William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up – Chapter 9 – The Industrial Revolution in England

In our last two chapters we had to deal with a revolution which was as rich in dramatic interest, and as obviously so, as any period in the history of the world. We have now to note a series of events the well-spring of which was Great Britain. This series is not usually connected by modern historians so as to be dignified by the name of a Revolution; but it is one nevertheless, and is at least as important in its bearing on the life of the modern world as that more startling and, on the surface, more terrible one in France.

In the last chapter wherein the condition of England was dealt with, we left it a prosperous country, in the ordinary sense of the word, under the rule of an orderly constitutionalism. There was no need here for the violent destruction of aristocratic privilege; it was of itself melting into money-privilege, and all was getting ready for the completest and securest system of the plunder of labour which the world had yet seen.

England was free in the bourgeois sense; that is, there were but a few checks, the survivals of earlier periods, to interfere with the exaction of the tribute which labour has to pay to property to be allowed to live. In a word, on the one hand exploitation was veiled; and on the other, the owners of property had no longer any duties to perform in return for the above-said tribute. Nevertheless, all this had to go on on a small scale for a while. Population had not increased largely since the beginning of the seventeenth century; agriculture was flourishing; one-thirtieth of the grain raised was exported from England; the working-classes were not hard pressed, and could not yet be bought and sold in masses. There were no large manufacturing towns, and no need for them; the presence of the material to be worked up, rather than the means for working it mechanically – fuel, to wit – gave a manufacturing character to this or that country-side. It was, for example, the sheep-pastures of the Yorkshire hill-sides, and not the existence of coal beneath them, which made the neighbourhood of the northern Bradford a weaving country. Its namesake on the Wiltshire Avon was in those days at least as important a centre of the clothing industry. The broadcloth of the Gloucestershire valleys, Devonshire and Hampshire kersies, Whitney blankets and Chipping Norton tweeds, meant sweet grass and long wool, with a little water-power to turn the fulling-mills, and not coal, to which material to be worked up was to be brought from the four quarters of the globe. The apparent condition of labour in those days seems almost idyllic, compared with what it now is: but it must be remembered that then as now the worker was in the hands of the monopolist of land and raw material; nor was it likely that the latter should have held his special privilege for two hundred years without applying some system by which it could be made the most of. Between the period of the decay of the craft-gilds and this latter half of the eighteenth century there had grown up a system of labour which could not have been applied to the mediæval workmen; for they worked for themselves and not for a master or exploiter, and thus were masters of their material and their tools and their time. This system is that of the Division of Labour; under it the unit of labour is not an individual man, but a group, every member of which is helpless by himself, but trained by constant practice to the repetition of a small part of the work, acquires great precision and speed in its performance. In short, each man is not so much a machine as a part of a machine. As, for example, it takes five men to make a glass-bottle: it is the group of these five men that makes the bottle, not any one of them. It is clear that under this system the individual workman is entirely at the mercy of his master the capitalist in his capacity of superintender of labour: in order not to be crushed by him, he must combine to oppose his own interests to those of his employer. It was by this system, then, that the demands of the growing world-market were supplied down to the end of the eighteenth century. The great political economist, Adam Smith, whose book was first published in 1771, marks the beginning of the transition between this system and that of the great machine industries; but his work implies throughout the Division of Labour system.

But that system was now to melt into the new one: the workman, from being a machine, was to become the auxiliary of a machine. The invention of the spinning-jenny by Hargreaves in 1760 is the first symptom of the beginning of this Industrial Revolution. From thence to the invention of steam as a motive-force, and thence again to our own days, the stream of invention has been continuous. The discovery that iron could be made with pit-coal removed the seat of the iron manufacture from the wooded countries of the south and west, where the old iron-works, called 'bloomeries', used to be carried on, to the northern and midland coal districts, and all manufacture of any importance flowed to the seat of fuel; so that South Lancashire, for instance, was changed from a country of moorland and pasture, with a few market towns and the ancient manufacturing city of Manchester, into a district where the 'villages', still so called, but with populations of fifteen or twenty thousand souls, are pretty much contiguous, and the country has all but disappeared. Of course a great part of this is the work of the years that have followed on the invention of railways; but even in the earlier period of this industrial revolution the change was tremendous and sudden and the sufferings of the working classes very great, as no attempt was made to alleviate the distress that was sure to be caused by the change from the use of human hands to machinery. Nor indeed could it have been made in a country governed by bourgeois constitutionalism until measures were actually forced on the government. In 1811 the prevailing distress was betokened by the first outbreak of the Luddites. These were organized bands of men who went about breaking up the machinery which was the immediate cause of their want of employment and consequent starvation. The locality where these riots were most frequent was the northern midland counties, where the newly-invented stocking-frames were specially obnoxious to them. The Luddites became the type of bodies of rioters who by a half-blind instinct throughout this period threw themselves against the advancing battalions of industrial revolution. In 1816, the year which followed the peace with France, the cessation of all the war industries threw more people still out of employment, and in addition the harvest was a specially bad one. As a consequence, this hunger insurrection was especially violent in that year. The riots were put down with corresponding violence, and the rioters punished with the utmost harshness. But as times mended somewhat this insurrection, which was, as we have said, a mere matter of hunger, and was founded on no principle, died out, although for a time riots having for their object destruction of property, especially of the plant and stock of manufacturers, went on through the whole of the first half of the century. The 'Plug Riots'(1), in the middle of the Chartist agitation, may be taken for an example of these.

It was a necessary consequence of the introduction of elaborate machinery that women and children should be largely employed in factories to diminish the number of adult males. This resource for the development of the profits of the new system was used by the manufacturers with the utmost recklessness, till at last it became clear to the bourgeois government that the scandal created by its abuse would put an end to its use altogether, unless something were done to palliate its immediate evils; and accordingly a series of Factory Acts were passed, in the teeth of the most strenuous and unscrupulous resistance on the part of the capitalists, who grudged the immediate loss which resulted in the hampering of the 'roaring trade' they were driving, even though it were for the ultimate benefit of their class. The first of these Acts which was really intended to work was passed in 1830, and they were consolidated finally in 1867. It should be understood that these Acts were not intended to benefit the great mass of adult workers, but were rather concessions to the outcry of the philanthropists at the condition of the women and especially the children so employed.

Meanwhile, in spite of all the suffering caused by the Industrial Revolution, it was impossible for the capitalists to engross the whole of the profits gained by it, or at least to go on piling them up in an ever-increasing ratio. The class struggle took another form, besides that of mere hunger riots and forcible repression, that of the Trade Unions. Although the primary intention of these was the foundation of benefit societies, as with the first guilds of the early Middle Ages, like them also they had soon to take in hand matters dealing with the regulation of labour. The first struggles of the trades' unions with capital took place while they were still illegal; but the repeal of the law against the combination of workmen in 1824 set them free in that respect, and they soon began to be a power in the country. Aided by the rising tide of commercial prosperity, which made the capitalists more willing to yield up some part of their enormous profits rather than carry on the struggle à l'outrance, they prevailed in many trade contests, and succeeding (sic) in raising the standard of livelihood for skilled workmen, though of course by no means in proportion to the huge increase in the sum of the national income. Further than this it was and is impossible for them to go so long as they recognise the capitalists as a necessary part of the organization of labour. It was not at first understood by the capitalist class that they did so recognize them, and consequently in the period of their early successes the trades' unions were considered mere revolutionists, and were treated to that kind of virulent and cowardly abuse and insult, which the shopkeeper in terror for his shop always has at his tongue[']s end.

The abolition of the corn-laws in 1847 and the consequent cheapening of necessary food for the workers, the discovery of gold in California and Australia, the prodigious increase in the luxury and expenditure of the upper and middle-classes, all the action and reaction of the commercial impulse created by the great machine industries, gave an appearance of general prosperity to the country, in which, as we have said, the skilled workmen did partake to a certain extent; and the views of middle-class optimists as to the continuance of bourgeois progress, and the gradual absorption of all the worthy part of the working-classes into its ranks seemed confirmed till within the last few years; all the more as the practical triumph of the Liberal party had ceased to make 'politics' a burning question. Nevertheless, as a sign that the underground lava had not ceased flowing, it was noticed that ever since the ripening of the great industries, in periods of about ten years came recurring depressions of trade; these were accounted for in various ingenious ways, but otherwise did not trouble the capitalist mind, which got to consider this also, because of its regular recurrence, as a sign of the stability of the present system, and merely looked upon it as a thing to be taken into the general average and insured against in the usual manner. But within the last few years this latest eternal bourgeois providence has failed us. The nations whom we assumed would never do anything but provide us with raw materials, have become our rivals in manufacture and our competitors in the world-market, while owing to the fact that America has enormous stretches of easily tilled virgin soil, which does not need manure, and that the climate of India makes it easy to support life there, those two countries supply us with such large amounts of grain, and at so cheap a rate, that raising it in England has become unprofitable; so that the farmers are poor, and the landlords cannot get the same rents for agricultural land as formerly. The exports have fallen off; towns where six years ago trade was flourishing and wages high, are now encumbered with a population which they cannot find employment for; and though from time to time there are rumours of improvement in trade, nothing comes of them, and people are obliged to await some stroke of magic which shall bring us back our old prosperity 'of leaps and bounds'.

The fact is that the commerce of the great industries has entered insensibly into its second stage, and mere cut-throat competition between the different nations has taken the place of the benevolent commercial despotism of the only nation which was thoroughly prepared to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution – Great Britain, to wit.

This second stage is doubtless preparing the final one which will end with the death of the whole bourgeois commercial system. Meanwhile, what is the real social product of the Industrial Revolution? We answer the final triumph of the middle-classes, materially, intellectually, and morally. As the result of the great political revolution in France was the abolition of aristocratic privilege, and the domination in the world of politics of the bourgeoisie, which hitherto had had little to do with it, so the English Industrial Revolution may be said to have created a new commercial middle-class hitherto unknown to the world. This class on the one hand consolidated all the groups of the middle-class of the preceding epoch, such as country squires large and small, big farmers, merchants, manufacturers, shopkeepers, and professional men; and made them so conscious of their solidarity, that the ordinary refined and thinking man of to-day cannot really see any other class at all, but only outside his own class certain heterogeneous groups to be used as instruments for the further advancement of that class. On the other hand, it has attained such complete domination that the upper-classes are merely adjuncts to it and servants of it. In fact, these also are now of the bourgeois class, as they are all engaged in commerce in one way or other: eg., the higher nobility are all either house-agents or coal-factors, and would be of no importance without their 'businesses'. Moreover, striving ever to extend itself downwards as well as upwards, the middle-class has absorbed so much in that direction, especially within the last thirty years, that it has now nothing left below it except the mere propertyless proletariat. These last are wholly dependent upon it, utterly powerless before it until the break up of the system which has created it, the signs of whose beginning we have just noted, shall force them into a revolt against it. In the course of that revolt this great middle-class will in its turn be absorbed into the proletariat, which will form a new Society in which classes will have ceased to exist. This is the next Revolution, as inevitable, as inexorable, as the rising of to-morrow's sun.

1 This meant destruction of boilers in factories, the rioters pulling out the plugs to ensure their bursting.back

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 31, 14 August 1886, pp. 156-158