Voices from the Mills

Now is very different from then. Over the last two hundred or so years, the most dramatic shift in human history since the adoption of agriculture has swept the world, as chemical energy released from coal and oil supplanted human and animal muscle as the primary source of productive power. For the first time since the onset of farming, large numbers of human beings- the vast majority in many countries- have never worked on a farm and never will. In these same countries, most babies born will live to old age and the common scourges of childhood- measles, mumps, typhoid, pox, polio- have been banished.

The causes of this revolution have been endlessly analyzed, and in the process an orthodoxy has been established- whatever advances the Industrial Revolution brought, the price paid was terrible. The process of transforming peasants into proletarians was brutal and dehumanizing and all too often fatal. Children were robbed of their parents, who left to work long hours in the factories, and were often robbed of even their childhoods when they went to join Mom and Dad at work.

But what did the workers themselves think? And how did they feel about the changes sweeping their world? In an attempt to answer these questions and to better understand the nature of the Industrial Revolution, Emma Griffin, a senior lecturer in history at the University of East Anglia, has written Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, in which she musters some compelling evidence- the personal narratives of workers who themselves lived through the Industrial Revolution, including many who were born into the traditional, agrarian peasantry and then joined the urban proletariat.

As the title indicates, Dr. Griffin does not find the orthodox interpretation of the Industrial Revolution supported by the evidence she examines. The workers who wrote the autobiographical narratives Dr. Griffin examines are broadly satisfied with the changes the Industrial Revolution wrought. These men and women found that the Industrial Revolution offered an enormous array of opportunities, so broad that one of Dr. Griffin’s informants, Edward Barlow, actually dares to leave an apprenticeship to a “whitester,” a bleacher of yarn, simply because he did not like it. His family and his neighbors were displeased with his choice, “asking why I could not stay in my place… [and] hitting me in the teeth.” Mr. Barlow’s choice to leave his place with the whitester may have been an augury of a new age, but his neighbors’ decision to smack him in the mouth shows that the old world of the rural village was still very much alive.

As much skillful yeoman’s work Dr. Griffin has done in gathering and analyzing these worker’s narratives, it is her analysis of that old world and how it impacted the new that falls short. Her work argues persuasively that the Industrial Revolution did work a net improvement in the lives of the ordinary folk of England, loosening restrictive sexual mores, opening more opportunities for cultural and political expression, and significantly improved the material prospects of life, but she does not analyze except most superficially why these were in such a dire state to begin with, nor does she ask if things could perhaps have improved more than they did without the strife and suffering of the early Industrial Revolution.

Dr. Griffin states that the fundamental problem in the feudal economic was not the existence of an entirely parasitic class of nobles and priests subsisting entirely on the labor of the peasantry, but rather that “there simply was not enough work to go around.” The produce of feudal England was enough to support the king, the nobility, the gentry, the Church, the servants of the nobles, and all the various craftsmen- tanners, smiths, weavers and so forth- as well as the peasantry. The reason the peasants lived in such misery wasn’t an insufficiency of work, it was a superfluity of useless eaters- ruthless exploiters who absconded with the difference between a peasant’s comfort and his bare survival.

In England the nature of the feudal beast is particularly clear, as the Norman Conquest brought with it the imposition of a foreign dynasty and foreign nobility. The English peasant was a conquered and exploited subject, with all his surplus (and indeed, considering mortality rates, some of his necessaries) stolen by the ruling class to sustain them in their comfortable lifestyles. In a fundamental sense, the Industrial Revolution changed nothing about this relationship.

Consider the life of a male peasant in pre-Industrial England. His year is broken up by numerous feast days and his heroic efforts at spring planting and fall harvest are counterbalanced by largely idle summers and winters. With his wife and children contributing in traditional ways, this labor is usually enough to feed himself and his family, although the lord will generally let him starve rather than reduce lordly impositions on the product of his labor.

Come the Industrial Revolution, this man is now expected to work from sunrise to sunset (or later) six days a week year round. Further, his labor power is hugely amplified by the enormously productive machinery developed in this era; the dramatic increase in the wealth of Great Britain over this period reflects the dramatically increased productivity of labor. And yet, despite this, his leisure is drastically curtailed. His wife must join him in his toil, and his children must descend into the mines. Why? Where is all of this wealth going? His father’s generation worked intermittently and survived, albeit in occasional misery. Now he works constantly, his wife and children work constantly, and while his lot is improved somewhat, as reflected in the narratives Dr. Griffin cites, the improvement in his material circumstances is dwarfed by the increase of his toil.

Dr. Griffin deals with this question in passing, noting that “the lion’s share was greedily gobbled up by the middle classes,” but nowhere does she attempt to account for this vast disparity between work and reward, nor does she grapple much with the disappearance of leisure. She does do much to puncture idealizations of rural life, recounting the stories of numerous informants who found life in the new factory towns preferable to life in their native villages and detailing the accompanying increases in social and sexual freedom- the repressive nature of village life is often ignored by those who lionize it- but why did the Industrial Revolution, which was at root a revolutionary increase in the productivity of labor, require so drastically more labor than the old way? And why did the workers not reap the full benefit of this increase?

Because, as Kevin Carson thoroughly documents in The Iron Fist behind the Invisible Hand and as Karl Polanyi detailed in The Great Transformation, the system was rigged against them. A thicket of laws and police surrounded the peasantry as the productive forces of the Industrial Revolution were unleashed, carefully ensuring that any attempts to replace the old order were swiftly quashed. Further, many of the “improvements” of the Industrial Revolution Dr. Griffin documents were designed to buttress and supplement the exploitative order. The proliferation of churches did indeed give working men a taste of leadership and a way to practice their organizational acumen, but the message of these churches remained as reactionary as ever- “those who pray” continued to pray mainly for the continued rule of “those who fight,” while those who did the bulk of the working, fighting, and praying were to remain quiescent. The Sunday School movement channeled the working class’s thirst for learning into pursuits acceptable to the capitalists, guiding them to religious rather than social or political disputation. The endless splintering of the Nonconforming churches into smaller and smaller sects might have shocked the consciences of some clergymen, but better that the working men of England bicker over the interpretation of scripture than strive for a bigger share of the product of their labor.

The history of the self-improvement societies as discussed by Dr. Griffin further clarifies the capitalist class’s efforts to keep the workers docile and obedient. The first such society, founded by Thomas Hardy, a London cobbler, was London Corresponding Society, established in January of 1792. This society advocated expanded political rights, including the franchise, for the working men of Great Britain. After growing “into a national movement with several thousand members organized into dozens of branches in London and beyond,” as Dr. Griffin describes it, the British government acted, first with laws against political meetings and then, in 1799, outlawing the society by name. But the workers did not stop trying. Despite the best efforts of their bourgeois “benefactors” to keep politics out of the Sunday Schools, night schools, Mechanics Institutes and so forth, the workers would not stop noticing how short their end of the stick was, and kept agitating for more.

That history is largely beyond the scope of Dr. Griffin’s book, although she does do an admirable job detailing how the intellectual tools provided to make better workers were often then used by the workers to radicalize themselves and each other. Her book overall is a valuable service to history, bringing to light fascinating documentary evidence from a important and controversial period of history, and quibbles with her interpretation of that evidence and with her analysis of the period do not detract from that. In this reader’s estimation, Dr. Griffin’s work is most valuable for its attack on the mythologization of pre-industrial life and its description of how socially liberating many of her subjects found the opportunities afforded by industrial wage labor. Dr. Griffin’s subjects uniformly despise the village and saw factory work as a ticket to financial, social, and sexual liberation. Ellen Johnston, raised in 1830s Glasgow, is an excellent example. Ellen sought work in a cotton factory and sought sexual pleasure like many of her peers. In this era before effective contraception, she eventually found herself pregnant, but unlike women of previous generations, was not forced by social pressures into married life and the concomitant abandonment of her dreams. Instead, her wages supported her, her child, and her mother, who took care of the child while Ellen worked. Instead of domestic drudgery, Ms. Johnston led an independent life thanks to her employment and even became a published poet. While her life was hardly something to envy- she died penurious after a lifetime of hard work- she clearly preferred what the Industrial Revolution offered her to the crabbed life of her village.

Emma Griffin’s Liberty’s Dawn is a flawed but important work. By giving voice to the workers themselves, she permits us a glimpse into the heart of the Industrial Revolution and allows the people most affected to speak to us. While Dr. Griffin’s analysis of their predicament may be lacking, the voices she lets us her are vital.

Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution by Emma Griffin, published by Yale University Press. $35

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