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Khalid Morrison examines the retreat of Britain's radical social historians

Enthralled by tradition

  • English Questions, Perry Anderson, Verso, £39.95 hbk, £12.95 pbk

  • The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), Canto, £6.95 pbk

  • Customs in Common, EP Thompson, Merlin, £25 hbk
British social history is widely credited with the original project of writing history from below. Where previously history had been a list of kings and queens, social history restored the place of the common people in making their own history. Most of the social historians were allied to the left of the labour movement, some started out as members of the Communist Party Historians Group just after the war. Their number include Christopher Hill, who remains the authority on the English revolution and the seventeenth century, EP Thompson, whose Making of the English Working Class is the definitive work on working class self-organisation in the eighteenth century, and Raphael Samuel, editor of the History Workshop Journal. In more recent times the project of social history has been less clear. Social historians have been accused of imposing socialist interpretations upon the past, seeing incipient working class social movements where the real relations do not justify it. Much of the criticism comes from more conservative historians, and while some of their doubts are malevolent others have struck home.

Principally, however, the project of social history has suffered from its own self-doubts. Confidence in the forward march of the labour movement seemed uncontentious in the early years of social history, and reinforced its sense of purpose. In the context of an apparently consistent advance in the standing of working class organisations, the Labour Party and the trade unions, social history's subject, the common people, was self-evidently an agent in its own right.

Today the very existence of the working class is often called into question. Certainly there is nothing self-evident about the proposition that history ought to be written from below. There is little in contemporary experience to reinforce the sense that the common people are agents of their own history. As a consequence, social history appears more anachronistic.

The authors reviewed here-- EP Thompson, leading figure in the pacifist organisation European Nuclear Disarmament, Perry Anderson, former editor of the New Left Review, and Eric Hobsbawm, ideologue of the now defunct Communist Party and Marxism Today - are all trying to deal with the faltering of the forward march of labour. The Invention of Tradition, the entertaining collection of essays Hobsbawm has edited with Terence Ranger, and Thompson's Customs in Common, stand in their own right as history. Perry Anderson's collection of essays also, though more pointedly polemical, has its own virtue in the history of ideas. Nonetheless all three are coloured in their approach by the problems of social history, principally the problem of explaining how the common people appear to have failed to make their own history.

For these historians, under the influence of the labour movement's setbacks, the idea that working people are agents of social change has been subordinated to a new-found interest in tradition. The sense of change that informed the earlier social history is in abeyance. Instead, in a variety of ways that is registered in these works, we find a new emphasis upon continuity, or at least the appearance of continuity. The greatest flaw in all three of these otherwise excellent books is that they end up fetishising tradition and granting it greater force than it really has.

Anderson's English Questions is most direct in viewing the failure of the British working class to create an alternative outlook by reference to the grip of tradition upon British society. The essays collected here trace Anderson's own investigation of the problem in a series of articles published between 1964 and 1991. Throughout, Anderson returns to his initial thesis that Britain never made a complete break from its aristocratic past, a traditional outlook that holds both British capitalism and socialism back.

The Invention of Tradition is at once more academic history and more playful politics than English Questions. The essays collected gently mock the gravitas of tradition by demonstrating that time-honoured customs from clan tartan to the coronation parade were all made up by somebody at some point, usually rather later than you might think. The book has useful essays on the romantic creation of Welsh and Highland traditions, as well as the martial customs of colonial India and Africa. It ends with an overview on mass-produced traditions in Europe by Eric Hobsbawm.

Thompson's Customs in Common is closest to the original conception of a social history as history from below. It is also the most weighty, the outcome of Thompson's 20 years of research into what he calls the 'moral economy' exacted by the eighteenth-century plebeians against their patrician masters' agrarian capitalism. Thompson too is concerned with tradition, but the traditions of the lower orders. For him, plebeian customs are conservative, in that they cite supposedly ancient, customary rights, but also a site of resistance to the new incursions of capitalism.

Anderson's collection begins with 'The origins of the present crisis', first published in the New Left Review of January 1964 as a sobering intervention into the discussion of social history. Unlike earlier historians of the left, Anderson set out to explain why the labour movement was losing. Until then labour history, if it had an impact beyond scholarship, was written with an eye to encouraging the left with a sense of its long road to power. Anderson, writing after '13 wasted years' of Tory rule was facing up to the problems and asking himself why the project of the left had faltered.

With this new approach came different concerns. Anderson looked critically at labour movement institutions and sought out their weaknesses. He also modified the traditional concern with history from below to look at the apparent strength of authority from above, asking: how did the British establishment survive?

Anderson's approach was refreshing after years of lionising the labour movement, and many of his insights into its weaknesses are to the point. The leadership of the labour movement had, in its formative years become imbued with the outlook of the British ruling class on the issue that mattered - imperialism: 'the most popular spokesmen of the left, were all in their different ways vocal imperialists' (p25). That did not mean that the working class was complicit in the exploitation of the Empire or even gained from it materially. It meant that 'they were, undeniably, deflected from undistracted engagement with the class exploiting them' (p25-6). Sharing in the imperialist ideology, the working class found an illusory common ground with the ruling class.

Turning from the weaknesses of the left Anderson looked at the strength of the establishment. He emphasised the longevity of the British establishment, its uninterrupted rule (free from the ignominy of foreign invasion) and the strength of tradition: 'Traditionalism - veneration for the monarchy, the church, the peerage, the City, etc - was the natural ideological idiom of the landed class as soon as its monopoly of power was threatened.' (p31) This is a strong argument, but not wholly correct.

Anderson's concentration upon tradition does indicate the strength of the British ruling class. However, he turns reality on its head, arguing that the persistence of traditional authority indicates that the English capitalist class 'did not have to overthrow a feudal state in the nineteenth century, and it did not succeed in becoming sole master of the new industrial society' (p31). In Anderson's view then, traditional authority was due to the persistence of aristocracy and the incomplete nature of the capitalist struggle against the old political forms. Instead he argues, imperialism consolidated an alliance of the traditional society with the new capitalist class.

Here Anderson invests tradition with an authority it does not have. But furthermore, he sets out a project of challenging the traditional aspects of British society, separate from the contest between capital and labour. Traditionalism, he argues, does not just hold back the labour movement, but also unalloyed capitalism. 'The unfinished work of 1640 [the English revolution] and 1832 [the reform acts] must be taken up where it was left off' (p47). In effect, the programme of modernisation must take precedence over the goal of socialism.

The overestimation of the problem of tradition is not entirely innocent. At the time Anderson was writing, modernisation was the programme of Harold Wilson's Labour Party, which won the 1964 election promising the 'white heat' of the technological revolution. As the essays that follow 'Origins of the present crisis' show, however, Anderson has retained the outlook that modernisation must precede the articulation of an independent working class alternative. Indeed, the two targets of ruling class tradition and the weaknesses of the labour movement are often merged in Anderson's reading: 'The block vote', he suggests 'was always the working class version of the rotten borough' (p349).

At first sight Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's collection of essays The Invention of Tradition, first published in 1983, is a helpful alternative to the fetishism of tradition that overwhelms Anderson's English Questions. In his introduction Hobsbawm emphasises the contingency of tradition where Anderson emphasises its strength: 'We should not be misled by a curious but understandable paradox: modern nations and all their impedimenta generally claim to be the opposite of novel, namely rooted in the remotest antiquity, and the opposite of constructed namely human communities so 'natural' as to require no definition other than self-assertion.' (p14) Hobsbawm's argument could be aimed directly at Anderson, whose work has tended to confuse the affectation of century-steeped tradition with the real thing.

The Invention of Tradition is an effective debunking of much that is assumed to be authoritative about traditional authority. Once you read that the clan tartan was invented by Sir Walter Scott, as part of the pageant laid on for George IV's state visit to Edinburgh in 1822, you need never be impressed by the cultural nationalism in Scotland again (p19). It is a happy release from the dead weight of past generations.

The Invention of Tradition is also distinct from the social history pursued by Hobsbawm's former associates in the distance it establishes between its subject and the reader. We are not invited to identify with the characters that are paraded before us, but perhaps instead to mock them a little. As David Cannadine puts it in his essay on the monarchy: 'Like all cultural forms which may be treated as texts, or all texts which may be treated as cultural forms, 'thick' rather than 'thin' description is required.' (Citing the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, p105) Cannadine means that we are going to look at a lot of detail and comparisons instead of following a narrative reconstruction.

In its own way, The Invention of Tradition, also makes tradition more authoritative than it really is. The very idea that traditions can be invented is wrong. It underestimates the way that tradition rests upon a consent to grant all the parading and emblems the status of the venerable past. This fact is best illustrated by Cannadine's own example of the coronation parade.

For dramatic contrast Cannadine compares some critical comments indicative of the contempt for the monarchy back in the 1800s with his times. In 1820 the Black Book wrote:

'"Pageantry and show, the parade of crowns and coronets, of gold keys, sticks, white wands and black rods; of ermine and lawn, maces and wigs, are ridiculous when men become enlightened, when they have learned that the real object of government is to confer the greatest happiness on the people at the least expense."' (p101)

Forty years later Lord Robert Cecil commented on Queen Victoria's opening of parliament that 'some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous' (p102). But, writes Cannadine (in 1983): 'Today in England the situation is the exact reverse...no head of state is surrounded by more popular ritual than Queen Elizabeth II.' (p 102)

In the space of just 10 years the tradition would appear to have disinvented itself. Our views today are closer to those in the 1800s. Whether the country can afford a monarchy is open to question. Prince Charles especially must be wondering what malignant spell inserted his telephone conversation with Camilla Parker-Bowles into the headlines.

The 'thick description' favoured by Cannadine fails in that it tends to fix the detail without criticising it. Cannadine looked at the apparent popularity of royalty, albeit, as he acknowledges, for their charm rather than in dread. Instead he could have asked why the value of royalty was being re-emphasised in the eighties. While other institutions of social consent were in retreat, the unions, the Labour Party, even the BBC, royalty bore the weight of popular involvement in the nation as they had not done for years. As recent events show, an overindulged, extended family lacks the authority to symbolise the integrity of the nation alone.

Invoking tradition is a much more defensive operation than Hobsbawm and Ranger's book allows. Traditions generally fix some already achieved consent and make it symbolic. The collapse of Labour as a party of the ordinary man removed the stake in British society that helped engender popular respect for British tradition in the past. Today, each traditional authority invoked is in turn revealed as being without substance, so strong is popular cynicism. To that extent Hobsbawm and Ranger too have been dazzled by pomp, where Joe Public is not.

EP Thompson's Customs in Common deals with a very different kind of tradition, or custom. For Thompson it is the customs of the common people that provide a defence against the traditions of the ruling elite.

Customs in Common is a history of eighteenth-century resistance to the encroachment of a patrician elite by their plebeian opposites. Thompson's command of eighteenth-century history is exemplary, but, as the introduction indicates, his concerns are modern. There Thompson writes: 'We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities.' (p15) His purpose, then, is not simply academic, but also to loosen the grip of the present by showing us how things have been different in the past.

The eighteenth century is instructive for Thompson because of its 'moral economy', which defended the needs of the plebs against the incursion of the political economy of the patricians. The moral economy is framed in terms of ancient custom, but rests upon the everyday expectations of ordinary people. Thompson cites the 'perambulations', organised marches along traditional routes to break up the new enclosures of common land, at one point breaking down the walls around Richmond Park. He details forced sales of grain, imposed upon over-charging farmers. Intriguingly, simple theft of the grain was less common than its seizure for sale, with the diminished proceeds returned to the owner at the end of the day.

Thompson's point is that apart from the political economy of the newly capitalised agrarian elite, there existed a site of opposition framed in custom that made up a moral economy of the lower orders. The evidence of custom cited against law is compelling, but Thompson allows that the term 'moral economy' was not coined until the late eighteenth century. Furthermore both of the examples he cites are after the event - the romantic conservative Robert Southey and the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien. This is necessarily so because the customs he describes are 'non-rational; they do not appeal to "reason"' (p9). Rather they are the spontaneous defensiveness of a social group under attack, citing, and elaborating, the way things were to fend off unwanted change.

This non-rational invocation of custom is a poor example for today. Looking at the struggles of these embittered folk you can sympathise but there is nothing that reaches beyond their defensiveness as a lesson for us. Indeed Thompson says as much, rejecting a too self-consciously feminist interpretation of his original concept of the moral economy: 'These women (and these men) were for themselves and not for us: they were proto-nothing [parodying the term proto-industrial].' (p320) There is nothing that lends this ancient struggle a progressive character. Resistance takes the plebs further into an imaginary past rather than projecting them into the future.

Thompson's non-rational moral economy is perhaps the only way to retain an approach of history from below when overwhelmingly we are faced with history made from above. In the end it reads more like anthropology as we are engrossed in the exotic customs of this alien people, our ancestors. Thompson's defence of the customs of selling your wife at market (a kind of popular divorce) or harassing cuckolds and scolds with 'rough music', a parade of pot-banging and effigy-burning, are spirited. But rough music and the wife auction are today little more than folklore for us and degrading for the victims. On the other hand, they are, perhaps, a more dignified kind of separation than is customary in the royal family.
  • Sex, Art and American Culture, Camille Paglia, Viking, £16.99 hbk
From 'Madonna is the future of feminism' to 'the wild, infectious delirium of gang rape', academic-cum-pundit Camille Paglia is never short of the quote guaranteed to stick a poker up any serious liberal's arse. The Italian motormouth entered the media major league with her intervention in the date rape controversy surrounding the trial of William Kennedy-Smith in 1991. She enraged the 'sugar-coated Shirley Temple' feminists: attacking them for their 'sex phobic' trivialising of the real problem of rape; and insisting that 'it's women who lose' from the breakdown of the old sexual hypocrisy of the double standard. Well, half right Camille, like most of this entertaining collection of essays.

She is a ferocious slayer of sacred cows, laying into the middle class, Waspish naivety of contemporary feminism; the liberal American churches' vanilla image of gays - a '1950s country club...trimmed-lawn view of sex'; or Robert Mapplethorpe's sanctimonious and insipid defenders, who try to neuter his work by pretending that it is something other than 'a scandal to all their progressive and humanitarian ideals'. She is equally sharp in exposing the self-serving political pretensions and low professional standards of the post-Foucault generation of academics.

But Paglia's iconoclasm would be more convincing if she did not parade so many totems of her own - especially tiresome are her precious 'sixties generation' and all those eternal truths of nature. The plea for standards is merely ironic coming from someone so brazenly subjective. Nonetheless her bite is often just as bad as her bark, and she is deservedly the enemy of all PC book reviewers everywhere.

Peter Ray
  • BAD: Or, The Dumbing of America, Paul Fussell, Simon & Schuster £6.99 pbk
Paul Fussell's definition of BAD includes anything and everything 'phoney, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright or fascinating'. His book is a spirited, humorous attack on what he sees as a peculiarly American habit: 'to elevate the heartless by a worthy laying-on of the pretentious'.

From engineering (the flawed Hubble space telescope) to restaurants with valet parking, to weather forecasting (shower activity instead of rain), Fussell takes the reader on a tour through the BADlands, USA. He cites the Reaganite newspaper USA Today as 'a remarkably pure model of the BAD principle: it is empty at the centre but has a technically showy surface. It represents an exemplary triumph of presentation over substance'.

The causes of BAD, according to Fussell, are advertising, television, technology, 'the collapse of public secondary education', and American 'isolation from traditions of the past and resonances of European culture'. The result, he says, is 60m illiterates and a dumb culture.

Although BAD is filed under humour, it is an offshoot of the deadly serious debate about American decline. Fussell addresses the prospect of 'a nation in which tens of millions are so culturally and spiritually empty'. Fearing that the USA has been 'perhaps irreversibly idiotized', he sees BAD as 'an understandable reaction to the national emptiness and dullness...a quest for the illusion of distinction and value'. The stakes are high: 'a minor cost of the dumbing is the transfer of American economic power to Japan. A major cost is the wiping-out of the amenity and nuance and complexity and charm that make a country worth living in.'

Fussell has himself been tainted by BAD. He repeatedly writes 'stigmata' instead of 'mark' - for example, 'pretentiousness and euphemism are thus the stigmata of verbal BAD'. He's BAD enough to use 'contemporary attendant phenomena' as a euphemism for 'causes'. His mis-hits are not only semantic. BAD America is an old target, invented 40 years ago by jealous Brits. Fussell's explanations of BAD are just plain bad. To say that illiteracy is linked to falling educational standards is merely to state the obvious - without explaining why. Likewise, television may reflect ideological exhaustion, but it cannot create it. Education and television are simply the most convenient scapegoats for commentators who know something's wrong but don't know what it is.

Andrew Calcutt
  • Patagonia Revisited, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, with illustrations by Kyffin Williams, Jonathon Cape, £8.99 hbk
Patagonia, in South America, has come to mean many different things in the literary imagination. For Ferdinand Magellan it was the land of Giants, for the outlaw Butch Cassidy it was the last refuge, for Shakespeare's Setebos in The Tempest, it was home. For the authors, the late Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, Patagonia represents 'the Ultimate, the point beyond which one cannot go'(p7).

What Chatwin and Theroux end up describing is the transformation of the idea of 'the Ultimate' in the transition from Renaissance through to modern literature, as it is described in the changing treatment of Patagonia.

To Magellan and other early explorers Patagonia was infested with eight-foot giants, a feared place. Their discoveries inspired the Renaissance poets to talk of a new Antichthon (p52), a new hell on earth.

Three hundred years later, Darwin described these giants as the 'most abject, miserable creatures I anywhere beheld', standing at most six-foot high (p34). But just as the scientific mind was demythologising Patagonia the romantics found a new focus for the Ultimate, as something inward, a state of mind. WH Hudson wrote in 1893, 'in Patagonia the monotony of the plains...the universal greyness of everything...the absence of animal forms...leave the mind open and free to receive an impression of nature as a whole' (p22).

At a time when green politics elevates the romanticisation of nature into a political programme, Chatwin and Theroux have usefully reminded us that we see in nature what we need to, according to the prejudices of the day.

Dan Lowe
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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