Created by composer Alan Williams working with Christina McAlpine.
"An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory." So says Friedrich Engels, philosopher, linguist, artist, poet and revolutionary socialist. What does that mean for today? Perhaps it’s just about time that we started taking some steps forward...
Your trusted guides in today’s episode will be musician Alan Williams and Christina McApline who take us to visit some of the places that Engels visited during his time in Manchester and Salford. It's a journey of words and music, with poetry and prose from Mancunians past and present and original music by Alan Williams.
So then, prepare to limber up as we explore the question “How can Engels show us the way forward beyond 2020?”
Introduced by Reece Williams.
Additional production by Siân Roberts.
Find out more about the Begin The World Over Again project
How can Engels show us the way forward beyond 2020, as we ensure that ‘a ounce of action is worth a ton of theory’?
Person A – Reece Williams
Welcome to Begin the World Over Again, a podcast about radical thinking for radical times from Walk the Plank and the Working Class Movement Library. Each episode is created by a different duo comprising an artist commissioned by walk the plank and a member of the library’s writing group.
They will present the stories, explorations and voices that they have researched from this collection and consider what we might learn today from these change makers of history.
Episode 3 ‘An Ounce of Action is Worth a Ton of Theory’ - so says Friedrich Engels, a philosopher, linguist, artist, poet and revolutionary socialist. What does that mean for today? Perhaps it is just about time that we started taking some steps forward, your trusted guides in today’s episode will be, musician Alan Williams and Christina McAlpine, that will take us to visit some of the places that Engels visited during his time in Manchester and Salford. It’s a journey of words and music with poetry and prose from Mancunians past and present, and original music by Alan Williams so then, prepare to limber up as we explore the question, how can Engels show us the way forward beyond 2020?
Growing up in Germany the son of a wealthy mill owner Engels was actually a total failure, well, in the eyes of his father he left formal education at 17 he hung out with radical lefties in Berlin he denied the existence of God and worst of all believed that the means of production must be seized by the workers in order to establish a decent fair society, kids huh, so, at 22 Engels was dispatched to Salford, yeah it sounds unlikely but remember the mill? His dad was hoping that a stint in management would bring his son’s ideas into line with the establishment, aw secretly, Engels punched the air at this ‘punishment’. He knew that Manchester was the epicentre of the industrial revolution, the seat of the most powerful unions the central point of the Chartists and the place which numbers most socialists.
How can Engels show us the way forward beyond 2020 as we ensure an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory?
What is the value of this, do you need all this?
And there’d be new houses, sometimes somebody would knock at the door and you knew it was what they called the Tallyman, or it would be some loan at the door or providence checks and they’d be embarrassed at whoever was at the door.
He is not wise who from his reading draws nothing but flunts of erudition for all his learning life’s mysterious laws are a closed book beyond his comprehension he who acquires a thorough text book grounding in botany will not hear the grass that grows nor will he ever reach true understanding who tells you all the dogma that he knows .
My grandad and my husband’s mum both had to leave school at 14, even though they were bright, because they had to bring money in, you know what I mean and if times had have been different maybe they would have been an engineer there was nobody who could add up figures like she could, it’s such a shame at 14. You know there was no choice then was there, you know, you had to bring money in and that was it.
oh no the germ lies hid in man’s own heart who seeks the act of life must look within burning the midnight oil will not impart the secrets of emotions discipline the man is lost to hear his own hearts voice and spurns it wilfully misapprehending of all your words so noble and so wise the most profound is human understanding.
if you’re a real socialist you would go in there and you would take the money from those people who have it, you would you’ve got the power to do that, you take from individuals, you take from corporations and you would just because your gut tells you that’s what you do, you take the money from those people and you give it to those people who need it.
I was always brought up to believe that society will support those people who cannot support themselves yet there are always people that take advantage.
He is not wise who from his reading draws nothing but floods of erudition for all his learning life’s mysterious laws are a closed book beyond his comprehension he who acquires a thorough text book grounding in botany will not hear the grass that grows nor will he ever reach true understanding who tells you all the dogma that he knows. Oh no the germ lies hid in man’s own heart who seeks the act of life must look within burning the midnight oil will not impart the secrets of emotions discipline, the man is lost to hear his own hearts voice and spurns it wilfully misapprehending of all your words so noble and so wise the most profound is human understanding.
People would say things like erm, you know, you need to have more fruit and veg and this, that and the other, erm, you know when you think that these people would have a token meter that would be for the gas and electricity and who’s gonna use an hour, an hour and half to cook a stew, when you could treat the children by a Greggs pasty, are you with me?, because it was filling, it was tasty and the child would think it was a treat, you know and when you weigh that up thinking hour and a half of fuel, you know for a stew.
You know as a country we can afford to do it and we don’t prioritise it, the thing that annoys me more than anything is that people you hear about government expenditure and government cuts and everything, you never once hear on the news what the defence budget is like and how it’s being spent, you never once hear anyone say can we afford to drop another bomb there’s never that conversation is there, there doesn’t seem to be any limit at all and that’s the world of expenditure. And you know when it comes to providing for people, providing houses, providing decent benefits, providing decent education and health care, everything’s limited all of a sudden and yet some things aren’t and you think surely you start off when you set a budget addressing those things that you need to do, which is education it is housing it is healthcare.
We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that cash payment is not the sole relation of human beings.
Should that be the focus for the local authority? Is it just run for…
I think, it’s not the living it’s the its what’s outside not what’s in.
It is and it’s that lifestyle. Again, going back to covid that’s when you started to see some community sort of involvement again and people getting to know their neighbours. I mean I pushed letters through countless doors near me, if you need anything here’s my number and this, I mean I got covid the week after but *laughter*
I know very well that ten are somewhat better off, where one is so totally trodden underfoot by society.
I mean it was good it was good to get into a house that wasn’t falling down and it was good to get into a house that had hot water and a bath and an inside toilet you know all the clichés of starving on threepence a packet. I remember I was ten I remember the first time getting a bath and nobody told me that you get in, in the end where you don’t have your head where the end where the taps are *laughter* so I learnt that lesson when I was ten.
So I still think that, I’m still old fashioned and I still think that how class in terms of erm, you know, erm your relationship to the means of production because my parents erm, didn’t like most working-class, like all parents forget about what class you are, you want something better for your kids, erm and my parents wanted me not to have to do the jobs that they had to do.
You could tell how the economy was performing by how the state of health of the children, of the 15 of what didn’t survive the elder lot were born when there was plenty of work so they grew up sound the middle lot during the depression and some of them had bad rickets the younger end including me mother again there was work about so she was physically sound but she said she remembers as a child the man from the welfare coming round erm, if you were unemployed you know erm, you can have so many brothers, well you have to sell that, that, that, you have to get rid of that table, you have to get rid of these chairs then we’ll consider giving you some help.
Trafford park when I was kid, erm, you had 20 odd thousand people working in one factory for god’s sake, so it’s obviously easier with that massive congregation to organise, erm, it’s harder to organise now but it’s not impossible. There are unifying factors there and people can see it.
If you go to lots of events it’s full of old crusties like me but it’s a delight to see so many young people involved under Corbyn they’re much more versed in the broader issues, the broader means of oppression and the ways to overcome that, basically no matter what the oppression is some lessons are universal aren’t they, unity is strength, erm, we can’t defeat these things by ourselves.
There must be a way for us on the left to build this unity, we don’t build it by ignoring each other or...
With the increase in poverty onto the streets we had to go round Manchester taking bacon sandwiches out to rough sleepers and there’s a lot of increase in homelessness in the late ‘80s so our volunteers went round Chinatown, went round all the doorways where people were sleeping in handing out sandwiches, hot drinks and a very nice warm cheery smile. We knew that people needed dignity and they needed more than just a chat on a doorstep and a sandwich so at that time we were looking for a venue and we found the Charter Street Mission down at Angel Meadow.
Angel Meadow historically and the Charter Street had been the, well it has got a very chequered history, it was once described as the most savage slum, hell on earth by Engels, and the Charter Street Mission opened its doors and let us come in and use their building every weekends and its history, you know, went back to the start of the early 1800s looking after these street urchins. The girls used to work, working girls’ home, they’d borrow a pair of clogs, it said ‘property of the Charter Street’ on the bottom and off they’d trot to the mills in horrendous conditions working, the slums around those times were only ever entered by the foolish, the brave or the stupid and the brave would be Friedrich Engels, he was absolutely taken aback by what were happening to the working-class and he was allowed one of the very few people that were allowed to go and sort of, erm, you know, take notes and see what was really going on and speak to the scuttlers, you know at that time there was big scuttler gangs in Manchester so you’ve got this image of the tattooed scuttlers in the beer houses fighting in the streets, even the police didn’t even go down to that area.
It was described as hell on earth, the most savage slum, and on the side of that you’ve got the affluent Victorian mill owners who, you know had all their wealth, they’d be out flashing about in the day and then they’d disappear at night off to the suburbs, and Manchester took on a whole different context came the night, erm, very much a little bit like the economy today really, there’s two different sides of Manchester. You’ll be shopping in Castlefield and swanky shops in the day and as the sun goes down the night time economy comes creeping out.
So Engels would think very similar to that sort of erm, view today I think in Victorian times it was Manchester was described as a Jekyll and Hyde city where you have the blinding wealth and the blinding poverty. Reflecting on Engels today, Manctopia Manchester, exactly the same, back in the Victorian times you didn’t have people living in the city centre they would all go out to the affluent suburbs, a flipside of that today you’ve got the affluent rich now living in the high glassy towers, far eastern consortiums and different foreign investors buying up the buildings for people to rent so that it’s not a home owner sort of thing, it’s a rented thing, the companies are owned with off shore accounts, so no tax coming into the city, so Manctopia Manchester again would be that Jekyll and Hyde city where you’ve got the high wealth and then the extreme deprivation and poverty.
Angel Meadow itself you know it’s the home to 40,000 pauper graves, now Angel Meadow is the gateway of the north it’s going to be full of prestigious high rise expensive swanky apartments with concierges and seven stars owned by foreign investments you couldn’t buy it to own, you can only buy it to rent. So again this area now we’re not welcome we had to leave, so now when you go round there there’s no feeling that you’re safe you’re in solidarity, because even when it was the slums, the poor and the impoverished were safe down there they knew they’d be looked after down in that area, you know it wasn’t great but they had each other.
And now that area now has got cranes it’s got diggers it’s got storeys going, high rise storeys, I believe there’s one that’s going bigger than the Hilton tower how does that sit, we won’t have a green meadow, it’ll be brown, the trees are all bending and breaking now from the wind tunnel that comes round from the Co op.
It’s sad and sickening to see, the suburbs are all full of the poverty the inner city is full of the wealth and the flashy things, what would Engels think today?, I think he’d be absolutely broken hearted because in a way it’s gone even more backward, one thing we did in Manchester when we had the industrial revolution is, we produced cloth, our cloth went all over the world everyone who wore something in India and China you thought you were swanky if you had a bit of Manchester cloth. Unfortunately now our mills stand empty the ones that are actually being used are being turned into swanky apartments producing nothing, absolutely nothing, we exploit very little now from Manchester just poverty is there on our streets the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and unfortunately nobody seems to care.
Homelessness has seen and people are seen in a capitalistic society like it's somehow their fault, they are demonised for being homeless demonised for being in poverty but yet everybody is two to three pay checks off being homeless. A Manchester property developer recently described his regeneration of Ancoats which again is an old working, working class area where he was gonna sweep out the deprivation, and when he started sweeping he came across sex workers and drug dealers and various other things of night time economies, discarded needles and this deprivation needed to be swept away because it would lower the value of his real estate it would lower the value of the fancy shops they don’t want people sleeping in doorways they’re even planning to fine the homeless now if they are consistent offenders while you’re already down on your luck let’s just kick them while they’re down spikes being put outside shops so that people don’t sleep in the doorways, different ways of doing steps so that they slant so that somebody can’t sleep on a church step, closing doorways making them feel like you’re not just down on your luck you’re not welcome in our capitalistic society.
All the conditions of life are measured by money and what brings no money is nonsense, unpractical, idealistic bosh, Engels did not need to come into contact with the filth and squalor of the slaving underclass but contrary as ever Engels actively sought out the dwellings of the poor, writing his famous book ‘The conditions of the working-class in England’ and what he saw there. And what did he find?, he found unpropertied absolutely poor people, a class which lives from hand to mouth. I accuse English bourgeoise for the entire thing.
Wield the crowbar, swing the hammer, the labouring man is best you make, never cease your wholesome clamour clear old Deansgate clean away, clear its ugly godless graceless labels upon human kind till like their visions fabric baseless not a rat is left behind.
There’s things that are being done in Manchester that help try and improve homelessness to try and offer different services but the truth of the matter is, nobody wants the homeless in the city centre of Manchester, they’re seen as a blight on the gateway to the north, they’re seen as something that should be demonised and moved out of the city.
It breaks your heart every day of the week when you walk around the city centre and you begin to see the numbers increasing week on week out that people are finding themselves in further and further poverty, and I’m not just talking about because of covid this was happening before covid came in, covid now just even makes it even harder you know, people who are moaning they’ve got stay indoors what if you have no home what if you have to stay in that doorway and then you’re constantly being moved on by a PCSO saying you shouldn’t be here, I’m going to fine you for sleeping in a doorway, you’re not wearing a mask you’re now getting a fine for not wearing a mask, I’ve got no money and I’ve got no home what am I supposed to do?, you’re supposed to jog on not in my city centre.
Another possible way of looking at it is for me class, it is solely a social construct we could get rid of it tomorrow.
Radical action, what can we do well?, we could start looking at you know some of our land sites some of our lands that we are not using look at putting similar situations where you know you have container villages places where you can have people come in, they’ve done it in Bristol where someone has donated a piece of land we’ve got shipping containers in, we’ve given the homeless people a trade where they do up their own container making that a liveable space so that they’ve got value they’re learning a trade they’re dealing with their addictions on one site in one place there are ways to do it they don’t necessarily have to turn into a slum area it’s a homeless village it’s a container village it could be done really really cheaply giving somebody something over than a room in a church hall by giving them their own autonomy.
Engels wrote, ‘Workers of Salford live in dwellings in which cleanliness and comfort are impossible. I was only amazed that it is possible to retain reasonable state of health in such homes erected with the upmost disregard of everything except the immediate advantage of the speculating builder’. I know that after this we will never be the same again, at least I hope we won’t.
I hope we will realise what’s important, not profit but people.
I hope that every priority we have had to accept as normal changes and that we find our way towards a society that cares first and foremost about its indispensable workers.
There’s an alternative model where social media like all public services should be collectively owned. I think when you’re talking about change like the only way change is gonna happen is if the majority come together and realise that we’ve got more in common than what divides us, that key workers, this phrase key workers has come out and we realis, whose actually essential and it is the people who are like cleaning or driving buses, people who are stacking shelves, yeah, and people we have generally been looked down on that are underpaid and have bad conditions.
There should be no one looking down on a working class person, if anything they should be looking up cause they’re working.
That’s the other thing that, I think the way the media thinks the way you see things is that you’re always thinking about like the bigger wider communities rather than just being like oh what’s good for me and my business you’re always thinking about like how, the impact can spill over.
There’re people that do hold most of the power and most of the money and choose to spend it all on themselves.
The fact that your, your intentions are about making a positive impact, on the widest scale that you can with what you’ve got, in front of you, that’s the point that you should be working from rather than it being like oh you know what’s going to make my business look good or whatever.
I think what’s interesting is just the fact that you are like really thinking about these things as like a business owner it’s like your first priority is like, what are the ethical decisions that I’m making and like as a business owner.
You can see the bigger picture like actually this is the support, a healthy mind they’re less likely with being stuck with nothing to do on the street. Its important for the end solution which is that they’re not going to be stuck on the streets because I used to go the youth clubs, and they were shit but they were still good they were a massive part of my life, I went to all of them, I used to pretend I was living in a different area so I could go to that one like literally four nights a week in youth clubs.
You know given the right encouragement and like understanding that there are different ways to do things I mean we don’t need to be confined whether that’s like for our personal lives and like what we choose to do with our time, to like the change that we’re trying to make in like wider society we don’t have to be constrained by what we’re told is possible like, I think in order for change to happen people need to have a really clear sense of what the situation is and how it could be different. We’re in a system which just serves itself it doesn’t, you know, the system is self-perpetuating so, everything that we kind of experience is all coming from the system that’s trying to keep itself going, by rewarding people who don’t challenge and like side lining people that do challenge, an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory, yeah.
You know our government support now in hindsight cause we’ve seen how the treatment has gone like, suffragettes at the time they were painted as like these horrible terrorists, mad women, whereas now because they won, now we say they’re heroes, exactly yeah, and you know you’ll see these political figures I think even about Engels as an example, you look at like testimonials from their teachers at the school reports or whatever it will say they were like bad kids, they were naughty kids and actually like it’s the naughty kids that you need to be like helping because they’re the ones that are gonna be able to lead us in the future.
In the future
In the future
Why not begin your own future exploring the Working Class Movement Library?, it’s just across the road from Engels’s beard...
Person A – Reece Williams
Begin The World Over Again is commissioned by the Working Class Movement Library. It was created with Walk the Plank and supported by Arts Council England, the Duchy of Lancaster and the University of Salford. Further information on this episode can be found in the show notes.
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