In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of Class Formation

  • Introduction
  • Preindustrial Labor, Proto-industrialization, Proletarianization, and the Politics of the Moral Economy
  • Second Industrial Revolution and Collective Action
  • Skills, Deskilling, and Contention
  • The Labor Movement and Mass Politics
  • American Exceptionalism
  • Language, Culture, and Contention
  • The City and Class Formation/Deformation
  • Colonial and Postcolonial Labor and the State
  • Class Formation, Gender, Race, and Contentious Action
  • Whiteness
  • Class Formation and Democratization
  • Transnational Labor
  • Labor in a Globalizing World
  • Labor Journals

Political Science Politics of Class Formation
Michael P. Hanagan, Keith Mann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0219


Over the last three centuries, the politics of class formation emerged as increasingly centralized states confronted organized workers in expanding urban environments. The Industrial Revolution and the wave of technological changes that began in Britain between 1760 and 1840 played an inestimable role in shaping class formation and politics. Around 1890, a second industrial revolution involving the mechanization of older industries and the rise of new industries, especially electrical, chemical, and steel, began to develop. Simultaneously, a political revolution, democratic in character and republican in spirit, was destroying the cultural and religious foundations of the old order. A few hundred years ago, popular politics in Western Europe and North America seemed as much a rural as an urban phenomenon; only in the 18th century would revolutionary initiative pass to the city. The sight of officials in their area frightened and occasionally mobilized villagers in protest and resistance because the appearance of officials usually meant increased taxes, the conscription of their sons, and violence against women. For example, social movement scholar Charles Tilly identified a series of contentious practices that he called the “repertoire of social protest” which have regularly appeared in English popular protest since the 18th century (see Tilly’s Regimes and Repertoires [University of Chicago Press, 2006]). These include marches, rallies, and strikes. Changes in repertoire indicate that big changes are going on in the daily lives and discontents of ordinary people. Scholars have discovered that early modern people had political convictions cobbled together from old pre-capitalist religious institutions or pre-capitalist economic values. These convictions were labeled a “moral economy.” Over the last centuries, both the character and the site of work changed. Today, most people work for wages in factories, commercial establishments, laboratories, schools, or offices and live in cities. Between 1850 and 1950, labor movements emerged from factories, small workshops, mines, and working-class communities, providing an important force in rising democratic and often socialist movements. In the modern period, state intervention is often associated with a bettering in the lot of the masses. Standards of living have risen in most of the world, yet social inequality has increased. Revolutions have spread democratic ideals through much of the world and working-class parties have familiarized millions with progressive ideas. An expanding male and, later, female suffrage through the 19th and early 20th century gave working people a voice in public affairs. Progress has not been constant—particularly for black and women workers—but generally social movements and political struggles in which workers have played a leading role have advanced democratic causes. Yet, today, those hard-won democratic conquests are more in danger throughout the world than at any time in the last fifty years. The state policies and political strategies responsible for past advances are also seemingly under attack everywhere. We cannot know the future, but if the past several centuries tell us anything, it is that there is no road to continued democratic and social advance without the mobilization of masses of people, including the world’s workers. Confronting the question of class formation, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that classes are “never made in the sense of being finished or having acquired their definitive shape. They keep on changing” (Eric Hobsbawm, Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984], p. 194).

Theorists of Class Formation

Modern notions of class began to emerge with the French Revolution. In 1789 the Abbé Sièyes (b. 1748–d. 1836), a key figure from the early phase of the French Revolution, wrote an influential pamphlet, “What is the Third Estate?,” in which he identified the bourgeoisie as the most forward-looking, useful, and productive element in the nation, thereby identifying it as a distinct class. By the first half of the 19th century, the term “class” had begun to be used to define a category of humankind. The ideas of Karl Marx and Max Weber have cast a long shadow over social science thinking and research on class. Marx saw class as a relationship between people with common relations to the means of the production. A bourgeois class of owners exploited a property-less proletariat through the latter’s need to sell its labor power. Meanwhile, Weber emphasized the importance of market position, social standing, and political power, while John R. Commons and his collaborators in the “Commons school,” including Selig Perlman, stressed the centrality of established institutions (Commons 1934) and the processes that reproduce them (Perlman 1928), an emphasis continued by scholars such as the labor economist Oliver Williamson (Williamson 1985). In the enormously influential Making of the English Working Class (Thompson 1964), E. P. Thompson acknowledged the role of economic structures but called attention to the cultural dimensions of the class experience (see also Arnesen 2013, a collection of essays on fiftieth anniversary of Thompson’s book). Recent efforts by European scholars centered in Amsterdam to look at class over long historical periods and on a global scale constitute an exciting new contribution toward the study of class.

  • Arnesen, Eric, ed. “E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class: Assessments after Half a Century.” Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas 10.3 (Fall 2013): 27–56.

    DOI: 10.1215/15476715-2149510

    A special section in this journal commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Introduction by Arnesen and essays by Anna Clark, Geoff Eley, Leon Fink, Lara Kriegel, Jonathan Rose, and Deborah Vilenze.

  • Commons, John. Institutional Economics. New York: Macmillan, 1934.

    Commons’s classic work on the role of institutions in shaping economics.

  • Perlman, Selig. The Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

    Perlman was a student of Commons. He concentrated on labor issues. Like Commons, he emphasized core values institutionalized in trade unions and trade union organizations. For Perlman, American “job consciousness” was the dominant principle among US unionists.

  • Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon, 1964.

    Edward Thompson’s famous preface rallied scholars to the cause of cultural analysis: “The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born—or enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embedded in traditions, value systems, ideas and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class consciousness does not.”

  • Williamson, Oliver E. The Economic Institutions of Capitalism. New York: Free Press, 1985.

    Williamson, a leading labor economist, writes from the more rationalist and individualist wing of the “new institutionalism.”

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