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New Left Review I/161, January-February 1987

Perry Anderson

The Figures of Descent

The debates aroused by a number of theses on Britain, published in New Left Review some twenty years ago, had at their centre a dispute over the character of the dominant class in Hanoverian and Victorian England, and the nature of the state over which it presided. These were the historical issues most hotly contested at the time, and since. If it seems an appropriate moment to reconsider them today, it is necessary to begin with a reminder. The set of hypotheses then developed in this review had a clearly stated purpose. They were designed to offer an explanation of the pervasive crisis of British society in the mid sixties. Intellectually, the explanandum was the malady of the capitalist order in the uk. The agrarian and aristocratic stamp of English rulers in the era of the Pax Britannica, the subordination of bourgeois manufacturers and mill-owners to them, with all the consequences—economic, political and cultural—that followed from the cadet role of industrial capital in the Victorian age, were the explanans. In the controversies set off by these claims, the structure of the argument itself often tended to be forgotten. [1] The principal texts at issue published in nlr were Tom Nairn, ‘The British Political Elite’, and Perry Anderson ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, nlr 23, January–February 1964; Tom Nairn, ‘The English Working-Class’, nlr 24, March–April 1964; Tom Nairn, ‘The Anatomy of the Labour Party’, nlr 27 and 28, September–October and November–December 1964. Sequels included Perry Anderson, ‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’, nlr 35, January–February 1966, and ‘Components of the National Culture’, nlr 50, July–August 1968; Tom Nairn, ‘The British Meridian’, nlr 60, March–April 1970, and ‘The Twilight of the British State’, nlr 101, February–April 1976. Thus Edward Thompson roundly rejected the picture of the hegemonic bloc within English society in the epoch of its world supremacy that we had drawn, and sketched in his own alternative to it—just as he no less vigorously refused the image of the subordinate class to be found in our essays, in favour of another vision of them. [2] ‘The Peculiarities of the English’, The Socialist Register 1965, republished in slightly fuller version in The Poverty of Theory, London 1978, pp.35–91. But he did not address himself to the central problem at stake—the origins of the present crisis—at all. It is this continuing question, however, which forms the real testing-bed for a review of our successive surmises today. How far are these compatible, not only with the historical evidence of the time, but with the contemporary pattern of events since?

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