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Nigel Harris

Foundation and Empire

(April 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 36, April/May 1969, p. 41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Industry and Empire, An economic history of Britain since 1750
E.J. Hobsbawm
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 50s.

The Development of British Industry and Foreign Competition, 1875–1914
Derek H. Aldcroft (ed.)
Allen and Unwin, 60s.

There is great need for a good simple history of British capitalism, relating the economic development of Britain to its class structure and the international economy. Eric Hobsbawm has attempted to meet this need, with mixed results. The first half of his book succeeds well, and his appendix, presenting ambiguous and fragmentary historical material in simple diagramatic form, is a model of what such things should be. But the nearer the narrative approaches the present, the more unsatisfactory it becomes. Leaving aside the nationalism (which emerges explicitly in irritating talk about ‘our’ exports), the book is, from the 1870s, increasingly distorted by the fashionable Establishment myth that there is some peculiar degenerate quality in Britain which leads the economy towards inexorable decline. Hobsbawm dissociates himself from the Right wing myths (the workers are lazy etc.), but in his scheme – as in the classical technocrat Wilsonite period – the managers are somehow tired, and choose the cosy home market rather than the bracing and patriotic rigours of exporting (no attempt is made to discuss relative prices or returns here). Thus, naive nationalism and its inevitable complement, folksy moralising economics, together rob the account of hard analysis and rigorous testing against the known factual information. ‘Efficiency’, which takes for granted the existing structure of society, becomes the centrepiece of the critique, instead of class and power. Nor does the world outside Britain receive much attention – except as threat – so the British response lacks any identification of the target which shaped the response. There is thus no perspective for the future, no point of linkage between ‘external’ economic history and the passions of the participants. Finally, the book is far too expensive; the good first half needs to be read by the rising generation of the Left, but for this, the book should have a paperback sister.

Mr Aldcroft’s book is much less ambitious in scope, more specialized in interest and more faithful to the historical material in the period between 1870 and 1914. Explicitly, the book is designed to examine one of Hobsbawm’s myths – that British business began to be peculiarly uncompetitive in this period. Contributions deal in turn with coal, iron and steel, cotton, woollen and worsted, boots and shoes, engineering, electrical products, chemicals, glass and merchant shipping. The evidence is ambiguous, but the general case suggests no support for folksy economics. British businessmen remained, in aggregate, reasonably rational in behaviour – profits, rather than comfort (or, in New Left Review’s version, an inability to escape the embrace of the landed aristocracy) guided their actions. The book is a most useful piece of work even if limited in scope and intention.

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Last updated: 25 October 2020