Friday, 11 July 2008

A ‘class’ perspective

An alternative to the vertical relationships of a paternalistic hierarchical society lay in the horizontal solidarities of ‘class’.[1] Richard Dennis, in his study of nineteenth century industrial cities, sums up the problem of class in the following way: ‘Evidently the road to class analysis crosses a minefield with a sniper behind every bush.... it may not be possible to please all the people all of the time...’ What did contemporaries understand by the idea of ‘class’? How many classes were there? What do historians understand by ‘class consciousness’ and how, if at all, does it differ from ‘class perception’? When did a working-class come into existence? Despite all the literature on the subject, the years since the publication of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working-class in 1963, have done little to clarify the situation. Answers to the central questions of ‘when?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ have been surprisingly inconclusive. [2]

‘Two nations’?

Many contemporaries interpreted early Victorian society in terms of two classes. Disraeli popularised the idea of ‘two nations’, the rich and the poor. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of Manchester that she had ‘never lived in a place before where there were two sets of people always running each other down.’ Tory Radicals were not alone in using the two-class model. Engels referred to the working-class in the singular and offered a model dominated by two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in which other classes existed but were becoming increasingly less important. Recent Marxist historians, E.P. Thompson and John Foster, have also used this model. For Thompson class experience was largely the result of the productive relations into which people entered. The essence of class lay not in income or work but in class-consciousness, the product of contemporary perceptions of capital and labour, exploiter and exploited.

John Foster, in his study of three industrial towns, found that 12,000 workers sold their labour to 70 capitalist families. There was a middle-class of tradesmen, shopkeepers and small masters but despite deep divisions in their social and political behaviour they aligned with the working-class on most political issues.[3] The working-class, Foster argues, went through three stages of developing consciousness. It was, first, ‘labour conscious’: consumer prices ceased to be a major concern for workers and the focus shifted to the levels of their own wages. Then ‘class conscious’ where attempts to resolve industrial and economic problems became politicised. This can be seen in the 1830s and 1840s in working-class support for the Chartist movement. Political reform was seen as a necessary prerequisite for the resolution of economic problems: only a Parliament elected on the Charter would be prepared to legislate in favour of working-class concerns. Finally ‘liberalised consciousness’ by which the bourgeoisie, aided by growing economic prosperity after 1850, was able to attach important sections of the working population to its consensus ideology grounded in individualism and ‘respectability’.

It is possible to criticise the two-class model in a variety of ways. It assumes a model for change based on antagonism between two competing classes. It recognises, but neglects other social groupings or subsumes them within the two-class perspective. It assumes a significant degree of ideological homogeneity that may have validity in the vibrant social magma of the industrial factory towns but that has little validity in rural areas and the older urban areas. Diversity of experience within the working population led to diversity of responses.

Three classes: the Perkin thesis?

The majority of contemporary and modern analysts have adhered to the three-class model. Harold Perkin argues that, as the result of industrialisation, urbanisation and the midwifery of religion, a class society emerged between 1789 and 1833 or, more precisely between 1815 and 1820. Class was characterised not by class consciousness but ‘by class feeling, that is, by the existence of vertical antagonism between a small number of horizontal groups, each based on a common source of income.’ [4] The paternal view of society was not, however, destroyed by these class antagonisms and the potential conflict of emergent class society was contained by modification of existing institutions. For Perkin, compromise was a central reason for the persistence of older social values and structures and only an ‘immature’ class society was characterised by violence. Each class developed its own ‘ideal’ and, by 1850, he believed, three can be clearly seen: the entrepreneurial ideal of the middle-classes, a working-class ideal and an aristocratic ideal based respectively on profits, wages and rent. The ‘struggle between ideals’ was ‘not so much that the ruling class imposes its ideal upon the rest, but that the class that manages to impose its ideal upon the rest becomes the ruling class.’ [5] In Perkin’s model, the mature class society that emerged by the 1850s was, despite the differences that existed between classes, not marked by overt conflict but by tacit agreement and coexistence under the successful entrepreneurial ideal.

Between 1880 and 1914 class society, according to Perkin, reached its zenith. [6] The rich, both large landowners and capitalists, drew together in a consolidation of that new plutocracy that had already begun to emerge in the 1850s. The middle-classes, ever more graduated in income and status, came to express those finer distinctions in prosperity and social position physically, both in outward appearance, in dress, furnishings and habitations, and even in physique, and in their geographical segregation from one another and the rest of society in carefully differentiated suburbs. So too did the working-classes, in part involuntarily because they could only afford what their social betters left for them, but also, within that constraint, because those working-class families who could chose to differentiate themselves equally, by Sunday if not everyday dress, and by better and better furnished houses in marginally superior areas. Only the very poor, the ‘residuum’ as Charles Booth called them, had no choice at all and were consigned to the slums. They were the most segregated class of all because all the rest shunned them and their homes. Segregation, by income, status, appearance, physical health, speech, education and opportunity in life, as well as by work and residential area, was the symbolic mark of class society at its highest point of development.

Class society in Britain in 1880 already contained the seeds of its own decay. The three classes each had their own powerful ideals of what society should be and how it should be organised to recognise and reward their own unique contribution to the welfare of the community. Each class believed that its contribution was the most vital one and should be rewarded accordingly. The landowners, capitalists and middle-classes saw themselves as providing the resources and organising ability that drove the economic system to provide the goods necessary for the survival and civilised life for the whole community. Those in the working-classes who thought about it saw themselves as providing the labour, the sole source of value, without which the resources and management would be in vain. The increasing class conflict of the late Victorian and Edwardian period was the struggle for income, status and power arising from this clash of incompatible ideals. It was into this tripartite struggle that ‘the professional class’ came contributing both to the struggle and to the means of resolving it.

As long as professional men were few in numbers and depended mainly on the rich and powerful for their incomes, they tended to temper their social ideals to the values of their wealthy clients. With the development of industrial and urban society, however, the professions proliferated, their clients multiplied and, in certain cases, for example in preventive medicine, sanitary engineering and central and local government generally, the client became in effect the whole community. They became much freer to act as critics of society and purveyors of the terminology in which people came to think about the new class society. In a range of ways they attacked the laissez faire individualism of the entrepreneurial ideal. Through social legislation, the development of trade union immunities, the changing attitudes to poverty and the emergence of the welfare state under the Liberals after 1906, they challenged the ‘amateur’ spirit of society and enhanced the position of the professional expert.

Between the constitutional class between the Lords and the Commons between 1909 and 1911 and the General Strike of 1926, class society in Britain underwent a profound crisis. The crisis was essentially to decide whether Britain was to continue along a path of increasing class conflict culminating in social breakdown or revolution or whether there was to be, not merely an accommodation between the classes of the kind that gave mid-Victorian Britain its viable class society. The crisis was largely one between the classes of capital and labour, in which the government became reluctantly involved, by no means wholly on the side of capital. It was complicated by the co-existence of three other crises, any one of which was a potentially violent challenge to the established order. Connected or not, the co-existence of threats of violence from the Suffragettes, from the Irish Nationalists in Ireland were partitioned and from the Ulstermen backed by the Tory leadership and the majority of the Lords if it were not, and from the more aggressive trade unionists, gave colour to the fear of social revolution before 1914 just as the co-existence of revolutions in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey as well as Ireland gave colour to the same fear after 1918. The crisis was also complicated by the intervention of war in 1914. In the short term the war suspended all four crises but it ruthlessly laid bare the shortcomings and deficiencies of society, the economy and the political system. It confirmed the appalling effects of poverty on the mass armies recruited to fight it, the weakness of British industry and management in producing the munitions of modern battle and the incompetence of the minimalist state to conduct modern warfare on the grand scale.

This is a very brief synopsis of an elegant and far more complex argument but does give a favour of Perkin’s position after 1880. Perkin has not been without his critics but his argument, in both books, is ultimately more convincing than the doctrinaire approaches associated with Left and Right.

A class society?

If it is legitimate to speak of a class only when a group is united in every conceivable way then the concept is rendered meaningless. Classes are not and never were monolithic blocks of identical individuals. The critical question is whether working people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries consciously acted as members of a class as well as in other roles. Historians have interpreted class in different ways. At one extreme are those who argue that class and class action were abnormal and that individual interest was more powerful than class loyalty. On the other there are historians who see social developments in terms of a scenario in which class conflict played an integral and inevitable role.

So what conclusions can be reached from this tendentious debate? By 1850 it is possible to identify a middle-class(es) with clearly defined ‘consciousness’ based on notions of respectability and self help and with a strong organisational base. That consciousness had percolated down and reinforced traditional, independent artisan values. There were important distinctions within the working population, for example rural/urban, agricultural/industrial, skilled/unskilled, technologically obsolete/innovative occupations, that helped to determine attitudes and perceptions. It is possible to identify different levels of class-consciousness within the working population that found itself in a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the more homogeneous middle-class ideology. Changes in social attitudes and values were the result of dialogue and conflict between the older notion of paternalism and the newer conceptions of class.

The period between 1832 and 1914 can be viewed in terms of three broad phases of ‘class development’. The first, what Foster calls it the period of ‘class consciousness’ and Perkin ‘an immature class system’, was over by the early 1850s. It was characterised by the confrontational politics of Chartism, a consequence in part of the depressed state of the economy from the mid 1830s through to the late 1840s, and the emergence of middle-class pressure group politics as a means of challenging the aristocratic hold over government and policy-making. The second phase, corresponding to Perkin’s ‘mature class system’ and Foster’s ‘liberalised consciousness’ covers the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. Confrontational politics became less important though pressure groups, whether in the form of middle-class campaigns or working-class ‘new model unionism’, became increasingly effective. Overall the economy was prosperous, at least until the 1870s, and there was increasing standards of living among all sections of society. ‘Distress’ ceased to be a motive force for working-class action. Individualism and respectability reigned supreme. The third phase began in the 1880s and led to the social ‘crisis’ of the Edwardian era. There were cogent challenges to the existing system from socialism and Marxism and a growing awareness of the failure of the industrial economy to compete effectively against newly industrialised states like Germany and the United States, or to provide the necessary resources to resolve the twin problems of poverty and unemployment. Mass or ‘new’ unionism led to the re-emergence of confrontational politics and to recognition by government, at local and national levels, that the issues raised by the embryonic Labour party could not be addressed successful through existing mechanisms. The Liberal reforms after 1906 can be seen as a belated attempt both to provide support for the existing system and to head off the threat from Labour. In both respects they failed. The 1830s began with the existing social and political system under concerted attack from those who were, by the partial nature of the voting system, excluded from what they saw as their right to participate in the system and benefit from that participation. By 1914 things had gone full circle.


[1] The literature on ‘class’ is immense but theoretical perspectives can be found in P. Calvert The Concept of Class, Hutchinson, 1983, A. Giddens The Class Structure of Advanced Societies, Hutchinson, 1973 and R.S. Neale (ed.), History and Class: essential readings in theory and interpretation, Basil Blackwell, 1984.

[2] R.S. Neale Class in British History 1680-1850, Basil Blackwell, 1983 and Class and Ideology in the Nineteenth Century, Routledge, 1972, the useful bibliographical essay by R.J. Morris Class and Class Consciousness in the Industrial Revolution, Macmillan, 1980 and his ‘Class  and Common Interest’, History Today, 1983 are good starting points for the period before 1850.  The review essay by N. McCord ‘Adding a Touch of Class’, History, October 1985 provide ‘state of the art’ analysis. A. Briggs ‘The language of "class" in early nineteenth century England’ printed in M.W. Flinn and T.C. Smout (eds.), Essays in Social History, OUP, 1974 and G. Steadman Jones Languages of Class, CUP, 1983 are useful starting points. Patrick Joyce Visions of the People: Industrial England and the question of class 1840-1914, CUP, 1991 takes the question of language further and questions the veracity of a view of society grounded simply in ‘class’. E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working-class, Gollancz, 1963, Penguin, 1968 should be read, ideally in full. Other essential studies include H. Perkin op.cit., J. Foster Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: early industrial capitalism in three English towns, Weidenfeld, 1974, I. Prothero Artisans  and  Politics in Early  Nineteenth-Century London, Dawson, 1979, D. Smith Conflict and Compromise: Class Formation in English Society 1830-1914, 1982 and C. Calhoun The Question of Class Struggle, Basil Blackwell, 1982. Alastair J. Reid Social Classes and Social Relations in Britain 1850-1914, Macmillan, 1992 is the best and briefest starting-point for this period. J. Benson The Working-class in Britain 1850-1939, Longman, 1989 is the most recent general survey. R. McKibbin The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain 1880-1950, OUP, 1990 is an excellent collection of articles. H. Perkin The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, Routledge, 1989 extends his earlier work in a masterful study. Stanish Meacham A Life Apart: The English Working-class 1890-1914, 1977 and Joanna Bourne Working-class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960, Routledge, 1994 are excellent. C. Smout (ed), Victorian Values, British Academy, 1993 is a mine of information and ideas.

[3] Foster’s view of the petit bourgeoisie and his attempts to explain it away have been criticized by historians like R.S. Neale who interpose a ‘middling’ class between the middle and working-classes in his ‘five-class model’.

[4] H. Perkin The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, page 37.

[5] Ibid., pp. 218-270 for discussion on the ‘struggle between ideals’.

[6] H. Perkin The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, Routledge, 1989.

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