Next walk: Sunday 5 March 2023
Meet: Friedrich Engels Statue, outside HOME, 2 Tony Wilson Place, Gaythorn, 2pm.
Booking: Please press here to register with Eventbrite.
Follow in the footsteps of the men who created a political philosophy that dominated half the world during the 20th century. Hugely entertaining, informative and intriguing, the tour has been devised by Ed Glinert, author of Penguin’s The Manchester Compendium and many other tomes published by the cream of British publishers, who has been hacking away at the coal-face of local politics for 35 years, including a stint at the heart of one of the most sinister Trotskyite cells Hulme ever witnessed.
What do we hear about? If you want to blame any one place for the creation of communism, blame Manchester. It was here, in the middle years of the 19th century, that the movement’s two founding figures, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, arrived from Germany to conduct much of their research into poverty and social conditions, fuelling their original take on how society could be reorganised along class lines. Their work resulted in some of the most influential political books ever written, including The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Then there was the later and better-known Manifesto of the Communist Party. How strange that must have seemed when published in 1848. No such body as the Communist Party then existed, nor, as Francis Wheen explained in his 1999 biography of Marx, was the work really a manifesto. As a piece of literature the Manifesto is clumsy and pedestrian. Its famous early line – “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” – pales alongside its precursor, Rousseau’s great epithet from the Social Contract: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”.
But as a piece of political propaganda its resonance has been phenomenal. Only one other book – the Bible – and that is of unsure translation – has had such an impact on humanity. The Manifesto of the Communist Party is the most influential book that ever arose from debates held by heavily-bearded German visitors in sawdusty pubs, the cornerstone of a philosophy that powered the Soviet Union, China, Mongolia, North Korea and a much of east Europe for the latter half of the 20th century, and still propels much political thought worldwide.
Friedrich Engels came to Manchester in December 1842 to work at the headquarters of the family firm of Ermen & Engels in Weaste. His father sent the young firebrand to Manchester to rid him of his radical views; so he hoped. It didn’t work. If anything, Friedrich became even more devout. By day he worked as a cotton merchant. By night he scoured the slum streets of Irish Town (now Angel Meadow) rooting out instances of injury, injustice and inequality.
These were brilliantly outlined in The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1844 (which no one could have read in English until the end of the century as it was available only in German). Now it’s our most potent set of descriptions of down and out Manchester at the height of the industrial revolution.
Here’s an example of Engels on the slums off Oxford Street: “In a rather deep hole, in a curve of the Medlock and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories and high embankments, covered with buildings, stand two groups of about 200 cottages, built chiefly back to back, in which live about 4,000 human beings, most of them Irish. The cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal, and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions…The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench must surely have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”
Engels stayed in Manchester on and off for almost 30 years. Marx came to visit him a number of times, lodging at 70 Great Ducie Street near Strangeways prison, a house since demolished. Engels had various Manchester addresses over the years. In the 1860s he lived at 6 Thorncliffe Grove, 25 Dover St, and 58 Dover Street – all in Chorlton-on-Medlock, all long demolished.
He left no easily traceable trail as he was wary of the German authorities, through the British secret service, catching up with him. Indeed on 11 March 1933, the 50th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death, the Manchester Guardian sought help in tracking down Engels’s Manchester movements. “The 50th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx is a reminder that through his great friend, collaborator and benefactor, Friedrich Engels, Marx had the closest of links with Manchester. Oddly enough neither the directories of the time nor the accessible biographies tell us where Engels lived…here is a problem for some local historian.”
Letters from helpful local historians soon flooded in, but the best research was conducted by Ruth and Eddie Frow, founders of the Working Class Movement Library that can now be found on Salford Crescent, in the 1960s. The Frows pieced together almost every aspect of Engels (and Marx’s) life in Manchester. It’s thanks to them that modern-day scholars and guides know so much, as you can find out on our walks.