By Joe Jones
August 12 2020
Current debates on working time reduction (WTR) often focus on how to increase efficiency, provide economic stability, and improve workers’ wellbeing. But historical campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries presented WTR as fundamental for workers’ freedom, rather than just as a tool to improve conditions. To recapture this lost spirit of earlier iterations of the shorter working week movement, we can turn to two important early sources: the abolitionist advocate Richard Oastler in the 1830s, and radical republican campaigns in the 1880s. Returning to these campaigns highlights how central questions of freedom and increased leisure time were to debates over working time reduction.
Richard Oastler was a factory reformer and prominent member of the abolitionist movement who earned the title of “Factory King” for his tireless campaigning. He became involved in WTR campaigns when a factory-owning friend, John Wood, made him aware of the conditions in the textile mills. He was motivated by the parallels between the conditions of factory workers and those of slaves – highlighting the importance of liberty to his political argument. Oastler immediately wrote an incendiary letter entitled Yorkshire Slavery in which he shocked readers by making a number of comparisons between work in a factory and a condition of slavery.
He opened the letter by reminding readers of the popular abolitionist sentiment that “it is the pride of Britain that a slave cannot exist on her soil.” He went on to describe how slave-like conditions exist in the factories, and how “thousands of our fellow-creatures… are this very moment existing in a state of slavery, more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system ‘colonial slavery’” before showing the hypocrisy of this occurring in Yorkshire, “a place famed for its profession of religious zeal.” For Oastler, legislation was needed to shorten the working day and improve factory conditions in order to provide British workers with greater freedom – an idea central to the abolitionist movement.
Oastler was writing at a time when freedom was an incredibly prominent idea in public discourse, but it continues to be present in WTR arguments long after slavery was abolished in 1833, albeit in a modified form. An important example of this is radical republicanism.
Radical republicanism encompasses a broad number of thinkers and specific movements, including Chartism, which were prominent between the 1840s and 1880s, eventually losing ground to socialism as the primary ideology of the left in the UK. Radical republicans believed each worker had an inalienable right to freedom that must be respected in work. They sought a republic of workers built on liberty, defined as “mastery over the self… the absence of interference by others… [and] freedom as non-mastery or… non-domination”, and believed that reduced working time and increased leisure time was a key to protecting this liberty. The arbitrary power of factory-owners was seen as a direct threat to this liberty. Even benevolent and kind “masters” still had ultimate control over their workers. Interestingly, “because the cause of social ills lay in the logic of capitalism, not unjust laws passed by a corrupt state, the key issues had become social not political ones.” This led some (but not all) radical republicans to adopt socialist positions, retaining the central importance of workers’ freedom but primarily pursuing social change rather than legislative action.
One key example is H. M. Hyndman, who founded the Democratic Federation (D.F – later changing its name to the Socialist Democratic Federation), the key aims of which were “universal suffrage, proportional representation and payment of members as a means of obtaining reduction of the hours of labour [and] socialisation of the means of production.” Organisations like the D.F were integral in winning the 8-hour day and establishing significant social change: but importantly, the underlying motivations during this period in the 20th Century still included the 19th Century notion that WTR was central to the freedom of workers.
While these arguments might be less prominent in current discussions of WTR, they remain important themes in understanding why WTR is necessary. More importantly, they present the opportunity to establish a positive form of WTR as an expression and safeguard of liberty, rather than as a reaction to economic downturn or health crisis.
Bevir, M. (2000) ‘Republicanism, Socialism, and Democracy in Britain: The Origins of the Radical Left’, Journal of Social History, 34(2), pp. 351–368.
Driver, C. (1946) Tory Radical: The Life of Richard Oastler. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gourevitch, A. (2013) ‘Labor Republicanism and the Transformation of Work’, Political Theory, 41(4), pp. 591–617.
Oastler, R. (1834) A Letter to Those Sleek, Pious, Holy and Devout Dissenters. Bradford: J. Atkinson.
Pettit, P. (1997) Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Joe Jones is a doctoral researcher in the Philosophy department at the University of Kent. His research focuses on the philosophical implications of automation, and explores possible applications of the writings of Hannah Arendt to the future of work. As part of his partnership with Autonomy, Joe will be researching the social, political and economic history of working time reduction in the UK.