Illustration by Tomi Um
Manchester Squalor Gave Marx’s Theories Human Form: Mary Gabriel
In the spring before he and Friedrich Engels left for England, Karl Marx began sketching out ideas for a book they would write together that would get them past the “theoretical twaddle” and illustrate that to have meaning, ideas -- be they religious, political or economic -- must be rooted in the real world.
German intellectuals in particular had been confined to the loftiest realms of philosophy out of necessity, because the government banned them from discussing or publishing anything that might be recognizably pertinent to daily life. Even the socialists used vague words like “humanity” and “suffering” to obscure their intended meanings -- man and starvation. But Marx and Engels argued conditions required that the theoretical veil be lifted and the material truth exposed.
In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” written at this time, Marx famously summed up the problem: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
With that call to action, he and Engels set off for England.
During most of their six-week stay, the two men remained in Manchester. Almost 500,000 people worked in England’s textile trade, and that city was its epicenter. For a social scientist, it was quite simply the laboratory of the industrial world. By the time Marx and Engels arrived, the full transformation from a home-based textile industry to a mass-scale factory system had occurred. The small artisan master -- who by social tradition took care of his workers with varying degrees of benevolence until those workers became masters themselves -- had been almost entirely replaced by a faceless company with no obligations to its employees. Man was no longer a man, but an appendage to a machine.
Marx and Engels’s studies involved days at the Chetham Library, the oldest public library in Britain, where they reviewed the works of British economists such as David Ricardo, Adam Smith, David Hume and Sir William Petty.
They also spent time in the workers’ residential area, where low cottages consisting of two rooms, a cellar and a garret housed an average of 20 people each, with one outdoor toilet for every 120 residents.
Death Over Injury
In this desperate world, family life disintegrated. Mothers gave their infants opium to keep them sedated until they returned from work. Girls as young as 12 were “married” off to ease the family’s financial burden, and boys as young as 6 began their lives on the street. Sickness was one more luxury the poor could not afford; death was considered preferable and more merciful than injury or disease.
Before this trip Marx had never witnessed proletarian life. Although he had long criticized those who led with theory, the truth was that he had done the same. No longer.
The two friends left Manchester after about a month and a half and traveled to the capital. In Manchester the workers’ districts spread like weeds along the length of the river, but in London the slums were vertical, and the poor crammed the four-story houses from cellar to garret. Every inch, including the staircase, was occupied. Some people rented only a place in a bed, not even the whole bed. Others rented space on a rope strung along the wall, where they could sleep sitting up.
Marx and Engels toured the city and met with Germans and Britons working on behalf of these poor.
Some were members of the secret League of the Just, which Marx had first encountered in Paris and now had become part of an organization called the Communist Workers’ Educational Association. The group was composed almost entirely of artisans -- the aristocracy of the labor force -- many of whom aspired to be masters themselves.
But Marx and Engels also came into contact with the English radical or reform movement, which, by contrast, had included a mix of workers and artisans. In 1830, workers in Manchester had attempted to gather all laborers under an umbrella union to push for political reform, including universal male suffrage. But two years later, when the Reform Act was passed, Parliament sidestepped them, expanding suffrage only to select members of the middle class. Far from spelling defeat, however, the setback accelerated union formation. By 1833 one organization had at least half a million members. Workers also awakened to the fact that they as a group had a distinct place in society, that they formed a class of men, the working class.
In 1837 British labor agitators presented the House of Commons with six demands, which came to be known as the People’s Charter, aimed at making Parliament accessible to all male British citizens. But within five years the movement was dying.
It was at that moment that Marx and Engels met these labor leaders. Engels, who acted as translator for Marx, recalled that those involved in the talks came away convinced that the various movements -- Chartism, socialism and communism -- were part of the same historical struggle by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.
The two German visitors Marx and Engels learned much from these veteran revolutionaries, and returned to Belgium fired up with ideas for radicalizing the workingman in Brussels and beyond.
Marx came away from his trip a changed man. The words he knew so well from the texts he had read, words he himself had repeated, had new meaning. The words had faces.
One other important aspect of the trip is that it solidified Marx and Engels’s friendship. They found they were entirely sympathetic not only intellectually but also personally. As intellectuals they were brilliant, incisive, prescient and creative (but also elitist, cantankerous, impatient and conspiratorial). As friends they were bawdy, foulmouthed and adolescent. They loved to smoke, drink until dawn, gossip and roar with laughter.
In Brussels, Marx resumed his writing, but not the political economy treatise he had promised. Instead, he and Engels began work on a book, “The German Ideology,” which laid out for the first time, in basic terms starting with the advent of man, Marx’s notion of the material basis of human history.
Marx and Engels argued that history was not guided by a force separate from man, it was man, the story of man, a chronicle of his actions. To believe otherwise, to make man a mere player in a drama directed by a greater power (whether movement, God or king), was to render him impotent and obscure his ability to see himself as a capable actor in the society of his fellow man.
They determined that man’s existence was rooted in the process of production, that indeed, man distinguished himself from animals as soon as he began to produce his means of subsistence. Each generation used improvements in the methods of production to develop itself and modify society according to changed needs. But at a certain stage “destructive forces” are introduced, when machinery and money are consolidated under the control of a few men as private property.
Marx and Engels concluded that all revolutionary historical change was the result of clashes between those who controlled production at any point and the mass of people subjected to their control. They suggested that real, lasting change could not occur as a result of violence alone: simply eliminating the ruling elite by force would not erase the “universal truths” its members had enshrined -- their laws, their art, their hallowed institutions.
To reach the point of revolution, the masses had first to recognize that the system under which they lived was entirely the creation of a ruling class whose goal was to retain power. Secondly, they had to have developed an intellectual foundation upon which to build a new society out of the one they hoped to replace.
“The German Ideology” grew to two volumes and more than 500 pages. It was presented to eight publishers, without success. In the end, Marx said, they surrendered the manuscript to the “gnawing of the mice.”
It is around this time that Marx decided he wasn’t content to merely theorize revolution, and decided he needed to become part of the historical revolutionary process. With that in mind he, his wife, Jenny, and their Brussels cohorts joined the League of the Just.
(Mary Gabriel is the author of the biographies “Notorious Victoria” and “The Art of Acquiring.” This is the fourth in a five-part series excerpted from her new book, “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,” published in September by Little, Brown & Co. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 5.)
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