At school we are usually presented with a sanitised picture of how capitalism arose in Britain. The story goes something like this: The Industrial Revolution was primarily the result of entrepreneurial ingenuity and technological innovation. The peasants, who were looking for work, migrated into the burgeoning cities where they were provided with plentiful employment in the factories and mills, making Britain richer.
Regrettably, all this innovation wasn’t without its downside, and there was a dip in living standards for workers, and of working conditions in overcrowded factories. However, we are then told that this was soon remedied by legislation to protect workers passed by benevolent governments, as well as by the philanthropic actions of some of the more conscientious employers.
This version of events is, of course, a fairytale. As Marx explained, capital came into this world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” In the centuries preceding the industrial revolution, rural peasants had been systematically driven off the land, starting with the enclosures pushed through by Henry VIII during the English Reformation. Thousands of peasants were dispossessed and forced to roam the land looking for work.
This robbery was made official in the 17th and 18th centuries by a new series of land enclosures. Elizabethan laws punished so-called ‘unlicensed vagabonds’ – evicted peasants who roamed the countryside without employment or fixed abode – with brandings, ear clippings and even executions. It was this brutal upheaval that created an army of propertyless labourers, the perfect fuel for the rising manufacturing towns.
The Industrial Revolution completely transformed society. Hargreaves’ spinning-jenny, Arkwright’s water frame, Watt’s steam-engine and many more all contributed to the revolution. But these machines required labour to put them to use.
Deprived of their land and with no other means to gain their subsistence, the increasingly numerous class of propertyless proletarians had no other choice than to sell their own labour power. Having lost any kind of independence, the new working class could only survive by throwing itself on the ‘mercy’ of the capitalist class and selling themselves piecemeal to the highest bidder.
The life of the working class in Victorian Britain was miserable. The factory was a dictatorship where workers and their families were forced to labour punishingly long hours for very little pay, with fines levelled for every tiny infraction. Even for children, the working day was only capped at 12 hours by the Factory Act in 1833. Before that, children could be working up to 16 hours a day.
Even after this Act the bosses would do everything they could to extend the working day, including rotating child labourers around different factories and workshops, or falsely splitting shifts in what was known as the ‘relay system’. The Factory Act was not a law to be obeyed, but a challenge to overcome.
Working and living conditions were so bad that a popular prayer at the time went : “From the loom, the factory, and the mine, Good Lord deliver us.” Children could be sold to employers to clear a parent’s debts, and worked in mills, factories and even coal mines.
Conditions at work were matched by the festering conditions workers suffered outside the factory. Overcrowded housing allowed diseases to spread. Life expectancy was extremely low. In 1840, the average lifespan for a labourer in Bolton was eighteen years, in Manchester seventeen and in Liverpool fifteen.
The capitalists, far from seeking to philanthropically relieve the workers, were utterly indifferent. Engels related an encounter with one such capitalist:
“I once went into Manchester with such a bourgeois, and spoke to him of the bad, unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working-people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: “And yet there is a great deal of money made here, good morning, sir.” It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his workingmen starve or not, if only he makes money.”
Furthermore, the workers had no political representation. Those who owned no property didn’t have the right to vote. The ruling class feared that, rather than limiting themselves to polite debates in parliament, the workers would use any political power they gained to seize the property of the rich and put a stop to the exploitation of capitalism altogether. As the history of the Chartist movement proves, in many ways these gentlemen were correct.
Far from being gently eased into history, the working class came into existence having to fight for its own survival. The birth of the working class was also the beginning of a new chapter in the class struggle. As an anonymous weaver commented in the Poor Man’s Guardian:
“There is no common interest between working men and profit-makers. This fact, like the sun, forever stares us in the face.”