Spotlight on Statues: Friedrich Engels, First Street

This stony-faced co-father of Communism has been repurposed and moved from a tiny Ukrainian village to Manchester’s glittering new, purpose-built pleasure district on First Street. Does that seem a bit of a juxtaposition to anyone else?

By Manchester's Finest | Last updated 3 December 2018

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The movement of this statue to Manchester wasn’t completely random, of course. Engels spent just over two decades in this city after he was sent here age 22 to work in the textile mill his father owned in an attempt to de-radicalise some of his liberal views.

It’s safe to say that the plan was an epic failure as Manchester was subsequently the place where he met Karl Marx, another German native with equally radical views. Sort of like sending your kid to Fat Camp and they end up in a bunk bed with Ronald McDonald. Together they forged something entirely ground-breaking which changed the world forever; The Communist Manifesto (1848).

However, his relationship with Manchester goes go a little bit further than that. While Engels was here, he took a keen interest in the conditions of the city’s legendary slums and the horrors that faced the local workforce on a daily basis.

It’s essential to understand that during this time in the early 1840’s, Manchester was a complete and utter powerhouse of industry- particularly in the production of cotton and textiles. The whole city could be compared to a great machine in which every person and worker acts like a tiny, depersonalised cog.

Engels studied the horrendous living conditions, the impoverished workforce, the effects of child labour and the destroyed landscape that surrounded the city. All the while, wealthy merchants and factory owners lived like Richie Rich, miles away from the smog-clogged city itself.

The information he compiled from these studies was put together and formed his first influential book ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ (1845). In this book, Engels commented on the ‘grim future of capitalism and the industrial age’ and how grotesque it was for fat-cat factory owners to have so much while their workers died in complete squalor.

Of course, this was the basis of what went on to become Marxism and Communism, but the discourse he created here in Manchester was the first of its kind to turn its attention to the less fortunate. It was here in Manchester where the two minds responsible for the conception of Communism met and pretty much created it.

But 170-odd years later Engels is back and his being here is controversial for a number of reasons. Phil Collins, the British-born artist who brought the statue from a tiny eastern Ukrainian village in a truck all the way over here for the International Festival last year says that the statue was supposed to gaze over the contradictions of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

I cannot help but think that Engels himself would turn in his grave if he saw where this statue stood, amongst the shiny, glass capitalist playground where Industry once stood. Or perhaps that is the point? I can’t keep up anymore.

Second of all, despite its innocent beginnings, the other elephant in the room is that fact that it was taken from somewhere where it held more significance. Over here, in the UK where communism was no more than a looming threat a few times in our history, it is difficult to understand its full significance.

In the village it was taken from in the Poltava region of Eastern Ukraine, the statue was removed from its central location in the village, cut in half at the waist and disposed of in some random farmland.

Perhaps its destruction and abandonment is symbolic empowerment by a country that was brought entirely to its knees by Communism in the 20th Century? Only for it to be taken, repaired and put in pride of place where the whole idea was conceived.

Whatever the politics, the statue has managed to evoke a debate and create a talking point – which is what art is all about at the end of the day. Whatever you think about Engels, Communism, Capitalism and even Art itself, discussion is always welcome – now more than ever.