Economic Class Conflict in Europe During the Industrial Revolution

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  • 0:04 The Industrial Revolutions
  • 1:04 Class Division
  • 2:34 Class Competition
  • 4:12 Karl Marx
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Industrial Revolution was one of the most formative eras in human history. In this lesson, we'll talk about how this period impacted class consciousness and conflict in Europe.

The Industrial Revolutions

If you've ever read Charles Dickens, you may have noticed some dark themes. Oliver Twist is an orphan abused by an unforgiving system. Ebenezer Scrooge is a money-obsessed miser who is haunted by his lack of humanity. A Tale of Two Cities begins, ''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'' Why was Dickens so pessimistic?

Well, he was living in an era of profound change called the Industrial Revolution. From roughly 1760 through 1840, Europe rapidly developed the world's first industrial economy based on large-scale production from new machinery.

The Industrial Revolution shaped the future, creating capitalism as we know it, launching a new era of the British Empire, and also creating a new class system that would divide society as never before. Some, like Dickens, noted that these changes led to some fierce attitudes of competition between the rich and the poor - the haves and have-nots. For some, it was the best of times. For others, well….

Class Division

The Industrial Revolution replaced traditional economies of production and local markets with large factories and massive markets of exchange (eventually breeding the capitalist system). It also replaced the traditional social classes of Europe, particularly in England where the Industrial Revolution was centered.

At the top of society was the aptly-named upper class. They were wealthy, educated, and owned the factories or buildings in which people worked. They did not work with their hands, but they were also not necessarily nobility. For the first time in centuries of European history, the wealthiest members of society did not hold royal titles. They made their wealth from the new industries of the time.

The upper class had the wealth and time for leisure
Upper Class

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the lower class. These were the workers, who had little money and likely never owned any property in their lives. Life was very unstable for the working class, who could lose everything in an instant if they lost their jobs.

The Industrial Revolution divided the classes by labor

You may have noticed that we skipped a group, and that was intentional. The Industrial Revolution did encourage a middle class of people who were not abundantly wealthy, but who also were not unskilled laborers in a factory barely getting by. They included merchants and mid-level bureaucrats, as well as a few skilled laborers whose jobs had not been replaced by industrial machines.

The middle class rose in size during this time thanks to new markets and economic opportunities, but was not a dominant feature of European societies. Instead, daily life was dominated by the struggle between the very rich and the very poor.

Class Competition

The Industrial Revolution filled European societies with cheaper products and increased the real wage of laborers. It also created a lasting system of class conflict. Why? Well, the Industrial Revolution was based on a scientific mindset defined by numbers, statistics, and equations. That sort of thinking first led to the creation of machines that would power the industrial economy and was sustained throughout the revolution.

As more and more businesses popped up - and there was an incredible startup rate of industries - competition between them grew. Success was measured in terms of dollars and cents, statistics, and above all, profits.

To allow for this rapid rise of businesses and the expansion of the markets, most governments adopted a laissez-faire policy, which is a term in economics that basically means, ''hands off.'' The government did not regulate business, but let the developing capitalist market control growing industries.

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