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5 October 2021updated 06 Oct 2021 4:54pm

Why the left must abandon the myth of British decline

The declinist theories championed by Perry Anderson blame the problems of the present on an imagined past.

By David Edgerton

In a profile of the historian Perry Anderson, which appeared in the New Statesman in 1999, Edward Skidelsky noted that Anderson’s exchange about British history with the historian E P Thompson in the mid-1960s was “as interesting and as revealing as the better-remembered ‘Two Cultures’ debate between FR Leavis and CP Snow” of a couple of years earlier. There, in an essay first published in the New Statesman, Snow argued that the country was suffering from a deeply ingrained, peculiarly British division between “two cultures”, the sciences and the arts. Scientists had the future in their bones, while writers were Luddites with a tendency to fascism. Since in Britain literature was on top and science, at best, on tap, the upshot was the decline of the British nation, which was going the way of the Venetian Republic.

The so-called debate or controversy between Snow and Leavis was no such thing. It was an asymmetric contest between an intellectual, the literary critic Leavis, and the ludicrous pretensions of the vulgar technocrat Snow. Anderson versus Thompson, by contrast, was a serious bout between two intellectual giants. To put Anderson’s brilliant “Origins of the Present Crisis” – the essay which sparked the debate after it appeared in the journal New Left Review in 1964 – alongside Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) is to compare a work of dazzling range and insight with one of plodding portentousness; the first glitters still, the other always groaned.

Yet there were similarities. Anderson on the UK is the thinking person’s CP Snow. They both addressed the same question – British decline – and supplied similar answers, not least in that they were both historical. For, like Snow, Anderson insisted that British society had glaciated in the late nineteenth century. While Snow absurdly argued that national development was hindered by the dominance of novelists and poets, for Anderson, the problem was Britain’s particular and still-Edwardian ruling class, an intellectually and politically supine labour movement and intellectual dilettantism.

Moments of declinism

While Snow could claim to be both a novelist and a scientist, Anderson’s intellectual range is much more impressive. His extraordinary account of European history set out in Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (both published in 1974) was followed by many works characterised by an astonishing capacity for searching examination of ideas from around the world. His writings on British history are, in the context of his wide-ranging oeuvre, mere marginalia. But it was nevertheless crucial to Anderson’s project to bring Marxism, and in particular the ideas of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, to bear on British history and to the UK’s somnolent intellectuals. This was the great project of the New Left Review, which Anderson edited from 1962, and with which he is still strongly associated.

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Anderson’s aim in “Origins” was to show the left that it needed a richer historical understanding of the reasons for the declining economic position of the UK in the early 1960s. The flourishing “condition of Britain” literature of this era of apparent crisis only scratched the surface of a deep historical problem. He argued that existing works of British history did not help. As he later put it in his blistering 1968 essay “Components of the National Culture”, “history without ideas slowly became a drought of ideas about history” – the British historian AJP Taylor, for example, indulged in “trivial and conventional narrative”. Anderson argued that what was needed, and what he would provide, would be something very different: a “totalising history”.

What Anderson did, in parallel with the Scottish historian and political theorist Tom Nairn, who focused on the history of the Labour Party, was to produce an extraordinary series of essays sketching such an account, what Anderson called a “distinctive total trajectory of modern British society, since the emergence of capitalism” and which became known as the “Nairn-Anderson theses”. They did so in spectacular, urgent prose of soaring ambition. They were young men – Anderson was in his late 20s, and Nairn in his early 30s – with a mission to transform British intellectual life, in particular of the left, to make up for Britain’s failure – a failure unique among European countries – to produce either a classical sociology or a national Marxism. They wanted to make sense of British capitalism, from the nature of its ruling class to its ideologies – a formidable agenda that hadn’t previously been broached.

Their argument was that neither the English Revolution of the seventeenth century nor the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth put the bourgeoisie into power or made it hegemonic. Britain’s industrial bourgeoisie merged with its landed aristocracy, creating a distinctive ruling class that was not a buccaneering bourgeoisie but an altogether less dynamic gentleman-amateur elite. Particularly important was a freezing of the nature of this elite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This period of empire “saturated and ‘set’ British society in a matrix it has retained to this day” (i.e., the 1960s).

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The results were grim. The liberalism and imperialism of the ruling class held back the national economy, and the development of a modernising state:

In England, the whole cumulative tradition of the governing class disables it…its virtues have been those of agrarian squirearchy and industrial laissez-faire. Now that these are gone, only its vices are left: universal dilettantism and anachronistic economic liberalism.

The British working class, formed by the comparatively early industrialisation of the British economy, missed out on socialism – “the increasing availability of socialism as an ideology, from 1850 onwards” came when Britain’s “working-class movement was at its lowest and least receptive ebb”, as Anderson put it – and so was stuck in Labourism as a consequence. The Labour Party – which, as Tom Nairn wrote, “arrived haltingly and late on the historical scene” – was confined to a pedantic, narrow-minded Fabianism, representing an interest, not an ideology. The party remained subaltern; its governing programme in the 1940s spoke to the continuing power of liberalism – Keynesian and Beveridgean welfare being nothing if not liberal. Labour did not – could not – understand power. It was neither a true opposition nor a natural party of government.

Updating decline

Anderson returned twice to elaborate and restate these arguments in the pages of New Left Review. In the late 1980s he produced “The Figures of Descent”, his most developed account of British history, and last year he extended the story to the present, testing his theses as he went, in the rather etiolated “Ukania Perpetua?”. The term “Ukania” is owed to Nairn, an erudite continental joke alluding to the Austrian writer Robert Musil’s “Kakania”, or “Shitania”, itself a play on the official designation of Austria-Hungary, and many of its institutions: “K und K” (“kaiserlich und königlich”), meaning Imperial and Royal. “Ukania” beautifully sums up Anderson and Nairn’s basic claim: the modern UK – “Ukania” – is a preposterous and doomed left-over from the Belle Epoque.

The central claim is that everything has remained essentially the same since the Edwardian years. Anderson still insists on the “the continuity of the British anomaly” to the present: “The central fact of the country’s modern history was the deep continuity of Britain’s ‘liberal market economy’” which “persisted, its basic shape unaltered, through Keynesian and Monetarist episodes alike”. He introduces a new term to his always exceptionally recondite vocabulary to describe the tendency of the UK elite to turn outward: “eversion”. For, a key part of the argument is that, unlike Europe’s model nations, which directed their energies to national development and transformation, the UK’s peculiar elite continued to put their global financial interests above the national one. The only slight discontinuity was the collapse of Labourism into a welfarist-Thatcherite New Labour.

Thompson’s response

Thompson accused Anderson of bringing empty theorising to British history, comparing it disfavourably with the idealised trajectories of imaginary Other Countries, and not recognising what he famously called “The Peculiarities of the English”, the title of Thompson’s response, published in Socialist Register in 1965.

As Thompson noted, Anderson’s characterisation of the UK’s elite owed a great debt to the bourgeois technocratic critiques of the late 1950s and early 1960s exemplified in CP Snow’s banalities. Thompson made this observation in a part of his response not published until the 1970s. He described the “uncomfortable affinity of tone” between “the journalistic diagnosticians of the British malaise” and Anderson: “Mr David Frost, Mr Shanks, and Comrade Anderson are saying different things but there is the same edge to the voice.” But there was more to the affinity than tone or voice: the analysis was at one level unmistakeably the same. As Anderson put it: “Today Britain stands revealed as a sclerosed, archaic society, trapped and burdened by its past successes.” There was “under-investment at home, lagging technological innovation since the end of the last century”; the Treasury, after the City of London (the financial centre), was “the second great albatross round the neck of British economic growth”, while the British educational system was only belatedly scientific. And so on and so forth, in just the way the declinists of the early 1960s, and since, went on.

The problem, as Thompson pointed out, was that Anderson’s account (and so many others) mischaracterised the British bourgeoisie as backward and supine when they were in fact modern and powerful, and committed to political economy and natural science, obviously modern ways of understanding and intervening in the world. Thompson also noted Anderson’s neglect of the specificities of Britain’s post-1945 interventionist and warfare state. He asked whether it was not to this new thing of vast power and influence, “rather than to the hunting of an aristocratic Snark, that an analysis of the political formations of our time should be addressed?” Thompson celebrated the real achievements of the British labour movement and the role of the Communist Party, of which he had been a member until 1956.

What Thompson had spotted, without naming or fully elucidating it, was Anderson’s declinism – a tendency to explain relative British post-war decline, which is beyond doubt, by wrongly invoking British national failings, usually of very particular kinds. In fact, Anderson has been the nation’s greatest, as well as most longstanding, declinist. Not only that, he has lauded two lesser declinists: in “Figures”, he applauded Martin Wiener, the author of English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981) and the conservative military historian Correlli Barnett’s Audit of War (1985), works which followed his analysis of stasis since the late Victorian era. He commended Barnett’s work for being

the most detailed and devastating panorama of the misery of British industry yet to have appeared, and the most radically wounding to national illusions. It is composed at a historical depth that makes previous treatments seem indulgent sketches by comparison.

Which is all very well except that there is hardly a claim made by Barnett, or indeed Wiener, which has stood up to scrutiny.

Anderson-Thompson reconsidered

The argument between Anderson and Thompson is often framed as a face-off between a continental Marxist and a British nationalist humanist. This is a reading the debate itself generated. As a result Thompson is often regarded as the English left’s most nationalist figure. On the other hand it was not hard for Thompsonians to jib at the aristocratic sneer directed at provincial British intellects – though Thompson was as patrician and officer-class as Anderson – and to label it Foreign Theory.

This framing will not do. For Anderson’s declinism, like most declinisms, was at its heart a very British, nationalist critique and one which, furthermore, was already central to the left. Nationalist anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism were, of course, standard stances of the global left. The emergent Latin American dependistas argued that capitalist global free markets fatally undermined national productive possibilities, and what was needed was a new national modernising bourgeoisie. Despite appearances, this outlook was characteristic of the British left also, Anderson included.

The argument that the UK’s ruling class was distinctive in its overseas orientation and its lack of concern for national development had a long history on the left. It was central to the politics of the Communist Party, particularly from the 1940s. The claim was that the British capitalist class, or at least its dominant sector, invested overseas in order to supply the UK, by far the largest importer in the world, with goods from abroad. They had no interest in the development of the national productive economy, unlike capitalists in other lands. To this was added an argument about the debilitating effects on industrial competitiveness of empire.

What was needed to modernise the economy was a reduction in the dependence on trade, and a truly national capitalism. This view remained central to the left’s understanding of British history and the British economy. For example, Eric Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire (1968) combined nationalist-declinism with anti-imperialism, celebrating the Second World War as a creative national moment. More Gaullist than Marxist, it was much more extensive than any single work Anderson or Thompson wrote on late nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history, but the similarities are striking, though not surprising.

Debunking declinism

Contrary to declinist claims that it was weakened industrially by its overseas and imperial orientation, the UK’s economy was the most efficient in Europe into the 1950s, and easily the most industrialised. And it was its global orientation that in fact made this possible. The UK was in a fundamentally stronger position than Germany in both 1914 and 1939, contrary to the classic declinist view that Germany was the exemplary modern, powerful nation. This insight is central to Adam Tooze’s startling reappraisal of the Nazi war economy and to my own rewriting of the history of British power. The new great efficient power was the United States (which rarely appears in declinist analyses, because it does not conform to declinism’s implicit economic theory).

Declinism, as well as being unable to account for British power before 1945, cannot explain what happened to the UK after 1945. For thirty years after 1945 the UK economy grew faster than before or since. Even more astoundingly, the UK became more industrial, in the 1950s and 1960s, than it had ever been in its history. Configurations of power changed. There was a huge reduction in levels of inequality of income, and also between regions. North and south converged.

All this happened partly because things changed in the ways British left nationalists suggested they should, but claimed was impossible except in wartime. British political economy changed radically, becoming national. The UK pursued import substitution in agriculture, which an Edwardian liberal would have regarded as madness. It also pursued a radically protectionist industrial policy, and drove down exposure to the world economy (which reached its trough in the late 1960s). Foreign investment was much less significant, as was the City. Now oriented internally, to inland British business, with which it became synonymous, the City owned much more British government debt than overseas debt.

And then, with Margaret Thatcher’s rulers’ revolt, things radically changed yet again. In the new dispensation national efficiency, equality and even national power were not the priorities they once were. British capitalists no longer did the world’s business in London. Instead the world’s capitalists did their own business in the London city state, whose dynamics were very different from the British economy as a whole.

What needs to be explained is not British economic decline, but growth and radical change; there was discontinuity not continuity. And that is true not just of the UK, but of the world as a whole. The changing dynamics of both combined, inevitably, to produce relative decline in Britain. Indeed, the fastest relative decline took place when the UK did especially well – during the Second World War and in the long post-war boom. Most of the British decline was caused by the success of others, not British failures, and especially not supposed failures in the distant past.

Ironies

Anderson has always been concerned to create a British intellectual culture capable of properly understanding Britain, and rightly so. He has been a brilliant dissector of the many ways in which it has been incapable of so doing. But in his surveys of British backwardness, he finds no place for declinism. Yet it should be seen as a characteristic feature of much British intellectual production since the 1950s. Declinist assumptions have profoundly influenced how the history of British business, the state, education and so on, have been written – so much so that Anderson’s arguments about decline and its causes may appear to many readers to be self-evident. Yet despite declinist accounts of British history having been thoroughly debunked, they have so far seemed impervious to rational criticism. Declinists are apt to think that anti-declinists are “revivalists,” wrongly “bigging up” the country. An informed anti-declinist, however, is an internationalist who understands that most of the UK’s undoubted relative decline has little to do with the UK itself.

The irony of the Andersonian vision is that declinism, especially continuity declinism, rendered impossible the total history of British capitalism and modernity Anderson sought. To be sure, Anderson’s writings stimulated very rich work on British imperial and global financial capitalism (notably that of Peter Cain and Antony Hopkins), and other work on the City. But as far as capitalism as a whole is concerned, it produced anti-histories instead; explanations abounded for the supposed absence of a dynamic and modern British capitalism which garbled the histories of much else in the process. These accounts were all essentially based on an unspoken nationalist critique of empire and globalisation.

Yet for me Anderson’s work was an inspirational call to arms. It identified major failings in British historiography. It was the key perspective to argue with when thinking about what modern British history could and should be, incomparably richer than the rise and fall of the welfare state armature of most British history – another product of the 1960s, not least of the left. It would be a great thing for British intellectual life if the CP Snow-FR Leavis debate were forgotten, and replaced in the pantheon by Anderson-Thompson. Should that happen, Anderson’s lifework of raising many-fold the level of the national culture would be someway accomplished. Anderson’s declinism was on a far higher level than Snow’s. But, more importantly, Thompson’s flash of anger in response contained the germ of a richer, stranger and more politically significant British history – for which Anderson deserves credit.

But to reach that point we need to understand why this has not happened, and why Snow is a standard reference in British cultural life, in a way that Anderson is not. How is it that Snow, this exemplary backward British intellectual, bridging his own two cultures, producing tedious novels and vapid theories of modern society, still stands proud as an analyst of the British condition? The depressing answer is that Snow is still famous because his own theory was false: his bad technocratic arguments  about British hostility to science and technology were not ignored by the dominant literary intellectuals as his theory had predicted. On the contrary, they embraced them – which is why we all know about them. Leavis, on the other hand, lost because his theory was correct: he argued that a corrupted culture would take a man like Snow seriously.

Similar considerations, at a very different level, apply to the Anderson-Thompson argument. Thompson came off worse – if not at the time, then later – because in crucial respects Anderson was more in tune with British thought than his own thesis implied, and Thompson was less organically tied to British traditions than either claimed.

Dumping declinism

Key elements of nationalist, continuity declinism remain central to British politics of the left and centre. It is the default position of elements of the British left in a crisis, or when faced with ruling-class incompetence. Imperial nostalgia, styles, delusions and leftovers are supposedly everywhere. The power of the City, allied to this imperialism, is seen as continuous and damaging. Being stuck in an imperial and financial past is invoked to explain not only a weak economy, but also racism, militarism, the failure to join the EEC until 1973, and now Brexit. Part of the progressive case for Scottish independence has long been that it will give the Scots freedom from the decaying imperial state. To this view, an Etonian, Oxford classicist Prime Minister, bent on global dominance, affecting Churchillian and Elizabethan language, is an explanatory gift.

But these arguments in fact rely on misconceived history and are a terrible guide to political action and policy-making. As Anderson noted in “Ukania”, talk of decline can be a form of fake revivalism: solve its problems and the nation will once again lead the world. Some wrongly think Thatcherism achieved this – hence the revivalism of Brexiteers. The policy prescriptions that follow from a declinist reading of British history are also liable to set out to solve not the problems of the present, but those of the past – thus ushering in as daft a view that recreating Edwardian free trade will bring back British power. Declinism and revivalism are two sides of a debased politics of modernisation, both steeped in bad history. If historical understanding is to guide effective political action we need a much richer British history, one which accounts for change, rather than insisting on continuity, and that doesn’t keep blaming the problems of the present on an imagined British past, nor seeking solutions in mythical histories of other countries.