English Individualism Revisited

Alan Ryan

  • The Culture of Capitalism by Alan Macfarlane
    Blackwell, 254 pp, £19.50, August 1987, ISBN 0 631 13626 6

Alan Macfarlane’s little book on The Origins of English Individualism came out in 1978. It argued that England had been in crucial respects a ‘modern’ society ever since the 14th century and maybe earlier, and that most accounts of the transition to modernity were therefore misconceived, and in so doing it attacked just about every vested interest in contemporary historiography. A good many historians returned the compliment by setting about it with the enthusiasm of crusaders clearing the infidel from Jerusalem. David Herlihy of Harvard derided it as ‘a silly book, founded on faulty method and propounding a preposterous thesis’, while Lawrence Stone thought it advanced ‘an implausible hypothesis based on a far-fetched connection with one still uproven fact of limited general significance’. On the other hand, Paul Hyams hailed it as a blast of fresh air and the sort of book we need more of, and Ernest Gellner was equally enthusiastic about its intellectual daring. I thought it was a splendid piece of work: a small book with large implications. Moreover, in its main claims it was clearly right, and none of its critics have in the least disturbed its central contention.

Justice and the Mare’s Ale (1981) repeated the offence in a more roundabout way, but Love and Marriage in England, 1300-1840 (1986) roused some of its reviewers to fury. Now, The Culture of Capitalism reprints eight essays on the themes of these three books, together with Macfarlane’s unrepentant and unconciliatory reflections on the hostility he has stirred up. For readers unacquainted with Macfarlane and his work, these essays make a very good place to start. Members of his fan-club such as myself may wish, however, that he had pressed forward with his case against his critics; these essays, acute and interesting as they are, mostly recapitulate the arguments which his books spelled out at greater length. They offer many interesting glimpses of the process by which Macfarlane came to occupy his heretical position: but they don’t do much to still doubts or to fill out the story Macfarlane wants to tell.

The casus belli in the war of Macfarlane versus Lawrence Stone, R.H. Tawney, Rodney Hilton, George Homans, Christopher Hill, C.H. Wilson, C.B. Macpherson (and long-dead greats such as Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Tonnies) is his answer to the question of why fully-fledged industrial capitalism first took off in England. This has usually been thought to be the same question as ‘how did England escape its peasant origins and turn into a modern, individualist, market-oriented, rationalist and secular society?’ Answers have varied a good deal: Weber stressed the Protestant ethic; Marx the demands of the developing forces of production; political theorists like C.B. Macpherson the rise of an ideology of ‘possessive individualism’. These answers have emphasised different actors and different motivations, and have placed the revolutionary transition from peasant society to modernity at different points in time. Nor have they lacked both subtlety and a willingness to accommodate objections. Weber was at pains to stress that in emphasising the role of ideology and culture he was not offering a ‘one-sided idealism’ as absurd as the simple-minded materialism of his Marxist opponents. Conversely, Christopher Hill and other recent Marxist historians have developed a considerable sophistication in their understanding of notions of class interest and class allegiance, of the relation of economic interest and ideological and religious affiliation. But all these have been arguments within one overarching framework. All have assumed that there was a modernising revolution, that there had to be a break with a peasant past.

The argument of Macfarlane’s Origins was that it was the framework itself which had to be thrown out. To put the matter crudely – as he often does, and never more so than in ‘Peasants’, the first essay printed here – when Macfarlane went in search of the English peasant society which had been destroyed by possessive individualism, agrarian capitalism, modernisation, rationalism, secularisation or industrialisation, he couldn’t find it. When he went in search of the ‘pre-modern family’ where marriage was loveless, parental affection unheard of, a rational approach to family limitation unthinkable, he once more failed to find it. When he went in search of the family-centred system of property which characterises peasant society, he couldn’t find that either. Certainly, England had been for many centuries an agricultural society; most of the population had been village-dwellers. But they had not been what for the purposes of sociological theories of modernisation they should have been: namely, peasants in the classical Eastern European sense.

In effect, Macfarlane sets up two ‘ideal types’. The ideal type of peasant society displays all or most of the following features: the basic social and economic unit is the extended household, production and consumption alike taking place there; villages are self-sufficient, economic rationality is limited, and families are deeply attached to particular pieces of land; social and geographical mobility are thus limited, families rise and fall as a unit, and economic growth and family wealth are cyclical; girls are married at puberty according to choices made by their family rather than themselves, their task is to produce children, and children are regarded as an economic asset; the characteristic moral style of such a society is patriarchal and communal. The ideal type of modern society simply reverses these features: it is mobile, built on the nuclear family, displays a high degree of economic rationality, production for the purposes of trade, interdependence of town and country, controlled fertility, late marriage and moral individualism. The claim is that so far from England resembling the ideal type of peasant society before the ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’ or what-have-you revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, England displayed most of the features of modernity at least as far back as the 14th century. There was no revolutionary transition to modernity.

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