In the late sixties several issues came together. Issues and controversies. About parliament, about law and the trade unions, about demonstrations and public order, about education and its expansion. In the late eighteen-sixties, I mean. In the years when George Eliot began Middlemarch, when Marx published the first volume of Capital, when Carlyle wrote Shooting Niagara, and Matthew Arnold wrote the lectures and articles which became Culture and Anarchy.
In our own late sixties the spirit of Arnold is often invoked, especially in the universities. He has been taken as a kind of patron of things like the Black Papers: in some ways astonishingly, for all his working life he was a hardworking inspector of education and the most effective exponent of the need for a new system of secondary schooling. Nevertheless, the invocation is neither accidental nor wholly misguided. Arnold’s emphasis on culture—his kind of emphasis—was a direct response to the social crisis of those years, and what he saw as opposed to culture was anarchy, in a sense very similar to many recent public descriptions of demonstrations and the protest movement. He did not see or present himself as a reactionary, but as a guardian of excellence and of humane values. That, then as now, was the strength of his appeal.
What then was the actual crisis? In immediate terms it was an argument about the franchise: that the right to vote should be extended to working-class men in the towns. Not, it now seems, so very radical a proposal. Just a hundred years later that hard-won right is part of our ‘immemorial’ democratic traditions. But at the time it was critical. In 1866 the first form of the bill was defeated and the Liberal government fell. The campaign was taken to the country by the Reform League. The meetings in London were especially large. The only suitable places for such large
meetings were the parks, but the authorities argued that these were royal gifts for public recreation; mass demonstrations, on the other hand, were a form of public nuisance. The right to meet in Hyde Park—now, a century later, another part of our ‘immemorial’ democratic tradition—was especially at issue. Where the gentry rode in Rotten Row crowds often gathered, and there was a proposal to jam it with ten thousand costermongers and their donkeys. Then the Reform League announced a meeting in Hyde Park for the evening of Monday July 23, 1866. The Home Secretary ordered the Commissioner of Police to post notices closing the gates at teatime. Questions were asked in Parliament by several members, including, notably, John Stuart Mill, author of the Essay on Liberty
. Disraeli, the Prime Minister, reassured the Queen.
On July 23 some sixty thousand workers, from many parts of the country, marched down Oxford Street and Edgware Road to converge at the Marble Arch. The police were drawn up at the locked gates. The leaders of the march demanded entry and were refused. Most of the march then went on to Trafalgar Square. But one group stayed at Hyde Park and started taking down the railings. Many of the watching crowd joined them. They took down about a mile of railings, and went into the park. It has been said that flowerbeds were trampled, that people ‘raced over the forbidden turf’, and that stones were thrown at some large houses in Belgravia. There seems no reason to doubt any of this. As with the proposal to ride donkeys in Rotten Row, it was testing the question ‘whether this or any other portion of Hyde Park belongs to a class or to the entire people’. Troops were called out, but before they got there everybody had gone home.
Hyde Park. Grosvenor Square. We have to update the names to get any idea of the response. The moderate leaders of the Reform League saw the Home Secretary and asked for a meeting in Hyde Park the following Monday, to establish the right of free assembly. He is reported to have wept and agreed, but he was then overruled by the Cabinet. A confrontation seemed probable, for many ordinary members wanted to go ahead with the meeting. Mill intervened, putting the question:
if the position of affairs has become such that a revolution was desirable, and if they thought themselves able to accomplish one.
After argument it was agreed to hold the meeting instead in the Agricultural Hall, Islington. It was a crowded and noisy meeting. Thousands
could not get in. The need for the park was obvious, but the government, through a new Home Secretary, now introduced a bill making meetings in Hyde Park illegal. Mill led the opposition to this, and by the end of the session the bill was talked out and dropped. The ‘sacred and immemorial’ right of meeting and speaking in Hyde Park—the thing tourists are now taken to see—was brought in, so to say, by the back door.
Demonstrations and public order. The people involved do not seem unfamiliar, a century later. Of course the causes move on. We should have no thundering editorials now about a meeting in Hyde Park to campaign for giving working men the vote. But many of the underlying attitudes are similar. Carlyle was extreme: only the reimposition of discipline by the aristocracy could preserve order, he argued in Shooting Niagara. On the other side were the liberals and radicals, led in parliament by Mill. But no trial of strength and opinion, of so general and central a kind, is limited to known and orthodox positions. It is in this sense that Arnold’s response is important.
Hyde Park was in his mind when he gave the first lecture of what became Culture and Anarchy. He called it ‘Culture and its Enemies’. But he stood off from the orthodox political arguments. He criticised the national obsession with wealth and production; there were other things more important in the life of a people. He criticized the manipulation of opinion, by politicians and newspapers: a minority talking down, simplifying, sloganeering, to people they thought of as ‘the masses’. He criticised the abstraction of ‘freedom’; it was not only a question of being free to speak but of a kind of national life in which people knew enough to have something to say. The men of culture, he argued, were those who had
a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of the society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time.
All this was culture—the sense of more things in life than the economy, the opposition to manipulation, the commitment to an extending popular education. Its enemies were the political and economic system, the manipulators, the anti-educators.
So far so clear. But there was also Hyde Park. The Hyde Park rioter,
Arnold argued—very quickly abstracting and simplifying—was a symptom of the general anarchy. He did not want revolution, though he would like his own class to rule, just as the aristocracy and the middle class prefer their own forms of domination. In ‘Our paradisical centres of industrialism and individualism’ many people were taking the bread out of one another’s mouths, for there was no real social order, no idea of the State as the collective and corporate character of the nation. So, having not yet quite settled to his place in the system, the rioter—he becomes suddenly ‘the rough’—
is just asserting his personal liberty a little, going where he likes, assembling where he likes, bawling as he likes, hustling as he likes.
The temperature, it will be noticed, is rising.
His right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes. All this, I say, tends to anarchy.
It certainly does. Nothing is stranger, in Arnold’s often scrupulous, often self-consciously charming and delicate prose, than the escalation, the coarseness, of these Hyde Park verbs. Then, writing while the argument was still going on in parliament, he went suddenly much further. He restated his general position:
For us, who believe in right reason, in the duty and possibility of extricating our best self, in the progress of humanity towards perfection, for us the framework of society, that theatre on which this august drama has to unroll itself, is sacred; and whoever administers it, and however we may seek to remove them from their tenure of administration, yet, while they administer, we steadily and with undivided heart support them in repressing anarchy and disorder; because without order there can be no society; and without society there can be no human perfection.
It is a point of view. Certainly it contrives to forget the start of the disorder: the defeat of the reform legislation, the locking of the gates against the reform meeting (for which, as it happens, there were no legal grounds). As so often, it picks up the story at a convenient point: at the point of response, sometimes violent, to repression; not at the repression itself. Even so, it is a point of view, and a familiar one.
But then Arnold again goes on:
I remember my father… when the political and social state of the
country was gloomy and troubled [in the 1820s—KW
] and there were riots in many places, goes on, after strongly insisting on the badness and foolishness of the government … and ends thus: As for rioting, the old Roman way of dealing with that is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders from the Tarpeian Rock!
And this opinion we can never forsake, however our Liberal friends may think a little rioting, and what they call popular demonstrations, useful sometimes to their own interests and to the interests of the valuable practical operations they have in hand.
Even if it is to abolish the slave-trade
—still we say no, and that monster processions in the streets and forcible irruptions into the parks, even in professed support of this good design, ought to be unflinchingly forbidden and repressed.
In a later edition Arnold left this out. We must give him the credit of his second thoughts. But it is still very remarkable that the humane argument of the initial position should approach, let alone reach, this degree of anger and desire for repression.
Yet the conjunction may be significant, at some level quite difficult to define. The hostile reaction to demonstrations and sit-ins, in our own period, is easy to understand when it comes from the traditional right. But there is now also a New Right, talking of excellence and humane values and discipline, in the same breath; seeing minor demonstrations as ‘anarchy’ and ‘chaos’ and opposing them in the name of reason and culture and education.
Arnold is a source for this group, though it is significant that many of them have dropped much of his actual social criticism and especially his untiring advocacy of extended popular education. That part of Arnold, indeed, is now seen as a main symptom of the ‘disease’ they believe they are fighting. But that is often how names and reputations are invoked from the past.
There are others they might have chosen. I can’t agree with all Mill did, in those months, but if you want liberal reason in action, Mill then embodies it: the emphasis on law and moderation but also the emphasis on change and reform (he had introduced a bill giving the vote to women, a measure well beyond the thoughts of the majority of the Reform League; it was derisively defeated). Mill, one could say, shows how a traditional intellectual can respond at his best: acting through the values of reason at the points where it mattered. I would differ from him in my belief that the second Hyde Park meeting ought to have been held and
supported; there was no law or reason to prevent it, and any provocation or violence would have come only from the authorities. But Mill was anxious. He mediated and moderated. He kept to his own values.
Arnold is different, and so are our own little Arnolds. Excellence and humane values on the one hand; discipline and where necessary repression on the other. This, then as now, is a dangerous position: a culmination of the wrong kind of liberalism, just as Mill, as far as he went, was a culmination of liberalism of the most honest kind. The issues continue: the law and the unions; new education acts; the ins and outs of two dominant and competing parliamentary parties. As we think and act through very comparable events, a hundred years later, it is of some real help to know how the ‘culture and anarchy’ argument started.
But what is even more important is to identify and prevent that short-circuit in thought which Arnold represents. The attachment to reason, to informed argument, to considered public decisions, and indeed, in Arnold’s terms, to learning from all the best that has been thought and said in the world, requires something more than an easy rhetorical contrast with the practices of demonstration and of direct action. For these, in the eighteen-sixties as in the nineteen-sixties, were entered into at just those points where truth and reason and argument were systematically blocked, and where ‘authorized’ force was invoked not to clear the barriers but to erect and defend them.
It then matters very much whether those who believe in reason and in informed argument are able, within the noise of confrontation, to go on making the necessary distinctions. It matters also whether, in the inevitable tensions of new kinds of argument and new kinds of claim, the defenders of reason and education become open to new and unfamiliar relationships, or instead relapse to their existing habits and privileges and then—as is now happening, but as significantly didn’t happen in Arnold —manoeuvre and combine to restrict, to purge, to impoverish education itself. For the culture which is then being defended is not excellence but familiarity, not the knowable but only the known values. And while people like that dominate and multiply, it will always be necessary to go again to Hyde Park.
Lucien Goldmann came to Cambridge and gave two lectures. It was an opportunity for many of us to hear a man whose work we had welcomed and respected. And he said that he liked Cambridge: to have trees and fields this near to lecture-rooms. I invited him and he agreed to come back again this year. More particularly we agreed to exchange our current work directly, for we were both aware of the irony that the short physical distance between England and France converts, too often, to a great cultural distance, and especially at the level of detail. And then, in the autumn, he died, at the age of 57. The beginning of a project had to revert to print, as must perhaps always finally happen. But first I want to remember him directly, as an act of respect and as an active acknowledgment of what I believe is now necessary: a bringing together and a discussion of work and ideas occurring in very different traditions but nevertheless sharing many common positions and concerns. My regret, of course, is that he cannot be here to take part in the dialogue. For the manner of his lectures in Cambridge was precisely dialogue: in a sense to my surprise, having read only his published writings, which are marked by a certain defining and systematic rigour.
I think many people have now noticed the long-term effects of the specific social situation of British intellectuals: a situation which is changing but with certain continuing effects. In humane studies, at least, and with mixed results, British thinkers and writers are continually pulled back towards ordinary language: not only in certain rhythms and in choices of words, but also in a manner of exposition which can be called unsystematic but which also represents an unusual consciousness
of an immediate audience: a sharing and equal-standing community, to which it is equally possible to defer or to reach out. I believe that there are many positive aspects of this habitual manner, but I am just as sure that the negative aspects are serious: a willingness to share, or at least not too explicitly to challenge, the consciousness of the group of which the thinker and writer—his description as intellectual raises the precise point —is willingly or unwillingly but still practically a member. And while this group, for so long, and of course especially in places like Cambridge, was in effect and in detail a privileged and at times a ruling class, this pull towards ordinary language was often, is often, a pull towards current consciousness: a framing of ideas within certain polite but definite limits.
It is not at all surprising to me, having observed this process, to see so many students, since the early sixties, choosing to go instead to intellectuals of a different kind. In sociology, where we have been very backward —indeed in many respects an undeveloped country—there are, of course, other reasons. But the same thing has happened in literary studies, where for half a century, and in Cambridge more clearly than anywhere, there has been notable and powerful work. A sense of certain absolute restrictions in English thought, restrictions which seemed to link very closely with certain restrictions and deadlocks in the larger society, made the search for alternative traditions, alternative methods, imperative. Of course all the time there was American work: in what appeared the same language but outside this particular English consensus. Theory, or at least system, seemed attractively available. And most American intellectuals, for good or ill, seemed not to have shared this particular integration with a non-intellectual governing class. Complaints that a man explaining his life’s work, in as precise a way as he could, was not instantly comprehensible, in a clubbable way, to someone who had just happened to drop in from his labour or leisure elsewhere, seemed less often ...