Working Class in England First Published in Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Working Class in England

First published in English in 1892, Frederick Engels' The Conditions of the Working-class in England in 1844 was a firsthand account of the everyday conditions of workers in a recently-industrialized England. Engels' book provides an ideal primary source for understanding the effect of the Industrial Revolution on English society, because a Engels is careful to contextualize his discussion of the working-class in 1844 Manchester with a comparison to conditions in rural England, as well as prior to industrialization. Engels begins with the historical and technological developments leading to industrialization, and then moves on to a discussion of the different experiences of industrial workers alongside further information concerning the environment of industrial cities themselves. In all, The Conditions of the Working-class in England offers the student of history a convincing and well-researched examination and critique of a newly industrial England and the social and historical forces that made it that way.

Engels introduces the book with a discussion of the primary technologies that set off industrialization in England, namely, "the invention of the steam-engine and of machinery for working cotton" (Engels 1). He provides detailed statistics regarding the rapid growth of English industry and trade, and demonstrates how much of global industrialized in the 19th century had its roots in England (Engels 7-14). Because Engels believes that "England is the classic soil of this transformation, […] England is, therefore, the classic land of its chief product also, the proletariat," he argues that a study of the proletariat and his or her working conditions in England will offer the reader a reasonably accurate understanding of the plight of the industrialized worker in general (Engels 1). Thus, for the most part the rest of the book's analysis takes as is central organizing point the concept of the proletariat.

In the first chapter Engels outlines what he means by the proletariat, or those individuals, "from Glasgow to London," who "are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate" by the rich (Engels 18). Engels' radical position regarding the fate of the working-class is evident in his language, but by and large this does not detract from the accuracy of his analysis because he provides reasonable evidence not only for the sorry state of the working class, but also that the working class can be divided and discussed according to the rough schema Engels develops in his book. In particular, Engels distinguishes between different sectors of proletariat depending on whether the workers are employed in a factory producing goods, mining raw materials, or are engaged in agricultural work (Engels 19). He devotes a chapter to each of these divisions, and demonstrates how the advent of industrialization has consolidated power in each sector, with congruent results for the workers across each sector, even if the particular form of that consolidation and worker disempowerment proceeded along industry-specific channels; for example, while the factory hands struggled to wrest some control from factory owners with the development of unions, agricultural workers saw their power diminished as smaller farmers were consolidated in larger ones in which former owners were only able to work as employees (Engels 134, 261).

Although the larger arc of the book features a discussion of the different kinds of workers that make of the proletariat class in general, Engels also includes a discussion of both the physical and socio-economic environment that has sprung up in the wake of industrialization. In the length second chapter, Engels spends a good deal of time describing the environment of what he calls the "great towns" of industrialization as well as the effect of that environment on human health and welfare. Engels argues that:

What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social welfare, every man's house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together. (Engels 24-25

The "whole crazy fabric" that Engels is referring to is the modern industrialized…

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