Module 2: Radical Ideas

As a city of ideas, Manchester is rife with contradictions. It has spent much of its history buffeted between progressive humanist and hard-headed capitalist movements. The city that forged modern notions of democracy, socialism and universal suffrage is also the same place where people eked out a living in slums of such infernal horror that resident Friedrich Engels used their existence as the basis for some of his ideas in The Condition of the Working-Class in England, a hugely influential work that led to better living conditions and laid the ground for the Communist Manifesto.

This is a story that overseas visitors are especially interested in, and, in particular the rapidly growing numbers of Chinese visitors to the city, as they find echoes of Manchester’s contradictory past in their own recent stories. They will find it told in various venues, in event and exhibition programmes and of course guided walking tours.

The Peterloo Massacre is a signature moment for this radicalism story. In 1819, St Peter’s Square was the site of a bloody protest in which 15 people demonstrating for parliamentary reform were killed by police, and at least 400 injured. The so-called massacre was a watershed moment in British radical history, and established the city as a strong outpost of people power. It’s been the source of creative inspiration including the People’s History Museum  where fascinating collections explore the notion that democracy is worth fighting for – and interesting art, including The Manchester Sound, a site specific re-imagining as a battle between ravers and police by the Library Theatre Company, and the thrilling performance of Shelley’s outraged Peterloo poem The Masque of Anarchy during Manchester International Festival in 2013 by Salfordian actress Maxine Peake.


Radicalism expresses itself in many ways. Take Manchester Museum, built at the same time as the Natural History Museum, but which stuck its neck out in support of Darwinism, when the London institution clung to an old-school, creationist world-view. Tell visitors to look at the carvings on the outside of the building to see if they see the controversial Darwinian theory expressed there.

A more uncomfortable secret of the Industrial Revolution is that “Cottonopolis” was an empire built on slave labour; and that the fine Victorian buildings of Mosley Street and Portland Street wouldn’t exist without the profits of slavery. Yes, it’s true that in 1862 a group of workers at the Free Trade Hall voted to boycott Confederate cotton at great personal hardship, a move deemed “Christian heroism” by US President Abraham Lincoln, who is himself commemorated in a statue in – where else – Lincoln Square. At the same time Mark and Engels were so appalled by the working and living conditions of the working classes in Manchester that they were moved to draft the Communist Manifesto here, snugged down amongst the books in Chetham’s Library.


If Manchester has an uneasy relationship to slavery, its role as a base for establishing universal suffrage is unquestionable. In the early 20th century, the brave work of the Pankhursts established the city’s radical reputation in their stubborn, heroic and eventually successful efforts to get British women the vote.

And it’s their legacy we celebrate during Wonder Women in March – a month long celebration of the many wonderful women of this city and their important work which takes place across the whole of the city  but led by the aforementioned People’s History Museum and in theWorking Class Movement Library in Salford, an unequalled repository of material relating to the struggle for human rights in Manchester and across Britain.


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