Islam and the making of the West

During Europe’s Dark Ages, the Arab world kept the candle of civilisation burning.

The history of Christian Europe and the Arab world since the birth of Islam in the 7th century has consisted of wars, conquest and alliances. There has also been a great deal of trade between the two, and, most striking of all, mutually enriching cultural and scientific exchange. Indeed, Europe’s emergence from the Middle Ages was in no small measure spurred on by the intellectual and scientific breakthroughs of the Arab world, particularly in the 9th and 10th centuries.

However, as historian Peter Frankopan notes in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2019), the importance of the Arab world to the West has largely been forgotten. ‘In part’, he writes, ‘this is because of what has been called “orientalism” – the strident and overwhelmingly negative view of the East as undeveloped and inferior to the West, and therefore unworthy of serious study’.

The birth of Islam
‘One hundred years after the death of Muhammad, his followers were masters of an empire greater than that of Rome at its zenith, an empire extending from the Bay of Biscay to the Indus and the confines of China and from the Aral Sea to the lower cataracts of the Nile.’ Thus Philip K Hitti, world-renowned Lebanese historian, opens his 1943 book, The Arabs: A Short History.

Muhammad, born into an Arab tribe in approximately 570 AD, is believed to have been a merchant in Mecca, Western Arabia. He was already in his forties when he began to receive a series of divine revelations from the angel Jibrīl – or Gabriel. These revelations were later written down to form the Koran.

Islam is the third and most recent of the three main monotheistic religions, and according to many historians, including Hitti, it is ‘closely allied to’ and an ‘offshoot of’ Judaism and Christianity. The messages conveyed to Muhammad ‘parallel’ the ‘message of the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament’, Hitti writes: ‘God is one. He is all-powerful. He is the creator of the universe.’ The religion of the Koran was closer to the Judaism of the Old Testament than to the Christianity of the New Testament. But as Hitti writes, ‘it has such close affinity with both… that in its early stages it must have appeared more like a heretic Christian sect than a distinct religion’.

After the revelations from Gabriel, Muhammad became a prophet and sought followers among the people in Mecca. But the elites were ‘enraged by [his] criticism of traditional polytheistic practices and beliefs’, Frankopan claims, and ‘they laughed him to scorn’, according to Hitti.

In 622 AD Muhammad left Mecca for Medina. Whether he was driven out of Mecca or chose to leave of his own accord is unclear. However, he was welcomed in Medina as an important statesman – a lawgiver and judge and commander of the army. A religious community of his followers, the Ummah, or congregation of Allah, grew rapidly, not only in Medina but throughout Arabia.

‘Thus by one stroke the most vital bond of Arab relationship, that of tribal kinship, was replaced by a new bond, that of faith’, Hitti writes. By the time of Muhammad’s death, former warring polytheistic Arab tribes recognised ‘a single authority… based on religious revelation’, writes British historian Chris Wickham in his 2010 book The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. Frankopan also emphasises Muhammad’s active role in ‘fus[ing] the many tribes of southern Arabia into a single bloc’.

This shift in loyalties was key to the ensuing rapid geographical expansion and the Arabs’ military and political conquests. The Arab tribes had previously survived by raiding neighbouring tribes. Now they were forbidden from raiding fellow followers of Muhammad. So they looked further afield. The objective of these raids beyond the deserts of Arabia was to acquire booty rather than gain a permanent territorial foothold somewhere else. As Frankopan writes: ‘Willing to sanction material gain in return for loyalty and obedience, Muhammad declared that goods seized from non-believers were to be kept by the faithful. This closely aligned economic and religious interests.’

So it was that the Arabs moved from opportunistic raids to military and political conquests. ‘In 15 years, the whole of the Sassanian [neo-Persian] empire and half the [Byzantine] empire had been conquered by the Arabs. Only Alexander [the Great], and the Mongols, have ever matched them for speed of conquest’, Wickham writes.

As Frankopan points out, ‘the Muslim conquests completed Europe’s shunt into the shadows that had begun with the invasions of the Goths, Huns and others two centuries earlier. What remained of the Roman Empire – now little more than Constantinople and its hinterland – shrivelled and teetered on the brink of complete collapse.’ At the time in Europe, trade had become primarily local, living standards and literacy rates had plummeted, populations had declined and cities had almost disappeared. Wickham describes this period in Europe as one of ‘radical material simplification’.

‘The contrast with the Muslim world could not have been sharper’, Frankopan writes, adding: ‘The Islamic conquests created a new world order, an economic giant, bolstered by self-confidence, broad mindedness and a passionate zeal for progress. Immensely wealthy… it was a place where order prevailed, where merchants could become rich, where intellectuals were respected and where disparate views could be discussed and debated.’

The Islamic Golden Age
In his 2012 lecture, The Splendour of the Abbasid Period, historian Paul Freedman describes Islam as one of the key heirs of the Roman Empire. Unlike the Germanic tribes of Europe, which sacked the western Roman empire, the Arabs kept most of the Roman – and indeed Persian – administrative structures intact. Indeed, the conquerors saw in the Roman and Persian empires wonderful civilisations to be preserved – ‘a garden protected by our spears’, as one Arab conqueror put it. But the conquerors did not want just to protect these civilisations — they also wanted to cultivate and develop them.

The early conquerors were not particularly interested in converting the conquered to Islam. Their strong Arab patriotism meant that they tended to see Arabs alone as worthy of their new religion. But there were also practical reasons for tolerating Christians and Jews and allowing them to worship freely.

As Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis explains in The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982): ‘Islam came into a predominantly Christian world, and for a long time the Muslims were a minority in the countries they ruled. Some measure of tolerance for the religions of the subject majority was therefore an administrative and economic necessity, and most Muslim rulers wisely recognised this fact.’

However, even under the early caliphate, Christians and Jews were forced to pay special taxes. ‘They were not supposed to wear certain colours; they could not marry Muslim women; their evidence was not accepted against that of Muslims in the law courts; their houses or places of worship should not be ostentatious; [and] they were excluded from positions of power’, writes Albert Hourani in A History of the Arab Peoples (1991).

Tolerance often gave way to intolerance, too. ‘Although there were periods of acceptance of other faiths, there were also phases of persecution and brutal proselytisation’, writes Frankopan. ‘While the first hundred years after Muḥammad’s death saw limited efforts to convert local populations, soon more concerted attempts were made to encourage those living under Muslim overlordship to embrace Islam’, he continues. In the 8th century, less than 10 per cent of the population of what are now Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Spain was Muslim. By the end of the 10th century, however, a large part of the population had converted to Islam.

The Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties
Since 661 AD the caliphate had been run by the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads, and the capital had been moved out of the Arabian desert to Damascus. However, in 750 AD the Abbasids drove the Umayyads from power. Afterwards, they invited the Umayyads to attend a supposed banquet of reconciliation, where they brutally slaughtered every one of them. However one member of the Umayyad family, Abd Al-Rahman, had the foresight to say he was busy. He fled to Spain where he succeeded in getting himself proclaimed ruler, or emir, and became the first Islamic ruler to defy the Abbasid caliphate. The new Umayyad dynasty proceeded to rule Spain for almost three centuries, with its capital in Cordoba, which, by the 10th century, was deemed one of the most splendid and cultivated cities in the world.

Under the Abbasid Caliphate – which survived until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century – the orientation was mainly eastwards. The capital was moved from Damascus to a newly constructed city in the desert, Baghdad – which was later sacked, burnt and destroyed by the Mongols, in 1258. The rapid expansion westwards under the Umayyads came to a halt under the Abbasids.

The move eastwards, however, led to the flourishing of poetry, architecture, philosophy, science, mathematics, astronomy and more. Because Baghdad, the capital, was situated on the crossroads of the East and West, it brought the realms of India, Persia and the Mediterranean together. By the 9th century Baghdad had become the largest, wealthiest and most civilised city in the world.

Learning flourished, too. The caliphate funded the translation of Greek and Persian scientific, philosophical and medical texts into Arabic. In 830 AD a centre of learning, the House of Wisdom (Bayt al hikma), was established in Baghdad, where texts were stored and original research was conducted.

The Abbasids were inspired by Persian literature, poetry and astronomy, and by Greco-Roman medicine, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. The Arabs adopted a numerical system from India – which has proven far superior to the Roman numerical system. Indeed, Arabic numerals ‘provided the basis for leaps and bounds in algebra, applied mathematics, trigonometry and astronomy’, writes Frankopan.
Ibn Sīnā, latinised as Avicenna, was one of the most famous Muslim philosophers and physicians of this Islamic Golden Age. His impact on Medieval Europe’s medical schools was immense and his philosophy was incorporated into European scholastic thought.

‘Just as the Abbasid caliphate brought the lands of the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea into a single trading area, so too the Greek, Iranian and Indian traditions were brought together, and it has been said that for the first time in history, science became international on a large scale’, Hourani writes. And ‘all this took place while Europe was almost totally ignorant of Greek thought and science’, Hitti adds.

Hitti is largely correct about Europe’s backwardness in comparison to the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. However, his dismissal of ‘Charlemagne and his lords’ as merely ‘dabbling in the art of writing their names’ is unfair. After all,it was under Charlemagne, crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, that the Carolingian Renaissance began in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The Carolingian Renaissance introduced a system of Latin spelling and a more legible form of handwriting, with capital and lower-case letters – which is the form we use today.

The Arab impact on Christian theology and the European Renaissance
The Arab contribution to European thought did not merely involve preserving Greco-Roman texts. Muslims made many breakthroughs, too. By the 12th century ‘the scientific and intellectual achievements of the Muslim world were being actively sought out and devoured by scholars in the west, such as Adelard of Bath’, Frankopan writes, adding: ‘It was Adelard who scoured the libraries of Antioch and Damascus and brought back copies of algorithmic tables that formed the foundation for the study of mathematics in the Christian world.’

The Italian Renaissance architect, Brunelleschi – most famous for designing and building the magnificent dome of Florence cathedral in the early 15th century – is also known for having introduced linear perspective, or the creation of an illusion of depth on a flat surface. For this, he relied on the mathematics of the 10th-century Arab scientist, mathematician and astronomer, Ibn al-Haytham, latinised as Alhazan. Alhazan also wrote a groundbreaking thesis about how vision and the brain are linked and is often known as ‘the father of modern optics’.

The 14th-century Andalusian Arab, Ibn Khaldun, was described by the Florentine philosopher and diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli, and the German Enlightenment philosopher, Georg Friedrich Hegel, as one of the greatest philosophers of the Medieval world. As Islamic scholar Adam Silverstein explains in Islamic History (2010), rather than see history as ‘teleological’ or ‘God-driven’, Ibn Khaldun described it as ‘cyclical and subject to rules and patterns.’ And in doing so, he helped put man more at the centre of history.

Ibn Khaldun argued that every dynasty or empire contains the seeds of its decline. They can be undermined by extravagance – of which there was no shortage in the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties – or leaders’ loss of authority and structures of command. After all, even the mightiest can fall. Indeed, the great powers of the Greco-Roman world, and their Byzantine and Persian heirs, had been replaced by formerly tribal nomadic Arabs.

But Ibn Khaldun’s universal history had its limitations. He showed no interest in the barbarians of the north – the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards and more – nor in sub-Saharan Africans or the Far East. All of this damaged his attempts at formulating a universal history. And despite his many fascinating insights and inspiring descriptions of the immense scientific and intellectual breakthroughs made under the Abbasid Caliphate and Umayyyad Spain, he had a bigoted view of many non-Arabs, particularly sub-Saharan Africans.

In The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Lewis explores the ways in which Europe and the Muslim world perceived, interacted with and shaped each other. He notes the almost total lack of interest displayed by Middle Easterners in the language, cultures and religions of Europe. ‘It may well seem strange’, writes Lewis, ‘that classical Islamic civilisation which, in the early days, was so much affected by Greek and Asian influences should have so decisively rejected the West’. This might be explained by the dynamism, and philosophic and scientific breakthroughs of the early Muslim world and the backwardness of Medieval Europe, which served to flatter Muslim pride ‘with the spectacle of a culture that was visibly and palpably inferior,’ Lewis writes. ‘Muslim civilisation, proud and confident of its superiority’, he adds, ‘could afford to despise the barbarous infidel in the cold and miserable lands of the north’.

By the time Europe had awoken from its slumber and given us the Renaissance, and the scientific and industrial revolutions, ‘Islam was crystalised in its ways of thought and behaviour and had become impervious to external stimuli’, Lewis argues. ‘The peoples of Islam continued until the dawn of the modern age to cherish – as some of us in the West still do today – the conviction of the immeasurable and immutable superiority of their own civilisation to all others.’ A view that by the end of the Middle Ages was ‘dangerously obsolete’, Lewis argues.

The rise of the Ottomans
In the early Abbasid period, the need for an effective army ‘was met by the purchase of slaves, and by recruiting soldiers from the Turkish speaking pastoral tribes on or across the frontier in central Asia’, Hourani writes. Centuries later, these Turks rose to establish the Ottoman Empire that survived for six centuries, from the 1300s onwards. In 1453 the Ottomans took Constantinople, now named Istanbul, and what was left of the Byzantine Empire.

‘The Ottoman Empire’, Hourani continues, ‘was one of the largest political structures that the Western part of the world had known since the Roman Empire disintegrated: it ruled eastern Europe, western Asia and most of the Maghreb, and held together lands with very different political traditions, many ethnic groups – Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, Armenians, Turks and Arabs – and various religious communities – Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians of all the historic Churches and Jews. It maintained its rule over most of them for 400 years or so, and over some of them for as many as 600.’

The peak of the empire’s power was under Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century. In 1529 his army reached the gates of Vienna.

There is a tendency to underestimate the positive contribution of the Arabs and Islam to the Western world. At the same time – with so much focus in the West on ‘white guilt’ – there is a tendency to downplay the brutal, centuries-long Arab practice of enslaving Africans, Slavs, Turkic tribes and European Christians. During the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, Barbary Corsairs terrorised European coastal settlements and captured thousands of ‘infidels’ who were sold into slavery. ‘To the Europeans, the sea rovers of the North African states were pirates. For themselves they were fighters in the holy war, [carrying out] jihad against the enemies of the faith’, Lewis writes

‘Demand for slaves in these cash-rich locations was intense’, Frankopan writes, with the numbers of slaves being sold likely being ‘far greater even than those of Rome’. As Frankopan explains, we can gain an idea of the likely scale of slavery from the fact that one account talks of a caliph and his wife owning a thousand slave girls each, while another was said to own no fewer than four thousand. Although the numbers are uncertain, historians have estimated that the total number of African slaves taken by Arabs could be in the region of 12million – as many as those taken in the Atlantic slave trade. But rather than primarily being forced to work on plantations or in mines, those enslaved by Arabs were placed in domestic servitude, including concubinage.

A historical legacy
Just as Europeans should feel no guilt for the actions of their ancestors, neither should contemporary Arabs feel responsible for the actions of their ancestors. We should face up to and learn from the horrors of the past. But we should also acknowledge how much we have gained from the ingenuity, determination and intellectual accomplishments of our ancestors. And none more so than those in the Arab world. They provided some of the vital building blocks of the world we live in today.

Published on spiked, 17 April 2022.

The self-making of the British working class

Emma Griffin’s Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy provides a rich and detailed account of the lives of working-class men and women in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. It is also a testament to their determination, autodidacticism and striving for political freedom.

Griffin analyses almost 700 autobiographies – two thirds written by men and one third by women – all born into impoverished working-class families between 1830 and 1903. The writers were not entirely representative of the working class in Victorian and Edwardian Britain – not least by virtue of having written autobiographies – but their books do provide insights into the nature of work and home life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They allow us a glimpse of the relentless toil and poverty of working-class life in 19th-century Britain. But they also show us moments of joy and glimmers of light, provided mainly by encounters with what English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold described, in Culture and Anarchy (1869), as ‘the best which has been thought and said’.

The restricted nature of working-class women’s lives

Despite Britain’s economic expansion during the 19th century, with wages doubling and gross domestic product (GDP) trebling, not to mention a ‘series of extraordinary inventions’, from trains to lightbulbs and telephones, working-class life was hard. ‘Large cities with their trams, railways and modern civic buildings might have signified the march of progress’, writes Griffin, ‘but they also housed large slum populations living in appalling squalor’.

Life was particularly precarious for working-class women. If they entered the labour market, their wages were rarely sufficient to live off. Most women were entirely dependent on the men in their lives – either their fathers or husbands. While many boys saw the end of schooling as a new and exciting chapter in their lives, it was very different for girls. ‘A girl of 12 or thereabouts knew enough about the world to know there was little but housework awaiting her outside the school gates’, writes Griffin, ‘and a sizeable minority of the female authors had viewed further schooling as their one and only hope for a more interesting life’.

Many working-class girls entered domestic service, which was sometimes unpaid. As late as the 1860s, girls as young as eight were working away from home in exchange for food and lodging. But even when they did receive a meagre wage, it came at a price. ‘In those days you just seemed to belong to the people you worked for and you did whatever they wanted,’ one former servant noted. Many domestic servants only got a half-Sunday off a week. Even then, some employers sought to dictate how and where that time should be spent.

Women also worked in the manufacturing sector. But apart from the textile industries in Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Scotland’s Central Belt – where for historic reasons women often operated the power looms and were paid on a par with men – many were not given the opportunity to operate complex machinery. ‘Elsewhere women were employed in box-making, packing and sorting, tanning yards and factories producing foodstuffs such as chocolates, sweets and pickles – all low-skilled and low-paid work’, Griffin writes.

As well as unrewarding paid work, working-class women were left with the drudgery of housework – ‘a daily round of collecting water, purchasing and preparing food, lighting and clearing fires, cleaning and repairing clothes and looking after children’. The one area where women were able to exercise some control and autonomy was in the budgeting and general management of domestic affairs. Trade-unionist David Kirkwood recalled his mother turning over her husband’s pay in her hands: each week, ‘she counted and took care of the scanty wages’. From that meagre sum, she ‘planned out the week’s need’. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of their mothers’ housekeeping was a regular source of pride for many autobiographers.

But no matter how good they were at budgeting, women were at the mercy of their husband’s ability and willingness to provide for the family. Some were engaged in seasonal work and faced long spells without employment. Others suffered from bad health, or had sustained horrific workplace injuries, and were unable to work. Socialist Arthur Collinson’s father had worked as a coach-builder until he lost his eyesight when Collinson was five years old. His family quickly descended into abject poverty. Other fathers blew a lot of their money on alcohol, depriving their families of enough to feed themselves.

Charlie Chaplin was someone whose childhood was blighted by parental neglect. His alcoholic father abandoned the family not long after Chaplin’s birth, and his mother suffered from recurring bouts of mental illness. ‘In his sixth year, as [Chaplin’s] mother sank further into hopelessness, poverty and depression, she took the decision to enter herself and her two boys into the workhouse. Thus began a decade of regular moves in and out of different Victorian institutions – workhouses, asylums, orphanages – for all three.’

Griffin explores Victorian commentators’ condemnation of the prevalence of heavy drinking among the urban poor. And she does draw attention to some of the failings of Victorian and Edwardian parents, but not to condemn them. Rather she wants to ‘open a space for reflecting upon the myriad difficulties they faced’. She adds: ‘Of course, some men and women struggled against the odds to provide a warm, safe and loving home for their families, but others did not.’

Love in the time of Victoria

In her 1991 book Love in the Time of Victoria, Francoise Barret-Ducrocq draws attention to Victorian middle-class prejudices about working-class ‘licentiousness,’ ‘heavy drinking’ and ‘moral depravity’.

Victorian London was primarily a port city and a centre of administration and culture, rather than a site of heavy industry and factories. Barret-Ducrocq writes: ‘Most members of the better-off classes – businessmen, financiers, merchants, rentiers, civil servants and members of the liberal professions – had only the most tenuous direct link with the working-class population.’ They saw the working-class districts of London as ‘festering dens of filth, crime and debauchery’. The ‘miserable and depraved mob’ was viewed as a ‘shame to the world’ and a ‘compromise to the civilising mission of the Empire’. The sections of society highlighting the ‘barbarism of the masses’ were philanthropists working for charitable organisations, agents of the state – health officers, Poor Law officials, and education commissioners – and ‘social observers like novelists, essayists, sociologists and journalists’, Barret-Ducrocq writes.

Barret-Ducrocq’s research drew on a wealth of private archive material, including love letters and testimonies, stored at the London Foundling Hospital. These sources had been provided by working-class women applying to place their infants in its care, and provide an insight into their mental torment. They knew they could not raise a child on their own. But a successful application would entail an agonising – and in the vast majority of cases, permanent – separation from their infant.

The admission procedure at the Foundling Hospital was draconian. Mothers of illegitimate children needed to show that they had become pregnant either through the use of physical force or had ‘given way to carnal passion’ only after a promise of marriage. The woman would have to supply evidence in the form of notes arranging trysts, love letters and farewell letters, and had to supply the names of relatives, employers, family doctors and parsons to corroborate their stories.

There were instances where domestic servants had become pregnant after being attacked. ‘The culprit might be a naval officer staying with friends’, Barret-Ducrocq writes, ‘a brother visiting his sister’s house, a nephew in residence for the holiday’, or indeed the master of the house. But the sexual relations between middle- or upper-class men and working-class women did not always include coercion. Many of the domestic servants were young, naive, isolated and lonely, and could be easily swept off their feet. ‘Walking in St James’s or Regent’s Park on the arm of a well-turned-out gentleman, getting love letters, being desired when you were really everyone’s slave’ might have been exciting enough to forget the risk of pregnancy, notes Barret-Ducrocq.

However, the bulk of the archive material shows that many women had ‘lovers of much humbler social background’. Most had consented to sexual relations after an extended period of courtship, and their stories are full of ‘small joys and great hopes, of wild laughter, impertinent pranks, silly deceptions’. Their life stories show ‘small oases of joy and relaxation which – however limited they may have been – modify the unrelieved miserabilism of our received image of the Victorian proletariat’. Victorians saw the ‘sexual depravity’ of working-class Londoners ‘as a threat to the moral, and potentially political, order’. But the voices ‘recorded in the Foundling Hospital’s faded blue files, the voices of the women applicants and their associates, sound with an entirely different resonance’.

Working-class women’s political activity

Despite the ‘oases of joy’ that could be found in young working-class women’s lives, housekeeping and motherhood dominated most women’s lives. In Bread Winner, Griffin quotes James Brady reflecting on the closed world of his mother, who rarely ventured beyond their immediate neighbourhood: ‘The cobble-stoned cul-de-sac, with its squalid row of shared privies in the middle, was her world from Monday to Sunday, a grey world of hard times and hard work, bringing up a family of five on a purse forever running empty.’ Another writer observes that, thanks to housework and the repeated cycle of pregnancy and childbearing, his mother had ‘slowly faded into a grey domestic drudge’. Many note that their mothers’ only regular outing was church on a Sunday evening.

By contrast the women who became involved in politics and self-education often stressed ‘how much the experience had done to broaden and add interest to their otherwise very restricted lives’, writes Griffin. Mrs Smith, a miner’s wife in the Rhondda Valley, lamented that the women in her village ‘feel sometimes that we are not living but just existing somehow’. However, finding opportunities to attend ‘beautiful lectures’ organised by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, which was established in the late 1800s to organise educational classes and political campaigns on women’s issues, including suffrage, ‘seems to uplift us and help us to carry on’. Another autobiographer, Mrs Layton, said the guild ‘brightened [her life] to such an extent that everything seemed changed’.

Nevertheless, a range of barriers existed that made it far harder for women than men to become politically active or engage in intellectual pursuits. ‘Low female wages coupled with the widespread need for domestic labour within families’, writes Griffin, ‘left women without the time, money or right to pursue their own interests and activities’. Cultural assumptions about women’s roles within the family made it harder for women to spend any time or money on themselves, and many were made to feel that pursuing their own interests was tantamount to taking food out of the mouths of their children.

However, some of the female writers in Bread Winner describe finding paid work, which opened a new and exciting world for them. Hatter Nellie Scott recalled the conversations she had with fellow workers. In one place, she worked with ‘a Conservative, an Irish girl, and some Radicals and Socialists and we used to have full dress debates. When we began someone would call “Parliament is now sitting”… and we would discuss everything.’ Another writer, Alice Collis, became involved in a strike over pay, winning herself and her fellow workers a 50 per cent pay rise, at a printing firm. ‘When we had fully recovered from the surprise of our success’, wrote Collis, ‘we formed a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers’.

Almost all the politically active female autobiographers relied on the active support of their already politicised fathers, and sometimes mothers. ‘Without family support, the extent to which work facilitated entry into the political sphere was much more limited for women than men’, notes Griffin. Only 13 per cent of the women autobiographers reported having been involved in some form of political activity, compared to 25 per cent of men.

Male political activism and autodidactism

Male adulthood meant economic and residential independence from parents. Work provided a gateway to the public sphere, introducing adolescent boys to new political opinions and ideas. Trade-unionist and MP Frank Hodges, for example, recalled the lengthy conversations he had enjoyed with one of his older workmates, ‘a geologist, a mining student, and a keen mathematician’, as well as the owner of a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Through their long conversations, Hodges found himself ‘undergoing a mental revolution’.

Such experiences awakened in many a desire for further learning. Labour politician Herbert Morrison spent his Saturday afternoons in second-hand bookshops searching for ‘cheap copies of works on ethics, history, economics, and sociology’. Many autobiographers recalled attending night classes. ‘Indeed, it would be hard to exaggerate the significance of night schools, which were mentioned over and again by the male autobiographers’, writes Griffin. Most saw their elementary education as dull and irrelevant. ‘In their eyes, the end of school meant the start of work, and the true beginning of a man’s education.’

The ‘swinish multitude’

In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke warned against the ‘dire consequences’ of mass education: ‘Learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude.’

However, in A People’s History of Classics, Edith Hall and Henry Stead show that many British people with minimal formal education found numerous ways of accessing and engaging with the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Hall and Stead draw upon working-class memoirs, autobiographies, trade-union book collections, factory archives and documents in regional museums to provide a detailed account of the influence of the classical past on working-class lives.

‘In the 18th century’, they write, ‘some autodidacts in lowly occupations succeeded in learning classical languages against the odds, while others accessed classical authors via increasingly abundant translations’. With the expansion of literacy and the growth of inexpensive publications from the late 1820s onwards, access to the Classics expanded very fast. Leeds-born Chartist Joseph Barker started work as a spinner at the age of nine. He would prop up books to read while he was spinning and, at 16, he started teaching himself Latin and Greek. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was particularly treasured among working-class readers. A young miner from Northumberland who was killed by falling coal in 1899 died with a copy in his pocket, the page turned over at Pericles’ famous funeral oration.

Hall and Stead are in no doubt as to the importance of the Classics for working-class men and women:

‘The classical world aided their careers, expanded their horizons, improved their rhetoric, informed their politics, alleviated their boredom, inspired them to read, write, paint, draw, sculpt, act, perform, teach, publish, organise trade unions, join debating societies, read the Gospel in the original or question the existence of God altogether.’

A familiarity with the Classics even deepened people’s sense of freedom. ‘To stay free’, write Hall and Stead, ‘requires comparison of constitutions, fearlessness about change and critical, lateral and relativist thinking across time and different cultures’.

Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as well as Penny Magazine and Cassell’s Popular Educator, come up again and again in workers’ accounts of the first serious books and publications they read. Before the 1870 Education Act, which established compulsory education in England and Wales for children aged between five and 13, workers were mainly educated through non-Conformist and Dissenting Sunday schools, Mutual Improvement Societies, Methodist and Quaker ‘Adult Schools’, Mechanics Institutes and trade-union colleges. Museums in Britain, which were visited by a far wider cross-section of society than in the rest of Europe, provided important inroads into learning about the Greeks and Romans.

A People’s History of Classics overlaps in its use of sources with the groundbreaking 2001 book by Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. Rose shows that the books recommended by the intellectual elites ‘brought aesthetic joy, political emancipation, and philosophical excitement’ to ‘readers farther down the social scale’, such as ‘colliers and millgirls’. Take Will Crooks, a Fabian and trade-unionist, who grew up in extreme poverty in east London. He came across a second-hand copy of Homer’s Iliad and was inspired: ‘What a revelation it was to me! I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece.’

Like EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, Rose explores the relationship between the evangelical movement and working-class self-education. ‘Though autodidact culture was nurtured by the evangelical revival’, he writes, ‘it also presented a challenge to evangelical ideology’. Evangelical Christians emphasised the Protestant outlook of the absolute authority of the Bible and humans’ direct relationship with God. Nonconformist sects ‘encouraged close reading, interpretive analysis, and intellectual self-improvement’. The expansion of literacy and critical engagement with ideas opened a new world for many. Circuit preacher Joseph Barker, born in the early 19th century, found – after his intellectual appetite had been whetted by non-Conformist teaching – that ‘theology simply could not compete with Shakespeare’. Shakespeare in turn spurred his love of poetry. Byron ‘intoxicated’ him, and Milton, Hobbes, Locke and Newton made him ‘resolved to be free’. ‘The measure of bondage’ placed on him by Methodism, Barker explained, ‘began to be exceedingly irksome to me, and I felt strongly inclined to throw off the yoke and to assert my liberty’.

The liberating power of culture was recognised by many workers – even those who were ‘badly or barely educated,’ Rose writes. The most pervasive form of mutual education ‘was, quite simply, reading aloud’. In many workshops one labourer would read aloud while the others divided the share of his work. Shared reading was also common in many working-class homes. One Welsh miner described with awe one workmate’s ‘impressive library of classical music’. These working-class intellectuals were ‘glowing with pride’ after having ‘drunk the wine of knowledge,’ he wrote. They felt as if they had been ‘exposed to something extraordinary’.

The contradictory nature of male employment

Like Griffin in Bread Winner, German mill-owner, philosopher and communist, Friedrich Engels, also explored the stultifying, but potentially liberating, nature of male industrial employment in the 19th century. In The Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845), based on Engels’ first-hand account of life in the slums and mills of Manchester, he wrote that working people’s quarters were ‘wretched, damp and filthy’, and ‘consequently no comfortable family life is possible’. In such dwellings individuals were ‘robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically’. ‘The potatoes which the workers buy are usually poor, the vegetables wilted, the cheese old and of poor quality, the bacon rancid, the meat lean, taken from old, often diseased, cattle, or such as have died a natural death, and not fresh even then, often half decayed.’

But in England’s large industrial towns, Engels also saw the birthplace of the labour movement. The ‘mightiest result’ of the Industrial Revolution was the emergence of a politicised working-class capable of transforming what Percy Bysshe Shelley – a poet much loved by working-class autodidacts – called ‘this wrong world’. It was in industrial cities that workers ‘first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it’, Engels wrote.

‘Working men appreciate solid education when they can get it unmixed with the self-interested cant of the bourgeoisie’, continued Engels. Frequent lectures on scientific, aesthetic and economic subjects ‘are well attended’, he wrote, adding: ‘I have often heard working men, whose fustian jackets scarcely held together, speak upon geological, astronomical, and other subjects, with more knowledge than most “cultivated” bourgeois in Germany possess.’

During the early 1800s, working men, through strikes and lockouts, fought for wage rises and better working conditions. But their battles were not just confined to the workplace. They also demanded political reform and an extension of the franchise. It was during this time that Engels met Chartists who challenged the idea that it was the lack of working-class morals that led to their misery. Instead, as Chartist David Ross argued in 1842, it was ‘bad laws’ that have ‘effected this’. The Chartists campaigned for universal male suffrage and greater democratic accountability. The only solution to devastating poverty and hunger was the ‘attainment of the Charter’, Ross argued. It is only with more democratic say and accountability, he argued, that ‘labour will have its protection’.

The re-emergence of elitist ideas

In recent decades, a similar elite disdain to that shown by Victorian and Edwardian middle and upper classes towards the working class has come to the fore. There is little attempt by academic or cultural elites to understand ordinary people’s concerns and aspirations, or to recognise that working people have complex internal lives – just like themselves.

Admittedly, working-class people are no longer called ‘filthy barbarians,’ or the ‘swinish multitude’. Instead, they are described instead as ‘uneducated bigots’, who tend towards racism, misogyny and homophobia. Many who see themselves as liberal and open-minded have gone as far as trying to overturn Brexit, a democratic vote, on the basis that the working-class ‘did not know what they voted for’.

Yet, as Griffin, Hall and Stead show, like Rose and Thompson before them, it was through access to culture, autodidacticisn and gaining a voice in the political realm that workers were able to ‘live’ rather than ‘just exist’.

As Griffin puts it:

‘There is clearly something to celebrate in the enormous achievements of the working-class men and women who, despite being born to a class that was neither expected nor encouraged to contribute to the nation’s political life, overcame the odds and managed to do precisely that.’

This article was first published on spiked

Ideas Matter: Walden Two and radical behaviourism

On 20 June 2020, Battle of Ideas Charity hosted The Academy Online, a series of talks and book discussions exploring the theme Psychology and Democracy.

This podcast features the introductory talk to a discussion on the 1948 novel ‘Walden Two’ by BF Skinner, an American psychologist, author, inventor and social philosopher. Skinner liked to describe his own philosophy as ‘radical behaviorism’ and the novel has gained renewed attention alongside interest in social psychology and behavioural science at a time of a pandemic, when many are keen to understand the factors that shape our decisions and the extent to which we can say we are we conscious agents who determine our own actions.

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The subversive legacy of Christianity

Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind provides a fascinating and compelling account of the history of Christianity, how the Bible was created and its legacy in Western morality and thought. And he argues convincingly that Christ’s teachings, and the act of his crucifixion, are the basis for our belief in equality, our commitment to rights and our compassion for our fellow human beings. Yet does Holland overstate his main argument? Is it right to see Christianity as the overriding influence on the Western mind?

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