Susan Pedersen

  • Structures and Transformations in Modern British History edited by David Feldman and Jon Lawrence
    Cambridge, 331 pp, £50.00, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 521 51882 6
  • The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain edited by Simon Gunn and James Vernon
    California, 271 pp, £20.95, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 9845909 5 7
  • Classes, Cultures and Politics: Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin edited by Clare Griffiths, John Nott and William Whyte
    Oxford, 320 pp, £65.00, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 957988 4

Publishers hate festschrifts, but scholars love them, and this has been a good year, with the publication of collections honouring three men who have done much to shape British social history over the last four decades: Ross McKibbin, Gareth Stedman Jones and Patrick Joyce. I should say before I go any further that I too am a modern British historian: this is my subject and my tribe. I’ve met the dedicatees, most of the editors and a majority of the contributors to these volumes; a few are good friends. But for several reasons – location, intellectual formation, sex and especially nationality (I am an American, one of those interlopers whose contribution to British history has been, in Boyd Hilton’s words, ‘respectable at best’) – I stand at a slight distance from them.

The three men honoured in these books seem cast in a common mould. All were born in the early 1940s and did DPhils at Oxford, although McKibbin arrived there from small-town Australia and Joyce from a London Irish family. All position themselves on the left. All began their careers writing about the experience and politics of class, using social history to explain why a country with a working-class majority, the first industrial nation, proved so stubbornly unrevolutionary. All asked themselves, as the long night of Thatcherism stretched on, why neoliberal or market ideologies had proved so hard for the left to counter. That quest led all three to investigate the insular norms of late 19th-century working-class culture, a theme common to their most influential works: McKibbin’s The Ideologies of Class (1990), Joyce’s Visions of the People (1993) and some of the essays in Stedman Jones’s Languages of Class (1984). By the 1990s, this ‘cultural turn’ had driven Stedman Jones and Joyce to jettison Marxist determinism and to emphasise instead how available rhetorical tropes or habits of mind constrained political options. A layman might be forgiven for assuming that those two at least were on the same side.

But when David Mayfield and Susan Thorne, two young American scholars, cited Stedman Jones and Joyce as exemplars of social history’s ‘linguistic turn’ in an essay published in Social History in 1992, a tempest ensued. Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor, two of Stedman Jones’s recent PhD students, insisted that Mayfield and Thorne had entirely misunderstood their mentor’s work, which they felt should be judged not in terms of its theoretical affiliations but according to an empiricist standard: how adequately it explained particular outcomes such as the decline of Chartism or the nature of Labour politics. Joyce and his student James Vernon then charged Lawrence and Taylor with a ‘complacent’ desire to appropriate the tools of linguistic analysis while undermining its epistemological radicalism. All the two camps could agree on was that the Americans were hopelessly wrong in conflating their work.

Reading through the collections that these adversaries have produced almost 20 years later, I was filled with nostalgia for the slanging matches of those days. Now, all is comity and mutual appreciation. Then, Vernon and Joyce accused Lawrence and Taylor of various intellectual crimes; now, Lawrence is not only co-editing the festschrift for Stedman Jones but contributing an essay to the volume for Joyce, and Joyce in his most recent book thanks Taylor for his help. Age, no doubt, has something to do with it. In the 1990s these editors were postdoctoral fellows; now, they are readers and professors. (Taylor is the director of the Institute of Historical Research and didn’t contribute to any of these volumes.) They may have realised, too, that, with the Labour Party now less socialist than Macmillanite Tories, the time for internal squabbles has passed. But their intellectual mentors, too, have moved in different directions, leaving the students with less to argue about. It’s even possible that this new politeness is a sign of mutual indifference rather than agreement.

Stedman Jones in any case abdicated his role as a ‘tribal elder’ some time ago. No scholar did more to offer a model for a ‘new’ social history than he did in the 1980s: his essay ‘Rethinking Chartism’ in particular made a powerful case for the autonomy and longevity of the radical critique of political corruption and the concomitant weakness of historical approaches that sought to ‘read’ politics off social structure. His students took these lessons to heart, but he was moving in another direction. In the last decade, Stedman Jones has in essence become yet another Cambridge historian of political thought, concerned, especially in his 2004 book, An End to Poverty?, to recapture the economic ideas of late 18th-century radicals.

His students and colleagues have not followed him. None of the essays ostensibly written in his honour (save the introduction) draws on or even cites that work. Instead, the contributors remain concerned with the social and political transformations of the past two centuries, and especially with the powerful hold liberal values have had both on the left and the right. Methodologically, too, they remain loyal to the ‘anti-determinist’ banner Stedman Jones unfurled in the 1980s: they are convinced that, as the editors put it, ‘there is no new “total history” on the horizon’; they are wary of ‘fads in historical scholarship’ and would rather ‘interrogate connections’ than make causal claims. They have learned, as Daniel Pick writes, that ‘the relationship of economic conditions to cultural production, social action and literary form’ cannot ‘be assumed in advance’. Such connections must rather ‘be researched, case by case’.

All this caution makes for a dispiriting book. The reader is warned not only against ‘the instinctive assumptions of … politicised history’ (the editors again) but, it sometimes seems, against strong arguments of any kind. Emma Griffin examines the transformation of civic marketplaces to conclude that claims of a Georgian ‘urban renaissance’ are not so much ‘wrong’ as ‘partial’; Joanna Innes cautions against drawing excessively bold conclusions about the growth of government in the 19th century from public spending figures alone; Margot Finn uses the family records of one early 19th-century Indian viceroy, the Earl of Minto, to cast doubt on claims that a concern to maintain racial purity increasingly trumped other social ambitions; Jonathan Parry offers a careful account of the decline of institutional reform. All these historians are reliable, sober and meticulous. But they appear to have forgotten that we need strong arguments, even wrong arguments: the job of the historian is to make a persuasive claim and leave it to others to issue the caveats. Too few of these pieces reject one monolithic explanation in order to offer an equally bold alternative. David Feldman’s wonderful essay ‘Why the English Like Turbans’ is a rare exception. He counters the familiar argument that modern British society was constructed on practices of racial intolerance by reasoning that the British have shown a consistent preference for ‘pluralist solutions to multicultural dilemmas’ precisely because tolerance of difference has kept subject peoples in their place.

Gunn and Vernon’s volume is so different as to reinforce the suspicion that social historians’ seeming convergence is only skin deep. Feldman and Lawrence claim that ‘no one’ now writes ‘as though a single, overarching structure might provide the key to historical explanation’ (and this is certainly true of the contributors to their book), but Joyce and his students don’t appear to have heard that news. In the mid-1990s, with neoliberalism sweeping the globe, Joyce argued that the work of Foucault, especially his concept of ‘governmentality’, provided historians with tools for analysing its hegemony; significantly, this turn to Foucault was denounced by Stedman Jones, who warned that historians were simply exchanging one (Marxist) form of determinism for another. But Joyce’s work – especially The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (2003) – has continued to be conspicuously Foucauldian, as is that of many of the students and friends who have contributed to this volume.

As a result, this is much the most coherent of the three collections. Packed with citations of Foucault, Nikolas Rose and of course Joyce (but not McKibbin or Stedman Jones), almost all its essays are concerned with the way liberal practices and technologies (free markets, free labour) produce new relations of power. A characteristic Foucauldian fondness for paradox is much in evidence, with David Vincent explaining how ‘open’ government requires secrecy, James Epstein how the end of slave labour in the Caribbean produced other forms of labour coercion, Tom Crook how the naturalisation of heterosexuality fed an obsession with masturbation, Chris Otter how the unfettered drive towards economic liberalism spurred environmental degradation. To anyone familiar with Foucauldian tropes, these claims will not seem very surprising: I longed for a piece arguing that some liberal practice actually made people freer. But after reading the chastened essays for Stedman Jones, it is impossible not to find the intellectual energy and even self-importance of these pieces refreshing. I can’t share Mary Poovey’s belief that Wall Street’s recurrent financial crises will be overcome only when we (whoever ‘we’ are) ‘understand that there is a relationship between the stories people tell about the market … and the dynamics of the market itself’, but it is heartening to find scholars (and in this case, a 19th-century literary scholar) who still think their work matters in this way.

Since festschrifts are uneconomical by nature, only relatively large, well-heeled institutions can comfortably bear their cost: unsurprisingly, the festschrifts for McKibbin and Stedman Jones contain many contributors from their universities – Oxford and Cambridge – and are published by their university presses. But the contributors to the Joyce festschrift (Joyce taught at Manchester) teach at a wide range of institutions, and the book is part of a series co-edited by Vernon for the University of California Press. It has, therefore, to pay its way. Many of its attributes – thematic coherence, low production values, a title promising engagement with grand themes (liberalism, imperialism, modernity), publication simultaneously digitally and in paper, and especially the fact that it doesn’t admit to being a festschrift and doesn’t include Joyce’s name in the title – were sensible editorial choices designed to help it sell. Joyce might not have been pleased to be effaced from a collection ostensibly in his honour, but he should take comfort that, thanks to these choices, a smart young graduate student might actually buy the book.

The editors of the McKibbin volume didn’t have the same constraints. McKibbin has been at Oxford University his whole adult life, and all his books have been published by its press. His works – especially the twin volumes Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51 (1998) and Parties and Peoples: England 1914-51 (2010) – are the closest thing we have to a definitive 20th-century British history. Through his journalism in these pages, he is the only one of these scholars with a readership outside the academy. This volume’s festschriftiness is openly avowed. It displays all the hallmarks of the genre: an affectionate and not unrevealing pen-portrait (by Boyd Hilton), a sympathetic but intellectually astute account of the work that any academic would kill for (by Peter Ghosh), a full bibliography of the works, a brief but mordantly funny sketch of McKibbin’s unrelieved gloom as a writer of political journalism. One might think that such fidelity to the genre would make the book unreadable, but the opposite is true. While the other volumes claim to say ‘important’ things about weighty subjects, these editors, confident that McKibbin’s work will last, present a series of essays written in a style and on subjects he might find interesting, a fitting tribute to a historian who has a keen eye for popular amusements and pastimes (from gambling to dancing to trade unionism) and the wit to take them seriously.

Some familiar themes emerge. McKibbin, like Stedman Jones and Joyce, wanted to understand the relative fragility of socialism and the power of small ‘l’ liberalism in modern Britain, but he didn’t approach the subject through the optic of any ‘total’ theory, Marxist or Foucauldian. Instead, by means of a series of investigations into often class-specific cultural practices and habits of mind, he arrived at a persuasive explanation for the way an anti-socialist constitutionalism and deference to market values somehow became conventional wisdom. He based his argument on the fraught interwar years, however, and some of the most imaginative and valuable pieces here examine how a new social democratic consensus became possible after 1945 and why it then proved so fragile. There are clever essays by Peter Mandler and Joseph McAleer on the rich and untapped sources (survey data, romance novels) historians might use to get at popular attitudes in the 1950s, and splendid articles on why London taxi-drivers became natural recruits to Thatcherism (by John Davis) and on how neoliberal interests and institutions successfully targeted trade unionists as the enemy within (by Ben Jackson). None of the essays has much truck with grand theory; their authors are no more likely to cite the contributors to the Joyce volume than vice versa; the collection is as miscellaneous as the volume for Stedman Jones. But a higher proportion of the essays are fresh and surprising, their authors more interested in making new arguments than in correcting or revising old ones.

None of these books will cast a long shadow: festschrifts rarely do. They are, however, invaluable sources for the study of the academy. These three books, for example, show how the quarrels of the 1990s were not resolved but simply put by; how scholars from a variety of left-leaning perspectives came to take liberalism seriously as a subject of study; and how through some opaque process of affiliation and acculturation, historians defending empiricist methods and resisting monocausal explanations float to the top of elite institutions while those on less elevated perches stud their prose with the latest theoretical terms and pose as prophets of dissent. A Foucauldian could have a field day with festschrifts, given how openly and almost innocently they reproduce the dispensations of power, both intellectual and institutional.

They reveal something too about the gender politics of the academy. Festschrifts have always been mostly for men, and we wouldn’t really expect anything else, but as these books make clear, that isn’t the only problem. If the data available on the Institute of Historical Research website are correct, McKibbin, Joyce and (especially) Stedman Jones have supervised at least 50 PhD students over the past 30 years, just over a quarter (or 14) of whom were identifiably female. Of the 16 of these students who contributed essays to the three volumes, only two (one supervised by Stedman Jones, the other by McKibbin) are women. Almost two-fifths of the men who completed PhDs under these historians’ supervision, in other words, contributed scholarly pieces, while only a seventh of the women did so. It is impossible to infer much from these numbers: we can’t know whether most women students didn’t want to contribute, weren’t invited to do so, or have left the profession. It does seem, however, that the experience and culture of doctoral study in elite institutions – and that includes the compiling of festschrifts – compounds rather than mitigates women’s marginality.

If these historians were not on the left, I doubt whether the editors of their festschrifts would worry about – or perhaps even notice – this. The volumes of essays published in 1993 and 2002 to honour the work of Maurice Cowling, after all, contain not a single piece by a woman. But scholars who learned as students to recognise gender as a key locus of power and to chide each other for being insufficiently attuned to its workings (James Vernon in 1994 discerned ‘phallocentric desires’ underlying Lawrence and Taylor’s arguments) find such easy homosociality retrograde and embarrassing. Each group of editors has clearly tried to increase the representation of women, whether by adding distinguished female scholars of a compatible cast of mind (Gunn and Vernon); or by drawing in women who at some point worked, studied or ran seminars with their dedicatee (Feldman and Lawrence); or, least happily, by assigning exclusively to women the task of writing short tributes to his teaching (Griffiths, Nott and Whyte). That there is a need for such manoeuvres poses the question of whether women will ever inhabit the academic culture of honour and reputation as easily and comfortably as men do. Perhaps, as Virginia Woolf thought, it is better that we don’t. Still, I hear that festschrifts for two female historians, Jose Harris and Pat Thane, are being planned. I await them with curiosity.