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Daniel Castellano

Leventhal HI700


Class as a Social and Historical Construct


            David Cannadine’s The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain scrutinizes the ways historians have treated the concept of class, and advances the bold conclusion that British social structure “has not been revolutionarily changed; and neither have the three different ways in which people look at it.”[1]  These three models are dyadic, triadic, and hierarchical in form, and Cannadine proposes that the hierarchical model “has been the most pervasive and persuasive” in British imaginations, and it is also the best description of social reality. Since the book is largely about method, Cannadine’s approach to history is usually stated openly in his arguments, but at times the reader must discern it.  The author does not present new research, but reviews past commentaries in light of his hypotheses.  At times, his theses are so daring or controversial that only a volume of research could do them justice.  The book also suffers from reliance on a contrived three-model approach and a strange bias toward hierarchy.  Despite these shortcomings, the work is a sage admonition about the pitfalls of adopting class language too readily or uncritically.

            Cannadine acknowledges the existence of classes as dry sociological data, but denies that these have ever held a unified political consciousness in Britain.  Whence it follows that historians such as E.P. Thompson who perceive an “English working class” are imposing a crude typology upon a nuanced, complex social reality.  Cannadine has virtually nothing positive to say about the empirical validity of the dyadic or triadic models, whether they come from the mouth or pen of Churchill, Orwell, Chesterton, Belloc, or Thompson.  These luminaries are faulted with misreading the past or even their own times, as Cannadine maintains that these models were not objective descriptions of reality, and were generally motivated by ideological stereotyping.  He emphasizes the divisions within classes, and raises poignant questions, such as why it was necessary for the English working class to remake itself.  While these are certainly valid points, they are not unanswerable, and it is presumptuous to overturn the work of Thompson without a voluminous research endeavor that assesses the relative significance of the evidence presented by Cannadine and Thompson.[2]  It also seems unfair to make no distinction between Thompson, who was certainly aware of the limitations of class language, and of intra-class conflicts, and those Marxists who have insisted on crude oversimplifications of social categorization and historical causation.  For Cannadine, the mere idea that there is a “working class” or “middle class” is already an “ignorant oversimplification”.[3]

            Even if historians accept Cannadine’s arguments contra Thompson, it would be premature to dispense with the categories of bourgeois or working classes.  Cannadine himself mentions in passing the “collapse” of the “traditional working class”.[4]  His illustration of how working and bourgeois classes crossed party lines[5] presumes that these class constructs have some objective meaning.  He soberly speaks of “middle class Protestants” and the “lower middle class”[6], and his description of Thatcher’s contempt of the “traditional working class” and “organized labor”[7] is a tacit admission of the validity of class terminology within certain constraints.  We do not need to hold that the bourgeoisie and the working class are in perpetual conflict in order to maintain that they really exist.[8]  If we do not needlessly equate socioeconomic class with political consciousness, we need not abandon the objective reality of these constructs.

            Cannadine’s work is hampered by restrictive hypotheses that force a categorization of evidence in precisely the Procrustean fashion he abhors.  Describing all social models as dyadic, triadic, or hierarchical appears very contrived, especially when appealing to W.G. Runciman’s four “systactic” categories, or mentioning Daniel Defoe’s seven-tier stratigraphy.[9]  This tripartite classification system does have its merits, as Cannadine masterfully reveals a consistent rhetorical dynamic in the triadic and dyadic models.  Nonetheless, it is a forced conclusion that Britons have viewed their society in only three ways, and even if this were true, it is difficult to see what value such a fact would have other than as a perplexing commentary on the modern British psyche and its apparent lack of imagination.  Further, there is often so much variation among models of a given type, that the only thing they have in common is their numerical form.  A Marxist triad of aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and proletariat can hardly be said to exalt the middle.

            Consistent with his theme of constancy, Cannadine concludes each phase of British history with an adamant insistence that the hierarchical model has consistently been the most persuasive and compelling description of British society.  It is in the discussion of hierarchy that the distinction between class as perception and class as reality becomes most blurred.  The author clearly argues that hierarchy was the most commonly held perception of British society throughout modern British history, but does the perception make the reality?  It does if we perceive class in the sense of social status.  In the conclusion, Cannadine cites the United States as an example of a classless society, on the grounds that there are only disparities of wealth and power, not of social status.[10]  If wealth and power are not recognized as sufficient basis for class distinction, it almost immediately follows that hierarchy is the only meaningful model of class.  The awkwardness of the bias for hierarchy becomes increasingly evident in the later periods, where the author minimizes the erosion of social deference, aristocracy, and other hierarchical institutions.  Creditably, he presents sociological evidence favoring each of the three models as being held by Britons, and he does show that hierarchy has had a greater following than many have supposed, but his insistence that hierarchy is the most resonant goes beyond the evidence.  Hierarchy may be appealing to Cannadine for two reasons: first, it is the most individualistic and least oversimplified of the three models; second, if he is to show that changes in social structure did not effect modern political change, the most effective way to do so is to minimize social changes.  This argues too much, for it is possible to refute a simplified causality between socioeconomic class and political change without denying that major social changes have happened.  Cannadine’s purposes would have been better served had he not shackled himself to hierarchy.  If he candidly admitted the obvious fact that British society has changed dramatically over the last 300 years[11], he could eliminate the tension between his conclusions and the evidence of social change he presents, while still preserving the fundamental thesis that political change in Britain has not been class-based.

            The strengths and limitations of the book can be encapsulated in the Montpellier example of the first chapter.[12] In 1768 a bourgeois citizen described the same population in three ways: as a hierarchy based on prestige, a three-tiered system of estates, and a political dualism of patricians and plebeians.  Cannadine uses this example as the model of modern Britain, showing how variants of these three models have always coexisted, and how dualism is politicized. Yet the Montpellier example illustrates something further: the three models are not incompatible.  Each model measures a distinct, real dimension of the same society; a finely graded hierarchy does not negate the objective dichotomy between voters and non-voters.  Cannadine favors hierarchy because of its complexity, but reality is sufficiently complicated to permit three-tiered and dichotomous strata to coexist with social hierarchy.

While several of Cannadine’s major arguments remain unproven, they ought not to be taken lightly, for the author adopts his position after extensive research in the field, and he cites a vast literature that provides evidence for his theses. If I have focused disproportionate attention on the weaknesses of the book, it is only because the strengths speak adequately for themselves.   Uncritical inheritance of the class language used by contemporaries risks legitimizing political rhetoric as objective history.  At the same time, we should not retreat to the antipodal error of denying the actuality of social and economic class.  It can still be meaningful to speak of a politically ascendant bourgeoisie and a declining aristocracy without disregarding the deep divisions within classes and the lack of a coherent political class-consciousness.  The use of class language can be perilous to the historian, but it should not on that ground be indiscriminately abolished.

[1] D. Cannadine, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain (New York, 1999), p.175.  Also, on p.172, he asserts that Britain has witnessed no “fundamental changes in the social structure” during the last three centuries.

[2] Cannadine does reference literature that might resolve this issue, but little of this evidence makes its way into the book. He indicates in the endnotes (p.206) that the controversy over the existence of class is still ongoing.

[3] Ibid., p. 21.  Cannadine declares that all three models are “ignorant oversimplifications”, none of which provide “real social knowledge”.

[4] Ibid., p.13., p.149.

[5] Ibid., pp. 153-4.

[6] Ibid., p. 45, p. 180.

[7] Ibid., p. 181.

[8] Cannadine would further require that we speak of the “working classes” and “middle classes” only in the plural, on account of their inhomogeneity.

[9] Ibid., p.18, p.29.

[10] Ibid., p.190. It is possible that this is merely a lapse by Cannadine, confusing class with rank (see p.125).  Elsewhere, he refers to “skills, status, and income” as measures of social gradation. (p.118)

[11] Even if we agree that British society has always retained some form of hierarchy, certainly the composition, structure, and relative power of that hierarchy has changed tremendously over the last three centuries.

[12] Ibid., pp.19-20.

© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org