If you have ever visited Manchester and decided to spend a few hours in HOME – its centre for international contemporary art, theatre and film – you will have spotted the imposing figure of Friedrich Engels outside it. He stands tall and imperfect; weather-worn; battered and bruised. But for how long will he be allowed to remain in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? According to the Manchester Mill, an ominous statement has been issued by HOME, stating: “we are in discussions.”
Oh, dear. Time for another phoney, asinine cultural boycott of Russia. I’m sure it’s what the people of Ukraine would want.
There’s history behind this, of course. In 2015, the village of Mala Pereshchepina in a district of eastern Ukraine that used to be named after Engels, tore down the statue of the communist philosopher following bouts of Russian aggression and hostility. In 2017, the Turner Prize-nominated artist Phil Collins moved the Soviet-era statue of Engels from Ukraine and placed it in its new home as part of the Manchester International Festival. The 12-foot statue had been laid to rest on Ukrainian farmland and covered in a shroud of shame until Collins rescued it and brought him back to Engels’s adopted homeland, Manchester. It is fair to say the reaction to his arrival was mixed. Some are proud to have Engels as part of the Mancunian furniture, but others have expressed concern. Namely: the fact that the statue’s origins are tied to the Soviet era.
But all this does little to explain the need to expunge anything even faintly related with Russia – not to mention the lack of nuanced, intelligent thought over the statue of Engels. It is unclear how toppling the statue of a German philosopher who died in 1895 (some 22 years before the Russian Revolution) can in some way rectify or soothe the wounds of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, I fear that we are allowing ourselves to casually partake in uncritical, generalised Russophobia to feed our egos.
Engels isn’t a part of Manchester’s fabric because it’s full of stark-raving communists, but because of his contribution to the city (and, indeed, the world). His 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England documented the fierce and appalling circumstances that many were forced to endure during the Industrial Revolution in the city. He observed workers’ mortality figures, living conditions, wages and general environment. And in his study of the history of family life, he laid the foundations for socialist feminism by connecting capitalist exploitation to gender inequality.
Manchester shouldn’t be embarrassed by this connection – rather, it should be celebrated. Our privileged preoccupation with rewriting history to suit modern causes, whether that is tackling racism or signalling support for Ukraine, has become inordinately tedious.