THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND SOCIAL CLASS
Feudalism passed largely out of existence in western Europe before the beginning of the nineteenth century and gave way to a capitalist era, which Simmel characterizes as a system of "Freiheit ohne Gleichheit." 1 Was the epoch of individualism and industrialism, ushered in by the development in England and by the French Revolution, the open sesame for those held in check and kept down by the system of feudal restrictions, regulations, and limitations?Next Page
Opinion divided on social class implications of new age. As has been the case regarding every other historical epoch, expert opinion is sharply divided as to the meaning of capitalism for persons of lower social rank. Dawson and Gettys, for instance, state: 2
With the fall of the Bastille in the French Revolution, there fell with it a social order based on privilege and tyranny, and there arose a new social class based on greater equalization of opportunity, the so-called "middle class." . . . there exists today, in most modern societies, a large middle class -- more properly middle classes -- which serves, according to the democratic tradition, as the open sesame for all those of ambition and energy in the lower classes . . .
Later in this dissertation it will be shown that a great barrier exists between the lower and the middle classes, far greater than is presupposed in the above paragraph. Furthermore, there is a sharp division of opinion as to whether or not the industrial era spelt greater equalization of opportunity, as will be shown presently.
Sorokin assures his readers that "the great French Revolution and the period of the Napoleonic Empire, when those 'who had been nothing became everything,' and contrariwise, were again the periods of most intensive vertical social mobility." 3 Elsewhere, however, the same author states that "the social circulation in the seventeenth century was not less than that of the nineteenth century." 4 The seventeenth century, as has been seen, was a period of rigidity. The nobility in France was beginning to restrict the inclusion of commercial aristocrats; the poor in England were suffering because of rising prices and set wages; the master craftsmen were no longer allowing journeymen to rise into their ranks. Could it be that the nineteenth century was similar to the seventeenth not because of greater equalization of opportunity but because of greater inequality? Furthermore, the intimation that those who assumed power and partook in the sales of expropriated lands and in the new commercial ventures had been, formerly, "nobodies" is to pervert the correct interpretation of the economic and social class development in France before the Revolution.
Fahlbeck finds the modern classes, for the first time in the history of civilization, "open." 5 This author intimates more than he says on the surface. The thought that the classes were open leads naturally to the facile conclusion that there was considerable circulation from beneath. One fact that almost necessitates this conclusion is, of course, the common knowledge that among the masses of men there is much talent and ability. Unless held down legally, "surely many of these people would rise."
What difference did the new order of industrialism make in the lives of the peasants, workers, artisans, and small independents? To one author the chance to move to the city was a chance to improve one's lot. (To others it was but descent into misery.) Young, for instance, writes: 6
The old limitations of aristocracy and birth began to break down. Wealth, not birth, was soon to determine social status. Furthermore, the rural classes could no longer be kept in the old framework. Opportunities for working in the cities gave the peasant and the serf a chance to escape the obligations to lord and master.
1. Georg Simmel, Grundfragen der Soziologie (Berlin, 1917) p. 89.
2. Carl A. Dawson and Warner E. Gettys, An Introduction to Sociology (New York, 1929) p. 547.
3. Pitirim Sorokin, Social Mobility (New York, 1927) p. 151.
4. Ibid., p. 155.
5. Pontus E. Fahlbeck, Die Klassen und die Gesellschaft (Jena, 1922) pp. 192 - 193.
6. Kimball Young, An Introductory Sociology (New York, 1934) pp. 482 - 483.