Martin Wiener

Martin Joel Wiener (born 1941) is an American academic and author. He is currently the chair of the history department at Rice University.

English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: The Wiener Debate

His main claim to fame lies with his 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850–1980, which was a concerted attack on the British elite for its indifference to and wariness of industrialism and commercialism. Although the commercial and industrial revolutions originated in England, Wiener blamed a persistent strain in British culture, characterised by wariness of capitalist expansion and yearning for an arcadian rural society, which had prevented England – and Britain as a whole – from fully exploiting the benefits of what it had created. He was particularly scathing about the self-made industrial capitalists of the 19th century who, from the middle of that century onwards, increasingly sent their children to public schools where "the sons of businessmen were looked down upon and science was barely taught".

Similar views had already been heard from the likes of Eric Hobsbawm (Marxist) and Correlli Barnett. The book inspired the New Right of the Thatcher government to move further away from the Old Right; specifically, for its first two years the Thatcher administration had held the view that Britain's industrial, economic and commercial decline was down purely to militant trade unionists and to the fact that Britain effectively bankrupted itself winning the Second World War. From 1981 onwards the faction in the party led by Keith Joseph came more and more to believe that a wariness of capitalist and economic expansionist values held by the old guard of the party had done just as much damage, if not more.

Joseph gave a copy of Wiener's book to every cabinet minister.[1] Quite apart from its importance in the development of the Thatcher government, Wiener's influence has been at least partially credited with (or blamed for) the general increased dominance of commercial and market values in Britain from the 1980s onwards, the way certain ancient Establishment institutions have become deeply concerned with "rebranding" and "modernising" themselves (for example the removal of ancient rituals and the increased emphasis on "young enterprise" in many public schools, or the British Royal Family's "Party at the Palace" in 2002).

Among writers and movements of the British Right, there are those who accept Wiener's thesis and those who do not agree with it. Those who share Wiener's slant most prominently include Andrew Neil (editor of The Sunday Times in the 1980s and early 1990s), the American-based but British-raised Andrew Sullivan, the Canadian-born but U.S.-based Mark Steyn, the Times columnist and Tory MP Michael Gove, and most writers associated with The Economist (especially its Washington correspondent Adrian Wooldridge, who in 2004 likened the sort of British conservatives Wiener attacked to the leftist film-maker and polemicist Michael Moore, saying that old-school Tories dislike George W. Bush because he "represents an America where people believe in business, rather than dismissing it as a rather grubby pastime"). Among newspapers, The Sunday Times has been the most fervently Wienerite, very largely due to Andrew Neil's pervasive influence. Among Right-wing fringe groups, the Democracy Movement and other groups of Tory modernisers share most of Wiener's ideas on capitalist expansion and much of his contempt for the old guard in the party.

Leading anti-Wienerites of the mainstream Right have included Peregrine Worsthorne (former editor of the Sunday Telegraph), the late Auberon Waugh, Max Hastings (former editor of The Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard) and Stuart Reid (assistant editor of The Spectator). Practically the entire British National Party and the wider far-Right movement, who are strongly economically protectionist, could also be described as anti-Wienerites (along with much else). The Conservative Democratic Alliance, a fringe group of the Old Right, is often passionately and unashamedly anti-Wienerite. Some prominent Right-wing thinkers, notably Digby Anderson, stand on the borderline.

English Culture has been attacked as selective in its use of evidence and partial in its conclusions; the historians David Edgerton and W. D. Rubinstein have been leading critics of the Wiener thesis. In Edgerton's case, Wiener is simply wrong; the British state and society more generally was remarkably consistent in its technocratic aims and objectives,[2][3] and in the case of Rubinstein, Wiener is prone to "industrial fetishism", ignoring the true nature of the British economy during the period in which he writes, which is that of a consistently growing service-based economy. A standard criticism of the impressionistic nature of Wiener's work is that it relies heavily on quotations from literary sources and is barren of any quantitative analysis.

In 2004 a revised edition was published of English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850–1980, reflecting on the original debate surrounding the book and accounting related events of the last 20 years.

Selected bibliography


  1. "Empty shelves". The Economist. April 27, 2010. Retrieved April 27, 2010.
  2. Edgerton, D (1991) England and the Aeroplane – An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation.
  3. Edgerton, D. (2006) Warfare State: Britain, 1920 – 1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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