SOCIAL MURDER
IN THE NEW INDUSTRIAL WORLD




Eric Brahinsky

IDS 2213: World Civilization Since the Fifteenth Century
Dr. Redles

The University of Texas at San Antonio

October 1996






Friedrich Engels, a nineteenth-century German social philosopher, was greatly concerned with the living conditions of the working-class poor in the industrialized cities of Europe. The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844, which Engels published in 1845,1 is an emotional account of these citizens’ pitiable lot. Within the essay Engels identifies many of the social ills that he and fellow German Karl Marx would address soon afterward in their famous collaborative works.

As a young man Engels left his native Germany to work in a factory owned by his father in Manchester, England; there he would enter the field of textile work, for which he had been trained.2 In the factories and streets of Manchester, London, and other English cities, he saw the deplorable conditions under which the workers subsisted. Engels began writing social commentaries for such journals as the New Moral World of Robert Owen3 (a Welsh-Scottish textile-mill owner who made a great number of reforms on behalf of factory workers and their families)4 and the Rheinische Zeitung of Karl Marx.5 In these publications, Engels could make impassioned appeals to other liberal-minded thinkers and activists, enlisting their sympathy and support.

In the 1844 essay, Engels describes a world where filth abounds and assaults the senses in its many manifestations: dirty, unpaved streets; “vegetable and animal refuse”; the stench of rotting fish and produce; “heaps of garbage and ashes”; “foul liquids ... in stinking pools” — and all exacerbated by bad ventilation in the crowded buildings and homes.6 This, says Engels, is the daily backdrop for the poor workers of London. These miserable environmental conditions — “the turmoil of the streets,” the “heaping together of two and a half millions human beings”7 — are the primary contributing factors to what is Engels’s central concern: the loss of humanity. Engels observes that under these conditions, each individual is reduced to a “monad,” an “atom.” Each person is at “war ... against all,” exhibiting “brutal indifference, ... unfeeling isolation,” and “regard[ing] each other only as useful objects.”8

Engels further avers that the bourgeoisie, those who own and manage capital such as factories and their products, have a natural advantage in this “social war,” and as they operate only in self-interest, what good fortune they may have is at the expense of the lower-class workers. The bourgeoisie concern themselves merely with determining what rates of production the market will bear and thus maximize their profits; what effect such decisions might have on the livelihoods, or the very lives, of the workers is irrelevant to them, Engels asserts. The starvation of workers who could not afford food when their jobs were terminated is the “social murder” to which working-class people referred — and, according to Engels, the bourgeoisie who observed such cases inevitably conspired to explain them away and absolve themselves of any blame.9

Surely few, if any, can read accounts of the conditions of the working-class poor of nineteenth-century England without being affected with sympathy; Engels’s essay is no exception. History
documents that Engels’s basic description of the sights and smells of London slums is essentially accurate. However, Engels in the course of his commentary expresses some thoughts that are distinctly his own, and which upon examination can be seen to be consistent with his personal background.

Since Engels was raised by a father who was a factory owner, and as Friedrich himself trained for factory work, the mere fact of his interest in issues relating to factory workers is natural. Beyond this, there are a number of other influences that appear or are suggested in his writings.

In his youth, Engels had studied and identified with the writings of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).10,11 Hegel’s philosophy of Absolute Mind is clearly reflected not only in the Engels document under discussion but in Marxist thought12 (of which Engels became a primary architect) and Communist doctrine in general. Hegel biographer J.T. Moore writes:
"According to Hegel, reality is Absolute Mind .... This Mind is universal and therefore cannot be identified with the mind of any particular person. Rather, each particular mind is an aspect of this World Mind (Weltgeist), and the consciousness and rational activity of each person is a phase of the Absolute itself.... Human history in general is the progressive move from bondage to freedom. Such freedom is achieved only as the partial and incomplete desires of the one are overcome and integrated into the unified system of the state in which the will of one is replaced by the will of all.... [T]he individual has value and reality only as a part of a greater and unified whole."13

Engels’s assessment, wherein he sees tragedy in the “brutal indifference,” “unfeeling isolation,” and “narrow self-seeking”14 of individuals as they push by one another on the crowded London streets, seems quite Hegelian. Although Engels’s and Marx’s answer to this perceived condition, in the form of revolution and deliberate, organized class warfare, is not addressed in the excerpt from Engels’s 1844 essay (as published in James Holoka and Jiu-Hwa Upshur’s 1995 collection, Lives and Times15), it would appear in their Communist Manifesto only four years later: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie.”16 Engels first met Marx — a fellow Hegelian17 (the two “found themselves in complete agreement on all basic social questions”18) — in 1844,19 the very year in which he authored the essay; no doubt this meeting and their budding friendship strengthened Engels’s convictions and his resolve. Engels also found an ally and supporter in Robert Owen (mentioned earlier), who did much to improve the lives of Scottish factory workers, and, significantly, had earlier attempted to establish cooperative (communist) communities in the U.S. and England, and also tried to form trade unions,20 a movement to which Marx and Engels would later lend their support.21

Perhaps the very fact of Engels’s youth (and Marx’s as well) was relevant. Only 23 or 24 when he wrote the essay on the London working class,22 Engels was at just that age at which many young people are filled with idealism and believe they can change the world. The year the Communist Manifesto was published (1848),23 Engels turned 28 and Marx 30. Thus the revolutionary (literally) ideas of Marxism came from youth; the further works of the two men expanded on already established themes.

In closing, one may reemphasize that although Engels’s descriptions of stinking slums are surely true, his conclusion — that the ultimate resulting evil is the loss of connectedness among and between people — bears his personal stamp. Indeed, many social scientists and other writers have bemoaned the meaninglessness and misery of life with a vigor equal to that of Engels, and yet have come to the opposite conclusion: that it is the loss of individuality, an acceptance of one’s place as a cog in a machine, that is the final tragedy (George Orwell and Aldous Huxley come to mind). It is evident, then, that a writer can start with incontrovertible facts and then bend them (“put a spin” on them, in 1990s jargon). Sometimes the writer has an agenda and does so consciously; in other cases the author inadvertently reflects influences and preconceptions. In the case of Engels’s essay, both factors are at work, and the result is plain to see.


Footnotes

1 “Engels, Friedrich,” in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Frantzell, Lennart, “Owen, Robert,” in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).

5 “Engels,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

6 Engels, Friedrick, from The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, trans. Florence K. Wischenewetzky (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1892), quoted in Holoka, James P., and Upshur, Jiu-Hwa L., “’Social Murder’ in the New Industrial World,” in Lives and Times: A World History Reader, ed. Holoka and Upshur (St. Paul MN: West Publishing Co., 1995), Volume II, pp. 357-58.

7 Ibid., p. 356.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., pp. 356-57.

10 “Engels,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

11 Moore, J.T., “Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich,” in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).

12 Ollman, Bertell, “Marxism,” in The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia: For MACINTOSH, Release 6 (n.p.: Grolier Inc., 1993).

13 Moore, “Hegel,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

14 Engels, Condition of the Working Class, quoted in Holoka and Upshur, “’Social Murder’,” in Lives and Times, Vol. II, p. 356.

15 Holoka, James P., and Upshur, Jiu-Hwa L., “’Social Murder’ in the New Industrial World,” in Lives and Times: A World History Reader, ed. Holoka and Upshur (St. Paul MN: West Publishing Co., 1995), Volume II, pp. 355-58.

16 Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, from The Communist Manifesto (n.p.: Hammondsworth, 1967), quoted in Duiker, William J., and Spielvogel, Jackson J., World History (St. Paul MN: West Publishing Company, 1994), Volume II, p. 821.

17 Moore, “Hegel,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

18 “Engels,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

19 Ibid.

20 Frantzell, “Owen,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

21 Duiker, William J., and Spielvogel, Jackson J., World History (St. Paul MN: West Publishing Company, 1994), Volume II, p. 820.

22 “Engels,” in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia.

23 Ibid.