Dig, Hammer, Spin, Weave

Miles Taylor

  • The Letters of Richard Cobden. Vol. I: 1815-47 edited by Anthony Howe
    Oxford, 529 pp, £100.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 921195 1

By the time Friedrich Engels arrived in England in the winter of 1842, the country already had a class warrior of its own. One of Engels’s new neighbours in downtown Manchester had spent the summer warning his countrymen of imminent social catastrophe. ‘It is my firm belief,’ Richard Cobden told the House of Commons in July, ‘that within six months we shall have populous districts in the north in a state of social dissolution.’ Privately, he was even less guarded. ‘The manufacturing classes’, he confided to a newspaper friend, now had, ‘like another Samson, the strength to pull down the entire fabric’. And as Engels settled into his new life as a clerk in Cottonopolis – counting thread by day and exploring the city’s slums and beer shops by night – Cobden’s reputation as the harbinger of middle-class revolution grew. His name lurked behind rumours of a tax revolt, of votes gerrymandered and signatures forged on petitions, and even an assassination attempt on Robert Peel, the prime minister. The young and impressionable Engels, whose daily walk to work took him past the Manchester offices of the Cobden brothers’ calico empire, was impressed. For the rest of his life, Engels was convinced that Cobden was the archetype of the English revolutionary bourgeois. So was Marx.

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