The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

By David Cannadine | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

A Viable Hierarchical Society

In the long perspective of British history, the period from the 1780s to the 1840s was once a teleologist's dream, but it has lately been turning into a postmodernist's nightmare.1 According to the traditional classbased account, it had all been very simple and straightforward: the industrial and French revolutions together transformed social structures and social relations by destroying the old, individualistic, hierarchical world of ranks, orders, and degrees and bringing about an entirely new social system based on collective and conflicting identities, a system that resulted from the making of the working and middle classes, sometimes locally, sometimes in England, sometimes in Britain as whole. Never before—and never since—had classes so purposefully come into being, had class consciousness been so widespread, had class struggle been so prevalent, and had the results been so momentous.2 From this perspective, the economic antagonisms generated on the factory floor between employers and employees led directly to an unprecedented upsurge of popular and near-revolutionary discontent, and this resulted in massive political disruption and constitutional change: the passing of the Great Reform Act, the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the Chartist movement. All these were the expression and end product of the intense struggle between the newly emerging classes as they battled for the mastery of early Victorian Britain, the greater British world, and the rest of the nineteenth century.

Here was an emphatically post-eighteenth-century society, where economic developments, social processes, and political events moved forward, interconnectedly and self-reinforcingly, to their necessary outcome: the collective and antagonistic identities found within the modern nation state, which were appropriately described in the new “language of class.”3 But by 1851 these bitter battles were over, giving

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The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Preface xi
  • Chapter One: Introduction 1
  • Chapter Two: The Eighteenth Century 25
  • Chapter Three: The Nineteenth Century 59
  • Chapter Four: The Twentieth Century 109
  • Chapter Five: Conclusion 167
  • List of Abbreviations 195
  • Notes 197
  • Index 275
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