Perry Anderson is too modest in his claims for New Left Review’s interpretation of English history, recently restated in ‘The Figures of Descent’. footnote1 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’. footnote2 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’ footnote3 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.

If Barnett’s politics places him on the extreme right, his culturalism is much more representative. He writes: ‘The explanation of the “British disease” has to be sought in the nature of British society itself, its attitudes and its values.’ footnote4 A similar pre-occupation with culture as the source of British decline is typical of much writing on the subject, and has been given canonical form by Martin Wiener in his English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850–1980. Anderson provided his own version of such an explanation in ‘Origins’, but—no doubt because of a change in his view of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, on which he drew in that first essay footnote5 —now thinks that ‘it was given too cultural a turn’ (p. 57).

The significance of ‘Figures’ seems to me twofold. First, it seeks to restate the original ‘Nairn–Anderson thesis’ primarily in terms of the specific socio-economic character of English capitalism, avoiding any reliance on ideological or broader cultural factors. Secondly, Anderson now draws on recent work, notably by W.D. Rubinstein and Geoffrey Ingham, which attributes the persisting aristocratic character of the ruling class both to a preponderance of land, commerce, and finance among the very wealthy throughout the nineteenth century, and to the economic and political rôle of the City, its structural separation from industry, its integration with old landed wealth, and its progressive predominance within the state thanks to the instrumentality of the Treasury. This admittedly more materialist version of the original nlr theses has been subjected to detailed and devastating criticism by Michael Barratt Brown. footnote6 Since I agree in general with his arguments, I shall not repeat them here. I shall concentrate instead on the political implications of Anderson’s article. Since it offers a view of English history capable of appropriation by various political projects, from the ‘new revisionism’ of Marxism Today to Corelli Barnett’s Tory corporatism, what kind of socialist strategy does ‘Figures’ imply?

Here there is a difficulty. Not only does Anderson draw no political conclusions from his analysis, but he says remarkably little about the character of the contemporary British state. Aspects of that state—the alleged dominance within it of the City–Treasury nexus, its lack of any ‘regulative intelligence’ capable of reversing economic decline (pp. 73ff.)—are discussed. Absent, however, is any comprehensive attempt to characterize the institutional order of the state and its relationship to the main classes in British society. Others, however, have been less cautious. Robin Blackburn not long ago called the British state ‘the last ancien régime’. footnote7 This kind of analysis was most fully developed by Tom Nairn in an article first published in nlr about ten years ago: ‘an in-depth historical analysis shows that, while not directly comparable to the most notorious relics of the twentieth century, like the Hapsburg, Tsarist or Prussian–German states, it retains something in common with them. . . . Although not, of course, an absolutist state, the Anglo–British system remains a product of the general transition from absolutism to modern constitutionalism: it led the way out of the former, but never genuinely arrived at the latter.’ footnote8

As Thompson long ago observed, such a view of the British state as ‘[n]either feudal nor modern’ footnote9 presupposes an essentially normative conception of bourgeois revolution, which treats any capitalist transformation as ‘incomplete’ if it fails to conform to an ideal type usually derived from the Great French Revolution. footnote10 Such an approach is evident in ‘Origins’, where Anderson described the English Revolution as the ‘least pure bourgeois revolution of any major European country’ because of the absence of an urban, Jacobin-style leadership which justified the thorough-going destruction of the old order by appeal to a universal and rationalistic ideology. footnote11 The use of the French Revolution as a normative model has rightly been largely abandoned by Marxist historians, who now prefer to identify bourgeois revolution, in the words of Gareth Stedman Jones, with ‘the global victory of a particular form of property relations and particular form of control over the means of production, rather than [with] the conscious triumph of a class subject which possessed a distinct and coherent view of the world.’ footnote12