Thomas street - Manchester
|Working Class Writing - Rick Gwilt
Tom Woodin has written a number of papers on the Worker Writers:
Extract: Building culture from the bottom up: the educational origins of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. History of Education, July 2005 Vol 34, No 4, 345-363
Extract: 'Chuck out the teacher': radical pedagogy in the community Institute of Education, London, UK
Extract: 'More writing than welding': learning in worker writer groups Institute of Education, EFPS,
Extract: Muddying the Waters:
Changes in Class and Identity in a Working Class Cultural Organisation
Breaking Cover: A Review of the Alternative Press by Crispin Aubrey & Charles Landry
I wrote this piece in 1978 as a preface to a comparative study of working-class and socialist writing. The context was that in 1977 I had taken over from Ben Ainley as editor of Voices, a national magazine of working-class and socialist creative writing. Ben, a retired English teacher, had been the founder of the magazine, and I had started writing for it in 1972 as a building worker.
The afore-mentioned study got me a BA in Independent Studies at Lancaster University, then promptly fell into long disuse. I kept in touch with the worker-writer movement for some time after that, editing Voices and driving lorries for a living until 1982. I edited the Clock Off Page for the T&G Record until 1995, but I pretty much drifted away after that.
Out of the blue, Ken Clay tracked me down in 2007 to say he had retrieved this preface from the dustbin of history. Sadly, the rest of the study is probably lost forever. I have tarted the preface up a bit, so it will look its best on t’ internet, but I have made no changes to the content.
In truth, I have to confess to doing work that keeps my hands clean since 1982 – these days I work as a management consultant in the voluntary sector – but I have resisted the temptation to re-write history! (RG, May 2007)
This study has been written mainly with a view to describing various types of half-brick and suggesting ways of throwing them. If it is addressed more to "workers seeking to express themselves" than to "middle-class and bourgeois writers aware of and anxious to take the proletarian side", it is not because I am saying to the latter that their help is not required. On the contrary, it is because my knowledge of bourgeois literature is pretty sketchy and my appreciation for it pretty low that I do not feel qualified to offer any advice to writers from this tradition. But if any such writers should find anything I have written here useful, I would be only too happy for them to make use of it. Iris Murdoch, apparently by way of criticism of Sartre, wrote that "his theory of la litérature engagée remains a recommendation to writers concerning their craft, not a demonstration of its essential nature." In my case, I would like to state quite clearly that this is all I have attempted to do in this study.
The question of attitudes to the bourgeois literary tradition is one on which Ben Ainley and myself always used to be at cross-purposes. Ben considered that a proletarian culture would be built upon the foundations of the old culture, not simply on the site where the old culture had been razed to the ground. I have never disagreed with this, but my point has always been: what about those of us whose school literary education has been much like water off a duck's back? What about those of us for whom Byron, Tennyson and Milton were the names of steam engines? (I am not being facetious or patronising here. I am speaking for myself.) As Trotsky has observed, admittedly with a very different purpose in mind, "The working class does not have to, and cannot break with literary tradition, because the working class is not in the grip of such tradition.” Trotsky's reason for saying this is clear from the sentence which follows: "The working class does not know the old literature, it still has to commune with it, it still has to master Pushkin, to absorb him, and so overcome him." In this Ben would no doubt have agreed with him.
Now if I thought it was necessary to wade through the pages of bourgeois literature before I could make any significant contribution to working-class culture, I would certainly give up here and now, and I feel sure this applies to many other worker-writers. This study has been carried out in the belief that it is possible to learn something a bit more economically from socialist writers who have already assimilated and gone beyond the bourgeois tradition, but that none of this is any substitute for the experience of life which underpins the work of such writers.
But what exactly is it that we are counterposing to the bourgeois tradition here? Is it "working-class" writing or "socialist" writing? Are these two the same thing, or are they mutually opposed?
Up till now, I have carefully avoided any attempt at abstract definitions. As far as the word "writing" is concerned, it should have become clear by now that I am referring to an ongoing creative process rather than some extant body of literature. The sections dealing with Voices, Commonword, and my own creative writing have been linked mainly by the theme of working-class writing while the sections on Neruda, Brecht, Mayakovsky and Silone would seem to be linked primarily by the theme of socialist commitment on the part of these writers. However, a fairly close relationship between these themes should have become apparent. The question that remains to be answered is whether this is merely an ad hoc and arbitrary relationship that I have drawn, or whether there is some sound theoretical basis to it.
John Mander makes the point that, "Socialist and working-class attitudes are very much to be distinguished. We might even define the terms as follows: A working-class attitude is, typically, one that argues from things as they are to the conclusion that things will always remain so; it is essentially conservative. The Socialist, on the other hand, argues from things as they are to things as they ought to be and, reasonably, could be." As a general truth, I find it hard to disagree with this, particularly in the context from which it is taken (a devastating critique of the people’s friend, George Orwell). But "writing" is something more than just an extension of "attitudes". The fact that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is full of reactionary working-class attitudes does not make it a conservative piece of writing, nor does the fact that Tressell and his "hero" Owen adopt a Socialist standpoint weaken the book's claim to be "working-class writing". Or to take a better, but less well-known, example, Mike Rowe's short story, Jubilee, in Voices 15, consists entirely of reactionary working-class attitudes, and yet as a piece of writing it achieves a completely opposite effect. "On most people," I should perhaps add, because one or two left-wing students at Manchester University found this story to be "racist" and almost succeeded in getting the magazine banned from a number of Manchester bookshops because of it (they even went so far as to raise the matter at a Student Union meeting). I mention this little incident partly as a reminder that there is perhaps a little of Zhdanov in all of us, in some more than others, and partly to illustrate the dangers that can arise when a general truth is transformed into dogma.
It should be clear from this study that the purpose all along has been to make a contribution to the development of a means of working-class expression, not to help turn working-class individuals into "good", professional writers. The latter may well happen if we are in any way successful in the worker-writer movement, but it is not really an end in itself: the working class still remains defined and limited precisely by its own lack of self-expression and self-awareness.
This surely brings us back to Nigel Gray's distinction between "those who are still there, and will remain there," and "those who have got out", a distinction which Nigel raises in relation to Alan Silllitoe's work and which I have highlighted in discussing the work of Ignazio Silone. It is the old distinction, in a slightly different form, between trying to rise above one's class and trying to raise one's class.
For those who have got out, there arises the problem of the writer's position. You cannot easily write something from where you aren't. You can certainly cast back in your memory and create true-to-life scenes of working-class life - something Stan Barstow does very well, for example. But it is a position taken up by the author which is precisely what Barstow's work lacks. The working class is just a milieu, and not an essential one at that, in most of his stories. Those of his stories which contain some sense of adversary, some vague hint of what defines the working class in society, stories like Estuary and A Bit Of A Commotion, and The Actor, are also artistically his best stories. Class consciousness clearly comes into the equation. But the question of position is not simply a matter of the author's social or political views. It is also - and this is what concerns us here - a matter of subject matter and the way it is treated.
As John Mander has pointed out, "An author has a right to his views, but his views as such are not relevant to literary criticism. It is only the value implicit in the work of art that count; and these may contradict the declared views of the artist. And there is no easy distinction between form and content in this respect. ... The failure of Room At The Top, for instance, is definitely a formal failure. The intentions of the author are clear enough; they are given in the last lines of the novel:
“’You don't see it now, but it was all for the best. She'd have ruined your whole life. Nobody blames you, love. Nobody blames you.' I pulled myself away from her abruptly. 'O my God,' I said, 'that's the trouble. '”
“Joe Lampton's situation is vividly evoked, and at the same time qualified and defined. But it is, unfortunately, too late. The narrative technique Mr Braine employs to tell the story inhibits him from making this sort of qualification earlier in the book. Joe Lampton, being allowed to narrate the story in the first person, tends to gain the upper hand. It is the same fault as in Look Back In Anger: the author has lost control, and we are presented with Joe's and Jimmy's views and actions without alienation or critical irony."
The use of alienation is the main reason why John Berger’s novel G works so well, even though the hero appears to possess none of the author's ideas. The end result of Room At The Top is not so far different from The Ginger Man, where J.P. Donleavy has virtually elevated lack of commitment into a philosophy of life.
Mander uses the example of Room At The Top to illustrate his argument that "a working-class drama or novel need not necessarily embody socialist values”. But we have been talking not so much about working-class values or attitudes (which is what Mander's argument centres around) as about working-class writing as a notion comprising questions of form and content and, above all, the position adopted by the writer. In the case of Room At The Top, John Braine's position is clearly that of one of those who have got out. In fact, whatever the author's intention, the book could almost be seen as a manifesto for those who have got out.
But is it necessarily a social and geographical act of "getting out” that we are speaking of here? Writers like Maxim Gorki and, to a certain extent, Jack London, did not change very much as writers simply because they found they were able to make a career of it. On the other hand there are examples of working class writers who have written one good novel, then got out, and have written nothing decent since. The examples of this that come most easily to mind are Patrick McGill's Children Of The Dead End, Walter Greenwood's Love On The Dole and Peter C. Brown's Smallcreep's Day. All these novels have something in common: they are all about manual labour, but even as he is writing about it, the writer seems as though he is already getting ready to leave. In McGill's book there is always the feeling that there is a better life waiting somewhere - not the collective notion of a better life for the working class that one finds in the pre-revolutionary writings of Maxim Gorky, but the individualistic notion of a better life for the author, thinly disguised as our hero, Dermod Flynn. Something which is shared by both McGill and Greenwood is a moral tone borrowed from their betters - they show more pity than understanding. The next logical step then, is to remove yourself from such a piteous situation, and so they did, McGill ending up as a librarian at Windsor Castle, Greenwood on the Isle of Man with all the other retired folk. The first time I tried reading Smallcreep's Day, as a building worker with no immediate prospects of getting out of the game, I could not get beyond the first chapter (I still have not been able to finish the book). This book has nothing to say to the working class except, “your lives are pointless." It could only have been written either by someone with suicidal or masochistic urges, or by someone who was already thinking of getting out. To judge by the publisher's blurb, the latter is surely the case: "He has now given up factory work entirely, and has started his own pottery, digging all his own clay, preparing most of his materials, firing with local wood, and selling direct in his neighbourhood. He considers this a sort of 'permanent strike.” Now this may well be a legitimate strike tactic for ostriches, but it has little to recommend it to the working class. In fact, when it comes down to it, the main thing these authors have got to say to the working class is, "Goodbye!"
So does all this mean that we are going to have to wait till after the socialist revolution before the working class is able to create and sustain a body of writing by those who are still there? Does the working class have to become the ruling class before working-class culture can become a reality? Some people clearly think so. Trotsky even went beyond this. He stated quite bluntly that proletarian culture and proletarian art "will never exist, because the proletarian regime is temporary and transient. The historic significance and the moral grandeur of the proletarian revolution consists in the fact that it is laying the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human." This, for those who haven't noticed, is what they call permanent revolution.
I am going to assume here that history has already proved Trotsky wrong, although I recognise that to some of his followers the mistake was on history’s part, not Trotsky’s. But if the idea that we have got to wait for fully fledged Communism has worn a bit thin, we are still left with the idea that we are going to have to wait for socialism. It was this idea which was put forward by Roy Johnson of Manchester a couple of years ago, much to the annoyance of Ben Ainley, who opposed it with a fiery editorial in Voices 4. It is from this editorial that our epigraph on the subject of throwing half-bricks is taken.
Now I would class this sort of view as basically Trotskyist, not because it is exactly the view that Trotsky held, nor because I am suggesting that Roy is a Trotskyist in the political sense, but because I think the implications of this sort of theory for the cultural sphere are analogous to the implications of Trotskyist theory for the political sphere. Trotskyism sees socialist revolution as a prerequisite for rather than a culmination of social changes. It is constantly attempting to raise it as item number one on the agenda - and then wondering why it still doesn't get dealt with. Regis Debray has characterised Trotskyism as “a medieval metaphysic ... in space - everywhere the same ... in time - immutable: Trotskyism has nothing to learn from history ... condemned to exist in the present within the categories of the past ..." Unfortunately I see similar characteristics in Roy Johnson’s theory, as I shall attempt to show. (I use the word "unfortunately" because Roy has kindly sent me an offprint of his article, The Proletarian Novel, fully expecting that I would show it little mercy!)
The basis of Roy's argument seems to be the Marxist tenet "that the 'super-structure' of philosophy, arts, and culture in general will be largely determined by the economic ‘base’ on which it is built. If the middle class is in charge of the economic structure of a society and controls its means of production, then it is almost natural that the dominant cultural values of that society will be those of that class. Moreover, since those values will be the most dominant and prevalent in society, they are likely to be shared by the working class."
I find it particularly interesting (for reasons which will become apparent) that the American critic, Philip Rahv, should be enlisted In support of the argument here:
Now it strikes me that there is something very contradictory about all this. When Rahv criticises "formal and abstract analogies between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie", he is presumably talking about the view which says that bourgeois literary creation (e.g. Shakespeare, Marlowe) pre-dated the bourgeois political revolution (1640-1660), and therefore proletarian literary creation can be expected to precede the proletarian political revolution.
I would be the first to agree that such an analogy would be both simplistic and misleading, but then I am not the one who is making it. It is Rahv himself who is making sweeping generalisations about “all class societies” and implying that only the ruling class is capable of literary creation. So what does that make Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries – representatives of the feudal aristocracy? Certainly, they received royal patronage, but the content of their plays clearly owes much more to the influence of elements of the new society growing up around then.
Perhaps people like Rahv do not date the bourgeois revolution alongside the Civil War period, it might be suggested. In that case, they are simply creating, more problems for their argument. As Ben Ainley asked:
It seems to me that another problem arises from this question of "minor cultural forms". Roy Johnson issues a warning that "the shop-floor joke is a minor form, greyhound racing is an imitation of horse racing, with the economic proceeds going, as in the case of football which employs working-class skills of dexterity, straight into the pockets of the middle class." He might perhaps have added Rugby League, darts leagues and pigeon racing - but of course the darts matches are played in pubs and the pigeons have to be transported to their point of release, thus helping to make surplus value for the breweries and the oil companies. If Roy Johnson is saying that the working class is incapable of cultural creation, this is patently untrue - it is contradicted even by his own examples. If he is saying that working-class culture cannot be economically independent except to the extent that the working class itself is economically independent, that working-class culture cannot be the dominant culture until the working class is the dominant class, then this is surely a truism anyway. Hence the need to find an argument that lies somewhere in between, and this business about "minor forms" seems to fit the bill.
But the term "culture", even as it is used here, is clearly not restricted to literature and the arts. It signifies the whole sum of human creation. Trades unions, co-operative societies, working-men's clubs, even the Labour party, are all working-class cultural creations, however much they may have become integrated into the fabric of capitalist society. To claim otherwise is to define all cultural forms existing under capitalism as necessarily bourgeois, which is a self-perpetuating argument. The fact is that there clearly exists a working-class subculture, beneath all this talk of "minor forms"; the fact that it is at the moment subordinated to bourgeois culture is a self-evident truth which is not in dispute. But the fact that Trades Unions often invest their pension funds in capitalist enterprises does not meant for example, that such funds could not be used to subsidise working-class artists and writers. In my editorial on the history of Voices, I have indicated that Arnold Wesker's "Centre 42" did make some headway in this direction, but that one of the reasons for its failure was that its immediate targets were probably a wee bit too ambitious. The Trotskyist argument (not to be confused with historical determinism) would appear to see such a failure as inevitable. According to Rahv:
"Virtually all the theorists of proletarian culture are fetishists of ideology which they naively equate with and substitute for culture. And since they believe that in Marxism the proletariat possesses a distinct and separate ideology of its own, they conclude that all that is lacking for the creation of an art and literature of the working class is a plan and the will to carry it into effect. But the truth is that Marxism is not an ideology of the working class, it is an ideology for the working class brought to it from without."
Now, assuming that the confusion between culture and ideology is on the part of all these proletarian fetishists and not Rahv himself, the man deserves a round of applause for exposing their delusions. But, as my old friend Bertolt Brecht would no doubt have asked, "How does one act if one believes what you say? Above all: how does one act?"
Jack Conroy, editor of a succession of publications of working-class writing in America in the 1930s (although better known as author of The Disinherited), has thrown some interesting light on this subject. According to Conroy, Rahv was directly responsible for the break-up of the first of these magazines, The Rebel Poet. Rahv apparently set out his prescription for proletarian literature in "An Open Letter to Young Writers” appearing in the September issue of this publication:
"The extreme impoverishment of the working masses, so brilliantly indicated by the Marxian prognosis of the disease and death of capitalism is now sweeping five-sixths of the world's area with the swift tempo of catastrophe. The exploitative society of capitalism is nearing its end, and the world proletariat is preparing to rise and seize the political power from the infirm hands of the tottering moneygrubbers.
“On the literary front, likewise, we are witnessing a parallel process of class division and antagonism. In the course of the last few years we have observed the rise of the proletarian movement in literature, comprising a drastic deviation from the 'nice and waterish diet’ of emasculated, unsocial writing, perennially engaged in futilitarian introspection and constipated spiritual incubations…we must repudiate the prizes of connivance. We must sever all ideological ties with this lunatic civilisation known as capitalism."
Rahv wasn't finished yet though. In 1935 he was behind a new bout of political infighting which put paid to the successor to The Rebel Poet -The Anvil. But now he seems to have come up with the perfect alibi for all this wanton destruction - under capitalism there can be no such thing as proletarian literature, so how could he possibly be accused of sabotaging it? Rahv totally confuses the question of ideology with the question of culture, and then accuses others of doing precisely that. Insofar as his view is totally entangled with the notion of the imminence of the socialist revolution, it has not exactly been born out by history, although (as I have admitted already) I recognise that this may be seen as an error on the part of history rather than a refutation of the theory.
Roy Johnson's argument revolves around the proletarian novel in particular. The empirical evidence which he puts forward in support of the theory that such an art form cannot develop under capitalism is very patchy, to say the least. He criticises Love On The Dole on similar grounds to those I have outlined earlier, although he does not make any distinction between those who have got out or are about to get out and those who are still there and will remain there. He criticises Walter Brierley's Means Test Man and B.L. Coombe’s These Poor Hands as examples of a tendency of proletarian writing towards "a catalogue of trivial details, naturalistic descriptions, and an absence of experience which has been artistically synthesised. ...Naturally one sympathises with a class that has traditionally been excluded from literary life in either a productive capacity or as a subject of interest, and it is certainly true that most middle-class writers have excluded from their novels the subject which dominates much working-class fiction - work itself. But this does not mean that an account of workshop life or 'My Week Down The Pit’ is intrinsically interesting, just as the deprivations caused by working-class poverty do not instantly become art of a high order because they are spelt out in remorseless detail."
This sort of thing is, indeed, a common weakness in working-class prose writing, as many of the contributions sent in to Voices over the years have shown. But that is not to say that it is an inevitable and necessary weakness, as the short stories in Voices 15 & 16 clearly show. Writers’ workshops such as Scotland Road have clearly helped writers to overcome formal weaknesses such as this. Presumably a Trotskyist writers’ workshop, if it is not a contradiction in terms, would concentrate on teaching writers the reasons for their failure.
But the biggest empirical weakness of all in Roy Johnson's argument is that his only mention of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the passing assertion that the book, "for all its good intentions and historical importance, has tended to be aesthetically over-rated."
Its historical importance is obvious; it is the first working-class novel written by one of those who are still there, and will remain there; the story of a journey through hell, written by one of the damned. For the first time, work itself, as opposed to life in the slum, is the main theme. As Jack Mitchell has observed, "the novel is constructed like a cartwheel. At the hub are the scenes of the men at work. ... In this way we see how the way men produce determines the whole nature of their lives, how unfree labour is at the hub of all unfreedom. ... For the first time in the English novel man as producer is the main object of investigation."
But what of the claim that the book is "aesthetically over-rated”? Over-rated by whom and in relation to what? It is certainly not over-rated by our dominant literary tradition; how many young people ever get to hear of the book at school or in the English departments of the Universities? Perhaps it is over-rated by Marxists as a vehicle for socialist propaganda? But no, Jack Mitchell has already pointed to the book's political weaknesses - the fact that it presents an essentially static picture, a story of misery rather than militancy, a story of the failings of old men rather than the making of new men. Politically, it cannot claim to rank with Maxim Gorky's The Mother or Mikhail Sholokhov's Quiet Flows The Don as a work of socialist realism. But then we have already agreed that we do not wish to confuse culture and ideology, have we not? I assume that Roy Johnson is as anxious as I am to maintain this distinction. So does that mean that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is over-rated by the workers, those poor unfortunates who lack literary standards of comparison? Are we telling them, "Leavis died for your sins."?
I once spent a month reading James Joyce's Ulysses from cover to cover. It will take a lot to persuade me that this was time well spent. The book said nothing to me, other than the memorable phrase, "History is a nightmare that I am trying to awake from," But at the same time as reading this, I was also pursuing another reading assignment: Karl Marx's Capital. I was already awakening from the nightmare of History. Some time later, I was introduced to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by some of my fellow building workers. I was totally captivated by this beautiful, angry and very moving book, which I considered to be the finest thing I had ever read. Since then, I have read much more widely, but I have found nothing to change my opinion of the book.
I have lost track of the number of people I have lent the book to on building sites. When Mytons were building the Queen's Hotel in the centre of Manchester around 1972, this book was read by nearly half the men on the site. It was the first site in Manchester to be pulled out in the national strike and the last to go back; at least six men joined the Communist Party in the course of that job. It wasn't until the hotel was completed and ready for its high-class clientele that you would have found anyone in that building who thought that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was over-rated. (The credit for this Story must go to my friend Mick Jones who was site convenor. I was not on the job myself.)
Yesterday I was chatting to the Corporation painter who was working on a neighbouring flat; at the mention of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists he waxed enthusiastic: "That was a basic part of our apprenticeship that - for all of us!" The influence of this book on working-class writers has remained strong right up to the present day. It is an influence that is quite explicit in some pieces, such as Syd Jenkins’ Reading About Life, (Voices 16), and implicit in others, such as Bert Smith's The Nons (Voices 15).
Jack Mitchell has, in my opinion, hit the nail on the head in suggesting the reason for the popularity of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists amongst class-conscious workers:
"The militant working class accept Tressell's merciless criticism because it is true, because it was written by a man who was clearly one of themselves. By addressing a great novel to them, he implicitly accepts them as the people who will eventually change the state of affairs which he depicts."
I think Mitchell quite correctly contrasts Tressell's approach with that of Arnold Wesker, of whom he says :
"His belief in the people he castigates is, at best, only declared. Weaker has constantly failed to embody any real revolutionary vitality in his working people. Because of this we never come to believe that they can ever climb out of the situation that Wesker places them in. There is no perspective in his work."
The problem with Wesker is that he has, within his writing, always been speaking from the position of one of those who have got out, even when, as promoter of "Centre 42" for example, he was attempting to speak, outside his own writing, for those who are still there and will remain there.
The significant thing about Tressell is that he is clearly aware of this problem and he actually solves it within the novel itself. Both Owen and Barrington are tempted to give up the struggle and get out. Owen’s alternative is suicide, Barrington's is to return to his wealthy family - but in both cases this path is rejected. It is rejected not simply by some heavy-handed intervention on the author's part, but because it is incompatible with the way their existence has developed within the story. The author's position, within his writing, is clearly that of a man who is still there and who knows he will remain there.
The question that remains to be answered is why Tressell's achievement has not been repeated since. I would put this down to the particular period in which Tressell was writing.
As Jack Mitchell has pointed out, a novel is not just a peg to hang the writer's ideas on, it is the expression of a genuine curiosity about men and women. In the case of a working-class novel, the working class must first see itself as a valid subject for its own curiosity. Mitchell talks of a "spontaneous, positive aesthetic need - the need to express the life of the workers as, despite all alienation and misery, a positive, valid life, as the only social 'manifestation of man's essential human qualities', and from this point of view to depict the capitalist class as Anti-Humanity hindering the free development of this way of life whose potentials we already grasp in the concrete form of their beginnings in capitalist society." This need could scarcely have arisen much earlier (Tressell was writing in the first decade of this century). As Engels observed, "In European countries, it took the working class years and years before they fully realised the fact that they formed a distinct and, under the existing social conditions, a permanent class of modern society.”
Tressell is writing about a situation where class consciousness exists to varying degrees amongst a small minority of workers, such as Owen, who is secretary of his local trade union branch. But this cannot be interpreted (as some people have tried to do) as simply a picture of British society in microcosm. This was also the period which saw the dramatic rise in industrial unionism (as opposed to craft unionism), especially in the dockland areas, but also in other parts of the great industrial cities. Mugsborough is a relative backwater (Tressell lived in Hastings). In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists there is never any suggestion of rank-and-file activity, on-the-job organisation, shop stewards or strikes. And so it must have been in Hastings during that period. Tressell's class consciousness came from elsewhere - he moved to Hastings towards the end of his life, apparently because of ill health. The energies that might otherwise have been poured into the trade union movement, had there been an opportunity, instead found an outlet in the writing of his book.
Fifteen, twenty years later, not even Hastings could have remained aloof from the fierce trade union battles that were going on. Since then, there have undoubtedly been many men who thought like Tressell but who became trade union activists rather than working-class writers.For example, I had always known Bert Smith as a non-stop trade union activist until he turned poet and wrote The Nons - while in hospital recovering from a heart attack.
The trade unions are increasingly winning more leisure time for their members, mainly by fighting for a reduction in the working week, but also - on a slightly different level - by arranging day-release courses for shop stewards. This, along with the development of a shop stewards' movement in recent years, marks another advance in working-class culture. There is an ever-increasing awareness in the trade union movement that wage claims do not represent the most favourable ground for the working class - capitalism has inflation on its side here. And the struggle for an increasing quantity of leisure is surely bringing in its wake considerations of the quality of leisure. Record, the monthly journal of my union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, for example, has a regular monthly page for members' poems and short stories. Insofar as it based itself on such developments, "Centre 42" was not wrong, and Manchester Unity of Arts and VOICES have undoubtedly a role to play in continuing this work. And as far as the struggle for socialism is concerned, I see this not as a political option but as a political necessity.
What I am saying here then, is not just that there is an alternative to Roy Johnson's "wait-till-after-the-revolution" theory, but that this theory in fundamentally wrong. It is wrong because it is patently based on the tacit assumption that revolutionary change, irrespective of time and place, is going to take place according to the Russian model - first a violent insurrection which destroys the machinery of coercion, then a long struggle to dismantle and replace the machinery of consent.
This assumption in wrong for two reasons.
The first reason is that, as Gramsci pointed out many years ago, there are fundamental differences between "eastern" and "western" societies. In eastern societies such as pro-revolutionary Russia, the dominance of the ruling class is very weak in civil society (a notion which includes culture) and relies heavily on the coercive apparatus of the state, which becomes virtually the first and last line of defence for the ruling class. In western societies, however, where well-established constitutional democracy exists, the ruling class tends to rely on the coercive apparatus of the state only in the last analysis. This last line of defence is normally well protected by a series of outer defences, which comprise elements of civil society such as ideology, economic bargaining power, culture. All those outer defences will have to be breached before the ruling class is threatened.
The second reason is that revolutions by violent insurrection have been feasible only in the aftermath of war, generally speaking (Cuba being the odd man out here), and today war is unthinkable except in terms of possible nuclear disaster. Thus the battle for peace becomes a duty of anyone who claims to have any concern for the future of humanity. It is just not good enough for socialists to hold up their hands and say, "It’s not up to me to predict how the revolution will come about, history will decide." This is sheer irresponsibility.
Thus the struggle for peace, the battle for civil society become pre-requisites of the socialist revolution, not items to be shelved till afterwards. And the creation of a working-class culture is an integral part of this battle for civil society. It is one of many ways in which a class which capitalism has defined as passive will become active.
Jack Conroy writes:
This could serve equally as a manifesto for Voices and for the worker-writer movement that has sprung up in recent years, but a word of warning needs to be given. In the United States, the unemployment and hardship gave rise to an unparalleled wave of working-class and socialist creative writing, both in publications like The Anvil and New Masses, and in novels by Steinbeck, Dreiser, Dos Passos and Conroy himself. In Britain this period produced Love on the Dole and other such writings. But come the return of full employment, this wave subsided fairly quickly, and social mobility became the big thing. Many of the American writers who had become well-known found it convenient to moderate their views on society, interest in social issues was on the wane, and the flow of new worker-writers dried up. The "New Wave" of the 1950s in Britain was essentially the wave of those who had found they could get out, not of those who were still there.
The present period in Britain is not unlike the thirties, although the problems are less acute. Just as there was a "Federal Writers Project" in America in the 1930s, so British government "job creation" money has in some cases found its way into the worker-writer movement, along with monies from the Arts Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation. But what will happen with the return of the "affluent society? Will interest fall off on all sides, as people go back to believing they’ve never had it so good?
The return of full employment will undoubtedly see the trade union movement back on the offensive again. The survival of the worker-writer movement may well depend on the extent to which it can integrate itself with the labour movement and break its ties with the institutions of charity and unemployment.
From: Building culture from the bottom up: the educational origins of
the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers.
Members of the Communist Party were most likely to be among the politically
aligned activists involved in the Fed who believed passionately in the
creativity of the working class. Specifically, the Morning Star was the only
national newspaper to take the writing and publishing groups seriously, giving
generous double-page spreads for debate and reviews and many activists recalled
the significance of this recognition.53 So, whilst the Fed had roots
in the more recent counter-cultural left, it also came out of the 'traditional'
labour movement and fed on the energy of the activists it represented. In turn,
the Fed was to protest against the limitations and narrowness of left culture
and the frustrations of many socialists spilled over into cultural and
expressive areas of life.
Voices magazine was sponsored by a long list of left luminaries who were
thanked in the magazine and included educationist Brian Simon, playwright Arnold
Wesker, trade-unionist Jack Jones (T&GWU), folk-singer Ewan MacColl, poet Adrian
Mitchell and sociologist Peter Worsley. Ainley was part of the Unity of Arts
grouping that set itself up as a response to the TUC Resolution 42. This had
called for a recognition of 'the importance of the arts in the life of the
community and looked for greater participation by the trade union movement in
all cultural activities', a resolution that Wesker had originally convinced the
television and technicians union, the ACTT, to sponsor in 1962. However, Wesker
had rejected the idea that culture was class based or the idea of working-class
Ainley's ability as a teacher was more than matched by his extraordinary
campaigning capacity, which helped to develop both the readers and writers
necessary to success. Rick Gwilt, who was to become editor in 1977, recalled
that Ainley was a very pragmatic movement builder:
Gwilt himself would take Voices a step further by focusing more exclusively
upon working-class writing that experimented with personal experience,
contrasting with what he saw as the increasingly esoteric and intellectual work
appearing in Voices prior to his editorship.58
Voices was to become an important outlet for many nascent Fed groups whose
writers would have the chance to be published in a national magazine. From 1980
to 1984 when it was discontinued, Voices acted as the official magazine of the
Fed, which contributed to a sense of movement. It also stimulated London Voices,
a reading group for the magazine that later developed into a writing group.59
However, Voices lost its links with the labour movement partly by becoming so
tied into the Fed but also because, despite informal support from individuals,
such as Norman Willis who attended an AGM, the trade unions never formally
developed cultural work. The lack of trade union response was to be a continuing
source of frustration to those in the Fed who wanted closer connections with
From: 'Chuck out the teacher': radical pedagogy in the community
Groups had not always faced up to the fact of unequal distribution of
organizational skills among activists and staff, an issue that was intensified
by workers wanting to switch jobs regularly (O'Rourke 1983). The Popular Memory
Group (1982) also pointed to the reproduction of unequal relations within these
groups in a way that seemed to undermine the radical claims being made for them.
Others, more sympathetically, would later point to the continuing power of the
tutor in adult literacy groups (Moss 1995). Indeed, these tensions and
criticisms correspond to a general critique of radical pedagogy (Ellsworth 1989)
which argued that power relations were not fundamentally altered despite the
assertions by advocates of radical pedagogy.
These pressures were further illuminated by the position of paid staff. From
the inception of the Fed, paid workers had faced complex dilemmas given the
massive amount of potential work to be done with extremely limited resources. It
proved difficult to treat this sort of work as a job' in the face of the
expectation that workers were merely paid activists, an idea which also helped
to allay fears that paid workers would dominate. Moreover, writers without the
right skills and experiences found they had to learn fast when taking on varied
responsibilities. There was also a potential danger that employing people
without adequate support and training could confirm stereotypes about a lack of
ability, although this was rare. In fact, Roger Mills, a Fed worker, claimed his
job description included 'just about everything short of showering the nation
with Fed publications from a hand glider' (Mills 1985). The reality of one's
personal life could also be brought into conflict with the demands of employment
in such a group. Olive Rogers, another Fed worker, felt caught between two
worlds: the one world being that of a woman originally almost unschooled in
literature, coping with a demanding and tiring job, the other being a working
class woman with a husband and family still basically working within the
traditional circumstances. The two are not always compatible and I have great
moments of stress (Rogers 1983).
In other groups employing members threw up intractable problems. For
instance, Scotland Road Writers' Workshop was unable to contain internal
conflicts after it secured funding to employ staff. Although workers were
appointed from within the writing group, mistrust soon burgeoned into a
full-scale split with most of the writing group re-forming as Scottie Road '83.
Members had been unable to develop management and organizational structures
beyond the personal relationships from which the workshop had originally emerged
(based on Evans 2000; Barrett 2000; McGovern 2001; Blanche and Shane 2001). This
was one reason why groups started to look to the outside for staff rather than
From: 'More writing than welding': learning in worker writer groups
Within most workshops, a tension developed between new writers who needed encouragement, and more experienced writers who wanted to stretch themselves. Some were just starting out or had little desire to 'develop' or to communicate with a wider audience and were content to produce writing which satisfied themselves. Writing could be a form of leisure and enjoyment, rather than a struggle to represent difficult experiences or to become an accomplished writer. This aspect of Fed workshops could influence even the more experienced writers, such as Rebecca O'Rourke:
However, as writers improved and developed, the workshop could become
limiting. Alan Gilbey lost interest in writers' groups because he felt they 'blanded
out' into reading circles, with members afraid to make critical comment. For
this reason, new workshops were set up to enable writers to branch out. Gilbey
himself started Controlled Attack, a punk influenced theatre group which
performed to wider audiences, who provided more critical feedback.63
A play writing group was started at Liverpool University as a result of pressure
from the Scotland Road workshop.64 Others set up novel groups.
Rebecca O'Rourke and Roger Mills, along with Anne Cassidy, often read each
other's work in a more detailed and critical way than was possible in a workshop
setting. All three went on to publish commercial books.65
Some of those who were willing to struggle with writing would go on to reap
personal and social rewards. The TV playwright Jimmy McGovern was nurtured
through the Fed and its writing workshops, and his path to success reflects many
of the themes and processes outlined above. Before taking up writing seriously,
he was infused with a latent political anger that was unfocused but based upon a
general dissatisfaction with life and what it had to offer:
Again, word of mouth and chance played a role in introducing him to the workshop which supported him and published his writing:
Becoming a published writer gave a psychological boost and encouraged him to
go further in developing his writing. For this reason, many Fed writers have
often had their initial writing published as part of an on-going process, as
opposed to other writers whose published work may be more finished.68 Although
writers might later look back with horror at some of their early published
writing, the very fact of being published meant that they had progressed.69
Beyond the workshop itself, McGovern was impressed by Voices magazine and
Rick Gwilt, who 'imposed a bit of quality control. It was always a boost to get
a story in there'. Indeed, McGovern came to believe in the importance of judging
and valuing writing, with the aim of producing good writing - with no special
cases for working-class writing.70
He went on to write for Channel 4's Brookside, which served as a second
apprenticeship before he launched a successful career in TV drama with Cracker
and The Lakes, in addition to film writing such as Priest and Liam.
As these changes took place, new relationships were built. Marriages, partnerships and friendships all gestated in the Fed, as did break ups and divorces. Some long-term relationships became both political and personal alliances, which enabled people to commit more time and energy to the Fed than might have otherwise been possible. One popular story that many different people have told me is how two unlikely people got together at an AGM in the mid-1980s. The event coincided with a local magistrates' and chief constables' conference:
59 M. Casey, 'A working woman reads history', in In a Few
Words (Liverpool: Second Chance to Learn Writers Workshop, Liverpool University,
From: Muddying the
Waters: Changes in Class and Identity in a Working Class Cultural
Working Class and Proud
One section of the Fed responded by entrenching a more limited definition of the working class and remained unsympathetic to the notion of autonomy which was rarely distinguished from separatism. Some invoked integration against assertions of an autonomous identity (FWWCP, 1987), although there seems to have been considerable confusion. A few were even unwilling to countenance the possible existence of working-class homosexuality (Worpole, 1996: 4). At one point almost a third of the membership voted against a women-only writing day (Hickey, 1986). Scotland Road 83, a working-class writing group which developed out of the Scotland Road Writing Group, warned of 'the temptation to dilute and spread, thus giving the impression of growth while in reality thinning and weakening' leading to 'a lack of direction, to a loss of common purpose' (Scotland Road 83, 1983). Contrary to the assumptions of many they argued that the Fed should focus exclusively on class:
Similarly, Rick Gwilt, while sympathetic to the new identity groups, feared they would act as a funnel for middle-class members (Gwilt, 2000). He and others wanted to develop a shared literature based on specific working-class experience and give working-class writers the freedom to express themselves around other like-minded people. This was a difficult argument to make given that the working class could easily be associated with racism, sexism or homophobia. However, some of these defenders felt 'intimidated to open their mouths in case of saying something that was racist, sexist ...' (FWWCP, 1986). They were upset by the 'culture clash' (Barrett, 2000) with feminists:
Paradoxically a black writer, 'Floyd' (1989), would respond by arguing that workshops should be open to all, warning against the dangers of a 'self-inhibiting' consensus: 'If we continually bit our tongues for fear of offending each other we'd only make ourselves voiceless'. The editors of the Fed News also challenged this position arguing that there was a balance to be struck in developing characters in writing:
However, these debates were not simply impersonal discussions about writing. Rather they fused very personal and very public issues. Given that writers were using their own experience as a basis for both personal and social liberation, debates tended to be intensely visceral. Deep feelings of ownership and anger against those who seemed to be subverting this were expressed. One group even broke up among violence and prison sentences as personal identities and rivalries spilled over into extreme destructiveness. The writer, Jimmy McGovern, also represented these acrimonious confrontations in quite personal ways; he recalled his friend Brian:
The body and voice is here invoked as a marker of class in opposition to what was perceived as the growing liberalism and political correctness of middle-class paid workers. As these arguments developed, one tendency articulated class in terms similar to those of their opponents, viewing it as a specific identity rather than as a collective social force or general category. Moreover, wider societal developments and the onslaught of Thatcherism nourished this emerging consciousness. It felt to some as if both the left and the right were united in undermining class. Again, McGovern expresses this tendency most clearly and himself sharpened his identity as a white working-class male; he charted this historical development:
BREAKING COVER – In Other Words: The alternative press reviewed by Crispin Aubrey and Charles Landry
THIS MONTH, a temporary truce could be declared in a three-year battle between the federation of worker writers and the art funding establishment. The Arts Council has finally agreed to make a grant of £5,500 towards the employment of a literature development officer by the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers — they asked for £20,000. The grant is given on condition that the council sits on the panel that, selects the candidate. Nevertheless to the Federation, it is important recognition for a body of writing which the Arts Council once described as being " of little, if any, solid literary merit."
Literature or not, the worker writers movement has been one of the most dramatic growth points in radical publishing. More than 20 groups now exist in Britain with the aim of providing an opportunity for working men and women to discuss and publish their writing. Sales of books and pamphlets, usually in print runs of just a few thousand, are estimated to have reached half a million.
The origins of this boom go back to the early 1970s when Chris Searle, a teacher in the East End of London, published Stepney Words — a collection of poems written by pupils at his school. Their forthright descriptions of the children's often pessimistic view of life lost Searle his job, although a campaign soon developed to get it back for him. But the controversy also encouraged others to think about the type of books available for someone learning. Shouldn't they have access to books on subjects with which they are familiar? Why shouldn't people learn from experiences which affect them, whether kids playing truant or the tedium of the production line, and write it themselves ? Literacy schemes, especially for adults, continue to be closely linked with the movement.
Many of the books produced have been a mixture of autobiography and local history viewed from the bottom rather than the top-Instead of politicians and royalty, their pages are peopled with street traders, neighbours on the scrounge for a cup of sugar, the doctor who never came unless you paid him, a young girl nervously going "into service" at the age of 14 for half a crown a month. " The dole was as common as colour telly is now," one writer noted. This has provided an opportunity for older people especially to record their memories of places which are fast being annihilated by the bulldozer. Stories long forgotten have been unearthed by dictation to a modern-day scribe, or by tape recording, particularly where the speaker lacks the confidence or ability to write it down himself.
More recently, there's been, an increasing shift towards short stories and poetry. A road sweeper writes comically about the day he had to collect a dead dog and push it, in his cart, [John Small - A Dead Dog Story - Voices 20] all the way to the council depot. A factory worker describes the traumatic moment when she lost her old assembly line machine for a new push-button monstrosity [Vivien Leslie Bronchitis Mk II - Voices 20]. A group of women living on the same council estate meet weekly in an old Nissen hut to write poems about their dreams, their fears, the pressures of their everyday lives. Commonword, a writing group in Manchester, is about to publish its first novel: a story of life in an approved school recorded in the author's own idiosyncratic language.
Much of the writing has an immediacy, humour and directness of style which would be hard to parallel among middle class descriptions of working class life.
Dave Barnes, a lorry driver until he moved to night security work for the London Borough of Camden, had made one unsuccessful attempt to get a novel published. Then he read an article about the local writers' workshop in the Hackney Gazette.
He now goes regularly to fortnightly meetings where at small group, including school" students, a cab driver and pensioners, read, discuss and criticise each others' work. He has also lowered his sights to a series of powerful stories based on his working life.
Barnes’ writing Is published by the Centerprise bookshop and community centre in Hackney, whose output has been the most prolific of the local publishers. In the last eight years more than 150,000 copies of its books have been printed, ranging from poems by a black teenager to a series of working lives spanning the past 60 years to an amusing account of a comprehensive school education. Ironically, its biggest orders have been from the Swedish Workers Educational Association, where state support is considerably more generous.
The various projects around the country have had different starting points. One of the first was developed from a tenants' rent strike in the Scotland Road area of Liverpool. "We were looking for some form of educational activity, but not the formal type, so we started a writing group," says Barbara Shane, who worked in factories until she was 40 and has since gone to university. At one time all its members were out of work.
In Bristol, a boat trip down a canal was used to prompt tape recorded memories from those who'd once seen it busy with cotton factories and iron works. Twenty people came along and eventually contributed to Bristol Broadsides' first publication, Bristol As We Remember It. This has been followed by, among others, the autobiography of a tramp who lived for 20 years in a tout on the edge of the city. In Brighton, Queenspark Books grew out of a community newspaper, itself the result of a battle to stop a historic building being turned into a casino. All its books — strong descriptions of being poor and struggling to survive — are sold door-to-door in the immediate neighbourhood and kept deliberately cheap.
Four years ago, the Federation of Worker Writers was formed to bring these disparate strands together. It promotes their books, helps with distribution ; and organises public readings where writers from different towns can share their experiences. It also publishes the quarterly magazine Voices, the simplest 'way to see the range of writing being produced.
The growing involvement of women in writing groups is shown by the fact that they now represent a majority on the federation executive.