From Socialist Worker Review, No.112, September 1988, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy
TOM NAIRN was one of the leading figures in the British New Left. In 1964 along with Perry Anderson he published a series of articles which first expressed what became known as the Anderson-Nairn theses.
They sought to explain Britain’s economic decline by the backwardness of its political institutions. This is the result of the domination of the economy by an alliance of finance capital (the City) and the landed aristocracy. This in turn is due to the pre-industrial nature of the English Revolution of the 17th century.
What is needed is a “second bourgeois revolution” to put the industrial bourgeoisie in control, modernise the economy and state institutions and thus eliminate political backwardness.
Stated so bluntly the inherent reformism of the theses is obvious. But we can’t leave it at that. The idea that the decline of the British economy is due to the dominance of the City is an influential one on the left, even among Marxists.
The basic methodological flaw of the theses is that they set up an “ideal type” of a bourgeois revolution based on the French Revolution. This is then applied to Britain, it doesn’t fit and so Britain didn’t have a thorough going bourgeois revolution. This fails to take into account that the model doesn’t fit anywhere else either, even France.
Nairn’s latest book recapitulates the broad themes from the 1960s and applies them to the monarchy. He concludes that the monarchy is central to the British state and has prevented the development of an independent working class ideology since even the bourgeoisie never developed one.
He asserts that the British monarchy is radically different from the ideological forms used in other countries. Yet he nowhere demonstrates that the difference between the reverence for the US flag or the President and the adulation for royalty is more than formal.
He rightly castigates the cravenness of the Labour Party but attributes this to its collapse before royalism.
He believes popular consciousness is determined by social structures. The role of class struggle in changing consciousness and in moulding social structures is ignored. Specific class struggles only make fleeting appearances, usually getting derogatory mentions as when he denounces “the NUM’s travesty of democracy under Scargill” during the Miners’ Strike.
Despite his denunciations of Labour’s impotence Nairn’s final chapter places him well to the right of Gould and Hattersley and arguably of Ted Heath.
Nairn claims we are at the beginning of the capitalist era not in the middle of a crisis of its old age. He actually praises Thatcher’s “radicalism” for breaking from the old alliance of the City and the aristocracy although he appears to contradict himself since he speaks elsewhere of the “Big Bang” as a triumph for commercial interests.
Last updated on 24.06.2010