Cutting Classes

Class, Sect and Party: The Making of the British Middle Class, Leeds 1820–1850

by R.J. Morris
Manchester University Press, 356 pp., £45.00

Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1840–1914

by Patrick Joyce
Cambridge University Press, 449 pp., $49.95

The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain, 1880–1950

by Ross McKibbin
Oxford University Press, 308 pp., $65.00

When John Major unexpectedly became Britain’s prime minister in November 1990, he announced that his chief political ambition was to make the country a “classless society,” a commitment which he repeated even more vigorously after the recent general election. That Mr. Major seemed to be turning his back on such eternal Conservative verities as tradition, hierarchy, and inequality is only one of the many ironies in this extraordinary remark. That he seemed to be committing the Tories to something which Marx eagerly looked forward to as the end point of the historical process, and which had for most of the twentieth century been the raison d’être of the Labour Party, is yet another. But there is a third irony, which for a historian is the most intriguing of them all. In recognizing that the classless millennium has not yet been ushered in, Mr. Major reminds us just how class-bound a society Britain still is—and, by implication, always has been. Yet in seeing class as so central an element in British life and in British history, he has adopted a position exactly the opposite of the one it has recently become fashionable for social historians to maintain.

It has not always been so. For thirty years after the Second World War, the social history of modern Britain was written almost exclusively in Marxist—or Marxist-influenced—terms of class development, class consciousness, and class conflict. Briefly summarized, the argument ran as follows. The Industrial Revolution transformed not only Britain’s economy but also its social structure, by creating the world’s first entrepreneurial middle class and laboring proletariat, who were, inevitably, locked in conflict with each other. By the mid-nineteenth century, the bourgeois industrialists were firmly in control, and their creed of liberal self-help became the prevailing ideology of the nation.

By contrast, the working classes fared less well. Their early experience of the industrialization process was harsh and disruptive, and by the 1830s and 1840s they were discontented and close to rebellion. But their revolutionary ardor was soon blunted as the prosperous artisans who might have provided the next generation of active leadership, the so-called “labour aristocracy,” were bought off by their employers, and comfortably assimilated into the mid-Victorian “age of equipoise.” Only during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the British working class able to rediscover its sense of collective identity through the trade union movement and the Labour Party.

During the last twenty years or so, virtually every aspect of this cogent and still influential interpretation has come under attack. The Industrial Revolution has been reinterpreted as a gradual process, which produced neither a self-conscious working class nor a homogeneous bourgeoisie. Far from being fully fledged class conflict, the disturbances during the Napoleonic Wars and the 1830s and 1840s were small-scale, local, and ephemeral. Throughout the mid-Victorian period, the middle class remained weak and divided, and there was no such thing as a labor aristocracy. Even in the closing decades of the nineteenth …

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Letters

Cutting Classes’ April 8, 1993