An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate

David Feldman | Published in History Today
An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate
Gareth Stedman Jones
Profile Books  288pp  £9.99 
ISBN: 1 86197 729 8
In the last decades of the eighteenth century the Marquis de Condorcet, Tom Paine and others imagined a world without scarcity; a world in which ‘there need no longer be such a thing as the poor.’ Gareth Stedman Jones’ book takes as his starting point their groundbreaking proposals for what we would now call a welfare state. In doing so he sets out to write a history that bears on questions of policy and politics in the present. Stedman Jones brings into view ways of thinking about poverty and welfare that briefly illumined Britain and France in the 1790s only to be extinguished quickly thereafter. It is the road not taken that is the starting point for his argument.
In the second half of the eighteenth century the experience of commercial society, as well as the lessons taught by figures such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot in France and Adam Smith in Britain, revealed the possibility of a world, freed from feudal restrictions on trade, in which individuals’ pursuit of profit redounded to improve the well-being of all. The American and French revolutions injected radicalism and urgency into this cautiously optimistic and patrician vindication of commercial society. Now the poor were citizens and revolutionary leaders faced the problem of shaping a republic ‘in which an informed citizenry would govern itself according to reason’. This was the context in which Paine and Condorcet came up with their original ideas for a welfare system based on taxation and savings that would, among other things, provide for universal education, pensions in old age and allowances for children.
In France, the governments of 1793 and 1794 introduced measures very similar to Condorcet’s proposals but following the fall of Robespierre, in the face of near national bankruptcy and famine ‘there was a headlong retreat from the notion of collective responsibility for poverty’ that was not reversed fundamentally until after the First World War. In Britain, Paine’s ideas did not even get this far. In the face of popular loyalism and state repression, republicanism shrank during the wars with revolutionary France. Burke and Malthus hijacked Smith’s intellectual inheritance in support of their argument that poverty was an essential feature of a divinely ordained natural order and that pauperism was a disgrace. The only hope for the poor in this world lay in hard work, thrift and sexual continence. As Stedman Jones points out, this bleak vision set the parameters of social policy in Britain for more than a century.
In the course of that century the problem of poverty in Britain and France was transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Steam driven machinery, generated not only new wealth but also a propertyless class of industrial workers. The second half of An End to Poverty? explores the interaction between, on one side, the moralizing prescriptions for poverty that triumphed over republican social reform and, on the other side, the impact of the Industrial Revolution on social thought. In the case of Britain, a key figure in Stedman Jones’ account is Arnold Toynbee. According to Stedman Jones, it was Toynbee’s view of the Industrial Revolution as a cataclysmic development responsible for the separation of classes that generated a tradition of social reform that owed nothing to republicanism and ignored Paine’s legacy. Instead, welfare was now conceived as a balm for the wounds of industrial society and as something that would promote ‘national efficiency’. 
Stedman Jones recommends that in the present we return to the republican legacy to combine commercial society with inclusive citizenship and greater equality. His political point, then, lies at quite a high level of generality. It is intended both to combat a disdain for piecemeal progressive reform among leftist intellectuals and to reclaim Adam Smith from the political right. But the significance of this book extends beyond this level. An End to Poverty? enjoins us to think anew about the interaction of the French and Industrial Revolutions. This is something that Eric Hobsbawm did more than forty years ago in his renowned Age of Revolution but which no one has attempted since. In this book Stedman Jones addresses this key moment in the history of modernity but does so through the history of ideas, not from the perspective of Marxist social history. In taking up this challenge he produces an argument that is not only powerful in its own right but should act as a stimulus and inspiration to others.
  • David Feldman is the author of Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840-1914 (Yale University Press, 1994).
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