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.
The elite really did govern. The agrarian hierarchy of peers, gentry and farmers had a robust, autonomous existence throughout the two centuries in which English capitalism rose to its zenith and preserved much of its power into the era of imperialism. A decisive collapse did not occur until after the First World War, when— according to F. M. L. Thompson—as much as one quarter of England must have changed hands in a few years, in the greatest transfer of land since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. This long aristocratic tutelage deeply affected English bourgeois society. In this “most bourgeois of all nations”, the counterpart of the “bourgeois aristocracy” to which Engels refers in a well-known letter to Marx in 1858 was nothing less than a sort of aristocratic bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie which accepted the political, social and cultural hegemony of the landowners as a condition of its own existence. This acceptance
At the present moment, however, even this modified version of the old order is being called in question. As a part of the general post-imperial crisis, the British bourgeoisie has at long last decided to follow the precepts of the Manifesto seriously. Belatedly, pathetically, it is doing its best to “pitilessly tear asunder” the remaining pseudofeudal bonds, its spokesmen and politicians exclaim brightly about equality and expatiate at every available occasion upon the noxiousness of “out-dated class barriers”. At long last, the shadow cast on history by the landowning elite is being expelled.
These are some of the reasons why we should study the history of English landowning society, not one of the shams of our own civilisation but one of its determining conditions, an inheritance still alive and active in our world They are also the reasons why we must welcome the appearance of these two volumes.