The Enlightenment and Romanticism in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844’

In The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Engels is extremely critical of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and the indifference of the middle and upper classes to their suffering.  His outlook and writing are rooted in both aspects of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

For one, Engels greatly values “experiencing” the problems and conditions faced by the poor more so than simply reading about them and he is particularly critical of the middle class for isolating the poor and isolating themselves from the poor.  For example, on page 1102 Engels writes, “He can only realise the price that has been paid for all this magnificence after he has tramped the pavements of the main streets of London for some days.”  Romanticism places greater value on direct experience and Engels utilizes this to encourage the individual to actively seek to better understand the plight of the poor.  In a similar manner, Engels appeals to the senses, utilizing the sense of smell in particular to generate sympathy and to encourage an emotional and physical reaction from the reader.  This utilizes the Romantic emphasis on emotion and the senses.  Engels also makes a point to directly criticize the Enlightenment view of the self as having value as an economic unit.  On page 1102 he writes, “Here men regard their fellows not as human beings, but as pawns…everyone exploits his neighbor.”  Romanticism criticized this view of humanity as well, placing greater emphasis on the individual.

At the same time, Engels does employ aspects of the Enlightenment as well.  The clearest example of this is Engels emphasis on reason and his attempts at appealing to one’s sense of reason (so greatly prized by the Enlightenment).  On pages 1106 and 1107, he criticizes the illogical city-planning and construction, describing it as “unplanned” and “chaotic.”  In this way Engels argues that not only has the Industrial Revolution led to the poor’s suffering but that it has not always progressed with attention to reason, overlooking certain areas and leading to serious problems within English society.

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