The Gypsies, Jacques Callot, 1625

Against Capitalism: Resisting Wage Labour in the 19th Century

In the advanced economies of Europe, you would be hard pressed to find somebody who still calls themselves an ‘artisan’. The closest you might find, perhaps, is a marketing savvy barista whose artisan job title indicates they have mastered the complex arts of pouring coffee in a fashionable café. Yet throughout most of the 19th century, skilled and independently employed artisans were a sizeable and relatively autonomous part of any national workforce. More importantly, this autonomy and casualised form of life meant that, for a time, they were able to mobilise collectively and politically in order to counter the existential threats posed by the industrial revolution.

Alongside the contemporary collapse of the labour market, we have seen the rise of the ‘informal economy’, self-employment, and a return to casualised work. In Britain and across Europe, this transformation has inadvertently stoked an anti-immigrant sentiment, whereby mass migration is blamed for the lack of full time jobs and meaningful employment. But those who genuinely feel the fullest effects of this dual crisis of work and migration, should perhaps remember that these crises are the systemic products of a historically volatile capitalist process. Although this process now operates on an unprecedented global scale, the British artisans and self-employed of the 19th century once suffered similar effects of coercion into meaningless wage-labour, and were also forced to continually migrate from town to town, or emigrate overseas.

In the following article I explore the work of a few historians who have researched this often overlooked period in our history, of working people who, as with many of my own generation today, spent most of their time not working, but looking for work.

Throughout the length and breadth of our native land there has not been a corner or village but what some of our members have perambulated in pursuit of employment; our high roads have resembled that of a mechanical workshop, or a mighty mass of moving human beings.

Higenbottam, Our Society’s History, 18721

The masterless, migrating artisan is a recurring figure of mobilization throughout the history of socialist thought. The artisans appear, for example, during the social, religious and political upheaval of the English Revolution in the 1640s and 50s, roaming the countryside and woodlands in search of employment alongside preachers, vagabonds and beggars. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill dedicated a chapter to ‘Masterless Men’ in The World Turned Upside Down, describing “the seething mobility of forest squatters, itinerant craftsmen and building labourers, unemployed men and women seeking work […] congregating especially in London and the big cities, but also with footholds wherever newly-squatted areas escaped from the machinery of the Parish or in old squatted areas where labour was in demand.”2

John Rees’ The Leveller Revolution has more recently illustrated how the casualised labour, physical mobilisation and auto-didacticism of the London Apprentices (artisans in training), enabled them to become a core group of revolutionary subjects from which large numbers of Levellers, including the famous John Lilburne himself, emerged onto the political scene. They existed in vast numbers, he writes: the lowest estimates are above 10% and the highest above 20% of the population; it is likely true that apprenticeship in London made the capital into the largest educational site that existed in England before compulsory basic schooling was introduced in the late 19th century.3

Could this intense proliferation of educated individuals and unusually free political agency have had anything to do with the radical stirrings of the English Revolution? We are left with little doubt that Rees believes so. E.P Thompson has elsewhere provided us with incredibly rich accounts of the 18th century formations of the English working class, much owed to the central role of the radicalised artisans’ coordinated political gatherings and unionism.4 Iorwerth Prothero has notably examined the position of the skilled artisan in the politics of early nineteenth century London, and in another comparative study on radical artisans in England and France.5

The post-war period was a high water mark for Marxist Historiography in Britain. Its most recognisable methodology, ‘history from below’, was coined by E.P Thompson in an essay of the same name. In the preface to his 1963 book The Making of the English Working Class, he wrote: “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.”6 Among the historically silenced voices of the oppressed and marginalised subjects unearthed by Thompson and his contemporaries, the artisans stand out as exemplary figures of mobilisation and resistance. Their traditional, pre-capitalist forms of life stood in stark opposition to the centralising encroachment of industrialisation. The emergence of bourgeois monopolies, rapid technological development and the introduction of wage-labour led to their eventual dissolution as a quantitatively significant social class. Yet this decline did not happen instantaneously.

So what form did this mobilised resistance ultimately take? The artisans were forced to initiate new processes of labour, systems of employment, and political organisation. Devised to deal with structural problems concerning the supply and demand of labour, unemployment and economic depression, their initiatives were instrumental to the formation of the early trade unions and modern kinds of welfare. Eric Hobsbawm’s 1951 essay The Tramping Artisan captured some of the key aspects of the systematic migration that took place during the industrial revolution. From the beginning of the 18th to the early 20th century, the ‘tramping system’ sustained calico printers, wool combers, paper-makers, hatters, smiths, carpenters, boot and shoe-makers, metal-workers, bakers, tailors, plumbers, painters and glaziers, bookbinders and others.7 It worked via documents, ‘blanks’, or ‘clearance’ which the artisan would carry on his travels, and affirmed his abilities as ‘a member in good standing of the society.’ He showed this upon arrival at his destination, a ‘clubhouse’ or ‘house of call’, which was ‘generally a pub ̶ receiving in return supper, lodging, perhaps a beer, and a tramp allowance. If there was work to be found, he took it; the call-book (if there was one) was of course kept at the house of call, an unofficial labour exchange. If there was none, he tramped on.’8

Hobsbawm’s essay was cited in The Making of the English Working Class – Thompson apparently enthused by the reference to the system as the artisans ‘Grand Tour’, which was about 2,800 miles long in the 1850’s.9 Thompson instead sought to demonstrate the artisans intellectual capacities, the political activities of The London Corresponding Society, of ‘organic intellectuals’ like John Thelwall, and the observations recorded directly by Henry Mayhew in his comparison with unskilled labourers. In his 1862 study, London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew witnessed that “the artisans are almost to a man red-hot politicians. They are sufficiently educated and thoughtful to have a sense of their importance in the State…The unskilled labourers are a different class of people. As yet they are as unpolitical as footmen, and instead of entertaining violent democratic opinions, they appear to have no political opinions whatever; or, if they do… they rather lead towards the maintenance of ‘things as they are’, than towards the ascendancy of the working people.”10 Although participation varied across the country it is understood that the early trade unions, with their lodging and call houses facilitated a cross-fertilization of radical ideas, formalized in ‘friendly societies’, and within the walls of debating clubs. The tramping system itself sustained a similar circulation of radical thinking, as Hobsbawm discovered: “the traveller acted as a link between different areas, passing on information about local wage rates, advising on the best times to start a wage-movement, a walking encyclopedia of comparative trade-union knowledge.”11

Both Hobsbawm and Thompson fundamentally understood the system as a defensive measure. This defence was both lived and intellectual, consciously developed by the artisans in order to remain in frequent employment, and avoid subjection to mundane, restrictive, unskilled wage labour. They knew how a sustained and concerted migration could strengthen their bargaining power. Hobsbawm attributed its expansion and surge in popularity during the middle of the 19th century, to its ability to relieve strike funds, and provide means of countering victimization: from this to a more sophisticated calculation of political economy was only one step.

By removing the unemployed from places of slack trade, and keeping them in circulation, tramping kept the supply in the labour market limited. “If it had not been in our power”, wrote the General Union of Carpenters in 1846, “to keep up our tramping transport… a general reduction in wages would have taken place.”12 Just as it appeared at its height, with certain tramping trades perhaps coming close to the classical ideal of a perfectly mobile labour force, by the year 1860 the seeds of its undoing had already been sown. Aside from the technological advancement of public transport, such as the tram or train, one of the reasons for the tramping systems decline was the inability of small-scale competitive businesses to function within the dominant free market mechanism.

This new kind of economy led to the relative obsolescence of ‘casualism’ (the temporality of the artisans labour) as a viable form of life in Britain. As much as 36% of the workforce operated within the manufacturing industries as early as 1841, most of which was comprised of large private firms, factories and fixed capital.13 The rest of the population was largely concerned with agricultural production at this time. The centralized capitalist industries could not function without a constant influx of wage labourers willing to toil at the modern machinery, and had no need for independent, ‘self-employed’ artisans, unless they wished to join Britain’s reserve army of unemployed (although the actual term ‘unemployed’ was not in use at the time), or ‘surplus’ labourers.

Another contributing factor to the tramping systems demise worth mentioning here, and which for Hobsbawm ‘marked an important stage in the education of the labour movement’, was the introduction of ordinary unemployment relief by the trade unions. This followed, in particular, the massive unemployment and social upheavals of the 1840s. The unions adopted ‘static-out-of-work pay’, and developed more efficient ways to send workers from “slack places to busy places more efficiently than the happy go lucky tramping systems.”14 These ‘new unions’ Hobsbawm credits with recognising that the capitalist economy was not something to be sidestepped, but had to be dealt with by understanding its specific laws of motion.15

It is clear, then, that for Hobsbawm the tramping system was a foundational stage in a genealogical development of trade unionism. By tracing a line to the later unions he implicitly refers to the artisans, although diverse in occupation, as members of a homogeneous working class movement, as agents of socially produced knowledge which the movement advanced from. Perhaps this is part of the reason why critics of his generation of Marxist historians railed against them for their supposed historical ‘determinism?’16 For concocting the sense of an inevitable working class march, or class struggle, moving towards a Communist horizon.

But for all his perceived partisan unionist tendencies, Hobsbawm understood clearly, largely due to Karl Marx’s critique of capital, the economic reasons that made the tramping system’s continued functioning within the capitalist heartlands of Britain an economic improbability. At the end of the essay he speculates: “no doubt a mass exodus from low wage centres, a mass influx of organized men refusing to work below the rate, might have levelled conditions. But in the nature of things, this could rarely happen.”17 The ideal of an oppositional, or ‘levelling’, ‘anti-capitalist’ tramping system remained a figment of a socialist imagination, an imaginary which Hobsbawm himself had almost seemed hopeful that he would find in his research. The system was in fact always the last line of defence for a pre-capitalist class of artisans, which had to transform itself if it wanted to survive, or else emigrate overseas, where freedom from alienated labour still remained a possibility.

I believe the artisan remains relevant today because it is a figure tied closely to the labour process, but not, historically speaking, to the wage relation itself. Their self-reliance and masterless existence should not be taken as an affirmation of contemporary ‘self-employment’, but rather as a vivid portrait of a historical subject which, if only temporarily, managed to resist wage labour and in the process distort the flow and structure of aggressive capitalisation. The fruits of their resistance ̶ the birth of trade unionism and the precursor to our contemporary welfare system ̶ should stand as a vindication of workplace organisation, and continue to inspire the ailing trade unions that nonetheless still remain an important resource for the workers of today.

Tom Holland, March 2017

This article is an excerpt from the essay Towards an Artisan Imaginary, commissioned by
Nikki Kane as part of a project for CuratorLab at Konstfack, Stockholm


  1. Higenbottam, Our Society’s History, (1872), as cited by Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964), p.42
  2. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, (Penguin Books, 1972), p.49
  3. John Rees, The Leveller Revolution, (Verso, 2016), p.24
  4. P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (Penguin Books, 1963)
  5. Iorwerth Prothero, Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century London, (Routledge, 1979) & Radical Artisans in England & France 1830-1870, (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  6. P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (Penguin Books, 1963), p.12
  7. Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964), p.36
  8. p.34
  9. P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (Penguin Books, 1963), p.267
  10. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (1862), III, p.243 & E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (Penguin Books, 1963), p.20
  11. Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964), p.52
  12. p.41
  13. Office for National Statistics, 170 Years of Industrial Change across England and Wales, (Released: 05 June 2013) <> [accessed February 2017]
  14. Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964), p.48
  15. Ibid, p.48
  16. See Geoffrey Elton’s essays: The Stuart Century, A High Road to Civil War? and The Unexplained Revolution in G. R. Elton, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Volume II (Cambridge University Press, 1974)
  17. Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964), p.53

Tom Holland is a writer and artist based in Glasgow, Scotland. With a background in Art & Philosophy, his core research interests are: theories of labour and the work ethic, radical histories, automation, class, Autonomism, and the intersection between art and politics.

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