Industrialization and the Making of the Working Class
A NEW WORLD OF INDUSTRY
Unevenness was decisive for European industrialization before 1914. Cap- italism rarely transformed the old landscape comprehensively, turning trees into smokestacks and fields into factories. The pace of development varied too widely, both between and within societies, generating complex com- binations of advanced, backward, and hybrid production in contiguous regions, often mutually dependent on each other’s forms of specialization. Dynamism actually required backwardness in this dialectic of dependency, producing turbulent new labor markets, mass migrations from the coun- tryside, and a novel urban topography, but with far richer interconnections between industry and agriculture, “modern” and “traditional” production, and large and small-scale enterprise than the more aggressive predictions had assumed.
This unevenness of industrialization across countries and regions, and the resulting variations in working-class populations, created huge strategic problems for the Left. Socialist parties presented themselves as parties of the working class, which modern industry was supposedly making into society’s overwhelming majority. Yet everywhere in Europe those parties faced mixed populations, with millions still employed in agriculture and other “traditional” occupations. Industrial workers failed to become the overwhelming mass of society, although masses of proletarians certainly concentrated in particular places and often entire regions. Even in Britain, where proletarianization had gone far, the First World War proved the peak: thereafter, manual workers gradually contracted in numbers, from three-quarters to less than a third of the employed population by 1990. This became the general trend of industrial economies. Even as industrial labor reached its furthest extent, long-term restructuring was already tip- ping employment toward white-collar and other jobs in services.
These trends challenged the Left’s given assumptions. If the logic of class formation disobeyed Marx’s predictions, what did this mean for working- class politics? If the typical image of the proletariat—manual workers in factories, foundries and mines, on the docks, in the shipyards, and on the railways—was increasingly unlike the actually employed population during the twentieth century, where does that leave the working class in the
“founding” periods earlier on? How else might the working class be de- fined?
By the simplest Marxist definition, the working class were those with no ownershipor control over means or conditions of production. Workers were a class of direct producers who—in contrast to peasant farmers or skilled artisans—no longer owned independent means of subsistence or even their own tools. All they had was their ability to work, which they sold to an employer, a capitalist, for a wage. To create such workers, active proletarianization was needed. Small producers in town and country had to be robbed of their independence—whether in free peasant cultivation, servile labor on great estates, household mixtures of subsistence farming and domestic industry, rural handicrafts, or small urban workshops. Labor power had to be released from its traditional legal, social, and cultural restraints, converted into a commodity, and freed into the capitalist market. The direct producers had to be separated from the means of production and forced into dependent labor. Access to means of subsistence had to be available only via the wage, in a labor process controlled by the capitalist. The laborer had to be made doubly “free,” from old feudal obligations and from all propertied bases of independent livelihood.
Marx called this “primitive
The countryside’s transformation impelled capitalist industrialization. If manufacture gave capitalists control over means of production via the new property relations, mechanization brought control of the labor process by completing the worker’s subordination to its technical needs. Replacing a division of labor based on handicrafts by one based on machines was the really revolutionary step in capital’s progress, making production less de- pendent on the worker’s manual skills and enormously boosting produc- tivity.2 Concentration in factories could then accelerate, reorganizing work- places and harnessing the reserves of labor power released by rural dispossession. All the long-term logic of capitalist industrialization now unfolded, from the relentless polarizing of the class structure between a minority of capitalists and an ever-expanding category of workers to the continued proletarianizing of intermediate groupings like surviving small farmers, artisans, and small businessmen and the growing homogenization of the working class. In the political sphere, this created the basis for labor movements, in the growth of class consciousness around workers’ collective interests.
Treated as a universal description, rather than a conceptual framework based on the British case, however, there are two big problems with this
model. First, it oversimplified the process. Machines and factories mattered less than was supposed. Industrial revolution involved cumulative changes and not a big bang. Hand technologies rather than mechanization, and the dispersal of small-scale, labor-intensive production in the countryside rather than mass production in towns, were the norm. Early capitalism exploited cheap labor supplies in the countryside, where simple technologies could be used and where rural families’ contribution to their own subsistence kept wages low. There might be little incentive to make the leapinto factories. And these weren’t “preindustrial” holdovers doomed to disappear in the march of progress. By 1914, British industry still used manual labor more than machines, relying on the worker’s physical effort. Coal-mining output roughly doubled in 1875–1914 but only by doubling the workforce, with minor advances in methods. British industry avoided mechanization by ex- ploiting an abundance of labor and refining the use of manual tools. Its labor process relied “on the strength, skill, quickness and sureness of touch of the individual worker rather than upon the simultaneous and repetitive operations of the machine.”3
Several conclusions follow. For one, because there were many paths to industrialization, class relations between capitalist and worker could be shaped in varying ways. Next, industrial capitalism can’t be identified sim- ply with factories and machines. Not only did older patterns of hand labor and smaller units persist but also capitalism continuously invented new small-scale forms, including “sweating” or homework, and specialized skilled manufacture.4 Finally, if industry didn’t simply call for mechaniza- tion, the urban pooling of labor, or an expanding market, then the chang- ing relations in workplaces become all the more key. It was not just the ownershipand nonownershipof means of production that mattered but all the ways in which work itself was done.
This raises the second problem with a classical Marxist approach. Lin- ear models of industrialization oversimplify working-class formation. They imply too close a fit between the progress of capitalism and the growth of class consciousness. As the growing proletariat became ever more concen- trated in new urban-industrial centers, as machinery eliminated distinctions between types of labor, and as the wages system equalized workers’ con- ditions of life, Marx thought, the working class would acquire unified con- sciousness. In this model, workers were forced by exploitation into soli- darity, at first defensively through local and industry-based clubs for mutual self-help, then more confidently in nationally organized unions, and finally politically in a revolutionary party. Throughout, the dialectic of class and class consciousness was linked to changes in the economic base: the laws governing the capitalist mode of production had social effects, which determined the rise of the working-class movement. Marxists expressed this by a famous couplet, distinguishing between the class “in itself” and the class “for itself.” In this way, they believed, the forms of working-class collective organization (and eventually the victory of socialism) were in-
scribed in the very processes of capitalist production themselves. As capital expanded, it also created the conditions for the working class to organize.5
As a guide to working-class behavior in actual societies, this powerful analysis was always misleading. The working class was identified too easily with the wage relationshipin a pure form: the authentic worker, the true proletarian, was the factory worker. As this argument ran, the unevenness of industrialization and its diverse settings were certainly important, but ultimately mass production in factories (and mines, construction sites, transportation systems, docks) still mattered more. From this, strong labor movements were easily identified with “truly modern industry.” In this view, small-scale forms of production, notably craft-based industry in small workshops, even if longer-lasting than once supposed, were transitional and doomed to die. As industry became bigger, more machine-based and more concentrated class formation became more “advanced” and the labor movement more “mature.” The whole of the working class would never be subsumed into the “pure” proletarian relationship of the deskilled and propertyless worker against the capitalist. There would always be forms of ancillary production. Nevertheless, industrial workers would form the van- guard, and other workers would follow.
History proved this view
ants from the land was only one. Workers were pushed into wage- dependency by many other routes—via commercialized farming, cottage industry, urban handicrafts, the
omies, casualized trades and “sweating,” as well as factories, mines, and industrial production in the stereotypical sense. Across
Such processes varied richly by region. In Saxony, as in many other regions, the proletariat was recruited mainly in the countryside from people already earning wages rather than from people passing freshly out of an- other class. Before the 1820s, most British industry developed like that, including the pioneering textile industry. In other cases, social dislocation was sudden and sharp, and the later and faster the industrialization, the more drastic this was. The massive late-nineteenth-century coalfield expan- sions in the Ruhr, Silesia, South Wales, and parts of France recruited mostly from in-migrating rural populations, as did new industries in Italy and Russia. Clearly, these differing paths toward proletarianization had huge implications for the specific working-class societies that would result.
GENDER, SKILL, AND SOCIALISM
In fact, the “unity” of the working class was an idealized projection, an abstraction from the disorderly and unevenly developing histories of in- dustrialization in the nineteenth century, whose visible concentrations of laboring poor certainly impressed contemporaries but required sustained action before settling into a pattern. Beginning in the 1830s, new cohorts of interpreters armed with new languages of “class” began organizing this social world. “Class” became a way of rationalizing the divisive facts of industrialization—capitalism’s manifold accumulation regimes, labor mar- kets, divisions of labor, technologies of skill, workplace relations, wage systems, and all the ways of dividing workers and aggregating them to- gether. It also described the new social landscape, both the emerging pat- terns of residence and urban segregation, and the inequalities structuring the life-chances of different groups. When organized practices also formed around these new understandings, including government action, religious and charitable work, political clubs, and eventually socialist parties and trade unions, the class languages gained further weight. Thus, class offered a powerful armory of definitions, shaping disparate experiences into a uni- fied social identity.
As labor movements started
“worker,” who might retain the scarcity of skill but controlled little more than the capacity to work. Customary independence within complex hier- archies of skill was replaced by growing subordination in a capitalist di- vision of labor.
Craftsmen defending their independence against the slide into the pro- letariat galvanized radical agitations in the 1830s and 1840s, helped ignite the 1848 revolutions, and shaped early socialism. Such agitations were
drawn naturally to producer cooperation for alternatives to capitalism, em- ploying ideas of “mutualism” or the “cooperative commonwealth.” Until
1914, French labor movements recurred to an ideal of “federalist trades socialism,” which imagined organizing collective ownershipthrough a dem- ocratic federation of self-governing skilled trades and local communes. This
“socialism of skilled workers” was inscribed in a larger “idiom of associ- ation,” carried forward in two spurts of radicalization. In 1830–34, the term “association” became extended from the original meaning of workers’ corporations (mutual aid societies adapted from the corporative traditions of the ancien re´gime) to the idea of producers’ cooperatives, and thence to the socialist project of a crosstrade federation of all workers.7 Then in
1848–51, it joined the revolutionary politics of a popular movement. This idiom of association also reflected patterns of popular sociability, through which male workers fashioned a public sphere, grounded not just in the trade and mutual aid leagues but in the cultural world of choral societies and social clubs and the everyday life of workshops, lodging houses, tav- erns, and cafe´s.8
In the first industrializing
(a new type of semiartisanal skilled worker) represented early trade union- ism at its climax in 1829–34.9 Artisan radicalism was embedded in broad popular movements demanding socioeconomic redress but especially dem- ocratic reform between the 1810s and the Reform Act of 1832, sometimes on a revolutionary scale. After embittering setbacks in 1832–34, when an- tidemocratic parliamentary reform was followed by the social policing of the 1834 Poor Law, radicals regrouped under the banner of Chartism, with its extraordinary unity across working-class differences—handicrafts and new manufactures; skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled; organized and un- organized; men and women; natives and migrants; different regions, in- dustries, and religious denominations.
Capitalist expansion pushed the London trades, especially tailors, shoe- makers, cabinet-makers, and carpenters, into crosstrade solidarity for de- manding renewal of traditional regulations and democratic reform, using litigation, strikes, and parliamentary lobbying on tariffs, wages, machinery, and hours. A similar logic pushed the Birmingham trade societies “to re- define their relationships, not only with the employers, but also with other trades who shared the experience of change in the workplace.”11 But the broader mass of proletarianized wage-workers fitted uneasily into this ar- tisanal culture. The “aristocratic” craft workers treated farm laborers, fac- tory and detail workers, Irish migrants, the unskilled, paupers, casual la-
borers, and vagrants with disregard if not contempt, leading to serious conflicts. Such tensions were better handled in Chartism, but ideals of pro- ducer democracy only slowly subsided before more inclusive doctrines of socialism.
Apart from the followers of Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and other utopian socialists, the democracy of early radical movements was also a male preserve. Chartism’s Six Points for democratizing the British consti- tution in 1837–38 expressly excluded votes for women.12 Such discrimi- nation repeatedly emphasized women’s place in the home and the proper ordering of sexual difference. Women were certainly active in Chartism and other radical agitations, but when they spoke, they did so only within the walls of the embattled popular community itself. It was men who addressed the outside world “in the first person for the community as a whole.” Public discourse proper—including socioeconomic discontents, campaigns for civil freedoms, struggles over the law, and demands for the vote—was closed to women.13
For radical working men—the modest master craftsmen, displaced do- mestic workers, artisans and mechanics, and skilled factory operatives pro- viding the backbone of Chartism and contemporary movements—the household’s integrity was basic to political identity. Whatever the reciproc- ities between women and men in the household division of labor, as a system of domestic authority the family was centered on masculine privi- lege. Thus in raging against capitalist industry, which undermined their skills and pulled their wives and children into factories, radical artisans were also defending their own sexual and economic regime within the fam- ily. “Their status as fathers and heads of families was indelibly associated with their independence through ‘honorable’ labor and property in skill, which identification with a trade gave them.” Women had no access to that independence. They were excluded from most trades, practising a craft only by virtue of their male kin. Woman’s “skill” was in her household, her
“property in the virtue of her person.” But “separated from the home, her family and domestic occupations, or outside the bonds of matrimony, a woman was assured of neither.”14 A woman’s political identity was sub- sumed in the man’s. Rare proponents of female suffrage also limited their advocacy to “spinsters and widows,” because wives and husbands were simply deemed to be one.15
This thinking adapted easily to industrialization. Demands for “protec- tive” legislation became clamorous by the 1830s. Protecting women and children against the degrading effects of work in the new mills meant de- fending an idealized notion of family, hearth, and home, where benevolent patriarchy and healthy parental authority ordered the household economy by “natural differences and capacities” of women and men. When wives and children were forced into factories by the unemployment and depressed earning power of the husband-father, this natural order was upset.16 To this dissolution of moral roles—the “unsexing of the man,” in Engels’s
men.17 This fusion of
to quarantine the
Women’s work was crucial to this system of distinction. Women
The result was a recharged domestic ideology of masculine privilege, embodied by those skilled men whose earning power supported their wives and children. Irregular and seasonal labor markets invariably meant that male earnings needed to be supplemented by whatever income the rest of the family could secure, usually in casual, sweated, or home-based em- ployment or in the local informal economy. But if the skilled craftsman keeping his wife in domesticated unemployment was in a privileged mi- nority in that sense, early trade unionism was virtually predicated on the system of female exclusion, and the new ideal of the “family wage” was a main mechanism separating the small e´lite of unionized craftsmen from the rest. Not only did it strengthen that e´lite’s material advantages but it also normatively marginalized women’s employment as something exceptional and undesirable, confining it to the low-paid, unskilled, and often hidden areas of waged work.18
In this respect too, therefore, the working class was a complex social formation. Though based on common social structures produced by capi- talist industry and urbanization, as a social identity it was structured around differences not easily stabilized into a unity for political purposes. To the divisions already mentioned—gross sectors of industry, agriculture, and services; various branches of industry; regional disparities; diverse dem- ographics of proletarianization; the major faultline of skill—should be
As independent labor movements began forming in the 1860s, including trade unions and socialist parties, they inherited these gendered traditions. The earliest initiatives, in the European strike wave and political upheavals of 1868–74, were borne by representatives of the skilled crafts. Subsequent heavy-industrial expansion—in coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, transport, chemicals, heavy machine-building—directly generated few jobs for women. So labor movements institutionalized precisely the systems of dis- tinction that were least conducive to a genuinely inclusive and gender-blind working-class political presence. While invoking the interests, authority, and collective agency of the working class as a whole, those movements were actually far more narrow and exclusionary.
THE POLITICS OF WORKING-CLASS FORMATION
How a working class was recruited also shaped the possible forms of working-class politics. Where industry grew slowly, from protoindustrial communities with long histories of industrial or semiindustrial employment, the labor movement’s prospects differed from those where industry was freshly introduced. This contrast is dramatically illustrated by the west German cities of Hamborn and Remscheid. From 1861 to 1910, Rem- scheid, a metals center since the seventeenth century, grew steadily from
16,000 inhabitants to 72,000, recruiting its workers from the immediate countryside and preserving the small scale of its craft-based industry. In contrast, Hamborn exploded from a village of 6,000 in 1895 into a huge company town of 103,000 by 1910. Its workforce was recruited from far and wide, brutally inducted into a new proletarian life.20
The two environments could hardly have been more different: Rem- scheid, with its slowly accumulating continuity of working-class culture, securely rooted in the self-improving ethos of skilled artisans; Hamborn, with its uprooted mass proletariat, dragooned into the mines and iron and steel works, crammed into the company-owned rental barracks, lacking either the dignity of work or the reserves of a self-confident labor movement culture. Across many criteria, including housing conditions, occupational health, infant mortality, educational provision, violent criminality, drunk-
enness, levels of poverty,
off.21 Hamborn’s extremely unrespectable
1918–19. Remscheid’s labor movement took local power behind a left- socialist but orderly program of political demands. Hamborn workers showed more violent rank-and-file militancy, rallying behind economistic demands over wages, work, and control of industry but outside the frame- work of any left-socialist party and ultimately lacking in political direc- tion.22
Neither one nor the other, the skilled craft-conscious trade unionist nor the unskilled and unorganized laborer, formed the “authentic” working class in pre-1914 Europe.23 One set of conditions was superficially more conducive to socialist organizing. Yet the other conditions generated work- place militancy that seemed more radical—violent, spontaneous, less re- spectful of authority and established procedures, ready for confrontation. How far different conditions directly determined different forms of action, in the sense of ruling out the alternatives and how far they left socialists with space for maneuver was unclear.
What was clear was that socialists had a problem—how to devise a politics for both. Then to this starker contrast came a still wider diversity of working-class experience. “Typical” workers included not only skilled metalworkers in Remscheid and heavy-industrial proletarians in Hamborn but also a multiplicity of manual occupations: dockers, seamen, transport- workers, construction workers, skilled machinists and semiskilled machine- minders, textile operatives, laborers in the chemicals, woodworking, food and drink, and clothing industries, skilled workers in specialized manufac- ture, and all manner of traditional craftsmen, including printers, book- binders, tailors, leather-workers, shoemakers, carpenters, masons, house- painters, potters, and the like. Still others tended to be marginalized from the emerging imagery of the industrial working class, including domestic servants, agricultural laborers, shop-assistants, clerks, uniformed workers on the state railways and mails, and, last but not least, women home- workers in textiles, clothing, tobacco, and other trades. Just as fundamen- tally, whole areas of work—like housework, family maintenance, and do- mestic labor or the “assistance” provided by women and children to male breadwinning heads of household—rarely counted as “work” at all.
Moreover, workers of whatever kind led lives beyond the workplace, however overshadowed by the daily grind of recuperating to face the next working day. They lived in neighborhoods, residential concentrations, and
forms of community, cheek
side other social groups as well. They lived in complicated households, sometimes
upbringing and national origins.24 They were young people and mature adults, and of course women and men. How all this might be fashioned into a
The rise of the urban working-class neighborhood was crucial to this project. Initially,
religion, and increas- ingly
But no less vital were the complex ways neighborhoods spoke and fought back.25 If the workplace was one frontier of resistance, where col- lective agency could be imagined, the family—or more properly, the neigh- borhood solidarities working-class women fashioned for its survival—was the other:
Working men faced industrial capitalism . . . in long, cold walks to the job, exhausting labor, occupational injuries and diseases, and grim pe- riods of unemployment. The wives met the forces of the industrial sys- tem at other points: sometimes at their own paid jobs, always at the local market street, with the landlord, with the charities, and with
such state institutions as hospitals, schools, and sanitary authorities.26
The challenge for the Left was to organize on both fronts of social dispossession. The practical policies of socialist parties inevitably registered the separation, but usually by adopting the normative gender assumptions rather than bringing them into critical and truly democratic focus. This remained one of the Left’s most perduring misrecognitions: “labor move- ments” implied a socialism beginning from the workplace, centered on strikes, and borne by militant working men; yet those movements were actually more broadly founded, also requiring women’s efforts in house- holds, neighborhoods, and streets. Even where this duality was acknowl-
edged, the primacy of the male-gendered class-political languages was sel- dom escaped.27
By 1900, the new urban societies were starting to solidify and coalesce.28
In Britain, some 80 percent of working-class marriages were now made from common backgrounds, while residential segregation encouraged the extended family networks of working-class community life. Dense socia- bility of pub and street and the spread of collective associations—friendly societies, working men’s clubs, cooperative societies—thickened the infra- structure of common identity, while new organized hobbies, mass sports, betting on horses and dogs, the continuity of home and street, and new commercial entertainments all separated working-class people from the rest. This was “the working class of cupfinals, fish-and-chipshops, palais- de-danse, and Labour with a capital L,” recognizable “by the physical en- vironment in which they lived, a style of life and leisure, by a certain class consciousness increasingly expressed in a secular tendency to join unions and to identify with a class party of Labour.”29 This urban sociopolitical coalescence implied a certain kind of manageable and interconnected com- munity, “places where work, home, leisure, industrial relations, local gov- ernment, and home-town consciousness were inextricably mixed to- gether.”30
Organizing political consciousness was
towns like Remscheid or Solingen in Germany with an older trade union
baix, Lille, and Montluc¸on, where French socialists were capturing mun- cipal
1903.31 Working-class institutions
also afforded citywide frameworks of action, like the friendly societies councils and trades councils in Britain; “Chambers of Labor” in Spain, Italy, and France; or the labor secretariats of the German SPD. These al-
lowed some influence over the urban environment, where workers still lacked full
1900, made housing, public health, and social improvement into vital sites of action. But the first goal was mastering the casualized labor market, by creating a municipal works department, promoting investment, using pub- lic contracts, and requiring union rates.32 Such political action was key to class formation, as unions and work-based organizing still tended to priv- ilege the older craft societies.
Once urbanization passed a certain threshold, the city’s everyday life— notably in transport and rented housing—became a practical infrastructure binding working people together, particularly as reforming city administra- tions built mass transit systems and public housing of their own. Resulting concentrations of working-class people loyal to the city became a vital re- source for socialist city governments after 1918, the bedrock of socialist electoral success. Red Vienna was the most imposing example of a general
pattern, where municipal housing, public transport, direct labor, and the city payrolls grounded the Left’s twentieth-century urban hegemonies. In
1914–45, expanding central government provision of social goods, such as unemployment relief, health, education, housing, and social security, were also disbursed locally, giving the working poor key incentives for organ- izing. It began really to matter who was sitting in the council chamber or wearing the mayor’s chain of office.33
However, the local weight
stitutions, and a
wave of popular enfranchisement that socialist parties came to local power. This was startling in its rapidity in northern
155,000 in 1933, or 40 percent of the whole.
Thus, working-class formation was no simple result of industrialization. Capitalism
powerful ways. The spatial architecture of the working-class presence in society—the social
of workers in all these ways—likewise structured common trends of col- lective belonging.
ities across neighborhoods, occupations, industries, regions, religious and linguistic
gent processes, “the working class” became a resonant and meaningful term of social and political address. By 1900, it described a palpable reality of European politics, social administration, and everyday life.
Yet workers were not the only popular class in European society. They coexisted with peasants and lower middle classes, usually in equivalent numbers with continuing societal strength. Moreover, distinctions within the working class remained strong, not just outside work but in the multiple differences of the workplace itself, in wages, security of employment, sen- iority, job control, and of course skill, quite apart from sectional divisions from industry to industry and firm to firm. Despite the wage relation’s universalizing logic, industrialization itself continuously invented new dis- tinctions, notably around new technologies. The most troublesome divi- siveness, in variable but persistent forms, centered on gender and work. Relatively small numbers of workers commanded higher wages and better conditions via their skill, as against the low wages, irregular work, and stricter subordination of the mass of the working poor. And not only did working women fall consistently on the disempowering side of this skill line, but the prevailing structures of working-class respectability also si- lenced and marginalized women via cultures of family, home, and public masculinity.
How these complex and countervailing logics of unity and difference worked with and against each other in particular times and places depended crucially on politics—on the fashioning of working-class organizations and on the rivalry of religious, philanthropic, party, and governmental inter- ventions seeking to shape and secure working-class allegiance. In this re- spect, social administration, public health, policing, the law, and the ram- ified institutional machinery of local and national government, as well as constitutional frameworks and the character of public spheres, all deter- mined the course of working-class formation. As the working class made its collective appearance in European history, these were not external forces acting on a working class already made from economics and sociology but an intimate part of the making of the working class tout court.
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