Sunday, December 30, 2007

On The Thinking Person's Thoughts

This is a review of "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes". The cover opposite is from a Yale Nota Bene paperback edition (Yale University Press) published in 2002. I only came across this work recently on the shelves at Waterstones on Oxford Street. At the time there was a stock of at least six copies for sale. Perhaps an enterprising member of staff thought it would be good for our souls. It is a view I now share after reading it, even though I tend to concentrate on criticism rather than praise below.

An Inheritance

Once a month I organise a discussion meeting at a Club which has links with my local Labour Party. A number of us end up in the lounge bar afterwards to continue our discussions. Recently I discovered that five of us who were sitting in a corner had all attended different Adult Education Colleges which (in our time) catered for people from the working class who held few formal educational qualifications. The Colleges we had attended were Coleg Harlech, the Northern College, Newbattle Abbey. Ruskin and the Co-op College.

In essence, Jonathan Rose's book describes working class struggles for the forms of education which the five of us had come to benefit from. He starts with the harsh conditions of the early industrial revolution, where the self-taught labouring person was often confined to sparse copies of religious literature, such as the Bible and Pilgrims Progress.

Many A Manny

A century or so later in 1896, Manny Shinwell left school at 12 after only 2 years of schooling in London, 9 months at South Shields and one and a half years in Glasgow. Rose describes him as going on to become one of the most accomplished autodidacts of the 20th Century.

I also benefitted directly from Manny's Progress. First of all, I joined the Labour Party to entered an essay competition he ran in the Easington Divisional Labour Party and gained second prize. Then he later provided a reference which helped me to secure a place to study Politics and Economics at Ruskin College. Nearly 40 years later I ended up sitting in the same seat in the Commons Chamber which Manny had occupied when he finally left the Labour Front Bench.

Even if we were poorer copies, there was many a Manny who followed this type of pattern.

Autodidact Addicts

Self education can not advance far on its own. Its practitioners require the intellectual stimulations of argument and debate to meaningfully discover and test out the understandings of others. They need libraries, meetings, comradely classes and face-to-face discussions with fellow addicts.

So Rose takes us on a journey into classes run by the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), the Women's Co-operative Guild, on University Extension Courses and by bodies such as the Miners' Institute of South Wales. Rose describes the latter as having been "one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world". By the second world war, the Tredegar Workmen's Institute was circulating 100,000 volumes a year and ran a 800 seat cinema with a film society and celebrity concerts.

Mining His Material

Rose has delved deeply into a whole host of invaluable sources, including 2,000 published and unpublished documents listed in "The Autobiography of the Working Class: Annotated, Critical Bibliography" edited by David Vincent, John Burnett and David Mayall in 3 Volumes (New York University Press, 1984-89). Use has also been made of important surveys of working class reading by the WEA, the Sheffield Educational Settlement and various academic researchers.

In 53 pages of notes there is a cornucopia of references for someone with my own interests. For not only did I study at Ruskin, but I later taught Politics and Industrial Relations to industrial workers for 21 years before I went to Parliament and I also ran access courses for those without formal qualifications who were looking to move to study full-time in higher education.

Whilst my own experiences explains why I devoured Rose's book, it also explains my disappointments with it. I felt that it could have reached the following glowing assessment by Christopher Hitchen, but unfortunately fell short - Hitchen claims that it "bears comparison with the best work of Edward Thompson". Yet for me to say that this work does not match up to a masterpiece such as "The Making of the English Working Class" is itself hardly a criticism. But I do have three serious niggles about Rose's otherwise compelling work.

(1) What Is It All About?

The book covers massive and exciting grounds, but it lacks an overall analytic framework in which the author's discoveries could have been marshalled. This would have helped the reader to grasp hold of the logic of developments. Even if the reader then came to disagree with the author's particular perspective.

I appreciate that there is the alternative danger of imposing a one-sided viewpoint upon the wide variety of material which research unearths. But a sensitive analysis would have enlivened the mining of Rose's empirical details.

At times, within a chapter I could not see why he had moved from one interesting bit of information onto another. This problem also arose between chapters. For instance, why do details about working class people at theatres being confused about distinctions between fact and fiction, follow on from a survey of Mutual Improvement Societies who are described as being Friendly Societies "devoted to education" ? Perhaps we are moved dramatically to reveal the contrasts.

(2) No Marks On Marx

The above overall eclectic style is suddenly burst asunder in a chapter well into the book entitled "Alienation From Marxism". Rose now has a sub-theme which is to show why the British Working Class did not take to Marxism.

After a fruitful start in which he summarizes the range of possibilities offered by Ross McKibbin in "The Ideologies of Class" (Clarendon Press, 1990),we descend into an attack on Vulgar Marxism and on manipulations by the Communist Party. Even the Marxist use of jargon is criticised as putting Marxism beyond the pale, although earlier we have been given examples of British working class intellectuals mastering the more complex and obscure works of Kant and Hegel.

Rose's problem is that he moves away from his study of autodidacts and working class intellectuals to generalisations about the working class as a whole.

Writers such as GDH Cole who claimed to be Marx-influenced explained Marxist ideas and had a close following amongst the category of working people Rose is supposed to be examining.

A tradition of a more sophisticated Marxist approach was also reflected in what happened in 1956 when people such as Lawrence Daly of the National Union of Mineworkers resigned from the Communist Party over the Russian invasion of Hungary and the revelations about Stalin, yet retained a keenly critical Marxist outlook.

Nor were all those who remained in the Communist Party (such as the late Bas Barker and his comrades in Chesterfield) the intellectual zombies which Rose indicates.

(3) Where Are We Now?

In the final chapter of his book, Rose turns his attention more specifically to developments after the second world war. The extension of formal education, cultural studies, the rise of popular and modern writing, the decline of a concentration on the classics, modernism, then post-modern studies, plus the rise of the mass media are all given as reasons for the decline of the tradition of the autodidact and their associates.

Yet the impact of the changes Rose highlights may have been much slower and less dramatic than he claims. For instance, he ignores the Adult Eduction College tradition which I mentioned at the start of this review, apart from his coverage of an early Ruskin College in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coleg Harlech, Newbattle Avenue, Fircroft, Hillcroft, the Co-op College and the Catholic Workers' Colleges are either ignored or merely given passing references. Whilst the Northern College was only founded in 1978 in the very midst of what Rose sees as a barren period.

Neither do University Extramural Departments enter the frame, including the Sheffield University Industrial Day Release Scheme which ran up to the eventual decline of the Coal Industry: nor do we hear of bodies such as the Society for Industrial Tutors.

It is only from the early 1990's that these post-war forms of education began to be transformed by moves to further education based on modules and accreditation.

Even then Trade Union Education Schemes which had expanded in the post-war period survived, although they provide more of a training ethos than provisions based on widening people's horizons and interests.

Yet as Rose points out earlier in his book, workers are capable of adjusting to a variety of seemingly alien conditions for wider educational ends. Even though the hay-day of the popularity of the classics of the Everyman Library has long since gone, there are today's alternatives. Future surveys may well come to throw up a fresh form of viability of the intellectual life of the British Working Class - especially if the use of Sky Channels from History to Foreign News Services, DVDs, CDs. iPods, overseas travel and surfing the Net are all added to paperback book buying. The modern world may be short of interest groups with wide ranging and communal concerns, but specialist groups vie for membership.

We do, of course, have to recognise that the diversions of modern life offer fresh stumbling blocks to the intellectual growth of the working class. These differ from the deprivations of the past. But this does not means that everything isn't still worth playing for.

Final Thoughts

Even when my above criticisms have been taken into account, the book under review is still full of rich sources of material, revealing tales of our past and fascinating events. There is no reason why on my bookshelves it should not at least earn an honourable spot near "The Making of the English Working Class". I will certainly recommend it to anyone attending our Sunday Evening Discussions who has not read it already.

1 comment:

The Plump said...

I agree with you that the conclusion is too negative. After all, I have been part of a thriving adult education system - albeit one that is increasingly under siege - for the past twenty years.

The failure now is one of the refusal of government to properly support the infrastructure required (as identified in your review). Tragic. See: International day of action with links.