The debates aroused by a number of theses on Britain, published in New Left Review some twenty years ago, had at their centre a dispute over the character of the dominant class in Hanoverian and Victorian England, and the nature of the state over which it presided. These were the historical issues most hotly contested at the time, and since. If it seems an appropriate moment to reconsider them today, it is necessary to begin with a reminder. The set of hypotheses then developed in this review had a clearly stated purpose. They were designed to offer an explanation of the pervasive crisis of British society in the mid sixties. Intellectually, the explanandum was the malady of the capitalist order in the uk. The agrarian and aristocratic stamp of English rulers in the era of the Pax Britannica, the subordination of bourgeois manufacturers and mill-owners to them, with all the consequences—economic, political and cultural—that followed from the cadet role of industrial capital in the Victorian age, were the explanans. In the controversies set off by these claims, the structure of the argument itself often tended to be forgotten. footnote1 Thus Edward Thompson roundly rejected the picture of the hegemonic bloc within English society in the epoch of its world supremacy that we had drawn, and sketched in his own alternative to it—just as he no less vigorously refused the image of the subordinate class to be found in our essays, in favour of another vision of them. footnote2 But he did not address himself to the central problem at stake—the origins of the present crisis—at all. It is this continuing question, however, which forms the real testing-bed for a review of our successive surmises today. How far are these compatible, not only with the historical evidence of the time, but with the contemporary pattern of events since?

We wrote as Marxists. Our critics replied to us as—better—Marxists. That was true, for example, of Nicos Poulantzas, as much as of Edward Thompson. footnote3 In point of orthodoxy, there seemed little doubt as to which side possessed the proper credentials. England was, after all, the classical laboratory of Capital. If the industrial bourgeoisie was not the triumphant master of the world of Peel and Gladstone, when British capitalist society soared above all others, where else could it fulfil the destiny of the Manifesto? It was consequently assumed that Marx’s own view of the matter could be taken for granted—it was also, after all, that of a previous liberal consensus as well. Against this background, our interpretations could appear a heterodox foible without pedigree or prospect, as scant in fact as they must be short in life.

In reality, however, they had precedents of some significance. The problem of the nature of the dominant class and the state in Victorian England was a crux with a long history behind it. Paradoxically, it can be traced nowhere so clearly as in the writings of Marx and Engels themselves. For on the one hand, they did indeed repeatedly insist that the new industrial bourgeoisie of the 19th century—manufacturers, millocrats, or middle-classes generally—was the true regnant power of the age. At the outset of their encounter with Britain in 1844, Engels asked himself: ‘Who then actually rules England?’, and replied: ‘To the extent that the influence of the actual middle-class is on the whole much greater than that of the aristocracy, to that extent the middle-class does indeed rule.’ footnote4 When Marx arrived in London in 1850, he was equally prompt to assert that the ‘new, more colossal bourgeoisie’ that had arisen from the Industrial Revolution ‘becomes so omnipotent that even before the Reform Bill puts direct political power into its hands, it forces its opponents to pass laws almost exclusively in its interests and according to its needs.’ footnote5 Commenting on the background to the Ten Hours Bill in the same year, Engels concurred: ‘The manufacturers have virtually secured their ascendancy’—‘the landlord and the shipping interests have been sacrificed to their rising star.’ footnote6 If the Whigs were now triumphant over the Tories, Marx remarked two years later, it was as ‘the aristocratic representatives of the bourgeoisie, of the industrial and commercial middle-class’. footnote7 But they would soon be eliminated in their turn by the radical Free Traders, ‘the official representatives of modern English society’, as ‘the part of the self-conscious bourgeoisie, of industrial capital’, whose objectives were ‘the complete annihilation of Old England as an aristocratic country’, with its monarchy, army, colonies, church and legal system, and the installation of a rational laissez-faire republic in its stead. footnote8

Yet these forthright judgements typically sat side by side with qualifications and counter-indications that were not easily reconcilable with them. Thus Engels in 1844 had also stressed the immense wealth of the English aristocracy, and the power it exercised through its control of the House of Commons, based on a dependent rural electorate. footnote9 In 1855 Marx was no longer claiming ‘direct political power’ for the new industrial class, but rather describing the British Constitution as ‘an antiquated, obsolete, out-of-date compromise between the bourgeoisie, which rules not officially but in fact in all decisive spheres of civil society, and the landed aristocracy which governs officially’, and sought to fix the relationship between the two in a contrast between the policies and the apparatuses of the Victorian State—industrialists determining the former, and so functioning ‘politically as the ruling class’, while ‘the entire system of government in all its detail, i.e. the actual making of laws in both Houses of Parliament, remained safely in the hands of the landed aristocracy.’ Marx concluded: ‘The aristocracy, subject to certain principles laid down by the bourgeoisie, rules supreme in the Cabinet, in Parliament, in the Administration, in the Army and Navy.’ footnote10 Later Marxists—Poulantzas among them—often tended to take this variant of Marx’s verdicts as canonical: the idea of a delegation of power by the bourgeoisie to the aristocracy, to do its governing for it. footnote11

But the very text that sets out this idea most fully also contains a curious, casual subversion of it. For in the next sentence, Marx goes on to speak of the aristocracy as ‘relatively the most important section’ of the British nation. footnote12 Amidst the disasters of the Crimean War, however, he thought that this landowning class would finally have to sign its death-warrant and ‘admit under the eyes of the whole world that it no longer has the calling to govern England.’ footnote13 In the event, the ‘relatively more important’ component of the dominant bloc did not dwindle away in military defeat or economic eclipse, in the subsequent estimates of the founders of historical materialism. Already in 1854, a year earlier, Marx had scathingly noted how well the ‘splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers’, Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Brontë and Mrs Gaskell, depicted ‘the cramped and narrow sphere’ in which ‘every section of the middle-class’ moved, ‘servile to those above and tyrannical to those beneath them’. Fearful of the working-class beneath it, the English bourgeoisie imitated and tried to link itself to the aristocracy. ‘The consequence is that the feudalism of England will not perish beneath the scarcely perceptible dissolving processes of the middle-class; the honour of such a victory is reserved for the working-classes.’ footnote14