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Column: Chapters| Alan Macfarlane.







From wardrobes to worms. 

I WAS BROUGHT up within the highly stratified class system of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, in my case, the differences of social status were emphasized by having spent my first five years in India. Though I don’t think I was consciously aware of the pervasive Indian caste system, of the huge divide between the whites and browns, yet it must have seeped into me.

When I returned to England, my upper middle-class family and the posh boarding school and then elite Oxford University, only re-enforced my idea that society as my mother put it, was like a chest of drawers. There were those in the top-drawer, lords and ladies. There were three middle-class drawers: the upper-middle like ourselves, the middle, and lower-middle. All were very different and there was much effort to move from one to another. Then there was a huge bottom drawer, more than equal in size to the top drawers, where the rest of the population lived. Put in another way, in terms of what collar you had on your shirt, there were the striped collars of the upper class, the white collars of the middling, and the blue collars that absorbed the sweat of the working class.

As I studied history through school and undergraduate days I assimilated this drawer model to what I discovered was a widespread European system. From feudal times, society had been divided into four functional groups. The rulers were the King and the knightly class, a military aristocracy. The ideological controllers and administrators were the clergy who oversaw belief and education. The people who organized production and distribution were the middle class, the town dwellers or bourgeoisie. The bottom drawer was composed of peasants and labourers.

The division into four strata, I began to learn extended well beyond Europe. I found it was an Indo-European system stretching as far as the end of India and over much of South America.

The division into four strata, I began to learn extended well beyond Europe. I found it was an Indo-European system stretching as far as the end of India and over much of South America. For the four varna or sets of castes were exactly thus, divided into four functional groups. Yet with caste there was the added element of ritual hierarchy, which placed the most pure, the Brahmins, at the top followed by the warriors, the merchants and artisans and finally the peasants and clean working castes. Those who dealt with polluted matter, sweepers, leather and metal workers and others, were of no caste, outcaste, dalits in modern terminology.

I did not really start to question this model, or to wonder about how the half of the world outside the Indo-European sphere worked, until I left England for Nepal, even though I had received one jolt to my complacency in my first year at Oxford. This was a set of observations by Tocqueville which made me wonder whether the Continent and England were the same. As he said, as an Englishman I had not noticed this but now he pointed it out it seemed important. He wrote:

Shutting your eyes to the old names and forms, you will find from the seventeenth century the feudal system substantially abolished, classes which overlap, nobility of birth set on one side, aristocracy thrown open, wealth as the source of power, equality before the law, office open to all, liberty of the press, publicity of debate…. Seventeenth-century England was already a quite modern nation, which has merely preserved in its heart, and as it were embalmed, some relics of the Middle Ages.1

In this way, it diverged dramatically from what happened elsewhere in Europe. That divergence was the culmination of a much older process.

‘It is very probable that at the time of the establishment of the feudal system in Europe what has since been called the “nobility” did not immediately form a caste but was originally composed of all the chief men of the nation and was thus at first only an aristocracy.’ Yet, by the Middle Ages, ‘the nobility had become a caste, that is to say, its distinctive mark was birth.’ This happened everywhere except England. ‘Wherever the feudal system established itself on the continent of Europe it ended in caste; in England alone it returned to aristocracy.’ This was the great difference, and one which the English seemed to have over­looked.

I HAVE ALWAYS been astonished that a fact, which distinguishes England from all modern nations and which can alone explain the peculiarities of its laws, its spirit, and its history, has not attracted still more than it has done the attention of philosophers and statesmen, and that habit has finally made it as it were invisible to the English themselves. The truth has been often half perceived, half described; never, I think, has the vision of the truth been quite full or quite distinct.

What then is the great difference according to Tocqueville?

It was far less its Parliament, its liberty, its publicity, its jury, which in fact rendered the England of that date so unlike the rest of Europe than a feature still more exclusive and more powerful. England was the only country in which the system of caste had been not changed but effectively destroyed. The nobles and the middle classes in England followed together the same courses of business, entered the same professions, and, what is much more significant, inter‑married.2

It was really when I immersed myself in further research on original documents, and came to see how old and highly mobile the English class system was, from the 1970s onwards, that I began to fully appreciate the force of Tocqueville’s comments. I saw that English classes, though highly stratified, with numerous sub-gradations as I had learnt from my grandmother and school friends, the ‘U’ and the ‘Non-U’ of Nancy Mitford, was not a caste system. People were able to marry or to move quite easily up and down if they had the money and the right accent, as Shaw satirized in ‘Pygmalion’. English class was, in fact, similar to Max Weber’s definition of a status group, defined by how people were seen in the eyes of others.

I learnt from Maitland and other lawyers that there had never been any blood-based differences enshrined in law. There was no nobility in the French sense, just an aristocracy. There was no bourgeoisie in the French sense, but many different occupational groups. There was no peasantry in the French sense, tied to the soil and often unfree. Instead, England was like a beehive, ranked, but with many cells which could allow people to move from one to the other. It was like a wall with numerous status ladders propped against it. People could climb or fall down these, like the game of snakes and ladders. The various ladders had equivalent statuses. Thus, for example, my own tier of the upper-middle class was where the generals and the colonels, the judges and the barristers, the headmasters and the university teachers, the doctors and the rich industrialists or holders of small landed estates without titles were placed.

It should have been obvious to me that it was a strange world, very different from the continental model, as soon as I read the great tradition of English novels and plays anatomizing it all, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Pope, Austen, Trollope, Dickens, Shaw and Wilde.

So, I now had two models, the Anglosphere (for the English system was the one Tocqueville described for America and was spread to the rest of the white Empire), and the Indo-European, where Tocqueville rightly sensed that element of caste. By this he meant that the different ranks were fixed – without the possibility of marriage or elevation through merit or money, even though there was not the formal element of ritual purity. Tocqueville believed that this survived the French Revolution and that the France around him in the 1830s had reverted to a quasi-caste system.

When I took these two models, the drawer model of England and the caste and quasi-caste one for Indo-European civilization, to a study of Japan, I found that it was a third variant. It was surprisingly like the Anglosphere system. There were no real castes or blood differences and a good deal of social mobility was visible throughout Japanese history. Money could buy you status and several great merchant houses were built up by very ordinary people. Yet there was an important difference.

All the Indo-European and the Anglosphere system had an important role for the religious, the clergy or the Brahmins. They were one of the four orders and a central ladder in England. Yet in Japan they were absent. Shinto and Buddhist priests and monks were not an order, just another occupation. There was no pillar of the controllers of education and ideology.

This might lead us to expect just three orders in Japan. Yet I found that Japan also had four, but this was by dividing the bourgeoisie into two, accentuating their important. There was a retailing, merchant, group, and a manufacturing, craft one. Yet even with these four, there was one more unusual twist. Instead of being at the bottom, the Peasants were placed second, after the military strata of rulers (Daimyo, Samurai). Then came the Artisans and finally the Merchants.

I now had three models when I arrived at my fourth civilization, China. At first, I thought that the Chinese system was the same as the Japanese, to which it had, I assumed, been exported. In fact, in formal descriptions of how the Chinese system was meant to work, it was often described as being as being divided described into the rulers, the mandarins, the peasants, and then the artisans and merchants, as in Japan.

Yet, as I came to examine China through numerous visits, conversations and reading, I was in for my final, and in some ways greatest, surprise. I discovered that between the outer shell of a familiar idea of a division of labour based on function, as laid out in Durkheim’s model of ‘organic ‘solidarity, China, in practice, the situation was totally different. There was, in reality, only one real difference – between the highly literate, tiny, group of rulers, the mandarins, and the rest. There was no real bourgeoisie, because city, town and countryside merged into each other. There was no blood or permanent difference between workers on the land, peasants, and small craftsmen and traders. Many people combined jobs and moved from one occupation to another. So, you had a society with only a governing class and the rest.

China was the only world civilization which had constructed a powerful set of ladders to allow a tiny proportion of the mass to become, in the next generation, the rulers.

To make it even more peculiar, these two groups actually merged into each other. China was the only world civilization which had constructed a powerful set of ladders to allow a tiny proportion of the mass to become, in the next generation, the rulers. In the Anglosphere, you could achieve this through money, though it often took a couple of generations. In China, you did it through success in the Confucian-based and ancient examination system. Like salmon leaping up a high waterfall with many intermediate pools on the climb up, everyone could in theory try to reach the happy spawning grounds. In practice, almost everyone ended up in different pools. Only one in hundreds of thousands would reach the high river above and become top administrator.

Having discovered that China has no caste or class system, and hence is different from all the ‘organic solidarity’ systems in major civilizations, though there are some hints of a strange overlap with Islamic worlds, I was faced with the problems of what held China together.

Durkheim argued that organic solidarity, with the head, arms, body and legs (hence an organ), created the inter-dependence which held together societies. If China did not and does not have this, nor does it have a religious centre, what, beyond the strong family system and a universally understood written language, keeps it together?

There seemed to be no alternatively available within the system of advanced civilizations with a division of labour. So, what can China be? The absurd-sounding alternative is that conforms to a far more ancient and ‘primitive’ and simple social system which Durkheim termed ‘mechanical solidarity’ (because it was like a machine with cogs). Durkheim derived his model from almost the ‘simplest’ of societies, the hunter-gathering bands of aboriginal Australians documented by anthropologists. They had a system where each individual and family was identical to the rest. Each was a segment, like a part of a worm as he put it. There was no head and no feet, no arms and no stomach.

What joined the segments of the worm together was not opposition and mutual needs through a division of labour, but rather, as with a worm or any other single-celled creature, a replication along the body of one-to-one relations. So, each part was linked to all the others by a series of personal links.

This is an immensely tough system for, like an earthworm, the whole was encapsulated in each part. If the worm was cut in two it did not lose its head or legs, but just grew again into two worms. The same, to an extent, is true of the octopus, very intelligent and even playful, but with its brain distributed all over its body, not just in its head, and with tentacles which, when cut off, can grow again.

The absurdity of thinking of a highly literate State-based, high technology civilization like China as structurally similar to a small Australian band meant that it took me a long time to realize that the extremely improbable is, in fact the case. I remember writing a talk for an audience in Zhejiang University about four years ago and stumbling on the idea. As I explained it that evening to the students, it all clicked, and I realized that China has preserved an ancient, non-Indo-European, way of joining the parts.

As soon as I realised this, I saw it was not so strange. China has done exactly the same with language. It has preserved it its non-alphabetic, logographic, system, something which is three or four thousand years old. It is descended from systems which have died out everywhere else in the world. It has done the same with its core ideology Daoism, which is an ancient shamanic nature cult which does not separate things, man and nature, heaven and earth, and views them as all turning and transmuting.

Likewise, it has preserved its more formal philosophy. Confucius and Mencius provided the worm template. Each individual is linked to another by a personal relation, child to father, subject to Emperor, woman to man, younger to older. These dyadic links of a worm-like chain extend from the remotest villager up to the Emperor and hold huge clans together.

So, China is the great exception, a strikingly different system of mechanical solidarity within a world of organic civilizations. This is one of the main reasons why China has survived longer than any other civilization. It is impossible to destroy. When it was cut in pieces by Mongols, Manchus or westerners or Japanese, it regrew even stronger. Likewise, the vast success of the Han, first able to absorb millions in China around them, and now in an overseas diaspora whose size I equivalent to many large nations and which preserves its Chinese-ness is obvious.

What began in my involvement in a system of drawers whose occupants were always trying to climb into a higher drawer, or repel invaders from lower drawers, has ended with the discovery that a fifth of the world does not have a class, caste or any other system based on functional divisions. It is the great exception and a marvel of survival.

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly is here and his Enchantment and Modernity will be published in 2021.


  1. Tocqueville, Ancien, 21.
  2. Tocqueville, Ancien, 89.
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