The chimney of the world

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 22 March 1958</strong>

Today, Manchester's failure to secure a supercasino reflects the city's declining influence. In the 1840s, however, Manchester was the "shock city" of the world. The young Friedrich Engels wrote his greatest volume about the working classes in the first industrial city. Reviewing a new translation for the New Statesman, Professor Asa Briggs attacked the hostile view of its interpreters. His argument rescued Engels from historians' condescension.

Selected by Robert Taylor

‘MANCHESTER’, wrote General Napier in 1839 soon after taking command of the troops in the North of England, ‘is the chimney of the world. Rich rascals, poor rogues, drunken ragamuffins and prostitutes form the moral, soot made into paste by rain the physique, and the only view long chimney: what a place! The entrance to hell realised!’

In the tense and bitter years of English history between the onset of the business depression of 1837 and the year of misery, fear and hate, 1842, most judgments on Manchester were of this kind. Only the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League saw Manchester as the entrance not to hell but to heaven. They chose their texts from the Bible, but they were inexact in their scriptural topography, sometimes talking of Manchester as ‘the Mecca’ of the middle classes, at other times proclaiming a new Jerusalem. DisraeIi, who could not conceal a confused and at times confusing respect for the Manchester industrialists, was more original. ‘Rightly understood,’ he remarked in Coningsby (1844), Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens.’

All roads led to Manchester in the 1840s. It was the shock city of the age, and it was as difficult to be neutral about it as it was to be itral about Chicago in the 1890s or Los Angeles in the 1930s. It was a city which made excited contemporaries ask questions and seek solutions. They were questions which necessarily involved comparisons with the past and prophecies about the future. They centred on what Carlyle called ‘the condition of England question’, the fate of the new masses of working men packed together in small spaces. Young Friedrich Engels, only 22 years old when he first visited Manchester in 1842, posed the questions more powerfully than any of his contemporaries. ‘What is to become of these populous millions who own nothing and consume today what they earned yesterday? What fate is in store for the workers who by their inventions and labour have laid the foundations of England’s greatness? What is to be the future of those who are now daily becoming more and more aware of their power and pressing more and more strongly for their share of the social advantages of the new era?’ His brilliant survey, newly translated and edited by W. 0. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner, sets out his own famous answers. They were terse, unequivocal and bold, and they were related not only to Manchester but to other great industrial cities, not only to cotton operatives but to the whole of the working classes, not only to England but to the world. There is direct link in argument and in feeling between Engels’s book (1844) and the Communist Manifesto of ‘48. Engels not only described and condemned Manchester: he went on to suggest how it could be changed. In generalising about its problems and its opportunities he preached a new message which influenced future events outside Manchester far more than it did inside the city itself. By the time that his book first appeared in English in 1887, Manchester had ceased to be news, many of the people who had been shocked by it were dead, the English revolution Engels had prophesied had not taken place, but Communist theory was systematic, alive, and increasingly influential in many parts of the world.

Engels’s book was based not only on twenty- one months of observation but on a rapid reading of official reports and of other people’s comments and conclusions. He leaned heavily on a few almost completely forgotten sources — Peter Gaskell’s The Manufacturing Population of England (1833), for example, and Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufacturers (1835). He accepted much of the simplified and misleading history in the first, while he lampooned the second. He made good use also of newspapers, particularly the Chartist Northern Star, the liberal Manchester Guardian and the radical Weekly Dispatch. His latest editors criticise his use of sources, claiming that he garbled and abridged them to suit his purposes, and mixed up damning evidence from different periods of time without adding that it was not all contemporary. This charge can be pressed too far. Engels never swallowed his sources whole. In his Historical Introduction he relied on Gaskell’s idealised picture of eighteenth-century life, but he used key phrases like ‘industrial revolution’ — at that time virtually a new phrase — which Gaskell did not use, and he drew a completely different conclusion from Gaskell at all the crucial stages of his analysis. Gaskell believed that the domestic worker was ‘more advantageously placed in all points’ than the factory worker, that ‘combinations of workmen’ necessarily entailed the ‘arbitrary and tyrannical assumption of power’, that ‘the improvement which has taken place in the great body of masters within the last few years is perhaps the best guarantee for improvement amongst the men’. Other writers on whom Engels depended for evidence disliked Manchester because it was ‘the chimney of the world’, and they hated factory industry because it destroyed ‘idyllic simplicity’ and snapped the ties of deference and obligation. Engels admitted the rupture, but unlike every other writer saw it as the beginning of a liberation.

The industrial revolution . . . turned the workers completely into mere machines and deprived them of the last remnants of independent activity. Yet it was this change which forced the workers to think for themselves and to demand a fuller life in human society.

The editors of this new edition describe Engels as a ‘brash young man’, but there was nothing brash about this basic judgment. It was less brash than many of Disraeli’s diagnoses, less verbose than Robert Vaughan’s sermonising, more constructive than any of Carlyle’s aphorisms, and far less gloomy than Napier’s diatribe. Engels always thought for himself about the books he used, thinking violently, bitterly, compassionately, originally. He was not writing for professional historians — there were no professional historians in England in 1844— but for an unknown future public. It is an interesting comment on the difference between the 1840s and the 1950s that Dr Chaloner and Dr Henderson are as shocked by Engels as Engels was shocked by Manchester. They do not recapture the authentic mood of his age. If Engels sometimes garbled, they niggle. In places they seem near to implying that nobody was right to challenge the social system of early industrialism or to criticise the borough of Manchester in its bleak age. They rightly point out that the use of the phrase ‘hungry forties’ to describe that age was a twentieth-century innovation, but they can find plenty of references to hunger in the literature of the period. It was Carlyle, not Engels, who wrote in Past and Present (1843)— ‘Such a Platitude of a World in which all horses could be well fed, and innumerable working men could die starved: were it not better to end it, to have done with it?’ It was Tennyson, not Engels, who wrote in Locksley Hall (1843), ‘Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher’. In assessing this literature it is of relative unimportance to comment that conditions were improving in 1843 or that 1844 was a much better year than 1837 or 1842. Engels was as well aware as Dr Chaloner and Dr Henderson that the business depression which greeted him on his arrival in Manchester had its origins in 1836 and 1837, not in 1840, and that conditions in Lancashire had been bad even before the increase in unemployment and the further reduction in the living standards of the handloom weavers. He was interested in the trade cycle, but he was aware of what we would now call the ‘structural’ problems of the economy too. In no part of his work did he lean so heavily or so uncritically on one of his authorities as the editors of this new edition lean on a well-known passage from Sir John Clapham’s Economic History of Modern Britain in their Introduction. Engels was not a ‘myth-maker’ when he talked of distress in the 1840s and he was not a wild-eyed visionary when he expressed support for workers’ movements to remedy their condition. He was wrong about the likelihood of imminent revolution, which he ‘foretold with the certainty of the laws of mathematics or mechanics’, but even then he erred in good company. Many other writers who did not agree with his Communist philosophy shared his propensity to predict. Carlyle talked of ‘sooty Manchester . . built upon the infinite abysses,’ Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton introduced Manchester characters who lived as ‘separate as if we were in two worlds’, and it was only cautious reviewers who preceded their notes on new Manchester novels with sentences like, ‘our readers need not be alarmed at the prospect of penetrating the recesses of Manchester’. During the 1840s Manchester stimulated men to gaze into crystal balls as well as to wear cotton shirts, and if you peered into the smoke you might be forgiven for seeing the spectre or the vision of a revolution.

Historians blessed with hindsight may ponder on the reasons why England did not experience a revolution, why it avoided what Engels thought would be ‘the most bloodthirsty war of the poor against the rich the world has ever seen’. The social critics of the 1840s, amongst whom Engels must be numbered, missed some of the relevant factors to be taken into the reckoning and misjudged others. Peel was not a Guizot, O’Connor was certainly not a Lenin. Birmingham was not a Manchester, nor was London. It was once remarked in jest that had Engels lived not in Manchester but in Birmingham, Marx would have been a currency reformer. Outside the cities the mood of the countryside was either deferential or quiescent: Engels’s short chapter on ‘the proletariat on the land’ is plainly inadequate. The middle classes, unlike most of their European counterparts, were safely ‘hitched to the Constitution’; certainly after 1846 not all of them were as complacent, as wicked or as blind as Engels suggested in his comprehensive ‘bill of indictment’. There was a revival of business prosperity in the mid1840s associated with the railway boom: it did not break political Chartism but it thinned the crowds. Above all, whatever the social critics might say, many working-class Englishmen were what the Duke of Wellington called ‘quiet people’, and religion influenced some of them far more than Engels was prepared to admit.

Not all Engels’s prophecies were wrong — he foresaw, for example, that there would be a commercial crisis in 1846 or ‘47 and that the corn laws would soon be repealed. It is remarkable indeed, considering his youth and his foreign birth and upbringing, that he showed so many flashes of acute insight. The editors of this volume not only deny him a place among the historians but refuse to take him seriously as a sociologist. He would not have cared about these modern categories, but a fair critic must. For all the editors’- denigration, Chapter III of Engels’s work, ‘On the Great Towns’, remains a most important — and for its age, unique — contribution to the literature of urbanism. It brings out the social contrasts of a large industrial city, gives reasons for them, relates the layout of the city to its social and economic structure as well as to its physical geography, shows why the wealthier inhabitants have a limited interest in the well-being and beauty of the city as a whole, discusses the relationship of new urban growth to the older areas of settlement, and points forward to the quantitative studies of the 1880s and 1890s when London, not Manchester, became the centre of social investigation. At the same time for all his criticism, Engels, unlike Gaskell, was aware of the benefits and opportunities of urban life, and believed that it was a necessary escape from ‘happy vegetation in the countryside’. In exposing the slums, he did not attack the existence of the city.

The impact on the English-speaking world of Engels’s comments and criticisms was delayed until after the publication of the first English edition, but his was an authentic voice of the 1848s. Personal motives doubtless influenced the tone and content of his work, but he was driven by something more than spleen or idiosyncrasy. It is impossible to understand the 1840s without returning to his angry pages, and unlike some angry young men in other generations, he really had something to be angry about.


This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it