In the last few years an important current of Marxist thought has emerged in Great Britain. The editorial committee of New Left Review, particularly Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, have undertaken a political study of the structures of British society in a number of articles, which include Anderson’s ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’footnote1 and Nairn’s ‘The Nature of the Labour Party’footnote2 and ‘Labour Imperialism’.footnote3 These articles are particularly important both for the originality of their conclusions and for their theoretical rigour. Breaking with the English empiricist tradition, which dominated Fabianism, these texts of Anderson and Nairn are written at a critical level, in the Marxist meaning of that term: they reveal a genuine, critical reflection on the concepts used in the political analysis advanced. In reply E. P. Thompson, a member of the former editorial committee
‘The distinctive facets of English class structure, as it has evolved over three centuries, can thus be summed up as follows. After a bitter, cathartic revolution, which transformed the structure but not the superstructure of English society, a landed aristocracy underpinned by a powerful mercantile affinal group, became the first dominant capitalist class in Britain. This dynamic agrarian capitalism expelled the English peasantry from history. Its success was economically the ‘floor’ and sociologically the ‘ceiling’ of the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie. Undisturbed by a feudal state, terrified of the French Revolution and its own proletariat, mesmerized by the prestige and authority of the landed class, the bourgeoisie won two modest victories, lost its nerve and ended by losing its identity. The late Victorian era and the high noon of imperialism welded aristocracy and bourgeoisie together in a single social bloc. The working class fought passionately and unaided against the advent of industrial capitalism; its extreme exhaustion after successive defeats was the measure of its efforts. Henceforward it evolved, separate but subordinate, within the apparently unshakable structure of British capitalism, unable, despite its great numerical superiority, to transform the fundamental nature of British society.’footnote5
The characteristic conclusions of Anderson and Nairn follow from this short passage, which must seem strange to anyone who has been concerned with British political problems. For in their analysis, what Marx called ‘the most bourgeois of nations’ presents the paradoxical situation of a capitalist formation ‘typical’ in its origin and evolution, within which, however, the bourgeois class has almost never taken the ‘pure’ role of the hegemonic or dominant class. Because of its ‘aborted’ revolution between the 15th and 18th centuries, the bourgeois class did not succeed in changing the objective structures of the feudal state, and remained in practice a class politically dominated until its ‘absorption’ within a ‘power bloc’ belatedly formed by the landed aristocracy.
This aristocracy, by imposing its cultural and ideological hegemony on the British social formation as a whole, remained permanently the determinant
The bourgeois class, having missed its vocation as the hegemonic class, did not succeed, as in France, in structuring a ‘coherent’ ideology of its own which could be the dominant ideology in this formation: the ruling ideology of English society as a whole was the ‘aristocratic’ ideology.footnote7
The working class did not find a fully constituted bourgeois ideology, corresponding to the pure political domination of the bourgeois class, which it could transform into a proletarian ideology. Thus in its turn, it could not set itself up as a revolutionary hegemonic class with its own ideology: a conception of the world oriented towards a global transformation of capitalist relations.footnote8 By this very fact it was confined to a subaltern ‘economic-corporative’, ‘trade unionist’, position, and presents a ‘craft-trade unionist’ class consciousness. Anderson’s analysis is continued in Nairn’s perceptive studies of English ‘Labourism’ and ‘Trade Unionism’.
These are the conclusions which Thompson attacks. Firstly he criticizes their conception of an aristocratic class in the evolution of Britain’s capitalist formation; he claims that what Anderson and Nairn regard as a landed aristocracy, a class distinct from the bourgeoisie, was, in fact, from the beginning of the capitalist process in Great Britain, a part of the capitalist class. Marx described this phenomenon as the transformation of feudal revenue into capitalist surplus-value. The conception of a ‘power bloc’ in Britain, Thompson argues, is tendentious and erroneous, because it would only concern the several political structurations within the bourgeois class, which constitutes as a whole the dominant political class. The objective political institutions of feudalism, though they did not, as in France, undergo an obvious radical transformation to the profit of the bourgeois class, corresponded nevertheless to that class’s political domination. Further, to this extent the bourgeois class certainly constituted an ‘authentic and articulate’ dominant ideology composed of the values of protestantism as a whole, the theory of political economy of Smith, Ricardo and others, the theory of political liberalism, and the theories of the natural sciences (Darwin). Thompson proceeds, via numerous detours, to conclude that the ‘Labour’ movement cannot be correctly summed up if it is reduced to a corporative class consciousness, linked to the absence of a dominant bourgeois ideology, or if its strategy is conceived as purely trade unionist. In fact, Thompson argues, the working class struggle in Britain did raise itself to a purely political struggle, manifest in the various Labour Governments.