Responses to Industrialization: Legal and Political

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Responses to Industrialization: Legal and Political


Protective Legislation. The earliest protective labor laws were passed in Britain. By the mid 1830s, five laws, known as factory acts because they applied only to factories (all other workplaces were exempt), had been passed. They were largely prompted by humanistic concerns about the plight of poor children who worked in textile mills. Child labor existed before the mills, but when children began to work in these factories, they became publicly visible in a way they had not been before. Simultaneously, the bourgeoisie, whose political influence was increasing, was coming to see children as innocents who needed nurture and moral training, neither of which seemed to be available in factories. Middle-class reformers wrote eyewitness accounts of working-class life and urged the passage of legislation, limiting or eliminating the work of women and children and increasing the wages of men to compensate for the loss of their earnings. The motivations of reformers were mixed. Some of their concern was genuinely humanitarian, but they also worried about the damage factory work did to children’s health, fearing boys would not be strong enough to serve in the army or navy and girls would not be able to bear healthy babies in the future. In addition, they feared women’s factory work was undermining the working-class family. The dilemma for factory owners and bourgeois legislators was that their ideas about the proper way to treat children and their belief that women’s natural role was homemaker conflicted with their desire to hire the cheapest possible workers’ women and children. If women and children were to be eliminated from the paid labor force, men would have to be paid more, and that, too, was undesirable from the employers’ perspective.

Provisions of the Laws. In the 1830s and 1840s, France and Prussia followed Britain’s lead and passed laws dividing childhood into two phases and limiting the working hours children could work in each phase. Children under the age of eight or nine were forbidden to work in the factories. The laws also required schooling of children and forbade night work for children under the age of thirteen, sixteen, or eighteen, depending upon the country. Later laws gradually raised the minimum work age, forbade the work of women and girls underground in mines, and extended the ages of compulsory education. These laws, however, never came fully to grip with the needs and desires of working-class families, much less

the values of the bourgeoisie. Gradually, middle-class manufacturers came to identify manhood with the performance of paid work and womanhood with mother-hood. Jules Simon, a liberal French writer and politician, put it succinctly in 1860: “The woman who becomes a factory worker (ouvriere) is no longer a woman.”

Welfare Legislation. Traditionally charity, or poor relief, was the responsibility of local communities, religious institutions, and the wealthy. They dispensed aid to the poor on a regular basis and especially in times of poor harvests, when entire communities found themselves on the verge of starvation. In the late eighteenth century French revolutionaries confiscated church property and decreed that the state assume responsibility for aiding the poor. The intention may have been admirable, but the national government was never able to care adequately for the poor during the revolution. Europe-wide debates about the advisability of government aid to the poor followed the French Revolution and accompanied the process of industrialization. Some argued that aiding the poor simply encouraged them to avoid work. Others argued that the government had an obligation to make certain its citizens were adequately housed and fed. For much of the nineteenth century, the opponents of government aid won the debate. Cities and states reduced aid they provided to the poor and made it increasingly difficult and demeaning to acquire. The English Poor Law of 1834, sponsored by the bourgeoisie that had just won the franchise two years previously, abolished what was called outdoor relief for the able-bodied (and their families). Henceforth the unemployed could not receive charitable assistance unless they and their families moved into workhouses. Before the 1834 law the poor had been able to stay in their own homes and receive aid while they looked for work or improved wages. In Russia, public assistance virtually disappeared with the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

Rise of Government Assistance. In the 1870s the pendulum began to swing back toward government assistance. The inadequacy of private and religious charity and the inhumanity of governments refusing to help the poor became obvious to everyone. In addition, events such as the revolutions of 1848 and other urban riots of the poor now worried the bourgeoisie. They began to speak of the “social question” and to consider new legislation. Workers’ organizations and liberal, labor, and socialist political parties provided considerable support for the legislation. Prussia took the lead. Between 1883 and 1889 the Reichstag passed a series of laws that provided benefits to workers for illnesses (up to thirteen weeks in 1883, extended to twenty-six weeks in 1903), workplace accidents, and old age (a small pension for workers seventy and older). This welfare system differed from earlier systems by requiring workers and employers to contribute to the funds (accident insurance was paid for entirely by employers). It also was limited to factory and other industrial workers who were a minority of the population. Despite the large number of people left unaided by this legislation, the pattern of social insurance based on employment and employee contributions (such as the current social security system in the United States) had been established. Similar, and eventually broader, laws were passed throughout Europe. In France, laws provided for prenatal care, gave allowances to needy families with more than three children, and granted childbirth leaves of absence for working mothers (the French government wanted badly to increase the population). In Britain the National Insurance Act of 1911 provided health insurance for workers in a wide range of occupations, including servants, and introduced unemployment insurance for well-paid occupations that suffered from periodic unemployment such as construction and shipbuilding. Employers as well as employees contributed to the plans. Even so, most workers remained uncovered by social insurance legislation until after World War I (1914–1918).

Utopian Socialism. In the early nineteenth century, reform movements now known as Utopian socialism sought new ways of organizing work and family life. The most famous of these movements were led by Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet, and Robert Owen. The first three were French; the fourth was British. The term Utopian socialism was applied to their ideas by German political philosopher Karl Marx, who thought of them as impractical dreamers. In contrast, he regarded himself as a scientific socialist. The Utopians rejected the label, preferring to think of themselves also as scientific thinkers, but the label Utopian is apt in several ways. The Utopians believed they could reform society by creating model communities that would serve as examples of the best way to organize community and gender relations. Their goal was social harmony and, unlike the French revolutionaries, they believed in peaceful change rather than revolution. Like all socialists, they believed in collective rather than private ownership of property. All of the Utopian socialists were reacting to industrialization. They were not necessarily opposed to machines and factories (Owen was a mill owner), but they opposed the poverty and dislocation factories and urbanization had caused. They perceived the bourgeoisie as the major beneficiary of industrialization; English journalist Henry Mayhew and French writer Flora Tristan believed radical reform was necessary to spread its benefits.

Utopian Objectives and Experiments. Many Utopian socialists criticized the patriarchal family and the position of women in modern society: Fourier, for example, believed social progress was to be measured by the degree of women’s freedom from oppression. The St. Simonians searched for a female messiah and pronounced the emancipation of women. Some of Owen’s followers believed women as well as working-class men should have the same political rights (for example, the vote) as

middle-class men. (In 1832 most middle-class men in Britain were enfranchised.) Followers of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, and Cabet formed model communities in Europe and North America (including Brook Farm in Massachusetts and New Harmony in Indiana). These experiments tended to be bucolic and did not fare well economically. Owen, a textile mill owner, also created a model community and factory for his own employees. He paid higher wages; reduced work hours; built schools, housing, and company stores where goods were sold at cheap prices; and tried to correct drunkenness and vice. This experiment worked far better than the one he led at New Harmony, where there was no industry. The Utopian socialists are known for some of their quirky ideas as well as for their dedication to improving society. Fourier believed, for instance, that the ideal community should contain exactly 1,620 persons, each working at tasks to which he or she was naturally inclined. Cabet wanted to eliminate all forms and signs of inequality including differences in clothing. The St. Simonians believed their community should be led by a male pope and a female pope. Utopian socialists also founded the first trade unions, developed producer and consumer cooperatives in working-class communities, and raised social and economic questions that helped to create a cli-mate for revolution in 1848. Governments reacted harshly to the writings and activities of the Utopian socialists, arresting them, forcing them into exile, and sometimes executing them.

Socialist Political Parties. The concept of socialism existed throughout the nineteenth century. Marx and Friedrich Engels, the Utopian socialists in France and England, Louis Blanc and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France, the Fabian socialists in Britain, and many others espoused various socialist critiques of industrialization and called for reform. Almost none of these socialists were from the working class. Instead they were middle-and upper-class men and women who believed profoundly that the poverty they saw had been caused by capitalism and was immoral. In the 1880s socialist and labor political parties appeared with membership that was primarily working class. They grew rapidly. By 1913 France had more than one hundred socialist deputies in its National Assembly, while the German socialist party received four million votes in the same year. Socialist parties thrived elsewhere as well. The British Labour Party was created in the 1890s. Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries also had thriving socialist parties. While some socialists continued to believe economic equality and worker ownership of the means of production could be achieved only through political revolution, others were willing to work for change through the existing political system. The nonrevolutionary moderates or revisionists gradually gained the upper hand in their parties and devoted their attention to electing their members to office and enacting legislation. In general, the parties sought passage of welfare legislation, improvements in schools, and municipal services in working-class neighborhoods. The most sweeping experiment with socialist government would not begin until near the end of World War I (1914–1918) when revolution transformed Russia (1917) and the surrounding countries into the Soviet Union.


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