Writing Revolution: The British Radical Literary Tradition as the Seminal Force in the Development of Adult Education, its Australian Context, and the Life and Work of Eric Lambert

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Bagnall, Richard

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Newman, Michael

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This thesis tells the story of an historical tradition of radical literacy and literature that is defined as the British radical literary tradition. It takes the meaning of literature at its broadest understanding and identifies the literary and educational relations of what E.P. Thompson terms 'the making of the English working class' through its struggle for literacy and freedom. The study traces the developing dialectic of literary radicalism and the emergent hegemony of capitalism through the dissemination of radical ideas in literature and a groundswell of public literacy. The proposed radical tradition is defined by the oppositional stance of its participants, from the radical intellectual's critical texts to the striving for literacy and access to literature by working class people. This oppositional discourse emerged in the fourteenth century concomitant with nascent capitalism and has its literary origins in utopian vision. This nascent utopian imagination conceived a democratic socialism that underpinned the character of much of the following oppositional discourse. The thesis establishes the nexus of the oppositional discourse as a radical literary tradition and the earliest instances of adult education in autodidacticism and informal adult education. The ascent of middle class power through the industrial revolution is shadowed by the corresponding descent of the working class into poverty. Concomitant with this social polarisation is the phenomena of working class literary agency as the means to political and economic agency. While Protestant dissenting groups such as the Diggers and Levellers were revolutionary activists, it was Methodism that formed a bulwark against revolution. Yet it was their emphasis on self-improvement that contributed to an increasingly literate populace. Radical texts produced and disseminated by individuals and organisations and read by autodidactics and informal reading groups are seminal in the formation of a working class identity. Spearheaded by the Chartist movement, education became a central ethic of working class politics and the civil struggle for economic and political justice throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries. The avant garde movements of the early twentieth century are analysed as a strand of this tradition. The narrative of the thesis then moves to the penal colony of Australia and explores the radical literary tradition's development there. Early colonial culture is seen as having a strong impetus towards a developing a native literary expression of the new land. Where conservative colonial literature struggled to differentiate itself from formal British literary models, the radical heritage and its utopian vision of a working man's paradise gave definitive expression to the Australian experience. This expression was strongly influenced by Chartist ideals. The British radical literary tradition is thus seen to have had a dominant influence in the development of a native radical literary tradition that strove to identify the national character. Socialist thought developed in Australia in concert with that in the parent culture, and anarchist and libertarian trends found a ready home amongst independent minded colonials. Yet, in preventing the formation of a native aristocracy the small radical population made a compromise with liberalism that saw a decidedly conservative streak develop in the early labour movement. There were little in the way of sophisticated radical literary offerings at first, but from the mid-nineteenth century a vanguard of radicals produced a thriving native press and other fugitive text forms. At the turn of the century the native radical literary tradition was vibrantly diverse, with a definitive style that claimed literary ownership of the Australian character. However, exhausted by the battles over WWI conscription and isolated by censorship, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was able to subsume the vanguard position from the socialists. The Party laid claim to the Australian radical literary tradition, at once both strengthening it with the discipline of a Marxist ideology and diminishing its independence and diversity. Party literary theory centred upon the issue of class, developing a doctrine of socialist realism that communist writers were expected to practice. How well a writer adhered to socialist realist principles became a measure of their class position and loyalty. Drawing more from primary sources, the thesis develops an analysis of the intellectual development of the Australian post-WWII writer Eric Lambert through his experience of class instability during Depression and war. The study examines Lambert's decision to join the Party and his literary response to his experiences of war, the Party, the turmoil of 1956 and life after the Party. Lambert's body of work is then analysed as the unintentional memoir of a writer working as an adult educator in the radical literary tradition. Lambert's struggles, for artistic independence within the narrow precepts of Party dogma and with class tensions, were common amongst intellectuals committed to the communist cause. Like many of his peers, Lambert resigned from the Party at the end of 1956 and suffered a period of ideological vacuum. However, he continued to write as a Marxian educator, seeking to reveal that which makes us human in the humanity of ordinary people. It is concluded that, while the Party did much to foster disciplined cohesion, the mutual distrust it generated amongst its intellectuals suppressed the independent thought that had kept the radical literary tradition alive. Although the Party developed an ideological strength within the radical literary tradition, its dominance over thirty years and subsequent fall from grace acted to fragment and discredit that centuries-old tradition which it subsumed. An argument is made for a reinvestment of the centrality of the radical literary tradition in the education of adults for the maintenance of social justice and the democratic project.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Vocational, Technology and Arts Education

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British literature






working class










Great Britain



Eric Lambert

socialist realism








adult education

adult literacy

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