Secrets, crimes and the schooling of the ruling class: how British boarding school stories betrayed their audience
Thursday, 20 June 2019 05:20

Secrets, crimes and the schooling of the ruling class: how British boarding school stories betrayed their audience

Published in Fiction

Nicholas Tucker asks why authors of children's stories about boarding schools chose to concentrate on escapist fantasy, rather than telling the truth

Asked by a magazine in 1956 what he considered the chief characteristics of children’s literature, the veteran French writer Marcel Aymé replied ‘La bêtise, le mensonge, l’hypocrisie.’ This severe judgement ignored newer generations of European and American children’s writers who were already starting to produce works far removed from any residual stupidity, lying or hypocrisy. But in one respect he remained spot on. British boys’ boarding school stories during the whole of the twentieth century consistently chose amiable fantasy over anything occasionally getting closer to some uncomfortable truths.

With the exception of Harry Potter, British fiction set in boarding schools hardly exists today, with most contemporary writers choosing day state schools as backgrounds for their characters. But for many years before, boarding school stories were hugely popular, even appearing in comic strip. Although adult autobiography often painted a very different picture of such schools in real life, in fiction there seemed no time for raising any awkward questions. Small children reading such rose-tinted stories before attending such establishments themselves had no way of knowing whether they accurately described these places, inaccessible for all except those who went to them.

dickens charles illustrations B20084 67 

Illustration of the cruel treatment of the pupils inside Dotheboys Hall by 'Phiz', from the 1839 edition of Charles Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

British girls’ boarding schools at their most traditional are largely remembered today with that mixture of affection and wry humour found to perfection in Ysenda Maxtone-Graham’s recent study, Terms and Conditions; Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979. But the image of past boys’ boarding schools is now more troubling. Numbers of these schools have now been revealed as hunting grounds for predatory paedophiles, and former pupils have also written about other forms of cruelty and deprivation. Dickens’ attack on corrupt Yorkshire boarding schools in Nicholas Nickleby led to the destruction of that particular, infamous industry. But there has been no twentieth century British novelist since, writing for children or adults, who has got anywhere near taking on, let alone campaigning against, the worst features of some of the boarding schools of their own time.

More honesty can be found in nineteenth century texts. Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1856-7, is cheerfully frank about the darker sides of boarding school education. As his father warns young Tom before sending him off to Rugby, ‘You’ll see a great many cruel blackguard things done, and hear a deal of foul, bad talk.’ He was not wrong. Seventeen-year old Flashman and his bullying friends there ‘missed no opportunity of torturing in private.’ This is no exaggeration; Tom faints and for a moment is actually thought to be dead after being ‘roasted’ over a fire for refusing to sell his lottery ticket for the Derby races. Later on, after a half an hour bare-knuckle fight with the larger and stronger ‘Slogger’ Williams, Tom’s life is again despaired of by his sensitive young friend George Arthur, who finally manages to bring the increasingly brutal encounter to an end.

Hughes adored Rugby and its ever-manly ethos, writing enthusiastically ‘After all, what would life be like without fighting, I should like to know…the real highest, honestest business of every son of man.’ But at least prospective parents, with sons like little George Arthur who are neither strong nor war-like, are being given fair warning here of what they might have to expect. Hughes even manages to smuggle in an oblique warning about sexual abuse between boys, a topic normally totally passed over in school stories then and since. Describing one pupil, he writes ‘He was one of the miserable little pretty white-handed, curly-headed boys, petted and pampered by some of the big fellows, who wrote their verses for them, taught them to drink and use bad language, and did all they could to spoil them for everything in this world and the next.’

But that was not all. In the only footnote to the novel he adds, ‘A kind and wise critic, an old Rugbeian, notes here in the margin: ‘The small friend system was not so utterly bad from 1841-1847.’ Before that, too, there were many noble friendships between big and little boys; but I can’t strike out the passage. Many boys will know why it is left in.’ Once again, parents beware, particularly if they have a sweet-natured but delicate son and prospective pupil like George Arthur, always as Tom puts it in danger of being called ‘Molly, or Jenny, or some derogatory feminine nickname.’ Not every such pupil could rely on the protection afforded to his younger friend throughout the story by stout-hearted Tom.

Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co, written 43 years later, is equally frank about the existence and occasional excesses of persistent bullying. Kindly Reverend John, the school chaplain, warns young Stalky and his two study companions Beetle and M’Turk of a ‘little chap’ who is currently being ‘hammered till he’s nearly an idiot.’ Beetle himself, small for his age and a pen portrait of the author when young, knows all about bullying from his own previous experience. . ‘Corkscrews—brush-drill—keys—head-knuckling’—arm-twistin’—rockin’—Ag Ag—and all the rest of it.’

The three boys go on to give the two bullies in question a savage taste of their own medicine, reducing two whiskered 18-year-olds to otherwise shameful tears, with one of them also believing he is about to die. Given some of these boys were shortly going into the Colonial Service, it is as if part of their education at this army school was to learn how to administer effective interrogation techniques. The little chap in question makes a good recovery, but he was lucky.

vice versa

Perhaps the most blistering unmasking of some of boarding schools’ darker realities is found in F.H.Anstey’s classic story Vice Versa, published in 1882. It starts with 15-year old Dick, about to return to his hated Crichton House School. Sobbing in front of his testy, rejecting father on their final meeting ‘in a subdued, hopeless kind of way,’ Dick miraculously manages, with the aid of the magic Garudâ stone, to reverse father and son into each other’s bodies. Mr Bultitude, who had just told Dick how lucky he was to be able to enjoy the innocent games and delights of childhood once back at school, now finds that he has to experience them for himself.

The result over one fraught week is an unmitigated disaster. While Dick at home in the shape of his father eats what he likes and plays games, the transformed Mr Bultitude is tormented day and night at school. Immediately unpopular with his contemporaries for trying to suck up to the headmaster, his ordeals include being kicked in the shins, jabbed in the spine and having his arm twisted round till it is nearly wrenched out of its socket. He also eats dreadful food, sleeps in ice-cold dormitories and suffers one terminally boring lesson in classics after another. Any attempt to assert what he calls ‘his rights’ is met with derision by pupils and masters alike. He is now in a largely lawless society where his threats to take out an action for assault against a bully or to write a letter to the Times complaining generally of his treatment mean nothing.

When one of the kinder teachers starts a similar lecture on how nice it is to be young, Mr Bultitude this time will have none of what he now declares is ‘miserable rubbish.’ Confronted by a particular tormentor, he is forced to admit that ‘I didn’t know there were boys like you in the world, sir; you’re a young monster!’ This novel’s sub-title, A Lesson for Fathers, is well chosen. When Mr Bultitude finally manages to run away he resolves during the subsequent chase that he will never be taken alive. This is no idle threat – he really means it.

Anstey himself was also unhappy at his first boarding school. But as he writes in his autobiography A Long Retrospect, this was not because of any particularly unpleasant teachers or boys. Rather, he describes himself as given to ‘moods of quite causeless depression and discontent with things in general….when it seemed to me that this world I found myself in was a rather wearisome affair.’ At school he describes how he ‘Never entirely shook off a feeling of some impending disaster which might fall when I least expected it.’ Only rarely beaten himself, he remained terrified of the cane, and although guiltless would tremble with nerves during various headmasterly fulminations visited on pupils during assembly and lessons.

As such, he is very like the character of Kiffin, the small boy in Vice Versa scolded for sobbing on his first train journey to school. ‘He was a home-bred boy, without any of that taste for the companionship and pursuits of his fellows, or capacity for adapting himself to their prejudices and requirements, which give some home-bred boys a ready passport into the roughest communities, His heart throbbed with no excited curiosity, no conscious pride, at this his first important step in life; he was a forlorn little stranger, in an unsympathetic, strange land, and was only too well aware of his position.’

This was not a child who was ever going to enjoy most boarding schools as they once were. Others could and did, and were more than happy in adulthood to wax nostalgic about the good time they had there. But Anstey is speaking up here for those pupils forever brooding over their lot ‘with a dull, blank dejection which those only who have gone through the same thing in their boyhood will understand. To others, whose school life has been one unchequered course of excitement and success, it will be incomprehensible enough – and so much the better for them.’

C.S.Lewis, who also hated his boarding school, wrote in his autobiography that Anstey’s novel was the only truthful school story in existence, painting ‘in their true colours the sensations which every boy had on parting from the warmth and softness and dignity of home life to the privations, the raw and sordid ugliness of school.’ Yet it is also possible that Anstey went some way to cancelling the important lessons he was getting across by making his whole story so funny. The headmaster Dr Grimstone is a brilliantly observed character, never at a loss for his next supremely pompous utterance. Mr Bultitude comes over as such a self-serving and unloving hypocrite that there is still comic satisfaction in his blusterings before one of his frequent come-uppances.

Image8

Whether Anstey’s novel had anything to do with it or not, boys’ boarding school stories after that too often found themselves settling into a comfortably facetious and generally escapist mode. Writers like Charles Hamilton, writing under the pseudonym Frank Richards, and who never went to a boarding school himself, produced hundreds of stories set in the imaginary Greyfriars School. Led by Remove Captain Harry Wharton, along with Frank Nugent, Bob Cherry, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh and Johnny Bull, this Famous Five band of pupils regularly thwarted bullies, unmasked other villains and always came out on top in any struggle with unpopular teachers. Popular, good-humoured, independent and adventurous, they led a charmed existence far removed from the daily lives of most of their huge cohort of readers.

There is also among them Billy Bunter, the so-called ‘fat owl’ of the Remove, greedy, dishonest, always on the cadge and never learning from experience, his much emphasised grossness more or less precludes him from any normal feelings of sympathy from readers. Not bright enough to cover his tracks, he is regularly found out with many stories ending on his familiar cry of ‘Yaroo!’ as his sorely tried teacher Mr Quelch ‘thoroughly enjoyed himself’, as Hamilton sometimes puts it, by giving him a fierce beating. The Famous Five always find this highly amusing, but treating corporal punishment as intrinsically funny whoever it is visited upon, fat or thin, is surely one of the greatest betrayals of childhood.

No-one in Tom Brown’s Schooldays found Dr Arnold’s frequent floggings and thrashings at all funny, and for good reason. For in reality caning is not just humiliating; it also hurts, sometimes very badly. Witness this description of the experience taken from life rather than fiction, recorded in Roald Dahl’s autobiography Boy about a time when he was aged between seven and nine.

‘At first I heard only the crack and felt absolutely nothing at all, but a fraction of a second later the burning sting that flooded across my buttocks was so terrific that all I could do was gasp. I gave a great gushing gasp that emptied my lungs of every breath of air that was in them. It felt, I promise you, as though someone had laid a red-hot poker against my flesh and was pressing down on it hard. The second stroke was worse than the first.’

And yet school beatings continued to serve as laugh-aloud set-pieces, from weekly comics like the Dandy and Beano to Whack-O, a BBC television comedy starring the popular comedian Jimmy Edwards as the headmaster of Chiselbury Public School ‘for the sons of Gentlefolk.’ The credits opened with a cane twice smacking across the school name plate. The show was later turned into a film entitled Bottoms Up!

Corporal punishment was finally banned in all British schools in 2000, and with that went much of the humour that had been so perversely associated with it. Today boarding schools are by common consent much nicer places. But a recent study by Alex Renton, Stiff Upper Lip, presents a disturbing picture of what some of them were like at their worst – still well within living memory. Sub-titled Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of the Ruling Class, much of it is based on the evidence of hundreds of fellow-sufferers who wrote to Renton in response to an article he wrote for the Times about his own unhappy time as a pupil.

Many of them mentioned sexual abuse from teachers, which apart from a few hints here and there was not a topic a children’s writer could have taken up until very recently. But there were other less controversial sad memories, particularly of loneliness and homesickness. Here is one from Renton himself, remembering aged just eight his first night at prep school in a dormitory, ruled over by two bossy ten-year-olds who threatened a beating if a boy made any noise after lights-out.

I remember lying with the pillow hard over my face to stifle the snuffles of homesickness, while also lying still as stone in order to keep the rusty old bed quiet. All three of us new boys were in the same bind. The relief when the officers found another boy crying and pulled his sheets back to beat him with the belt was enormous. The noise he made during the operation was cover for you to move your stiffened limbs in the bed and perhaps take the opportunity to sob a bit too.

The image of a small boy weeping on his first day at school is surely not one to be taken lightly. Yet in so many school stories this sort of example is treated at best with mild irritation, accompanied by the earnest hope that he will soon grow out of it. And so he might, but at what cost? Self-help groups now exist for those who see themselves as boarding school survivors still emotionally troubled by memories of past schooling. Obviously all sorts of issues come up in such groups including memories of criminal sexual behavior. But one recurrent theme is regret that they never felt able to talk at the time about their concealed grief. The gap between what parents benignly expected about what boarding school would be like and the nightmare it sometimes turned out to be was felt at the time to be so vast as to prove insurmountable. Those who did try speaking up too often met with incredulity leading to inaction, thereby sowing seeds of bitterness difficult to recover from.

Children’s novelists could at least have given an occasional voice to such pupils. Instead they chose to concentrate on escapist fantasy. Some of these authors may simply have not known what they were writing about, happy instead to continue mining a rich fictional seam popular among so many readers. Others must have had some idea of what sometimes went on, but chose to ignore it. In that they were just like those parents abused themselves at school who then sent their own children to suffer similar experiences.

Sometimes the boarding schools boy pupils attended were indeed pleasant, friendly places, remembered fondly in later life. But others were not, and those pupils particularly picked on or with a general inability to cope sometimes suffered trauma they are still coming to terms with years after the event. Where were the school stories that might have warned them about that?

The interplay between base and superstructure
Thursday, 20 June 2019 05:20

Marx and culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.

Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.

Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.

RC article

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911

The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.

For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.

Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.

What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.

During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.

The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008

To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.

To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.

The interplay between base and superstructure
Thursday, 20 June 2019 05:20

Marx and culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.

Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.

Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.

RC article

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911

The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.

For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.

Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.

What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.

During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.

The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008

To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.

To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.