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.
Together they provide a remarkably complete picture of landed society over two centuries, founded on extensive research into estate and family archives. With characteristic academic modesty, both
A more important warning to readers might be that these are predominantly corporative histories, concerned with the inner history of the landowners and not so much with their place and function in society as a whole. Therefore, the larger significance of many of the events and processes they describe is not always clear. Next to nothing is said about the miserable rural proletariat, the class upon which the entire hierarchy of landlords and tenant-farmers rested. Not enough is said about the general evolution of the vital relationship between landowning society and the various strata of the bourgeoisie, in spite of the many interesting and useful remarks upon particular aspects of this theme. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Thompson’s answer to the main question propounded at the beginning of his book is not satisfactory. “The central problem of this book,” he says, “is to discover how it came to pass that the social order based on landed estates survived far into an age in which the initial superiority of the landed classes in possession of the material sinews of power had evaporated.” But he appears to look for a solution to this problem primarily in the internal constitution of landlordism. “The differences between the two key elements in the landed interest, the aristocracy and the gentry, and their interdependence, . . . furnished a mechanism by which the peaceful transformation of landed society was accomplished.” (p. 24). The gentry were the truly conservative force of landed society, capable of putting up a determined resistance to change But they were also incapable of organising themselves independently and taking the necessary initiatives, because they depended upon their “natural superiors” in the hierarchy, the aristocrats. The latter were, on the contrary, “eventually prepared to accept the new realities” and willing to adapt and make the necessary concessions, so that a peaceful and gradual decline took place instead of a sharp conflict of classes. Perhaps this model does explain to some extent how the process occurred. Its mechanism cannot explain why it occurred, why the leaders of the agrarian hierarchy were so fundamentally inclined to compromise and again and again sacrificed the corporate “landed interest” in the name of their power over society at large. To understand this, surely, one must think first in terms of the sort of hegemony they enjoyed over the bourgeoisie