Robert Looker (York University)

Introduction – Reopening the 1960s Debate

The exchanges between Perry Anderson and Edward Thompson precipitated by the appearance of the former’s ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ in 1964, constituted the most memorable and acerbic public debate to emerge within the English New Left in the 1960s.[1] It ranged over issues as diverse as the relationship between Marxist theorising and historical analysis; the logic and trajectory of English history since the seventeenth century; the core features of the crisis of contemporary Britain; and alternative strategies for socialist advance in advanced capitalism. For socialists of my generation, the debate was one of the formative intellectual influences of the 1960s.

As far as the debate on English historical development was concerned, the general consensus on the Left at the time was that Thompson had the better of the argument. Though a renewal of exchanges a decade or so later served to qualify this view with regard to the issue of the relationship between theory and history, it did not overturn the earlier judgement.[2] ‘The debate of the 1960s’ was seen as a matter of history and history had recorded its verdict.

Unexpectedly, in early 1987, Anderson returned to the debate in ‘The Figures of Descent’ with the claim that the consensus judgment stood in need of reversal. A combination of recent historical scholarship and political developments in Britain over the past two decades had served to confirm the essential accuracy of the analysis he had advanced in ‘Origins’. History – and the historians – had absolved him.

Prima facie, the claim is surprising, but given its source, it requires serious examination. Two inter-related issues are raised by it. Is the analysis offered in ‘Figures’ in the main consistent with that outlined in ‘Origins’ some two decades earlier? Does Anderson’s current version of the argument now deserve that accolade of plausibility withheld by critics from his earlier account? The following discussion will attempt to assess these two-fold claims to consistency and plausibility. (Though logically distinct, the two are in practice closely interconnected and will be considered together.) Put another way, is his 1987 discussion in substantial accord with, and a vindication of, the 1964 text?

There is a certain ambiguity in Anderson’s claim. To what level of analysis does it apply? Does it concern only his specific theses on English historical development? Or does it also encompass the political perspectives, theoretical assumptions and methodological approaches in which they are embedded? His intent is not clear here, so I have assumed that both claims are in play, and have therefore sought to assess each in turn.

In the following discussion, Sections I and II will examine Anderson’s handling of some specific historical themes – the former will look at the ruling class, state, ideology and crisis while the latter examines the working class and its politics. Section III will then consider the broader political, theoretical and methodological issues raised by his work. (In what follows, the main focus is Anderson’s position in ‘Figures’. His earlier version in ‘Origins’ and the debate it provoked are touched on only briefly and mainly for purposes of comparison with his current views.)

I. The Thesis Updated: A Redrawing the Ruling Class

In ‘Origins’, Anderson presents us with an account of the development of English society over the past four centuries through the prism of a ‘history of the classes’. It examines the political and ideological fortunes of the aristocrats, merchants, manufacturers and the working classes and tells how a premature, partial and incomplete bourgeois revolution in the seventeenth century ensured that capitalist development in England took place under the aegis of its dominant landed class. That class, though basically capitalist in its economic roles, retained an ‘aristocratic’ culture which was profoundly antithetical to bourgeois values and aspirations.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, capitalist development brought challenges to aristocratic dominance from other classes – first the merchants, then industrialists and workers. However, these were either contained, defeated or absorbed by the landed classes, whose dominance was secured by the twin supports of an only partially reformed state power and a largely antibourgeois cultural hegemony. Even when, belatedly, aristocratic control over the former declined, the latter remained firmly in place. Thus, Britain faced the twentieth century with an anachronistic class structure, an archaic political system and an inefficient economy. By mid-century, the result was one of structural crisis – ‘a slow, sickening entropy’, a ‘sclerosed, archaic society’ facing a malady of the whole infrastructure and superstructure’.[3] How does all this fare in ‘Figures’?

(a) The Aristocracy – the Decline and Fall of a Hegemonic Class

The aristocracy were, in many respects, the central actors in Anderson’s earlier drama of English history. In ‘Figures’, shifts in emphasis cumulate to produce a radical re-weighting of aristocratic hegemony in his explanation of the crisis of modern Britain, relegating it to merely a supporting role in the new play. Nor is the weight of aristocratic dominance in English history any longer used as an index of her incomplete and partial advance towards a fully capitalist social order. In a dramatic reversal of the argument, it now shows how early and thoroughly this transformation took place when compared with other European states. Again, the tensions between the economic role and cultural outlook of this class evident in the earlier story are now resolved in the direction of a thorough-going materialist account which stresses the centrality of their economic activity for the development of English capitalism.

The English aristocracy in ‘Figures’ have become Europe’s most successful and most prosperous agrarian class, ‘the landowning elite with the longest consecutive history as a capitalist stratum proper’.[4] No mere rentiers, they eagerly embarked upon the reorganisation of agricultural production in response to market opportunities – a clear example of Marx’s ‘truly revolutionary’ route. Nor were their economic concerns confined to landed capital, but extended far and wide, into the City, coal, urban property development etc. This was a supremely successful capitalist class, with a sharp eye for profitable openings both at home and abroad. Its wealth and prestige were underpinned by precisely those processes advancing the capitalist mode of production throughout Britain.

A class of enormous prestige and privilege, yes. One which – if it is safe to generalise from the Stones’ findings[5] – may well have exhibited a marked degree of continuity and social closure. Yet Anderson’s current account seems to invite the conclusion that the trappings of social hierarchy in which the landowners costumed their public and private lives had already acquired a substantively capitalist, indeed bourgeois content, even before the full impact of the industrial revolution diminished the relative weight of landed capital in the affairs of the economically dominant class. Their cultural legacy to the Victorian ‘upper class’ – particularly the languages and rituals of hierarchy and status in which the latter came to adorn themselves – remain significant. But the account in ‘Figures’ no longer offers serious support for the view that this legacy was decisive in patterning the social relations and cultural assumptions of nineteenth-century Britain. Indeed, Anderson’s attention now shifts away from the landed classes and casts a new stratum in the central role of his historical drama, for when agrarian property lost its weight it was not industry but finance which became the hegemonic form of capital.[6]

In summary, then, Anderson’s treatment of the aristocracy has undergone a profound, if unacknowledged, metamorphosis between the two accounts. In the process, the most distinctive explanatory pillar of the earlier position – aristocratic hegemony – has been effectively dismantled. The result is a more realistic and convincing assessment of the role of the landed classes in the development of English capitalism. It is also a picture which conforms in most essentials to that advanced by Thompson in ‘The peculiarities of the English’.[7]

(b) State and Ideology – Towards a Liberal Bias?

In ‘Origins’, the pervasive influence of the aristocracy rested on two supports. One – their permeation of the values, attitudes and assumptions of the Victorian ‘upper class’ – has already been touched upon. The other derived from their continuing hold on state power, thus perpetuating an archaic political structure and an essentially non-bourgeois public ideology.

Formally, at least, ‘Figures’ continues to accord considerable weight to the political role of landed capital in its account of the nineteenth century. An ‘unfaltering succession of aristocratic Cabinets and landlord Parliaments’ continued to dominate British politics ‘for a full century after the advent of the Industrial Revolution’. However, the consequences of this ascendancy have been radically re-specified: it is now seen as fully compatible with capitalist and industrial advance. No archaic, late feudal structure lurks in the narrative here. On the contrary, ‘from the Younger Pitt to the elder Gladstone the British State was a logical creature of this triangular constellation of land, trade and industry’.[8]

Old Corruption was largely self-liquidated even before 1832. Following the Reform Act, ‘no major structural change was needed in the state for the purposes of mill-owners or manufacturers. The basic design transmitted by laissez-faire landlords proved eminently adaptable and suitable to the needs of the first Industrial Revolution’. [9]

Political conflicts between aristocrats and bourgeois reflected no basic differences over the economic role of the state. Nor were middle-class perspectives ideologically subordinated to some aristocratic hegemony. Rather they all operated ‘within a shared conception of state in society’ which was ‘programmatically committed to the liberalism of Smith and Ricardo’.[10] Anyone recalling the contemptuous tones in which Anderson in ‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’ dismissed the claims of bourgeois political economy to hegemonic status in nineteenth-century England may be forgiven for detecting a more than minor shift in argument here!

The picture as now presented in ‘Figures’ is of a laissez-faire capitalist state pursuing policies within ideological parameters specified by the categories of liberal economic theory. No mere creature of the aristocracy, it both reflects and responds sensitively to shifts in the balance of power between land, finance and industry within the overall structure of British capital. Crucially, when faced with agricultural depression from the 1880s, the landed strata were unable to translate their formal presence in the political system into policies designed to protect their economic interests from further decline. The imperative need to pursue a ‘cheap food’ policy as part of the process of managing the urban working class proved a far more vital consideration.

At one point in ‘Figures’, Anderson sketches a model of bourgeois revolution in which periodic ‘revolutions after the revolution’ are pre-requisites for achieving effective modernisation.[11] The account in ‘Origins’ of an archaic English state inhibited from adapting to the needs of the industrial revolution by the ideological drag-anchor of aristocratic values might seem to support the model. His current account of the early and mid-Victorian state, on the other hand, appears to give it the lie.

However, any such Whiggish thoughts on the adaptability of British political institutions to changing circumstances prove premature. Archaism and arrested development have not disappeared from Anderson’s new account of the state but merely shifted their location. Adopting Nairn’s thesis[12] he argues that the crucial failure came in the last third of the century when, faced with changed economic conditions, the state proved incapable of overcoming its entrenched ideological bias towards liberal economic policy solutions. (Quite why, having been so successful in the past, it should now fail to adapt to new circumstances isn’t entirely clear from Anderson’s account. It appears to be linked to the character of the state bureaucracy. Recruited in the main from the public-school elite, they were trained for the tasks of Imperial rule, not those of domestic economic management.)

How does Anderson’s claim to consistency fare here? There is little which supports his theses on state and ideology advanced in the 1960s. Though terms like ‘archaic’ and ‘imperial’ preserve the appearance of continuity, the substance of the discussion has been transformed. The ‘liberal state’ in ‘Figures’ and the ‘aristocratic hegemony’ in ‘Origins’ are fundamentally incompatible.

The plausibility of Anderson’s account is heavily dependent on the accuracy of his characterisation of the nineteenth-century state in terms of economic liberalism. This is a matter of some controversy. Even in relation to the supposed heyday of the ‘laissez-faire’ state in early and mid-Victorian times, the character and extent of state ‘interventionism’ is a matter of dispute.[13] More crucially for Anderson’s thesis, some recent accounts of the decades from the 1880s see them, not in terms of continuing laissez-faire liberalism, but as witnessing the emergence of an interventionist state in Britain.’[14]

Liberal or interventionist? The debates need to be acknowledged and engaged with. Anderson does neither. His account of the late nineteenth-century state is somewhat ad hoc – more an amalgam of disparate elements than a well-articulated analysis. To take a key example, he rightly emphasises that the special skill of the British state lay ‘in the mortification of political conflict or social revolt within civil society’.[15] Yet, while he stresses the ideological dimensions of the process, highlighting the symbolic role of parliamentary sovereignty and constitutional monarchy, he has virtually nothing to say about practical forms of intervention by the state in mediating and managing the conflicts between capital and labour. Of course, a focus on the latter, with its suggestion of an emergent corporatist bias in the activities of the British state, would undermine the plausibility of Anderson’s emphasis on its essentially liberal character. This would have damaging consequences for his overall argument, for the stultifying effect of liberal ideology on the state’s ability to intervene in the economy now forms a crucial component of Anderson’s re-specification of ‘the crisis’ and its causes in ‘Figures’.

Anderson’s account of the state here raises issues which are less matters of evidence and interpretation than of underlying theoretical assumptions. His account takes it as read that any successful adaptation by the British economy to challenges facing it in the late nineteenth century required the state to intervene and over-ride market forces in order to ‘modernise’ industrial capital. He argues that its liberal bias blocked the state from even attempting such a project. The bias and its underpinnings therefore constitute a core explanatory factor in accounting for the long-term decline of the British economy and of the continuing crisis in its social order.

The theoretical assumptions involved here may be defensible but they need to be made explicit and subjected to careful scrutiny. In the absence of such critical appraisal, they simply serve to impart a suspiciously circular quality to the argument. Whether Anderson does in fact have a coherent and defensible theory of the role of the state on strategies for economic modernisation is a question that will be pursued in Section III of this discussion. For the moment, however, we need to turn our attention to his account of the second main class actor in his new historical drama, namely the bourgeoisie.

(c) The Bourgeoisie – A Tale of Two Strata

‘Origins’ was notorious for its peremptory and dismissive treatment of the urban middle classes. Supine in the face of aristocratic hegemony, they played a merely subordinate role in Anderson’s analysis of the ruling class. As we have already observed, his revised account of the ruling class in ‘Figures’ markedly diminishes the weight assigned to its landed component. This is paralleled by an upward revision in his estimation of the importance of sections of the bourgeoisie.

In Anderson’s new version, the English bourgeoisie is presented as a deeply fractured class, internally differentiated into two distinct strata – commercial and banking on one side, industrial and manufacturing on the other. Historically, these class fractions formed separate social groups, with their own distinctive economic interests, political orientations and lifestyles, and with different points of connection with other classes and strata – aristocracy, professionals, workers, etc. In his view, the downward trajectory of the twentieth-century British economy was powerfully shaped by the outcome of political struggles between these fractions for hegemony within the dominant bourgeois class from the later nineteenth century on.

Powerfully influenced by Ingham and Rubinstein,[16] Anderson places particular stress on the role of the commercial bourgeoisie in shaping British historical development. They now play a leading role at the cutting edge of capitalist economic development from the seventeenth century onwards, particularly in the international trading system and, after 1815, in making London the hub of international financial transactions. While still stressing their close connections – economic if not social – with the landed interests from Hanoverian times onwards, he no longer maintains that they were simply a political satrapy of the aristocracy. In ‘Figures’, they appear as an independent political and ideological force in their own right.

What of the industrial middle classes in this new account? If the tone of contempt which characterised Anderson’s earlier discussion is now absent, little positive has been substituted in its place. The industrial revolution itself receives two brief mentions in the relevant section of the article; as to the social transformations it wrought upon British society, there is only silence. The text conveys no sense that the nineteenth century saw a self-confident manufacturing class ‘establishing facts’, Israeli-fashion, across the rapidly expanding terrain of industrial Britain or of it asserting a very practical hegemony over its urban landscape, in part through control of the local state, and more potently perhaps as the dominant ‘presence’ in most of its institutions and social practices.

Anderson still sees the industrial bourgeoisie as failing to struggle for national political hegemony after 1832, but his explanation of this failure has changed. In ‘Figures’, they have no need to struggle, for the mid-Victorian liberal state catered admirably for their economic needs. However, this apparent concession to the class contains a sting in the tail. For, from the 1870s onwards, he sees the state as progressively failing to protect manufacturing interests. The industrial middle class then belatedly sought political power but were unable to secure it. In Anderson’s view, this failure was to prove decisive in determining the subsequent course of events.

Anderson’s analysis of the bourgeoisie also involves a very particular view of the development of British capitalism in the early and middle nineteenth century. Two distinct and largely autonomous processes are seen at work. One – the industrial revolution – saw the growth and transformation of manufacturing, mainly in the north. The other involved a quite separate set of developments in commercial activities (international trade ancillaries and government securities) concentrated on the City. By mid-century, when Britain was both the workshop and clearing house of the world, a certain mutuality of interest in the operations of the international economy had developed between them, but this was largely conjectural and lacked firm structural underpinnings. In Anderson’s view, the changed conditions in the international economy from the 1870s onwards were to demonstrate that the interests of commercial and industrial capital were not simply separate, but in crucial respects opposed.

Thus, in contrast to their brief and dismissive handling in ‘Origins’, the bourgeoisie receive a fuller and more balanced treatment in’ Figures’. The result is a considerable redefinition of the character, composition and historic role of the ruling class. The landed aristocracy, though not written out of the play, have their character progressively rewritten and marginalised with each successive scene. The financial and commercial bourgeoisie have had a corresponding accession of attention, and take on the leading role in the climacteric act set in the late nineteenth century. Even the manufacturing strata, while still cast mainly as spear-carriers, at least get to brandish them more threateningly than hitherto.

Whether the new version does justice to the relative importance of lords, merchants, bankers and industrialists in the drama of the emergence of industrial capitalism in Britain is a subject discussed extensively elsewhere in this collection and will not be pursued further here. We will look instead at the pivotal decades when, in Anderson’s new account, ‘the crisis’ finally emerged to confront British capitalism and its ruling class.

d) The Crisis Respecified

One of the most striking features of ‘Origins’ was the epochal scale – from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries – within which ‘the origins of the present crisis’ were explored. While ‘Figures’ formally retains this time-frame, the real focus of discussion has been considerably foreshortened. Anderson now falls into line with perhaps a majority of recent commentators on British decline by anchoring the crisis in the pattern of developments in the last third of the nineteenth century.[17] In the process, ‘the crisis’ also acquires a much more specifically economic definition than that given to it in the 1960s discussion.

From a position of virtual hegemony in the international economy in mid-century – both as the workshop and commercial centre of the world – British capital was faced from the 1870s with rapidly growing competition from more recently industrialised states such as Germany and the USA. Confronted with this challenge, the strategies pursued by the state and the ruling class, then and later, signally failed to generate the economic responses necessary to ensure the continued success for British manufacturers in world markets. It is this continuing failure of strategy, and the reasons for it, which now forms the main focus of Anderson’s discussion of ‘the crisis’.

Anderson’s account is not entirely clear in its handling of the logic of state and ruling-class responses to the challenge of international competition. He is reluctant to abandon entirely his earlier thesis that aristocratic hegemony ensured that the outcome was a new imperialism, with largely baleful results for the economy and society of twentieth-century Britain. Imperialism still remains a factor in the equation in ‘Figures’, not least in terms of its effects in biasing the culture of the ‘upper class’ as a whole towards political rule rather than economic enterprise. Yet, given Anderson’s re-specification of the roots of ‘the crisis’ in the late nineteenth century, imperialism per se no longer addresses the core problems of strategy. Rather, the issue becomes one of the economic strategy to be combined with imperialism. Would it seek to maintain British capital’s traditional commitment to an international free trade order or jettison that commitment in favour of constructing a political-military protectionist bloc?

Despite vestigial hangovers from ‘Origins’, the main thrust of Anderson’s discussion on this topic in ‘Figures’ is reasonably clear. He sees it as a strategic choice between rival ‘projects for British capital’. In his view, the policy alternatives demonstrated the extent to which the economic interests of the commercial and manufacturing sectors of the bourgeoisie pointed in increasingly opposed directions. The choice between free trade and protectionism was the central issue of bourgeois politics of the period. It involved a struggle for political supremacy between the two sections of the middle class to determine whose interests won out in the future direction of national economic development. Its outcome – a decisive victory for free trade imperialism – reflected the greater political weight and ideological influence of the commercial bourgeoisie within the dominant ‘upper class’ bloc. This victory was less a matter of ‘winning the economic argument’ than of tapping into and reinforcing the anti-industrial prejudices permeating large sectors of both the upper and middle classes, and of relying on the liberal biases of the state.

For Anderson, the political conflicts of the period are the story of the failure of the more far-sighted sections of the manufacturing classes to rally the wider bourgeoisie to the imperialist-protectionist project. In his account, the poor benighted industrialists seem destined repeatedly to miss the political boat, just when political power seemed within their grasp. When they were poised to assert control over the Liberals in the 1870s, the Liberal ascendency collapsed. In 1905, a similar conjuncture with the Conservatives produced an equally unfortunate outcome. All of which might seem to invite some Lady Bracknell-like observations from the reader.

Whether a confrontation between rival projects for British capital which polarised key sections of the bourgeoisie onto opposite sides of the political argument would have resulted in a victory for commerce or industry, it is impossible to say. The crucial point is that no such polarisation ever took place. Despite Anderson’s portrayal of the conflict in such terms, the fact remains that the bulk of both sections of the middle class were united in supporting what they saw as their collective interest in the free trade programme.

The project for free trade imperialism won out over its imperialist-protectionist rival for at least three reasons. In the first place, given the centrality of British capital in the world economy, the strictly economic rationale for maintaining free trade was both intellectually coherent and politically attractive. With the significant exception of agriculture, all sectors of capital could reasonably expect to benefit from such a strategy, and a majority of all sections of the middle class supported it on that account.

In the second place, down to 1914 at least, these optimistic expectations proved reasonably correct.[18] Far from inducing a generalised economic failure, the strategy generated notable successes. Banking, insurance and shipping made major advances, demonstrating that the commercial strata retained their instinct for seeking out lucrative opportunities wherever they occurred. This was no closed circle of aristocrats and financiers drawing easy and unearned profits while manifesting a marked aversion for grubbier and grimier forms of money making. Anderson’s view of the City as a refuge for gentlemen with a taste for leisure or imperial rule is misleading. The Barings’ collapse notwithstanding, the evidence strongly suggests that the City was international in both recruitment and orientation and open to innovation and meritocratic advance.[19]

Nor was there any real failure in industry down to 1914. Some sectors – armaments, shipbuilding, heavy, machine tools – were highly successful in the face of international competition. Even the old staples – iron and steel, coal mining, textiles – continued to generate reasonable profits. The real problem is not that a free trade policy guaranteed their decline. Rather it is that, faced with increasing international competition, they failed to respond in ways which economic theory, whether Marxist or liberal, predicted they should, i.e. by concentrating production, reorganising the labour process, technological innovation etc. Instead, many remained obstinately low investment/low productivity industries.[20] The failure was not a product of free trade policies per se and we need to look elsewhere to explain it. While many factors entered into the equation – Hobsbawm, for example, sees easy imperial markets as an important contributory factor[21] – a major element in accounting for the failure concerns the capital/wage-labour relationship in British industry, as we shall presently see.

Of course, in the long run, as industry failed to respond to the challenge of international competition, the combination of a successful City and a relatively declining manufacturing sector raised major policy problems. Strategies designed to maintain the global economic strength of the former could all too easily accentuate the international weakness of the latter. The return to the Gold Standard in the inter-war years is a classic case in point. But this only reinforced the decline; it was not its structural source. Nor was it simply a matter of a political victory for some City-Treasury nexus over ‘the needs of industry’. It reflected the real contradictions in British capital’s location within the world economy.

The third factor behind the victory for free trade was that the alternative strategy posed serious risks both internationally and domestically. The loose and, to some extent, contradictory amalgam of ideologies and agendas which fed into the wider protectionist perspective – the ‘new imperialism’ of Milner, Chamberlain and Rhodes; the search for ‘national efficiency’; a full-scale employers’ offensive on the US model; a political onslaught on the ‘socialist enemy’ within[22] – threatened to destabilise the existing international economic and political order. Its adoption would also have involved abandoning core strategies – painstakingly constructed over the decades from the 1850s – for managing and containing the political and industrial challenge of organised labour. The risks were simply too great to be contemplated.

Underlying Anderson’s account of the crisis lurks a propensity, common on the Left, to see the City as inherently parasitic on ‘the real economy’. From this viewpoint, it is easy to read the story of British economic decline in the twentieth century as the result of putting money manipulation before the needs of the industrial base and to see the success of the former as in some way responsible for the weakness of the latter. Such a view of the British ‘economic disease’ has long been part of Labour’s stock-in-trade: It even receives some support from Marxist accounts of the circuit of capitalist production which stress that productive capital alone generates surplus value – banking and financial capital merely realise it in profit form, appropriating part of the profit in the process. The mistake here – understandable given Labourist assumptions but less forgivable in Marxists – lies in viewing the process solely in national terms. Yet the structure of the global economy by the end of the nineteenth century meant that the City was uniquely placed to insert itself into, and play a vital co-ordinating role within, an international circuit of production. The profits earned thereby for the City were neither de-coupled from, nor crudely parasitic upon, industry as such. Rather they became detached from any direct dependency on the performance of a specifically British industrial base. Correspondingly, the weakening of the manufacturing sector was only contingently related to City success. Its main structural source lay elsewhere, in the capital-wage labour relationship itself.

II: The Thesis Updated – Redefining the Working Class

The most pained response from the Left to ‘Origins’ was provoked by Anderson’s treatment of the working class. Labour historians, in particular, found it dismissive and offensive. The provocation arose not from any fundamental challenge by him to received wisdoms about the predominantly reformist character of the labour movement. Rather, it lay in the combination of excoriating tone and derogatory evaluation in which he marginalised the role of the proletariat in British historical development. The offence was still further compounded by the conceptualisation of class with which Anderson underpinned his analysis.

A powerful tradition among labour historians, best articulated by E.P. Thompson,[23] asserts that the working class is an active agent in shaping its own destiny, rather than a mere reflection of structural determinants outside it; ‘making themselves’ as much as ‘being made’ in Thompson’s terminology. And if, in the case of the English working class, there were few periods when revolutionary or even socialist aspirations came to the fore in the consciousness and practice of the mass of workers, the class had nonetheless a long and often heroic history of struggle deserving of both record and celebration.

By contrast, Anderson’s approach to the subject in ‘Origins’ was austere in its structuralist methodology and curtly dismissive of the substantive record. The English working class had been ideologically incorporated in capitalism as the last link in a chain of dependency stretching from the hegemonic aristocracy through a supine bourgeoisie to a subordinate proletariat. It was merely a corporate class, lacking any aspiration to hegemony. Its framework of assumptions was set by the capitalist order. It neither questioned them in its theory nor challenged them in its practices. For Anderson, a recognition of the structural limitations on the English proletariat undermined any celebratory approach to its history.

(a) A Paradoxical Proletariat?

At first sight, Anderson’s new account of the English working class in ‘Figures’ appears to concede ground to his critics on both methodological and substantive fronts. His view of it as combining organised industrial strength and political weakness suggests both a more agency-orientated approach and a recognition of the importance of its record of industrial struggle. Closer inspection, however, shows the concession to be largely formal. Despite the apparent balance of emphases in his ‘industrially strong/politically weak’ formulae, the former receives the most cursory of treatments. Even his concession that ‘at the point of production, capital lost unfettered control over the disposal of plant and workforce before it had reached the age of electricity and petroleum, across much of British manufacturing’[24] remains an aside rather than the basis for a significant re-evaluation of the earlier thesis. Anderson’s main attention remains almost exclusively focused on the stultifying inadequacies of the political tradition which has dominated the British labour movement, i.e. Labourism.

Anderson’s critique of Labourism as a defective vehicle for any kind of progress, socialist or otherwise, follows in broad outline theses familiar from the work of socialist critics of the Labour Party from Ralph Miliband to David Coates.[25] What distinguishes it is a tone so relentlessly dismissive that even those sympathetic to the line of argument may be driven to question its content. Were Labour’s policies and perspectives really so totally supine and passively reactive to events outside their control? Not just the Labour Party but the entire labour movement is viewed by Anderson in these terms. Through every transformation and vicissitude, its history developed within a set of structural limits that placed strict bounds on its identity.[26] So even the apparent emphasis on agency in ‘Figures’ turns out to be an artefact of attending to ‘finer conjunctural detail’;[27] this should not, the tone implies, lead us into the error of mistaking the wood for the trees.

What sets these structural limits for Anderson? Aristocratic hegemony has been dethroned, and neither liberal individualism nor an ‘anti-industrial spirit" seem plausible moulders of this most industrialised and class-conscious of proletariats. What remains? Perhaps mindful of the critiques which lie in wait for purveyors of dominant ideologies, Anderson decries explanations which focus ‘too narrowly’ on ‘the character of the hegemonic order alone’.[28] However, after allowance is made for other factors – armed repression in the earlier part of the century, high wages sustained by imperialist profits later – the structural anchorage turns out to be those old ideological favourites, parliamentarianism and constitutionalism! A combination of pressure from below and calculation from above resulted in the gradual absorption and socialisation of successive layers of the working class into the ideologies and practices of the bourgeois political order. These were further reinforced by the mystifications of constitutional monarchy. Segmental incorporation of the class initially took place under the aegis of the bourgeois parties themselves, but it was the institutions and ideologies of Labourism which locked the relationship into place. Thus, it is Labourism itself which constitutes and perpetuates the structural limitation – or rather self-limitation – upon the British working class.

Read as an account of the Labour Party, there is little new or original here – Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism mapped this terrain decades ago. Its novelty lies in the explanatory weight given to Labourism in setting structural limits to working-class consciousness and activity. The result is a new chain of dependency: bourgeois constitutionalism/electoralist Labourism/economistic unionism/ politically subordinate-industrially militant class. The problem is that the argument is not only idealist but also uninformative. How and why has Labourism been able to secure such a powerful hold over the English working class? The answer to that question requires us to break out of this closed circle of idealist categories and to adopt a more materialist and agency-orientated approach to the problem.

(b) Labourism and the British Working Class

A very different picture of the labour movement emerges if we approach its history, not as Anderson does, almost exclusively through the lens of ideology, but through the perspective of the impact of its practice on British capitalism. The result reveals his description of the class as ‘industrially strong but politically weak’ as a verbal paradox which only serves to direct attention away from the dialectics of the industrial and political which lie at the heart of working-class history.

Why has reformism been so influential in the labour movement’? E.P. Thompson’s answer in ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ – ‘it is strong because, within very serious limits, it has worked’[29] – discloses an important if partial truth but side-steps the comparative problem it raises. Why was reformism more deeply rooted in England than in any other national capitalism in the nineteenth century, the USA not excepted? Why were its ideological pre-suppositions – on the neutrality of the state; the openness of the parliamentary road; the overarching claims of the wider national interest etc. – so peculiarly plausible in the British context? Why was the political system open to reformist practices in ways which that of Imperial Germany was not? Why were trade unions and other institutions responsive to the corporate interests of organised labour able to flourish in Britain instead of facing repression and suppression as in the USA? Taken together, such questions suggest that we need to scrutinise the practices of the British proletariat in the context of the responses made to them by the ruling class.

The history of nineteenth-century Europe discloses three broad ruling class strategies for coping with the emerging proletarian presence.[30] The most straightforward option was a repressive-coercive response. The second was a competitive-hegemonic strategy which sought to pre-empt the emergence of independent proletarian politics by winning over strategic sectors of the working class for ruling-class alternatives. These often tried to exploit religious, ethnic, regional etc. divisions within the working class in order to mobilise them for nationalist or imperialist goals. The third, management-containment option, saw independent working-class organisation as unavoidable but sought to channel it towards ‘moderate’ goals while blocking developments towards socialism. This required a readiness to ‘pay ransom’ both in specific policy concessions and vis-à-vis the institutional and ideological frameworks of ‘containment’.

Like every other ruling class in Europe, the first response of the English one to working-class unrest was predominantly coercive and repressive. As a strategy, it coped more or less effectively with the disorders and insurgencies of the first half of the nineteenth century, though the Chartist challenge indicated its limitations as a long-term solution to the problem.[31] Even the facts of demography were against it. The working class expanded to become, uniquely in Europe, a majority of the population. The absence of a sizeable rural sector in England denied to its ruling class a mass popular base in the countryside, so important elsewhere in Europe, for a ‘mixed strategy’ combining coercion and hegemony. The ‘social problem’ posed by the weight of the working class in the class structure had to be coped with in other ways.

It is generally agreed that the mid-Victorian period saw a marked shift in proletarian practice away from the political radicalism of the Chartist years towards a more narrowly ‘economistic’ craft unionism. The scale and significance of the shift has been disputed – where Anderson saw a ‘profound caesura’ and ‘prolonged catatonic withdrawal’[32] in ‘Origins’, Thompson in his reply stressed that the post-1848 period involved an active ‘warrening’ of capitalism by the working class – but the broad pattern is a matter of fairly general accord.[33] It is less often observed that the same period saw a parallel shift in ruling class strategy, away from coercion and repression and towards a combination of other available approaches.

On the industrial front, and against the background of the expanding mid-Victorian economy, Britain’s rulers were willing to make concessions to the economic interests of the ‘labour aristocracy’. They began to construct a framework for ‘managing’ industrial relations – the Factory Acts etc. – which offered some partial accommodations to the real if limited strength of organised labour and which exhibited a degree of autonomy from the immediate interests of the employer. On the political front, the strategy was more hegemonic, and sought to absorb the skilled sector of the working class into a political system controlled exclusively by the bourgeois parties.

Though the political strategy had some successes– long-lasting ones in the case of working-class Toryism – it was ultimately bound to fail. As the events of 1866-67 showed all too clearly, attempts to detach the skilled strata from the rest of the working class and incorporate them under either Liberal or Conservative political hegemony worked to provoke rather than contain class radicalisation.[34]

For all its internal divisions, the working class presented an increasingly collective face to bourgeois politicians. It was therefore only a matter of time before further extensions of the franchise, and a testing to its limits of Liberalism’s ability to absorb workers’ demands within its own structure, led to the creation of an independent working-class presence within the bourgeois political arena.

The point here is neither to argue for the inevitability of these developments, nor to maintain that there were no other alternatives to ‘Labourism’ or to the Labour Party which might have emerged during the crisis decades from the 1870s to 1914.[35] Rather, it is to stress the extent to which the outcomes were facilitated by the readiness of the ruling class to adapt both its institutions and policies to the imperative requirement of containing and managing organised labour within constitutional, parliamentary and legal channels. In the process, it created precisely the environment within which reformism could appear to ‘make sense’, both as a perspective on capitalism and as a strategy within it. To some extent, this was a matter of conscious calculation – of ‘paying ransom’. To some extent, it was a matter of luck rather than judgment. For the most part, however, it involved complex processes of ‘negotiation’ which took as their point of departure the need of the ruling order to buy an internal ‘social peace’ from a working class which it could neither simple coerce nor politically marginalise.

Underpinning and reinforcing this bias towards the management-containment strategy from the mid-nineteenth century onwards were the particular characteristics of the capital/wage-labour relationship as it developed in British capitalism. After all, the demographic weight of the working class in the social order was itself a reflection of the long, slow but thorough pattern of industrial development in the pioneer capitalist nation. One central consequence of this was not simply a very large working class but also one with substantially greater weighting of skilled labour than anywhere else in Europe or the Americas.[36] The importance of skilled workers within the productive process, in a context where skill and the ability to organise and maintain autonomy in the labour process were mutually interpenetrating, had a major impact on the balance of class power in the productive process and hence on the pattern of industrial relations. A strategy of accommodation was often the only realistic option open to employers. It also had advantages for them if it brought them the co-operation of the workforce – the selling price/sliding scale wages system in the coal industry was a case in point. However, it also meant that technological innovation could threaten to disrupt the entire system of industrial relationships, while often offering few immediate economic benefits. The outcome was to institutionalise a cycle of low investment and low productivity in key sectors of British industry– particularly coal, textiles, and iron and steel– which were simultaneously at the core of the export trade and of labour’s industrial strength.[37]

The institutionalisation of such accommodationist relationships did not of itself prevent British capital from embracing mass production techniques or introducing payment-by-results systems in industry in response to the competitive pressures from the international economy from the 1870s onwards. What it did mean, however, was that any concerted and sustained move in this direction by industrial capital would necessitate a general ‘employers’ offensive’ directed against the most powerful industrial labour movement in Europe and aimed at a radical redrawing of the existing pattern of industrial politics in Britain. This, in turn, would have required dramatic changes both to the legal framework and the strategical framework of bourgeois politics. Taken together, these could have posed a devastating threat to the carefully constructed edifice of management and negotiation that lay at the core of the politics of capital and wage-labour in Britain. This did not prevent some moves in this direction, particularly in the early and middle 1890s. But the results for capital were, at best, mixed. There were victories in particular disputes – most spectacularly against the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1896-7 – but they neither destroyed the craft unions nor prevented the continuing spread of organisation and collective bargaining among the unskilled.[38] Moreover, the perceived threats posed by the strategy – best symbolised by the Taff Vale and Osborne judgements– were sufficient to propel the unions into support for an independent Labour Party.

Too aggressive an anti-union strategy by employers posed major threats to the containment option favoured by the ruling order. Though attempts were made to put more aggressive strategies on the agenda of bourgeois politics in the decades before 1914, as we noted earlier they were rejected not least because they posed massive risks for the existing pattern of ‘class compromises’ Similar programmes emerged in later decades – the Conservatives were deeply divided over such issues in the 1920s for example – but, in the main, the politics of class negotiation held the centre stage of British political and industrial life for most of the twentieth century, imparting to them a powerful corporate bias in the process. It was not until the crises of the 1970s that the alternative strategy was put firmly back on the political agenda of British politics.

The decisive fact of British labour history – one recognised by Anderson, but whose significance he fails to grasp – has been the ability of organised labour to impose powerful limitations upon the work process and the pace of accumulation of capital to a degree unequalled by any other national working class.[39] Not a revolutionary achievement, to be sure, but one which has imposed structural limits on industrial capital and compelled the ruling class to ‘negotiate’ with organised labour on most major political and industrial issues. The system was never structurally guaranteed. It required continuing renegotiations whose outcome was never pre-determined. Nor was it insulated from challenges from the Left. What it did ensure was that, faced with such challenges, Labourism’s package of electoralism and economism could usually rely on appearing the more ‘sensible’ and ‘realistic’ option precisely because it was underwritten by a state and civil society whose practices had developed over time specifically to accommodate such reformism.

III. Framing the Analysis: Politics, Theory and Methodology

So far, our discussion has focused largely on the adequacy or otherwise of Anderson’s specific interpretations of the structure and trajectory of English historical development. We have argued that there is a considerable if unacknowledged shift in the account he offers from ‘Origins’ to ‘Figures’. We have also maintained that they share a similar and erroneous predilection to account for the historical dynamics of British society in terms of the limited, partial and incomplete character of its capitalist and bourgeois development. In the 1960s version, Anderson’s explanatory focus was on processes retarding the emergence of a fully capitalist and bourgeois social order in Britain, most notably the continuing impact of aristocratic hegemony. In his 1980s version, it is the arrested development of that bourgeois order at an early, liberal-commercial phase, which carries the main explanatory weight. Against both approaches, we have argued that the British social formation sees the emergence both of a fully industrial capitalist economy and a completely bourgeois social order. Its current political and economic problems are thus best grasped in terms of processes which recognise this. More specifically, we have argued that they are largely the result of the combined product of the conflict of capital and wage-labour within the British social formation and its historically determined location and trajectory within a dynamic but unstable global economic order.

However, the interest and argument aroused by Anderson’s accounts both in the 1960s and today are only partially explicable in terms of the novelty and power of his specific historical assertions. They are also stimulated by the wider political, theoretical and conceptual concerns which those analyses were designed to exhibit and vindicate. In this final section of the discussion, therefore, we will turn to a direct consideration of these matters.

(a) The Contemporary Crisis and Socialist Strategy

‘Origins’ was not simply concerned to identify the’ contemporary crisis of the British social order and to trace its historical roots. It also addressed the central issues of socialist strategy in the face of the crisis. What kind of responses were most likely to advance the labour movement in a socialist direction? However problematic its strategic proposals – the transformation of the movement through an injection of Marxist theory from the New Left intelligentsia; taking advantage of the possibilities opened up by Wilson’s victory in 1964[40] etc. – a political purpose was clear and directive in the analysis.

‘Figures’, by contrast, is altogether more ambivalent in its political orientation. There is now no explicit declaration of socialist strategic purpose. Indeed, its account of the past two decades of continuing crisis could easily be mistaken for a politically detached ‘commentary on national decline’. However, its focus on alternative strategies for economic modernisation discloses a preoccupation with ‘national reformism’ of a kind little different from that which has dominated Labour Party thinking since the 1960s. Anderson’s analysis, for all its excoriations of Labourism, works within a problem-framework not greatly distanced from Labourist perspectives. Moreover, the tone of his discussion suggests an attraction for the lessons of Swedish and other experience which is decidedly social-democratic in inclination. Both the analysis and its underlying political assumptions need closer scrutiny.

The core of Anderson’s conclusions on the contemporary crisis is that strategies for economic modernisation require ‘regulative centralism’, i.e. a centralised agency which can override market forces and intervene in order to coordinate economic activity in ways which promote growth, efficiency and technological advance. Post-war experience in the West suggests three possible candidates for such a role. One agency is an interventionist state, supported by an efficient and technocratic bureaucracy, planning the economy in close consultation with private industry. This is given the credit for the success of the French economy. A second agency, – a private, industrially oriented, banking system performing much the same role – accounts for the success of the West German economy. The third model derives from a mix of Austrian and Swedish experiences, which Anderson reads as involving the active cooperation of ‘a highly unified and disciplined labour movement capable not only of winning repeated electoral victories but also of centralising wage-bargaining on a national scale; willing not only to respect the rules of capital accumulation but actively to support and promote them, in exchange for the benefits of economic growth and social security’.[41]

The articulation of these models in the concluding section of ‘Figures’ discloses Anderson’s view of the structural weakness of British capitalism. Neither its state bureaucracy, banking system nor labour unions are capable of playing a ‘regulative centralising’ role comparable to those of their French, German or Swedish counterparts. It also reveals the pre-suppositions behind his analysis of the historical trajectory of British capitalism and highlights the extent to which the plausibility of the latter depends upon the adequacy of the former. For, if the account of the contemporary crisis in Britain is accurate, then it gives teleological plausibility to the search for its historic roots. But, if the crisis is not the outcome of structural weaknesses in potential modernising agencies, then the entire historical project turns into something akin to the hunting of some counter-factual snarks. In part, the argument rests upon an underlying economic model of capitalist development which will be examined later. It also depends on the accuracy of Anderson’s reading of the contemporary record in Britain and on the strategic political choices he derives from it. These now require some comment.

Any review of the record of post-war economic policy in Britain, at least until 1979, reveals a fair number of attempts by governments of all political colours to foster state-led strategies of ‘regulative centralism’ directed at the modernisation of Britain’s industrial base. In the main, these have resulted in failure. That fact alone might cast some doubt on the relevance of Anderson’s tacit prescriptions for the British situation. Of course, this depends on how one accounts for those failures. Though Anderson barely acknowledges it, the range of available explanations is very wide,[42] and while many make reference to the trio of blockages privileged in his account – City lack of interest, Treasury incompetence, union obstructionism – there is nothing approaching a consensus on the relative weighting of these and other factors in the causal mix. Some views, such as the assertion by the New Right that attempts at state-directed modernisation are misconceived in principle, we may wish to discount; Anderson’s appeal to French etc. experience here is apposite. In general, however, his construction of general models of economic modernisation on the basis of national case-studies is questionable. Not only are his accounts of the key factors at work in each case highly selective, but the very specific historical conditions under which the strategies developed are largely ignored. Thus, in the three crucial cases of post-war economic success – France, Germany and Japan – Anderson avoids any mention of weak, fragmented or subordinate trade unions as a major precondition for accelerating capital accumulation there. Similarly the vital international context of the Long Boom is hardly acknowledged. The awkward implications of these facts for Anderson’s analysis and political perspectives are simply evaded.

There is a more fundamental reason for questioning the relevance of the three models to the British situation. British capitalism has always been more centrally involved in, and open to, the international economy than were Anderson’s examples, at least during their modernisation phases. Even during the decades of the Long Boom, their national reform strategies would have been inappropriate for British capital given its international market situation. Anderson treats such global economic ‘exposure’ – revealing word! – as an outcome solely of City internationalism and Treasury liberalism. Yet this is simply to ignore the equally striking level of involvement of British industry and manufacturing in world markets. Throughout her history as an industrialised capitalist economy, exports and imports as a percentage of total domestic production have been substantially greater in the British case than those of any of her major competitors. Here, as elsewhere, Anderson’s arguments rest more on forceful but selective assertions than on careful attention to rival arguments and evidence.

The basic ambiguities in Anderson’s underlying political assumptions are most evident in his assessment of the contribution made by organised labour to British economic failure. Two very different perspectives are at work here. On the one hand, his account of industrial militancy has a positively celebratory ring to it. The defeat of the Heath government in 1974 in the wake of the miners’ strike is seen as ‘the most spectacular victory of labour over capital since the beginnings of working-class organisation in Britain’.[43] On the other hand, organised labour’s ‘obdurate resistance to rationalisation of the factors of production’[44] is portrayed as a major obstacle to Britain pursuing the kind of social-democratic route to economic modernisation which Anderson finds so attractively exemplified by Sweden and Austria.

The ambivalences of political perspective are evident. Given a commitment to economic modernisation, a stress on union obduracy legitimates any state strategy which undermines the power of organised labour to resist rationalisation. Whether this takes the form of corporate co-option (shades of Wilson’s National Plan and Callaghan’s Social Contract!) or coercive subordination (from ‘In Place of Strife’ to Thatcherite anti-union legislation) the overall goal is clear. It is to bring an uncooperative labour movement to heel. Anderson’s national case studies, on examination, convey the same message. The celebratory approach, by contrast, presupposes a radically different perspective on class politics. It sees ‘modernisation’ as another name for raising the level of exploitation, de-skilling etc., and sees in the ability of workers to resist it the vital core of proletarian power in the making. Approached this way, it raises fundamental questions as to whether Marxists should be in the business of seeking to co-opt or coerce the working class into projects for national capitalist renovation.

Anderson seems uneasily aware of the problem, though his attempt to handle it involves costs for the plausibility of both his historical and contemporary analysis. His route out of the dilemma is to argue that organised labour’s contribution to the decline of Britain’s industrial base is at most secondary and derivative, rather than fundamental to the process. It is merely ‘one of the dependent variables in the complex causation of this process’.[45] It follows that it is only contingently and partially a ‘developmental bloc’ on economic modernisation today. Labour, by implication, would slough off its obduracy provided that there are changes in the other, more basic, variables. All that is needed are the right incentives.

We commented earlier on Anderson’s underplaying of the power of organised labour in his account of British historical development, and argued that it was one of its core weaknesses. It would be ironic if the confusions and contradictions in his current political perspectives on the working class have led him systematically to neglect the one dimension – the capital/wage-labour relation and all its ramifications – which really does vindicate his thesis that the roots of the current crisis are buried deep in the historic development of the British social order. It would also raise profound doubts over his account of its trajectory and over the theoretical and methodological frameworks he deploys in constructing it.

(b) Idealism and Materialism

Re-reading ‘Origins’ after a passage of years, one is struck once again by the virtuosity and ambition of the enterprise. Its goal was nothing less than a ‘totalising history of modern British society’[46] albeit in sketch form. The range, complexity and variety of both the data and discourses which Anderson sought to subdue was enormous. As even its fiercest critic acknowledged, it was ‘a provocation ... a tour de force’.[47] Yet one is also struck by the fact that its account of British historical development is a somewhat curious one to flow from a Marxist pen, especially one which is striving for totality.

A close reading reveals not one but two stories. The first, a history of the classes as it were, examined the political and ideological fortunes of aristocrats, merchants, industrialists and proletarians. The second traced capitalist economic development in Britain. The problem is that while the former was dealt with at very considerable length, the latter received very short shrift indeed. One has to search very carefully through a lengthy article to locate the few sentences that relate to it. Indeed, in marked contrast to the complexity and subtlety of Anderson’s approaches to the ‘history of the classes’, the economic story was merely that – a story, a scattering of episodic descriptions devoid of any real analytical content. To take a key example, the crisis of the late nineteenth century, so crucial to the account in ‘Figures’, was barely acknowledged in ‘Origins’. Explanations of Britain’s downward economic trajectory from the nineteenth century onwards were confined there to a catch-all phrase ‘military-industrial imperialism’[48] whose content was left more descriptive than analytical.

When one examines ‘Origins’ with an eye to the nature of the relationship Anderson sought to establish between the two – superstructural and infrastructural – stories, the difficulties are multiplied. The two are not simply autonomous but disjointed to an almost schizophrenic extent. In his account of the seventeenth century, for example, Anderson asserted both that it saw ‘a supremely capitalist revolution’, and that it ‘left almost the entire social structure intact’.[49] Taxed by E.P. Thompson over such ambiguities, Anderson insisted on the need to maintain ‘a clear conceptual distinction’ between ‘an economic order’ and ‘social classes’.[50] Unfortunately, this left unclear how if at all he saw the connections between them, whether conceptually or otherwise.

The truth, of course, was that the discussion in ‘Origins’ was largely innocent of any sense of the mode of production as the dynamic of history. Anderson’s analysis exhibited an unrelenting and self-acknowledged idealism.[51] It was one in which classes were ultimately characterised in terms of their consciousness and class relationships were dictated by cultural hegemonies. When charged by Thompson with ‘reductionism’, Anderson vehemently and correctly denied that there was any taint of economic reductionism about his treatment of class – the texts proved the opposite.[52]

In all this, ‘Origins’ was a child of its intellectual times, very much the product of the profoundly culturalist New Left of the early 1960s. It was a time when a concern for ‘the economic’ was often read as evidence of ‘reductionist’ – even ‘Stalinist’ theoretical proclivities, and when the search for conceptual rigour on the Left seemed to lead automatically to sociological modes of discourse. Even those in the New Left who, like Anderson, asserted the continuing relevance of Marxist theory, looked to the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts rather than Capital and found their inspiration in the works of Gramsci and Lukacs rather than Lenin and Trotsky. The re-centring of Marxist attentions on the dialectics of infrastructure and superstructure lay in the decade that followed the Anderson Thompson debate and, for that very reason, largely superseded its concerns.

Indeed, Anderson’s critical appraisal in 1980 of Thompson’s oeuvre[53] demonstrated a slightly malicious sense of irony in charging The Making of the English Working Class with a neglect of the objective determinants of class. By the same token, however, his rather surprising claim in 1987 that ‘Origins’ has been retrospectively vindicated by history quite naturally directs our attention towards a comparison of his past and present treatments of the infrastructure/superstructure relationship in English history.

Here, we encounter a major problem. While ‘Origins’ was self-consciously ‘theoreticist’ in its approaches to the tasks of historical analysis, ‘Figures’ is noticeably more reticent about such matters. The narrative is still guided by a subtle and theoretically informed intelligence, but the character of its theoretical affiliations has now to be deduced from the narrative itself. With few exceptions,[54] Anderson offers us no guidance as to the distances he may have travelled since the 1960s in his approach to the tasks of attempting a ‘totalising history’, or indeed whether such a project is still on his agenda.

Bearing these qualifications in mind, it does appear at first sight that Anderson has moved a long way from his earlier idealism towards a materialist, even ‘economistic’, frame of reference. ‘The Crisis’ is now decisively and unambiguously tied to the infrastructure – the declining international competitiveness of British industry – and its exploration receives a significant quantitative increase in space and attention. Similarly, the grosser disjunctions in his earlier account between the cultural and economic levels of analysis – crucially vis-à-vis the aristocracy, state and bourgeois ideology – have been largely resolved by a shift in emphasis towards the latter, as we saw in Section II of this discussion.

At the qualitative level, however, the judgement is far less certain. The characteristic ‘figure’ in Anderson’s explanations positions ‘the economic’ as a contextual setting for matters of more pressing political and ideological interest. It remains for the most part simply a passive backdrop for the main action rather than entering directly or continuously into its determination. Nor is this simply a question of the focus of Anderson’s particular interests. Rather, it involves a systematic bias towards certain kinds of explanatory factors and a corresponding neglect of others. There is, in effect, a narrative privileging of political power over the dull compulsions of market forces, and of the clash of ideologies over the logic and dynamics of processes of capital accumulation. Above all, in an account of what is, after all, the longest established industrial capitalist order in existence and after two decades of renewed Marxist interest and debate, Anderson still manages to marginalise the dialectics of the capital/wage-labour relationship in his account of the British social formation. In this respect at least, little has changed from ‘Origins’ to ‘Figures’!

At bottom, Anderson remains addicted to modes of idealist discourse with their characteristic privileging of theory and consciousness over practice and organisation. This shows up very clearly in his handling of the working class and their politics. Thus, his indictment of the British labour movement in the late nineteenth century – ‘the political projection of labour was exceptionally weak’;[55] its ‘political subordination ... stood out in any comparative perspective’,[56] – depends on invidious comparisons between the British and continental, notably German, labour movements. However, the comparisons are almost exclusively formulated in terms of their degrees of formal commitment to socialist ideology.[57] Now no one would wish to argue that such comparisons are unimportant or that the openness of the SPD to Marxist theory did not have important implications for the possibilities for socialist advance in Imperial Germany. But a comparison which operates exclusively at the level of ideology stands in danger of ignoring the extent to which its real content is fixed in and through its practice. A comparison of the respective political practices of the two labour movements, and of their relative impact on their national contexts, might well suggest a somewhat modified judgement of strengths and weaknesses. Both the Labour Party and the SPD were, in their practice, de facto reformist parties; the caveat is that the British parliamentary system facilitated reformist politics whereas the Imperial Reichstag did not. A contrast in the militancy and effectiveness of their respective industrial organisations would likewise not obviously tell in favour of the German rather than the British working class.

The issue at stake here is not simply a matter of how one reads the balance of historical evidence in the specific case in question. Rather, it raises fundamental questions about the dialectics of class and class conflict in Marxist analysis. There is in Anderson’s work a clear and long-established tendency to privilege theory over practice, consciousness over activity, in his accounts of historic causation. In ‘Origins’ it is evident in his stress on a lack of Marxist theory as the core weakness of the British labour movement. It is equally visible in his critique of E.P. Thompson’s account of ‘agency’ in Arguments within English Marxism. Anderson constructs there a typology of levels of agency – private, public and collective – in terms of degrees of self-conscious awareness of, and readiness to challenge, structural constraints.[58] He then chides Thompson for gliding about conceptually between such distinct levels of agency in his account of proletarian practice. Yet, surely, it is Anderson who has failed to grasp what Thompson’s analysis of the English working class clearly demonstrated; the issue isn’t a matter of conceptual distinctions but of real movements arising through class practice. In other words, class consciousness emerges in and through practice rather than constituting the necessary prerequisite for it; the dialectics of theory and practice, of consciousness and activity, can and do involve sharp shifts between levels of consciousness. (One wonders, for example, how Anderson would classify the ‘five days’ of February 1917[59] in terms of his typology, let alone explain its dialectics.)

c) National, Comparative and Global Frameworks

Beneath the detailed discussion in ‘Origins’ lurked a problem – part methodological, part theoretical – of frameworks for the analysis of national historical development. For Anderson’s intent was to tell the story in ways which broke decisively with traditions of ‘nerveless historiography’ which he saw as hitherto dominant in Britain.[60] His project was explicitly theoretical; its goal was an outline for a ‘totalising’ history of English capitalism which would, by implication, deal both with its general pattern of capitalist development and the specificities of its national trajectory.

The gulf between the theoretical aspirations of the enterprise and the methodological limitations of its execution made ‘Origins’ an easy target for its critics. The project appeared to promise a model of ‘normal’ national capitalist development validated by cross national comparative data. In fact, the analysis gauged ‘the peculiarities of the English’ against a notion of ‘the bourgeois revolution’ whose assumptions were hidden from critical scrutiny. In the absence of theoretical or comparative underpinnings, it remained merely ‘an undisclosed model of Other Countries’ in Thompson’s cutting phrase.[61]

While one would not expect a self-proclaimed sketch to offer a fully articulated comparative analysis, what was surprising about ‘Origins’ was the paucity of its comparative references. This was no merely abstract methodological defect, for even a cursory consideration of the trajectory of other capitalist states raised serious problems for Anderson’s account. To take but one glaring instance, the pattern of aristocratic hegemony and bourgeois subordination which Anderson saw in Victorian England seemed at least as well suited to Imperial Germany. Even the tone of contempt in which he dissected the supine British bourgeoisie appeared to echo Max Weber’s excoriation of their German counterparts in his famous Freiburg Address in 1895. Yet Germany had also precipitated out precisely the kind of mass working-class Marxist party – the SPD – whose absence from the British scene was accounted for by Anderson largely in terms of the supineness of its middle classes!

The absence of systematic comparative analysis was a reflection of a fundamental assumption shared by all sides in the debate in the 1960s. Anderson and Thompson both saw ‘the national’ as the natural – hence unexamined – level at which to debate the issues. Both the former’s thesis and the latter’s rebuttal took it for granted that national history formed a coherent unity which was best approached as a set of endogenous relationships only partially modified by exogenous international factors. Despite their theoretical and methodological disagreements, their historical practice shared a common tendency to privilege the national and to marginalise the wider global framework in their respective analyses.

Even in the specific context of British history, this lack of sensitivity to the international framework strikes some strange and discordant notes. Even without the benefit of Eric Hobsbawm’s work on the subject,[62] it might appear difficult to approach the trajectory of English capitalist development over four centuries without some recognition of its intimate connections with the creation and development of a global trading and production system over the same period. After all, the very condition of England’ debate which ‘Origins’ addressed took as its point of departure a recognition of Britain’s declining position. (In Anderson’s own phrase, it was the prolonged international decline of the economy’ which was ‘the major cause of the present crisis’.[63] Yet, in practice, his treatment of the international order in ‘Origins’ was vestigial. ‘Imperialism’ clearly carried an enormous causal weight in the analysis, yet this was unmatched by any real articulation of the concept at either the empirical or conceptual level.[64]

To some extent, such criticisms only serve to confirm once more that the ‘Origins’ debate was a product of its times. The proliferation of comparative analyses of societal development – Barrington Moore, Skocpol, Anderson himself in two superb volumes in 1974, etc.[65] – came in the decades following the debate. A similar story holds for the growth in concern with the origin and logic of the global order, and the dynamics of combined and uneven development.[66] The joint impact of such intellectual advances has been to re-focus and re-sensitise Marxist analysis in particular to the dialectics of the ‘national’ and the ‘global’ in both theoretical and historical discourse. The project for a ‘totalising history’ is now more likely to focus on patterns of differential capitalist development, where nation-states form only one kind of ‘part’ within the wider ‘whole’ that is international capitalism. It would be anachronistic to criticise ‘Origins’ for its failure to anticipate such advances. However, it does signal the need to monitor Anderson’s current contribution in terms of its sensitivity to these developments.

Interestingly enough, ‘Figures’ both recognises the need to deploy systematic cross-national comparisons and acknowledges the major problems such comparisons generate for the account given in ‘Origins’. Indeed, there is a major volte face on the latter’s central thesis on aristocratic hegemony as specific to, and. clear evidence of, retarded capitalist development in England. Following Arno Mayer’s account,[67] Anderson now sees that hegemony as a near universal feature of European states until at least 1914. Indeed, when measured against German Junkers, Japanese samurai or Virginian planters, the English aristocracy now stand out as by far the most advanced agrarian capitalist class in the historical development of that system.

It would be unkind to dwell too long on the coach and horses which this thesis drives through Anderson’s claim to continuity of argument between ‘Origins’ and ‘Figures’. He is clearly aware of the difficulty, though his attempt to resolve it – by arguing that the initial intuitions embodied in the former remain correct but need reformulating at ‘a lower level of individuation’[68] in the latter – is more ingenious than convincing. What it does point up is the much greater wealth of cross-national comparative reference in ‘Figures’, as one would expect from the author of Passages and Lineages. This said, the actual points of contrast between different national patterns of development have a rather ad hoc quality and seem intended more as persuasive examples than as an attempt to subject the analysis to a serious comparative test. Once again, one is struck by the inattention to conceptual and methodological questions in his current discussion.

Anderson’s handling of the global context of British historical development parallels his comparative analysis. There is a clear shift along the quantitative axis between ‘Origins’ and ‘Figures’ but its qualitative dimensions remain problematic. In particular, his handling of the relationship between politics and the world economy still exhibits the tendency of the earlier text to elide the latter into the former via ill-defined conceptions of ‘Imperialism’. (This holds both for his account of the nineteenth century, when the imperialism is British, and for the post-war period, when it becomes American.)

As we saw earlier, ‘Origins’ was underpinned by a tacit model of bourgeois revolution against which to gauge national capitalist development. In ‘Figures’, the key framework for handling the dialectics of national capitalist development in the global capitalist economy is now provided by Anderson’s model of ‘economic modernisation’. As one would expect from our previous discussion, he deploys it in such a way as to decisively privilege the level of the national and the political in both his historical analysis and political strategy. The international economy acts merely as a backdrop against which largely autonomous political choices are made by dominant fractions of the ruling class within national power structures.

Issues of the degree of exposure to the constraints of the global economy become matters of choice. Britain’s position within the world economy from the late nineteenth century is seen as a product of the commercial preferences of the City and the liberal ideology to which the state and bureaucracy are wedded. Similarly, her current inability to pursue a viable strategy of economic modernisation rests largely on the absence of internal agencies willing to suspend the pressures of international economic competition in the name of ‘regulative centralism’. In both cases, the key issue is autonomous political decision-making within the national context.

All of which poses problems for analysis and strategy which Anderson fails to confront. His treatment of the international economy addresses itself solely to the liberal conception of it as a set of mutually beneficial market exchange relationships. Having set up the straw man of the doctrine of comparative advantage, he is able to achieve an easy victory over it. ‘The combined and uneven development of capital that is a product of the world market ... is not amenable to correction by it .... The rectification of disadvantages requires another kind of social logic.’[69] All of which may well be true but simply doesn’t address Marxist approaches which stress the dynamics of capital accumulation on a global scale; the growing interdependence of national economies at the level of trade, finance and production; the changing international division of labour underpinning it, etc.[70] Such problems are effectively absent from Anderson’s analysis until the final paragraph.

This absence is most evident when we reflect upon a distinction which Anderson fails to draw. Nowhere does he consider the differences between strategies for modernisation which seek to reorganise production in order to better align it to the imperatives of international capitalism and those which are guided by the aspirations to transcend that order. At the very least, we might have expected some sensitivity to differences between programmes for capitalist renovation and socialist transformation and an awareness that the dialectics of national choice within the international order might differ, depending on which programme is on the agenda.

Only at the very end, in a final apocalyptic paragraph, does Anderson face these questions. Even then, they are matters for future speculation rather than the analysis of past history or present strategy. ‘...the radical internationalisation of the forces of production promises to render all national correctors, whatever their efficacy to date, increasingly tenuous in the future.’ Yet, even here, national illusions remain. ‘No bourgeois society ... will be immune to the unpredictable tides and tempests of uneven development. ...’.[71] Having kept our attention focused for so long on the drama of national capitalist development, Anderson reaches his climax in a veritable Gotterdammerung of the nation-state within the global capitalist order. Yet, even here, a national phoenix lurks offstage; bourgeois reformism in one country may be going on to the funeral pyre but socialism in one country still exists as an option! To the last, Anderson remains as always stubbornly attached to the primacy of the national. A different way of reading the dynamics of the global order today – one which took its point of departure rather than found its conclusion in the end of national reformism[72] – would suggest both a very different kind of socialist politics and a very different way of writing history.


[1] In addition to ‘Origins’, see Perry Anderson, ‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’, New Left Review 35 (1966)…; Edward Thompson ‘The Peculiarities of the English’, Socialist Register (1965) Tom Nairn’s work – particularly ‘The Anatomy of the Labour Party’, New Left Review 27… & 28… (1964) – was also a prominent target for Thompson’s critique in ‘Peculiarities’, but is tangential to our concerns here.

[2] See Edward Thompson, The Poverty of Theory (1978) and Perry Anderson Arguments within English Marxism (1980). The debates received only limited evaluation in print. See Richard Johnson, ‘Barrington Moore, Perry Anderson and English Social Development’, Cultural Studies

[3] ‘Origins’, p. 50

[4] ‘Origins’, p. 28.

[5] L. & J.C. F. Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 (Oxford. 1984). Whether results obtained from studies in three counties can be generalised in this way is another matter.

[6] ‘Figures’, p. 57.

[7] ‘Figures’, p. 31

[8] ‘Figures’, p. 35.

[9] ‘Figures’, p. 36

[10] ‘Figures’, p. 36

[11] ‘Figures’, pp. 47-48.

[12] Tom Nairn, ‘The Twilight of the British State’, New Left Review 101 (1976)….

[13] See A.J. Taylor, Laissez-Faire and State Intervention in Nineteenth-Century Britain (1972).

[14] See M. Langan & B. Schwarz (eds.), Crises in the British State 1880-1930 (1985).

[15] ‘Figures, pp. 57-58.

[16] G. Ingham, Capitalism Divided? (1984); W.D. Rubinstein, Men of Property (1981).

[17]See A. Gamble, Britain in Decline (1981); M.W. Kirby, The Decline of British Economic Power since 1870 (1981).

[18] See M.W. Kirby, op. cit., ch. 1.

[19] See S.D. Chapman, ‘Aristocracy and Meritocracy in Merchant Banking’, British Journal of Sociology Vol. 376, No.2 (1986).

[20] M.W. Kirby, op. cit., p. 9.

[21] See E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (Harmondsworth, 1969), chs.7 & 9.

[22] K.D. Brown (ed.), Essays in Anti-Labour History (1974).

[23] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963).

[24] ‘Figures’, p. 57.

[25] R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1961); R.D. Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism (Cambridge, 1975), and Labour in Power? (1980).

[26] ‘Figures’, p. 58 – Anderson’s emphasis.

[27] ‘Figures’, p. 58.

[28] ‘Figures’, p. 57.

[29] ‘Peculiarities’, p. 346.

[30] For a brief discussion of this see R. Looker & D. Coates. ‘The State and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Europe’, in J. Anderson (ed.), The Rise of the Modern State (Brighton, 1986).

[31] See J. Saville, 1848 (Cambridge, 1987).

[32] ‘Origins’, pp. 33 and 36.

[33] For one of the few contrary views see A. E. Musson, British Trade Unions 1800-1875 (1972).

[34] See J. Hinton, Labour and Socialism (Brighton, 1983), pp. 10-13 for a brief but excellent summary.

[35] For the possible options, see D. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party 1888-1906 (Manchester, 1983).

[36] S.B. Saul, Industrialisation and De-Industrialisation? (1980), p. 23.

[37] M.W. Kirby, op. cit., ch.1.

[38] J. Hinton, op. cit., ch.4.

[39] See A. Kirkpatrick & T. Lawson. ‘On the Nature of Industrial Decline in the UK’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 4 (1980).

[40] P. Anderson, ‘Critique of Wilsonism’, New Left Review 27 (1964)…, pp. 20-21.

[41]‘Figures’, p. 74.

[42] For alternative accounts see D. Coates & J. Hillard (eds.), The Economic Decline of Modern Britain (Brighton, 1986).

[43] ‘Figures’, p. 64.

[44] ‘Figures’, p. 75.

[45] ‘Figures’, p. 62.

[46] ‘Origins’, p. 27.

[47] E.P. Thompson in ‘Peculiarities’, p. 314.

[48] ‘Origins’, p. 34.

[49] ‘Origins’, pp. 29-30.

[50] ‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’, p. 9.

[51] Ibid., p. 30.

[52] Ibid., p. 29.

[53] Arguments within English Marxism, particularly ch.2.

[54] See, for example, ‘Figures’, p. 56: ‘The Gramscian polarity was given too cultural a turn .... The crisis was also deduced too narrowly from the character of the hegemonic order alone.’

[55] ‘Figures’, p. 50.

[56] ‘Figures’, p. 52.

[57] Where they are not, the evidence offered is fairly dubious. Thus, his comparison between the post-1867 restricted franchise for the British parliament with the universal manhood franchise for the Imperial German Reichstag ignores the fact that the former was a responsible assembly whereas the latter was not. Where the vote really counted for something- crucially for the Prussian Landtag- a three-tier class franchise was designed to restrict plebeian representation to a minimum.

[58] Op. cit., pp. 19-20.

[59] The classic account is contained in L. Trotsky, A History of the Russian Revolution (1967), Vol. 1. ch. VlI.

[60] ‘Origins’, p. 27.

[61] ‘Peculiarities’, p. 312. Thompson’s own position here implied a radical scepticism towards the value of any theoretical model and was inclined to counterpose Theory to History to the detriment of the former.

[62] Hobsbawm’s classic study of Industry and Empire didn’t appear until 1968.

[63] ‘Origins’, p. 50.

[64] The sum of Anderson’s analysis here consists of a brief descriptive typology of ‘imperialisms’ in a footnote on p. 34 of ‘Origins’.

[65] Barrington Moore Jnr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Harmondsworth. 1967); Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge, 1979); Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974).

[66] See, for example, I. Wallerstein, The Modern World System (New York, 1974). For a useful survey which brings out the historic rootedness of Marxist analyses in global perspectives, see A. Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism (1980).

[67] Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime (New York, 1981).

[68] ‘Figures’, p. 27.

[69] ‘Figures’, pp. 72-73. Anderson also tries to press Gerschenkron into service to sustain his models of economic modernisation. Yet the latter dealt entirely with blockages in states which had undergone only limited industrial capitalist development. Hardly a relevant source from which to obtain models of economic modernisation for mature capitalist states such as Britain! See A. Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, Mass. 1962).

[70] See N. Harris, Of Bread and Guns ( Harmondsworth, 1983).

[71] ‘Figures’, p. 77. My emphasis.

[72] See N. Harris, The End of the Third World (1986), ch.8.