Context and Subtext

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin 1870-1924


This man wanted to overthrow
capitalism and lead an
international socialist

Roy Jenkins 1920-2003

RoyJenkinsThis man believed in capitalism but wanted to make it more humane, by introducing welfare reforms.

Roy Jenkins and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had radically different political views, but at certain points in their careers they both called themselves social democrats.

  • How can we explain this apparent contradiction?

The answer is to be found within CONTEXT.

  • What does context mean?
  • What is the context that explains the apparent contradiction between the views of Lenin and the views of Jenkins?

CameronThis is a piece of Labour Party publicity.  It appears to have a fairly straightforward message, behind the phrase there is a subtext, that is a meaning which is implied but not openly stated.

  • Why didn’t the Labour Party use the phrase working class families?
  • Why didn’t the Labour Party use the phrase poor families?
  • Who are they attempting to appeal to with this particular piece of publicity?
  • What in other words is the subtext of this poster?

The following video-talk explores the issues of context and subtext in relation to 19th century Liberalism.  Political material very rarely has a straightforward literal meaning.  The video lecture focuses on an extract from John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, and a speech by the liberal politician David Lloyd George made when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1906 Liberal government.  Both of these extracts form part of this document.

John Stuart Mill On Liberty 1859

But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer)

Addressing a meeting on the People’s Budget of 1909. Reported in The Times 31st July 1909

Mr. LLOYD-GEORGE, who on rising had an enthusiastic reception said, – A few months ago a meeting was held not far from this hall. In the heart of the City of London, demanding that the Government should launch out and run into enormous expenditure on the Navy. That meeting ended up with a resolution promising that those that passed that resolution would give financial support to the Government in their undertaking. There have been two or three meetings held in the City of London since (laughter and cheers), attended by the same class of people, but not ending up with a resolution promising to pay. (Laughter). On the contrary we are spending the money, but they won’t pay (Laughter). What has happened since to alter their tone? Simply that we have sent in the bill (Laughter and cheers).  We started our four Dreadnoughts. They cost eight millions of money. We promised them four more; they cost another eight millions. Somebody has got to pay, and those gentlemen say “Perfectly true; somebody has got to pay, but we would rather that that somebody was somebody else.” (Laughter). We started building; we wanted money to pay for the building; so we sent the hat round. (Laughter). We sent it round amongst the workmen (hear, hear), and the miners of Derbyshire (loud cheers) and Yorkshire, the weavers of High Peak (cheers), and the Scotchmen of Dumfries (cheers) who, like all their countrymen know the value of money. (Laughter), They all brought in their coppers. We went round Belgravia, but there has been such a howl ever since that it has completely deafened us.

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