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by Raymond F. Betts

The Age of Power

Protests Against Industrialism
The working classes in the industrial cities were situated in an appalling environment that bred disease, despair, discontent--and the clamor for reform. While it is true that not every industrial city presented the bleak picture associated with Manchester, England, of the 1830s and 1840s, the general dehumanization of factory labor was the subject of widespread denunciation. Some of the sharpest critics, Charles Dickens, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Friedrich Engels (Marx's collaborator), generalized from their observations of Manchester; yet what they stated was at worst exaggerated, not falsified.

Concomitant with early industrial development, therefore, was a movement of protest urged by reformers and revolutionaries alike. Karl Marx (1818-1883) was foremost among them, and his short tract (co-authored by Friedrich Engels), The Communist Manifesto (1848), provided the most awesome picture of future developments: a class war between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

Marx was both critic and prophet. He provided a form of social analysis structured on the notion of competing social classes that has remained a major contribution to sociological and political theory. But as a mid-Victorian, reviewing the plight of the worker in Manchester or London, Marx prophesied that only class warfare and the overthrow of the capitalist would assure an equitable society. He singled out private property as the root of all social evil, considering the capitalist to be both parasite and thief: it was the capitalist who lived off the sweat of the proletariat, stealing the fruits of their labor by paying them much less than they were worth and taking the difference in the form of profits. This arithmetical difference between wage and worth, between money and value, accounted for the capital by which industrialization took place and would continue. according to Marx. Only when private property was prohibited, hence individual capital accumulation was checked, would an equitable society emerge. The important point is this: Marx objected to the ownership, but not the management, of the system.

However, he was opposed to those social reformers who imagined that the best way to change the situation was through the establishment of new and idyllic working communities far from the site of the belching red-brick chimneys. These efforts were dismissed by Marx as "utopian," both unrealistic and unhistorical. It was necessary to be part of the historical process of class struggle, to engage in the fight against the capitalists on their own urban ground. "Workers of the world, unite!" is the stirring command with which the Communist Manifesto ends. For Marx, consciousness of their plight would create unity among the working classes, and at that point their combined strength would allow for the forceful overthrow of the capitalist system. Class war was the only means by which the social order could be changed, for the government was, in Marx's opinion, "the executive committee of the bourgeoisie," that is, its chief agency for retention of control.

In the postrevolutionary age he sanguinely imagined, Marx assumed that private property would be restricted to needed personal possessions, and wealth would be equitably redistributed--"from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" would be the slogan and reality. The state would "wither away," for its primary purpose of protecting private property would no longer exist. An ideal world, a world characterized by social harmony, not conflict, would finally come into existence.

Although history was not played out as Marx had hoped, he was not alone in the dire predictions he made in mid-nineteenth century. At that time the worst effects of the new industrialism were everywhere to be seen. Even the century's most famous conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, who became prime minister of Great Britain, arrived at the same conclusion as Marx. Actually, it was the other way around, for Disraeli expressed his views before Marx. Disraeli's novel, Sibyl, published in 1845, bears the suggestive subtitle: The Two Nations. These are defined by Disraeli as the rich and the poor. One of Disraeli's fictional heroes is bold enough to allow that they really are two nations in harsh opposition.

Urban Growth
This unresolved tension between entrepreneur and worker, which was such a significant fact of mid-nineteenth-century social existence, was matched by another new condition equally obvious at the time: the mushrooming of urban growth. Most critics concur that urbanization was a concomitant feature of industrialization. Just as the factory system mobilized large numbers of workers, so its location close to a center of transport or a supply of natural resources, created new urban space: cities quickly spread around the mills and factories which themselves were often clustered together in large number. The result was dreadful residential congestion, blanketed in polluted air.

By contrast, the city in the preindustrial era lay within the immediate circumference of the countryside. The cock's crow awakened the merchant. The cock's crow awakened the merchant almost as often as it did the farmer; and the weekly market brought country folk from a few miles around to the central square where the mingled and bartered with their urban counterparts. Few of Europe's cities were enormously Iarge, and within their confines it was not unusual to see small gardens cultivated for the purpose of raising daily staples, or to encounter pigs roaming the streets and acting as useful scavengers. Even as late as 1830 strawberries were grown in large quantities within the city Iimits of London.

There should, however, be no attempt made to romanticize the preindustrial city. London of the eighteenth century! wallowed in filth, endured great crime, and allowed the thriving trade of gin shops where children as young as five could drink poorly distilled alcohol at a tragic cost to their well-being. Epidemic diseases played havoc with the cities, as typhoid and dysentery produced high annual death rates. Fire, too, was awesomely destructive, with the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroying some 450 acres of housing. And the ghetto, so tragically familiar in contemporary society, suggested in the preindustrial city the existence of sectional discrimination; with Jews shunted off, isolated in one quarter.

What immediately distinguishes the industrial city is the rapidity of its growth, a quantitative leap that had dire qualitative results. Manchester, the first major industrial city, had a population of 70,000 in 1801; vet by 1831 that population had grown to 142,000. Roubaix in France was hardly more than a village of 8,000 in 1831; however, ten years later its population stood at 34,000. The most spectacular change was in London, where the population of 988,000 in 1801, bulged outward at 2,363,000 in 1851. Behind these statistics is found a series of social problems that perplexed governmental authorities, irritated social reformers, and provided the raw material for the many novels of social realism that then appeared.

The best way to describe the new urban form is by the familiar word "sprawl." An English urbanist, Patrick Geddes, writing in the early twentieth century, looked back on London's growth and suggested that it was "without previous parallel in the world of life--perhaps likest to the spreading of a great coral reef." The haphazard nature of urban development, dictated only by the needs of the marketplace and the rabid speculation of the real estate owner and the builder, soon led to an inadequacy of basic facilities-like water and sewers-to overcrowding, and to the practice of scalping rents. In sum, the urban worker not only suffered the indignity of being mastered by the machine, but also endured the debasement of an existence in the "slum."

Mid-nineteenth-century Europe was thus the setting of great industrial progress and social discontent. The age was suspended between two worlds: the old of order, the new of change.

The historian's appreciation of irony easily inclines him to the conclusion that the French Revolution promised liberty to the self-sufficient individual, while the Industrial Revolution provided a form of enslavement to the person who was needed for a particular function, not because of his basic humanity. If, therefore, the two "revolutions" seemed to combine poorly in their achievement of immediate results, in the long run they forced a new definition of the social being, of the individual in his or her social situation.

In theory, both asserted that the individual was a free agent, to make of a life what he (or she) could. (For the sake of historical accuracy, the personal pronoun must remain "he": women had little say and few rights in nineteenth-century society.) Again, Napoleon's phrase "careers open to talent" summarized the idea nicely. In the political arena and in the marketplace, the citizen could express his mind and sell his labor as he saw fit. This was the theoretical nature of liberty: the social freedom to do what you wished so long as you did not interfere with the liberty of others.

But, in fact, the liberty of others was often denied or trampled upon. The cynical comment that some men are free and some are freer than others approaches nineteenth-century political reality and suggests why the first half of the century was so revolutionary. Underprivileged segments of society also wished to enjoy the political rights granted only some. Introduction of a written constitution and extension of the suffrage were, therefore, major political objectives.

Such demands as these were being registered at the time the hierarchy of the old social order was disappearing. No longer were there the traditional three estates; in their stead appeared a set of social classes, dominated bv the bourgeoisie, middle class in name, perhaps, but top class in economic fact. It is true that the aristocracy still continued to direct the major political affairs of the state through much of the nineteenth centurv. However, society was, as Marx had perceived, being redefined in terms of the new industrial system. Yet, even so, entrepreneur and worker did not stand in a simple and fixed opposition as "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat." The stark adversary relationship outlined in Marx's thought never left the pages of his works. In reality, there was no single middle class, but rather several strata in which, for instance, small merchant was easily distinguished from industrialist capitalist. Moreover, worker and factory owner were more often given to cooperation than to class struggle in the thousands of small industrial enterprises that dotted the French and German landscape.

Yet the factory complex in the large citv was the setting in which class confrontations and outright conflict did take place. Fear of class warfare may have been out of proportion to its probability, but there was sufficient industrial violence to give currency to Marx's prediction that the capitalist system would be overthrown from within. Industrial sabotage--the destruction of machines, for instance--was one device employed, as was absenteeism, the quiet form of protest. However, the strike was developed as the most effective form, used more in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth, it is true, but the most forceful expression of labor's demands created in the nineteenth century.

Even with these manifestations of industrial discontent, the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed no series of revolutionary activities comparable to those that had occurred in the first half of the centurv. Reform seemed to be more the order of the day. The point is that the European political system, with its parliamentary processes, was sufficiently flexible in structure and promising enough in democratic purpose to accommodate and attract new social interests. The legally recognized organization of labor unions is one example of this flexibility, as is the development of new socialist political parties pledged to change the industrial svstem at the ballot box, not on the barricade.

None of these various social and economic activities worked well, but the general system worked well enough to allow for consolidation and expansion in the second half of the century.

NEXT:  Part Two: Expansion & Explosion:1871-1918

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