Bookish Discussions

The Condition of the Working Class in England:



‘The middle classes have a truly extraordinary conception of society. They really believe that human beings […] have real existence only if they make money or help to make it’

Rating: 4 stars

Read: 21 September – 25 September, 2018

I’m happy that Friedrich Engels’ study of the working class in England (well, four chapters of it) was a compulsory read for university. I doubt I would have picked it up otherwise. I decided to read it in its entirety and I don’t regret my decision. Written during his stay in Manchester from 1842-1844, Engels complied his own observations with contemporary reports to detail the life of the victims of early industrial change. As my edition states, this historical study pairs brilliantly with contemporary writers such as Dickens and Gaskell.

It was a very hard read but, in the end, it was also very rewarding. It took me a while to make my way through, sometimes taking me an hour to read one chapter. It’s very detailed. Engels picks apart the relationship between the workers and bourgeoise, exploring all aspects of it. I looked at the proletarian in agricultural districts, mining districts, in factory settings, and more. I looked at the Irish and their relationship with the English workers and the property-holders. I looked at the conditions of the working-class, both in cities and in domestic spaces. There was so much packed into this.

The nature of this account also made reading it quite difficult. The conditions of the working class, especially in a century of progression, was utterly shocking. There was the poor housing conditions, the mistreatment in the workhouses and factories, child exploitation, sexual mistreatment, and the list goes on. It so hard to comprehend. Why was being poor such a crime? Why was the bourgeoise so heartless? Why was it allowed to continue? How on earth did it ever happen? I just can’t understand it.

One annoying thing about this is that Engels repeats himself a lot. It can quickly grow irritating, especially when you’re reading a 30 page chapter you literally just read yesterday. Also, some of his writing is quite questionable at times. For example, I didn’t appreciate how he ended his study by saying: ‘I hope that […] no word which I have said of the English bourgeoisie will be thought too stern’ – erm what? You’ve just spent your whole study highlighting their mistreatment, why are you pandering to them now? Pick a side.

All-in-all, a very insightful and interesting read. I can now read other Victorian novels in relation to this. For example, I’ll be studying Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton, as well as Dickens’ Hard Times, alongside this. I’m already connecting the dots between them.  I’m itching to write an essay on this relationship, so I can explore some of Engels’ arguments further. I would definitely recommend if you’re interested in class conflict in Victorian England.

Have you read any historical studies? Any you want to recommend? Please let me know!

Thanks for reading, Lauren X


9 thoughts on “The Condition of the Working Class in England:

  1. Interesting! I’ve never read this one, but your review reminds me of what I thought while reading Marx’s Capital (Vol I) during undergrad. The amount of detail was exhaustive to the point that I had trouble retaining info, even with annotating. I remember Marx as consistently enraged, though, whereas it sounds like Engels is more restrained.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read this one, but I’m going to put it in my wish-list! After finishing Oliver Twist 2y ago, I promised myself I’d learn more about the social system because it was horrendous in this book! I was so angry and Dickens’ irony is so heartbreaking when following these poor starving children in the workhouses 😦 Thank you for your review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “The middle classes have a truly extraordinary conception of society. They really believe that human beings […] have real existence only if they make money or help to make it.”

    A great review of a classic text. I think Engels did a great job of describing ‘the Athens of the North’ as Manchester was called. Even Disraeli was aware of the huge gap between the rich and poor in those days, but he lacked the will or inclination to do much about it. In contrast, Marx and Engels twigged the distinction between use value and exchange value. John McDonnell MP referred to this point in Liverpool last week. The Shadow Chancellor was highlighting how today things are only valued in respect to the financial capitalism which is hegemonic. He would like us to see how the world would be different if we focused on the real world where a home is a roof over your head instead of a buy-to-let opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

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