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Responses to Industrialization: Informal and Violent Confrontation

Responses to Industrialization: Informal and Violent Confrontation



Unemployment. To many Europeans of the late eighteenth century, industrialization appeared neither inevitable nor desirable. Cottage workers and artisans were especially concerned about its effect on their employment. Small spinning jennies that could be set up in people’s homes increased a spinner’s productivity without throwing other people out of work, but larger jennies, Arkwright’s water frame, and Crompton’s mule did more than increase productivity. They moved workers into factories and threw hand spinners out of work. Unemployment likewise resulted for shearmen, who hand cut the nap from woolen cloth, when a shearing machine was invented; for weavers, when mechanical looms began to spread; and for stocking knitters, when a new flat knitting frame was invented.

Luddism. Unemployed workers and their sympathizers, as well as men who worked with machines and who wanted to put pressure on their employers to improve conditions or pay, periodically took matters into their own hands and smashed the new machines. A wave of machine breaking swept the Midlands of England in 1811, and these demonstrators claimed they were led by a Captain or General Ludd. Soon his name appeared at the bottom of threatening letters sent to mill owners. Whether or not Ludd was a real person (and he probably was not), the name was used by machine-breakers in England, France, and Germany, and the demonstrators were referred to as Luddites. Attacks on machines continued periodically until the end of the 1840s. The major issue was not really the machines but social justice. Unemployment or low wages were no fault of the workers, and they undermined the rural family economy and threatened the survival of the family. For workers, saving their livelihood and their family was more important than the increased profits that machines produced for mill owners.

Chartism. In the late 1830s Britain suffered a series of bad harvests, which raised the price of food. A simultaneous downturn in the industrial economy led to a series of business failures that depressed wages and threw people out of work. By the summer of 1837 in the textile city of Manchester fifty thousand workers were either unemployed or working shortened hours. Adding to the frustration of the poor was the deeply resented English Poor Law (1834) that forced able-bodied men and women into work-houses if they were to qualify for government aid. As the plight of agricultural and manufacturing workers worsened, middle-class reformers and working-class radicals sought to alter the political system. Their unifying belief was that the House of Commons in Parliament should become the People’s House and thereby pass legislation aiding workers and the poor. For this change to happen, workers needed something they did not currently have: the right to vote. A loose coalition of farmworkers, factory workers, hand-loom weavers, cottage manufacturers, and skilled artisans from England, Scotland, and Wales rallied around the People’s Charter. Drawn up by William Lovett, a former cabinet maker and head of the London Workingmen’s Association,


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848. The following selection describes the struggle between classes.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. ...

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society, has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—bourgeoisie and proletariat. ...

The bourgeoisie has played a most revolutionary role in history, . . , [W]herever it has got the upper hand, [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” ...

It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former migrations of nations and crusades....

In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.... National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature....

It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life....

Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.

The essential condition for the existence and sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labor.... What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable....

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Workingmen of all countries, unite!

Source: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1976), pp.1-2, 5-9, 20, 24, 62.

the Charter made six demands: universal manhood suffrage, annual elections for Parliament, voting by secret ballot, equal electoral districts, abolition of property qualifications for members of Parliament, and salaries for members of Parliament. The last point was of particular importance because working-class men, who lived on their wages, could serve in political office only if it were a paid occupation. A few Chartists (as supporters of the Charter were called) also supported female suffrage, but the majority of members believed women should be represented by men. Activism and support for the Charter waxed and waned as the economy careened in and out of depression during the late 1830s and 1840s. Chartists held torch-lit parades, convened meetings throughout the country, and presented three petitions with millions of signatures to the Parliament. Despite the Chartists’ large numbers, the aristocratic- and bourgeois-dominated House of Commons voted repeatedly to reject their suggestions. Chartists shared a distrust of capitalism and capitalists, but they dis-agreed about tactics. Some proposed the use of force to bring Parliament to their position; others believed in moral persuasion. This disagreement, as well as the difficulty in organizing a mass movement from diverse occupations and with diverse needs led to the movement’s collapse in 1848. Chartism was both behind and ahead of its time. Its emphasis on political reform and its appeal to a wide spectrum of the poor, rather than just to industrial workers, made it the last of the early reactions to industrialization. But its attempt at mass mobilization foreshadowed the future, when workers would organize into national and international trade unions and political parties to pressure employers as well as governments for change. By 1918, of the six Chartist demands, all but the demand for annual elections had been accepted by Parliament.

Revolutions. In 1848 a revolution that began in France spread across Europe. Only Britain seemed untouched. At the beginning of the revolutions segments of the working class and the middle class joined force and agreed upon goals. Revolutionaries everywhere wanted the franchise broadened to include all male citizens and democratically elected legislatures or parliaments. Many also wanted an end to the monarchy ruling their particular country. In the case of the Austrian Empire, this demand meant an end to Habsburg rule over at least a dozen different nationality and language groups. Socially, the revolutionaries’ goals were more diverse. Some wanted the abolition of serfdom. Others desired the establishment of a socialist republic in which workers, rather than the bourgeoisie, would own the means of production and where much greater economic equality could be attained. Some, but not all, of these goals would be accomplished.

Example of Success. France was the first country to experience revolution, and it was the only nation in which the revolution was successful, if only for a short time. The uprising in Paris began on the night of 21 February when King Louis-Philippe forbade a political banquet that had been planned for the next day. Barricades were hastily erected in working-class neighborhoods. The government called out the National Guard, but it failed to respond. The king promised electoral reform, but it was too late. A demonstration outside the house of the prime minister resulted in the deaths of twenty demonstrators. The crowd, now turned revolutionary, marched through the streets carrying their dead comrades. On 24 February, Louis-Philippe abdicated the throne and left Paris. The revolution had succeeded. A republic was established; universal manhood suffrage was instituted; and the new government established National Workshops to ensure employment for all workers. The workshops were less than the workers had desired and were a sign that the bourgeois men who had gained control of the new government were not entirely allied with their working-class supporters. Louis Blanc, leader of the working class, wanted a Ministry of Progress that would organize a network of social workshops or worker-owned factories. By May the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the socialist workers had grown acute. In June street fighting began again. This time the new bourgeois republican government called out the army against the Parisian working class. Ten thousand people were killed or wounded, and another eleven thousand were arrested and deported to the colonies. To everyone, the June conflict appeared to be class warfare. Coincidentally, German political theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had predicted just such a struggle only a few months earlier in The Communist Manifesto.

Example of Failure. Meanwhile the Austrian Empire had begun to break apart. Hungary declared itself constitutionally separate from the empire; Vienna declared itself a republic; the Czechs who lived in Bohemia called for a pan-Slav congress; and the German states prepared to unite and called a pan-German congress to meet at Frankfurt. A handful of new states with constitutions and elected legislatures seemed about to emerge. Then it all collapsed. Different nationality groups within Hungary fought with each other. The Austrian monarch mobilized his army and all of the areas of the Habsburg Empire, including most of Italy, were brought back under control. The movement to unify Germany similarly collapsed. Thus the protests and revolutions that began with a coalition of interests between the bourgeoisie and the working class collapsed. In many

places the monarchs whose power had been seriously threatened regained control. Only in France did the king remain in exile and the bourgeoisie retain control of the government. The republican government was toppled by a coup in 1851 by the man who had been elected to lead it— Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. Like his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis-Napoleon would become an emperor, crowned Napoleon III. The classes produced by industrialization had discovered the limits of their combined interests and had broken apart into opposing groups once again.


Craig Calhoun, The Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism during the Industrial Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (Cleveland: World, 1962).

Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964).

Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

John M. Merriman, The Agony of the Republic: The Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848-1851 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995).

Malcolm I. Thomis, The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (Newton Abbot, U.K.: David 6c Charles / Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1970).

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