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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Great Towns


Urban Renewal #4,
Old City Overview, Shanghai: photo by Edward Burtynsky, 2004 (Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works)

Friedrich Engels: The Great Towns (1845)

A town, such as London, where a man may wander for hours together without reaching the beginning of the end, without meeting the slightest hint which could lead to the inference that there is open country within reach, is a strange thing. This colossal centralisation, this heaping together of two and a half millions of human beings at one point, has multiplied the power of this two and a half millions a hundredfold; has raised London to the commercial capital of the world, created the giant docks and assembled the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames. I know nothing more imposing than the view which the Thames offers during the ascent from the sea to London Bridge. The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this is so vast, so impressive, that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England's greatness before he sets foot upon English soil.

Canary Wharf, London, viewed from Shadwell: photo by Dave Pape, 13 June 2007; image by Pointillist, 24 April 2010

But the sacrifices which all this has cost become apparent later. After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others. The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

Hence it comes, too, that the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly declared. Just as in Stirner's recent book [The Ego and Its Own], people regard each other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot; and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains.

What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man's house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together.

Since capital, the direct or indirect control of the means of subsistence and production, is the weapon with which this social warfare is carried on, it is clear that all the disadvantages of such a state must fall upon the poor. For him no man has the slightest concern. Cast into the whirlpool, he must struggle through as well as he can. If he is so happy as to find work, i.e., if the bourgeoisie does him the favour to enrich itself by means of him, wages await him which scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together; if he can get no work he may steal, if he is not afraid of the police, or starve, in which case the police will take care that he does so in a quiet and inoffensive manner.

During my residence in England, at least twenty or thirty persons have died of simple starvation under the most revolting circumstances, and a jury has rarely been found possessed of the courage to speak the plain truth in the matter. Let the testimony of the witnesses be never so clear and unequivocal, the bourgeoisie, from which the jury is selected, always finds some backdoor through which to escape the frightful verdict, death from starvation. The bourgeoisie dare not speak the truth in these cases, for it would speak its own condemnation. But indirectly, far more than directly, many have died of starvation, where long-continued want of proper nourishment has called forth fatal illness, when it has produced such debility that causes which might otherwise have remained inoperative brought on severe illness and death. The English working-men call this "social murder", and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong?

True, it is only individuals who starve, but what security has the working-man that it may not be his turn tomorrow? Who assures him employment, who vouches for it that, if for any reason or no reason his lord and master discharges him tomorrow, he can struggle along with those dependent upon him, until he may find some one else "to give him bread"? Who guarantees that willingness to work shall suffice to obtain work, that uprightness, industry, thrift, and the rest of the virtues recommended by the bourgeoisie, are really his road to happiness? No one. He knows that he has something today and that it does not depend upon himself whether he shall have something tomorrow. He knows that every breeze that blows, every whim of his employer, every bad turn of trade may hurl him back into the fierce whirlpool from which he has temporarily saved himself, and in which it is hard and often impossible to keep his head above water. He knows that, though he may have the means of living today, it is very uncertain whether he shall tomorrow.

from Friedrich Engels: Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (Condition of the Working Class in England), 1844-1845: published in Leipzig, 1845; published in the present translation by Florence Kelley [Wischnewetzky], New York, 1887; London, 1891

File:Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England.gif

Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (cover): Friedrich Engels, Leipzig, 1845

Letter from Friedrich Engels to his American translator, Florence Kelley [Wischnewetzky]

London, February 3, 1886

My dear Mrs. Wischnewetzky:

Today I forwarded to you, registered, the first portion of the Ms. up to your page 70, inclusive. I am sorry I could not possibly send it sooner. But I had a job on my hand which must be finished before I could start with your Ms.
Now I shall go on swimmingly; as I proceed I find we get better acquainted with each other, you with my peculiar old-fashioned German, I with your American. And indeed, I learn a good deal at it. Never before did the difference between British and American English strike me so vividly as in this experimentum in proprio corpore vili. What a splendid future must there be in store for a language which gets enriched and developed on two sides of an ocean, and which may expect further additions from Australia and India!

I do not know whether this portion of the Ms. will arrive in time to reach Miss Foster before her sailing, but I hope you will not be put to any particular inconvenience through my delay, which was indeed unavoidable. I cannot be grateful enough to all the friends who wish to translate both Marx’s and my writings into the various civilized languages and who show their confidence in me by asking me to look over their translations. And I am willing enough to do it, but for me as well as for others the day has but 24 hours, and so I cannot possibly always arrange to please everybody and to chime in with all arrangements made.

If I am not too often interrupted in the evenings, I hope to be able to send you the remainder of the Ms. and possibly also the introduction in a fortnight. This latter may be printed either as a preface or as an appendix. As to the length of it I am utterly incapable of giving you any idea. I shall try to make it as short as possible, especially as it will be useless for me to try to combat arguments of the American press with which I am not even superficially acquainted. Of course, if American workingmen will not read their own states’ Labor Reports, but trust to politicians' extracts, nobody can help them. But it strikes me that the present chronic depression, which seems endless so far, will tell its tale in America as well as in England. America will smash up England’s industrial monopoly — whatever there is left of it — but America cannot herself succeed to that monopoly. And unless one country has the monopoly of the markets of the world, at least in the decisive branches of trade, the conditions — relatively favorable — which existed here in England from 1848 to 1870 cannot anywhere be reproduced, and even in America the condition of the working class must gradually sink lower and lower. For if there are three countries (say England, America and Germany) competing on comparatively equal terms for the possession of the Weltmarkt, there is no chance but chronic overproduction, one of the three being capable of supplying the whole quantity required. That is the reason why I am watching the development of the present crisis with greater interest than ever and why I believe it will mark an epoch in the mental and political history of the American and English working classes — the very two whose assistance is as absolutely necessary as it is desirable.

Yours very truly,
F. Engels

Friedrich Engels to Florence Kelley [Wischnewetzky], London, 3 February 1886, from Science and Society Volume II, Number 3, 1938; translated and edited by Leonard E. Mins

Urban Renewal #10, Hongkou District, Shanghai: photo by Edward Burtynsky, 2004 (Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works)

Urban Renewal #14, Hongkou District, Shanghai: photo by Edward Burtynsky, 2004 (Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works)

Urban Renewal #5, City Overview From Top of Military Hospital, Shanghai: photo by Edward Burtynsky, 2004 (Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works)

Urban Renewal #6, Apartment Complex, JiangjunAo, Hong Kong
: photo by Edward Burtynsky, 2004 (Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works)

Shanghai City Panorama: photo by Edward Burtynsky, 2004 (Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works) 
Shanty town, Manila, beside Manila City Jail (seen from Recto LRT Station): photo by Mile Gonzalez, 20 May 2007  
Sun sets over the old medina in central Tripoli: photo by Patrick André Perron, 2007  
Downtown Chicago, viewed from Willis Tower: photo by Charles Voogd, September 1999

Shanghai, night view down Yan'an Road, from Jin Mao Tower
: photo by Aapo Haarinen, 3 February 2006
Hong Kong Skyline: panoramic view (detail): photo by Diliff, 2007


L’Enfant de la Haute Mer said...

Thank you Tom!

CM said...

TC said...


Many thanks.

Touching, tangible, yes -- that's the impact, that's the melancholy, those the afterthoughts, those the wonderments, the fears, the great humility before the unknown in what has passed, in what may be yet to come.

The city as a form of social organisation, arranged for the profit and convenience of the few, resulting in the suffering of the very great many.

But we are to take these movements of history as movements of nature, it seems... though of course they are not that at all. Nature has never been responsible for what people do, it just joins in among the great mass of the victims.


Great link, extremely pertinent, especially in light of the Thomas Annan post just below this one.

The contrast between day and night, light and shade, surface shine and depth meaning -- that great grey area in which we wander now, helplessly as it some nights does seem.

"You cannot make this city all shiny and polished and pretend it's something that it's not."

Amen to that.

ACravan said...

This is a truly stimulating and moving "photo-essay," which I would love to see widely reproduced because it deeply stimulates thought about so many important subjects in a trenchant (it crystallizes series of complex thoughts) and, as they like to say, "entertaining" (all the photographs stay in and infect the mind) way. I can also see this being filmed and narrated. In Manhattan in cold hard rain yesterday for a meeting concerning possible infomercial exploitation of an organic beauty product, I was reminded again how the city turns people into a larger and smaller lab rats scurrying through larger and smaller mazes. "I shall try to make it as short as possible." I really love that. You can feel the quality of thought in just that one sentence. Curtis

TC said...

Thanks, Curtis.

Odd you should mention " the city turns people into a larger and smaller lab rats scurrying through larger and smaller mazes," because the more time I spent with these photos, and other photos not unlike them, the more disoriented I became...

Once a psychotherapist lived next door here, and she subscribed to a journal of clinical psychology, and once an issue was misdelivered to our mailbox. Before redirecting it, we looked inside and found an article which illustrated the effects of a certain powerful drug. Rats were held by their tails a few feet above a lab table... and dropped. The various contortions of their descending bodies, and the way in which they hit the table, and flopped about, and so on, were shown in sequence shots. Absolutely horrifying.

The instant sensation was -- Yes!

And then the Trollope title flashed into mind: "The Way We Live Now".

Oh, and --

"I shall try to make it as short as possible"

-- sounds like a line spoken by an obliging military barber... in a horror movie.

I believe I can hear the buzz saw revving up even now.