The Conditions of our Culture

Thomas Docherty

From The MHRA Centenary Lectures (2020), doi:10.59860/cl.c2763de

Part of the book: The MHRA Centenary Lectures

Edited by Graham Nelson


Modern Humanities Research Association

Full text.  This contribution is published as Open Access, and its full text is given below.

The Conditions of our Culture

Professor Thomas Docherty

University of Warwick


A useful opening frame for the argument I will advance here can be provided through two brief quotations. The first is from a 1934 novel by P. G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins, which opens by re-introducing us to Monty Bodkin, whom readers of Wodehouse had met the previous year, in Heavy Weather. As the novel opens, we see that:

Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.1

Four decades later, in the real world of international relations in 1973, we find my second example. Leslie Fielding was the first UK Ambassador to what was then the European Economic Community (EEC), which the UK had just joined. Remembering his first days there, Fielding said that:

I spoke French all the time and it was OK… The problem was that it was twenty-four hours a day… The French language demands facial exertions different from those required when one mutters away in English with a clipped manner… My throat, cheeks and lips began to rebel after 8-10 hours of that.2

Between these two moments, we can see that there is an interesting relation between English (which is tacitly synonymous with ‘the English’) and Europe (especially French-speaking Europe). Language, nation and ‘national character’ are intertwined; and these things are seen to be existentially threatened — right down to a physical threat to the English body — when the English individual sits at a distance from what he or she sees as the comfortable identity that the individual enjoys when speaking a ‘native tongue’. This observation opens the argument here, where I will link the core ideological formation of ‘English’ (as a discipline within modern humanities, and as a political identity) to some important deformations of justice, law and economics that have disfigured contemporary culture.


We can begin in 1918, with a consideration of the conditions in which the Modern Humanities Research Association was configured, bringing ‘English’ into the domain of (and into alignment with) other European languages and cultures.

Fig. 1. H. A. L. Fisher (1865-1940)

On 8 August 1918, the UK Parliament passed a new Education Act, conventionally known as the Fisher Act. Herbert Fisher, the President of the Board of Education, had been an academic, a historian, and Vice-Chancellor of the fledgling University of Sheffield between 1913 and 1917. On 23 December 1916, he was elected as the Liberal Party MP for the constituency of Sheffield Hallam in a by-election; and it was after this that he stepped down as VC.3

Fig. 2. An early aerial photograph of the University of Sheffield, taken in 1920

By 1917, Sheffield had grown in size to the point where it enrolled nearly 1,000 students, a significant number at that time. During the Great War of 1914-18, the UK government called on all higher education institutions to contribute to the war effort; and Sheffield duly did so, attending specifically to detailed work on munitions manufacture and to research in medical technologies. In addition to this ostensibly purely practical determination of the syllabus, however, Fisher also ensured that Sheffield attended, in highly significant and substantial fashion, to teaching and research in politics and in translation studies.4

The Fisher Education Act is primarily remembered for two key achievements: raising the school-leaving age to fourteen, and making child labour illegal. One aspect of the Act that is not often foregrounded, but that is extremely important, is its impact upon tertiary level education. Fisher envisaged the possibility of working-class people and women going on not just to new ‘continuation schools’ (aimed at 14-18 year-olds) but also to university study. His Act required local education authorities and universities to co-operate with each other ‘in the provision of lectures and classes for scholars for whom instruction by such means is suitable’. Fisher, then, essentially prefigures the kind of visionary expansion of the system more usually associated with Lionel Robbins, the economist whose celebrated 1963 Report argued that ‘courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’.5

Fig. 3. Lionel Robbins (1898-1984)

For the economist Robbins, a key function of the university was servicing and advancing the national economy. In chapter 2 of his Report, where he lays out the ‘Aims and Principles’ governing the work of his Committee, he gave what was a standard and typical formulation, one that was easily taken for granted in the 1960s:

we do not believe that modern societies can achieve their aims of economic growth and higher cultural standards without making the most of the talents of their citizens. This is obviously necessary if we are to compete with other highly developed countries in an era of rapid technological and social advance. (Robbins §32)

It is worth noting, in passing, that this 1960s formulation — in which the presiding priorities governing the function of education and higher education are economic, and that the value of our institutions is to be measured by economic determination — is one that persists as a norm, and that broadly goes unquestioned, in our contemporary moment. It is also worth noting that this does not necessarily imply that these priorities remain (or even ever were) valid; rather, it indicates that our normative understanding of the links that bind our educational institutions with our societies have not adequately moved with the extensive historical changes that we have witnessed in the last half century.

Fig. 4. The Robbins Committee visits an American campus, at Stanford

Given these explicit views of the Robbins Committee, it follows logically that Robbins will argue for greater instruction ‘in skills suitable to play a part in the general division of labour’ (Robbins §25). That view is underpinned further by the belief that the motivation for individual study was to gain a higher salary. Confucius was his source: ‘Confucius said in the Analects that it was not easy to find a man who had studied for three years without aiming at pay’ (Robbins §25). Comments such as these could have been written this week, and would doubtless appear, to many people today, as unquestionable ‘common sense’. Given that Robbins is prefigured by Fisher in some respects, we might now ask whether our ‘common sense’ regarding the function of higher education is, in fact, as much as a century behind our historical moment.

The history is clearly relevant to our concerns today. First, it is perhaps surprising that the political class has not moved on from Robbins, or Fisher, in terms of vocabulary and thinking. Secondly, it becomes even more interesting when we look at the circumstances around the passing of the Fisher Act, because those very same circumstances also shape the formation of the Modern Humanities Research Association as it came into existence in Cambridge in 1918. Above all, however, a proper historical inquiry will let us see the ways in which an intimacy of economics with law and justice has circumscribed — and limited — the development of humanities, up until our contemporary moment, and with politically disastrous consequences.


The second reading of the Fisher Bill took place on 13 March 1918, more or less contemporaneous with the moment when Brian Downs, at that point a young newly-appointed lecturer in English and Modern Languages (having graduated in German, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon) was working with other colleagues in Christ’s College Cambridge to establish a fledgling MHRA. As he introduced the Bill, the Liberal Francis Acland argued that:

There is…a solid determination that there shall be for all classes an extension of publicly-provided education throughout the years of adolescence, as there has long been for the small class that has been able to afford to pay for that education.6

Acland commended ‘the central principle which is enshrined in the bill’, which is that ‘there should be a really bold application of day part-time continuation schooling for young persons of both sexes’ (Hansard p337). Having thus attended to pressing issues of class and gender, he now added the central economic argument, the argument that actually underpinned the political determinations of the Act. This new Education Act, he argued, will ensure better economic performance, especially in industry, because ‘the truest possible national economy is wide and wise expenditure on a system of education’ (Hansard p339).

Fig. 5. In favour, Francis Acland (Lib, Camborne), left
Against, Basil Peto (Con, Devizes), right

Basil Peto, Conservative MP for Devizes, led the opposition. He noted first that, just one month prior to this debate, the House had passed the ‘Representation of the People’ Act, which extended the franchise. On 6 February 1918, that Act, he said, ‘places 6,000,000 women upon the register, most of them mothers’ (Hansard p343). At the same time, the male electorate is now largely away, at war, ‘fighting for their country, fighting for liberty, and for the possibility of any measure of social reform such as this’ (Hansard p344). The midst of wartime, he argued, was not an appropriate or propitious moment for a momentous decision like this. He argued that a new electorate (of women), and an absent male electorate (whom he clearly considered more seriously) should surely ‘have some rights still left, even in our semi-Socialist State, to have a say in the education of their children’ (Hansard p344).

The argument advanced by Peto is a kind of populist appeal to the supposed primacy of something called ‘the people’, essentially construing ‘the people’ as a single entity that transcends the activity of politics as such, and as an entity or identity that should somehow determine all political and social realities. That stance constitutes a refusal to engage with the complexity of the situation in which the nation found itself, by attempting to by-pass regular and legitimate political debate, and to find a supposed legitimacy in a simplified account of ‘the will of the people’, an account that will necessarily flatten the complex dissonances among the people at large into a confected and ventriloquized voice.7

Peto is clearly not just responding here to Acland and Fisher or to the local conditions governing the debate. He is responding to what he perceived as a much broader force, which he saw as the threat of Socialism. He knew that the Bolsheviks, having so recently brought about their two-stage revolution in Russia, believed that the only way to consolidate their position was by spreading the revolution across the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. Peto and his Conservative allies and voters saw that it would be politically useful to construe this as a kind of potential foreign invasion. Further, they knew that the Bolsheviks had proposed an ostensibly very attractive educational offer: free universal education for all children, educating both sexes together, from three to sixteen. Peto sees — or tries to paint — Fisher’s Bill as the thin end of that Socialist wedge, with its ‘Socialist theory that children belong to the State’ (Hansard p347).

Fig. 6. The title page of English for the English, published by Cambridge University Press, bears quotations from supposed golden ages of English writing

The same mentality is apparent in George Sampson’s 1921 book, English for the English. The book was an off-shoot from Sampson’s work as a Committee member on the 1921 government Report chaired by Henry Newbolt, The Teaching of English in England. Sampson’s arguments focused on the importance of English (both its literature and language) as a central element in the shaping of his contemporary polity (English political identity). He was aware of the fact that the study of English and the qualities of its language and literature did not always translate easily and directly into quantitative terms of economic benefit; and he knew, further, that many could not see how a knowledge of English literature and a sensitivity to its linguistic nuances could contribute directly to economic growth in a society. Yet he saw that there were less obviously material benefits in such an education; and he was aware of the necessity of a fair distribution of such benefits if we wanted to stave off the ‘threat’ of that foreign socialist invasion. When he reissued the book in 1925, the new Preface to that work issued a stark warning:

Deny to working-class children any common share in the immaterial, and presently they will grow into men who demand with menaces a communism of the material.8

We can see from the foregoing that, when the MHRA is being formed, the question of working-class emancipation, the political enfranchisement of women, and the possibility of revolution are all key concerns that haunt the debates around education. A Liberal ideology sees education as a means of emancipating people (such emancipation being construed primarily in terms of widely distributing the opportunities for personal and individual economic benefit). On the face of it, it is difficult to argue against that. The Conservative must ostensibly endorse it; yet, because Peto is fearful of the effects of mass emancipation and its association with Communist revolution, an enhanced education system must become — for the Conservative — a mechanism through which the legitimate aspirations of the working class and women for a just distribution of economic wealth will be at least managed and controlled. Such management and control is the mechanism whereby existing class and economic privilege is to be maintained, while at the same time pretending that the route to economic self-advancement is equally open to all, courtesy of the widespread — but managed — availability of education. If education is to be free and widespread, its content must be monitored, according to this ideology.9

The legitimate aspirations of women and of working people in general will be managed by law, by ‘taking back control of our own laws’ through a populist demand that the people must have their say, and — above all — by ‘controlling and guarding our borders’ against the invasion of foreign ideas.10

The Conservative case for circumscribing the power of education and constraining the legitimate aspirations for just distributions of wealth is made clear in Basil Peto’s contribution to the 1918 parliamentary debate. The argument has several interlinked stages. First, the Bill is allegedly coercive and thus inimical to a general concept of freedom, because it allegedly extends ‘the principle of compulsion’ (Hansard p345) and the ‘powers of the Board of Education’ (Hansard p347). Peto is claiming that the Bill permits government to restrict the freedom of the individual. Next, Peto claims that the Act changes the status of children, more or less making them orphan wards of the State, because it ‘constitutes a very large advance towards the Socialist theory that children belong to the State’ (Hansard p347). This, in turn, reduces the existential being of parents (we would nowadays call it the bio-political identity of parents), making them merely what he calls ‘breeding machines’, their erotic and entire personal human lives now reduced to the task of the quasi-industrial reproduction of a State’s work-force or proletariat. This flies directly in the face of Peto’s sense of the joys of family life that are naturally ‘inherent in humanity’ (Hansard p347).

This debate gives a sense of the political context and social conditions of education into which the MHRA is about to make its entrance. There is a suspicion of foreign ideas, and an anxiety about international politics — and, most pressingly, the potential effects of these upheavals upon domestic conditions of life — in the wake of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. The thing about foreign ideas, of course, is that they usually get expressed first in foreign languages. A suspicion of foreign ideas goes together with a suspicion not just of foreigners, but also of their speech. And what if that speech ‘infiltrates’ English and ‘the English’? Will it affect our bodies, as it does for Monty Bodkin? Will it possibly change our bio-political or existential being, giving us political embarrassment?

This is what explains the massive political and cultural significance of the foundation of the MHRA — an association dedicated to the advancement of research in foreign languages and, additionally, English. The addition of English to the roster of interests in the MHRA is crucial, for it places English in a kind of levelling alignment with the foreign; and, consequently, it asks us to take a special and sceptical interest in the relation between an English-speaker and an English-citizen. How intimate is the relation between the English political subject and the language that she or he speaks? To what extent does that subject ‘own’ her or his language and the meanings that the language brings into play in any utterance? What is the proper relation of ‘English’ to ‘the English’?11

There are momentous controversial political changes going on at this time; and a moment when the country is at war with the speakers of foreign languages is not necessarily the most propitious moment in which to endorse a positive engagement with those languages. The birth of the MHRA — like the insistence that politics and translation be studied in Sheffield under Fisher — is itself a political gesture of great importance. Indeed, we might go so far as to say — following the logic of Peto and Acland — that it helps define and constitute the very ‘human’ existence of the English speaker and citizen.


Fig. 7. Brian W. Downs (1893-1984), founder of the Modern Humanities Research Association, and later Master of Christ's College and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

In adding English to the category of ‘modern languages’ in this MHRA context, Brian Downs and his colleagues did something quite radical, as should now be clear. My first serious proposition can be stated simply: at least in part thanks to the founding of the MHRA, we know that every language is a foreign language, and that, properly considered ‘English’ is not inherently for ‘the English’ and that there is no necessary intimacy — and certainly no necessary identity, personal or political — between ‘being English’ and ‘being an English-speaker’.

In England’s educational systems, the ‘study of languages’ is usually tacitly understood as the study of ‘foreign languages’. This ostensibly totally innocent and uncontroversial idea rests on the assumption that there exists a ‘native’ language that is somehow not a language that we learn. Yet we are not born speaking a native language, but have to hear, understand, imitate the sounds, mimic the appropriate and necessary mouth shapes and so on if we are to become ‘native’ to a community or a place — as Monty Bodkin and Leslie Fielding showed us, in fiction and in politics respectively. Those two figures reveal something that is often overlooked: the altering of a mouth shape involves a muscular dynamic that actually has a percussive effect through the body as a whole. It can provoke physical embarrassment; or it can help to offer an individual other identities (translations) or — to express this in economic terms — to multiply identity into the complexity of being human.

Amartya Sen reveals the clear truth about this kind of identity across multiple vectors. He describes himself as:

at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife...

...and so on and in a potentially endless richness.12 There is, as it were, an ‘economics of identity’ that can be and is associated with our languages: each of Sen’s fragments of identity, if singled out from the others, demands its own linguistic codes, registers, and even behaviours; but what makes us human is precisely the openness to the confounding of all those codes, such that a ‘pure’ or ethnically single identity is avoided. Such an ethnic identity would be a radical impoverishment of selfhood. As Monty Bodkin knows, learning to speak a language is infinitely more than simply learning, in the abstract, a vocabulary and a grammar. A language is not an inert code.

At its most fundamental, to learn a language is to learn how to occupy and how to become a body; and it is also to learn how to operate that body and its movements, sounds and rhythms in alignment with others, to suit its occasions and thereby to ‘fit in’ with the social identity that makes speaking a cogent proposition at all. A so-called ‘native tongue’ is simply a tongue that has learned a means of accommodation with others who happen to share a space or a dialogical community. It is a tongue that has found how to lead its full body to occupy a place in relation with other tongues and other bodies. In this respect, it is not only intimately related to the shape of a polity as such; it is also informed by the necessity of attending to other voices and to other tongues within that polity, as also beyond it. All such other tongues are, by definition, alien to it; and the task of communication in a ‘native tongue’ is the task of forming a polity, but a polity that consists primarily of others and of other tongues. It is always a negotiation. The mixing of diverse tongues in this is, in fact, the making of the complexity of identity: it eschews any idea of native or ethnic purity. To speak at all, in fact, is to form not an individuated pure identity, but rather an identification with others — even if only temporary and pragmatic and always changing to suit and adapt to occasion — as the ground of a community, itself open to organic change: life itself.

If that works pragmatically, then we may, indeed, usually identify that resulting community as ‘native’ (though we simply mean ‘habitual’, related to the place or conditions that we ‘inhabit’). What this process reveals, however, is that that which is ‘native’ is not at all neutrally given as such; it is made, and it is made through linguistic exploration, and its attendant manipulation of our very material and physical being with each other. Thus it is that we imagine and make what we call a nation, and with it an attendant national identity: the habit of habitation. Thus it is that we turn ‘the forms of things unknown’ into ‘a local habitation and a name’, as Theseus has it towards the close of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To put this very succinctly, it is the condition of our talk — what we usually call our parliament — that makes our laws. The ‘economics’ of how we enrich or impoverish our selfhood relate directly to the ways in which we legislate identity through the formation of law; and this means that ‘English’ — as I will now show — depends upon how we relate our economies to our laws in the pursuit of justice.

There are important political consequences that follow from this. Some of those consequences derive from the politics of English within England. My second major claim is, again, simply stated, if (no doubt) shocking: the prevailing — if, of course unstated and unacknowledged — ideology of English in England is marked by a history that has, in some of its most fundamental preconceptions, a troubling political undercurrent, an undercurrent that easily flows into political nationalism, and that can even veer into racism. Clearly, that claim requires exposition and critique; and it is to this that I now turn.


When Churchill wrote his most substantial historical work, he didn’t focus on the world or on a nation. He wrote A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

Fig. 8. The four volumes of Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples, published between 1956 and 1958

That seems odd, but the thinking that dominates that massive work is clear: the English are an exceptional people; and they are so because of their language, its reach and power. The English language is in fact the source of truth, he claims.13 Interestingly, that same claim is at the core of a number of speeches that would be made later, by Enoch Powell. Addressing the Royal Society of St George on 22 April 1964, Powell asked what our English ancestors would say if we asked them what it was that constituted our national being, our ‘Englishness’. He states that, first of all, ‘They would speak to us in our own English tongue, the tongue made for telling the truth in’.14

This supposed intimacy of the English language with truth is a common enough Conservative trope. More recently, Christopher Hitchens noted its ideological counterpart, writing that:

As English nationalism began to stir again in the early 2000s, a number of polemical writers — my Tory brother Peter among them — began to say that English was a tongue in which it was easier to tell the truth than it was to tell a lie.15

When Churchill made the identification of English with truth, he was actually initiating a trope that placed ‘the English’ (as ‘the English-speaking people’ par excellence) at the centre of world history and of knowledge as such. The language was a cover for the individual English-speaking person; and the idea was that English — and, by metonymic extension, ‘the English’ — enjoyed a privileged place at the centre of all truth and meaning for the world. The Copernican revolution was not only reversed, but its centre was also contracted into the narrowed stiff upper lip of Leslie Fielding’s English tongue and physiognomy.16

Fig. 9. Pathé newsreel footage of Churchill's award of the Nobel Prize in 1953, given by 'the grand old man of Swedish literature', Sigfried Siwertz

In 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Awarding the Prize, Sigfried Siwertz, the Swedish Academy’s poet, compared him to other politician-writers, especially Disraeli. Siwertz argued that Churchill was greater than his predecessor because Churchill had to endure ‘really dreadful ordeals’. He added that the comparison with Disraeli also helps to render Churchill yet more distinctive and distinguished: ‘Churchill’s John Bull profile stands out effectively against the elder statesman’s chalk-white, exotic mask with the black lock of hair on the forehead’, he said. Although Disraeli ‘revered the English way of life and tradition’, Siwertz went on, Churchill had these things ‘in his blood’; and, in his blood you find ‘steadfastness in the midst of the storm and the resolute impetus which marks both word and deed’.17 Disraeli might mime Englishness; but Churchill embodies it.

The kind of thinking that informs all of this bespeaks a particular attitude to language, and to what Christopher Hutton called the operations of ‘mother-tongue fascism’ under the Nazi regime. Hutton argues that ‘One key aspect of the ideology of the mother-tongue was its importance — in the context of Nazism — as an anti-Semitic ideology. For Jews were held to lack a sense of loyalty to their mother-tongue and were therefore regarded as having an “unnatural” relationship to language. Jews lived in many countries and spoke many tongues; they were rootless nomads with loyalty only to their race.’ In the English context, this operates according to the logic that an individual ‘proves’ her or his Englishness — and, by logical extension now, her or his commitment to truth -precisely by a commitment to monoglot English-speaking. If, like Monty Bodkin, one absolutely must speak another language, it is a physical embarrassment, for it commits one to avoiding the purity of truth, a purity that can be written visibly on the body itself, or at least on the face and stiff upper lip.

This is the precise moment at which we should recall Giulio Lepschy’s 2001 MHRA Presidential address. There, Lepschy pointed out that:

no one is a native speaker of the language of poetry. We are reminded of a line of Marina Tsvetaeva, made famous by Paul Celan: “All poets are Jews”… The language of poetry is a language of outsiders, of strangers.18

In this respect, poetry is at odds with a presiding linguistic ideology that identifies English-speaking with a privileged access to truth. Poetry is, indeed, the very form that questions and critiques that conservative ideology, a conservative ideology that ties native-tongue to race, and that ties a specific native tongue of English to a superiority over all speakers of other languages.

When Brian Downs brought English under the umbrella of Modern Languages, and situated it alongside — and not above — other languages and literatures, he engaged, tacitly, in a political move that is of profound significance. It is a move that stands as a counter to the anglocentrism not only of the UK government and culture post-1918, but also to the entire political thrust of contemporary far-right politics. In our own historical moment, the supposed supremacy of ‘the English-speaking peoples’ is inscribed in the political ideology of an explicitly Conservative (and sometimes far-right) valorization of ‘the Anglosphere’. Polemicists such as James C. Bennett re-heat the imperialist ideologies of the early twentieth-century’s politics and align that with more recent post-Thatcherite economic claims of historians such as Andrew Roberts or Keith Windschuttle. Against this, Srdjan Vucetic has provided compelling evidence for the claim I am advancing here — via the quiet formulations I have noted regarding the English body, the English tongue and its truth, set against the not-quite-authentic outsider, the Jew — that ‘the origins of [the] Anglosphere are racial’, and that it now operates to ensure that ‘old racialized privileges and hierarchies [are] left unscathed’.19


As I indicated at the start of this piece, the question of the economy is important in the development of our educational institutions and their disciplines. When Andrew Roberts brought Churchill’s work up-to-date, with his History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900, he offered a new ‘proof’ of the fundamental value of English. He calibrated the GDP of various nations against the number of English speakers within the nation. The argument is extraordinary in its lack of sophistication and nuance. Roberts here is a historian who completely fails to understand — or who prefers to ignore, for political reasons — the difference between correspondence and causation; and it leads to a set of unsubstantiated ideological claims:

Despite Britain having just 1.3% of the world’s population — and taking up less than 0.2% of the world’s land area — English is today both the language of wealth and, just as importantly, of aspiration to wealth.

Those who speak English as first or second languages have

higher per capita incomes than those who speak the other great world languages.

Mandarin speakers are worth a measly £448 billion; Germans £1,090 billion; Japanese, £1,277 billion; and, as for the Russians, well, they are worth a pretty pathetic £801 billion. Set this against the fact that

English-speakers are worth a staggering £4,271 billion — more than all the rest put together.

No contest, it seems. Worse, lurking within this is a further unstated ideological belief, which is that the ethical and political value of an individual is also measured by the extent of her or his financial wealth. It is the ultimate expression of a specific kind of meritocracy: the wealthy are right because they are wealthy, as if financial success in the gaining of individual and personal wealth was the signifier of value in any and all fields of human endeavor or living; and the poor are to blame for poverty. If one is poor, it is because one ‘deserves’ to be poor; and if one is wealthy, it is because one’s intrinsic value has been realized in monetary and financial terms, and this — supposedly — places the wealthy in the position of Churchill’s ‘English-speaking’ person: at the centre of all values, and at a point from which the measure of all other things and individuals can be taken.

Fig. 10. Toby Young (b. 1963)

Precisely the same logic is to be found in the eugenicist fantasies of Toby Young’s troubling essay on ‘The Fall of the Meritocracy’. Young, we should recall, is not just the son of Michael Young, the Labour politician who wrote the 1958 dystopian satire imagining The Rise of the Meritocracy; he is also the man who was — somewhat rashly — appointed to the Board of the Office for Students. The appointment was rash for two reasons: his CV turned out to be somewhat ‘inflated’, giving misleading information about his academic achievements and standing; and a series of misogynist and homophobic statements that he had made were revealed. He was then swiftly ‘un-appointed’ from the Board of this new public office.

Throughout his controversial paper, Toby Young takes it for granted that cognitive abilities can be measured and evaluated in direct proportion to the wealth and social status of an individual. Where the outright racist and eugenicist will resolve political differences or debates by violence (might is right), writers such as Toby Young and Andrew Roberts essentially displace the physical violence usually associated with far-right politics onto the more covert violence — and, crucially, injustice — deriving from wealth inequalities. For Young, Roberts, and their precursors working against the wide availability of public education in the days when the MHRA is in gestation, justice is in the hands of the wealthy, wealth is in the hands of English-speakers, and therefore justice is to be determined by the English-speaking native wealthy (perhaps like the bourgeois or the landed gentry). This attitude is one of the many things that provoked Bolshevism in the period leading up to 1918. It also underpins recent political troubles in some advanced economies: the US signaling that political power should be centred on wealth and on the wealth of a single businessman rather than politician; the UK signaling that the English should ‘take back control’ of ‘our’ identity, essentially by demonising anything that is ‘foreign’.

These events stem from a sense of an injustice that is firmly and fundamentally (though obviously not solely) related to a specific form of linguistic chauvinism. The roots of our contemporary ability to counter such a culture are to be found in the origins of the MHRA, an organization whose contemporary importance is greater than ever, for humanistic (and scientific) education and research are again under political threat.


Fig. 11. Enoch Powell (1912–1998)

I have alluded once already to the speeches of Enoch Powell; but he is remembered for one, above all. In 1968, he gave the infamous so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech, a speech that centres on two conversations. The first is with ‘a decent ordinary fellow-Englishman’ who tells him that ‘in this country in 15 or 20 years the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’. Taking for granted the master-slave imagery here, Powell agrees; and he claims that immigration ‘damages the existing population’ making them ‘strangers in their own country’. He then adopts a rhetoric designed to stir resentment at a supposed ‘dispossession’ of ‘the English’ at the hands of the invading foreign hordes.

The first element here is that the English have their ‘property’ — that which is native to them — taken from them, and the language itself is telling: ‘their wives [are] unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth…their children [are] unable to find school places’. For Powell, this ‘existing population’ (Powell’s version of ‘the people’) constitutes only the men: it is as if the Representation of the People Act of 1918 had not been ratified. The rhetoric takes it for granted, further, that there has been a contestation going on — at stake is victory and defeat — because Powell claims that the existing population finds that ‘their homes and neighbourhoods [are] changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated’.20

Powell’s reported second conversation is with a woman, bereft of husband and sons after the 1939-45 war, who has converted her seven-bedroom home to a lodging house. She is now the only white woman in the street, says Powell. ‘The immigrants moved in… The quiet street became a place of noise and confusion’. Presumably, the erstwhile white English-speaking inhabitants never said a word. Foreign languages here are mediated simply as ‘noise and confusion’. It is a theme that is reiterated by Nigel Farage in 2014 when he stated that he was made to feel awkward by the fact that his fellow-passengers on a London train were not speaking English, and that parts of the UK were ‘now like a foreign land’.21 The scandal, for Powell, is that the woman is no longer legally permitted to practice her own racial discrimination, no longer permitted to refuse accommodation to an individual because or her or his skin colour. She is allegedly persecuted for this: ‘When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. ‘Racialist”, they chant’.22

Powell’s rhetoric is repeated, a half-century later, by Boris Johnson, who was forced eventually to apologize for a speech in which he alleged that the reason the British Queen loved the Commonwealth was because ‘It supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies’, who surround her ‘with watermelon smiles’.23

The political language of a specific English xenophobic exceptionalism and superiority appears not to have changed. However, what has changed is the fact that, whereas Powell was sacked from the Conservative front bench by Ted Heath for his speech, Boris Johnson was appointed to the front bench, and — even worse — as Foreign Secretary, by Theresa May on 13 July 2016. The rhetoric of racism sat firmly, at that moment, in the heart of government; and it has become acceptable to see it sitting there, partly because of Johnson’s linguistic sophistries, partly because it is ingrained as part of the fabric of contemporary English culture, uncontroversial only because it goes unstated. The fact that Powell’s discourse is now entrenched cannot be comfortably openly acknowledged, of course — which is why it is expressed now in the language of the clown or buffoon, and not that of the earnest racist. Yet fact it is; and it is a fact profoundly indebted to the mistrust of foreign languages (notwithstanding the equally observable fact that ‘piccanniny’ is itself a derivation from Spanish or Portuguese — pequeño or pequeno, both meaning ‘little’ — combined with ‘ninny’ to imply stupidity or simple-mindedness, the combination being thereby one aimed at a literal ‘belittling’ of the foreigner).24


The prevailing — but not openly stated — official attitude to the study of foreign languages is no longer what it was for Downs or Fisher. In recent times in the UK, we have seen the steady stream of official and governmental comment driving students away from humanities and from foreign languages, and urging them towards the laboratory sciences. In 2015, Kathryn Board and Teresa Tynley conducted a ‘Language Trends’ survey for the British Council, and reported that:

Statements from government, industry and others about national competitiveness, the need to grow the economy and to develop the security and well-being of all our citizens, rarely, if ever, mention linguistic competence as a valued skill.25

Universities UK also noted with concern that

a lack of foreign language skills and cultural understanding was costing the UK up to £48 billion a year.26

The underlying motif remains, as it has long been, economic: the laboratory sciences will drive economic prosperity, supposedly, while ‘everyone speaks English’ as it is now a world-language. As a consequence, modern foreign languages are also deemed less useful — and, above all, less useful in yielding personal economic advancement and enrichment of the individual student. The economic issue became a matter for individuals — as opposed to the State — at precisely 5.41 pm on Thursday, 9 December 2010; for that was the moment when the UK House of Commons not only tripled the then-existing price of £3000 per annum University tuition fees, but also — and this is politically yet more significant — withdrew any State financial interest in the humanities, withdrawing all State funding for those disciplines and requiring that citizens become personally indebted for engagement with the relevant fields of study. This was a moment of the privatization of interests in the humanities; and the very idea of ‘privatization’ sits extremely uncomfortably with the speaking of a language. After all, a ‘private language’ is self-contradictory, as Wittgenstein was at pains to point out.27

It is, to be sure, a banal observation now that ‘the humanities’ are ‘in crisis’. It is banal to state this because a single moment of historical investigation reveals that crisis appears to be their essential and historical condition: the humanities are always and everywhere ‘in crisis’. The present crisis differs from previous critical moments, however, in that it is fully informed by the kinds of politics that shape isolationist nationalism (under the economic sign of privatization) and the supposed primacy of ‘the English-speaking people’.

The roots of the contemporary iteration of the perennial ‘crisis in humanities’ lie in the so-called ‘theory wars’ in the latter half of the twentieth century. Stefan Collini argues that one helpful way to understand ‘theory’ is to say that ‘“theory” is what happens when common starting-points [for our literary and cultural studies] can no longer be taken for granted’. That is to say: broadly through the period 1960-90, literary critics in the field of English studies started to question the common core of study (a supposed canon of works of Eng. Lit.), became impatient with established critical protocols (establishing sound editions and so on), and — most consequential of all — became interested in ‘foreign’ ideas (largely French and German: European ideas; and also literary and cultural thinking from elsewhere in the world, including former British colonies). From this they started to question the very foundations of what it meant to study literature, including ‘our’ literature and ‘our native’ culture. This, argues Collini, although disconcerting for established practice, is not necessarily bad, but can actually be ‘a sign that scholars cannot and should not be immune to the intellectual changes consequent upon living in a more diverse society in which the assumptions shared by certain traditional elites no longer command general assent’.28 To put this in the terms of my own present argument: we learned to entertain and to be generous towards foreign languages, foreign and novel ideas, and foreigners generally. ‘Eng. Lit.’ started its trajectory (via ‘Comp. Lit.’ and postcolonial studies) towards becoming ‘World Lit.’, with texts from many diverse cultures and conditions — and languages.

The pro-theory position was not at all uncontested. Those who thought that ‘English’ is ‘for the English’, and that the study of English literature plays a determining role in the making of ‘the English’ precisely as just such a ‘traditional elite’, put up a great resistance.29 The net result of this — especially when the theorist critic considers questions of the economy, justice, class and race — is to produce a kind of ‘resentment criticism’, which is perhaps among the least happy products of the so-called theory-wars.

Powell, I noted above, gave voice to, and exploited for political purposes, a specific kind of resentment. This has now assumed a central determining position as a force in contemporary culture and politics. It helps to constitute culture as the site of a kind of ‘revenge tragedy’ in the midst of which our humanities disciplines struggle for survival. Near the start of our historical story, in 1912, Max Scheler had already provided an analysis of what he called ‘ressentiment criticism’; and it is relevant here.

Fig. 12. Max Scheler (1874-1928)

Scheler is not well known today, for his work — including the book, Ressentiment — was banned during the Nazi period. He argues that ressentiment (and he uses that term to align himself with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) starts from a desire for revenge; but, crucially, it operates only when the desire for revenge is coupled by a sense that one is too weak to exact the revenge. In a specific sense, it thematises what we would now identify as ‘victimhood’. Scheler explains this by an analysis of Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes.

A fox wants to reach and eat some delicious-looking sweet grapes. He jumps and jumps, but always fails to reach them. At this point, he decides to believe that the grapes are not sweet at all, but sour. The grapes act as a kind of scapegoat figure, to allow the fox to continue to believe in his own strength. He does not exact a revenge on them; but instead he experiences a profound sense of ressentiment. The grapes are now responsible for the fox’s hunger, and also for any and all displeasures or discontents that he experiences.

Crucially, the fox no longer wants to eat the grapes. He becomes what Scheler calls a ‘ressentiment critic’:

This peculiar kind of “ressentiment criticism” is characterized by the fact that improvements in the conditions criticized cause no satisfaction — they merely cause discontent, for they destroy the growing pleasure afforded by invective and negation… It is peculiar to “ressentiment criticism” that it does not seriously desire that its demands be fulfilled.30

Ressentiment criticism is something that now dominates cultural critique in general. It starts from the premise that the world is unjust, and that the task of the critic is to address and, as far as possible, redress that injustice. Paradoxically, however, it works to sustain the very injustice against which it ostensibly fights. It does this essentially by a project of the privatization of injustice, by making injustice a personal affair and a question of identity based upon the personal experience of injustice. This, in turn, displaces the issue of injustice onto a determinedly sustained logic of victimhood, in which the victim of an injustice gains her or his authority, legitimacy and ethical standing precisely because of the victimhood in question.

It follows, logically, that the victim retains her or his authority precisely and only to the extent that victimhood is retained. Stefan Collini once satirized this position, indicating that, in the hands of many, ‘Cultural Studies’ was essentially ‘Grievance Studies’ in which the task of the critic was to ‘Identity your major grievance’ and to identify this as being at the core of ‘the repressive operation of power in society’31. This is unfair, but only because it fails to grasp the underlying philosophical structure of ressentiment criticism.

How, then, might this relate directly and more pertinently — more fairly — to my presiding question here? The answer is, in one way, very straightforward. If I assert my authority through my victimhood, then it follows — logically enough — that an escape from victimhood (the correction of an imbalance in the sphere of justice) will deprive me of the very identity that I am seeking in the first place, for it will deprive me of the ground of my authority as a critic. This is key to the ‘identity politics’ that has emerged as one of the key unforeseen consequences of the triumph of ‘theory’. My criticism must therefore always fail to achieve its stated aim, so that I can continue to assert my political identity (as working-class, say, or as woman, as LGBTQI, as Black, and so on through an entire gamut of discrete political identities32). In the case of English literary study, that identity is one that brings English into direct intimacy with ‘the English’, or with ‘being English’.

It is important to note here that I am not attempting to deny the value of much work that has been done in cultural studies. A great deal of social and political progress, benefiting thousands of individuals, has been made through work that attends to the injustices that have historically been inflicted upon women, the working classes, the colonized peoples of the world, those who sexuality does not conform to supposed ‘norms’ imposed by oppressive social forces and so on. However, the best of the work that we have seen in theoretical cultural studies is not that which is shaped by identity politics. When this good work is directed instead by a constant attention to the primacy of the critic’s own identity, and where the criticism is intended simply to reassert that identity, it falls not just into banality but also into the trap of ressentiment. My most serious claim in this essay is that it is precisely this trap that the ideology of ‘English’ has made its own; and that we are now seeing, in our contemporary political predicaments, its unforeseen consequences in the rise of English-language nationalism.

Fig. 13. An elite of one (two if you count Queenie): the age of F. R. Leavis (1895-1978)

This, fundamentally, was also the central aim of one of the twentieth century’s most influential and serious-minded literary critics, F.R. Leavis. Leavis, like the Conservative Peto before him, felt that the common core of English culture was under threat from growing barbarism and mediocrity. The mediocrity in question was a mediocrity of sensibility; and Leavis identified instead and explicitly with an elite who, in standing above the mediocre sensibilities of others, were thereby most able fully to be their best self — and this best self was one that manifested an Englishness. The important point, however, is that in describing this, he was forced to reduce the scope and ambit of ‘being English’ more and more. Essentially suspicious of democracy, Leavis identified with a specific elite, the ‘elite of sensibility’, as it were, who demonstrated their intrinsic superior worth through their responsiveness to English literature and to the nuances of its medium, the English language. He did not identify that elite with the whole country of England, but only with the educated elite; it was not the educated elite as such but only those in Oxbridge; it was not Oxbridge as such, but only Cambridge; not Cambridge as such but only Downing College; not Downing as such but only those in his class within Downing; not those within the class but only those in the select clique that he invited back to his home. In the end, in this extraordinary narrowing of interests into the private realm of the genuinely English sensibility, it was really just him. This is an extreme privatization of culture, predicated on the value of one individual: I am right because I am I, and I am right because I say this in English, the language that I properly inhabit and that embodies my sensibility.33

I began with Basil Peto’s opposition to the Fisher Act, based as it was on a fear of the spread of revolutionary ideas among the population. That same year, 1918, saw a strike in Moscow, led by the academic staff of the Moscow High Technical School. Lenin’s suggested way of dealing with the strike was simply to dismiss the professors. By 1922, Peto might have been able to address his concerns about the effect of the Russian Revolution more directly. In the intervening four years, Lenin systematically removed dissident professors from the universities, replacing them with compliant ‘red’ professors. In September 1922, two German steamships (the Oberburgermeister Haken and Preussen), borrowed for the purpose, set sail. On board were around 300 intellectuals and professors, exiled from the Soviet Union on this so-called ‘Philosophers’ Ship’.

Fig. 14. The Philosopher's Ship Oberbürgermeister Haken

As Paul R. Gregory has pointed out:

Intellectuals were an early target of Bolshevik repression for fear that they would present an alternative view of reality, different from the “truth” enunciated in the official party line. The only real truth with respect to politics, economy, arts, and literature was supposed to be that enunciated by the party.34

This, I suggest, is the perfect political analogue of the English native-language ideology that I have criticized throughout this piece. All we need do is substitute ‘English’ for ‘the party’ here if we wish to grasp what is at stake in a humanities ideology that finds its philosophical ground in the centrality of identity-politics, because ‘identity-politics’ is nothing more or less than a more agreeable translation of ‘official truth’. Put in its most bare form — a form only slightly dressed by politicians such as Powell and his contemporary progeny — it states that ‘I am the core of truth because I speak/am English’.

When Masha Gessen explored what was actually behind Lenin’s orders in 1922, she found that it was simply the start of a process in which the government ‘for decades, waged a concerted war on knowledge itself’.35 Our contemporary ‘crisis in the humanities’ is not at all, in fact, merely a crisis in humanities. ‘The humanities’ in our time acts as a synecdoche, for what is at stake is a suspicion of new knowledge; and this affects the laboratory sciences as much as it afflicts the study of modern languages, philosophy, history and the rest. Its primary symptom is in the rise of populism and in ‘the will of the people’; and what is so dangerous about this is the ‘triumph of the will’, a triumph of someone’s will over the people. As we saw in the case of Peto, the voice of the someone in question here is easily discovered: it is the voice of existing and often unearned privilege.

In the historical Soviet case (coincident in time with the foundation of the MHRA), Gessen describes what happened: ‘As the regime matured, restrictions on the social sciences grew broader’ and this simply worsened by the combination of time, habit and attrition so that ‘While the arms race spurred the Soviet government to rejuvenate and nurture the exact sciences and technology, there was nothing — or almost nothing — that could motivate the regime to encourage the development of philosophy, history, and the social sciences’.36 Indeed, by 1931, Moscow State University had ‘shut down all departments dedicated to the humanities and social sciences’, reopening them again only in 1941.37

The final thrust of the argument here is the identification of ‘Homo Sovieticus’, an identification that becomes possible with a shrinkage of world views and the isolation of a specific culture, mentality — and, I will now add, national language. As Gessen has it: ‘as the Soviet Union sealed itself off with the Iron Curtain, so did the Soviet citizen separate himself from everyone who was Other and therefore untrustworthy’.38

Fig. 15. Michael Gove having 'had enough of experts': Brexit referendum campaign, 2016

In our time, this ‘war on knowledge’ takes the much more nuanced and less visible form of English native-tongue nationalism; and the University sector has become complicit with it. The commonplace version of the attack on knowledge is formulated concisely in Conservative MP Michael Gove’s infamous claim during the EU referendum campaign of 2016 that ‘the people of this country have had enough of experts’.39 More significant than this, however, is the fact of the higher education policy over the last twenty years or so. The 1998 introduction of ‘top-up fees’ veering predictably into the twice-tripling of those fees is significant. What it does is to say that the State has no interest in higher education, and that its costs must be borne by individual debt. That makes higher education not only a private interest, but one that is governed by a logic of the privatization of knowledge.

Once we establish this, it is not long before knowledge becomes intimately related to identity, and in the most unmediated — immediate — form, which is the knowledge that I gain sensorially and empirically via the body itself. At this point, we can return to my opening, and close those aching jaws.

When Monty Bodkin or Leslie Fielding find that their body rebels against the foreign tongue, they are, in effect, expressing a determination that can go both ways. Movement of the body — we might call it ‘free movement’ — is something that necessarily involves and encourages the voicing of new languages. This is what our current predicaments –based on the primacy of identity politics — negates.

The foundational ideals of the MHRA are needed, now, again, possibly more than ever. This time, the threat comes not from communism and bolshevism, but from a far-right that is on the march, stridently claiming its nationalist identity. In place of identity, which will lead eventually only to physical force and violence, we need to rehabilitate the ideals of the MHRA and its interests in the production of diversity and its multiplication of various — and rich — linguistic engagements. We might call it something like ‘political democracy’.

Given at the Department of Social Sciences, Warwick, 7 February 2018; © Thomas Docherty 2018


1P. G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins (1934; repr. Arrow Books, 2008), 7↩︎

2Leslie Fielding, interviewed BBC Radio 4 Today, 28 March 2017: available at (accessed 12 July 2020). ‘I was a newcomer, a dreaded Englishman, thought to be unable to speak any other language than English’. A yet more recent example of what is at issue here is found in Howard Jacobson’s 2017 novel, Pussy, in which he satirizes the lexical poverty of Donald Trump. See Jacobson, Pussy (Jonathan Cape, 2017), 64 and passim.↩︎

3Sheffield Hallam is, historically, an important political constituency for anyone interested in the politics of higher education. In 2017, a century after Fisher took the seat, another MP for Sheffield Hallam, the Liberal-Democrat Nick Clegg, was to lose the constituency to Labour. Clegg and his party paid this high price largely as a consequence of Clegg’s enabling the tripling of tuition fees for university students while he was in a Coalition Government with the Conservatives between 2010-15, despite having pledged to abolish such fees altogether.↩︎

4For more detail on the context here, see my Universities at War (Sage, 2015), 1-11.↩︎

5Committee on Higher Education, Higher Education Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins 1961-63, paragraph 31 (hereafter ‘Robbins Report’, cited within the text by paragraph number). See the full text of the Robbins Report, available at: (accessed 12 July 2020).↩︎

6See debate in Hansard HC Deb 13 March 1918 vol 104 cc335-447: available at: (accessed 12 July 2020), 335. All subsequent references to the debate are from this source, and will be given in text by Hansard page number as given in this web-source.↩︎

7As in many cases of populism, we have here a politician in government who pretends to disavow her or his power by claiming simply to defer to ‘the will of the people’, thereby re-instating her or his power precisely by co-opting the supposed authority of ‘the people’ to what is essentially the governing individual’s own will. Populism simplifies and falsifies complexity, always in the interests of sustaining existing privilege.↩︎

8George Sampson, English for the English, 2nd edn (Cambridge: CUP, 1925), p. x.↩︎

9At its philosophical root, this is the basis of claims about the values of a ‘meritocracy’. I shall deal with the intrinsic flaws and self-contradictions of this in more detail in section 6 below.↩︎

10The phrases in quotation marks in this sentence are taken, deliberately, from the lexicon of the ‘debates’ that have taken place, since 2016, over the UK’s proposed departure from membership of the European Union. I have used the phrases to indicate that those contemporary debates have a long pre-history; and that they are informed by issues around the English language. For more on this, see my Political English (Bloomsbury, 2019).↩︎

11The determined inclusion of English in the roster of MHRA interests might also have more banal explanations. First, it helps add more heft to the grouping of ‘modern languages; when set against the firmly-established ‘classics’; and secondly, it helps defray any anxieties there might be about the fact that Downs’s own specialism lay in German, the language of the defeated war-time enemy.↩︎

12Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2007), 19↩︎

13Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, i (Cassell and Co, 1956), pp. vii-viii.↩︎

14Enoch Powell, Freedom and Reality, ed. John Wood (London: Batsford, 1969), 256. It is a claim that he often repeats.↩︎

15Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s Victory (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002), 116. Hitchens traces this back to Powell’s 1961 speech, but mis-identifies its date as 1969 (the date of its book publication).↩︎

16Churchill was clearly aware of this, for he was at pains to try to deny that this is what he was doing, stating that ‘Thinking primarily of the English-speaking peoples in no way implies any sense of restriction’ (Churchill, A History, p. vii), but this is precisely what the work does imply, notwithstanding its extensive scope.↩︎

17Sigfrid Siwerz, ‘Award Ceremony Speech’ given at the ‘Award of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1953”, available at: (accessed 17 January 2019). On the stereotypical image of the Jew, with reference especially to hair, see, for examples: Hannah Dylan Pasternak, ‘I hate my Jewish hair’, at"; Hilary Freeman, ‘What does a Jew look like?’, available at:; and Samantha Shokin, ‘When I found a place where I belonged, I finally came to love my Jewish hair’, available at: (all sites accessed 12 July 2020).↩︎

18Giulio Lepschy, ‘Presidential Address of the Modern Humanities Research Association: Mother Tongues and Literary Languages’, Modern Language Review, 96.4 (2001), xxxiii-xlix<./p>

19Srdjan Vucevic, The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of Racialized Identity in International Relations (Stanford University Press, 2011), pp. 4, 131. The argument of this book does not concern anti-Semitism as its primary interest, but takes a very wide-ranging overview of the relation of the ideological ‘Anglosphere’ to what the English-speaking powers construe as their racial others. Vucevic explains (p131ff) how it is that a subscription to the values of the Anglosphere starts within supposedly undeniable ‘facts’ about biological race, but becomes more culturally acceptable as its proponents re-direct such racialised claims into arguments instead about liberal historical ‘progress’ (from barbarism to English, as it were). The political equivalent might be Frances Fukuyama’s famous ‘end of history’ arguments from, the 1990s.↩︎

20Powell, Freedom and Reality, 213, 217. Contemporary right-wing rhetoric follows this closely enough, especially with the attention it pays to the numbers of immigrants and to Conservative hopes to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.↩︎

21For the report on this, see for example the Evening Standard, 28 February 2014, available at:; and The Guardian, 28 February 2014, available at: (both accessed 12 July 2020). See also the satire on this by Robert Shrimsley, Financial Times, 7 March 2014, at: (accessed 12 July 2020), pseudo-lamenting that ‘you just don’t hear Chaucer’ on the train any more.↩︎

22Powell, Freedom and Reality, 218↩︎

23See report in Owen Bowcott and Sam Jones, ‘Johnson’s “piccaninnies” apology’, Guardian, 23 January 2018, available at: (accessed 12 July 2020).↩︎

24The fact that Johnson, like Powell before him, is gifted in a number of languages simply demonstrates that the underlying appeal here — to those outside of the polyglot — is crudely political, and politic.↩︎

25See the Report, available at: (accessed 12 July 2020).↩︎

26See Fiona Waye, ‘Recognising the Value of Language Learning’, available at: (accessed 12 July 2020).↩︎

27The argument is in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe; Blackwell, Oxford, 1992), §241 ff.↩︎

28Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2012), 69.↩︎

29That resistance aligned the concerns of capital with those of the nation-state in an age of British imperialism. The very development of ‘Eng. Lit’ as a discipline trough the nineteenth century is indebted to an attitude to education that is adumbrated in Macaulay’s famous 1835 ‘Minute on Education’. There, Macaulay argues that the education of the Empire’s Indian subjects should be construed as a moral imperative: their ‘betterment’ is to be achieved through an education in classical English Literature. For more on this, see Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest (Columbia University Press, New York, 1989); and see my detailed argument in my Literature and Capital (Bloomsbury, 2018), 63-97.↩︎

30Max Scheler, Ressentiment (1912; Marquette University Press, 1994), 34.↩︎

31Stefan Collini, English Pasts (Oxford University Press, 1999), 253-54.↩︎

32Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: La fondation de l’universalisme (PUF, Paris, 1997), 11, satirizes this endless multiplication of political identities, indicating that it is a ruse of capital: for each new identity, a new specific targeted market of identity-specific and identity-supporting commodities.↩︎

33This is, obviously, an extreme formulation and overly succinct. For the fuller argument, see my books For the University (Bloomsbury, 2011), esp. 28-31, and The English Question (Sussex Academic, Brighton, 2008), 24.↩︎

34Paul R. Gregory, ‘The Ship of Philosophers: How the early USSR dealt with dissident intellectuals', Independent Review, 13: 4 (Spring, 2009), 485-92; available at: (accessed 12 July 2020). For more on this, see also Alexander Razin and Tatiana Sidorina, ‘The Philosophers’ Ship’, Philosophy Now, 31 (March-April 2001), available at: (accessed 12 July 2020).↩︎

35Masha Gessen, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Granta, 2017), 17.↩︎

36Ibid., 18.↩︎

37Ibid., 24.↩︎

38Ibid., 59.↩︎

39Michael Gove, interviewed by Faisal Islam, 3 June 2016. See the interview, available at: (accessed 24 January 2019).↩︎