German writer and political theorist Friedrich Engels (1820–95) is perhaps best remembered as the co-author, with Karl Marx, of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. But Engels's view of capitalism as a justification for the rich to exploit the poor and uneducated had been developed in his first book The Condition of the Working Class in England of 1844.
In often revolutionary language, it draws on his experiences while living in Manchester, then at the heart of the industrial revolution. Engels was horrified by the child labour, environmental damage, low wages, bad conditions, poor health, death rates – and the ‘social and political power of your oppressors’. Containing many important and ground-breaking early thoughts on socialism, the book is still widely read today.
Friedrich Engels was the rebellious eldest son of a family of German industrialists. In an attempt to quell his rebellion, and to keep him apart from undesirable friends in Berlin, Engels’s father apprenticed him to a family mill in Salford near Manchester. There, he gave up ‘the dinner-parties ... and champagne of the middle classes’ and instead spent time talking to the workers. Engels discovered a project of industrialisation more extensive than any he had seen in Germany, where the life expectancy of the poorest was as low as it had been during the Black Death (1348–1350). In The Condition of the Working Class in England, he described the living conditions in English industrial towns as ‘the highest and most unconcealed pinnacle of social misery existing in our day’.