Making Their Own History

Historians of the bourgeois persuasion tend to focus on the doings of major figures in history. Less emphasis is placed by them on the role of working people, often nameless and ill-remembered. Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class was a methodological breakthrough in showing how a working class made itself. The book under review follows that precedent, charting how ordinary Europeans from the Middle Ages to post-Soviet Europe made their own history.
Ingo Schmidt
September 1, 2017


By William A Pelz
Pluto Press/University of Chicago Press, 256 pages
Paperback:  $28.00
June 15, 2016
ISBN: 9780745332451
Paperback, June 2016, $28, ISBN: 
More than half a century ago, E. P. Thompson pioneered a new approach to labor history in The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson was dismayed with the bourgeois idea that history is made by great men, and the occasional princess or queen, but also frustrated with socialist histories that replace statesmen and business moguls with wise, if not infallible, party leaders and union bosses allegedly executing the iron laws of history.
Thompson shifted his focus to diverse groups of working people who, by defending their moral values and dignity against their bosses, would morph (or “make themselves”) into a working class with, across persisting differences, some sort of collective identity.
The work that Thompson produced to empirically support his arguments inspired a new generation of left-wing historians who enthusiastically immersed themselves in history workshops where they traded a plethora of stories collected from all kinds of working people.
Yet Thompson’s tome was rather too heavy or time-consuming to find many readers amongst the rank and file that this new labor history was about. It was Howard Zinn, in his People’s History of the United States, who demonstrated that a “history from below” could be written in an accessible way that invites lay people to read about their own history.
William Pelz does the same for Europe, but with a twist. Throughout this book he points to the particular forms of oppression and exploitation of women, but also the important, though often not recognized, roles they played in popular movements. Moreover, A People’s History of Modern Europe cuts through some of the myths, produced and reproduced by many works coming out of universities and cultural industries, that shape perceptions about Europe in much of the English-speaking world.
For example, Pelz explains the French Revolution as a popular response to the aggravated exploitation through which a high-handed, and also highly indebted, monarchy tried to maintain its power. This prosaic look shows that the revolution was not the work of a crazed mob as it is often presented in sensationalist movies and books.
In another instance, he points out that capital punishment was widely used in cases of theft in Britain while it was pretty much restricted to murder cases in Prussia. This little detail challenges the widespread notion of Britain as a liberal counter model to a Prussian police state unstoppably sliding into Nazi dictatorship.
Drawing on declassified CIA documents, Pelz also shows that the United States, the other self-appointed homeland of liberal democracy, was ready to intervene in Western Europe any time that left movements, most notably in the aftermath of WWII and then again during the 1974-75 Portuguese revolution, were on the cusp of overcoming capitalist power.
From Middle Ages to Revolution
Pelz’s myth-busting clears the way for a sweeping account of historical developments from the Middle Ages to post-communist Europe. The main themes around which he organizes this vast narrative are pretty much the same one also finds in bourgeois or old left histories. But of course he gives them a history-from-below twist.
So instead of James Watt puttering around until cylinder-caged steam sets a piston in motion, we learn about the changes in the work and lives of the popular classes under the emerging reign of steam-powered production. However, the emergence of industrial capitalism, symbolized by the steam engine, had a prehistory stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages when feudal rule in Europe showed its first cracks. This is where Pelz’s account begins.
We encounter feudal exploitation and its justification through the Catholic Church. But we also learn about dissident movements who thought that Christianity was not about justification of inequalities, but about the equality of all men and women. And we learn that the spread of Islam was fostered by widespread discontent with the double standards the church applied to the popular classes and itself and its feudal pals.
These challenges led to the Inquisition and the Crusades. The latter’s goal was to close the ranks of feudal lords, who were notorious for their local rivalries, in order to roll back the perceived or real threat from abroad. But it didn’t work out that way. When the crusaders were defeated militarily, survivors came back to a Europe much less advanced than the societies they had encountered in the Holy Lands.
Not surprisingly, the papacy’s claims to cultural superiority and infallibility rang increasingly hollow. Also, financing the Crusades had increased the leverage of merchants and moneylenders over feudal masters. Efforts to balance their books through higher taxes on the peasantry triggered uprisings all across Europe. The stage was set for the Reformation and the English Revolution.
In the guise of theological dispute, the Catholic Church was criticized for amassing riches in the face of pervasive poverty. The newly invented printing press facilitated the mass distribution of these critiques and thereby did its share in articulating discontent with soaring food prices, increasing tax burdens and limited access to land. This discontent led to a new wave of uprisings or outright peasant wars across Europe.
The first victory over the old regime was scored in England. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, nationally organized and determining ranks by capability, proved far superior to the assemblage of regional armies where the least capable could occupy leading ranks if only he was a noble. The victory, however, also laid bare the conflict amongst the common people who were neither noble nor members of the clergy.
The revolution would have been impossible without the mass support from the un-propertied classes, but the same army that had ousted the old regime eventually suppressed the movements that articulated the demands of these classes, the Levellers and the more radical Diggers. This paved the way for realignment between the old landowners and the emerging merchant and moneylending classes.
The French Revolution met the same fate. The Third Estate (common people of France) stood united against the Crown and the Cross, but then fell apart in a conflict between the more limited demands for political equality and the farther reaching social demands, most forcefully expressed by the Sans-Culottes.
This conflict put the Jacobins in a middling position, fighting the counterrevolution on the right and the radical wing of the revolution on the left, leading inexorably to their own bloody defeat.
Industrialization and Workers’ Movements
Around the same time a very different kind of revolution was unfolding in England, from where it spread to other parts of Europe. Based on the alliance of landowners, merchants and moneylenders and fueled by the robbery of gold and silver in the Americas, an industrial bourgeoisie developed that exerted control over increasing numbers of wageworkers.
Whether they had been peasants forced off their lands or artisans who couldn’t compete with industrially produced goods, they experienced the transformation of task-work to timework and their degradation to appendages of machines. With the loss of autonomy that followed came the impoverishment of the new working classes.
Although the new industrial production methods produced more wealth than the world had ever seen before, living conditions for the folks who produced this wealth deteriorated. This was so bad that humans’ average height dropped compared to pre-industrial times.
This misery triggered mass migration to the Americas and Oceania but also gave rise to workers’ movements. The springtime of the people, 1848, saw the convergence of these workers’ movements with broader popular movements for democratic rights and, in Germany and Italy, for national unity.
Like the French Revolution more than half a century earlier, the revolutions of 1848 were plagued by a conflict between the laboring poor, staffing the ranks of the revolutionary movements, and middle-class republicans who sought political equality and continuing social privilege at the same time.
This contradiction was one of the reasons that hard-won political rights were used to elect Louis Napoleon as French president, before he declared himself Emperor of the Second Empire. But France, although the most dramatic, was not the only case of a revolution failed and defeated.
Recognizing that cross-class alliances with the laboring poor on the barricades and middle-class reformers seeking access to the corridors of power won’t improve the lot of the former, working-class activists turned to autonomous class organizations.
Amongst these, the First and Second Internationals were certainly the most prominent but by no means the only expressions. There were also a variety of unions, some with close ties to socialist parties, others fiercely rejecting political engagement. Pelz presents a sketch of the diversity of the nascent workers’ movements in Europe.
Movements in an Age of Catastrophe
With memberships in workers’ organizations growing and increasing successes in elections, working-class activists felt they were on the march — and bourgeoisies felt the same. Pelz argues that World War I was not only, as socialist theoreticians at the time argued, about imperialist rivalries but also a preemptive measure against the real or perceived threat of socialism.
Though the war caught European workers’ movements off guard, the popular classes didn’t greet the war as enthusiastically as the images of cheering crowds in the streets suggest. There was unease and stirrings of resistance even in the early phase of the war, when leaders of socialist parties almost unanimously declared support for their respective national bourgeoisies and the subsequent suspension of class struggle during the war.
As it quickly turned out, such suspension was impossible as the class divisions that workers knew from their workplaces were reproduced within military hierarchies. In addition, the pre-eminence of arms production over the production of consumer goods, food in particular, led to impoverishment and hunger among workers and soldiers alike.
Ruling-class efforts to bury class conflict under a blanket of nationalism backfired on two counts. First, they sharpened class divisions so much that even martial law couldn’t avert open conflict for too long. Second, they further fomented already existing desires for national independence in the multinational empires of Eastern Europe and the colonial empires of Western Europe.
Tsarist Russia turned out to be the weakest link in the imperial chain. Yet socialist hopes that the Russian revolution would be the opening shot for revolution in the West were disappointed. Revolutionary movements there were too weak to take power — but threatening enough to prompt the emergence of counterrevolutionary mass movements, culminating in the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and thereby laid the seeds for World War II.
The German road to fascism was much longer and more winding than the Italian, where Mussolini’s fascists got a hold on power in the immediate aftermath of the post-WWI economic crisis and the factory occupations in northern Italy.
Stations along the road to Nazi rule included the Versailles Treaty, in which France and Britain imposed unbearable reparations on Germany. They deemed these reparations necessary to pay off their own war debts to the United States.
For the German bourgeoisie, the reparations were a welcome pretext to use hyperinflation in the early 1920s as a means to demonstrate their inability to pay large sums of money to their former adversaries but also to impoverish the German working class and roll back the gains, notably the eight-hour-day, made during the 1918/9 revolution.
The inflation crisis of 1923 brought the country back to the brink of revolution and counterrevolution. During the Great Depression the revolutionary forces were too demoralized and divided by sectarianism to ward off Hitler’s ascendancy.
The Great Depression gave fascists in almost every European country a boost but also led to the Popular Fronts in France and in Spain, where civil war and revolution turned into a proxy war between the German-Italian axis and the Soviet Union, with France and Britain remaining neutral and thereby tipping the military balance towards the fascists.
While Soviet-supported forces tried to appease fears of social revolution amongst the middle-class supporters of the Popular Front, the left within the front was fighting for exactly this revolution. Under these conditions the Spanish Republic was doomed; its collapse signaled the coming of World War II.
From Anti-fascist Resistance to Cold War
Pelz doesn’t write much about this war that occupies so much historical attention. He points out that this attention, notably the fascination with the Wehrmacht and its military technology, reinforces, possibly inadvertently, the Nazis’ self-conceptions. He rather focuses on the resistance movements across Nazi-occupied Europe and points to the significant number of women picking up arms, most notably in Yugoslavia, to fight the Nazi invaders.
Resistance against Nazi occupation went hand in hand with efforts towards further reaching social change. But even in countries like Greece, Italy and possibly France where domestic resistance movements had developed into major political forces, such efforts didn’t have much chance to succeed under the conditions of the emerging Cold War.
While the Soviets tightened their grip on Eastern Europe, thereby destroying whatever credibility they had won in the fight against the Nazis, they accepted the agreed-upon division of Europe in a capitalist West versus a Soviet-controlled East.
Communist parties in the West, which had been the backbone of the antifascist resistance, abandoned socialist aspirations as Moscow feared these might trigger an all-out war between the United States and the Soviet Union for which the latter wasn’t prepared. Communist policy, combined with Atlanticist leanings amongst right-wing social democrats, made it easy for U.S. imperialism to turn Western Europe into an outpost of the “free world.”
Hopes for any kind of socialist transformation faded and were all but forgotten during the post-WWII prosperity that changed working-class lives more fundamentally than anything since these classes had developed.
Living standards were rising beyond the wildest dreams of 19th century socialists, but material advancement also bred new conflicts that became apparent in the 1960s with its array of old and new social movements. The transformation of work and lives also occurred in Eastern European countries.
Left Challenges, Neoliberal Response
Despite differences between Western capitalism and Soviet communism, very much hyped up by Cold War propaganda on both sides and still lingering in collective memories, social movements in the East bore some resemblance with those in the West.
All these movements, whatever their differences, expressed alienation from an increasingly administered world and demanded more democratic rights and actual participation for the popular classes. In Eastern Europe, such demands were entwined with the rejection of Soviet dominance; in Southern Europe they were part of the struggle against military dictatorships in Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Popular mobilizations from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and uprisings in East Germany, Hungary and Poland in the 1950s, to Polish Solidarno and the British miners’ strike in the 1980s, unsettled Western welfare capitalism to the point of the neoliberal counteroffensive and pushed the Soviet bloc into a paralyzing stagnation under which it eventually imploded.<.p>
Pelz concludes A People’s History of Modern Europe with some empirical information about social and economic conditions in the communist East, showing that these were not just better than Western Cold War propaganda could admit but also on some counts ahead of conditions in the West. But they sharply deteriorated with the East’s reintegration into the capitalist world market.
Pelz also provides some information showing that conditions in Western Europe are still better, though also deteriorating, than in most other parts of the world and concludes that whatever working classes had achieved was the result of their own struggles. This may be so but leaves one wondering whether nostalgia for the past, which Pelz explicitly discusses in his closing chapter, marks the end of the peoples in Europe making their own history.
From his tour de force it is quite obvious that the quest for social equality and an escape from poverty, though repeatedly put forward by radical priests and peasant movements, was hopeless in pre-industrial economies where even the redistribution of available riches wouldn’t have improved conditions for the masses of the people by very much.
This changed, of course, once industrialization created the possibilities to improve everyone’s lives. Workers’ and other movements made some headway in this direction, but Pelz’s book shows quite clearly that persistent misery paved the way to all upheavals or outright revolutions before the post-WWII era. It was only during this short and exceptional period after 1945 that workers in Europe won significant material gains.
It is clear from the book that the Cold War, during which capitalist and communist bosses were struggling for some measure of working-class allegiance, played a role in this. Less clear is the role of neocolonial exploitation in allowing superior increases of living standards in the West compared to the East.
What is not clear at all, and admittedly beyond the scope of this book, is the headway that the industrialization of parts of the global South made since the Russian Revolution signaled the beginning of anticolonial revolution and catch-up industrialization in the South, where the transformation of peasants and artisans eventually produced the unmaking of these old classes and the rise of new working classes.
This global transformation changes the terms of struggle beyond anything ever imagined by the masterminds of popular struggles in Europe. In this sense, one could argue, the people’s history of modern Europe has come to an end indeed. But a new chapter of the people’s history of the world may have opened. There is no book about it; this history is still in the making.
Author William A. Pelz is director of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago and professor of history at Elgin Community College. His recent works include Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy, The Eugene V. Debs Reader, and Against Capitalism: The European Left on the March.
[Reviewer Ingo Schmidt teaches Labor Studies at Athabasca University in Canada and is a columnist for Sozialistische Zeitung, a German monthly. He is the author most recently of The Three Worlds of Social Democracy and (with Carlo Fanelli) Reading Capital Today.]
September 7, 2017