Social question history

The term social question denotes the social grievances associated with the modern European population explosion and the Industrial revolution went hand in hand, [1] that means the social accompanying and follow-up problems of the transition from the agricultural to the urbanizing industrial society. In England, the beginning of this transition began around 1760, in Germany from the early 19th century. A long time before, dramatic misery of large sections of the population crystallized. A first phase in Germany spanned the first half of the 19th century. It was shaped by a rapidly growing population that created a wage-earning proletariat, the liberation of peasants, rural exodus and urbanization, the decline of the old trades and a gradual rise of the factory industry.

The core problems of the social question were pauperism and the existential uncertainty of farmers, rural servants, artisans, workers and small accountants.

The problem situation shifted over time. Between the 1850s and 1870s, industry experienced a strong upswing, while the decline in the home trade and the crisis in the craft sector continued. A third phase in Germany since 1870 was characterized by high industrialization and the transition to industrial society. The social question now became primarily Labor question. Massive emigration from the countryside to the urban industrial centers, side effects of the big city formation and the social integration of the industrial workers occupied the politically responsible as well as the civil public. Depending on the problem perception and interests, different approaches to solving the social question were developed.


The term “social question” emerged from around 1830 and first describes the impoverishment that arises with population and urban growth, then that with the excess of journeyman (hence the “handicraft communism” by Wilhelm Weitling) and the working conditions of early industrialization (12-hour day , Child and women’s work) related conflicts. The social crisis was felt in many ways: malnutrition and early infirmity, the demise of small businesses (farms, retail, handicrafts), housing shortages in the growing cities, strong internal migration, new forms of crime.

First, the term in German-language literature as a translation of the French question sociale[2] used to represent the social situation in other countries in Western Europe. A first proof can be found in Heinrich Heines’ correspondence from Paris, which appeared in Augsburg on April 30, 1840. [3] In sociopolitical writings and studies of the situation in Germany, the term did not have a prominent programmatic meaning until around 1848. [4] The term is also mentioned in party programs such as the Eisenach Program (1869) of the Social Democratic Workers ‘Party or the Gothaer Program (1875) of the German Socialist Workers’ Party (later the SPD).

Origin and characteristics

The social question arose from the plight of economically weak social groups. The main causes were an accelerating population growth and the consequences of farmer liberation and freedom of trade.

The majority of the population still living in the countryside grew unusually strongly in Europe after 1815. The reasons for this could be the global warming of the European climate, which made harder harvests possible from the 1780s. Medical and hygienic advances contributed to population growth, e.g. B. The introduction of smallpox vaccination by Edward Jenner in 1796 and improved surgical training, such as was initially introduced for military surgery under I. Napoleon. In addition, from the mercantilist era, intensive pro-natalistic population policies were used to compensate for the population losses caused by the medieval plague waves. [5]

The peasant liberation through the abolition of the land rulership forced the farmers to compensate for old labor, which often took the form of land cession. The now personally free farmers remained on uneconomically small farms, fell into debt and were bought from their property by the so-called farmers’ laying. The abolition of the compulsory guild in handicrafts in connection with the emigration from the countryside led to an increase in the number of people and – with falling wages in handicrafts and rising unemployment – to the so-called handicraft misery.

Increasing problem pressure

There was significant social poverty as well as attempts to alleviate it, particularly on a church and communal basis, before the "social question" came into use as a term. However, the new forms and the aftermath of the French Revolution, which troubled the monarchical systems of rule and the churches, promoted the tendency for the increasing poverty of broad sections of the population to be addressed accordingly in public opinion and in old and new branches of science (jurisprudence, national economy, sociology).

The explosiveness of the social question arose from the completely new and radical social change. The European late-feudal agricultural society with trade and commercial capitalist cities as supra-regional markets (Max Weber) changed to a capitalist – first mercantilist, then industrial – society (see Industrial Revolution).

The gradual dissolution of traditional social communities such as the extended family or ties to the landlord also tore apart the traditionally closely interwoven social networks. The rural exodus causing an oversupply of workers in the cities depressed the wage level there, so that several members of a family had to look for wage work; the women and children who were forced to enter the labor market further reduced wages; working hours of 12 hours or more per day and night and Sunday work were forced; Little attention was paid to health (chronic poisoning, silicosis) and occupational accident protection. Employment and living conditions of the wage labor all bore the traits of impoverishment: miserable living conditions in buggy tenements, often only one room per family, the beds additionally occupied by sleepies during the day. Under such conditions, family life was exposed to unprecedented stress and tended to dissolve with the consequence of personal isolation, brutalization of manners, lack of school, prostitution, including child prostitution, and formation of gangs, resulting in a complex of health damage (tuberculosis, venereal diseases, "English illness") Vitamin deficiency, scabies, lice, drunkenness) and falling life expectancy.

working conditions

Eisenwalzwerk, Painting by Adolph von Menzel (1872-1875)

Thanks to the supply of workers from the influx of surplus agricultural workers and artisans inferior to the industrial competition, entrepreneurs were able to produce with wages close to the subsistence level and achieved relative wealth that has never been achieved before.

Working conditions were difficult and there was strict working discipline. Workers who were rebelled or unable to work could be replaced by new rural refugees due to the lack of effective labor market legislation. In English industrial cities, the average working life was to "Disability" about 15 years. The average age of industrial workers in Manchester was just 18 years. In the event of a ten-minute delay, wages could be reduced by half a day’s wages. Deduction of wages could also be imposed in the event of incorrect work performance or tool breakage. It was also common to extend the daily working hours (up to 18 hours), no rest on Sundays, inadequate or lacking occupational safety (transmission belts of the steam engines were a major source of danger). There was also no pension, accident insurance or arbitrary protection from superiors, such as B. Protection against dismissal.

At that time, the legislature knew little or no regulatory framework for the labor market (see also Manchester capitalism). Domestically, the police and military served primarily to maintain public order, poor people and hunger demonstrations were often brutally suppressed and led to injuries, deaths, imprisonment and executions of the leaders.

Women and child labor

Glassworks Eleonorenhain in Bohemia (1890): child labor when entering

The workers often earned too little to support their families. For example, women and children also had to take on wage labor in (still conventional) large families. Women worked at home instead of in the publishing system as before and in the important textile industry. Women were very popular with employers because they were technically skilled and very psychologically resilient and could therefore work more intensively and for longer; Above all, however, they were cheaper because their wages were significantly lower than those of the male workers.

Child labor has existed in the rural family economy since time immemorial, but with industrialization in Europe and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries it took on proportions that severely affected the health and education of working class children. Children were also used in underground mining because they were smaller and therefore were able to extract coal or ore more effectively than adults with narrow seams in the longwall and narrow tunnels. In England, children worked up to 64 hours a week underground in summer and 52 hours in winter. In weaving mills (Cotton Mills) were usual 80 hours a week.

Child labor in Newberry, South Carolina (1908)

In 1833, the first law to protect children in England was enacted: a ban on working for children under the age of nine in textile factories, a ban on night work and a maximum of 12 hours a day for young people under the age of 18. Around ten years later, underground work was banned for children (minimum age: ten years) and women. Similar laws were soon adopted in Germany and Austria (Work ban for children under twelve). Prussia therefore issued a “regulation” in 1839 that prohibited children under the age of ten from working in factories, as well as a Sunday and night work ban for 10 to 16 year olds. In 1853, the minimum age for factory work was raised to twelve years (nine years plus three years of compulsory education). Trade supervision was introduced to enforce the law. However, there was still no legal protection for children in craft, trade and especially in agriculture. Although children had to work almost as much as an adult, they only received about a tenth of a man’s average wages.

housing situation

Housing of a working-class family in 1902 in Hamburg

As the cities grew, so did the housing shortage. Slums, makeshift residential areas without connections to the city’s infrastructure and tenements were formed. It was also common to share a bed with a sleepy boy on a shift. The housing shortage was unprecedented for today’s conditions in industrialized nations, up to 10 people lived on 14 m². There was a lack of water and sewage pipes in the slums (there was only one toilet for more than a hundred people). Later, more massive, multi-storey tenements were built for the workers ("reaper barracks" in the country). There was water and toilet for everyone in the corridor. Until the Bauhaus, the apartments of the Industrial Revolution had little light due to the construction with inner courtyards (Berlin rooms) and were often damp. The housing shortage caused high rent expenses for the workers, who made up up to three quarters of the wages.


Various social and political organizations and parties were newly formed to solve the social question: the cooperative movement, the workers’ movement, the organizations of the churches, which are based on the principles of Christian social teaching, the newly founded trade unions and new political parties.

In addition, the legislature gradually passed numerous laws and ordinances and founded new executive bodies to enforce them, which eventually resulted in the extensive social legislation of today’s industrialized nations.

The pressing problems led to diverse social mobilization and politicization, which, depending on social interests and perspective, resulted in different solutions. So u. a. peasant, bourgeois and church initiatives, then also (early) socialist and Marxist movements as well as those responsible in the state and science.

Social groups

In addition to modern cooperatives and z. For example, the Catholic Kolping Association developed workers’ associations and unions, and also parties as political interests of the exploited wage labor (in the German Reich, among others, the SPD). From the point of view of the labor movement, the social question arose centrally from the class contrast between capital owners (bourgeoisie) and wage earners (proletariat).

Some of the companies that employed wage workers to a greater extent tried to improve their situation by providing them with cheap housing (housing construction), sometimes also providing medical services and raising wages somewhat.

Also the parallel growing women’s movement (wage adjustment, fight against prostitution), after 1900 also the youth movement (turning walls of gray cities to nature) were answers to the social question, each with its own strategy to combat problems.

State reform policy

The state social policy of the German Reich tried to alleviate these conflicts through social reforms. The first concrete solutions can be found in Otto von Bismarck’s social legislation, which began in 1883 with the Health Insurance Act, then also introduced accident insurance (1884) and old-age and disability insurance (1889), which in 1891 became statutory pension insurance. This social policy approach was soon adopted and varied by other countries.

In a comment from a historical perspective, it says: "A positive solution to the social question is Bismarck’s social legislation. Bismarck recognizes the core problem: the insecurity of the existence of the worker." [6] [7] The social reforms continued under Kaiser Wilhelm II contributed to the alleviation of social misery and promoted a better social and political placement of the social lower classes in the German Reich, but did not, as Bismarck had intended, spite the workers in favor of the monarchy of the labor movement.


In the field of science, the national economy (cf. Catholic Socialism) and social medicine primarily turned to the problem area. Ferdinand Tönnies was the first German sociologist with his work in 1907 The social question[8] wrote a treatise on it.

Catholic Church

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII themed. in his encyclical Rerum Novarum the social upheavals and grievances and in turn named solutions. [9]

In the encyclical Quadragesimo anno on May 15, 1931, Pope Pius XI commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum, the importance of the principle of subsidiarity and pushed for comprehensive social reforms in the sense of Catholic social teaching.

In his Pentecost message in 1941 (on the social question), Pope Pius XII recalled to the core demands of the encyclical Rerum Novarum[9] and urged all people and nations to look for solutions as soon as possible. [10]

shift in meaning

Towards the end of the 19th century, the concept of the social question expanded. It was replaced by broader terms such as social policy or social reform. [11]

The expansion of the welfare state and the increase in the general level of prosperity (economic miracle) after 1950 made a significant contribution to the fact that the social question as a labor question was forgotten as a term in the second half of the 20th century, at least in the industrialized countries. In the second half of the 1970s, an attempt was made to redefine social policy in Germany. [12] The term "new social question" was coined, [13] but which could not prevail in political language. [14]

At the beginning of the 21st century, however, sociologists Robert Castel and Klaus Dörre see the relevance of a new social question: It is formulated by the emergence of a precariat from the recurrence of social uncertainties as a result of atypical employment relationships, such as temporary workers. [15]

This text was published in the article Social Question on Wikipedia and is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported / DEED license. A list of the authors can be found on Wikipedia. .


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