The Growth of British Industrial Relations, E. H. Phelps Brown, (Macmillan, 42/-).
it is becoming the practice for many who support capitalism to admit deficiencies in its early forms; more than this, to emphasise those deficiencies. Capitalist society, they say, was divided into two hostile groups in the middle of the nineteenth century; the working-class was justified in being militant. But now? Now it is different. The bad has been cut out; grievances have been removed; people are contented. Since then, there has been a growth. Unrest in contemporary society is due, they say, not to basic matters, but to superficial aggravating ones. It is an aberration from the model of working partnerships which has been constructed to depict the present; it can be treated in an ad hoc fashion if treated at all.
History provides these people with such an abundance of material that they have no difficulty in finding evidence to suit their hypothesis. They can point to improvements: real wages have risen; hours of work have decreased; education is less inequaliterian; the franchise has been extended; and so on.
Not all of them, however, bother to collect evidence—some simply make historical judgments in single sentences such as “You have never had it so good”. The substantiation is left to intellectuals who provide theoretical and analytical economic and political treatises as their stint. These people are not simply conformers or uncritical observers of the social system; they buttress the system up with their theories and analyses. Their function in society is to rationalise the perpetuation of what is.
Some who perform this function would deny any connection with it, and would state that their task was to collect and collate facts and to reason from them, and that in doing this they were uninfluenced by value judgments. But such people are the most potent apologists. Their value judgments are not openly announced; they slip in unobtrusively, influence the argument here and there, sometimes disguised as facts. The claim to be uninfluenced by value judgments is a sham one. It is not possible to play about with social facts, whether they be historical or contemporary, without allowing bias to count for something. One cannot even select facts without bias. This being so, the bias should be honestly stated by the author, for there is no other device for excluding it. Objectivity in the social sciences is an illusion.
This illusion is revealed clearly by Professor E. H. Phelps Brown in his book The Growth of British Industrial Relations. Here is a book which oozes with value judgments that are never explicitly stated. It is the latest large-scale intellectual attempt to buttress existing employer/worker relations in Britain. It is well-written; reads easily and convincingly; and it needs to be taken seriously.
Professor Phelps Brown has selected the period 1906 to 1914, which was marked by bitter industrial strife, for special study. His book, however, is intended as “something more in purpose than an account of one period alone. . . . It does not only depict the state of affairs in 1906–14, but looks backward from it to see how it had been reached through the years before, and forward, to ask how far it accounts for what goes on today.” (p.xxxvii). The method sounds plausible. History, however, is a continuous process, and what happens at any one time is a consequence of the conflicts in that process. Sense can only be made of the process if the period of time examined is sufficiently long to show its continuity and the correlation between phases.