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EN / nl

Industrial Revolution

It is impossible to distinguish between the Industrial Revolution and the ‘Industrial Revolution’; that is, between the astonishing growth in mechanized industry that characterized the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the conceptual wrangling amongst historians over its causes, characteristics and importance. Hence, when in December 2010 the usually sedate British radio show In Our Time turned its attention to the topic, the debate descended into a battle of ideological wills between the host Melvyn Bragg and Professor of History at Cardiff University Pat Hudson: Hudson: We must get away from the idea that this was caused by a wave of gadgets, or by the peculiar inventive ability of British science or scientists or inventors [...] Bragg: Why? Why must we get away from it? People invented stuff, they made things, those things made other things happen and you keep denying it—‘Oh its all to do with the broad sweep of history’. People invented things that had not been there before which enabled things to happen which had not happened before. Hudson: Can I say that that really does characterise nationalistic accounts of the period with a peculiar sort of emphasis on British genius or the superiority of the British as a race; this characterises some really almost racist accounts of the Industrial Revolution. Bragg eventually brought these two alternative explanations to bear directly on the question of coal: Bragg: The reason we got coal is because there were inventions, because they worked out a way ingeniously—they didn’t work this out anywhere else—to clear water out of the mine so that we could mine deeply. Although simplistic and caricatured, Bragg’s and Hudson’s arguments serve as useful examples of the poles of explanation of the Industrial Revolution: the triumph of native genius on the one hand, and the large-scale conjunction of global politics and geographical luck on the other. More than this, however, the Industrial Revolution leaves us, as readers of history, with two extraordinary legacies. The first is that—in the way it has been represented, from Friedrich Engels to Raymond Williams and beyond—it has given us the broad contours of the modern class system, not only in the direct relationship of workers to employers and men to machines, but also in the sense that the very notion of class is something with a historical origin and that that history is itself political. The second is that—again with a strong emphasis on ad and post hoc formulations—we have a clear historical foundation for the cultural conditions of modernity; that is, the technological application of scientific styles of reasoning, an obsession with progress and, perhaps most problematically of all, the particular relationship to nature that has inspired wave after wave of anti-industrial movement. Even the most reflexive contemporary historian, unwilling to argue about the Industrial Revolution itself and dealing only with the interplay of the various accounts that have been given, must recognise the popular and political role that those portrayals have had. To give an extreme but undoubtedly clear example: when in 1995 the notorious eco-terrorist Ted Kaczynski, the ‘Unabomber’, broke his silence after sixteen US bombings in as many years, he opened his manifesto, “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” BJ