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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts


New Responses
From an olympian perspective, what was witnessed is this: the movement away from earlier liberalism, with its stress on laissez-faire in public matters, an attitude captured in the slogan, "the least government is the best government." Concomitant with this political liberalism had been the emphasis on individualism. Now public welfare grew in political importance, and this necessarily involved the government and stressed communal interest.

It was municipal government in which the initially striking changes occurred. The term "municipal socialism" comes close to describing the new attitude. Welfare democracy it was, in which government was called upon to assist in the accommodation of the new urban masses.

The problem that municipal government now set out to solve in a practical way had been considered in theory before the late nineteenth century. If there is a pivotal figure in the theory justifying the shift from the laissez-faire ("hands off") state to the regulatory one, it is Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). A curious personality, with a practical and occasionally whimsical turn of mind, Bentham popularized the Enlightenment notion of utilitarianism which he broadly defined as the greatest good for the greatest number, and which he predicated upon his "felicific calculus," the belief that the possible good and pain--the degree of "usefulness"--in any undertaking could be mathematically measured. (In one equation in this felicific calculus, Bentham asserted that "push-pin," the forerunner of pinball, yielded greater pleasure than poetry.) Bentham's thought pointed in the direction of the substitution of democracy for liberalism. Not the good of the individual, but of the collectivity or, to be more accurate, of the majority, should be respected. Here in theory, as later somewhat in practice, government by the few, government "of the rich and the wellborn," gave way to government for the masses. Both in the United States and Europe, the new times were heralded as the "century of the common man."

As political democracy spread in the late nineteenth century, so did a new form of concentration: the trade and labor unions. The trade union was well installed by mid- century and was designed to protect skilled workers. Flourishing in the building trades, among railroad engineers, printers, and textile workers, these unions were not so removed from their guild predecessors. They were mutual aid societies, offering health and death benefits; and they were guardians, attempting to control the numbers of individuals wishing to enter a particular trade so that members of that trade could command a good wage because of their relative scarcity. The labor union was not organized around a particular trade, but was broader in scope, covering the labor interests of entire industries, like iron and steel, and directed toward labor issues of a national sort. As these significant self-interest groups grew in size, they also grew in influence; to the governments of the day, they were a source of concern and worry.

Great Britain18921,576,000

The immediate objectives of union agitation were better working conditions-- more pay and less hours. But there was also a demand for further and more fundamental reform. In the late nineteenth century a number of socialist parties were formed so as to use the electoral process to gain control of the state and then initiate social change.

In their early years the unions and the political activists had generally gone in separate ways. The first major effort at some form of public forum was Karl Marx's First International of Working Men's Associations, convened in London in 1866. Because it consisted of a number of groups with contradictory political purposes, the First International did not succeed. As evidenced shortly thereafter, the major split within socialist ranks centered on strategy: revolution versus reform. The Marxists looked to the overthrow of the state from without, by revolution; the reformers assumed the best approach was to play the parliamentary game, that is, to gain control by becoming the majority party, and then effecting reform from within.

It was in the 1870s and 1880s that reformist or revisionist socialism became a major political force in Europe. Within the German Empire the Social Democratic party, a combination of two smaller groups, was formed in 1875. It soon became a major political instrument, with over one million members and the largest number of seats in the Reichstag, the lower house, by 1914.

Slower in political success was the French socialist movement, which had been initially set back by the Paris Commune. This short-lived municipal government, ruling Paris from March to May 1871 during the political instability resulting from French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, had given the outward appearance of being radical, run by revolutionaries and workers. Marx praised it in his Civil War in France (1871), wherein he called it the first experiment in communism. In point of fact, it was neither radical nor communist, but some of its measures (a moratorium on rents, for instance), were denounced, and its resistance to an army sent in by the provisional French republic led to a brief but tragic civil war. The new French republic exiled some of the socialists involved in the Commune, and not until amnesty was granted in 1879 did French socialism begin to be an effective political force.

Yet even to speak of a French socialist party at the time is an inaccuracy. French socialism was split into several competing groups and was only united in 1901 under the skillful leadership of Jean Jaurés (1859-1914), school teacher, orator, and humanist. By 1914, this unified party, the SFIO (French Section of the Workers International), was also a major element in parliament, and it appeared that Jaurés would soon become premier. He was, unfortunately, the victim of an assassin's bullet at the outbreak of World War I.

Other socialist parties appeared in Belgium (1885), Austria (1888), Italy (1892), and in Great Britain the Independent Labour party was established in 1893. All of these parties demonstrated, by their very existence, two important facts: the growing success of reformist, or parliamentary socialism, and the increasing importance of the labor issue. Political democratic devices were now being used to achieve social democracy, particularly change in the direction of the improvement of the laboring class's condition.

The most noticeable institution of the labor movement, however, was the strike. Collective protest was designed to assure collective bargaining. Behind the movement lay the simple contention that singly the worker was helpless against the complicated and strong structure of the capitalist corporation and the government that seemed to support it. Collectively, however, the worker was deemed to be omnipotent. And so the thought was even entertained that a "general strike" could paralyze the industrial nation by bringing its public services to a halt and, thereby, forcing quick capitulation from governmental authorities and business executives. For different reasons, some political and some economic, such general strikes occurred in Belgium in 1893 and 1902, Holland in 1903, Italy in 1904, and France in 1904. None attained its ultimate objective, but they were all effective enough to suggest that the industrial system was not operating smoothly. To employ a social science concept, there was a problem of dysfunction, a failure of the social system to allow easy accommodation of new interest groups and to solve new problems in ideological as well as practical terms. Put quite simply, the social structure was out of whack, in need of adjustment or reassembly.

This dysfunctional condition was most evident in terms of cyclical unemployment, a condition that was the direct result of economic slumps or depressions throughout the century, but most attenuated during the so-called "Long Depression" that cut from around 1873 until nearly the end of the century. The "social question," as the European ruling classes called the problems of unemployment and consequent labor unrest, taxed the abilities of the governmental authorities and frightened the psyches of the middle class.

There were attempts to find solutions. Emigration was a partial answer. In 1854, some 427,000 Europeans had left for the United States; in 1882, the number had risen to nearly 789,000; and in 1907, the figure was a staggering 1,285,349. Imperialism was advertised as a possible solution, the means by which to find new markets and hence new jobs. And then there were individual pieces of legislation indicating either growing state responsibility or growing political anxiety. Bismarck's outstanding reforms, the insurance acts, were a particular example: sickness insurance legislated in 1883; workmen's compensation against unemployment in 1884; old age and social insurance in 1889.

From within the working community itself a number of social combinations designed for group betterment were introduced. These "voluntary associations," as they would later be called by social scientists, or "friendly societies," as they were frequently called by contemporaries, called for mutual cooperation and stood in opposition to the competitive nature of so much of early capitalist-industrialist organization. Among the first manifestations of such effort were the consumer co-operatives that sprang up in the late nineteenth century, first defined by the English Co-operative Wholesale Society of 1863. Then the most popular of the "friendly societies" emerged, the insurance companies, run for workers' protection, not private profit. Lastly, in the field of education great strides at self-improvement were taken, as evidenced with the establishment of the Workers' Education Association in England in 1903.

Concentration of industry and population thus effected new political and social combinations, all designed to improve or regulate the worst excesses of an industrial market system which, according to its critics, placed production before humanity.

Even on the international level there was concern with an uncontrolled economy. This was expressed in the tendency toward protectionism in the last three decades of the century. Worried about a glut of goods accumulating through increased domestic production and an influx of foreign imports, most European nations sought to protect the home market by introducing protective tariffs. This policy was strongly pursued in France and Germany. Only England still valiantly upheld the principle of free trade, but even some of that nation's politicians, like Joseph Chamberlain, spoke of the need for an "imperial tariff league," uniting Great Britain and her colonial possessions in a defensive and mutually beneficial economic system, and thus keeping out of this transoceanic trade system most foreign goods by means of heavy import duties. The plan never succeeded, but in principle it represented the contemporary mood about the dangers of uncontrolled growth and intensifying concentration.

Beyond the marketplace and the factory, the setting of economic difficulties still unresolved at the end of the nineteenth century, was another world newly organized and generally exciting, that realm we today call "popular culture."

Cultural Implications of Mass Society
For the masses, and in part because of them, an interesting social quantification took place. New services and new distractions appeared in amazing number and with amazing rapidity. Most obvious was the mass transportation system. An American engineer, appropriately named Train, constructed the first tramway in England in 1860. Within twenty years all of the major cities of Western Europe had such urban rail systems, and the Germans, first in the world with electrical developments, electrified their lines in the 1880s, beginning in Frankfurt, the first city to have overhead electrical wires for power. But before such overhead developments, the London underground (subway) system had been initiated in 1863, with electrification added in 1890. Later, the Paris Metro (metropolitan line), inaugurated in 1900, provided Europe with one of its finest underground transportation systems. Such short-range commuting altered city spatial patterns, as place of residence and place of work were no longer adjacent. Thus, the tendency toward sectoralization, of dividing the city into units of work, administration, and residence, was accentuated by this new mass mobility.

Mass education also approached reality with the establishment of public educational systems. Within the decade of the 1870s, England, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Belgium all introduced state-controlled, secular elementary education. Most such educational reform and expansion of services was predicated upon the liberal belief that the modern citizen needed a basic education to assume the civic responsibilities and handle the new tasks that an industrializing world generated. But elementary education was considered sufficient enough, so that the universities remained the privilege of the aristocratic and the wealthy.

Increased literacy meant increased reading. Mass-circulation newspapers, emblazoned with sensational headlines, made astonishing gains. "The English Daily Mirror" had a circulation of over one million copies a day in 1911; and the French "Le Petit Journal" had a daily run of two million in 1900. Cheap pulp fiction--particularly the so- called "penny dreadfuls"--provided a form of escape into realms of mystery and mayhem. Such books, along with newspapers, could be purchased at newsstands, soon a familiar sight in railroad stations and on streetcorners. Or they might be obtained at lending libraries, another late nineteenth-century institutional innovation. The concentration of population and wealth in the cities allowed for the flourishing of professional entertainment. In London, certainly the theatrical capital of Europe, ten major theaters were constructed in the twenty-year period 1876-1896. Elsewhere in Europe theaters catering to a wide variety of audiences increased, with eleven large theaters constructed in Germany between 1878 and 1895. As early as 1846 Covent Garden in London had been expanded to seat 4,000. And that essentially English institution, the music hall, appeared in quantity in the 1870s. There, the young and the poor congregated to enjoy popular entertainment. "It was a jam--not a crowd--when one boy coughed it shook the thousands wedged in and around him," remarked George R. Sims of the music hall audience in his satirical "Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday" (1888) .

Even organized sports acquired a mass appeal at this time, thus leaving their narrow aristocratic base. The bicycle was the first industrial product used in competitive racing, except, of course, the steamboat. The famous Tour de France was an established institution in the first decade of the twentieth century. More significantly, football (soccer) became the first mass spectator sport, with its major professional clubs situated in industrial cities like Manchester. In 1901, for instance, 110,000 persons attended the Football Cup Final held in England.

Thus, as the old century expired, a significant tertiary, or service, sector joined the primary sector (agriculture) and secondary sector (industry) of the European economy. New professional activities, like public education, professional entertainment, publishing, were made possible in large measure because of the wealth generated by industrialization and because of the rapid communications created by it.

The Russian author Leo Tolstoy argued at the end of the century that "money is a new form of slavery, and distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal--that there is no human relation between master and slave." His statement was a severe indictment of contemporary conditions and at some variance with the facts.

The most dreadful aspects of industrialism, those which formed so much of Marx's thinking, had been mitigated. The general standard of living was rising throughout Western Europe, and the working classes were beginning to partake of some of the benefits that their efforts had generated. Better health and recreational services, the extension of public parks and sewers, the use of gas and electric lighting made the city a safer place than it had ever been before--if not still an aesthetically pleasing place. Yet much of Victorian architecture was based on the principle of whimsy as well as on stern utilitarianism. Railroad stations often looked like cathedrals or chateaux, and the British Houses of Parliament at Westminster were grandly gothic in appearance.

Above all, this was the era of the bourgeois, praised in the manuals of etiquette and self-improvement, often damned in the drama and fiction of the literary world. From a middle-class perspective, Europe at this time was at the pinnacle of power, in large measure controller of the world's destinies. There was some concern publicly expressed that Russia and the United States would one day displace Europe from its lofty position, but, as the century turned, Europe's future still looked bright to most, and its authority could be seen as extending to the four corners of the world.

NEXT:  Chapter Six: Expansion

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