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England Atomized

The Making of Modern English Society Vol. I Reformation to Industrial Revolution 1530-1780

by Christopher Hill
Pantheon, 256 pp., $6.95

The Making of Modern English Society Vol. II Industry and Empire 1750 to the Present Day

by G.J. Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 336 pp., $6.95

Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm have been commissioned to produce a new economic and social history of England in a little more than 600 pages. This is a meager allotment of space in which to explain why a small, poor country outside the mainstream of European development—Hill accurately describes her medieval status as “colonial”—rose to be one of the richest nations in the world in a matter of two centuries, why the same nation also took the lead in the process of technological expansion and development known as the Industrial Revolution, and why in the twentieth century she has subsided into a chronic state of economic valetudinarianism.

Of course, most of this crowded canvas must be covered with broad strokes, and much of it is the distillation of the opinion of modern historians; whatever else both authors had in mind, they have each produced a textbook, which will no doubt be used as such. But since neither Hill nor Hobsbawm is capable of thought or writing that is entirely unoriginal, these are textbooks of a high order, which will influence the teacher rather than the taught. Indeed, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, like Christopher Hill’s previous textbook, Century of Revolution, will probably be above the heads of most students. Brief, allusive, intensely civilized, it is really an extended essay in social history; and in its implied assumption of basic knowledge, its casual introduction of the unexpected, its interior rhythms, and its flawless timing, it is reminiscent of G. M. Young’s classic essay, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age. This is a portrait of 250 years rather than a standard history.

Hobsbawm has fewer literary graces, and his is a more angular, less gracious story anyway. Much of nineteenth-century economic history is immediately controversial in a way in which sixteenth-century history is not—outside faculty common rooms and the pages of learned journals, that is. But his analysis of the Industrial Revolution would be difficult to improve upon, and though his passions are often engaged, his conclusions are tactful and well controlled. His examination of the railway boom is particularly enlightening, and his conclusion that most nineteenth-century railway building was uneconomic from the beginning explains the difficulties of British nationalized railways today. If there is a criticism to be made it is of his failure to do justice to the cosmopolitan engineers, the new technocrats immortalized by Samuel Smiles, who took the Industrial Revolution out to Europe and the World. This cosmopolitanism was matched by Victorian manufacturers, too; on old-fashioned British urinals the wondering tourist still reads the legend “Oldham and Paris,” until recently Mappin & Webb, the cutlers, described themselves as being of “Sheffield, Paris and Buenos Aires,” and the Russian word for “railway station” is still “vauxhall.” He gives credit for the invention of the beer handle, but not the water closet or the Bramah lock.

To read these two books is to be reminded how exploded is the Trevelyan Olde Merrie England social history, “the history of a people with the politics left out.” Hill rejects it explicitly; Hobsbawm dismisses it as “no longer acceptable, if it ever was.” We are also reminded how respectable Marxism has become—or is it merely that its practitioners have become respectable? Christopher Hill, as Master of Balliol and Fellow of the British Academy, has made a spectacular leap to the very apex of the academic establishment, and if Hobsbawm’s preeminent claims to a chair of economic history continue to be overlooked he is certainly no longer regarded even in the most reactionary circles as “un homme des barricades.”

Of course, there are few English economic historians who do not owe a debt to Marx, and Marx’s theories of the rise of the bourgeoisie find an obvious echo in the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not to mention the nineteenth. It was this that gave an added dimension to the great quarrel between Trevor-Roper on the one hand and Tawney, Stone, and Hill on the other over whether the English gentry were rising or falling in the century before the Great Rebellion. To assume that they were falling is to discard Marx in toto, and this is a step which Hill is, probably rightly, reluctant to take.

He is still blankly hostile to the Tudor and Stuart monarchy, which he sees as a factor blocking economic development, especially under Charles I. In his view, it was an institution with a vested interest in preserving a backward economy, amenable to royal dictatorship, in which manufacture could plausibly be regarded as a branch of agriculture concerned with processing the harvest. So the revolution of 1641 and 1642, though it proved politically abortive and unfulfilled, is still to Hill “the most decisive single event in the whole of English history,” and he hails the Navigation Act of 1651 as the realization of “a Baconian vision towards which men had long been groping, that state control and direction could stimulate material progress.”

Yet the crudely determinist version of the Great Rebellion, enlightened bourgeoisie versus feudal monarchy, which Hill was pushing thirty years ago, has disappeared. Indeed, it has never been an obvious feature of his mature work. He now seems disenchanted with the landed bourgeoisie altogether; their imposition of a wage freeze in an era of rising prices was a particularly unscrupulous form of passive oppression. Much as he applauds the political revolution of the seventeenth century he is sickened by its social consequences—he admits that the poor as a class date from the revolutionary decades; and he is realistic enough to see that the notorious Act of Settlement of 1662 was a high price to pay for economic expansion. For some time now the heroes of his tale have not been the gentry, who are morally past redemption, but an indeterminate class known as “the middling sort of people.”

As for the eighteenth century, he argues that the institution of slavery brutalized English society and English thinking, to the extent that it even affected the established Church. It was Dean Tucker who remarked that relations between master and man “approach much nearer to that of a planter and slave in our American colonies than might be expected of such a country as England.” Though Negro slavery was almost unknown in England itself, it was the cornerstone of her world-wide commercial and colonial system, and the zest with which she put down the slave trade (after it had served her purpose) only emphasized her holy hypocrisy, a hypocrisy which revolution within the Church did nothing to alleviate. In fact, Hill remarks that “one of the worst counts against the early Methodists is their condonation of child labour because they were convinced of the dangers of idleness to the originally sinful.”

The residue of Marxism seems to be a nagging social conscience, and in Industry and Empire, as so often before, Hobsbawm leads a furious attack on the “classical” economic historians, like Hartwell and T. S. Ashton, who argue that contrary to the subjective and emotive evidence of contemporaries, the Industrial Revolution brought increasing prosperity to the working classes. Nor has he any sympathy with doctrinaire economists who see the social unrest of the 1840s as a “revolution of rising expectations”:

We have yet to see many examples of people ready to mount the barricades because they have not yet been able to advance from owning bicycles to automobiles, though they are more likely to be militant if, once used to bicycles, they become too impoverished to afford them.

He is particularly scathing on the economic advisers to modern governments, who have not only rejected Marxism but abandoned any principles of operation at all. Of the Great Depression of 1929-31 he remarks:

The economists, with what can only be described as a quiet heroism worthy of Don Quixote, nailed their flag to the mast of Say’s law, which proved that slumps could not actually occur at all. Never did a ship founder with a captain and crew more ignorant of the reasons for its misfortune or more impotent to do anything about it.

Later he expands this:

A good deal of economics has the function not so much of telling government or business what they ought to do, as of telling them that what they are doing (or not doing) is right. Government policy tends to reflect not so much the best contemporary economics as the politically most acceptable economics, and often the simplified and vulgarised version of the science which is what actually tends to penetrate outside the ranks of the experts. In a country like Britain, in which few professional economists have ever been Cabinet ministers and none permanent secretary to the Treasury, this filtering process has always been very effective.

The nature of this advice helps to explain why Britain, which is probably still the third industrial power in the world, and whose industry is bolstered by a large and (in consumer terms) sophisticated home market, still lurches from one economic crisis to another and is afflicted by a dizzying lack of self-confidence.

Of course, the tragedy of Marxism is that its fulfillment in the dictatorship of the proletariat has proved impossible. In Russia and China it has produced a bureaucratic intelligentsia wedded to a state capitalism if anything less justifiable and less efficient in all respects than the old free-enterprise kind. The urge for the Marxian apotheosis is watered down into the yearning for equality which is at the basis of socialism. (It was Professor W. Arthur Lewis who said in response to a question, that Socialism was “about equality.” In modern Britain it seems to have no other distinctive feature.)

The dominance of London, the mobility fostered by a lavish and wasteful railway network, the decline of provincial newspapers, the national standards set by Oxford and Cambridge, have made England among the most homogeneous of modern nations. It has a simple and open two-class system, about which a great deal of nonsense has been talked, but not by Hobsbawm; and the upper or “middle class” (the old aristocratic upper class being of no significance except as tourist bait) is almost uniform in speech, dress, and behavior. (Regional affectations like Harold Wilson’s Huddersfield accent are retained largely for effect.) It is one of the few European countries which has entirely lost its peasantry, and lost them early; and, as Hobsbawm points out, its agriculture, as a result of the Second World War, is supremely efficient.

Yet these opportunities for equality have been ignored, and for this Hobsbawm firmly, and probably rightly, blames the grossly unequal secondary school system and the grossly inadequate system of higher education, which has created on the one side a new elite, no longer the Top Ten Thousand educated at the public schools but the Top Ten Percent who are admitted to university; and on the other side a hopeless proletariat, well-paid, adequately housed, cosseted by the trade unions and the government, but with no prospects of advancement at all. Yet this proletariat is sufficiently literate to recognize its fate and is naturally discontented.

Of course, what Hobsbawm calls “the vicious circle of modern industrial society, in which the underprivileged find their lack of privilege reinforced, the uneducated their lack of education a permanent barrier, the stupid their stupidity fatal, the weak their weakness doubled,” affects all civilized nations; but it has affected England most of all. The concept of “The Lonely Crowd,” fashioned for America, is directly applicable to England, and Christopher Hill’s comment on the eighteenth century—“Warmth and social solidarity were what was lacking in this atomized and individualized society”—could equally well be applied to the twentieth.

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