The novelty of Gareth Stedman Jones’s Languages of Class lies, as its title suggests, in its contention that the study of language must be the starting point for any understanding of political activity.footnote1 To some readers this proposition may seem a trifle obvious and not really novel at all. Yet, as Stedman Jones argues, it is precisely the study of language, in the full sense, that historians have neglected and, in doing so, they have fallen victim to quite erroneous modes of explanation. The gist of the argument is as follows. Till now out interpretation of the past has tended to treat language, what people said and wrote at the time, as something that could, quite simply, be taken down and used directly in evidence. There has been no effective comprehension, at least in the practice of the historian’s craft, that language, precisely because it is collective and social in character, cannot be used in this way. As an act of communication, it does not take place across the empty wastes of historical time between an isolated individual and his future historian. It is, on the contrary, a far more circumscribed activity between particular people sharing a living language to which the historian is not automatically party and which in turn structures and refracts the experience of its users. Accordingly, it is the reconstruction of this language, historically grounded, discrete yet discursive, alive with the inflections of contemporary use, that should be the starting point for the historian.

The penalty for not doing so, Stedman Jones argues, has been heavy and is not restricted to the production of bad history. It has burdened the Left with quite mythical understandings of its origins and of the character of the British Labour Movement, understandings which are today, in the crisis of the 1980s, critically disabling. In particular it has blinded us to the centrality of politics and, more specifically, of political discourse in the determination of social change and instead subjected us to fatally misconceived expectations about the economic context of politics. Five years ago, for instance, many of us all too readily assumed that, as ‘in the past’, whether it be the 1940s or the 1830s, the experience of mass unemployment and declining living standards would once more enable the Labour Movement to win and exercise mass influence. If we are now disappointed, we should blame not the working class but our historians. For they have given us a history that never happened. Detaching fragments of speech from specific language, they have attempted to restore their meaning by claiming them as the product of particular economic or social trends, or, as Stedman Jones puts it, by setting them ‘into direct relation to a putative experiential reality of which they were assumed to be the expression’.footnote2 In this way, relationships have been presumed, such as that between unemployment and political mobilization, which could only be established by investigating the wider political discourse through which the actors themselves understood their reality. A reductionist history has bred a reductionist political practice.

The objective of Stedman Jones’s new book is, therefore, a highly ambitious one. It seeks a radical break with many of the assumptions which, he claims, have previously informed the way socialists have written the history of their movement. Instead it advances a new agenda of which the key features are outlined in a central passage of the book’s introduction. ‘What we must do is study the production of interest, identification, grievance and aspiration within political languages themselves. We need to map out these successive languages of radicalism, liberalism, socialism, etc., both in relation to the political languages they replace and laterally in relation to rival political languages with which they are in conflict. Only then can we begin to assess their reasons for success or failure at specific points in time. It is clear that particular political languages do become inapposite in new situations. How and why this occurs involves the discovery of the precise point at which shift occurs as well as an investigation of the specific political circumstances in which they shift. To peer straight through these languages into structural changes to which they may be notionally referred is no substitute for such an investigation, not because there is not a relationship of some kind, but because such connection can never be established with a satisfying degree of finality.’footnote3

Stedman Jones has selected two key periods in the development of the British Labour Movement for reinterpretation on this basis. There is a long essay on the formative years of working-class organization entitled ‘Rethinking Chartism’, and a shorter piece on the recent history of the Labour Party. The book also contains three other essays on aspects of the nineteenth-century Labour Movement, but these predate the author’s new thinking on language, and are only referred to insofar as they are relevant to his current thesis.

Academically, the debate on Chartism’s class content was initiated by the publication of Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class almost a quarter of a century ago. The resulting contest has undoubtedly enriched our understanding of English social development and stimulated some important contributions to social history. But for some years now the debate has been visibly flagging, bogged down in predictable and rather tired exchanges. ‘Rethinking Chartism’ seeks to transform, and in some ways to reverse, the terms of these arguments. Put at its simplest, it proposes that Chartism was no more nor less than what it claimed to be: an alliance of forces with strictly political and constitutional objectives which were set out with total clarity in its six-point charter of demands. At first sight this proposition may not seem particularly remarkable. But when explored in the light of the preceding assumptions, it does indeed have the potential to set the well-known landscape of nineteenth-century England in a new and unfamiliar light.