The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Giving the Left Review its due

A hidden history of Marxist criticism

by Philip Bounds

Marxist ideas had a significant influence on at least three groups of literary critics and theorists in the Britain of the 1930s, the most famous of which was the so-called Auden Circle.

Several of its members - Stephen Spender, C Day Lewis and WH Auden himself - produced a large body of critical writing in the period retween their conversion to Marxism in the middle of the decade and their drift away from it at the beginning of the second world war.

Similarly well known to an academic audience at least is the handful of maverick scholars, notably William Empson and LC Knights, who drew briefly on Marxist and Marxisant sources in their efforts to extend the insights of Cambridge English in a radical direction.

Yet the most impressive engagement with Marxist ideas was undertaken by the numerous writers who were either members of, or closely associated with, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and whose work - now largely forgotten - had its roots in the ideas about literature and culture which emerged in the Soviet Union during the Stalin period.

The scholarly neglect to which the work of the communist writers has been exposed is astonishing.

Nearly every historian of criticism accepts that Marxism was a dominant force in the literary culture of the 1930s, but few are willing to examine its impact in any detail.

The relevant volume of Rene Wellek's History of Modern Criticism, easily the most important work of reference on the subject, devotes just two of its 400 pages to the work of only one of the party theorists.

The reasons for this neglect are probably bound up with the cultural politics of the cold war.

At a time in the 1950s and 1960s when one might have expected literary historians to provide a balanced assessment of the communist writers of the previous generation, the majority of British intellectuals were deeply hostile to the Soviet bloc and regarded Marxism as a barrier to genuine thought.

It might also have been the case that what Ron Bellamy has called "McCarthy, sotto voce" deterred a number of more sympathetic writers from tracing the history of communist criticism, though this obviously fails to explain why the literary intellectuals who openly associated with the CPGB at this time were themselves neglectful of the heritage of the '30s.

At any rate, the note of scorn which has characterised most postwar writing on the party theorists is well captured in the following passage from John Gross's The Rise And Fall Of The Man Of Letters: "Not even sympathisers are likely to want to resurrect the English Communist criticism of the 1930s, and at this hour in the day it would be pointless to rake up the dogmatic pronouncements of Alick West, Philip Henderson, Jack Lindsay or the firing-squad of the Left Review."

It is necessary to be absolutely clear about why the attempt to rake up the work of the CPGB's literary intellectuals is in fact justified.

Gross is certainly right to say that many of the party theorists were inclined to be dogmatic, though dogmatism was often wrongly ascribed to their work because of its use of naively partisan language - no generation of English critics has ever been more subservient to the deadening linguistic conventions of democratic politics.

But at their best, there were about 15 pioneering writers who moved beyond what Victor Paananen has called a preliminary exploration of problems and possibilities to provide a sophisticated application of Marxist ideas to the fields of literature and culture.

One measure of their stature is the extent of their influence. The ideas of the party theorists were central to the radical public sphere from which the most important creative writers of the 1930s took their inspiration, and their influence can clearly be detected in the work of Auden, Spender and even George Orwell.

The attempt to identify a radical tradition in English culture which occurred at the time of the Popular Front against fascism from 1935 to 1939 would later shape the much more extensive investigations of English radicalism undertaken by writers such as EP Thompson, Arnold Kettle and Christopher Hill.

Moreover, as Paananen has pointed out, there are even similarities to be noted between the main theoretical approaches of the 1930s and those adopted by the writers who led the revival of Marxist literary theory in the '70s and '80s.

If we want a clear picture of the sources which influenced such celebrated texts as Raymond Williams's Marxism And Literature (1977) and Terry Eagleton's Criticism And Ideology (1976), we have no choice but to give the firing squad of Left Review its due.

The communist parties took thousands of men and women who lacked all but the most rudimentary education and told them that omniscience was a perfectly reasonable goal - or, as Brecht put it in his great poem Praise Of Learning, "You must know everything! You must take over the leadership!"

Moreover, if the endless pursuit of knowledge was usually justified on strategic grounds, there was also perhaps a feeling that it was one of the few ways in which an impoverished present might anticipate the truly humane culture of the socialist future.

Many communists seem to have cleaved almost instinctively to the sort of cultural vision which Gramsci outlined in his Prison Notebooks, where the ultimate goal of socialism is seen as the reconciliation of the living elements in all existing systems of thought.

In the reading habits of the many worker intellectuals who studied Freud, Bergson or Darwin alongside Marx, Engels and Lenin, we can detect a wish to extract the intellectual pith from bourgeois ideology and assign it to its proper position beneath what Fredric Jameson would later call the untranscendable horizon of Marxism.

There even seem to have been communists who had an almost occult or Spinozan faith in the power of knowledge to bring about Promethean changes in human nature.

By seeking to recreate the whole of human history in their own minds, they aspired to glimpse horizons infinitely remote and incredibly beautiful that would propel them towards a higher stage of evolution.

British Communism And The Politics Of Literature can be ordered online from or by post from Merlin Press, 6 Crane Street Chambers, Crane Street, Pontypool NP4 6ND, Wales.

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