Beiträge zur Geschichte  

Hanna Behrend

Working-Class Life and Literature

Working-class literature was part of the culture of the European industrial working class whose heyday was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first industrial revolution in the late 18th century brought about great changes in the way people lived, worked and thought. With the advent of machinery large scale coal mining began, steelworks were built and, in their wake, the steam driven railways became the most important means of transporting people and goods. Old-fashioned spinning and weaving, pottery and other crafts also turned into machine-driven industries. The most important change, however, was the emergence of a new social class, the industrial working class. The rising industry of that period was desperate for workers to operate the new machinery which provided work in need of little particular skills. Decaying medaeval society was able to provide a great amount of human flotsam: Craftsmen without a chance of making a decent living in their home towns and villages, demobilised soldiers, dismissed servants without a place, destitute agricultural labourers, beggars, orphans and even highway robbers. The poor, homeless, and superfluous, many of whom had, before, been fed the miserable bread of charity, were herded into the new works and factories, often enough against their will, to work there for the benefit of the new capitalist bosses. These men and women soon merged into the new social class. On the one hand, they were free to come and go and to negotiate their wages, on the other hand, if they found no master to work for, they were free to starve. This new and relatively homogenous class evolved a specific awareness of its own existence,: a new way of thinking and an entirely new culture came into being whose chief characteristic was its consciousness of the need for solidarity and organisation as the class’ only way to power in its dealings with the bosses..

Very early these workers set up friendly societies, to assist one another in case of accident, illness, disablement, and death. Trade unions developed to serve the interests of the workers. Eventually, they founded political parties in most European countries to represent the new class they had become. In many countries, these parties split into two or more factions whose main business seemed to fight each other rather than improve the lot of those whose cause they were supposed to further.

Wretched wages and miserable housing and living conditions, long working hours left these men and women little time and hardly any space for creativity. However, as not even the most inhuman exploitation can completely extinguish people’s longing for beauty, there were, always workers who poured their woe into verse.

One such was Elijah Ridings born in 1802 in a cottage in Fallsworth near Manchester. He worked at home winding bobbins for the silk loom from when he was eight and later became a silk weaver and a Sunday School teacher. He never stopped extending his education. He joined a group of men to read the work of the radical writers of his day. Many of the working men were then unable to read and so Elijah was in demand as a reader in the group to which he belonged. The publication of Cobbett’s Grammar in 1819 when he was seventeen enabled him to study the structure of the English language and he made progress in composition. He became involved in the Reform Movement for an extension of franchise. He also took part in the meeting at St. Peter’s Fields on 19 August 1819 which became infamous because the Yeomanry Cavalry trampled down the thousands of unarmed men, women and children who had gathered peacefully to articulate their grievances. Elijah was saved by an officer.of the 16th Lancers who let him escape. This experience he turned into verse more than forty years later:

“The Yeomanry, who had strong drink imbibed,

Dispersed the people with their banners torn:

Many were killed and hundreds wounded sore;”

In 1822 he published his poem Address to Britons.

Tyrants vile have long oppressed you

Robbed you of the sweets of life;

Wrung from you the all that blessed you,

Revelling in wicked strife.

They say taxation is a blessing,

Your poverty gives them the lie;

Your meagre forms, and Oh, distressing

Dungeons, chains and slavery.

On the one hand, men and sometimes also women writers from other social strata felt urged to articulate in verse or prose accounts their protest against prevailing conditions. They. were shocked by the blatant social injustice meted out to so many of their compatriots. Great contemporary writers or poets like Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth have articulated their disgust at the conditions of the working class. The great Romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote a poem, The Chimney Sweeper baiting the cruelty to orphan boys sent by the community to crawl into chimneys to clean them whilst being exposed to heat and stifled by poisonous vapours:

A little black thing among the snow,

Crying “weep! weep! In notes of woe!

“Where are thy father and mother? Say?”

“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

“Because I was happy upon the heath,

“And smil’d among the winter’s snow

“They clothed me in the clothes of death,

“And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

“And because I am happy to dance and sing,

“They think they have done no injury,

“And are gone to praise God & his priest and King

“Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

Working-class literature was about all the things other writers also wrote about: Adventures, love affairs, children, nature’s beauty. But added to these topics working-class writers wrote about their work, their working conditions and about their struggle to improve these. Some even had visions of a better, more just and less brutal world.

These poems, stories, plays, or novels were, of course, part of the national literature of the country, influenced by the literary schools and cultural trends of their period. For a brief spell, in the late 1920s and the 1930s, this literature was even exercising an influence upon the cultural mainstream.

Many works by worker writers were not written for publication and published by mere chance. No one knows how many fine works of art were pushed into a kitchen drawer and lost to posterity.

The manuscript of the most famous English working-class novel, The Ragged-trousered Philanthropists, written by Robert Noonan who called himself Tressell after his building trade, was only discovered by Noonan’s daughter after her father’s death. Employed in a publisher’s household, she showed it to her mistress who arranged for an abbreviated version of the work to be published in 1914. The complete text only saw the light of day in 1955. It became most popular. In the first half of the 20th century it was the only book which even unskilled and little educated workers in Britain read and quoted from. It was translated into other languages. There are several German translations.

In the 19th century, working men spent all of a 12-hour-day sweating in the mines, in a steel foundry, or factory and the women an equally long day maybe at the pit brow topped by housework and child minding in their own homes. And yet some of the men and even a few of the women wrote down their visions of a better world, a better society, better working and living conditions.

One such vision was articulated in the Ragged–trousered Philanthropists by the best educated of the building workers’ gang who are the protagonists of the novel. During their lunchbreak this Frank Owen tries to explain to his less knowledgeable colleagues, who heckle him, what socialism is:

Socialism means, ‘What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine ‘s me own,’ observed Bundy,
And during the laughter that greeted this definition Sly was heard to say that Socialism meant Materialism, Atheism, and Free Love, and if it were ever to come about it would degrade men and women to the level of brute beasts. Harlow said Socialism was a beautiful ideal, which he for one would be very glad to see realised, but he was afraid it was altogether too good to be practical, because human nature is too mean and selfish. Sawkins said that Socialism was a lot of bloody rot, and Crass expressed the opinion – which he had culled from the delectable columns of the Obscurer - that it meant robbing the industrious for the benefit of the idle and thriftless

Frank Owen started by patiently explaining to his mates the changes that had brought the present state of affairs into being:

As the labour-saving machinery became more extensively used, the prosperous class of skilled workers gradually disappeared. Some of them became distributors, i. e. shopkeepers. …But the majority of them in course of time degenerated into a class of mere wage earners, having no property in the machines they used, and no property in the things they made. They sold their labour for so much per hour and when they could not find any employers to buy it from them, they were reduced to destitution.

While the unemployed workers were starving and those in employment not much better off, the individuals and private companies who owned the machinery accumulated fortunes; but their profits were diminished and their working expenses increased by the fact that they were competing against each other; and this is what led to the latest great change in the organisation of the production of the necessaries of life – the formation of the Limited Companies and the Trusts; the decision of the private companies to combine and cooperate with each other in order to increase their profits and decrease their working expenses. The results of the combines have been – an increase in the quantities of things produced: a decrease in the number of wage earners employed – and enormously increased profits for the shareholders.

…The only remedy is to be found in the Public Ownership of the Machinery, and the National Organisation of Industry for the production and distribution of the necessaries of life, not for the profit of a few but for the benefit of all! That is the next great change, not merely desirable, but imperatively necessary and inevitable! That is Socialism! (The RTP London 1955, 510-512)

This “next great change”, however, which the organised workers and also many people from other social strata in many European countries put their faith in and considered inevitable, did not happen in the way envisaged by 19th century socialists.

Two bloody world wars did bring about great changes which affected the working class and their culture profoundly. The First World War triggered off the revolution in Russia which inspired the workers of the world and many well-meaning intellectuals to new hopes of a better, more just world. The disposal of the old ruling classes in Russia did not lead to the expected world revolution which was to build a new socialist Jerusalem. Socialist Russia, which soon became the USSR, did not, as people had hoped, abolish exploitation and discrimination. The democratic institutions of the people were controlled by a small group of party officials whose interests at staying in power became the basic motive of their statecraft.

They continued the democratic and socialist rhetoric of the founding fathers of Socialism while really pursuing power politics, which, at times, turned into sheer state terrorism. The USSR did, however, play an important role in international politics and their peoples made a major contribution towards defeating fascism. This was the reason why many continued to believe in the USSR, and held the country for “the Fatherland of the Workers”.

While in Russia the Revolution disintegrated, and the revolutions that had broken out in many other European countries after World War One were all defeated, in Italy and Germany, the blind despair of the peoples gave rise to Fascism or Nazism, a particularly vicious and murderous brand of racist chauvinist ideology. It grew into a mass movement and the political rulers and big corporations, in their fear even of a warped and degenerated socialism, gladly sponsored it. The bulk of the workers in Germany were inveigled or terrorised into accepting nazism and large sections of the middle class and the intellectuals also offered no resistance when the leaders of the nazi movement took power and began to prepare for the war which was to rob other countries for the benefit of their own.

The workers, weakened by the strife among their own political organisations were unable to join forces to prevent the common enemy, the Nazis, from coming to power or from unleashing a World War.

Worker writers in most European countries played a considerable role as a cultural avant-garde in the struggle against fascism and war. They wrote poems and plays, novels and political appeals rousing people to fight the fascist menace and prevent the war. In Britain, they provided a major strand of the country’s antifascist literature which constituted an outstanding part of English literature during the period between the two World Wars and during the war period.

This antifascist literature was the most mature and advanced contribution of working-class culture to internationalism and to British culture.

Such works as the poems by Hugh McDermitt, the novels by Jack Lindsay, by the miner’s son D.H. Lawrence, or by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but also the prose work on Ireland, on Charles Dickens and on various philosophical issues by the worker-scholar T.A. Jackson in Britain, to name but a very few show the working class capable of envisioning an alternative world without exploitation.

The Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison’s novel We have been Warned ends with a vision of fascism come to Britain to warn people of what might be in store for them:

First three armed Specials came out, and then the prisoners bunched together, their eyes blindfolded already, and their hands tied behind them. They were strung out along the wall. Nearest to her was Taylor, the man who disbelieved in violence. Then Sam Hall with a scalp wound plastered with dark blood. Then Dorothy’s Bill. Then Reuben Goldberg. Then Mason. But they hadn’t tied his hands because his arm was broken; his coat was buttoned over it and he shook a little. Then Tom. With his trouser cut off at the knee and his leg bandaged. Beyond Tom were two women. ‘Tom’ she yelled suddenly. ‘Tom, we’ll remember, we’ll…’ And then there was a hand over her mouth, she staggered and was shoved back, gagged.

The industrial working class played this outstanding cultural role on account of their importance in the economy, as a social mainstay and as a political force until the end of the Second World War. After 1945, they were still an important economic and political factor but their time was running out, new economic developments were on their way to make them superfluous. Yet while they lasted, they have given rise to a culture of their very own. It did not only comprise their own working-class writing, it also produced music and songs, as well as works of art of all kinds. In Britain, they moreover founded cultural institutions in the 1930s such as the “Left Book Club” which published outstanding works on topical political problems, and the “Left Review”, which discussed working-class and other antifascist literature, or the “Left Theatre” which brought onto the stage progressive plays.

There were many moving poems created by men who fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) like John Cornford, who was killed in 1937. He wrote this well known love poem which was published in 1938 addressed: to his girl friend:

Heart of the heartless world,

Dear heart, the thought of you

Is the pain at my side,

The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,

Reminds that autumn is near.

I am afraid to lose you,

I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca, The last fence for my pride,

Think so kindly, dear, that I

Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength

Into the shallow grave,

Remember all the good you can,

Don’t forget my love.

The Second World War brought about great scientific and technical innovations: The military use of atomic energy allowed the USA to drop nuclear bombs on Japan which killed more people than any type of bomb before, and caused pollutions which continued to kill people many decades after the actual raids.

Prepared by wartime technological progress a new industrial revolution dawned – the electronic revolution and with it the end of the type of capitalist economy characterised by mass production requiring masses of “hands”. It was an industrial revolution which increased labour productivity so much that it would enable mankind to provide enough goods to do away with poverty and starvation everywhere, and save the world from man-made pollution. This, however, would require organising society according to non-profit incentives as profit orientation would always clash with the principle of solidarity and the interests of the majority of the people.

During the second half of the 20th century, a Cold War between the competing social systems of the capitalist West and the “socialist” USSR and its Eastern European satellite states had succeeded the world war. While in most of these states some progressive social achievements, such as equal chances of education and health care for everybody, cheap public childcare facilities etc., were introduced, the people lived under the hierarchic and dictatorial rule of the working-class party officials. The working class they were supposed to represent had no real say in political decision taking.

During this period the working class gradually lost their homogenous character and began to disintegrate into many competing units with differing interests. In the West, the political power of the Trade Unions actually began to wane in the 1960s; the political left wing suffered an annihilating blow in 1990 everywhere when the Socialist block of states collapsed and the working people there were deprived of their social security and the rights they had acquired without offering any resistance. The policy of neoliberalism in many European states rolled back the social achievements of the welfare states. Internationalism became an empty word when the major global corporations played the French automobile workers off against the German.

1990 spelled the end of the classical industrial working class as a political agent in European history. So far no political agent is in sight to bring about the necessary political changes in Europe.

The basic reason why the days of the working-class movement and also of its culture were over, was that the industrial working class, who had been the mainstay of this class’ political and cultural power, was being replaced by electronic automation, by machinery able to assemble and dismantle, organise, supervise, and control production. These new devices were developed and monitored by a new class of operatives: The computer scientists, programmers, and computer technicians most of whom gladly allow themselves to be exploited until they are burnt out.

Work that could not be electronified because it could not dispense with human labour, such as teaching, childcare, or caring for the old and disabled, or health care would be increasingly badly paid, left undone or done by housewives and mothers for their own families free of charge.

Cheap mass production would migrate abroad where workers would do it for a pittance.

Thus, High-Tech-Capitalism’s other side became dumping wage labour both abroad and in the European countries weakening and corrupting the Trade Unions and the traditional working-class political parties.

No new social force has so far risen imbued with a consciousness for the need to reorganise society to make it fit to cope with the new challenges and chances mankind is facing.

With the classical European working class shrinking and their organisations becoming less and less powerful, also their art work became epigonal. It lost its poetic quality, its consciousness of life against death and destruction. In its peak periods it was a literature of resistance and liberation, closely connected always with the lives of working people, with their struggle and their demands, their desires and visions.

Written history has always been a history of struggle between rulers and the mass of the oppressed and exploited. But it has also always been a history of discontinuity: The rulers changed and so did the agents of resistance to their rule. The days of the European industrial working class are over but people continue to be exploited and oppressed. The Socialism introduced by the working-class movement failed and was defeated but as exploitation and oppression have not been overcome, the challenge remains.

Berlin, April 2007


GLASNOST, Berlin 1992 - 2018