LABOR’S MIND: A HISTORY OF WORKING-CLASS INTELLECTUAL LIFE
By Tobias Higbie
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I never saw my father read a book. He did read a newspaper, The Daily Herald, which was pro-Labour in its political leanings, and each Friday there was Thomson’s Weekly, a magazine which had been started in the 19th century and was aimed at the artisan class. It published articles and puzzles, and what I remember most, a series of short crime stories featuring Inspector Dandy McLean. They intrigued me because they managed to say everything within the confines of a single page. There were a few books in the house, Sunday School prizes and things like that, but my father never touched them.
I mention this because I think he may have been typical in some ways of many men of his age and background. Along with his lack of interest in books, he didn’t have any great devotion to political ideas or ideals. He voted Labour at election time, and had what might be called an underdog’s distrust of anyone in authority, which I suspect extended to union leaders almost as much as to politicians. He kept clear of policemen and would have nothing to do with priests. The school of hard knocks (twelve years at sea, jobs as a steeplejack, docker, labourer) had been his education beyond the basics the state had provided before the age of fourteen. I can’t say that he imparted any great pearls of wisdom about life or anything else to me beyond the observation, as we passed the local prison, that the really big criminals weren’t in there. I inherited that notion from him, along with his misgivings about those with power, and their tendency to be corrupted by it.
The observations about my father’s life were triggered by reading
Tobias Higbie’s Labor’s Mind:
A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life. Leaving aside the
obvious fact that Higbie is writing about an American situation, and
my father lived in
The people Higbie discusses did have higher aims when they set out
on journeys to improve their minds and use their new-found knowledge
for political purposes. Unlike Jonathan Rose’s
The Intellectual Life of the
British Working Classes (Yale University Press,
They soon turned to books and magazines that could offer them wider intellectual fields to explore, and to works that laid down policies and prescriptions for social change and, perhaps, even revolutionary aims. Higbie is keen to emphasise how so many of those he deals with wanted to rise with their class and not out of it. This could lead to problems as, inevitably, their improved educational status frequently gave them the opportunity to move into areas of employment and social mobility not often open to most working-class people. Becoming a teacher or writer, for example, set one apart from people one may have grown up with and who had inclined towards traditional working-class jobs. But the fact of having intellectual interests, in literature, music, art, could in itself be a barrier that was likely to set up a distancing from fellow workers and even family members. I‘m talking in terms of the past, but I wonder if the situation is very different now?
In saying that I’m not intending to doubt the sincerity of the people Higbie is concerned to credit with attempting to widen the scope of working-class life. Reading about how the men and women whose lives he chronicles struggled to find their way through to a deeper involvement in intellectual pursuits, while at the same time participating in social and political activities designed to benefit other people, can be very moving. Whatever we may think of the later involvements of someone like William Z. Foster, who became head of the American Communist Party, his early adventures, as recounted in Pages From a Worker’s Life (International Publishers, New York, 1970), are a chronicle of hard times on land, and at sea, and the development of a political consciousness that grew out of direct experience and not books.
There are other examples of individual lives in Higbie’s book, and they are well worth reading, but what a lot of it concerns is the general outline of intellectual activity, as when he refers to the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World) as “as much an educational organisation as a union”, and points to the variety of newspapers it published, some in languages other than English, and their contents, which covered “reports from rank and file organisers, commentary on current events, theoretical debates about unionism, and book reviews”.
There were also several colleges where activists could pursue their interest in political theory, practical organising, and cultural matters which mostly connected with social concerns. Art for art’s sake was not a priority in these establishments: “There is no one road to freedom. There are roads to freedom. So workers’ education will include elementary classes in English, and entertainment for the crowd. But the road for leaders of the people will be straight and hard. Only a few thousand out of the millions will take it. It is different, a new way of life to which the worker is being called”.
That statement by a radical journalist, and circulated widely in the labour movement, according to Higbie, might well have summed up how many activists felt. It might also have raised a few doubts in the minds of the anarchist-inclined when it referred to “leaders of the people”. The Wobblies had a term, “pie-card artists”, which described those who had become “leaders” and union and other bureaucrats, and no longer earned their bread in the factories and fields.
Not all working-class education revolved around places like
Brookwood, and there were lessons to be learned in more-spontaneous
and loosely-organised locations.
One thing that occurs to me in connection with the whole question of “working-class intellectual life” is what frequently appears to be an assumption that it automatically implies a link to radical politics. It sometimes does, I agree, but it may not be true in the majority of cases. We simply don’t hear too much about people who, in their activities outside their working lives, have a serious interest in ornithology, Egyptology, and the Peninsular War (I’m using three examples from my own encounters) but who, though possibly being kindly and liberal in their attitudes, have no desire to participate in effecting major changes in the overall structure of society. They will be criticised by radicals because of this, but it’s wrong to assume that they don’t have an “intellectual life” of any kind. But they are not self-satisfied, just not dissatisfied. Nor do they want to be academics.
There is an interesting short passage in
Labor’s Mind where Higbie
mentions Eric Hoffer, the American longshoreman and philosopher. I
read Hoffer some years ago and was intrigued by the fact that he’d
worked on the
Higbie’s summing up of the current situation refers to a time when “Universities were one part of a more diffuse field of educational practice that included popular lectures and home study. It was only after World War II that modern universities sought to claim the field of higher education as their exclusive domain”. Prior to that “Higher education was also a more diffuse and less bureaucratised social field”, which took in open forums, labour colleges, university extension programmes, not to mention personal reading habits, the school of hard knocks, and much more.
I’ve raised some questions with regard to aspects of
Labor’s Mind, but in
general it strikes me as an extremely informative and stimulating
book. For readers outside the