Perry Anderson theses on English capitalism & ideology

Perry Anderson. 1992. English Questions. NY: Verso.

Main themes distilled from (Couldn’t quickly find the citation for the review.) this collection of Anderson essays written over a quarter century:

1) The lame first stab: England had the first, most mediated and least pure bourgeois revolution of any major European country (17).

2) First come, serfdom preserved: England experienced the first industrial revolution, in a period of counter-revolutionary war, producing the earliest proletariat when socialist theory was least formed and available, and an industrial bourgeoisie polarized from the start towards the aristocracy (20).

3) Imperial identity: By the end of the 19th century, Britain had seized the largest empire in history, one qualitatively distinct from all its rivals, which saturated and set British society in a mould it has retained to this day (23).

4) The autistic island: Alone of major European nations (one presumes this means England, Germany and France), England emerged undefeated and unoccupied from two world wars, its social structure untouched by external shocks or discontinuities (27).


  • Insofar as Britain had a bourgeois revolution at all, it was both premature and incomplete.
  • The industrial bourgeoisie never did wrest hegemony from the aristocracy and the great London bankers and financiers.
  • Socialism was never on the agenda in Britain.
  • The working class and its main political expression, the Labour Party, have never represented an alternative to anything or anybody. 
  • State and society in Britain need to be modernized. But the State has functioned as an active bulwark against modernization. Thatcherism (conservatism, neoliberalism), though pledged to modernization, has in fact accomplished nothing of the sort.

Desai (1994) elaborates on this: Because England had no revolution, no full-throttle clashes between contesting classes, its people generally have a stunted sociological imagination. Broadly, they have a hard time seeing or thinking about society. Anglos are historically ingrained with a radical individualist approach. Therefore, according to Anderson, they have a stunted intellectual tradition, where intellectualism hinges on social engagement.

The charge doesn’t sound very diplomatic. But it has the virtue of jibing with the general consensus in the social sciences about how the widespread recognition of society unfolds under particular historical circumstances; and it does contribute to an explanation for the conservative world-leadership attracted to and emanating from the UK, and the robustness of conservatism in the Anglosphere (as discussed in relation to the UK in Desai).

EP Thompson. 1965. “The Peculiarities of the English.” Thompson did not like Anderson’s interpretation of (or conclusions from) English history. He felt that it did not sufficiently recognize that capitalism has agrarian roots in England. From a review by D. McNally:

 “In attacking Anderson and Nairn (of the New Left Review), Thompson did not consider that he was simply correcting erroneous interpretations of history. He saw himself as defending the practice of historical materialism against what he saw as an empty formalism which characterised too much Marxist analysis. ‘Minds which thirst for a sturdy platonism very soon become impatient with actual history’, he suggested. A decade later, his defence of ‘actual history’ against ‘platonic Marxism’ took the form of a no holds barred attack on the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser.”

…I don’t know. I fail to see how Anderson’s and Thompson’s substantive views clash. Every Marxist since Marx has well understood the agrarian roots of capitalism in Britain. How does Anderson’s description of exceptional English development and ideology preclude that? I can easily see both the link to the general development of capital (recall Marx on primitive accumulation), and the comparative, historical specificity in Anderson’s thesis. Is this a forest for the trees problem? An historian-as-precious diva problem? Historical detail (eg. the myriad resistances of the English peasantry) is counterproductive if it makes you lose sight of (rather than adequately refute) the proportion of a comparative argument.

As an outsider, a non-Anglo, a long way and a long time later, this strikes me as possibly yet another case of emotionally-retarded leftist competitive vanguardism. All I can see is the alpha elephant seal emotion. (I note this because I really don’t want anything like this contest to consume my emotional life ever. Although, it did result in publication. Dignity be damned; there’s always the audience to consider: “Look mommy! Watch the big blubbering Leftists fight!”)

However, I suspect the real lesson here is that English Marxists did not like to have such a bleak mirror held up to them, because the English are longtime imperialists and hegemonists, and they just have enormous national pride. I suspect the Thompsonian charge that Anderson was not historical is more sophistry barely shielding wounded national-exceptionalist pride or wounded intellectual pride  (perhaps packaged sentimentally in a defense of the national working class) than a valid critique…But perhaps I am being Anglophobic and uncharitable. I will have to investigate further. I’m starting to read Henry Heller’s The Birth of Capitalism, so I will return to this post if that book prompts me to alter my perspective.

I am interested in following up on another critique of Anderson: That he preferred and approved of anti-Marxist history and helped establish/elaborate the tradition of Marxists denouncing Marxists. More English nationalist Marxist sour grapes? Or more jealous, precious prima donna vanguardism?

Also, what is Anderson’s conception of modernization?

Why do I care? Because I am comparing Anglo Fabianism and Keynes to the Scandinavian social democratic intellectual and political tradition and Meidner, in order to clarify what is social democracy. The British v. Swedish feudal transition and revolutionary origins of modern politics certainly differ significantly, and if Anderson’s account is valid enough, affirm my hypothesis.


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