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The Weaver's Knot: The Contradiction of Class Struggle and Family Solidarity in Western France, 1750-1914.

By Tessie P. Liu (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994. xi plus 279pp.).

Perhaps the first lesson this book teaches is how much scholars had to forget in order to construct the typical account of industrialization still found in most textbooks. Returning to those classic victims of the Industrial Revolution, the handloom weavers, Liu finds them not to have been victims--in any absolute sense--at all. Textile manufacturing in the Choletais region of France provides the author with material to subject recent theories about proto-industrialization and technological dualism to careful scrutiny. The result is a set of rewarding insights into the contingency of economic development.

Challenging linear theories of industrial development which end in factory production, Liu demonstrates the enormous complexity of economic evolution. Whereas proto-industrial theory posits outwork as the first stage of industrialization, Liu shows that no simple statement could describe the long-term development of textile production in western France. Industrialization, deindustrialization, technological advance, and backwardness--these were successive stages in the history of the Choletais. The overwhelming fact, however, was the persistence of handloom weaving as factory production appeared and disappeared. In 1904, there were still about two thousand workers in mechanical weaving and seven to eight thousand hand weavers. The multidirectional and polymorphous changes which occurred give Liu the opportunity to rethink the entire role of small-scale production in economic development and to insist on the significance of class struggle in shaping economic change.

The linen trade boomed in eighteenth-century Cholatais. However, this did not result in the subjection of outworkers to merchant capitalists. Rather, the handloom weavers took care to maintain their independence by fighting for access to raw materials and markets. Their struggles came to an end only with the crisis of the trade during the Revolution. On its ashes arose cotton production, which was a "modern" industry for the first four decades of the nineteenth century. Yet, "backwardness" replaced efficiency when cotton entrepreneurs withdrew from cloth production in the 1850s. They did so because conflicts with weavers made fixed investment too risky. The region saw the return of linen production as both a cottage and a factory industry during the cotton famine of the 1860s. For the rest of the century handloom weavers had to find a place for themselves within factory-dominated production. They did so by working on the coarsest and finest grades, and their numbers soon stabilized. In the meantime, hand weavers tried to cooperate with factory operatives in organizing the labor market, failed to this endeavor, and reaffirmed their separate identity as small producers.

Central to Liu's analysis is an appreciation of how social conflict shaped economic decisions. Most thinking about proto-industrialization assumes that merchant capitalists would eventually sieze on the logic of machine production and then have little trouble implementing it. In fact, Liu argues, outworkers could raise the costs of technological advances to the point that capitalists might be forced to find market niches in which hand production was rational. Thus, Liu argues, it was often easier for regions without a history of proto-industry to mechanize. She is convincing that market segmentation and class struggle were not always on the side of technological progress.

Ultimately, the weaver's survival came at an high price, underwritten by patriarchy. As machine production progressed, the family ceased to be a unit of production. Whereas weaving fathers allowed their sons to escape into more lucrative lines of work, daughters and wives kept the household afloat by bringing in income from sweated labor. The hegemonic ideology identifying "family interest" with the maintenance of the father in this craft provided the margin of victory over the factory.

I suspect that this will be a book read mainly by specialists in industrialization, for the analysis is dense and its central thrust is to add complications to a story of uneven development. This would be unfortunate because the survival of cottage industry is an important, European wide phenomenon that deserves careful scrutiny. Moreover, this study is tightly reasoned and patiently argued. It is exemplary in moving back and forth between theory and historical evidence. Liu has not set out to find complexity where simplicity would do. Rather, she correctly finds that economic rationality is not the straight and narrow path which mainstream ideologies often require it to be.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Author:Berlanstein, Lenard R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
Words:710
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