Frederick Engels

The Condition of the Working Class in England

Written: on December 20, 1842;
First published: in the Rheinische Zeitung No. 359, December 25, 1842;
Marked with the sign *x *;
Source: MECW Volume 2;
Transcribed: in 2000 for by Andy Blunden.

From Lancashire, December 20. The condition of the working class in England is becoming daily more precarious. At the moment, true, it does not seem to be so bad; most people in the textile districts have work; for every 10 workers in Manchester there is perhaps only one unemployed, the proportion is probably the same in Bolton and Birmingham, and when the English worker is employed he is satisfied. And he can well be satisfied, at any rate the textile worker, if he compares his lot with the fate of his comrades in Germany and France. The worker there earns just enough to allow him to live on bread and potatoes; he is lucky if he can buy meat once a week. Here he eats beef every day and gets a more nourishing joint for his money than the richest man in Germany. He drinks tea twice a day and still has enough money left over to be able to drink a glass of porter at midday and brandy and water in the evening. This is how most of the Manchester workers live who work a twelve-hour day. But how long will it last? The slightest fluctuation in trade leaves thousands of workers destitute; their modest savings are soon used up and then they are in danger of starving to death. And a crisis of this kind is bound to occur again in a few years’ time. The same expanded production which is now giving work to “paupers” and is counting on the Chinese market is bound to create a huge mass of commodities and a slump in sales, which will again result in general destitution among the workers. For the moment the textile workers are in the best position. In the pits the coal-miners have to perform the heaviest and most unhealthy work for low wages. As a result this section of the working class harbours far more wrath against the wealthy than other working men, and for this reason is especially noted for robbery, assaults against richer people, etc. Thus, here in Manchester there is real fear of the “Bolton people” who also proved to be the most determined of all during the summer disturbances. [185] The iron-workers have a similar reputation, as in general do all those engaged in hard physical labour. If all these are only just able to exist now, what will become of them if there is the slightest slump in business? True, the workers have organised their own mutual benefit funds, which are augmented by weekly contributions and are intended to support the unemployed; but these only suffice when the factories are working well, for even then there are always enough destitute. When unemployment becomes general, even this source of relief dries up. At the moment the scapegoat is Scotland, where the factories are coming to a standstill, for when English industry expands, there is always some region or other which suffers. Unemployment is increasing daily all round Glasgow. In Paisley, a relatively small town, there were 7,000 unemployed a fortnight ago; now there are already 10,000. The grants from mutual benefit funds, small enough in any case, have been cut by half, because funds are running out. At a meeting of the noblemen and gentlemen of the county it was decided to organise subscriptions which are expected to yield 3,000; but this method, too, is already outworn and the gentlemen themselves secretly admit that they do not expect to collect more than 400. What all this boils down to is that England with her industry has burdened herself not only with a large class of the unpropertied, but among these always a considerable class of paupers which she cannot get rid of. These people have to rough it on their own; the state abandons them, even pushes them away. Who can blame them, if the men have recourse to robbery or burglary, the women to theft and prostitution? But the state does not care whether starvation is bitter or sweet; it locks these people up in prison or sends them to penal settlements, and when it releases them it has the satisfaction of having converted people without work into people without morals. And the curious thing about the whole story is that the sagacious Whig and the “radical” are still unable to understand where Chartism comes from with the country in such a state, and how the Chartists can possibly imagine they have even the slightest chance in England.