Friedrich Engels, by virtue of a statue in Deansgate, is ingrained in the heart of the city of Manchester. But how did a German man, who co-wrote the communist manifesto, become a Mancunian icon? What does Manchester owe to him?
Well, the answer is simple: Engels was sent by his father to Manchester to take care of their family-owned business in the city but Engels never felt it right to be working in such a way, hence he often took to reading literature. According to Eric Hobsbawm, the literature being published was beginning to diagnose and discuss the working-class struggle in Britain. The day to day grim life from slums to factories was ever present, especially in the city of Manchester. Engels believed that the city could have had a beautiful landscape, as it resided on foothills and had rivers flowing through it. However, industrial realities had altered the opportunities nature had presented. Many historians have suggested this is the reason why Engels left his comfortable lifestyle in business and instead pursued the intellectual task of writing. As an intellectual, understanding socio-economic realities was central to Engels’ thought process as he sat down to write his first book, The Conditions of the Working Class in England.
In one chapter, entitled ‘Great Towns’, Engels began by exploring the busy and gruesome life experienced in London. However, his exploration of Manchester is much more detailed and significant. According to Engels, Manchester was the first Industrial town. It was the first town to be fully industrialised and became one of the most crucial cities in all of England. Engels explored the physical layout and appearance of the city. He considered Exchange square and Market Street where he projects a sense of awe at the clean markets, warehouses, and hotels for the middle and upper classes. Then he describes south of the centre, towards the river Medlock, where there were more hotels, beer houses, and places of leisure for the middle and upper class. After this he looked to Oxford Road, past the university, towards the outskirts of the city as though there was nothing else to see. All this created the illusion that Manchester was a clean and well managed city, a city that cared for its people and that were happily living in the current conditions. However, as Engels pointed out, there is much more to the city that was often hidden from visitors. A side to the city that was grim and unplanned, with a lack of sanitation or general hygiene. For Engels, visiting the main part of the city centre was entirely contrasted by heading west into Deansgate. Deansgate was, for Engels, the worst possible market at that point, it was disgusting. Here, the winds that often blew from the north-east would take the smoke billowing from the warehouses of Market Street and Exchange square into Deansgate. In addition to this, Engels noticed that the river Irwell, which flows through Deansgate, was incredibly filthy and provided extremely poor sanitation. Engels loathed the living conditions in these areas of Manchester and he pitied the people who had to live there. He wished that something could be done to help the working-class people and likely feared the same fate would inflict Germany, which was also beginning to industrialise rapidly.
This book had a much wider significance than merely mapping and describing industrial Manchester. The contents inspired Karl Marx, who would eventually pair with Engles and the two would work on The Communist Manifesto together. It was this book that provides a first-hand account of the reality of working-class life and demonstrates why Marx and Engels conceived of Capitalism as societally damaging, thus they decided to imagine how things could change.
Engels remains an important figure in Manchester. His statue on First Street is viewed by visitors from across the country and remains especially dear to those from Manchester, where radical change is part of the city’s history. Andy Burnham, the current Mayor of Manchester, made this remark in a TEDx speech where he argued that Manchester remains at the heart of the conception of communism and those in Manchester should understand what the history of the ideology means to the city. Furthermore, Engels’ statue has also held a significant symbolic position in the route of many protests in Manchester. Most recently the “Manchester Night In” protests saw hundreds of protesters pass by the statue. The University of Manchester also understands the pride and respect that the people in the city have for Engels, shown through the erecting of a dedicated plaque to him in Whitworth Park Student Accommodations. Finally, Manchester still possesses scars that echo from the city that Engels described. The differences continue to exist between the city centre, which is north of the River Medlock, and the less privileged south, which suggests that a historical disparity is ingrained in the city’s layout.
Engels was one of the most educated and decorated philosophers of his era. He has often been referred to as a voice for the working-class, and the city of Manchester continues to recognise this.