The Working Class in Britain, 1850-1939

The Working Class in Britain, 1850-1939

The Working Class in Britain, 1850-1939

The Working Class in Britain, 1850-1939

Synopsis

John Benson draws upon a vast amount of material bringing alive the everyday world of the working classes in Britain between 1850 and the Second World War.

Excerpt

The first generation of post-war British labour historians tended to be preoccupied with working-class activism. Assuming rather too readily that the history of the labour movement was synonymous with the history of the working class, they sought to recount the struggles of activists in trade unions and left-wing political parties, organisations which, they believed, embodied the fundamental values and aspirations of ordinary working people. Relying largely upon the labour movement's own records, these historians produced a series of committed, sometimes uncritical, and occasionally hagiographic, institutional studies -- a literature that one critic has dubbed 'the boring bureaucracy of trade unions and proletarian parties'.

Subsequent generations of labour (and social) historians have been concerned not merely to describe the struggles of the activists but to account for their inability to secure the support of their fellow workers, most of whom failed conspicuously to display anything remotely resembling a revolutionary class consciousness. Dissatisfaction with economic explanations of working-class acquiescence and weakness has led to a number of stimulating developments: the posing of new questions; the discovery (and creation) of new sources of evidence; and the adoption of some of the concerns, techniques and theories offered by the social sciences. Certainly it is difficult to imagine the vitality of current historical interest in issues such as family life, crime, popular culture and class consciousness -- still less in theories such as deference, social control and hegemony -- 'without at least the indirect spur of sociology and social anthropology'. But whatever the impetus, labour historians are now examining 'the social history of the working class and not primarily . . . the political history of militants and militancy'. The result has been enormously valuable: the appearance of a whole range of community and cultural studies that seek, either explicitly or implicitly, to explain both the successes and the failures of the labour movement, and to account for the persistence, alongside activism and struggle, of apathy and acquiescence.

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