The spectacle of members of the upper class setting out solemnly and in a spirit of scientific research to study the lower classes in their natural habitat is a peculiarly Thirties phenomenon. Earlier social investigators, like the Webbs, had quarried their material at second hand from mountains of blue books, reports and statistical abstracts. Young men from the public schools, like Clement Attlee, had gone to live and work among the poor, but to help rather than to observe. Rowntree and Booth admittedly went to York and London to study poverty on the ground, but they limited themselves strictly to examining physical conditions and their economic causes. Moreover, the purpose of all these investigators was to secure political reform. The Thirties attitude was at once more political and less so. This was the period when self-consciously progressive intellectuals, many of them decidedly unpolitical in the traditional sense, were driven by guilt and romantic despair to join the Communist Party. They felt not merely uncomfortable about the existence of poverty, but personally guilty about their utter ignorance of how the mass of their fellow-countrymen lived. They began, under the influence of a fashionable neo-Marxism, to idealise the working class, to see it (as Orwell did) as the repository of all decency and hope, and to value the vigour, humour, stoicism and comradeship of working-class culture - things that would never have occurred to earlier investigators, who saw poverty only as a breeding ground of vice. However, the attempt to expiate upper-class guilt by identifying with the poor, reinforced by an anthropological concern to document a species which reform might threaten, could easily induce an attitude which was in effect quite apolitical, or positively conservative.
LRB 19 April 1984 | PDF Download