Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

'There is no power in the world that could resist the British working class organised as a body'

Frederick Engels The great German revolutionary Frederick Engels, who died 100 years ago this August, had a lifelong connection to the British working class. He arrived in Manchester as a young man just after the Chartist general strike of 1842 and saw the militant working class there as a great source of inspiration. Although the great Chartist movement had been defeated by the 1850s, and the level of class struggle was to remain low in Engels' adopted country for the next 30 years, events towards the end of his life were equally inspiring. He witnessed firstly the rebirth of socialism in Britain and then the mass strikes which led to the unionisation of the unskilled, the women and the Irish immigrants. Here we print some of his views on the working class and socialism in Britain.

'Democracy by itself is not capable of curing social ills. Democratic equality is a chimera, the fight of the poor against the rich cannot be fought out on a basis of democracy or indeed of politics as a whole. This stage too is thus only a transition, the last purely political remedy which has still to be tried and from which a new element is bound to develop at once, a principle transcending everything of a political nature. This principle is the principle of socialism.'
Collected Works, Vol 3, 1844

'I shall be presenting the English with a fine bill of indictment; I accuse the English bourgeoisie before the entire world of murder, robbery and other crimes on a massive scale... That'll give these fellows something to remember me by.'
The Condition of the Working Class in England 1845

Hyde Park, May Day 1891: Engels(taller bearded man) and other workers' leaders

'It is said on the continent that the English, and especially the working men, are cowardly, that they cannot carry out a revolution because, unlike the French, they do not riot at intervals, because they apparently accept the bourgeois regime so quietly. This is a complete mistake. The English working men are second to none in courage; they are quite as restless as the French, but they fight differently... Stagnation in business, and the want consequent upon it, engendered the revolt at Lyons, in 1834, in favour of the Republic; in 1842, at Manchester, a similar cause gave rise to a universal turnout [general strike] for the Charter and higher wages.'
The Condition of the Working Class in England 1845

'Cast into the whirlpool, he [the worker] must struggle through as well as he can. If he is so happy as to find work, ie if the bourgeoisie does him the favour to enrich itself by means of him, wages await him which scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together; if he can get no work he may steal, if he is not afraid of the police, or starve... During my residence in England, at least 20 or 30 persons have died of starvation under the most revolting of circumstances.'
The Condition of the Working Class in England 1845

'The position of the trade unions must change considerably. They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organisation of the working class. At the side of, or above, the unions of the special trades there must spring up a general union, a political organisation of the working class as a whole... There is no power in the world which could for one day resist the British working class organised as a body.'
Labour Standard, 1881

'The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle.'
Arbeiterzeitung, 1890

'The grandchildren of the Chartists are entering the line of battle':dockers' strike in London, 1889

'The new unions were founded at a time when the faith in the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were socialists, whether consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working class aristocracy; but they had an immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited respectable bourgeoisie which hampered the brains of the better situated "old" unionists... The people are now putting their shoulders to the wheel in quite a different way, they are drawing into the struggle far greater masses, shaking up society far more profoundly, and bringing forward far more radical demands: the eight hour day, a general federation of all organisations and complete solidarity.'
Letter to German socialist Friedrich Sorge, 1889

'The demonstration here on the 4 May was nothing short of overwhelming, and even the entire bourgeoisie had to admit it... I could catch sight of only a part--a fifth or an eighth--of the throng, but it was head upon head, as far as the eye could reach, 250,000 to 300,000 people. I can assure you I looked a couple of inches taller when I got down from that old lumbering wagon that served as a platform--after having heard again, for the first time since 40 years, the unmistakable voice of the English Proletariat.'
Letter to German socialist August Bebel, 1890

'It is just 50 years ago that Marx and I came into the movement, when we wrote the first socialist articles for the Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher. From the small sects of that time, socialism has since developed into a powerful party making the officials of the whole world tremble.'
Speech to International Socialist Workers' Congress in Zürich, 1893

'Experience has shown everywhere that the best way to emancipate the workers from this domination of the old parties is to form in each country a proletarian party with a policy of its own, a policy which is manifestly different from that of the other parties, because it must express the conditions necessary for the emancipation of the working class. This policy may vary in details according to the specific circumstances of each country; but as the fundamental relations between labour and capital are the same everywhere and the political domination of the possessing classes over the exploited classes is an existing fact everywhere, the principles and aims of proletarian policy will be identical, at least in all western countries. The possessing classes--the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie--keep the working people in servitude not only by the power of their wealth, by the simple exploitation of labour by capital, but also by the power of the state--by the army, the bureaucracy, the courts. To give up fighting our adversaries in the political field would mean to abandon one of the most powerful weapons, particularly in the sphere of organisation and propaganda.'
Letter to Spanish Federal Council, 1871

'The big mistake the Germans make is to think that the revolution is something that can be made overnight. As a matter of fact it is a process of development of the masses that takes several years even under conditions accelerating this process. Any revolution, completed overnight removed only a reaction that was hopeless at the very start (1830) or led directly to the opposite of what had been aspired to (1848, France).'
Letter to German socialist August Bebel, 1883

'The class struggles here in England, too, were more turbulent during the period of development of large-scale industry and died down just in the period of England's undisputed industrial domination of the world. In Germany, too, the development of large-scale industry since 1850 coincides with the rise of the socialist movement, and it will probably not be different in America. It is the revolutionising of all traditional relations by industry as it develops that also revolutionises people's minds.'
Letter to German socialist Friedrich Sorge, 1892


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page