On the Jackson Trail

by Peter Osborne

Jonathan Rée, Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain, 1900-1940, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. 176 pp.

If the fundamental experience of twentieth-century European philosophy has been that of continuing self-reflection upon its own status and identity, a persistent and profound identity-crisis in the face of the growing specialisation and "scientization" of knowledge, there is perhaps nowhere that this crisis has been more acutely felt, yet at the same time compulsively denied, than within orthodox Marxism. From Plekhanov to Althusser, the indisputable superiority of Marxism in the realm of philosophy as at once a completion and an overcoming of the classical tradition has been continually trumpeted; yet, equally consistently, the substance of the claim has failed to be either satisfactorily explicated or redeemed. Indeed, it remains unclear what might count as an adequate theoretical validation of such a claim. The problem, moreover, is more than a merely academic one. For what rests upon it is not just the possibility of an adequate account of the relationship of Marxism to the philosophical tradition, but its relationship to bourgeois culture in general, and consequently, both its general-theoretical and its historical status. Classically, philosophy has been the point at which the various strands of a culture have been systematically related to one another, and reflected upon in their interconnection. The identity-crisis of bourgeois philosophy reflects, in this respect, a general crisis of bourgeois culture. But what of the possibilities of a socialist culture? How are we to understand them? And in what relation do they stand to the dilemmas of the idea of Marxist philosophy?

Proletarian Philosophers addresses this complex set of issues from an historical rather than a strictly theoretical standpoint, in the form of a history of the place of philosophy in socialist culture in Britain in the early years of the century. For, it is suggested, none of the positions adopted in the more narrowly theoretical debate about the character and status of Marxist philosophy can be appraised "apart from the ambivalences about education and culture in the midst of which they have been adopted." The book is thus "simultaneously a history of education, a history of philosophy, and a history of politics." It is from the interweaving of these three themes that much of the book's fascination, as well as some of its unresolved tensions, derive.

The central issue of socialist cultural politics during the period in question was the organisation of independent educational institutions for the working class. And it is around the development of such initiatives, from the foundation of the University Extension Movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century to the demise of the National Council of Labour Colleges in the early 1930s, that the book is chronologically structured; focusing in particular on the effects of developments within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The importation of dialectical materialism into British Communism from Russia, and its influence within the party, the scientific community, and upon the philosophical establishment, respectively, are discussed in successive chapters. Throughout, a brief history of the institution in question is combined with a commentary on its predominant ideological formation and social composition: from the objective idealist state philosophy of the T.H. Green-inspired and predominantly petty-bourgeois Extension Movement, through the defiant proletarian Dietzgenism of the Labour Colleges, to the pseudo-rigorous universalism of the Marxism-Leninism of the CPGB official educational programme.

Alongside, or rather within and beneath, this institutional narrative, however, runs another: that of the fate of the aspirations of working class autodidacts to the "cultural treasure-house" of philosophy: a kind of Bildungsroman of the proletarian philosopher. For, Ree argues, it was primarily in the form of "a special longing for philosophical edication" that the cultural aspirations of late nineteenth and early twentieth century autodidacts were shaped; aspirations that were closely connected to the idea of socialism. The autodidacts' "athletic enthusiasm for self-improvement through intellectual exercise," it is argued, "provided them with a model of social progress.... Surely, this individual betterment could be repeated on a social scale, and then the divisions between classes, nations, or groups would be accorded their true (that is to say, their vanishingly small) significance." The hero of this narrative is Tommy Jackson, son of an East End compositor, apprentice printer, bibliophile, wayward radical (foundation member of the CPGB), and one time Labour College organiser for the North East: "a militant proletarian educator of unequalled philosophical culture" and author of the baroque Dialectics: The Logic of Marxism and its Critics -- An Essay in Exploration (1936), the "robust and substantial content" of which Ree contrasts with the confused evasions of the proponents of the "official" dialectical materialism.

Jackson's presence haunts Proletarian Philosophers with the melancholy of a great opportunity irretrievably lost. His ideas and personality structure the presentation of debates in which he played no direct role. And his


philosophical work is used as a benchmark against which to judge the inverse deficiencies of academic philosophy and the "official" dialectical materialism, respectively: social irrelevance and lack of conceptual rigour. He is very much the conscience of the book. The debates about philosophy in the Plebs League are marked by the absence of his "informed, humorous, humble and exciting style". While the contrast between the narrowness of Workers Weekly and the cultural range and inventiveness of its predecessor The Communist (for which Jackson wrote extensively) parallels that between Jackson's "traditional English radical prose style" and the "tabloid philosophy" of the "new turn" dialectical materialists.

It is in large part the energy imparted to the book by the portrayal of Jackson that gives it the essayistic character that makes it such a pleasure to read. But what of the "annihilated" aspirations of the proletarian philosophers of whom Jackson is so memorable a representative, to "seek opportunities to think connectedly" about their lives; the autodidacts for whom "politics became part of world history, and world history a chapter of cosmology"? What, in other words, is the moral (if there is one) of this tale? It is in turning to this question that certain tensions and difficulties within Proletarian Philosophers begin to emerge. At the same time, however, it is in the manifestation of these tensions and difficulties, in my view, that the theoretical value of the book lies.

Ree presents the defeat of the hopes of the proletarian philosophers as the effect of a dual movement: the toppling of philosophy from its position as "the sovereign discipline of University culture", and the development of a controversy about the status and value of philosophy within the communist movement that was so politically overdetermined by the relationship of the CPGB to the Russian party that genuine theoretical debate was stifled from the outset and cut off from its roots in the educational politics of the Labour Colleges. Within its own terms, this is a convincing picture. But these are rather narrow terms, historically, within which to confine the more general question of the role of philosophy within a socialist educational politics.

The problem is that within the book these two questions (the fate of the aspirations of working class autodidacts, and philosophy's possible contribution to a socialist education) become identified. The result is a tendency towards a false absolutisation of a particular historical defeat, that closes, instead of opening up, the general issues that it raises. The problem here is perhaps best expressed in terms of Nietzsche's three varieties of historical writing: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. For there is a strong sense in which the theoretical tensions within Proletarian Philosophers are the result of its adoption of a particular aesthetic form; or rather, of its compounding of three distinct styles -- part classical realist narrative, part academic monograph, part essay -- that may be associated with these three kinds of history.

For Nietzsche, monumental history reconstructs the past in the service of the present as an example of the possibilities of human achievement, It is essentially inspiratory, and as such of necessity lives by false analogy. Antiquarian history, on the other hand, adopts an essentially "reverent" attitude towards the past with respect to its survival within the present. It celebrates the identity-constitutive role of the historical continuity of cultural artefacts and traditions. Its problem is that "it only understands how to preserve life, not to create it; and thus always undervalues the present growth, having, unlike monumental history, no certain instinct for it". Critical history distances us from the past by passing judgement upon it. It is essentially destructive. The problem with it is that since "it is difficult to find a limit to the denial of the past ... we stop too often at knowing the good without doing it because we also know the better but cannot do it".

Proletarian Philosophers shifts uneasily between these three modes. More specifically, it seems to move through them: from the monumental to the antiquarian to the critical. Although stylistically, the compounding of forms is obviously more complex. The effect of this movement is the production of a kind of critically sell-conscious romanticism, a Benjaminesque "hope that is given only to those without hope", in which the distinct practical functions of the different kinds of historical writing tend to cancel one another out, rather than to complement each other. In this respect, the book displays a curious combination of commitment and theoretical agnosticism in its treatment of the question of the role of philosophy in a socialist culture. Such a combination, however, is double-edged since its very ambivalence points beyond itself to the necessity for a more integrated treatment of the issue; while at the same time highlighting the ever-present danger of a precipitate resolution of theoretical issues that are actually dependent upon practical developments for their resolution. Such developments, though, are obviously themselves dependent upon the current state of theoretical work.

From this standpoint, Ree's agnosticism begins to look more problematic. For there is an unreconciled tension in the book between two quite different attitudes to philosophy that, for practical purposes, require some sort of mediation. On the one hand, there is the critical viewpoint from which the "undisciplined pulpitry" of the proletarian philosophers is ultimately to be judged as harshly as Stalin's "feeble pages" on dialectical materialism. On the other, there is the point of view from which it is not the specific content of the work, but the opportunity for its production, that is the main thing: "the cultivation of unconfined and unrelenting reflection". It is the passing of this opportunity as in some way irrevocably lost that is mourned by Ree. But firstly, is the value of such opportunities really so independent of the content of the ideas produced And secondly, why need the creation of such opportunities be tied to the archaic individualism of autodidacticism in the way in which it is within Ree's lament? After all, was it not the precise


virtue of Stalin's "feeble pages", despite the relative inadequacies of both their theoretical content and the educational practices within which they circulated, that they provided a framework for thousands of militants "to think connectedly about what they were exhausting themselves for, so as to be fortified against violence, neglect, or scorn"? With regard to these issues, Jackson's central position within Proletarian Philosophers is such as to conceal the character of the problems at stake by the projection of an ideal but unrepeatable resolution to them: the false closure of a classical realist narrative? But how "representative" a figure is Jackson? And how useful is it to view the problem of the role of philosophy in a socialist culture through the prism of his life? It is the great value of Proletarian Philosophers that it raises these questions in a form by which it is impossible not to be engaged.


SOURCE: Osborne, Peter. "On the Jackson Trail" [Review of Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain, 1900-1940 by Jonathan Rée], Radical Philosophy, no. 44, Autumn 1986, pp. 30-32.

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