By Bonnett, Alastair
History Today , Vol. 57, No. 2
NOSTALGIA DOES NOT GET A GOOD PRESS. Politicians seem to have a particular allergy to the condition. Outlining the New Labour project in 1997, Peter Mandelson helpfully explained 'We are defining ourselves by the future'. It sounds almost plausible. After all, it is widely imagined that the past is done and dusted. It is the future most people worry about. Yet despite our apparent love affair with all things modern and forward-looking, nostalgia refuses to wither and die. A sense of loss permeates the contemporary cultural atmosphere. Indeed, it can sometimes seem as if the whole of Britain is in a state of mourning for its own past.
When we look at nostalgia a little more closely it becomes apparent that there is far more to it than mere hostility to change. Its role within nineteenth-century English socialism has often been noted but then dismissed as an aberration or charming oddity. Yet what if nostalgia was something more than this? What if nostalgia was one of the central, constitutive aspects of the radical tradition? The implications are far-reaching, especially for today's political class, who appear to have an unquestioning faith that 'radicalism' is a synonym for 'modernization'.
William Morris concluded his socialist ode The Pilgrims of Hope (1885) with the lines
I cling to the love of the past and the love of the day to be, And the present, it is but the building of the man to be strong in me.
It is a sentiment entirely at odds with Peter Mandelson's heroic futurology. It also contradicts the political instincts of one of Mandelson's more unlikely intellectual ancestors, Karl Marx. Appalled by the fact that the English masses seemed inclined to 'revert to a bygone form of society', Marx famously declared in 1852 that
The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself, before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past.
It is a formula that makes any encounter with nineteenth-century popular protest an uncomfortable business. In The Making of English Working Classes (1963) Marxist historian E.P. Thompson tried to explain that the expressions of loss in William Cobbett's accounts of the newly impoverished rural poor were only 'seemingly "nostalgic'". English radicals are routinely reduced to slightly inept figures whose habit of romanticizing the past provokes polite coughs and mild embarrassment. Yet Marx's (and Mandelson's) romance of 'the future' is surely even less plausible. What, after all, does it mean to 'define ourselves by the future'? It implies that organic attachments, local knowledge, knowledge of place and community are to be made redundant. Those people clever enough to foresee what tomorrow will bring can join in the debate, but the opinions of everyone else are so much noise. As Eric Hobsbawm put it, ideas that offer 'resistance to progress hardly deserve the name of systems of thought'.
What is being sanctioned here is an undemocratic disregard for the way a sense of loss emerges from social trauma and can be employed to critique its causes. If we look at the first hundred years of English socialism we find a movement wedded to a nostalgia for a more settled and natural past. The habit of fond recollection was central to its indignation at the social destruction wrought by capitalism and industrialization.
The founders of English socialism are usually identified among those who first held labour to be the basis of wealth and called for the common ownership of land. Two of the earliest were the impecunious Newcastle teacher and book peddler Thomas Spence (1750-1814) and the West Country doctor Charles Hall (1745-1825). It would be difficult to find a more militant figure than Spence. His prose is always at the same temperature, boiling point. For Spence the rich are thieves. …