Two commanding facts confront socialists in Britain today, dominating this moment of our history. British society is in the throes of a profound, pervasive but cryptic crisis, undramatic in appearance, but ubiquitous in its reverberations. As its immediate result, a Labour government seems imminent. So much everyone agrees. But what do these phenomena mean? What kind of crisis is it? What kind of outcomes to it are likely?
Anyone who looks for an answer to these questions in the flood of recent books on the ‘condition of England’ is likely to be disappointed. By and large, these offer not an analysis of the crisis, but simply an account of its symptoms.
These works—by Shonfield, Hartley, Sampson, Shanks, MacRaefootnote1—are ephemeral in the most literal sense: they have no historical dimension. Shonfield, whose book is the earliest and best of the genre, devotes five pages out of three hundred to an explanation of the secular decline of the British economy he discusses in the rest of his book; and he is unique in offering any structural explanation at all.
If one turns to socialist critics of the right or the left, the same central blankness is striking. Crosland’s Conservative Enemy is in many ways an eloquent and intelligent work; it is certainly far more serious than the vulgar run of books whose theme—the ‘stagnation’ of Britain—is the same. Yet Crosland, too, attacks ‘conservatism’ in every reach and level of British society without providing a single line of explanation of the malady he denounces. No socialist writer stands in greater contrast to Crosland than Raymond Williams, whose Culture and Society and The Long Revolution undoubtedly represent the major contribution to socialist thought in England since the war. Apparently, Culture and Society is a historical work; in reality, for all its merits, it is so in a strictly limited sense. It is, in fact, a purely immanent ideological critique, consciously abstracted from the effective movement of history. The title of The Long Revolution promises a directly historical perspective, but, despite crucial insights, the achievement of the book is theoretical rather than historical. The concluding discussion of ‘Britain in the Sixties’ starts ex nihilo, after the philosophical and cultural analysis which precedes it. The unity of the book deliberately lies elsewhere. Yet it is surely significant that neither the ‘technical’ (Crosland, Shonfield) nor the ‘ethical’ (Williams) criticisms of British society today are founded historically.
Does the available corpus of history and sociology make this unnecessary? Nothing could be further from the truth. We must be unique among advanced industrial nations in having not one single structural study of our society today; but this stupefying absence follows logically from the complete lack of any serious global history of British society in the 20th century. The limits of our sociology reflect the nervelessness of our historiography. Marxist historians, whose mature works are only now beginning to emerge and consolidate each other, have so far nearly all confined themselves to the heroic periods of English history, the 17th and early 19th centuries: most of the 18th and all of the 20th remain unexplored. Thus no attempt has ever been made at even the outline of a ‘totalizing’ history of modern British society. Yet until our view of Britain today is grounded in some vision of its full, effective past, however misconceived and transient this may initially be, we will continue to lack the basis for any understanding of the dialectical movements of our society, and hence—necessarily—of the contradictory possibilities within it which alone can yield a strategy for socialism. The present conjuncture, which offers such opportunities to the Labour Party, was neither created nor foreseen by it. If the Left is to take advantage of the present situation, the first prerequisite is a serious attempt to