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Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society: Bradford, 1750-1850.

Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society: Bradford, 1950-1850. By Theodore Koditschek (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. xi plus 611 pp. $69.50).

In 1864, John Ruskin delivered to a Bradford audience one of his famous denunciations of urban blight. Entitled "Traffic," the address blasted the city's capitalist elites for their indifference to the sufferings of the working class, on which their prosperity rested. Theodore Koditschek would have heartily applauded Ruskin. Although, surprisingly, he makes no mention of Ruskin's memorable visit to Bradford, he relentlessly demonstrates that the city's industrialists placed all their faith in the workings of the free market whenever times were good, as they were in 1864. It was only when sustained economic decline drove significant numbers of workers into anticapitalist organizations and protests, Koditschek maintains, that the bourgeoisie paid attention to their discontents, wooing them with promises of industrial regulation and urban regeneration.

Koditschek's study of urbanization and industrialization in Bradford between 1750 and 1850 joins a rapidly growing list of recent works on the growth of British cities in the nineteenth century. Some volumes stress class formation; some emphasize political relations; and some look particularly at cultural developments. Koditschek tries to cover all bases, while simultaneously grappling with major theoretical issues in social history. The result is a stimulating, often illuminating, and ultimately problematic book.

What strikes the reader most forcibly is Koditschek's remarkable command of his sources, ranging from the most recent secondary studies and doctoral dissertations to obscure primary records pertaining to virtually all aspects of Bradford's civic life. He has made painstaking use of census records, while his introductory comments offer an invaluable bibliographical essay on the continuing historical debate over the concept of class in nineteenth-century Britain. Nor is his interest in class formation limited to the lower end of the social scale; certain groups of employers figure as prominently as their employees in this account.

Throughout the volume, Koditschek argues that classes exist, that the theoretical construct dubbed "class" is a real force in history. He describes himself as a modified Marxist, but "troubled Marxist" might be closer to the mark, for he is well aware that his loyalty to Marx's categories and concepts creates serious problems for himself as a historian. At times, this reader sensed that she was witnessing a classic conflict of heart versus head. Like Ruskin, Koditschek feels deeply. Sympathizing with the early nineteenth-century workers, he clearly wants to subscribe to Marx's historical scenario, which both fuels and satisfies his righteous wrath. He is, however, too careful and conscientious a historian to pretend that his findings allow him to reach orthodox Marxist conclusions.

Koditschek has read his Marx well. Many of the footnotes, giving credit for both theoretical insights and specific information, cite Marx's works. He relies heavily on the concepts of proletarianization and alienation to explain what was happening to the most distressed groups of workers during the first half of the nineteenth century. He perceives class status as fundamentally determined by an individual's relations to the process of production. He insists that the classes he found in his investigation of Bradford's past "were, in their actual social composition, remarkably close to those abstractedly posited in [Marx's] theoretical works" (p. 25).

Yet, repeatedly, Koditschek concedes the limited utility of those abstractions for his own work. Readily acknowledging that class formation can only properly be studied in a specific historical context, he finds that, amid the ambiguities of real social patterns, "the classes that the logic of productive relations dictates are, to a greater or lesser degree, fractured, distorted, and perhaps even contraindicated [sic]" (p. 7). He laments, in a footnote, that Marx never balanced his theoretical perceptions with a detailed study of the reasons why history so often proved his prognoses incorrect (p. 8, n21). They were most resoundingly incorrect, as Koditschek also admits, where Bradford was concerned. Instead of escalating class conflict ending in the triumph of the dispossessed, he tells a story of compromise, caution, and even occasional compassion on the part of Bradford's industrial capitalists. By the late 1840s, their flexibility succeeded in reconciling a substantial segment of the city's working population to the liberal entrepreneurial world view. Among 1,500 special constables created to cope with Chartism's last gasp in 1848 were a significant number of respectable workers, who identified more closely with the city's bourgeois municipal authorities than with the desperate, insurrectionary woolcombers who predominated among Bradford's radical Chartists.

Koditschek is only able to square the rich complexity of nineteenth-century Bradford's social structure with the theoretical abstractions encompassed in the Marxist notion of class by selecting atypical groups to represent both the bourgeoisie and the working class. For the former, he selects the entrepreneurial textile capitalists who "stood on capitalist productive relations' cutting edge" (p. 13); for the latter, the hand woolcombers, whose steady decline from independent artisanal status to the most dysfunctional of the industrialized city's occupational categories enables Koditschek to pass scathing judgment on the exploitation of one group of human beings by another. Although he himself argues that the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie contained so vast an array of subgroups as almost to defy characterization and recognizes that industrial entrepreneurs formed but "a distinct minority even within their own class" (p. 20), he gives very little detailed information about the other elements of Bradford's middle class. Similarly, other specific categories of workers, including the new factory operatives, receive comparatively scant attention, although the majority of them, he acknowledges, did not share the woolcombers' devastating experience. By pitting only the most successful members of the bourgeoisie against the least successful of the workers, and by telling his readers almost nothing about the lower middle class sandwiched in between, Koditschek conjures up an image of stark class confrontation. Whether it is a valid image for Bradford, even in the worst years of the 1820s, '30s, and '40s, remains questionable.

Koditschek's study is, nonetheless, very valuable. It not only provides extraordinarily detailed and fascinating information about a city undergoing unprecedented changes, but it also permits his professional colleagues to observe the struggles of a first-rate historian trying to reconcile empiricist training and ideological commitment.

Janet Oppenheim The American University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Oppenheim, Janet
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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