Is Political History Fundamentally About the State? Part 1 (Keir Martland)

The following is the first installment of a two-part series. 

According to Erika Cudworth and John McGovern in The Modern State: Theories and Ideologies, in politics the state is defined as a political community living under a single system of government in the most basic terms. Additionally, the state is a key element of modern politics as a result of the complexity that is inherent within society in the modern era, although there is no consensus as to what the state is or what it does.

While many accept Max Weber’s 1918 definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” there are a wide range of disparate, interrelated and overlapping theories and ideas concerning political phenomena that impinge on the state and complicate the way in which it may be perceived and interpreted.

Jeffrey and Painter note that temporal and spatial parameters are important in establishing the nature and importance of the state. However, despite the problems present in defining the state, there have been a wide range of approaches to it from political historians over the past two centuries, many of which seek to explore histories as part of identity formation, the impact of social convention, and the influence of power structures, among other elements.

For example, in his theory of the modern state, Weber asserted that the state was the “…most important constitutive element of all cultural life.” Modern historians have challenged this though, drawing attention away from the state as the pre-eminent force in life and towards ideas embedded within political cultures. The two have therefore come into conflict, and this essay will question whether political history is fundamentally about the state or not.

This essay explores the traditional narratives concerning the state’s role in British political history, including the merits of the arguments made by individual political historians as well as the criticisms that such narratives have often faced in recent years as a result of the emergence of new political thought. It will then examine the popular politics that has emerged since the 1960s and 1970s, and its focus on political culture rather than the state, before examining the criticisms of that school of thought, as well the similarities and differences between the traditional and the modern.

I assess the thesis that the state must ultimately provide the basis for political history given its structural importance in political historical narratives and its situation firmly at the very foundation of understandings of how politics works. Ultimately, although there must be a more sophisticated narrative than that appearing within traditional narratives, the subject of the state cannot be avoided given that political culture cannot exist without a political system being in place.

Traditional Narratives of Political History

The traditional approaches to political history have included four distinct perspectives: liberty via the Whig historians, property via the Marxists, religion from Catholic revisionists and some Tories, and power via the majority of Tory historians. Taking the liberal perspective first, the state is often perceived as having developed over time through the Scottish Enlightenment, Whig constitutionalism, and the evolution of political institutions that were at the forefront of a reformist sensibility that manifested itself within grand narratives written by historians such as Lord Acton, T.B. Macaulay and his nephew G.M. Trevelyan, as discussed in Writing History: Theory and Practice.

It is interesting to note that this approach was completely devastated by the trauma of World War I, as well as the demands placed on liberal institutions to deliver more democratic processes and rational government. However, the narratives were grounded in the Victorian era and in the need to address a dynamic and constantly evolving political landscape based on events like the Industrial Revolution, the growing calls for universal participation in the political system, and important shifts in the global political and economic climate, at least as far as the fallout from the French Revolution in the 18th century was concerned, noted by Philip Harling.

The broader context of the emergence of this school of thought is of importance because it inextricably links political history to the state, introducing grand narratives based on the progress of the state, and recording political history in the context of a reform movement that brought about ideological battles within the governmental framework that reinforced the authority it possessed. In effect, the state provided a firm grounding on which political history narratives were able to build.

A second approach – the Marxist political history of the likes of Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, described by S. H. Rigby – perceives the state in terms of its economic exploitation of the poor and the application of production processes that impinge on and influence society’s class relations, introducing historical materialism to the political historiography and producing narratives based on the theoretical framework that emerges from this combination. This certainly provided an approach that examined politics from a solid theoretical position and one that was pervasive within its contemporaneous era as a consequence of the focus on the masses rather than the elite and the structures that favoured the latter whilst degrading the former.

The Marxist approach also seemed to have considerable explanatory power for revolutionary periods such as the English Civil War, which was explained by R.H. Tawney and Lawrence Stone through reference to a ‘Rise of the Gentry’ and ‘Crisis of the Aristocracy’, reducing the political events of the 1640s to changes in the incomes of classes. It differs substantially to the liberty approach previously outlined because political motivation is central to the work of the Marxist historian. This is based upon the fact that its application to the historiography is designed specifically to support Marx’s theoretical and historical assumptions as well as his political outlook, which, according to Arif Dirlik, may have been “…subjected to the needs of political movements or Communist regimes in power” (14).

Dirlik applies this to the case of China, in which the political historiography was fundamentally bound to the state and drew attention to the “structural infirmity” of the nation during the attempts to implement a democratic regime in the 1910s and 1920s (41). This effectively reinforced the Marxist approach because it provided a substantial insight into the way in which the state was failing the people and betraying its ideological agenda.

However, Fielding draws attention to the popular idea that Marxism was doomed to fail as a result of the profound absence of structural organisation, which underpins successful movements and explains why Marxism was fundamentally weak. Although this point does not directly reference the state, it draws attention to its importance via the implementation of structural processes and procedures that essentially form points at which good governance occur. In terms of political history, this establishes the Marxist approach as wholly theoretical rather then grounded in a successful system and therefore also comments on the weakness of this element of the traditional approach.

This stands in contrast to the third approach, specifically in terms of the religious approach to political history. J.C.D. Clark interprets 18th century culture as coloured by religious persecution for those who were not members of the “established church” within the “confessional state.” However, he also points out that law and religion were fundamentally intertwined, noting the fact that the two were entangled in day-to-day life, with the latter impinging on legislation. This highlights the importance of the state in the traditional narratives, all of which tap into structural issues within the analysis and the way in which they interact with politics.

However, it is necessary to point out here that a religious approach to the political history is necessarily focused upon the church. Of course, the juxtaposition of church and state reflects upon the nature of society in the 18th century, but the fact that this emerges as a political narrative suggests that there was a structural focus on political culture in terms of the distribution of power, as addressed in C. Carpenter’s ‘Introduction: Political Culture, Politics and Cultural History.’ The extent to which this is reliable can be questioned given the focus on the religious over the secular, but it does provide an insight into the historiography of the era.

The final approach taps into the notion of power. The Peterhouse School of History, whose most infamous advocate was Maurice Cowling, actively admits its prejudice against higher liberalism and instead interprets the actions of politicians in relation to policymaking as self-interested ideologues who essentially hide their own agenda in order to achieve it, which stems from the conviction that there was a need to focus on the major players – through an essentially Namierite prosopography – in any given political situation to understand the game, so to speak.

This cynical view of the role of the state draws heavily upon individuals and their role in the administration of government in their quest to maintain their position against external and internal challenges, drawing on paradigms of leadership within an ever-evolving society: Lawrence Goldman states, “It was argued that personality and personal political advantage mattered as much, if not more, at critical moments than wider questions of social need or political principle” (7). In effect, this approach acknowledged the role of the state, but linked it irrevocably to the individuals within it and at its helm, rather than explaining it in terms of impersonal forces, which, to some extent, explain away individual agency.

Here the early Stuart court, where faction and nepotism were rife, is a good example of where the high political analysis is appropriate. One beneficiary of nepotism from the Earl of Salisbury, James I’s initial chief minister, was Sir Roger Aston, a long-time correspondent of Salisbury, whose brother described as “an honest man to our own house.” Goldman provides the example of Benjamin Disraeli’s leap in the dark in 1867, under which he sponsored the second Reform Act to give the vote to the urban working class, and came during a moment of “…parliamentary and cabinet instability,” during which the issues could be manipulated to benefit those who choose to take action (7-8).

In effect, this was exactly what Disraeli was doing at that point in time, using parliamentary mechanisms to expand the political advantage for his party by broadening the vote to those who would most likely support his party. These mechanisms of state highlight just how far traditional approaches were fundamentally focused on it, albeit via individuals entrenched within it.

There are numerous criticisms of these approaches to political history. For example, Lawrence overtly criticises high politics by labelling it a “bastardized version” of political method in that the “…agnostic line that one can only penetrate so far into a politician’s thought world” (211) and, therefore, may not be entirely accurate given that it assumes all of the elites holding public office are merely interested in pursuing a personal agenda – and many have found the thrust of Cowling’s The Impact of Hitler to be unpalatable. This sweeping generalisation undermines the representative value offered by some members of political structures in place, but there is also a need to recognise that they are a part of such structures and therefore fundamentally linked to the state.

Crowcroft offers a critique based on the fact that high politics fails to recognise this, thus pointing to the fact that it has too narrow a focus and the idea that politicians have dominating personalities does not sufficiently explain the model of politics offered. The fact that the focus is on the state gives priority to the political institutions within the individual political histories via these approaches, and so, offers primacy to the role of the state in society rather than individual responses to it. Furthermore, the idea that the state may define society is fundamentally flawed given the differing interpretations that may emerge of the historiography where different approaches are taken. Either way, the state was firmly positioned as the central tenet of the traditional narratives within political history, though in a non-structuralist, non-determinist fashion for the Peterhouse School in contrast to the others.

It is also necessary to point out that the historians of the 18th and 19th centuries were open to new possibilities for enhancing knowledge, the vast majority of which was based upon the state. It is important to recognise this within a strictly traditional framework, meaning that it tapped directly into patriarchal structures and values that were already in place rather than producing an innovative perspective. Wahrman notes that politics is relatively autonomous and the use of language has a major impact upon public perceptions, but that these two functions are essential for the development of a state-based discourse that is able to reflect upon the social and political climate at any given time.

In effect, there is a very real need to acknowledge that traditional frameworks are therefore problematic in their application to modern politics because they are outdated. However, this simply points to a shift in the way in which political history is considered rather than a major shift from the state, which continues to provide the foundation for analysis. It must be stressed, though, that Wahrman actively supports the notion of a new political history so it is important to examine that in full too.

Keir Martland reads history at Selwyn College, Cambridge where he has been elected to a Scholarship and awarded a Tripos Prize. His academic interests include the temporal and the spiritual within the history of political thought, the origins of the state, mediaeval law and kingship, the late mediaeval Church and the English Reformation, and the Gothic Revival. He is currently President of the Cambridge University Heraldic and Genealogical Society and Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer for the Fisher Society. He enjoys singing in Chapel and Chaplaincy choirs, assisting at his College Chapel, volunteering for the Order of Malta, and organising sung Catholic services as Clerk to the Cambridge Ordinariate Group.

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