Getting Their Own Back
Poor and working peoples have always found ways to get the best of
those who have power over them-to win back a momentary sense of
autonomy and self-respect. I have suggested that between the turn
of the century and World War II, writers who emerged from vari-
ous working-class communities throughout the United Kingdom-
from London's East End to the Derbyshire coal fields, from the
Welsh mining villages to Lancashire's textile towns-contributed to
a broad developing structure of feeling about the meaning of both
working-class identity and working-class resistance. In their narra-
tives, Spindleton's weavers, Mugsborough's hands, Manchester's shop
girls, and Cwmardy's miners share a sensibility (if not a slogan) that
encompasses rage, shame, and desire. Accentuating defiance, they
still cannot conceal the profound distress that surrounds their abject
position in dominant culture.
A suspect motto in
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,
your own back" actually reveals the aim-and final achievement-
of these texts all too clearly: its very phrasing registers the urge not
simply to act, to claim agency, but to acquire a self of one's "own"
that conflates individualist and collective consciousnesses. In their
bid for privacy, pleasure, and inclusion, which both competes with
and complements their mission of class solidarity, they create a model
of subjectivity that ultimately falls into neither bourgeois nor Marxist
categories. Helen Lynd's study of late nineteenth-century England
looked forward to the future development of such subjectivity, call-
ing it "positive freedom." As noted earlier, she distrusted the rigidity
of turn-of-the-century Labourism, since in her estimation its collec-
Previous Page Next Page