Class-divided societies have almost always been governed politically by a small minority. In general, this chosen few is a small group even in relation to the ‘ruling class’ itself, in the Marxist sense, the class which possesses or controls the economic wealth of society through the institutions of property, and in whose collective interests society is governed. The characteristics of such governing groups, especially in capitalist societies, and the nature of the relationship between them and the class or classes they represent—the social forces giving their power its fundamental meaning—is one of the most fascinating of historical problems. All too often, talk of ‘the ruling class’—however polemically justified it may be in particular cases, in the face of antediluvian notions—tends by itself to obscure or at least leave aside such questions. Hence, argument remains on the level of the affirmation that there is a class which rules over the rest of society, and does not go on to describe how it does so. Or at best the idea of power is seen as indicating the obvious, universal instruments of power: the coercive State, the police and the army, deliberate propaganda for a way of life and certain sacred values.
But the modalities of power are infinite. In reality, the hegemony of one social class over subordinate classes in society may be extremely complex, a cultural tissue of great variety and subtlety, extending all the way from the education of infants to the naming of streets, present in peoples’ inhibitions and mental blocs as well as in what they profess to believe—all that tradition of the dead generations ‘weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the living’, as Marx said. Mr Guttsman uses this remark to head his first chapter of his recent book.footnote1 Appropriately because the ancient bourgeois society of England is surely the most thoroughly conditioned by sediments of this kind, the most intimately burdened down by successive, often hetergeneous layers of historic culture deposited during the long good fortune of English capitalism. ‘The revolution which did not happen in England’, Edward Thompson has recently reminded us, ‘is as important for understanding England as the French Revolution is for understanding France.’
The British governing class, for this reason, functioned as the centre or
The governing class, or élite, of the bourgeoisie was, of course, originally the aristocracy. This was the essence of the revolution—the bourgeois-democratic, rationalizing, egalitarian revolution—which did not happen. The English bourgeoisie of the Industrial Revolution did not revolutionize society as a whole. Afraid from the beginning of the power of the new labouring masses brought into being by and for the Industrial Revolution itself, intimidated by the spectacle of the French Revolution and all it signified, the English middle class quickly arrived at a ‘compromise’ with the English ancien régime. Because of its basically capitalist structure (tenant-farming carried on by wage-labour for profit) and its absence of legal definition as a privileged estate, the aristocracy was such that a ‘compromise’ of this sort was possible. Nevertheless, the landowners were also the main protagonists of a distinctive civilization, half-way between the feudal and the modern, with its own ways of life, its own values and culture—a civilization still vital, at the period of the Industrial Revolution, and in spite of its bourgeois traits qualitatively distinct from the new social order of that Revolution. And no ‘compromise’ or ‘alliance’—the usual terms employed—was, in fact, possible as between contrasting civilizations. No conscious tactical arrangement, no deal lasting for a season, was conceivable between social forces of this complexity and magnitude. Amalgamation was the only real possibility, a fusion of different classes and their diverse cultures into one social order capable of guaranteeing social stability and keeping the proletariat in its place. The history of England from the late 18th century onwards is in large measure the story of this fusion, its strains, achievements, and bizarre results.
Because the social and cultural factors in this process of mutual class absorption were disparate, the resultant civilization was itself deeply heterogeneous in character. Inside this permanent, organic ‘compromise the landlords kept control of the State and its main organs, as a governing élite trusted (on the whole) by the bourgeoisie. The contrast between this situation and most other bourgeois democracies is very striking; in general, bourgeois republics (like the different French