Both historically and contemporarily, Manchester has been considered by many as synonymous with resistance and rebellion, the rebellious younger sibling of London. This is a long legacy, and most pertinent to it is Manchester’s lively spirit of working-class political activism. It is for precisely this reason that, in the 1840s, Manchester became the interest of perhaps the most significant political thinker in history: Karl Marx. It is therefore not unreasonable to consider Manchester as the birthplace of economic radicalism.
As the epicentre of Britain’s thriving cotton trade, it was in 19th century Manchester that a working class was emerging; by the 1830s this stratified group in society was uniting. Following the 1832 Reform Act, which saw political enfranchisement granted exclusively to landowning men, the Chartist movement was born, originating in London, but finding its feet in Manchester. The imperative for Chartists was simple: expand the rights and influence of the working-class in Britain. In 1838, the first national Chartist meeting took place, with the Manchester Guardian estimating there to be 300,000 attendees, illustrating the vast scale of this working-class activism.
However, working-class political engagement in Manchester was not just limited to Chartism. Other concurrent movements included the 1838 Anti-Corn Law League, the earlier 1817 March of the Blanketeers, and various trade and political unions. The lasting legacy of the city’s rebellious character can be symbolised by various co-operative groups that remain across the country. The Co-operative Movement began in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, in 1844, with a group of working-class men who have since been labelled as the ‘Rochdale Pioneers’; their goal was to combat often adulterated and always overpriced food. The Co-op was a community shop that ensured local working-class people had access to high-quality and reasonably priced goods.
By the 1830s, Manchester was truly the material manifestation of the Industrial Revolution, but from observing the lives of the city’s mill workers, for Marx, the revolution was only just beginning. The city’s reputation as a stronghold for working-class politics enticed visits from both Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, beginning in the 1840s and continuing for decades after. What they saw and experienced in Manchester led to the production of some of the most seminal works of political theory ever written. Information gathered by Engels would form the basis for both Marx’s Das Kapital, and for Engel’s detailing of his own observations, in 1845’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, following his experience living with Manchester’s working class. These works comprise some of the most influential resistances to capitalism ever written, and they are both born out of Manchester.
By Alice Campbell