Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain 1900-1940 
by Jonathan Rée.
Oxford, 176 pp., £15, February 1984, 0 19 827261 8
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Sometime in the late Sixties, I was invited, along with some senior socialist historians, to meet Bill Craik, a veteran and pioneer, so I was told, of independent working-class education. The intention was to find a practical means of honouring his work. I was taken to a tiny North London council flat, and there sitting in the middle of its cramped living-room, I encountered a very ancient and frail-looking man, striking mainly for the large and antique ear-trumpet which he applied when straining to catch remarks addressed to him. I understood little of what was said and discussion was anyway halting and discontinuous – all the more so given the technical limitations of Craik’s hearing device. The Plebs League and the Labour College movement in which he had been involved were no more than names to me. Nor did Craik noticeably react to the ripples of talk which lapped around his chair. The atmosphere rather than the words stuck in my mind: it was strangely tense for a meeting of homage, as if still agitated by the undertow of long past battles – between the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, between Moscow and an indigenous ‘proletarian’ Marxism, between the philosophising of the universities and Philosophy as it had been expounded at pit-heads.

As far as I can remember, nothing concrete emerged from the meeting and I never heard anything more of it. It was only recently when I read Stuart Macintyre’s impressive study, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933, that I began to realise that I had been a witness to the last and all but posthumous echo of what had been one of the most remarkable chapters in British working-class history: an avowedly Marxist movement of workers’ self-education, proletarian in both composition and leadership, which had endured for over twenty years and at its height had had over thirty thousand subscribing to its courses; and perhaps more extraordinary, given the allegedly empirical character of the British temperament, a proletarian movement with its own ‘proletarian philosophy’. It is with the strange career and ultimate oblivion of this indigenous philosophy of the self-taught that Jonathan Rée’s Proletarian Philosophers is concerned.

To understand who Craik was, it is necessary to go back to 1909, the year of a celebrated strike at Ruskin College, Oxford. The students of the newly-founded college – mainly miners and railwaymen, Craik among them – rejected the courses designed to prepare them for the university and pressed instead for classes based upon ‘the materialist conception of history’ and Marxist economics. They formed themselves into the Plebs League, founded the journal Plebs, established their own full-time Labour College (of which Craik was for a time the principal) and developed part-time classes in the localities from which they had come. According to Craik, there were at least one hundred classes operating in England and Wales by 1914, and in the turbulent years just after the First World War tens of thousands were enrolling. In the areas where the movement was strongest, proletarian education began, not with adult classes but in the Sunday ‘proletarian school’, where children were catechised in the ‘Ten Proletarian Maxims’ ranging from the relatively simple ‘Thou shalt wage class war’ to the overreaching final flourish: ‘Thou shalt remember that the economic structure of society determines the legal and political superstructure.’

The young strikers of 1909 prefigured the rank and file industrial unrest which swept through the railways and coalfields on the eve of the First World War. Their socialism was imprinted with a note of proletarian self-assertion, all but absent from that of the preceding generation. It rejected the Parliamentary methods of labour socialism, was impatient of the pure street-corner evangelism of Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and was scornful of the religious and political eclecticism of a Tom Mann or a Ben Tillett. Instead, it drew upon the pure and uncontaminated Marxism that it found in the writings of the American socialist, Daniel De Leon. It was from De Leon’s Two Pages of Roman History that the name of the League was coined, and the watchwords of De Leonism – independent working-class education and industrial power – were to remain the activating sources of the militancy of Plebs and the Labour College movement.

The purpose of knowledge in De Leon’s austere formulation was wholly instrumental: ‘the true foundation of the socialist movement was the education of the working class ... a genuine socialist movement must be narrow and intolerant as science, for there would be no compromise in the class war.’ In its stress upon knowledge and self-education, however, the Plebs League struck deeper roots than its proudly-proclaimed sectarianism would suggest. For at the end of the 19th century, when, according to Macintyre, the chances against a working-class child receiving secondary education were 271 to 1, Plebs and other socialist organisations could give dignity and purpose to an omnivorous and unquenchable desire for knowledge on the part of a small but significant minority of the British working population. Nowhere was this more evident than in the isolated mining villages of South Wales and Central Scotland, divorced from the citadels of power and culture, not only by class but also by geography and nationality. According to one account of the Bedlinog pit, for example, ‘the conveyor face down the Number 2 pit was a university ... night after night ... well-read, intelligent, clean-minded men discussed the burning topics of the day, the changing religious trend, the theory of evolution, the nature of spiritualism, Christian Socialism, Communism, and all the other isms that then did abound. The ideas expressed by Charles Darwin, R.J. Campbell, Sir Oliver Lodge, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Karl Marx, Noah Ablett were treasured in their minds as well as in the books they carried in their pockets.’ As late as the 1950s, Plato’s Republc was taken out more often from Merthyr’s public library than from any other in Great Britain.

For workers like this, Engels had struck an unexpected chord when he argued in Ludwig Feuerbach that the proletariat were the true heirs of the Enlightenment, for he had apparently incorporated within socialism the old Baconian adage that knowledge is power; and in ways that Marxist theory had not anticipated, innumerable individual quests for enlightenment could come to be considered part of the historic mission of a class. Despite the intransigent political purism of British Marxism between 1900 and 1930, room could be found within it for the insatiable bibliomania of its many proletarian men of letters.

The intellectual preoccupations of the generation of the 1900s differed from those of their Victorian predecessors. It was a generation much closer in spirit to the positivistic Marxism of the Second International than to those whose political formation dated from the 1880s. For the older generation of labour activists who became MPs in 1906, the formative influence had been Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or Ruskin’s Until This Last. Even when the outworks of a ‘materialist conception of history’ were adopted, the animating counter-position at the core remained that between Philistine mammon and a world of higher value represented by the treasure-house of literature and thought. The succeeding Edwardian generation were more hard-headed and scientific in aspiration. Their socialism often began as an outgrowth of Buckle and Darwin and it was premised not so much on a vision of beauty as on the possession of a system of secular and scientific knowledge. The reading of Marx did not disrupt this strong sense of scientific enlightenment, but reinforced it with a monumental sense of historical meaning and direction and – something more than Darwin or Buckle could supply – affirmed with all the authority of science their own central place as dramatis personae within the unfolding historical process.

Within this autodidact culture, the search, as Rée stresses, was always in the hope of acquiring ‘an inclusive grasp, or vision of human and natural history as a whole: in short, a philosophy’. For some like the legendary autodidact, T.A. Jackson, the discovery of Marxism was sufficient: ‘here in the Communist Manifesto, I found a vital core around which I could reorganise my learning as a completely integrated whole. It gave me as in a flash of blazing revelation, a completely interrelated universe, in which mankind and human society and their history were details in an endlessly developing whole.’ But Jackson was already versed in philosophy. Starting as a young teenager with G.H. Lewes’s Biographical History of Philosophy, he had worked his way through Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Kant and Hegel. For most Plebs students, however, what little was then available of Marx and Engels was insufficient to fulfil this philosophical quest. Marx might have shown that changes in ideas resulted from changes in economic and social conditions, but he did not explain ‘how our conditions determine our thoughts’. That was the achievement of the ‘proletarian philosophy’ of Joseph Dietzgen. When the university-trained philosophy lecturer, Dorothy Emmett, began to teach University Extension classes in South Wales in 1927, she found that she had stumbled on ‘a kind of underworld of philosophy of which the universities hear singularly little and perhaps care less’. What students wished to discuss was ‘proletarian philosophy’ and Emmett reported that they regarded ‘the man who gave it some sort of formulation as literally the greatest philosopher who ever lived’.

Dietzgen was a tanner who divided his time between his native Siegburg, Russia and the United States. He first came to the attention of social-democratic circles with his Nature and Human Brainwork by a Manual Worker (1869) and crowned his reputation as the founder of ‘proletarian logic’ with his Positive Outcome of Philosophy (1886). His efforts provoked some polite compliments from Marx and a qualified endorsement from Engels. By 1902, the Dutch socialist Anton Pannekoek could state, ‘it is the merit of Dietzgen to have raised philosophy to the position of a natural science, the same as Marx did for history,’ and Lenin invoked the authority of ‘Marx, Engels and Dietzgen’ in his assault upon Mach. Dietzgen’s revolution in philosophy entailed the elimination of all forms of ‘dualism’ – between body and soul, nature and spirit, fact and value – and its replacement by a ‘monism’ in which ‘thinking is a function of the brain just as walking is a function of the legs.’ While common sense and the ruling class dichotomised, science and the proletariat re-created ‘the organic unity of all things’ through the process of induction. Dietzgen’s epistemology, which Rée mischievously compares to Wittgenstein’s early philosophy, argued that the mind was a camera, that ‘conceived things are pictures, real pictures, pictures of reality.’ Realism and a crude reflection theory constituted Dietzgen’s critique of pure reason, while the reduction of ethics to changing class-based human needs composed the core of his reformulation of practical reason. Just as the proletariat had no interest in the continued existence of classes and the existing division of labour, so its vision was unblinkered by timeless ‘spooks’ like the ‘eternal soul’ or ‘eternal values’. In this way, the proletariat, social democracy and science were obligingly made to coincide.

It is not difficult to imagine how this philosophy might have appealed to a certain strand of working-class autodidactism. Dietzgen’s recently translated works were enthusiastically taken up by the Plebs and made the central texts around which philosophy courses were built. But Dietzgenism, together with the whole corpus of pre-war Marxism, was soon to come under unanticipated pressure from a number of different quarters. Once the Bolshevik revolution had triumphed in Russia and the bulk of the pre-war Marxist groupings in Britain formed themselves into the Communist Party, Dietzgenism had to compete with Leninism and philosophy became too sensitive a topic to be left to the unhurried ruminations of armchair proletarian speculation. Moreover the prestige of the Revolution attracted into the Party a small but important group of university trained intellectuals – Hogben, Postgate, the Pauls, Dobb and others – who after reading Russell found it hard to contain their irritation at the reverence for Dietzgen. Finally, caught between the undemanding notion of knowledge current within Labour socialism and the increasingly brusque subordination of intellectual culture to the immediate needs of current strategy within the CP, working-class autodidacts found themselves marginalised or, like the crippled Bury watchmaker Fred Casey, gradually cast into the role of eccentrics. Casey was a prolix Dietzgenite philosopher who ended up as an osteopath lecturing on the close relationship between dialectical thinking and mental health. The change did not occur overnight. Nevertheless, as Rée demonstrates, by the mid-Thirties the proletarian enlightenment had all but withered away.

Most important were the changes following the institution of the Soviet state. The precise status of its theory had been a problem for socialism ever since its inception. How was the language of knowledge to be matched with the language of desire? In the writings of St Simon, Fourier and Owen, socialism began life more as a replacement for Christianity than as a replacement for capitalism. But was the old religion and its attendant philosophies to be replaced by a new science, a new religion or both? The evidence of 19th-century socialism’s confrontation with Christianity was to be found in the many cosmologies which formed an integral part of socialist speculation, not only in the classic epoch of ‘utopian socialism’ but also, for example, in the shape of spiritualism and theosophy which acted as unseen sources of inspiration accompanying the allegedly sober ratiocination of the early Fabians.

Marxism had supposedly freed itself from this matrix. Christian ‘theology’ and its philosophical analogue, Hegel, had been transformed into an ‘anthropology’. Philosophers had only interpreted the world: the point was to change it. Alternatively, utopian speculation had given way to a science of history on which, henceforth, socialism could be based. Was there a need for a philosophy to accompany the science? Most socialists of the Second International era thought so. No one, of course, thought there ought to be a Marxist religion. Yet Engels’s speculations on nature addressed precisely the same cosmological void that had been filled by his utopian predecessors, and the dialectical materialism which finally triumphed in the USSR in the Thirties unconsciously incorporated not a few of the features of long-discarded socialist religions.

In fact, virtually all the discursive positions which had been tried in the 19th century were replayed in the Soviet philosophical debate of the Twenties. The ‘mechanists’ around Bukharin considered philosophy a pre-scientific relic from Marxism’s Hegelian past and a harmful impediment to understanding. On the other hand, the Deborinites, basing themselves on Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, argued for a philosophy of ‘Leninism’, based upon the study of materialism and Hegelian dialectics. With the demise of Bukharin, the Deborinites expelled the ‘mechanists’ from their posts and looked set to become the official ideologues of the regime. They in turn were ousted, however, condemned socially as members of the old bourgeois intelligentsia and politically – somewhat improbably – as Menshevik Trotskyites. The group who replaced them were proletarian products of the Revolution itself. But this did not mean a reprieve for Dietzgen. The new group based its position on the supremacy of a dialectical materialist philosophy with its three cosmological laws, as expounded in Engels’s recently-published Dialectics of Nature. Philosophy now ruled over science and Stalinist party henchmen ruled over philosophy.

Rée skilfully charts how the shifts in the Soviet position clashed and intertwined with parallel British interpretations of Marxism, science and philosophy. The natural affinities of the important group of pro-Soviet scientists who emerged in the Twenties – Bernal, Haldane, Hogben, Crowther and Needham – were the equivalent of an extreme version of ‘mechanism’. The Bolshevik state was not so much the workers’ state as the state of scientific planning. Hegel, Engels and Dietzgen had no place in the Science Fiction communism of a Bernal or a Hogben, and insofar as philosophy had something useful to say, it was in the spirit of Russell rather than that of the dialectic. In the Thirties, the mood gradually changed and dialectical materialism was eventually absorbed by most of the leading members of the left scientific establishment. Ironically, however, it was the disgraced Bukharinite faction which made the greatest intellectual impact. A visit from a Soviet delegation to a science conference in 1931 and, in particular, an outstanding paper from Bukharin’s protégé Hessen on ‘the social and economic roots of Newton’s Principia’, virtually founded the serious study of the history of science in this country.

For Dietzgenites and the proletarian autodidacts of the Labour Colleges, on the other hand, the gradual Stalinisation of the Party had a uniformly negative impact. While the Party was initially quite happy to co-exist with Plebs, independent Marxist study of philosophy was increasingly brought within the confines of Party othodoxy. The new Party textbook of 1926 dropped its sections on history and philosophy. The rift became open in 1928 when the Party instructed students to boycott the Dietzgen centenary celebrations at the Central Labour College and in 1929 the Party denounced the Labour College movement as a whole. A few veterans of the pre-war generation like Jackson continued the tradition of indigenous proletarian philosophy. His 500-page Dialectics was received politely by the Party, but his failure to mention the three laws meant that it was soon consigned to oblivion by the new guardian of Party philosophy, Clemens Dutt. By the mid-Thirties, as Rée shows, Marxist philosophy had become a debate between Party apparatchiks and academic philosophers. Proletarian philosophy, however wooden, had at least been the proletariat’s own creation. Now it had disappeared. Rée ends his book unable to decide whether the drama he has depicted should be described as tragedy or farce.

Proletarian Philosophers overlaps considerably both with Macintyre’s book and with Garry Werskey’s study of the left science movement between the wars, The Visible College. Both books could have been more generously acknowledged. Nevertheless, Rée’s style and mode of approach is fresh and original. The treatment of developments in Soviet philosophy after the Revolution and the rise of dialectical materialism is well researched and lucidly presented. Of great interest, too, is his treatment of the relationship between British philosophers and the Soviet Union, though the discussion here is tantalisingly brief. It would have been useful to have had the world of philosophy more fully described, and in particular how it changed as a result of the First World War in order that the sometimes strange reactions of the post-war intelligentsia could be historically located. More generally, the book is marred by an unresolved ambivalence towards its subject-matter. From an editor of Radical Philosophy one might have expected more reflection, whether positive or negative, on the emancipatory potentialities of philosophy and its place within a socialist movement. This theme seems to haunt the book without ever being explicitly discussed. The reader is thus left to draw implicitly negative conclusions without the author ever having to take responsibility for them.

Perhaps that judgment is too harsh, however. Such a wide historical gulf separates the radical philosophy of the last fifteen years from the ‘proletarian philosophy’ of the Twenties that it is difficult to know what sort of affinities could be established between them. The problem was already there in the Sixties when I met Bill Craik. Craik had established the philosophy course at the Labour College. He was a Dietzgenite and at the time I met him, if he was not the last Dietzgenite, he was certainly the last surviving architect of ‘Marx-Engels-Dietzgenism’, that forgotten, homespun alternative to Marxism-Leninism or Dialectical Materialism – still the official philosophy of the Soviet Union. In that cramped little room, surrounded, as he was, by Communist officials, labour academics and New Left theorists, no wonder I sensed a tension. What sort of homage should we have paid him?

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