In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, working-class activism changed in nature and increased in scale along with the rise of the Labour Movement, institutionalised workers’ and women’s education, the professionalisation of politics and the impact of the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions. Two contributory factors in the gradual opening of the academic profession to women, and to men who would previously have been excluded, were the opening of new universities, and the abolition in the 19th century of requirements that fellows of Oxbridge colleges should be ordained and members of the Anglican Church. This chapter excavates the classical interests of three groups committed to the cause of the working class, most of whom we have discussed at greater length elsewhere:1 the women amongst the socialists and labour organisers of the late 19th century who founded the Independent Labour Party, the classical scholars active in the first decades of the Communist Party of Great Britain and two classically trained communists, Christopher Caudwell and Jack Lindsay, who used the medium of scholarship to further the working class’ cause in the 1930s and (in Lindsay’s case) beyond.

Early labour classicists

Three intellectual streams converged in the late Victorian labour and socialist movements, two of which were indigenous and the third (Marxism) to an extent developed in London, where Marx and Engels worked from 1849. The oldest was the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which emphasised the creation of conditions in which a maximum number of citizens could flourish. Blended with the anti-metaphysical, empirical historical methods developed in

France by Auguste Comte, this produced the socialist Positivism of, for example, Edward Spencer Beesley (1831-1915). A classical graduate of Wadham College, Oxford, Beesley was appointed Professor of Latin at University Hall (an organisation attached to UCL) and Bedford College for Women. It was almost certainly at Beesley’s suggestion that the African American campaigner for the abolition of slavery in the USA, Sarah Parker Kemond (Figure 23.1), studied Latin at Bedford in the early 1860s.2 Beesley was also a friend of Karl Marx. But he did not adopt dialectical materialism, his book Catiline, Clodius, and Tiberius (1878) being a paradigm of Positivist thought. He chaired the First International (1864), which had led to the formation of the International Working Men’s Association (IWA), and attended meetings of the Democratic Federation in 1881, but soon returned to the Liberal Party, standing for Parliament as a Liberal candidate.

The second indigenous tradition was the spiritual conservatism and moral individualism of Thomas Carlyle. As we have seen previously, this found articulation in the extraordinary prose of Past and Present, where the classical myth of Midas crystallises the relations of production under capitalism, and the Sphinx’s riddle is recast as the problem of class struggle which exploded at Peterloo.3

Î.1 Sarah Parker Kemond (1826—1894) by unknown photographer. Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons

FIGURE 2Î.1 Sarah Parker Kemond (1826—1894) by unknown photographer. Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

‘Theseus asks the answer to the Kiddle of the Sphynx’, by Walter Crane (1887), a compositional study, reproduced by courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand

FIGURE 23.2 ‘Theseus asks the answer to the Kiddle of the Sphynx’, by Walter Crane (1887), a compositional study, reproduced by courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand.

Carlyle’s questioning proletarian-Sphinx was portrayed by Walter Crane in his (untraced) 1887 oil painting ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’, for which a compositional study mercifully survives.4 (Figure 23.2) Crane submitted the painting to the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition in 1887, but withdrew it soon afterwards. He believed that its overtly socialist content had upset the organiser, Sir Courts Lindsay, who had concealed it behind a pillar.’

The answer to the Sphinx’s question was to be articulated rather differently by each of the various Labour and Socialist organisations which soon emerged: the early members of the Independent Labour Party (founded 1893), the Fabians (1884) and the Labour Party (1900) to which the ILP affiliated in 1906, along with charitable and philanthropic organisations, such as the Salvation Army, that were adamantly against revolutionary change.6 The Fabian Society was founded in response to the work in London of New Yorker Dr. Thomas Davidson, a classical scholar and author of Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals and The Parthenon Frieze.1 Some members of the utopian group ‘The Fellowship of the New Life’, which gathered around Davidson, split from it and established the Fabian Society. It was named after Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, the Roman general honoured as ‘Delayer’ (Cunctator) after his strategy, recorded in Livy XXII, of gradually wearing down Hannibal’s army rather than confronting it in pitched battle. The title page of the Fabians’ first pamphlet declared,

For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.8

The name was suggested by Frank Podmore (biographer of Robert Owen) who had studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford, and explained it at the society’s first meeting ‘in allusions to the victorious policy of Fabius Cunctator’.9

The early members of the Fabian Society included Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who were to play crucial roles in the Co-operative movement, Trade Unionism and the London School of Economics. They were both suspicious of the upper-class tradition of university education in Classics:1" Sidney was a hairdresser’s son who left school at 15, and Beatrice, although middle-class, like the ardent socialist and secularist Annie Besant, did not study at university. Sidney nevertheless studied ancient civilisation—in translation—assiduously, publishing an unusual sociological interpretation of Roman history which praised the submission of individuals to the collective good even under the worst emperors.11 In the ILP and the Labour Party, on the other hand, there emerged the striking new phenomenon of radical women activists—lower-middle- or working-class—proud of their patrician university qualifications in Greek and Latin.

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