Manchester on my Mind

Abstract: The author describes his intellectual journey in ten episodes, starting from his upbringing in Manchester and training in Cambridge. After pioneering research in Africa and work as a development advisor, he returned to Manchester as a teacher of social anthropology. Subsequently he spent periods in North America and the Caribbean, before returning to Cambridge for fifteen years. He is currently trying to establish himself as a writer in Paris. What follows is neither social science nor autobiography, but a personal account of being-in-the-world in which he tries to move, without discordance, along the whole length of the continuum linking the self to the rest of humanity. The star of the show, however, is Manchester, where his story begins.

I want to explore here how the city I grew up in has shaped my continuing quest for an identity as an anthropologist. Such an identity would be capable of integrating all my major experiences of life in society, while pointing towards an inclusive conception of humanity as a whole, to world society or ‘the universal’. This quest has led me to dismantle the restrictions of the academic discipline in order to embrace an older philosophical anthropology compatible with the life of a free-lance writer. What I have to say takes the form of a personal memoir in ten episodes, arranged roughly as a chronological sequence. In three cases I have cannibalized pieces I wrote earlier. These sum up positions I have taken from Marx and Engels, C.L.R. James and Immanuel Kant, respectively. Their presence here must indicate that I now feel I have learned most from them. The result is in no sense a life history. There is none of the balance I would hope for in such an exercise, no careful weighing of influences. I am not seeking to account for myself here, but rather to tell a story about my journey, a narrative based on anecdotes and reflections. Even this version leaves out a lot. If there is a theme, apart from my historical and imaginative links with Manchester, it is my attempt to overcome division and dislocation in a life of movement, a search for personal integrity, often in the face of sharp, even savage breaks with my past.

A bottle of Manchester United Chardonnay

After the Second World War, when the British economy was on its knees, a third of its foreign exchange was generated by cotton textiles exports from Lancashire. A documentary film made in 1947 included interviews with the mill workers. They were asked what they thought about competition from the USA and Japan. They were dismissive. “Shoddy goods”, they said, “The world market belongs to us”, as it had for a century and a half. What happened next we all know. The Lancashire textile industry was destroyed in the coming decades, leaving behind the blackened relics of the world’s first experiment in industrial capitalism. I grew up in Old Trafford near Trafford Park, also the world’s first industrial estate, designed to allow Manchester to compete with the Germans in engineering. My aunt was a production line inspector for Lancaster bombers at Metropolitan Vickers during the war, when I was born. The firm was renamed several times in the reorganization of the British electronics industry after the war. Engineering and electronic manufactures did not decline as precipitously as textiles, but the direction was the same. Manchester suffered a tremendous economic defeat in those years and I grew up there while it was happening. My only thought was to get out, if I could.

In his book The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald (1999) describes what seemed to him the utter ruin of a city that he found as an academic in Manchester during the 1960s and 1970s. He should have seen what the place was like in the 1940s and 1950s. But there was still a lot of local pride. The culture of self-organized music-making was vibrant when I grew up — churches, choirs, brass bands, operatic societies — and all classes thought of the Hallé orchestra as their own. We had Manchester United, on its way to becoming the world’s richest and most famous football club, not to mention at one time nine Lancashire teams in the first division of the football league; test, county and Lancashire League cricket; athletics, cycling, rugby. There was pride in a local culture recognizably the same as the one described by Mrs Gaskell (1975) a century before, with a flat accent to match our open egalitarian character. This continuity is picked up by the DJ-cum-social historian, Dave Haslam (1999) in seeking to account for Manchester’s remarkable self-reinvention during the 1980s and 1990s as ‘Madchester’ — telling, as his subtitle puts it, the story of the pop cult city. Anyone can see today that Manchester is enjoying a boom as Britain’s second city in the new information services economy, even if the heyday of the Hacienda, Ecstasy and Oasis is now gone.

One story stands out from this postwar history. I can’t recall where I got it from. Its feeds my provincial paranoia about London. In the early 1980s, there was an enquiry to find the best location for England’s third airport. The report stressed the growing congestion of the London area, with the Channel tunnel about to add to the traffic generated by Heathrow and Gatwick. It recommended Manchester as the obvious outlet for the North and Midlands, providing another hub between America and Northern Europe. Mrs Thatcher took the report home one weekend and announced on Monday morning that the third airport would be Stansted. Today Manchester airport is expanding rapidly under its own steam and Stansted is a white elephant. Some of my friends from Manchester Grammar School now practice as lawyers in their hometown and they tell me that they have learned in the past three decades to by-pass Whitehall and go directly to Brussels and Strasbourg for development funding. There are profound changes afoot in the national economy, but it is obvious enough that Manchester is a net beneficiary. Even the bombed out cotton towns of its Lancashire hinterland are refurbishing the abandoned textile mills as shopping and entertainment centres or as flats for yuppies.

On my desk at home there is a bottle of Manchester United Chardonnay that I picked up in a Lancashire supermarket some years ago. It is there as a symbol of my own improbable journey. In 1950, the idea that Man U would one day be selling cheap French plonk to their supporters was no more likely than that little Keithy from Old Trafford would end up as a writer in Paris. In family myth that journey began when I was eight and we visited Cambridge. I asked why they had so many churches and was told that these were schools, not churches. I allegedly said, ‘When I grow up, I want to go to a school that looks like a church’. And so my career of upward mobility through examination passing was determined. I had the advantage of the 1944 Butler Education Act which sought to open up access to higher education. I was one of many provincial lower class boys who found their way to Oxbridge at this time, shadowing the success of the kitchen sink novelists and then the Beatles. The education on offer was still based on the preference of the Indian civil service for maths and classics scholars. Unfortunately, the empire was collapsing while we were jumping onto that particular escalator.

Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of going to Cambridge. The gap between Cambridge and my homeland was huge and I had to move between them three times a year, while desperately trying to cling to the notion that I had an identity, that I was not schizophrenic. Switching from the classics to social anthropology was part of the solution. I would use Cambridge to get out into the wider world. When I made the switch, I burnt everything that I had ever written in my parents’ incinerator, the act of someone desperate to escape from his past. But I never got over that primal scene, juxtaposing life in Manchester with a feudal fenland society (and Cambridge was pretty depressed too in the early 1960s). They seemed to me then — and still do now — two completely different civilizations. In all my subsequent world travels, I have not come across a greater contrast.

Translocal society in West Africa

I went out to Ghana to study the role of voluntary associations in the adjustment of migrants to national politics and the demands of citizenship. We did that sort of thing in the 1960s. I actually believed then that African independence from colonial rule had launched political experiments from which the whole world could learn. I established myself in a slum quarter full of migrants from the North, where I quickly found that there was no political activity outside the institutions of the one-party state and that the migrants found government to be predatory and remote. Casting around for another topic, I could not help noticing the vitality of street commerce, not just roadside vendors, but a mobile network of dealers in everything from refrigerators to marijuana. In any case, I found that I was being drawn into local society through a variety of economic transactions — exchanging currency, shopping, paying rent and wages, making gifts, loans and bribes, gambling — all of which challenged my assumptions concerning what might be taken to be normal. I decided to focus on that and embarked on the road to what became eventually ‘the informal economy’ (Hart 1973). It now seems that I was intuitively following an elective affinity with those aspects of local society that echoed my economic training in Manchester, which included a major sideline in betting on the horses.
I soon recognized that, if I wanted to enter deeply into my fieldwork situation, I would have to learn an indigenous language and there were plenty of those around in Nima. Hausa was a sort of lingua franca, but most people spoke their own language at home. I decided to pick a group which had been studied intensively in the countryside, preferably by my teachers, and it did not take long to choose the Tallensi, whose ethnographer was, of course, Meyer Fortes (1945, 1949) and who were now part of a wider ethnic category known as Frafra. I was fascinated by the migrants’ ability to combine mundane urban occupations — shit collector, taxi driver, pimp, houseboy — with a strong sense of their traditional vocation as earth priests and members of patrilineal kin groups. Their identity was easily able to contain such diversity, or what seemed to me a contradiction. This led me in turn to trace their relations with home, 500 miles away in the West African savanna. Eventually I divided my fieldwork between Nima and Accra more generally, the strangers’ quarter of Ghana’s second city, Kumasi, the central town of the Frafra district, Bolgantanga, and Tongo, the Tallensi village in which Meyer Fortes had been based. I came to think of Frafra migrants and their relatives as moving over time within a unified social field embracing both rural and urban areas. My first article published on this fieldwork was called “Migration and tribal identity among the Frafras of Ghana” (Hart 1971). Marshall Sahlins says that I invented the concept of ‘translocal society’ then, recognizing the ability of Third World migrants to make society across large distances, but I don’t know about that.

What I did know was that I was going against the precepts of the leading school of African urban anthropology at the time, the Manchester School of Max Gluckman and his colleagues at the Rhodes Livingstone Institute, especially Clyde Mitchell and Bill Epstein (Gluckman 1960). These anthropologists had, since the early 1950s, been in revolt against the colonial regimes of South and Central Africa. Cities were reserved for ‘whites’ and, even though Africans worked there, their proper place was said to be in the tribal homelands. Against this, the Manchester School asserted that Africans should be able to live in the city as of right, to form their own unions and political parties there. “An African miner is a miner”, Max Gluckman wrote, “an African townsman is a townsman” (page ref). They recommended an approach called ‘situational analysis’ (Van Velsen 1963) and were averse to doing what I had done, referring the behaviour of migrants in towns to their rural traditions and associations, since this was the policy of colonial and apartheid regimes. I admired their work and their politics, but West Africa seemed to me different. The institutions of colonial rule sat more lightly there on indigenous peoples who had never known a settler class and built their own cities.

‘Development’ in the Cayman Islands

When I finished writing my doctoral thesis, I felt that I understood Accra’s street economy as well as the people who participated in it. But, like them, I had no explanation for the great events that had shaken Ghana a decade after independence: the collapse of the cocoa price, the ensuing scarcity of goods, the army coup that overthrew Nkrumah. I had discovered an elective affinity in fieldwork with the lawless trade of Accra’s slums. My method had been less to record the existing economic practices of Nima’s inhabitants than to participate in them and challenge them, as an entrepreneur in my own right. I had been surprised by how easy it was for me to make money and how difficult to get rid of it. By the end of a stay lasting over two years, I had become a local big man, redistributing the profits of criminal enterprise through handouts, jobs and parties. I knew nothing of the history which might help me to account for this situation. Ghanaians wore cloth from Manchester, but I had little idea how it came about or what it meant. Accordingly, I set out to learn more about the history of colonialism and of its successor, ‘development’. More than anything, I wanted to enter the world of states and international agencies. So I joined an academic consultancy organization at the University of East Anglia; and for much of the 1970s I carried out an intermittent ethnography of the development business as a high-level policy adviser in the West Indies, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and other places (Hart 2002).

It all started with a mission in 1970 to, of all places, the Cayman Islands (Hart and Hart 1970). This was at the beginning of their rise as a tourist centre and as a notorious offshore facility for laundered money. Grand Cayman was probably the most unpleasant society I have encountered. It was run by white racist crooks from North America, abetted by the detritus of the British empire, finding refuge from the politics of independence in this colony of 10,000 people, and by local residents who believed themselves to be white, but were not accepted as such by the others. The workforce for the hotels, banks and public services was supplied largely from the surrounding Caribbean region, especially from Jamaica next door. And that was the problem. They were black and, if immigration continued for long at the present rate, they would become a majority in what prided itself as a society made up of the descendants of British pirates. I was asked to conduct a “manpower survey” addressing this problem. After a survey of astonishing virtuosity (I was an amateur then), I concluded that the only way to keep the Cayman Islands for the Caymanians was to cut back on planning permission for new banks and hotels. The last thing they should do was to impose an immigration quota on Jamaicans, since, quite apart from its loathsome politics, this would create a labour shortage and wage inflation.. Within a few months of my having submitted this report, permission was granted to Holiday Inns to build a hotel which added a third to the island’s tourist capacity and an immigration quota was imposed on Jamaicans.

By coincidence, another anthropologist was living on Grand Cayman at the same time. Ulf Hannerz was engaged in fieldwork for what became his book, Caymanian Politics (1974). He largely avoided the crowd I was involved with, choosing to stay in a low-rent, but respectable house with the natives, while I lived it up in a hotel on the beach. We met again the following year in London at the Association of Social Anthropologists conference on urban ethnicity. We both ended up hanging out with the Manchester crowd — Bruce Kapferer, Clyde Mitchell, Kingsley Garbett etc. I well remember one evening when we were all out drinking and Ulf got up to leave at 9 o’clock. He wanted to prepare the short talk introducing his paper the next morning and, when we chided him for such a waste of good drinking time, he replied that he could not accept as his own the generally poor standards of delivery at anthropology conferences. His prepared speech was a hit and, at the end of the conference, when they asked a panel of worthies to sum up, he was on it. I was impressed and I took his lesson to heart. Later, when I was put up for a professorship at Yale, they cited my performance in conferences. I have Ulf to thank for that. But the immediate consequence of that networking opportunity was that I joined the Manchester department soon afterwards.

A footnote on this interlude. Meyer Fortes went to Chicago around this time and was asked if anyone else had studied the Tallensi. He replied that there was someone, but he gave it all up to study tourism in the West Indies.

The Manchester School of social anthropology

By the time I arrived at the department of social anthropology, the Manchester School was almost over. Max Gluckman himself was in Israel most of the time and he died there in 1973. A new department of sociology had been created not long before, with Peter Worsley and Clyde Mitchell as professors. Emrys Peters was head of a department which contained a number of the younger generation trained by himself and Gluckman: Bruce Kapferer, Dick Werbner, Basil Sansom, Norman Long, Kingsley Garbett. But Peters pursued a policy of diversification, bringing to Manchester a group of outsiders, mostly from Cambridge and the LSE: myself, David Turton, John Comaroff, Ken Brown (later exchanged with Tony Cohen from sociology), Tim Ingold, Chris Fuller and David Rheubottom. Not many women in that lot. We were dispersed soon enough, but we had a palpable sense of our collective strength as a department. My task, ironically, was to teach urban anthropology in a joint course with Clyde Mitchell. The Manchester School had by then moved on from its original preoccupations.

Not long after I arrived, the founders of the new journal Critique of Anthropology, a group of young lecturers and graduate students based in University College London, asked me to approach Max Gluckman and Jack Goody, my former supervisor, to see if they would agree to be patrons of the journal. They thought that these two senior figures embodied their own political and intellectual goals for anthropology. Max was not impressed. He went into a rant about how the young Turks (he had Bob Scholte particularly in mind) stopped at nothing to denigrate the efforts of his generation, characterizing them as colonial stooges and so on. He had a point, but it was not what the editors of Critique intended.

I was sorry to have missed the heyday of Max Gluckman at Manchester. Like most people I had heard the stories about how he forced his lecturers to go to Manchester United matches on a Saturday afternoon. The tradition was still alive in my time, perhaps on a more voluntary basis. I found it odd to join a group of foreigners shouting for my team and I soon dropped out. This was the fag end of an interesting moment in British cultural history of which Max had been one of the pioneers. In the 1950s, on radio and television discussion programmes, the philosopher A.J. Ayer broke new ground by confessing publicly to his abiding passion for Tottenham Hotspur. British intellectuals did not admit to an interest in popular culture before then. Soon others followed suit, with Max Gluckman most prominent among them in Manchester, giving radio lectures on serious topics that were laced with references to Bobby Charlton. Max led the way to the less overtly hegemonic society that postwar Britain became, once the Beatles completed the job of synthesizing high and low cultures and BBC announcers were allowed to sport provincial accents.

Marx and Engels in Lancashire

While I was in Manchester, I gave a seminar paper on the development strategy for Papua New Guinea’s independence (United Nations Development Program 1973), featuring my new idea, the informal sector. It was written in the economese I had learned from compiling a series of reports on West Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit. The economist, Ian Steedman, could not contain himself: “Why are you giving us this neo-Keynesian rubbish? Have you never read Karl Marx or even Adam Smith? What this topic needs is a strong dose of classical political economy.” Well, I had and I hadn’t read Marx. Most academics know the situation. But this outburst shamed me into taking the project more seriously and before long I had converted to Marxism. I was thrilled by Engels’s book, mostly about Manchester, The condition of the working class in England in 1844 (Engels 1920) and I took friends and visitors on an Engels tour of the inner city. Needless to say, none of this had been familiar to me when I grew up there. This was the start of what became an ongoing attempt to place Marxist theory in the context of Lancashire’s social history during the industrial revolution.

If my Ghana fieldwork had left me hungry for knowledge of the upper reaches of Third World development, I was also keenly aware that I knew western history mainly as so many second-hand abstractions to set against my own concrete experience as an ethnographer. My return to Manchester and subsequent encounter with Marxism gave me a chance to remedy that, through reading and first-hand experience. Ever since, I have run the universal social theories of Marx, Weber and the rest against what I have come to know about Lancashire’s factory system in the mid-nineteenth century. Marx and Engels were acknowledged to be the authors of the idea that the industrial working class would, in time, overthrow capitalism. They first reached this conclusion in The German ideology (Marx and Engels 1848) in direct opposition to Hegel’s vision of history, as articulated especially in The philosophy of right (1967). Yet it is Hegel’s vision that corresponds closest to the dominant institution of the twentieth century, state capitalism, the attempt to manage markets and accumulation though national bureaucracy (Hart 2001a: chapter 4).

Hegel’s critique of capitalism (which he called bürgerliche Gesellschaft or civil society) was much stronger than Marxists have commonly given him credit for. He found that its work routines were alienating and that, left to its own devices, capitalism led to an escalation of poverty. He saw no alternative, however, to the wealth-producing qualities of capitalist markets. The contradictions of capitalism needed to be contained by an independent state apparatus managed by a ‘universal class’ of professional bureaucrats trained in universities to represent the general interest. Marx and Engels held that there was only one candidate for such a universal class. The state was an archaic institution rapidly being made obsolete by a new phase of industrial capitalism. The factory system, recently witnessed by Engels in Manchester, was driven by the cumulative addition of machines to human labour, rapidly concentrating workers in new manufacturing centres. There they would be better able to organize and thus to offer an effective counterweight to the power of the owners’ money. The new universal class was working people in general, led by the factory proletariat. The latter had no property save their labour power, but they had the potential of combination, unwittingly provided by the capitalists who bought it. They were a class separate from both the small urban proprietors (kleinstädtisch or ‘petty bourgeois’) and the dangerous classes who lacked stable employment, the lumpenproletariat. But they would represent society as a whole, unlike the capitalists and their bureaucratic stooges.

It is worth reflecting on why Marx and Engels thought that working in a factory endowed anyone with a potential for revolution. Somewhat after they settled in England, the Lancashire cotton famine of 1861-64 took place. As a result of the American civil war and the North’s blockade of Southern ports, the supply of raw materials to the textile industry dried up, causing massive unemployment in towns wholly specialized in cotton products. The owners petitioned parliament to send battleships to relieve the blockade; the workers held demonstrations in favour of the North and the freedom of labour. People died for sure, but not as many as would have if the workers had no other resources than their factory jobs. What sustained them materially and socially at that time? We know about the ideology and activism of Lancashire workers from the agitators who flourished in the 1840s at the time of Chartism. Lancashire was virtually empty before the industrial revolution and the bulk of the new proletariat came from the Celtic fringe, from Ireland, West Scotland and North Wales. We could assume that they were formed entirely by their new conditions of employment (‘An African townsman is a townsman’); or we might suppose that they brought with them the qualities of migrants who had never suffered feudal domination. The terrain of Lancashire shares with the rest of North and West Britain a wild landscape which offered a means of escape from the dark satanic mills. The buoyancy Marx and Engels noted in Lancashire’s workers might have had several sources. Subsequent experience suggests that the fact of working in a factory was unlikely to be one of them.

Later work by Marxist historians, especially E.P. Thompson (1968), has emphasized the contrast between rural and urban work conditions. At first the new wage labourers brought peasant attitudes into the factories. If a sheep was sick, they stayed at home to tend it. The owners could not put up with such slackness; the steam-driven machines used up fuel continuously and human work patterns had to be adapted to this. The imposition of time discipline was often brutal. Gradually it became established that workers were paid for precisely how long they worked and how much they produced. The sociologist, Neil Smelser (1959), emphasized the institutions Lancashire workers created outside the factories to mitigate their lot, friendly societies and similar mechanisms of social insurance. Later, Beatrice Webb reports, in My Apprenticeship (1979), the shock she had when she left London for the first time to visit her Northern relatives. Used to the urban rabble depicted so vividly by Gareth Stedman Jones (1971), she found a whole new working class civilization in the North. This was built, she says, around three institutions made by the workers themselves: the chapel, the union and the co-op. Each of these united collective and individual interests: the congregation was offset by protestant individualism; solidarity at work by private ownership of tools; combination in the marketplace by private property. It is unsurprising, in the light of this, that, as Peter Clarke has shown (1971), the bourgeoisie and working class made common cause there to help the Liberals sweep to power in the 1880s and after.

There is a social history of working class institutions in nineteenth century Britain which offers more nourishing material for comparative investigation than the tired slogans of a defeated western labour movement. In South Africa today 45% of the people belong to a savings or credit association, 14% to a political organization (Dugard 2001). It is surely essential to combine studies of the workplace with the institutions people devise outside it to meet their needs. And this was the main point of Philip Mayer’s critique of the Manchester School in Townsmen or Tribesmen (1961), his ethnography of South African Xhosa migrants. The informal economy, including self-organized economic activities of many varieties, was as much a strategy of the Lancashire factory workers as it is anywhere in the world today. That is how they survived the cotton famine. And Marx and Engels missed it, reifying in the process a contrast between working class collectivism and petty bourgeois individualism that was never there.. The great merit of Malinowski’s functionalist method (1922) has always been that it should reflect what people do in their lives, not what intellectuals choose to highlight in their theories. My long conversation with the Manchester School’s Copperbelt studies of the 1950s has persisted through my own shift from Ghana in the 1960s to Lancashire in the 19th century and the networked communities of the information age today. But nowadays I am more likely to dwell on their pioneering methodology for studying modern movement: the extended case study, network analysis, social interaction, individual life histories.


I felt compelled to go to America. This was the next compulsive break after I burnt all my papers when switching from classics to anthropology at Cambridge. Within two years my marriage broke down and so did my mental health. Later I resigned from Yale and took up a series of one-year appointments at Ann Arbor, Michigan (twice), McGill in Montreal and Chicago. After eight years in North America, I was ready to quit. It felt like a defeat. And yet those were years of tremendous expansion. I loved the width of the American four-field approach to anthropology. I once got to teach a seminar for archaeologists and historians on the transition from bronze to iron in the Eastern Mediterranean from 1600 to 500 BC. I was encouraged to take on intellectual projects of any scope. Ambition was a virtue. It was so different from my experience of Britain.

Above all, there was the country and its strange people. Chicago especially caught my imagination, with its panoramas of skyscrapers, seen from inside the city, unlike the canyons of New York. I was excited by the symbiotic evolution of its financial markets and the immense agricultural hinterland of the West (Cronon 1991). I came to believe that Chicago had carried on Manchester’s mission to bring commercial civilization to the world, but on a vaster scale and with much less interference from central government. I acquired from America a notion of freedom that is simply not available in the Old World. I read the great philosophers and developed a systematic view of world history. Between the classical origins of western civilization and Manchester’s centrality to the industrial revolution, I felt I had some solid points of anchorage for this voyage on the high seas of historical speculation.

Despite or because of this exhilarating mission of discovery, I felt exposed to the elements in the Windy City. I realized that I must go home. In his essay, ‘On going a journey’, William Hazlitt (1970) writes:

Those who wish to forget painful thoughts do well to absent themselves for a while from the ties and objects that recall them: but we can be said only to fulfil our destiny in the place that gave us birth. I would on this account like well enough to spend the whole of my life in travelling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home.

I thought about this passage a lot. It is harder, but more effective than emigration, to find personal freedom while confronting the conditions of our own formation. But where was that for me? Manchester or Cambridge? I was born and raised in Manchester, but I was riding an escalator to Cambridge from the age of eight. It was only now, 15 years after I left Ghana, that I realized what my doctoral fieldwork project had been about. The children of Tallensi earth priests who moved 500 miles to work as taxi drivers in Accra — and stayed the same! — represented a successful synthesis of my own primal scene, the move from Old Trafford to St. John’s College. I decided that I was an anthropologist first and a Manchester United supporter second. So I returned to Cambridge.

The Caribbean and C.L.R. James

I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica reading a collection of C.L.R. James’s occasional writings on cricket (Grimshaw 1986). The place had once belonged to Errol Flynn. My daughter was playing on the edge of the sea. James had been Neville Cardus’s deputy as the Manchester Guardian‘s cricket correspondent in the 1930s. I found myself reading about my father’s heroes in the Lancashire cricket team of that period as if it was today’s sports news. I had been devouring everything I could by James since I came to Jamaica to help establish a new graduate school for social science research. I knew that he had lived in Lancashire when he left Trinidad for Britain. It occurred to me that we had lived in the same places — the Caribbean, Britain, America, Africa — in a different sequence, at different times and with very different trajectories. Now, watching my daughter play on that exotic beach, with my father’s stories from childhood coming alive again, the gap between this old black man and myself was collapsed into a single moment by the compelling immediacy of James’s prose. Generation and racial difference were erased in an epiphany of timeless connection. I felt compelled to meet him and so I wrote the first and only fan letter of my life.

“Dear Mr. James,

“Like you I have lived in Britain, the USA, Africa and now the Caribbean. I started out from Lancashire. In the last few months I have read a good fraction of your writings, as well as a large number of West Indian novels (mostly Trinidadian). I feel energized by the experience and would very much like to talk with you when I return to England for a break in August. I would not place the scope of my life on a par with yours; but there are numerous parallels which give me insight into your writings and allow them to speak directly to me.

“I was born and raised in Old Trafford, Manchester, so that first-class spectator sport was a convenience I took for granted. I learned to play most games with enthusiasm, discipline and various degrees of skill. I went to Manchester Grammar School and won a scholarship in classics to St. John’s, Cambridge. My favourite ancient authors were Aeschylus and Catullus; I consumed Russian, French and English novels voraciously. I captained my college’s occasional cricket team and sometimes played bridge with Mike Brearley. I switched to social anthropology and spent over two years in the slums of Accra. I dreamed of writing a novel like Minty Alley [1936], but wrote a Ph.D thesis instead. My academic work focused on migration, urban economy and ethnicity, without knowing then that I was exploring my own migration from the streets of Old Trafford to Cambridge.

“I returned to teach at Manchester University and lived in Rawtenstall, where I found a purer form of Lancashire working class culture than any that my own background provided. About this time I began to read Marxist philosophy seriously. My politics have always been indeterminate, popular left. I wrote the development programme for Papua New Guinea on the eve of its decolonization. I also worked as a part-time journalist for The Economist. Then came 8 years of teaching at Yale, Michigan, McGill and Chicago. America has made a more profound and disturbing impact on my life than Africa. (Jamaica is having a similar effect in a much shorter time.) After some fairly shattering experiences, I returned to Cambridge. Now I have taken up a two-year secondment as visiting professor at UWI to help start up a new research school in the social sciences (funded mainly by UNDP/UNESCO and Canada’s IDRC). The work is demanding, often frustrating; but I share your vision of the potential of West Indian intellectuals and culture; and so I bat on.

“I am particularly interested in your US experiences, perhaps because I have read less of your output belonging to that period. In the Melville book [James 1953] you refer to an intention to write about “American civilization”. I can understand that you never found the right time and place to sit down and write that book. But your comments on baseball and American culture in general make me wonder if you have a manuscript tucked away; and this was confirmed by a brief reference by Anna Grimshaw to such a manuscript. I am sure that I will be drawn back to America before long. The idea of coming to terms with that great society, with all its contradictions and reasons for hope, is more powerful than the seductive insularity of Cambridge.

“I am teaching a course on society and culture this term which rests heavily on your work. Caribbean students must somehow find their own vocabulary for addressing the universals of modern social history. Do you know that a masters student here, Christine Cummings, is doing a thesis (with heavy reference to Gramsci) on West Indian cricket and politics? This is a receptive moment for your work here. More to the point, you have set off incalculable reverberations inside me. It would be more than an honour to meet you. In some ways for me it is a necessity.”

Jamaica was a revelation. I have already spoken of the gap between America and Europe. There was nothing surprising about West Africa for me. It seemed to be an old society, like Britain. America was new alright, but I still had not digested its significance. The Caribbean was all of the other three combined. Like the United States, it had been created from scratch by adventurers, the aboriginal population destroyed. But Africa and Europe remained a conservative force in the Caribbean that the Americans had broken with decisively. Sometimes I had the impression that Jamaica was frozen in the eighteenth century. Perhaps it was because I had come there as the last leg of that unholy North Atlantic quadrilateral, but it helped me to integrate experiences that had been disparate until then. I realized that, in shadowing the African diaspora, I had absorbed something of its perspective on history as dispersion and movement. I later came to think of this perspective as cubist (Berger 1992). Whereas agrarian civilization taught people to see the world as if they were rooted to one spot, the Middle Passage had spawned the first truly modern people, as James insisted, a people formed by dislocation and dreams of emancipation who could see the picture from several points at once. I learned to place myself imaginatively in the different places I had been and, sure enough, the world changed as I did so.

As a result of my letter to James, I entered a partnership with his assistant, Anna Grimshaw, that lasted almost a decade. We edited for publication James’s long forgotten manuscript on American Civilization. The concluding paragraphs of our Editors’ Introduction begin to explain why I have since thought of James as my mentor. He helped me to understand something about America’s place in my life of movement and about my own desire for personal integration:

“James approved our initial editorial decision to retitle his 1950 text The Struggle For Happiness, drawing on a chapter heading from the original work. Since James’s death this title has become the symbol of a wide-ranging dispute over the status of the text as a whole. [Our title was dropped on the insistence of the literary executor.] We contend that James, like Saint-Just in France in 1794, brought to the world from America the idea of happiness as a revolutionary goal to be added the European legacy of freedom (bourgeoisie) and equality (peasants/workers). Happiness became a word which appeared repeatedly in James’s later writing, from his assertion that Marx and Hegel “believed that man is destined for freedom and happiness”, to his lengthy exposition, in a letter to the literary critic, Maxwell Geismar, on the centrality of happiness to American society and culture, in contrast to Europe with its sense of the tragic. The notion of happiness lay too at the heart of his volume Modern Politics [1960], but there James called it “the good life”.

“Conventionally, ‘happiness’ has been understood as a trivial thing, as a moment of pleasure which is necessarily fleeting. As James himself recognized, the notion was often reduced to mean simply material satisfaction. He took his lead, however, from the conceptions of the eighteenth century, where the pursuit of happiness in this life was contrasted with religious passivity in the face of earthly suffering. Although he nowhere defined the concept closely, the idea permeated American Civilization; for he held happiness to be as essential to the human experience as the desire for freedom and equality. It was the desire of the modern age, “what people want”, expressive of complex and deeply rooted needs of human beings for integration, to become whole, to live in harmony with society.

“For James then, happiness had two facets, the freedom to be a fully developed, creative, individual personality and to be part of a community based on principles conducive to that aim. This was the unity of private interest and public spirit which de Tocqueville [ ] had found in the early American democracy and which James believed was still the palpable goal of the American people in the twentieth century. It is significant in this respect that James used “The Struggle For Happiness” as the title for the chapter on the industrial workers. As he makes clear in the text, the integration of individuals in modern society would require a fundamental reorganization of the way people experience work. America contributed the idea of happiness to our understanding of civilization itself. Today it has become a universal goal; and with the emergence of the people of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa as the potent symbols of the collective force of humanity in its opposition to the forces of oppression, we are reminded again that happiness is inseparable from the active struggle for its attainment.”

A. Grimshaw and K. Hart in C.L.R. James American Civilization (1993)

Anthropology and Enlightenment

I have often been led to reflect on the relevance of James’s blend of humanism and Marxism for the future of anthropology. He once wrote: “The distinctive feature of our age is that mankind as a whole is on the way to becoming fully conscious of itself.” (Grimshaw 1992) When I speak of anthropology today, I refer not to an academic institution but to a human teleology in that sense. This requires us to improve our self-knowledge as individuals and as a species, especially the relationship between the two. Such a relationship is mediated by a bewildering variety of associations and identities which have been the prime focus of social science so far. What interests me, and I believe the vast bulk of humanity, is how each of us relates to the whole, and only secondarily how social connections mediate that relationship.

This project has its origin in the Enlightenment’s attempt to build democracy on a foundation of systematic knowledge of human nature, on what all human beings have in common, regardless of the arbitrary social inequalities under which most people labour. This project culminated in Kant’s late work during the 1780s and 1990s, when he invented the term ‘anthropology’ in its modern sense (Kant 1977). Kant saw that the world was moving towards war between coalitions of nation-states; yet he posed the question of how humanity might construct a ‘perpetual peace’ beyond the boundaries of states, based on principles that we all share (1795). This ‘cosmopolitan’ society of world citizens was a necessary bridge to the exercise of human reason at the species level. Kant held that the last and most difficult task facing humanity was the administration of justice worldwide. In the meantime anthropology must explore the cognitive, aesthetic and ethical universals on which such an idea of human unity might be founded. The categorical imperative to be good (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) provided a moral link between individuals and this emergent inclusive order.

In order to grasp this intellectually, Kant had to make a sort of Copernican revolution. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement from physics into metaphysics. “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… (but what) if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?” (Preface to Kant 2000). To understand the world, we must begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself and in every judgement that we make. Which is to say that the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to bring them together as individuals who share things in common with the rest of humanity.

World society today resembles nothing so much as the ancien régime of eighteenth century France, with a rich, aging white minority presiding over masses whose passivity is measured by their lack of spending power (Hart 2001a). The institutional legacy of 5,000 years of agrarian civilization still weighs heavily with us. The traditional recipe for managing inequality, to inject as much distance as possible between rich and poor, is contradicted by a world being drawn closer together by the communications revolution. Rather than embrace as inevitable its demographic replacement by the young, darker, poor masses, the dominant elite (Europeans even more than the Americans) frantically erects further barriers against entry whose principle is apartheid generalized to a global scale. The opponents of globalization, those who resist the new mobility enjoyed by capital by making a myopic appeal to national interest, often participate unwittingly in this rearguard action to preserve the privileges of the western nations. If Marx showed us how the social relations of production act as so many fetters on the development of the productive forces, those social relations today take the form of territorial states seeking to maintain established privilege by constraining the movement of people, goods, money and information in a world society that is both more integrated and divided at the same time. Transnational capitalism, complemented by grassroots democratic movements of all kinds, today leads the way in challenging old national and regional structures, in much the same way that national capitalism underpinned liberal revolutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Academic anthropology is not well-equipped to grasp and inform participation in such historical processes, mainly because its cultural relativism reflects the dominant nation-state structures of the twentieth century. I have reserved the term ‘anthropology’ for something consistent with Kant’s philosophy. How might each of us find a more secure foundation for self-knowledge in both the narrow individual and wider species senses? If Kant also held that the political project of building a just world society was a necessity for human development in the long run, politics, the active construction of a better world for us all to live in, puts the emphasis on changing society, conditions out there. Anthropology, it seems to me, conforms more closely to his vision of subjectivity and is best thought of as a means to that end, as a branch of humanistic education. This concern with self-in-the-world may be labeled humanism, romanticism or existentialism, a project brought to a more inclusive level of possibility by developments in contemporary world society and technology. It requires us to devise methods of transcending the barriers erected by twentieth century civilization between each one of us as a subjective personality and society represented as a remote impersonal object. After all, what room do the twentieth century’s anonymous institutions — states, markets, science — leave for personal agency, beyond the right to spend whatever money we can lay our hands on?

To pursue this goal, the world has to be imaginatively reduced in scale and our subjectivity expanded, in order for a meaningful link to be established between the two. Once people achieved this by praying to God and many still do. Works of fiction, novels and movies, fill the gap for those of us who cannot pray. So too do sports and the domestic arts, and not just for men and women respectively. We need to feel more at home in the world, to find the means of actively resisting alienation. The provisional label I have found for this educational project is ‘subjects in history’, a fourth stage in the evolution of anthropology’s object from human nature in the eighteenth century through nineteenth century racial hierarchy to twentieth century ethnography. To adapt Maitland’s famous dictum, “By and by anthropology will become global psychotherapy or nothing.” (Cf. Evans-Pritchard 1961).

Revisiting protestant roots

Before turning inwards to the life of a writer, I spent a good part of the 1990s trying to take anthropology to the public. From my academic base in Cambridge, I started a number of projects aimed at bridging the gap between professional anthropologists and others with an amateur interest in the subject. I even had a pseudo-Maoist slogan, “walk on two legs” (rather than stand on one foot and fall over), meaning that we had to find flexible ways of moving forward while keeping one foot in the universities and one in the marketplace. This was the time when the internet exploded into our lives and for two years I chaired a committee exploring the adoption of information technology and audio-visual aids in the humanities and social sciences at Cambridge. In the spirit of the communications revolution breaking out all around us, Anna Grimshaw and I launched a desktop publishing enterprise, Prickly Pear Press, which produced ten pamphlets in three years, the first our manifesto, Anthropology and the crisis of the intellectuals (1993). The publishing process was reinforced by my parallel activities as Director of the African Studies Centre, whose interest I defined as being in the history of the relationship between Africa and the West, not simply in Africa as an object. I also began a mailing list, offspring of desultory attempts to establish a club, called the amateur anthropological association or the small-triple-a.

In the 1990s, I made a new connection with Manchester and Lancashire. By then all my relatives had left the city and I experienced its cultural and economic rebirth almost as a stranger. The last to leave was my grandmother who stayed on in Old Trafford until she was almost ninety. She was one of a few old ladies who refused or were unable to decamp to the suburbs with the rest of the people I grew up with, remaining as so many islands of continuity in a sea of migrants, mainly from the Caribbean and South Asia. In the first part of the twentieth century, the main ethnic conflict in Manchester was religious, protestant versus catholic, a pale reflection of what went on in Glasgow and Belfast. I am a fourth-generation immigrant, a Northern Irish protestant. I found this embarrassing as a teenager and for a while tried to pass myself off sartorially as a Jewish intellectual from the Left Bank. The basic clash was between protestant families, trying to make the breadwinner/housewife model work by combining to keep up wages, and a more transient class of young single male Irish catholics who were willing to compromise on living standards and wage levels. After the second world war, new immigrants from Poland and Italy settled in the area, making the catholic population more diverse.

So I asked my grandmother one day, “What’s it like to have black neighbours, Grandma?” I knew that, like all the English working class, after generations of recruitment into the imperial army and whatever, she was intuitively racist. But she replied, “Oh, he’s a lovely man. He’s a medical orderly from Barbados, so quiet and respectful. And you should see his two little girls dressed to the nines for Sunday school at St. John’s” (the local Church of England establishment). She went on, unasked, “Not like them bloody Poles before him who made so much noise, getting drunk on a Saturday night, then going to the priest the next day for absolution.” So, Caribbean protestantism trumped race. I then asked her about the Indians. She was perplexed, they weren’t catholic or protestant. “I like the dresses the women wear, but the food smells funny, don’t you think?”

In the Rossendale Valley, it was another story. I was once watching a Lancashire League game of cricket in Rawtenstall, when I noticed that the home team included no Asians. One neighbouring side, Enfield, had seven, led by a dashing pair of opening batsmen called Mushtaq and Masood, known to their adoring fans of all races as Mas and Mush. Then I also noticed that there were no Asian spectators which was even more odd, since the streets and parks were full of South Asian kids playing cricket. I made some inquiries and I discovered that the town was run according to what amounted to an apartheid system. The local Labour council put all the South Asian immigrants into one or two housing estates and never mixed them with the “indigenous” population. Yet, when I lived in the town during the 1980s, I recall Lancashire people saying with pride, “We are mongrel folk” and so they, or I should say we, were. Lancashire was empty before the industrial revolution and all the workers had to come from somewhere else. Around 1900, when Lancashire’s 3mn people were a quarter of the national population, a million of them came from Ireland. I thought of Rawtenstall’s segregated cricket ground when I read about the race riots in Lancashire last year.

I also made my first visit to my ancestral home city of Belfast in that year. In Belfast I heard of students who would never use the personal name of someone from the opposite side. I rode in buses that still take tortuous routes from the periphery to the centre in order to avoid mixing catholic and protestant passengers. And many of the protestants, facing the irreversible loss of their traditional industries and the imminent demographic ascendancy of the “nationalists”, were determined to go down fighting. So here was another layer to my precarious sense of “home”. I was not encouraged to renew the link. I have come to acknowledge my protestant roots more strongly than when I was younger, but Belfast’s parochial politics were much too narrowly conceived for me. I preferred to locate my origins in Europe’s religious wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which brought us Presbyterians from Scotland to Ireland in the first place.

“I’m not English, I’m from Manchester”

It seems that one turning point was when I burnt the written evidence of my past as a boy classicist, in order to explore the history of Atlantic racism. My compulsion to emigrate to America was another. I trace my self-reinvention as an anthropologist to the letter I sent to James from Jamaica. For some years now, I have embarked on a fourth new direction, this time abandoning Cambridge for Paris, Britain for Continental Europe, the life of a university teacher for that of a writer. It is much too early to tell what is happening, but already I have begun to repair the damage of that first rupture.

In the three decades I spent pursuing the African diaspora around the Atlantic world, I never explicitly drew on the education I received in European languages, literature and history. Anthropology at Cambridge had the reputation among the older disciplines of being an occupation whose practitioners shared the barbarism and illiteracy of their subjects. I do recall being frustrated as a student by the way the modern discipline’s founders deliberately covered their tracks, when it came to acknowledging their debt to western intellectual history, preferring to claim that their knowledge was pristine, discovered live in the field (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). I too came to rely on the exclusive authority endowed by ‘fieldwork’ and laboured under the restrictions of a social science method that emphasized the collective over the individual, giving scant scope to express the writer’s personal experience. The postmodern turn to ethnography conceived of as a form of writing (Grimshaw and Hart 1995) helped me to begin to break down these limitations, a bit too late to rescue my original Ghanaian fieldwork, but enough to set me off rethinking subject-object relations in my contemporary research.

I wrote a textbook, Anthropology and the modern economy, in which I sought to apply the insights and approach of the professional discipline to the mainstream institutions of the western economy. But I was deeply dissatisfied with the finished product. Because the book had to point students to an accessible literature, I had included nothing of my personal experience, nothing from what I knew of gambling, development policy, criminal enterprise, publishing or academic bureaucracy. I felt excluded from my own book. I could not tolerate this Cartesian dualism at the end of the 20th century. So I started again. This time I wrote a dialogue between a West African female student and myself. I called her Emily, after Rousseau’s fictitious protégé (1979). I abandoned this project too as being artificial and pretentious. But mainly I found that I could not write in two distinct voices, only in my own. Then I hit on what proved to be the winning concept. In the 1980s, when asked to give a Malinowski lecture, I chose the topic of money, ‘Heads or tails?’ (Hart 1986), and it was quite successful. Now I decided to write a book on the theme of money, in which I would combine personal anecdotes with academic reading and research, just as I did in my lectures. This approach opened up my whole life to me. It gave me access to the boy whose passion for European civilization, especially its creative writing, was the original motor of my lifetime’s journey. It led me to Paris after an absence of 35 years and to an attempt to reinvent myself as a European there.

I managed to secure a post as a research fellow at Aberdeen University which gave me the freedom to live and work where and how I liked. People ask me how they too can get a deal like that. Money in an Unequal World (Hart 2001a, first published in 2000 as The Memory Bank) was completed on the cusp of the millennium. Rather than feeling outside my book as before, I was able to put myself in the picture I drew there. I gradually put together a lifestyle away from the academic institutions in which I had spent almost four decades. I pushed the individual/society pair to the extremes of solitary writing and world travel. The middle was anchored by a virtual college of e-mail correspondents and shared domestic life. E-mail gave me the movement and connection to reach the world without having to leave home. None of this was as easy as I have made it sound. Getting the balance right between travelling abroad and staying at home is hard. Living in France without the daily sustenance of anglophone academic networks saps my spirits. My employers at Aberdeen have been generous, but habitual absence generates inevitable tensions. I have not so much abandoned Cambridge and Manchester for Paris, as I have embraced a European identity which provides room for them all and, especially, a more inclusive homeland for me.

James (1963) once wrote:

Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place…before I discovered that it is not the quality of goods and utility that matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.

I would now put it differently. We all come from somewhere in particular in our personal encounter with universal society. Whenever anyone asks me where I come from, I answer Manchester without hesitation. In Jamaica, I was sometimes told by students “You English enslaved us and stole our wealth to make yourselves rich”. My invariable response was “I’m not English, I’m from Manchester. And my ancestors contributed a lot more to the accumulation of capital than yours ever did.” Manchester‘s symbolic significance for me has grown as I have become more remote from the place. I love the city and its people with a patriotic fervour. But I have moved on and so has Manchester. Old Trafford is no longer a place for me, but a memory. When I go back there now, I recognize no-one. The terrace my grandma lived in has been demolished, but ours still stands. The people were in transit then and they are in transit now. I have my bottle of Manchester United Chardonnay and some other memorabilia. Yes, movement is important. Movement is life. But I have been searching all my life for a sense of personal integrity in the face of the world’s divisions and contradictions. I wonder if I will find it by turning inward to write.

And I got the title from Ray Charles,

Georgia, Georgia,

The whole night long,

Just an old sweet song

Keeps Georgia on my mind.


This article was first presented in December 2001 to the Department of Social Anthropology seminar series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the University of Manchester, Many Manchesters – Anthropology of and in the City. I am grateful to Sarah Green and Penny Harvey for the invitation.


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