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
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.’
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
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