Posts Tagged ‘John Steward Mill’

Books on Radical, Working Class History and The British Constitution: Commenters’ Recommendations

January 19, 2014

A few of the readers of my blog have responded to my posts recommending and suggesting books on the history of the British constitution, and the development of modern democracy, giving their own suggestions. Florence wrote:

‘Too true. People have forgotten their own history – or it is omitted from education for obvious reasons. Another text is “the condition of the Working Class in 1844″ (Marx & Engels), which although not read for many years I recall citing the average age of death in Bethnal Green was 17 – yes seventeen – because of malnutrition, working from the 3- 4 yrs of age showing almost universal deformations caused by working machinery. Most females died in childbirth because of malformed pelvic bones from standing at work. The living, working and health conditions of the working poor of the northern industrial cities were worse still.

The current wave of malnutrition the BMA warned of (also ignored by press and government) holds misery for many in the future. Childhood malnutrition affects mental, social as well as physical development, blighting lives from start to finish, and to be passed on to the next generation through poorly nourished mothers. So it goes on.

True democracy was more widely discussed in past centuries through coffee houses, ale houses, and working guilds. We are never taught about these, and I think it’s time for a really radical curriculum, not just chanting monarchs reigns, which would seem to be Goves best effort. (Dim, dim, and dimmer.)

Another book I recommend is “Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman” by Ken Coates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Coates), to remind us that the deprivations did not end after WWII, but have been won -hard fought for- through to the end of the 20th century, and these conditions are now with us again after only 3 years of the coalition.’

I’ll have to look up Ken Coates, I really haven’t heard of him before, and he sounds interesting. As for previous ages discussing democracy in coffee houses, ale houses and working guilds, this is absolutely true. You only have to consider the social importance of the mechanic’s institutes in Victorian Britain, where working men came to read and educated themselves. In 19th and early 20th century Italy, there were Chambers of Labour, which also served some of the same functions, as well as a very strong political role in directing and co-ordinating industrial action.

Daijohn raised the question why I hadn’t mentioned these important political thinkers:

‘Mike
What about Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Marx
and Mill?’

Hi, Daijohn. I’m not Mike, I’m actually his brother, though the confusion’s natural, as after all Mike did me the honour of reblogging this. I didn’t include Machiavelli and Hobbes as although they are two of the most important political theorists of the renaissance and 17th century, neither of them can be described as in any way liberal.

Hobbes’ Leviathan was an attempt to use social contract theory to justify absolute monarchy, without relying on Scriptural authority. It was immensely controversial even in its own time. In the 18th century there was a change in masculinity as a reaction to it. This was ‘the man of feeling’ or the ‘man of sentiment’, in which men were keen to show they had finer feelings of pity, and compassion, including going into floods of tears at suitable moments. This was to demonstrate that men weren’t the aggressive, predatory animals, who needed an absolute monarch to restrain them from killing and robbing each other in the ‘war of each against all’ Hobbes believed constituted humanity’s natural state.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is similarly far from a democratic text. It was and is notorious for advising renaissance princes, and politicians afterwards, to use ruthless deceit in the pursuit and maintenance of power. One of the questions in it is ‘whether it is better to be loved or feared?’ Machiavelli then replies by saying that although love is good, fear is better because people will respect you more and obey you.

As for Marx, although he’s of crucial importance in the development of Socialism, my focus was on British constitutional history and freedoms, which have emerged and developed independently of Marx. Furthermore, the Communist parties around the world were notorious for human rights abuses. They murdered millions, and the Communist states and parties themselves were very rigidly controlled, with absolute obedience demanded and enforced through Lenin’s theory of ‘democratic centralism’.

However, you are absolutely right about John Locke and John Stewart Mill, so I will certain put up posts about these authors.