Perry Anderson is too modest in his claims for New Left Review’s interpretation of English history, recently restated in ‘The Figures of Descent’.
He suggests (p. 27) that ‘the consensus of at any rate the local left’ upheld the criticisms of that interpretation in Edward Thompson’s famous essay ‘The Peculiarities of the English’.
The principal theme of the nlr analysis—advanced by Anderson in ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ and by Tom Nairn in various articles—was that the roots of Britain’s twentieth–century decline lay in ‘the archaic nature of a ruling stratum, whose personnel and traditions stretched back to an agrarian past that had been unbroken for centuries by civil commotion or foreign defeat’ (p. 57). Yet this idea, far from being a minority or heterodox view, seems to have become the common sense of the British left, particularly when it is linked, as it is by Anderson in ‘Figures’, to the thesis that the City represents the dominant fraction of British capital. The supposedly ‘archaic’ and ‘patrician’ character of the ruling class is captured in different ways, from Stuart Hall’s claim that Britain ‘never ever properly entered the era of modern bourgeois civilization’
to the more routine Labour Party denunciations of Thatcherism as merely the representative of the metropolitan, yuppified south-east; but the basic theme is the same. Nor is this problematic confined to the left, however generously defined. The Social Democratic Party staked their claim as the bourgeois modernizers of Britain, aspiring to transform the country into a rationally ordered European polity. Further to the right, Corelli Barnett has discovered gentlemanly amateurism undermining even the Churchillian war economy. Anderson praises Barnett’s The Audit of War for its ‘historical depth’ (p. 47), without noting that the book is a local version of the stab-in-the-back myth, explaining Britain’s post-war decline as a consequence of the way in which liberal
If Barnett’s politics places him on the extreme right, his culturalism is much more representative. He writes: ‘The explanation of the “British disease” has to be sought in the nature of British society itself, its attitudes and its values.’ footnote4 A similar pre-occupation with culture as the source of British decline is typical of much writing on the subject, and has been given canonical form by Martin Wiener in his English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850–1980. Anderson provided his own version of such an explanation in ‘Origins’, but—no doubt because of a change in his view of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, on which he drew in that first essay footnote5 —now thinks that ‘it was given too cultural a turn’ (p. 57).
The significance of ‘Figures’ seems to me twofold. First, it seeks to restate the original ‘Nairn–Anderson thesis’ primarily in terms of the specific socio-economic character of English capitalism, avoiding any reliance on ideological or broader cultural factors. Secondly, Anderson now draws on recent work, notably by W.D. Rubinstein and Geoffrey Ingham, which attributes the persisting aristocratic character of the ruling class both to a preponderance of land, commerce, and finance among the very wealthy throughout the nineteenth century, and to the economic and political rôle of the City, its structural separation from industry, its integration with old landed wealth, and its progressive predominance within the state thanks to the instrumentality of the Treasury. This admittedly more materialist version of the original nlr theses has been subjected to detailed and devastating criticism by Michael Barratt Brown. footnote6 Since I agree in general with his arguments, I shall not repeat them here. I shall concentrate instead on the political implications of Anderson’s article. Since it offers a view of English history capable of appropriation by various political projects, from the ‘new revisionism’ of Marxism Today to Corelli Barnett’s Tory corporatism, what kind of socialist strategy does ‘Figures’ imply?
Here there is a difficulty. Not only does Anderson draw no political conclusions from his analysis, but he says remarkably little about the character of the contemporary British state. Aspects of that state—the alleged dominance within it of the City–Treasury nexus, its lack of any ‘regulative intelligence’ capable of reversing economic decline (pp. 73ff.)—are discussed. Absent, however, is any comprehensive attempt to characterize the institutional order of the state and its relationship to the main classes in British society. Others, however, have been less cautious. Robin Blackburn not long ago called the British state ‘the last ancien régime’.
This kind of analysis was most fully developed by Tom Nairn in an article first published in nlr about ten years ago: ‘an in-
As Thompson long ago observed, such a view of the British state as ‘[n]either feudal nor modern’ footnote9 presupposes an essentially normative conception of bourgeois revolution, which treats any capitalist transformation as ‘incomplete’ if it fails to conform to an ideal type usually derived from the Great French Revolution. footnote10 Such an approach is evident in ‘Origins’, where Anderson described the English Revolution as the ‘least pure bourgeois revolution of any major European country’ because of the absence of an urban, Jacobin-style leadership which justified the thorough-going destruction of the old order by appeal to a universal and rationalistic ideology. footnote11 The use of the French Revolution as a normative model has rightly been largely abandoned by Marxist historians, who now prefer to identify bourgeois revolution, in the words of Gareth Stedman Jones, with ‘the global victory of a particular form of property relations and particular form of control over the means of production, rather than [with] the conscious triumph of a class subject which possessed a distinct and coherent view of the world.’ footnote12
Anderson is plainly uncomfortable with his original conception of bourgeois revolution, preferring now to see it as ‘a series of successive ruptures’ rather than ‘a single primordial episode’ (p. 47). Nevertheless, he continues to believe, with Nairn, that central to understanding the contemporary British state is the absence of ‘the “second bourgeois revolution” in the British Isles—that “modernizing” socio-political upheaval that ought to have refashioned both state and society in logical conformity with the demands of the new age’ of industrial capitalism.
Anderson underlines what he believes to be the importance of the ‘revolutions after the revolution’ which took place elsewhere—the French revolutions of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War, November 1918 in Germany, and finally the upheavals suffered by continental Europe and Japan, but not Britain, during and after the Second World War. ‘They were essentially phases in the modernization of the state, which thereby permitted a reinvigoration of the economy. The most conservative or regressive social elements of the ruling order . . . were eliminated, amidst a drastic recomposition of the dominant bloc’ (p. 48). But—to take the most important European case—it is not at all clear that the Hohenzollern monarchy or the Prussian junkers
Blackbourn’s and Eley’s interpretation of German history raises the question of the extent to which the British state during the nineteenth century underwent a comparable process of transformation into a suitable vehicle for the interests of industrial capital. Certainly the nlr theses involve either ignoring the major bursts of institutional change in the 1830s and 1840s and then again in the 1870s and 1880s, or, implausibly, treating them as the consequence of aristocratic strategies for survival (cf. Peter Gowan’s analysis of the Northcote–Trevelyan reforms of the civil service footnote15 ). The absence of popular control over political institutions is therefore attributed to the ‘archaic’ and ‘patrician’ character of the British state. A good example is provided by Colin Leys’s Politics in Britain, praised by Anderson as ‘the best single synthesis on the British crisis and its contemporary consequences’ (p. 72), but which seemed to me largely a compendium of idées reçus. Leys lists various aspects of what he calls ‘the circumscription of democracy’—lack of police accountability, official secrecy, executive control of Parliament, the rôle of the monarchy, etc—which compare unfavourably with ‘the practice of more democratic states’ and are closely connected with the ‘archaism’ of the state, reflected for example in the absence of a written constitution. footnote16