Political Change and the Rise of Labour in Comparative Perspective: Britain and Sweden 1890-1920

Political Change and the Rise of Labour in Comparative Perspective: Britain and Sweden 1890-1920

by Mary Hilson

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A comparative analysis of social change, democratization, and the development of modern party politics in Britain and Sweden during the period 1880–1930, this book presents the similarities of political changes in these two countries at this time and also in the wider European context, with particular reference to the emergence of social democracy as a political current.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789189116719
Publisher: Nordic Academic Press
Publication date: 07/01/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mary Hilson has a PhD in economic and social history from the University of Exeter and is a lecturer in contemporary Scandinavian history in the department of Scandinavian studies at University College London.

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Political Change and the Rise of Labour in Comparative Perspective

Britain and Sweden 1890-1920

By Mary Hilson

Nordic Academic Press

Copyright © 2006 Nordic Academic Press and the Author
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-91-89116-71-9


Introduction — Exceptionalism in Comparative Labour History

This book is a study of political change and the emergence of a working-class political movement in two naval dockyard towns, Plymouth in Britain and Karlskrona in Sweden. Naval dockyard towns, where a large proportion of the adult male population was employed in the direct service of the state, and where the early twentieth century agitation for 'big navy' politics seemed to have a particular resonance, have often been thought of as difficult territory for the labour movement, and for that reason have been largely ignored by labour historians. One of the main concerns of the study, therefore, is to explore the politics of naval defence in the local context, and the particular challenges which this presented to the emergent labour movement. Through a detailed exploration of the conditions of dockyard work, of everyday life and municipal politics at the local level, I hope to show that the politics of the dockyard town in were in fact far more complex and interesting than they are sometimes assumed to be.

The study has a wider ambition though, and that is to investigate a broad comparative question, namely, why did social democratic labour parties emerge in most European countries during the late nineteenth century? A major problem of cross-national comparison is that the historian is usually required to make huge generalisations, thus ignoring the internal variations and complexities of a particular case and presenting it in monolithic, over-simplified terms. The preferred methods of many labour historians–local and microscopic–do not seem to lend themselves readily to international comparisons, especially where such comparisons have a tendency to over-exaggerate the differences between states and nations at the expense of equally important variations at local or regional level. One of the aims of the present study is to demonstrate that cross-national comparisons are indeed compatible with local studies. It is argued that to be successful, cross-national comparisons have to be based on a more pluralist understanding of the complex processes and regional patterns and variations which make up a national case. In recent years there have been a number of calls for international comparative histories which move beyond the nation state, but, as yet, not more than a handful of studies which has actually done this. Moreover, much comparative labour history continues to be informed by the influential thesis of exceptionalism, in particular the assumption that Britain was fundamentally different to the 'continental' labour parties. The difficulties with this approach are explored in the first two chapters of the book, comparing the British case with Sweden. One of the advantages of a cross-national comparative study is that it requires the historian to develop a familiarity with two separate historiographical traditions, thus exposing sometimes long-held assumptions to new questions and approaches.


The British labour movement has been described as "the most anomalous left in Europe". Scholars have consistently regarded the British left as fundamentally different from its continental counterparts, exceptional in its historical development. The thesis of British exceptionalism has deep historical roots. Egon Wertheimer, observing the British labour movement at first hand during the 1920s, noted the 'wide difference' between the Labour Party and the socialist movement in his native Germany. Continental socialist parties were dogmatic and disciplined, homogenous and uniform in spirit, structure, organisation, vocabulary and leadership. In contrast,

How different is the Labour Party! Without a past that sets it in opposition to State and society, it reflects the national characteristics of the English people, undeterred and untroubled by the other Labour parties of the world. It is more British than German social democracy is German, Polish Socialism Polish.

Two characteristics in particular seemed to set the British Labour Party apart from the rest of Europe: the limited influence of socialism and the party's organisational structure, especially its relationship with the trade unions. Following the defeat of Chartism in the mid-nineteenth century, so the argument went, the British working class had turned its back on revolutionary politics, embracing instead 'purely economic' trade union action to defend their interests. Rather than being united by class consciousness, British working-class politics was fragmented and sectional, steered by the pragmatism of the trade unions, and the alliance between labour interests and radical Liberalism. The failure of Marxism to make more of an impact on the British working class could be explained by a number of anomalies within British social and political development: the social and geographical fragmentation of the working class; the apolitical nature of working-class associational culture in Britain; the extent to which the working class was integrated into existing political arrangements; and the lack of intellectual ideological leaders in the British labour movement. For these reasons, class loyalty and cohesiveness, not socialist doctrine, became the unifying principle of the Labour Party. As one influential historian of the party suggested,

One of the most highly class-conscious working-classes in the world produced a Party whose appeal was specifically intended to be classless. Accepting the Labour Party meant accepting not socialism but an intricate network of loyalties ... This was a trade-union code of behaviour; so were the political aims of the Labour Party essentially trade-union ones.

The exceptionalism of the British labour movement has to be seen within a wider tradition of historical writing which has set Britain's historical development apart from that of the rest of Europe, especially in its constitutional development. This tradition pervades even the most critical accounts of national history. For Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the failure of the English working class to develop a revolutionary consciousness was attributed not so much to the specific conditions generated by late nineteenth century political and social developments, but to the 'cumulative fundamental moments of modern English history.' The 'least pure' bourgeois revolution in Europe resulted in the emergence of a bourgeois capitalist class which was 'fragmentary and incomplete', while the experience of the world's first industrial revolution allowed the formation of an industrial proletariat which predated the development of socialist theory. This allowed the ruling class to inflict a comprehensive defeat on the English working class as early as the 1840s. By the 1880s, 'the world had moved on. In consciousness and combativity, the English working-class had been overtaken by almost all its continental opposites ... In France, in Germany, in Italy, Marxism swept the working-class. In England everything was against it.' Thus, even though Anderson and Nairn's account was deeply critical of the trajectory of English history, it nonetheless remained indebted to the classic Whig interpretation–the evolution and continuity of English institutions, and the wholesale rejection of revolutionary change–to explain why the politics of the English working class differed from those of its continental counterparts.

The British Labour Party is not alone in having been described as exceptional. The absence of a European-style socialist party in the USA has been attributed to supposed American exceptionalism, especially those historical circumstances which worked in favour of individualism and against class consciousness in a country which was 'born modern'. The development of the nineteenth century French labour movement was seen as paradoxical, in that a deep sense of class hostility and militancy on the shop floor failed to produce strong trade unions or socialist parties. Historians have cited the French path to industrialisation and the specificity of French political culture, among other causes, to explain this distinctiveness. Meanwhile, the highly centralised structure of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the influence of dogmatic Marxism on its ideology, have often been explained with reference to the German Sonderweg. Germany's rapid and traumatic 'path to modernity' in the nineteenth century imposed socio- economic modernisation onto a state that remained relatively backward in political terms, which explained why bourgeois liberalism remained weak, and why it never collaborated with the working-class movement. This, together with the authoritarian reaction of the state to the German labour movement, forced the SPD into a state of isolation, and left it helpless to respond to the crises of the Weimar Republic.

With few exceptions, therefore, cross-national comparative studies in labour history have generally been individualising, to use Tilly's term; that is, they have attempted to identify and explain the differences between labour movements in different national contexts. That this should be the case appears rather paradoxical, given the internationalist aspirations of the European labour movement. Marx and Engels had, in a famous passage from The Communist Manifesto, expressed their confident belief that international capitalism was undermining national differences among European workers.

Modern industrial labour, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped [the proletarian] of every trace of national character ... National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.

The first edition of the Manifesto was published simultaneously in six European languages to underline the point that, as an international phenomenon, capitalism could only be challenged by a movement that was truly international in its scope. The views expressed in it were echoed throughout the late nineteenth century labour movement. 'The foundations, aims and methods of the proletarian class struggle are everywhere growing more similar,' declared Karl Kautsky in 1892. Most socialists recognised that the socialist challenge would probably be modified to reflect varying conditions in different parts of Europe, but equally they retained their belief in the universal appeal of their movement, and its ability to transgress national boundaries. The leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, Hjalmar Branting, distinguished three main strands within the European labour movement: the 'scientific' socialism of the SPD; the French passion for liberté, égal-ité and fraternité; and the empiricism and pragmatism of English socialism. According to Branting, however, the universalism of the socialist struggle transcended any purely national characteristics. Writing the foreword to the Swedish edition of Blatchford's Merrie England, which appeared in 1896, Branting emphasised the relevance of the English socialist tradition for Swedish social democracy:

Both capitalism, and socialism its heir, have far too much of international humanity in their blood to be tied into national particularities. The Swedish worker, [when he] reads of contemporary England and of 'Merrie England' ... will recognise himself in all essential respects, his own life of slavery, his own wretched uncertain existence ... What does it then mean if one or another detail is different, if proletarianisation is in some cases even more acute [skärande] in England [than in Sweden] ...?

By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, and especially after the demise of the Second International, it was becoming clear that there were important national differences between the European labour movements. As political parties, labour movements were concerned with gaining control over the apparatus of the nation state, and their struggles to do this were thought to be shaped primarily by the peculiar conditions of the state of which they were a part. The principal concern of researchers in the years after 1918, therefore, was to explain why working-class politics varied in different parts of the continent. The influence of the social sciences on historical research from the 1960s generated a new interest in the comparative method as the means by which hypotheses could be subjected to a rigorous quasi-scientific test, and causal variables could be isolated. Indeed, as several comparative historians have pointed out, there was little point in a comparative history that attempted merely to describe differences or similarities between two cases; the main value of the comparative method lay in its ability to provide explanations for these differences and similarities. International comparative labour history thus became concerned with the search for the variable, or the set of variables, which could best explain differences between two or more cases. Very briefly, these explanations could be divided into two groups. Early studies were concerned mostly with the timing and experience of industrialisation, and its implications for class formation. For example, Edvard Bull's 1922 comparison of the three Scandinavian countries sought to explain the apparently divergent path of Bull's own Norwegian Labour Party (DNA), which was the only pre-war social democratic party to join Comintern in 1919, with reference to Norwegian industrialisation. Bull found that Norwegian industrial development took place later and more rapidly than in the rest of Scandinavia, which led to a greater concentration of industry, and an industrial working class which had experienced much more traumatic social upheaval during its formation. Bull's theory was later taken up by the American scholar Walter Galenson, whose own comparative studies helped to develop the thesis of a positive connection between rapid industrialisation and political radicalism. According to the so-called Bull-Galenson thesis, the Danish experience of slow and piecemeal industrialisation, producing mostly for the home market, meant that farm labourers and urban artisans were gradually incorporated into the industrial working class. These groups were used to the discipline of working for an employer, and improvements in living standards meant that they were unlikely to turn to political extremism. The Danish case was diametrically opposed to that of Norway, therefore, where industrialisation was an 'explosive' force, shattering existing social bonds. Caught up in the upheavals and uncertainties of the process, and uprooted more thoroughly from the pre-industrial past, formerly independent peasants found themselves catapulted into industrial waged labour and exposed to a massive drop in living standards, which made them strongly susceptible to the appeal of political radicalism. Radicalism appealed most strongly to the rootless construction workers, who tended to migrate between workplaces, and came to form the main group behind the radical 'Tran-mæl current' which gained ascendancy in the Norwegian Labour Party after 1918. Sweden, meanwhile, lay between these two extreme cases. Here, industrialisation was more rapid than in Denmark, but less of a brutal upheaval than in Norway, and the labour movement was consequently more moderate in its politics.

From the 1970s, a new generation of scholars declared themselves dissatisfied with economic explanations for labour movement difference, and attention was instead directed towards the structure of the state, and its willingness or otherwise to accommodate the demands of the working class. The timing of democratisation had long been held to be important, but more systematic approaches to comparing state structures drew on a broader definition of the state, understood as, 'the continuous administrative, legal, bureaucratic and coercive systems that attempt not only to structure relationships between civil society and public authority in a polity, but also to structure many crucial relationships within civil society as well.' Attention was turned therefore to the relationship between the working and ruling classes, and in particular, the response of economic and political élites to the demands of workers. Where the working class was denied full economic and political citizenship–as it was in Sweden, Finland, Austria and Germany–workers were more likely to turn towards revolutionary movements. In Germany, the ties between the dominant Junker class and the state provoked direct antagonism with the labour movement, and turned it towards a centralised and tightly disciplined Marxist social democratic organisation. This contrasted with France, where the separation of dominant class and state resulted in a labour movement for which anarcho-syndicalism was the most attractive option, and with Britain, where a weak, fragmented state gave rise to a fractured labour movement which did not go to war with the state, but instead negotiated with individual employers to improve living standards. Labour movements, in other words, were organised in the image of the state which they hoped to conquer. In more recent years, the concern with élite responses to working-class demands has been broadened to include industrial relations, and also the relationship between working-class and bourgeois liberal movements. Gregory Luebbert's ambitious study of inter-war politics across Europe suggests that the possibilities for forging cross-class alliances between working-class movements, bourgeois liberal parties and the peasantry was key in determining whether inter-war regimes followed the path of liberal democracy, social democracy or fascism.


Excerpted from Political Change and the Rise of Labour in Comparative Perspective by Mary Hilson. Copyright © 2006 Nordic Academic Press and the Author. Excerpted by permission of Nordic Academic Press.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
A Note on the Translation of Swedish Terms,
Part I - Rethinking Comparative Labour History,
CHAPTER 1 - Introduction–Exceptionalism in Comparative Labour History,
CHAPTER 2 - The Rise of Labour in Britain and Sweden,
CHAPTER 3 - Local and National Politics in the Rise of Labour,
Part II - A Local Case Study–Labour and the Two Dockyard Towns,
CHAPTER 4 - The Labour Movement in Plymouth c. 1890–1914,
CHAPTER 5 - Plymouth during World War I and after,
CHAPTER 6 - The Labour Movement in Karlskrona c. 1890–1911,
CHAPTER 7 - Naval Politics in Karlskrona c. 1911–1921,
CHAPTER 8 - Conclusion,
Summary - Political Change and the Rise of Labour in Comparative Perspective. Britain and Sweden c. 1890–1920,

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