David Lockwood’s classic essay ‘Sources of Variation in Working-Class Images of Society’ (1966) distinguished three ideal-typical images of society found among workers: proletarian, deferential and privatized.footnote Lockwood was firstly reminding us of the sheer variety of workers’ beliefs, from classconscious proletarians, to conservative status-conscious deferentials, to the calculative, consumption-minded and mixed class-status images of privatized workers. That reminder was salutary in the 60s and remains salutary now. But he also went on to locate the sources of the three images. In decidedly anthropological vein, he argued they derived from the intersection of individuals’ workplace and community relations, since: ‘For the most part men visualize the class structure of their society from the vantage points of their own particular milieux, and their perceptions of the larger society will vary according to their experiences of social inequality in the smaller societies in which they live out their daily lives.’ Distinct working-class images of society derived from different work and community interactions. For Lockwood, images had a micro but apparently not a macro, society-wide life of their own.footnote1

I here endorse Lockwood’s stress on variety while pursuing the opposite tack to him, of macro-analysis. I explore the sources of worker images of society by examining the rival mass movements seeking to recruit worker support across twentieth-century Europe. I discuss the main socialist, anarcho-syndicalist, liberal, conservative and fascist movements found across the century. In such discussions it is inevitable that the term ‘working class’ tends to be used in two different ways: as a set of economic positions—in this case crudely indicated by manual (blue-collar) employment—and as a collective actor, indicated by working-class movements. It is the relationship between the two which is the theme of this essay.

I will begin with the rise of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism. Much of this will be familiar territory on which many have written. Most historians and sociologists of the working class have assumed it had an integral connection to socialism, while they have viewed conservative and liberal movements as essentially ‘bourgeois’ or ‘petty bourgeois’. This is, of course, how socialists themselves saw twentieth-century reality. Surprisingly, historians of liberalism and conservatism have in a sense agreed, since they have researched them not as social movements but as drawing-room politics among social elites. This essay seeks to chart conservative attempts to counterattack against leftism with massmobilization. It identifies three mass-mobilization strategies—religious, technocratic and nationalist—and analyses the ensuing interwar struggle for working-class support. I end with the ‘winners’ of the post-1945 period. Given the space available, my account is necessarily sweeping.footnote2

Thus I depart in four ways from Lockwood. Whereas his images were ideal-types, I focus on actual social movements—and thus on the mixed and somewhat contradictory images possessed by real actors and by movements seeking mass support.

Second, Lockwood was writing at a time when he could plausibly characterize proletarian and deferential images as ‘traditional’, and the privatized worker as new. Though I will find proletarian and deferential movements, they were hardly ‘traditional’. They were being formed and reformed across the twentieth century. And while I make no attempt tofind ‘privatization’ in earlier periods, I will find its ideological penumbra—of calculation, pragmatism and compromise between status and class models of society. My purpose in taking a long historical sweep is to chart the rise and fall of certain working-class images of society.

Third, I attempt what Lockwood eschewed, to link the micro to the macro, to examine the interactions between the worker, local social networks, mass movements and macro-social processes. Given my previous writings it should come as no surprise that I emphasize the impact on workers’ images of society of economic, ideological, military and political power organizations.

Fourth, my scope is European, while Lockwood’s was mainly British. Viewed in comparative and historical perspective, Britain turns out exceptional. There were more British workers in industry than agriculture at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. Belgium became the next country to attain this benchmark of industrialization—in the 1880s! Britain also combined uniquely early with uniquely slow progress toward political democracy. Early industrialization helped give Britain the earliest proletarian movement with strong insurrectionary tendencies, Chartism. After this collapsed, precocity conferred other unusual labour organizations, with little Marxist or anarcho-syndicalist influence. Precocity also made British conservatism distinctive. It could slowly modernize without such sudden crises as confronted its European colleagues. Seemingly ‘traditional’ patron-client relations, eliciting deference from below, evolved smoothly in Britain—Bagehot noted this as early as 1867. Finally, Britain (though obviously not Ireland) has been among the most secular countries, untroubled by clerical and anti-clerical turbulence sweeping most others.