The Industrial Revolution and the Development of British Capitalism.

The Industrial Revolution and the Development of British Capitalism

In 1837 Louis Blanqui, a French economist, believed that Britain had undergone an “industrial revolution”. The term also appeared in THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND (1844) written by Frederick Engels. The expression was popularised in the 1880’s by Arnold Toynbee and others. However, “the industrial revolution” can only make sense if it is placed within the context of the development of capitalism and in particular the formation of a propertyless working class.

Capitalism in Britain has not always existed. There were earlier social systems such as Feudalism where the dominant social relationship was between the Crown, Lords and the Church on the one hand and the serfs working on the land on the other. The serfs produced social wealth through the imposition of a surplus working time creating a surplus product for the feudal ruling class. Cities and towns also contained a regimented guild system with journeymen serving apprenticeships to guild masters. Wages were controlled as were conditions of work and movement of labour.

Conservative and Liberal historical accounts of the industrial revolution often ask two questions; why did the industrial revolution happen and second and why did it happen in 18th century Britain. They often frame their answer in terms of the “the Age of enlightenment” replacing the static agricultural world informed by “the Divine Right of Kings”; a creative interplay of ideas between “innovative scientists and entrepreneurs” and the establishment of a benign liberal political establishment allowing free trade and free markets to flourish.

These two questions, though, pose a serious problem and that is because they are not set within the development of capitalism as a social system emerging through class struggle from Feudalism. These two isolated questions and the subsequent answers academic historians give to them have been plucked indiscriminately from a very real historical process. As a consequence this spurious historical account of the industrial revolution neglects to consider that it took place within an expanding capitalist social system with definite social relationships between a new capitalist class and a developing working class.

A Conservative Interpretation of History

An example of this poorly considered history was recently illustrated on television in a programme, “WHY THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION HAPPENED HERE” (BBC2 13.01.13) by Jeremy Black, professor of history at Exeter University. According to Black’s narrative, the industrial revolution was a happy affair benefitting everyone as though he had never once read Engels’s account of the condition of the working class during this period. Although Black touched briefly on the subject of slavery he just confined it to the West Indies ignoring the fact that profit from the slave trade went into the British banking and financial system and was then was lent out as capital to the industrial capitalist class – a process Marx described as the “primitive accumulation of capital”.

However, the glaring omission in Professor Black’s rose-tinted narrative is the absence of the working class. The formation and development of the working class is not only left unexplained by Black but is not mentioned at all. As if by magic mills and mines are peopled by “men, women and children” unlike Engels’s study of the working class in 1844. Although it was acknowledged that the profit motive drove the industrial revolution the origin of profit was passed by.

And the injury and terrible loss of life by workers constructing the canal systems, like the Harecastle Tunnel through which professor Black passed, were also ignored as mere by-products of the wealth being created for a small minority class. For enlightenment about the Navvies, how they lived and died building the canals then Ultan Cowley’s book THE MEN WHO BUILT BRITAIN, A HISTORY OF THE IRISH NAVVY (2000) is indispensable. Cowley quotes from Paul Ricour: “To be forgotten, and written out of history, is to die again”.

Not once in the programme did Black explain where all the workers had come from nor that their exploitation generated a surplus in the same way that serfs were exploited during Feudalism and slaves were exploited in the West Indies. Why on earth would he want to mention them? After all, to the superficial and apologetic economists they were paid the "market rate" for their labours unlike the West Indian slaves who still had to be provided with food clothing and shelter despite earning nothing

Professor Black sitting smugly outside an agreeable café in the Parisian morning sun demonstrated with an analogy to tart de Pomme the difference between wealth creation under 18th French feudalism and British “entrepreneurship”. According to the learned professor wealth was considered by the French Crown and its economic advisors purely as an exercise in distribution similar to the cutting of an apple tart leading to conflict and war while in Britain, the generation of wealth was exponential much like the production of an infinite number of apple tarts leading to universal prosperity, social harmony and the best of all possible worlds.

However, Professor Black conveniently forgot to explain who generated this expansion of social wealth, who was doing the exploiting and who was being exploited. All quite convenient! And nor did Professor Black go into any great detail how the capitalist class accumulated wealth and property before its bid for political power manifesting itself with the outbreak of English Civil War in 1642.

Professor Black’s superficial historical account of the period is not surprising. Black is associated with the reactionary Social Affairs Unit a spin-off of the equally conservative and reactionary Institute for Economic Affairs which has long advocated a benign, conflict free account of capitalism which avoids using the two terms “Capitalist class” and “working class” and who have tried unsuccessfully to rubbish Engels account of the conditions of the working class at the time. And perish the thought that Professor Black would have to consider something as sordid as class struggle, enough to make him choke on a piece of his Tarte de Pomme. His was a conservative interpretation of history which is, in effect, no interpretation at all.

For a historical account of the development of capitalism which sets the grounds for the industrial revolution we have to turn to Marx’s CAPITAL, particularly Part 8 of volume 1 the “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” which deals with the expropriation of the agricultural population, enclosures, attacks against the poor, slavery, pillage and plunder. Rather than being benign historical process capitalism came into existence: “dripping from head to toe, from every pore with blood and dirt”. The genesis of capitalism allowed the combination of two critical elements of production; the means of production on the one hand, and the working class on the other.

Marx and the Genesis of Capitalism

So, before we can even consider the industrial revolution it is important that we reflect on two fundamental propositions about capitalism set down by Marx.

First: “the motor force of history is the class struggle” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO 1848).

Second: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution” (Preface to A CONTRIBUTION OF POLITICAL ECONOMY 1859).

These two propositions relate to Marx’s view of history where the social relations of production hold back the development of the forces of production including social labour with the consequence of class conflict and class struggle.

Capitalism came into being through class struggle and to omit this motor force out from an account of the change from one social system to the next is similar to trying to explain the development of cars without taking into account the combustion engine.

The politics in Marx’s account of history and historical change is the conflict of class interests. The capitalist class struggled against a dominant Feudal power manifesting itself in the English Civil War (1641 to 1652) and later in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The potential for the development of capitalism existed elsewhere in Europe, in France and Holland, but it was the ability of the capitalist class in Britain to push the class struggle in their favour which gave them the advantageous conditions to economically flourish.

Unlike other accounts of the causes of historical change Marx’s theory of history is not one explained through technological or economic determinism nor is it an account of one set of “enlightened” ideas winning out against another set of “conservative” ideas; a fatuous and witless idealistic conception of history. Politics and political struggle is a central over-arching theme in his theory of history as he remarked that “every class struggle is a political struggle” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

Marx defined capitalism as a “system of generalised commodity production”. Within that definition we have the sale of labour power as a commodity and the competition between capitalists which dominate and transform the process of production. All that counts is the self-expansion of value or capital accumulation for the sake of accumulation.

Historical Factors in the formation of Capitalism

We are now in a position to give the following factors contributing to the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution informed by Marx’s two important propositions; Feudalism was acting as a fetter on the further development of the productive forces which in turn led to a class struggle between the Feudal ruling class and an emerging capitalist class.

First, Britain had large deposits of necessary raw materials, particularly coal and iron ore and there was a practical necessity to pump out water from deep mining to cut costs and increase profits.

Second, the enclosure acts from the 15th century onwards generated a propertyless working class which was forced onto the labour market on pain of starvation and death. The peculiarity of this class was that their mental and physical ability to work took the form of a commodity which they sold to employers in return for a wage and salary. In the production process they created more social wealth than they received in wages. Workers and their children were forced into factories, to go down mines, to lay the road networks and railway lines and to cut out the canals.

Third, Britain’s overseas empire, through control of trade routes and strategic points of influence, was also growing during this period. The main base for the English slave trade was Jamaica which was captured in 1655. The ending of the Royal African Company’s monopoly in 1698, coupled with increasing demands of the sugar plantations in the West Indies, led to a rapid expansion of the British Slave trade and importance of ports such as Bristol and Liverpool. Liverpool thrived on overseas merchant investment, specializing in tobacco and slaves. Over 100 ships were leaving Bristol a year on the slave trade, with capacity for about 30,000 slaves. “Slaves were the precious life-blood of the West-Indian economy where King Sugar reigned and in which £70 m had been invested by 1790” (R. Porter, SOCIAL HISTORY OF BRITAIN IN THE 18TH c, p. 51) This was advantageous as it was a source of valuable raw materials, capital accumulation and also a world market in which to sell commodities.

Fourth, a stable political atmosphere in Britain encouraged the development of fixed industries, like mills, coal mines and iron foundries. This was the stability that came out of the civil War and the Glorious revolution; glorious for everyone except the working class.

Fifth, the dominant idea was laissez-faire or economic liberalism. Adam Smith’s WEALTH OF NATIONS, which was published in 1776, had a strong following, even among the landed classes some of whom either leased land to early capitalists or directly invested into the enterprises.

Sixth, transport developments, like roads, canals and railways, were also encouraged by political stability. There had not been a major conflict on British soil since the Civil War of the mid 17th century unlike the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century with subsequent wars all over Europe.

Seventh, with the growth of banking facilities assisted by the operation of the slave trade, money capital was available to finance industrial projects.

And eighth, military conquest. The first Dutch War in the 17th century opened India and the Far Eastern Trade to English merchants. The second Dutch war opened West Africa and the slave trade. The war of Spanish Succession won for England the coveted Asiento, the monopoly of supplying slaves to the Spanish American Empire, which France had tried to secure for her merchants by annexing Spain.

In conclusion, we should not forget that Marx was a Socialist revolutionary as well a social scientist. His theory of history was a guide to his studies which were directed at helping the working class to establish socialism. The Socialist Party of Great Britain continues to use Marx’s insights in the struggle to establish common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.