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New Left Review I/20, Summer 1963


Tom Nairn

Landed England

English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century: G. E. Mingay, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century: F. M. L. Thompson. Both from series “Studies in Social History”, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 40s. 310pp., 45s. 368pp. respectively.

“The so-called monarchical and aristocratic elements of the English Constitution can maintain themselves only because the bourgeoisie has an interest in the continuation of their sham existence; and more than a sham existence neither possesses today”, wrote Engels in 1844. Britain was indeed a fully capitalist country by the time he was writing, and it had been an essentially bourgeois country for about one hundred and fifty years before that The countryside was not left aside by this development—on the contrary, a capitalist transformation of agriculture had preceded the Industrial Revolution and had long since expelled feudalism as a mode of production from the agrarian scene. Nevertheless, the aristocratic element was still there in 1844. In some sense the landowners still constituted the ruling class of the new industrial nation, they still dominated politics, the Church, and the Army, still represented and interpreted the State and its laws throughout rural England, and exercised a powerful ascendancy over the minds of the bourgeoisie. Perhaps there was a sham side to the existence of this hereditary governing elite, since its aristocratic way of life reposed upon a solidly bourgeois basis of capitalist grounh rent and its economic interests were in large measure identified with the farther general development of the whole capitalist system— fundamentally, they were a part of the system and not at odds with it like a genuinely feudal aristocracy. Nevertheless, it was wrong to reduce the existence of the class to this sham and to see in it nothing but a deliberate fraud and disguise, an instrument of bourgeois rule. To do this is to misunderstand seriously the very character and evolution of the English bourgeoisie itself, and some of its present dilemnas.

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