Wednesday 10 November 2021

Notes for talk: Nov 10 for Seminars on Marxism + YouTube video link to whole seminar + refs to Marxism and Children's Literature blogs + 'Class analysis of 'The Tailor of Gloucester

Here is a recording of this event:

I have assumed an audience today of people some of whom may not have encountered Marxist ideas in connection with culture and literature. For those who have, please bear with me if you are overly familiar with some of what I'm about to say.

1. Two traditions in Marxist criticism: characterise them as

  1. an explanatory, analytic one.
  2. a transformational, programmatic, activist one. 

2. People familiar with the tradition will know that you can of course do both. Some argue that you have to do both. It has a name, ‘praxis’. 

3. The core idea in Marxist criticism = a metaphor = ‘base and superstructure’. Awkward translated phrase. It means, the foundations of a building and the upper structure of the building. ‘Base’ = economy or in marxist terms  the mode of production at a specific stage in its development eg peasant economy or mercantile capitalism or globalised capitalism. ‘Superstructure’ = ideology, culture, legal framework and political institutions, . 

Marx’s argument laid out in the ‘Preface’ to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859) . Here’s the passage - available at :

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. 

4. It’s clear from the time Marx wrote this,  people who both agree with the proposition and disagree with it have interpreted it in a very dogmatic way. We know this from a letter that Engels wrote to Bloch (Sept 21 1890)  in which he says:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one. 


Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent "Marxists" from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too….


Note: All this involves saying that two views are mistakes: 

  1. idealism - which sees the world of eg ideas, culture, literature and the law (say) as a sealed off autonomous world where eg books influence each other without reference to the material worlds in which they find themselves eg “Keats was influenced by Shakespeare”. (He may have been - but why? What in his world made him go to Shakespeare? ) Idealism also involves saying that this or that idea/book/theory changed the material world. ‘Remember,’ as Roy Bhaskar put it, ‘The concept “dog” cannot bark, but real dogs do…and would do without the concept.’ (1989, ‘Reclaiming Reality’)
  2. ‘vulgar Marxism’ - eg the kind of fashion criticism (!) that says that the height of this year’s hemline was as a result of interest rates going up. 

5. Short digression on dialectics:  a dialectical relationship is one of reciprocal or mutual influence. eg The human body is full of biofeedback systems. A lack of a hormone, for example, stimulates its production. An excess inhibits it. In effect, glands like the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the thyroid, say, are in dialectical relationships with each other, affecting each other’s outputs. 

6. Back to base and superstructure. A useful way to think of it is dialectically: mutual or reciprocal influence but one which may be asymmetrical. That is, at any given time, the base may be the dominant partner. At another, the superstructure may have power to determine something in the base, particularly for example when the political structure is totalitarian. One may also be out of  synch with the other. (see later Raymond Williams) that is the cultural form may be antiquated but fulfil a need. Or it maybe ‘before its time’ because it takes a while for that need to come along. 

7. Children’s literature sits within areas we often call ideology and culture ie in the superstructure though the production of books as commodities is in the base.  The price of production and sale has affects what gets written and read. The rise and rise of the picture book with an ever-widening audience depended on the downward curve of the price of colour printing and the security of the market in schools and public libraries. This is under threat.

A note on ideology: its original meaning was limited to describe the ideas that dominate social behaviour and culture. It has come to mean a general group of coherent ideas belonging to any group. 

A note on culture: Raymond Williams gave us a little schema that I find useful when thinking historically about culture: residual, dominant and emergent. We could say, eg, the British monarchy and House of Lords are residual. Dominant could be eg the idea that the free market can solve all problems. Emergent could be the idea that eg climate change or covid can only be solved by social, public, and co-operative policies. 

8. Note on contradiction: in the field of literary production, two writers draw our attention to the idea of ‘contradiction’ in literature. (Pierre Macherey ‘A theory of literary production’ and Fredric Jameson ‘The Political Unconscious’) 

At any given time and place, capitalism creates contradictions - no time to go into all these. 

A writer will express contradictions through a work without necessarily being aware of it. 

In HCA’s ‘Tinder Box’ we see a soldier who on the one hand destroys the residual culture - the king and queen   - and on the other hand marries into it. The origins of this can be found in HCA’s own life and times. The anti-aristocratic movement of the French revolution - (HCA’s father joined the Napoleonic army)  followed by the persistence of the aristocracy through the 19th century counter-revolution. This is mirrored by HCA’s upbringing in desperate poverty and his eventual role as entertainer to the children of Europe’s monarchs. 

9.  Note: what I’ve done there is one form of Marxist crit. in relation to children’s lit: isolate one work, relate it back to its author situated in his life, times and economic and political conflict and which is in part determined by it. 

So what can Marxist crit. look at?

  1. the history of children’s literature as a whole (see Bob Leeson: Reading and Righting) , situating it within historical, political and economic change. One observation: a book is a commodity, it could at one time only be afforded by those with disposable income. This went with houses that had separate bedrooms or ‘the nursery’ for children and manufactured toys. ie the rise of the middle class. The books reflected in many different ways the material existence and outlook of that class. Though some challenged it: eg Treasure Island. The book cunningly shows the stalwart middle class figures behave no better than the pirates. 
  2. Further on class: it’s possible to do a class analysis of CL: see ‘Theories of Class in Children’s Literature’ Lion and the Unicorn Vol 17, no 2, December 1993)

[read out the chapter heads]

  1. taking a genre of children’s Lit and explain its development in relation to social forces: eg Jack Zipes and a number of books on the growth of the retold fairy tale in the first half of the 19th century; Dennis Butts in eg ‘Stories and Society’ and ‘Children’s Literature and Social Change’ or Kathryn Castle in ‘Britannia’s Children, reading colonialism through children’s books and magazines’.
  2. take a particular author and situate them in a particular time and place showing how the economic situation of the time and place produced ideological and cultural forms. Jackie Wullschlager does a bit of this in her biography of HCA. 
  3. take a single work and relate it to that economic situation of the time and place. I’ve tried to do this both in my book ‘The Author, towards a marxist approach to authorship’ and online  on my blog with my essay on Beatrix Potter’s ‘Tailor of Gloucester’. 
  4. social structures of reader and reading: eg ‘Constructing the Canon of Children’s Literature’ (Anne Lundin) takes us into how and why this or that kind of CL reaches which kind of child and the marxisant ideas of ‘mediation’ , ’reception’ and ‘New historicism’. See also eg ‘Through Whose Eye? Exploring racism: reader, text and context’ by Beverley Naidoo’ and ‘Children’s Literature about refugees’ by Julia Hope. Also involved here is what we might call the ‘social construction of intertextuality'. We all have textual repertoires - our personal history of the texts we have encountered = intertextuality.  But this personal history is not really personal. It is socially mediated and constructed through education, class, and canonicity. At any given moment and place this has a contributing determining role in what is read and written. This is explored in 'Uses of Intertextuality in Classroom and Educational Research' eds Nora Shuart-Faris and David Bloome.
  5. Thematic approaches. These books are often very strong on ideology and not so strong on offering connections with the historical, social and economic situation and conflict. People look at eg representation of girls, women, war, boys, race, Empire - and specifics within these eg WW2, or African Americans etc. Of note: ‘Men in Wonderland, the lost girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman’ Catherine Robson; ‘Old Lies Revisited, young readers and the Literature of War and Violence’ Winifred Whitehead; ‘Neo-imperialism in Children’s Literature about Africa; by Yulisa Amadu Maddy and Donnarae MacCann; Images of southeast Asia in Children’s Fiction, Lai Nam Chen; ‘Children’s Literature in Nazi Germany’ Christa Kamenetsky; ‘New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature’ by Clare Bradford et al;  Boys in Children’s Literature and Popular Culture, Masculinity, Abjection and the Fictional Child’ by Annette Wannamaker; Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918-1950 by Hazel Sheeky Bird. Some essays in: Literature and Imperialism edited by Robert Giddings
  6. Using the criterion of collective vs individual. A core piece of dominant ideology is that the individual rules: the individual is self-creating and creates their own world. A vast amount of literature (adult and children’s) celebrates this. Some offers us a sense though, that individuals come out of social, historical and economic circumstances eg ‘Great Expectations’ ‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’. In CL consider ‘Hansel and Gretel’ - a terrible tale of child abandonment. In the Grimms’ versions it indicates that it was a time of famine and that the parents could not afford to go on bringing up their children. However, do stories portray or celebrate collective action? See the ‘Emil and the Detectives’ genre - ‘The Otterbury Incident’; ‘The Honey Siege’; ‘Hue and Cry’; old folk tales like ‘The Musicians of Bremen’ or ‘The Enormous Turnip’.
  7. championing those books or authors deemed to be subversive of the status quo (eg the Little Rebels Award) and/or the Left tradition (eg our book ‘Reading and Rebellion’ (Reynolds, Rosen and Rosen), my book Workers’ Tales etc) Kimberley Reynolds ‘Left Out’. This means engaging with how oppression is represented. Are there books which show people overcoming marginalisation, discrimination, persecution, oppression and exploitation? See also ‘Tales for Little Rebels, a collection of radical children’s literature’ edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel and ‘Learning from the Left, children’s literature, the cold war, and radical politics in the United States’ by Julia L. Mickenberg. 

Of special note:

Herbert Kohl ‘Should we Burn Babar?’

Ariel Dorfman ‘How to  Read Donald Duck’.


‘Little Red Readings, historical materialist perspectives on children’s literature’ edited by Angela E. Hubler

[read  out some of the chapter heads]

and an essay called ‘Children’s Literature and Bourgeois Ideology: observations on culture and industrial capitalism in the later eighteenth century’ by Isaac Kramnick in ‘Studies in eighteenth century culture’ volume 12. 

10. General comments and questions about children’s literature for people to discuss: 

  1. certain broad stroke themes emerge: eg most CL shows children as agents of change. This differs from their position in society as largely powerless. Contradiction. How do we explain this? Is there a Marxist explanation for this? 
  2. Most CL ends with a resolution which involves a solution, a redemption, a homecoming. Is this in a broad sense conservative? The world may be tipped upside down on the way but by the end - usually -  it’s not. Kafka was not a children’s author! (No happy endings!)  Is CL’s function to reassure? To secure the status quo? What are the exceptions? 
  3. Across the whole of CL there is the issue of the ideological representation of childhood. One theory is that we have never escaped from prelapsarianism ie that children represent the state of humanity before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. That is they are deemed to be more innocent, more ‘natural’ than us ‘fallen’ adults, corrupted by sex and money. Think of the redemptive role of the children in the Mary Poppins film. NB direct contrast to eg Victorian semi-enslavement of children in manufacture, and Freudian theories of childhood sexuality. (See Alison Lurie ‘Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups, Subversive Children’s Literature’) .  This has been dubbed the ‘sacralisation’ of childhood. We can ask here, if this was or still is the case, why? 
  4. Improving. One of the roles of CL from the beginning was that it should be improving. This is in contrast to the prelapsarian idea because it implies that the child needs to be improved. So remember that another ideology of childhood from some strands of Christianity was the idea of ‘original sin’. Here’s Luther:

“It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers' wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”

One strand of children’s literature in its early days came out of this tradition. As a historian like Richard Tawney showed us, this tradition is located in the origins of capitalism. 

e) Another theory - most notably that of Jacqueline Rose in her book ‘The case of Peter Pan, or, The impossibility of children's fiction.’ is that children’s books are stuck in an impossible situation of adults foisting their concerns and repressed feelings and ideologies on to children via the fiction we write for them. The question then again is why? What is it about this three hundred year old cultural form that serves this function?

f) the critic Perry Nodelman posed another question. Does children’s literature ‘colonise’ children and childhood? Is there a way in which adults come to children and childhood, like settlers, colonisers and imperialists, grabbing what belongs to children (their thoughts, imaginations, outlooks etc) and turn this raw material into commodities called books? In this context - relevant book ‘This Little Kiddy went to market: the corporate capture of childhood’ by Sharon Beder, Wendy Varney and Richard Gosden.

g) Bourdieu - I will draw your attention to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction. He makes the point that capitalism reproduces itself. It does this economically  but his argument is that it has to do it ideologically too. His focus is on education in that he sees education as having become a means by which it is largely a process that affirms the socio-economic structures of the day. He gets us to ask what kinds of knowledge does education reward and what kinds of knowledge does it exclude? If he’s right about this being part of how capitalism reproduces itself, then we can challenge ourselves and ask to what extent does this or that kind of children’s literature contribute to this process of social reproduction or indeed undermine it?

g) my theory is that CL is an intervention into the relationship between adults and children. It’s a particular aspect of the discourse around parenting (‘nurture’) and education (‘formation’) - a small industry of its own, resulting in TV programmes, magazines, books and newspaper articles.  What’s distinctive about CL is that children are part of the audience -  unlike eg the parenting guides or books about education and pedagogy. Most CL addresses questions of how do children and adults interact. It frequently critiques what the authors regard as unsatisfactory forms of parenting and education, sometimes it poses other forms that it presents as better or more desirable. However, it does this within the time, place, class and economic circumstances it finds itself in. 

So I’ll put this to the test with ‘Where the Wild Things are’.

The book seems to favour the individualist ideology. Max makes his own psychology in his lone battle with the symbolic representation of his wild emotions. He overcomes them. The book situates him in a place where he has a mother-carer (no father mentioned) and where he has a room of his own - which fixes him in time, space and class and in the pictures as white. His room is distinctive in this context because it is very bare. Anything added to it is added through Max’s imagination ie the forest that grew and grew. The aspect to do with nurture is clear at the beginning and end of the story. Max says he’ll eat his mother up (regarded by many child psychologists as what they call ‘regressive behaviour’) and she sends him to his room without his supper. What is this? This is part of a form of child-rearing that has been championed by some for many decades. It is imposed detachment. It is supposed to show parental disapproval. This is historically and ideologically particular. It is not universal. It belongs to a theory that children have to be controlled through withdrawal of physical contact and love, left on their own, sometimes confined. It’s possible to locate this form of nurture within old 17th, 18th and 19th century protestant ideas to do with disapproval of shows of affection, as these will spoil the child. (A film which shows these ideas in action is Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’.) In turn these ideas have a location specifically in middle class ideas of training children to prioritise achievement, accumulation of property, and career progress over love and pleasure and socialised or co-operative forms of leisure, problem solving or work. Sir Toby Belch asks the puritan Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Does thou think thou art virtuous because there shall be no more cakes and ale’ ie virtue is connected satirically to the idea of abstaining from pleasure. 

Once Max has tamed the Wild Things ie the anger that must be tamed - he wants to be ‘where someone loves him best of all.’ Note that it doesn’t say who this might be. One interpretation is that it's his mother. But the book does not show his mother loving him ‘best of all’. It shows her detaching. Again at the end where children’s books traditionally resolve and return home, Max is indeed given his hot supper but interestingly there is no mother doing that or hugging or rewarding Max for having resolved his anger. In that sense she is still detached. 

I think the book is a reverie on attachment-detachment theory which in itself (as I say) is located within the growth of a middle class that had a particular outlook on the training of its youngsters for the world of trade, finance and manufacture. I believe it asks the question not only ‘who’ might love Max best of all, but indeed it wonders if anyone does. The text say he wants to be ‘where’ someone loves him best of all. Perhaps in a place that so far doesn’t exist. Or at least he doesn’t believe it exists. 

This points towards a theory that would favour attachment as a means of upbringing. As I say, it falls into the discourse about nurture but with children included in the audience.

One further note: who are the Wild Things? Traditional criticism says they are the symbolic manifestations of his anger or tantrum. Really? Look at them. Though they are scary at the outset, they are also comical, and they do that thing frowned on or even forbidden within the detachment tradition which is dance together for fun for as long as possible. In other words, the book shows another possible world: the pursuit of collective pleasure in raves. 

Let’s apply Raymond Williams: residual and dominant cultures in mother sending Max to bed without any supper (detachment) and Max the individual overcoming his anger to fit the adult norms: ‘introjection’ as psychologists call it.That view is a dominant cultural view.  (Once again see Michael Haneke’s film ‘The White Ribbon’ for seeing how introjection is a means of social and political control.) But the book also shows emergent culture with the collective rave-up before it returns Max to the lonely, bare bedroom and his detached bowl of hot supper. 

This way, he might learn to prioritise achievement over affection, detachment over attachment, and this is ideal preparation for the private accumulation of knowledge required by the exam system and the private accumulation of property required (for those who can) by society. Will he? Or will he grow up to be someone who will write about it? The book is by Maurice Sendak, the boy is called Max. 

By the way, it’s a book I really like! 

Here is the recording of this event in full:


Here are some pieces on Marxism and Children's Literature from this blog:

and more recently:


Here's a talk of a class analysis of 'The Tailor of Gloucester'






I’m going to focus today with ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’. 


What will follow is just one approach of many that owes its origins to the body of ideas known as ‘Marxist’. As a quick rundown of approaches that owe something to Marxism, I suggest any of the following methods of analysis:


1) Using Karl Marx’s (or Marxists’) definitions of ‘class’ and examining the apparent class of the protagonists and how the protagonists interact, what becomes of them in the end.

2)   Using Marx’s (or Marxists’) definition of ‘ideology’ and examining how the text appears to 

a)   support the ‘dominant ideology’ of the time of its creation or 

b)   subvert the dominant ideology of the time of its creation. (For example, where you were talking about ‘reception’, you could show how a text from a previous era favoured or subverted dominant ideology in this later era.)

3)   Using Marx’s (or Marxists’) definition of ‘history’ and examining how a text arises out of the particular socio-economic circumstances of its creation and/or how it fits into the particular socio-economic circumstances of its ‘reception’.  This is sometimes called ‘locating’ or ‘situating’ a text in history. 

4)   Using Marx’s (or Marxists’) definitions of ‘contradiction’ and showing how the text demonstrates one or more examples of contradiction.

5)   Using ‘historicist’ terms like ‘mediation’,  you could show how the meaning, use and reception of a given text altered according to how it is mediated. This process would become ‘marxist’ if your analysis of mediation was linked to ‘ideology’ and how that ideology was produced by and/or favoured and/or subverted the socio-economic circumstances of the time. 

6)   Using ‘thing theory’, show how key, significant objects in a text, embody or symbolise class and/or ideology and/or the socio-economic struggles of its time. 

7)   Using Foucault on discourse but extending the notion of ‘power’ towards a ‘class analysis’ of the ultimate purpose of that power, ‘locating’ it in the socio-economic circumstances of its time. 

8)   Using Marxism (and later developments) to examine ‘imperialist’ or ‘colonialist’ elements within a text, or in the text’s ‘use’ within, say, education, religion or nurture. 

9)   Examining issues around gender and sexuality from within the paradigm of ‘dominant ideology - (supporting or subverting it, etc) and placing that ideology in the context of socio-economic circumstances of its time. 

10)      Examining issues around ‘the body’ from within the paradigm of ‘dominant ideology’ (supporting or subverting it, etc) within socio-economic circumstances.

11)      Examining issues around psychological or psychoanalytic perspectives but tracing these through to a combination of social, class and ideological purposes and functions.  

12)      Examining a feature like ‘individualism’ and locating that within the paradigm of ‘dominant ideology’ and/or contrasting it with ‘collective’/‘co-operative’ elements within texts. 

13)      Examining the process of ‘recuperation’ - the means by which apparently ‘subversive’ themes, ideas, whole texts are rendered non-subversive through eg mediation, co-option, editing, abridgement, adaptation etc.

14)      Examination of ‘repression’ as a process by which a text or elements within a text are censored, inhibited, effaced or how repression is apparently favoured or ‘rewarded’ within a text eg through ‘just’ punishment, as part of dominant ideology. 

15)      Using the criterion of ‘realism’ (see Lukacs). This involves claiming that this or that character or setting does or does not fit certain socio-economic criteria as determined from outside the text and/or demanding of characters or a text that they should have  socio-economic explanations or details to justify the behaviour of characters. 

16)      Explaining new forms, change in forms, new kinds of content, changes in content, the genesis of texts (form and/or content), the clash between the ideology of texts by locating any or all of these within socio-economic circumstances and/or socio-economic change. (eg the rise of the novel, the rise of picture books, or indeed, the rise of children’s literature itself - see Robert Leeson, ‘Reading and Righting’). 


[Feel free to ask me to expand on any of these in class]


‘The Tailor of Gloucester’. 


It first appeared in 1903. 


Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s not a book for children or even a book embedded within the discourses of nurture or education. Instead, let’s view it as a text that was specifically written in order to talk about ‘class’ and the class-system. That’s to say, not ‘class’ as viewed as something to do with life-style or how people speak, nor what their aspirations are. I’m going to use the word ‘class’ in a different way: to do with what people do to earn a living. And again, within that framework, not in relation to how much money people earn to make a living, but what their position is in relation to the society’s means of producing wealth. (In Marxist terms this is called locating them within the ‘relations of production’ ie that is whether they are a) ‘owning and controlling the means of production’ or b) ‘selling labour-power to the owners of the means of production’. Marxism does also identify c) a layer in society that isn’t directly part of either of these:  made up of eg self-employed and managerial, which has been sometimes described using a French term ‘petit bourgeois’ but which depends for its existence on a) those owning and controlling the means of production. 


So, you’ll see here that I’m talking of ‘class’ as an idea that is not about measuring income or testing opinions and views. It’s about what is people’s work in terms of how materials are produced and distributed in a society. 


The Tailor of Gloucester: let’s do this like a cast list for a film.


The first people we meet are called ‘gentlemen’ and they are identified as both by that title and also by their clothes: ‘ruffles and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta’. Even if we have hardly any idea what ruffles, paduasoy and taffeta are, we certainly have some idea of ‘gold-laced’. Whoever these ‘gentlemen’ are, they are so wealthy they can afford to wear gold, not simply as jewellery but as a decoration to their clothing. 


Next up is a ‘tailor’. We learn of him that he works all day long, making ‘expensive’ clothes but no matter how much of this he makes, he is very, very poor. He can’t afford to wear the kinds of clothes he makes. (We’ll come back to this last point.)


Without explanation or verbal description, next in the cast list are some mice, who appear in a picture opposite page 8, getting dressed, or more probably, with a mouse being fitted for some kind of jacket.


Next is Simpkin the cat, and the first job that we hear he has is ‘keeping house’ (p. 15) and the next that he is some kind of gopher or fetch-and-carrier for the tailor. He is, then, a kind of servant or, as they used to say, ‘in service’. 


Next is the Mayor of Gloucester and we gather that he is wealthy enough to buy a very special coat and waistcoat for his wedding, and we might guess that he is a ‘gentleman’ though it doesn’t say so directly. 


On page 39 we meet birds who appear to be what we might call ‘outside the productive process’. They sing and entertain but in an unpaid, wild sort of a way. 


In the latter part of the book we focus back on the mice who we see are really like workers in a mini-factory producing high-quality goods. 


Put this all together and we have a cross-section of society producing and consuming goods. It’s not quite complete though because the mice in the mini-factory don’t seem to have a boss or a manager, though in the space implied by the last words of the book, the tailor himself appears to inherit them as workforce. In one sense the book, shows how an artisan (the tailor) moves from being a self-employed artisan to becoming an ‘owner of the means of production’ (ie he owns the workshop, all the tools of the trade and is the buyer of raw materials for a workforce to turn into finished goods. ) 


Within the book, we have strong images of wealth (or what has been called ‘conspicuous expenditure’) attached to ‘gentlemen’ without any direct explanation of where that wealth comes from other than that at least one person who owns it at the beginning has a high status job or office within a cathedral town or, if you prefer, the microcosm of society that the book describes. He is the Mayor. (To point this out, as I’m doing here, is to use what I called ‘realist’ criteria as per point 15 above.) 


Now let’s look at how the plot gets these characters acting like cogs in a machine. That is: put into action by the plot. 


The wealthy Mayor has the wealth and power to command a  high quality luxury item, the coat. Traditionally, such a thing has to be made by an artisan and that seems to be what will happen, until we find that due to the fact that the artisan is working to such tight margins, he is a bit short to finish the coat, and because he is working so hard, (it’s implied), he falls ill. 


In Marxist terms, no matter how poor the tailor is, he is not working class, he is self-employed (‘petit bourgeois’). He isn’t working class because he doesn’t sell his labour to anyone. He works on a piece by piece, job by job, fee-for-the-job basis. What’s more he just has enough,  and it’s only enough,  to employ help, symbolised here by Simpkin, his house-keeper and gopher. Simpkin, in Marxist terms,  is working-class in that such a position in production is not able to generate any income by any means other than to sell his labour for money - or in Simpkin’s case, milk. However, like a good few pre-industrial workers, Simpkin has also figured out how to get himself perks. In his case, it’s catching mice in the properties that the artisan either owns or rents. His employer, the tailor, doesn’t see or doesn’t sympathise with Simpkin that this mouse-catching is an essential part of Simpkin’s livelihood, just as foraging and poaching on common land was essential for many agricultural workers and people in service at this time. 


So, Simpkin effectively goes on strike, or at the very least enacts a piece of sabotage. He does not carry out the service for which he is employed. This is fraught with danger for Simpkin, because he has no fellow workers with whom he can withdraw labour in order to get leverage over his employer. However, he has found a way to stop the flow of a vital part of raw material. It is at moments like this that those who are working class, discover that they are not merely servants in the process of production but are the essential human component who add value to what is ultimately made. They are the means by which something is made, extracting the raw materials from their sources, distributing them to places where they are processed, doing the processing and distributing the products themselves. 


For much of the time, the story of this productive process is told as if it is brilliant entrepreneurs, risk-taking financiers, cunning marketeers and product designers who are responsible for the production of goods. Every now and then, though, whether in fiction or reality, we catch a glimpse of what is obvious and yet often hidden: that it’s workers who add value to raw materials. In this particular case, through symbolic representation, the artisan - the Tailor - discovers that no matter how skilled an artisan he is, he still has to rely on the work of his employee, Simpkin,  to get the job finished. 


In fact, we and the tailor discover something that in order to finish the coat - which we discover at the end is the bridge to more business for him - he also needs the combined, collective labour of the mice. It is not possible for him to work his own productive capacity any more to produce what the wealthy buyer wants from him. He needs the factory system: a group of workers working in co-ordination and co-operation. In fact, it’s even more co-ordinated than that. The system also needs the ‘division of labour’ represented by Simpkin and the mice doing different things: to finish the job, Simpkin has to lay aside his need for perks, hand over the ‘twist’ so that either the factory or the artisan can finish it off. 


Simpkin does just that, and because he does just that, and because the demand of the wealthy consumer (the Mayor) is satisfied, we gather that the artisan (the tailor) becomes wealthy through providing his specialised luxury goods to the rich merchant classes. However, we discover at the very end, that the reason why this happens is not because the artisan has some special powers but because he has successfully employed the labour of some uniquely skilled workers, the mice. Symbolically, they are represented as a secret, an out-of-sight reason for the product to be saleable. It is quite clearly stated that it is their labour which adds the value to the raw materials in question. 


Now, my argument here is not that this method is the only way to understand or read this story, but that it exists as one meaning. Of course, it’s possible to ignore all this and talk of the story in terms of obligations, betrayals, forgiveness and, in the end, harmony.Rather than cogs working the productive process, we might say instead that “it’s this ultimate harmony that is crucial - people, society and production -  in a story of mutual need: or everyone in society needing each other and that’s the best way for something to be made/for things to be done. When people disrupt the harmony - by such things as strikes or sabotage - the harmony breaks down and things don’t get made.”


It’s possible to make that reading of the story.


If that’s true, however, the story can’t stop itself revealing that no matter how harmonious the process is (or should be), it also produces victims: in this case, Simpkin has to forgo his perk, and until the artisan-tailor is lucky enough to tap into the resource of the factory system, he is utterly impoverished. It goes without saying that this handling of the productive capacity of the mice is as unrealistic as the ‘elves’ in the famous ‘Elves and the Shoemaker’ story. It’s in the vein of the wishful-thinking peasant stories like ‘Jack the Beanstalk’. Something turns up which enables the little guy to acquire great wealth, and, more often than not, a marriage into royalty - as with Cinderella or the miller’s son in ‘Puss in Boots’ (see Jack Zipes for this kind of interpretation of folk and fairy tales).  


With the folk and fairy tale, the jump from poverty to good fortune is nearly always through a combination of magic and  wits. Though ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’  too is clearly magical tale, it’s more Dickensian, more like social realism, with a strong eye for detail and motive, than in a folk or fairy tale,  making it - perhaps - a little less magical than say ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. 


In which case, the story not only takes harmony as its base line for desirability, or as its objective, it also positions us the readers in a particular relation to production - and as we find across the whole history of fiction - it is very nearly always from the point of view of the employer rather than the employed. In this case, we see things from the tailor’s point of view:  it’s his needs which are paramount, his needs which have to win out, it’s his needs we care about most,  That is: to get the coat finished. But, we see that his needs are ultimately subsumed by and caused by the need of the wealthy Mayor.  Simpkin is a sufficiently fully rounded figure with motives for us to have a sense that he gets a rough deal, (no mice!) which will merit at the least some of our sympathy perhaps.  Even so in the end - and this is important that it’s ‘in the end’ -  he knuckles down and we might assume will at the very least go on getting milk from the tailor, even if he will have to lay off the mice, though the story tells us that he gets ‘Christmas dinner’ (p.35) from the Tailor.  He is in a way analogous to Caliban in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, a rebel with a cause, who ultimately is not ‘allowed’ by the fiction to have what he thinks he deserves, but with this Beatrix Potter story, the withholding of what he is entitled to, is loaded in the fiction as to suggest that it’s all for the general good - that ultimate harmony. 


Meanwhile, the mice seem to be operating at a level of minimal reward. There really doesn’t seem to be any immediate reason for all the highly skilled work they are doing. We might assume that the better-off the tailor is, the more crumbs will get left on the floor and the more they will prosper, but other than that, their obligation to work for the tailor is invisible or non-existent. 


In ideological terms, this is analogous to how the media represent the relationship between workers and employers: employers are forever described as people who ‘give‘ workers jobs. This is an enclosed system with no other system deemed possible. The prime purpose of employers employing people is kept in the background - namely for employers to make money or profits, and it’s suggested that if it weren’t for this system of mutual benefit, workers wouldn’t know how to make things or distribute them. Clearly, even if there are elements of mutuality involved, it’s hardly symmetrical or even-sided. The benefit to the employer ‘he grew quite stout, he grew quite rich‘ (p.54) is of much greater benefit to him than to the mice or Simpkin.   


But this isn’t all. Let me approach it this way:


as a child, I loved this story. I didn’t read any of what I’ve said so far,  off it at the time. Above all else, I wanted the tailor to succeed. All my emotional identification was with him. Beatrix Potter’s ‘foregrounding’ of his life, motives, cares and fate worked on me. He had a job to do, just as I had things to do at school, or on occasions at home or on holiday. Sometimes I was anxious about such things and so I could understand something of the tailor’s anxiety. That said, I also understood and sympathised with Simpkin. He was hungry and saved the mice under the teacups for later when he would eat them. Fair enough. But then again, the mice are drawn as sweet little things and of course the story suggests that they are the selfless little heroes that enable everything to reach its happy conclusion, so the tailor’s good deed to let them out from under the teacups pays off for him. He does them a favour, they do him a favour. And the view of Simpkin peeping through the door on p. 45 disturbed me, if not terrified me. It’s only when we see him on p. 49 standing up beside the tailor’s bed with a cup of something for him, that the terror subsided. The tailor’s illness also worried me, and saddened me, with its strong hint of impending death. The weight of the story implied for me  (though the story does not state it) that it’s Simpkin’s regret and reform which helps the tailor to get better. I was glad that he did that. 


You can see here that the emotional pull of the story is towards the idea of all parties working towards the same outcome no matter what the rewards are for themselves. As a child I was glad about this - grateful even. 


Now, if we view this employer-employee situation as one that has mutually exclusive characteristics rather than mutually satisfying ones, this is all very ideological. That’s to say, the way my sympathies were worked on (or what is called the ‘affect’ in the writing) served to mask the underlying economic relationships going on. How? 


Marx argued that ultimately the needs and interests of employers and employees are not and cannot be the same: that is, it is the job of the employer to employ employees for the least possible cost to him- or herself. The job of the employees is to secure from the employer the best possible price for their labour - ‘wages’ or ‘salaries’. This is a mutually exclusive process or ‘contradiction’ described by Marx and others as ‘class war’. (Note: it’s not just the employees who wage ‘class war’ on their bosses, but both sides are in war with each other. In German and French the phrase is expressed as ‘war of the classes’ ie plural) 


How does Beatrix Potter overcome this mutual exclusivity or ‘contradiction’? How does she make it seem as if tailor, cat, mice are all mutually benefiting each other?  She is able to give that impression,  because this is a human-and-animal story and the animals are not paid, and don’t need to be paid. They just appear to rely on their employer and prioritise his needs over their own. In psychological terms, they ‘internalise’ or ‘introject’ his needs, and ‘efface’ their own - something which the employing class needs and benefits from over and over again - as here. 


This is only made possible within the story because there is no ultimate accounting going on. We never learn the price of the coat, the pay for the mice and Simpkin and the tailor’s profit margin. We just see harmonious cogs working to produce the coat and - surely significantly - the coat is not meant for any old wealthy person - but for someone at the top of the social order. In other words, this act of harmonious production has an outcome beyond or above pure wealth. It has an outcome in how society is governed, how we are ruled. There is even a hint of something else. You’ll remember that the coat is for a wedding: so bound into the sense of social order and government, there is that foundation stone of bourgeois society, heterosexual weddings, families, households. 


I can see then that my sympathies (emotions) about obligations and favours were drawn into what is in reality an economic set of relationships. Quite often, in fiction we are drawn into relationships as if they are somehow class-free. (It’s all about love, etc.) Apparently, it is not supposed to matter that a pair of young lovers in a story are living in large detached houses in Connecticut or that a bitter rivalry is taking place in a high school where no one is poor. Class in such stories, we might think, doesn’t matter to the story: love or rivalry happens at all levels in society and we can, supposedly,  just lift such an emotion out of its class situation in the story of film and apply it to our own - if, that is, we see it as different. 


(Note: Can we? Or is there some kind of subliminal messaging going in such stories, where we are slowly inducted into the dominant images of well-heeled people having deep, real, good and true emotions while un-well-heeled people are more often than not, bitter, mean, inarticulate, incapable of sensitivity, and dangerous? )


So back with ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’, I think it’s unusual in any fiction to see that the core relationships of a story are so much tied into labour, class and economics and even more unusual to see it in a children’s book, if for no other reason than that children themselves are largely pre-industrial beings, not yet employed. They themselves don’t have employment stories to tell unless its around chores, newspaper rounds, and babysitting by which time they’re over 12. This story, of course  is in the Beatrix Potter series largely read to or read by the under-7s. All the more remarkable, therefore, that by my account this is a story which has the capacity to invite empathy over such things as not being able to be a successful petit-bourgeois, disappointment that an employee might withdraw his labour, and pleasure that a factory full of workers dutifully get on and produce something out of the goodness of their hearts and not, selfishly, for that thing called ‘pay’.


A reasonable objection to all this might be that we could do as good as proving that Beatrix Potter couldn’t have intended such things. We might say that all she’s done is produce a story of mutual obligation, a Christmas story telling us that kindness pays off; that we mustn’t bear grudges;  and that at this special time of the year, mysterious and beautiful acts of magic happen. Though Jesus is not born in the story, a beautiful coat is created. Profane though it is to say it, there is a symbolic way in which we might say that the coat replaces the infant Jesus in this story.  


This kind of criticism is not concerned with whether Beatrix Potter intended any, some, all or none of these things. This kind of criticism suggests that the functioning of ideology is larger or beyond the author to be in charge of. Or, to put it another way, the author selects and chooses and creates a story using the tools that are already there - including ideology. Even as he or she focusses on one set of ideas - in this case, let’s say it’s around these ideas of mutuality and kindness - he or she has to express them through power structures, gender systems, hierarchies and economic structures that already exist around him or her. You can’t escape these. You can’t NOT put your characters somewhere in the hierarchies and structures that you know of or can imagine. This is the hidden language of power, hierarchy and economics. In ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’,  it’s less hidden than is often case. By uncovering it, we can reveal  what the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson called the story’s ‘political unconscious’. 


Another Marxist critic, Pierre Macherey said that when we probe the relationships and outcomes of a story as I’ve done, we’ll find a contradiction (or several contradictions) between two ideas (or more) that can not co-exist in one story. The core contradiction in the story concerns the  identity of the mice. For Simpkin, they are food and by putting them under the teacups they are what economists including Marx call ‘stored up labour’. The labour was Simpkin hunting them down and making use of them as food. By putting them under the teacups, Simpkin ‘re-discovers’ (as it were) the breakthrough moment in civilisation when human beings discovered that they could store, cure and preserve summer food to eat in winter. However, the mice themselves have the capacity to act as workers, creating value as a result of their skilled labour. So Potter has created a story in which Simpkin’s bargaining chip with the Tailor requires the mice to be stored labour, but the social harmony aspect of the story requires them to be dutiful and productive workers. Yet, they can’t be both. I think what is happening here is that Potter is caught between wanting to show Simpkin’s reasonable pre-capitalist hunting rights, (as with peasants in feudal times) and wanting to show a harmonious, dutiful workforce (as in capitalist times). As is often the case with Victorian and Edwardian writers, they could sympathise with one worker’s needs and desires - especially if it had a rural, pastoral element -  but the moment this worker is put alongside other workers, the plot of the story ends up needing the collective of workers to knuckle down and work as quietly and submissively as possible. Any suggestion that a group of workers could be right in expressing their needs through, let’s say a strike, is nearly always resisted in fiction. (see, for example ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens).  In the end, it’s Simpkin’s self-sacrificing acceptance that the coat must be made, and his awareness that the mice are going to do just that, which makes him give up his bargaining chip. In cat terms, it’s impossible. A cat cannot one moment think of mice as food and the next as productive units of labour. The story, though, requires him to overcome that contradiction. 


In terms of ideology, Simpkin cannot be seen, for example, to win the mice back from the tailor and eat them,  as the social order represented by making a coat for the ruling order will be disrupted. The social order is reinforced and glorified (symbolically within the glorious fabric and beauty of the finished coat), at which point the next contradiction bites in:  the mice become free (of Simpkin) in order to be unfree (to do the work); the contradiction between dead mice and living working mice is ‘resolved’ in plot terms by the mice going from the captivity of being stored labour to the captivity of working for next-to-nothing out of the goodness of their hearts. 


Incidentally, one piece of classic Marxism is embodied in the idea of the tailor wearing threadbare clothes whilst making the most valuable garment possible. He cannot afford to buy  or even to have the garment that he is contracted to make. He cannot have something he and only he knows how to make. Only someone with enough stored-up labour (in this case, money) will be able to have it. The nature of capitalism is that those who work by selling their labour can not and do not collectively possess enough money to buy all that they produce. The more that employers push wages down, the less that workers can afford to buy the stuff that the firms they work in, produce. Neither the tailor, Simpkin or the mice can afford to keep the coat. It can only go to someone with surplus wealth. This situation will change after the end of the story, because the Tailor will find that he will be able to afford a coat like that, but Simpkin and the mice will not. Beyond the end of the story there are the seeds of future disharmony brought out by the contradiction between the total price of labour and the total price of goods. 




At the outset, I used the phrase ‘one approach of many’ that come out of a body of ideas known as ‘Marxist’. These start from one core idea explored by Marx, summarised in the phrase ‘base and superstructure’. This is in reality a rather bad translation of words we use to describe buildings. The ‘base’ is in reality the foundations of a building. The ‘superstructure’ is the building that we can see above the level of the foundations. The ‘base’ is what Marx understood to be ‘economic activity’: the making, distributing and financing of all the products and goods we need in order to survive, live and enjoy ourselves. The superstructure  consists of the institutions in which human ideas are expressed: education, religion, law, parliament and the arts. His argument was that the superstructure depended on the base and was ‘determined’ by it. More than that, our own individual consciousness was determined by what he called our ‘social being’ that is how it is we exist in society as a whole which itself is determined by that base. 


It suggests that no idea, attitude, thought, emotion nor any institution through which those processes are expressed: (family, school, church, law court, parliament), float free or are detached from the system by which we make, distribute and finance ourselves.  


(Consider education. Over time, education has been organised and served up in many different ways: in Medieval Europe only a tiny minority had any schooling. In my childhood, it was accepted that many people left school at 15 with no qualifications and only a tiny minority went to university. So, the word ‘education’ doesn’t float free of society. It means different things in different times. The Marxist argument goes a bit further: it says that the education system we get is determined by the economic system. 


The way goods and services were produced in Medieval Europe, didn’t require education for all. It needed people to accept being bound into the systems of serfdom and indentured labour of the time. The processes of debate, discussion and interpretation of texts was only acceptable within very narrow confines of a tiny group of scholars. 


Jump forward to say the 16th and 17th century in England, say, and you find that within the cities, where people have broken the bonds of feudalism and indentured labour - mostly through trade and artisanship - the new class demands the right to have schools for its children. This is the origin of schools in England with names like Merchant Taylors, and Haberdashers.


At first, when capitalism is becoming the main mode of production in the late 18th and early 19th century, it’s thought that the best way to ensure that people work in factories is for them to have no education. As the level of skills required to produce and distribute goods, rises, so it is accepted that more and more people should get more and more education. That remained the case until about ten years ago when the economic system went into crisis, since when it’s been suggested that there should be limits on this. In short, universities cannot expand forever, they say. )


Marx argued that what’s going on here is to do with class. At any given moment in history, things have to be made and distributed. At different moments in history, how we organise ourselves to do this has varied. Think slavery in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, serfdom in medieval Europe, slavery in north, south, central America and the Caribbean,  and capitalism in the modern world. These are all different ways of treating the mass of people who make and distribute things. There are those who own and control the land, machines and buildings and those who are engaged to work the land, machines and buildings. What we call ‘history’, Marx argued is the story of how this was organised, how those who own and control and fight each other (wars and treaties), how people who don’t own and control, struggle for livelihood and living space and rights and how these two ‘sides’ - the owning side and the working side - struggle against each other. The owning side, he called ‘the ruling class’, the working side ‘the working class’. 


At any given moment in time, at any given place, the exact nature of this relationship will vary. Culture - sitting according to Marx in the ‘superstructure’ - the upper building - will alter according to changes in the foundations or economic base.


Back to ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’. What I did there was try to show how class was enacted in the story. What I didn’t do, though, was come anywhere near a description of explanation as to why did that particular person, Beatrix Potter,  with her biography - with her particular class position if you like,  write that particular story in that particular place and time? One form of traditional Marxist criticism tries to do this. It tries to put a particular work ‘into history’ as the phrase goes. 


I’ve suggested that though the story is about labour and production; and though the story takes us right into the intimate details of how something is produced, it turns this economic relationship into a story of mutual obligation and favour. 


I think this is crucial.


By the time Beatrix Potter was writing and drawing children’s books in London, the middle classes had ‘discovered’ that in the midst of fabulous wealth and prosperity, there was terrible poverty, disease and destitution. The Potters lived in Kensington but across town in the East End there were indeed hundreds of sweat shops making clothes. At precisely the moment Potter was writing the book, Charles Booth was producing his monumental ‘London Life and Labour’ which documented exactly how millions of people were struggling to survive. It shocked many people at the time. 


The responses to this situation were varied. Some said that the reason why people were poor was because there were too many people. (‘Malthusianism’ as parodied by Dickens at the beginning of ‘A Christmas Carol’) Some said that the reason why people were poor was because they drank. Some said it was because they didn’t pray enough. Some said it was because they were Irish or Jewish -  and what could you expect with people like that? In the midst of these ideas, all of which are different versions of blaming the poor for being poor - ideas in the superstructure that suits those running the base very nicely -  there was also talk of reform and revolution. England had started to see the first successful examples of unskilled workers - dockers and miners and so-called ‘match girls’ forming unions and going on strike. 


In a way, Beatrix Potter has pictured this world of poverty with in this case, its urban sweat shop workers (like my great grandparents as it happens!), but she has refracted it all through the prism of ‘the time of swords and periwigs’. This ‘saves’ the story from the reality of 1903. With the use of animals as workers, it ‘saves’ it all from the reality of poverty and industrial strife. No one in this version of clothes production is going to go on strike. Even though Beatrix Potter can picture poverty - for the individual artisan not for the working mice, note! - the system of obligation and favour she has created,  forbids or evaporates the need for rebellion, reform or revolution. Everything will get better and more harmonious if we all work hard enough and well enough - that is, with good enough quality - and if we are kind enough to each other. 


The book, then, has a consoling quality. It arouses our sympathies, it engages us with hints of rebellion (with Simpkin withholding the twist) , and then soothes us with reconciliation and regret: Simpkin ‘felt quite ashamed of his badness compared with those good little mice!’ (p. 48)


The text invites us to ‘introject’ the Tailor’s need to get the coat finished for the wealthy Mayor, rather than to empathise with Simpkin’s need to have food - (the mice he hid under the cups) - and it invites us to reject Simpkin’s little act of rebellion as ‘badness’. The mice are ‘good’ because they offer up their labour for no apparent reason other than they wish to be kind, for no reward for themselves. ‘Let self-sacrifice be its own reward’ as the Protestant embroidered samplers (sewn by girls in school) used to say. This sentence ‘felt quite ashamed of his badness compared with those good little mice’  is a classic case of a text asking readers to take on the ruling and owning order’s values. In Simpkin’s case, he is seen taking these values on as his own, even though they are against his own self interest. Well done, Simpkin, we are invited to think. 


It might be argued that any ruling order needs and enjoys the arts, religion, education and law to get us to introject its own values and needs as if they are our own, but in this particular moment and place, of London 1903, there were some specifics to do with what was thought of and was just being described in great empirical detail, as the dangerous, seething masses of East London, sometimes described by commentators as ‘Babylon’ or the ‘abyss’. 


The prosperous middle classes - like Beatrix Potter’s family  - feared that the masses would one day rise up, rampage through the city and seize their property. Potter’s family were actually so class conscious (in another sense of the word ‘class’)  that they wouldn’t let Beatrix marry someone working in publishing because he was ‘in trade’ and therefore by definition not nice enough, not enough of a gentleman. That expresses to me an anxiety about place and position. It’s not surprising then that Potter might end up with a vision in which anxieties about the possibility that the social order might be disrupted, are soothed and washed away. The implied author suggests, I think, that the story should reassure us. 


Here's my intro to a talk at University of Hertfordshire on 'The Means of Instruction' 

Marxism and children’s lit conference 


First: welcome to all of you and thanks to the people who have organised this conference: Jenny Plastow, Lisa Garner etc 


I’d like to begin with a bit of negative definition – that is, saying what we’re not, or at least what we have never intended this conference to be. 


It’s not been called in order to found a political party, group, tendency, fragment, faction, or, as the French would say, ‘groupuscule’. No one behind this conference has called it with the intention of putting over what is sometimes called ‘a line’ that must be adhered to. It has been called with a view to exploring the possibility that children’s literature can be investigated fruitfully and interestingly using what we’ve called ‘Some Marxist Perspectives’. If it turns out that there is some running in this, then we have the opportunity to do any or some of the following: publish a book based on today’s proceedings, start a journal, carry on having conferences.  


That said, I would like to put us on the map in the following way: you are attending, what I think is the first ever conference with these terms of reference and the programme on offer.  


Let’s do a bit of situating. We’re a group of what I suspect is a mix of teachers, librarians and writers meeting together in a university in one of the wealthiest countries of the world. It seems to me that we’re positioned on a cycle that repeats itself all over the western world. Social democratic governments (like Clinton, Blair, Mitterand and Schroeder) alternate with explicitly neo-liberal governments (like Reagan, Thatcher, Chirac and now Merkel) in trying to privatise whatever is left of these countries’ state-run welfare systems. This is called ‘modernisation’ and directly affects the standard of living, care and education of the children we write for and teach. Governments of either hue show themselves to be unable or unwilling to do anything about staggering inequalities at home or between the rich and poor anywhere else in the world. In the face of this, for us, to talk about ‘the child’, as if he or she is one, uniform entity with common experience can not be sustained. 


Somewhere here, we also have to factor in the way in which these inequalities alter the cultural make-up of countries: in the west, the old fantasies (some would say ‘lies’) about a homogenous race or homogenous national culture can’t be sustained because of ever-increasing diversity. Again, the question ‘Who is the child?’ can’t be answered simply. Not that it ever could be, but that’s another matter. 


Meanwhile, we know that a massive geo-political crisis is coming over the horizon in the forms of humanly made climate-change and a humanly made energy shortfall. The semi-permanent state of war that we now find ourselves in seems to be a consequence of how our leaders try to handle this. Again, this is something that has a direct impact on children, schools and parents in particular in and around the many battlefields across the world and away from the battlefields in the minds and consciousness of all children. Yesterday, my five year old asked me why was the woman’s head put on a pole. She had overheard the report from the Congo on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. 


If this is our epoch, where are we in it? Economically, some of us are employees in the institutions (schools, colleges, libraries and the like) that the state has asked to deliver to the economy the workforce that the economy says it needs. Others of us are earners of fees and freelance payments in the leisure and entertainment industry [open brackets] ‘book section [close brackets]These two sides (the institutional and the freelance) have relationships with each other: as expressed by such processes as writers in schools, teachers reading books, or indeed examiners using literary texts but we also have relationships with the institutions we find ourselves in: on the one hand, education and on the other the publishing business. 


Each of these two institutions has been directly affected by the epoch we are in and people like us working in them have responded. So, it’s not hard to see that the publishing industry in this country has moved from being dominated by small family units to one dominated by massive world units. Meanwhile, education all over the West has come under greater and greater pressure to dispense with humanistic and liberal ideas and adopt instrumental approaches (of which the rush to synthetic phonics is only one) policed by systems of testing, inspection, grading and selection.  


The day to day matter of what books are written, get published and indeed read is, as I see it, not only held within this matrix. But also, the strands of power, or lack of power and the environments created by this matrix have an impact on what gets written, what gets read and how it’s read. I’m not sure that this area has ever been fully theorised or explored.  I hope we can. So, for example, it’s always been my argument that the way in which literature is examined and tested has an impact on the way it’s taught and the way its read. It is examined and tested in a certain way now because education has been re-structured in order to deliver more accurately the segregated sections of the labour force that industry is asking for, and that, in turn, is a consequence of the increasing desperation of those in charge of the economy in the global environment.  


Thus, open a KS2 SATs English paper and you’ll find that very nearly all the questions involve the child re-stating the chronology, logic and empirical sense-data-type facts of the story. There is no space for the child to relate aspects of his or her experience and feelings to those that appear to be manifested within the story, no space for the child to speculate about the ebb and flow of feelings that the story appears to engender. The kind of questioning the tests demand has had a knock-on effect on how stories are read in class and indeed, what kind of role children’s literature is now seen as having within the curriculum: in essence it is being pushed more and more into the role of being the handmaiden to something called ‘literacy’ – a manageable, instrumental entity which they think can be measured and thus, in their terms, can be given an economic value. Again, this is an area that could be explored much more. 


As ‘literacy’ has become increasingly regarded as being culture-free ( so, for example, the bilingualism of a Bangladeshi child doesn’t register anywhere on the evaluations of literacy that the state demands or publishes), so we have moved towards an education strategy that has removed the being of the child from the learning process. The education documents that have landed in teachers’ lockers over the last twenty years do not include anyone who we could identify as this or that child in this or that mode of thinking or being anything other than a creature who is acted on. It is the final perfect match of the industrial production line that begins with raw material, is acted on by processes and emerges as a car or a biscuit.  


If this were the total picture we would be living in a totalitarian state and human beings would have become automata. But we’re not. As Bertolt Brecht put it,  


General, your tank is a powerful vehicle 
It tramples the forest, it crushes a hundred men, 
But it has one flaw: 
It requires a driver. 

General, your bomber is strong. 
It flies faster than the storm, it loads more than an elephant. 
But it has one flaw: 
It requires a mechanic. 

General, man is very useful. 
He knows how to fly, he knows how to murder. 
But he has one flaw: 
He knows how to think. 


Editors, authors, teachers, librarians, parents and children have resisted many of the processes I’ve described and I’ll be as bold to suggest that we here are in part evidence of this too. There have been many attempts to assert the humanism in literature for children (think of the interventions of people like Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo), to talk subversively (as it now is) about an activity known as ‘reading for pleasure’ and to resist the regimes of selecting and testing. 


But there is also the matter of what is written, pictured, edited and published. How or where precise works fit (or don’t fit) in this picture of the epoch that I’ve given is, I suspect, one of the many matters we’ll debate. So, by way of introduction I’d like to ask the question, what can Marxism or ‘some Marxist perspectives’ offer us by way of explanation, critical power, methodology and even perhaps, some suggestions as to what is worth doing? 


I acknowledge that we may never reach some kind of neat agreement as to what consists of ‘a’ or ‘the’ Marxist approach to children’s literature. And to tell the truth, I don’t think we need to. However, I would like to pick out what I think are amongst the most interesting and useful observations that Marx and Marxists have made.  


I think these centre on class, the base and superstructure question and ideology. 

Following from these my own inclination leads me to value the questions raised by Raymond Williams and his notion of dominant, residual and emergent cultures; Frederic Jameson and Pierre Macherey and the political unconscious; Pierre Bourdieu on reproduction; various writers on race and post-colonialism; and again various writers on how (and indeed why)  gender, patriarchy, childhood and sexuality are constructed. 


I’ll begin with class. Sadly, this is an area full of misunderstandings. The Marxist approach is neither one that relies on what individuals think nor one based on a league table of incomes. People often talk subjectively about what class they think they or others belong to. Again, we are often given what is supposed to be a more objective analysis of class by rating people according to incomes or expenditure. A Marxist approach says that there is a different way of looking at class which is suited to explaining how the great wheels of society grind away. It says that the underlying structure of society is not static, it is a process in which one class which owns and controls the vast majority of a society’s or indeed the world’s resources and systems of production and distribution is in perpetual conflict with a class of people who own very little more than their ability to sell their labour power.  


The needs and requirements of these two classes of people are not only in conflict with each other, they are in contradiction with each other and create further contradictions.  Put simply, it is in the interests of the class that owns to keep what it calls its ‘labour costs’ at a minimum. Meanwhile it is in the interests of the class that sells its labour to keep those same costs (which it prefers to call ‘pay’ or ‘wages’ or ‘salary’!) as high as it can. However, this conflict is not always as bald or as plain as this. We can see it at work in the upheavals going on in the UK over pensions (a classic case of what the owning class sees as a ‘cost’) or in France over youth employment laws. Again, when we look at what are sometimes called communal upheavals, like the ones that have taken place over the years in, say, Brixton or Blackburn, then again, it’s clear that the fact that those communities are made up of people trying to survive on what are in effect labour costs kept low by the owning class is the underlying reason for their difficulties. Yet again, when we look closely at our own field, the main indicator of educational success and failure has been shown over and over again to be income. However, by putting it in this language, using the word ‘income’ we are thrown back on to the conventional causes of what makes people rich and poor (luck, merit, innate idiocy and the rest) and not at the process of class. 


I’ll say here that class (in the sense that I’m talking about here) delivers a massive differential in income through a process whereby the value of what a workforce produces is greatly in excess of the total value of what they earn. This differential or profit is not, as is sometimes claimed, beautifully and elegantly recycled for the benefit of all, but, as all statistics show, is appropriated by and within the class that owns and which continues to acquire more and more of the world’s wealth.   


But where in all this is the people we think we all know so well and who are of immense interest to the world of children’s books: the middle class? Isn’t this the group who are neither the people who own the resources from which they can benefit greatly by employing others, renting off vast swathes of property or plant, or from lending millions of dollars nor are they the people who earn income solely through the sale of their labour power? 


Well, to start off with, a lot of the people who are subjectively called ‘middle class’ are indeed people who live solely by selling their labour power – a lot of teachers, social workers and, if you like, educated employees. There may be a whole host of indicators that suggest these people see themselves as different from blue collar, less educated folk, but economically and structurally they’re in the same boat. However, that said, there are some people who are, if you like, in a different boat – people who use small amounts of capital or property to generate income, people who employ a few people to generate profit, people who control sections of the workforce or make big decisions within the legal system and so acquire sufficient income to generate yet more income from property or capital. It is clear that structurally these people are neither substantial members of the owning class nor of the class that lives solely by selling its labour. Perhaps we can indeed call these people within this schema, ‘middle class’.  


When we look at the history and indeed the present state of affairs with children’s literature and education, we can see that it is from within the class that occupies either this middle position or those educated sections of the class that lives by selling its labour that the most writers have arisenand which in turn has generated the outlook of most children’s books and by definition, the people who’ve done the most teaching and directing of children’s reading.  


As Bob Leeson showed us in ‘Reading and Righting : The Past, Present, and Future of Fiction for the Young (1985), the origins of what we call children’s literature are full of struggles between those who thought they were upholding the values of this middle class against the low habits of the class below them reading their penny chapbooks and the like. The marks of this struggle can be still be found within the world of children’s books, in something like the distinctions made between the ‘Beano’ and the ‘picture book’. More seriously, we can see it at work in the nature of education itself.  


In the 1970s, people began to ask what we might call ‘class questions’ about education itself.  Are there ways in which we could say that class is built into education? I will suggest that I think this work is unfinished and has an immense relevance to the world of children’s books. We can ask: are there ways in which the very process of education, its language, its structures, its day to day goings on, its culture is in some way or another encoded in ways that suit children of one kind rather than another? The coincidence of poverty and educational failure is based on what precisely? That the children don’t have enough or the right food to eat? Enough time and space at home? There isn’t enough time given by hard-pressed parents?  


Or is there something more subtle going on that is intimately linked to what we’re about? Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of reproduction suggests that the educated , yes,  middle class family, creates what he calls a ‘habitus’, a linguistic and cultural disposition that matches the language, values and ideology of education. So, we know in this room, don’t we, that there is in effect a private, informal, middle class curriculum that we offer our children – in particular by choosing the ‘right’ mix of books, but also the visits to the museums and art galleries (with their guides for children – a kind of children’s literature in itself), and of course by holding the kinds of conversation we have with our children about values, about their homework, about the place we live in, about the TV programmes we watch and the like. It is a potent mix of culture, values, abstract thought, outlook which matches perfectly what is on offer in school. There are historical and social reasons for this which can be spelled out and it’s not a process that has gone on without struggles and resistance within the world of children’s literature. The argument over Leila Berg’s reading scheme, ‘Nippers’ (1971) some years ago was precisely in this zone. I would suggest that a new hierarchy is emerging exacerbated by the government’s educational programme. That’s to say, schools are being coerced into offering a bread-and-butter minimum literacy for all. The effect of this is that those children who would not in their lives easily or usually come across the full range of books on offer from the world of children’s books (and there are economic and educational reasons for this) are now less and less likely to come across them in school, whilst middle class children will acquire the full range of books at home, thereby further enabling them to benefit from what I’ll simplistically call the ‘education code’. Children’s literature has always been consumed hierarchically and by class. In the past there have been times when schools were places that tried to erode that hierarchy. I fear that the present situation restores it. A variety of writers, publishers, teachers and librarians have been contesting this for many years and in a variety of ways. I think there is a good deal of fruitful work we can do in this field, charting what’s been done, what’s been successful, what’s failed, where we are now and the like.  


Let’s move on to ‘base and superstructure’. For those who’ve read in this field, you’ll know that there’s a long and winding path that has struggled with the concept. This is not going to be a review of the literature. I’ll just make a few observations that I hope will be productive.  


Firstly, the concept is a metaphor not an abstraction. A better translation would have been something like ‘foundations’ and ‘upper building’. What is being referred to here concerns an understanding of how ideas and the whole field of institutions concerned with producing ideas and indeed putting them into practice institutionally. Both in idle usage and sometimes more theoretically, we often consider a process like education, or the work of an artist, or the operation of the law as if they exist in an autonomous world, self-governing, influenced only by its predecessors and contemporaries within that field. Thus, we might say idly, Keats was influenced by Shakespeare’;  ‘Surrealism grew out of Dada’; The 1871 Education Act paved the way for the 1944 Education Act. If that sounds too crude a representation of what gets said, then there is a modification that treats ‘discourse’ as if it too had this kind of autonomy. So, it is seen as legitimate by some to explain an artistic movement, the inspiration for a novel, or legal judgment as if it is sufficient (I use that word advisedly) to treat these events simply and only as interventions within their ideological or discursive field. Thus, we might say, that the work of Anthony Browne is in conversation with Magritte’; or that  no anthropomorphic children’s book of the twentieth century can quite escape the shadow of Beatrix Potter or that Hans Christian Andersen was above all else part of Romanticism 


Of themselves, these statements aren’t, to my mind, wrong. The problem with them is when they become, as I’ve said, sufficient explanations. For that sufficiency, I suggest that we need something else.  


So back to the Marxist metaphor: base and superstructure. The idea here is that human beings must organise themselves co-operatively in ways that enable them to satisfy their material needs: primarily food and shelter. The Marxist argument is that whatever structures a society devises for this to take place will in the final analysis (a phrase that may cause some of you to smile) shape and determine people’s consciousness. In short hand the base will determine the superstructure. The material base or foundations of a society (economic arrangements) will shape its laws, its education system, the components of its dominant ideology, and its artistic output. However, in Marx’s writings and indeed in many others since, people have been at pains to modify this schema and save it from what has been described as its vulgarity. Firstly, Marx himself spent some energy in pointing out that one of the contradictions I referred to earlier is that in any given society there is often a mismatch between what the dominant ideology is saying and what developments might be taking place in the material base. So, for example the ideological demands of the rising bourgeoisie in the sixteenth and seventeenth century (for example, in relation to a lack of democratic representation in government, but also, say with the representation of Hamlet as a prototype modern, secular, expressive, illusorily self-creating individual) were often in conflict with the economic arrangements of the time. It was in Raymond Williams’ terms, the ‘emergent culture’ coming into conflict with the material base of late feudalism.  


So whatever determinations are going on, they can’t simply be along the lines of formulaic statements like feudalism produced illustrated manuscriptscapitalism produced the Beach Boys. And here we need to return to what we were saying about class. Class is, I suggested, a dynamic, changing relationship, full of conflict and contradiction. At any given moment, societally there is some kind of uneasy balance of class forces. At any given moment, for any given individual, this balance of class forces is in some way or another played out in the consciousness and body of that individual. In other words, the foundations  or ‘base’ are not some rocky firmament but a shifting set of demanding forces acting on the ideational field and on individuals. 


Take the case of the rise of the ‘folk tale’ and in particular someone like Hans Christian Andersen, born like the rest of us into a time and place not of his own choosing. He found himself in a Europe of immense turmoil but living in a backwater on a rural island in Denmark. Of all the writers to have ever produced children’s literature he is one with perhaps the poorest origins. His father was one of those people we now see more and more clearly in the nineteenth century, European picture: the impoverished tradesman hungry for knowledge, eager for change, freedom and democracy, many of such people emerging as part of the American and French revolutions, events that broke as a consequence of the rise of a new class. Meanwhile, HCA’s mother, part-time worker and washerwoman was, it seems, embedded in the traditional ideology and so-called ‘superstition’ of the pagan, peasant culture of the previous several hundred years. When Andersen gets himself to Copenhagen he meets a world full of the old and new: the Danish fragment of Europe’s aristocracy brushing shoulders with a local bourgeoisie. The form he is sometimes credited with inventing, the literary folk-tale, is in fact being invented simultaneously in Germany by such people as Clemens von Brentano, ETA Hoffman and of course the Grimmswith connections to the aristocratic French tales of Perrault and Mme Aulnoy and the like. It is now clear that for the Grimms, the latent ideology behind their tales is the hope that they are producing a form that appeals to the whole society, the whole ‘volk’.  Meanwhile, Andersen, he of the humblest of humble origins finds that his tales offer him a calling card in the most exalted of homes. Somewhere in all this, I detect the invention of a form that is concerned consciously or not with flying in the face of the social and economic upheavals and divisions going on all around: the creation of something unifying and consoling, that gives succour to the needs and desires of the lower orders for a better life whilst maintaining the institutional and structural status quo.  


I’ll also point out here that it’s my view that we’ve reached a point in the writing about children’s literature that some people are quite at ease conducting a discussion in this way without necessarily acknowledging that there is something Marxist about it. Jack Zipes’s work on the Grimms  (Jack Zipes. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forest to the Modern World. Second edition. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002)  is full of this kind of observation and many more without necessarily tracing the reason why he is saying what he’s saying back to quotes from Marx. Interestingly though, Jackie Wullschlager’s biography of Andersen (Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller 2000) 
is also a book that probes some questions of how the material stresses and strains of the time go towards shaping Andersen’s life and work, again with no acknowledgement that Marx and Marxism had ever existed.  


There is another qualification to the base and superstructure metaphor. Marxists of the non-vulgar kind have always understood that the ideological field is not without some impact on the material. Limits on human action are not only set by how you earn your livelihood. More satisfying, is to understand this dialectically. That’s to say, the material (with all its contradictions) shapes the ideological while the ideological is able to arc back on the material, to some degree. The law on homosexuality is a case in point. Here in post-war Britain was a law founded with all the practice of sustaining heterosexuality as the enforced norm, flying in the face of what was the day-to-day reality for a sizeable segment of society. The testimony of many gays from that period is that that law prescribed the shape and form of their lives, culture and, in some cases, their art. It was a law embedded in attitudes to the body that are in turn embedded in the ideologies that sustained the rising bourgeoisie in its assault on aristocratic power. It is these ideologies, also concerning family, childhood, gender specific roles and heterosexuality that we find running right through the history of children’s literature.  Ideology, I suggest, has the power to affect and influence but will in the final analysis be traceable back to material interests and contradictions.  


In recent years, it seems to me that several productive ideas have emerged that owe a debt to at least some of the ideas I’ve outlined here. So, for example, of the many ideas that pour forth from the mind of Frederic Jameson, his work on what he called ‘the political unconscious’ presents us with an interesting starting point. ‘The Political Unconscious’ 1982)  In fact, he borrowed and adapted the notion from Pierre Macherey. (‘A Theory  of Literary Production’ 1978) If, as I’ve suggested, the contradictions of society are manifested within an individual, then we can also say that they are manifested in an artist or writer and so by continuation in that artist’s work. One kind of contradiction I’m talking about here concerns what we might call positioningI think it was the writer Julius Lester who asked what was the historical difference between the field slave and the house slave. He suggested that if the slave-owner’s house was on fire, the field slave said that the master’s house was burning, whereas the house slave said that it was ‘our’ house that was burning. Though the two kinds of slave were materially in the same relationship with the owner, the house-slave perceived his or her position in a way that is in contradiction with that reality. If we take Hans Christian Andersen again, and one of the first, if not the first literary folk-tale he wrote, ‘The Tinder Box’ we see a story about a figure who strode across the European stage, the penniless soldier. He achieves what many folk-tales allow their penniless heroes to achieve, relief from his wretched state: upward social mobility through cunning and luck. However, his route to this involves bizarre scenes of sexual molestation carried out on an inert, prone upper class woman. No matter what these scenes tell us about Andersen’s sexuality, it seems to me they also express the ambiguous contradictory position he found himself in: a member of the rural poor (who had in Europe been kept at subsistence level by the aristocracy for nearly a thousand years, occasionally relieved when the men were put in arms and received some cash and plunder if they weren’t maimed or killed but also  someone who materially needed the attention of the middle and aristocratic classes if he was to sell his work. At one and the same time part of him yearned for that upper class to be prone and inert (or indeed flung into the air and dismembered by huge dogs) while another part of him yearned to be, how shall I say?,  conjoined with it. 


Another of the key contradictions that Marx draws our attention to is that the very methods the owning class uses to further its interests creates the conditions within which it is resisted, and Marx hopes, will be overthrown. Thus, for capitalism to work, it needs to constantly bring many people together in one place in order to get them to produce the goods or services that will deliver up the profit. However, in order to sell these goods and services, it is necessary for the owning class to repeat over and over again how these goods will satisfy our individual needs, or indeed will construct our individuality. A particular hair-dye will make me look younger and I will have a better relationship with my lover as a result. I will also have my own bank account, my own mortgage and a choice of holiday, school, health provider and patio doors. However, as I’ve said, the process of production keeps bringing people together in large numbers in order to get things made, serviced and distributed. In those conditions people have often found that as their needs are in contradiction with their employers, so are they in contradiction with the dominant ideology’s way of dividing us up into castes, groups, cultures, and ultimately into seemingly individualised consumers, defined by what we buy. It seems to me that schools are also places that in some respects guys this process, bringing together people (pupils and teachers) in large numbers who some of the time appear opposed to each other, sometimes united, as the demands of the society keep trying to segregate and select those being educated. Teachers are often placed in the role of those who do the bidding of those who would have pupils divided in this way.  


Some of you will be familiar with Robert Cormier’s two ‘Chocolate War’ books (‘The Chocolate War’ (1975) and ‘Beyond the Chocolate War’ (1986)) which use the microcosm of a school, (in this case a Catholic Boys’ School) to indicate what can and might happen when there is collaboration between corrupt power and popular thuggery in what one might call the ’masses. As with all dystopias and indeed gothic horror stories, there is  inevitably an onward momentum towards what I’ve jokingly called in the past the anti-Boris’; that’s to say, someone, some thing, some force somewhere which will relieve us of the monster. If you saw ‘The Blob’ (1958) you’ll remember it was the discovery that the blob didn’t like cold, so members of the airforce dropped it on either the north or south pole.  


Interestingly in the Chocolate War books, Cormier offers very little in the way of anti-Boris other than the growing awareness by the focaliser of what’s happened. Powerful enough, you might say. However, the key speech at the end of ‘Beyond the Chocolate War’ is made by the arch villain when he explains that in reality he is only what is inside all of us. What is this about? It seems to me that this expresses perfectly the contradiction born out of talking about class-free notion of evil. In this denouement in the book, evil is de-located from time and place and person; made universal and in a way value-free, the implication being that evil just exists everywhere unless you as an individual take up arms against the sea of troubles and vanquish it. However, this notion, which seems to suit the dominant ideology as it tries to explain everything from Saddam Hussein to paedophilia via hoodies and Pol Pot in the same way, sits in the Chocolate War books in contradiction with Cormier’s brilliant expose of the Machiavellian methods of corrupt power.  It’s Jameson and Macherey who offer us an insight into how such contradictions are manifested in literature through what they’ve called the political unconscious. 


However, let me take a step back and make a cautionary comment. One severe challenge to these approaches has come to us from the critical field known loosely as reader-response and its sister reception theory. Put baldly, the problem is this. It’s all very well me or you or anyone saying that this or that text says this, or shows this, or manifests this, but the truth of the matter, says reader-response theory,  it is only my or your construction. A book’s meaning, the argument goes, doesn’t lie in some immanent way in the text. It lies in how the reader constructs that meaning. I have some sympathy with this. As Stanley Fish reminds us, (‘Is There A Text In This Class?’ (1982)) writing is only a set of material squiggles on a page. We take those squiggles and turn them into words, ideas, concepts, plots, characters, meanings and values. This has given lots of fun to Fish who, he thought, had demolished the whole of criticism and critical theory with one stroke. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to have succeeded, as people, myself included, continue to talk about books as if we have unlocked key meanings from a text rather than simply saying that we have found stuff that interested or amazed us, given that we are prejudiced or biased or constructed in this or that way. In fact, a vast amount of what we call criticism continues to be little more than saying over and over again: the text I’ve just looked at reminds me of something else I read or something that happened to me ten  years ago  If not that, then you can get away with a series of intended-to-be engaging re-enactments of moments from the text. How do I know? I’ve done it many times. Perhaps it’s not particularly insightful activity but it is one of the ways in which we enjoy books.  


However, Fish may be more than a spoilsport. He also stumbled on the fact that readers are not like random molecules bouncing around in boiling water. Certain groups of readers appear to respond to a given text in one way and other groups respond in other ways. Thus he gave birth to the notion of what he called ‘interpretive communities’. I think we can and should take this further. Much further. Fish said that readers construct texts. We can ask, and I believe, should ask, what or who constructs readers and how?  And indeed we are in a better position that many in academe to ask that question because we work at the very point at which people become readers and develop as readers. I think that it’s possible to escape from Fish’s rather vague and elitist idea of interpretive communities which is full of the suggestion that the main thing that defines readers is their reading.  I think that some of the observations of Marx and Marxists would give us a far richer, far more complex notion of what a reader is, and what reading does for them. However, Fish and someone working in a related field, Tony Bennett, (‘Outside Literature’ (1990)) have put an important check on the kinds of statements that claim infinite certainty about meaning without reference to real readers. As any of us in this room know, this is particularly dangerous when it comes to interpreting books written for a young audience. In short, no matter what we think a book is about, or for that matter what its political unconscious is, there is no certainty that any child will agree. Indeed, they might turn out to be that fascinating object, the reader who reads to the end of the book, refusing to be won over to what we might have thought were its ideological siren-songs, in short, ‘the resistant reader’.  


Which leads me neatly to questions of post-colonialism and gender because some of the most interesting work I’ve come across in relation to young readers reading across or against a text have been in these fields. Gemma Moss (‘Un/Popular Fictions’ (1989)) and Beverley Naidoo’s work (‘Exploring Racism: Reader, Text and Context’ (1992)) come to mind. Now, it’s quite possible to approach children’s literature from the perspectives of race, gender, sexual orientation or physical ability without any acknowledgement that Marxism has got or should have anything to do with it.  The question I’d like to raise though is whether some Marxist perspectives (as we’ve put it) can contribute something to these discussions. 


At first glance, it might appear not. Classical Marxism places the dynamic model of class that I’ve represented here at the centre of its world-view whilst each of the areas I’ve mentioned here race, gender and the like often appear to be talking of a world centred somewhere else: variously in, say, issues surrounding racial domination, patriarchy, heterosexuality or indeed the use (or the meaning of the use) of the human body. Hovering over and through all this is the use of the word ‘power’ particularly as used by Foucault who himself looked at most of these areas. Thus, very relevantly for us, Foucault brilliantly showed how one of the methods the modern period used in order for the bourgeoisie to seize and hold power is through what it did and does to contain and control the human body, (‘Discipline and Punish’ (1975)) in particular the young human body in school. This offered us a viewfinder with which to look at a great deal of children’s literature in terms of say, the libidinous desires it unleashes, or forbids; the transgressions it admonishes or appears to licence; the punishments it lends authority to, or undermines; the racial and sexual segregations it supports or resists; the idealisations of the human form it supports or subverts and so on. I find much of this kind of analysis fascinating and irresistible and raises important and troubling questions for us about children’s books from, say, the imperial period; the construction of, say, motherhood or the feminine ideal throughout children’s literature; or indeed the support of certain kinds of masculinity through adventure books and so on. The other side of the coin is in my delight in reading books such as Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘Refugee Boy’(2001), Mary Hoffman’s ‘The Colour of Home’(2002)  or David Levithan’s ‘Boy Meets Boy’ (2005 UK) all of which seem to be informed (at least partly) by a wish to break the power and certainty of such notions as nationhood, the dangerous ‘other’, and the heterosexual norm. But surely none of this can be simply subsumed under the heading ‘Marxist perspectives’.  


Well, I see that I’ve used the word ‘power’. My first observation is a criticism of the criticism. Yes, indeed these Foucauldian approaches have been massively illuminating and part of that has been because they dissect in minutiae the means by which power and dominant ideology is sustained in society. But again, I’ll ask, does it do so ‘sufficiently’? I don’t think so. The problem is that I don’t think it is sustainable to suggest that power is wielded simply or only for its own reasons. I suggest this mystifies and reifies power. The most dominant power in all societies is what’s wielded by those who own and control the resources and the means by which those resources are turned into useful things and in so doing, those people (a tiny minority) end up by owning the vast proportion of the wealth. Yes, it’s absolutely true that down through society, through its groups, clubs, schools and on down to the most intimate relationships between two people and into the struggles within one’s own head, there are indeed what we call ‘power struggles’. The question we have to ask though is whether these smaller group and psychological questions of power are projected on to society or whether it’s the origins, shape and determinations of power in society that reaches down and into the groups, institutions and intimate relations we live in. Or perhaps both. Freud’s model of the super-ego, ego and id was one way in which the reaching-down into the individual was conceptualised, though I’ve always thought his writing about totalitarian leaders suggests the reverse: the projection of psychology on to society.  But there are others such as Reich and Erich Fromm who’ve struggled with it too.  


Children’s literature poses some interesting questions here: children have very little power in any society and it could be said that children’s literature whilst appearing to support and sustain children over and beyond what they are often not allowed (identity, autonomous thought, culture, self, transgressive ideas, adult-free action and the like)  is also a process by which adults in the form of writers, editors, publishers and critics wield some kind of ideological and emotional power over children.  Children’s literature might well be a form of nurture but it has historically been a suitable site from which it could apply torture. It has in its time offered a binary choice:  ‘nurture or torture’.  In very general terms, I think we can say that its broad aim has nearly always been to improve the lives of its readersbut what if that was merely in order to make adults’ lives more bearable? If any of this is true or only partly true, are different kinds, yes, different classes of children treated in different ways by children’s literature? If so, to what ends? I’ve a feeling that it’s possible to detect that power over children is wielded through children’s literature and through the uses to which children’s literature is put. However, and this links in part to Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’, the power is wielded for a social purpose and that social purpose will in the end take us back to the dynamic, marxian model of class. 


It seems to me that we have an area of fruitful discussion and debate here. Can we enlarge and demystify Foucauldian criticism by linking power to what classical Marxism would say is its function? After all, the very fact that we bandy about the term dominant ideology stems from Marx’s idea that the prevailing or dominant ideology of any time is in essence the ideology of the class that owns and rules. For much of the time, the criticism that I read looks at the dominant ideology but unhinges it from this class and has it hovering over us unattached. This doesn’t make the criticism uninteresting or invalid. I just find myself wishing that it could do more.  


Meanwhile, I hope we all have a fascinating and insightful day and that this is just the beginning.