David Coates (Leeds University)

The contributors to this collection, as members of the Northern Marxist Historians’ Group, share many points of contact and agreement. Two in particular lie behind this first collective project by the Group. The first is their common recognition of the importance of Perry Anderson’s work, an importance which derives in part from the range and quality of his writings over many years, and in part from the particular appropriateness of his materialist approach for the analysis of contemporary British capitalism and its crisis. The second point of contact between the contributors here is their common sense that Anderson’s work on what he now terms Britain’s ‘descent’, though important, is seriously flawed. The flaws would matter less if Anderson’s importance and stature were smaller. But in a writer of his size and influence, their impact on subsequent scholarship and politics could still be considerable. And because they could, it is our common contention that they need to be isolated and removed, in order both to avoid a misreading of our contemporary situation, and to protect the general credibility of the materialist approach within which they are set.

Coming to terms with Anderson’s argument is easier to propose than to do, not least because the actual thesis contained within his rich narrative is hard to pin down with any precision. The first difficulty we faced in approaching the two articles was to decide the nature of the problem that Anderson was specifying for himself and therefore for us. The language he uses to describe his concerns is invariably obtuse as it is dramatic. In 1964, the focus was on ‘the present crisis’, ‘a general malady’, ‘a slow sickening entropy’, and ‘a sclerosed archaic society’; in 1987 it was on ‘descent’, ‘decrepitude’ and ‘illness’. The more prosaic centre of that illness, at least as understood by Anderson in 1987, seems to be ‘a creeping loss of competitive capacity’[1] in home-based industry, a steady decline in the competitive position of British-based industrial capital. Now, if that is indeed his concern, there is, of course, a rich literature already in existence on its origins, and what needs to be clarified first is the Anderson position within that literature.

What Anderson seems to emphasise here is the importance of two relationships in British society over time: the relationship of domination established by commercial interests over industrial ones in British ruling circles after 1880, and also what seems, from the way he develops his argument, to go with that – namely the relationship of domination established by the English aristocracy over the Victorian state and the Victorian industrial bourgeoisie. In fact, the two relationships – the one aristocratic to bourgeois, the other commercial to industrial – are simply told in a sequence in ‘Figures’. One runs into the next, Linkages are implied, but never systematically established. Certainly, that between aristocratic domination in the pre-1890 period and commercial domination in the years that followed is not. All that we are given on this crucial transition within Anderson’s argument from one, set of concerns (with the aristocracy) to another (with the City) is this:

The political dome of the dominant bloc had indeed been essentially landowning throughout most of the 19th century: beneath it, economically, came commerce rather than manufacturing. When agrarian property lost its weight, it was not industry but finance which became the hegemonic form of capital, in a City socially and culturally in many ways closer to the wealth of estates than of factories.[2]

The Anderson thesis on ‘descent’ now has two moments – one aristocratic, one commercial – with different power blocs dominant in each. What links them, and what makes their juxtaposition into a thesis on economic decline, is not so much the presence within them of dominant forces of differing kinds but, rather, the consistent failure of the industrial bourgeoisie ever to be one of these dominant forces. There is no industrial moment to match, or replace, the aristocratic and the commercial one, and that – for Anderson – is the key to the present crisis. For what is common and significant between the two periods for him is what is not in domination. His thesis in the end comes down to a critique of the industrial bourgeoisie for its failure ever fully to establish its political domination at any point over the last two centuries. What, in fact, we are given, in ‘Figures’, is a story of the political subordination of an industrial bourgeoisie to social and economic forces ultimately inimical to its interests, and we are offered that story within a narrative which is keen to establish the continuity of Anderson’s own specification of that subordination in articles written more than twenty years apart.

To that argument, the chapters here make a number of linked responses. The essay by Robert Looker establishes, among other things, the extent to which Perry Anderson has altered the emphasis of his argument over time: from a concern with the archaic nature of the English aristocracy in ‘Origins’ to a recognition of its dynamic and capitalist nature in ‘Figures’; and a slippage away from that preoccupation with the nature of the English aristocracy to a recognition, in ‘Figures’, of the greater importance – for understanding economic decline – of divisions within the middle class (between commercial and industrial interests). The confusions created by that slippage are enough to allow John Saville and Dave Nicholls to address here the question of the aristocracy, and Nicholls and Looker to focus in addition on the division and clash of interests within the bourgeoisie; and for each of those critiques to constitute an important contribution to the evaluation of the Anderson thesis. For the confusion is not ours, but Anderson’s. As Looker demonstrates so well, Anderson hangs on to the formal scaffolding of his argument across the two decades that divide ‘Origins’ from ‘Figures’ only by the device of abandoning its original substance. The Anderson assertion of the weakness of the industrial bourgeoisie remains a constant throughout, but the specification of what causes that weakness definitely changes. There is, in that sense, an old Anderson thesis and a new one. But no matter whether old or new, what the essays here make clear is that there are serious flaws in both.

The first substantive challenge to this shifting Anderson thesis which the papers here mount is to his characterisation of the British state in the nineteenth century, and in particular to his emphasis on the hegemonic role of landed interests. The sharp division which Anderson draws between landed and industrial interests is one of the weaknesses of his argument. As John Saville demonstrates, landed interests in the nineteenth century were heavily involved in the success of industrial enterprise (in the coal industry, railways and iron works, not to mention their general enthusiasm for rising urban rent rolls), and were, in any case, as a social class, open to entry by successful industrial capitalists. The Saville chapter makes clear that the nineteenth-century landed elite was not a closed one, sealed from entry by business interests until the very end of the century. Instead, it was open to new entrants throughout – and those new entrants included the industrially rich. Indeed, it was open to such a degree that industrial magnates were responsible for over half the new country homes built between 1835 and 1875; and with all that frenetic building going on, it would be unwise to draw too sharp a boundary between classes in the Anderson manner. Where Anderson sees a ‘fundamentally unaltered aristocratic ascendency in British politics’ with industrialists as ‘junior partners in the natural order of things, without compelling economic motives or collective social resources to transform it’,[3] Saville is more struck by the emerging power of industrial capital. As he says, ‘the industrial bourgeoisie after 1850 lived in an economic world of its own making’, one whose existence reinforces the validity of Marx’s view that in reality the nineteenth-century industrial bourgeoisie ruled ‘in actual practice ... in all the decisive spheres of bourgeois society’.

No one denies the existence of a virtual aristocratic monopoly of high government office, nor the existence of a political compromise between aristocratic and bourgeois interests in the 1830s. It is the significance of that compromise for the balance of class forces shaping the use of political power in nineteenth-century Britain which is at stake. The Anderson of ‘Origins’ seems tantalisingly to propose that aristocratic domination blocked state receptivity to the needs of industrial capital. How else are we to read his 1964 characterisation of the repeal of the Corn Laws as the ‘last’ victory of the new middle class?[4] The Anderson of ‘Figures’ concedes that that was not so; and that, on the contrary, the mid-Victorian state catered admirably to the economic interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. But, for Anderson, the recognition of this does not require a break with the previous assertion of aristocratic domination. Saville and Nicholls disagree.

Saville argues that it is not enough to read the political compromise of the 1830s through the lens of 1832 alone. That compromise was enshrined as much in the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 as in the Reform Act of 1832; and because it was it left local political power in the industrial centres firmly in the hands of the representatives of industrial capital, and it brought into existence in London governments sensitive to a quite remarkable degree to the needs and concerns of this new industrial owning class. In Saville’s words, ‘the re-ordering of British society to the requirements of industrial capitalism ... was completed by 1850, and henceforth there were no obstacles of any significance to the pursuit of profit by the owners of capital’. Such a judgement – that ‘manufacturing interests did not feel themselves in any respect deprived or hampered or thwarted in their central concerns: the making of money’ – sits ill with a thesis suggesting aristocratic and state indifference to the requirements of industrial capital.

In arguing so strongly for the receptivity of the early Victorian state to the requirements of industrial capital, John Saville’s chapter is echoed in Dave Nicholls’s listing of a whole series of measures introduced by governments in the I830s and 1840s – measures from educational reform through the new poor law to the repeal of the corn laws – all of which were specified by the new manufacturing middle class as vital to their interests. The veneer of aristocratic domination of the nineteenth-century British state was just that – a veneer – which must not be allowed to disguise the fact that ‘after 1832 the industrial bourgeoisie was the dominant fraction in the power bloc’ (Nicholls). In Marx’s words, the Whigs acted as ‘the aristocratic representatives of the Bourgeoisie’ in an inversion of political form and substance that not only confused nineteenth-century radicals but apparently Anderson as well.

As Nicholls points out, the Anderson thesis on aristocratic domination is essential to his overall argument on the inability of the British state to act as a modernising agency for industrial capital. But the thesis is sustainable only by disregarding Anderson’s own recognition that the nineteenth-century English aristocracy were exceptionally wealthy, enterprising and capitalist. As Nicholls says, Anderson sustains his argument only by shifting his terminology, characterising the English aristocracy ‘at one moment as a truly enterprising class, the most dynamic section of British capital’ at the next ‘traditionalist, hide-bound, and comparable to the feudal remnants in other modernising states’. It is very hard, when reading either ‘Origins’ or ‘Figures’, to remember that the English bourgeoisie made the first successful industrial revolution, and, by 1850, dominated world production and trade, and did so with active state support at all critical moments. Yet, if ‘crises’ are to have ‘origins’, and if ‘figures’ are to ‘descend’, then there must exist happier times prior to crisis, and heights from which to fall; and the explanation of the one must be consistent with the explanation of the other. A perpetually existing aristocratic barrier to industrial development seems, from that vantage point, to sit uneasily as an explanatory variable for what is visibly a shifting quality of industrial performance over time.

Perhaps it is for that reason that eventually the aristocracy fade from the Anderson story, and centre-stage is given instead to contradictions between sections of this new bourgeois class as determinants of industrial decline and the loss of competitiveness. The Anderson thesis here seems easier to grasp: that commercial interests came to dominate state policy, and to disadvantage industrial sections of the bourgeoisie, at critical moments of industrial restructuring in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Once more, industrial capitalists are presented as falling into a subordinate position behind stronger – and ultimately inimical – political forces, whose distinct concerns they should have recognised earlier, and from whose tutelage they should decisively have broken. The polarity of interests between aristocracy and bourgeoisie is now replaced by a new polarity, between the commercial and the industrial sections of that bourgeois class.

Yet that polarity works no better than the first, as Nicholls and Looker in their different ways make clear. As they demonstrate, Anderson systematically underestimates the commonalty of interest between industrial and commercial sections of the late nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. Industrial capital was not starved of investment funds by the export of capital. Rather, that capital export helped the industrial sector, ‘by enlarging its markets and, more importantly, by cheapening its imports and thus enhancing the profitability of its monopolies’ (Nicholls). The defence of free trade, and the defeat of Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform, cannot properly be read as a victory of commercial interests over industry’s ones. Indeed, on Anderson’s own evidence, it is better seen as a defeat of small and new industrial interests, primarily midlands-based, by older and more monopolistic interests, which were both industrial and commercial in character. Textiles, coal and shipbuilding interests in the main opposed, rather than supported, Chamberlain: the majority of both industrial and commercial capitalists prior to 1914 remained in favour of free trade. There were divisions between capitalists, of course, on both the detail and general strategic thrust of state economic policy.

But the split was not one between commercial and industrial interests. As Looker makes clear, state economic policy down to 1914 remained sensitive to the requirements of a dominant coalition of commercial and industrial capitalists. State policy in that period does not need to be explained as some offshoot of aristocratic domination or City take-over. It did not represent, in any simple way, a victory of land over capital, commerce over industry, or London over the North. It reflected, if anything, the victory of old capital over new, and of international orientations over local ones. The crucial thing to grasp here, of course, as Anderson seems not fully to do, is that, down to 1914 at least, that international orientation was common to the vast majority of capitalist sections, as one might expect from a class which owned and financed what had until recently been the undisputed workshop of the world.

So, there are clear difficulties of substance in the Anderson thesis which need to be recognised and corrected. But what needs to be recognised too is that getting at them is made immeasurably more difficult by the mode of presentation of the thesis and by the language within which it is expressed. ‘Figures’ is a richly woven narrative, structured by an argument as narratives of this kind always are, and organised by that argument’s constituting hypotheses. But neither the individual hypotheses nor the overarching argument is made at all clear. They come to us, if they emerge at all, only through the detailed telling of a complicated historical tale; and, certainly, by the time the narrative reaches the twentieth century, if not before, the story has taken over to such a degree that the thesis beneath it quite literally vanishes from view. All we have are episodes described in a sequence, in a text which is by then almost entirely devoid of explicit analytical content. The task for the reader faced with these episodes is less one of assessing the Anderson thesis than of finding it in the first place; and this cannot be an appropriate task to impose on the subscribers to New Left Review. Moreover, this game of ‘hunt the thesis’ is made yet more difficult by the strangely convoluted language within which the narrative is occasionally set. Perry Anderson has been criticised before for saying things in unnecessarily complicated ways, for decorating his text with the linguistic contortions of fashionable foreign theorists, and for being unable to resist a weakness for the clever verbal paradox.[5] Things have improved a little down the years in this aspect of his work, but ‘dialectics of desynchronization’, ‘explanandum and explanans’ and ‘faineánt bourgeoisies’ still litter this text in a showy and irritating way. The socialist transformation of capitalism, when it occurs, will be the greatest act of informed human will ever achieve. Its preparation requires, among many other things, the formation of informed, clear-thinking, and committed worker-intellectuals in their millions. A house-style which requires a classical education and a French dictionary does nothing to help in this creation; and seems, it must be said, more appropriate to the politics of reaction than to those of the Left.

So, finding the Anderson thesis amid all these clever words is difficult, but of course a thesis is there. It is one which emphasises the political weakness of the industrial bourgeoisie in Britain – one which castigates what Anderson characteristically calls a ‘fainéant bourgeoisie’ incapable of modernising its own production, and let down by other potential agencies of industrial modernisation. According to Anderson, the industrial bourgeoisie failed to modernise British industry after 1870 as competition from abroad intensified. Although productivity growth in the UK stagnated in the two decades to 1890 and declined thereafter, there was neither spontaneous industrial concentration nor concerted state counteraction in response. Trusts and tariffs remained absent from the English scene, where small and medium business continued, on the whole, to operate on traditional lines. The country with the most concentrated agrarian capital in the world preserved one of the most fragmented manufacturing capitals. Steel, chemical and electrical industries failed to match US/German sizes of plant or levels of output. Instead of organisational or technological innovation. British industry drew on the assets of empire, settling into an easy reliance on customary and (in the case of India) captive markets.[6]

Moreover, no other institutions, we are told, emerged to make up this defect. The interests of the state were elsewhere (‘the plain of international competition on which it took its stand was colonial not industrial’[7]). The City ‘largely ignored the problems of domestic industry, where lead sectors of the future – motors cars or electrical engineering – were stunted for lack of major issue-capital or stable credits’.[8] Even in the 1930s, ‘the City essentially redirected its flows to finance Dominion deficits in the Sterling Area’ instead of making ‘an important reorientation of banking capital towards domestic industry’.[9] Then, after 1945, neither the state, nor the banks, nor the trade unions, came to industry’s rescue. The imperial pretensions of the British state, the global interests of the City, and the timidity of an industrially defensive but politically conservative labour movement, all blocked much-needed industrial reconstruction. A continuity of argument between ‘Origins’ and ‘Figures’ can then perhaps be salvaged. Archaic elements are still about in profusion, blocking modernisation – but now they rest not just in the aristocracy, but in the ‘traditionalist and decentralised union movement’ too, with its ‘obdurate resistance to rationalisation of the factors of production’.[10] The industrial bourgeoisie still lack spine, still fail to do the bourgeois thing the proper foreign way. Things have been too easy here – there has been insufficient struggle – no ‘revolution after the revolution’, as in model bourgeois experience, to resharpen middle-class enterprise; no proper class endeavour, ‘no conscious purpose or collective struggle’, only ‘historical windfalls’[11] to give trade unionism and Labour its periodic bouts of political power. There is a sort of left-wing Tebbitism here: that the industrial bourgeoisie need to get on their bikes, and do the thing properly. But they haven’t, blocked as they have been by archaic forces deep in the British social structure, forces which have denied them the liberating impact of ‘gales of creative destruction’.[12] Put that way, the Anderson thesis is dangerously reformist. It has echoes of Harold Wilson in its underlying themes – cries for capitalist modernisation wrapped up in socialist language – of the kind which first took Anderson to the desk to write ‘Origins’ all those years ago. Perry Anderson seems to hanker after a competitive national capitalism; and his despair about ‘descent’ does not adequately differentiate between profit[-orientated] and anti-capitalist modernisation strategies. Labour governments are criticised, at one moment, for the absence of socialism from their agenda, for only having as their goals ‘social concessions from a capitalism ... accepted as beside contestation’. A moment later, their failure is otherwise, of not ‘acquitting any of the tasks of the bourgeois modernisation trade union powers were not sublimated into a successful tripartism in the service of reindustrialisation’.[13] But what is the crime of these Labour governments, and what exactly is Anderson’s goal? Does he see no difference between socialist reconstruction and a corporatist capitalism? And how does either fit into the deterministic picture with which, in his last paragraphs, he chooses to leave us?

For there, suddenly and unexpectedly, economic decline is handled as the inexorable consequence of earlier periods of hegemony and empire. But, if so, why labour so long in the contingencies? If decline is inevitable, why probe the defects of bourgeoisies, the pretensions of aristocracies, the internationalism of bankers? ‘Figures’ leaves us with too many loose ends to have any confidence that its argument constitutes the last word on the ‘descent’ to which those ‘figures’ are said to have contributed. Anderson’s bankers and merchants at least responded to the logic of market forces; and went abroad because the pickings were easier there. What Anderson sees as the industrial consequences of failed capitalist rationality might more properly be grasped as the local consequence of the steadfast rationality of the entire British capitalist class. Industrial decline has not happened here because the local capitalist class did not do its job properly. Industrial decline has happened here because it did, and continues to do, that job extremely well. Capital goes where the pickings are largest and easiest; and that is fixed not primarily by divisions of interests between capitalists, but by the division of interests between capital and labour. Of all the contradictions on which the Anderson searchlight settles in the pursuit of causal ‘figures of descent’, that is the one over which his torch sweeps with the greatest speed. The importance of working-class power at the point of production in the decline of industrial capitalism is recognised in the Anderson thesis, but hardly occupies centre-stage. If it did, Anderson would be much closer to understanding the internationalism of the classes on which he chooses to concentrate. He would also then be much better placed to emphasise how total must be the working-class challenge to their power in any socialist solution to the industrial ‘descent’ which he chronicles so well.

[1] ‘Figures’, p. 72.

[2] Ibid., p. 57.

[3] Ibid., pp. 39-40.

[4] ‘Origins’, p. 32.

[5] For that earlier, and quite wonderfully funny critique, see Peter Sedgwick, ‘Pseud Left Review’, International Socialism 25 (Summer 1966) https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1966/xx/pseudlr.htm, pp. 18-19.

[6] ‘Figures’, p. 42.

[7] Ibid. p. 43.

[8] Ibid. p. 44.

[9] Ibid., p. 45,

[10] Ibid., p. 75.

[11] Ibid., p. 54.

[12] Ibid., p. 48. The term, of course, is Schumpeter’s.

[13] Ibid., pp. 58 & 75.