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World History Volume 2, from 1400

10.5 Regulation, Reform, and Revolutionary Ideologies

World History Volume 2, from 140010.5 Regulation, Reform, and Revolutionary Ideologies

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Analyze the effectiveness of government regulation of the industrial workplace and of city life
  • Analyze nineteenth- and early twentieth-century labor and social reform movements
  • Describe the development of socialism as a means of addressing industrial workers’ needs

Industrialization and urbanization offered opportunities to many people and improved their lives in many ways. However, they also brought much suffering and discontent. The period of the Second Industrial Revolution gave birth to a number of reform movements and legal efforts to eliminate the problems that urbanization and industrialization caused. Some efforts were successful; many were not. When things did not change—or did not change fast enough—people sometimes turned to violent conflict and threatened revolution.

Regulation and Reform

The challenges of the industrial age must have seemed overwhelming to observers of the time, and the difficulties insurmountable. Nevertheless, governments attempted to solve some of the most important problems. Their motives varied. Many officials were sensitive to the criticisms of social activists and reformers, and some politicians came from their ranks. They genuinely wished to improve the lives of city dwellers and the working class.

Politicians often acted to please the wealthy and middle class, however, who found themselves threatened by dirty air, smelly streets, and infectious diseases that domestic servants might bring into their homes (Figure 10.16). Florence Kelley, an American activist who sought to end child labor, objected to it not only because it deprived young people of the freedom of childhood, but also because she feared the products made by children in tenement apartments might be dirty and infect her own family.

This photograph shows men and women working together in a small room. The room is cluttered, and trash covers the floor. Other buildings are visible through windows in the background.
Figure 10.16 Tenement Factory. Jacob A. Riis, an American social reformer and documentary photographer, often took photographs depicting urban life, such as this image of men and women sewing and ironing in a tenement factory around 1889. (credit: “Necktie workshop in a Division Street tenement” by Unknown/Library of Congress)

Many politicians at both the local and national levels also realized that protecting workers’ health and welfare made the nation stronger. Sick workers were unproductive, and travelers avoided cities suffering epidemics. Numerous laws were passed to combat disease and render cities clean. In 1848, Britain took a step forward by passing the Public Health Act, which created the National Board of Health to regulate such matters as the dumping of sewage. In 1863, Britain’s Alkali Act sought to reduce hydrogen chloride emissions by empowering investigators to suggest changes to factory owners, though without the power to compel obedience. In the 1880s, several American cities, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, passed ordinances to limit smoke emissions. None of these laws were very successful. Businesses ignored them, and cities usually did not enforce them.

Housing also became a concern of governments during the Second Industrial Revolution. Regulations often outlawed dangers such as apartments without windows or ventilation, where infectious diseases rapidly bred. Some municipalities built housing for the poor or tore down slums and relocated workers to other parts of the city. Between 1853 and 1870, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann redesigned Paris; as part of these efforts, workers’ dwellings in the center of the city were razed. Naples, Italy, was rebuilt between 1889 and 1918 to prevent the return of cholera. In the 1880s and 1890s, Japanese officials in Tokyo and Osaka also tried to clear slums and remove the poor from districts inhabited by the middle class. These efforts were often unsuccessful, however, and poor neighborhoods often abutted even the most prestigious ones. In 1906, one Japanese newspaper reported that the emperor’s palace was affected when the poor neighborhood adjacent to it flooded.

In 1883, Germany passed the Health Insurance Law, requiring that employers provide health insurance for their employees, using money drawn from workers’ pay and added to employers’ contributions. In 1889, the German government extended insurance to the elderly and those with disabilities. In 1898, France also provided insurance to those injured at work. In 1911, Britain’s National Insurance Act provided for the health care of about one-third of British workers. In 1912, Russia passed a similar law.

Concern for safety in the industrial workplace, especially of women and children, also inspired much legislation. Early laws applied to only certain industries like textiles and mining. Factory Acts passed in Britain in the 1860s through the 1880s expanded the types of businesses covered by the older laws. In 1860, the Coal Mines Regulation Act made twelve years the minimum age for boys to work in mines, and in 1891, Britain made eleven years the minimum age for factory work.

Many U.S. states passed laws limiting work hours for women in strenuous industries like laundry. Employers challenged these actions, though, and courts, favoring a policy of laissez-faire, commonly overturned protective legislation. Limiting adults’ working hours was thought to deprive them of their freedom of contract as well as burdening employers. Many efforts to limit hours or ban women and children from certain jobs altogether were also often resented by the working class. For those commonly paid by the hour or the piece, more time in the workplace meant more money, and people who were desperate often had to take the only jobs they could find.

The creation of urban parks was the goal of reformers who saw green spaces as a solution to the dirt and chaos of the city. The nineteenth-century middle and upper-middle classes, like good Romantics, believed in the redemptive power of nature. Not only was fresh air good for city dwellers’ lungs, but the very sight of green grass, trees, and flowers was thought to be a source of moral uplift. Politicians were swayed by their claims. New York City built Central Park in 1858. The government of Japan decreed in 1873 that parks be built in urban areas (Figure 10.17). German emperor Wilhelm I ceded his rights to the Tiergarten, a royal hunting park, and made it part of the city of Berlin in 1881. The middle class sometimes feared the working class would behave inappropriately in parks, and places like Central Park often prohibited visitors from picnicking on the grass, picking flowers, and playing games on the lawn.

This photograph shows people visiting a public park. A bandstand sits in the center of the photograph. Buildings are visible in the background.
Figure 10.17 Tsuruma Park. In 1873, the government of Japan decreed that public parks be established in the cities. Tsuruma Park opened in Nagoya in 1909. In its center is a European-style bandstand, shown here. (credit: “Tsurumai Park 1910” by Japan to-day/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Regulations and laws sometimes failed to yield the improvements many social activists thought were necessary. Reform movements arose both to change private behaviors the middle class believed harmful or immoral, such as drinking or having extramarital sex, and to pressure governments to make broader changes. Sometimes they were successful. In the United States, for example, prostitution was made illegal in many cities. In other countries such as France, prostitution was not prohibited, and new laws attempted to regulate it and prevent the spread of venereal disease.

The excessive consumption of alcohol was another problem addressed primarily through reform efforts. The middle class blamed drinking for myriad problems including poverty, street crime, worker absenteeism, workplace accidents, and domestic violence. Efforts to address these generally took one of two approaches—temperance, which forbade hard liquor and encouraged moderate consumption of other alcoholic beverages, and prohibition, which attempted to ban the manufacture and consumption of all alcoholic beverages.

Temperance and prohibition movements made the greatest headway in countries with large Protestant populations, such as the United States, England, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. The United Kingdom Alliance for the Total and Immediate Suppression of the Liquor Traffic by the Will of the People, usually referred to simply as the United Kingdom Alliance, intended to prohibit the trade in alcohol entirely. In the United States, the Anti-Saloon League attempted to close places where alcohol was served, including by physically destroying barrooms.

Women played crucial roles in many of these reform movements; such activism was considered an appropriate occupation for wealthy or middle-class women and directly related to their interests at the time. Husbands who visited prostitutes could bring disease home. Alcoholic men could leave families in financial ruin, and drunken husbands and fathers physically abused wives and children. Cleaning up the city was often equated to cleaning up the home.

The women engaged in reform movements usually realized they could be more effective if they had the right to vote, run for public office, or control property. Access to university education and the professions would also boost their ability to improve society. Many were therefore also active in women’s rights movements.

Reformers often regarded problems like poverty and drunkenness as the result of a lack of self-discipline and of a strong moral compass. The poor could best be helped, they believed, through moral uplift. The Scottish writer Samuel Smiles, for example, believed morality was the key to success. Adopting that attitude, charitable societies and religious organizations often established missions in poor neighborhoods through which they hoped to encourage the working class to change their ways.

Nineteenth-century reformers also insisted the poor not become dependent on charity. British housing reformer Octavia Hill was an advocate of this position. She worked with art critic John Ruskin to provide attractive housing for the poor, but the housing was not free, and while rents were low, those who failed to pay on time risked eviction. Hill also evicted tenants who allowed their homes to become overcrowded or failed to send their children to school.

Others believed the poor were irredeemable and that their personal traits, many of which were thought to be hereditary, made change impossible. Thus, attempts at charity and moral uplift were seen to do no good. Social Darwinism, a pseudoscientific belief that some people were better equipped for survival than others, was advocated by British sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer believed it was useless to help the poor because they were destined to die out. He regarded them as having “lost” the competition of life because they did not possess the traits necessary to rise to the top. He did not believe the poor should be helped to survive and opposed offering them financial assistance.

Dueling Voices

Helping the Poor

How best to help the poor was a great concern of nineteenth-century society. Some people, like Samuel Smiles, believed the poor could help themselves by adopting more disciplined habits. Others, however, like the Reverend Osborne Jay, believed they could not change. Jay came to hold this position after working with the poor in Bethnal Green, a working-class neighborhood in London’s East End. In the first of the two excerpts that follow, Samuel Smiles discusses the importance of self-improvement. In the second excerpt, the Reverend Jay, the minister of Holy Trinity Church in Shoreditch, a poor district in East London, answers questions posed by a reporter about the cause of “the degradation” of the poor and the best response to it.

National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man's own perverted life; and though we may endeavour to cut them down and extirpate them by means of Law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of personal life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action.

—Samuel Smiles, Self-Help

There is no temptation like that of poverty. It is the greatest that can fall in the way of any man or woman. It fills our prisons and turns honesty into crime and virtue into dishonor. But it must also be remembered that at the very outset of our social problem we are met by the incontrovertible fact that the major portion of the submerged and semi-criminal class are in their present position through physical, moral, and mental peculiarities. . . . Cunning, not wisdom; sharpness, not intelligence, are stamped even on their faces. And yet all the time the well-to-do virtuous classes, walled off from temptation, surrounded by all that conduces to right living, wrap themselves in the wretched mantle of their detestable hypocrisy and pretend to believe that all in this life have equal chances, and must be uniformly fairly judged. But science in unmistakable accents teaches the reverse. . . . There is, it seems to me, only one solution to this problem. Education has failed, religious work cannot he expected to do what is needed, the Poor Law and prison systems are alike ineffective, and universal charity cannot rightly be considered a real factor in the case. The only method, I think, is to stop the supply of persons born to be lazy, immoral, and deficient in intellect. This can only be done by sending the present stock of them to what I will call a penal settlement. . . . The fact is, all men are not equal, nor can they be treated as such. This, through no fault of their own, I grant; but we can prevent them bringing into the world children stamped with the character of their parents.

—Osborne Jay, “To Check the Survival of the Unfit

  • What would Smiles have thought about efforts to solve social problems by, for instance, outlawing the sale of alcohol or banning prostitution?
  • Would Jay have agreed with the approach Smiles recommended? Why or why not? Would Jay have agreed with the ideas of Herbert Spencer?
  • In what ways are the attitudes of Smiles and Jay similar to or different from attitudes toward the poor today?

A particular type of reform movement resulted in the creation of trade and labor unions to represent workers in dealings with management. In trade unions, workers organized within a particular craft or industry. In labor unions, skilled and unskilled workers of all kinds joined together to promote and defend their interests. In Britain, trade unions were at the forefront of change. In 1866, the Trades Union Congress, a federation of English and Welsh trade unions, was formed primarily to represent the interests of skilled workers. In 1871, the British government legalized their existence, and in 1875, Parliament made it legal for workers to strike as well. The result was that trade union membership increased from about 100,000 to about one million by the middle of the 1870s. Coal miners, iron and steel workers, and textile factory employees were the first to unionize. In the 1880s and 1890s, unions began to make concerted efforts to organize unskilled laborers. Two million people had joined British trade unions by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Workers’ demands focused largely on improving wages, hours, and working conditions. Establishing an eight-hour day was the goal of many unions. When these goals were not met, they struck. In 1881, women in British match factories went on strike. They wanted relief from fourteen-hour days and the hazards of working with white phosphorous. Between 1910 and 1914, a period known as the Great Unrest, miners, dockworkers, and railway workers across Britain went on strike repeatedly, and workers in other industries walked off the job to place added pressure on the strikers’ employers to give in to their demands.

In the United States, both trade unions and labor unions existed. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), originally called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, was established by Samuel Gompers in 1886. Like the British Trades Union Congress, it included many different unions, though originally, only skilled White male workers could join. The AFL supported strikes, but Gompers preferred to avoid them. Even if he had favored strikes, it would have been difficult for members to use them. Employers routinely called in the police, private detectives, or the military to disperse striking employees, and union leaders could be jailed.

When Pullman employees went on strike in 1894, more than 100,000 American railroad workers refused to handle any train with cars manufactured by Pullman’s company. Rail travel ground to a halt, and the transportation of the U.S. mail along with it. Violence broke out as striking workers and those who supported them burned buildings and attacked African American men who had been hired by railroad owners to replace the strikers. The U.S. Army was brought in to end the strike by attacking the workers. Many strikes ended the way the Pullman strike had.

Revolutionary Ideologies

In Britain and the United States, the organization of unions developed independent of politics. In places such as Germany, France, and Russia, however, political ideology spurred the development of unions. The predominant political ideology that influenced their growth was socialism. Today, socialism is a political theory that advocates the ownership of the means of production by the government. Socialism in the nineteenth century was somewhat different and took many forms. The only unifying features were a dislike of laissez-faire capitalism, a desire to improve the lives of the poor, and a belief that the government should be responsible for solving problems caused by capitalism and industrialization.

In the early nineteenth century, utopian socialism, which focused on perfecting society, dominated. French visionaries like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier wrote of ideal societies based on sharing and cooperation. They sought to completely alter society and often advocated innovations like communal housing, free love, and women’s rights—all considered radical at the time. Some reformers tried to establish utopian communities based on these ideals. For example, Robert Owen, a British textile manufacturer, tried to put some of these ideas into practice in the British village of New Lanark, where the employees of his father-in-law’s textile mill lived, and in the town of New Harmony, Indiana. Residents worked an eight-hour day, lived in decent housing, and raised their children communally.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, utopian socialism had been largely replaced by scientific socialism. The term “scientific socialism” was first used by French economist and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to refer to the ordering of society according to the dictates of reason and was popularized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels published their ideas in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, a year in which political revolutions swept Europe. As a result of these revolutions, voting rights for men were established or expanded in France and Prussia. By the end of the nineteenth century, men in France and Germany (which united with Prussia in 1871 to form the most powerful German-speaking state) had used the vote to change their countries. Many espoused the socialist ideology described by Marx and Engels.

Marx and Engels believed that historical change took place as a result of struggles between opposed social classes. In the age of industrialization, the struggle would take place between the bourgeoisie, who owned the means of industrial production such as the factories, mines, and railroads by which wealth was generated, and the proletariat, the underpaid workers whose labor they exploited. Marx and Engels believed capitalism would be destroyed when the have-nots rose up in revolution and overthrew their bourgeois oppressors. All people would then be equal, and all property would be held in common. Class divisions and class conflict would become a thing of the past. This philosophy became known as Marxism and formed the basic ideology of those who called themselves socialists in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Marx never attempted to put his philosophy into practice. However, during the period of the Second Industrial Revolution, many workers turned to his ideas as a basis on which to organize unions and establish political parties. In 1864, socialists founded the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) in London. Many different types of socialists belonged to the IWA, including Marx, and conflict soon arose over a variety of issues. Some socialists advocated the use of violence to effect change, while others advocated more peaceful, democratic means. Those who favored peaceful means are often called social democrats.

One of the largest and most influential of the political parties that espoused social democracy was the German Social Democratic Party. Formed in 1875, it advocated laws to improve the conditions of the working class, and many of its members were elected to the German parliament. One of their chief goals was to reduce the number of hours people worked, and they were active in establishing many trade unions and passing laws to protect workers. Similar parties formed in other countries. The Federation of the Socialist Workers of France (FSWF) was established in 1879. The Social Democratic Party of Austria was founded in 1889.

These parties competed for workers’ support with those that advocated more revolutionary action. The French Workers’ Party was established in 1880 to provide an alternative to the more gradual path to socialism favored by the FSWF. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, established in 1898, united many smaller socialist organizations. The Socialist Revolutionary Party, which engaged in the assassination of government officials, formed in Russia in 1902. It ignored Marx’s emphasis on industrial workers and sought to organize peasants as well. Most Russian socialist groups that took a more orthodox Marxist approach became members of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party when it formed in 1898. The Bolshevik faction of this party, which advocated revolution, gained control of the Russian government in 1917.

Another source of conflict among socialists was the role to be played by government in the construction of the ideal socialist state. Although Marx wrote of government eventually disappearing once class divisions had been erased and equality achieved, he also indicated that, until then, a government of the workers would be needed to manage society. Some socialists feared the existence of this new government would simply lead to the creation of a new group of authorities to oppress the people. They believed government should be abolished, an ideology known as anarchism. One of the foremost anarchists of the nineteenth century was Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian revolutionary. Bakunin joined the IWA in 1868. However, he clashed with Marx over the role government should play in bringing about socialism. In 1872, at the Fifth Congress of the IWA, his disagreement with Marx led to his expulsion from the group.

Business owners and members of the middle and upper classes in general disapproved of and feared socialist and anarchist movements. They believed business owners performed a valuable service by providing goods and services at reasonable prices, making the economy prosper, and keeping their countries strong and competitive. They were thus entitled to earn what they believed was a fair profit for assuming the financial risks of engaging in business. To do that while keeping prices low, they could not pay wages as high as their employees would have liked.

Opponents of socialism and anarchism argued further that workers were free to accept the terms of employment or leave if not satisfied. If business owners were not allowed to earn a profit, they would not take the financial risks on which the economy depended. If people were not allowed to accumulate private property, they would lack the incentive to work. Violence and the destruction of property benefited no one. Workers would be better served by striving to improve their position and that of their children through education and the habits of thrift and self-discipline than by listening to the promises of demagogues who preached disloyalty to employers and spun utopian fantasies of workers’ paradises.

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