The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Somerset Maugham: a Marxist view

W. Somerset Maugham and the Social Question

Trent Hutter


From International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No.3, Summer 1960, pp.91-94.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O'Callaghan for ETOL.


THE famous Paris-born English novelist and storyteller, essayist and playwright, William Somerset Maugham, is one of the world's most successful authors. Millions read and love his books.

He is more popular with the international reading public than with professional critics and arrogant literary coteries. Many college professors and sophisticates in general seem to imagine that being different is in itself proof of culture. Their preference goes to a literature for the few, obscure and full of vague allegories of which they can be the knowing interpreters. The intellectual snobs show contempt for almost anything the majority of the public likes. It has become an automatic reaction with them. They are the conformists of non-conformism.

While bourgeois high-brow critics frequently reserve their studies for dark concoctions of pseudo-symbolism and pseudo-Freudism, low-brow reviewers praise the conformist pseudo-realism of the Herman Wouk type, the best-sellers that advertise the morals of Suburbia and Madison Avenue. As for the pro-Stalinist circles, they are opportunists in politics and sectarians in the arts. They advocate a so-called "Socialist Realism" which tends to transform literature into fictionalized propaganda slogans.

Truly realistic fiction does not have to preach. Of course, it may carry a message, but this must organically grow out of a convincing story with lifelike characters and conditions. The Stalinists' "Socialist Realism" is an artificial, lifeless construction without realism, wrapped around the bureaucracy's watchwords and orders. It discards anything that does not strictly fit into the bureaucracy's universe. Every item is geared to a limited purpose, while genuine realism is never afraid of describing any aspect of reality, anything that has impressed itself on the writer's mind, anything he feels strongly or uneasy about. There is no realism without intellectual honesty.

H.G. Wells undoubtedly was far more honest than the Stalinists. Yet he, too, saw in the novel not a work of art but primarily a means of discussing problems and important issues, a medium for the reader's instruction. He was no hack of any bureaucracy, but no one would claim his novels to rank with the master works of all times.

In The Art of Fiction, W. Somerset Maugham underlines that "a novel is to be read with enjoyment. If it doesn't give the reader that, it is, so far as he is concerned, valueless." To Maugham, the novel is above all a work of art intended for the reader's entertainment. If you don't enjoy it, if you are not asking yourself 'What will happen next?' while reading it, if the story and its main theme do not captivate you, the novel has not achieved its purpose. A novel may even contain interesting discussions, splendid descriptions, stimulating ideas and still be a failure as a novel because as a whole it is boring, not entertaining.

To Maugham, the novel is no sugar-coating for a popular course on science or politics. It cannot provide a reliable shortcut to theoretical knowledge because it is much too subjective a vehicle to permit an objective scientific analysis. An enjoyable novel cannot be a valid scientific, political or philosophical treatise, or vice versa. Nor should the novel be too topical if it is to endure; for if it is as topical as today's newspaper or magazine, it will be as dead tomorrow.

Maugham indicates that the novelist has a right to deal with mankind's present problems: "We live in a troubled world, and it is doubtless the novelist's business to deal with it" [1] – and with its great topics, but they have to be "an integral element of the story he has to tell." [2] To dismiss a superb novelist as "a mere storyteller," as the professors and coteries often do, is absurd. Each tale reflects the author's outlook. He offers "a criticism of life." – "... he is in his own modest way a moralist." [3] His views may not always be very original or profound, says Maugham, but there is "no such creature" as a "mere storyteller." [4]

Maugham's theory of the novel thus sharply contradicts that of the Stalinists or of the followers of H.G. Wells. It also contradicts the ideas of the super-sophisticated circles and the college professors who indulge in difficult-to-understand literary works for the few, in the meanders of tortured minds. James Joyce – whose gifts I certainly do not wish to minimize – is the learned professors' bread and butter.

Maugham's social thinking is reflected in his theoretical approach to the novel and to art and culture in general. He does not believe in an art for the few. The novel, for example, should be clear enough to be understood by every reader with a "fair education," which surely does not have to be a college education. Yet, in order to get true enjoyment out of a work of art, including a novel, you have to make a little effort of application. Quite often it will be amply rewarded. The artist can do nothing or very little for you if you are not willing to let him entertain or inspire you. The reader's imagination has to co-operate with the writer.

At this point my readers will perhaps ask me: "What about Dante's Divine Comedy, or Shakespeare's Hamlet, or Goethe's Faust?" Are these magnificent works for the many or rather for the few? What about Bach in music? Aren't we condemning some of the most marvellous creations of the human spirit if we reject an art for the few? – The answer is simple: The Divine Comedy, Hamlet or Faust may require explanations as to several difficult passages; but their basic stories and ideas do not require higher learning to be understood, nor does their poetical beauty. And as for Johann Sebastian Bach, an enquiry among the members of the Workers' Concert Society of Barcelona, which Pablo Casals directed before the Spanish Civil War, showed that the workers' favorite classic composer was – Bach. Let us not be taken in by the old bourgeois myth that with their privileged education the ruling classes are the only ones capable of appreciating great art.

In The Summing Up [5], one of the 20th century's most admirable books of wisdom, Maugham probes into the aim of art. He has "found little to admire" in those who "use art to escape the realities of life" and who "in their imbecile contempt for common things deny value to the essential activities of humanity." He rejects the aesthete. He does not at all reject beauty, but he holds that it is not reserved for "the chosen few":

"I cannot believe that beauty is the appanage of a set and I am inclined to think that a manifestation of art that has a meaning only to persons who have undergone a peculiar training is as inconsiderable as the set to which it appeals."

Beauty, however, is not the ultimate goal of art. Maugham's concept of art, like his concept of culture, is not aes-thetical but moral. "For art, if it is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, must teach men humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity. The value of art is not beauty, but right action." – The novel should not be tasted by a small circle of intellectual escapists, nor is it to be considered mainly an instrument for the reader's instruction; but to some extent it may contribute to the education of his character if it is enjoyable and entertaining enough to strongly engage his emotions, his attention – in other words: if it is a fine novel.

To Maugham, loving-kindness, goodness are the highest values. Although he respects and never ridicules the faith of others, and although, as an artist, he knows about certain mystic experiences – not necessarily religious – that are very real, yet not easy to explain, he cannot believe in God because there is so much suffering, cruelty, injustice. How could a good God tolerate this if he is almighty? And how could one believe in a God who is either not almighty or not good? ... To Maugham, the supreme wisdom is not faith in the supernatural, in a reason beyond our human reason, but the right attitude in life. "Right action" inevitably implies right action toward our fellow men. This is the basis of his social conscience.

There are some novelists whose minds are keenly political. Ignazio Silone is one of their outstanding figures, and so was the late Theodor Plivier. And the late Bertolt Brecht, the foremost Marxist playwright, never ceased to think in terms of working class politics. Maugham has never claimed to be a political thinker, a political novelist or playwright. Some of his rather infrequent political utterances have been shaped by his habit of that world in which he developed and gained acclaim and a comfortable existence, as well as by his non-chauvinistic brand of British patriotism.

Still, he has observed man and society since the end of the 19th century. In 1892 he started to work as a doctor of the very poor in London's St. Thomas's Hospital and saw their utter misery which deeply touched his sensitive nature. He travelled all over the globe in war and peace. In The Summing Up (1938) he has outlined his perspective of humanity's social advance:

"For he is blind who will not see that in the lives of the proletariat in the great cities all is misery and confusion ... If only revolution can remedy this, then let revolution come and come quickly."

"... Despite the cruelty that we see in so-called civilized countries, mankind has made progress since past ages ..."

The trend toward communism cannot be stopped by the ruling classes:

"I cannot doubt that the proletariat, increasingly conscious of its rights, will eventually seize power in one country after another ..."

Maugham, used to the bourgeois world he knows, is not exactly anxious to live in a revolutionary society; but he bravely subordinates personal likes and dislikes and his material interests to social necessity:

"I do not think I have such an attachment to my various possessions as to regret their loss for long ... I should make an attempt to adapt myself and then, if I found life intolerable ..."

He is willing to commit suicide in that case, although to us it is obvious that a true workers' democracy – not a totalitarian Stalinist regime –, far from making his life intolerable, would honor a great artist like Somerset Maugham.

Although Maugham is not a Marxist and believes that evils like wars and exploitation cannot be completely abolished, it is remarkable that twenty years ago, when the fascist counter-revolution appeared to be so powerful and dynamic, he nonetheless predicted "economic changes that will transform civilization" [6] and realized that mankind was living "on the eve of great revolutions." [7] And wouldn't it be erroneous to assume that the open-minded observer who wrote "I enjoy the spectacle of the world and it interests me to see what is going to happen" was or is actually frightened by that perspective?

While Maugham is not a Marxist, his personal philosophy, which makes The Summing Up such a magnificent book, is related to Marxist materialist thinking. On various philosophical questions he has reached similar conclusions. He always thinks deeply. In his fiction, too, there is more deep thinking than in the novels and plays of writers who enjoy a reputation of profundity because they are nebulous. But he does not communicate his thoughts in a ponderous way, so much are they part of the exciting stories he has to tell. This also applies to his social thinking as voiced in his fiction. He does not shout. He often seems to keep his distance and prefers irony and humor. This more discreet manner is rooted in his personal shyness but has obvious advantages. It is very refreshing. And with it he delightfully unmasks hypocrites, fakers and frauds. His wit and the elegance of his art should not induce anyone into calling him superficial or a cynic.

Forty years ago, English critics liked to speak of the "cynical" Maugham because he pictured individuals and their behavior as members of society with unprejudiced realism. His insight into the complexities of the human psyche, which exclude the definition of any individual by any ready-made formula, and into the relationship between the individual and a given society, the social forces and conditions at work on the individual, their influence on his thinking and character, together with superb qualities of form and style, make Maugham one of the all-time masters of fiction.

His famous novel Of Human Bondage, one of the world's greatest, is almost autobiographical. But even in his other books and even when he appears to be more aloof, he is one of the most intensely personal and one of the most sincere writers.

Moved by the misery of the underprivileged, his experiences at St. Thomas's Hospital and in the slums of London, he wrote his first novel Liza of Lambeth, a pioneering one in the field of the modern proletarian novel. He rejected the view that suffering was salutary and enabled a person "to get into touch with the mystical kingdom of God ... Several books on these lines had a great success and their authors, who lived in comfortable homes, had three meals a day and were in robust health, gained much reputation ... I knew that suffering did not ennoble; it degraded." But even in a hospital you will not learn about human nature "if you have not the eyes to see ..." [8]

To those who do not wish to read about "crime ... immorality ... poverty and unhappiness" [9] and say they anyhow can't do a thing about it – "a vast number of people, especially among the elderly, the well-to-do, the privileged,"1 he replies "that he is interested in telling the truth, as he sees it, about the world he has come in contact with." [10] Not as "a pedagogue or a preacher" [11] but as an artist, he hopes to help prepare the young for "this difficult business of living." [12]

Maugham's portrayals of English society or life in the colonies may sound dispassionate, but their authenticity is striking. He is uncorruptible. While the social satire of writers like Oscar Wilde, for instance, actually contained a longing to be received and recognized by the same aristocracy they made fun of, Maugham is free from such snobbishness. Nor does any of his novels or short stories ever idealize colonialism in telling about the Far East, South East Asia and he islands of the Pacific. And he doesn't go in for the description of faraway lands for exoticism's sake: While he conveys vividly pertinent impressions of those countries, he is concerned with stories of people in the special milieu of the colonies.

Maugham is a penetrating observer of American society, too. How lucid is his remark in A Writer's Notebook [13] about the hypocritical pseudo-democratic manners American employers often put on when talking to their employees, this back-slapping comedy of equality being actually more condescending and humiliating than the more formal behavior of British bosses! And in contrast with the reaction of quite a few flattered visitors to Dixie, he feels embarrassed by the submissiveness of Negro servants in the South. His sense of human dignity cannot be dimmed.

Free from snobbishness, he also lacks the superiority complex of many intellectuals. "There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields. There is no more merit in being able to attach a correct description to a picture than in being able to find out what is wrong with a stalled motorcar ... The True, the Good and the Beautiful are not the perquisites of those who have been to expensive schools, burrowed in libraries and frequented museums." [14] – Nor does Maugham believe, on the other hand, that manual labor in itself is more honorable than other categories of work. He regrets Tolstoy's attempt at being a shoemaker. And he sees through the bourgeoisie's glorification of work as such – that capitalist fetish which the Tolstoyites and some anti-intellectual, non-Marxist tendencies inside the labor movement have transformed into a glorification of manual work only. "There is nothing particularly commendable in work. One works in order to enjoy leisure. It is only stupid people who work because, when not working, they don't know what to do with themselves."!

Maugham sees through the facade of the American bourgeoisie that deceives so many other foreigners. Writing of Charles Dickens' times, his irony directly hints at the present situation, too: "A hundred years ago the United States was a land where speech was free, so long as it did not offend the susceptibilities or affect the interests of other people, and where everyone was entitled to his own opinions, so long as they agreed with those of everyone else." Repeating "a hundred years ago" four times in the same paragraph of the essay on Dickens in The Art of Fiction, he makes it clear that he is thinking of today's United States as well ...

Maugham has never engaged in political activities; yet that does not mean he denies the importance of public affairs "when men in millions are living on the border-line of starvation." [15] But he is a writer so completely that he does not feel called to do anything else, "thinking that not the whole of life was long enough to learn to write well ..." " ... some of us are so made there is nothing else we can do. We do not write because we want to; we write because we must." [16] The writer is to concentrate above all on being as good a writer as he can. Maugham regrets that Goethe spent so much energy on non-literary pursuits, i.e. on various hobbies and administrative assignments. If this sounds strange to Socialists, let us remember that even the most politically conscious revolutionary writer of fiction of the 20th century's first half, the great Bertolt Brecht, a militant communist, still infused his fighting spirit into his plays and poems, devoting his main energy to his mission as a writer, knowing that was how he could best serve the cause of Socialism, far better than through other activities to which he was probably less suited.

The novelist need not be political or politically progressive in order to honestly picture social reality. Balzac was politically a conservative monarchist; yet through his realistic portraits of the French bourgeoisie of the eighteen-thirties his novels played a role that was definitely progressive (– a word I am somewhat reluctant to use, since the Stalinists have discredited it by tagging it on whatever corresponds to their political line of the moment). The writer can, but is not obliged to, offer a solution to the problems he deals with in a work of fiction. Genuine social realism – not to be confused with the Stalinists' so-called Socialist Realism – is sufficient to make a novel progressive. Reactionary novelists are those who fake reality and make this pseudo-reality conform to the needs and aims of the ruling class. Reactionary writers like Herman Wouk dress up their falsification of social reality with a lot of realistic detail.

Even the realistic novelist does not actually photograph life because in fiction reality has to be arranged to suit the requirements of a story, a work of art. And the more eminent a novelist he is, the stronger is the imprint his personality leaves on the figures he portrays. Thus, mediocre writers often "describe their surroundings with a greater faithfulness," as Maugham explains in The Summing Up. The mediocrities generally cultivate a more thorough reproduction of detail; but their novels are no powerful artistic creations.

Realism does not spell accurate imitation of reality. A novel is a composition; and few novelists have shown as brilliant a gift for composition and left as strong a personal imprint on their entire work as Maugham. Realism means that the writer avoids situations and coincidences that are wildly improbable, that he tries to convey to us a psychologically probable image of the persons he describes and that he depicts as honestly as possible a social milieu or several social spheres and the interrelation between individuals and social conditions. This is social realism. And this social realism is one of the qualities that have made Somerset Maugham a modern classic.

Maugham, who has just returned from a trip to East and South East Asia to his home on the French Riviera, is 86 and the dean of contemporary literature. More than they did in the past, professional critics occasionally pay homage to the celebrated master-storyteller, the public's perennial favorite. But neither the bourgeois critics, nor their Stalinist or pro-Stalinist colleagues care to mention the profound social significance of his fiction and non-fiction. (The bourgeois critics despise the term "social significance" anyway ...)

In The Art of Fiction Maugham asserts that the 19th century – "if you are prepared to hold that it did not end till 1914" – produced greater novels than any era before or since. It "was a period of revolution, social, industrial and political." He convincingly indicates the relationship between this climate of changes and literature. However, the period of revolutions did not end in 1914, as Maugham himself points out in The Summing Up. Far from it! And I tend to believe that the age of the greatest novels did not end in 1914 either. W. Somerset Maugham's work is an impressive part of the evidence bearing out this view.


1. W. Somerset Maugham, The Art of Fiction, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, N. Y., 1955.

2. ibid.

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1938.

6. ibid.

7. ibid.

8. W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook, Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1949.

9. W. Somerset Maugham, The Art of Fiction, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1955.

10. ibid.

11. ibid.

12. ibid.

13. W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook, Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1949.

14. W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1938.

15. ibid.

16. ibid.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. It's a very interesting article.