"It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness..." Karl Marx
As the General Election looms and political commentators are saying that it is being fought on age, and on nationalism and Brexit, rather than 'the conditions of the working class', do Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels still have anything to say?
A new exhibition on The Life and Works of Marx and Engels at the Working Class Movement Library gives people a chance to check out what Marx and Engels actually wrote and decide for themselves whether "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" of the working class still exists. And whether "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggle" still applies.
Around the walls of the exhibition are huge easy to read boards that take the viewer right through the simplified theories of the pair - from Das Kapital to The Communist Manifesto and more - that fired revolutions all over the world... "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win..." The boards also detail what was going off in the North West while Marx and Engels were here...
"Engels wanted to see a place at the forefront of industrialisation in the 1840s and unrest, as 1842 was a critical year for the working class action in the North West and people were killed on demonstrations to support the Chartist movement" explains David Hargreaves, one of seven volunteers at the Library who put the exhibition together
"They arrived at the right time, in the right place, to understand what was happening in the most advanced industrial economy" he adds "Marx and Engels were rooted in the local area."
Indeed, while there's no absolute proof, the exhibition maintains that Engels met the love of his life, Mary Burns, at his factory in Weaste in 1843...
"It was...the beginning of a crucially important personal and working relationship" the exhibition board states "Mary's background in the slums of Manchester proved invaluable in revealing the worst of Manchester's exploitation of the poor. Thus, by day Engels worked as a cotton merchant; by night he and Mary scoured the slum streets recording the suffering and deprivation..."
Those trips to the slums became the basis for The Conditions of the Working Class in England, which Hargreaves describes as "one of the major works of the 19th Century... it's an unappreciated work that's still available in cheap editions and is worth reading as it's incredibly vivid. The Communist Manifesto and The Conditions of the Working Class are the two things to read as a result of coming round the exhibition..."
And for those who want more about the history of Engels' time in the area, the Library has opened up its archive of photos, maps and studies of his 'Homes and Official Homes' which he ran to protect his duel life and avoid the secret police. The boards also commentate on speculation that Marx and Engels drank in The Crescent pub, The Grapes in Eccles, and The Gold Cup and Coach and Horses in Manchester.
And post-Marx and Engels, the exhibition also covers their political legacy, from Stalin to Mao and beyond – but, never mind the Bolshies, were the theories of Marx and Engels correct?
"If Marx and Engels were somehow 'wrong' in asserting that the working class will get progressively poorer it is by their tools of analysis that you can understand that the same mills, with the same employment practices, child labour, high rates of accidents and lack of rights have now relocated to Bangladesh and other countries" states the legacy board...
"...Those 'respectable' investors in international capitalism still live off the products of suffering and the complex financial instruments of a capitalism behaving exactly as Marx and Engels portrayed..." it concludes, adding that the works are not a 'holy text'.
"We wanted to make sure that people understood who Marx and Engels were and what they wrote, rather than what they thought might be the case" Hargreaves explains "...People have heard many things about Marx and Engels, but don't read contemporary books, go back and read Marx and Engels and see if there's anything for you today. And if you do, there's lots more to read..."
The Life and Works of Marx and Engels isn't an all singing, all dancing exhibition. It's a calm reflection of the most important theorists of the 19th Century and their links to the area. For anyone who really wants to know about history and its place today, spend an hour perusing and musing this exhibition – and then take a tour of the full Library to see the artefacts from the ongoing struggles of the working class...
As the final exhibition board states, "The best way to change the future is to explore and develop a deep understanding of the past..."
The Life and Works of Marx and Engels
Until 29th September
Working Class Movement Library
51 Crescent, M5 4WX
The Library is open Wednesdays to Fridays 1-5pm, and the first Saturday of the month 10am-4pm. Admission is free.
For further details see www.wcml.org.uk or phone 0161 736 3601
See also the Salford Star Engels special 'Are You Ready For Freddy?', taken from the print magazine issue 6 – click here and follow the links