The Modes of Difference
E.P.Thompson’s article of this title, first published in the Socialist Register in 1965, set a critical standard for asking what comparative social theory is for. If Thompson’s outrageous pomposity was directed against what he saw as the callow and naive appropriations of other societal models by Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the net effect of the article was to demand of the British left a reading of its own history against the acquisition of (foreign) theory which seemed to denounce (domestic) tradition and practice: ‘what their schema lack is the control of “grand facts”, and England is unlikely to capitulate before a Marxism which cannot at least engage in a dialogue in the English idiom’ (Thompson, 1978:64). The most important work of the 1970s was precisely based on rethinking foreign theory in trying to understand ‘the peculiarities of the English’. The work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham and of the History Workshop was notable for teasing out theory in the context of English experience. The theoretical collection, On Ideology (Hall et al. 1978a), and its empirical application, Policing the Crisis (Hall et al. 1978b), were monuments to the working out of Gramscian-derived theories of the state and culture, finding Althusser heuristic but not definitive. What Althusser had done was to codify Gramsci’s idea of civil society so that culture might be seen in institutional terms. This allowed a number of writers to get a ‘fix’ on cultural projects-Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour (1977) is a notable
example, but so too is Coward and Ellis’s Language and Materialism (1977)— though the danger that Althusserianism might be simply a Marxist version of functionalism was ever-present. What the debate ultimately did was to produce a Marxist cultural studies that seemed to have three interlocking premises: first, ‘Cultural processes are intimately connected with social relations, especially with class relations and class formations, with sexual divisions, with the racial structuring of social relations and with age oppressions as a form of dependency’. Second, ‘Culture involves power and helps to produce assymetries in the abilities of individuals and social groups to define and realise their needs’. Third, ‘Culture is neither an autonomous nor an externally determined field, but a site of social differences and struggles’ (Johnson 1986/7:39)
Most of the work produced at the CCCS, through the History Workshops and in the writing of individual authors, involved a working out of these problems, though often divided between those who saw that it was important to study cultures, as Johnson (1986/7:50) puts it, ‘as a whole, in situ, located in their material context’, and those who ‘stress[ed] the relative independence or effective autonomy of subjective forms and means of signification’. Although the debate between Perry Anderson and E.P.Thompson seemed in many ways to hinge on these dichotomies, in that Thompson clearly adopted a totalistic, situated perspective, while Anderson seemed to argue from a structuralism that owed much to the linguistic turn in Marxist theorizing, the debate on British culture as it evolved in the 1970s and early 1980s was much richer than these abstractions would suggest.