For centuries, bourgeois civilization in England turned the same face to the world, the calm and unchanging countenance of the oldest and most stable of bourgeois societies, capable of holding disasters and crises at bay by virtue of some extraordinary secret in its possession, thanks to which the English bourgeoisie seemed to have found a way of taming the forces of history, reducing them to harmless and sensible processes of evolution. In England, it seemed, each and every change transpired to leave everything unchanged, so that tradition could reign in perpetuity and the past would always dominate the present.
Now, however, the traditional order of the English bourgeoisie is in crisis. Clearly, this is not a crisis of adaptation, during which the system adjusts to new realities, as has often happened in the past. This time, the regime itself is visibly shaken by a sort of general crisis of society, investing both its economic and spiritual values. The patent and growing difficulties in which capitalism in England is floundering; the inability of the traditional ruling elites to rise to these challenges and the ensuing political crisis; the profound disorientation of the bourgeoisie, which is now asking itself some disturbing questions; the new ferments agitating culture and ideological consciousness; the scandals shaking the government, at which the world has been laughing behind London’s back: these are all just so many symptoms of a general crisis. Things are changing; and this time the nature of the transformations underway will surely not allow everything to remain as it was.
What is the real nature of this crisis? Why is such a deep and general crisis rocking English society so violently at this particular historical moment? And why, after surviving for so long and adapting so well to manifold changes, is the exceptional edifice of the English bourgeoisie now heading inescapably towards a rapid extinction?
Looking deeper, the difficult situation in which the English bourgeoisie is now struggling appears as a sort of historical nemesis. At birth it was the most favoured of all bourgeoisies; historical circumstances made its path far easier than that of any other. In a sense, today’s crisis is no less than the surfacing of deeply rooted contradictions, inherent in those ancient conditions of development and an expression of them—a sort of deferred payment that history is now demanding for good fortune in the past. In the new situation, the consequences of those happy circumstances, nestling in the deep folds of English society, have become an intolerable burden.
The crisis that England is currently experiencing is not only one of post-imperial adjustment. It has, undoubtedly, been precipitated by the end of empire, but the new conditions of English capitalism are not in themselves a sufficient explanation of either the exceptional complexity and depth of the crisis or the intimate structure of its traits. In effect, its particular characteristics derive from the fact that many of the social structures that have been undermined by the waning of imperialism preceded imperialism itself. As the British Empire declined, it took down with it social relations that were already well established and sacrosanct at the dawn of the era of modern colonialism, and a whole social order that had long been accepted as natural. If we wish to understand fully the dimensions of today’s crisis, we therefore need to look back at the formation of the English bourgeoisie.
Lenin observed that ‘every capitalist country goes through an era of bourgeois revolution which produces a specific degree of democracy . . . a particular tradition permeating all political and social life.’footnote1 The English revolutions were those of 1640, which brought down royal absolutism and the remnants of feudalism, and 1688 (the ‘glorious’ and ‘bloodless’ revolution), which sealed the victories of 1640 and made them the accepted basis of every subsequent development of English society.
As a rule, bourgeois revolutions—the French Revolution, the English Revolution, Italy’s Risorgimento, the formation of modern Germany and Japan—are crucial turning points in the passage from feudalism to capitalism; while they are underway, paths open towards the capitalist transformation of society and the hegemony of the bourgeois class. If we wish to understand the nature and characteristics of the ‘particular traditions’ that were created by the English Revolution, we need to consider a particular aspect of this process as regards Great Britain.