The cultural politics of the early nineteenth-century plebeian public sphere depended on a notion of intellectual praxis fundamentally distinct from its bourgeois counterpart. For three dominant radical plebeian intellectuals of the period—Thomas Spence, T.J. Wooler and William Cobbett—a conception of critical discourse unrelated to the immediate social and economic experience of their audience was anathema. ‘Culture’, for these intellectuals, was irrevocably wedded to the collective liberation of their print constituencies in the wider plebeian public sphere; both a ‘whole way of life’ as well as a means to a better one. 1 In this conception of cultural politics these English plebeian intellectuals were helping to establish a radical cultural tradition in Britain that would profoundly influence the liberatory aspirations embedded within subsequent working-class cultural projects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, encompassing what the cultural historian Tom Steele has defined as an alternative national moral identity rooted in a popular expression of radical ‘Englishness’. In The Emergence of Cultural Studies (1997) he maps a tradition of popular cultural praxis that I would argue has its foundation in the intellectual activism and social criticism of the early nineteenth-century plebeian public sphere. Searching for the roots of this unique tradition, Steele asks:
How did it happen that by the beginning of the twentieth century working people in this country appeared not only to have established a decent and humane culture of their own, which denied the claims to moral superiority of the capitalist order, but also that they identified with some notion of ‘Englishness’ which appeared to fuse elements of that same working-class culture with a common, national, identity?In his response to this question he outlines the rudiments of a working-class cultural project of coordinated and collective action: ‘I want to suggest here that this can only be understood if we see the “culture” of working people not simply as a set of attitudes and rituals laid down in some traditional past, but as a complex of purposive activities designed to improve their individual and collective lot in the 150face of a clearly understood oppression.’ 2 This radical English cultural tradition, defined by Steele as ‘a complex of purposive activities’ assembled ‘in the face of a clearly understood oppression’, has its roots in England’s modern national historical experience, most particularly in those key episodes of radical cultural history discussed in Chapter 3. The unprecedented social and economic change of the early nineteenth century called forth a new expression of radical cultural politics informed by this history, responding to the unique moral and ideological challenges of an emergent industrial capitalism.