It may seem rather obvious to state that Karl Marx was wrong. It may not seem so obvious to critique the standard mantra regarding the horrid squalor of the Industrial Revolution Era. The wretched images etched in our minds by Charles Dickens in tales such as A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby remain much too vivid for us to casually forget. This grim mental picture of the Industrial Revolution was depicted by an English artist named Philip James de Loutherbourg in a painting entitled, “Coalbrookdale by Night.” It paints a bleak picture of life in a crowded English town, with factories ablaze and black smoke spewing into the night sky. The landscape is strewn with scrap metal and other such leftovers of industrial production in order to add to the brutality and ugliness of the painting.
Loutherboug’s painting perfectly captures the standard (read: “Marxist”) perspective of the Industrial Revolution.
It is important to know that few individuals propagated this dreadful picture of the Industrial Revolution more than Karl Marx, who decried the rise of the machine and bemoaned the plight of the Working Man. For Marx, the Industrial Revolution was not a time of societal betterment, but rather the last great battlefield upon which the revolutionary proletariat (i.e. the workers) would overthrow the overbearing bourgeoisie (i.e. the capitalists) to establish a great Communist utopia. Naturally, it made sense for Marx to demonize the Industrial Revolution in order to spur his beloved proletariat into revolution against the capitalist overlords.
And demonize it, he did. In his work, Das Kapital, Marx pontificated that “the directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value, and consequently to exploit labor-power to the greatest possible extent.” (Book 1, Volume 1, Chapter 13). Moreover, Marx riled up his readers by reminding them that much of the capital in the United States today “was yesterday, in England, the capitalised blood of children” (Book 1, Volume 1, Chapter 31). As such, the capital machinery and mass production developed during the Industrial Revolution was, to Marx, a tool of the capitalist bourgeoisie to destroy the workers, regardless of age, class, or sex. Continuing with his elaborate and inflammatory rhetoric, Marx therefore exclaimed that, “Capital is dead labor, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (Book 1, Volume 1, Chapter 10, Sec. 1).
In simple terms: Marx did not look kindly on the Industrial Revolution, so he painted a picture of it that we today accept without question. It was a time of suffering, squalor, and wretchedness. Children were forced into abusive labor, laborers either fell captive to the capitalists and their machines or else were thrown into the streets without employment. Factory smokestacks spewed black plumes of pollutant into the sky while industrial waste turned rivers into running bands of slime. This is what we today associate with the term, “Industrial Revolution,” and it is exactly what Marx would want us to think.
However, as with everything else, Marx was wrong about the Industrial Revolution. The only difference between Marx’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution and his declaration of the coming Communist revolution is that more people seem to blindly accept the former while they reject the latter. Yet, what such people don’t realize is that it is impossible to draw a meaningful dichotomy between these two concepts! The brutal fact of the matter is that Marx’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution informed his belief in Communism even as his belief in Communism colored his perspective of the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, because of the close alliance between Marx’s view of the Industrial Revolution and his articulation of Communist revolution, either Marx was right about the Industrial Revolution and Communism, or he was wrong about both. Operating under the safe assumption that he was wrong about Communism (See the failed Communist states of the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol-Pot’s Cambodia, etc.), it’s therefore equally safe to assume that Marx was wrong about his analysis of the conditions during the Industrial Revolution. Yet, because Marx’s view of the Industrial Revolution remains as the popular perspective of our history books, more sufficient refutation of it is necessary.
There are three simple things to remember whenever we hear the all-too-common tale about the deplorable time period of the Industrial Revolution.
First, worldwide population growth exploded during the Industrial Revolution. Never before did the world see such a rapid increase in life expectancy and population than during the Industrial Revolution. Consider the following chart, depicting estimated worldwide population from the 1st century, A.D. until the year 2000.
It’s not until the 19th century (the era of the Industrial Revolution) that worldwide population experiences a shocking exponential growth pattern. (Chart reproduced under Public Domain)
Note the time period during which a pattern of rapid exponential growth begins: roughly the mid-18th century, or in other words, during the Industrial Revolution! Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the world was not a pretty place to live. Living conditions promoted unhealthy lifestyles and deadly diseases. Medical practices were barbaric. Peasants and serfs relied on feudal lords to protect and provide for them. Often times, their feudal masters failed in such efforts. Famines and natural disasters ravished everyone. Depending on the time period and nation in which you lived, you had to worry about Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Huns, Mongols, Vikings, and Muslims showing up in your village to loot, rape, and murder. Families would have 10, 15, or even 20 children in the hopes that 3 or 4 would survive to adulthood. Hence, world population remained relatively stable until the Industrial Revolution, which made living conditions relatively so much better than they had previously been that people now lived into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. Before, it was a great miracle to reach 40. As Thomas Woods pointed out in his article, “A Myth Shattered: Mises, Hayek, and the Industrial Revolution:”
“What the Industrial Revolution made possible, then, was for these people, who had nothing else to offer to the market, to be able to sell their labor to capitalists in exchange for wages. That is why they were able to survive at all. The Industrial Revolution therefore permitted a population explosion that could not have been sustained under the stagnating conditions of the pre-industrial age.” (Emphasis added)
The second thing to remember about why Marx was wrong regarding the industrial revolution is that Marx compared the conditions of the Industrial Revolution either with his Communist utopia or a romanticized notion of the Medieval period. The more realistic economists (such as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek) compared the conditions of the Industrial Revolution to the actual conditions of the Medieval period, finding stark improvement on all fronts. We can continue this line of logic to say that current standards of living are far better than those during the Industrial Revolution, but that doesn’t mean that the Industrial Revolution was the utter hell-hole of history. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action, “The truth is that economic conditions were highly unsatisfactory on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. The traditional social system was not elastic enough to provide for the needs of a rapidly increasing population.” He continued to admit, that although labor conditions were much worse during the Industrial Revolution than during the early 20th century, the fact remained that Industrial era factories provided the means for millions of people to survive when they would otherwise have died of starvation. In short, economically speaking, living conditions were relatively higher in the Industrial Revolution than during any point in history prior to the Industrial Revolution:
“The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless much more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them. It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchens and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation.”
The third thing to remember is that the Industrial Revolution was significant in helping millions of people overcome poverty by obliterating the entrapment of old social classes. Marx believed that the Industrial Revolution pitted two new classes–the bourgeoisie and the proletariat–against each other because it enabled the capitalists to gain in power and wealth while it enslaved the workers to their capitalist masters. However, on the contrary, Hayek and Mises believed quite righly that the Industrial Revolution brought social classes much closer than ever before due to the growing power of the common worker, especially when compared to the pitiful state of the feudal serfs and peasants. Moreover, if poverty was such an issue during the Industrial Revolution, Hayek argued that it was because overall wealth was increasing so rapidly that areas in which poverty remained (as a hangover from pre-Industrial economic conditions) became so conspicuous. Specifically, he said (as quoted in Woods’ article) that:
“The very increase of wealth and well-being which had been achieved raised standards and aspirations. What for ages had seemed a natural and inevitable situation, or even as an improvement upon the past, came to be regarded as incongruous with the opportunities which the new age appeared to offer. Economic suffering both became more conspicuous and seemed less justified, because general wealth was increasing faster than ever before.”
Additionally, Mises talked about the liberating effect of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and destitute, saying, “The laissez-faire ideology and its offshoot, the ‘Industrial Revolution,’ blasted the ideological and institutional barriers to progress and welfare. They demolished the social order in which a constantly increasing number of people were doomed to abject need and destitution.” Thus, the Industrial Revolution was a time of looking forward, of allowing entrepreneurs to harness the powers of free market capitalism and turning that power into an engine of prosperity that would raise standards of living for all. Over the years, this engine has grown even more efficient and productive, making Western societies so wealthy that today’s middle class is richer than the Medieval kings and Popes. But it all began over 150 years ago when businessmen and entrepreneurs decided to forge ahead with new machines and technology in order to gain greater profits while simultaneously providing better services to the masses at lower and lower costs.
Admittedly, the Industrial Revolution was not paradise. There were horrible tragedies and unspeakable sufferings that did affect many people, including widows, orphans, and the elderly. There probably were many real-life stories that could parallel some of Dickens’ most shocking tales. However, lest we get caught up in the emotional rhetoric of the standard Marxist interpretation of the Industrial Revolution, we must remember to analyze it within a realistic framework and a big-picture perspective. In doing so, we realize that shortcomings did exist during the Industrial Revolution, but on the whole, the Industrial Revolution was a time for technological advancement and economic growth such as the world had not yet seen until that point. Therefore, it is to the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution that we are indebted for our prosperity…and not the wild rantings of a crazy German named Karl Marx.
“The outstanding fact about the Industrial Revolution is that it opened an age of mass production for the needs of the masses. The wage earners are no longer people toiling merely for other people’s well-being. They themselves are the main consumers of the products the factories turn out. Big business depends upon mass consumption. There is, in present-day America, not a single branch of big business that would not cater to the needs of the masses. The very principle of capitalist entrepreneurship is to provide for the common man. In his capacity as consumer the common man is the sovereign whose buying or abstention from buying decides the fate of entrepreneurial activities. There is in the market economy no other means of acquiring and preserving wealth than by supplying the masses in the best and cheapest way with all the goods they ask for.” – Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Chapter 21.