chapter  55
5 Pages

Byron and working-class readers: three points of view 1845; 1869, 1866; 1887, 1900

(a) friedrich engels (1820–95), social philosopher and major contributor to Marxist theory. Extract from The Condition of the Working Class in England (originally published, in German, in 1845), trans. and ed. W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner, 1958, pp. 272–3: ‘No better evidence of the extent to which the English workers have succeeded in educating themselves can be brought forward than the fact that the most important modern works in philosophy, poetry and politics are in practice read only by the proletariat. The middle classes, enslaved by the influences generated by their environment, are blinded by prejudice. They are horror-stricken at the very idea of reading anything of a really progressive nature. The working classes, on the other hand, have no such stupid inhibitions and devour such works with pleasure and profit. In this connection the Socialists have a wonderful record of achievement, for they have promoted the education of the workers by translating the works of such great French materialist philosophers as Helvetius, Holbach and Diderot. These books, as well as many standard English books have been widely circulated among the workers in cheap editions. Strauss’s Life of Jesus and Proudhon’s book on Property are also read in England only by the workers. Again it is the workers who are most familiar with the poetry of Shelley and Byron. Shelley’s prophetic genius has caught their imagination, while Byron attracts their sympathy by his sensuous fire and by the virulence of his satire against the existing social order. The middle classes, on the other hand, have on their shelves only ruthlessly expurgated “family” editions of these writers. These editions have been prepared to suit the hypocritical moral standards of the bourgeoisie.’