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The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

By Jonathan Rose, Yale University Press, 2001, £24-95

Reviewed by

Michael Calderbank

AT ONCE fascinating and infuriating, this book aims to debunk a widespread myth about culture: that the ‘great works’ of intellectual or creative merit have been produced for and consumed exclusively by the ruling classes, whilst the workers have only ever been interested in cheap, escapist trash.

This myth completely neglects the tradition of so-called ‘auto didacticism’ (or self-education) that frequently took root in working-class communities, an intellectual current that certainly helped to foster the growth in socialist political consciousness. Workers have clearly never enjoyed the bourgeois prerogative of an expensive classical education, an ‘independent’ (read unearned!) income, or of abundant amount of ‘free’ time in which to pursue their cultural interests. Therefore, they have been historically deprived of that feeling (the ‘birthright’ of the bourgeois male) of being innately at home in the worlds of literary ‘taste’ or scientific ‘learning’. Yet it by no means follows from this that the working classes have been devoid of the ambition to understand and give cultural expression to their experience. On the contrary, workers have waged a continual struggle to foster and assert their intellectual capacities in a hostile environment.

In many instances this has contributed to a political understanding of the need to change the material relations which sustain this class exploitation. The great strength of Jonathan Rose’s study is that he goes beyond mere speculation about working class reading habits and unearths evidence of this hidden narrative of cultural struggle, ranging from autobiographical accounts to library records. Indeed, the fact that this work weighs in at a no less than 534 pages is indicative of the sheer abundance of such evidence.

Rose’s research covers an impressive historical range. An early influence on working-class self-education was the rise of religious non-conformism, which spread a doctrine that encouraged ordinary laymen to ‘read’ the Bible for the first time (as opposed to taking the interpretation of the Latin on trust from the priest). This unleashed a new spirit of moral challenge to the existing basis of society. This can be seen, for example, in the English Revolution: an event that, as Christopher Hill has commented, was remarkable for ‘the principle of dissent, the contempt for established authority shown by... ordinary people’. And, indeed, the newly literate reader could move on to apply these skills elsewhere.

Many turned towards the writings of political radicals, often leaving behind the consolatory promises of religion for a secular politics. From these beginnings emerges a powerful tradition based upon the collective efforts of workers to radically democratise cultural opportunities. This runs from the early ‘Mutual Improvement’ societies; through the so-called ‘Knowledge Chartists’ (who extended political demands to the sphere of education); the development of miner’s libraries (which allowed workers to read books they would be otherwise unable to afford); the rise of adult education; the creation of the Open University and much else besides.

However, much of the essentially collective nature of these efforts is obscured by Rose’s liberal humanist assumptions which reflect the emphasis of bourgeois ideology on the efforts of the individual. Rose explicitly praises the "generations of liberal critics from Matthew Arnold to Lionel Trilling" who emphasised the ideal critic as a ‘disinterested’ individual who could step outside of any particular worldview and, in the words of Arnold, turn "a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits" (p8). This liberal argument simply ignores the fact that our whole psychological make-up is inevitably coloured by our position in society, and that to celebrate the freedom of individual thought in opposition to the constraining effect of ‘ideology’ is precisely an ideological assumption itself.

Rose supports, too, the liberal notion that there exists a permanent and evolving social consensus around a ‘canon’ of ‘classic’ or great works, and even goes so far as to argue "the classics were an unambiguously emancipating force for working class readers" (p386). Really? No doubt there were elements of ‘classics’ that workers appreciated, but in what sense were they an ‘unambiguously emancipating force’? This suggests that the canon of ‘great works’, pre-selected by ‘independent’ (bourgeois) critics, can simply be disseminated to the rest of us, and indeed, we should be trained to be ‘cultivated’ enough to properly appreciate their greatness. In this context we would do well to remember Marx’s words from the Communist Manifesto: ‘The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’. For behind this affirmation of ‘classic’ works of art which embody ‘universal human truths’, there lies an implicit justification of the very class-exploitation, gender oppression, and colonial occupation responsible for the cultural marginality of the vast majority of humanity.

Rose’s liberal assumptions lead to some very problematic positions. For example, he is particularly hostile to literary modernism and Marxism, two intellectual currents which stressed the bankruptcy of liberal ideology. He is convinced that modernism was simply motivated by a selfish desire on the part of intellectuals to retain a social superiority by re-inventing a kind of writing which would remain inaccessible to the common reader. Admittedly, in England modernist writers tended towards highly reactionary political sympathies (TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and CS Lewis all flirted to a greater or lesser extent with fascism). However, how would Rose account for the rise of many currents of artistic and literary modernism across Europe which would combine a fierce commitment to avant-garde experimentation with a similarly profound support for the revolutionary aspirations of the working-class? What of Brecht, Picasso, the Surrealists, not to mention the immense outpouring of avant-garde works after the Russian revolution?

Similarly, Marxism is derided as off-putting to worker ‘auto-didacts’, appearing impenetrable, deterministic, bureaucratic and so forth. On closer inspection it emerges that most of the complaints Rose cites are made against the distorted ‘Marxism’ of Stalinist-led Communist Parties of the 1930s and 1940s. Hence, the often legitimate complaints of workers in that specific historical context are appropriated by Rose for a liberal caricature of Marxism in general. By contrast, the favourable treatment given to the ‘simpler’ ‘ethical socialism’ (ie shorn of the scientific and dialectical method pioneered by Marx) that is said to have characterised the Labour Party, wholly ignores the fact that it often led, in practice, to a surrender to the very capitalist interests responsible for the exploitation of the workers.

Despite all this, however, Rose’s research has thrown up many remarkable and fascinating accounts of lives spent in pursuit of the kind of cultural experiences ordinarily denied to the working-class. A weaver in Oldham reveals how he was nearly sacked when his foreman at the mill found him sneaking a peek at Milton’s Paradise Lost. Margaret Powell, who worked in the kitchen of an aristocratic couple in Chelsea, read incessantly – including Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past three times through (no mean feat!) – a habit which caused her boss to complain, "Margaret’s a good cook, but unfortunately she reads. Books, you know"!

Equally importantly, Rose avoids the trap of idealising the life of these intrepid worker-intellectuals. A certain backward layer of the class felt threatened by those who read. Women especially found it hard to justify their studying: "Should any girl show a tendency to politics, or to ideas of her own, she is looked upon by the majority of women as a person who neglects door-steps and home matters, and therefore not fit to associate with respectable daughters and sisters" (p278).

All in all, although many of the interpretations of the author need to be treated sceptically, this work remains an inspiring catalogue of the tremendous efforts and sacrifices made by thousands of workers as they confronted cultural institutions designed to exclude them. It is also a timely reminder of the need to fight against all those obstacles under capitalism (from tuition fees, teacher shortages to the vast under-investment in public libraries) that continue to exclude working-class people of all ages from the cultural and intellectual life which could and should be available to all.


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