I’ve written an article about my home city of Manchester and Friedrich Engels, the political philosopher and collaborator with Karl Marx. It’s published in two parts in Now Then magazine – and you can read the first part online here.
The article was prompted by the arrival from Ukraine of a statue of Engels, who lived in Manchester for 20 years. This will be the second Engels statue – the other being the controversial ‘Engel’s Beard’ outside Salford University. If you can’t wait until next month to read the full article, read on for the full story…
“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”.
So begins The Communist Manifesto. And the spirit of its authors, the political philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, can still be found in Manchester, the radical city that inspired them.
Nearly 170 years after the book’s publication and exactly 100 years after the Russian Revolution, which it inspired, that spirit is given solid form. A statue of Engels is being transported from Ukraine in the former Soviet Union and permanently erected in Tony Wilson Place, near the Home arts complex.
The statue’s journey has been filmed by Turner Prize nominated artist Phil Collins for Ceremony, the closing event of this year’s Manchester International Festival. Collins will mix live footage of the statue’s inauguration with film of the journey as it passes through places significant to Engels, including his birthplace in Wuppertal and Berlin, where Runcorn-born Collins now lives. There will be stories from modern Manchester workers collected by Collins during a year-long MIF residency. The event will be sound tracked by Mica Levi and Demdike Stare and feature a new anthem by film composer and Super Furry Animal, Gruff Rhys.
The two-tonne, 3.5-metre tall concrete statue was made in 1970 by an uncredited sculptor. It had been placed at a crossroads in a small village in the Ukraine, which at that time was still very much part of the Soviet Union. By the time Collins tracked the statue down, it had been removed to an agricultural compound and, like the Soviet Union itself, had been dismantled. Old raffia sacks hid and protected the sculpture. Part of it had been daubed with paint – the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, adopted after independence in 1991. Many Ukrainians see their country’s time in the Soviet Republic as a Russian occupation. And there was no more prolific symbol of occupation than the statues of communist heroes. There were 5,500 statues of Lenin alone in the Ukraine – two thirds of the total in the whole of the Soviet Union. Protesters for independence toppled a number of these in iconoclastic public performances, like those that would be seen after the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003.
More Ukrainian statues fell, after the ‘Euromaiden’ protests of 2013-14, which overthrew the government and led to the introduction of ‘decommunisation’ laws. These outlaw the display of communist (and fascist) symbols, including stars, the hammer and sickle, and especially statues (war memorials are exempted). Streets, towns and whole districts with communist names have to be renamed. There is some irony about erasing part of the historical record in such a Soviet style. Other former Soviet bloc countries such as Hungary have gathered together their Lenins and Marxes and put them in communist theme parks. In Berlin, one of the best and last communist statues, Ludwig Engelhardt’s 1985 double portrait statue of Marx and Engels, is still appealing to the masses (of tourists).
Collins thinks bringing Engels back to prominence in Manchester reasserts the city’s crucial role in the history of radical thought. It was the world’s first ‘nuclear free city’; the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was founded at the Mechanics Institute on Princess Street; the Suffragettes, the Vegetarian Society and the Anti-Corn Law League all began here. And 2019 marks the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre, a seminal moment in the fight for democracy when a massive, peaceful demonstration demanding parliamentary reform was charged by cavalry, where the Free Trade Hall now is. Such events will be discussed in guided walks by Blue Badge Guide Jonathan Schofield, taking place during the Manchester International Festival.
Ceremony takes place in the NCP Bridgewater Hall Car Park on Sunday 16 July from 6pm, and is free.
The Radical City runs from 3pm to 4.30pm on Festival Square at Whitworth Gallery from Wednesday 12 July to Sunday 16 July 2017. Tickets are £10
Why would Manchester want a second hand statue of Engels? It’s not the first time they have tried to get one. Dave Haslam in his book Manchester, England tells of Christine Derbyshire from Central Manchester Development Corporation, a 1980s-90s redevelopment quango. She watched statues falling on television and had the idea of getting a surplus Engels from Manchester’s twin city of Leningrad, now called St Petersburg again (see What’s In A Name? in issue 8 of Now Then Manchester available as a pdf here). One possible site for a statue was in front of the disused fire station near Piccadilly train station. The plan came to nothing and the fire station is still un-re-developed.
Had the plan gone ahead, it would not have been the first time Manchester had bought a statue with ‘one careful owner’. Abraham Lincoln was, like Engels, a hero to some, a villain to others. He was sculpted in bronze by George Grey Barnard and intended to stand outside the Houses of Parliament. But the statue was judged not statesmanlike enough, so London ordered up another one. Manchester got the old one and managed to find a link between Manchester and the US President in the form of a letter he wrote to the cotton workers of Lancashire. It stood in Platt Fields from 1919 and moved to its present location in Lincoln Square in 1986. If Lincoln’s links with Manchester were slightly tenuous, Engels was positively chained to the city.
Friedrich Engels was born in 1820 into a wealthy family in Barmen, Germany, but the 20 years he spent as a radical in Manchester are the reason for statues of him. He first came here in 1842 to look after the family’s interests in Ermen and Engels, a textile firm based in Victoria Mill in Weaste, Salford. His father hoped the move would cure the young Engels of his radical politics. It had the opposite effect. Manchester was the world’s first modern, industrial city. Here, the new class of capitalist factory owners extracted as much profit as they could from workers, whose life expectancy fell as profits rose. It was here where the conflict between capital and labour was sharpest. Manchester was then, as it is now, a radical city. Engels described the place at that time as, “The seat of the most powerful unions, the central point of Chartism [a petition calling for basic rights such as the vote], the place which numbers the most socialists”. Engels lived a double life – a respectable member of the family firm by day, radical by night.
Engels had already met Karl Marx, with whom he would collaborate and support as a patron for the rest of Marx’s life and whose work he would continue for a dozen more years, until his own death in 1895. In Manchester, Engels began the other central relationship of his life when he set up a clandestine home with Mary Burns, a working class woman of Irish descent. She guided him amongst the city’s impoverished working class. He added these first hand observations to meticulous research and the beginnings of the political philosophy he and Marx would develop. This would become his classic book The Condition of the Working Class in England. It was published in 1845 in German, but not available in English until 1887. Historian Eric Hobsbawm described it as, “By far the best single book on the working class of the period. It remains an indispensable work and a landmark in the fight for the emancipation of humanity”.
In the 1960s, a block of high rise flats in Barton was named Engels House by Salford Council and there are a couple of blue plaques, but it was only last year that Engels was honoured with a more concrete memorial – actually it was fiberglass and some critics say it dishonours his importance.
The buzzword of the defunct CMDC, who didn’t manage to get us an Engels in the 1990s, was ‘redevelopment’. Today, its private sector equivalent is ‘regeneration’ and sculptors in search of public commissions have to make work that “engages with communities”. In the case of an artwork for Salford University’s new Adelphi arts campus, this meant a five-metre tall fiberglass sculpture called Engels’ Beard. The design came from Jai Redman of Engine, a Salford arts production company. He too had read in Dave Haslam’s book about trying to get an Engels statue, and decided to make his own. Redman’s sculpture inexplicably incorporates a climbing wall in its rear elevation. Journalist and lecturer Rachel Broady described the concept as “fodder for regeneration nostalgia” and was quoted in the Salford Star saying:
“At a time when Salford children are experiencing increasing poverty and a rise in Victorian diseases, I think as a city we should look more closely at the work of Engels, instead we’re invited to climb his face in what seems to be an ironic beard joke that’s gone too far.”
So does the mid-19th Century work of Engels and Marx have anything to say to workers in Manchester today? A small exhibition at The Working Class Movement Library concludes that they do. Workers are still as exploited, though globalisation means the very worst examples are no longer in Manchester.
The Life and Works of Marx and Engels runs until 29 September at Working Class Movement Library. The Library is open Wednesday-Friday, 1-5pm, and the first Saturday of the month 10am-4pm. Admission is free.