chapter  15
35 Pages

Imagined Communities : Class

The concept of ‘class’ has become a problematic one for historians. The idea of class as the fundamental socio-economic, cultural and political structure emerging inevitably from the upheavals and sufferings of the Industrial Revolution - a view that still colours many general accounts - has been discarded by most specialists. First, the traditional idea of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ as a rapid plunge into factories, towns and proletarianization is no longer tenable: the process was a far more complex and gradual one, with much continuity with ‘pre-industrial’ craft manufacture and small-scale production. One conclusion could be, as also has been suggested for Britain, that the period at which an industrial working class as conventionally understood emerged (permanently employed in large factories, living in segregated areas, unionized and politically represented by a militantly class party) was much later than previously supposed - around the time of the First World War.1 Second, changing historical approaches, in particular the interest in culture and language as the creators of social identity, have demolished the determinism that regarded certain sets of attitudes and beliefs as a direct product - ‘consciousness’ - of economic conditions. Third, a recognition of the complexity of social, political and economic life, which included cooperation and solidarity between ‘classes’ and diversity and antagonism within them, has blurred the lines of division. Fourth, a recognition of the potency of other conceptions of belonging, such as people, community, religious denomination, political party or nation, shows class to be only one among several ‘imagined communities’ that make up our composite identity.