Perry Anderson — Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism

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In a voice choking with anger, Edward Thompson has denounced the historical
The Peculiarities of the English
enquiry lies elsewhere. The real history, we are told incisively, will
Variations on these im-
peccable themes occupy much of Thompsons attention throughout
.Deprived of their self-congratulatory and
sententious overtones, the substance of these accusations is, simply,
of modern England: this would involve proposing a
(reprinted in Towards Socialism,
serious counter-theory of that evolution, a prospect he evidently finds
more decisive and triumphant than we have allowed for. Whereas in
th century our vice is the inverse. We have ex-
argued that it continued, in an important sense, to dominate thepolitical
formations of the ruling bloc. We have forgotten the wisdom of Bage-
Victorian middle class: what more solemn vindication than the Abdica-
tinguished national leaders. Britain today, it follows, is a capitalist
a new Thinga bourgeois and bureaucratic power-structure which
Thompson has elsewhere on many occasions described, predictably, as
however, it is useless to attempt diplomacy or to simulate deference.
counter-arguments which are often demagogic and empty, and some-
times of a matchless silliness. Worst of all, the whole performance is
Long and vivid descriptions follow, designed
th centuriesas against, presumably, our illusion that it was in
capitalist landlord, tenant farmer and landless agricultural labourer,
agriculturally efficient country in the world.
A landed aristocracy,
underpinned by a powerful mercantile affinal group, became the first
dustrial bourgeoisie of the
th century, I wrote: The condition of its
a dramatic quickening of the whole economy, from
bourgeois revolution curving over
however, with the ordinary judgments of other historians. Lipson
agricultural prosperity which followed the Civil War and of the
The paradox of an unpremeditated capitalist revolution effected pre-
son himself in differentiating the various types of autonomous power
successive dictators from within the army in Venezuela from
with a spectacular, disastrous image: The aristocracy, rather, registered
The term aristocracy is used to designate, not the nobility, but the landowning
aristocratic influence was directly and effectively opposed to important
interests of the newer bourgeoisie.
argument that the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie fused in the mid-
century, to the point where it was no longer possible to speak of them
middle class emerged. The dominant bloc in England, I wrote, can
be envisaged as a narrow, highly-structured hegemonic class, with,
beneath it, a large, diffuse, polymorphous reservoirthe entrepreneur-
of the one radically destructures the other, as access is always open to

confirmed Bagehots views neatly in the cataclysm ofthe Abdication
th century, according to Guttsman: The failure of the newly enfranchised
middle class to gain parliamentary leadership and, above all, governmental office, ex-
... (p.
narrow heraldic rather than sociological definition of aristocracy, as a titled nobility
th century, those
To sum up: our thesis was that the landed aristocracy of the
century blended with the industrial bourgeoisie of the
after, in the form of the modern British upper class, dominated the
Williams has put it: This could hardly have happened if the rising
they have fallen outside his purview.
In particular, the period from
analysis suggested. The trio of Conservative leaders Bonar Law-Baldwin-Chamber-
lain form a kind of business dynasty, which at the time (especially after the defeat of
th century. Lumpen-politics was the result. The shod-
ing British capitalism. Baldwins official biographer indicates why, when he des-
cribes Baldwins relationship to the economy in these suggestive terms: In firms like
Alfred Baldwins, generations of work-people were still familiarly known to genera-
G. M. Young, p.
, Churchills assumption of power represents a reversion to the
air, of course. I never wrote that Puritanism was sadly unenlightened,
Darwin from our account of the Victorian bourgeoisie in the
century. But can he be pressed so simply into the service of bourgeois
culture? Undoubtedly, in his person, he typified many of the traits of
eloquence. What exactly is Thompson claiming for Darwin? Two
in human thought: it both restructured whole sciences and effected a
new synthesis, and effected a new view of human naturepresum-
ably, by banishing belief in God as the Creator of man (Huxley could
do. Science recognizes no frontiers. It is all too obvious from Thompsons
) is English. Looked at either way, in terms of
social thought, the representative British figuresHobhouse, Ginsberg,
Laski, Cole, even Tawneyappear limited and secondary. They are not
unaltered. But there has been a progressive exhaustion of vitality.
foreigners and refugees (of very differing calibre) have been the de-
cisive, formative influences: Wittgenstein in philosophy, Malinowski in
anthropology, Namier in history, Berlin and Popper in political theory.
Their birthplacesVienna, Cracow, Wola-Okrzejska, Riga, Vienna.
(Characteristically, only in economics itself has an Englishman been
scher, who was born near Cracow? It is grand facts like these that
Thompson, nostalgically apostrophizing Wordsworth or Hazlitt, has
Thompson reproaches us on a number of different grounds. He begins
with an excursus into the effect of modern imperialism on the British
To understand the reasons why the Communist Party has found it so
difficult to break with the past since
look, not at the compulsive historical context prevailing indifferently
have acted very differently.
old European country, Marxism derives from Europe, therefore
The awkward thing is, however,
Well, which is it to be? The long and
stimulate and excite the island? Thompsons enthusiastic discovery of
that is all too familiar. It is certainly not humble British empiricism.
The empirical facts, however, are what we should be attending to.
Once we look at them at all scrupulously, there is little doubt that they
give only one answer. Britain has, indeed, a weak and shallow
th century. More than that, there has never been a Marxist
culture in this country, in the sense that Marxism becomes part of the
with a thousand different inflections. How could there have been? The
Marx in English, apart from Party brochures, was Berlins haplessly
ignorant and amateur little commentary, which achieved the feat of
discussing Marxs work without once mentioning the concept aliena-
vacuum like this? It is this which makes Thompsons eager remark in
so blithely with Mills primer. The truth is, of course, that there is not
one comprehensive and scholarly account of Marxs work in English;
meanwhile Jean-Yves Calvezs monumental
by Thompsons reference elsewhere, like any vulgar Fabian, to the
In fact, Thompsons own text provides a spectacular confirmation of
the weakness of his grasp on Marxist theory. In a calamitous moment,
shocking about this: it happens every day. It is only the tone of self-
learn anything. We are rebuked for manhandling and for vulgarizing
Gramscis concept of hegemonya treatment which, he fears, may
distract attention from Gramscis deeply cultured and original in-
This pious view is supported by the following arguments.
To begin with, he says, we use the terms hegemonic and corporate in
Victorian imperialism, consistently described by us as hegemonic, to
be revolutionary? Secondly, he tells us imperturbably: Gramsci
(Gramscis concepts) certainly contain no warrant for their employ-
references to hegemonic classes and groups form part of Gramscis
terms: Gradually a new elite emerged which was not simply interested
in corporative reforms, but tended to conceive the bourgeoisie as a
The Jacobins not only organized a bourgeois government, that is
made the bourgeoisie the dominant class, but they did more, they
created the bourgeois State, and made the bourgeosie the hegemonic,
Fortunately, it is now likely at last to be published in
claimed, in tones of absolute conviction, that Marx never spoke of, say,
Lastly, Thompson asserts that: Strictly, the concept (of hegemony) can
only be related to that of state power, and is inapplicable to a subordin-
Tamburrano, Bari, p.
. Both Williams and Tamburrano edulcorate Gramscis
point, however, is too unmistakeable for anyone to miss. An accurate study of
His main belief appears to be that Tom Nairn and myself are incor-
base. We are, moreover, schematic in our treatment of class, and
human life is concerned with political power. The answer to these
First of all, there is not the smallest evidence that either Tom Nairn or
struggle (English Civil War) was conducted were largely religious,
tionism. Logically, the formulation could only be objected to by some-
hand in doing so. Thompsons arguments about the nature of class as
Modern Quarterly
indications today of a counter-idealist trend within European Marxism
of a potentially comparable strength and sophistication. Althussers
In Britain, however, there has been no co-
difficult for Thompson to situate our own work. It appears alternately
however, partly subject to the common destiny of contemporary Marxism. Its
The English Working-Class,
There is not even a passing mention (or rather, there is just one) of the
embraced social mobility, education, culture, politics, and which was
are we now? he calls for a populist or Jeffersonian radical consciousnes
s...on a
triumph of one camp over another, but the dissolution of the camps
APsessay in Ephology,
ism. But it can, in other contexts, easily become so. A few years earlier,
,Thompson could
William Morris and the Moral Issues Today, in
,Arena, Vol. III, No.
Universities and Left Review, No.
. The quotation from Tom Nairn is from The Nature of the
).For the objective situation is, of course, favourable for
from Tokyo to Lima will follow Thompsons advice that soon.
The New Reasoner
surest. Unfortunately, it is here that the renunciation of thought and
A few months later, he was more explicit: A new
The New Reasoner
work. For, by
The argument of this reply has been long and complex; unavoidably so,
since the accusations against us were so numerous and on so many diff-
)Thompson fails to engage at any point with the whole purpose of

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