The light that failed

Peter Clarke

  • The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy 1815-1848 by Maxine Berg
    Cambridge, 379 pp, £16.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 521 22782 8
  • Masters, Unions and Men by Richard Price
    Cambridge, 355 pp, £18.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 521 22882 4
  • Work, Society and Politics by Patrick Joyce
    Harvester, 356 pp, £24.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 85527 680 0

There is sometimes rather a fine distinction between a paradox and a fallacy. It has often been remarked upon as a paradox that, in the great age of British expansion during the Industrial Revolution, the classical economists, especially Ricardo, should have taken such a dim view of the prospects for economic growth. But what if it can be demonstrated that this is a misreading of what Ricardo meant about the natural progression towards a stationary state? Such a revision is, in fact, one achievement of Maxine Berg’s exemplary study. By putting Ricardo’s contentions in context she offers a truly historical account of his thought, which shows that his model of ‘natural tendencies’ was a counterfactual or limiting case, intended precisely to identify the avenues of escape. One way out was via foreign trade. The other was via technical change.

Admittedly, what Ricardo had to say about machinery was not uniformly comforting. The stationary state was possible because of the tendency towards a declining rate of profit. The alternatives which Ricardo recommended were therefore means of preventing the rate of profit from falling. Machinery, like free trade, kept up profits – but at the expense of wages, which could be reduced along with the costs of labourers’ subsistence. On this showing, the popular hostility to technological innovation had much to be said for it. It was left to Nassau Senior in the 1830s to argue that the Ricardian proposition about lower wages also represented a hypothetical case, and that in practice the costs of change were borne out of profits and rent.

Such implications were highly germane to the way the machinery question was perceived. It was not enough to be for or against what Carlyle called ‘the huge demon of Mechanism’. It was also a question of who gained and who lost. To Harriet Martineau, vulgarising the lessons of political economy in 1832, the introduction of machinery was a simple issue: ‘It was a saving of labour; and as all saving of labour is a good thing, our machinery was a good thing.’ Perhaps she should have tried telling that to the handloom weavers. Nassau Senior did. The cause of their low earnings, he concluded, was ‘the disproportion between their numbers and the demand for their labour ... it follows that no measure can effectually raise their earnings except by getting rid of that disproportion.’ General considerations about labour mobility and prospects of new employment were irrelevant to their plight.

Those at the sharp end of this historical process naturally found fatalism least consoling. There was a Tory critique of political economy, represented by Black wood’s, which fumed at the official policy of allowing matters to take their course. ‘Machinery which renders labour more productive is not a good, but a mighty evil, if it diminish employment,’ Black wood’s argued. But it was, of course, the forces of popular radicalism, coming to a head in the Chartist movement, which voiced the keenest opposition. The alternative political economy of labour was articulated with notable cogency by Thomas Hodgskin: ‘The distress our people suffer, ‘he contended, ‘and the poverty we all complain of, is not caused by nature, but by some social institutions.’

Economic progress, in short, was bound up with particular social arrangements, and shaped by the relative power of different classes. It was the capitalist who used machinery to facilitate the division of labour. It was the proletarian, with only his labour to sell, who found himself thereby put in a new position. He became, as the economist J. B. Say put it, ‘a mere adjective, without individual capacity, independence or substantive importance, when separated from his fellow labourers; and obliged to accept whatever terms his employer thinks fit to impose’. Similarly, the engineer William Fairbairn saw that the division of labour in the factory meant that ‘the designing and direction of the work passed away from the hands of the workman into those of the master and his office assistants.’

Berg moves adroitly between the formal doctrines of the economists, the polemical writings of the period, and the evidence of popular attitudes, in making the machinery question unlock important themes in social and political as well as intellectual history. The question was hotly contested from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the 1840s. It became less pressing thereafter as ‘the stability and prosperity of the mid-Victorian economy resolved the contradictory juxtaposition of industrialisation and economic depression.’ In her epilogue, therefore, the author takes J. S. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England as the culmination of the debate.

Mill brought his own ambivalence to bear upon the tradition of the classical economists, acknowledging the adverse impact of machinery upon the working class, at least during a transitional phase before its ultimate benefit came home. Engels, drawing together the conclusions of Owenite and Chartist thinkers, stated the main outcome of mechanisation as the creation of a unified working class, and, writing in 1844, claimed that ‘virtually the whole of the industrial proletariat supports the workers’ movement.’ Berg thus prepares the ground for her comment that it was not a big step for Marx then to take English radicalism and Engels to their limits, and concludes her book by quoting this passage from Marx: ‘Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky high.’

With the establishment of modern industry, in Marx’s sense, by the middle of the 19th century, the role of the working class becomes problematic in a new sense. The viability of the new industrial society depended on whether class relations were characterised by antagonism or accommodation. In the 1830s and 1840s class conflict had stood out as the keynote, with widespread involvement of labouring men in Chartism and other movements of radical protest. Yet increasingly from mid-century the perspective of class harmony became conventional and persuasive. An article in the first number of the Cotton Factory Times, the operatives’ newspaper, put it in these terms in 1885: ‘I can look back to a time when the relationship that existed betwixt employer and employed was not such as we find it now ... Fifty years ago the outlook was dark and uncertain ... A gulf has been bridged over wide as the poet’s dream of chaos; and the knitting together of units, that now form a strong brotherhood, has been one of the results.’

Just as the Great Depression of the late 19th century was once explained as ‘what happened after the railways were built’, so one might say that mid-Victorian stability was what happened after Chartism collapsed. Historians have long taken this for granted, but it is only in recent years that the social meaning of this phenomenon has been systematically elucidated. Marxist approaches have been prominent in the reinvigoration of social history here for the unexceptionable reason that the Marxist tradition suggested what were, in this context, so many of the right questions. The taunt that it also prescribed in advance the right answers has been effectively met by the manifest diversity of the conclusions drawn; and the applicability of such concepts as social control, ideological hegemony, and the labour aristocracy, has been the subject of lively debate.

The notion that working-class consciousness and organisation ‘ought’ to take a certain prescribed form has generally come under attack. There are really two versions of this view of labour history. The first is celebratory and descends from early historians of the trade-union movement like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Trade-unionism, on this view, represented the essence of the working-class experience, and an institutional approach to labour history was thus legitimised. The growth of trade-union organisation, and ultimately of the Labour Party, was seen as the gradually maturing triumph of the working class, and the search for origins, pioneers, forerunners and precedents constituted the historiographical task.

In Masters, Unions and Men Richard Price takes issue with this approach, which he identifies specifically with the work of the doyen of current practitioners, Henry Pelling. ‘Inconsistent even in the explanations that it does adduce to explain the rise of labour, traditional labour history is a lode of interesting and important facts crushed together to hagiographically confirm Labour’s mythologies.’ This seems an inappropriate remark to apply to Pelling. True, his path-breaking books on the development of the Labour movement were mainly institutional in focus. But if there is one phrase which would be widely accepted to acknowledge their formidable achievement, it is surely that they rescued the subject from hagiography. A new generation of historians, of course, is rightly not content to rest on Pelling’s laurels, and the continuing trend to see labour history as part of a wider social history undoubtedly represents the way forward.

The second version of the view that the working class ‘ought’ to fulfil a given historical role is not celebratory but, at best, apologetic. This version focuses on the failure of the working class to act as the executors of Marx’s prophecy by blowing the foundations sky high. Here the concept of the labour aristocracy has often been invoked to explain the differentiation of a privileged section of manual workers, and hence to explain away the lack of class-consciousness among the proletariat as a whole. Capitalism, on this reading, was able to buy off the potential leaders of the working class, whose subsequent conservatism played an indispensable role in sustaining the status quo. In this form the argument has several weaknesses, which have been cogently summarised in a well-known essay by Pelling. It is, indeed, tempting to conclude flatly that there never existed a labour aristocracy capable of playing the historical role assigned to it.

The new social history. Marxisant if not Marxist, has succeeded in developing – or even rescuing – the concept of the labour aristocracy. Thus Geoffrey Crossick, in his important recent study An Artisan Elite in Victorian Society, insisted that the labour aristocracy was no myth. He located it especially in the engineering industry and found evidence of the distinctive life-style of the skilled men, both in the work-place and outside. The labour aristocrats emerged as men with a pride in their craft, cliquish in protecting their skill at work, and often unsympathetic to the unskilled labourers with whom they were in closest contact. But Crossick refused to see this process as a simple capitulation to bourgeois values. The respectability which the artisans wanted was to be achieved within their existing way of life, not by stepping out of it. Admittedly, this sort of status gratification had the function of allowing labour aristocrats to come to terms with structural inequalities in society at large. But their ideology was of their own making, not an imposition from above as ‘social control’, It was, Crossick concluded, ‘not some superstructural error, nor some ill-conceived and passing eccentricity exploited by capitalists and politicians, but a response to the world in which these workers lived’.

This sort of imaginative effort at reconstituting the working-class experience from within, in its own terms as it was lived out in a unique historical situation, is common also to the books under review, though in other respects their interpretative thrust is different. Masters, Unions and Men is a study of the building workers, from the outset focusing on issues of work control rather than trade-union growth. It argues that the structure of the industry made for an inexorable struggle between masters and men to organise the pattern of work. In the early 19th century, general contracting emerged as the entrepreneurs’ response to the demand for mass-produced housing. But the imperatives of general contracting were that the employers should possess total freedom to organise the work and the labour force. They had to be able to adapt to the conditions of the moment by rearranging work, redeploying men, demanding overtime working, laying workers off, all as they pleased. Hence endemic conflicts over discipline in an anarchic industry where craft traditions of independence died hard.

Although Price insists on the particular industrial context in which conflict took place, he refuses to accept that this manifested merely a defensive resistance to encroachments. He rejects, in short, the Leninist distinction between a ‘trade-union’ consciousness, limited by its spontaneity to immediate grievances, and a ‘revolutionary’ consciousness which could alone bring the ideological mettle for a fundamental challenge to the system itself. He argues, in line with other Marxist historians working in this field, like James Hinton and Gareth Stedman Jones, that revolutionary class-consciousness can grow out of a struggle for control of production itself. The Leninist model is thus discarded as a schematic imposition of ahistorical categories upon diverse and dynamic historical processes. Thus at the end of the period surveyed, in the labour unrest before the First World War, Price is happy to find evidence ‘that working-class consciousness – political, economic and social – attains a clarity of comprehension and understanding during these years that it had not possessed since the days of Chartism.’

For most of the intervening period, however, the claims have to be pitched at a less heroic level, with labour issues seldom spiralling into ideological confrontation. Even when they did so, as in the famous lock-out of London building operatives in 1859-60, we are reminded that the dispute was essentially an industrial struggle which only subsequently achieved the status of political myth. The well-publicised demand for the nine-hour day followed grievances over machinery, over-time and piecework, and took precedence partly as a propaganda pitch for wider outside support. As such, it was notably successful. The same strategy was subsequently at work in the stage-management of evidence before the Royal Commission on Trade Unions in the late 1860s. The respectable face of trade-unionism was cosmetically prepared for middle-class inspection and admiration.

At the time, it was the workers’ ostensible friends, especially the positivist intellectuals, who connived at their representation in an aura of sweetness and light. The Webbian tradition of labour history in general followed this cue, likewise subscribing to a sympathetic view. It was left to opponents of the working class to highlight evidence of ‘trade-union tyrannies’ whereby all manner of irksome practices were enforced upon both employers and fellow workers. With the advent of the new social history, however, a historiographical irony reveals itself. The left-wing ploy for a century was to bustle the working-class wolves into sheep’s clothing. But the current left-wing penchant is for a lupine working class, and the wool has been gleefully shorn from its back.

Price gives this sort of revisionism an important twist, which is of fundamental importance to his thesis. He argues that the real nexus was not the trade-union but the work group – an informal association at the work-place which was the direct expression of the workers’ norms and claims. Thus it was the work group which effectively enforced ‘rules’ of which the formal trade-union organisation could disclaim all knowledge. Moreover, the work group asserted itself in the early 19th century through a process of autonomous regulation. Once the men had decided what conditions they would accept, these were proclaimed unilaterally as their agreed code. The employers could take it or leave it. If a strike took place, it was the trade meeting, including unionists and non-unionists alike, which determined its own policy and elected its own leaders. The men were ‘in union’ even when they were not ‘in the union’. The balance could tip sharply from one side to the other, according to which had the power at any time to impose its own terms. This was the mode of industrial relations in an era when only some 10 or 20 per cent of building workers were unionised. This fact did not prevent the employers from denouncing the unions as dictators during the 1859 lock-out. But, Price comments, ‘as the masters well realised, the “unions” were in no position to “dictate” to anyone, but the “men” might be; and the employers’ general refusal to collectively negotiate was as much an assertion of the legitimacy of autonomous regulation as it was of an anti-unionism.’

Within a few years, however, the employers were instituting changes in the system, which had brought untoward gains for the men in the 1850s and 1860s. The new pattern centred on hourly instead of daily payment. This helped undermine the customary basis of work control. It allowed the employers to impose a flexible working day, to call for overtime working at need, and to dismiss men at an hour’s notice. What we see after 1870 is the supersession of autonomous regulation by a structure of mutual negotiation in which agreements were formally ratified by both sides. Within this framework the bargaining process was increasingly limited to wages and hours only, in a manner Lenin dubbed ‘economist’. The logic of this process lay in productivity bargaining which reduced grievances to a trade-off of measurable economic gains and losses.

It was the union as such which emerged as the important mediator in this system. But the advantages for the union. Price contends, should not be equated with gains for the men. To some extent, the establishment of the new norms, ‘economist’ in character, was evaded in practice. The rules of the game were thus learnt and accepted at the official level, and at the same time not learnt and not accepted on the shop-floor. As with Bagehot’s account of the British constitution, there was a gap between the dignified and the efficient parts, and Price draws fruitfully on the findings of modern studies of industrial relations in showing how it opened up. Thus he points out how the custom of workshop meetings was brought to an end and continued as an informal practice outside the structure of authority.

The emergence and recognition of powerful union organisations, it is argued, alienated the men from direct control over the work process. The institution of conciliation procedures may have been welcome to union officials, but it shifted the union towards a position of neutrality. In collective bargaining the unions were implicated in the decisions they helped arrange and enforce – indeed the author goes so far as to call them ‘under-keepers’ in the enforcement of work discipline.

Seen in this light, the old simplicities of labour history are significantly subverted. We have the paradox of strong trade-union organisation serving as an impediment to the realisation of working-class aims. Hence, Price argues, the reversion to ‘direct action’ in labour unrest. One does not have to swallow this story whole to acknowledge that it affords an important insight, which is also present in Patrick Joyce’s explanation of social stability in mid-Victorian Lancashire. The growth of trade unions in the cotton industry, Joyce maintains, helped institutionalise class feeling in a way that was compatible with the prevailing ethos of ‘industrial deference’. Here, too, the 1850s and 1860s saw rapid development of the bureaucratisation and centralisation of union affairs.

Joyce, however, differs from Price in seeing union attitudes of conciliation towards the masters as characteristic also of the men, not to mention the women and children. Sheep in sheep’s clothing here. From about the 1850s, he contends, Lancashire cotton workers settled down within a social system marked by stability, harmony, deference and paternalism, rather than by class conflict. He points to ‘the operatives’ knowledge that industrial capitalism was there to stay and had to be lived with in this knowledge: the light had failed and the radical prophecy was unfulfilled.’ In making this case and he makes it very well, with a firm grasp upon its ramifications – there are two Marxist interpretations which he explicitly contests. One is the notion of cultural hegemony, in the sense deriving from Gramsci, whereby the working class negotiates an acceptance of the ruling-class ideology which serves thereby as a crucial means of social control from above. There are, it must be said, ways of putting this viewpoint which suggest, at least, that a common language can be drawn upon. The second concept to be rejected is that of the labour aristocracy.

This is the more significant because it forms the core of the thesis of John Foster’s justly celebrated book on Oldham, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution. In Oldham, it was held, the move from political radicalism to class stability depended essentially upon the emergence of abstinent labour aristocrats, like the mule spinners, cocooned within their own institutions, away from the rough mass of non-deferential workers. Joyce follows Foster in seeking a technological base for the change – he seizes on the introduction of the self-acting mule in the spinning industry – but otherwise he will have none of this. He maintains that, on the contrary, the spinners were not sharply divided from the rest of the labour force, from whom they were recruited and who comprised their own wives and families. There was thus no acute fragmentation of the Lancashire working class, whatever might be true elsewhere. He shows convincingly that in the cotton towns there was a uniformity alike in work experience, social life and political outlook. If the labour aristocracy theory cannot be of much help here, its status as, at best, one explanation rather than the explanation of mid-Victorian stability seems confirmed.

In 19th-century Lancashire we have the world’s first industrial society; we have the data on which Marx and Engels based their analysis and prophecy; and we have – disconcertingly – the home of the Tory working man. The more closely the problem is examined, moreover, the more difficult it is to salvage the axiomatic equation of capitalist development with class conflict. It was in Blackburn or Stalybridge, in the most advanced sections of the industry, with the strongest trade unions, that deference was made to work best. In Burnley, by contrast, with late industrialisation, small masters and struggling unions, there was a fermenting tradition of political radicalism which came to a head in widespread support for the Marxist Social Democratic Federation.

Joyce defines deference as ‘the social relationship that converts power relations into moral ones’. He seeks to root it firmly in a concrete social context, particularly in the experience of factory work, and to avoid an idyllic rendering of its paternalist aspects. Inequality and subordination were of the essence, but it was the internalisation of authority by the working class which made the relationship work without resort to coercion. One can point to a conscious effort at manipulation from above after about 1850. This new paternalism, it is suggested, was piecemeal and instinctive, making its own accommodation with laissez faire and the ethos of self-help. Religion may often have been its inspiration, and stewardship its language, but its economic functions can hardly be ignored. As Joyce comments, ‘paternalism was a paying proposition, not least, to one degree or another, because it was paid for out of the low wages and long hours of those who were its beneficiaries.’

Employers were working with the grain of current social developments in focusing loyalty on themselves, their families and their factories. Philanthropy and patronage, outings and picnics, parades and festivals, were the means deployed, and they receive subtle and suggestive analysis here. The stability of the factory neighbourhood, reinforced by company-owned housing, made for a tight-knit sense of community. The employment of women and children, together with recruitment by kinship in the factory, made work a shared experience for whole families. Religion, moreover, was often a further tie between bosses and operatives, either through conscious choice, or perhaps prudent calculation, or maybe some complex chemistry of affinity and conformity. At any rate, the affective solidarity of this cultural formation took tangible shape in political affiliation. Joyce demonstrates that each street in a town like Blackburn had its distinctive political allegiance, with votes cast predominantly for the bosses’ candidates. He shows, moreover, that this was not dependent on a crude landlord sanction and that what mattered was the partisanship of the community, not the ownership of the house.

In the end, the structure collapsed, as the Limited firms replaced family dynasties who succumbed to the lure of southern England. In the early 20th century, class came to intrude more directly into politics, and the horizons of the operatives widened beyond the culture of the factory. Even so, as Joyce points out, ‘the politics of the Labour Party represented little more than a continuation of traditional trade-union demands by other means.’ It had become apparent by this time that these could be pursued without overturning ‘the system’ itself. As an economic system, British capitalism has shown many frailties, but as a social and political system it has displayed remarkable resilience. Its history is too serious a business to be left to the business historians; and in different ways these three stimulating books shed much light upon its tortuous and unpredictable career.