The more a man of the world looks at the world, the more he is persuaded that not only are its political and social truths rarely what they seem, they are often the diametrical opposite of what they seem. So, in one memorable episode, did many an Englishman, a copy of the Times in one hand and a cup of milky tea in the other, remark with surprise that it was a Conservative prime minister, John Major, who first unveiled the plan for a “classless society,” even as a Labour prime minister, his present successor, abolished the clause of his party’s constitution that had been demanding, since 1918, “the common ownership of the means of production.” A paradox, then? Not at all; only a repositioning of social fictions. Few have gone on to reflect that even as it was Major who worked to undermine the British constitution by locking up Parliament in a cattle car bound for Brussels, so Tony Blair now intends to finish the job, and has in the meantime hit on the simple expedient of locking half of Parliament out of Westminster.
David Cannadine is nominally an historian, but he thinks and writes like a sociologist. He wants to look at the evidence, perform some computations, and arrive at a conclusion. And yet he is not even writing the history of a period or a people, of an aqueduct or a cathedral, but of what, in the final analysis, is a term describing a perceived political reality, which is to say a mendacious fabrication by many a hand, known as well as unknown. What he has put before himself is an ungrateful task. Whatever political or social reality one chooses to consider, whether “class,” or “democracy,” or “sovereignty,” or a myriad others, it is quite clear that what this sort of coolheaded, impartial, diachronic approach is bound to dredge up —even when only a decade or two of history within one’s living memory, to say nothing of a couple of centuries, is on the research assistant’s computer screen —are ossified lies and broken shells of old doctrines. In the writing of history, as in all treasure hunting, one must follow hunches. You cannot just dig.
Of all the weasel concepts one could mention (“freedom” perhaps the most notorious among them), “class” has a slipperiness that is uniquely its own. Given that every society that ever existed, in earthly reality as distinguished from a philosopher’s dream, had the dimension of height—with a top, a bottom, and a putative middle —it is easy to show that an eyewitness, or rather a participating observer, had four basic ways of describing the society of his day in relation to himself He could say that he belonged to the upper part, which was good (beautiful, moral, intelligent, well dressed, educated, responsible, and of course rich), while the rest was bad (unattractive, filthy, stupid, subversive, uncivilized, and of course poor); or that he belonged to the lower part, which was good (honest, hardworking, idealistic, loving, clever. and handsome, but perforce poor), while the rest was bad (idle, corrupt, cynical, stupid, and ugly, though admittedly rich).
Alternatively, he could say that, while he himself belonged to the upper part, he could testify that this was the repository of all vice (parasitic, perverted, deluded, unhappy, and not even noble enough to be admirable), while the rest of society was the repository of all virtue (happy, healthy, uncomplicated, generous, naturally aristocratic, and not so poor as actually to smell), with the implication that the life’s aim of any virtuous man ought to be eventual devolution from that malignant stratum; or that, while he himself belonged to the lower part, it was thence that all vice proceeded (cue moral vacuum, unemployment and crime, prostitution and illiteracy, unrelieved tedium and despair) and that social elevation and eventual absorption into the rest of society (bring on higher education, useful employment, better medicine, higher quality of life, pursuit of happiness) ought to be the aim of every virtuous man’s life.
In the 18th century, to these four basic vantage points and their n-factorial, or 24, theoretically possible permutations was added the middle class. Even ignoring this complication to the clockwork dichotomy of the high and the low, it is quite clear that much if not actually everything we know as European literature, political economy, and social history— from Marx to Tolstoy, from Engels to Disraeli, from Adam Smith to Lenin, from Fourier to Herzen, from Dickens to Keynes, from Beatrice Webb to Margaret Thatcher—is made up of one or another set of lapidary variations on what is at bottom a simple Manichaean movement. And, in practical terms, the new addition changed little of the established conventions of collective or individual self-aggrandizement and self-abasement.
Interestingly enough, the credit for inventing the term “the middling class,” used for the first time in Clarissa, goes to Samuel Richardson, second only to Shakespeare in the Oxford English Dictionary for the number of literary phrases that have become part of the national fabric of thought and speech. This is significant because, as first employed, the term was an innovation, an admirable and characteristically Richardsonian attempt to break out of the Manichaean circle of us and them, wealth and poverty, innocence and experience, nature and nurture, good and evil. Of the many illuminating contemporary references in Professor Cannadine’s book, I would only single out Dr. Johnson’s view of “class” as equally sagacious, insofar as the author of the Dictionary of the English Language believed in
“the fixed, invariable external rules of distinction of rank, which create no jealousy as they are allowed to be accidental,” by which he meant they were beyond human intervention or alteration because they were God’s will and God’s work.
Elsewhere, perhaps, in Edmund Burke if not in Thomas Paine, in Thomas Jefferson if not in William Cobbett, though most probably in the work of novelists and diarists rather than that of scholars or politicians, one can find scattered other adducible instances of men transcending the vicious juxtaposition. But just about everybody on record writing directly on the subject, from Adam Smith onward, seems to belong to that line-drawing, finger- pointing, name-calling school of social classification which became famous the world over in the wake of the French and, later, of the Russian Revolution. Name your class, citizen! Identify your class enemy, and a small part of his money, of his property, and of his social prestige may become yours. Who knows, perhaps even his old dacha. “There are many ironies here,” comments Professor Cannadine, not least among them the fact that
Karl Marx, the man Lady Thatcher claims most to hate, derived his basic models of social structure and social identity, models that she so deplores and abominates, from the works of Adam Smith, a man whom she so admires. For the idea that society’ should be understood in terms of collective and conflicting social groups—sometimes three and sometimes two, sometimes expressed in the language of class but sometimes not—was well established as a capitalist concept long before it was appropriated as a communist concept. Far from being invented by a nineteenth-century revolutionary who looked forward to a proletarian Utopia and a classless society, it had first appeared in a book by a Scottish political economist who was steeped in the hierarchical view of society.
Such ironies aside, and apart from its general usefulness as a reminder that the history of European social thought is nothing but a dense web of self-serving, self-perpetuating, and at the same time self-incriminating, almost childish lies, Professor Cannadine’s book remains an assemblage of interesting quotations, facts, and suppositions without ever becoming what it should have been even before it was begun: namely, a contention, an indictment, or a thesis. To resume the analogy with which this review began. The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain is like the concerned Englishman’s observation that all of a sudden not everything is going quite as expected, what with a Conservative prime minister mouthing Marxist slogans while his Labour successor is removing Marxist signposts. True enough, but the contention one yearns to see proved is the equivalent of the terrible truth that a man engaged in the crime of murder has two bloody hands, one right and the other left.
[The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain, by David Cannadine (New York: Columbia University Press) 293 pp., $29.95]