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Skip to 0 minutes and 11 seconds In the late eighteenth century, society was changing right across Europe. The French king was beheaded after the great revolution of 1789 - but more importantly still, new inventions and technologies were turning the old way of life upside down. Steam power enabled new techniques, new processes, new products. Increasing numbers of workers left the countryside for the towns and cities where the new factories were springing up. The urban population bulged, and the new factory workers often found themselves living in cramped, basic conditions, paid only just enough to survive, while factory owners creamed off the profits. As a new working class formed across western Europe, so the workers grew increasingly unhappy with their lot.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds The first trade unions emerged in Britain at the end of the 18th century. Though they were repressed at first, more and more workers stood up for their rights and could not be ignored. 1848 in particular was marked by revolution across much of Europe. Although the old order prevailed in 1848, a small number of liberal-minded intellectuals from the new middle class began to campaign for greater rights and freedoms for workers. They analysed the ills of a society in which the new rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Some began with abstract, utopian ideas and developed these into a new political creed based on an idea of social equality - a new socialism.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds Some believed that society would only be fair if property were owned in common - and called for a form of communism. These thinkers cooperated in international societies like the League of Communists an organisation based in London which included the radical German thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They published their theoretical analysis of the new industrial economy in 1848. And they could barely have guessed how influential their work would become for this was the Communist Manifesto, eventually translated into every major language in the world. Marx and Engels set out their theories about how society and the capitalist economy would develop.

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds They believed they had identified new and certain laws of human and economic development - as certain as the newly identified laws of physics. And crucial to their analysis was the idea of internationalism. Marx and Engels argued that workers everywhere - the proletarians - shared the same interests. French, German, English, Belgian, Russian workers all had far more in common with each other than with the capitalist class which exploited them in their own country. The Manifesto calls for the overthrow of the whole social order by workers acting together - ‘Proletarier aller Lander, vereinigt euch!’ - ‘Workers of all lands, unite!’

Skip to 3 minutes and 14 seconds But there was another force at work: nationalism. Italy was united as a single country in 1861, Germany in 1871. The old European monarchies encouraged patriotism to support the world empires they were building. Literacy rates grew, the mass press took off, and increasing numbers identified with their own countries and their own flags. As the working class expanded, the socialist movement also grew throughout the 19th century, and the strong socialist parties combined in the Socialist International. These parties agreed that war between countries was only ever fought to pursue the interests of the capitalists, never the interests of the ordinary working man and woman.

Skip to 4 minutes and 4 seconds When the First World War broke out in 1914, however, the socialist parties in the different European countries supported the various national war efforts and workers fought workers along national lines. The slogan ‘Workers of the World unite!’ seemed forgotten. And yet, in this defeat for the internationalist ideal lay the seeds of the socialist movement’s rebirth. In the chaos of war, Russian communists led by Lenin replaced the tsar and seized power, expecting that a world revolution would quickly follow. Lenin imposed the new Russian model over all the different nationalities within the old tsarist empire. Communist parties were established throughout Europe and beyond after the First World War, - but the revolution did not spread.

Skip to 4 minutes and 53 seconds And in the meantime, communists were told to support and protect communist Russia, the new Soviet Union, the mother country of the future international revolution. But the revolution only spread after another world war and the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe after 1945. Workers in the occupied countries of eastern Europe had little choice but to unite with the Soviet workers in a new communist bloc under the sway of the mighty Soviet Union.

Skip to 5 minutes and 25 seconds And the revolution spread further: as the world’s colonial empires collapsed, many African, Asian and Latin American countries were inspired by the communist dream. China, too, became the world’s largest communist country after 1949. As communism spread, so the slogan did too. But still national interests often came first. Even the ruthless Soviet leader, Stalin, could not prevent Yugoslavia going its own way in 1948. The Chinese developed their own different model of communism and split away from Soviet Russia in 1961. By the 1970s the communist parties of western Europe were also distancing themselves from Moscow. And by the late 1980s, European communism was in crisis. Economic failures and anger about ongoing human rights abuses sparked a series of revolutions from 1989.

Skip to 6 minutes and 22 seconds This time against communism. The communist bloc collapsed, the Soviet Union’s nationalities split apart.

Skip to 6 minutes and 32 seconds And yet, the internationalist idea survives: while only fringe parties sustain the Marxist ideal, the European Union has emerged as the world’s largest multinational political and economic union, keeping the peace between European countries, guaranteeing workers’ rights across national borders, and developing a single market for goods and for workers. But this is not the workers’ union that Marx and Engels dreamed of - this is a union which aims to reconcile the interests of capitalists and of workers after a century of extremes. So now, in the 21st century, is there any need for the workers of the world to unite?

'Workers of the world, unite!' with Dr Mark Allinson

This video will tell you about the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite!’.

It’s OK to pause the video or to watch it as many times as you like. The video subtitles do not show the accented characters, unfortunately. To see them you might like to refer to the transcript that is available below in the section ‘downloads’ - click ‘English Transcript pdf’.

(After you watch the video and click the pink circle ‘mark as complete’, move on to the next step and read the article ‘More about the slogan’.)

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This video is from the free online course:

Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction

University of Bristol