chapter  1
93 Pages

THE EUROPEAN ECONOMY IN THE LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

An increase in the volume of production in the British Isles, sustained with few interruptions throughout the eighteenth century, increased much more rapidly in the last few decades of that century_ Changes in the organisation and techniques of production, which had already been developing for a long time, burst into greater prominence in an efflorescence of technological invention, and the widespread social and economic changes which came as a consequence produced the expression 'Industrial Revolution'_

The description of these events as a 'revolution' is justified on every ground because the technological changes, especially the discovery of new techniques of manufacture in the metal and textile

industries, changed the whole structure of social organisation and the patterns of life and thought of eighteenth-century Britain. A new society emerged whose social structure was determined by the mechanics of industrial production rather than by those of agriculture. If our attention is confined merely to the technological changes themselves, the concept of an industrial 'revolution' in the 1780s becomes only a British phenomenon. The astonishing occurrence of a number of inventions in a short space of time and the rapid concentration of capital and labour in factories, which occurred partly as one consequence of these inventions, give even the merely technological aspects of these changes a revolutionary aspect in Britain because of the speed with which they took place. These innovations were adopted more slowly in most parts of the continent of Europe so that the concept of an industrial 'revolution' at the end of the eighteenth century in this narrower sense has no great relevance outside the field of British history. But all the first and greatest analysts of these events, Smith, Ricardo, Saint-Simon, Engels and Marx, set out to analyse, not a series of changes in industrial techniques as such, but the quite new economic basis which these changes created for human society. In this wider sense the industrial revolution was a European phenomenon from the outset. From the continent, what had taken place in late eighteenthcentury Britain was seen, and correctly seen, as profoundly revolutionary, threatening the very foundations of social organisation. The developments in manufacturing industry transformed the economic position of Britain in relation to the European lands and by changing the balance of economic power, changed also the balance of political power. At the same time these events in Britain posed profound social questions to European society. To some, they were a fearful menace to a much-valued social position and way of life, to others a way of improving their income and to many a wonderful new hope for the overturning of a society they detested.