Marx and Engels on Kay-Shuttleworth

NB Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth is addressed in these texts under his original name of ‘Dr Kay’. I found these articles by entering ‘Dr Kay’ into the search engine of the excellent Marx Engels Internet Archive (

It is worth including some extracts from these articles. Both are worth reading fully, of course.


Engels’ own report on the conditions of the poor (Engels [1845]) quotes from Kay and from various UK Government and local Commission reports and investigations. He adds his own observations in order to present as full a report as possible of the appalling conditions in major English (and Irish cities). The piece is very powerful in disclosing in gruesome detail the real conditions of the poor, especially for those bourgeois readers who would never normally encounter them: the cities were carefully segregated so the poorest districts could be avoided fairly easily. Engel’s report is sometimes credited for helping Marx switch from a ‘philosophical’ critique to a more ‘scientific’ and analytic one, although Engels himself denies this (in Marx and Engels [1848]).

The specific sections referring to ‘Dr Kay’ in Engels [1845a] are these.

‘[after extensive quotation and citing of his initial report on the poor of Manchester] Dr. Kay confuses the working-class in general with the factory workers, otherwise an excellent pamphlet’.-- Note by Engels.

And later:

 The author [Gaskell] is a Liberal, but wrote at a time when it was not a feature of Liberalism to chant the happiness of the workers. He is therefore unprejudiced, and can afford to have eyes for the evils of the present state of things, and especially for the factory system. On the other hand, he wrote before the Factories Enquiry Commission, and adopts from untrustworthy sources many assertions afterwards refuted by the report of the Commission. This work, although on the whole a valuable one, can therefore only be used with discretion, especially as the author, like Kay, confuses the whole working-class with the mill-hands.

 In another chapter (Engles [1845b]), there are some interesting remarks about Kay’s findings about the contribution of the Irish poor to the general degradation of the poor in Manchester. After condemning the ‘exaggerated and one-sided condemnation of the Irish national character’ in Carlyle’s work:

In short, the Irish have, as Dr. Kay says, discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are now making the English workers acquainted with it… The lack of cleanliness, which is not so injurious in the country, where population is scattered, and which is the Irishman's second nature, becomes terrifying and gravely dangerous through its concentration here in the great cities.

And later a more general remark:

And even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilised, 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. For when, in almost every great city, a fifth or a quarter of the workers are Irish, or children of Irish parents, who have grown up among Irish filth, no one can wonder if the life, habits, intelligence, moral status -- in short, the whole character of the working-class assimilates a great part of the Irish characteristics. On the contrary, it is easy to understand how the degrading position of the English workers, engendered by our modern history, and its immediate consequences, has been still more degraded by the presence of Irish competition.


It is worth quoting a bit more extensively from Marx’s two sequential articles written in 1844, collected in the same online file (Marx (1844a]) because they outline a useful context. They indicate Marx’s more general critique of liberal or social democrat plans for political reform to address or even abolish poverty. Kay is one spokesperson for this position, of course.

The editors’ notes reveal that:

This two-part article was a reply to Marx’s former co-editor Arnold Ruge, who was the anonymous "Prussian" [in the title of the articles] who, in Vorwarts! No.60 had written a piece generally playing down the Silesian weavers’ revolt and calling for state-initiated reform to address their problems. Marx wrote this to clarify his break with Ruge, criticize Ruge’s ideas of state reform, and to make it very clear he was not the anonymous "Prussian." (The area of the Rhine on which Marx was born had been ceded to Prussia after the Napoleonic Wars.) Both parts were written in Paris, July 1844.

 Marx criticises Ruge’s emphasis on the need for the rebellious Silesian weavers to develop a more conventional ‘political’ programme and points to the limits in getting involved in conventional politics

 [In England] According to the Whigs, the chief cause of pauperism is to be discovered in the monopoly of landed property and in the laws prohibiting the import of grain. In the Tory view, the source of the trouble lies in liberalism, in competition and the excesses of the factory system. Neither party discovers the explanation in politics itself but only in the politics of the other party. Neither party would even dream of a reform of society as a whole.

After suggesting that ‘the Prussian’ reformer closely examines English politics, which has been trying reform for some years:

Even that section of the English bourgeoisie which is conscious of the dangers of pauperism regards both the dangers and the means for remedying them not merely as particular problems, but – to put it bluntly – in a childish and absurd manner.

Thus, for example, in his pamphlet "Recent Measures for the Promotion of Education in England", Dr Kay reduces the whole question to the neglect of education. It is not hard to guess the reason! He argues that the worker’s lack of education prevents him from understanding the "natural laws of trade", laws which necessarily reduce him to pauperism. For this reason, the worker rises up in rebellion. And this rebellion may well "cause embarrassment to the prosperity of the English manufactures and English commerce, impair the mutual confidence of businessmen and diminish the stability of political and social institutions."

This is the extent of the insanity of the English bourgeoisie and its press on the subject of pauperism, the national epidemic of England.

Thus constant discussion of poverty in conventional politics, even when done sincerely and on the basis of statistical reports like Kay’s, leads only to an apology for what is seen as an intractable problem.

The general lesson learnt by political England from its experience of pauperism is none other than that, in the course of history and despite all administrative measures, pauperism has developed into a national institution which has inevitably become the object of a highly ramified and extensive administrative system, a system however which no longer sets out to eliminate it, but which strives instead to discipline and perpetuate it. This administrative system has abandoned all attempts to stop pauperism at its source through positive measures; it confines itself to preparing a grave for it with true police mildness as soon as it erupts on the surface of officialdom. Far from advancing beyond administrative and charitable measures, the English state has regressed to a far more primitive position. It dispenses its administrative gifts only to that pauperism which is induced by despair to allow itself to be caught and incarcerated.

 Marx gives another example in the proud boast of Napoleon that he would abolish poverty in France and set up an administrative system to provide relief:

On July 5, 1808, the law to suppress begging was enacted. By what means? By means of the depots which were so speedily transformed into penal institutions that in a short time the poor man could gain access to one only via a police court. Nevertheless, M. Noailles du Gard, a member of the legislative body, was able to declare,

Eternal gratitude to the hero who has found a refuge for the needy and the means of life for the poor. Childhood will no longer be abandoned, poor families will no longer lack resources, not will workers go without encouragements and employment. Nous pas ne seront plus arretes par l’image degoutante des infirmites et de la honteuse misere. [We will no longer be hampered by the disgusting sight of illness and shameful misery.]

This last cynical statement is the only truth contained in this eulogy.

Thus even more politically advanced countries (compared to Prussia) have failed to deal with poverty, and have ended with having to police it. This is not surprising since the modern State cannot deal with poverty without criticizing and thus destroying the whole basis on which it is established, to regulate private capitalist interests a bit but without abolishing them:

But in their attempts to come to grips with pauperism every government has struck fast at charitable and administrative measures or even regressed to a more primitive stage than that.

Can the state do otherwise?

The state will never discover the source of social evils in the "state and the organization of society"… Wherever there are political parties each party will attribute every defect of society to the fact that its rival is at the helm of the state instead of itself. Even the radical and revolutionary politicians look for the causes of evil not in the nature of the state but in a specific form of the state which they would like to replace with another form of the state.

From a political point of view, the state and the organization of society are not two different things. The state is the organization of society. In so far as the state acknowledges the existence of social grievances, it locates their origins either in the laws of nature over which no human agency has control, or in private life, which is independent of the state, or else in malfunctions of the administration which is dependent on it. Thus England finds poverty to be based on the law of nature according to which the population must always outgrow the available means of subsistence. From another point of view, it explains pauperism as the consequence of the bad will of the poor, just as the King of Prussia explains it in terms of the unchristian feelings of the rich and the Convention explains it in terms of the counter-revolutionary and suspect attitudes of the proprietors

Liberal theorists of the modern State cannot think this through:

The more powerful a state and hence the more political a nation, the less inclined it is to explain the general principle governing social ills and to seek out their causes by looking at the principle of the statei.e., at the actual organization of society of which the state is the active, self-conscious and official expression. Political understanding is just political understanding because its thought does not transcend the limits of politics. The sharper and livelier it is, the more incapable is it of comprehending social problems. The classical period of political understanding is the French Revolution. Far from identifying the principle of the state as the source of social ills, the heroes of the French Revolution held social ills to be the source of political problems. Thus Robespierre regarded great wealth and great poverty as an obstacle to pure democracy. He therefore wished to establish a universal system of Spartan frugality. The principle of politics is the will. The more one-sided – i.e., the more perfect – political understanding is, the more completely it puts its faith in the omnipotence of the will the blinder it is towards the natural and spiritual limitations of the will, the more incapable it becomes of discovering the real source of the evils of society.

Marx continues in the second article in the series, seemingly advocating a kind of radicalisation through the experience of struggle itself:

He [the ‘Prussian’] should consider the matter from the correct vantage-point. He would then realize that not a single one of the French and English insurrections has had the same theoretical and conscious character as the Silesian weavers’ rebellion.

This first of the Weaver’s Song [by Heinrich Heine], that intrepid battle-cry which does not even mention hearth, factory, or district but in which the proletariat at once proclaims its antagonism to the society of private property in the most decisive, aggressive, ruthless and forceful manner. The Silesian rebellion starts where the French and English workers’ finish, namely with an understanding of the nature of the proletariat. This superiority stamps the whole episode. Not only were machines destroyed, those competitors of the workers, but also the account books, the titles of ownership, and whereas all other movements had directed their attacks primarily at the visible enemy, namely the industrialists, the Silesian workers turned also against the hidden enemy, the bankers. Finally, not one English workers’ uprising was carried out with such courage, foresight and endurance.

And later:

 The more developed and the more comprehensive is the political understanding of a nation, the more the proletariat will squander its energies – at least in the initial stages of the movement – in senseless, futile uprisings that will be drowned in blood. Because it thinks in political terms, it regards the will as the cause of all evils and force and the overthrow of a particular form of the state as the universal remedy.


There are several comments to make about these criticisms. In the first place, both Engels and Marx are illustrating their general views about ideology. In Engels’s piece, the liberal investigators of poverty are seen as performing useful critique of the more idealistic versions of life in industrial societies. At least Dr Kay had taken the trouble to go and find out about the conditions in which the poor lived and not relied on ludicrous sentiment about ‘Olde England’, or taken at their word the apologists.

It is interesting to note that neither wants to take on the specific findings here, through any sort of critique of positivism, and the findings are taken as straightforward and largely accurate descriptions of reality. Indeed, both Marx and Engels were happy to quote from official statistics to support their points, although with a rhetorical intent. That they came from liberal researchers was seen as a further guarantee. Some of the implications which are drawn are criticized as we shall see below, but there is no attempt to see the implications as implied in the methods, or to see the methods producing the data as insufficiently critical themselves. The more general philosophical methods are criticised by implication though -- ideological thought finds itself unable to critique central concepts like the State or to see how 'politics' is connected to the 'private sphere'. Marx's work on 'the Jewish Question' ( Marx [1844b]) spells this out particularly well for American radical thinkers like Tom Paine (and see below).

The controversial issues for a modern reader concern the Irish, of course. Kay’s own condemnation of the Irish is mediated a bit by explaining their habits as due to the appalling social conditions in Ireland, but he still seems to see some residual problem in their national culture. Engels is even more clear in his condemnation of ‘national character’, but he also endorses the perception of the Irish as offering a general, deep and enduring problem. A modern critic might well see in these remarks a modern racism: we are not very far from notions of the Irish (in this case) ‘swamping’ and then corrupting the hardworking English. In neither case has this view been thought through very carefully. Neither author seems to have the methodological power to deconstruct these common perceptions of the Irish. Rhetorically, it seems more important to separate out the Irish poor in order to preserve the merits and qualities of the English proletariate.

It is possible to see in Marx’s arguments echoes of another controversial piece that he wrote about the emancipation of the Jews in Germany (Marx K [1844b]). The bulk of the article is a trenchant criticism of the whole apparatus of human rights and liberal policy which radicalizes the conventions of feudal societies at the political level, but leaves alone the only thing that really matters – private property and private interest. This piece also contains a number of remarks about Jews as ‘hucksters’, obsessed by money, transforming even Christian Gospel into a series of commodities. On the surface this too looks like the routine anti-Semitism of the day. However, I think the context offers a different reading in that Marx is arguing that these ‘Jewish’ characteristics arise from the social role or function of the Jews in developing money-based capitalism (as finance capitalists) , and that ‘Jewishness’ in this sense extends to the economic activities of Christian capitalists as well. Everyone needs to be emancipated from this form of ‘Jewishness’, including Jews! It is misleading to see Jewish emancipation as a matter of religious belief: Jewish religiosity is not essential to ‘Jewish’ behaviour and will indeed vanish into thin air when social conditions change with revolution and make the role obsolete. However, there are clear dangers in appearing to flirt with current prejudices even if only temporarily and in order to launch some splendid rhetoric and wordplay.

However, both Marx and Engels clearly want to criticise the main political implications which Kay drew from his research. Kay is seen as insufficiently critical about the tendencies of capitalism to reform itself. He is naive in thinking that education will remedy the condition of the working classes. Indeed, Marx suggests that Kay's policies may make things worse: by educating the working classes that the laws of capitalism are inevitable and ultimately rational, Kay is committing them to the system. Of course, Kay wants them to understand the system in order to improve their lot, but this improvement only follows further commitment, and the abandonment of any political alternative.

It is interesting to note the dates at which all these pieces were written. In the 1840s, especially in 1848, it looked as if the capitalist system was to be fundamentally challenged and eventually overthrown. In that scenario, of course it would be a waste of time to think about rational forms of consumption and leisure, achieving an education, saving for the future, and thinking of future generations and how they might be gradually brought out of poverty. As is well-known, Marx and Engels were predicting the imminent polarization of capitalist society and the outbreak of class war, the expectations that led to their rather hasty writing of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx and Engels [1848]), at a time when revolutions were breaking out all over Europe. It is often argued that the failure of that prediction led to a much more sophisticated analysis of capitalism and its political and social relations, outlined in the 18th Brumaire… (Marx [1852]), for example. 

Kay's commitment to a rational working-class developing their character through Utilitarian calculation and, above all, through education, might have got a much more sympathetic reading from more recent marxist theory. Gramscian theory stress the need to provide members of the working class with a good critical education, even though there is some dispute over what shape that good critical education might have taken. Few modern Gramscians would want to defend Kay's utilitiarian model, although Gramsci himself did see the value of a conventional bourgeois education. The development of the ability of members of the working class to calculate their interests could be reinterpreted to mean a gradual coming to consciousness of a class able to resist elements of bourgeois hegemony and to formulate their own version. Perhaps such a calculation would lead precisely to the realization that capitalism was a cruel and arbitrary system that could not meet needs. Certainly, the argument for well-educated as well as experienced proletarian recruits to the leadership of revolutionary parties persisted well into the 20th century, and drew partly on the eventual failures of ‘activist’ rebellions like those of the Silesian weavers whom Marx admired.


Engels, F [1845a] Condition of the Working Class in England, chapter 4’The Great Towns’ [online]

Engels, F [1845b] Condition of the Working Class in England, Chapter 6 ‘Irish Immigration’ [online]

Marx, K. [1844a] ‘Critical Notes on the Article "The King of Prussia and Social Reform.By a Prussian" Vorwarts!, No.64, August 10 [online]

Marx K [1844b] ‘On The Jewish Question’, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher [online]

Marx K [1852] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [online]

Marx K and Engels F [1848] Manifesto of the Communist Party [online]


back to menu page