Fighting Words: Working-Class Formation, Collective Action, and Discourse in Early Nineteenth-Century England

By Marc W. Steinberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE Patterns of English Labor Contention in the Early Nineteenth Century

Class formation occurs in great measure because of struggle. This is part of the studied wisdom, found in both Marx and The Making of the English Working Class. In early nineteenth-century England, there were struggles aplenty, involving both the deeds and words of diverse groups of working people across the country. In this chapter I review the changing repertoires of labor struggle between 1800 and 1830, and chart the factors that prompted their transformation. The case studies focus on both the discursive and instrumental repertoires of the silk weavers and cotton spinners.

Changing patterns of labor contention show the happening of class conflict. Recent critics of class formation argue that political conflicts provided working people with their most central and definitive collective identities during this period. A review of the history, however, demonstrates the critical part labor conflict also played. The structural antinomies of productive relations brought capitalists and workers to loggerheads, cutting across specific trades and communities to create common patterns of antagonism and a shared consciousness. These fissures intersected with those of gender, combining to form notions of the skilled artisan and complicating (though not necessarily undermining) class cohesion within a trade or community).1

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These fissures also intersected with concepts of national identity and ethnicity, although these were less directly addressed by the workers who appear in this study. In terms of the for-

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