5.8I: Communism and Unionization

team (2)

AP Theme

Social Interactions and Organization

Learning Objective 5I

Explain the causes and effects of calls for changes in industrial societies from 1750 to 1900.

Historical Development 1

In response to the social and economic changes brought about by industrial capitalism, some governments, organizations, and individuals promoted various types of political, social, educational, and urban reforms.

Historical Development 2

In industrialized states, many workers organized themselves, often in labor unions, to improve working conditions, limit hours, and gain higher wages. Workers’ movements and political parties emerged in different areas, promoting alternative visions of society.

Historical Development 3

Discontent with established power structures encouraged the development of various ideologies, including those espoused by Karl Marx, and the ideas of socialism and communism.


Urban Residents in Industrial Societies Faced Difficult Living Conditions

Main idea

Nineteenth-century industrial societies were highly unequal, with the working classes and urban poor living and working in extreme conditions.

The following were a few of the worst problems faced by impoverished urban communities. 

Public health

Disease epidemics like cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and tuberculosis were common, and most people had little access to healthcare.

Working conditions

Working conditions in industrial factories were extreme. People often worked 12-16 hours each day. Factory pay was low, and working conditions were dangerous.

Limited political rights

The working classes had limited political rights. White men often could not vote or run for political office. Women and nonwhite men had no political rights.

Lack of education

There was no education for children of the lower classes. 

Child labor

The children of the working classes often began working as young as six.


Industrial factories openly dumped industrial waste into poorer neighborhoods polluting the water supply. Coal-powered factories also emitted toxic fumes into the air. Because the poor and working classes lived closest to the factories, they experienced the worst impacts of pollution.

Reform Movements Fought to Expand Rights and Improve Urban Living Conditions

Main idea

Community organizers started charities and pressured governments to focus on fixing problems faced by the urban poor and working classes.


In the second half of the 19th century, various reform movements began that fought to improve living and working conditions for the lower classes. These groups focused on

  • expanding political rights

  • improving social conditions for migrants

  • expanding educational opportunity

  • cleaning up and beautifying urban neighborhoods

Tactics used by groups included

  • pressuring governments to change laws

  • starting charitable organizations

  • organizing community groups and unions to advocate for change

Reforms to expand political rights

Industrialized democratic societies did not have universal voting. While men denied all women the right to vote nearly everywhere, many men also could not vote. Restrictions prevented men from particular racial or social class groups from voting and running for elected office. The poor and working classes lacked most political rights.

The lower classes fight for political rights: Social reformers understood that without political rights, the lower classes would always rely on the charity of the wealthy to improve their living conditions. Working-class movements, such as the Chartists in Britain, protested for expanding voting rights to the lower classes. By the end of the 19th century, poor and working-class white men had gained equal political rights to the middle and upper classes.    

Milestones in the expansion of voting rights to poor and working-class men


State governments in the American states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Georgia eliminate property requirements for voting.   


Britain expanded voting rights to the middle classes. 


The last state government in the United States—North Carolina—eliminated property requirements for voting.


Britain expanded voting rights to men living in towns and cities.


Britain expands voting rights to poor farmers and laborers living in the countryside. 

Reforms to expand political rights

Across the industrialized world, people moved to cities in large numbers looking for work. Many migrants moved within their own countries from rural to urban areas. Others crossed oceans and international borders in search of opportunity.

The Settlement Movement: Urban life was most difficult for newly arrived migrants who often suffered from extreme poverty. In the 1880s in London, the Settlement Movement began among upper-class liberals who wanted to work to alleviate poverty by providing the impoverished with skills and services they could use to better their lives. To do this, volunteers opened small community centers called settlement houses in the poorest neighborhoods, where they offered social services such as daycare, English classes, skills training, and healthcare.

  • Hull House:The movement quickly spread to the United States. In 1889 Jane Addams (1860 – 1935) opened Hull House in a heavily immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. Hull House provided daycare, kindergarten classes, a library, and citizenship classes to residents in the community. 

Reforms to expand educational opportunities

Until the late 19th century, only the children of the elite or those who showed great potential received an education. As soon as most children were able, they began working to help provide economically for their families. In mid-19th-century industrial societies, children commonly worked in dangerous factory jobs for pennies a day.

Common Schools: The first public education paid for with tax money began with the Common Schools Movement in the United States in the 1830s. Horace Mann, the head of the newly established Massachusetts State Board of Education, established the first common schools to educate the children of lower-middle and working classes. Within decades the idea of Common Schools spread throughout the United States and other industrialized counties.

Milestones in the expansion of public education


Horace Mann became the first Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.


The first school for the training of teachers opened in Lexington, Massachusetts.


Massachusetts made attendance in primary education (elementary school) mandatory.


The first free public library opened in Boston.


The British began setting up public primary schools.


The British government began funding secondary (high) schools.

Reforms to improve public health

As urban populations grew, diseases swept through densely packed housing units. In response, citizen groups pressured governments to focus on improving public health.

Public health regulations: Before the late 19th century, governments did little to regulate and protect public health. In response to public pressure, new laws created health and safety boards to track health conditions, decrease the spread of disease, and set health and safety standards. Later during the 20th century, governments began offering expanded access to healthcare for the poor and working class.

Milestones in western public health regulations


The British Poor Law Commission began studying sanitary conditions in London.


The Melun Act in France set health and safety standards for housing.


The British Public Health Act set up government health authorities.


The United States National Board of Health was established to monitor and prevent the spread of contagious diseases.


Massachusetts passed legislation making reporting of contagious diseases by doctors mandatory.


The British began providing money to conduct health screenings and treatment in public schools.

Reforms to beautify urban neighborhoods

As urban areas became increasingly polluted with industrial waste and smog from coal-fired factories, reformers sought to clean up and beautify cities by building public gathering spaces and parks for recreation. For example, between the 1850s and 1870s, New York City built Central Park. While in 1869, Chicago established the South, West, and Lincoln Park Commissions responsible for setting up public parks in their districts. 

  • In the 1890s, the City Beautiful Movement began in the United States. The movement advocated using urban planning to beautify cities using parks and monuments architecture like outdoor plazas.
  • In 1898, the Garden City Movement was founded in Britain to beautify cities by bringing the countryside to cities in parks and green spaces.

The Inequalities of Industrial Capitalism Resulted in the Communist Philosophy

Main idea

Communism was a response to the harsh conditions of industrial capitalism on urban working classes. It proposed a new economic and social vision that it argued would eliminate social inequality.

Discontent with capitalist society encouraged the development of new ideologies like communism.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels:  The most famous economic writing of the 19th century was the Communist Manifesto, written by  Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895). First published in 1848, Marx and Engel’s book analyzed the economic struggle between classes in industrial capitalist societies. They theorized that industrial capitalist societies would eventually collapse and become communist after the lower classes revolted against the control of the wealthy. According to Marx, in a communist society, economic differences would no longer exist. Profit would no longer go to a few capitalists but be distributed to all the people by the state.

A system in which private individuals own and control businesses, trade, and commerce for personal profit
A system in which the state controls business, trade, and commerce and reinvests those profits to help develop society
Individual rights
Group and community rights
Government power
Wealth distribution
Wealth is unequal
The goal is to equalize wealth between people
Ownership of land, labor, and capital
Privately owned
Owned by the state
Various levels of competition
Government-owned monopolies
Source of business investment
Private individuals
The state

Impacts of communism: Communism was one of the most influential political, economic, and social forces of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Communism led to new political ideologies like democratic socialism that advocated using the power of the government to create more equal societies while also retaining capitalist systems. Social democratic parties are politically influential in many wealthy and modern democratic nations.
  • Communism inspired a wave of 20th-century political revolutions, including in Russia and China. These revolutions led to new powers that opposed capitalist superpowers like the United States and Western Europe for much of the 20th New communist states like Russia supported independence movements across Africa and Asia as they struggled to gain freedom from colonial control.
  • Communist ideas of more equal societies inspired workers across industrial societies to organize into labor unions to fight for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Unionization in Industrial Societies

Main idea

Labor union membership grew as workers organized to demand better pay and working conditions.

Unions are organizations that workers join if they work at a union job. The idea behind unions is that workers gain by uniting to negotiate with employers—think of it as strength in numbers. Workers contribute an amount from each paycheck to support the union financially. In exchange, the union represents the interests of the worker at their employer by

  • Negotiating pay, benefits, and working conditions for employees

  • Representing employees when they are being disciplined or fired by their employer

  • Ensuring that companies follow work contracts agreed to by the union and the employer

The right of workers to unionize was a generations-long struggle. Factory and business owners used their wealth and influence to suppress union activity. Owners did not want to share profits with employees by raising pay and creating safer work environments.

Unionization in Britain

Before 1824 unions were illegal in Britain. After their partial legalization, increasing numbers of workers joined their ranks. The early focus of union movements was improvements in working conditions and pay. They also supported the work of groups fighting to expand voting rights to men in the lower classes.

Communism and the British labor movement: Some British labor unions began to identify with the ideas of Karl Marx. The most extreme wing of the labor movement believed that the revolutionary overthrow of industrial capitalism should be their goal. Moderate members rejected Marxism and argued that democratic socialism and small improvements over time were better strategies for improving the lives of the lower classes.

The Labour Party: The moderate wing of the union movement founded the British Labour Party in 1900 to compete in elections and advocate for the interests of workers in the British Parliament. By the 1920s, the Labor party was one of England’s two leading political parties. In 1924 the Labour party formed its first government in Britain. The Labour party is still one of the two dominant political parties in modern Britain. 

The Combination Act
The British government prohibited trade unions and collective bargaining by workers.
Limited unionization allowed
The British government partially legalized unions, but they could not strike.
The Trade Union Act
The British Parliament fully legalized unions.
Labour Party founded
Unions founded the British Labour Party to represent the working classes in Parliament.

Unionization in the United States

American workers began unionizing in the mid-19th century after the Civil War. As unions gained bargaining power with employers, like in Europe, wages rose, and industrial conditions improved. 

American labor unions were less radical than European labor unions: Unlike in Europe, no union-aligned political parties like the British Labour Party developed in the United States. American unions were also more conservative than their European counterparts. Most unions rejected communism and the more moderate democratic socialism. 

  • The moderate nature of American unions came from the idea of American individualism. The collectivist nature of unions seemed un-American to many.

  • America’s racial divisions and sizeable immigrant population prevented many white American working-class individuals from identifying with fellow working-class individuals from different communities.
1st American unions formed
Shoemakers organized the first union in Philadelphia.
Union strikes criminalized
A Pennsylvania court decision in the case of Commonwealth v. Pullis ruled that a union strike was an illegal criminal conspiracy.
Union strikes criminalized
The Massachusetts Supreme Court, in the case Commonwealth v. Hunt , ruled that union strikes were legal and not criminal conspiracies.
The American Federal of Labor founded
Labor leaders founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL is today one of the largest unions in the United States.
No discrimination against union workers
The Erdman Act prohibited discrimination against railroad workers by employers because of union membership.
First Secretary of Labor
President Woodrow Wilson appointed William B. Wilson as the first Secretary of Labor.

Unionization in Japan

Japanese unionization began in mines and textile factories. However, throughout the 19th century, the number of unionized Japanese workers remained small. Modern trade unions did not emerge in Japan until 1897. Even then, government resistance to unionization meant union membership remained small. The full legalization of unions did not take place in Japan until after the end of World War II.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court, in the case Commonwealth v. Hunt, ruled that union strikes were legal and not criminal conspiracies.   

Unionization in Russia

Working conditions in Russian factories were some of the most brutal in the industrialized world. The Russian government criminalized unions and crushed the efforts of workers to unionize.

Brutal conditions led to revolution: In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Russian people revolted twice against their government. When the first revolt in 1905 failed to better conditions, a second revolution broke out in 1917 during World War I. By the end of World War One, the Czar and his entire family were dead—murdered by the new Bolshevik communist government.