Victorianism And Progress
No other age was quite so strongly associated with a faith in the progress of technologies. Victorianism is correctly and inextricably intertwined with inventions and the rise of the machine. Steam locomotion, iron, and then steel ships, telegraphy, and many other developments receive attention from historians, for the Victorians triumphed over so many challenges of distance and power that had held up such progress in earlier times. Justifiably, Victorianism remains associated with industrialism, urbanization, transport, technologies, travel, and communication. The essential character of Victorian technological determinism was that science and the practical men could change the world through invention and implementation.
Leaps in technology were matched by developments in social thought. Prophets of progress and the enemies of industrial modernity competed for space, and both groups contributed to the sense of what Victorianism was about. From the 1830s, the critics of Victorianism grew. Modernity was feared by many and loathed by some. Tories, such as the "Young England" group (which included Benjamin Disraeli [1804–1881]) looked back to a bygone age of preindustrial harmony, where deference, social equilibrium, and a more agreeable life was once thought to exist. Disraeli's classic, Sybil; or the Two Nations (1845), captured these sentiments brilliantly. Another stern early critic, the Scot Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), shared the "Young England" aversion to modernity but looked forward, not back. He abhorred the Victorian tendency to seek mechanical solutions to human problems and sought, instead, a reinvention of an earlier morality, but in a future setting. This style of criticism connected many early nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Carlyle and Robert Owen (1771–1858), to later socialists, such as William Morris (1834–1896). By the 1880s the critique of Victorianism was powerful indeed. Unlike on the continent, where Marxism was much more influential and where anarchism and communism posed a seemingly greater challenge, most British socialism sought accommodation with capitalism and was reformist in character. The Fabian, Sidney Webb (1859–1947), represented an administrative type of socialism, based upon efficiency and organization. William Morris's utopian socialism was characterized by a more fundamental attack upon capitalism and a pursuit of an alternative moral and spiritual way of life. Socialist criticism of modernity also had echoes in the growing feminist challenge to Victorianism. Although suffragism achieved its ends beyond the Victorian period, its seeds were sprouting long before Victoria's end.
Traditional interpretations of society as a static entity were undermined as the period progressed. Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) theories of evolution and Herbert Spencer's (1820–1903) considerations upon human development were to have a startling impact, radically altering classic Victorian notions of society and how to manage it. A social science, borrowed from evolutionary theory, that downplayed contractual in favor of organic ideas of society emerged. Social Darwinism and other evolutionary theories played some part in the development of a philosophy of state interventionism, which marked later Victorian, and particularly twentieth-century, thought (though recent studies, for example, H. S. Jones's Victorian Political Thought , sound more cautious and complicated notes). The search for perfectibility in society, which echoed nature's selection of the fittest, could be set up for or against the collectivization of social welfare.
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