The Rise and Fall of Class in Britainby David Cannadine
Although it is widely believed that the British are obsessed with class to a degree unrivaled by any other nation, politicians in Britain are now calling for a "classless society," and scholars are concluding that class does not matter any more. But has class -once considered the master narrative of British history -fallen, failed, and been dismissed? In this wholly original and brilliantly argued book, David Cannadine shows that Britons have indeed been preoccupied with class, but in ways that are invariably ignorant and confused. Cannadine sets out to expose this ignorance and banish this confusion by imaginatively examining class itself, not so much as the history of society but as the history of the different ways in which Britons have thought about their society.Cannadine proposes that "class" may best be understood as a shorthand term for three distinct but abiding ways in which the British have visualized their social worlds and identities: class as "us" versus "them;" class as "upper," "middle," and "lower"; and class as a seamless hierarchy of individual social relations. From the eighteenth through the twentieth century, he traces the ebb and flow of these three ways of viewing British society, unveiling the different purposes each model has served. Encompassing social, intellectual, and political history, Cannadine uncovers the meanings of class from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Margaret Thatcher, showing the key moments in which thinking about class shifted, such as the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise the Labor Party in the early twentieth century. He cogently argues that Marxist attempts to view history in terms of class struggle are often as oversimplified as conservative approaches that deny the central place of class in British life. In conclusion, Cannadine considers whether it is possible or desirable to create a "classless society," a pledge made by John Major that has continued to resonate even after the conservative defeat. Until we know what class really means-and has meant-to the British, we cannot seriously address these questions. Creative, erudite, and accessible, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain offers a fresh and engaging perspective on both British history and the crucial topic of class.
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Beyond Class--Forward to Class?
"The rise and fall of class in Britain" is both an allusive and ironic phrase, totally correct yet also at least half mistaken. It is allusive (and correct) because, during the last twenty years or so, the once-fashionable and widely accepted view that class structure and class analysis provide the key to understanding modern British history and modern British life has been disregarded by many historians and abandoned by almost all politicians. Yet it is also ironic (or mistaken), because it remains a generally held belief, not just in Britain but around the world, that class, like the weather and the monarchy, is a peculiarly and particularly British preoccupation. It certainly has been in recent years at 10 Downing Street. For was it not John Major who declared, shortly before becoming prime minister in November 1990 and in a phrase that has continued to resonate ever since, that his aim was to bring about what he called the "classless society"? One does not have to be a master logician to conclude that Major thought--and surely, in this regard, thought rightly--late-twentieth-century Britain to be a class-bound and class-obsessed nation. In which case, of course, the irony is that there has been no "fall of class" at all. It is still very much there in Britain.
This means there is a tension--indeed, a contradiction--between the allusive and the ironic messages conveyed in the phrase "the rise and fall of class in Britain." Has class "fallen" or hasn't it? If it has, why do some people maintain that it hasn't? And if it hasn't, why do others insist that it has? Two quotations may serve to sharpen this tension and heighten this contradiction, one from a nineteenth-century male political theorist and the other from a twentieth-century female political practitioner. Here is Karl Marx: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles"--a confident, grandiloquent, aU-encompassing, much-quoted (and often misquoted) phrase, which has resounded down the decades since it was originally coined and has inspired much political activity, some good and some bad, and much historical scholarship, of which essentially the same may be said. And here, more recently, but no less self-assuredly, is Margaret Thatcher: "Class," she insisted, "is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles, and sets them against one another." These could hardly be more divergent views, and they could scarcely be more trenchantly expressed. For Marx, class was the essence of history and of human behavior; for Thatcher, class has been the perversion of both.
As these contrasted quotations imply, the last two decades have witnessed a fundamental rethinking of the economic, social, and political history of modern Britain, with the result that class analysis and class conflict, which had until recently seemed so central to it, have ceased to carry the conviction they once did. Instead, an alternative interpretation has come to prevail that, although not always explicitly Thatcherite, certainly shares her assumption that class should be downplayed, disregarded, and denied and that grouping people in confrontational collectivities is a subversive rhetorical and political device rather than an expression or description of a more complex, integrated, and individualist social reality. Whether these developments are for the better or the worse, these pages must hope to show. But before getting to the historical substance of the matter, it might be helpful to sketch out the class-based orthodoxy that held sway in Britain and elsewhere from the Second World War until the mid-1970s and to describe the ways in which it has since then been undermined and discredited. This is also the appropriate place to reaffirm the unfashionable view that class is still essential to a proper understanding of British history and Britain today, provided it is appropriately defined, properly understood, imaginatively treated, and openly approached.
Class as History
The class-based account of Britain's recent past relied heavily on the categories and concepts associated most famously (or most notoriously) with Karl Marx, which have been elaborated and developed by his self-confessed disciples and have also been used, much more critically and selectively, by many social historians who did not regard Marxism as dogmatic, self-evident, incontrovertible truth. In trying to understand and explain the evolution of past societies, Marx believed it was essential to deal not just with the politics of their ruling elites but also with the histories of their whole populations. But how were these whole populations to be encompassed and described in a comprehensive and convincing way? What were the abstract concepts and collective nouns he thought it appropriate to employ for this purpose? Marx's solution--which proved exceptionally influential--was to classify individuals in collective groupings according to their different relations to the means of production. This enabled him (and his followers) to place everybody in one of three categories: landowners, who drew their unearned income from their estates as rents; bourgeois capitalists, who obtained their earned income from their businesses in the form of profits; and proletarian workers, who made their money by selling their labor to their employers in exchange for weekly wages. For Marx, these were the three fundamental, constitutive classes of human society, and it was in the conflicts among them, which had raged unabated across the centuries, that the essential motor of the historical process was to be found.
These primordial classes, as discerned and understood by Marx, were possessed of a double identity, and so they had to be viewed in two different yet complementary ways: both as class "in itself" and as class "for itself." Class "in itself" was no more (and no less) than an objective social category that grouped individuals together on the basis of their shared economic characteristics: the source of their incomes, the extent of their wealth, and the nature of their occupations. Thus described, these classes had no corporate identity or shared sense of themselves. They were inert, inanimate social aggregations; they did not do, feel, or achieve anything collectively; they were not locked in perpetual struggle with other classes; and so they neither made history nor changed its course. As such, these classes anticipated and resembled the groups into which all individuals are placed in a national census, which are used to provide a comprehensive picture of society based on income, wealth, and occupation. They also lie behind the work of successive generations of sociologists, who continue to refine and debate the number and nature of such classes to be found in modern Britain. Pace John Major, these classes will always be with us, as long as there remain inequalities in income, differences in occupation, and variations in wealth that can be objectively observed and precisely measured.
But Marx, and most social historians who have followed him with varying degrees of faithfulness and fidelity, was less interested in class as objective social description ("in itself"), than in class as subjective social formation ("for itself"). By what processes, on what occasions, and with what results, did these inert statistical aggregates become transformed into historical actors, alive and aware of themselves as a class, with a shared identity, collective history, group trajectory, and common objectives? For Marx, the answer lay in the perpetual struggle among landowners, capitalists, and laborers for rent, profit, and wages. Sooner or later, he believed, this inevitable economic conflict over the spoils of production was bound to give rise to social conflict, which would in turn lead to political conflict. Thus regarded, these struggles were both caused by, and helped to consolidate, that active, adversarial sense of collective identity known as class "for itself" or, better still, as class consciousness. Class formation, or the making of a class, was the shorthand term regularly employed for describing this shared process of self-discovery and self-realization. Transformed and energized in this way, classes were not lifeless sociological categories; over time, they came into being, battled with each other for the historical initiative, scored victories and suffered defeats, and so became either the makers or the victims of the historical process.
It was, Marx believed, these deeply rooted and momentous struggles among class-conscious classes, arising directly and inevitably out of the conflicts inherent in the productive activities of the economy, that gave history its basic dynamic, hence his famous dictum, already quoted. And the climax of these class conflicts was political revolution, when the balance of power shifted decisively and irrevocably between one defeated class on the way down and another triumphant class on the way up. According to this interpretation, the modern world had come into being when a succession of bourgeois revolutions led to the overthrow of the traditional, feudal aristocracy: in Britain in the 1640s, in the United States after 1776, and in France after 1789. The result was the creation of that nineteenth-century, middle-class civilization of which Marx himself was both product and pundit, citizen and critic. Yet he was equally certain that this was no more than another temporary stopping place on Clio's class-based progress toward the millennium. There would, he felt sure, be more revolutions. But in future they would be proletarian, with the industrial workers overthrowing the bourgeoisie just as the middle class had earlier overthrown the aristocracy. This, he was no less certain, would lead to the socialist utopia, in which both the state and class would wither away. It is an intriguing irony that, long before John Major made the phrase fashionable during the 1990s, Marx had predicted that a "classless society" would one day come into being.
Drawing with varying degrees of conviction and plausibility on Marx's ideas and insights, the class-based account of modern British history begins with the social origins of the bourgeois revolution of the mid-seventeenth century--otherwise known as the Civil War or the Great Rebellion--that witnessed the transition from feudalism to capitalism and thus from late medieval to early modern times. The victims and beneficiaries of these changes were, respectively, the declining aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie (or, in other versions, the rising gentry), and it was during the Civil War that these two classes, set on very different historical trajectories, first clashed directly. But although in the short term the bourgeoisie vanquished the monarchy, the peerage, and the established church, its revolutionary movement was curiously incomplete. By the late seventeenth century, after the Restoration and the "Glorious Revolution," the traditional forces of authority were back in control, and for much of the eighteenth century the aristocracy, by now transformed into a quasi-bourgeois elite of agrarian capitalists, reasserted themselves. The stable, oligarchic world of early Georgian politics gave little opportunity for the middle class to improve its position in what remained a preeminently patrician society.
It was only as the industrial revolution gathered momentum in the 1770s and 1780s that Britain's social and political structure was more drastically and more permanently transformed. As new nonlanded wealth was created in unprecedented abundance, the aristocracy began to enter a second and much longer era of decline, which this time was indeed terminal. The middle class, by contrast, became more vigorous, more numerous, and more ambitious, largely thanks to the advent of a new breed of heroic entrepreneur, part creator and part beneficiary of the economic developments that were rapidly changing Britain into the first industrial nation and the workshop of the world. And in turn, the growth of manufacturing meant that the first industrial proletariat also came into being: an exploited working class, crowded in cities and slums, subjected to stern factory discipline, and often degraded, disoriented, and discontented as a result. Inevitably, the workers and their employers were locked in conflict that was bitter and violent, and the factory owners almost invariably won. Moreover, the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832 confirmed that the middle classes had superseded the aristocracy as the chief power in the state, dominating the economy, politics, and ideology of the nineteenth century as surely and securely as the landowners had previously dominated the eighteenth.
Here at last was a triumphant bourgeoisie, vanquishing the aristocracy, subduing the workers, and entering into the inheritance it had been denied in the mid-seventeenth century: the age of capital, of machinery, of railways, and of Marx was at hand. But as with the Civil War, the passing of the Great Reform Act turned out to be another incomplete revolution. For the working class, whose vigorous collaborative agitation had been essential in forcing the measure through a reluctant but intimidated Parliament, was denied its just deserts: the proletarian revolution, which Marx had foretold would follow inevitably in the wake of the bourgeois revolution, did not materialize. The world-historical role that he had wished on the workers and predicted for them was one that they proved unwilling and unable to play, as their class "in itself" disappointingly refused to become a class "for itself." To be sure, the Chartist agitations of 1839, 1842, and 1848 brought with them what seemed to be serious social upheaval and quasi-revolutionary political activity. But they eventually fell almost farcically flat, and it was decades before the working classes recovered any collective sense of identity and political will. By contrast, the entrepreneurial middle classes enjoyed a second great triumph, as they compelled the patrician Parliament to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846, thereby both demonstrating and consolidating their grip on Victorian Britain.
For some social historians, the failure of the working class to carry through a successful proletarian revolution during the early part of the nineteenth century was not only a source of deep regret: it also obliged them to explain why something that Marx had said should happen and would happen had not happened. They offered several ingenious reasons for the lamented nonevent. They argued that on many occasions from the 1800s to the 1840s, Britain did come close to revolution and that it was only bad luck, or bad weather, or the coercive power of the state, that prevented it from occurring. They suggested that the unprecedented prosperity of the 1850, 1860s, and 1870s, the so-called mid-Victorian boom, blunted the revolutionary ardor of the working class. And they claimed that the most prosperous proletarians, the "labor aristocracy," who should have provided the revolutionary leadership during the mid-Victorian era, lost sight of their own true class interests, succumbed to "false consciousness," submitted to the "social control" of their betters, and so traitorously acquiesced in the liberal bourgeois compromise of the "age of equipoise." As with the seventeenth-century bourgeoisie, so with the nineteenth-century proletariat: theirs was a revolution manque, a turning point in history that had failed to turn.
It was, so this interpretation continued, only during the late nineteenth century that the pace of social change began to pick up again, bringing with it a renewal of class consciousness and class conflict. The rising bourgeoisie and the declining aristocracy fused together into a composite capitalist ruling class, hence the era of Tory dominance, high imperialism, Joseph Chamberlain, and the Boer War. The unprecedented growth of big business and the scale of production meant that the working class developed into a new and self-conscious force: it was remade, not, this time, as the would-be revolutionary movement of the earlier nineteenth century but as a more reformist body, which found two interconnected institutional expressions. The first was the trade unions, whose membership exploded during the 1880s and 1890s, again on the eve of the First World War, and yet again both during and immediately after it and which gave a powerful collective voice to the organized workingman. The second was the creation of the Labour Party, which in 1918 pledged itself, in clause four of its constitution, to bring about "the common ownership of the means of production" in the name of ordinary men and women. With the demise of the Liberals after 1914, the way was open for renewed class conflict, as the party of industrial capital (the Conservatives) confronted the party of organized workers (Labour). This was the basis of the economic, social, and political conflicts of the twentieth century, culminating in such bitter, class-ridden confrontations as the General Strike of 1926 and the miners' strikes of 1974 and 1985.
For the best part of a generation--the welfare state generation of 1945-79--this interpretation of Britain's past carried almost everything before it. Whether Marxist, Marxisant, Whig, or liberal, there was among social historians and sociologists a shared presumption that economic change was the key to social change, that social change was concerned with the rise and fall of classes and the conflicts between them, and that it was the outcome of such battles that determined both the changing structure and the developing issues of politics. The conflict between the classes was the direct, inevitable consequence of the conflict between those who were differently related to the means of production, and it was this struggle that in the end determined the nature and working of the political structure. Even if the dictatorship of the proletariat had not yet arrived, as Marx had predicted it should have done, his insights still seemed to offer the best way of understanding the broad contours of the economic, social, and political development of modern Britain, insights to which, it bears repeating, class formation, class identity, class consciousness, and class conflict were central.
This approach to the British past not only seemed intrinsically appealing: it was rendered additionally attractive because it was neither parochial nor insular. During the 1950s and 1960s, the era of decolonization, the Vietnam War, and student protest, such concepts as class formation, class conflict, and political revolution became essential features of many national histories and historiographies. In France, the events of 1789 were presented as the paradigmatic bourgeois revolution, the momentous outcome of a long-term battle between the rising middle classes and the declining aristocracy that changed the world forever and for the better. In Mexico, the revolution of 1910-11 was depicted in essentially Marxist terms, as a popular, progressive, anticlerical, class-based movement successfully directed against a repressive and reactionary old regime. And, in Russia, a similar social-historical interpretation was eventually advanced about the upheavals of 1917, which, it was argued, witnessed the first-ever triumph of a self-consciously revolutionary proletariat, thanks to Lenin's inspired leadership as he gave history a helping hand in a Marxist direction. In this broader perspective of national history writing, the class-based interpretation of the British past was merely part of a general, widespread postwar pattern.
Even in the late 1970s, this remained very much the prevailing orthodoxy. Yet today there is almost no one among a younger generation of British historians who would unquestioningly endorse this once-paramount interpretation. Why has it ceased to carry conviction? Part of the explanation lies in the massive amount of detailed empirical research that has progressively undermined these earlier, confident, but often highly speculative generalizations. For it is now clear that the pattern of economic development that provided the materialist motor for the Marxist model was neither as neat nor as simple as was once claimed. The development of capitalism in the seventeenth century, the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the rise of new technologies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the growth of consumer-oriented industries during the interwar years, and the decline of the great Victorian staples since 1945: all these phases of economic change turn out, on closer inspection, to have been extremely complex, varied, and gradual developments. In turn, this meant that changes in the economy were never so momentous, so straightforward, or so pervasive as to make possible or bring about the creation of those homogeneous, self-conscious classes of landowners, capitalists, and laborers locked in perpetual conflict with each other that Marx and his later followers among British historians hoped (and claimed) to discern.
On closer inspection, the best that could be said of Marx's three class-conscious classes was that they were ideal types, historical abstractions that grossly oversimplified the way in which the social structure of modern Britain had actually evolved and developed. One difficulty was that the shared class characteristics and clear-cut class boundaries that Marx and his followers had posited had rarely if ever existed in fact. Landowners did not only enjoy agricultural rents: they also drew profits from their mines, docks, urban estates, and industrial investments. In the same way, successful middle-class businessmen often set themselves up as broad-acted gentlemen, thereby straddling the supposedly deep and unbridgeable divide between the country house and the countinghouse. Another problem was that within Marx's three supposedly inclusive class categories, there were many internal divisions: between aristocrats and landed gentry, between bankers and businessmen, between industrialists competing for the same markets, and between the many different gradations of skilled and unskilled labor. Yet a third qualification was that during and since Marx's time, old occupational groups have expanded, and new occupational groups have come into being that do not easily fit into his three-level model: rentiers, managers, professionals, domestic servants, and the whole of the lower middle classes. Thus described, the social structure of modern Britain was more elaborate, and also more integrated, than Marx had allowed.
But this was not the only way in which it turned out that he had been a heroic and misleading oversimplifier. For as particular episodes were more fully examined, it soon emerged that the grand, linear narrative--of class formation, class conflict, and political revolution--failed to sustain its credibility across the centuries, instead collapsing amid a welter of short-term, internal contradictions. How could the aristocracy have been in apparently terminal crisis by the 1640s yet still be the dominant class in the country on the eve of the passing of the Great Reform Act one hundred and eighty years later? If the working class had been so successfully "made" by the 1830s, then why (and how) was it necessary for them to be "remade" during the last quarter of the nineteenth century? As for the ever-rising middle class, how was it possible for them to have gained so much in power and self-consciousness in every century, to have pioneered a bourgeois revolution in the seventeenth century, to have been "made" during the early eighteenth century and then "made" again a hundred years later, and yet to have achieved so little? In the shortrun, self-enclosed historiographies of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, these problems could largely be ignored. But the longer-run national narrative, built around rising and falling classes that persistently failed to rise and fall and centering on political revolutions that were invariably incomplete, was shot through with both logical and chronological inconsistencies.
The class interpretation was also in error in placing so much stress on the unifying experience of laboring activity in the creation of class consciousness. As soon as historians began to study work, it turned out, like so much else, to be a more complex subject than the Marxists had appreciated. The growing range and number of occupations made people's circumstances more differentiated rather than more alike; many men frequently changed jobs and were often unemployed; and many women did not work at all. Pace E. P. Thompson, it was thus not clear that class "eventuates," as he had claimed it did, as "men and women live their productive relations." Even for the working class, there was always more to life and living than work and working. Historians of leisure, of domesticity, and of consumption have discovered social groupings and social relationships that were often significantly different from those found by historians of work and those of "social control." And historians of housing have found patterns of residential segregation and social zoning in towns and cities that were often far less clear than the conventional tripartite division into upper-class enclaves, middle-class suburbs, and working-class slums. The physical shapes on the ground, like the social shapes in society, were more varied than Marx recognized.
It was never possible, moreover, as the interpretation built around the making of class consciousness crucially required, to collapse social categories into political groupings, to elide class into party, in any convincing, coherent, and credible way. As detailed research soon began to show, the Civil War was neither caused by nor fought out between rising bourgeois roundheads on the one side and declining aristocratic cavaliers on the other. In eighteenth-century Britain, it was impossible to read off Whig or Tory political affiliations from their different positions in the economic and social structure. In nineteenth-century Britain, which had supposedly witnessed the final triumph of the bourgeoisie, politics remained a largely patrician pursuit, and there was never a hegemonic middle-class political party. And in twentieth-century Britain, many workers have voted Conservative (how else, indeed, could the Tories have won elections so frequently on a full adult franchise?), while the leadership of the Labour Party has for most of the time been middle class rather than proletarian. Now, as in earlier times, political parties are not dominated, as Marx had too readily assumed, by the exclusive interests of a single class, and politics is never merely the direct, unmediated expression of class identities and class conflicts.
But the class-based interpretation of modern British history has not been undermined only by the detailed empirical research that it has stimulated and provoked. During the last two decades, a second and no less serious challenge has been mounted by women's historians and devotees of the new literary theory. Feminist scholars rightly observe that very few women appeared in the canonical texts of social history written in a Marxist mode. How odd it seems to them that books ostensibly about a whole class were only concerned with one half of it. Yet in many ways, they insist, women's experiences of work and life were very different from those of men, and there were also tensions and conflicts between the sexes that eroded any sense of class solidarity they might feel. As a result, a great deal of effort has been spent by some feminist historians in trying to reconcile--and by others in seeking to deny--the competing claims of class and gender. So far, on balance, gender has destabilized class as a category of historical analysis rather than revived or reinforced it. During the 1950s and 1960s, pioneering social historians were Marxists interested in class. During the 1980s and 1990s, they have more usually been feminists interested in gender. For them, the history of all hitherto existing society is no longer the history of class struggles; instead it is the history of gendered identities and interpersonal relationships.
Equally subversive of the traditional view of class has been the rise to prominence of postmodernist literary theory. As the result of their discovery of what is called the "linguistic turn," many historians no longer regard class as the study of the vexed relations among land, capital, and labor and of the political conflicts arising out of them. Instead, they see class as the study of the language that people used, because it was the words they employed that provided the essential source of their social and political identities. Thus conceived, class was neither an objective guide to social reality nor a shared subjective experience. Classes never actually existed as recognizable historical phenomena, still less as the prime motor of historical change. They were nothing more than rhetorical constructions, the inner imaginative worlds of everyman and everywoman, seeking as best they could to explain their social universe to themselves. And not only was social perception ultimately the product of language; it did not even have to be the language of class. For there were--and are--many other words in which people envision the social order. Thus regarded, the history of all hitherto existing society is no longer the history of class struggles; rather, it is the history of a limitless number of individual self-categorizations and subjective social descriptions of which class is only one among a multitude of competing and frequently changing vocabularies.
All this is merely to say that we now live in a postmodern era of decentered and deconstructed discourse in which grand, traditional master narratives are no longer fashionable because they no longer seem credible. On the contrary, they are now widely dismissed as being deeply and fatally flawed: too teleological, too anachronistic, too Whiggish, too reductionist, too masculinist, too all-encompassing, too overdetermined, too simplistic. Among the prime casualties of this new mode of thinking have been those bold, confident, overarching, Marxist-liberal histories built around class formation, class conflict, and political revolution. The simple, direct connections so easily assumed but so rarely demonstrated between economic change, the making of a class, and revolutionary politics have very largely been given up. Accounts of class making and class formation are by their very nature hopelessly and helplessly blighted by the distorting vision of hindsight. And the once heroically regarded political revolutions are now seen as the result of accident and contingency, with no long-term social causes or far-reaching political consequences. In its postwar heyday, class was the grandest and most masterly narrative available. But today the only master narrative left is that there is no master narrative whatsoever, only the "chaotic authenticity" of random happenings and unforeseeable events so.
As is so often the case in the writing and interpretation of modern British history, these recent scholarly developments have coincided with, and have undoubtedly been influenced by, broader changes in public affairs, in Britain and elsewhere. Since 1980, one of the most conspicuous domestic developments has been the defeat of organized labor, in both its professional and its political guises. The final, precipitous collapse of the great Victorian staple industries, and of the traditional working class, means that the number of trade-union members has fallen dramatically, and that their political influence is much diminished. Support for the Labour Party declined significantly in the twenty years from 1974, and until it reinvented itself during the 1990s, it showed a conspicuous inability to win general elections. The old, ostensibly classbased politics that gave it coherence and purpose--improving the lot of industrial workers and nationalizing the means of production--were an inadequate basis on which to build a successful party of the Left in the closing decades of the twentieth century. As a result, today's Labour politicians are less interested than their predecessors were in the history of class consciousness and class conflict, a history that was once such an important prop to the party's collective identity and purpose. Instead, they have returned to an earlier notion of socialism by stressing cooperation and community rather than class and conflict.
This is well exemplified in the case of Tony Blair, who is at least as much a party leader and prime minister for our postsocialist times as was John Major. He is not saturated with Labour's traditional language and categories of class and has expressed no ambition to promote class consciousness or incite class conflict. On the contrary, these venerable party nostrums are the "great absence" from his political vision and his political vocabulary. Like John Major, only more so, he is primarily interested in talking about community, consensus, and conciliation, and class gets in the way of such talk. Hence his determination to rid Labour of its "Marxist intellectual analysis," with its "false view of class," which was "always out of kilter with the real world," and also its long-standing commitment to the "common ownership of the means of production." He has accomplished all these objectives, persuading the party to accept that Thatcher's privatization of the 1980s is here to stay and successfully carrying through the abolition of clause four. As he proclaims it, the key to Blair's politics is the nurturing of the reciprocal relationship between the individual and society, and this culture of community and inclusivity leaves no room for the outdated and outmoded notions of class identity, class interest, and class war.
Underlying this "fall of class" on the Left in Britain is a broader change in the conventional vocabulary of political discussion and social perception, namely, the shift from the traditional preoccupation with people as collective producers to the alternative notion of people as individual consumers. This was partly Margaret Thatcher's achievement, and she very much knew what she was doing. She attacked the trade unions, because they represented organized, collective, productive labor. She stressed the market, the public, the customer, and the individual, which undermined the language of social solidarity based on productive classes. She offered hope--in a way that Labour never had--to the working and lower middle classes of escaping the constraints of impoverished expectations and irremediable subordination. And by wrapping herself in the flag, she very effectively marginalized the politics of sectional interests and class conflict. As a result of her policies and her rhetoric, Thatcher thus went a long way toward achieving her ambition of banishing the language of class from public discussion and political debate about the structure and nature of British society. And the fact that Tony Blair has no wish to resurrect this language is a measure of her achievement in changing the way people think about social structures, social relations, and social identities in today's Britain.
As in the earlier era of the welfare state, these developments in British politics, which have significantly influenced developments in British history writing, also need to be set in a broader, continental perspective. For the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has only dealt a further blow to any political or academic enterprise that is essentially class based in inspiration. The demise of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites during the late 1980s has discredited Marxism throughout Europe as an ideology, and today it only survives, increasingly beleaguered, introverted, and irrelevant in enclaves in North and South America and in certain departments of European universities devoted to art history, literature and linguistics, and cultural studies. But as an all-embracing intellectual system that once confidently claimed to provide the key to all human society and all human behavior, past, present and future, Marx's doctrines now seem generally discredited beyond rehabilitation. Communism is dead, therefore Marxism is dead, therefore class is dead: thus runs the argument. Accordingly, the whole outmoded apparatus of class analysis has been consigned to the wastepaper basket of history, along with the cold war, the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, and the guards outside Lenin's mausoleum. In the light of these developments, class is no longer a way (let alone the way) of looking at history; it has become part of history.
Not surprisingly, the recent decline in Marxist, Marxisant, and class-based history has been a European-wide phenomenon. As class formation, class conflict, and political revolution have been taken out of the British approach to the past, so they have also disappeared from the histories and historiographies of other countries. In France, the Revolution is no longer seen as the inevitable outcome of class war: the bourgeoisie was too weak, too diffuse, and too unself-conscious to have accomplished anything so single-mindedly significant or heroic in 1789. In Mexico, the old regime has been rehabilitated, the revolution has been reappraised as a political not a social phenomenon, and its effects are now seen as having been distinctly limited. And in Russia, recent accounts of 1917 have deliberately ignored the once-central class dimension. In each case, long-term social causes have been disregarded, class identities have been denied and set aside, and the upheavals themselves are lamented as the regrettable, unnecessary, and illegitimate work of rootless, unprincipled, and amoral conspirators. Here, as in British history, class consciousness and class conflict have been decisively rejected as the essential motor governing and driving the historical process. Culture now matters more than class; chance and contingency are deemed to be more important than structure and pattern.
These are some of the reasons why class analysis has been dethroned from its previously central place in the social history of modern Britain in recent years. It never did explain what it purported to explain, namely, the broad contours of Britain's historical evolution from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. The idea that classes rise, struggle, and fall like Paul Kennedy's great powers no longer seems as convincing as it did. It has been further undermined by feminist scholars, by those excited by the "linguistic turn," and by the loss of the credibility of traditional master narratives. And it has been additionally eroded by the marginalization of the old Labour Party in Britain, by the shift in emphasis from people as collective producers to people as individual consumers, and by the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. As a result, the view that the history of modern Britain--or the history of modern Anywhere Else--may best be understood in terms of conflicts between opposing armies of fully self-conscious class warriors has been overthrown. Rather than employ class to explain history, it now seems that we should employ history to explain class. Instead of using Marx to help us make sense of the nineteenth century, it is more appropriate to use the nineteenth century to help us make sense of Marx, assuming that anyone today still thinks that a worthwhile undertaking.
Class as Social Description
Such is now the conventional historiographical wisdom. As deployed in its welfare state heyday, class was too crude a concept: it did not do justice to the refractory complexity of the historical process, and it never captured more than a part of the way in which ordinary men (to say nothing of ordinary women) lived out their lives. Small wonder that some historians are now talking of a terminal crisis in the concept of class and of the need to replace it with something else--or with nothing at all. Today, they are much more inclined to stress the relatively high degree of consensus that seems to have prevailed in Britain, the general absence of clear-cut classes and clear-cut class conflict, and the way in which different social groupings and identities merged easily and imperceptibly into one another in the seamless web of the social fabric. At the same time, they have become increasingly aware of the associational richness and diversity of past people's lives: as men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children; as members of churches or trade unions or soccer clubs or political parties; as individuals with loyalties to their firms, their villages, their towns, their cities, their counties, their regions, their country. With so many fluctuating and sometimes contradictory senses of identity that constantly cut across each other, there no longer seems any justification for privileging class identity--or class analysis.
Not surprisingly, then, Marx has been one of the most conspicuous casualties of our postindustrial, postsocialist, post-cold war, postmodern world, for it is a post-Marxist world as well. Indeed, the reaction against Marxism and class analysis is now flowing so strongly that the most recent and authoritative social history of modern Britain, which runs to three large and otherwise comprehensive volumes, managed to leave out the subject completely, thereby giving an entirely new meaning to the injunction "class dismissed." Even some of the old-guard Marxist historians seem to have retracted and recanted. Christopher Hill no longer insists that the English Civil War was the first bourgeois revolution. Eric Hobsbawm has shifted his interests from class and class conflict in nineteenth-century Europe to nationalism, national identity, and the twentieth century. And in one of his last essays, E. P. Thompson declared that" `class' was perhaps overworked in the 1960s and 1970s, and it had become merely boring. It is a concept long past its sell-by date." It is unclear from the context whether Thompson was expressing his own changed views or merely summarizing the altered state of contemporary opinion. For present purposes, it does not matter; either way, class today is not what it once was. It has had a great fall.
But the difficulty with banishing class from modern British history in the way it has increasingly become fashionable to do is that it leaves us incapable of understanding what it was that John Major was talking about or why what he said resonated--and is still resonating--so widely. For if he was right in asserting that Britain is still a class-bound society, then it is little short of bizarre that in recent years historians have been spending so much time and effort denying that this was so and, by implication, that this is still so. If we accept, as we are surely correct in doing, that class is one of the most important aspects of modern British history no less than of modern British life, then it is at best regrettable and at worst plain wrong for the current generation of historians to show minimal interest in the subject. Even if, in its crudest forms, the Marxist approach to class no longer carries conviction, that is no reason for dismissing class altogether. The baby, still kicking vigorously, should be retained, even though the bathwater, long since grown tepid, has rightly been jettisoned. For the most important and immediate task is neither that of denying nor rehabilitating old-style class analysis but of defining the subject afresh and envisioning it anew.
In order to do so, we need to be clear as to the central problem with the traditional approach to class. This was not that it sought to study or understand class, both of which are entirely worthwhile scholarly objectives. The difficulties were those arising from mistaken identity and excessive expectations. Most Marxists believed that a person's class identity was collective rather than individual and was primarily determined by his (or, just occasionally, her) relationship to the means of production. But this was clearly too narrow, too materialistic, too reductionist an approach, and it assumed that all social identities were shared rather than single. Moreover, these collective classes, as defined and understood by Marx, showed a high degree of internal coherence and homogeneity. Again, this seems to have been an oversimplification. And he also assumed a direct causal link not only between economic development and social change but also between social change and political events. This, too, seems excessively crude. In short, the sort of classes for which Marxists searched never existed as they hoped to find them. And so it is hardly surprising that class as it has actually existed did not fulfill its task as the animator and agitator of the historical process that Marx had wished on it.
But how has class actually existed? In seeking to answer that question, we should also recognize that where Marx was on to something was in his insistence that the material circumstances of people's existences--physical, financial, environmental--do matter in influencing their life chances, their senses of identity, and the historical part that they and their contemporaries may (or may not) play. Whatever the devotees of the "linguistic turn" may claim, class is not just about language. There is reality as well as representation. Go to Toxteth, go to Wandsworth, go to Tyneside, go to Balsall Heath, and tell the people who live in the slums and the council estates and the high-rise ghettos that their sense of social structure and social identity is no more than a subjective rhetorical construction, that it is nothing beyond a collection of individual self-categorizations. It seems unlikely that they will agree. Nor, for that matter, would the inhabitants of Edgbaston or Eastbourne, Belgravia or Buckingham Palace. Class, like sex, may indeed take place in the head, but it has never existed solely in the head or in the eyes or in the words of the beholder. Social reality always keeps breaking in. Classes, like nations, are sometimes more and sometimes less than imagined communities. All of which is simply to say that language is a necessary but insufficient guide, to both social circumstances and social consciousness. We need to get beyond the "linguistic turn."
It is somewhere between the overdetermined reductionism of Marxist analysis and the free-floating subjectivities of the historians of language that we should seek to discover, describe, and discuss class as it has actually existed and developed in Britain during the last three hundred years. But where, in making such a fresh start, might we most helpfully begin? One appropriate place is with a long view of Britain's evolving--or, rather, nonevolving--social structure from the early eighteenth century to the late twentieth. If we borrow W. G. Runciman's recent typology, it is clear that across this long span, British society has been continually characterized by what he terms four "systactic" categories: a small elite; a larger group of managers, businessmen, and professionals; the general body of wage workers; and a deprived, impoverished, and sometimes criminalized underclass. These general social-cum-occupational groups have been a constant across the centuries of modern British history, and an abundance of recent, more detailed research into patterns of wealth distribution and occupational structure amply bears this out. Indeed, it has been the gradual piecing together of this long-term picture of unchangingness that has done much to subvert the old Marxist or Marxisant notion that the historical process was built around the economically driven processes of rapid social development, sudden class creation, and abrupt class conflict. This is not, it now seems, the way in which things in the British past actually happened.
Class also has a geography as well as a history. Local studies of villages, towns, cities, and regions by definition tell us a great deal about particular places. But they are also, by definition, prone to parochialism and introversion, and they dislike and avoid making generalizations or seeking broader patterns. Yet we need to remember that across the last three centuries these localities were embedded in many wider worlds: not just the four nations of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales but also the larger identifies of Great Britain and the British Isles. Moreover, for much of the period with which this book is concerned Britain was an imperial power and an expanding society. And for the entire period there were British-spawned nations across the seas that, with their shared backgrounds but different economies, both mirrored and distorted the social structure of the homeland. Most British colonies remained agricultural and rural long after Britain was industrializing and urbanizing. In Canada and South Africa, British settlers and lawmakers encountered alien races with alien social structures. In Australia and New Zealand, they self-consciously transplanted British communities overseas, rejecting some aspects of the mother country while maintaining and extending others. And in India, the Raj evolved into the most elaborate imperial hierarchy of all, with its British proconsuls and officials, its native princely states, and its caste system. On the boundaries of empire, at the frontiers of dominion and settlement, much was revealed about the social structure of Britain itself.
But these are merely the essential preliminaries to the central question about class as this book poses and address it. How, across a long time span and from a broad geographical perspective, can we recover the ways in which Britons saw and understood the manifestly unequal society in which they lived? For a suggestive answer, we might usefully turn to Montpellier in 1768, when a bourgeois citizen set out to "put his world in order"by describing the social structure of his town. He concluded that there was no single comprehensive or authoritative way in which this could be done. Instead, he offered three very different yet equally plausible accounts of the same contemporary social world. The first was Montpellier as a procession: as a hierarchy on parade, a carefully graded ordering of rank and dignity, in which each layer melded and merged almost imperceptibly into the next. The second was Montpellier divided into three collective categories of modified estates: the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the common people. And the third was a more basic division: between those who were patricians and those who were plebeians. Clearly, these were very different ways of characterizing and categorizing the same population. The first stressed the prestige ranking of individuals and the integrated nature of Montpellier society. The second placed people in discrete collective groups that owed more to wealth and occupation and gave particular attention to the bourgeoisie. And the third emphasized the adversarial nature of the social order by drawing one great divide on the basis of culture, style of life, and politics.
Thus Montpellier in 1768, and thus Britain during the last three hundred years. That, in essence, is the argument that I advance and unfold in the following pages. When Britons have tried to make sense of the unequal social worlds they have inhabited, settled, and conquered, across the centuries and around the globe, they have most usually come up with versions or variants of these same three basic and enduring models: the hierarchical view of society as a seamless web; the triadic version with upper, middle, and lower collective groups; and the dichotomous, adversarial picture, where society is sundered between "us" and "them." These were, and still are, the conventional, vernacular models of British social description used by ordinary people, by pundits and commentators, and by politicians, and it is with the history of these three models that this book is primarily concerned. Strictly speaking, they were mutually exclusive, using different criteria to describe the same unequal society in very different ways and often (though diminishingly) using their own specific languages. Thus regarded, these three depictions of society do not amount to what the sociologist Gordon Marshall would call "a rigorously consistent interpretation of the world." Far from it; indeed, quite the opposite.
But in practice and like the Montpellier bourgeois, most people move easily and effortlessly from one model to another, recasting their vision of British society to suit their particular purpose or perspective. And one of the reasons they were able to do so was that they gradually came to use the same language, regardless of the particular model they were employing. Often it was the vocabulary of ranks and orders. But it was also, and increasingly, the language of class that was most commonly used for describing all three models of contemporary British society: class as hierarchy; class as "upper," "middle," and "lower"; and class as just "upper" and "lower." Thus regarded, the history of class is not the master key that unlocks the entire historical process: the history of class struggle as classes come into being and do battle with each other. Nor is it the history of innumerable subjective social identities exclusively constituted by language. Rather, it is the history of the three different ways in which, across the centuries, most Britons have visualized their society: the history of three models of social description that are often but not always expressed in the language of class. Redefined and understood in this way, the history of "class" should properly be regarded as the answer to the following question: how did (and do) Britons understand and describe their social worlds? It is that answer, and that history, that this book aims to provide.
"All societies," George Watson has rightly noted, "are unequal; ... but they describe their own inequalities variously." In the British case, it is these three idealized models, not always but often articulated in the language of class, that have lain behind most popular perceptions and descriptions of social structure since the early eighteenth century. Like all such popular perceptions, they were the jumbled product of custom and habit, history and experience, politics and inquiry, information and misinformation, ignorance and prejudice; then, as now, there were limits to what Britons knew about the social worlds in which they lived. None of these three idealized models constitute what Ernest Gellner recently called "real social knowledge." All of them are ignorant oversimplifications of the complexity of society. Yet they have remained remarkably enduring, and they are still in existence in Britain today. Indeed, it is precisely because of their continued existence that Britain cannot possibly be described as a "classless society" and that historians are mistaken in dismissing class from their current agenda. For if we are to understand class historically, we need to understand how it is over time that these three models of society have coexisted and why it is that for different people, and at different times, one or another of these models has been the preferred account of how things are.
Part of the answer does lie in long-term changes to the British population, which did occur, notwithstanding the significant continuities in social structure of which we are now well aware. Over the long run, health, life expectancy, and standards of living all improved; the numbers of people increased more than tenfold; there was a shift in the distribution of the population from the country to the town; modes of employment, ownership, and production changed; inequality, grew then lessened; a tiny electorate expanded to universal adult suffrage; a Christian society became a secular society; at least two empires were made and lost. All these long-term changes are known, some of them can be measured, and each must surely have influenced and changed social perceptions in the long run, though we have yet scarcely begun to identify how or when or why. But a moment's reflection suggests that people living in a predominantly rural society with a scattered population, most of whom did not have the vote and many of whom believed in God, would see themselves and their world differently from people living in a predominantly urban society that was densely populated, where everyone had the vote and few of them believed in God.
But another part of the answer lies in trying to understand, across the centuries, the ebb and flow of the appeal of the different descriptions of British society that were generally available. Why is it that ordinary people have seen their society in these three ways? What has persuaded them, at any given time, that one of these models seems more convincing than the other two? And what is the process by which they change their minds, moving from one view of society that has served them well in the past to another that now seems to make more sense of things? Part of the answer is clearly to do with discontent, which means that the version of society as it is becomes less appealing than a vision of society as it might be. But it is also, and increasingly, to do with politics and politicians. Indeed, it is one of the prime contentions of this book that politicians play a large part in the creation and articulation of social identities and in the process whereby one version becomes, for a time, more resonant than the alternatives. From John Wilkes to Margaret Thatcher, one of the most important tasks that many politicians have tried to accomplish has been to get ordinary people to see their society differently, "to change the way we look at things," which in practice has meant moving them from preferring one of the three models of social description to another.
Class Here, Now, and Then
One final point, by way of preliminary. Of these three models of British society that have been on offer since the early eighteenth century, it is class as hierarchy that has had the widest, most powerful, and most abiding appeal. In part this is because Britain retains intact an elaborate, formal system of rank and precedence, culminating in the monarchy itself, which means that prestige and honor can be transmitted and inherited across the generations. Even today, books are written about that system, setting out the five gradations of the hereditary peerage, explaining the relative standing of the younger son of a baronet vis-a-vis the elder son of the younger son of a duke, and pointing out whether a Master of Arts from Oxford ranks higher than a provincial mayor with no university degree. But in addition, and more broadly, a Briton's place in this class hierarchy is also determined by such considerations as ancestry, accent, education, deportment, mode of dress, patterns of recreation, type of housing, and style of life. All these signs and signals help determine how any one individual regards him- (or her-) self, and how he (or she) is regarded and categorized by others. Taken together, it is these formal and informal hierarchies of prestige and status that people often have in mind when they speak of the "British class system": a model of society more elaborate than the two- or three-stage versions.
One does not have to go to India to discover Homo Hierarchicus; he has been around in Britain for a very long time. Nor should this come as any great surprise. Ever since the discovery of the pecking order among hens in the 1920s, ranked-status hierarchy has been seen as the main form of social organization among animals. More recent work suggests that this is especially marked in the case of primates, particularly chimpanzees, for whom aping their betters has always been more than just a metaphor. If this is right, then the implication is that humans are also intrinsically and essentially hierarchical animals, both by nature and throughout most of history. Thus regarded, men and women are predisposed toward rank and order--toward class as hierarchy--because, as Desmond Morris once put it, they are risen apes rather than fallen angels. If this is right, then hierarchy is the primordial human mode of social structure and social perception. By comparison, the three- and two-stage models of society are much less deeply rooted, more fluid, flimsy, and fragile in their identities and more the product of deliberate, self-conscious articulation, as people seek for alternative ways of seeing and understanding their social worlds.
Throughout the last three centuries of Britain's history, there has been much less evidence of class consciousness and class conflict than Marx boldly--and mistakenly--asserted. But there has also been a great deal of consciousness of class as social description and social identity, most usually of class as hierarchy, sometimes of class as "upper," "middle," and "lower," and on other occasions of class as "upper" and "lower." For Britons are always thinking abo ut who they are, what kind of society they belong to, and where they themselves belong in it. They have not always agreed about these things, but their disagreements have been within very limited parameters and perspectives, and they have often and increasingly been articulated in class terms and class terminology. All of which is merely to say that to write class out of British history and British life is to disregard or misunderstand one of its central themes. Class may not be the essence of history in the way that the Marxists and welfare state liberals once believed. But neither is it the perversion of history that Margaret Thatcher claims. Taking a long and broad view, changes in popular perceptions of British society have been at least as important as changes in British society itself, and it is in the evolving relationship between these social perceptions and social structures that the history of class is properly to be found and to be studied. Hence this book. Enough of these preliminary reflections. It is time to turn to the thing itself and to move forward, not backward, to class.
Meet the Author
David Cannadine is professor of history and director of the Institute of Historical Research at London University. He is the author of numerous books including The Pleasures of the Past; The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy; G. M. Trevelyan: A Life in History; and History in Our Time.
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