Ditch this archaic system

SHADOW HOME secretary Jack Straw’s much-hyped Panorama interview on December 5 was a bit of a damp squid. It was hardly the sensational attack on the “very fabric of our political constitution” we were warned of by some Tories. Obviously, any chance to divert attention from their own troubles is a godsend to them at the moment.

In fact, Straw’s proposals have been heard before and by themselves do not really amount to very much. Prince Charles himself has mused on the possibility of pruning the number of his relatives on state hand-outs. Not much new and, as The Guardian put it, “not much of a threat” (December 5).

Readers of the Weekly Worker can be forgiven for being underwhelmed at Labour’s proposals, detailed in last week’s paper. However, we must look in some detail at this ‘big idea’ that the Labour Party may potentially take up. The modernisation of British society and its political institutions by a ‘modernised’ Labour Party under the thoroughly modern Tony Blair is no doubt a seductive package for the party’s campaign managers. But there is far more substance to the idea than a slick image overhaul in time for the next election.

As Raymond Plant, the Labour spokesperson on home affairs in the House of Lords, wrote, Labour is trying to highlight a “link between policy failures and the political system” (The Guardian December 7). In other words, constitutional reform is not simply tinsel: it is the key question in rationalising British society as a whole.

There is an enormous and extraordinarily influential body of theoretical work, journalistic comment and academic teaching which explicitly links Britain’s long term structural decline to the archaic and irrational nature of its political institutions. The most influential exponents of this theory are two academic ‘Marxists’ - Tom Nairn and the editor of New Left Review, Perry Anderson. While Labour’s version of the thesis will be a comparatively tame affair, it nevertheless comes with an impressive pedigree of thought and academic weight behind it.

All of which makes it dangerous, and important that we deal with it. If Labour does indeed take up its own version of the Nairn-Anderson thesis, we must be ready to counter the arguments in both their popular and more theoretically rigorous forms.


The Nairn-Anderson theory sets out to explain why British political and social life is characterised by irrational and archaic political institutions such as a still powerful monarchy, by snobbishness and class rigidity and by long term, seemingly inexorable, economic decline.

More than that however, it purports to explain the problems of the working class movement. In fact, it offers us a consciously worked out alternative to the programme of revolutionary communism, a rigorous justification for contemporary reformism. It suggests that before the working class movement in this country can even think about putting socialism or revolution on the agenda, there is an alternative programme of deep going constitutional reform that we must first undertake.

Around the New Left Review journal in the early 1960s - at a time when anxieties about the decline of Britain were becoming more pronounced in mainstream society - Nairn and Anderson developed their ideas in a series of articles. Britain’s decline, they argued, was an organic product of the way capitalism had been born in this country in the first place. The bourgeois revolution in England was incomplete.

The transition from feudalism to capitalism had been made at a time when the bourgeoisie was still economically, culturally and politically subordinate to the aristocracy. Therefore the institutions of British capitalism were never fully revolutionised as on the continent and, more than that, British social life and social classes were characterised by anaemia, by being stunted.

They point for example to the lack of any independent British intellectual tradition. Whereas the continental intellectuals - whatever their particular political outlook - were generally characterised by militant opposition to the existing order, in Britain their counterparts were essentially toadies.

Common law in Britain has had an uninterrupted history from 1066. It is unwritten and complex. It is set by precedent. It was absorbed rather than revolutionised by the bourgeoisie and survives with many irrational feudal hangovers.

Again in contrast to the continent, industry in Britain developed in a piecemeal, unplanned type of way. The state did not create interventionist agencies in order to coordinate its development.

Squatting across this mess of a society is a monarchy with real political powers. This crusty old institution, they suggested, sets the tone for class relations in the country as whole.

This is the price society pays for the fact that the bourgeoisie never was an aggressive, bold and innovative group. It was incapable, because of its subordinate position to the aristocracy, of establishing its hegemony over society, of remoulding Britain in its own likeness. As a mirror image of this anaemic bourgeoisie, we have been cursed with an anaemic workers’ movement.

The revolutionary traditions of the French bourgeoisie help shape the workers’ movement in France. The price we paid for a bourgeoisie with water in its veins was the British Labour Party - an organisation that was not simply never committed to Marxism as the mass social democratic parties on the continent were, but was not even in favour of any version of ‘socialism’ until external events thrust clause four on to it as a hastily adopted sop.

This - Nairn and Anderson argue - is a direct result of the lack of completeness, the immaturity of the bourgeois revolution in this country. The operative conclusion of the thesis is important for us. Taking all these features of Britain, they advance a radical programme of reform, a rationalisation, a completion of the bourgeois revolution.

Until this historical equivalent of sweeping away the cobwebs is undertaken, they say, it is not possible for socialism to come onto the agenda. There is an organic, structural impasse that the working class movement must deal with before it can advance under its own true banner.


The theory is a very strong one because it actually looks at reality; undoubtedly there is something there to explain.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was far more like a counterrevolutionary coup than a ‘revolution’. It had nothing to do with the masses and was actually an agreement between different ruling classes. In contrast to Europe, 1688 was not followed by a ‘revolution within the revolution’. There were no upheavals in the institutions of society as the new ruling class moulded society in its image.

Nairn and Anderson see this as representing the immature bourgeoisie selling itself, cementing itself in a subordinate position in relation to the aristocracy and the crown. Therefore the normal pattern of bourgeois revolution - with features such as a rational, interventionist state, written constitutions, etc - simply never developed in Britain.

Certainly the ‘archaic’ classes in Britain were retained. Post 1688, the wealth and influence of the landed aristocracy dwarfed that of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, the industrial revolution and the course of the whole 19th century is actually characterised by greater and greater concentrations of aristocratic wealth, in contrast to its impoverished counterpart on the continent. This wealth was complemented by political influence: the old aristocratic parties were never challenged by a new, explicitly bourgeois party competing in a direct way for power. Instead, the industrial bourgeoisie actually lined up with the Whigs after its enfranchisement in 1832. The aristocracy retained this political influence well into the 20th century.

Yet rather than these features representing the weakness of the British bourgeoisie, they in fact were a symptom of its strength. If we view Britain as a mature capitalist society, in which a strong bourgeoisie has grown old on the historical stage, then the peculiarities of Britain Nairn and Anderson highlight become truly explicable.


From the 17th century onwards, England actually displays advanced features, rather than backwardness. Its capitalist dynamic was released. Thus while Britain did not impose its model of industrial development on the rest of the world, the rest of the world had to catch up artificially. This accounts for different, more interventionist, patterns of development in other countries, such as France, Prussia, Russia and later places like Turkey.

 Yet how do we explain the evident continuity in institutions and classes that Britain displays?

In fact, exploitative classes will generally draw ideological veils over their own rule. They will attempt to appropriate the past, to present a continuity in institutions which may appear archaic from the outside, but which are actually filled with a new content which corresponds more closely with the new social relations.

Britain certainly has a monarchy - but it is a bourgeois monarchy, an institution which plays an important part in contemporary capitalist society. It is something that the bourgeoisie has subordinated to itself.

The reason is simple. A ruling class that has come to power through revolution is hardly likely to celebrate the fact: after all, you can start giving ideas to other groups in society, in particular the popular classes. Far better that society is presented as unchanging, continuous and unsusceptible to revolutionary transformation.

The French bourgeoisie celebrates the French Revolution not because of its strength, but because of its weakness. It cannot be in the interests of the ruling class in that country to remind the masses of Jacobin terror - by implication of the Paris Commune ... even of Paris ’68.

Conversely, British society is characterised by many institutions that appear timeless because of the strength of the British capitalist class.

Similarly, the caricature that the bourgeoisie faced an old feudal class, clinging to old out-moded forms of production and society, is simply not true. The basis of aristocratic wealth by the 17th century was not feudal tithes and military conquest, but was capitalistic - this class had transformed itself into a monied class. It prospered hugely under the new society; it was not obliterated by it.


The sweep of this thesis is quite huge and has a very impressive body of writing and theorising behind it. By absorbing a version of the theory, the Labour Party can achieve a huge advantage over the Tories. It can appear to have an agenda that transcends the everyday political agenda and which demands - with ‘legitimacy’ - patience, hard work and even a little pain.

The fact that the Tories appear to want to cast themselves as the staid defenders of a status quo that millions of people are manifestly tired of will do them no good at all electorally.

The response of the workers’ movement should be clear. We should have no truck with theories which tell us that socialism is off the agenda until we have tidied up the bourgeois revolution. In fact, the real features of modern capitalism that Nairn, Anderson and their co-thinkers point to are products of the moribund, senile nature of capitalism in this country, not its ‘immaturity’.

The job of the workers’ movement is to consign the system to the waste-bin of history, not be diverted into hopeless schemes to ‘modernise’ a society suffocated by an archaic class - the British imperialist bourgeoisie.

Ian Mahoney