Introduction A logical way to answer this question is to examine popular culture from the stance of the socialists themselves, who had their own views on how the popularity of the emerging leisure industry had a negative effect on the workers. Their general argument was that capitalism exploits its labourers and the leisure industry is just another form of capitalism. Not only the paying consumers were being exploited, but also the people employed by the leisure industry; the player on the pitch or the performer on the stage was no better off than the worker in the factory.
The British socialist movements had only begun to emerge in the late 19th century, such as the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Foundation, formed in the 1890’s. This was at a time when commercial entertainment was booming, due to a combination of less working hours and more disposable income. Most major towns had football teams, for example, and music halls had become the entertainment of choice, keeping people occupied at least until the advent of cinema. Pubs were more popular than ever, and the ease of travel brought on by the development of railways meant that standardised holiday trips were sold as commodities.
The entrepreneurs responsible for commercial entertainment in the mid to late 19th century, according to Chris Waters, used the same style of language as the reformers, who advocated rational recreation. This was to get the critics on their side and also to promote their forms of mass entertainment as wholesome, morally uplifting pursuits. 1 Their promotional techniques were evidently working, and socialists had their work cut out from the start, if they were to provide alternatives to paid-for mass entertainment.
An “education of desire” Writers such as William Morris, SDF member and socialist propagandist, believed in a “desire” for higher, morally uplifting pleasures and for a type of utopia, sometimes called “secondary desires”. Socialists differed as to whether these desires were innate and just needed tapping into, or people had to be taught them from scratch. But however they were awakened, these desires would make people aware of what was wrong with present society.
Socialists advocated certain forms of leisure, which would assist this desire for a better society, and they believed that mass commercial entertainment was a type of shallow “artificial pleasure” which only stimulated the senses and offered immediate gratification, therefore blocking the secondary desires of the masses. It is true that commercial entertainment pandered to its customers, was the most readily available, and it did not try to educate its patrons, politically or otherwise. Aspirations of a utopia, or “education of desire”, were seen as essential for the preparation for a socialist state, according to its advocates.
Therefore, if the masses were spending all their free time and money on entertainment specially provided for them by profiteers, then not only were they being made immune to socialist ideals, but also capitalism was gaining a greater hold over them, now encroaching onto their leisure time. 2 Marxist ideology The grinding monotony of work in the 19th century was also held responsible by socialists for blocking desire and deadening the imagination of the workers, resulting in their seeking pleasure in the easiest, most available, affordable and convenient way.
This was tied up with another big problem for socialists: the passive nature of entertainment that this type of recreation offered, requiring no real energy or input from the spectator. Socialists aspired for a type of work that was pleasurable, which was certainly not the case in the industrial towns of the late 19th century. If working hours were less soul-destroying and more pleasurable, then workers might not leave the factories physically and spiritually exhausted, and might wish to seek leisure activities in which they played a more active role, i. e.
the type of activities promoted by socialists as necessary for instilling socialist ideals. In criticizing working conditions, British socialists were typically echoing the writings of Karl Marx, who blamed the oppression of the workers by the capitalist classes for all of societies ills. Keeping with Marxist rhetoric, existing paid-for popular culture offered a type of escapist entertainment from daily lives (The menial, exhausting working day would understandably bring a desire to escape) and working class participants would temporarily forget their background.