The intellectual life of the British working classes (book) – Review

In The intellectual life of the British working classes, Jonathan Rose attempts the significant and monumental task of documenting the literary interests of working-class British men and women from the industrial revolution (ca. 1800-1820) until the Second World War. Using primary sources, consisting mainly of working-class memoirs and but also social and statistical surveys and library records where possible, Rose is able to show how working-class people reacted to great works of literature. He shows which authors had enduring significance to working people, and also attempts to show how an appreciation of certain authors and literary works related to various individual and collective efforts toward self-improvement, as well as working-class movements for political and social reform, chiefly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This is a very important subject and Rose received substantial plaudits for this work, which was first published in 2001. I recently read the second edition, which was published by Yale University Press in 2010. The book is quite long, at over 450 pages, with another 100 pages devoted to endnotes and a middling index. Rose’s book seems to have been received well not only among the academic community, but also among the liberal intelligentsia that is generally thought of as comprising ‘the left’ these days. While I agree that the book has its strengths, I would argue that these chiefly relate to its subject matter; and that, in fact, Rose’s treatment of the subject is flawed and ultimately stymied by his ideological approach, centrally by his overweening and obsessive hostility towards Marxism and the communist movement.

The attitudes of educated working-class people towards great works of literature is an important subject,  and to his credit, Rose motivates this reasonably well. Although ‘canons’ of classical works are often derided now as either elitist, misogynist, or racist, throughout history canonical works have inspired people from oppressed backgrounds. The desire to access culture, and to be able to live the life of the mind, not just to worry about where the next meal is coming from, has been part and parcel of most progressive social and political movements that have been based on the working class. Although particular left-wing political tendencies, ranging from anarchist to Maoist, have been hostile to culture and intellectual development, for the most part traditional trade union and Marxist movements have placed a major emphasis on education and literacy. The spread of literacy and reading was a core driver of democratic religious and political movements from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, connected to everything from the Reformation and the vernacular Bible, to campaigns against the Stamp Tax and ‘Taxes on Knowledge’. It is important to document how working people have reacted to ‘great’ literature over the centuries, because it helps us understand how people thought in the past, and also because it counteracts elitist propaganda about what working class people or the poor are interested in. Think back to the criticism of the Tories after their ‘beer and bingo’ budget a couple of years ago. 

Rose emphasizes the enduring value working people have placed on the canonical authors of English literature, in particular William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. He also highlights some authors who left-wing historians might not ‘want’ or expect working-class people to have admired or enjoyed, but Rose points out that often what readers (especially inexperienced readers) take away from a book is not necessarily what we associate with the author; an inexperienced reader may find a relatively simple idea or isolated episode to be inspirational or profound, without relating it to an author’s entire corpus or socio-historical context. Which is fair enough, and doesn’t in itself transform a reactionary author into a progressive one.

Rose repeatedly emphasizes the level of interest in pulp fiction, or escapist trash, that working-class people have had over the years,  which is common throughout history. But time and again, we find working-class people independently discovering great literature, and describing in euphoric terms the difference it has made to their lives and their understanding of the world. These sections tend to be the highlight of the book and are a testament to the value of literacy and reading. It is often people from the most underprivileged backgrounds, particularly women, who give the most striking descriptions of the impact that reading had on their lives.

Rose relies heavily on his source material, and I felt that he often failed to incorporate it into his narrative in a satisfying way. At times, the book reads like a postgraduate dissertation, where he makes use of any and every reference he can find to bulk out his argument, without showing sufficient discrimination or consideration for the reader. For that reason, the book can be difficult to read, and I do wonder just how many of the people who have bestowed upon it glowing reviews have actually read it from beginning to end.

Rose’s writing style isn’t the book’s chief problem, though, and neither is his tiresome habit of talking about the role of the ‘frame’ to analyse literary interpretation. Essentially, Rose argues that the way a reader engages with a literary work is shaped by the ‘frame’ they employ when reading it, which is connected to their view of the world and their place in it. For this reason, people can have wildly different interpretations of a work by virtue of having a different ‘frame’.

More problematic is Rose’s lionizing of the intellectual dilettante as a kind of ideal literary type. Throughout the book, Rose’s heroes are those who place nothing higher than their favourite authors, particularly if they happen to rise through the ranks of the Labour Party and make a career of criticizing communism. Ultimately, it feels like a teleological and self-serving posture, as if the liberal academic sensibility of 2000 AD is the epitome of humanity’s intellectual development.

Rose takes swipes against postmodernism throughout the book, many of which are completely correct, but he also finds himself trapped within its intellectual rubric. Without a hint of self-awareness, Rose lambasts how “professional vocabularies” and “postmodernist jargon” have been used as a “form of encryption, permitting communication among elites while shutting out everyone else”. In particular, he views the use of “jargon” by Marxists as an attempt to exclude newcomers from political movements. The lack of self-awareness evident here brought to mind the following from Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory:

“The characteristic feature of contemporary literary radicalism is that it rarely addresses the question of its own determination by the conditions of its production and the class location of its agents. In the rare case where this issue of one’s own location–hence of the social determination of one’s own practice–is addressed at all, even fleetingly, the stance is characteristically that of a very poststructuralist kind of ironic self- referentiality and self-pleasuring.”

The main problem with Rose’s book is that his loathing of communism causes him to present a completely skewed view of the role of Communists and Marxist theory in the intellectual history of the British working class. In general, whenever Communists enter Rose’s narrative they come across like anti-intellectual, sectarian, anti-social maniacs frothing at the mouth with Marxist verbiage. Now, that’s not to say that there have never been such characters in the communist movement; there obviously were, especially during the high tide of Stalinism; but then there have been in all political parties. Moreover, Rose refuses to acknowledge the liberating effect Marxism had on the intellectual lives of millions of people throughout the twentieth century. Again, to bowdlerize Aijaz Ahmad criticizing Edward Said’s anti-Marxism: for many people, the act of identifying with a political vision (in this case, Marxism), far from cutting off intellectual vistas, actually opened up new ones, and enabled them to see much further than they would have if they merely continued to cherry-pick individual ideas from disparate works of literature. It’s not the same for everyone, but by failing to acknowledge this fact Rose does his subject a massive disservice. In the end, having adopted a dismissive attitude towards large sections of the British working class (ie, those infected with communist ideology), Rose spends much of the last part of the book looking at the reading habits not of industrial workers, but of insurance salesmen; not exactly what the book’s title brings to mind.

In a book this length, and with this style, it is inevitable you’ll find statements that seem odd. For example, “After the implosion of world Communism and the 1997 ‘New Labour’ landslide, the WEA [Workers Educational Association] emphasis on non-Marxian socialism seems admirably far-sighted”… at least, until Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election in 2015. Rose occasionally steps on unsafe ground in his treatment of established authors, too, such as his bizarre suggestion that Thomas Hardy intended a hostile attitude towards Jude Fawley in Jude the obscure: that “His efforts to gain admission to Christminster are depicted as an exercise in futility, motivated partly by selfish ambition”; a view surely shared by few who have read the book, which inspires sympathy for Jude’s doomed efforts in a world hostile to the idea the working man has a right to education.

The fact that Rose gets away with giving the Marxist tradition in the British working-class such a hard time, is a reflection of the hostility towards Marxism that is so central to the bourgeois academic establishment. It is hard to think of another area of knowledge where such an obvious agenda could be advanced so brazenly, without any contrary evidence being presented. Considering that so many of the book’s testimonies describe literature’s power to let you see the world from another point of view, it’s a damning irony.




2 comments on “The intellectual life of the British working classes (book) – Review

  1. A simpler version of this idea was by Richard Hoggart “Uses of Literacy” looking at all printed media in general. Do you know it – I guess so. I found it a good introduction


  2. The “Lion & Unicorn” by George Orwell

    Liked by 1 person

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