Beyond Class--Forward to Class?
"The rise and fall of class in Britain" is both an allusive and ironic phrase, totally correct yet also at least half mistaken. It is allusive (and correct) because, during the last twenty years or so, the once-fashionable and widely accepted view that class structure and class analysis provide the key to understanding modern British history and modern British life has been disregarded by many historians and abandoned by almost all politicians. Yet it is also ironic (or mistaken), because it remains a generally held belief, not just in Britain but around the world, that class, like the weather and the monarchy, is a peculiarly and particularly British preoccupation. It certainly has been in recent years at 10 Downing Street. For was it not John Major who declared, shortly before becoming prime minister in November 1990 and in a phrase that has continued to resonate ever since, that his aim was to bring about what he called the "classless society"? One does not have to be a master logician to conclude that Major thought--and surely, in this regard, thought rightly--late-twentieth-century Britain to be a class-bound and class-obsessed nation. In which case, of course, the irony is that there has been no "fall of class" at all. It is still very much there in Britain. This means there is a tension--indeed, a contradiction--between the allusive and the ironic messages conveyed in the phrase "the rise and fall of class in Britain." Has class "fallen" or hasn't it? If it has, why do some people maintain that it hasn't? And if it hasn't, why do others insist that it has? Two quotations may serve to sharpen this tension and heighten this contradiction, one from a nineteenth-century male political theorist and the other from a twentieth-century female political practitioner. Here is Karl Marx: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles"--a confident, grandiloquent, aU-encompassing, much-quoted (and often misquoted) phrase, which has resounded down the decades since it was originally coined and has inspired much political activity, some good and some bad, and much historical scholarship, of which essentially the same may be said. And here, more recently, but no less self-assuredly, is Margaret Thatcher: "Class," she insisted, "is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles, and sets them against one another." These could hardly be more divergent views, and they could scarcely be more trenchantly expressed. For Marx, class was the essence of history and of human behavior; for Thatcher, class has been the perversion of both. As these contrasted quotations imply, the last two decades have witnessed a fundamental rethinking of the economic, social, and political history of modern Britain, with the result that class analysis and class conflict, which had until recently seemed so central to it, have ceased to carry the conviction they once did. Instead, an alternative interpretation has come to prevail that, although not always explicitly Thatcherite, certainly shares her assumption that class should be downplayed, disregarded, and denied and that grouping people in confrontational collectivities is a subversive rhetorical and political device rather than an expression or description of a more complex, integrated, and individualist social reality. Whether these developments are for the better or the worse, these pages must hope to show. But before getting to the historical substance of the matter, it might be helpful to sketch out the class-based orthodoxy that held sway in Britain and elsewhere from the Second World War until the mid-1970s and to describe the ways in which it has since then been undermined and discredited. This is also the appropriate place to reaffirm the unfashionable view that class is still essential to a proper understanding of British history and Britain today, provided it is appropriately defined, properly...
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