Battles of bluecollar scholar

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
January 10, 2003

Work on the history of the British working class has over the past generation moved from political and institutional analysis towards an appreciation of the social and cultural experience of the class. But whether working-class cultural history can be treated apart from the basic political-institutional narrative is open to debate. The most influential books and historians - and one thinks immediately of E. P. Thompson here - have resisted artificial distinctions between different branches of working-class history and have treated intellectual themes as integral and crucial components of it.

Jonathan Rose's study of workers' intellectual culture has many merits but the lack of careful and systematic grounding of the subject in labour history is one of the book's weaknesses.

Rose is to be applauded for the remarkable collection of material he has amassed to demonstrate the struggles of working people to educate themselves. By combing through their memoirs he has recreated the world of the autodidact in Britain from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries. But simply collecting and presenting these sources, often in the form of long and undigested quotations, is not enough. Without a firm agenda of questions and issues, too many chapters end as lists of the books read by working people.

Rose is at pains to vanquish elitist theories of culture and vindicate his approach to a "history of audiences", but he does not explain or justify the particular themes and material he has chosen to analyse. Too much of the book is about working-class reading and not about working-class thinking and writing.

There is very little discussion of the religious life of the working classes and of the decline of their faith from the late-Victorian period, surely among the key themes in the intellectual history of workers in Britain. The history of autodidact natural science merits more attention: the vital intellectual contribution of workers and their advocates to the development of political economy in the 19th century is missed.

Rose writes well about the ideological struggles in workers' education at the beginning of the 20th century and adds a new slant on the marginal position of Marxism to the working class. It was not simply that workers disliked the message; they also detested the messengers, whose dogmatism and peripheral status in many communities made them eminently resistible. Marxism, as he acknowledges, was largely irrelevant to working-class politics but he fails to discuss the far more important intellectual change from Liberalism to Labour in the half century or so after 1875.

If there is a need to relate the self-culture of individuals and communities to the history of the working class as a whole, it must also be necessary to consider in more detail another context, the growth of the public education system from the mid-19th century, and show how it stimulated and also frustrated the autodidacts. Had these themes been developed, a more substantial and convincing conclusion, explaining the many reasons for the decline of working-class intellectual culture in relation to changes to the class after the second world war, would have been possible.

Finally, a dense book requires footnotes on the page, a good index and a bibliography. Rose's contribution is the more difficult to appreciate for the lack of a list of the sources used.

Lawrence Goldman is tutor in modern history, St Peter's College, Oxford.

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

Author - Jonathan Rose
ISBN - 0 300 08886 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 544

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