John Foster’s Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution footnote1 is a remarkable contribution to English historiography. It represents both a continuation of, and a stark contrast to, the impressive tradition of social history which has grown up in Britain in the last two decades. If the best work of English social historians has largely grown within a Marxist tradition, that Marxism has been lightly worn. Mainly as a reaction against the positivism dominant within social science, English social historians have tended to disguise sharp analytical distinctions, and eschew sophisticated quantification or explicit theorization. If their guiding lines have been Marxist, they have also drawn much from a native socialist tradition, a tradition which remembered Capital as much for its moral passion as its theoretical achievement. Moreover, their methods of approach have by no means been inspired solely by Marxist sources. The less positivistic realms of sociology have obviously been drawn upon, and economic history of the more traditional kind has always provided a bedrock of support. But it is above all a drawing nearer to social anthropology which has most distinguished modern social history from traditional labour history. Ideas like ‘moral economy’, ‘primitive rebellion’ and general attempts to reconstruct ‘history from below’ have been attempts not only to relate forms of social thought and behaviour to their material roots, but also to uncover the social meaning of lost or disappearing forms of struggle, ritual or myth and to reconstitute their coherence. Compared to traditional labour history, social historians have reacted against the assumption that the history of the working class or of any other oppressed group could be adequately understood through the history of its leadership or its formal organizations, and even more strongly against the short-hand which gauged the ‘maturity’ of a labour movement by tons of steel produced or miles of railway line laid down. It has shifted the attention from political vanguards to those whose consciousness traditional historiography would have labelled backward or unenlightened. It has thus been a reaction, not only against a certain form of Marxist history writing, but also against a much older whig-liberal tradition.

John Foster’s book clearly registers a debt to the recent achievement of social history and builds upon it. But what is most striking is his abrupt departure from its dominant emphases. The questions the book seeks to answer are explicitly Marxist, the categories of analysis equally so. Quantitative analysis of great sophistication is used to support interpretation whenever possible; literary evidence, only with the most stringent economy. In place of a detailed literary analysis of the transitional popular ideologies which accompanied the history of the industrial revolution, Foster emphasizes a Leninist dialectic between vanguard and mass. Questions of power and political organization are moved into the foreground. Little space is allotted to the byways of working-class life or struggle. If Foster has produced some pathbreaking information about types of family and types of household characteristic of the early industrial working class, this information is strictly subordinated to the political questions it is designed to answer.

The central theme of the book is ‘the development and decline of a revolutionary class consciousness’ in the second quarter of the 19th century; its basic aim ‘to further our understanding of how industrial capitalism developed as a whole’. footnote2 The result is a rare conjuncture between a consistent application of Marxist categories and the most rigorous and detailed empirical research. Perhaps only another historian could appreciate the sheer immensity of research that has gone into the substantiation of Foster’s arguments. On the other hand, the employment of the most advanced quantitative techniques of sociology to establish Marxist and Leninist concepts—and more important, to answer questions posed by these concepts—is unprecedented, at least in the English-speaking world. Foster’s book will undoubtedly be a landmark, not only in British historiography, but also in Marxist historical analysis.

Nevertheless, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution is a difficult book. The conceptual apparatus is not sufficiently explained. The arguments are often unreasonably condensed and the transitions abrupt. The arrangement of the book is also disconcerting. Foster’s argument is based on Oldham, a Lancashire textile town, but the popular movement in Oldham is not set in any national context, indeed is not even compared to that of the neighbouring industrial towns of south Lancashire. Oldham workers appear to fight out their own autonomous class struggle, sending delegates to Westminster only to protect that autonomy. Familiar political landmarks of the period are either not mentioned, or appear in such heavy disguise that it is necessary to think twice before recognition dawns. Luddism, Peterloo, the 1832 Reform Bill, Owenism, the New Poor Law, the Ten Hours’ Movement and Chartism are present in the book, but it is by no means immediately apparent that these were also issues which punctuated the Oldham struggle. Most serious, it is not clear whether this refusal to situate Oldham in the context of a national political struggle is itself a substantive thesis, or merely an accidental result of the organization of the book. In either case, it remains a weakness that the method of approach is not explained, and the reader is left to do so much of his own detective work. Because Foster’s book is of fundamental importance, I shall provide a fairly full summary of his argument, and then venture some reflections of my own on Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution’s contribution to Marxist history.

Oldham is an industrial centre a few miles north west of Manchester. From 1750 to 1850, Oldham’s main industry was cotton-spinning and weaving; from the mid-19th century onwards, engineering and machinebuilding. Oldham reflected the general development of British capitalism in particularly bold relief. It experienced the full force of the economic contradictions of the first phase of the industrial revolution, and in the high noon of Victorian capitalism became one of the leading manufacturing bases of the ‘workshop of the world’. Similarly, Oldham’s working class reproduced in sharper than usual outline the historical progression of the British working class as a whole. Until the late 1820s, the majority of Oldham’s workers were handloom weavers working in their own homes. By 1840 the majority worked in spinning and weaving factories. By 1860, the majority of male workers were employed by a few large-scale engineering firms. Politically, Oldham enjoyed a continuity of radical and revolutionary working-class leadership from the beginning of the century until the collapse of Chartism. Every significant initiative of the radical or working-class movement during that period, whether political or industrial, appears to have found strong local support there. In the mid-Victorian age, Oldham likewise starkly reflected the changed political character of the working class, epitomized by the clearcut division between the labour aristocrat and the unskilled: a tightly interlocking collection of liberal non-conformist self-help institutions on the one hand; orangeism, toryism and the pub on the other.

Between 1790 and 1850, the cotton industry experienced two periods of prolonged crisis. The first lasted from the mid 1790s to 1820. It was preceded by the first modern industrial slump which expressed itself not by a rise in the price of grain, but by wage-cutting and unemployment. It thus threw into disarray traditional methods of social control, which could contain a harvest crisis but had no solution to industrial grievances once wages ceased to be customary. The novel violence of the trade cycle was, however, less dangerous than the structural crisis which afflicted the cotton industry for the next 25 years. Its cause lay in the disbalance between the mechanized spinning and unmechanized weaving sectors. By the 1790s European producers were using English machine-spun yarn to oust England from her traditional markets for woven cloth. Thus, ‘the failure to mechanize weaving brought the largest sector of England’s industrial labour force into direct competition with more cheaply fed workers on the continent’. footnote3 The result was a sustained attack on living standards which continued for a generation.

The second crisis lasted from 1830 to 1847. The cause was no longer a disbalance within the cotton industry, for weaving was now mechanized. It was rather a disbalance between the technologically advanced cotton industry and the rest of the British economy. While there was a continual and dramatic decrease in the exchange value of cotton textiles, there was no corresponding fall in the price of food and machinery. Therefore, ‘the value of industrial output relative to the costs of labour and the increasing mass of fixed capital fell from crisis to crisis’: footnote4 a classic example, as Foster suggests, of a declining rate of profit as Marx defined it. The result was again constant wage-cutting and frequent unemployment, affecting the whole of the cotton industry, but principally the spinners.