Introduction  pp. 1-12

Introduction

By David Montgomery

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Workers in every industrializing country of the nineteenth century fought for civil and political rights within the national polity. In autocracies, where any popular mobilization could be regarded by the authorities as subversive, even strikes over economic issues frequently activated demands by workers for freedom of speech and association and for access to the decision-making power of government. Although social democratic parties proclaimed collective ownership of the means of production as their ultimate objective, and anarchists held all forms of government and all patriotism in contempt, the greatest mass mobilizations and general strikes of European workers before 1914 demanded political rights: the vote, civil liberties, and the end of autocracy. Where male workers could and did influence government by casting their ballots and were also free to form unions, as was the case during the last two decades of the century in France and the United States, they denounced the frequent intervention of soldiers in disputes between laborers and their employers as flagrant violations of that equality of rights on which republics were supposedly founded.

“In the end, it is the political context as much as the steam-engine, which had most influence upon the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class,” wrote E. P. Thompson.