Review: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

Review: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

At 464 pages you might decide to pass on reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. This would be a mistake. This is a gargantuan work but easily digestible in parts with each chapter standing on its own merits.  There are so many gems to be found in Jonathan Rose’s book it is hard to know where to begin.

Perhaps with the library to be found over 40 miles of boundary walls of Cheviot Hills in the early 19th Century.  Shepherds would leave a book they had read in a nominated nook to be picked up by another. In this way books would circulate between the shepherds through the hills who rarely met but enjoyed reading and the advance in knowledge that might come with it. Or the East Lothian Itinerating Libraries, founded in 1817, and circulating 50 boxes of books between East Lothian villages and organised by 20 volunteer librarians for the benefit of the working class.

Then there is the story of Samuel Taylor, a clay worker who was a fervent advocate of literacy who in 1854 began reading Crimea War dispatches published in The Times in Hanley market square. Readings soon attracted thousands and within a few years attendances of penny readings of popular writers (it would cost a penny to attend) attracted audiences of 70,000 across the Potteries.

Rich in detail, Rose’s epic is a beautifully detailed work based on the excavation of just under 2,000 sources, both published and unpublished, that bring to the reader the sensibility of a working class in a quest for both pleasure and knowledge.  True to his evident antipathy to faux intellectualism Rose writes with an engaging clarity as he documents the self-education of emerging of the British working class over two centuries to the end of the second world war.

The pinnacle is reached with the Welsh Miners’ Libraries of the 1930s described as an underground university based on the miners institutes of south Wales.  Rose describes the institutes as  ‘one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere it he world’ -comparable to the Jewish workers’ libraries of interwar Poland and even the Social Democratic libraries of pre-world war one Germany.  By 1934 there were more than 100 miners’ libraries in the Welsh coalfield with an average stock of 3,000 books.

Of Course, there are arguments to be had. Despite his amassing of the evidence to the contrary, Rose sometimes writes as if much of this was solely about individual self improvement rather than a class movement ; he also makes the error common to much liberal scholarship of mistaking the tropes of Stalinism for the genuine article and also gives too one-sided an account of the battle between Marxist ideas and Labourism in pre-war Britain.

There is no question that the chapter titled ‘Alienation from Marxism’ will irritate some and infuriate others. At the same time he does give passing reference to the ongoing battle between Trotsky and Stalin with Hymie Fagan, the  Communist Party book shop manager in Covent Garden’s King Street committing  ‘the astonishing indiscretion of putting  Trotsky’s autobiography in the shop window’.  Accused by party General Secretary Harry Pollitt of deviationism, Fagan responded ‘Bugger you mate, I’m not going to invent a confession.’

Within this chapter there is also an uncomfortable passage that may ring bells.  ‘Glasgow foundryman Thomas Bell discovered as an agitator for the Socialist Labour Party “With cold, hard scientific logic and quotations from Marx and Engels, we usually reduced all opposition to silence…but we never made any members.” He suspected “our sectarianism had something to do with it.”’

The majesty of this book is that Rose allows hundreds of working class voices to speak from its pages as he seamlessly ties together thousands of accounts of what reading meant to millions. In doing so he highlights the threat that such activity posed to the powerful. Rose recounts the experience of radical tailor Francis Place who in 1821 revealed to one of his oldest clients that he had a library of his own. Sarcasm, then vindictiveness were followed by a withdrawal of trade.  Place commented ‘ I should have been a fellow beneath them, and they would have patronised me; but – to accumulate books and to be supposed to know something of their contents…was putting myself on an equality with themselves, if not indeed assuming a superiority; was an abominable offence in a tailor.’

While Rose describes an historical arc stretching from the emergence of working class reading to a greater atomisation produced by neo-liberalism that has changed the physiology of the working class, this work of history should be read not as eulogy for a time past but as a description of what is possible in the future.

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes   Yale University Press, London, 2010

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