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.1

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 century, the bourgeoisie failed to achieve economic or cultural preeminence, while the working class was predominantly conservative and quiescent, often divided internally against itself. Instead of being a society torn apart by class antagonisms, nineteenth-century Britain was a country characterized by a high degree of consensus, in which class divisions were far less clear-cut than it was once fashionable to suppose, where the different social groupings merged easily and almost imperceptibly one into another, and where national loyalties outweighed sectional interests. 2

Indeed, so influential has been the revisionism expressing such views that the two latest studies of modern British social history have virtually ignored class altogether, something that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago. Of course they acknowledge that lower, middle, and upper classes can be measured by standards of income and wealth, but they do not accept the idea that economic classes have self-conscious social identities and political aims.3

The belief in the appropriateness of class analysis to social history has been further undermined by the recent interest in theories of language and in the study of gender. As a result of their discovery of what is called “the linguistic turn,” some scholars now argue that the history of class is not, as was once thought, the history of the relations between wage laborers and capitalists; rather it is the history of the language people used, since it was words that provided the essential source of their individual and collective identity. Viewed from this linguistic perspective, class never really existed as a social reality: it was nothing more than a rhetorical construction. 4

Equally subversive is the work of a new generation of feminist scholars, who have criticized traditional histories of class for having been almost exclusively concerned with men. For they contend that once the history of women is given its due weight, and the underlying tensions between the sexes are recognized and explained, one can see that the apparent solidarity within classes ignores the experience of women. Women as workers were one thing: women as women were another.5 Between them, therefore, the social historians of language, and the feminist historians of gender, have strongly reinforced the growing disenchantment with traditional class analysis which has characterized recent empirical research.


As is so often the case in the writing and interpretation of modern British history, the latest scholarly trends rejecting the old class-based model coincide with broader changes in public life. In Britain, the decline in numbers and political power of the traditional working class, the defeat of the trade unions, and the inexorable triumph of the Conservatives seem to have ushered in a post-socialist society in which the Labour Party and the history of class consciousness and class conflict, once an important adjunct of it, have both become outmoded.6 The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has thrown Marxism itself into question, not only as a prescription for the future but also as an interpretation of the past. Communism is dead, therefore Marxism is dead, therefore the idea of class is dead: thus runs the argument. “Class,” Baroness Thatcher recently insisted in the pages of Newsweek, “is a Communist concept,”7 and as such she believes it can now safely be consigned to the trash-can of history, along with the cold war, the Berlin Wall, and Lenin’s mausoleum.

Even by the much-debased standard of her post-prime-ministerial utterances, Thatcher’s remark seems peculiarly foolish and ignorant. For social class and the language used to describe and explain it evolved in Britain long before Marx came upon the scene. Indeed, recent work on Hanoverian Britain has been much concerned with its essentially tripartite social structure, in which a powerful bourgeoisie accepted a place between the patricians and the plebes.8 That some British historians have been showing the importance of class in the eighteenth century casts both logical and chronological doubt on the simultaneous efforts of their colleagues to take class out of the nineteenth. So, from a different but complementary standpoint, do the words of Mr. Major. He does not pretend to be a historian or a sociologist, and there is very little evidence that he has any idea what it would actually take to usher in the classless millennium; but in his instinctive feeling that modern Britain remains a classbound society, he is surely correct. Yet if this is, indeed, the case, then when and how did his classbound society come into being? And how can it be reconciled with the recent tendency of many historians to diminish the importance of class during the nineteenth century? It is against this changing and confusing background that the books under review—each of them concerned with the degree to which class consciousness and class conflict have shaped British history—need to be understood.


In describing the explosive development of Bradford in Yorkshire from overgrown village to factory town to industrial city, Theodore Koditschek shows himself well aware of these recent scholarly trends. But in placing class formation and class conflict at the center of his account, he strongly restates the traditional Marxist view. Between 1810 and 1850, Bradford became one of the great textile towns of the West Riding, as production was revolutionized by the application of steam power. Its population grew by six times, and its output of worsted woolens increased thirteenfold. For much of this period, it was the fastest growing town in the world, and was appropriately known as “worstedopolis.” As workers poured in from the countryside, and as new, large, steam-powered factories proliferated, the environment deteriorated alarmingly. There was dreadful overcrowding and pollution, working conditions were often barbaric, and local philanthropic efforts were ineffectual. Bradford had no members of Parliament before 1832, and until it was incorporated as a town in 1847, the public services provided were pitifully inadequate. As one contemporary remarked, it was “the dirtiest, worst-regulated town in England.”

In such a setting, Koditschek contends, the formation of classes and the growing antagonism between them dominated social and political life. Beginning in the 1820s, the worsted industry was taken over by a new generation of young entrepreneurs who came from other parts of Great Britain. Most of them were more liberal in their politics than the preceding generation of Bradford elites, and more nonconformist in their religious beliefs; they sought to make the world in their own image of “competitive individualism” and self-help. But for the working classes, the impact of such unbridled and unregulated capitalism was terrible. Their customary culture was destroyed, along with their traditional skills and occupations, which meant they were demoralized, dispossessed, and made into a proletariat. During the severe, uncontrollable economic downturns of the 1830s and 1840s, there was heavy unemployment, unprecedented poverty, and widespread discontent, all of which underlay the Chartist agitation of those years. Here, Koditschek insists, was direct confrontation between the workers and their employees, and violent class war was only narrowly averted. Yet within a decade, this early Victorian crisis was almost completely resolved. The economy improved, and so did the urban environment. Entrepreneurs became more responsible, and worker militancy declined. The era of “mid-Victorian stabilization” had been successfully ushered in.


The general contours of Koditschek’s case study closely resemble the broader account of British history that prevailed in the days when the class interpretation of social change was preeminent. But that scarcely does justice to the scope and significance of Koditschek’s book, which is based on prodigious research and deals as thoroughly with the bourgeoisie as with the working classes. The author is equally familiar with economic, urban, social, and political history, and he makes important contributions to current debates about the standard of living, the working-class family, and social control. The result is the most comprehensive history I have seen of an English town during the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. Moreover, at a time when it is fashionable to minimize the nature and impact of the Industrial Revolution, it is useful to be reminded just how disruptive and traumatic an experience it could be. Those who want to know what it was like to be in a frontier town in early nineteenth-century England can find the answer in Koditschek’s book.

Unfortunately, Koditschek’s prose is often long-winded and contorted, and a passage like “the arena of exchange where the larger hegemony of capitalism as a system of social relations seemed almost tautologically assured” is not unusual. Such words as “insurgency,” “tyranny,” “extirpation,” “enslavement,” and “catastrophism” are frequently excessive for the events they actually describe. Nor, despite a heroic effort, does Koditschek succeed in demonstrating that class consciousness and class conflict were as pervasive and fundamental as he claims. The middle classes were bitterly divided among themselves over matters of status, occupation, party politics, and religious affiliation, while many members of the working class seem to have been decidedly lukewarm about Chartism, the movement for universal male suffrage and more democratic institutions which took place between 1838 and 1848. As the author rather wearily admits, “the historian should not expect to encounter [class] empirically in its pure theoretical form”—even, it seems, in industrializing Bradford. But if the existence of class as a causal factor cannot satisfactorily be demonstrated in a town which furnished one of the most extreme instances of industrial change and social disruption, it certainly raises doubts about the general applicability of that concept to early nineteenth-century Britain as a whole.

As if in corroboration of this point, R.J. Morris’s study of Leeds is less dogmatically committed to the traditional canons of Marxist class analysis. In its essential outlines, the story he has to tell is similar to Koditschek’s—not surprisingly, since Leeds and Bradford were scarcely ten miles apart, and both owed their prosperity to the growth of the textile industry. While Leeds was the larger town, and its economy had diversified into engineering, commerce, and retailing, as in Bradford the uneven but persistent move in the woolen industry from work by hand to steam power provided the essential impetus to social and political change. As in Bradford, too, the old Tory Anglican elite was displaced from its position of economic dominance and civic leadership by a new generation of liberal, non-conformist entrepreneurs from the 1820s onward. In both towns, the combined effects of population growth, technological change, and environmental decay were deeply unsettling for laboring men and women, while there was no parliamentary representation before 1832, and local government was wholly inadequate. Moreover, the fluctuations in the trade cycle during the 1830s and 1840s gave rise to unprecedented popular unrest in both places.

Morris’s main concern is to explore the public and institutional life of the Leeds middle class, which, unlike the rapacious bourgeoisie of Bradford depicted by Koditschek, was not single-mindedly determined to dominate the town in the interests of the entrepreneurial ethic. On the contrary, the Leeds middle class was deeply divided by status and occupation: the merchants and professionals were the class leaders, and most of the businessmen and the petty bourgeoisie were a long way behind. Religion and party politics were no less divisive, and this meant it was extremely difficult for the Leeds middle class to act in a united way. Only through their voluntary associations were they able to overcome the obstacles to forming an active and coherent class; they did so by suspending sectarian and political differences in pursuit of shared aims—cultural self-improvement (e.g., the Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society) and local charitable activity (e.g., the Society for the relief of the Poor). Through such efforts, the Leeds middle classes created a sense of their own identity, and sought to establish a settled relationship with their social inferiors. As such, these voluntary associations were the precarious culmination of a distinctly uncertain process of class formation. For Koditschek, class is the fundamental form of association, and everything else is an aberration. But for Morris, a unified class is formed only in those rare instances when other, powerfully divisive forces are overcome.

Compared with Koditschek’s panorama, Morris’s account seems parochial and claustrophobic, its prose leaden and pedestrian, the place and its people lifeless. Throughout the book, Morris seems overwhelmed by the mass of quantitative data, and the number of tables and graphs is excessive. Although he concentrates on members of the middle class, he tells us little about their private lives (women are hardly mentioned), or their relation to the country, the rest of the world. He claims that party politics were very important, but scarcely alludes to the campaigns for parliamentary reform or for the repeal of the Corn Laws, and his discussion of general elections is confined to the years 1832 and 1834. The working classes are largely presented as passive beneficiaries of middle-class philanthropy, and are never brought to the center of his account. As a result, Chartism—the most explosive and dramatic social convulsion of the nineteenth century—is virtually ignored. Time and again we are told that voluntary societies were “the basis of class formation in public life,” a “class project of major importance in the making of the British middle class.” But these claims are asserted rather than proved.

The fundamental problem is that Morris’s book evolved from a doctoral dissertation completed in 1970. The author has been evidently updating his work since then, but the result is an unsure and unhappy mix of traditional class analysis and more recent approaches. When he began his research, Leeds must have offered a splendid opportunity to study “the making of the British middle class.” Since then, he has added material on religion and party politics, put less emphasis on explanations based on class interests, and tried to assimilate new work stressing the weaknesses and divisions of the bourgeoisie. But this prevents him from reaching any distinctive conclusions. As if announcing a discovery, he tells us that “British towns of the nineteenth century were the locations and structures within which the middle classes sought, extended, experienced and defended their power.” But who has ever maintained that this was not the case? And when he urges us to see the middle class as “part of capitalist society, and as part of a complex web of subordination and power relationships,” he is merely platitudinous: the fundamental relationship between the middle classes in one city and the broader structures of economic, political, and social power in the nation as a whole are left unaddressed.


Despite their undoubted merits, neither of the two books is thus as central as it might have been to the rethinking of modern British social history that has been taking place since the 1970s, Koditschek because of his dogmatic determination to return to the traditional class-based model of social change and social conflict, Morris because his valiant effort to take account of more recent work merely results in confused analysis and uncertain conclusions. By comparison, Patrick Joyce draws on poststructuralist theory to try to put class firmly in its place—and to move beyond it. As he sees it, class was only one, and not the most important, of the ways in which the laboring people of industrial England viewed the social order, and their own position within it. After a detailed examination of popular fiction, music hall songs, dialect literature, plebeian histories, workingmen’s almanacs, and seaside postcards, he concludes that class consciousness was much less important than the more inclusive and more traditional notion of “the people,” who thought of themselves and their society in very different terms from those prescribed by Marx. “Class,” Joyce observes, “did not lurk behind the image of the people. What was there was nothing other than the body of the people itself.”

“Populism” is the name he gives to the assortment of ideas that, he insists, were shared by most nineteenth-century working-class men. They believed in honesty and hard work, in respectability and independence, in fair play and the dignity of labor, in social concord and good fellowship, and in the mutual interests and obligations of employers and employed. They took great pride in their craft, in the company they worked for, in their city, in their region, and in their nation. They enjoyed entertainments such as horse-racing and football which brought men and women together from varied social backgrounds, and they regarded class antagonisms as alien, divisive, and unnatural. Still, like their eighteenth-century forebears, they disliked the idle and privileged rich, whether aristocrats, businessmen, members of Parliament, or cabinet ministers. In short, theirs was a robust, patriotic, sentimental popular culture: nineteenth-century working-men did not think of themselves in class terms, and they did not regard Victorian society as a class society. Not surprisingly, such attitudes underlay the popular Liberalism and popular Toryism of the second half of the nineteenth century, and eventually found their fullest expression in the Labour Party. Only during the First World War, Joyce insists, were these broader notions of “the people” superseded by the more narrow and exclusive identities of class, as labor and capital were pitted against each other in an unprecedentedly antagonistic way.

Thus summarized, Joyce’s book provides the most sustained assault yet on the idea of class, and the most constructive alternative to it that has so far been offered as a way of seeing and understanding nineteenth-century British society. Or, rather, it would do so if its arguments were clearer than, in fact, they are; for Joyce’s is an exceptionally difficult book to read: the chapters are not clearly organized and for a scholar who presumes to write about language, his prose is impenetrably opaque, frequently to the point of incomprehension. The chronology is also uncertain: the book moves too rapidly back and forth through the nineteenth century, and the alleged growth of class consciousness is neither described nor explained in satisfactory detail. While evidence is drawn from medium-sized factory towns in Lancashire, such as Oldham and Ashton, it is impossible to know whether they are representative of the British working class as a whole. For all his claims to be moving “beyond class,” Joyce seems unsure how far he really wants to go. He tells us at the start that he is “on the verge of denying class”; yet by the end, he informs us that “when all reservations have been made, it is still of value to retain the concept of class.” Even the most well-disposed reader will find it difficult to make sense of such contradictory claims.

Underlying these complaints are two more fundamental reservations. The first concerns the concept of “populism.” For most of the book, Joyce seems to be arguing that this is a more appropriate term than class for understanding the minds of laboring men. But he never makes clear precisely what he means by it. As used here, “populism” is a term so elastic and all-inclusive that virtually any expression of working-class opinion can be incorporated within it, with the result that it lacks historical specificity, and, thus, any real analytical power. The second reservation concerns Joyce’s concentration on language, and his attempt, using evidence from popular fiction and music hall songs, to reconstruct the subjective way in which men—there are very few women in his book—understood the social order and their place within it. Even supposing he is correct in his reconstruction of individual perceptions of society, this does not mean that we know what the social order was like, or how it worked. We are told nothing about the material circumstances of laboring men, or their daily relations with people who were better off or worse off. In putting so much emphasis on language, Joyce gives only a small part of the picture.

Much more wide-ranging are the essays collected by Ross McKibbin, which cover the period from 1880 to 1950, when 75 percent of the population of Britain were manual wage earners or people who depended on them: One of McKibbin’s concerns is to establish the “social character” of this working class, which he believes was very different from that ascribed to it by (mainly middle-class) contemporary observers. Of course, members of the working class gambled: on dogs, horses, and football. But in most cases, gambling was the subject of much careful thought, and did not drive the family into penury, despite the conventional wisdom that it did. In the same way, it was widely believed in the late nineteenth century that the workers performed sluggishly in the factory because they were more interested in their hobbies at home. But as McKibbin shows, work and leisure activities were not competing but complementary: those who spent hours breeding canaries or tending their small plots of land were usually the most alert and energetic at their jobs. And even when they were unemployed during the depressed interwar years, as so many of them were, the working classes were far less demoralized than social commentators were inclined to think. In short, middle-class people knew very little about working-class life: indeed, the author is convincingly skeptical about how much any one class can ever really know about another.

McKibbin’s second concern is to explore the links between working-class life and the working-class politics of the fledgling Labour Party. In fact, these links were often very weak. Before 1914, most working men were not much interested in politics, and only 60 percent of all adult males could vote. It was hardly surprising that the Labour Party did not do well at the polls before the First World War, and improved its position only after the franchise was extended in 1918. But even then, McKibbin insists, a large majority was opposed to the working class, which helps explain why the Conservatives were the dominant party during the interwar years. And when Labour briefly came to power, between 1929 and 1931, it was obliged to deal with a catastrophic slump, for which no obvious remedies were then available, since Keynes’s theories of deficit financing had not yet been worked out. Before World War II, the Labour Party—and the working class—were thus very much on the margins of British political life, and they only triumphed in the very special circumstances of the 1945 general election.

McKibbin’s essays are often fresh and illuminating, especially compared with the other books under review. It is important to be reminded how much working-class life improved in Britain during the last quarter of the nineteenth century: the leek-growing, pigeon-racing, football-playing people described here seem a world away from Koditschek’s crushed and exploited proletarians of half a century before. In stressing the powerful obstacles to the formation of a radicalized, self-conscious working-class party, McKibbin implicitly endorses Morris’s picture of the Leeds bourgeoisie earlier in the century, which was so divided against itself that it could only rarely act with the class unity of which it was potentially capable. And when he quotes the Labour leader Arthur Henderson as saying that his party was “in politics, not in the interests of a class, but to further the interests of the community as a whole,” we can perhaps detect the authentic voice of working-class “populism” as described by Patrick Joyce. Even more significant is McKibbin’s suggestion that Britain was a nation characterized by a high degree of social cohesiveness but by much less social integration; people felt part of the same society but were well aware that it was divided into groups that would not converge. Life in the various associations people joined could be richly satisfying, but in ways that inhibited, rather than promoted, class conflict. “Groups and classes,” he concludes, “lived and let live.”

McKibbin writes gracefully and displays remarkable scope and erudition. Inevitably, given their brief and self-contained compass, his essays raise more questions than they answer. The working class of which he writes is, like that of the other historians under review, almost entirely masculine: the male world of work and hobbies is well treated, but the domestic sphere of the household is hardly mentioned. The middle classes make only brief appearances, the petty bourgeoisie is entirely absent, and there is little sign in the book of the “ideology” referred to in the title. Some aspects of working-class culture such as the hobbies I have mentioned are vividly described, and so are middle-class prejudice and incomprehension: but in neither case do we have a clear sense of an ideology. And while it is salutary to be told that social relations cannot be fully understood without taking account of the nature and role of the state, this insight is not followed up in the detail it merits.

Nor is the attempt to link social history and political history entirely convincing. McKibbin’s claim that the restricted franchise held back the Labour Party before 1914 has provoked what he rightly describes as “a considerable critical literature,” most of it more concerned with the workings of the electoral system than with broader questions of political culture.9 And his account of politics during the two world wars, with an electoral majority powerfully and permanently mobilized against the trade unions and the Labour Party, reads more like a description of the Britain of the 1980s than of the 1920s and 1930s.


Karl Marx believed that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” and after the Second World War, a new generation of pioneering social historians sought to establish the essential truth of this dictum for nineteenth-century Britain. Pace Baroness Thatcher, the fact that communism has been discredited does not by itself invalidate Marxism as an analytic approach to historical analysis. More devastating has been the growing evidence—to which the books under review, either deliberately or inadvertently, lend their support—that the close links which Marx posited between material circumstances, class development, and political activity rarely, if ever, existed. The most that can be said is that at certain times, in certain places, a certain number of people did feel a sense of class identity. But the two opposing armies of fully conscious class warriors were much less in evidence than Marx’s theories implied. Instead of using Marx as a way of understanding the nineteenth century, historians would perhaps be better employed using the nineteenth century as a way of understanding Marx.

But if class is no longer the major explanatory force of historical change in the modern world, where does this leave the social history of the nineteenth century? If the writings of Marx no longer provide a reliable map to the historical landscape, then what are we to put in their place? One answer, favored by all the writers under review here except Koditschek, is to stress the variety of associations in people’s lives—as men or women, husbands or wives, parents or children; as members of trade unions or churches or football teams or political parties; as people with loyalties to their firm, their city, their county, their region, or their nation—a variety that gave rise to many fluctuating and sometimes contradictory senses of identity and patterns of behavior. Viewed from this perspective nineteenth-century social history should be primarily concerned with the recovery of the nuances and subtleties and ambiguities of this associational life—a life much more rich and varied than was the case in the very different British societies of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. If we take the long view, it may well be that class identities and class divisions were less clear-cut and less important during the nineteenth century than in the hundred years before and after.

Yet despite the best efforts of many of today’s historians to take class out of the nineteenth century, the fact remains that the Victorians were obsessed with it—or, at least, with something like it. Read carefully any contemporary novel, newspaper, or parliamentary debate, and the preoccupation is immediately apparent—not with class in the Marxist sense of relation to the means of production, but with those finely graded distinctions of prestige ranking to which sociologists give the name status. It is easy to forget (and not one of the books reviewed here mentions it) that the changes in social identities brought about by the Industrial Revolution were imposed onto an elaborate and preexisting hierarchy of ranks and orders. The result was a society of exceptional social complexity, and much of that complexity survives to this day, as it is bound to do in a nation where the head of state is a hereditary monarch, and the formal order of precedence remains little altered since Tudor times. Here is the root cause of the continuing British obsession with such matters as titles, honors, lineage, accent, deportment, and dress, which does so much to determine how a person is regarded and categorized by others, and which is what Mr. Major no doubt has in mind when he talks of making Britain a “classless” (i.e., status-less) society.

For Henry James, it was “the essential hierarchical plan of English society” which was “the great and ever-present fact to the mind of a stranger; there is hardly a detail of life that does not in some degree betray it.” For George Orwell, England was “the most class-ridden country under the sun.” Of course, those preoccupied with the “linguistic turn” will no doubt insist that these remarks only tell us about the rhetorically constructed social vision of James and Orwell. In fact, they also tell us a great deal about the status-conscious nature of British society. What is most urgently needed if we are to understand that nature and that society is neither a history of class nor a history of language, but a history of status—not just for individual towns or regions during the last fifty years or so, but a comprehensive study of social structure and social attitudes over the last three centuries for Britain as a whole. Thus described, it would be a daunting task. Who, if anyone, is willing to try?

This Issue

December 17, 1992