English Marxists in dispute

Roy Porter

  • Arguments within English Marxism by Perry Anderson
    New Left Books, 218 pp, £3.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 86091 727 4
  • Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory edited by Philip Corrigan
    Quartet, 232 pp, £4.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2241 2
  • Writing by Candlelight by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin, 286 pp, £2.70, May 1980, ISBN 0 85036 257 1

The Englishness of English historians lies in their eclecticism. Few would admit to being unswerving Marxists, Freudians, Structuralists, Cliometricians, Namierites, or even Whigs. Most believe that blooms come best in mixed bunches. They may allow themselves some guarded asides on the psychology of chiliasm, but would reject Norman Cohn’s full-frontal psychopathology of anti-semitism. They probably accept, as true for that decade, Sir Lewis Namier’s vision of the politics of the 1760s as dominated by clique and pique rather than by constitutional principle, but would hesitate about his overarching behavioural conservatism. Call this open-mindedness, pussy-footing or Vicar of Bravery, it has been saluted as part of the historian’s craft by many different figures from Karl Popper to Arthur Marwick.

Yet in this matter as in others the English are not as tolerant as they would like to be thought. Marxist blooms in particular have been summarily attacked as weeds. The hot temper of so many responses to Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) indicates that many scholars, herbicide to hand, regard Marxist historiography as a menace. Professor J.H. Hexter’s recent ad hominem assault on Christopher Hill’s scholarly integrity seems to reveal the same crusading zeal on the other side of the Atlantic. Furthermore, in a cunning jest of History, some Marxist philosophers have latterly enlisted in the armies of the Right in denying Lebensraum to Marxist history. In France, Louis Althusser and his disciples, and in England followers such as Paul Q. Hirst and Barry Hindess, have argued that the business of Marxist intellectuals is to construct not history but theory (e.g. a rationally water tight account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, not one purportedly told from the ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’). History is irremediably empirical, and empiricism is a mode of bourgeois false-consciousness. In his ‘The Poverty of Theory’, Edward Thompson pilloried this stance as being neither materialist nor Marxist, but an epitome of the most arrogant and authoritarian (‘Stalinist’) degenerations of the New Left. Perry Anderson’s book defends the New Left from such charges.

Certain Marxist blooms adorn most scholars’ studies. True, a few academic-historians have tried to keep out all blossoms with even a whiff of Marxist scent. T.S. Ashton notoriously wrote his great history of the 18th-century English economy without mentioning the word ‘capitalism’. But few fear contagion so badly. Most economic historians, explaining entrepreneurs’ pursuit of profit, are de facto as much economic determinists as any Marxist. Marxist contributions, such as those concerned with the structural contradictions of slave economies, or the de-skilling of proletarian labour as ‘hands’ within machinofacture, are, though not uncontroversial, widely accepted by non-Marxists. This infiltration is possible because much of the Marxist meta-history so closely resembles (superficially at least) the gospel according to many Whig, Liberal, Positivist and progressive historians over the last century: a story of man’s increasing dominion over nature and necessity through science and technology, the victory of the middle classes over absolutism and aristocracy, capitalism’s triumph over feudalism, religion yielding to secularism, and so forth. A historian such as Asa Briggs can write The Age of Improvement, chronicling the First Industrial Revolution and the maturing of the bourgeoisie that accompanied it, without any accusations of Marxisant tendencies.

It has been particularly easy for English non-Marxist scholars to give their blessing to historical-materialist insights because Marxist history has always accorded pride of place to England itself. It was England’s peasants who conspicuously revolted in 1381 against feudalism. England staged the first successful ‘bourgeois’ revolution in 1642, England the first Industrial Revolution, spawning the first proletariat. In the middle of the last century, the history and prospects of England looked to Marx and Engels to be a likely blueprint for global political developments.

In many areas of English history, Marxism has yielded rich harvests. Christopher Hill’s Marxism has allowed him to grasp the union of Puritan faith and political activism amongst the ‘industrious sort of people’ in the 17th century. It was his Marxist materialism that enabled Francis Klingender to write what still remains a classic of art history: Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947). But until recently Marxist historians have hardly illuminated the workings of the state. This is partly because they have rightly been indignant about its victims – peasants, hand-loom weavers, slaves – and more interested in the resistance to it – from bandits, millennarians etc. Perhaps there is also a fear of being drowned in the quicksands of conventional political and constitutional history (‘How many boroughs did the Duke of Newcastle monger?’). Nevertheless, the absence is disturbing.

Since the early 1960s, however, and not least in the books under review, Edward Thompson and Perry Anderson have begun to remedy this state of affairs. Other Marxist historians are taking up the challenge, as the work edited by Philip Corrigan suggests. In the present review I shall concentrate on this aspect of the three books.

The books have a lot in common. In their own ways, all bear witness to the immense, inertial substantiality of states. Andcr son has stressed – above all, in his Lineages of the Absolutist State (1975)– how during and despite the emergence of new socio-economic forms (the rise of capitalism, the emergence of a career nobility, the venality of offices), central state power in many European nations was remarkably resilient. The rise of bureaucracy, standing armies, Erastianism and centralised taxation – all strengthened the hand of government. Though habitually written off as sick men, as anachronisms, many European absolutist regimes had not been unhorsed even as late as the First World War (and have persisted in modified totalitarian forms since). In his ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ (1963), Anderson offered a similar X-ray for England. The old heart-warming view of England as the happy womb of the bourgeois revolution, and hence of the Labour movement, was erased. England’s 17th-century bourgeois revolution had after all been premature, and had rebounded (in any case its ideology had been religious and pre-rational, and therefore ‘primitive’). The manufacturing middle class, instead of becoming Jacobins and expropriating the aristocracy, had joined hands with them against Painite radicalism. Since then, they had been bought off with token powers. Writing almost at the apogee of the 14th Earl of Home, Anderson saw aristocratic power (inflected through the House of Lords, the Church, the City, Oxbridge, and Metro politan culture) swanning on.

Thompson has likewise stressed the subteranean sinews of the state. Eighteenth-century ‘Old Corruption’ (Cobbett’s THE THING) was cemented by patronage, privilege, spoils and bully-boy force, veneered with the ideologies of religion, law, morality and patrician culture. In the present day, ‘New Corruption’s is the hidden world of MI5 and MI6, ‘official secrets’ and ‘national security’, the technology of surveillance, the subversion of constitutional liberties (as, recently, by jury vetting), and the rise of non-responsible powers amongst the Police and Civil Service. As Philip Corrigan puts it in Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory, when we examine the state we see ‘the enormous enduring materiality of symbols, rituals, and a general moral ethos’, only the tip of which is commonly conspicuous.

In emphasising the snowballing internal strengths of the state, all these authors therefore reject the view that the state is merely the temporary superstructural expression of whichever class happens at that time to be economic top-dog (though the language of base and superstructure is still present in early Anderson). In the book he has edited, Philip Corrigan (writing together with Harvie Ramsay and Derek Sayer) repudiates the view that ‘the State reflects, in the realms of political and ideological relations, the “facts” of production.’ Thompson as well: in the justly famous ‘Postscript’ to The Making of the English Working Class, and in ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ (1965), where he said of the 18th-century state that it was ‘nothing but itself. A unique formation’ – not ‘a direct organ of any class or interest’ but ‘a secondary political formation’. With a slightly different aim in mind he has stressed the same point in his Whigs and Hunters (1975), and in Writing by Candlelight, denying (pace many Marxists) that the common law and the British constitution are nothing other than the force of the ruling class in mystified form. They have a relative autonomy, some life and pulse of their own. They can be used by all classes. Similarly, Anderson analysed absolutism without reducing it to an expression of changing modes of production (for which fellow Marxists labelled him a Weberian).

At this point, of course, it is quite in order for non-Marxist historians to say that, glad as they are that Marxists have abandoned such fatuities as base-superstructure models, it is no news to them that the political and legal powers of the state have an integrity and persistence of their own. Academic historians such as Maurice Cowling and John Vincent have for years been plotting the political seduction of the aspiring middle classes into primrose leagues. It was all in Bagehot anyway. Similarly it is striking, but in some ways rather pathetic, to discover a Marxist such as Philip Corrigan belatedly finding much to approve in G.R. Elton on Thomas Cromwell, or J.H. Plumb on Walpole. Whether Elton or Plumb would be pleased about the use he makes of them is another matter: Anderson, by the way, has a highly penetrating assessment of Walpole as Thompson’s bug-in-chief.

So what special insights have Marxist historians offered us on the nature of the English state? We are partly in their debt because they are almost the only historians to have posed the wider questions. Which non Marxist historians over the last generation have attempted brief synoptic essays probing the rise and fall of classes over the last five centuries in their relations to the control of state power? Thompson and Anderson continue to throw down the challenge. Their most recent works are quite exceptional tor their range and energy, for the quality of their literary expression, and their breadth of information. Both should be read for far more than then analyses of the state, which is all there is room to discuss here.

Thompson offers a Dunning’s Motion for the late 20th century: ‘The power of the executive has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’ His warnings are timely and urgent. Their stature is enhanced because Thompson’s engaged eloquence is anchored in a deeply historical (even Burkean) sense of the enduring fabric of English society (perhaps enduring little longer in the sweep of an administratively tidy, authoritarian new broom). Similarly, Anderson’s sustained interrogation of Thompson’s ocuvre, generous but judicious, and remarkably disinterested, wins admiration for the writer’s encyclopedic knowledge and acuteness of mind, as he ranges from Existentialist epistemology to the literary imagination of Jonathan Swift. Anderson’s examination of facets of Thompson’s historical technique – his notion of ‘No Class without Class Consciousness’, or his consistent defence of agency in history – is of importance to all schools of historian.

The special focus of both Anderson’s and Thompson’s accounts of the English state is upon its cultural strength (its capacity to function hegemonically). The two are in large agreement about the pre-industrial forms: patriotism, ‘deference’, religion, the law. Anderson sees an unbroken continuity down to the present. Thompson sees such continuities as the House of Lords, the Church, the Establishment, more as a façade. Up front in his account are the hegemonic achievements and ideologies of the bourgeoisie – natural sciences, empiricism, political economy. Both accounts, however, have glaring omissions. Neither Thompson nor Anderson has scrutinised in detail the actual apparatus of the state, the ways it has changed, and the reasons for this. The monarchy, a key institution replete with constitutional and personal prerogatives, hardly receives a mention. Even if, reductively, one saw the king merely as a cipher of the ruling class (surely an unacceptable view), the changing constitutional and political powers of the crown demand Marxist analysis. The limitations of Thompson’s rather swashbuckling vision of the Hanoverian state as a parasitical racket are exposed by Anderson in Arguments within English Marxism. Anderson also points out how little of the actual mechanisms of state repression The Making of the English Working Class contains.

The second serious omission is any sustained analysis of the class composition of the power élite, and how it changed. The third is the question of its relation to the class structure at large. In what sense do those in power ‘represent’ other classes and interests? Or do they ‘represent’ only themselves? Upon such questions Marxist accounts of the significance of political party must rest. Thompson and Anderson have not answered such questions. But it is clear that they would regard them as key issues.

The series of ‘texts’ which Philip Corrigan has edited offers itself as the ‘first steps’ towards the kind of Marxist theory and history required by the 1980s. Its Introduction quite explicitly sets itself (pace some Althusserians) the empirical task of making ‘historical investigations’. Hence one looks to see whether this ‘survey of the development of the State within England from the 16th to the early 20th centuries’ has answered these questions. The answer is no. This book seems rather to have abolished them. The agenda for a Marxist history of the English state has been changed. The theoretical opening essay by Corrigan, Ramsay and Sayer rejects views of the state as superstructure, but equally the image of the state as an instrument, a tool, to be used by particular groups. In denying both these Marxist approaches, the authors of this essay (and of the book at large) renounce investigation of the daily ways and means of the state (police, army, law courts), and also abandon causal analysis of who controls the state. The book’s concern, rather, is to expose how state formations (i.e. the forms of the state) envelop people, provide total frameworks of legitimacy, exclude alternative ways of life and thought, give moral standing to the status quo, and ‘naturalise’ capitalism. Thus in their essay ‘The State and Social Policy’ Chris Jones and Tony Novak show how the state is ratified by apparently providing ‘welfare’. One of Stephen Yeo’s main themes in his ‘State and Anti-State’ is how the state seeks to stifle the conceivability of any political alternatives to itself (Yeo’s celebration of co-operative movements offers one such alternative).

Though the jargon is modern, the approach is familiar. Current French Structuralism is present (particularly in the rejection of causal analysis), and behind that, Durkheim. Beyond all is a kind of Left Hegelianism (throughout ‘the State’ is capitalised). As with other modes of Hegelianism, the issue of who precisely holds power, who the ruling class is, seems to disappear. Thus, in his overview of the development of the English state from the 1530s to the 1830s, Corrigan discusses how the Civil War paved the way for a new economic order, but is not interested (unlike Christopher Hill) in how far the war involved class conflict, or in who came out on top in 1660. Whereas Thompson and Anderson have fought tooth and nail over how far the industrial bourgeoisie seized power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for Corrigan this has become an unmentioned issue. Nor does this new Marxism worry about the consequences of state power. Rachel Harrison and Frank Mort, in their ‘Patriarchal Aspects of 19th-century State Formation’, treat the law as a univcrsalising, naturalising ideology, but they explicitly renounce investigating its reception or effectiveness: ‘We concentrate here on the way in which the legislative processes of the State construct and articulate particular sets of patriarchal relations, rather than on the effectivity of that legislation as it is implemented and “lived” within specific practices and institutions.’

Yet the old issues do bob up. And because they are not dealt with systematically, they lead to confusion. Paul Richards, in his interesting ‘State Formation and Class Struggle, 1832-48’, attempts to relate reform groups back to class interests, but also makes the rather empty disclaimer: ‘The 19th-century British State was not a crude apparatus at the service of capitalism against labour.’ Seeing (with others) most reforms as being functional to capitalism, his account of the Factory Acts is rather lame, and he has resort to the deus ex machina of ‘genuine humanitarianism’ to account for some welfare legislation. The terminology of class also creates problems throughout the book. Corrigan tells us that the English nation was ‘bourgeois’ in the 18th century. Yet Richards tells us that even after 1832 Parliament was still not dominated by the ‘bourgeoisie’. Only sustained analysis of the composition of the ruling élite can save us from these confusions.

It may in part be a problem with words. Thompson writes with the verbal imagination of a Burke, a Cobbett, a Paine. Anderson has a limpid, precise prose. But many of the authors in Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory write in jargon. Sometimes this is merely wearisome. ‘One is at worst reading through total absences’ means: ‘Nothing has been written about it.’ Sometimes it is highly confusing. Does the phrase ‘bourgeois and middle-class women’ contain a tautology, or a technical distinction? And take this:

The strategic ways in which the State acted for (‘to assist’ and to speak for) the agrarian and urban bourgeoisie is one reason for both popular resistance, which took traditional forms (one of the major topics of the work of Thompson and the essays collected in Albion’s fatal tree), and changes within the ‘political nation’ including the early forms of electoral politics, such as the growth of Panics. In this way was J.H. Plumb’s Growth of political stability apparently established.

There are minor points that could be mentioned: I see no rhyme or reason, for instance, in the use of capitals, inverted commas and italics. There are problems of interpretation: Plumb’s book is not about how the growth of parties led to political stability, but the reverse. But above all there is the problem of deciphering exactly what has been proposed. The difficulty is partly one of clumsy expression. But much more it’s that this new Marxism is an Idealist hall of mirrors, full of relational analysis, reflections and representations. Causation is out; conditions of existence are in. People and agency disappear. ‘The State’ acts for people. Its ways are ‘reasons’. The Whig oligarchy doesn’t get its hands in the gravy, but ‘the growth of political stability’ is ‘apparently [sic] established’. And what is this state? It is ‘an orchestration of the relations of production’.

In his Considerations on Western Marxism (1977) Perry Anderson noted the tendency of Western Marxists, divorced from any tangible prospect of political power, to retreat into philosophical hermeticism. This is present in Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory, even down to its expression. If Marxist history is to engage with academic history, and be politically forceful, it is the work of Thompson and Anderson that must be its spark.?