Alan Macfarlane

Preface to the Hungarian edition of 'The Origins of English Individualism'.

     It is a pleasure and an honour to introduce this translation of The Origins of English Individualism to a new, Hungarian, audience. The book is essentially an attempt to give an anthropological analysis of the genesis and development of the archetypical individualistic and capitalist society, the "cradle of capitalism", England. By "anthropological" I mean three things. Firstly, the work is explicitly comparative, comparing England with a model of peasant societies elsewhere in the world and particularly in Eastern Europe. Secondly, as in the tradition dating back through Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture to the work of De Tocqueville and Montesquieu, it attempt to get to the heart of the culture, the spirit that animates all the institutions. I believe this spirit to be a competitive individualism, especially as shown in the attitude to property rights. Thirdly, the book, and its successor The Culture of Capitalism, from which two chapters have been added, attempt a "holistic" approach. This approach stresses the interconnection of institutions, especially politics, law, economy, religion and society, which have tended to become separated in modern societies.

    Thus I have attempted to provide a portrait of the society in which I live, but written from the outside as an anthropologist, a picture of the long evolution of individualistic capitalism and its associated features. In doing this I have basically set up two 'models' or abstractions from reality. One is of a collectivist or peasant society, which I contrast the English and west European experience of individualism and capitalism. The "peasant" model is based on accounts from all over the world, but in particular on East European analyses, above all from Poland and Russia.

    As I explain in the book, East Europe was chosen for four reasons. Firstly, the earliest detailed analysis of "peasantry" was undertaken on the Polish peasant, by Thomas and Znaniecki. Secondly, the work of Chayanov, Galeski and others on East Europe is particularly clear and illuminating. Thirdly, Eastern Europe is at the right distance for a comparison. It shares much in culture, religion, language and history. But it has also shown marked differences in its social and economic structure, differences which are dramatic enough to set one thinking about both sides of the East‑West divide. Finally, in a curious way, through the influence of great medievalists of East European origin, men like Kosminsky, Vinogradoff and Postan, models drawn from Eastern Europe have already had a deep influence on how English medievalists portray the early history of manorial society.

     It may be a rather curious experience for a Hungarian to read this book. For me, the familiar fore‑ground is western Europe and particularly England. Eastern Europe is the "strange" background against which the nearer events are measured. A Hungarian reader will turn the lens the other way round: around him will be the familiar features of a world which until very recently was 'collectivist' and 'peasant', while he or she will be curious to know about that other tradition of individualism and market capitalism which he is joining.

     Among the thoughts which I hope this book will inspire are the following. Firstly, it may cause the reader to question the stereotypes of Eastern Europe which lie behind my model. There have been some criticisms of my East European peasant model, and I have answered that "it would be somewhat refreshing if it were the case that while I had thought my work would have its main implications for English history, in a boomerang way it made people question peasant stereotypes for eastern Europe." This is an area where a Hungarian reader can actively contribute from his or her own experience and knowledge.

    Secondly, the book may help to free certain readers from the prison of a thought system which argues that all historical developments must grow through a uniform and inevitable set of stages. The most famous of these stages, powerfully supported by Marx, is the transition from peasant/pre‑capitalist to post‑peasant/capitalist society. My book is a direct challenge to this orthodoxy since it suggests that Marx and many others who have consciously and unconsciously followed him, have completely misunderstood the history of England. In trying to fit English history into this conventional schemata they have had to distort the facts. There is no necessity for any particular path of "development"; the Marx‑Weber thesis is inapplicable to England; it is misleading to superimpose a "Russian" model on medieval England. There is no necessity to pass through "revolutions" of any particular kind. There is no "spirit" of history, no particular pattern to which we can fit the huge diversity of past histories.

    This may be of value to those who have until recently lived in a world which pretended to believe in inevitable "stages" in a curious survival of a kind of nineteenth century evolutionist thought, kept alive by the last prophet of the nineteenth century.

    Thirdly, the book may stimulate some thought about the historian's methods. Historians, like others, tend to work with implicit, untested, sets of preconceptions in their mind. Often these are large assumptions with which they label a society or age. Among the largest of these are "capitalism" and "pre‑capitalist", "peasant" and "individualist". As long as these categories are used without being made explicit, they tend to be imprisoning. They cannot be tested, neither verified nor rejected. Yet we do need such general, over‑all, categories. How are we to resolve this dilemma?

    My attempted solution in this book is to develop the ideas of Max Weber and others by setting up explicit "thought experiments" or models. I set up a set of criteria, a set of measures or "benchmarks", against which a specific society at a specifics time can be tested. With these out in the open, it is then possible to see how far the empirical data conforms to the measures.

    This procedure is rather unusual in historical research, though it is more common in anthropology and sociology. It has the intellectual advantage of making it possible for readers and critics to attack the author more easily. By revealing his premises, a reader can reject the foundations of his classification, or suggest other, better, models. At another level, a reader can argue that the data have not been appropriately studied. So, either model or data can be challenged. Although this makes the author more vulnerable, it would seem, by making his assertions testable, to be ultimately a more open and constructive way to proceed than through the mystifications of implicit schemata which have often not been testable and have either to be accepted or rejected outright.

    This method recognizes that ultimately there is a continuous interaction between models and data, a mixture of inductive and deductive. Too much stress on data leads to a loss of a sense of direction and meaningless, petty, research. Too abstract an approach loses touch with reality.

    Fourthly, the book may set Hungarian readers thinking about the world of Western individualism which they are rapidly joining. Long ago, De Tocqueville tried to paint a portrait of the new world of equality and individualism in his Democracy in America, which would give his French contemporaries an idea of their future. In a humbler way, this book may give Hungarian readers one insight into the ship which they are joining.

    Much of what surprised early visitors to England ‑ the political liberties, the affluence, the assertion of individual rights, the diversity of religious opinion, the interest in business ‑ has now become a part of west European civilization, rather than being restricted to England. Its roots, also, are European, not purely English. It may be of interest to Hungarian readers to find out something more about the "package" of features to which we give labels such as "individualism" and "capitalism" and to learn that this anthropologically peculiar "package" is so old. The "culture of capitalism" is not a product of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is not a product of the reformation or the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Instead, it goes back into certain characteristics produced by a fusion of early Germanic and Roman society in the Dark Ages.

    Certain features of his peculiar blend have been maintained. Successive waves of religious, technological, demographic and other change have modified it, but not altered its basic spirit. This long continuity of a culture, surviving despite enormous pressures, may also provide an encouraging message for Hungarian readers. A cultural configuration is surprisingly resilient. As long as   the language and the memories are maintained, it can and will survive, while adapting to the new. The English experience could be called "the changing same". Hopefully, in a new Hungary, people will also be able to use a similar phrase.

Dr Alan Macfarlane,

King's College,                     September 1990

Cambridge, England