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No Marx for Historical Research

The Bourgeois Epoch
Richard F. Hamilton
University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Born to Rule: British Political Lives
Ellis Wasson
Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Like most people, I have never read a word of Marx, but that does not make The Bourgeois Epoch any the less enjoyable, especially since it tells us that not just were his predictions hopelessly wrong (as everyone knows), but that his historical research was negligible and that his analyses of the revolutionary crises of his own time, of which there were quite a number, were inconsistent, not only with each other, but with the actual facts as they happened. The writings which Hamilton analyses are ones written ad hoc between 1848, a year of revolutions and attempted revolutions, and when The Communist Manifesto was publshed, and 1851, when Louis Napoleon ended the French Second Republic with a coup d’etat.

Marx attempted to interpret history as a sort of economic jungle-warfare conducted between distinct classes. There is a sense of unreality here, when it is realised that what we think are great movements, events and landmarks, such as the Renaissance, Reformation, the discovery of the New World, the rise of nations and struggle for domination, even the not so long ago Napoleonic War, Marx regarded as irrelevancies and unimportant surface phenomena compared with what was really going on. And what was that? The aristocratic feudal order was being replaced by the the Bourgeois Epoch, the rule of the bourgeoisie. This, by its capitalist system would propel the rest of the population into a proletariat, which, driven into increasing misery, would revolt against it and take over. The prospect of this was, in the words of The Communist Manifesto, “a spectre that [was] haunting Europe”. Except, as Hamilton points out, there was no true proletariat, in the industrial sense of large numbers of factory-workers, on the Continent at the time. Marx and Engels were mesmerised by what was going on in Britain, where there were factories and an industrial proletariat, though not one that had any strong propensity to revolution. France, and Paris in particular, was still at the “artisan” stage, small workshops with a boss and a few employees.

Hamilton remorselessly and elegantly dismantles Marx’s whole construction. In the first place, as he reiterates again and again, the bases for his theories are entirely assertions, without any foundations in research. Thus to Marx (and Engels) England, the most developed industrial country, must have had a bourgeois revolution, and since its Civil War ended by deposing and executing its monarch and abolishing the House of Lords and the Church of England establishment, that would be it. There was, of course, the Restoration in 1660, which brought back the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England, and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which replaced a Catholic with a Protestant King. These events do not seem to have affected Marx or Engels, and rightly so – for the Civil War was not a bourgeois revolution. “The rich merchant oligarchies in the cities were either cautiously and selfishly neutral or sided with the King as the protector and patron of their political and economic privileges.”

If Marx had examined the structure of British governments throughout the next two centuries, he would have noticed to what extent the aristocracy remained in control. This was because they knew the ropes; an actual bourgeois exception, Bright, brought into Gladstone’s cabinet, purely as a political makeweight, was a misfit and a disaster. The middle class, in fact, was quite content to have a governing class running the country and leaving them alone to make their money. Perhaps the clearest statement to this effect was made to the French historian Hyppolyte Taine by “one of the greatest industrialists in England”. This anonymous tycoon said bluntly: “It is not our aim to overthrow the aristocracy: we are ready to leave the government and high offices in their hands. For we believe, we men of the middle class, that the conduct of national business calls for special men, men born and bred to the work for generations, and who enjoy an independent and commanding situation.” This was a state of affairs about as far from class warfare as it is possible to conceive. Moreover, unlike today, there were no sources of career politicians, top civil servants and diplomats (who had to be, of course, fluent in French) other than the richer landed gentry. This evidence of Marx and Engels’ lack of research is matched by similar evidence on their analyses and explanations of (to British readers) the less familiar goings-on on the Continent, mainly in France, which provides rich material in the way of revolutions and coups from 1789 (the bourgeois revolution) to 1851. Hamilton does not give their reactions to the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, a far bloodier event than any he deals with.

From the tortuous interpretations that Marx is forced into to explain one crisis after another and their different outcomes, numerous categories and subdivisions of his economic classes, once so simple as a mere two ultimate antagonists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, come out into the light. Thus the bourgeoisie proper (or haute bourgeoisie) is subdivided into the “industrial” and “financial” bourgeoisie. But just as the bourgeoisie has its poorer, weaker element, the petty bourgoisie, the proletariat is found to be contaminated by a sort of scum or dross, the lumpenproletariat. These are both categories into which Marx put something that didn’t behave as it should. The fate of the petty bourgeoisie is to be degraded by ruthless competition into the proletariat, but before this happens, Marx assigns it a number of different political alliances, according to what he thinks (usually wrongly) happened during each crisis. The lumpenproletariat is a mere receptacle for abuse. The same applies to the peasantry who dwell in “the idiocy of rural life”, and for which Marx can find no meaningful role, though it constituted the majority (“the missing majority”, notes Hamilton) of the population under consideration, except in Britain.

Then there are the categories to which Marx seems to have been indifferent or even blind. First there were the thousands of bureaucrats who kept the wheels of society and the state turning, more or less regardless of what government there was, as long as they kept their jobs. Then the Army and the Police: these obvious implements of coercion and suppression are not treated as sections of society, or even discussed as mere agents of a ruling class.

Finally there were the intellectuals, “the missing coterie”, as Hamilton puts it, of which Marx was preeminently one. Again, these could be subdivided: one the mere tools of some interest-group or class, and another, “free-floating”, objective and above the battle. Thus, at a stroke, these generators of ideas, agitators and propagandists are removed, either to be dumped in the class to which they belonged, or absolved from the responsibility of having anyone pay any attention to them and act on their suggestions or conclusions. Since Marx believed that what was going to happen was inevitable, obviously forecasting it would make little difference, nor would explaining it after it had happened. Did he ever ask himself why he bothered to do one or the other? For a most sinister irony was the result.

Unfortunately Marx’s faulty reasoning, so unsparingly laid bare in this book, produced a programme sufficiently simple and convincing to promote and excuse the hatred and violence it demanded to bring about its consummation, “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, a phrase so obviously meaningless as to be accepted only by the wilfully intellectually blind.

Marx would have been forced to revise his views or radically alter his definition of the bourgeoisie if he had been aware of the facts about the British ruling class painstakingly unearthed by Ellis Wasson, and set out in his Conclusion at the end of his book Born to Rule:

For more than three centuries [from about 1550 to 1900] landed families dominated the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Parliament had been the perfect mechanism to embody and enhance their authority and status. The upper chamber provided both a guarantee that important families would have an automatic place in the legislature and offered a goal to which those on the make could aspire. The lower house ensured that the elite remained alert to interests other than their own. The electoral system, even when actual polls were rare, meant that those born blue-blooded had to complete for places and the door to the inner sanctum of the elite was kept open to the unpedigreed with energy, intelligence and money.

Wasson demonstrates that, for most of our Parliament’s existence, it was the larger landowners that occupied seats in both the lower and upper houses and that families could maintain their hold on them for centuries. Although he deals exhaustively with all the elites of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, it is inevitably England whose elite provides the most continuity in the completed United Kingdom. Dividing families into those with more than and less than six members over the period, it is quite apparent that the six-plus category wins easily – 75.4% to 24.6% for the period 1295-1994, with 8,142 MPs from 368 families. That this gives an average of 22 members per family shows that Wasson’s division into more or less than 6 is realistic, not contrived: the other category, with 2,658 MPs for 1,119 families, gives less than 2.4 MPs per family. Note that the “successful” (by nearly ten times) were only one-third the number of the “unsuccessful” families.

There is no doubt that the Elite, closely related to the aristocracy, ran the country. They appropriated parliamentary seats almost as of right, with a mixture of deference and bribery securing the allegiance of the usually very small numbers of electors. Eldest sons of peers would regularly sit in the Commons until they succeded their fathers in the Lords. From the mid sixteenth century, it became apparent to the rulers and would-be rulers that a seat in the Commons was an important indicator of their status as well as a possible route to influence, power and riches – and the House of Lords; it signified to others who they were. Perforce the monarch picked his counsellors from them as well as from the Lords.

How exclusive was this Elite? Lawrence Stone, in An Open Elite? emphasised the rarity of penetration. Wasson, who criticises Stone’s sampling methods, finds it much less so and that the lower gentry, from which the Elite was ultimately recruited, much more open with money, of course, being the key. Although land was the greatest source of riches – even in Victorian times finance and manufacturing came much lower down – business and trade were not spurned as sources of income by the elite.

Ultimately, beginning with the great Reform Act of 1832, decline set in. Even so, it took a long time and two more reform Acts to end aristocratic dominance. During most of the nineteenth century, aristocrats were in the majority in British Cabinets, and they held the higher posts. The “last aristocratic majority served under the bourgeois Gladstone” in 1892, though until 1914 aristocrats in the Cabinet were still around 40% – and Cabinets were getting larger. But by the next century, with the urban enfranchisement becoming preponderant, the aristocracy’s ties to land effectively homogenised it and delivered it to one party, which was, of course, the Conservatives. And these, of course, could not always be in power.

Wasson claims that the British governing class was an elite consisting of surprisingly few families over time that operated and displayed its power through Parliament, and this is what defines it while other “repeated attempts to identify with precision the dynamics of the membership of the ruling class have failed”. The fact that there is now no governing class as Wasson defines it, interested in keeping a tight grip on its family seats, may account for the ease with which the powers of Parliament are being eroded today.

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2 comments to No Marx for Historical Research

  • Johanthan

    Superb reviews both. A lot of food for thought. A quick one: by dominating the political establishment for so long, the English aristocracy ensured that the middle class (however defined) was almost forced to achieve riches via business, commerce, not to mention the arts, sciences and even via the armed forces. Also, nonconformist Christians like the Quakers excelled in business too precisely because of the Anglican church’s control of places like Oxford, Cambridge and other parts of the old order.

    Have you read “The Lunar Men” by Jenny Uglow? Very worthwhile reading and gells with a lot of the points in this article.

  • JK

    Please read some Marx before trying to comment in future.

    Richard Hamilton begins his book with the lines:

    “Beginning in the mid-1840s Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed a general social theory which, supposedly, provided the key to the world’s historical development.”

    In 1877 Marx wrote (in French):

    “Events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historical surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by using as one’s master key a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.”
    (Letter from Marx to Editor of the Otyecestvenniye Zapisky)

    Not a promising start.