is laid on the dictum that Communism is not a mere party doctrine of the working class, but a theory compassing the emancipation of society at large, including the Capitalist class, from its present narrow conditions. This is true enough in the abstract, but absolutely useless, and worse, in practice. So long as the wealthy classes not only do not feel the want of any emancipation, but strenuously oppose the self-emancipation of the working class, so long the social revolution will have to be prepared and fought out by the working class alone. The French bourgeois of 1789, too, declared the emancipation of the bourgeoisie to be the emancipation of the whole human race; but the nobility and clergy would not see it; the proposition — though for the time being, with respect to feudalism, an abstract historical truth — soon became a mere sentimentalism, and disappeared from view altogether in the fire of the revolutionary struggle. And to-day, the very people who, from the impartiality of their “superior stand-point” preach to the workers a Socialism soaring high above their class interests and class struggles, and tending to reconcile in a higher humanity the interests of both the contending classes — these people are either neophytes, who have still to learn a great deal, or they are the worst enemies of the workers — wolves in sheeps’ clothing.
The recurring period of the great industrial crises is stated in the text as five years. This was the period apparently indicated by the course of events from 1825 to 1842. But the industrial history from 1842 to 1868 has shown that the real period is one of ten years; that the intermediate revolutions were secondary and tended more and more to disappear. Since 1868 the state of things has changed again, of which more anon.
I have taken care not to strike out of the text the many prophecies, amongst others that of an imminent social revolution in England, which my youthful ardor induced me to venture upon. The wonder is, not that a good many of them proved wrong, but that so many of them have proved right, and that the critical state of English trade, to be brought on by German and especially American competition, which I then foresaw — though in too short a period — has now actually come to pass. In this respect I can, and am bound to, bring the book up to date, by placing here an article which I published in the London “Commonweal” of March 1, 1885, under the heading: “England in 1845 and in 1885.” It gives at the same time a short outline of the history of the English working class during these forty years.
London, February 25, 1886