“Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy”: Friedrich Engels and the Conditions of the Irish Working Class

[Cross-posted from The Irish Story]

In May 1856, an unassuming German industrialist and his common-law Irish wife arrived in Ireland for a tour of the country. Writing to an old friend in London, another ex-patriot German, the wealthy tourist described his trip, from Dublin to Galway and down along the west coast, the landscape, and the people he met along the way. Post-Famine Ireland was an island of ruins, some dating back to the early middle-ages, some more recent: “The land is an utter desert which nobody wants.” The level of policing was intrusive and shocking in “England’s first colony” and “I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country… armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.” Additionally, the locals, “for all their Irish fanaticism”, were being made to feel increasingly unwelcome: “By consistent oppression they have been artificially converted into an utterly impoverished nation and now, as everyone knows, fulfil the function of supplying England, America, Australia, etc., with prostitutes, casual labourers, pimps, pickpockets, swindlers, beggars and other rabble.” The German industrialist traveller was Friedrich Engels. His common law wife was Mary Burns (older sister of Lizzy Burns, who would later be Engels’ second wife). And his German correspondent in London was, of course, Karl Marx. Indeed, Engels ended his letter with a desire to write a History of Ireland and an admonitory request that his old comrade should visit Ireland: “Concerning the ways and means by which England rules this country – repression and corruption – long before Bonaparte attempted this, I shall write shortly if you won’t come over soon. How about it?”[1]

Lizzy Burns        Young Engels Lizzy Burns (1827-1878) and a young Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

In fact, Engels had long had a fascination with the Irish (not least with regards to his two Irish wives). Echoing his observations about Irish migrant labour in his 1856 letter to Marx, his famous 1844 work on The Condition of the Working Class in England features a detailed excursus on the Irish population in Manchester’s “Little Ireland” slum district. Engels described how Irish immigrants, with “nothing to lose at home”, were flocking to cities like Manchester in search of “good pay for strong arms”. At his time of writing, there were 40,000 Irish in Manchester, with similar numbers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Liverpool. London had 120,000. Yet Engels looked askance at a people who had “grown up almost without civilization” and were now importing their “rough, intemperate, and improvident” ways and “all their brutal habits” into Britain’s already overcrowded cities. The Irish arrived “like cattle” and “insinuate themselves everywhere.” In quasi-ethnographic terms, Engels claimed that “Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises as different from the Saxon physiognomy.” Focusing on “filth and drunkenness” and a “lack of cleanliness… which is the Irishman’s second nature”, Engels moved into a more racialised key, perhaps revealing his own biases along the way.

Little Ireland 1849

Little Ireland Plaque

“Little Ireland”, Manchester, 1849 and today

“The Irishman”, Engels wrote in the singular, “loves his pig as the Arab his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fat enough to kill.” Bearing in mind that “Arab” in the nineteenth century referred to Bedouins, rather than any Arabic-speaking person, it is clear where Engels was placing the Irish in a broader racial hierarchy. They were a people with “a southern facile character” and “For work which requires long training or regular, pertinacious application, the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane.” They were too different, and too backward, to ever be properly assimilated into British life: “even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilized, enough of the old habits would cling to them to have a strong degrading influence upon their English companions in toil, especially in view of the general effect of being surrounded by the Irish.”[2] In many ways, he presented Irish immigrants to industrial Britain as exhibiting what he and Marx would later call “the idiocy of rural life”, a backward people who would soon be submerged by the dynamics of industrial capitalism.[3]

Yet his moralizing tone and his racial determinism could also accommodate a certain envy about Irish political power. Writing in June 1843 for Der Schweizerische Republikaner [The Swiss Republican], Engels eyed up Daniel O’Connell’s famous monster meetings with leftist jealousy:

“The wily old fox gets around from town to town always surrounded by two hundred thousand men, a bodyguard such as no king can boast of. How much could be achieved if a sensible man possessed O’Connell’s popularity, or if O’Connell had a little more sense and a little less egoism and vanity! Two thousand men, and what kind of men! Men who have nothing to lose, two-thirds of them not having a shirt to their backs, they are real proletarians and sansculottes, and moreover Irishmen – wild, headstrong, fanatical Gaels. If one has not seen the Irish, one does not know them. Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy.”[4]

As Engels gained in philosophical sophistication, his use of such overtly racialized language tailed off. His earliest writings on Ireland date from only a few months after his first meeting with Marx; they had met at the offices of the Rheinische Zeitung [Rhinelander Newspaper] in November 1842, shortly after which Engels’ stern father dispatched his troublesome twenty-two year-old son to the family’s cotton mills in Manchester.[5] First by correspondence, later in person, Marx and Engels developed their materialist understanding of history and social change. Increasingly, Engels explained people’s behaviours not in terms of inborn racial tendencies but in terms of material conditions under industrial capitalism. Nonetheless, the Irish continued to occupy a curious status for Engels. They were now the living exemplars of a pre-capitalist social formation, and visiting contemporary Ireland provided a front-row seat to the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism.

Ermen and Engels Mill, adjacent to the  Manchester-Liverpool Railway Line

The Ermen and Engels Mills, adjacent to the Liverpool-Manchester trainline

In the notes for his sadly unfinished History of Ireland – begun around 1870 – Engels traced Irish economic development back to their “ancient origins”. Engels even flirted with self-taught Irish language classes for his study of Irish history, only to admit his frustration with this “philological nonsense” to Marx.[6] It was Ireland’s “obvious… misfortune”, Engels said, to be so geographically close to England, which retarded the country’s trajectory out of feudalism and into capitalism: “the English assisted nature by crushing every seed of Irish industry as soon as it appeared.”[7] Whilst preparing for this work, Engels had come to feel that “communal ownership of land was Anno 1600 still in full force in Ireland.”[8] Pre-capitalist forms of social organisation and property-ownership lingered on in Ireland long after they had disappeared in Britain. In a letter to Marx in early 1870, Engels confessed that “The more I study the subject, the clearer it is to me that Ireland has been stunted in her development by the English invasion and thrown centuries back”.[9]

Marx had similar views. Writing in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, he placed the restructuring of land-ownership in post-Famine Ireland in a longer history of land enclosures in early modern England and the Highland Clearances in post-1745 Scotland. In his florid journalistic prose, Marx spoke of how “the pauperised inhabitants of Green Erin” were being “swept away by agricultural improvements” and by the “breaking down of the antiquated system of society.”[10]

For Marx, as for Engels, Ireland still displayed traits of feudal property-ownership but was now being violently dragged into capitalist modernity.   Yet, this traumatic transformation also held out a revolutionary possibility. In contrast to the “solid, but slow” conservatism of “the Anglo-Saxon Worker”, Irish immigrant labourers had a “revolutionary fire”.[11] Not fully schooled in the rules of private-property, they carried their essentially non-capitalist consciousness to the very heart of capitalist Britain. This was a contradiction that needed to be exploited politically. Just as he had written in Der Schweizerische Republikaner in 1843, Engels continued to feel that the Irish could be the ones to bring down the British state. Marx similarly saw Ireland as the “weakest point”[12] in the British Empire, and looked forward to a social revolution that would be “Ireland’s Revenge” upon England.[13]

Indeed, Engels and Marx were of one mind in their view that Fenianism, a product of this contradiction, could be a revolutionary force on both sides of the Irish Sea:

“What the English do not yet know is that since 1846 the economic content and therefore also the political aim of English domination in Ireland have entered into an entirely new phase, and that precisely because of this, Fenianism is characterised by a socialistic tendency (in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation of the soil) and by being a lower orders movement.”[14]

Which is to say, by Marx and Engels’ lights, Fenians were unconscious socialists. Giving voice to the resentments of dispossessed Irish peasants, they stood in unwitting opposition to the transformation of rural Ireland into a capitalist economy. Not that this detracted from Engels’ perception (at the time of the 1867 trial of the “Manchester Martyrs”) that the leaders of Fenianism were “mostly asses”.[15]

Engels’ later writings, though, were less hopeful for the revolutionary future of Ireland. Visiting Ireland again in September 1869, with Lizzy Burns and Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, he saw some important changes. Dublin was now “unrecognisable”. Trade was at a high level at the port and the city had acquired a newly cosmopolitan air: “On Queenstown Quay I heard a lot of Italian, also Serbian, French and Danish or Norwegian spoken.” All of this portended a regrettable conclusion: “The worst about the Irish is that they become corruptible as soon as they stop being peasants and turn bourgeois. True, that is the case with most peasant nations. But in Ireland it is particularly bad.” [16] It would appear that Ireland had made the leap from feudalism to capitalism before Engels or Marx could finish theorizing the transformation.

Old EngelsEngels, 1891

Indeed, in an 1888 interview with the New Yorker Volkszeitung [New Yorker People’s Newspaper], Engels confessed that “A purely socialist movement cannot be expected in Ireland for a considerable time. People there want first of all to become peasants owning a plot of land, and after they have achieved that mortgages will appear on the scene and they will be ruined once more.”[17] Looking to a bleak future, Engels made the intriguing prophesy that for socialist revolution to take root, Ireland would have to wait for a mortgage-backed financial crisis to ruin the country!

[1] Letter from Engels to Marx, 23 May, 1856. Reprinted in full in L.I. Golman, V.E. Kunina, eds. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Ireland and the Irish Question (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971) 83-85

[2] All quotes are taken from the chapter on “Irish Immigration”, in The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press/Oxford World Classics, 1999) 101-105

[3] The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) 84

[4] ‘Letters from London’ (1843). In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 33-36

[5] Tristram Hunt. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (New York: Henry Holt, 2009) 63-64

[6] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[7] Friedrich Engels, ‘History of Ireland’. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 171-209

[8] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 279-280

[9] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[10]New York Daily Tribune, 9 February 1853, 22 March, 1853. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 53-58

[11] Karl Marx, ‘Confidential Communications’. Die Neue Zeit, 28 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 160-163

[12] Letter from Karl Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 5 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 290

[13] Karl Marx. ‘Ireland’s Revenge’. Neue Oder-Zeitung, 16 March, 1855. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 74-76

[14] Letter from Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 30 November ,1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 147

[15] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 145

[16] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 27 September, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 273-274

[17] 20 September, 1888. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 343


Private Property and Adam Ferguson’s Civic Masculinity

On the 18 December 1745, at the height of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, the First Highland Regiment, under the command of Lord John Murray, were treated to a sermon by their chaplain. Addressing them in their native Scots Gaelic, their reverend urged them to live up to strong Christian ideals, to protect the Hanoverian state, and to strive to embody a militarised vision of civic British masculinity.

Adam FergusonAdam Ferguson (1723-1816)

The chaplain was a young Adam Ferguson, a leading savant of the Scottish Enlightenment, but one whose work has not remained as well known as contemporaries like Adam Smith or David Hume. His sermon was published as a pamphlet the following year with the unwieldy title of A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language to His Majesty’s First Highland Regiment of Foot, Commanded by Lord John Murray, at their Cantonment at Camberwell, on the 18th Day of December, 1745. Being appointed as a Solemn Fast. By the Reverend Mr. Adam Ferguson, Chaplain to the said Regiment; And Translated by him into English, for the Use of a Lady of Quality in Scotland, at whose Desire it is now published.[1]

A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language

In the printed English-language version of the sermon, Ferguson’s social reformist admonishments are built around a recurring Biblical quote: “Be of good Courage, and let us play the Men for our People, and for the Cities of God.” (II Samuel, 10:12). It is not entirely clear, though, what exact terminology Ferguson used in the original Gaelic [or Ersh]. Ferguson was a fluent Scots Gaelic speaker, but had no literacy in the language (when the fraudulent James MacPherson began to show his supposedly ancient Gaelic manuscripts around Edinburgh in the early 1760s, Ferguson was intrigued but later admitted his inability to read them).[2] Even then, there were no proper Scots Gaelic translations of the Bible until as late as 1801. Prior to this, vernacular evangelisers had recourse to a Classical Irish translation, where II Samuel 10:12 reads as follows: Bíodh meisneach mhaith agad, agus foillsighearn sinn féin ar bhfearuibh ar son ar bpobail, agus ar son chairthreach ar Ndé [“Let there be a good courage on you, and we ourselves will exhibit as men for the cause of our community and for the cause of the cities of our God”].[3] The gendered performativity in which Ferguson engaged is less explicit in the original Hebrew of Samuel: chezek u-nitchezek b’ad amanu u-b’ad ari eliahnu [“Be strong and let us both be strong, for the sake of our people and for the sake of the cities of our God”].

In any case, the quote used in the printed translation, taken from the King James Bible, carries a suggestion of consciously adopted and performative masculinity (“let us play the Men”) and resonates throughout the pamphlet. And an overtly expressed notion of a performative civic masculinity was certainly foregrounded in Ferguson’s political theology, whether his original sermon drew on the King James Vesion or on an impromptu Gaelic translation. For Ferguson, it is “the Duty of every Man to defend his country when in Danger”. The present circumstances, of the 1745 uprising, provided an important moment for inculcating this masculine ideal. Not only did the threat to the Hanoverian order require men “to be active in its Defence”, but the crisis was a useful opportunity for social reform: “It is from this Consideration that at particular Times, but more especially in Times of general Distress, the National Authority is interposed to admonish every Congregation and Society of Men to humble themselves before God in a solemn and open manner, that he may avert his deserved Judgements from us, and bless our Resolutions towards a better Conduct for the future.” The British military, with its discipline and engaged masculinity, was a model for the wider social order favoured by Ferguson.

In the early sections of the pamphlet, the antithesis of this social order, the Jacobites, remain faceless and nameless. Talking of how proper male behaviour will “draw down the Blessing of God upon your Country, and contribute to its Peace and good Order’” he also mentions how such ordered behaviour will protect society from “the Assaults of its [unnamed] Enemies”. Ferguson’s recurring Biblical trope also does important work here, placing the Jacobites on the wrong side of a divinely ordained history. Where the British state is a reborn Israel, the Jacobites become ungodly Moabites or Ammonites; their political objectives thus do not need to be discussed, since they stem from inherent evil and a willful desire for disorder.

As he progresses, however, Ferguson becomes less circumspect about the Jacobites and this allows him to more fully sketch out his own idealised social order. Describing civic society as natural and ordained by God – “Society, under the Regulation of Laws and Government, is the State for which Providence has calculated our natures” – Ferguson presents patriotism as “the most manly virtue” and thus civic society is a natural fraternal order. And it is here that private property enters the argument. Though men have a natural tendency towards living in a society, it is nonetheless the case that “Laws are necessary to secure of Persons and Properties, to protect the Weak and restrain the Violent.” Since the State protects property, it also behoves all citizens/property-owners to fund the cost of the State: “we can no longer hesitate in drawing our Conclusion, that each Member is bound, both on account of his own and the publick Welfare, to maintain that League from which he derives so many blessings” and harmony is a necessary component of this social order.

Having established what the proper social order should be, Ferguson proceeds to identify the contemporary state which best exemplifies this ideal. Unsurprisingly it is the British state fighting the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Highlands. As well as being a place where “Every man may openly profess his Sentiments”, Britain is also a society built on economic liberty and with the proper defence of private property. It is precisely this divinely ordained early capitalist society that the Pretender and his Catholic followers seek to destroy: “What can we expect in our civil or religious Concerns from a Popish King, but the Subversion of our Liberty, and the intire [sic] Corruption of our Religion… Ignorance and Superstition again resume their Tyranny in these Lands, and we and our Posterity bend to the unnatural Dominion of Priests and Churchmen.” Digging further, Ferguson identifies the ways in which a Catholic king would threaten British men’s masculinity. British men now live “under the best Government”, one that protects the property-ownership that makes them free men. Conversely, under Charlie, they would have a king “who has a Right to command Us, our Persons, and Estates.” Their status as free men, with sovereignty, private land ownership and political subjectivity, would be undermined: “Are we then, by Birth, the Property of a Man? and may we be bought and sold like the Beasts of the Field.” Jacobite rule would move them from being men to the status of degraded slaves.

An Essay on the History of Civil Society

The short pamphlet contains, in embryo, many of the themes and ideas Ferguson would later develop in his more famous work, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767); militarism, a fear of social disorder, a desire for careful social reform. That the Scottish Enlightenment was heavily invested in social reform has long been recognised. What Adam Ferguson’s obscure 1745 sermon shows is how strong a role masculinity and private property could play in this social transformation.

[1] (London: A. Millar, 1746).

[2] Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2008) 247fn59.

[3] An Biobla Naomhtha (London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, 1817). This edition is a reprint of an earlier translation.