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 analyse its real nature. To do this involves a consideration of the distinctive total trajectory of modern British society, since the emergence of capitalism. The remarks which follow will inevitably be extremely simplified and approximate notations, but their essential focus—the global evolution of the class structure— must be the anchorage of any socialist theory of contemporary Britain. The present crisis can, in effect, only be understood in terms of the differential formation and development of British capitalist society since the 17th century. The crude schema offered below is intended only to start discussion at the point where it should properly begin.footnote2

Capitalist hegemony in England has been the most powerful, the most durable and the most continuous anywhere in the world. The reasons for this lie in the cumulative constellation of the fundamental moments of modern English history.

The Civil War of 1640–49 remains the most obscure and controversial of all the great upheavals which lead to the creation of a modern, capitalist Europe. Never was the ultimate effect of revolution more transparent, and its immediate agents more enigmatic. The view that the conflict of the 1640s was a simple struggle between a rising bourgeoisie and a declining aristocracy is clearly untenable. The current alternatives—that the Civil War was the work of a fronde of discontented squires or that it was a sudden, transcendant condensation of ‘faith and freedom’ (puritan and constitutional) in the clear air of Stuart England—are still less convincing; the one is trivial, the other naive. Who made the Revolution? What kind of a Revolution was it? It can, perhaps, be said that it was a clash between two segments of a landowning class, neither of which were direct crystallizations of opposed economic interests, but rather were partially contingent but predominantly intelligible lenses into which wider, more radically antagonistic social forces came into temporary and distorted focus. Furthermore the ideological terms in which the struggle was conducted were largely religious, and hence still more dissociated from economic aspirations than political idioms normally are. Thus, although its outcome was a typically bourgeois rationalization of state and economy, and its major direct beneficiary was a true bourgeoisie, it was a ‘bourgeois revolution’ only by proxy. The main protagonists on both sides were a rural, not an urban class. The conflict between them revolved round the economic, political, and religious role of the monarchy. It is clear that the inefficient, would-be feudal Stuart monarchy was threatening by its economic exactions to cripple the expansion of the rationalized agrarian and commercial capitalism which had been maturing in England for century before 1640. It is probably, but not proved that a majority of those landowners who were dynamic and investment-oriented sided with Parliament, and that a majority of routine and rentier landlords sided with the King; it is, however, certain that the most economically progressive regions of England were Parliamentarian, and the most backward Royalist. At the same time, the nature of the allies flanking each side magnified and clarified the logic of the division between them. Taking extremes—on the one side, the archaic clan society of northern Scotland, on the other mercantile capital, particularly in the City of London; this last formed a crucial component in the bloc which finally won the Civil War, providing the indispensable financial reserves for the victory. The Revolution, once under way, followed the classic course of radicalization. When military victory was won, the artisans and yeomen recruited to the New Model Army increasingly intervened to inflect the Army to the left, thus effectively severing it from the Parliamentary Right; but when their pressure began to threaten the franchise privileges of the landowning class itself, the landed officer elite crushed them. The military apparatus was thereafter alone in a void. The Revolution had overshot the political intentions of its agrarian initiators (execution of the King, etc), but had been halted immediately it threatened their economic interests. It was in this ambiguous vacuum that mercantile capital, the only truly bourgeois kernel of the revolution, inherited the fruits of victory. The economic policy of the Commonwealth did more for its interests than for that of any other group. This anomalous outcome was the culminating product of the complexly refracted and mediated character of the Revolution. Because it was primarily fought within and not between classes, while it could and did destroy the numerous institutional and juridical obstacles of feudalism to economic development, it could not alter the basic property statute in England. (There was not even a serious attempt at ‘political’ confiscation of Royalist estates). But it could do so—decisively—abroad. The immense, rationalizing ‘charge’ of the Revolution was detonated overseas. The decisive economic legacy of the Commonwealth was imperialism (Navigation Acts, Dutch and Spanish Wars, seizure of Jamaica, etc). Mercantile capital was its beneficiary. When political anarchy threatened after Cromwell’s death, it was the City that triggered the Restoration—and a general settlement that confirmed it in its enhanced position.