Industrial revolution: From Capitalists to Communists


Although Western Europe had long had the basic trappings of capitalism (private property, wealth accumulation, contracts), the Industrial Revolution fueled the creation of a truly modern capitalist system. Widespread credit, business corporations, investments and large-scale stock markets all become common. Britain led the way in this transformation. By the 1780s, the British Industrial Revolution began to further accelerate. Manufacturing, business, and the number of wage labourers skyrocketed, starting a trend that would continue up to 1870. Meanwhile, technology changed: hand tools were replaced by steam- or electricity-driven machines.

The economic transformation brought about the British industrial revolution was accompanied by a social transformation as well. Population boomed, and demographics shifted. Because industrial resources like coal and iron were in Central and Northern England, a shift in population from Southern England northward took place. Northern cities like Manchester grew tremendously. These changes in social and demographic realities created pressure for political change as well. The first act to protect workers went into affect in 1802. Pressure to redress the lack of representation for the new industrial cities and the newly wealthy industrial manufacturers also began to build.

Meanwhile, industrialists developed an ideology called Laissez Faire based on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) and continued by David Ricardo and Robert Malthus. Based on this, the discipline known as “economics” developed, largely to give the manufacturers a basis for arguing for little or no regulation of industry. Instead of government interference, these economists argued that a free market, in which everyone followed their own self- interest, would maximize the nation’s utility.

Britain, with its head start in manufacturing, its many world markets, and its dominant navy, would dominate industry for most of the 19th century. Towards the end of that century, the United States and Germany would begin to challenge Britain’s industrial power.

Among the Western European countries, Britain was the ideal incubator for the Industrial Revolution because an “Agricultural Revolution” preceded it. After 1688 the British kings lost power and the aristocratic landholders gained power. The landholders tried to rationalize their landholdings and started the Enclosure Movement to bring more and more of their own land under tighter control, a process that went on throughout the 1700s. This policy had two main effects: it increased the productivity of the land, and transformed the people who used to work land into an unemployed, labor class of poor in need of work. Thus, the first factories had a ready labour- supply in Britain that was not available in other nations. Important inventions like the “Spinning Jenny” to produce yarn began to be made in 1760s, and soon the British textile industry was booming, aided by Eli Whitney’s invention of the “Cotton Gin” in America, which provided a ready source of cotton.
The Industrial Revolution represented a shift in influence away from the traditional power-holders in England. Aristocratic rule was no longer supreme, for “upstart” manufacturers were now often more wealthy and more important to the nation’s overall well being than the landed gentry. They also employed a far greater percentage of the national economy. Often, the aristocracy, trying to take power away from the manufacturers, would ally with the working class. As both sides, aristocrats and manufacturers, competed for the support of the workers, reforms in Britain gradually took place through Parliamentary deal- making without the need for a bloody revolution. The Industrial Revolution allowed increasing urbanization and greatly increased the overall wealth and production power of humanity, although not everyone always shared in the benefits of industrialization equally.

Though industrialization was most prominent in Europe, its transformative powers must be seen as a theme through the period of 1815-1870. Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution went hand-in-hand with the Western European countries’ liberal traditions. Many of the same principles underlying the French Revolution were being developed via the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Industrializing nations developed middle classes who began to wield political clout. Further, the Industrial Revolution would give Western Europe the economic system and technology to dominate much of the world in the colonial period towards the end of the 19th century. The countries that did not transition to industrial systems very quickly got left behind, and often ended up as satellites to the major powers. It would be some time before workers developed a counter-ideology of their own. Yet as manufacturing brought hundreds of thousands of workers into the cities, they started thinking about organizing to protect their own political interests. By 1825, the workers in the industrializing nations would become a social and political force of their own

This entry was posted in A Level History, British Empire, History, Imperial Expansion 1815-1870 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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