The Condition of the Working Class in England
Engels’s 1845 study on The Condition of the Working Class in England is considered a classic today, and not only by leftists. Those working on empirical social studies view this text as a kind of forerunner for their own efforts. In fact, the piece is better than this would imply: it not only describes the working class’s miserable conditions, but explains why things are like this.
At surface level, this work does share a lot of similarities with sociological research. As Engels remarks in the preface, he first had to rectify the ignorance among many supposed social reformers:
the real conditions of the life of the proletariat are so little known among us that even the well-meaning “societies for the uplift of the working-classes”, in which our bourgeoisie is now mistreating the social question, constantly start out from the most ridiculous and preposterous judgments concerning the condition of the workers.
To this end, he provided a well-illustrated account of proletarian hardships in capitalism’s “Manchester era.” This aspect of the study is the most well-regarded one today, probably because it is imagined there actually isn’t much to be learned from miseries of the past — that things have changed. Because the hardships of industrialization are long over, schoolchildren nowadays are taught to be appalled by the conditions of “Manchester capitalism,” because they justify present conditions. Such is the logic of historical comparison: “At least it isn’t 1845 anymore.”
But Engels did not just describe woeful conditions — he also wanted to explain why capitalism produces them. Hence he drew a comparison of his own. And it was hardly a reassuring one:
The slave is assured of a bare livelihood by the self-interest of his master, the serf has at least a scrap of land on which to live; each has at worst a guarantee for life itself. But the proletarian must depend upon himself alone, and is yet prevented from so applying his abilities as to be able to rely upon them. . . . To save is unavailing, for at the utmost he cannot save more than suffices to sustain life for a short time, while if he falls out of work, it is for no brief period. To accumulate lasting property for himself is impossible; and if it were not, he would only cease to be a working-man and another would take his place.
Engels thus already formulated an idea that was to become central to Marx’s Das Kapital more than twenty years later: the exploitation the modern wage worker faces is a product of — and is not in contradiction to — his freedom. His freedom from any master, but also lack of ties to any means to “apply his abilities,” is what compels him to enter the field of capitalist competition, selling his labor. But in this competition, he quickly learns that labor is not really his means, but the means of capitalists: he can earn a wage only if his work is profitable for the employers, and he immediately loses employment once his work ceases to be profitable. Whatever becomes of his ability to work is completely out of his control.
Hence in his early study of English working-class life, Engels anticipated the central argument in the Marxist critique of capitalism: that wage labor is no means to make a living, even if most of humanity is forced to treat it as such.