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Problems of a Changing World 1870-1914

WHILE INDUSTRY was transforming the United States, the same thing was happening in Western Europe. The change was most noticeable in Germany, because Germany was not unified until 1870, it started to become industrial much later than Great Britain and France, but it soon began to catch up with its neighbours. Within a few decades it was producing more than they were of several key commodities, including the most important one of all, steel.

Like the American government, the German government imposed tariffs on foreign manufactures and encouraged its national industry in other ways. The results were much the same as in the United States. Railways spread across the country in an ever denser network of tracks, connecting farmlands with cities, mines with factories and factories with seaports. New industrial cities came into being, especially in the coal-rich Ruhr Valley, next to the iron-rich province of Lorraine which Germany had seized from France in the Franco-Prussian War. Old cities doubled and tripled in size as country people flocked into them to man factory machines, shop counters and office desks.

On both sides of the Atlantic, smoke billowed from factory chimneys, rows of new houses went up in the cities and freight trains carried industrial products off to market and to seaports, for shipments overseas. Such signs of industry’s growth could be seen throughout the industrial West. Elsewhere, in the less developed parts of the world, they were not so evident — but their effects were felt just the same.

For, as industry expanded in Western Europe and the United States, it reached further and further afield in quest of supplies for its factories and customers for its products. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and other non-industrial regions, armies of native workers came to depend for their livelihood on the money some distant European or American businessman paid their employer for the tin they mined or the cotton they picked or the raw rubber they collected. In turn, the same workers spent part of their wages on pots and pans, shirts, dresses and other articles fashioned by distant machines out of the very materials they provided. Thus, through trade, peoples separated by oceans and continents — and by completely different ways of life — came into regular contact with one another.

This change, the most momentous of all the changes brought about by the rise of industry, took place over a mere half century. It could not have come about so quickly without the drive and determination of men who planned and built canals and railways, bridges, harbours and drydocks, ships and locomotives. What hastened the change even more was the work of inventors.


To meet the challenges raised by the growth of industry and trade, men of science throughout the West turned their talents to improving engines that made use of natural forces, such as the steam engine and to devising new ones. Out of their experiments came faster, more powerful railway engines and ships that carried large cargoes at high speeds across thousands of miles. Meanwhile, other inventors were trying to solve the problem of communicating over long distances a problem which became more and more pressing as world trade grew in value and volume. In 1866, an American named Cyrus Field laid the first successful telegraph cable across the Atlantic. Ten years later, another American, Alexander Graham Bell, invented the telephone. In 1895, an Irish-Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, sent radio signals through the air for the first time. These inventions and others were quickly improved by their inventors and others.

trade unions

The outcome of all this activity was a worldwide revolution in transportation and communications. By the start of the twentieth century, the time it took to travel to far-off places was half or even a third of what it had been only fifty years before. Soon, the automobile and the airplane would reduce travel time even further. Already it was possible to transmit commercial or other information half way around the globe in a twinkling.

To the people of the West, the world, which had seemed vast to their grandfathers and even to their fathers, appeared to have shrunk. Commercial ties that bound the industrial countries ever more tightly to the non-industrial lands, events in remote places now directly affected the lives of the people in New York and London, Paris and Berlin. Few people anywhere still lived completely apart from the rest of humanity. The great sea and land barriers that had always divided mankind were no longer so important. For the first time, the history of the world had become the history of all its Peoples together.


The industrial West was the heart of the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; it received raw materials and pumped out a stream of products. The West thrived on the mid-wide circulation of goods. In the United States and Western Europe, businessmen piled up fortunes and as new jobs were created, the standard of living rose for many people.

Not everyone shared in the new prosperity. Industrialism came at a price — a price paid, first of all, by the farmers. Attracted by jobs in factories and mills, young people were leaving the land. In Europe, furthermore, many families were leaving their farms for new homes overseas. Meanwhile, towns grew into cities and cities became still larger. This meant that fewer farmers had to produce more food, using the new labour-saving farm machines turned out by industry.

The difficulty was that the farmers did not profit from having more customers. Industrial leaders, through their friends in government, saw to it that the food their workers ate stayed inexpensive. Competition from abroad also kept down the prices paid to farmers for their crops. As world trade increased, more and more ships steamed home with cargoes of food, especially grain and dried meat, from newly-opened lands like Australia, Argentina and South Africa. In the United States, with its broad expanses of productive soil, large-scale farming remained profitable, but in Europe it became less and less so. Many farmers turned to raising fruit, vegetables and dairy products instead of grain or cattle.

As farming declined, industry boomed and the workers in the cities fared better than the farmers. Even so, their life was far from easy. They worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, in bleak and badly-lit factories and mills. The machines they operated were dangerous: if an operator was not careful, one of his hands or arms might be crushed or cut off, or he might even be killed. Their wages were barely enough to keep their families alive. To make ends meet, many working class families put their children to work in the local mill or mine, sometimes when they were only six years old.

Slowly, however, the workers came to see that their employers needed them as much as they themselves needed their wages. They banded together in trade unions to bargain for more pay and better working conditions. The first unions organized skilled workers who followed a particular trade such as carpentry. The craft unions which began to flourish in Great Britain in the 1850’s were conservative and avoided open conflict with employers. By 1884, all British workers had received the right to vote.

In the 1880’s, new and larger unions of unskilled workers came into being. Industrial unions, as they were called, aimed to take in all British workers within an industry, such as coal, steel, or transportation, no matter what jobs they held. Some older craft unions joined the new industrial unions. By 1900, Great Britain had about two million union members, compared to only 850,000 in Germany and 250,000 in France.

In the United States, too, labour began to organize. May Day, which soon became the international working men’s holiday and later the principal holiday in Communist countries, was first celebrated by workmen in Philadelphia in 1881. The union movement in America was fiercely resisted by employers, who were often backed by local and state governments. This conflict between employers and workers sometimes led to violence, which scared off many workers and delayed public acceptance of the movement. Not until the twentieth century did American unions begin to gain a sure foothold.

The unions’ chief weapon in every country was the strike. Bargaining with employers was usually friendly, but if an employer refused to grant demands which a union considered vital, the union leaders might forbid their members to work. The workers then went on strike; instead of wages, they received food or small handouts from union funds made up of the membership dues they had contributed. If the employer hired new workers who did not belong to the union, the striking workers would try to prevent them from entering his factory or mill. As union membership became ever more effective, sometimes the mere threat of a strike was enough to make an employer give in to his workers’ demands.

Little by little, in Western Europe and the United States, pay and working conditions improved. By 1900, the working day in most industries had been reduced to ten hours. Safer machines had been introduced and several countries had passed laws limiting or forbidding the employment of children. The unions, regarded at first with fear by industrialists and governments alike, were beginning to be accepted as responsible and respectable institutions.

One reason for the change was the steady improvement of the machines and methods used in manufacturing. Workers could turn out more goods in less time, so that their employer could pay them more money for fewer hours of work and still make a profit. Another reason was that the workers were gaining political power. In the United States, working men already had the vote, but in most European countries only citizens with property could vote until the last third of the nineteenth century. After 1867, the countries of Europe followed the example of Britain and granted almost all citizens the right to vote. As voters, workers could put pressure on their governments to bring about the changes they wanted.


In Europe, many workers supported the economic doctrine known as socialism. Socialism came from several sources and took various forms, but after about 1880 it was based mainly on the ideas of Karl Marx, a German writer and teacher who had lived for many years in exile in London. Socialists believed, like Marx, that the means of production such as farms, factories‚ tools, machines and the means of distribution, such as railways, ships, stores, and shops should belong to the workers rather than to the businessmen and stockholders who profited from them. The existing economic system was based on capital — that is, money invested in business for profit — they called it capitalism.

trade unions

The socialists wanted to replace capitalism with their own system. They founded political parties in democratic countries and began to explain their doctrine and recruit members, especially among industrial workers. In nondemocratic countries like Russia, they founded undercover socialist movements.

From the start, the socialists were split into two camps, which agreed on aims but disagreed strongly on the methods of attaining them. In the democratic countries of the West, socialism was evolutionary: its leaders wanted to come to power peacefully by electing enough socialists to take over the government. In nondemocratic countries, whose rulers ruthlessly strove to stamp out the movement, socialism was revolutionary. Revolutionary socialists saw capitalism not as a rival to be overcome by votes, but as an enemy to be overthrown by force. This militant brand of socialism was also called communism, after the brief and bloody attempt to set up a workers’ government in the Paris Commune of 1871.

Evolutionary socialism rapidly gained followers in the advanced industrial countries of continental Europe, especially France, Germany and Belgium. There, socialists controlled the unions and many socialists were elected to the national law-making bodies. Although no socialist party succeeded in winning control of a government, the socialists in the national parliaments were numerous enough to influence government policy. The evolution to socialism which businessmen dreaded did not take place, but many socialist proposals were adopted, further easing the lot of workers and poor citizens. The German socialists were particularly successful and in Germany a broad program of social benefits was written into law.

Socialism had few followers in the United States, where it was easier to acquire property and set up small businesses than in Europe. Most Americans looked on socialism as something foreign and the American Socialist party remained weak in numbers and strength. Socialist ideas, however, strongly influenced the “grass-roots” movement of farmers and labourers known as Populism, which flourished in the Middle West and West and reached a peak of political strength early in the twentieth century.

In Great Britain, too, socialism made little headway. Although the British unions were much stronger, richer and more firmly established than those of any other country, they were also more conservative. British working men had no political tradition and tended to resist new ideas, especially if they came from abroad. For years, union leaders and members alike remained indifferent to socialism.

Meanwhile, however, socialist ideas gained favour among liberal minded men and women of the middle class and even the upper class. In 1906, the Labour Party was founded, on a program of socialist principles. Gradually the working class and the labour unions came to support the Labour party. Thereafter, control of the party remained mostly in the hands of union leaders. Thus, in Great Britain, the unions dominated the socialists, while on the continent the socialists dominated the unions.

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