How Revolutionary Salford Made Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels was born on this day in 1820, but he was forged as a socialist by Salford's industrial revolution – two centuries later, city mayor Paul Dennett writes about Engels' enduring legacy.

It was watching the massed ranks of soot-blackened faces marching in their droves through the factory gates which made Engels into a socialist. Credit: Getty Images

It was amongst the smoky chimneys of Salford’s industrial revolution that Friedrich Engels was inspired to fight for the cause of working people.

The industrial revolution saw our city become the heart of an international textiles trade, a trade which had made Engels and his family very rich. But alongside incredible wealth, the same industrial revolution created untold horrors for the working people who populated those factories and mills.

It was watching the massed ranks of soot-blackened faces marching in their droves through the factory gates which made Engels into a socialist; that feeling of revulsion against the use of child labour, 16-18-hour days, deplorable and overcrowded living conditions, fear of unemployment and destitution, and seeing the powerlessness of so many millions of working people, treated as little more than cogs in the machine.

And it was through meeting the famous founder of communism, Karl Marx, that Engel’s socialism turned into a revolutionary doctrine—founding one of the most influential political and personal partnerships in history.

As I walk the streets of Salford today, I am often reminded of passages from his seminal work, The Condition of the Working Class in England. On the street I live on today, Cross Lane, Engels discovered a filthy scene,

‘…where a mass of courts and alleys are to be found in the worst possible state, v[ying] with the dwellings of the Old Town in filth and overcrowding. In this district I found a man, apparently about sixty years old, living in a cow-stable. He had constructed a sort of chimney for his square pen, which had neither windows, floor, nor ceiling, had obtained a bedstead and lived there, though the rain dripped through his rotten roof. This man was too old and weak for regular work, and supported himself by removing manure with a hand-cart; the dung-heaps lay next door to his palace!’

When you read Engels’ work, it’s impossible not to be struck by the absence of so many things we take for granted today. Workplace rights. A welfare state. Legal protection from exploitation. All things that the labour movement—the trade unions and socialist groups—fought tooth and nail for.

But what is just as worrying is how so many of the struggles faced by working people are still the same. In our country, the quality of our housing is once again reducing, home ownership is in decline, and rented properties are seeing overcrowding in the form of houses for multiple occupation, or HMOs. In the workplace, our rights are being eroded. The trade unions are less strong. The gap between rich and poor is increasing.

Because as much as the great reforms and battles of the nineteenth and twentieth century improved the lives of millions, and Labour’s post-war government—with the creation of the NHS and welfare state—provided security for many millions, the battle to reform capitalism was never won.

I think if Engels were walking the streets of Salford today, that’s what he would be telling us. Working people can win reforms to the system—but if they don’t continue to fight, those improvements will be withdrawn. And it’s only with the creation of a new kind of society, where working people are truly at the helm, that the pressure to drag down the living conditions and prosperity of the many will be eased.