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New Left Review I/167, January-February 1988

Michael Barratt Brown

Away With All the Great Arches: Anderson’s History of British Capitalism

The golden age of British History is now over, according to David Cannadine, not only as a nation but also as a subject of study—‘an account of the British past which reconciled repeated revolutions with a belief in ordered progress and which thus appeared to be simultaneously unique yet exemplary.’ [1] David Cannadine, ‘British History, Past, Present and Future’, Past and Present, August 1987, p. 175. The concern with change and progress is now out of fashion. Continuity is the last word. The elaboration of ‘great arches’ [2] The phrase comes from P. Corrigan and D. Sayer, The Great Arch, Oxford 1985. It has to be said that in this work the authors are more careful than those I am arguing with here to retain the dialectics within the continuity. by the sociologists has replaced the economic historians’ search for discontinuities and their concern to explain them. If the interest in change exaggerated the discontinuities, the drawback of all great arches is that from such a great height only giants and mass movements are visible. They give us a wonderful panorama of the terrain, but fail to reveal what is happening in the groups down below and how they are regrouping within the great masses. Picking out the giants tells us little of the smaller men and women. Perry Anderson has always tended to take a synoptic view of great amplitude but little detail. In a series of articles twenty years ago—which Edward Thompson dubbed the ‘Peculiarities of the English’ [3] Edward Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’, Socialist Register 1965.—he and Tom Nairn had sought to establish that there was never a proper ruling industrial bourgeoisie in Britain. [4] See especially Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review 23, January–February 1964. The manufacturers and mill-owners remained subordinate economically, politically and culturally to the aristocratic rulers of an earlier agrarian society. And this was the source of the malady of British capitalism today and equally of the failure of the British working class to challenge its masters for real power. What Anderson is now proposing is an even more radical argument—that there was no real hegemonic industrial bourgeoisie in Britain, for the very good reason that there was no real industrial revolution in Britain and British capitalism was rooted in commercial and not industrial capital accumulation. [5] Perry Anderson, ‘The Figures of Descent’, New Left Review 161, January–February 1987. Anderson speaks of the ‘slippage of modern scholarship’ in abandoning the widely accepted Marxist view of the essentially industrial nature of British capitalism, but he believes that this follows from what he calls the ‘glissade’ in Marx’s and Engels’s own writings from their earlier certainties and draws on quotations taken from Harold Perkins, The Structured Crowd: Essays in Social History, Brighton 1981.

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Michael Barratt Brown, ‘Away With All the Great Arches: Anderson’s History of British Capitalism’, NLR I/167: £3

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