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The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain [Hardcover]

David Cannadine
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

February 15, 1999 0231096666 978-0231096669 0

Although it is widely believed that the British are obsessed with class to a degree unrivaled by any other nation, politicians in Britain are now calling for a "classless society," and scholars are concluding that class does not matter any more. But has class -- once considered the master narrative of British history -- fallen, failed, and been dismissed? In this wholly original and brilliantly argued book, David Cannadine shows that Britons have indeed been preoccupied with class, but in ways that are invariably ignorant and confused. Cannadine sets out to expose this ignorance and banish this confusion by imaginatively examining class itself, not so much as the history of society but as the history of the different ways in which Britons have thought about their society.

Cannadine proposes that "class" may best be understood as a shorthand term for three distinct but abiding ways in which the British have visualized their social worlds and identities: class as "us" versus "them;" class as "upper," "middle," and "lower"; and class as a seamless hierarchy of individual social relations. From the eighteenth through the twentieth century, he traces the ebb and flow of these three ways of viewing British society, unveiling the different purposes each model has served.

Encompassing social, intellectual, and political history, Cannadine uncovers the meanings of class from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Margaret Thatcher, showing the key moments in which thinking about class shifted, such as the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise the Labor Party in the early twentieth century. He cogently argues that Marxist attempts to view history in terms of class struggle are often as oversimplified as conservative approaches that deny the central place of class in British life. In conclusion, Cannadine considers whether it is possible or desirable to create a "classless society," a pledge made by John Major that has continued to resonate even after the conservative defeat. Until we know what class really means-and has meant-to the British, we cannot seriously address these questions.

Creative, erudite, and accessible, The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain offers a fresh and engaging perspective on both British history and the crucial topic of class.

Editorial Reviews Review

"Class," the greengrocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher once remarked, "is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles, and sets them against one another." The notion of social and economic classes has certainly been a durable one, and it has proven useful to not only Communist theoreticians but also historians and social scientists of all stripes. Nowhere does the idea of class seem quite so powerful as in Britain, writes London University historian David Cannadine in this engrossing study: Although his fellow historians there have largely abandoned class analysis in their work, social distinctions and divisions persist and remain powerful. That historians (notably among them the Marxist scholars E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm) and politicians now prefer to disregard those distinctions, Cannadine believes, is the result of "the shift from the traditional preoccupation with people as collective producers to the alternative notion of people as individual consumers"--the triumph, in other words, of market capitalism. Yet, Cannadine continues, it is through the lens of class that Britons "understand and describe their social worlds," and not through other idealized models. Cannadine examines the work of scholars and political thinkers who have attempted to alter that view, among them Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, whose "main concern was to change the way the British looked and felt and thought about their society and themselves." However well intentioned, such efforts are doomed to failure, Cannadine argues, and although Tories and Labourites promise a classless society to come, the British view will likely remain class-bound. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Class has been a touchstone for historians of all ideological stripes over the last century, but no consensus has emerged. "The rise of the middle class," for instance, has been located in every century of British history from the 14th to the 19th. Clearly, something is amiss. Here Cannadine pragmatically reframes the question, looking at the perception, rather than the reality, of class over the last 300 years of British history and attending to the ways that political commitments have shaped writers' and politicians' conceptions and rhetoric on the issue. What he finds is startling: consistently, throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, three models of class have prevailed in British thought?and within the work of individual thinkers. The first divides Britain into the rich and the poor (a model generally used to foment, or warn of, class war); the second divides society into three parts, the working, middle and upper classes (used to praise the virtue of the middle class); the third presents British society as thoroughly hierarchical, with every individual having a proper place, which is marked off from those above and below by minuscule increments (used to praise and reinforce the "traditional" nature of British society). Ultimately, Cannadine shows that all three models are valid to some degree but that none can claim to represent the rock-bottom truth. The same applies to other modern nations. In the U.S., for instance, the first two models are just as constantly and contradictorily invoked. However, the third is unique to Britain. Therefore, Cannadine finds, it is the third model, that of a steeply graded hierarchy, that is most illustrative of British society and the self-perception of its members. Cannadine succeeds at striking a balance between offering detailed evidence and making a comprehensive argument about a vast, contentious topic; his book is a joy to read.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Series: Leonard Hastings Schoff Lectures
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (February 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231096666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231096669
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 6.4 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,820,919 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful November 11, 2008
This well written and thoughtful book is a analysis of the concept of class in recent British history. Cannandine is not pursuing detailed historical sociology but is rather primarily interested in how class was/is conceptualized. Cannandine traces the history of different conceptions of class. This is more important than it sounds because Cannandine shows that different conceptions of class often had significant political and social consequences. Cannandine deals also with some historigraphic issues. Indeed, the title of this book refers less to historical realities than it does to the way historians have conceptualized class in analyzing recent British history. The 'Rise' of Cannandine's title refers mainly to an essentially Marxist conception of British history since the 18th century put forward by historians like EP Thompson. The 'Fall' of the title refers to the failure of the simple Marzist model to actually describe historic reality.

For Cannandine, class is the conceptualization of social stratfication and inequality. This is clearly related to economic realities but generally much more complex. The Marxist (though as Cannandine points out, Marx took his concept from classical British economists like Smith) concept of class as determined by individual relationship to the means of production is one concept. Cannandine describes 3 basic concepts of class in recent British history. The first and arguably most important is the concept of class as hierarchy; a finely differentiated and graded ladder of social status. A second is a tripartite division of society - upper, middle, and lower. The last is a dichotomous us versus them concept.
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