ENGELS, MANCHESTER, AND THE WORKING CLASS by Steven Marcus

ENGELS, MANCHESTER, AND THE WORKING CLASS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Normally, one doesn't think of Friedrich Engels' documentary study of The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 as the sort of book whiCh draws the attention of literary critics. Yet Marcus (The Other Victorians, 1966) has produced an exceptionally illuminating interpretation of this socialist classic -- and in the process shown us some of the tragi-comic domestic and generational conflicts in the bourgeois Engels household in Barmen, Germany. What Marcus does is to set Engels' discovery and description of Manchester, the seedbed of the Industrial Revolution, alongside the impressions of Dickens, Carlyle, Disraeli, and other eminent Victorians. For Manchester, with its satanic mills, sickly factory children and filthy hovels, stunned, overawed and frightened everyone; ""the astonishing newness of the system"" was perceived intuitively by every visitor. Yet Engels alone saw the true nature of what was happening; saw the ""creation of a new class of social beings"" in the vast armies of grimy toilers who made up the human substructure of the fabulous wealth emanating from the urban stinkpot. By contrasting Engels' carefully particularized sociological investigation of the new ""culture of poverty"" with the ""highfalutin' literaryness"" of other responses to the brutal marvels of industrialism, Marcus shows how deftly the Victorian middle class used metaphor and allegory to shunt aside the face of the emergent proletariat. While in essence this is a substantiation of Engels' vision and achievement, Marcus adds some pages on the psychic make-up of ""the philosophical commercial traveler"" who fled his manufacturer father while paradoxically injecting into his nascent communism ""a powerful dose of philistinism"" -- one of Marx and Engels' least recognized contributions. An offbeat and engaging work which might induce social scientists and litterateurs to bury the hatchet.

Pub Date: March 28th, 1974
Publisher: Random House