History · Philosophy

Freidrich Engels and the Industrial Revolution in Britain

Engels and the Industrial Revolution in Britain

Engels, in his book, “The Conditions of the Working Class in England,” addresses the origins of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. He also goes on to explain how he felt it negatively affected the British working class, as well as his solution to right the wrongs caused by the industrial environment. It is important to note that Engels is not writing with the advantage of hindsight as a historian would, but as a contemporary living at the time the Industrial Revolution exploded in Britain. His works, along with the works of Karl Marx, become the basics of Socialist and Communist philosophies.

Engels makes clear, even in his Preface to the English Edition, that the Industrial Revolution was able to begin, and maintain itself due to conditions, though seemingly coincidental at times, that existed. He cites the repealing of laws, such as the Corn Law in England, as well as the discovery of gold in California and Australia (Engels 35). However, these events all took place after the initial publishing of the book, and are used by Engels as a further explanation of the Revolution’s continuation. He also mentions advances in communication and transportation, for example the steam ship. However, this is seen as an effect of the Revolution, not the cause.

For Engels, the history of the working class, or the proletariat, begins with the invention of the steam engine and the invention of machine-based cotton production (50). According to Engels, these two events gave rise to the Industrial Revolution. With these two inventions, production not only speeds up, but that which is produced can be made available quicker, and on a more widespread basis. Also, because of this, production becomes cost effective, and the prices of manufactured good decreases.

Engels views the history of the Industrial Revolution through the conditions of the everyday British citizen. Before the Revolution, He claims that each individual farmer, though uneducated, and though he may have even been a bad farmer, still had a personal stake in his land (50, 51). He worked for himself, and his family. The crops he planted went to feed his family, and the extra work done, as in weaving, went for personal use first. He was “permanently settled,” only working when necessary, and for what he needed (51). Engels calls them “toiling machines” which had been guided by the small, but elite, aristocracy. The origins of the Industrial Revolution, both how it came about and how its structure grew, was, to him, simply the logical course of development (52).

In 1764, the jenny was invented. Though Engels acknowledges that the machine was “rough,” He points out that this was the first invention that gave way to “radical change in the state of English Workers” (52). This invention led to the increased productivity, which led to increasing “cheapness” of woven goods. This, coupled with the increasing demand, led to more weavers being needed. He then explains that a person working as a weaver could make more money then they could by farming, which led to people abandoning their farms to become weavers (52, 53). For Engels, this was the beginning of the “industrial proletariat,” and thus the first signs of the Revolution to come.

Engels explains further that the development of the industrial working class led to the creation of the “agricultural proletariat” (53). Forced to replace the loss of substantive farming caused by farmers now becoming industrial workers, the same working class process invaded agricultural life. Also, with the invention of the jenny, and the increased production, came improvements. These improvements were not only with the machine itself, but also came to the system of production. Factories were built by “single capitalist,” and with these factories came even more inventions, such as the spinning throstle, which Engels calls the second most important invention of the 18th Century after the steam engine (54). Along with this, the mule was invented in 1785, as well as the carding engine and preparatory frames. The factory system, for the spinning of cotton, now became the prevailing system of production (54).

The inventions, and their yearly improvements, leads to the eventual victory of machine based production over hand-work. The effects of this were the rise in production, the lowering price of goods, prosperity of commerce, and the increase of national wealth in Britain. However, Engels also points out that it also led to the “rapid multiplication of the proletariat,” the end of property holding, and the end of security for the workforce. Also, it brought on the demoralization of those in the working class and political excitement (54, 55).

Engels says that three-fourths of the population in the British Empire was members of the working class. He claims that now, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, that there was two classes of people, workers and capitalists (62). Engels sees the middle class, who are the capitalists, become rich off the poverty of the worker, and at the same time, ignore this poverty (63). He goes on to say that the only way for the worker to rise above their poverty, and force the capitalists to recognize their distress, was to rise up in revolution (64).

Engels elaborates that the capitalist sees the worker simply as a piece of capital, no longer as a fellow human being. Thus, as long as the worker is producing, that is all that matters to those who “invest” (66). Because of this, people see each other only as “useful objects,” willing to exploit one another for their own gain. The capitalists, though few in number, seize the wealth for themselves, while as Engels explains, the many who are weak and poor barely maintain an existence (69). He points out that, because anyone can do anyone else’s job, there is no job security. This also means that the employer can virtually pay whatever he wants, since the worker must simply be happy to have a job to begin with. The worker is guaranteed neither work nor wages from each passing day. Going even further, because the wages are low, the living conditions of the worker are also terrible. Engels describes these conditions as “slums,” and his description of these slums paints a picture straight out of the Middle Ages. Houses are built irregularly, the streets are unpaved, there is no ventilation or sewers, and these slums are generally filled with refuse and garbage (70, 71). However, because of the exploitation of the worker, the worker has no hope of salvation from these conditions.

The most powerful force of exploitation for Engels, however, is competition. He calls the competition between workers the “sharpest weapon” the capitalist has against the proletariat. For Engels, the worker is helpless against this because he is dependent on the middle class for everything he needs. In essence, the worker is not merely a worker, but a slave (111, 112). Further, competition within the working class brings wages lower and therefore worsening conditions for the proletariat, as well as increasing profits for the middle class. However, Engels acknowledges that there is also competition between the capitalist, which forces them to need the worker. Though he admits this leads to an increase in wages, he claims that it only increases as high as the demand permits (112, 113).

Engels ends his treatise describing the attitude of the middle class towards the working class. He describes them as being hypocritically philanthropic, only giving charity from their own self-interest (276, 277). Even beyond this, he describes how the new reforms stopped the ability of organizations from giving welfare support except for admission to workhouses. All monetary and provisions relief was no longer allowed (284). This was done to ensure that the people would be forced to work so that they could eat.

Engels, in light of this, says that the proletariat must make the choice to “starve or rebel” (290). For him, the current conditions in Britain, as well as what he sees as an eventual American take over of the industrial monopoly, the British workers have no other options (289, 290). However, he claims that even if Britain maintains the monopoly, it will be inevitable that the proletariat will rise up in revolution (290). For Engels, the answer is Communism, and the spread of communistic ideas throughout the entire working class. Though he acknowledges that it will be impossible to fully spread these ideas though out the entire working class before the revolution starts, he believes that there will be enough “intelligent comprehension” to enable the communist party to rise up and defeat the capitalist (292). The hope for intelligent comprehension is ironic since he describes those who would become the proletariat, as they were before the Industrial Revolution, as intellectually dead (52). However, he does say that the taking of the “last trace of independent thought” by the social elite during the Industrial Revolution forces the working class to demand a position “worthy of man” (52).

In conclusion, Engels critique of the beginning and fruition of the Industrial Revolution is a powerful picture of origins of the process, as well as the conditions surrounding those most involved in its success, the working class. It is clear that Engels is disgusted by the way the working class is treated by those in the middle class, and that his solution, or remedy, is a violent revolution against those who exploited them. Engels clearly dismisses democratic reform by promoting change only by revolution. For Engels, even reform of the middle class will not be enough, only revolution will. Along with his claims that the revolution is inevitable, he prophesizes that this war between the rich and the poor will be the bloodiest ever waged (291). Though Engels introduces this idea here, his view never changes, and is most popularly seen in his assistance to Marx in the Communist Manifesto, both in assisting with notes and the text, as well as writing prefaces for the different editions (Marx/Engels 52-54). For Engels, it was nothing but: “War to the palaces, peace to the cottages!” (Engels 292).

Engels, Friedrich. The Conditions of the Working Class in England. London: Penguin
Books, 1987

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Washington
Square Press, 1964


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