The first in a three-part series, in which Chris Bambery takes a look at the intertwined history of the state and the City of London
On what terrain do we want to make a revolution? The answer is on the ground of the nation state which we hope to topple, along with its ruling class. Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky in Russia and Antonio Gramsci in Italy went to great lengths to analysis the nature of that nation state, the class formations and relations within and how that forged a strategy for revolution.
For those of us operating on the island of Britain, we face the British state, albeit a state from which many Scots want to exit. Last year’s Brexit vote raises massive issues over the future for UK PLC, but it also requires an analysis of that state, even among those who wish to take the exit pod, because that is where the terrain of battle is, even if only in the short term (even if Scotland succeeds in gaining independence the historic legacy of the UK state will remain as it did in the Irish Republic which inherited its form of governance and legal structure).
Fortunately, there is a wealth of debate among British Marxists on the origins and nature of the British state, not least Perry Anderson, Edward Thompson and Tom Nairn. Their debates, available through the New Left Review archive, are well worth perusing. I don’t want to concentrate on continuing that debate, beyond saying I find myself more in agreement with Anderson, though far from completely than was the case when I first engaged with his writings in the 1970s.
Thompson had the better of the debates over the nature of the British working class and over whether the bourgeoisie really ruled. Anderson held that because the UK state was created at an early stage of capitalism the English bourgeoisie did not need a theoretical justification for what they were doing, unlike in France later. The English bourgeoisie was conservative prior to the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and remained so. It accepted too the culture of the established landowning class.
For him, this also impacted on the development of the English working class. It emerged in the late 18th century having to fight for its social, economic and political rights alone. There was no equivalent of the Jacobins or the radical petty bourgeois republicans of 1848. The English working class emerged in splendid isolation, aware of what separated it from the other classes but unable to develop a worldview in opposition to them. For Anderson Marxism, the key to developing the latter, arrived after the English working class had been formed and had little impact, unlike elsewhere in Europe. He correctly slates the abject nature of the Labour Party but fundamentally believes that flows from the lack of class consciousness.
There is much to reject here and I have dealt with this elsewhere: Chris Bambery, Myth and Reality in British Working Class Struggle, in John Rees (ed.), Essays on Historical Materialism, Bookmarks 1998
Anderson remains dismissive of the British working class, and Britain, and is wrong in my view. But where he deserves respect is in his analysis of the British state, and of its long-standing links to the City of London, particularly his 1987 New Left Review article, Figures of Descent.
The British state was created by one of the first of the great bourgeois revolutions, only Holland preceded it. This combined revolution from below in the 1640s, as so brilliantly brought to life in John Rees’s Leveller Revolution, and revolution from above, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, choreographed to prevent any resurgence of the radicalism of four decades before, and the destruction of feudalism in Scotland in the wake of the suppression of the 1745-1746 Jacobite Revolution (I agree completely with Neil Davidson’s analysis of this).
In discussing bourgeois revolutions Marxists have tended to seize on the French Revolution as the model, not surprisingly. But this was the nearest to a “pure” bourgeois revolution (and even then the bourgeoisie were not the driving force) and was in many ways an exception. Revolution from above: in Germany pushed through by Prussian landlords as the dominant force in alliance with a subaltern German Liberal bourgeoisie, in Italy by the Piedmontese state, which co-opted the revolutionary republicans who, like their German counterparts had failed to achieve unity in 1848-1849, and a new Japanese imperial state created by the Meiji Restoration in 1868, designed to modernise Japan in the face of blackmail by US imperialism, threatening military intervention if Japan did not open its economy to it.
The British state which came into existence following the Glorious Revolution, the Union of the English and Scots Parliaments and then the battle of Culloden and its aftermath, which paved the way for Scotland’s rapid transformation from the edge of European society to being at its centre, was a capitalist state, but like its Dutch counterpart being the first meant it was, and is, backwards in comparison to those that came later. For Anderson, the capitalist development of England took place under the mastery of an aristocratic class which, by the 18th century, owed its wealth to capitalist relations of production, but which did not share bourgeois aspirations.
The aristocracy remained in political control throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, long after landed wealth was slipping in importance. The political mastery of the aristocracy and its ideological hegemony were central reasons for the inability of the British ruling class to halt the long period of decline which began in the 1870s, when the USA overtook it industrially, post-Civil War, followed by Germany doing the same pot its unification.
It is worth saying that Britain wasn’t alone in having an aristocracy which tried to maintain a grasp on political, and military power. That was even truer in pre-1945 Germany. Today’s Federal Republic has the advantage in that defeat in World War Two removed the Junker class forever.
It is also worth repeating that the British aristocracy was almost entirely recast and, in my opinion, became bourgeoisfied through marriage and by moving into commerce, mining, property development, slavery and foreign and colonial investment. The Dukes of Westminster rose to immense wealth through property development, buying up muddy land to the west of the newly built Buckingham Palace, and turning it into some of the most sought after real estate in London, and today the world. By the time the 6th Duke died last year the property empire was well extended into North America and the Gulf. The Dukes of Devonshire and Londonderry became fabulously wealthy because of the coalfields under their estates.
If you look at the Westminster Parliament in the second half of the 19th century it's true key figures came from the aristocracy, the Salisbury clan in the Tory Party for instance. But the two dominant political figures were Gladstone, thoroughly bourgeois (the son of a Scottish merchant and slave owner whose business was in Liverpool), and Disraeli, a very unrepresentative figure of either the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie.
Even if governments were staffed by aristocrats they acted on behalf of the new industrial class. The Great Reform Act of 1832 is a case in point. The new, reformed parliament almost immediately passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which was crucial in creating a new labour market where workers would do everything to avoid the shame of having to apply for relief, of entering the workhouse, or a pauper’s grave. The Corporations Act of 1832 gave the industrialists of the north and Midlands effective control of their towns and cities – magnificent town halls like those in Manchester and Leeds and other municipal building built in its wake stand as monument. It also came in time for the new local authorities to play a key role in combatting Chartism. In certain instances, as in Bradford in 1848 the Mayor, a local merchant, marched at the head of the new police force followed by 1000 armed special constables recruited from the town’s middle class and backed up by the military!
Gladstone first government, 1868-1874, which followed the Second Reform Act of 1867 which extended the franchise further, disestablished the Church of Ireland, passed the Landlord and Tenants Act, which gave Irish peasants some legal defence against their landlords, brought in a system of elementary schooling in England and Wales, secret ballots in local and national elections, restrictions on licensing hours, the buying of military officerships was abolished, and the civil service reformed with a new examination system. This was a thoroughly bourgeois agenda, bitterly resented by the Tories and much of the aristocracy.
The industrialists of the northern cities were not interested in sitting in parliament, that is true today across the globe. They left that to barristers, journalists and the like who would follow their wishes and the business of government all too often to aristocrats. An exception was the City which did, and does, provide a number of MPs. In today’s Tory ranks there are a number who play a very important role in advocating what the City wants.
If you visit the Palace of Westminster the entrance halls to the Central Lobby offers a very Whiggish history of English (in the main) history, with its imposing murals. England/Britain is a country of liberty, but one in which the people rally behind great monarchs like Alfred the Great, even more unlikely, Richard the Lionheart, and Queen Elizabeth 1. The events of the 1640s and 1680s are here but celebrated as leading to a great compromise where all came together behind King William and Queen Mary. It is compromise which is celebrated not revolution.
As Trotsky notes, empiricism is the method of the British bourgeoisie, because they did not need to develop an alternative worldview while making their revolution.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain - book review
- 1933: Warnings From History - book review
- The anti-Irish racism rooted in Scotland's elite
- Forty Lost Years - book review
- Transforming the past: Walter Scott and the historical novel
- Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe - book review
- Remembering Otelo Carvalho: from colonial war to revolution