Buried in an alcove of the Reading Room in Chetham’s library is an unassuming wooden desk. This desk was the station from which the founders of Marxism constructed their ideology during their time in Manchester. It was during the summer of 1845 that Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx worked from this desk, diligently developing the intellectual and literary roots that would change the world.
Prior to 1845, Engels had already lived in Manchester for two years, working in the offices of Ermen and Engels’ Victoria Mill. He spent this time observing the material conditions of factories and factory workers and was especially appalled by “the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness” in the city, which were the terms he used in his seminal book on the working class, The Condition of the Working Class in England. During this time Marx had been living and working in Brussels as a journalist and intellectual, then choosing to visit Manchester and London to engage with the growing Chartist movement in England and explore the libraries. The economic conditions he witnessed in Britain inspired him to write a series of books that would later lay the foundations for the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.
Endemic industrial poverty and lack of workers’ agency were prevalent in Manchester at the time of their occupancy. The population had grown almost tenfold over the course of the nineteenth century, bringing with it a large migration of labourers seeking work in the booming industries within the city. Although still largely cotton-based, Manchester industry was expanding into other textiles and technologies as profits encouraged further enterprises. However, this rapid expansion outstripped the living conditions of the working-class. Engels described a city bulging with people, who were living in slums with dirty air and a lack of civilisation. Contemporary Manchester continues to bear marks of its industrial roots. Despite many Victorian slums being demolished and built over, the narrow streets near Oxford Road railway station remain, now marked with a plaque to commemorate ‘Little Ireland’, an impoverished community of Irish migrants, especially derided by Engels.
Outside the HOME Theatre on First Street, not far from where the Deansgate slums would have been, is an old Soviet-style statue of Engels. He continued to visit and live in Manchester for a period of 30 years and the city certainly had a profound impact on his perspectives of capitalism. Today, Marx and Engels’ radical ideas and powerful ideological critique have irreversibly impacted political, economic and historical thought. Their emphatic calls to action for the unity and liberation of the working-class is in part informed by the extent of poverty in cities like Manchester.