Proletarian Philosophy:
A Version of Pastoral?

Jonathan Rée

But there is a distinction, as has already been noted, between the relatively docile pastoral figure of "the philosopher of the people", and the vindictive and militant "proletarian philosophers" such as Fourier, Dietzgen, or Earnest Everhard. The embarrassment is that this distinction between proletarian and pastoral may not go very deep. If the proletarian philosopher refuses to play the part of sweet simplicity in the philosopher's pastoral romance, he will be consigned to a mock-heroic subplot, like the tinker in Plato who gives himself airs and hopes to marry his master's daughter. The basic lesson was pointed out half a century ago by William Empson, when he examined the idea that "proletarian" literature differed from pastoral in that it was not only "about" the people, but "by" and "for" them too. The difficulty with "proletarian literature," he confessed, was that "when it comes off I find I am taking it as pastoral literature" [28]. The proletarian philosopher, I think, is always in danger of reverting to pastoral type. What begins as a subversion of pastoral, ends as another version of it.

Of course no philosophers — whether popular or proletarian or professional — are entirely confined by the plots I have described. Certainly Jock Shanley isn't. I am sure he will rebuke me for the ideas I have tried to set out here, as he has rebuked me in the past, for what he sees as my typically academic evasions, all part of the "worldwide search for a Marx without dialectics and even a doubtful materialist". "What an excellent self-portrait you have written," he told me; "you have studied everything and understood nothing." But fortunately, he went on, the world is still being transformed — "in a real, as distinct from a philosophic, sense ... [by] practical men who believe that the "positive outcome of philosophy" is science, though they have never heard of Dietzgen — or for that matter Marx."

I respectfully challenge you — write a positive explanation of your own philosophy and see where you get to. At least we Proletarian philosophers failed while trying.... You may feel I am rude. Well, I come from a robust school. The University (Aberdeen) I failed to enter had a motto: "They say, what say they, let them say." That is my reply to my critics.

A few weeks later, Shanley wrote again:

As I write, I give my attention partially to a T.V. programme. Some people are tidying up Highgate Cemetery, cutting down the undergrowth, exposing the tombs of the Victorians, and making the cemetery a pleasant place for the intelligentsia of Hampstead and Highgate to take a stroll. I think you do just that, in philosophy, with your account of "Proletarian Philosophers," but, alas, you only dig amongst our dead bones — our tombs — and miss the spirit in which we lived. Sad!

But life goes on: the crisis Marx foretold, in Chapter 32 of Capital, is upon us. Except that the working class has not yet found the unity he saw as necessary. It will be built, I expect by proletarian philosophers of whom we know nothing at present. do not expect the philosophy, or the practice, will mature in our Academic Institutions — if British Capitalism lets them exist that long....

Only ten years ago I would be trying to break into your philosophy class to challenge them to state what philosophy they have found to challenge the dead — as I am politically — the "Proletarian Philosophers" [29].

I really do not know how to respond to that challenge. Every time I read it, it reduces me to silence.


[1] Jock Shanley, interviewed, 23 April 1986; letter to the author, 19 June 1986.

[2] "Die wuste Vorstellung des volkes", Philosophy of Right, Para. 279.

[3] Republic, VI, 495 d - e (Jowett translation).

[4] Luke, II, 46-7.

[5] See Baillet, Vie de M. Descartes II, 553; Cited in Descartes, Oeuvres, Eds. Adam and Tannery, V, 265-7; XII, 470, 480-I.

[6] See Paulin Hountondji, African Philosophy, London, Hutchinson, 1983, 111-130.

[7] William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral. London, Chatto andWindus, 1935, 6.

[8] Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon. From Magic to Science, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968, 52.

[9] Bernard Palissy, Discours Admirables (1580), cited in Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon, 8.

[10]Charles Fourier, "Theorie des Quatre Mouvements", in Oeuvres Completes, Third Edition, Paris, 1846, I, 102, xxxv, 191, 15, 14.

[11] See Jonathan Ree, Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain, 1900-1940 Oxford University Press, 1984.

[12] So Marcuse went wrong when he suggested that "academic sadomasochism, self-humiliation and self-denunciation" were introduced into philosophy by Wittgenstein and Austin; they are, rather, a consequence of the structural constraints on the philosophy-class. (See Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, l964, 179).

[13] Nicolas Malebranche, De la Recherche de la Verite (1675-61, ed. Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, Paris, Vrin, 1946, III v.

[14] George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, Introduction, I.

[15] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), ed. P. H. Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1978, 222-24.

[16] In 1833, Victor Cousin claimed that "there can be hardly any college (college royal) in France which does not teach Reid and Stewart". See Nicholas Phillipson, "The Pursuit of Virtue in Scottish University Education: Dugald Stewart and Scottish Moral Philosophy in the Enlightenment", in Nicholas Phillipson, ed., Universities, Society and the Future, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1983, 82-101, 84.

[17] Critique of Pure Reason, A viii; B xxxiii.

[18] Cited in Andre Canivez, Jules Lagneau, Professeur de Philosophie, Strasbourg, 1963, 257.

[19] See Jacques Ranciere, La Nuit des Proletaires. Paris, Fayard, 1981; introduction translated as "Proletarian Nights", Radical Philosophy 31, Summer 1982, 10-13; and Le philosophe et ses pauvres, Paris, Fayard, 1983.

[20] See Jonathan Ree, "Philosophy as an Academic Discipline: the changing place of philosophy in an Arts Education", Studies in Higher Education, III, 1978, 5-23.

[21] Mind I, 1876, I; XVI, 1891, 557-60.

[22] R. H. Nettleship, Thomas Hill Green, A Memoir. Oxford, 1906, 97.

[23] Paul Levy, Moore: G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (1979), Oxford University Press, 1981, 59, 82, 108.

[24] Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf, London, Hogarth, 1972, II, 215.

[25] Paul Levy, Moore, 10.

[26] Leonard Woolf, An Autobiography (1960-69), Oxford University Press, 1980, I, 40, 87, 93; II, 405.

[27] Paul Levy, Moore, 51.

[28] William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, 6, 21.

[29] Jock Shanley, letters to the author, February and April 1984.

Back to Part One

SOURCE: Rée, Jonathan. "Proletarian Philosophy: A Version of Pastoral?," Radical Philosophy, no. 44, Autumn 1986, pp. 3-7.

This article now appears by special permission of Jonathan Rée. Please contact him for permission for any further re-publication.

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