Radical Manchester: Who is Friedrich Engels and why is he so important to our city?

This week HOME, Manchester’s centre for contemporary art, theatre and film welcomed a statue of Friedrich Engels, the German philosopher and co-founder of Marxism.

Recovered from Mala Pereshchepina in Ukraine by the Turner Prize-nominated artist Phil Collins, the statue was transported across Europe in two halves, making stops in Berlin and Barmen – homes to Collins and Engels respectively – before being re-assembled and unveiled in Manchester as a finale to the Manchester International Festival.

Engels lived right here in Manchester for several decades, the city where his radical philosophies were truly born.

Manchester in the Victorian era was a catalyst for the development of Marxism – without Engels moving here, he would never have seen the appalling conditions the working class lived in, would never have met Karl Marx and ultimately, modern world history may have been very different.

But how did Engels end up in Manchester in the first place?

At 22 years old, Engels was sent to Manchester by his father to work in the family’s offices at Ermen and Engel’s Victoria Mill in Weaste, something he hoped might encourage Engels to reconsider his liberal political opinions. It didn’t.

Instead, Engels studied the slums of Manchester. He observed the dreadful conditions in which the poor lived in; the plight of the overworked labourers; the horrors of child labour.

This served to bolster his economic, social and political views and cemented his theories about the class struggle taking place in England.

Engels met Marx in Manchester, with whom he eventually wrote the Communist manifesto, stemming from his research into the slums.

He also penned the incredibly influential work ‘The Condition of The Working Class In England’ whilst here, along with writing for a variety of left-wing journals, including The Northern Star, New Moral World and Democratic Review.

Engels also regularly attended the Hall of Science, a place frequented by members of the English labour and Chartist movements, often belonging to the working class group of individuals whose lives had inspired his writings.

Of course, Engels was sent to Manchester to work for his family’s mill. Working in a capitalist environment by day and as a ‘social investigator’ and co-founder of Marxism by night, his life appeared to be somewhat a contradiction.

He’s often been described as having lived a double life in Manchester.

When Engels returned to Manchester for a second time in 1850, he worked for his family’s business begrudgingly, only using it as a means of funding Marx’s research and writing of Das Kapital.

It’s clear that Manchester was absolutely vital in shaping Engels’ politics and in the conception of Marxism.

Whilst many of the places frequented by Engels have since been demolished, including the Hall of Science, some of them still exist and can be visited today.

Here’s our version of an Engels walking tour of the city.

Start at Angel Meadow, known in the Victorian era as the Irish Town. A 33-acre area home to 30,000 workers, Angel Meadow was described by Engels as ‘hell upon earth’.

Of course, today you would never be able to tell its squalid past from visiting; however, this area was crucial in developing Engels’ views on class politics.

Next, head to Chetham’s Library near Manchester Victoria, home to the very same desk and books that Engels and Marx used during their studies prior to the publishing of the Communist manifesto.

Nearby, you can find the building that played home to Ermen and Engels’ Victoria Mill offices, where Engels worked for the family’s business.

Finally, take a walk down to HOME, where you can see the grand statue of Engels himself.

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