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The Plight of the Working Class
The Industrial Revolution Remakes England and Creates a Proletariat
Selections from The Condition of the Working Class in England
Frederick Engels (1820–1895) was twenty-two years old when he left Germany in the autumn of 1842 to settle in England. He came from a wealthy family of cotton manufacturers, which had established a branch in Manchester, in the heart of the new industrial capitalism. A contemporary of Karl Marx, Engels’ reaction to the industrial culture of the family business and the narrow-mindedness of his home life had made him a communist. While his father may have hoped this sojourn in England would make Frederick into a solid businessman, the son likely looked forward to immersing himself amidst the British proletariat, which he already recognized as the crucial revolutionary force in the modern world. By 1844 Engels was at work on a book. Writing about contemporary working conditions was not a new idea: by the 1830s it had become clear to most astute observers that the social problems produced by the new industrialism was no longer simply a matter of “the poor” but of an historically unprecedented class, the proletariat. Among the profusion of books and pamphlets and inquiries throughout Western Europe that addressed the condition of the working class, Engels’ book, based on firsthand observation and on other available sources, stood out. Today it remains, as Eric Hobsbawm notes, “the first large-scale attempt to apply the Marxist method to the concrete study of society . . . [and] by far the best single book on the working class of the period.” In this excerpt from his book, Engels first briefly explains the economic imperatives that have produced the proletariat, then proceeds to describe some of the brutal conditions of their lives.
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