The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844: From Personal

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844: From Personal Observation and Authentic Sources


a work by F. Engels that represents the first extensive dialectical-materialist analysis of capitalism, as well as of the condition and role of the proletariat in bourgeois society. In his book Engels summarized the results of a study he undertook in 1842–44 of the living conditions of the English working class. Written between September 1844 and March 1845, The Condition of the Working Class in England was first published in 1845 in Leipzig in German. An English translation appeared in 1887 in New York and in 1892 in London. The first edition in Russia appeared in 1905. In the USSR the work has been issued ten times, in a total of 175,000 copies in seven languages. It was printed in the second volume of the second edition of the collected works of K. Marx and F. Engels.

In the “Addendum to the American Edition” (1887), Engels noted that this work cannot be regarded as a work of mature Marxism (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 265). Examining the socioeconomic system of England in the second half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th, he identified a number of laws of the capitalist mode of production. Engels analyzed the industrial revolution, which gave rise to the factory proletariat, investigated the origin of the proletariat, and demonstrated the irreconcilability of the interests of workers and capitalists. He came to the conclusion that an industrial reserve army of labor would inevitably be formed under capitalism and that periodic economic crises and the intensification of the exploitation of the working class as capitalism developed were also inevitable. Marx noted in Das Kapital that Engels in his work had completely understood the nature of the capitalist mode of production and that Engels’ data on the condition of the English working class was still substantially valid 20 years after the book’s publication (ibid,, vol. 23, pp. 251–52, footnote). In describing the oppressive living and working conditions of workers in England and in examining the factors that determined the level of wages, Engels showed that the very condition of the proletariat inevitably drove it into a struggle for emancipation. He gave a highly positive evaluation of Chartism, while noting that the successes of the English workers’ movement in the 1830’s and 1840’s had failed to eliminate cruel capitalist exploitation and that “the cause of the grievous condition of the working class should be sought … in the capitalist system itself (ibid., vol. 21, p. 262). Engels concluded that strikes and unions, while an important medium for organizing and educating the working class, were still powerless to free it from wage slavery. Only the fusion of the workers’ movement with socialism can solve this problem.

In The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels took a substantial step toward elaborating a materialist conception of history and hence toward a scientific substantiation of communism. Using England as his example, he revealed the relationship between the industrial revolution and changes in the class structure of society. Engels thereby came close to solving the central problem of the materialist conception of history: the discovery of the dialectics of productive forces and production relations. He showed that a direct link exists between the development of large-scale industry and of the workers’ movement and that the proletarian revolution and the transition to the administration of society by the working class are inevitable. Engels arrived at the conclusion that a communist social system would be the natural result of the workers’ movement and the class struggle of the proletariat. He criticized the English socialists, followers of R. Owen, because “they acknowledge no historical development, and wish to place the nation in a state of communism at once, overnight, without pursuing the political struggle to the end, at which it dissolves itself (ibid., vol. 2, p. 460).

Assessing the significance of Engels’ study, V. I. Lenin wrote: “Engels was the first to say that the proletariat is not only a suffering class; that it is, in fact, the disgraceful economic condition of the proletariat that drives it irresistibly forward and compels it to fight for its ultimate emancipation …. The political movement of the working class will inevitably lead the workers to realize that their only salvation lies in socialism” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 2, p. 9).


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch. 2nd ed., vol. 21, pp. 260–66, 345–53; vol. 22, pp. 272–85, 326–41; vol. 30, p. 280; vol. 47, pp. 512–19.
Engels, F. Biografiia. Moscow, 1970. Pages 54–62.
Engel’s— teoretik. Moscow, 1970. Pages 105–18, 146–47.
Leont’ev, L. A. Rol’ F. Engel’sa v formirovanii i razvitii marksistskoi politicheskoi ekonomii. Moscow, 1972. Chapter 3.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.