Proletarian Literature of the 1930s and Defeatism in Working Class Writing
First Published: 14/10/2020
Author: William B.
In the midst of yet another major recession, driven in part by the ravages of COVID-19 and in part by the cycle of periodic economic collapse inherent to capitalism, we must look back to the greatest crisis of capitalism since its inception: the Great Depression of the 1930s.
A major issue facing socialists today is the simple lack of support for socialism, and indeed lack of understanding of what socialism is, among huge swathes of the British populace. This problem is however not unique to our time period, it has remained a fixture of society for generations, and the wide-scale awakening of revolutionary class consciousness that many socialists have dreamed of has not occurred, dampened by the drudgery and exhaustion of people trying to simply survive.
This article will examine two novels written in the 1930s by working class authors that deal with the realities of life for working class people in the Great Depression; Means Test Man (1935) by Walter Brierley, and Love on the Dole (1933) by Walter Greenwood. Both novels are examples of the genre known as Proletarian Literature, which consisted of works written by working class authors that explored topics around working class daily life, and often included socialist themes. Though there were some examples of the genre that predated the Great Depression, such as Robert Tressell’si explicitly socialist The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), it was in the grinding poverty of the 1930s that Proletarian Literature saw its heyday. People both in the working class and middle class were acutely aware of the suffering and oppression that had been heightened to near-unbearable proportions by the crisis, and thus both Proletarian Literature and works written by middle class authors about working class life such as George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) saw great success in this period.
It should come as no surprise that the effects of poverty dominated the lives of working class people in the Great Depression, especially in regions like the North and Wales that were reliant on heavy industries such as mining and steel working. The Means Test, the notoriously harsh system by which middle class bureaucrats decided who was and was not eligible for unemployment benefits, cast an omnipresent shadow across working class life, as we will see in our examination of these novels. As with too many things, there is little fundamental difference between the 1930s and 2020, where the deliberately obtuse and arcaneii system of Universal Credit has become a daily fixture in the lives of people who have lost work due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and its related economic turmoil, which saw the total number of Universal Credit claims increase tenfold in the span of one month.iii
The first book we will examine is Means Test Man. The book follows Jack, a former Derbyshire miner, and his family in the week leading up to their monthly Means Test inspection. As they deal with trying to make the minute remnants of the previous month’s payment last the week they live in the constant fear that the Means Test inspector will find some reason to cut their next month’s payment. The book ends with the Means Test inspector’s visit finding nothing amiss, and therefore the family’s money being secured for another month. However, there is little finality to the ending, as it is clear that they will face this same struggle in a month’s time. While the events are of course fictionalised, they have their origins in Walter Brierley’s life, who himself was unemployed between 1931 and 1935, during the height of the Great Depression, after losing his job as a miner.iv
Means Test Man unquestionably does an excellent job of displaying the intense difficulty of surviving on the meagre dole provided to the unemployed, a problem as relevant today as when it was written, and the humiliation of relying on the dole in a society with a similar cult of individualist self-sufficiency to the present day. While of course there is nothing wrong with needing help from your fellow workers, Brierley successfully portrays the psychological toll it takes on those who have been brought up to believe that such things are antithetical to a masculine ideal of self-reliance. Indeed, Brierley specifically describes Jack’s reliance on the dole in feminising language, with Jack thinking that ‘To the miners he would have become a woman’ due to his domestic work in the home and ‘providing for [his home] with money which came from a pool into which all the bread-winners in the land threw a determined, compulsory amount.’v The extent to which working class people were denied any sort of private life is apparent in the Means Test inspector’s visit, with the inspector’s invasive questions and rooting around the family’s personal belongings making clear that, in the view of the upper and middle class powers that be, the working class were not worthy of the same degree of personal rights as the rich.
The book was well received by the literary establishment. However, particularly from a socialist reading there are criticisms to be found with Means Test Man. The characters are overall deeply resigned to their situation, most notably visible in one scene in which Jack, even while lamenting the injustice of his situation, thinks to himself that ‘he did not feel like breaking shop windows for their sakes or Chivvying members of parliament.’vi This fact did not go unnoticed at the time of the book’s publishing, with a review in the Marxist newspaper The Daily Worker stating that ‘The weakness of the book, recognisable, perhaps, only to those who have experienced long periods of unemployment is that the unemployed worker who sits timidly at home is not the rule, but the exception… A book which brought out this fighting spirit of the unemployed would have been a much greater use to the working class.’ vii
It is easy to see how for socialists, many of whom had been entirely convinced as the Great Depression began that the end of capitalism was imminent, Means Test Man reflected the grimmest possible image of the working class: a docile proletariat who had so deeply internalised liberal ideology that no matter how great the injustice they faced they would not resist their oppressors. However, I would challenge the implication of the Daily Worker’s review that the work has less value as a piece of working class literature because it portrayed a non-ideal example of working class life.
There can be little question that, if nothing else, Means Test Man, being heavily based on Brierley’s own experiences as an unemployed worker, is an authentic look into one family’s working class life. It may be true, as the Daily Worker review suggests, that the events portrayed in the book were not the average response an unemployed worker would have to the Means Test, but it is difficult to argue that such chronic unemployment and long term poverty does not take an enormous psychological toll, with any desire for revolution rendered secondary to the simple realities of surviving day to day.
In some ways, Means Test Man is a more accurate portrayal of a proletariat devoid of class consciousness now than it was at the time of its writing. In the decades since the book was written there has been an all-consuming internalisation of liberal ideology at all levels of society; though recent years have seen some small resurgence of socialist organising worldwide, this is little more than regaining some small amount of lost ground. The simple reality is that no matter how much we as socialists may wish it were not so, Means Test Man reflects the lived experiences of huge amounts of people both in Brierley’s time and later, whose experiences of grinding poverty simply drives them to apathy rather than political organising.
Love on the Dole tells the story of the Hardcastle family, a working class family who live in an incredibly deprived Salford slum by the name of Hanky Park. Starting in the late 1920s, the book portrays the already poor family facing unemployment and absolute destitution as the Great Depression hits. The book touches on many of the same general themes as Means Test Man, displaying the humiliation and cruelty of the Means Test and the effect poverty can have on one’s own sense of identity and place in the world, as the family gradually pawns off cherished possessions. However, Love on the Dole does not divorce itself from class politics to the same degree that Means Test Man does.
The politics of the story can most clearly be seen in the character of Larry Meath, the lover of Sally Hardcastle, the family’s daughter. Larry is an avowed socialist who regularly speaks up about his beliefs to his fellow factory workers, despite knowing that this marks him as a target for the boss’s ire. His portrayal is certainly overall a positive one, though not without issue; his role as perhaps the only unquestionably good person the story and his socialist beliefs result in him assuming a pure, almost messianic character that separates him from the dilapidation surrounding him. He is the kind of man who puts aside a portion of his meagre wages to take the train out for picnics in the countryside, while those around him never leave the slum, and is a self-taught man of books whose intellectualism puts a barrier between him and Sally. In the end Larry is murdered by police during a march of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, cementing the idea that his virtuous righteousness renders him too pure for the society around him.
It is clear that Greenwood does not seem so eager to explicitly divorce his characters from radical politics as Brierley. However, in portraying that Larry’s socialist politics – and linked desire to believe there is more to life than the slum around him – have separated him from his fellow workers, and showing Larry’s eventual murder at the hands of the state, Greenwood creates an air of defeatism in Love on the Dole. Following Larry’s death, the book concludes with Sally becoming the mistress of a wealthy bookkeeper, securing jobs for her family; while this is portrayed as a sad thing, it still reinforces the idea that Larry was wrong, that for the people of Hanky Park there is and can be no escape or hope of a happy life, and the best they can hope for is simply that the nepotism of a rich man will allow them to scrape by.
However, as with Brierley, this does not mean that Love on the Dole does not have value to us as socialists. Though we should of course endeavour to always be part of our communities, Love on the Dole displays how even advocating for one’s own emancipation can be something that causes an undesired rift between socialists and those around them, and how for people who have internalised their oppression, socialist organising can seem naively optimistic.
Overall, socialists cannot ignore examples of working class ambivalence and defeatism. It is as true today as in the 1930s that the average worker is not a revolutionary firebrand waiting for the right moment to revolt. We are living in a period where many of the small victories won by working people in the twentieth century are being rapidly eroded – the 8 hour day is a fading memory for many working class people, and job security is (especially in the current epidemic) a rare luxury. It is undoubtedly true that these works do not express the ideological advocacy for revolution or working class organising that many other examples of proletarian literature did, but they nevertheless provide a valuable reminder that most people are not socialist organisers, and indeed how the world of revolutionary politics is one that they see as alien and distant from their lived experiences.
While there is certainly value to be found in uplifting stories of a revolutionary working class, there is also immense value in works that discuss the unpleasant realities of life under capitalism – the kind of long term numbing drudgery that dulls any revolutionary edge that workers have. Ultimately it is not the already avowed socialists like Robert Tressell that we need to turn into revolutionaries, it is the people like Brierley whose internalisation of liberal ideology is visible throughout his work in his lack of willingness to stand for any belief system or advocate for any real change, or Greenwood for whom socialist optimism is unable to overcome the misery and suffering of life under the boot of capital.
i: Real name Robert Noonan.
ii: See, for example, the need for a judge to declare sections of the Universal Credit rules so irrational as to be unlawful (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/22/universal-credit-rules-irrational-and-unlawful-judge-says) or the deeply invasive wishes of the DWP (https://universalcreditsuffer.com/2019/02/26/dwp-designing-tool-to-trawl-claimants-medical-records/)
iii: Kevin Peachey, ‘Coronavirus: Universal credit claims hit monthly record’, 20 May 2020. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52721657)
iv: Walter Brierley, Means Test Man 1983 ed. (Nottingham, 1935), p.x
v: Ibid. p.23
vi: Ibid. p.67
vii: Ibid. p.xii