THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
Khalid Morrison examines the retreat of Britain's radical
Enthralled by tradition
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
- Sex, Art and American Culture, Camille
Paglia, Viking, £16.99 hbk
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.
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'.
- BAD: Or, The Dumbing of America,
Paul Fussell, Simon & Schuster £6.99 pbk
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
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).
- Patagonia Revisited, Bruce Chatwin
and Paul Theroux, with illustrations by Kyffin Williams, Jonathon Cape,
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.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993