Working Classes

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Dick Geary


The term "working classes": a modern category. All societies have depended on the labor of "workers" in various forms, yet the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the term "working classes" in 1789. It only entered into broader parlance after 1815. In the works of Daniel Defoe, Gregory King, and Edmund Burke, social divisions were categorized as "ranks" and "orders," not "classes." Eighteenth-century references to "manufacturers" included both employers and employees in a particular trade, but by the 1830s "manufacturer" and "craftsman" often meant "capitalist" and "wageworker" respectively. In Germany the term "worker" (Arbeiter) was used rarely before 1800. Arbeitende Klassen (working classes) was known but denoted artisans, including the self-employed, domestic servants, agricultural laborers, and even peasants. From the 1830s, however, the term was applied more specifically to manual wage laborers, as the self-employed were gradually excluded, though this exclusion took several decades. In Britain, France, and Germany in the 1830s and 1840s the designation "worker" became a form of self-characterization. This article is concerned with that modern category of employment.

The late appearance of class terminology reflected a social order in which wage labor for life was far from universal and in most European countries the exception rather than the rule. Much agricultural production in eastern Europe, where serfdom was prevalent, was for subsistence rather than the market as in large parts of France, Spain, and Italy and in southern Germany. Even where free workers labored for a landowner, their remuneration often was nonmonetary, that is, housing, food, and fuel. In urban Europe, especially where guild regulations remained in place, each trade retained a distinct identity, and its members fought with those of other trades. In England in 1801 many employed in manufacture had double occupations, weaving and farming, for instance, and others returned to husbandry at harvesttime. Furthermore family economies were often mixed, with children and women tending smallholdings while men worked in manufacture. Rural trades and industries did not share a common interest with their urban counterparts, for the spread of manufacture beyond the control of urban regulation could be a major source of grievance for urban craftspeople. A complex pattern of local particularities further obviated collective identities.

Working classes and the changing shape of protest. The shift to a language of classes corresponded to changes in the nature of labor and collective action. Until the 1820s in Britain, the 1850s in France, and the 1860s in Germany the most common form of popular protest was the riot or demonstration against high food prices, conscription, and taxation. These actions were not shaped by conflict between employers and their workers but rested on communal solidarities, which embraced women and children. They were joined after 1800, however, by a new repertoire of protest that both reflected and promoted the creation of working-class identities. The new repertoire included the destruction of industrial machinery or Luddism. In many respects Luddite actions resembled riots. They were localized, they lacked formal organization though they often required considerable planning, and they rested on the use or threat of violence. However, although Luddite crowds often included other members of the community, they were primarily made up of workers from the trades threatened by industrial machinery, and their actions were against merchants and industrialists. By promoting the notion that workers had a set of separate and definable interests, Luddism and other, similar actions helped create new identifications based on class.

The strike promoted this type of identification even more strongly. Strikes were far from unknown in eighteenth-century France and were common in preindustrial Germany. In Britain industrial action was relatively frequent before 1800. However, strikes occurred much more often after 1800. The strike differed significantly from earlier forms of protest in its social composition and its reliance on the withdrawal of labor as its principal weapon, though violence often accompanied early strikes. It was clearly a struggle between workers and their bosses and demonstrated the increasing importance of wage-dependency in the most advanced European economies.

The first working class organizations. From the 1820s in Britain and the 1830s in France workers also developed a rich organizational life of discussion clubs, cooperatives, trade unions, and in some cases political organizations. The most common organization was the friendly society. England had over 1 million such societies by 1815, and France had some two thousand in the 1840s. Skilled workers founded friendly societies in most other European countries later in the nineteenth century, for example in Spain in the 1840s and in Russia in the 1870s. These societies provided against the misfortunes of accident, sickness, and old age in the days before the welfare state. Sometimes they expressly forbade any involvement in politics. However, they could become a focus for collective action in a single trade, serve as a cloak for radical politics in repressive regimes, and on occasion develop into trade unions.

Producer and consumer cooperatives were more clearly related to dissatisfaction with the prevailing economic order. These were created not only to provide workers with cheap and reliable goods but also to bypass the capitalist merchant in manufacture. In some cases they aimed to reestablish the craftsperson's control over the product and the labor process through collectivelly purchasing raw materials and selling the finished goods. By 1832 Britain counted five hundred cooperative societies with over twenty thousand members. Some were only concerned with retailing, though their contribution to working-class welfare should not be ignored. Others had more sweeping aims to combat unemployment and to provide their workers with remuneration commensurate with their labor. In France the movement toward cooperative associations was the principal form of working-class activity in the 1830s and 1840s.

Simultaneously trade unions increased in significance, especially in Britain. Wool combers, shoemakers, hatters, shipwrights, and tailors had an organizational history that reached back into the eighteenth century and was by no means terminated by repressive legislation after 1800. However, the partial legalization of union activity in 1824 led to a proliferation of trade societies capable of organizing strikes. Until the 1820s the most common union was formed by a single trade in a single town. Such unions often functioned additionally as friendly societies, and they usually attempted to restrict apprenticeship and entry into a trade. English cotton spinners, for example, excluded hand loom weavers from their organization. In the 1830s most British unions remained exclusive, despite some famous but abortive attempts to found general national unions. They also remained small. The masons' union, which was one of the largest, had only 5,500 members in 1851. Not until the advent of the New Model Unions, especially the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) around the middle of the century, did effective national confederations of trade unions came into existence, though these too usually restricted membership.

In France masons, carpenters, tailors, printers, and engineering workers organized under the July Monarchy (1830–1848) despite repressive legislation, and they continued more overtly in the 1848 revolution. In the Rhineland craft associations came into existence in the 1840s, while during the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, German cigar makers, printers, and engineering workers formed trade associations. Skilled workers created trade unions in the 1860s and 1870s in Russia, Italy, Spain, and most of western Europe.

Often these early unions refused to become involved in radical politics. In Britain, for example, unionized miners did not wish to be associated with Chartist political agitation, and print unions in Britain, France, and Germany turned their backs on politics. Though unions were not exclusive to workers in an economically strong position, most unskilled laborers found it almost impossible to sustain combination in periods of high unemployment or against employer offensives. Stable unions were created by those with skills, a strong bargaining position, and relative job security, whereas the journeymen of the depressed trades of weaving, tailoring, and shoemaking often provided the fuel for radical Chartism, revolutionary secret societies in Paris, and the Brotherhood of German Workers in 1848.

Yet union organization and political radicalism were not necessarily at odds. The state's frustration of attempts to form economic unions could force even moderate unionists into the ranks of political protest. To a certain extent that was the case in Britain in the early years of the nineteenth century. In France the repression of working-class industrial action in the 1830s and the 1840s led to insurrections in Lyon and Paris as well as the formation of revolutionary societies. The increase in strikes and trade unions provides evidence that growing numbers of workers identified a conflict between their interests and those of their employers, even though their solidarity usually failed to extend beyond the individual trade. In some cooperatives and political organizations, however, a broader critique of capitalism and a language of class appeared.

Between 1815 and 1850 European workers adopted a discourse of class. Some British workers espoused the cause of radical Chartism, often because they came from depressed artisan trades and possessed little industrial muscle or because other forms of protest, such as petitions and Luddism, had failed or had been thwarted by laws of association. In the 1840s radical Chartists, such as Ernest Jones, deployed the language of class interest and a more diffuse populist and cross-class rhetoric. Advocates of cooperative socialism, including Robert Owen, George Mudie, Francis Bray, and Thomas Hodgskin, developed a critique of market economics centered on a labor theory of value and a concept of parasitical capitalism. In Paris workers read the publications of the utopian socialists, such as Étienne Cabet and Charles Fourier. Despite the fantastical nature of many of their projects, these socialists produced a trenchant critique of capitalism and recurrent economic crisis, although they did not speak to an exclusively working-class audience. They also had a profound effect on Karl Marx. In Germany the formation of the Brotherhood of German Workers in 1848 marked the point at which many journeymen broke with their masters and categorized themselves as workers. By 1850 therefore some workers in the economically advanced economies of Europe had engaged in strikes, joined unions, and embraced radical politics, though not necessarily all three.

Throughout the early industrial period the definition of the urban working class is complicated by the deep divisions between artisans and the less coherent groups of factory workers, only a few of whom had artisanal backgrounds. Most organized working-class activity, such as unions, was in fact artisanal. Only the Chartists and some of the 1848 uprisings suggested the existence of shared interests and perceptions betwen these segments of the working class.

A second issue that runs through working-class history is the relationship betwen protest history and a larger but definable working-class experience or culture. Many workers enjoyed the same leisure interests, including social drinking. Most held a highly masculine value system that relegated women to domestic functions, at least in principle. They also shared characteristics as consumers and had some sense of cooperation, bailing each other out in hard times. While a few workers strove for upward mobility, the majority were attached to a more traditional idea of work that clashed with employer attempts to increase pace and output. Some of these values were more widely shared than the ideas promoted by specific organizational or protest efforts.

The origins of working-class identity. A classic argument about the rise of Luddism, strike action, union organization, and the language of class links these phenomena directly to the growth of an industrial economy and to the resultant material deprivation and social upheaval. This view derives some support from the fact that the nation with the largest labor movement in 1850—Britain—was also the most advanced economically. Whereas France, the German states, most of the Iberian Peninsula outside Catalonia, all but the north of Italy, and virtually the whole of eastern Europe remained predominantly agrarian at mid-century, almost 43 percent of the British labor force was employed in manufacturing in 1851. Furthermore the chronology of strikes and labor organization tended to follow that of industrialization, with its first appearance in Britain, followed by Belgium, France, and Germany with eastern Europe trailing. It also seems perfectly rational to believe that low wages, long working hours, unsanitary and dangerous working environments, and appalling and overcrowded housing conditions explain working-class protest. The personal upheaval involved in the transition to impersonal factory labor and migration to unfamiliar urban environments also has been seen as alienating workers and causing protests. However, the relationships among industrialization, living standards, social upheaval, and class identity are not simple. Examinations of these different aspects follow below.

Poverty and the formation of working-class identity. Regarding impoverishment as an explanation of labor protest and organization, what was happening to working-class living standards in the first half of the nineteenth century is far from clear or uniform. Standards varied from country to country, from region to region, and from one occupational group to another. Most calculations suggest that material conditions in Britain improved between 1790 and 1850 as average real wages probably rose by 25 percent. However, this global figure hid enormous variations. Compositors, craftspeople in the building trades, engineers, and boilermakers were especially fortunate, whereas Black Country nail makers, faced with machine competition, and Lancashire hand loom weavers, whose livelihood was threatened by Irish, female, and rural labor, experienced a dramatic decline in living standards. What made this situation worse was that earlier economic expansion had actually benefited these workers. Thus changed circumstances rather than simple poverty generated bitter protest among hand loom weavers. Clearly factory workers were not always in the worst circumstances. Factory hours were certainly long, but they were often less so than in nonfactory and rural occupations. Moreover, for good or ill, work became more regular and less dependent on the seasons for those in manufacture in Britain between 1800 and 1850. Even for better-placed workers, however, the inflationary crisis of the 1790s and subsequent slumps in 1815, 1819, 1829 had deleterious effects on real wages or employment prospects respectively. A crisis of the scale of 1842, when a downturn in the trade cycle was accompanied by harvest failure, could not help but depress the condition of workers. In summary, British industrialization did not entail any universal fall in living standards.

In less industrial continental Europe real wages may have declined more generally. A combination of cyclical unemployment and harvest failure devastated the German textile town of Krefeld, where three out of every eight looms were idle, and Cologne, where a third of the population was dependent on public assistance in 1847. Both Luddism and political radicalism were fueled as much by memories of better days and traditions of association as by poverty. The permanently poor, those who had known nothing but low living standards, were likely to be absent from protests. In any case, many strikes and virtually all stable unions were the product of the strength of skilled workers with increasing rather than declining resources. The absence of a necessary connection between poverty and industrial militancy or political radicalism will become even more apparent in the subsequent discussion of class identity after 1850.


One argument states that social upheaval and uprooting contributed to alienation, grievance, and protest and that strikes were the result of a pathological crisis connected with the dissolution of traditional ties and with a generation of workers unaccustomed to urban and factory environments. However, strikers were rarely uprooted outsiders but tended to be well integrated into their local communities. In addition the later stages of industrial growth after 1850 exhibited higher, not lower, strike rates. Furthermore the centers of working-class protest before 1850 were usually older sites of manufacture, including Paris, Marseille, Berlin, and Leipzig, with strong craft traditions, not new industrial areas. In Halifax, England, the operatives of the new factories distanced themselves from Chartism, which had a much greater attraction among the craft trades of Huddersfield. Family units often worked together in the textile factories of Lancashire. In Germany distance migrants rarely traveled alone. In Russia factory workers in an individual plant often came from the same village.

Thus the concept of individual uprooting and anomie needs qualification. Distance migrants and new industrial workers needed time to adapt to the rhythms and disciplines of industry, which were prerequisites of union formation, and time to learn the lessons of the trade cycle as to when was the best time to strike. In many parts of eastern and southern Europe this learning process was at best just beginning on the eve of World War I.

Mechanization and the formation of working-class identity. It may seem more likely that class identity was a consequence of mechanized factory labor, which supposedly created a more homogeneous working class. However, the language of class and new forms of protest emerged in Britain, Belgium, France, and Germany before factory production had become widespread. Even Britain had fewer than 100,000 male factory operatives in 1830. Twenty years later domestic outworkers and artisans still outnumbered factory workers. Moreover unskilled factory labor did not form unions, rally to Chartism, or join the Parisian societies and the Brotherhood of German workers. Unions recruited from craft workers in relatively stable employment, while radical politics found strong support among the degraded artisanal trades of tailoring, furniture manufacturing, and shoemaking.

Some have argued that the centrality of the artisan experience rather than the factory experience to the growth of class awareness does not contradict the significance of industrialization in the genesis of working-class identity, for supposedly mechanized production deskilled artisans. For some workers, including nail makers and framework knitters, the problem indeed was mechanization. However, these cases were exceptional. Many artisans, wheelwrights, shipwrights, hatters, watchmakers, jewelers, barbers, and butchers, were wholly or partially insulated from new techniques. Others, such as Birmingham metalworkers and Sheffield toolmakers, adapted to factory production without a loss of skills and earnings. Even in the trades most vulnerable to expansion and degradation, such as tailoring and shoe-making, elite groups of workers continued to produce for the luxury end of the market. The trades most strongly represented among radical Chartists, French revolutionaries, and the Brotherhood of German workers—tailors, shoemakers, and furniture makers—were from trades not affected by mechanized production.

Merchant capitalism and the formation of working-class identity. If mechanization, social upheaval, and poverty did not generate working-class protest, what factors did? One of the most serious threats was not industrial capitalism but capitalism in its merchant form. In Britain, France, and Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century merchants began to relocate industries in rural areas and to deploy low-wage outworkers, a process often labeled protoindustrialization. Dispersion often brought a greater division of the labor process and the use of cheaper materials and labor. The growth of outwork led to substantial overmanning in tailoring, shoemaking, woodworking, and hand loom weaving. In textiles, craftspeople, even where they remained nominally independent and worked at home, became increasingly dependent on merchants, who purchased and supplied the raw materials and marketed the finished product.

In addition to protoindustry, work simplification extended into the urban strongholds of craftspeople. Large parts of the British woodworking and clothing trades were taken over by garret masters and sweating workshops. In Paris artisan tailors were undercut by sweatshop competition and the production of off-the-peg clothing. Shoemaking and tailoring were becoming sweated trades in Marseille in the 1840s, and German cabinetmakers became de facto employees of large furniture manufacturers. Many artisans, often with high expectations and traditions of organization, thus became increasingly dependent upon merchants, who owned the raw materials, the final product of their labor, and in certain trades like hosiery, even their tools. This dependence explains the growth of artisan socialism and cooperation and led to the denunciation of capitalists as parasites.

Political variables and the formation of working-class identity. The emergence of artisan socialism and the search for political remedies was no automatic response to changes in the labor process, however. It was driven by political variables. The European state, which previously had regulated the conditions of craft labor, increasingly encouraged the development of free market forces after 1800. In several countries between 1780 and 1850 apprenticeship, entry into a trade, and the introduction of machinery were deregulated, and wage controls were abolished. This explains why major aims of artisan agitation in Britain in the early nineteenth century were first the strict observation of the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers and Apprentices (1563) and, after its repeal in 1814, its reintroduction. The run-down condition of public relief in Britain, France, and the German states between 1800 and 1850 and an increasingly free market in grain also were perceived as infringements of the rules of a moral economy and an abandonment of the state's duty. German artisans demanded restrictions on apprenticeship and entry into the manufacturing trades, especially where guild regulations had been abolished, as in Prussia.

British political protest and awareness of workers' common interests after 1800 was also a consequence of increasing repression. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, the use of the military against Luddite actions, and the use of yeomanry volunteers against demonstrators, most infamously in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819, gave rise to an acute sense of discrimination and politicized grievances. A French law, the loi le Chapelier, which took effect in 1791, proscribed combinations and contributed to the growth of revolutionary societies in Paris and to insurrections there and in Lyon. Strikes and combinations were also illegal in most of the German states until the 1860s except for the brief revolutionary interlude of 1848.


The emergence of a sense of class arose from the interaction of worker expectations, merchant domination in the workplace, the state's retreat from paternalism, and repressive legislation. That identity, however, remained fragile and extremely limited in 1850. Many workers were unaffected by merchant capitalism, and factory labor was mostly quiescent. Moreover most of the skilled workers who formed unions were as anxious to protect their own interests against other workers as against their employers. Industrial militancy and trade union organization did entail conflict between the employer and worker and required some degree of solidarity. In this sense they indicated a degree of class awareness.

This solidarity was usually restricted to an individual craft and did not necessarily imply any shared identity with workers as a whole. What is more, those who became radical Chartists, joined Parisian clubs, and went to the barricades in parts of Europe in 1848 were not only journeymen craftspeople but also small masters. Consequently some historians have preferred to see radical Chartism in Britain and republicanism in France as forms of popular rather than class protest. For Gareth Stedman Jones, for example, Chartism arose from a populist political discourse rather than from a new class structure.

As a counterweight to the skeptical position, John Breuilly has shown that artisan socialism had an international structure in the 1840s. Workers in different cultures responded in similar ways to increasing dependence on merchant capitalism, suggesting that ideas of class arose from the conflict between traditional artisan expectations and merchant capitalism. The discourse of class made sense to certain workers in different countries and cultures precisely because of the economic reality of dependence and because restrictive practices were no longer feasible.

Within this economic framework, the presence of small masters in radical artisan movements is explained by the fact that they, like their journeymen, were losing their independence. Master tailors in Cologne and cabinetmakers in Paris were increasingly tied to a single merchant in the 1840s. The Birmingham metal trades carried out their activities in small workshops, but in the 1830s and 1840s these became dependent on larger firms. Masters divided into two groups. Those with capital resources became merchants, but others became increasingly proletarianized. Channels of mobility for journeymen were blocked by overmanning, and more capital was required to set up as a master. Consequently the interests of masters and journeymen splintered.

As it became increasingly difficult for journeymen to become masters, issues of journeymen's rights, wages, and working conditions set masters and journeymen in conflict. German masters and journeymen together desired restrictions on the import of foreign manufactures, entry into a trade, and the introduction of machinery, but only masters demanded the reintroduction or enforcement of guild regulations, which gave them power over journeymen. This conflict of interests became apparent in the 1848 revolution, when Berlin journeymen formed the Brotherhood of Workers. Similar conflicts had become increasingly bitter in the London tailoring trades in the 1820s and 1830s. In the 1850s and 1860s a growing separation of shopkeepers and masters from workers was evidenced by increasingly endogamous marriage patterns and a separate associational life in Britain and France. By the 1890s in Germany Handwerker (artisan) had come to mean a self-employed craftsperson, who organized separately from and often against the burgeoning labor movement.

The solidarity between petty bourgeois and working-class communities took much longer to fracture in some places and in some trades than in others. In Saint-Étienne, for example, the fracture had to wait until the last two decades of the century. Small shopkeepers, master craftsmen, and journeymen often inhabited a popular rather than a proletarian social milieu. This common milieu was reinforced by intermarriage between working-class and petty bourgeois groups. Thus the consolidation of separate worker-employer identities was far from complete in 1848 and remained far from universal in 1914, but it constituted the dominant trend.


Signs of identity. Between 1850 and 1914 ever more European workers went on strike, joined trade unions, and supported political parties that claimed to speak for the working class. France experienced over five hundred industrial disputes between 1900 and 1914. In Germany 1 million workers downed tools in 1912. Between 1911 and 1914 a strike wave of unprecedented proportions hit the United Kingdom. The increase in strike action involved the greater mobilization both of more members of the same trade and of more trades. It was also far from unilinear, depending partly on the trade cycle and partly on the learning process of new and less-skilled workers. But strikes did come to incorporate these groups, including match girls and dockers in Britain in 1888 and 1889 and female textile workers in Saxony in 1903. This extension of strike action to new categories of employees was especially noticeable in strike waves, such as those of 1869 to 1871 and 1889 to 1891 in Germany and Britain, 1910 to 1912 in Germany, and 1911 to 1913 in the United Kingdom. The growth of strike participation encouraged a massive increase in the number of trade union members between 1850 and 1914. Britain had over 4 million trade unionists, Germany had over 3 million, and France had roughly 1 million on the eve of World War I. German Austria also possessed a high trade union density, but growth on a mass scale was yet to come in Italy and Spain and was effectively proscribed in tsarist Russia.

Above all the working classes announced their presence in political parties that expressly claimed to articulate the interests of labor. By the end of 1910 the British Labour Party held forty-two seats in the House of Commons. The French Socialist Party (SFIO) could count on the support of 1.5 million voters, and its Italian counterpart (PSI) was making considerable headway in local elections in the north of the peninsula. Most successful of all was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) with over 1 million members, 4 million voters, and a massive empire of ancillary leisure and cultural organizations by 1914. The SPD became a model for social democratic parties in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Finland, and Russia. Workers also made their presence felt in more dramatic and violent ways in the Russian Revolution of 1905–1906; in the "tragic week" in Barcelona in 1909, when anarchosyndicalists fought with the authorities; and in armed clashes in Italy in the "red fortnight" of June 1914.

Explanations of the rise of labor. That more workers went on strike, joined unions, and voted for labor or socialist parties between 1850 and 1914 is indisputable. Why they did so and how typical these workers were of European labor as a whole, however, is less clear. It is certain that industrial conflict and unionization cannot be explained by working-class impoverishment. Britain continued to witness the most strikes and to have the largest trade union membership, yet British real wages were between one-third and one-half greater than those in France and Germany in the 1860s. A Board of Trade investigation in 1905 concluded that money wages in France were only two-thirds and in Germany no more than three-quarters of their British counterparts at a time when the price of rent, food, and fuel was actually higher on the Continent, by some 20 percent in Germany. Moreover the standard of living of British workers increased substantially between 1850 and the outbreak of World War I. The average length of the working week declined substantially between the 1860s and 1914 from over sixty hours to approximately forty-eight hours. In 1850 workers on average spent 75 percent of their wages on food. By 1914 the figure had dropped to 50 percent. Their diet became more varied and included corned beef, cakes, eggs, cocoa, and even fruit purchased from cooperative and chain stores. Housing conditions remained deplorable by later standards but certainly improved after 1850. By 1914, 80 percent of British families with three or more members occupied at least three rooms, and many enjoyed the benefits of piped water and gas lighting. The single-family terraced house enabled a better-off worker's family to enjoy a "modest domesticity" (McKibbin, 1990, p. 307), for which virtually no equivalent existed in the densely occupied industrial cities of continental Europe. Rates of child mortality fell and life expectancy rose, reflecting the general improvements in living standards. Most notably, real wages rose, according to one index from 100 in 1850 to 190 in 1913–1914. This enabled British workers to travel to the seaside, go to the races and the music hall, and watch football matches in huge numbers.

Of course such working-class prosperity was not universal. Regional variations in wages were vast. Carpenters earned ten and a half pence an hour in London but only four and seven-eighths pence an hour in Falmouth in 1908. Between 1840 and 1880 the differential between skilled and unskilled wages probably increased. Subsequently it declined in some trades but still remained substantial. Unskilled building workers received 64 percent of the wages of their skilled colleagues in 1885. The differential between male and female wages was even greater. According to Charles Booth 30 percent of the London population lived below the poverty line in 1886. Irish immigrants tended to live in the worst housing conditions, where typhus, called "Irish fever," was common. Accidents, illness, periodic unemployment, and old age remained sources of insecurity.

The economies of continental Europe exhibited similarities. The living standards of French and German workers rose steadily between 1850 and 1900, precisely when industrial and political labor movements began to recruit in large numbers. Again the benefits were spread unevenly. In the fourteen years before the outbreak of World War I, however, some of the gains were eroded in France, and real wages stagnated in Germany as a result of price inflation.

In addition to uneven prosperity, a set of new developments created problems for even skilled workers. The emergence of an increasingly numerous class of white-collar workers standing between management and the shop floor produced both more impersonal labor relations and an obstacle to the mobility prospects of the skilled manual worker. A range of technological innovations eroded the status and security of some groups of skilled laborers by facilitating the employment of semiskilled workers. Mechanical saws, prefabricated wooden units, and iron and concrete building materials revolutionized the construction industry. Milling machines, specialized lathes, and mechanical drills and borers intensified the labor process in engineering. By the 1890s the hand manufacture of shoes was displaced by a new technology. In general, however, the problem confronted by skilled workers had less to do with technological innovation, which lagged behind that in the United States, than with an intensification of work stemming from greater supervision, the premium bonus system of remuneration, and "scientific management." Growing numbers of workers demanded a shorter workweek, and workers in France, workers at Bosch in Stuttgart, and print and engineering workers in the United Kingdom went on strike against the reorganisation of production. Some German engineering workers even complained of nervous exhaustion. The emergence of engineering workers in the forefront of industrial protest between 1910 and 1920 may well have reflected these developments. That emergence reinforces the position that factors other than poverty drove working-class mobilization.

Skilled workers: the backbone of labor mobilization. Many workers remained poor, and even skilled workers were not affluent or completely secure before 1914. Again, however, increasing resources facilitated widespread strike action, a growth in trade union membership, and to some extent membership of labor and socialist parties. This becomes clear when the timing of strikes at upturns in the economic cycle and the membership of trade unions is examined. Trade unions were strongest throughout Europe among workers who had served apprenticeships and who, through their skills, had considerable bargaining power, such as printers, skilled woodworkers and metal workers, masons, plumbers, and bricklayers. Unions were weakest among the unskilled and poorly paid, such as agricultural laborers, domestic servants, unskilled textile workers, and women. This was not true just of Britain. Most French unionists in the 1870s were skilled, while printers, engineers, bricklayers, and carpenters formed unions in Germany in the 1860s. In Austria typesetters and watchmakers established successful craft associations by 1867, while artisans provided the backbone of labor organization in Milan and Turin in the 1870s.

In contrast, unskilled factory workers in France and Germany did not usually join unions or go on strike. Semiskilled laborers were increasingly involved in strikes after 1889. General unions formed in the United Kingdom, and industrial unions formed in Germany. However, the great majority of members were still skilled and male in 1914. The membership of the unskilled was more fragile and often declined at times of economic recession. The strike waves of 1889 to 1891 and especially 1910 to 1912 attracted greater numbers of the semiskilled and unskilled workers to industrial action. Nevertheless, the unskilled in general and women in particular, though capable of strike action, faced much more difficulty in sustaining organization.

Patterns of political mobilization were slightly different. Impoverished outworkers often played a role in the early history of socialist parties. Depressed textile workers in Roubaix, Reims, Roanne, and Lyon supported French anarcho-syndicalism. In Germany, August Bebel, the leader of the SPD, was first elected to a Reichstag seat not by the factory workers of Chemnitz, the German equivalent of Manchester, but by the depressed domestic weavers in Glauchau-Meerane. By 1913 the scale of social-democratic electoral support was so great in Germany's large Protestant cities, over 70 percent in Berlin and over 60 percent in Leipzig, that some unskilled and semiskilled workers must have voted for the party.

However, from the beginning skilled workers also took charge, and by 1914 the British Labour Party, the French and Italian Socialist Parties, and the German and Austrian Social Democratic Parties were organizations of skilled men in the building, metal, and woodworking trades. Parisian artisans formed the backbone of French anarcho-syndicalism, and skilled workers in printing, metalwork, and clothing manufacture took the lead in the creation of the Italian Workers' Party in the 1870s. The Spanish Socialist Party drew its first support from printers in Madrid. These skilled workers experienced rising living standards in the main. They enjoyed a strong bargaining position against their employers and had the resources, time, and energy to invest in union and party activities. Their ability to assert their identity thus stemmed from strength, not weakness. They also possessed a culture that, through apprenticeships, inculcated the worth and dignity of labor. They had expectations and aspirations that the unskilled and impoverished either did not share or could not realize. They also possessed long traditions of craft association that sustained industrial militancy and organization. In many cases, however, these skilled men remained concerned solely with their own sectional interests and failed to identify with the working class as a whole. This was especially so in Britain, where most enfranchised working-class voters stayed away from the Labour Party before 1914. The politics of class thus depended on factors outside the labor market.

Industrialization and identity. Rising living standards, the spread of strike action, and the growth of trade union membership related manifestly to changes in the occupational and residential structure of European society. The more rural the society, the less pronounced these developments were. In general few rural workers went on strike, joined unions, or voted socialist between 1850 and 1914. Sometimes prevented from organizing by repressive legislation, as in parts of Germany and in tsarist Russia; tied to landlords by law or by nonmonetary types of payment, like tied housing, food, and fuel; with very low wages, few expectations, and little bargaining power, rural labor did not possess the resources to mobilize in any sustainable way.

Significant exceptions existed, however. The French and Italian Socialist Parties and the Spanish anarchists had some success at recruiting support from rural areas. In Emilia and the Po Valley landless laborers and some sharecroppers protested against agrarian capitalism and benefited from labor exchanges, through which the Italian Socialist Party exerted influence on the hiring and firing of rural labor. In France agrarian socialism recruited not only from the landless woodcutters of Cher and Nièvre but also from landowning peasants in parts of the Midi. These peasants had access to urban ideas and enjoyed a collective social life around the local bar and cafè. Most important, they engaged in market agriculture, in particular viticulture; often experienced conflict with commercial intermediaries; and were subject to the fluctuations of the market, as in the agricultural depression of the 1870s and 1880s. In rural southern Spain anarchists recruited landless laborers who lived together in large agrotowns. In general, however, the industrial and political mobilization of European workers was a product of industry and the town.

The growth of wage labor and urbanization. In 1811, 30.2 percent of the British workforce was employed in manufacture, mining, and industry. A century later the figure had risen to 46.4 percent. At the same time employment in trade and transport increased from 11.6 percent to over 21 percent. In Germany approximately 35 percent of the labor force was still employed in agriculture in 1907 but by then 40 percent worked in crafts and industry and 25 percent in the tertiary sector. Dependent wage labor became the norm, especially in factory employment, though this development was more extensive in Britain and Germany than in the rest of Europe. In Germany the percentage of wage earners, as distinct from the self-employed, in industry grew from 57 percent in 1875 to over 76 percent in 1907. Russian industrial labor also expanded rapidly between 1875 and 1914, although it constituted a small minority within the population as a whole. In Spain 11 percent of the labor force worked in industry, rising to almost 16 percent in 1910.

At the same time an ever greater percentage of the European population moved into towns. In 1800 only 23 European towns housed over 300,000 people. By 1900 135 such towns existed. In the same period London grew from a city of 1 million to one of 4.5 million. In Britain urban dwellings outstripped rural dwellings in 1851, in Germany in 1891, but not until 1931 in France. In Germany, where a strong correlation existed between size of town, trade union density, and support for the SPD, a large migration of population from the rural east in to Berlin, Saxony, and the Ruhr took place. The percentage of the Reich's population living in towns of over 100,000 inhabitants grew from 4.8 percent in 1871 to 21.3 percent in 1910. Even in countries with lower overall levels of urbanization, individual cities experienced dramatic growth. Thus between 1897 and 1914 the population of Saint Petersburg rose from 1.26 million to 2.11 million, though Russia as a whole remained overwhelmingly rural. In France 16 cities had over 100,000 inhabitants by 1911, and Paris increased its population by 345 percent between 1800 and 1900, from 547,000 to 2.8 million.

That some correlation existed between industrialization-urbanization and strikes–trade union membership seems indisputable. However, industrial workers from rural backgrounds, distance migrants, and workers new to factory conditions took longer to organize than longer-term factory workers. Where employers were strong, as in heavy industry in the Ruhr Valley, or where the labor force was largely unskilled, industrial organization and strike action were difficult to sustain. They were also difficult where the state intervened to repress industrial conflict, obviously in Russia, to a significant extent in Germany, and much less in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, unions were strong where labor was skilled and organized, where employers were relatively small and disorganized, and where the state or employers promoted collective bargaining, as in Britain in the decade before 1914. Notwithstanding these caveats, the correlation between the chronology of industrial union and trade union growth seems clearly positive. It is often overlooked, however, that the uneven development of the industrial economy fragmented rather than united labor in a single class.


Obviously industrial growth and technological modernization took place at different times in different countries. Agricultural labor as a percentage of the total workforce dropped to 8 percent in Britain but still stood at 31 percent in Germany, 42 percent in France, and 57 percent in Spain in 1920. It still constituted 46 percent of Russian and 53 percent of Polish labour in 1950. The early but relatively gradual industrialization of Britain, where craft associations already existed, facilitated the development of powerful sectional unions and gave rise to a system of collective bargaining. In contrast, later but more rapid and more capital-intensive industrial change in Germany after 1850 spawned powerful but intransigent employers and a labor force that was far less likely to be successful in the arena of industrial conflict. Consequently labor turned to the politics of social democracy.

Equally significant was the uneven development within national boundaries. In France most of the Midi was free of modern industry before 1914, and Languedoc actually deindustrialized. In northern Italy industry expanded, while the south remained overwhelmingly agrarian and impoverished. The spectacular economic growth of Saxony, the Ruhr Valley, and Berlin was not vouchsafed to Germany's eastern provinces or most of the Reich south of the Main River. Catalonia and the northern Basque provinces were much more economically developed than the rest of Spain, while Austria-Hungary boasted of both dynamic industrial cities, such as Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, and the most primitive rural economies in the Balkans. In consequence the structure of the labor force was regionally variable, which may in turn explain the persistence of regional traditions in working-class behavior and identity.

Unevenness was also sectoral. In France a large artisanal sector survived beyond 1914 but coexisted with the modern exploitation of hydroelectric power, technologically advanced artificial fiber (rayon) production, a modernized automobile industry, and the most innovative retail sector in Europe. Germany's Second Reich housed giant firms in electrotechnology and chemicals yet still possessed a domestic textile and shoemaking industry. Even within a single industry technological modernization did not breed a homogeneous workforce. Different sectors of the same industry, for example, engineering, modernized at different rates.

Such modernization did far less to "deskill" European workers than is often imagined. The huge expansion of engineering actually created more, not fewer, jobs for skilled engineers, as in Bielefeld, which became a center of German bicycle manufacture. Even where modern machines facilitated the deployment of semiskilled labor, that labor was rarely recruited from the ranks of the formerly skilled. Instead, as in the case of the French textile industry, labor came from those new to industry, often from rural backgrounds. Skilled men still set up and tended the new machines, but the invention of gas and electric motors together with the need for bicycle and motorcar maintenance afforded mechanics new opportunities for self-employment. On the shop floor labor was divided further by differential payment systems. As a result a common identity remained the exception rather than the rule. In fact factors exogenous to the labor process created cross-occupational solidarity, among them the rise of exclusively working-class residential communities, increasingly endogamous marriage patterns, and the emergence of a hereditary proletariat, that is, a generation of workers not new to the factory and the urban environment. The autocratic behavior of employers, the relative weakness of middle-class liberalism, and political repression and discrimination forged a class identity among some European workers.

The fragmentation of working-class politics. As demonstrated, economic development did as much to divide as to unite workers. In creating solidarity, the state's role was crucial in the generation of a radical politics of class. When the state relied on indirect taxes or agricultural tariffs, it demonstrated its hostility to urban consumers. When it interfered violently in industrial conflict, deprived workers of full citizenship rights, and rested on nonparliamentary foundations, working-class grievances were often politicized and marxist parties were likely to be strong, as in Russia, Austria, and Germany. That liberal and parliamentary regimes were best able to create legitimacy among workers was demonstrated at the end of World War I, when labor overthrew the old autocracies in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany but not the democratic polities in Britain and France.

Workers in similar occupations often displayed similar forms of behavior and identity across national boundaries, but this correlation did not include politics. Miners possessed a strong sense of occupational identity almost everywhere, but printers were almost always the first to form stable unions and to engage in collective bargaining. Dockers in Hamburg, Livorno, and Liverpool had difficulty organizing and often leaned toward direct action. Males dominated the industrial organizations of labor well into the twentieth century in virtually all European countries. In Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary engineering workers rose to prominence in various forms of protest, often involving tensions between cautious trade union leaders and a restive rank and file.

As noted, however, these international similarities usually were restricted to the sphere of industrial behavior and did not extend to politics. This is clear even in the postulate that "labor aristocrats," skilled workers with high earnings and job security, such as printers and skilled engineering workers, provide a key to the reformism of the British labor movement. In England the labor aristocrats dominated the unions and voted Liberal, but in Germany they joined the SPD, and in Russia they appeared at the barricades in 1917 and 1918. Thus their politics cannot be explained by their place in the labor market.

Even the role of the state is not enough to explain working-class politics. Within the boundaries of a single state, workers in the same occupation often displayed marked differences in political outlook and identity. Miners in Pas-de-Calais, for example, gave their support to reformist socialism, whereas their counterparts in the southern Massif tended toward syndicalism. Syndicalism in Spain was supported by the workers in small-scale textile production in Barcelona but not in Guipúzcoa. Moreover the political identity of the same group of workers in the same place could change over time. For example, in Spain Asturian miners supported primarily reformist labor organizations until the 1920s then engaged in insurrectionary violence. The change was clearly dictated by shifts in the political conjuncture, perhaps at the local level, and not at the workplace.

Support for political parties, which spoke the language of class, was stronger in some states than in others; but even in imperial Germany, which had the largest socialist party in the world with a marxist program, the SPD could never claim to speak for the German working class in its entirety. Even among dependent wage laborers, other identities cut across and fragmented that of class. Women and the unskilled were largely absent from the membership, as were Catholics, Poles, and those who belonged to company unions and voted National Liberal, such as senior workers at the Krupp steelworks in Essen. In Britain and France significant numbers of workers preferred the collaborationist politics of liberalism to class confrontation and voted for the Liberal Party or the Radical Party respectively.

It was also not unusual for workers to give their support to nationalist or conservative political parties. That happened in the "working-class Tory" districts of industrial Lancashire, where hostility to Irish immigration and to Liberal mill owners played a role. This last instance also suggests that class identity and political conservatism were not invariably incompatible. Indeed the French wool shearers of Mazamet sustained lengthy strikes against their employers but gave their votes to conservative parliamentary candidates. At Krupp in Essen workers who belonged to the company union, sang in the company choir, and lived in company housing voted National Liberal before 1914, Nationalist in the 1920s, and Nazi in the depression of 1929–1933.

A sense of class could also be fractured by religious and denominational variables. Socialism in France, Spain, and Italy went hand in hand with anticlericalism, and the parties of the left were weak in areas of high religious observance. In Germany, Holland, and Flemish Belgium, Catholic workers formed their own Christian Unions and voted for Catholic parties. Ethnic differences were as divisive and potentially more explosive than those of religion. In Austria-Hungary, Czech and German workers split into separate organizations. Poles in imperial Germany stayed away from both the Catholic Center Party and the SPD, formed their own unions, and voted for the cause of Polish nationalism. No love was lost between English and Irish laborers. Workers in the north of France resented the employment of Belgians, and Marseille dockers displayed even greater hostility toward North African workers.

Gender and working-class fragmentation. The European working classes were further fragmented along the lines of gender. Women were grossly underrepresented in the membership of trade unions and labor and socialist parties. Even in the SPD, which had a women's organization with 170,000 members in 1914, females only constituted 16 percent of the total party membership. Significantly these women were usually not employed outside the home but were the housewives of Social Democrats. Part of the reason for female absence from the ranks of organized labor lay in the distribution of female employment. In Germany in 1907, 4.5 million women worked in agriculture, and 3.75 million worked in domestic service. Only 1 million found jobs in trade and commerce and 2 million in manufacturing. In Britain in 1911 almost 40 percent of the females in paid employment worked in personal and domestic services, 16 percent in textiles, 15 percent in clothing manufacturing, 3 percent in metals manufacturing, and 2.1 percent in agriculture. Of those employed in manufacturing, many worked in poorly paid domestic production. Female factory occupations were usually unskilled and badly rewarded. Thus women were the archetype of unskilled labor, and unskilled, poorly paid men did not form unions or join political parties either.

The difficulties of mobilizing women were compounded by other, more gender-specific factors. A woman's time was taken up by labor in and outside the home, the so-called "double burden." Furthermore the great majority of women in factory employment were unlikely to keep their positions for life. In Germany in 1895 over 52 percent of employed females were single, 40.2 percent were divorced, and only 9.1 percent were married. In the United Kingdom sixteen years later the figures were respectively 69.3 percent, 29.4 percent, and 9.6 percent. Most women working outside the home would not do so for the rest of their lives. They were usually young and single, and at around age twenty-four they left for marriage or childbirth. Since the home and not the workplace was the locus of their activities for much of their lives, investment in factory-based organizations made little sense.

Religious observance was much higher among European females than males by 1900. Continued religious commitment may have kept women away from "godless" socialist organizations. Women also faced gender-specific discrimination. They suffered verbal and physical abuse, low wages, and proletarian antifeminism, which could become quite vicious in times of recession. Trade unions often were not interested in the problems of female workers, who were considered wage-cutting competitors rather than comrads. Also, as women did not yet possess the vote, many labor politicians in Britain and France showed little interest in their mobilization.

Of course working-class wives and daughters indispensably supported striking brothers, fathers, and husbands by caring for their offspring and providing sustenance on picket lines. The work of women in the home that created the space and time for the union and party activities of males. Though relatively few female workers joined unions, many women went on strike.

White-collar workers were generally absent from the unions, and their numbers in the total workforce increased rapidly by 1910. They constituted 36 percent of all wage earners in France in 1906, though under 40 percent of the French workforce were wageworkers at that time, and they were 18 percent of the total German labor force. In Germany, where the "collar line," the division between white-collar and blue-collar workers was especially great, the former displayed considerable hostility toward socialist organizations. Most did not organize, but those who did usually joined the German National Union of Commercial Employees, which was antisocialist, nationalist, imperialist, and anti-Semitic. The political identity of white-collar workers, however, was less clear in many other European societies and underwent significant changes during World War I.

Working-class identity in 1914. On the eve of World War I more workers went on strike, belonged to trade unions, and voted for labor or socialist parties than ever before, in part an indication of class identity. However, that identity was fragile and was not shared by all. In fact the great majority of European workers, even in Britain, never went on strike, formed a union, or voted socialist. Uneven economic development and religious, ethnic, and gender differences complicated, obscured, and sometimes undermined the class solidarity the socialist parties hoped to create. However, those who considered their skill, gender, religion or ethnicity important might still have some perception of themselves as workers. The Christian (Catholic) Unions in Germany, for example, were increasingly involved in industrial action. Polish workers were proud to be Polish, but they joined the Free (socialist) Unions in the strikes of 1905 and 1912 in the Ruhr Valley. In fact to be a Pole in the Ruhr was to be a worker. National and class perspectives in this case reinforced one another.

The possibility of the coexistence of different identities raises another important point. Support for the national cause in 1914 did not necessarily imply the demise or absence of class consciousness. Not only was proletarian patriotism different from the jingoism of the nationalist right, but the same Welsh miners who volunteered to fight for king and country in August 1914 were back on strike the following year. Studies of various European cities, including Brunswick, Hamburg, and Vienna, have suggested that workers did not demonstrate the same nationalist fervor as their middle-class compatriots in the first days of the war. Patriotism and a sense of class could go hand in hand. German workers marching off to the front sang patriotic and socialist anthems. That working-class men and women were divided in various ways in 1914 is not surprising, but remarkably many of them had overcome such divisions by 1914. The story of the European working classes after that date is also a story of solidarities and divisions.


World War I. World War I is best remembered for its human sacrifice and its material deprivation that formed the background to revolutions in central and eastern Europe at its end. Yet the experience of European labor during the war was in some ways ambiguous. In the belligerent nations civilian politicians and army generals realized they could not sustain the war effort without the support of organized labor, a clear statement of how far the working classes had come since 1800. In the democratic states, France and Britain, members of the Labour Party and the SFIO were taken into the war cabinets. Although the semiautocratic German state went nowhere near as far, it granted some degree of recognition to trade union leaders and their wishes. Union officials were exempted from conscription and were given a role in the organization of food supplies and welfare. The unions were for the first time allowed to recruit rural laborers and state employees, and a law in 1916 established workers' councils with elected labor representatives in all large firms. This effectively obliged previously authoritarian employers to deal with the unions and gave a massive spur to the growth of union membership from 1917.

State recognition of and consultation with trade union leaders gave the unions greater legitimacy in other countries too, and national systems of pay bargaining began to erode local particularities. It now made sense to be in the union because the union might be able to achieve something. At the same time shortages of labor in the dominant munitions industries placed workers in a strong bargaining position. Government intervention to control prices and rents and the supply of foodstuffs and raw materials together with an acceptance of new welfare obligations brought to the public's attention the possibility of controlling private capital and the advantages of planning. It was no accident that the British Labour Party first adopted clause IV, nationalization of industry, in 1918.

The consequences of these developments were paradoxical. Unions benefited from recognition, yet the collusion of trade union leaders and labor politicians with systems of national wage bargaining gave rise to shop floor discontent. Radical shop stewards who were often hostile to the official union leadership emerged in Clydeside, Berlin, and Turin. The divide that separated restless workers from trade union bureaucracies was widened by massive food shortages and high levels of inflation in central and eastern Europe, above all in Russia. In Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Russia food riots involving women and children became common. So did strikes throughout Europe caused by food shortages and inflation but facilitated by severe labor shortages in the munitions industries. On top of all this, the war forced longer working hours and an intensification of labor with the suspension of protective labor legislation and a marked increase in industrial accidents.

The war years also witnessed a restructuring of the workforce. Increasing numbers of women and youths were recruited to fill the shortage of labor in the arms industry. They came to work in the large engineering and electrical concerns in Berlin, and the foundries of Krupp and Thyssen in the Ruhr, in large factories on the outskirts of Paris, in the giant engineering concerns of Turin and Milan, and in the Putilov munitions factory in Saint Petersburg. The newer factories, manned by semiskilled workers, employed serial techniques in production. Trained on the shop floor to perform a specialized task, the workers had not experienced apprenticeships but were far less quiescent than unskilled workers. They played a major role in the revolutionary upheavals at the end of the war in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Turin, and Milan, where the focus of industrial militancy shifted to the large factories.

At the same time more workers became involved in industrial protest and union organizations. Women, rural laborers, and the unskilled in chemical and steelwork appeared on the historical stage between 1917 and 1924 but were largely quiescent again after 1924, by which time political and employer controls had been reestablished. The deteriorating situation of white-collar employees in Germany encouraged some of them to join socialist unions and to vote for the SPD at the end of the war.

Material deprivation and a restructuring of the labor force generalized economic discontent. The war transformed that discontent into a political issue, for material deprivation was manifestly caused by war waged and ended by governments. Thus strikers in central Europe demanded peace and democratic reform. They failed to see why they should make sacrifices for states that treated them as second-class citizens. The inability of the old regimes to guarantee peace was the immediate cause of revolutions in February and October 1917 in Russia and in Austria and Germany a year later. The war thus had a massive impact on labor and actually prepared the ground for the exercise of power by workers' parties in some states after 1918 by temporarily demobilizing or destroying their enemies, especially where the old regimes were held responsible for defeat.

However, many of the upheavals were not unmediated consequences of the war alone. Revolutions took place where radical working-class cultures had developed before World War I and were absent in democratic Scandinavia, Britain, and France. The years immediately before 1914 had seen waves of labor militancy in Germany, Italy, and Russia, often associated with conflicts between trade union leaders and a radical rank and file of engineering workers. Most of the socialist parties in continental Europe, such as the SPD, the SFIO, and the PSI, had revolutionary and reformist elements before 1914. In the course of the war and in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the foundation of the Third International, these split into social-democratic and communist wings. This split therefore had a prewar history and was not simply a consequence of war and inflation between 1914 and 1923. The absence of a revolutionary movement in Britain before 1914 partly explains communism's failure to take hold there after 1918.

Postwar revolutions. The overthrow of autocratic regimes in 1917–1918, the sacrifices workers made during the war, the increasing legitimacy of labor politicians, and the continued shortage of labor at the end of World War I led to the greatest upsurge in international working-class industrial militancy and political radicalism that Europe had seen. The October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 and saw the first attempts to create a socialist society. Admired by many workers at the time as a model of workers' government, it inspired the creation of significant communist parties in France, Germany, and Italy. Yet revolutionary socialists did not successfully seize power anywhere outside of Russia. Social structure in western Europe lacked a revolutionary peasantry but produced a large and powerful bourgeoisie, which was effectively absent in Russia owing to the dependence of its industry on foreign capital or tsarist initiatives. This Western bourgeoisie was temporarily weakened in the revolutionary upheavals at the end of the war but rapidly reconstituted its control over labor during the economic downturn in 1921 in the United Kingdom, France, and Italy and in 1923 in Germany. Particularly in Germany and Italy the defeat of the revolutionary left was the work of armed counterrevolutions by right wing paramilitary groups, the Freikorps and the fascist squadristi, respectively. From 1922 in Italy and from 1933 in Germany fascist regimes destroyed the industrial and political labor organizations.

The failure of the revolutionary left to deliver liberation to the European working classes, compounded by the split between democratic socialists and communists, most obviously in Germany, should not obscure the fact that social-democratic welfarism did much to improve the workers' lot in several European states. In the Weimar Republic, national governments with SPD participation extended welfare benefits massively, built public housing, and initiated a sea change in industrial relations by enforcing trade union recognition and collective bargaining. In Britain the fact that the Labour Party was in office only briefly did not prevent measures to subsidize council housing and improve unemployment benefits. Social-democratic participation in the governments of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden impressively extended social welfare. In Sweden the all-socialist government of Per Albin Hansson established a public works program of jobs, created a system of pensions and unemployment relief, reduced working hours, set up maternity benefits, and developed a national medical service. The Popular Front government, a communist-socialist-liberal alliance, in France in 1936 increased wage rates, introduced paid holidays, and obliged employers to recognize trade unions.

The absence of a successful socialist revolution outside Russia therefore did not mean the abandonment of working-class interests. However, social-democratic reformism was only possible where it found allies among democratic liberals and where the middle class was prepared to tolerate it. It made no headway against authoritarian regimes in eastern Europe or against fascist dictatorships. Furthermore the great upsurge of labor militancy between 1917 and 1920 rested on conditions of economic expansion and job security. High levels of unemployment after 1921 (1923 in Germany) demobilized and fragmented the labor movement. The search for jobs or the desire to keep them set the employed against the unemployed, factory against factory, men against women, and the young against the old in disputes regarding who should keep the jobs. The 1930s were a period of authoritarian government in eastern Europe, fascist rule in Italy, and Francisco Franco's triumph in Spain but also of Conservative Party domination in Britain. Left-wing governments in France were shortlived in this decade.

The European working classes, 1924–1950. The general models used above to account for variations in working-class politics continued to hold true in this period. They varied enormously from country to country, often depending on earlier traditions, as in the case of communist party support. It is true that socioeconomic factors go some way toward explaining the split between democratic socialists and communists. Germany exhibited a strong correlation between unemployment and the size of communist party support, for example. In Germany, France, and Italy political radicalism was particularly marked among young and semiskilled workers in large factories. Yet the British and the Swedish unemployed and semiskilled did not turn to communism. Again political traditions and the preexistence of revolutionary labor were crucial. No simple correlation emerged between economic position and electoral behavior.

The number of wageworkers increased generally between 1914 and 1950, from 4.7 million to 6.5 million in France, from 17.1 million to 21.4 million in the United Kingdom, and from 9.3 million to 9.7 million in Italy. Between 1913 and 1950 the average rate of growth of nonagricultural employment was 1 percent per annum in Western Europe and 1.5 percent in Eastern Europe, reaching as much as 2.6 percent in Russia, though Eastern Europe was still overwhelmingly rural. In Britain 70 percent of the active population were workers in the 1950s. Furthermore national systems of wage bargaining and decreasing differentials between skilled and unskilled workers helped create a working class that was economically more united than previously. Though union density increased from 23 percent in 1914 to 44.1 percent in 1950 in Britain, from 17 percent to 39 percent in the Netherlands, and from 15 percent to 76 percent in Sweden, the combined vote for the parties of labor rarely rose above 35 percent in most European countries. Only infrequently did socialists form majority governments before 1944, and Sweden was the most obvious exception to this rule. This may have been partly because of the enfranchisement of women in several states between the wars, though Italy and France did not enact woman suffrage until the end of World War II and it produced Catholic mass politics. Women remained less likely to vote for the left in this period, not least because the division between work and home remained as complete for married working-class couples as it was before. In 1931 only 16 percent of married British women were employed outside the home, and the evidence is overwhelming that women placed a positive value on housework and child rearing at this time. They also voted for parties that proclaimed the sanctity of traditional family values.

The increase in waged labor also should not obscure the fact that much of that labor was nonmanual. By 1933 white-collar workers made up approximately 25 percent of the active population in Germany. In Britain the proportion of nonmanual workers in the labor force rose from 18.7 percent in 1911 to 30.9 percent in 1951. Paid by seniority and thus guaranteed rising incomes where they remained loyal to the firm, they often acted as intermediaries between management and the shop floor, and they were conscious of their status. Not until the 1960s and 1970s did the rates of unionization of female and white-collar staff began to catch up with those of males in manual employment. Furthermore the unemployment of the interwar years often decimated precisely those sectors of the economy where working-class militancy had been strong, such as coal mining.

Again support for the labor parties and trade union membership were not consequences of impoverishment, except possibly the unemployed, many of whom fell into apathy and resignation rather than militancy. For those employed, real wages continued to rise, and levels of poverty were reduced according to all the British surveys. The life expectancy of workers continued to improve, but it still did not reach that of the middle class. Working-class consumption, typified by visits to the cinema, the dance hall, and sports events, increased significantly. This was especially true in Britain, but France and Germany experienced similar developments between the wars. Extensions of welfare and especially public housing made a huge contribution to working-class living standards. However, homogenous working-class residential areas became more common than before, while the mobility prospects of even skilled manual workers remained extremely limited into the 1960s. Hence significant numbers of European workers, increasingly self-confident in the democratic states, held collective values. The extent of embourgeoisement before the 1960s was truly limited.


As early as the 1950s some commentators feared the demise of traditional working-class culture at the hands of mass entertainment in Britain. Those fears heightened in the recession of the 1970s and the political triumph of Thatcherism. The postwar welfare state and massive rises in real wages in the 1950s and the 1960s, the time of economic miracles, stimulated huge increases in working-class consumerism. From the 1960s working-class ownership of houses and cars expanded dramatically. Radio, already popular before 1950, and television enhanced the possibilities of private, home-based leisure. Slum clearances sometimes disrupted working-class residential communities. The recession of the 1970s and 1980s laid waste to many of the traditional heartlands of labor and deindustrialised large parts of Europe.

Simultaneously white-collar employment outstripped that of manual labor. By 1981, 52.3 percent of the active British population was employed in nonmanual jobs. In Holland 1,042,000 worked in manufacturing but 2,943,000 worked in trades and services at the same date. Simultaneously a feminization of the labor force occurred. Whereas the number of women workers in 1950 was 7.1 million in the United Kingdom, the figure rose to 22.9 million by 1990. In 1951, 32.7 percent of women and 87.6 percent men of working age were gainfully employed, but by 1980 51.6 percent of women and 77.9 percent of men were working. Working-class support for labor politics eroded in Western Europe, and socialist parties survived only where they appealed to the middle ground and to voters outside the traditional working class.

Historians and sociologists have debated the extent of embourgeoisement of the working class amid undeniable affluence in the postwar decades. The growth of an immigrant lower working class in most Western European countries also created internal tensions and disparities within the working class. Many workers no longer displayed distinctive culture or behavior, even aside from the dilution of working-class politics and the decline in unionization. But the working class was still less likely than the middle class to strive for upward mobility or to send children to universities, reflecting social barriers and distinctive expectations. Most people of the working class view their labor in fiercely instrumental terms, judging it on the basis of earnings, in contrast to those of the middle class, who usually seek some meaning in the work. The boundaries of the working class have definitely become less defined, but the concept continues to have some real utility in European social history.

The lot of workers in Soviet-controlled Europe was, of course, very different. Workers played a role in the collapse of Communist regimes, most obviously in the Solidarity organization in Poland. This was far from a universal phenomenon, however. Until the 1970s many workers in Eastern Europe enjoyed rising living standards, though not on a Western scale. Some, miners in particular, enjoyed special privileges, so it is not surprising that they supported the old regime in Romania and did not initially participate in Solidarity in Poland. The collapse of the old system and the triumph of market forces created massive inequalities and a decline in living standards for the great majority. In western Europe the old working class became only a shadow of its former self, and in eastern Europe it seemed powerless.


For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the working classes possessed a distinct identity, but that identity was never uniform. In some cases workers did show allegiance to a broad concept of class, though this was more often the case in autocratic than in liberal states and was rarely a consequence of economic variables alone. Class identity was always fragile and contested by other loyalties of nation, race, gender, and occupation. Since 1960 it has arguably been in a state of dissolution. However, the struggles of working men and women have done much to change European society, especially in the form of the welfare state, though some would see even this achievement as threatened in the early twenty-first century. Furthermore, cross-national comparisons of working-class behavior and identity do suggest that much can still be explained in terms of structures—be they economic, social, or political, whatever the postmodernists may tell us.

See alsoTechnology; Capitalism and Commercialization; The Industrial Revolutions; Communism (volume 2);Collective Action; Moral Economy and Luddism; Labor History: Strikes and Unions; Socialism (in this volume);Gender and Work; Factory Work (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


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