English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 Analysis

Martin J. Wiener

English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Martin J. Wiener opens this notable book with the statement that the leading problem of modern British history is to explain that country’s economic decline. The extent of decline in the twentieth century has certainly been nothing less than spectacular. In the mid-nineteenth century, as the first industrialized nation, Britain towered over all other countries by any economic standard. A century later, the United States, Germany, and Japan had left her behind, and as the twentieth century draws towards a close, Britain struggles to maintain a position among the second rank of western European countries.

Much consideration has been given to the reasons for this phenomenon by statesmen, publicists, and historians. One explanation often put forward is that Britain has suffered from the very fact that she was first in the field, that her growth has been hindered by lack of innovation and increasingly anti-quated machinery. Related to this is the significance seen in the heavy flow of British capital abroad before 1914, resulting in inadequate investment at home. Stress has also been put on technical failures: for example, an indifference both to research and development and to professional training in business management. In this study, Wiener finds the explanation in social and psychological factors, that is, in British attitudes, values, and styles of life which have stifled economic initiative. He sets forth these factors with wide learning, thought-provoking analysis, and clarity of style. Quite apart from its interpretation of Britain’s industrial malaise, the book may be read with profit by anyone interested in contemporary British society. Individual chapters are in fact brilliant essays on various aspects of British life, institutions, and thought.

In interpreting the decline of the industrial spirit, Wiener begins in the 1850’s at the very point when British industry was at the peak of success. Up to that point, industrialists had exhibited characteristics which resulted in spectacular growth: zeal for work, inventiveness, an interest in the process of material production, a wish to make money. These attitudes were the basis of a production-oriented culture. Until the mid-century, the nation took pride in the achivements of industrialism, a pride epitomized in the Great Exhibition of 1851, sponsored by no less a person than Prince Albert, the royal consort, and in the often repeated description of Britain as “the workshop of the world.” At that very moment, however, doubts about industrialization began to be voiced and praise turned to criticism. What happened? Wiener’s thesis—presented with rich complexity—is that an older, aristocratic, agrarian way of life and set of values asserted itself with great force and assimilated to itself the rising industrialists, subverting the values that had made them successful.

Wiener makes much of the fact that British industrialism developed in a society controlled by a landed aristocracy that was not in decline but on the contrary was becoming a still richer, more self-confident, and even more tightly knit oligarchy. There was no revolution—social or economic—in which industrialiam and industrialists overthrew a decaying aristocratic and landed class. Rather, the old, established, and resilient aristocratic culture coexisted with the culture and values of the middle class, leading not to revolution but to accommodation between the two classes and two cultures, and the dominant and victorious set of values were those of the aristocracy.

The central institutions through which accommodation took place were Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and the other public schools (“public” only in name, of course; exclusive and expensive in practice). This took place as successful entrepreneurs sent their sons to be educated with members of the landed classes at these bastions of genteel privilege. It is significant both that businessmen aspired to such education for their sons and that the sons were welcomed by the upper classes. The cost to these middle-class boys was their production-oriented culture, which was discarded for the ideal of the cultured, public-spirited gentleman of leisure inculcated by the schools. More and more public school graduates actually went into business, especially after 1900, but their outlook was indistinguishable from that of the great landowners, civil servants, and professional men who also wore the old school tie. An aggressive search for markets and profits was curbed by the spirit of fair play, competitiveness by emphasis on the importance of compromise, the desire to amass a fortune by the belief that there were other, higher goals more important than making money. The industrialists found their main task in life was to behave like leisured-landed gentry rather than like the successful innovators they had once been.

Equally disastrous in Wiener’s view was the lowly place assigned to science in the public school curriculum, which concentrated on Greek, Latin, and to a lesser extent, on mathematics. Science was thought to be antireligious and feared as such. More important, it was associated with vulgar aspects of life—industry, artisans, and commercial activity. Not until well into the twentieth century was science seen as worthy of study by a gentleman. Beyond the direct effect the public schools had on their own students, they also influenced the whole of the English educational system. As state supported secondary schools were established, especially after passage of the Education Act of 1902, the administrators of the system were public...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Contemporary Review. CCXXXVIII, June, 1981, p. 330.

Choice. XVIII, July, 1981, p. 1599.

Spectator. CCXLVI, May 16, 1981, p. 23.