Social and Political Impact of the First Phase of the Industrial Revolution

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Social and Political Impact of the First Phase of the Industrial Revolution

From 1800 to 1850, the population of England and Wales doubled, from nine million to eighteen million. During the same period, the proportion of people living in cities rose from 10 percent to 50 percent. Put together, the population of the cities of England and Wales rose from about nine hundred thousand to nine million, a 1,000-percent increase, in fifty years.

The increase in population shocked people at the time. As early as 1798, the English economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) wrote an essay, "The Principles of Population," predicting widespread famine on the grounds that while population seemed to be proceeding at a geometrical rate (2, 4, 8, 16), food production was only growing at an arithmetical rate (2, 4, 6, 8). Malthus, and many others, feared that the population would rapidly outstrip England's ability to produce enough food to feed the millions of new people. Malthus blamed the lower classes for having too many children and proposed that laws be passed limiting the number of children people were allowed to have.

Although the catastrophe predicted by Malthus never occurred (partly because there was a huge increase in productivity in agriculture, partly because the rate of increase in population slowed), his opinions were widely accepted at the time, particularly his conclusion that poor people were to blame for the profound social changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. The jump in population cannot be attributed to industrialization, but industrialization certainly added to the impact of England's shift from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial society as the nineteenth century unfolded.

These social changes had several causes and consequences:

  • The consolidation of farmlands as a result of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy aristocrats petitioned the government to own lands that communities used to share, pushed poorer people off the farms and into towns and cities (see Chapter 1).
  • The dramatic rise in the number of factories provided jobs for some of these former farmers. These workers were relatively unskilled (compared to master craftspeople), but they could be trained to operate the new machinery being introduced.
  • The flow of rural people into cities overwhelmed the physical facilities. Poorly built, inexpensive houses were developed and people crowded into them. Public health facilities, such as adequate sewage systems, could not keep pace with the growth in population.

Social and Political Impact of the First Phase of the Industrial Revolution: Words to Know


A social philosophy that advocates voluntary associations among people as a form of self-government, as opposed to central governments dominated by a monarch or other central figure.


A system of organizing a society's economy in which ownership of machines and factories is private, rather than public.


A form of government in which all the people own property, including both land and capital, in common.


A political and economic system in which the people control both the government and also major elements of the economy, such as owning (or tightly regulating) factories.

  • England's system of providing for the basic needs of the poor, based on an ancient system of rural parishes (subdivisions of counties corresponding to a local church), could not cope with the sudden rise in both the overall population and the concentration of poor people in cities.
  • The nature of work in factories—long hours (sixteen-hour work-days were not uncommon), monotonous labor, widespread employment of children—worsened issues of health. Low wages resulted in crowded housing, inadequate sanitation, and inadequate diets.
  • Serious environmental changes took place. Coal was the universal fuel to power factories and heat homes. Soot, a byproduct of burnt coal, covered English cities, turning many buildings black over time and contributing to air pollution, both inside poorly ventilated factories and outside. Lack of sewage treatment plants resulted in raw human waste running into streams and rivers. As late as 1855, a leading English scientist, Michael Faraday (1791–1867), wrote a letter to the editor of the Times of London describing a boat ride on the River Thames, which runs through London:

The appearance and the smell of the water forced themselves at once on my attention. The whole of the river was an opaque pale brown fluid.… The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully-holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.

Two decades before Faraday's letter, in 1833, British surgeon Philip Gaskell had published his observations of the physical conditions of factory workers in The Manufacturing Population of England:

Their complexion is sallow and pallid—with a peculiar flatness of feature, caused by the want of a proper quantity of adipose substance [fat] to cushion out the cheeks. Their stature low—the average height of four hundred men, measured at different times, and different places, being five feet six inches. Their limbs slender, and playing badly and ungracefully. A very general bowing of the legs. Great numbers of girls and women walking lamely or awkwardly, with raised chests and spinal flexures. Nearly all have flat feet, accompanied with a down-tread, differing very widely from the elasticity of action in the foot and ankle, attendant upon perfect formation.… A spiritless and dejected air, a sprawling and wide action of the legs, and an appearance, taken as a whole, giving the world but "little assurance of a man," or if so, "most sadly cheated of his fair proportions."

At around the same time, in 1836, a factory owner and member of Parliament, John Fielden, wrote The Curse of the Factory System, in which he described his own factory and the impact of new laws passed by the British government regarding the maximum work week:

We have never worked more than seventy-one hours a week [just under twelve hours a day, six days a week] before Sir John Hobhouse's Act was passed [in 1831; the bill limited the working hours of children to sixty-four hours a week, or slightly over nine hours a day for six days a week]. We then came down to sixty-nine; and since Lord Althorp's Act [the Factory Act] was passed, in 1833, we have reduced the time of adults to sixty-seven and a half hours a week, and that of children under thirteen years of age to forty-eight hours in the week, though to do this latter has, I must admit, subjected us to much inconvenience, but the elder hands to more, inasmuch as the relief given to the child is in some measure imposed on the adult. But the overworking does not apply to children only; the adults are also overworked. The increased speed given to machinery within the last thirty years, has, in very many instances, doubled the labour of both.

Changes in English society as a result of industrialization gave rise to changes in government as well.

The Reform Bill of 1832

The British Parliament in the early 1800s was a far different institution than it has become. For generations, the Parliament in London included aristocrats and high church officials, sitting in the House of Lords, and wealthy, prominent citizens who sat in the House of Commons. Only people who owned a significant amount of property could vote in parliamentary elections for the House of Commons (no one in the House of Lords was elected; everyone there either inherited a seat as an aristocrat, or became a member by virtue of his position in the Church of England, the official religion). The majority of people, including all women and working men without property, had no voice in government.

The members of Parliament reflected the social structure of England's medieval period (about 500–1400), when social, economic, and political power were based on ownership of land, or on religion. And since members of the House of Commons often represented towns, rather than a specific number of people, changes in England over the centuries had created some odd situations.

For example, centuries of land erosion had caused much of the coastal town of Dunwich to fall into the sea; its population in 1831 had fallen to thirty-two voters. Nevertheless, the town still sent a representative to Parliament, as it had for generations. On the other hand, Manchester, England, had become an important center of manufacturing, with sixty thousand residents. But Manchester had no representation in Parliament, since it was not a large town when the composition of Parliament had last been changed hundreds of years earlier.

Small towns like Dunwich that still sent representatives despite their reduced size were called "rotten boroughs," a term that reflected another fact of British democracy: the absence of a secret ballot. Since it was public knowledge how a person voted, voters could be (and were) bribed to vote for a particular person as a member of Parliament. In some cases, a single wealthy individual controlled Parliamentary representation by monitoring voters to make sure they voted as he had paid them to vote. In other instances, wealthy individuals, such as business owners, traveled to a rotten borough and in effect bought a seat in Parliament by bribing voters in a small town.

By 1830, the Industrial Revolution had created a new source of social and economic power: ownership of factories. So it was not surprising that wealthy business owners wanted to share in political power as well. The major landmark of political change brought about by the Industrial Revolution was the Reform Bill of 1832.

In November 1830, the leader of the Whig party, an aristocrat named Charles, Earl Grey (1764–1845), organized a campaign to make Parliament more representative of the population. Such a campaign arose from fears that the growing population of cities could lead to a violent revolution by desperate workers who had no voice in government, much like the French Revolution of 1789. During that conflict, mobs of workers, facing starvation, overthrew the king, executed aristocrats, and declared a republic (a system of government in which there is no monarch and officials are elected by the people). The reform movement was opposed by the Conservative Party (also called the Tories), whose parliamentary majority rested partly on Conservative representatives from rotten boroughs.

In 1831, despite Conservative opposition, the House of Commons passed a reform act that would give more people a vote and would send representatives to Parliament from cities like Manchester. But the House of Lords defeated the bill. In response, rioting broke out in several English cities. The Bishop of Exeter complained to the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, that he did not feel safe coming to Bristol—an industrial city, like Manchester, without parliamentary representation—to consecrate a church, due to the threat of violence. Anger over being left out of representation was widely felt, and the bishop told Wellington he had heard of plans for a revolt against land owners among the poorest citizens. This report hardly came as news to the Duke of Wellington. His own house was attacked by a mob that broke thirty windows before it was disbursed by a servant firing a rifle from the roof.

Four months later, the Reform Bill passed, on April 13, 1832, giving industrial cities like Manchester and Liverpool representation in Parliament. But even so, British democracy was sharply limited. Only about 14 percent of British males were qualified to vote (to qualify, a man had to own a minimum amount of property, which excluded most men who worked in factories). Women were not allowed to vote. Some members of Parliament represented fewer than three hundred people, while other members from urban districts such as Liverpool represented over eleven thousand.

However limited in scope, the Reform Act of 1832 was a direct reflection of the widespread changes spurred by the Industrial Revolution. The growth of cities caused by industrialization put in sharp focus how outdated the English parliamentary system had become. And many citizens realized after the act was passed just how much more reform was needed.

The Sadler Report

Although the Reform Bill of 1832 failed to provide factory workers with a vote or any political power, the conditions under which they worked and lived did become a political issue the following year. A member of the House of Commons, Michael Sadler (1780–1835) held hearings in 1832 to highlight the working conditions of children in particular. Even though he lost an election and was no longer a member of Parliament, he published the results of his hearings in 1833 anyway. The published report included the testimony of child factory workers, who told of long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions, especially in textile mills.

The Sadler Report caused a storm of public indignation. Some critics faulted him for asking leading questions phrased in a way to elicit the sort of answers he wanted to hear. Sadler's defenders, on the other hand, focused on the fact that children worked for twelve or more hours a day with little rest and barely enough time to eat. And while some factories might have adopted more humane policies, many others were guilty of abusing children, just as Sadler documented. For decades afterward, the testimony of these young workers would be cited as an illustration of how greedy factory owners exploited children.

Sadler's report helped pave the way to legislation that regulated the conditions under which factories could employ children. Though Sadler lost his seat in Parliament, another politician, Lord Ashley, took up the workers' cause.

The Factory Act of 1833

Lord Ashley (Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1801–1885, known as Lord Ashley until 1851 and later as the Earl of Shaftesbury) was instrumental in persuading Parliament to pass the Factory Act of 1833, which set standards for employment of children in textile factories (and only in textile factories). The act required that children aged thirteen to eighteen could not be employed more than twelve hours a day, during which ninety minutes had to be allowed for meal breaks. Younger children, aged nine through twelve, could only work for nine hours a day, and no child could work between 8:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.

This act was bitterly opposed by many factory owners, but other acts followed that imposed even more regulations on the working conditions in factories. The laws were passed to address business practices like those of Richard Arkwright (1732–1792), who made an immense fortune by introducing machinery into textile manufacturing (see Chapter 3). Workers in his factories worked eleven hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. About two-thirds of his employees were children, although Arkwright refused to employ five-year-olds, as some of his competitors did. He waited until children were six to put them to work eleven hours a day. On the other end of the age scale, Arkwright refused to employ anyone over the age of forty.

Factory owners objected that the regulations Parliament passed trampled on their rights as free Englishmen to conduct their businesses as they saw fit, and also violated the rights of other free Englishmen, the workers, from agreeing to work as they chose. The Factory Act of 1833 opened a debate, which has never really ended, over the role of government in regulating economic activity.

Change from within: Robert Owen

Robert Owen (1771–1858), a self-made man and successful factory owner, was one of the earliest industrialists to recognize the need to reform the factory system. Owen had been born into modest circumstances and had come to own a large factory in Newlanark, Scotland, thanks in part to marrying the owner's daughter and borrowing funds to buy a factory from his father-in-law.

Owen was not interested just in making money. He was a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, which held meetings to discuss issues of the day, including the plight of workers employed in factories. Owen participated in several experiments that he hoped would improve workers' lives. In 1806, for example, he continued to pay workers' wages even while his factory was closed for several months as a result of a ban on cotton exports to England imposed by the United States. He improved the housing provided to his workers, and he actively worked to combat alcoholism and spousal abuse among his employees. In 1816 Owen established the Institute for the Formation of Character, which provided daytime schooling for children from age two to ten, and offered classes at night for older children and for adults.

Owen's ideas were not popular with most business-people. And although some efforts were made in Parliament to pass laws limiting the length of the workday and requiring inspections of factories to make sure regulations were enforced, it took many years for even modest regulations to be passed by Parliament.

In the meantime, Owen tried to take his ideas to the United States, where he hoped for a more welcome reception. In 1824 he acquired the community of New Harmony, Indiana, for $120,000 (equivalent to about $1.8 million in 2003). There he set up small-scale farms and industrial ventures run on the principles of a cooperative, in which the participants/workers owned shares of the businesses and voted on their operations. But within four years the experiment fell into disarray. The community was overcrowded, and people who settled there could not agree among themselves on how to run the ventures.

Owen handed New Harmony over to his sons and returned to England, where he tried to organize labor unions, associations of workers who banded together to bargain with employers for more pay and better working conditions. In 1832 Owen helped organize a coalition of unions (most unions were formed among workers within one industry) called the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. Within a week it claimed five hundred thousand members, but it soon broke apart as a result of unsuccessful strikes (in which workers would refuse to work in order to force the owners to make some concession, such as better pay or working conditions) and industrial lockouts (in which owners close factories and stop paying wages as a means of discouraging union membership).

Robert Owen also advocated what he called "rational religion," a set of beliefs that contradicted some of the teachings of the official Church of England. His religious beliefs, along with his efforts to organize trade unions, made him highly unpopular among England's ruling classes. He died in 1858 without having achieved his goals, but he left a legacy of efforts on behalf of workers that would eventually inspire others to take up the cause.

Worker challenges to the Industrial Revolution: The Luddites

The efforts of Robert Owen and Michael Sadler largely represented influence from the top down: that is, efforts by wealthy or influential men to improve the lot of ordinary workers. But long before the British Parliament acted, some workers had begun taking things into their own hands. The first spontaneous uprising of workers started in 1811 with the Luddites.

The Luddites were mostly skilled textile workers who felt their jobs were threatened by new knitting machines introduced into their industry. As Richard Guest described in 1823 in A Compendious History of the Cotton Manufacture, new water- and steam-powered textile machines made it possible to produce much more fabric using far fewer workers than had been the case before (see Chapter 3). Seen from the viewpoint of a national economy, this development was good news: the productivity of workers increased enormously. But seen from the viewpoint of a skilled spinner or weaver, the new machines and factories meant that their skills and strength were no longer needed: their work could be done by boys or girls for far less pay. The new looms could produce far more fabric in a day or week, with fewer workers, than the hand-operated looms ever could. It was hard to imagine that the demand for fabric would increase so rapidly; it was easy to imagine that skilled workers would lose their jobs in home-based workshops.

Early in 1811 owners of textile mills near Nottingham, England, began receiving letters from someone who called himself General Ned Ludd (sometimes written as Nedd Ludd), complaining that the new machines were costing people their jobs. No one knew for certain who Ned Ludd was; some thought it was the name of a slow-witted boy in the area who had been teased by other youths.

Typical of the Luddite threats was a letter delivered in November 1811 to a manufacturer named Charles Lacy of Nottingham. The writer accused Lacy of engaging in "divers [diverse] fraudulent, and oppressiv [oppresive], Acts—whereby he has reduced to poverty and Misery Seven Hundred of our beloved Brethren." The Luddites accused Lacy of gaining riches through the misery of his "Fellow Creatures," and threatened to kill Lacy unless he distributed to unemployed workers £15,000 (the pound is the unit of British currency; £15,000 was equivalent to several hundred thousand U.S. dollars in 2003 prices).

In March 1811 the letters had given way to vandalism. The first Luddite attacks were apparently carried out by men who had made stockings. The attacks coincided with a dramatic fall in the demand for the knee stockings men wore with breeches, which were knee-length pants common during the eighteenth century, as long trousers became fashionable instead. Few nights passed without someone breaking into a textile factory and smashing one of the new machines designed to knit stockings. As time went on, the attacks spread to the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire, and the attackers became known as Luddites.

Factory owners offered rewards for the capture of the vandals. In February 1812 the British Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made destroying a textile machine punishable by death. As a measure of how seriously the government took the Luddites, twelve thousand troops were sent to protect the factories in areas where Luddites were active. Still the attacks persisted.

On April 11, 1812, Luddites attacked Rawfords Mill, owned by William Cartwright, in Brighouse, England. Cartwright had placed armed guards around his factory, and they fought against the attackers, killing two. A week later, another factory owner, William Horsfall, was murdered in the same area. The authorities arrested more than one hundred workers and charged sixty-four people with crimes connected to the attacks. Eventually, three men were executed for Horsfall's murder, and fourteen others were hanged for the attack on Rawfords Mill.

Nevertheless, the violence continued. On April 20, 1812, workers attacked a factory owned by Emanuel Burton near Manchester. Armed guards killed three of the attackers. The next day, workers returned and burned down Burton's house. Troops were dispatched, and seven more people died. An attack on another mill that week resulted in twelve arrests and four executions.

Gradually the attacks diminished, perhaps in response to the legal crackdown. But periodic attacks were recorded as late as 1817.

Significance of the Luddites

Historians, with the advantage of knowing what came next, are divided over the significance of the Luddites. Did they represent an English version of a possible revolution, like the one that had overturned the monarchy in France in 1789? Were they the forerunners of trade unions, in which workers banded together to bargain for better pay and working conditions in factories? Or were they simply a reaction to social change, without any lasting significance?

The period of the Luddites was marked by other economic and political strains unrelated to industrialization. Britain was still waging war against the French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon I; 1769–1821), who was fighting to dominate Europe. As a result, the value of British wool exports had fallen dramatically, causing many to be put out of work regardless of the new machines. A series of bad harvests had driven up the price of food to a level that caused workers to have difficulty buying enough to eat.

Despite differing views on their historical significance, the Luddites did inspire a new word in the English vocabulary: today, "Luddite" is taken to mean someone who is opposed to new technology. And the Luddites did signal that the new inventions of the industrial era could, and would, inspire unanticipated social reactions.

Socialism: Workers as a political force

The Luddites responded to the Industrial Revolution with direct action: smashing machines. Industrialization in England as well as in Europe also gave rise to the idea that workers should have political power. The memory of the French Revolution of 1789, in which mobs of ordinary people toppled the monarchy and executed many aristocrats, was still fresh in most people's minds. Although factory owners were making progress in gaining political power (through the Reform Act of 1832, for example), ordinary factory workers were not.

The growth of industrialization had a significant impact on the lives of ordinary workers. Many had been forced off small farms by the enclosure movement and into cities, where they lived in dismal housing and worked long hours under dangerous conditions. Women and children worked alongside men, but the combined wages of a whole family could not pay for more than a dingy, dark little house in an overcrowded neighborhood blackened from the soot of coal fires. These urban workers shared much in common with serfs, the poor agricultural workers of the Middle Ages who were virtual slaves, owning no property and unable to move elsewhere.

As this new class of workers grew in number, several writers and thinkers began advocating not only political representation for workers, but also government control over the new factories. The twin ideas of including all men (political rights for women was an idea that came somewhat later) in politics as equals (as was already happening in the United States), and of exerting government control over industry came to be known by an all-encompassing label: socialism. From about 1820 onwards, the term socialism was applied to a variety of ideas and political movements that advocated solutions to social problems; these solutions ranged from the peaceful acquisition of influence through parliamentary elections to violent revolution and the seizure of all private property.

Realizing that ordinary workers far outnumbered property owners, both traditional land-owning aristocrats and the newly wealthy factory owners looked on all forms of socialism as a threat to their power and influence. The notion of violent revolution under the name of socialism sent tremors down the spines of the aristocrats and factory owners alike.

English citizens both wealthy and poor clearly remembered the events of July 1789, when mobs in Paris stormed Bastille prison, seized arms, and took power from the French monarch, Louis XVI. The French Revolution adopted the slogan "liberty, brotherhood, equality," and rounded up aristocrats to be killed. A bread shortage in Paris had sparked the revolution, which soon took on a much larger dimension to include democratic rule by all citizens, not just the wealthy. For the wealthy classes in 1820, the French Revolution was a nightmare they did not want to repeat. For some socialists, it was a dream to be realized throughout Europe. (In France, where it started, the general Napoléon Bonaparte had seized power and tried to extend French rule throughout Europe; a coalition of European monarchies opposed him, and Bonaparte was finally defeated by England in 1815, a date that was recent history for those living in 1830s England.)

The Chartists

One group of reformers that advocated peaceful social change by granting the power to vote to all workers were called Chartists. They were active in England from 1838 to 1848, and they presented a series of petitions (or "charters") to Parliament advocating political change. The Chartists reasoned that the Reform Act of 1832 did not go far enough in extending political power outside a small group of the wealthy and aristocrats. The Chartists also recognized that the Parliament, in 1833, had adopted some regulations that applied to the textile industry. The Chartists wanted more stringent regulations that would also extend to other industries.

The Chartists presented three separate petitions to Parliament, in 1839, 1842, and 1848. The first, titled the "People's Charter," was written in 1838 largely by William Lovett (1800-1877) for the London Workingman's Association. The petition demanded that Parliament adopt a secret ballot, annual elections, an end to the requirement that members of the British Parliament must own property, equalsized election districts, and the right of every man to vote in Parliamentary elections. Many of these demands may seem ordinary and obvious now, but in 1838 they were viewed as dangerous and radical by many in the English ruling class.

In February 1838, the Chartists held their first public meeting to get signatures on the petition. At their meeting, the Chartists adopted a slogan: "Peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must," which sounded like a threat to many. They had to be careful that not more than fifty people attended a meeting in order not to violate one of the Gagging Acts, laws that banned meetings of more than fifty people. The government instituted the Gagging Acts to prevent workers from banding together to fight the government or their employers. Some Chartists advocated more radical actions, such as a general strike (in which all workers would simultaneously refuse to work) or the election of a "Peoples' Parliament" that would challenge the existing Parliament.

In July 1839, the petition with more than one and a quarter million signatures was presented to Parliament. Two months later, the House of Commons took a vote on whether or not to accept the demands of the petition. The vote was 46 in favor, 235 against. Defeated, the national organization that brought the petition dissolved itself in September.

But the ideas put forward in the petition gained popularity. Local groups of Chartists continued to agitate for change that would deliver political power to working people. Chartists submitted a petition to Parliament again in 1842, claiming to have over thirty-one million signatures, and they submitted a third petition in 1848. On both occasions, the petition was rejected by Parliament. Some legislators ridiculed the effort.

The Chartists encountered many obstacles in pursuing their cause. Organizers of the Chartists were mostly skilled workers, and they were unable to bring in others to their cause. The Chartists were often divided by different priorities (such as political representation or factory regulation), as well as by personality clashes among individual members. Chartism died out as a movement after 1848 without achieving its goals, but much of its program was eventually incorporated into election-law reforms passed in the 1860s. Chartism was an example of the peaceful, gradual adoption of socialist goals, and it was a forerunner of today's British Labour Party.

Revolution: A violent alternative

Just as the Chartists were failing to persuade the British Parliament to adopt their ideas for sharing power and improving the lives of workers, on the European continent a much different approach to bringing about political change was being advocated by a German political philosopher named Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marx's idea was much closer to the French Revolution: workers violently overturning the government, seizing all private property, and ruling without regard to the aristocracy or business elite. Marx thought that workers of all nations had much in common and should unite in a single worldwide government that ignored traditional national boundaries. He also thought that a victory by workers was inevitable, dictated by natural laws that govern the evolution of human society, comparable to the law of gravity and other laws that govern the physical world. Viewing himself as a social scientist, he called his proposed system "scientific socialism," although it is better known as communism. Communism eventually became a major force in world history.

A native of Germany, Marx grew up in a middle-class household and studied law before turning to writing newspaper articles in 1842. In his articles, Marx criticized the government of the Rhineland, a region of Germany, which had not yet been united into a single country. At the same time, Marx became involved in movements demanding political and economic power for workers. Most European rulers did not permit freedom of expression in the 1840s, and Marx soon had to flee Germany to avoid arrest.

In 1848, Europe was plunged into crisis. For the prior three years, poor harvests and a sharp slowdown in economic activity created rising tensions, as many people could not afford food. In February, the king of France, Louis Phillipe, resigned rather than face an armed revolt by his army in the face of widespread social discontent. His son, the new king, in turn declared a Second Republic (the first had been declared in 1789). In March 1848, working people revolted in Vienna, Berlin, Milan, and Venice. In Hungary, workers demanded independence from the Austrian empire, as did Croats, Czechs, and Romanians, all of whom were under Austrian rule.

To Karl Marx, these spontaneous revolutions against the established order seemed like the worker rebellion that he had predicted would come as a result of oppression of workers during the Industrial Revolution. Staying in London, where English laws protected him from arrest as a political agitator, Marx and a colleague, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), wrote a document titled The Communist Manifesto on behalf of the small German Communist Party. (A manifesto is a statement of political principles.) In it, Marx and Engels urged workers to seize not only political power, but also private property, using violence if necessary.

The Communist Manifesto introduced two ideas that Marx would later expand upon in a much larger work called Das Kapital (Capital). The first idea was that the laws of history dictated that workers would eventually gain both political power and control of factories, which Marx called "the means of production." The second idea was class warfare, the notion that workers were engaged in a war against property owners, including factory owners. Marx saw the economic interests of workers and owners as being in conflict; he also thought political institutions, such as parliaments, were simply a means to protect one set of economic interests from another. He therefore saw gaining political power and gaining economic power as the same thing.

Moreover, Marx wrote that workers in all nations had the same basic economic interests (enough food to eat, decent housing, safe working conditions), and he urged workers to forget their different nationalities and instead band together in a global effort to seize the "means of production," and to hold them in common. In Marx's vision, no individual would own a factory in the future; everyone would have a share (be a part owner) by virtue of being alive.

This idea of common ownership of property was not unique to Marx, but he was one of its most persuasive advocates. For almost 150 years after he wrote The Communist Manifesto, the names Marx and communism struck fear into the hearts of property owners worldwide. It was under the banner of communism that revolutionaries seized power in Russia in 1917 and in China in 1949. In both Russia and China, brutal dictators eventually took control, curtailing individual civil rights and leading to the deaths of millions of their political foes. Their behavior was equated with communism, and a long military and economic struggle ensued with the United States in a conflict that came to be known as the Cold War.

Marx was not the only writer advocating revolution as a response to the Industrial Revolution. Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) was a Russian social philosopher who urged replacement of strong central governments with voluntary associations of workers who would cooperate in running factories as well as small local governments. Bakunin's theories were called anarchism, and they inspired generations of workers who opposed the strong worker-dominated governments advocated by Marx. (To be fair, Marx thought that central governments would eventually wither away since their initial purpose was to safeguard private property. But Marx saw the disappearance of strong government as an eventual result of worker control, rather than as the means to achieve it.) Bakunin made a career of calling for revolution, but his theories, unlike those of Marx, were never put into place.

Trade unions

One of the most influential and lasting means by which workers tried to improve their lives was the trade union. The essential idea of unions was that while a single worker had no influence over a factory owner—one worker could easily be dismissed and replaced by another—all of the factory's workers acting together could unite and disrupt a factory's smooth operation by refusing to work unless their demands were met.

Capitalist, Bourgeoisie, and Proletariat: New Ways of Describing Society

Karl Marx was largely responsible for introducing three new terms to describe elements of society: capitalist, bourgeoisie, and proletariat.

"Capitalist" was the term used to describe a person who owned a factory or a significant share in a company (that is, a person who put up much of the money to finance the factory and therefore would reap his share of the profits). Capital is the term used to describe wealth that is in the form of money, as opposed to wealth in the form of land, which traditionally was the measure of riches in most European countries. Capitalists worried about any move by the government or by the populace to seize control of their property, just as aristocrats had worried that peasants could band together to seize control of their land. Before the Industrial Revolution, some individuals accumulated fortunes as merchants, buying goods in one place and selling them for a higher price elsewhere, but merchants seldom had a way to spend their money, except to buy gold. When the Industrial Revolution created the need to buy expensive machinery and to build factories, suddenly monetary wealth had a new outlet. People who owned capital could invest it in factories and earn even more money through the profits of new industrial enterprises. Thus, capitalism—the new privately owned system of factories and machinery—became a means of earning great fortunes.

Marx used the French word "bourgeoisie" (pronounced boor-zhwah-ZEE) to describe the social class or group that owned capital. The term originated from a German word meaning someone who lives in a town (burg). Marx used the term to describe the entire group of wealthy factory owners (including people who owned shares in factories) who shared an interest in protecting their wealth from being taken over or controlled by the workers. The bourgeoisie were a kind of urban equivalent to the rural aristocracy.

"Proletariat" was the term Marx used to describe factory workers. The proletariat represented a new class of people who owned no property and depended on their wages to live. Many members of the proletariat had formerly lived in the country and worked the land. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, these so-called common people had moved into cities, where they lived miserable lives working long hours for low pay in factories. Marx thought that the proletariat would rise up and lead society to a new, idealistic future in which all people were treated as equals.

Although Marx's predictions failed to come into being, these terms entered the vocabulary of many people, not just radical socialists, as a means of describing divisions in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

The concept of associations of workers has an ancient history, going back at least as far as the medieval period (about 400–1500). During that time guilds, associations of skilled workers that set rules and standards for work, regulated a system of apprentices (beginners), journeymen (advanced learners), and masters by which people could learn a skill (such as weaving or masonry) and, in effect, become certified as competent. Often, sons followed their fathers into a trade; women were seldom allowed membership.

As the Industrial Revolution challenged the dominance of some of these crafts, members of guilds tried to maintain their longtime role in society. At the same time, the new factory owners were eager to replace master craftsmen with the new machines, which could be operated by anyone (meaning, anyone who would work for lower pay).

In response to early efforts by workers to come together to promote their economic interests, England passed laws as early as 1799, called the Combination Acts, that outlawed such worker associations. There followed a long struggle between advocates of labor and advocates of industry. The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824, then reinstated in 1825. In 1817 Parliament passed the Gagging Acts, which barred meetings of more than fifty people, and in 1819 Parliament passed a series of laws aimed against popular discontent. The acts of 1819 banned meetings for purposes of training (as for a popular militia, for example) and increased the penalties for speeches or articles thought to be blasphemous (against religion) or seditious (advocating antigovernment action). Organizing labor unions often fell into these categories.

Trade unions would not exert a decisive influence until well into the second stage of the Industrial Revolution, the period after 1850 (see Chapter 7).

For More Information


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Social and Political Impact of the First Phase of the Industrial Revolution

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