Policy Papers

Make poverty history: response

Gareth Stedman Jones |

  • RSS Feed Icon


Frank Trentmann's thoughtful and perceptive review of my book An End to Poverty? raises a number of important questions about the scope and limits of the argument put forward - and more generally a doubt about how far history and policy can be combined. He defines my approach to the history of social democracy as a form of 'anti-Whiggery' and asks whether my 'celebration' of the ideas of Paine and Condorcet as a foundational moment of social democracy does not risk 'minimizing the contribution of subsequent traditions'. He questions the 'stark contrast' I make between the 1780-90s and the subsequent polarization of the argument into the rival camps of laisser-faire individualism and socialism. He argues that if the discussion were broadened out from key texts, it would become apparent that in popular politics, free trade and civil society went together in the decades before 1914, as they did in the late-Victorian and Edwardian discovery of a civic dimension to the politics of consumption. Similarly, he asks, if not only 'textual reinterpretations of political economy', but 'the changing material world' were taken into account, is it surprising that later generations of radicals and social democrats looked to other ideas and interpretations of the world? The fusion of commerce, civil society and citizenship may have worked better for 'commercial society' than for 'industrial or post-industrial society'.

Focussing more specifically upon the political dimension of the book, Frank Trentmann wonders whether for me 'deep down' 'poverty and policies to eliminate poverty are of interest less for their size, effect or practicality than for the civic vision lying behind them'. In this area, he points out that in many ways New Labour is nearer to this original vision - or the Edwardian version of it - than much of the 'well-intended paternalistic welfarism of Old Labour. More than at any time since the Edwardian period, free trade, civil society, and community engagement are staples of Labour Party discourse'.

The points which Frank Trentmann raises are pertinent and well worth discussion - and I am happy to acknowledge that some of his criticisms are valid. His objection to the characterization of the nineteenth-century language of laisser-faire individualism as that of 'producer' and 'consumer' is well founded. My use of these terms, I agree, was lazy and anachronistic. Notions of 'liberty', 'independence', 'self-help' or of 'capital and labour' in its liberal or radical usages would have provided a more accurate contrast, even though the connotations of these terms would have required much more exegesis.

If understood however as a point of principle, I would resist the implicit contrast running through his review between texts and 'the changing material world'. Given the relative brevity of the book, which was intended as an extended essay rather than a full-scale monograph, my focus upon texts was in many instances a convenient short-hand rather than a methodological statement. I have been engaged for a long time in studying the history of various forms of socialism, radicalism and liberalism in the long nineteenth century and, in a less detailed way through to the present. The obvious question which provided my starting point was why this period witnessed the spread of discourses of social democracy and socialism throughout the world. Furthermore, why did the movements, revolutions and reforms associated with these doctrines generate so many of the wars and struggles of the last two centuries on a scale far surpassing the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

There are of course Marxist answers to these questions. But if these are largely rejected, it is essential to provide an alternative explanation. My own approach, though decidedly not Marxist, shares at least one basic assumption made by Marx in his 'Preface' to The Critique of Political Economy of 1859, where he stated that mankind only sets itself to address such problems as it can solve - perhaps a residue of Kant's moral philosophy in which 'can' implies 'should' or 'must'. Set in historical terms, what this means is that the period of the late-18th century revolutions witnessed an epochal change, quite as momentous as that of the revolutions themselves. It was during this period that poverty, hitherto considered the inevitable lot of the great majority of mankind, ceased to be regarded as a divine or naturally imposed necessity and began instead to be recognized as remediable in principle, and to a growing extent, man-made in practice. In this sense, I am resistant to any juxtaposition between civic vision and the elimination of poverty. My argument is that the point at which they come integrally to belong together defines a new epoch in the history of republicanism in its largest sense - one which we arguably still inhabit - and that epoch began with the proposals of Condorcet and Paine in the 1790s. My argument was also that this new epoch posed a fundamental threat to the hitherto existing social and political assumptions of Christianity and of Christian polities. That is why I thought that the shift from Burke to Malthus in response to the linking of a democratic republicanism with elimination of poverty was as constitutive of Victorian religion as it was of Victorian political economy.

I did not have the space to indicate more than cursorily the difficulties that nineteenth-century wage earners experienced in coping with a system unprepared to provide relief to poverty except within the framework of the Poor Law. I have explored many of those questions in Outcast London and connected essays. What I did indicate were the intractable difficulties created for wage earners by the smallness, amateurism and lack of actuarial expertise of friendly societies, both in England and in France. As I indicated towards the end of the book, social insurance employing the law of large numbers was the obvious solution to the poverty of advanced countries and both in Britain and in France came to be adopted (in however truncated form) in the first decades of the twentieth century. The chapters in between indicated some of the sources of resistance to this idea and helped to explain why the form ultimately taken by social insurance was so remote from that once imagined in the 1790s. As I tried to indicate, particularly in the case of Britain, what had once - if only momentarily conjoined - social insurance and civic republicanism - became radically disconnected and remained so through most of the nineteenth century. But I am very open to the idea that the combination was recuperated, rediscovered or re-invented by some of the late-Victorian and Edwardian advocates of New Liberalism.

Frank Trentmann suggests that An End to Poverty? can be seen as a continuation and extension of the argument put forward in Languages of Class. This is true. Although I realize that much of the argument still needs to be established and in particular, much of the primary evidence still needs to be re-read, I do want to suggest that the French Revolution and in particular the traumatic association it created between popular sovereignty, the threat to property and the terror were far more constitutive of what came to be seen as a story about the emergence of the working class than the experience of the 'Industrial Revolution'. To propose this does not have to mean a story as drastic or as unrelieved as that of what Frank Trentmann describes as 'fall and degradation'. Forms of association, of trade unionism, of consumer cooperation and new forms of sociability and ritual and to a more limited degree, new forms of collective provision did much to humanize industrial Britain and to provide new sources of political inspiration both to New Liberalism and Labour. I was not positing the 1790s as some form of golden age followed by decline. I was simply trying to emphasise what got extruded from the spectrum of discourse in its counter-revolutionary aftermath.

Lastly, Frank Trentmann raises questions about the implications of the book for contemporary policy and politics. This is very useful since it enables me to attempt to clarify in what sense An End to Poverty? aspires to relate to policy as well as history. First, I should make clear what I was not trying to argue. I was not suggesting a simple return to the combination of social insurance, free trade and civil society proposed by Condorcet and Paine. Questions about free trade internationally, and about the precise current relationship between public and private domestically, are pragmatic questions to be decided according to contemporary circumstances. They are not to be thought of as possessing in themselves some kind of 'timeless meaning and significance'. After all, if we were to apply Paine's solutions literally, we would be advocating vouchers for education - a nostrum at present primarily associated with the libertarian right.

Similarly, it would be simple-minded, as Frank Trentmann points out, to forget that the sort of conjunction of republic and commercial society envisaged by Condorcet and Paine might have presumed a more homogeneous community than 'the more free floating, diverse and pluralistic dynamics of an open, commercial society' of today. Sociologically, this is undeniable - and yet firm advocacy of religious toleration by Condorcet and Paine suggests that we should not leave the point there. The relevant comparison for them would have been the more claustrophobic and communitarian republicanism of Rousseau and the Montagnards, to which Condorcet at least was vehemently opposed.

The point of addressing policy as well as history was two fold. Firstly, much of the political definition of New Labour remains inchoate. Characterisations of its identity therefore range from shame-faced social democracy to Thatcherism with a human face. In this context, therefore, the political point might be to provide it with a genealogy which did not merely insist upon its differences from 'Old Labour', but provided a larger historical framework to which it could appeal. This would help to lift it above the frequent and recurrent charges of mere improvised opportunism to which it has often looked vulnerable. But this is not the only reason for re-invoking the Condorcet-Paine era as a foundational point. More immediately, such an invocation might serve to provide the party with a firmer and more principled commitment not merely to the relief of poverty but to an understanding that such a goal cannot be realized ultimately without a commitment to greater equality. Some at least of the advisers of New Labour seem convinced that a commitment to greater equality belonged to the old labour politics of class and is incompatible with an acceptance of commercial society. Another look at the founding era of social democracy might suggest that such a commitment was not originally thought of merely as a defence against commercial society, but a possibility opened up by the potentiality of commercial society itself.

Related Policy Papers


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More