The Northern Marxist Historians’ Group first met at Manchester Polytechnic in March 1986. Its purpose is to bring together Marxist historians, roughly from a geographical area north of Watford, for critical debate, for mutual instruction and help in the complexities of Marxist methodology, and in general to foster a spirit of comradeship amongst its members. Its membership is not confined strictly to professional historians, but everyone who attends is expected to participate. In sum, the N.M.H.G. is a collective working group of individuals who wish to further their understanding of historical development through acceptance and application of a Marxist approach.
The Group meets for one day twice a year (in March and September) at Manchester Polytechnic. Each meeting is divided into two sessions: the morning is taken up with a critique of published work, both Marxist and non-Marxist, the afternoon with a research paper by a member of the Group or by a visiting speaker. It was precisely the Group’s two morning sessions in 1987, which were devoted to a critique of Perry Anderson’s ‘The Figures of Descent’, New Left Review 161 (Jan/Feb 1987), that gave rise to the present collection of essays. None of the contributors to this collection accepts the central arguments advanced by Anderson in his account of the development of modern British capitalist society. Robert Looker, in an incisive critique of Anderson’s methodology, shows how, despite his claims to the contrary, Anderson has shifted his ground from that of the famous essay of 1964 – ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’. The historical limitations of Anderson’s account are tackled in the pieces by John Saville and David Nicholls – the first by providing a counterview of the mid-nineteenth century British state and the modus operandi of the Victorian bourgeoisie, the latter by outlining an alternative trajectory of British capitalist development in which the changing pattern of class relations is presented in markedly different ways from those suggested by Anderson. David Coates draws together the Group’s central misgivings and points them with pertinent observations of his own, especially concerning the misplaced strategic implications for Marxists of Anderson’s analysis.
The Group’s doubts are further confirmed by two recent replies to Anderson, by Michael Barratt Brown and Alec Callinicos, which appeared after the present essays were completed. Both should be read in conjunction with this collection. Barratt Brown provides some excellent additional empirical evidence against Anderson’s arguments, as well as emphasizing from a different angle a fundamental point highlighted by both Looker and Nicholls – namely, Anderson’s inadequate theorisation of British imperialism and his failure thereby to situate the peculiar trajectory of British capitalism in the context of the internationalisation of capitalist production. Callinicos stresses the global, rather than merely British, character of the contemporary crisis, and poses – as does Looker here – questions about the political implications of Anderson’s case.
The editors express their gratitude to the trustees of the Lipman Educational Trust and to the Faculty of Humanities, Law and Social Science, Manchester Polytechnic, for grants towards the cost of publication. We hope that this will be the first in a series of occasional publications embodying the work of the Northern Marxist Historians’ Group.
A note on sources
Perry Anderson’s two major articles on the trajectory of modern British capitalism: ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ New Left Review 23 (1964) https://newleftreview.org/issues/I23/articles/perry-anderson-origins-of… and ‘The Figures of Descent’, New Left Review 171 (1987) https://newleftreview.org/issues/I161/articles/perry-anderson-the-figur… are cited throughout the footnotes as ‘Origins’ and ‘Figures’ respectively. The place of publication of books is London unless otherwise stated.
 Michael Barratt Brown, ‘Away with All the Great Arches: Anderson’s History of British Capitalism’, New Left Review 167 (Jan/Feb 1988) https://newleftreview.org/issues/I167/articles/michael-barratt-brown-aw…; Alex Callinicos, ‘Exception or Symptom’? The British Crisis and the World System’, New Left Review 169 (May/June 1988) https://newleftreview.org/issues/I169/articles/alex-callinicos-exception-or-symptom-the-british-crisis-and-the-world-system.