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New Left Review I/169, May-June 1988

Alex Callinicos

Exception or Symptom? The British Crisis and the World System

Perry Anderson is too modest in his claims for New Left Review’s interpretation of English history, recently restated in ‘The Figures of Descent’. [1] nlr 161, January/February 1987. All references in the text are to this article. This comment on Anderson’s article was written before the events of 19 October, ‘Black Monday’, on Wall Street and elsewhere. The global stock market crash, however, tends to corroborate my arguments. He suggests (p. 27) that ‘the consensus of at any rate the local left’ upheld the criticisms of that interpretation in Edward Thompson’s famous essay ‘The Peculiarities of the English’. [2] Reprinted in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London 1978. The principal theme of the nlr analysis—advanced by Anderson in ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ and by Tom Nairn in various articles—was that the roots of Britain’s twentieth–century decline lay in ‘the archaic nature of a ruling stratum, whose personnel and traditions stretched back to an agrarian past that had been unbroken for centuries by civil commotion or foreign defeat’ (p. 57). Yet this idea, far from being a minority or heterodox view, seems to have become the common sense of the British left, particularly when it is linked, as it is by Anderson in ‘Figures’, to the thesis that the City represents the dominant fraction of British capital. The supposedly ‘archaic’ and ‘patrician’ character of the ruling class is captured in different ways, from Stuart Hall’s claim that Britain ‘never ever properly entered the era of modern bourgeois civilization’ [3] S. Hall, ‘Gramsci and Us’, Marxism Today, June 1987, pp. 17, 19. to the more routine Labour Party denunciations of Thatcherism as merely the representative of the metropolitan, yuppified south-east; but the basic theme is the same. Nor is this problematic confined to the left, however generously defined. The Social Democratic Party staked their claim as the bourgeois modernizers of Britain, aspiring to transform the country into a rationally ordered European polity. Further to the right, Corelli Barnett has discovered gentlemanly amateurism undermining even the Churchillian war economy. Anderson praises Barnett’s The Audit of War for its ‘historical depth’ (p. 47), without noting that the book is a local version of the stab-in-the-back myth, explaining Britain’s post-war decline as a consequence of the way in which liberal do-gooders threw away victory in the field by constructing the welfare state at home.

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