From the February 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
The City of Salford, to the west of the city of Manchester, covers an area which in 1844 was described by Frederick Engels as "The Classic Slum". Almost a hundred years later, Walter Greenwood's novel and play Love on the Dole (1933), depicted a part of Salford close by the Parish Church of Pendleton known as Hanky Park which had changed very little since the time of Engels.
The novel Love on the Dole has a quotation on the flyleaf from James Russell Lowell — "The time is ripe, and rotten ripe, for change; then let it come . . . " But the right time for change for capitalism is when the competitiveness of the system demands a change in the overall pattern of industrial production. New productive methods, re-siting of industrial areas, new methods of transportation, improvements in shipping, railways and road transport.
Salford in 1933, like other industrial areas in Britain, was suffering from unemployment which had begun in the early 1920s. Love on the Dole like many novels of its kind deals with the lives of working people, their personalities shaped and fashioned by the full-time commitment of working for wages, that is when work was available; when it was not, they spent their time on the dole, an experience made as uncomfortable as possible, since society's attitude to the unemployed had changed very little from the days of the "Poor Relief" of earlier years. From birth, expectations of the working class are tied to a period of socialization in slum conditions. The environmental influences of education and deprivation develop personalities suitable only as replacements for those workers who physically and mentally are no longer considered suitable for exploitation.
This at its best; at its worst the economic system based on capital and wage-labour plumbs the degradative depths, denies any flowering of the creative potential that lies stagnant and rotting in personalities shaped by its greed for profit and which under the more humane conditions of a free, Socialist society, would blossom beyond present-day experience.
The Salford of 1933 was becoming less and less influenced by the cotton and mining industries. A greater effect upon it was being made by the industrial area of Trafford Park, which claimed to be the heaviest concentration of industry in Europe, and of course the Manchester Ship Canal developed for the transportation of manufactured goods. Such concentrations of industry kept a large working population tied to within easy reach of its source of life, employment for wages. The homes available for working people of the area had been built a century before. They could hardly be described as dwellings, they were merely places of refuge in which human beings rested between periods of being in work or on the dole.
Love on the Dole successfully portrays its characters and their behaviour in an environment of poverty. One of the novel's main characters, Larry Meath, is a skilled workman who spends his leisure time in reading and political activity. Political activity for Larry Meath is of course the reformism of the Labour Party, as of course was the author's. In 1933 the Labour Party was engaged in attracting the working class of Salford from its support of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. Such colourful characters as Joe Toole, who represented South Salford in 1924 and himself a product of the salford slums, spread confusion in the minds of the working class since they began to identify Socialism with reforms, particularly better housing conditions — they had even begun to notice that (see Our Old Man, Millie Toole, 1948).
To-day Salford can boast of two Labour MPs who for all intents and purposes might as well not exist. But since Love on the Dole raises the question of the need for social change we might turn our thoughts to the Salford of to-day particularly in the area once known as Hanky Park.
Hanky Park, the area of terraced slums, has given way to the modern interpretation of high-rise slums, because to the Socialist what defines a slum is comparison with that which could be a reality under the prevailing technological possibilities of the times. A few hundred yards from this great social experiment of high-rise flats and modern shopping precinct is an area known as Lower Broughton picturized in the BBC's Man Alive programme entitled "Get us out of here" (Saturday 9th November, 1974). In housing conditions which would make the Classic Slum look like a description of lordly estates, working men and women still live and cry out for a place in the sun.
But what about the motorway system which has made Salford and Manchester perhaps better served than anywhere in the country? These modern roads for the purpose of transporting manufactured goods, quick returns on capital investment, are the last word in technological innovation. In planning the new Salford and its industrial estates, places like Hanky Park, if they were in the way, had to come down. Lower Broughton and the other areas of Salford like it will have to wait; the needs of industry come first. A Labour government has shown that it can reform no quicker than any other Government since the system to which it can only act as handmaiden will determine how quickly and in whose interests social reform will take place.
A truer historical perspective of the Classic Slum is a book with that title written by Robert Roberts (1971). The author writes:
Through a familiarity so long and close, this district must have become for Engels the very epitome of all industrial ghettoes, the classic slum itself. He died in 1895 having seen that little world change, develop, prosper even, yet stay in essence the same awful paradigm of what a free capitalist system could produce. By 1900 the area showed some improvement; his cow stable had doubtless been demolished together with many other noisome den, but much that was vile remained.
In 1974, a Socialist revisiting the Salford in which he was born and lived in childhood has to admit that change has undoubtedly taken place. But much that was vile in the time of Engels and in the time of Walter Greenwood still remains and will remain until with purpose and the correct understanding, men and women create a new society which they will manipulate in their own interest and not in the interest of an economic system which, as cities like Salford glaringly illustrate, has outlived its usefulness.