Class and Social Relations

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lower middle classes
white-collar professionals and service workers

Class is a relationship between producers and those who extract a surplus from their labor. A variety of social classes existed in Europe between 1789 and 1914, and the relations among these disparate classes raise some of the most interesting problems of nineteenth-century European history. Class transformations were characteristic features of nineteenth-century Europe, and relationships among classes changed significantly over time. But class transformations and class relationships followed no inexorable logic. They were profoundly shaped by historical conjunctures and by cultural and political forces as well as by economic forces.


During the course of the century class relationships changed at every level of society. At the very top, aristocrats managed to retain considerable power, but they had to renegotiate their relationships with both rulers and bourgeoisie.

In general, the character of aristocratic economic power changed over time. In Great Britain the least change occurred because, although membership in the House of Lords still conferred considerable power, in most areas the aristocracy had lost almost all legal prerogatives before 1789. But they retained their economic power: at century's end seven thousand individuals owned 80 percent of all privately owned land in the United Kingdom, and most of these great landowners were aristocrats. Even late-nineteenth-century Liberal leaders such as Henry Campbell-Bannerman ended their careers with a knighthood.

In most of Europe, however, a hereditary aristocracy secured by legal privilege essentially evolved toward landlordism. Despite the loss of feudal obligations, noble families such as the Stolberg-Wernigerodes and the Von Ratibors in the German empire and the Schwarzenbergs and Liechtensteins in Austria-Hungary owned huge expanses of national territory. In Russia aristocratic power was greatest and least constrained.

Everywhere great landowning aristocrats were also cultural pacesetters. Custom and often law required that aristocrats lead an "honorable lifestyle" that included fighting, dueling, sports, gambling, religion, and government. The aristocratic gentleman might have intellectual interests, but he must be a dilettante, interested in art, poetry, and literature in an amateur capacity only.

The aristocratic lady also had her prerogatives. While it was important that a woman bear legitimate male children to carry on the family line, once she had carried out this obligation there was leeway. Aristocratic women often possessed some control over the dowry or were able to draw on family financial resources and so enjoyed a measure of independence. The elegant salons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century gave aristocratic women a setting in which they could exert independent power. While the double standard was the rule of European society, like so many rules, it was not always enforced as rigorously among the aristocracy. Many an aristocratic couple, considered successfully married, had separate bedrooms, with separate access, in different wings of their townhouse.

As consolidated states expanded their power, aristocrats found it necessary to adapt. Before 1789 many aristocrats saw themselves as part of a French-speaking international ruling class whose self-identity was defined by honor, race, and lifestyle but certainly not by national loyalty. They felt free to offer their services wherever they might receive the most recognition. In the stormy 1650s, the great general, the Prince de Condé, fell out with Cardinal Jules Mazarin and transferred his loyalties from the king of France to the king of Spain.

No contemporary thought that his actions were in any way dishonorable.

As the century went on, aristocrats increasingly reconciled themselves to a new statist Europe that required national loyalty; in return, they continued to lead the armies and staff the diplomatic services of all the powers. British radical John Bright even referred to the diplomatic services as "a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy." In many cases, aristocrats needed such aid because declining agricultural revenues over the long nineteenth century often left them indebted, and the aristocracy always included a mass of smaller aristocrats unable to pursue ignoble occupations while unable to afford aristocratic lifestyles.


The aristocracy's chief rival for power in the nineteenth century was a bourgeoisie consisting of property owners who made their living in commerce, banking, or industry. Throughout the eighteenth century the bourgeoisie had accumulated its grievances against the aristocracy even while it was thrilled to associate with aristocrats in Masonic fraternities, scientific societies, and the theater. But the grievances generated in such potentially awkward situations were sometime deeply felt. In 1769 Antoine Barnave, a future revolutionary, happened to be at the theater of Grenoble with his mother when the governor of the Dauphiné arrived and declared that he wanted the mother's seat for his friends. Barnave's mother refused to leave, and the governor called in troops to drive her out.

The most powerful element of the bourgeoisie was the haute bourgeoisie, a small minority of bourgeois men and women who owned factories, banks, and large trading establishments. In the first half of the nineteenth century a new bourgeois aristocracy had emerged whose names would resound through the century: in Britain and Ireland, Cadbury, Courtauld, and Guinness; in France, Schneider and Wendel; and in Germany, Stinnes, Thyssen, and Krupp.

In the years between the onset of the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848–1851 capitalist elites and the solid middle classes often looked upon aristocrats as rivals and opponents. In England middle-class radicals scorned the leisured life of the aristocracy, mocked their lack of a work ethic, and deplored the decadence of both their art and their personal lives. Throughout Europe the French Revolution had inspired fear among the aristocracy, while the liquidation of aristocratic land and the provisioning of revolutionary and then of Napoleonic armies made many mercantile fortunes. After 1815 in France the restored Bourbons sought to reestablish aristocratic power and could not forgive bourgeois leaders, some of whom had voted for the death of King Louis XVI and many of whom had rallied behind Napoleon I in his ill-fated attempt at a comeback during the "Hundred Days." As late as 1830 bourgeois leaders felt comfortable in helping launch a popular revolution against Bourbon rule.

The revolutions of 1848 changed all that. In Paris, and to a lesser extent in Berlin and Vienna, revolutionary-minded bourgeois discovered that popular insurrections could threaten bourgeois order. Young middle-class sons who had played a leading role in early-nineteenth-century secret societies increasingly confined their interest to Masonry. By the end of the century, the bourgeoisie and aristocracy had largely reconciled their differences. Faced with their fear of popular revolution

from below, the aristocracy, the haute bourgeoisie, and the solid middle classes discovered interests in common. In the second half of the century, the effects of this reconciliation were particularly striking in the Austro-Hungarian (after 1867), German, and Russian empires where monarchs possessed considerable autonomous power and where aristocrats dominated the upper administration, the army, and important portions of the countryside. Here Marxist exhortations to bourgeois elites to make a bourgeois revolution were greeted with profound skepticism and deep suspicion. In turn, the weak opposition of liberal bourgeois politicians to monarchical and aristocratic power contributed to the evolution of independent working-class parties.

The power of bourgeois elites increased greatly after 1848 but as it did, they frequently adopted aristocratic lifestyles, and eagerly accepted titles, becoming aristocrats themselves. In great cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin, centers of aristocratic society, such amalgamations proceeded more swiftly than in great commercial and manufacturing towns such as Birmingham and Hamburg where the middle-class population was large and the aristocratic population almost non-existent. Successful businessmen nearly always purchased landed property and added a country home to their urban townhouse. They or their sons and daughters interested themselves in literature and the arts as they sought to enter an aristocratic-dominated high society and to intermarry with the aristocracy. Pe're Goriot, the protagonist of Honoré de Balzac's great novel of the same name (published in 1834), was a bourgeois who had made his fortune by subverting the grain controls of the Terror, but his money and both his daughters eventually ended up in aristocratic hands. A key element to bourgeois entry into the aristocratic world was the dowry. Many an indebted aristocrat was able to continue his lifestyle only by marrying bourgeois wealth.

Below the haute bourgeoisie was the solid middle class of society doctors, famous lawyers, top civil servants, small manufacturers, and wholesale merchants. Economically secure, they could not live off accumulated wealth. Already by the beginning of the nineteenth century, ideals of domesticity flourished among the solid middle classes. Here wives were expected to stay at home, to provide a peaceful refuge for a husband involved in the competitive business world and to rear and educate children. Educating children was an important function because the solid middle-class male child would need an education to succeed and the female would need an education to fulfill her maternal role. Despite the ideology of domesticity, solid middle-class women played an indispensable role in sustaining the family's economic position. The wife's dowry was often an important element in the family's membership in the solid middle class. The social ties that she maintained with other middle-class women were important in creating networks of ties that gave solid middle-class society its coherence and also facilitated her husband's business connections. In an age of partnerships in which family fortunes depended on the integrity of partners, family ties enabled businessmen to bind partners more closely to themselves and also provided intimate surveillance of their character.

lower middle classes

Below the solid middle classes were the great mass of the middle classes, the so-called petite bourgeoisie, consisting largely of shopkeepers, lesser state officials, and most lawyers and doctors. The lower middle classes possessed small amounts of capital and were required to work for a living; indeed many were often on the brink of proletarianization. Many a petit bourgeois dreamed of a financial coup or a string of successes that might lift him and his family into the solid middle classes while envying the skilled worker who earned as much as he did without having to worry about fussy customers or the responsibilities of management.

Most shopkeepers either owned or rented their own shops and lived in a few rooms adjoining the shop. The private world of the middle-class family only partially extended to this world and then only to the wealthiest members. Most shopkeepers' wives and children worked with their husbands and fathers in the shop. The success or failure of a shopkeeper depended not only on the size of a wife's dowry but also on her business ability. Perhaps the family was saving to send a talented son to an elite secondary school, but more likely, children were expected to learn the business on the job. The shopkeepers' children would have to find their way largely on their own, depending mostly on their education or on the training they picked up in the shop. Their parents did not possess sufficient money to retire and hand the shop over to them, and so they would have to establish themselves largely by their own skill and talent, although perhaps with a loan from their parents.

By the very nature of their business, the establishments of the lower middle classes were scattered all over town. In the more prosperous areas, shopkeepers and doctors tended to be wealthier and better off than in the poorer areas where they were continually opening and shutting down. Shopkeepers were recruited partly from the sons and daughters of shopkeepers. In Paris, most shopkeepers were recruited from provincial shopkeepers. But more typically they were from the working classes. In working-class areas, middle-class shopkeepers and the working classes lived side by side. Because they frequently extended credit to workers, these shopkeepers' fates were bound up with that of the working classes. The precarious financial position of many shopkeepers in working-class areas also gave them a stake in the vicissitudes of popular life. During much of the nineteenth century, the lower middle classes, particularly those located in working-class districts, rallied to popular causes. A great part of the power of the revolutions of 1848 stemmed from the successful union of the lower middle classes and the working classes.

The lower middle classes had played a leading role in the revolutionary struggles up to 1848 and continued to serve as revolutionary fuel into the 1870s. Yet in the second half of the long nineteenth century the alliance between the lower middle classes and the working classes became more problematic where it did not collapse altogether. The growth of class-conscious socialist and trade union movements undermined the petite bourgeoisie's sense of belonging to an encompassing popular class, a feeling that had provided cross-class unity in 1848. Grocery chains and catalog shopping were deadly threats to the lower middle classes, yet their working-class neighbors became prime customers of these retail innovations. Consumer cooperatives, a popular tool of the socialist movement, particularly alienated the lower middle classes as did the spread of trade unionism, which threatened to raise the wages of the helpers who gave the lower middle-class family a little extra time to take care of family needs.

white-collar professionals and service workers

Meanwhile a new social stratum of formally educated professional men and women was emerging. Despite the rhetoric of laissez-faire, governmental services increased greatly during the period. Between 1850 and 1914, railways expanded along with the railway workforce, and postal services increased rapidly as did the number of postal workers. Everywhere the number of teachers grew apace and secretaries, administrators, and accountants all were in high demand. The number of those employed in banking, health, entertainment, and insurance also grew.

Were these service workers and urban professionals a new middle class or a white-collar working class? Unlike the working classes, both artisans and factory workers, these workers did not work with their hands and were far more likely to be women. While many artisans earned more than clericals, the white-collar workers were required to dress for work and they possessed more formal education than the most skilled workers. At a time when industrial labor was becoming more masculine, white-collar work was feminizing. Emerging from technical training schools, women were hired as secretaries and typists and female lay teachers often replaced nuns in teaching young women in a still largely sex-segregated educational system in which they routinely received lower wages than their male counterparts.

White-collar identities varied according to political or social circumstances. In some countries such as France, teachers, civil service workers, and other groups formed unions and mobilized their constituents into popular movements. In Germany though, they were more likely to remain separate from the working classes and to identify themselves with a broadly construed middle group, the Mittelstand.


Even putting service workers and professionals aside, the working classes themselves were a diverse group that included skilled artisans, factory workers, domestic servants, and sweatshop tenement labor. Over the course of the century the number of factory workers increased considerably, the number of artisans and domestic servants declined, while sweatshop labor first expanded and then declined.

In manufacturing, preindustrial forms of labor slowly gave way to factory and millwork. Preindustrial work had its own distinctive characteristics. It was dispersed over town and country and was organized along family lines. Preindustrial workers controlled the pace and rhythm of their own work and often possessed a monopoly of knowledge about their job. They often had their own internal job hierarchy and their own distinctive occupational identity. Oftentimes, preindustrial workers lived close together to fellows who performed the same job. Skilled artisans, such as puddlers (makers of wrought iron) or glassblowers, tended to live in their own communities within the city or village; they often had a shared leisure life based on common work and residence patterns. Glassworkers retained their own sense of identity when thrown together with other groups of workers. These workers were capable of considerable solidarity, but waves of innovation, such as the mechanization that swept the glass industry in the 1890s, were capable of reducing them to relative penury.

In early-nineteenth-century cities, the largest groups of workers were usually domestic servants who catered to the needs of upper- and middle-class families. Whether they resided with a wealthy family or performed cleaning services for a middle-class family, servants were under the close scrutiny of their employers, and this limited their ability to act independently, either personally or collectively. Personal contact might result in lifelong friendships between older servants and the wealthy children they had raised. But it was also a great source of personal pettiness. One English domestic servant recounted how all the silverware used in her servants' quarter was engraved with the message "Stolen from the household of" followed by the family crest. Despite its relative security, higher wages, and contact with the upper classes, indeed perhaps because of its interclass contact, first men and later women fled domestic service for factory and secretarial work as it became available, and the proportion of the population in domestic service slowly declined.

The world of the newly emerging industrial workers was quite different from that of domestic service. They inhabited an urban world. The factory or mill was almost always sex segregated and, as the century wore on, males increasingly dominated the workplace; sons might expect to find work in the same factory as their father, but they seldom were trained by their parents. Industrial workers were supervised outside the traditional job hierarchies, and formally educated supervisors or engineers increasingly controlled their labor. Industrial workers who labored in the same factories did not tend to live together in the city but lived in new working-class sections of the city or the suburbs where they lived next to other workers but not necessarily workmates. In this environment it became increasingly easy for workers to identify themselves less with a specific occupation and more with the general working class.

The nineteenth century also witnessed the growth of homework and sweatshop labor, a growth disproportionately concentrated in great cities. Erratic and low-paid male labor, such as dock labor, forced wives and children to accept the miserable conditions, long hours, and low wages that characterized many portions of the garment trades, particularly those engaged in homework or in small shops. The spread of piecework and putting out extended many of the most scandalous characteristics of the early Industrial Revolution into the second half of the nineteenth century. Toward the end of the century, however, waves of political reform imposed new restrictions on poorly paid laborers, and the size of this labor force declined.

The spread of socialism and trade unions among male workers—artisanal, highly skilled, and factory workers—was one of the most powerful nineteenth-century political trends. Although many of the largest factories remained peripheral to the labor movement until the interwar years, class-consciousness created a powerful sense of identity among proletarians. While middle-class intellectuals such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had elaborated key doctrines of the labor movement, workers rallied behind banners that featured bare-chested manual laborers; read newspapers that announced their proletarian allegiance; joined cooperatives and lyceums that explicitly appealed to workers; and, particularly in the Scan-dinavian and Germanic worlds, formed bicycling societies, temperance societies, and chess clubs open only to workers. The old camaraderie between proletarians and the petite bourgeoisie faltered when faced with such exclusion. Many male teachers and salesmen avoided clubs controlled by blue-collar workers who mocked their clothes and envied their education.

The spread of explicitly proletarian political and social organizations did not make workers more revolutionary, but it did isolate them from

other class groups. As socialist parties and trade unions grew more successful, they often became more preoccupied with immediate tasks than with their proclaimed goal of proletarian revolution. To many the democratization of the German Empire and the defeat of French militarism seemed far more immediate concerns than proletarian revolution. Everywhere labor movements, including not only socialist reformists but also an archosyndicalists, gave more consideration to immediate reforms. Yet socialist organizations often found it difficult to reach out to those middle-class and agricultural constituencies who shared their democratic and antimilitaristic goals. Despite Continental labors' growing moderation, most peasants and solid middle-class and petit bourgeois Europeans thought only of revolution when they saw the red flag.


In spite of the presence of the sickle alongside the hammer on the red flag, labor movements seldom paid careful attention to agriculture or to the peasantry. Marx and Engels had predicted that economic trends would undermine the peasantry, forcing them into the ranks of revolution. While Marxist economic analysis was not wrong, the decline of the peasantry would take decades, and the failure to accommodate peasants in the here and now was a crucial socialist failure in the years before 1914.

Although the rural world in many parts of Europe was rapidly changing, peasants still played an important role. In 1789 as in 1914 the majority of Europeans were agriculturalists and a majority of these were peasants. Peasants are members of a household whose major activity is farming. They produce a major portion of the goods and services they consume. They exercise substantial control over the land that they farm, and they supply the major portion of the labor requirements within their own households. While peasant agriculture predominated in Europe it did not extend everywhere. In Spain and southern Italy, peasant agriculture gave way to large estates or ranches on which large landowners used overseers who directed huge gangs of landless laborers. In England, medium-sized farmers rented from aristocratic landlords and hired landless laborers.

Between the emancipation of the peasants of Savoy in 1771 and that of the Romanian peasantry in 1864, a host of legally enforceable obligations embodied in monopolies, tithes, personal obligations, labor services, and arbitrary financial exactions were either abolished or converted intorents. An unfree peasantry, resentful of aristocratic rule and suspicious of bourgeois commercialization, had represented a powder keg in European society. The prospect of an alliance between the working classes and a rebellious peasantry chilled many an elitist heart. Yet the possibilities of such coalitions declined after 1848 and the wave of emancipations that accompanied and followed it.

One result of emancipation was the weakening of the village community that was a distinctive feature of European peasant life and a center of agricultural rebellion. The village community had been based on common decisions about planting, harvesting, and sewing or on common control over woodlands or other resources: emancipation often involved the loss of common control or at the very least its weakening. The village community was based on the parish and on the willingness of the priesthood to represent its interests as well as on the strength of formal and informal organizations employing coercive means, such as so-called rough music, shivarees, and Katzenmusik, to enforce discipline on community members. The weakening of agricultural controls over communal resources and the evolution of the rural clergy toward the political right undercut the strength of this independent peasant society. The migration of many unmarried youths to urban work also diminished the village institutions that had been the tools of village society for enforcing its codes.

Emancipation created new political opportunities in the countryside, but its results were different than many had expected. While political radicals and workers and agriculturalists were able to form alliances in portions of France, western Germany, and Italy, the advent of protectionism in the latter part of the nineteenth century enabled large landlords to rally peasants and to reknit relationships between aristocrat and peasant sundered in the first portion of the century. The rapid spread of agricultural protectionism throughout Europe in the 1880s and 1890s rallied many peasants behind conservative forces and brought them into conflict with labor movements that generally supported free trade. In Europe, before 1914, the grand coalition between unfree, impoverished peasants and hard-pressed workers that seemed imminent in 1848 never really took shape.

Over the course of the long nineteenth century, the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie reconciled their differences without a clear victory for either side. The petite bourgeoisie became a less and less reliable member of a grand coalition of the popular classes. A new white-collar labor force emerged, but its class identification varied across states. A powerful socialist movement emerged but found itself politically isolated. Emancipation brought internal divisions to the village community, and in some regions aristocratic landlords recovered their leadership of the rural community by leading a battle for agricultural protectionism. Class was an important force in nineteenth-century Europe, but class relationships were historically contingent and class behavior could not be predicted from a logic inherent within class categories.

See alsoAristocracy; Bourgeoisie; Capitalism; Cities and Towns; Labor Movements; Peasants; Popular and Elite Culture; Socialism.


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Michael Hanagan