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Hard work and the life of the mind

Don Flynn traces the efforts of working class men and women to overcome the fragmentation of life and art and unite hard work and intellectual life.

"If only it were possible to combine hard work with the life of the mind: and of course, the life of the mind with hard work." - Vershinin in Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

The European Enlightenment, according to the famous German social theorist Max Weber and his followers, developed by a process of splitting previously unified worldviews into the fragments of science, art, morals and law, and making each the domain of elite groups of specialists. ‘Modernity’ has been handed down to us as a world of discrete segments of a broken reality. If these segments are linked in any way, it is not by the organic life of society, but the needs of the elites to maintain a discourse with each other.

The theorists of classical liberalism called the fragmentary nature of this world ‘freedom’ on the grounds that it entrenched a complex reality as the basic condition of society; where all the contending interests cancel each other out and no one group can dominate the totality of all others. The key to the enjoyment of liberty in this splintered reality is the recognition of limits: to avoid extending the rules which regulate life in one of the segments to other, properly autonomous, regions.

The problem for the advocates of the liberty of these self-contained units is that they often contain people who are less than happy with the portion of the rules they have been lumbered with, and who then aspire to a wider inquiry about the conditions of life in general – including those bits of it which take place in segments other than their own. Jonathan Rose* has provided a splendid example of just such a phenomenon in his huge study of the intellectual life of the working class. His opening chapter records the ‘desire for singularity’ on the part of subordinate social groups over a period spanning three centuries.

For the early generations, radical forms of religion provided a way of thinking about a whole-some way of life in which a great purpose was revealed to all true believers. But the onset of industrialization made things more complicated by creating a new reverence for science and scepticism towards simple faith and piety. The growing division of labour, described so graphically by Adam Smith, marked a point of exponential increase in the range of expertise now needed to run industry and govern society. But more than that, the conditions of life of the new working classes seemed in themselves to generate barriers to the possibility of a comprehensive understanding of the world which was emerging. Cobbett’s description of the world that was being brought into existence by the thundering machines of the new civilization, and the squalor and spiritual poverty of the proletarian classes, suggest that for a working man or woman ever to aspire to read a book was a task of a Herculean nature.

This fact notwithstanding, they did read. Moreover, the exceptional representatives of these thinking men and women organised a large part of their lives around the acquisition of knowledge, and the resources needed for discussion and debate of its consequences. ‘Mutual improvement’ emerged as a social movement which evolved in different ways over two centuries. In the early period, the autodidacts struggle to assemble their own personal libraries, but from the mid-19th century onwards the formation of institutions which aimed to promote enquiry and rational debate became a major theme. Rose draws on the surviving minute books of provincial groups which met in the mill towns and mining villages to listen to lectures, to debate politics, to sing and play musical instruments, or to perform the plays of playwrights from Shakespeare through to the Russian modernists.

In the Victorian years this work was not necessarily associated with political radicalism, but as the century moved on, the culture of the autodidact ranged from the contemplation of philosophy and the meaning of religion, and increasingly encompassed involvement in the trades union movement and liberal and social democratic parties.

Rose asks whether this identification with left politics was reflected in the books and studies undertaken by these workers. By and large, the answer appears to be, no. The favoured books were often of a distinctly conservative genre, with Shakespeare, Chaucer, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and the novels of Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Bunyan being prominent. Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a moral tale which restores religion and morality as the one sure guide to action in a world of social injustice, crops up as a constant reference for trade union activists and the first generation of Labour MPs.

The apparent paradox of a conservative literary canon existing alongside increasingly radical political aspirations is accounted for by Rose in his assertion that working men and women sought the means to overcome the sense of their lives as fragmentary and marginal to the grand scheme of things. The view of a world unified by morality, religion, and an evolutionary growth towards a perfect state – the legacy of conservative romanticism – held a natural appeal to people who had every reason for wanting to know the ‘meaning’ of their lives.

The example of T.A. Jackson, the foremost of the Communist Party’s intellectuals to have emerged from a working class background, illustrates this point. Jackson’s early reading took him through Scott’s Waverley novels, in which he encountered an aristocracy properly entitled, in the author’s view, to rely upon their noble birth as the source of privilege and rights. But Scott also required that they fulfill a part of the bargain intended by the Universal Architect, and meet their responsibilities to the rest of society, by promoting order and justice for the benefit of all. A bad aristocrat, and Scott’s work is replete with examples of these, was an affront to all and worthy of the utmost condemnation.

Scott’s proletarian readers took his essentially conservative views in a direction which had not been intended, in that condemnation of individual bad apples developed into a critical sense of the wrongness of a society which allowed them to rule. When read by people living in the slums of East London, or working in West Yorkshire textile mills, or South Wales mining villages, such moral tales of good versus evil, when written with skill and imagination, could waken hopes of their own lives being transformed and being made meaningful. Jackson is quoted as an example of the effect of reading the Greek myths.

“… they fed my appetite for wonders insofar as they enable me to see the possibilities of an infinitude of happenings and combinations hidden beneath the exterior aspect of even the most ordinary things.”

In some ways Rose is reiterating points made nearly fifty years ago by Richard Hoggart in his vivid account of working class lives and literature, The Uses of Literacy. In his study, Hoggart explicitly repudiated an interest in the ‘exceptional’ representatives of the working classes, the readers and thinkers who applied themselves to works other than the popular dailies and weekly pictorials. Hoggart’s interest was in the ordinary people, with their mass readership daily papers, pulp novels and flickering cinema screens. But what was always present in their encounters with what passed for culture, and in this they resonate with Rose’s intellectuals, was the sense of a distinct world which was being affirmed as true; one not necessarily the same as that intended by the editor of the News of the World, or the author of Robinson Crusoe.

At its most basic level it was a world of community, of various solidarities, of a sensual engagement in the lives of family, friends and neighbours, and the expectation that throughout all the world, ‘sincerity’ and’ good intentions’ would be valued, even if they did not always result in appropriately happy outcomes.

It is not clear that Rose sees the organic connection between the subjects of his study, those intellectually inclined working class men and women, and the communities in which their outlooks had been formed. His account includes a fascinating history of the institutions the autodidacts forged to pursue their interests – the mutual improvement societies, mechanics institutes, reading rooms and libraries, and the Workers Educational Association – but the sense is throughout of their exceptionalness and unrepresentiveness of the class they came from.

The outcome of the journey they embarked upon is, in Rose’s account, bleak. Having struggled to master the culture of their masters in order that they might be the masters of their own fate, what the autodidacts found was that this culture itself had moved on as the forces of modernity broke aesthetic values down into the smaller, ever more separate, fragments of abstract modern art. The 20th century – with its concept of ‘high art’ – appeared to remove these exotic blooms from a public space where they could be gazed upon by ordinary citizens. But then a partial reintegration became possible in the form of the ‘Cool Britannia’ proclaimed by the Blairite coterie. For Rose, this was not the most unpalatable of outcomes: “the boutique economy they have constructed involves a process of class formation, where the accoutrements of the avant-garde are used to distance and distinguish cultural workers from more traditional manual workers.”

Other conclusions are possible. Must this process of division and re-division truly be endless? And anyway, just what is really divided about our modern world? And why, to return to Chekhov’s question posed at the onset of this comment, is it so hard to combine the life of the mind with hard work? One of the heroes of the autodidacts, who also moved from conservative meditations to radical conclusions - the artist and historian John Ruskin – also declaimed on exactly this issue:

“We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we have given it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: - Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life … It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom which they cannot explain the nature to themselves.”

Rose’s pessimism seems on a par with Ruskin’s: but yet the struggle appears to go on. Men and women must be free. They will turn again to art, and music, and morality and religion to try and explain to themselves what this freedom is that they must have. And they will turn to politics too; for hard work to co-exist with the life of the mind, they must turn to politics.

*The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University Press, 2001