Goodbye to Nearly All That

The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition

by Alan Macfarlane
Cambridge University Press, 216 pp., $6.95 (paper)

It is not often that a book appears which challenges the whole corpus of conventional wisdom about the evolution of the modern world; which sets out to show that not just one but a whole pride of emperors have no clothes. Nor are the emperors obscure princelings: Marx and Weber are the main targets, but Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Tönnies are there too. Also included among those marked down for execution is almost every scholar who has ever attempted a general interpretation of the English transition from traditionalism to modernity. Tawney, Postan, Hilton, Hill, Homans, C.B. Macpherson, C.H. Wilson, this reviewer—we all rattle along in the tumbrel together, along with many others.

Mr. Macfarlane is an anthropologist as well as a historian, and he tells us that his studies of Himalayan society helped to stimulate his work on this book. The model he sets out to destroy is that which sees English historical development moving through three stages: first came the feudal society of nobles and peasants of the Middle Ages. This was shattered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the rise of the bourgeoisie, a market economy, urbanization, wage labor, capitalism, and the new ideologies of the Puritan Ethic and possessive individualism. In this fertile ground were sown the first seeds of industrialization, which has created the modern world of capitalists and proletariat, science and technology.

Oddly enough, Mr. Macfarlane’s central question about this version of history is not the validity of the economic so much as the ideological argument for it. When, he asks, did individualism arise? Individualism he defines as a value system which puts the needs and desires of every autonomous and equal person above those of the group to which he belongs or to society as a whole; which stresses political freedom and civil rights; and which gives every layman—or woman—direct access to God without the mediation of a priest. He argues first that the traditional model depends on the assumption that this value system first emerged in the Early Modern period; and second that this hypothesis can be tested by asking a socio-economic question: when was it that the peasantry disappeared?

At first and second sight, this seems a peculiar way to proceed, but it depends upon his definition of peasantry. To Mr. MacFarlane a peasant society is characterized by widely diffused, more or less equal, small-scale ownership of land, worked by family groups which form a unit of production and consumption. Such a society acts on the belief and legal reality that the land belongs to the household and kin, not the individual; that the land has symbolic value as inherited family patrimony and should never be sold; that the interests of the kin take precedence over those of the individual; that women and children are subordinated to the dictates of the patriarch; and (in the Western world) that primogeniture is the rule of inheritance.

If we are willing to accept these assumptions and definitions, what …

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