In The Thirties by Edward Upward

Edward Upward

Edward Upward was born in 1903 to a middle class family in Birmingham. He went to prep school and then Repton public school and then ‘up’ to Cambridge, before going on to (try to) become a writer. These are all classic characteristics of members of the so-called ‘Auden Generation’ and, as it happens, Upward’s father was, like Auden’s, a doctor.

But Upward had a particularly close connection to the Auden Gang because at Repton he became good friends with Christopher Isherwood, later to be W.H. Auden’s collaborator, friend and sometime lover. At Cambridge, Upward and Isherwood invented an English village, Mortmere, which became the setting for various surreal, obscene and satirical stories. He was introduced to the great Wystan in 1927.

Upward was characteristic of the group in two other ways.

1. Teacher After leaving university he became a teacher (as did Auden and Isherwood) in 1926 and remained one till he retired in 1961. For 30 years he taught at Alleyn’s private school in Dulwich. Nowadays Alleyn’s annual fees are £21,000.

2. Communist Somehow Upward managed to reconcile teaching at private schools for the rich with being a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He became a ‘probationary member’ in 1932, then a full member in 1934. From 1942 Upward and his wife, also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, were investigated by MI5 for their communist activities. (MI5 should have been investigating those pillars of the establishment Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt). It was only in 1948 that Upward quit the British Communist Party and that wasn’t in disgust at the show trials or the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, but because he thought it had gone soft and was becoming ‘reformist’, i.e. ceasing to be revolutionary and instead truckling to the post-war Labour government, then at the peak of its power.

Despite winning poetry prizes at Cambridge, publishing some poems and hanging round on the fringes of the literary world, Upward only managed to publish one novel in the 1930s, Journey to The Border, in 1938. This describes in poetic prose how a private tutor rebels against his employer and how this and the darkening international situation triggers a breakdown from which he only emerges when he realises he must throw in his lot with ‘the workers’. (Presumably by teaching at a fee-paying, exclusive private school for the wealthy.)

Then came the Second World War. Upward continued his teaching career but struggled to write anything. When he took a year’s sabbatical from teaching, in the 1950s, specifically to write his Great Novel, he found he couldn’t and suffered, like the fictional character of his first novel, an actual nervous breakdown. Only slowly did Upward work up a story about a posh private schoolboy who goes to Cambridge and tries to reconcile the conviction that he’s a writer (a poet; they’re always poets) with his commitment to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

A ‘story’ which is, in other words, completely autobiographical.

Slowly the idea turned into a trilogy which came to bear the overall name, The Spiral Ascent. In the second volume, Rotten Elements (1969) our hero terminates his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain because he thinks it’s gone soft and ‘reformist’ (ring any bells?). In the final part, No Home But The Struggle (1977), the protagonist is reconciled to the new forms of radical politics of the 50s and 60s and joins the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament.

In The Thirties, published in 1962, is the first volume of The Spiral Ascent and introduces us to its lead figure, would-be poet Alan Sebrill.

In The Thirties

The Penguin paperback edition I picked up in a second-hand bookshop is 237 pages long, so average novel length. It’s divided into 14 chapters. Its protagonist, Alan Sebrill, is supposed to be a young, aspiring poet. The title of this book leads you to expect that it might capture some of the youthful exuberance and heady excitement of those strange and threatening times and it certainly describes the idealism, naivety and gaucheness of youth.

Chapter 1

Chapter one is by far the longest at 40 or so pages. Having finished the book I can now see that Upward intends it as an introduction to his lead character and fills it with incidents designed to show how young, privileged, idealistic and naive he is.

It is the summer of 1931. (This isn’t explicitly stated, we deduce it from two pieces of evidence. 1. In chapter two a character says it’s nearly ten years since he took part in the great Hunger March of January 1922 [p.58], so just under ten years after Jan 1922 must be December 1931 at the latest. 2. Later on, the narrator tells us that the meeting where the character said yhat took place in October i.e. October 1931. Since the events in chapter 1 take place in the summer of the same year, we can deduce they take place in the summer of 1931.)

Young would-be poet Alan Sebrill has packed in his job as a teacher at a posh preparatory school and taken up the invitation of his friend, young would-be poet Richard, to come and stay with him on the Isle of Wight so he can complete his Great Long Poem. Richard moves Alan into a spare room in the boarding house he’s staying at, kept by a strict Miss Pollock.

They are innocent young chaps, full of banter and absurd idealism. They walk down to the beach and along the cliffs, playing with words and terms for the birds and geological strata and wave formations, convinced that their special feel for language and the acuteness of their perceptions will make them poets, great poets, place them among ‘the English poets’.

The doomed

Alan develops the idea that they are ‘doomed’ because they are so much more sensitive and alive and alert than ordinary people, and especially the hated ‘poshos’.

‘What makes people vile is being successful or comfortably off. That’s why most of the hotel visitors are so poisonous. They are the wicked, the devils. Only the doomed are good, and we must be on their side always.’ (p.20)

Richard likes it. It makes them both feel special.

The working classes

Richard is convinced he is ‘well in’ with the local working classes. He gets a drunk local lad, Basher, to show off his tattoos to Alan. How frightfully working class! Richard enjoys talking to ‘the working classes’ on the beach-front esplanade in a loud voice.

‘It surprised the stuck-up public school gang staying at the big hotel. I’ve realised lately that the time has arrived for me to show definitely that I’m against the plus-foured poshocracy, and for the cockneys and the lower orders.’ (p.8)

‘Poshocracy’? Richard and Alan both agree their poetry will contain plenty of ‘Marxian’ ideas although, when pushed, it turns out that all Marx means for Alan is that he was the great repudiator of the ‘upper-class mystique’ which dominated his ghastly prep school. Now he’s left the school Alan doesn’t find Marx so compelling any more.

Outsiders

Alan is on the short side, chronically shy, specially round girls. He feels like a misfit. He thinks writing poetry makes him special. He thinks it makes him different and better than the ‘poshocrats’ who dress for dinner up at the grand hotel. He tried reading Marx (Capital) but the reader can clearly see that he uses the German philosopher as a psychological prop to counter his excruciatingly self-conscious sense of inferiority around the effortlessly tall and stylish ‘poshos’, both at his former prep school, at the hotel on the island.

For example Alan and Richard see other young people dancing outside the pub they frequent, but Alan is too shy to approach any of the girls, despite fairly obvious encouragement.

After a week Richard abruptly announces he is leaving. Alan is at first upset that he is breaking up their poets’ conclave but Richard is bored of the island, is not writing anything, wants to go back to London. Well, when you have independent means you can be free and easy like that. (Later on we learn that Richard has left England to live abroad. Alright for some, p.197).

Alan’s Audenesque poetry

Alan stays on in Miss Pollock’s boarding house for weeks, squeezing out four or five lines of verse a day for his Great Poem. In the entire book we are shown only one couplet of Alan’s poetry and it reads like pure Auden. Here it is:

Central anguish felt
for goodness wasted at peripheral fault (p.12)

Note the use of classic Auden tricks like:

  • omitting the definite or indefinite article – ‘the’ or ‘a’ – where you’d expect them (in front of ‘central anguish’ or ‘goodness’, for example) in order to convey a more robotic/ominous meaning
  • technocratic diction – ‘central’, ‘peripheral’ – which somehow makes it feel part of a science fiction film or laboratory report
  • half-rhyme (‘felt/fault’) cf. Auden: ‘Fathers in sons may track/Their voices’ trick’

Peg

After Richard has left, Alan summons up the courage to talk to the red-haired girl who he’s noticed staring at him. She is far more experienced and forward than him. They talk and then dance (the foxtrot) to the band on the esplanade at the bar/pub/restaurant on the beach. She’s called Peg and rather surprisingly tells him she has a fiancé up in London, but this is a holiday romance so it won’t count. She discovers Alan’s middle name is Thorwald, and playfully introduces him to her two friends as the poet Count Thorwald. Playful undergraduate stuff.

Peg invites him for tea at her aunt’s house where she’s staying. The aunt is eccentric. Confident Peg tells the disconcerted Alan that that night she’ll leave the scullery window into the house unlocked (the aunt firmly locks all the other windows and doors). So a lot later that night, Alan has to go through the rather degrading experience of sneaking down the lane to her house, shimmying up the wall and squeezing through the narrow window, stepping into scullery sink and elaborately down onto the floor then tiptoeing through the house up to her bedroom.

Sex in the Thirties

Eventually they arrive on her bed where, to the modern reader’s bemusement, they lie side by side ‘for a very long time’ (p.27) chatting. Really? Eventually they turn towards each other and embrace but then lie in this position ‘for almost as long’. Alan postpones any movement at all as it would have seemed like ‘an affront to her, an impudence, a crudity’ (p.27). The very next sentence is: ‘After the climax they stayed awake talking about what they would do next day.’

Sex is strange – an odd, uncanny, disruption of everyday life and manners and conventions. Reading about anybody else’s sex life is almost always disconcerting. But the oddness of Alan and Peg’s behaviour makes you think: is this really how our great-grandparents thought and behaved, with this odd combination of knowingness and timidity?

Is the scene here to indicate just how young and timid and shy and inexperienced Alan is? Why does it jump from them lying completely still to ‘after the climax’? Was it the Censorship – remember Ulysses and a number of D.H. Lawrence novels had been banned for their sexual content? Maybe the very strict rules about depicting sexual activity meant novels were allowed to tell you all about the before and the after but all descriptions of the thing itself were simply removed?

Or is it me? Are my expectations of sexual behaviour thoroughly debauched from watching thousands of movies and pop videos in which scantily-clad dolly birds adopt a series of stylised and stereotyped poses and positions – and I’ve come to think that that’s what sex is or should be? That I’ve lost touch with a world before TV, movies and pop videos, magazines and advertising saturated us with fixed ideas about what sex, or behaviour around sex, should be?

Is this scene a) incomprehensibly innocent and dated or b) a fairly accurate description of some people’s often clumsy and embarrassed experience of sex?

The oddity of the scene suggests how books like this have at least two values over and above any literary ones:

  1. as social history, to show us how our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents thought and felt.
  2. by doing so, to broaden our horizons about what human behaviour and feeling can be. To show us that we’re not trapped in an Instagram / Tinder / ‘hot priest’ world, where each new TV series tries to outdo its predecessors in sexual frankness and explicitness. That we can escape from the crushing conformities of the modern world.

Just a thought.

Peg leaves

Anyway, after whatever it is that happens that night, things go awry. He is initially elated and wants Peg to become his beloved, but she continues prattling on about her fiancé in London (John) and casually mentioning that even after she’s married she intends to have lots of lovers. Deflated, he stumbles back out of her bedroom, down the stairs. He can’t be bothered to go through the fol-de-rol of climbing out the scullery window and just unlocks the backdoor and walks out. Stuff the security-minded aunt.

Next day they meet on the beach and their relationship deteriorates further. Alan presses his love and Peg is increasingly distanced and detached and then announces she’s going back to London earlier than expected. He wants to take her in his arms but is convinced she will rebuff her. But he can see that she still has feelings for him. Cross-purposes. Later that day she catches the coach for London, he doesn’t bother to see her off.

The struggle to write continues

Abruptly Alan decides romanticism is the enemy. He must be hard, forget all about Peg. For the next fortnight he struggles with the Long Poem, writing a handful of lines each morning. Then he realises it is all wrong because it’s based on this notion of the ‘doomed’, sensitive young men. No no no. Start again. He wakes up one fine morning and decides he is going to throw all that sentimentalism out and write a Great Marxist Poem. Right. Now. Sit down. Get blank sheet of paper. Pen in hand. Er…

God, this is hopeless. He looks in the mirror and sees himself for what he is:

It was the face, he thought, of a self-fancying spoilt darling, of the overvalues don from a bourgeois family who had been unreasonably expected and had himself expected to do something exceptional, to be different from the common crowd, to be a great poet, a genius, whereas the truth very probably was that he had no talent at all, that he was a pampered young or no longer quite so young shirker who considered himself too good for the kind of everyday job in which he might perhaps have been of some slight use to the community. (p.34)

But even here, there is a big difference between looking in a mirror and, in a sentimentally depressed kind of way, confronting yourself (or a rather dramatised version of yourself), a big difference between doing that – and actually going out and getting a useful everyday job.

Suicidal thoughts

Alan melodramatically concludes that his life is a failure and decides to walk to the nearest cliff and throw himself off. But he is so entranced with the soulful beauty of the idea that without even realising it, he walks out the boarding house, under the hawthorn arch, into the lane and in the opposite direction from the clifftops, walking in a dream up to Peg’s aunt’s house before he realises it. He moons around looking through her bedroom window, hoping against hope that she is still there, but she isn’t.

Then Alan does find himself walking up to the cliffs, looking out over the scintillating sea, thinking about jumping off and realising it’s impossible, it’s hopeless, he’ll always be this miserable unless he makes some seismic change, finds some kind of ‘way of escape’.

(That phrase prefigures Graham Greene’s use of it for the second volume of his autobiography, Ways of Escape, published in 1980. They had all the advantages life could give them, these young men of the 1930s, but they still managed to be desperately unhappy.)

As he stands on the cliff Alan thinks maybe he should join the church, become a vicar, yes, ‘In his will is our peace’. He spies the Congregationalist church down in the village and remembers visiting the Congregationalist chapel of his grandparents. Hmm. It was quite grim. Maybe something more ornate. Maybe Catholicism. Great poets had been or had converted to Catholicism, it was meant to be easy once you’d made the initial leap of faith.

Or what about Marxism? Yes it was on the side of the ‘doomed’, against the hated ‘poshocrats’, maybe it would help him to write his poetry.

Communism was the only force in the world which was uncompromisingly on the side of the doomed and against those who wanted to keep them doomed. It was the enemy of his enemies: it aimed at the overthrow of a society which was dominated by poshocrats and public-school snobs and which had no use for the living poets. It demanded that its converts should believe not in the supernatural nor in anti-scientific myths but in man. If he joined the Communist Party he might be able to write poetry again (p.43)

Summary

All this happens in just one chapter, the first 40 pages or so, the first eighth of this 240-page-long book.

I initially found its upper-middle-class locutions and earnestness (‘Oh super idea, Richard!’) silly and off-putting. But if you bear with it, then my experience was that the story slowly grows on you and turns into an engaging portrait of a naive, confused young man.

Upward is a patient and very detailed chronicler – he describes in detail the appearance of a room, its furniture, and curtains and mirrors – and in the same meticulous way describes dialogue, people’s appearances and precisely how Alan feels at every moment, how his feelings are swayed and buffeted by trivial incidents. It’s a key quality of Upward’s mind and approach which he attributes to his alter ego in the narrative.

In revulsion from the platitude he tried to be more precise (p.161)

Once I got past Alan and Richard’s naive poshness I realised that most sensitive, bookish, young people have probably had one or more of these experiences, and began to respect and enjoy the precision with which Upward depicts them.

The rest of the plot

Chapter 2

It is the end of October 1931 (p.46). Alan has come down to London for an interview to work as a teacher. The chapter opens as he travels by tram to an office of the Communist Party. He’s scared to go in, thinking they’ll despise him.

They would be intelligent, politically experienced people who would see him as he was; yes, and who would see through him, would guess the self-regarding quasi-religious motives, the sickly wish for his own salvation, which had brought him to them. (p.46)

In the event it’s a shabby room with some people preparing leaflets, others hanging around. The apparent leader Ron Spalding takes pity on the shy young man, says they need more posh people to help them, and suggests he goes out leafleting with a couple of the comrades, young Elsie Hutchinson and Wally Ainsworth (p.53). An election is coming up and they’re leafleting for the local communist candidate, Joey Pearson.

With chapter 2 the book immediately gets more grip and drive. The reality of the shabby hall is described with Upward’s trademark attention to detail, as are the half dozen communists. What stiffens it, though, is that right from the start the characters discuss the current economic and political situation in concrete terms, the number of unemployed, the reality of unemployment benefit, recent bills and votes in Parliament – and combine this with the sweeping generalisations about the crisis of capitalism which they have learned about in Engels and Marx. Out leafleting with Wally the pair discuss Feuerbach, Plekhanov, Lenin.

Leafleting complete, Alan says goodnight to Wally and walks away feeling elated.

He had found a place among people who wanted him and with whom, however inferior he might be to them in courage and in strength of will, he felt an affinity because they were members of the lower class to which he too, the would-be poet, in a sense belonged. He would do all he could to be worthy of them and of the great cause for which they were working. From now on he would be dedicated to the Revolution. (p.46)

Chapter 3

It is four months since his first contact with the party (p.86), so presumably January 1932. Alan has a teaching job at a boys school, Condell’s (‘‘It calls itself an Academy and likes to pose as a public school.’ p.60). He devotes a page (p.110) to describing in detail how much he despises its shameless aping of public school customs and terminology.

In part one of the chapter Alan has just plucked up the courage to pin a leaflet about a communist party meeting to the staff noticeboard. This is spotted by the Second Master, and triggers a fascinating debate between the two of them. It’s almost a dramatised version of a political pamphlet.

Alan says the crisis of capitalism is inevitable, as Marx predicted. The other teacher, Aldershaw, points out that Marx predicted the revolution would break out in the most advanced capitalist countries whereas in fact it occurred in by far the most backward, Russia. Alan counters that both Lenin and Stalin had written that Marx was indeed wrong about this and the revolution of necessity broke out in the weakest link of the capitalist system.

Aldershaw highlights another wrong prediction of Marx’s, that the proletariat would become steadily more impoverished until revolution became inevitable. Alan counters with mass unemployment. Aldershaw says modern young men have motorcars and the cinema and cigarettes and radios, a lifestyle his own parents couldn’t have dreamed of. Alan counters that malnutrition statistics show mothers and children aren’t getting enough to eat. Aldershaw counters that’s because most mothers are completely ignorant of the basics of diet and nutrition and send their kids with packed lunches full of buns and jam tarts.

Alan says society will never be free till all businesses are owned by the people. Aldershaw counters that lots of businesses are run by shareholders. Alan says workers will only be free when the state owns everything and Aldershaw lures him into asserting this is the case in the Soviet union.

Aldershaw says the Soviet Union is the worst place in the world to be a worker because if you make a wrong word of criticism about the system or Stalin you’ll be hauled off to a labour camp. Alan asserts that the camps are necessary because of reactionary and bourgeois elements who are trying to sabotage the worker’s paradise. Communists accept a temporary phase to dictatorship because it is a step on the path to a totally free and equal society. Aldershaw counters that no dictatorship ever willingly evolved into anything else. Dictators cling onto power until they’re overthrown.

Alan counters that dictatorships which oppress the Negro or try to keep women economically subservient to men deserve to be overthrown, but dictatorship in the name of communism i.e. creating a free society, can be justified.

Several points about this exchange.

  1. It is very well done. Upward really captures the way both men become steadily more infuriated that the other one isn’t seeing the obvious sense of his arguments.
  2. It suggests how schematic the entire novel is, how carefully constructed so that each episode contributes to the whole.
  3. It is striking how contemporary these arguments seem, especially about overcoming racism and women’s equality. They were written 50 years ago and put into the mouths of characters from 90 years ago, giving the reader the strong impression that some things never change.

In the second half of the chapter Alan, upset from this argument, tries and fails to keep discipline over his class. They obviously despise him and make a hissing noise as he approaches his classroom. He ends up shouting at them and giving detention to a particularly repellent spotty oik (Dibble) who answers back. Then subsides behind his desk feeling, as so often, like a complete failure.

Chapter 4

Description of a workers march on Trafalgar Square which starts in a street with warehouses, presumably in the East End. Alan learns to his surprise that Roy, the leader of their cell who greeted him so kindly on his first visit, has been arrested and is in gaol on charges of burglary – he and mates stole timber from a timber yard. He’s been expelled from the Party.

Upward pays attention to the detail of people’s appearance and behaviour, to what Alan sees and feels, as the disciplined march is blocked by a police cordon and he lets himself be led away through back streets to the Square by the tall and reckless comrade Bainton. When they get there Whitehall is cordoned off by mounted police and then a file of riot police move in with truncheons and start battering the workers, hitting many to the ground.

As the crowd disperses Alan gets a bus and notices comrade Elsie is on it. He is attracted to her again, goes and sits with her and tries to make conversation but she mostly upbraids him for failing to attend recent meetings.

Chapter 5

It is 18 months since Richard and Alan were at the seaside village (p.116), so presumably the autumn of 1932. Alan is called to see the headmaster of the school. While he waits for the appointed hour (9.30am, after Assembly) Alan looks out the window at the autumnal trees and experiences a characteristic series of thoughts about the squalid reality of being an educator upholding the corrupt capitalist system. He vows to become utterly mechanical in his tuition, an automaton, reserving his energy for working with ‘the Party’ in the evenings.

Unfortunately, the headmaster is pretty critical of the way Alan can’t seem to control or win the respect of his class. Alan is coming up to the end of his first year’s probation. The head doesn’t sack him, as he fears, but says he’ll have to toughen up. The boys need to be driven. And has he considered beating some of the offenders?

Alan zones out of the entire conversation, becoming absorbed in the reflection of the autumnal trees outside the window in the glass frontage of a bookcase, making first the books, then the trees come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever read that experience, of completely zoning out of a conversation, be described in such minute detail. I am coming to appreciate that this is what Upward does very well. The real minutiae of experience.

For a while he fantasises that he can pack in teaching and go back to being a poet by the sea, and indeed he fantasises in great detail the experience of walking down to the sea and watching the scintillating waves. Then the headmaster’s voice brings him back to reality. No, he tried that and it was an abject failure. He finds himself saying ‘Yes Headmaster, yes I will strive to take your advice,’ rising as in a dream and leaving the room.

Only his devotion to the Party prevents him falling into bottomless misery and despair.

Chapter 6

The local communist party cell has been renting the upper floor of a coach-house. Alan arrives early for a meeting. We are introduced to the ten or so party members. Alan is hopelessly starry-eyed about them, convinced they know so much more about the ‘real’ world than the ghastly middle-class intellectuals he knew at university. Take Eddie Freans, Eddie works on building sites but in his spare time is a practical inventor. Alan is in awe of his true working class roots.

Eddie might have his moments of naiveté but about things that were really important he had a far better understanding than was to be found in the university-educated intellectual chatterers of whom Alan had met too many. For those, and for members of the middle class generally, Alan could never have the respect that he had for Eddie; and in spite of the things Alan had in common with them – education, accent, manners – he felt much closer to Eddie than to them. He was happier and more at home with Eddie, just as he was happier and more at home with the other comrades here… (p.127)

Turns out this is the meeting where the members vote whether to accept Alan as a member of the Communist Party, they do by a unanimous vote. He is asked why he wants to join, what motivated him to make contact with them in the first place. He had a little speech prepared:

He had intended to say that in the conditions of modern monopoly capitalism the independence of the middle class was being increasingly undermined and would soon cease to exist and that the only hope for individual members of his class was to go over to the side of the workers against the monopoly capitalists, and that therefore he had decided to contact the Party. (p.130)

This is actually how all the other members talk and might have gone down well. However, with typical clumsy scrupulosity, Alan realises that is too stereotyped and insincere, and the Party is all about truth! So he actually shares with them that his first motivation came when he was leading prayers in a class at a prep school where he was teaching and was disgusted that he, an atheist, was put in this position, and realised it was not just him, but millions put in false positions by the system, which needed to be completely overthrown. That was the moment he first realised he had to be a communist.

There’s an embarrassed silence, followed by nervous laughter and Alan realises, yet again, that he’s done something wrong. Then the meeting gets down to an extended discussion of the current economic and political situation, which is rammed full of Marxist analysis and Marxist rhetoric and Upward describes very carefully and precisely. Characteristically, Alan finds himself zoning out of the discussion and imagining the whole room being blown up in the coming war between fascists and communists so misses half the discussion.

Afterwards, they lock up the room and go their separate ways. Alan is walking part of the way with Elsie and manages to persuade her to go up a dark alley as a ‘short cut’, where he tries – extremely clumsily – to embrace her. Upward gives an excruciating account of what a tangle he gets his arms in as he attempts a smooch, ending up placing his cheek next to hers and then has a go at a fumble, cupping her breast in the summer dress and then, toe-curlingly, pinching what he thinks is her nipple but might just be a seam of the fabric. During this entire thing Elsie remains utterly silent and unresponsive. When Alan eventually gives up they resume walking to the end of the lane and Alan says a lame goodbye. Well, he blew that.

Communist Party members:

  • Elsie Hutchinson, ‘wore glasses, had a sullen-looking mouth, and whose fuzzy hair rising to a point above her forehead and jutting out sideways at her temples had the effect of a triangular frame.’ (p.53)
  • Jimmy Anders –
  • Willie Dean Ayres, head round as a ball (p.128)
  • Beatrix Farrell, Ayres’ wife, posh (p.128)
  • red-haired Jean Pritchet (Anders’ girls, p.128)
  • Mike Bainton, irreverent and a little insubordinate, he leads Alan away from the marchers blocked in the East End, and by side routes to the main meeting. In chapter 8 he is expelled from the party for his deviant views i.e. denouncing Stalin’s takeover of the
  • Wally Ainsworth, ‘a happy-faced man of about thirty-five, with sallowly chubby cheeks reminiscent of those squeezable rubber faces that used to be made as toys for children.’ (p.53)
  • Eddie Frearns, slim, thinfaced, works in a small workshop which makes lampshades (p.126)
  • Harry Temley, 22, thickset, works as a mechanic (p.125)
  • Jock Finlayson, branch secretary of the AEU (p.127)
  • Sam Cowan, trade unionist and orator (p.127)
  • Lily Pentelow, recently elected to an important position in the Co-op movement (p.128)

Chapter 7

Back at the school. In the playground some of the boys make the contemptuous pssssssing noise they seem to make whenever Alan appears. Infuriated, Alan pounces on the probable leader, Childers, and tells him to report to the Master’s room. He is going to cane him. The entire chapter rotates around this event. He has to borrow a cane off a master who is infinitely more confident and self-assured than Alan.

The boy is waiting outside the master’s room at the assigned time, Alan takes him into the room although it’s the other master who really sorts things out, arranges the desk so there’s enough swing room for the cane, and then stands at the door while Alan administers six of the best. Upward gives a very detailed description which makes you realise how difficult caning actually is to administer. You must be sure to hit the exact same spot on the buttocks six times in a row.

Afterwards the boy stands, says ‘Thank you, sir’, and leaves without a backward glance. Alan feels wretched.

Back in the staff room the report of what he’s done triggers a discussion among the other masters. Almost all of them vigorously approve, the boy Childers is a frequent offender. But their very enthusiasm suddenly prompts a vehement outburst from Alan condemning caning as primitive and barbaric. That throws cold water on everything. Once again Alan has displayed his uncanny knack of throwing away an advantage, of making himself the least popular person in the room.

Staff members:

  • The Head Master
  • Sidney Bantick the Head Master’s assistant, with his black jacket and striped city trousers (p.114)
  • Aldershaw – who Alan has the extended argument about Marxism with in chapter
  • Ampleforth – a very reserved man
  • Barnet, the only master who stands up for Alan, in fact expresses his own extreme disgust with capital punishment
  • Benson – ‘pale-faced and strongly built, moving with large strides, his big glasses calling attention to his pale eyes which had no expression in them.’ (p.145)
  • Brook – disciplinarian, assists at the caning
  • Buckle, ‘brown-eyed pale-faced and physically strong’ (p.180)
  • Gus Chiddingford, ‘rotund’ popular joker
  • Hefford, Head of English
  • Langton, ‘one of the Maths men’
  • Lexton, ‘a bumptious extroverted younger member of the staff who taught Classics’
  • Moberley, the Handicraft man
  • Railton, ‘very tall’, older than the others, tight skin over his skull but heavy eyelids (pp.186, 188)
  • Ransome, ‘a Classics man’

Chapter 8

A meeting of the CP is held and Ben Curtis attends, to judge Mike Bainton on charges of criticising the Soviet Union in public. He’s been overheard slandering the workers’ paradise while doing a holiday job on Bognor beach.

Bainton repeats his criticism to the members. In the Soviet Union congresses have been held less and less frequently. Now the USSR has signed a treaty of non-interference in each others’ affairs (November 1933) and joined the League of Nations (15 September 1934). Bainton sees this as selling out the international revolution and thus betraying the world’s working classes.

As so often, Upward shows us how Alan drifts off during this speech, visualising the early revolutionary workers, and the travails the workers’ paradise had been through.

Then other members stand up to denounce Bainton. He is immediately recognised as being a Trotskyite heretic, i.e. someone who continued to push for world revolution while the official line was the Soviet Union needed forst and foremost to survive in the capitalist world and therefore some compromises with capitalism and imperialism might be called for.

The members vote unanimously to expel Bainton, and he votes with them, though it’s impossible to tell whether he’s being ironic. When Elsie and Alan leave the meeting they cut Bainton, though both feel bad about it, and try to rationalise this snubbing of a man who had been a good friend till an hour earlier.

if the Party were to disappear from the world there would be no hope for humanity. The showing of kindness to a few deviationist human individuals could lead to disaster for human beings in general. At a time when decaying capitalism had taken the form of Fascism in Germany and Italy and was preparing for an all-destructive war, and when only the Soviet Union stood unequivocally for international peace, anyone who like Bainton spread propaganda against the Soviet Union was objectively helping Fascism and working to bring violent death to millions of men, women and children. He was a traitor not only to the Party but to humanity. (p.171)

Alan feels a sort of exultation because he has suppressed his natural fellow feeling for Bainton in a higher cause. By this point I am really admiring Upward’s unflinching honesty.

The same honesty he applies to part two of the chapter where Alan walks with Elsie who suddenly asks if she can come back to his flat. Alan’s heart skips a beat, this can only mean one thing and is a big surprise after his hideous fumblings up a back alley.

But once again it turns into a peculiar scene. Upward describes with mechanical clarity Alan’s shyness. She sits in the only armchair, he sits at the further edge of the divan, three quarters of a room away. They discuss a ramblers meeting she’s leading. Bursting with tension he eventually picks up a cushion and throws it at her, then bounds to her side and puts his hands on her cheeks stroking them, then has a hurried feel of her breasts in her vest, slips down into the cramped armchair as she squeezes up then slips his hand up her skirt and does something up there for ten minutes or so, during which her expression never changes, they don’t say a word, they don’t kiss.

Then he stops whatever he was doing (‘the activity of his hand’), she stands up, they kiss mechanically, she goes over to the mirror and adjusts her clothes and hair. Is that it? Watching her, he is overcome by repulsion from her, she is definitely from a lower class than him, with a rougher accent and manners. And then he feels disgust at himself for his petit-bourgeois mentality.

As usual, Alan demonstrates his gift a) behaving clumsily and b) making himself miserable.

Chapter 9

The chronology of the book is leaping ahead. Hitler has reoccupied the Rhineland (p.183).

Back at the school Alan has been given a gizmo to raise money for the ‘The Teachers’ Anti-War Movement. It is a battery with a power plug and lots of sockets. You pay 4d, put the plug in one of the sockets, if it lights up you get 1/6. He takes it to the games room for masters and is, predictably, confused and humiliated. Maybe Alan Sebrill is one of the great losers of English literature.

Alan tries to persuade them that Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland is just the first step. Next it will be Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. (Was anyone that prescient in 1936? Easy enough to be from the vantage point of 1962.) All the masters in the games room ridicule him. They’ve nicknamed him ‘the Red Menace’ (p.150) or, more amusingly, ‘Rasputin’ (p.180).

There’s an extended description of four masters playing a game of snooker and all their posh banter which is quite funny, but which Upward recites with the attitude of a scientist examining specimens.

Afterwards one of the sceptical teachers gives the battery gizmo a go and loses half a crown to Alan. It’s typical of Alan that he doesn’t understand betting or odds.

He bumps into Barnet and has a conversation in which Barnet agrees with pretty much everything he says, especially the inevitability of a war, and Alan suggests he joins the Communist Party.

Chapter 10

It’s September (1936?). Alan is on the train from his parents’ house up to London. He and Elsie have arranged to be married but, typically, he has already said yes but backed out of it twice. He doesn’t really want to marry her, but sees it as his duty to marry a fellow party member. He also wants to overcome the class gap between them. When Elsie had come to visit, his parents had displayed ‘undisguised and snobbish disapproval of her’ and then, on the railway station platform he had spotted a public school friend, Tom Cumbers, with an unmistakably posh young woman, classy-looking, well dressed… and Alan had felt mortally ashamed of his rough girlfriend with her sometimes ‘pug-nosed’ appearance (p.201), turned his back to try and hide himself and her from the public schoolfriend and – cringingly – told her he couldn’t marry her.

He is a feeble twerp.

Yes, it is 1936 because as soon as he meets Elsie at the ticket barrier they start talking about the Spanish Civil War. For a moment Alan thinks he sees Jimmy Anders in the crowd, Jimmy is due to go off and fight in Spain any day now. His cousin had volunteered to drive an ambulance but has returned wounded (his right arm was amputated).

Elsie takes Alan by tube and bus to a street where new maisonettes are being built. She’s chosen one for them to live in once they’re married. She shows him round. It’s an interesting piece of social history. It’s clean but small and cramped. He looks out the window and sees a big cedar tree like the one at his parents’ spacious home in the country and all of a sudden is flooded with despair that his life has come down to this.

He turns on Elsie and says he can never live here. She is beginning to say she can find another place when he goes further and says he can never marry her. She is stunned. He knows he has to say something irrevocable, and so now says: ‘Oh Elsie, you are so ugly.’

The second he says it, he regrets it, and tries to take it back. Elsie is sensible. She simply says she is not ugly, and some of the men she’s gone out with have told her she’s very attractive. Now, seconds after trying to get out of it, Alan finds himself more determined than ever to marry her and live the life of a communist poet.

Chapter 11

Well, they appear to have reconciled because this chapter opens with Alan and Elsie sitting in armchairs opposite each other in their maisonette. They discuss a review in the New Statesman in which Robert Jordan complains that modern poetry is too obscure. This upsets Alan who seems to think of himself as a poet even though he doesn’t appear to write poetry and has never had anything published.

Wally Ainsworth arrives. They are scheduled to go to a meeting of the British Union of Fascists that evening. It is at least 1937 because the conversation references the coronation of George VI (12 May 1937). They set off for the meeting. Barnet questions a young lad why he’s selling the British Union of Fascist newspaper, Action. Because the Jews are ruining the country, the lad replies. Barnet reveals that he is a Jew and he is not ruining the country. The boy is confused.

The communist group continues to the meeting and Upward describes with characteristic precision the exact appearance of the hall, the look of the fascist stewards they have to pass, the look of other members of the audience.

Alan shares his reflections on the nature of fascism’s appeal to the petite bourgeoisie, shopkeepers, small businessmen, workshop owners, people who aspire to be part of the haute bourgeoisie, and ape its snobbery and pretensions but are economically insecure and thus anxious and thus desperate to blame someone (the Jews) and adulate whoever will save them (the Leader).

The  Leader appears and speechifies in respectful silence for 20 minutes before cranking up a gear and beginning to blame the Jews for everything. At this point Alan and the other communist party members stand and walk out. That’s all they intended to do – make a peaceful protest.

Barnet, the schoolteacher, who Upward had implied was Jewish in chapter 9, is delayed because he lays out leaflets saying ‘Smash Fascism before Fascism Smashes You’. For a moment stewards close in on him and you think there’s going to be a fight. But Alan stands his ground in front of Barnet and the threatening steward straightens up and lets them leave.

Elsie has told Alan she thinks she is pregnant.

Chapter 12

Elsie’s baby is nearly due so it must be eight months later. The chapter opens with Alan plunged in real misery, about his job, the baby, the coming war, the triumph of fascism, his non-existent poetic career. The future seems like a tidal wave of slime heading for him, for everyone. He doesn’t want to wake up. He doesn’t want to go to work.

He casts his mind back to a few days earlier when there was a knock at the front door of the maisonette. It was Holyman, an old boy from the school come to show them how to put on gas masks. They were talking about Chamberlain and Czechoslovakia so it must be the autumn of 1938. Holyman shows them how to put on the gas mask and explains how babies will be placed inside gas insulators. Elsie is querulous. When Holyman leaves she bursts into tears of unhappiness and wishes she’d never got pregnant.

Now back to the present as they both wake up together. She is heavily pregnant. He has fantasies about dressing, walking to the station but going on straight past it, to the coast, the cliffs, to the countryside, anywhere except to his wretched job.

Chapter 13

The Munich Crisis (September 1938). Alan is at school taking round a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that he not submit to Hitler over the Sudeten Crisis for the other masters to sign. No fewer than 15 have signed and it is a symbolic victory when the most sceptical among them, Brook, also signs. To Alan’s surprise the Head Master also signs, but with a few patriotic provisos, reminding Alan that England never had, and never would, break a promise; but that supporting the Czechs was the Christian thing to do. Alan suppresses his disagreement with all this and thanks him.

This segues into a really good scene where Alan tries to get one of the last of the masters, Benson, to sign, and the man turns out to be a Christian pacifist, a really thorough-going and intelligent pacifist. For pages (pp.249- ) Upward stages a very stimulating debate between the two sides – we must stand up to Hitler versus violence only begets violence, look at the last war where both sides ended up losers; except now it will be fought with much more destructive weapons.

What makes In The Thirties so enjoyable is that Upward gives his ideological opponents a very fair crack of the whip. Like the extended debate with Aldershaw, this one with Benson forces Alan onto the defensive. When he says the final war of communism which overthrows capitalism will lead to a world of perpetual peace, he can hear how unbelievable it sounds, and Benson scores a big point when he says that, even if communism did triumph the world over, the communists would fall out with themselves as they already had in Moscow.

As he works his way systematically through the arguments, Upward forces you to consider which side you would have been on. In autumn 1938 would you have encouraged Britain to enter into a catastrophic war simply to uphold France’s treaty commitment to Czechoslovakia?

In fact the argument takes on a surreal twist because when Alan insists on the necessity of struggle, that struggle defines and will always define humanity, they both end up speculating about humanity carrying that struggle on into outer space, into colonising the planets and so on, as the conversation strays into H.G. Wells territory. Benson refuses on principle to sign anything which might provoke violence. Not only that but he points out, quite simply, that it the precious letter will never be read or, if it is, chucked in the waste bin.

A few days later Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement and returns home promising peace in our time. Alan is disgusted, convinced that such kowtowing to Hitler makes Chamberlain and his cabinet more than appeasers but active allies of fascism.

This interpretation seems wildly wide of the mark.

Chapter 14

‘Nearly ten months after Munich’ i.e. July 1939.

The concluding chapter is deliberately and carefully lyrical. It is set entirely in a ramble by a large group of communist party members in the North Downs. Alan is with Elsie and quite a few others. As they climb into a wood Alan notices, with the same kind of intensity he had had back on the Isle of Wight, the extraordinary variety of shapes made by trees and branches, old and new. Light plays amid the branches and he is suddenly seized by a sense of poetry, that there is a spirit in the woods, some special message, but it won’t come.

Only when they emerge from the woods and all camp down to eat their sandwiches and drink coffee from thermos flasks, does it come to him. To some extent, throughout the book, his strong sense of a poetic vocation had been set against the iron logic and demanding work of the party. Now, suddenly, the two are reconciled, the two modes of thinking become one and he has an uplifting and inspiring vision of the future.

As he sat and continued looking up at the trees, he could not suppress a contrary and a stronger feeling, a gladness, a conviction that the poetic life was not a fraud, not a mirage, was good, was possible. It was possible because he knew from within himself that he was capable of it…

A time would come when human beings would know how to remove the social obstacles which they themselves had been forced to set up against happiness. Then the poetic life could be lived – though he would be dead – by others whose inborn bent would be similar to his. There would be a world in which everyone would have freedom for self-fulfilment, would be expected, would have the prime social duty to become whatever he was born to be. (p.272)

Here on a sunny slope, surrounded by friends and party members, he has an utterly optimistic view of the future. He wants to share it with his wife and – typically – spends some time trying to find just the right words, not sentimental, not patronising, that would express just what he feels for her. He leans over and tells Elsie:

‘I’ve been thinking how admirable you are.’ (p.274)


Details

I slowly came to appreciate Upward’s way with very carefully imagined and precisely described scenes. To give a small example, it takes a couple of pages to describe Alan trying to persuade a sceptical Brook to sign the letter. When he does, Brook takes it from his hands and presses it up against the wall of the school corridor to sign. Except that the school walls are covered in roughcast render and Alan immediately sees that if he tries to write on it, Brook will inevitably tear the paper with his pen. Quick as a flash, he proffers the schoolbook he’s holding in his hand, for Brook to use to write on. Suddenly I could see and almost feel the texture of that roughcast wall, and felt the sudden panic in Alan’s mind that his petition would be torn and ruined.

The novel is full of hundreds of little details like that, which add verisimilitude and clarity to the scenes and situations, making them that much more imaginable and enjoyable.

The rasping of Alan’s shoes against the brickwork of Peg’s aunt’s house as he humiliatingly pulls himself up and through the scullery window is more closely described than the act of sex which, apparently, follows it.

And the reader is reminded of the intense passage back at the start when Richard and Alan go walking along the shoreline intensely noticing everything, leaves, shells, rock shapes, strata, waves.

Upward is well aware that it’s a feature of his style. He even makes a joke about it at the end of the book. After the passage where Alan has made an enormous list of the different shapes and analogies the tree trunks remind him of, he realises:

He had lost the excitement of the wood in the interesting detail of the trees…

In other words, he quite literally can’t see the wood for the trees. But it’s OK. In the euphoric final pages of the novel, details and overall narrative are integrated, the poetic life becomes one with the struggle for a better future, the details and the pattern coalesce – he can see the wood and the trees.

Politics

There is a great deal of thinking about communism in the book. Alan starts by expressing an inchoate longing for the certainties of communist doctrine, then turns up ready with thoughts to his first meeting, and then listens to other communists debating current politics. He himself gets caught up in political arguments, namely the two extended arguments. 1. with Aldershaw which amounts to a checklist of objections to communism and their refutations and 2. with Benson when he really struggles to combat Benson’s powerfully consistent Christian pacifism.

Any time he’s with other party members, even with the party member who becomes his girlfriend (Elsie) the subject is likely to change at the drop of a hat into an extended Marxist analysis of the contemporary crisis of capitalism, or musings about party policy, or how a good communist ought to behave.

Communism dominates the book. It is a novel about an idealistic young communist.

Indeed it’s a striking feature of the book that, whereas the Alan character is depicted as hopelessly confused, self-conscious, timorous and clumsy, the political speeches given to the characters are solid, thoughtful pieces which stand up to analysis even 60 years later.

I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that the book isn’t really from the 1930s but was published in 1962 i.e. Upward had had 30 long years to mull over these issues, to see what the unknown future turned out to hold in story, to read, study and listen to Marxist thinkers cleverer and clearer-minded than him.

However, coming fresh from reading Ian Kershaw’s magisterial survey of European history in the 1920s an 30s – To Hell and Back – what interested me was the logic of the communists’ opposition to socialists, a fundamental problem with The Left throughout the period which Kershaw sees as one of the causes of the rise of Fascism.

Because the communists have an iron-strict confidence they are the side of History and the Future, they despise any softening of their calls for the complete and utter overthrow of the system. It is fascinating to read the historical interpretation that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution could and should have spread to Europe, and was only stopped by the Social Democrats. Here is party member Willy Dean Ayres explaining:

The only way out from this present crisis was by proletarian revolution and by the abolition of the capitalist system, which was strangling the forces of production, and this way could and should have been taken all over Europe during the period following the 1917 Revolution in Russia. What had prevented it from being taken? Mainly the political attitude of the Social Democrats, who instead of co-operating with the Communists had preferred to try to help capitalism to its feet again and had even been responsible for the suppression by violence of workers’ risings. The Social-Democrats had acted as the faithful backers of senile capitalism, but later, when the crisis deepened and disillusionment began to spread among those sections of the working class who had hitherto trusted them, they were no longer useful to the capitalists. ‘Capitalism in extreme decay,’ Dean Ayres was at the moment saying, ‘is forced to use other means, more openly dictatorial and more crudely demagogic, to maintain itself in power. The Social-Democratic hostility to revolution brings not a gradual progress towards Socialism but – as we have seen in Italy and recently in Germany – the temporary victory of Fascism.’ (p.135)

I, as a left-liberal, read Kershaw’s analysis as tending to blame the hard-line communists for the splits which so weakened the Left during these crucial years. And there’s no doubt from all the objective accounts of the Spanish Civil War, beginning with George Orwell’s, that it was the Stalinist hard-line of the communist party which prompted it to attack the anarchist party in Barcelona and led to the localised but intense and bitter civil war between the parties of the Left, which Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia.

So it’s fascinating to read, in lots of places throughout this book, the opposite point of view being presented – that the communists were the only real force capable of a) overthrowing capitalism and b) taking on fascism, and that it was the fatal weakness of social democrats propping up the defunct capitalist system which a) dragged out its demise unnecessarily b) left so many working people so immiserated that they threw in their lot with the fascists and their easy promises of renewal.

Fascinating to read that other side of the argument put with logical and imaginative conviction.

Credit

In The Thirties by Edward Upward was published in 1962 by William Heinemann. I read the 1969 Penguin paperback. References are to the online version, see below.


Related links

It’s symptomatic that none of the three volumes of The Spiral Ascent appears to be in print. You can pick up the first volume on Amazon for as little as £4 second-hand, but each successive volume seems to double in price. My Penguin copy cost £1 in Oxfam. Or you can download all three novels in the series from the The Spiral Ascent website.

The 1930s

George Orwell

Graham Greene

History

The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

Poetry of the Thirties edited by Robin Skelton (1964)

Even before they were quite over, the Thirties took on the appearance of myth… It is rare for a decade to be so self-conscious… (Robin Skelton in his introduction)

Robin Skelton (October 1925 – August 1997) was a British-born academic, writer, poet, and anthologist. In 1963 he emigrated to Canada and taught at universities there. He appears to have written an astonishing 62 books of verse (some of them, admittedly, explanations of theory & metre), five novels, 15 non-fiction books and some 23 anthologies.

This Penguin paperback edition of poetry from the 1930s is similarly profuse. It contains some 169 poems by no fewer than 43 poets, a very wide-ranging selection.

Some of the poets are super-famous – W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, John Betjeman.

Some more niche, like the Surrealist poets David Gascoyne, Hugh Sykes Davies and Philip O’Connor.

Some wrote little but have cult followings, like the fierce young communist John Cornford or the eccentric academic William Empson.

Many are worthy but dull, like the famous but boring Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender.

Some are famous for other things e.g. Laurie Lee, who went on in the 1950s to write the phenomenally successful memoirs Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning but is represented here by three minimalist lyrics written in Spain.

And half a dozen or so of Skelton’s choices are of pretty obscure figures – Clere Parsons, Ronald Bottral, F.T. Price, Roger Roughton. Who? Did Skelton make some of these up? It would be funny if he had.

What the breadth of this selection is obviously designed to do is to make us look far beyond the usual suspects, particularly the over-hyped Auden Group poets, and consider a much wider range of Thirties poet – and in this it works.

Introduction

Skelton arranges the poems by theme, not by poet, juxtaposing poems on the same topics by widely different authors in order to compare & contrast approaches and styles, making the anthology what he describes as a kind of ‘critical essay’.

Period Anything published in a periodical between 1 January 1930 and 31 December 1939, extended to the end of 1940 in the case of poems which first appeared in books, which have a slower turnaround.

The Thirties generation Skelton only includes poets born between 1904 and 1916. Anyone born after 1904 had no conscious experience of the idyllic pre-war Edwardian civilisation. They came to adolescence during the Great War or the turbulent years afterwards leading up to the 1926 General Strike and had barely learned how to party before the 1929 Wall Street Crash inaugurated the Great Depression.

At the other end of the period, some poets born in 1916 were still recognisably of the generation but much after that and they came to maturity just as the second war started and so belong to a different generation.

Schoolboy view of war Almost all the poets of the Thirties went to public schools which had officer training corps, maps on the walls showing the progress of the Great War and jingoistic masters. Their parents, teachers, newspapers and books gave them a vivid impression of the heroic camaraderie of war. (Remember the anti-war poems of Siegfried Sassoon were known only to a tiny literary circle and the anti-war sentiments which we take for granted didn’t really become widespread until the 1960s.)

It is no surprise that the poetry of a generation which grew up during the Great War for Civilisation is stuffed with images of war: armies, soldiers, the Enemy, the Leader are routinely referred to, and there are maps, lots of maps, and ‘frontier’ is a particularly resonant buzzword (Auden’s play On the Frontier, Edward Upward’s first novel, Journey to the Border).

Now over the map that took ten million years
Of rain and sun to crust like boiler-slag,
The lines of fighting men progress like caterpillars,
Impersonally looping between the leaf and twig.

(from It was easier by Ruthven Todd, 1939)

You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation-
Need fight in the dark no more, you know your enemies.
You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world.

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(poem XVI from In Time of War by W.H. Auden, 1939)

Movements They wanted to be part of a larger community, the era was characterised by movements, gangs and cliques. There were lots of manifestos and anthologies with prefaces earnestly explaining why the poetry of their generation was different. Not only that but the poets felt that they had to embody the new values they promoted. The literary culture was high-minded and unforgiving, epitomised by the high standards of the magazine New Verse (1933-39) which flayed any poet who ‘sold out’ to the establishment. When C. Day-Lewis agreed to me a judge for some book club he was mercilessly attacked for selling out.

Chums The accusations that the movement was based round a small clique of pals who boosted each other’s works was reinforced by the way the Auden Gang did collaborate, for example that Auden and his best friend Christopher Isherwood collaborated on no fewer than three plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as a joint account of their visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, Journey to a War (1939). Auden and MacNeice co-wrote an account of their visit to Iceland, Letters From Iceland (1937), and the leading composer of the new generation, Benjamin Britten, was also a collaborator, writing music for F6 and Frontier, as well as setting poems from On This Island and music for the documentary film Night Mail for which Auden wrote the verse commentary.

New ‘New’ was a buzzword, new verse, new times, new politics, new men. Art Deco was an entirely post-war style they grew up with, new suburbs were being built, in new styles, flats and maisonettes suggested new types of urban living, memorably expressed (if with the obscurity typical of his earliest poems) by Auden:

… Publish each healer that in city lives
Or country houses at the end of drives;
Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at
New styles of architecture, a change of heart.

(from Poem XXX by W.H. Auden, 1929)

Two key early anthologies of the era which helped introduce the young generation to a wider audience were New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933), both edited by Michael Roberts, and the most influential magazine was New Verse edited from 1933 to 1939 by the combative poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson. New Writing was a popular literary periodical in book format founded in 1936 by John Lehmann and committed to anti-fascism, which featured works by the new young writers.

Even Oswald Mosley’s first independent political party was initially named simply the New Party (founded February 1931) before it morphed into the British Union of Fascists (October 1932). Everything had to be new.

Politics The Great Depression began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when the poets were in their early 20s and lasted until 1933, during which huge swathes of the industrial economy collapsed throwing millions out of work. The international nature of the crisis (which began in the USA and affected America worst) convinced many intellectuals that capitalism was entering its last great crisis. The entire political and economic system from the king through the Houses of Parliament seemed incapable of dealing with the social impact of the crash.

These confident young men castigated it as ‘the old order’, ‘the dying order’, ‘the old gang’ and routinely castigated pompous, top-hatted ministers presiding over a country where the poor were living in squalor.

In England the handsome Minister with the second
and a half chin and his heart-shaped mind
hanging on his thin watch-chain, the Minister
with gout who shaves low on his holly-stem neck…

(from The Non-Interveners by Geoffrey Grigson, 1937)

The economic crisis had only just begun to recede when Hitler came to power in Germany (in January 1933). For anyone on the Left (which was almost all of the poets) the accession to power of an overt anti-semitic fascist in Europe’s largest country was a disaster, and from then on virtually each new month brought shocking news as Hitler banned trade unions, all other political parties, murdered his opponents, passed discriminatory laws against Jews and so on.

All this took place with the tacit acquiescence of the liberal democracies Britain and France, which increased the contempt and vehemence of the young poets for their cowardly elders. By the mid-30s Hitler was trebling the size of Germany’s army, navy and air force amid the sense of an accelerating stampede towards war which affected all of Europe and produced a tone of political anxiety in most writers.

Whatever their precise position, the poets reflected the general sense that ordinary life was overshadowed and dominated by menacing political issues, and a widespread feeling that poetry must address the huge issues of the day.

This underlies one of the verbal tics of thirties poetry which is use of the word ‘now’ used to mean, right here, right now‘, now this second, to convey a sense of burning urgency, that this – the Spanish war, the threat of communist revolution, is happening now, wake up!

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers…

(from Look, stranger by W.H. Auden, 1935)

The nowness of the poet’s present moment is contrasted with the Glorious Future which is just around the corner, come the revolution.

Communism The biggest group or ‘gang’ was World Communism which owned All of History and the Future of The Human Race. Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, Edward Upward, Hugh Sykes Davies, John Cornford and David Gascoyne are just some of the notable writers who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain during the 1930s, some of them writing earnest books arguing that communism represented the Future of Humanity and of Art (C. Day-Lewis Revolution in Writing, 1935, Stephen Spender Forward from Liberalism, 1937). The 19 February 1937 edition of the Daily Worker featured an article by Spender – I Join The Communist Party – and an editorial giving you a flavour of the oleaginous tone of communist propaganda:

The Communist Party warmly welcomes comrade Spender to its ranks as a leading representative of the growing army of all thinking people, writers, artists and intellectuals who are taking their stand with the working class in the issues of our epoch…’ (quoted in Cunningham, page43)

Louis MacNeice was one among many who tried to express their revolutionary feelings in verse, but being MacNeice, he characteristically humanises his views with everyday observation and imagery:

But some refusing harness and more who are refused it
Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come,
Which now is sketched in the air or travestied in slogans
Written in chalk or tar on stucco or plaster-board
But in time may find its body in men’s bodies,
Its law and order in their heart’s accord,
Where skill will no longer languish nor energy be trammelled
To competition and graft,
Exploited in subservience but not allegiance
To an utterly lost and daft
System that gives a few at fancy prices
Their fancy lives
While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet
Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Others had visionary hopes for the new world and new way of living the revolution would usher in:

After the revolution, all that we have seen
Flitting as shadows on the flatness of the screen
Will stand out solid, will walk for all to touch
For doubters to thrust hands in and cry, yes, it is such…

(from Instructions by Charles Madge, 1933)

In less skilful hands, communist urgency could degenerate into not much more than abuse:

No more shall men take pride in paper and gold
in furs in cars in servants in spoons in knives.
But they shall love instead their friends and their wives,
owning their bodies at last, things they have sold.
Come away then,
you fat man!
You don’t want your watch-chain.
But don’t interfere with us, we know you too well.
If you do that you will lose your top hat
and be knocked on the head until you are dead…

(from Hymn by Rex Warner, 1933)

By contrast with the above, John Cornford, who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and died fighting, aged just 21, really means it. From his personal hesitancies emerges a revolutionary anthem. He only wrote a handful of poems before his early death. In Full Moon at Tierz he expresses doubts and worries, but out of them comes the burning conviction of a revolutionary anthem.

Freedom is an easily spoken word
But facts are stubborn things. Here, too, in Spain
Our fight’s not won till the workers of the all the world
Stand by our guard on Huesca’s plain
Swear that our dead fought not in vain,
Raise the red flag triumphantly
For Communism and for liberty.

(from Full Moon at Tierz: Before The Storming of Huesca, 1936)

The Spanish Civil War When General Franco staged his coup against a democratically elected socialist Spanish government in July 1936 he expected to seize power within days. Instead his putsch turned into a gruelling and barbaric three-year-long civil war. Once again, as in their boyhoods, the poets read daily accounts of battles and statistics about dead and wounded in their daily newspapers.

The Spanish Civil War brought together many of the issues these writers were obsessed with – war, working class solidarity, communism, the struggle against fascism. Many of the poets travelled to Spain, it became was a mark of revolutionary virtue and commitment, most as journalists and commentators, a handful to actually fight. Several young English poets and critics actually died on the Republican side – Christopher Caudwell, Julian Bell, John Cornford, Ralph Fox.

Madrid, like a live eye in the Iberian mask,
Asks help from heaven and receives a bomb:
Doom makes the night her eyelid, but at dawn
Drawn is the screen from the bull’s-eye capital.
She gazes at Junker angels in the sky
Passionately and pitifully. Die
The death of a dog. O Capital City, still
Sirius shall spring up from the kill.

(from Elegy in Spain by George Barker, 1939)

By the end many had become bitterly disillusioned by the lies and betrayals they discovered on their own side, the anti-fascist side. George Orwell was only one of hundreds who realised that war, any war, isn’t as simple and pure as their schoolboy heroics had imagined. Skelton makes the point that for many of that generation, the Second World War came as an anti-climax after the immense emotional investment they’d made in Spain and the immense disappointment and disillusion they felt when all of Spain was finally conquered by Franco’s fascists in early 1939, and the war declared over.

Bourgeoisie Virtually all the poets came from the professional classes and attended exclusive private schools, and were acutely embarrassed by it. They keenly identified with the workers, with the unemployed, with the poor, they wanted to take up their cause. They wanted to joint their gang but they didn’t know how. Edward Upward’s novel In The Thirties amounts to a long description of the mortal self-consciousness and embarrassment a typical public school product feels when he becomes a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and finds himself having to talk to the Great Unwashed.

This makes most of their poems loudly proclaiming solidarity with the working class risible. All too often the threats against ‘the rich’ and ‘the idle’ and ‘the upper classes’ and ‘the poshocracy’ amounted to little more than masochistic self-hatred, the result of liberal guilt about their own privileged upbringings, and a lot of the people they threatened were, on closer inspection, their mummies and daddies and uncles and aunts.

You dowagers with Roman noses
Sailing along between banks of roses
well dressed,
You lords who sit at committee tables
And crack with grooms in riding stables
your father’s jest…

(opening of The Witnesses by Auden)

Orwell’s hatred of this middle-class play-acting knew no bounds. In a letter he dismissed Auden and Spender in particular as ‘parlour Bolsheviks’.

The common people That said, there was a new cultural and academic interest in the sociology of ordinary people, the common people, evidenced by, for example the Mass-Observation social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson (Harrow, Cambridge), poet Charles Madge (Winchester, Cambridge) and film-maker Humphrey Jennings (the Perse school, Cambridge), or the amateur ethnography of George Orwell (himself educated at Eton), namely Down and Out In Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

In this spirit, many of the poets and many of their 30s poems tried to capture the lives of the common people without being (too) patronising.

Now the till and the typewriter call the fingers
The workman gathers his tools
For the eight-hour-day but after that the solace
Of films or football pools
Or of the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-glory
Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,
The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking
In the empty glass of stout.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

August for the people and their favourite islands.
Daily the steamers sidle up to meet
The effusive welcome of the pier, and soon
The luxuriant life of the steep stone valleys,
The sallow oval faces of the city
Begot in passion or good-natured habit,
Are caught by waiting coaches, or laid bare
Beside the undiscriminating sea.

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Traditional forms The super-serious Modernism of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (and their continental equivalents) which crystallised just before the First World War, promoted free verse i.e. each line is free-standing and not constrained by having to fit into a preconceived stanza or rhyming scheme. In fact rhyme was generally dropped from Modernist poems as childish and Victorian.

But the thirties poets rejected this rejection, and brought traditional forms and rhymes and rhyme schemes back into fashion. Partly they were reacting against their earnest forebears, partly it was in a bid to make poetry more popular and accessible, partly because it’s just lots of fun to write ballads or sestinas or terza rima or sonnets or couplets and so on.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky…

(from As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden, 1939)

All the old forms were revived but given a modern spin, filled with thirties urban imagery or modern psychology. Louise MacNeice used rhyme schemes in his best poems but with subtle innovations to match the dreamy subtlety of the moods he captures.

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs):
Time was away and somewhere else…

(from Meeting Point by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Later on Auden tended to divide his poetry into Poems and Songs and it is no accident that his younger contemporary at Gresham’s public school, Benjamin Britten, throughout his career set many of Auden’s lyrics to music.

Exhortation But if there’s one thing an expensive education at private school and then Oxford or Cambridge gives you it is the confidence to tell other people what to do. The classic thirties poem is packed with accusations and exhortations and instructions and orders. It addresses people, directly, like a speech or sermon or talk or assembly address by the head master. One characteristic device was to address as ‘you’ a range of professions and jobs. It made it sound like you, the poet, a) grasped the multifarious nature of modern society, and b) had a huge audience across all professions and types. But always the tone is warning, minatory, threatening, urgently telling these simple folks that the Disaster is coming, the Great Social Upheaval is just round the corner, they’d better bloody wake up before it’s too late!

Fireman and farmer, father and flapper,
I’m speaking to you, sir, please drop that paper;
Don’t you know it’s poison, have you given up all hope?
Aren’t you ashamed, ma’am, to be taking dope?
There’s a nasty habit that starts in the head
And creeps through the veins till you go all dead:
Insured against against accident? But that won’t prove
Much use when one morning you find you can’t move…

(Opening of The Magnetic Mountain poem 20)

The drums tap out sensational bulletins;
Frantic the efforts of the violins
To drown the song behind the guarded hill:
The dancers do not listen; but they will.

(To Benjamin Britten by W.H. Auden)

Headmaster All this telling people what to do meant that, without realising it, many of the 1930s ‘rebels’ ended up sounding as high-minded and didactic and evangelical as the school chaplains and headmasters and gammon-faced imperialists they loved to mock. This verbal tic, the direct address of the hypothetical reader, you you you, at first gives the poems a sense of vigour and confidence but after a while feels like someone is poking you in the chest with their forefinger.

You that love England, who have an ear for her music,
The slow movement of clouds in benediction,
Clear arias of light thrilling over her uplands,
Over the chords of summer sustained peacefully…

You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April,
Or sad besides lakes where hill-slopes are reflected
Making fires of leaves, your high hopes fallen…

You who like peace, good sticks, happy in a small way
Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,
Who pay for drinks all round, whom disaster chose not…

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

This frequent use of the accusatory ‘you’ is accompanied by recurring use of the imperative mood, telling readers they must do, act, look, see, listen, consider, think about the important Truths the poet is telling them.

Think now about all the things that made up that place… (Geoffrey Grigson)

Enter the dreamhouse, brothers and sisters… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider these, for we have condemned them… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman… (W.H. Auden)

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep… (W.H. Auden)

For many of the 30s poets were not only the products of top public schools (‘five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery’, as Orwell described the experience), but then went back to become teachers in them, too, swearing to do it all differently, to be more enlightened, tolerant but ending up sounding dismayingly like their own teachers. And a schoolmasterly, hectoring tone is regularly found across all their poems. Think now could be the visionary poet telling his readers to wake up to the international situation: or it could be the Head of Latin telling his dopey pupils to make sure their adjectives agree in number and in gender.

At the time they felt they were making vital distinctions between the previous generation and their own. Looking back, they all sound like part of the same big squabbling family.

Schoolboys It is no accident that so much of this sounds like squabbling children. At the time and subsequently many of the writers realised their privileged private schooling had kept them away from the harsh realities of life as it was lived by 99% of the population and placed a steel wall between them and ‘the working classes’.

Much of the poetry prolonged into adulthood a silly, giggling, schoolboy mentality, a jokey cliquiness that those outside it (i.e. almost everyone) loathed about the chummy insiderness of the Auden Gang. Allen Tate thought they were ‘juvenile’. Orwell wrote a long essay about how much damage his prep school did him (Such Such were the joys, 1948), as did Cyril Connolly in the autobiographical section of Enemies of Promise (1938).

Auden himself (of course) nailed it in his birthday poem to his friend Isherwood, remembering how, as young men just out of Oxford:

Our hopes were set still on the spies’ career,
Prizing the glasses and the old felt hat,
And all the secrets we discovered
Were extraordinary and false…

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Ways of escape Part of the reason for joining a gang, group or movement is because you don’t have to face the world by yourself. Thus Stephen Spender looking back at his motivation for going to Spain says he was driven on:

‘by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.’

Many of the writers were plagued by personal anxieties and neuroses, not least the king of them all, Auden himself, but many others were aware of this conflict between their own private anxieties and their wish to present a brave, heroic, communist front to the world. This double-mindedness, this self-consciousness, watching themselves think and feel, was a characteristic of the age.

And now I relapse to sleep, to dreams perhaps and reaction
Where I shall play the gangster or the sheikh,
Kill for the love of killing, make the world my sofa,
Unzip the women and insult the meek.
Which fantasies no doubt are due to my private history,
Matter for the analyst…

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Freud Auden’s father was a doctor, in fact a professor of public health among other things. He owned a complete edition of Freud’s works and young Wystan read them along with everything else he could get his hands on. Thus by the time he arrived at Oxford he was able confidently to psychoanalyse all his friends (before or after sleeping with them).

Most of all Auden had an ascendency over his friends which was due to his being versed in psychoanalysis and therefore in a position to diagnose their complexes… Auden… seemed a lone psychoanalyst at the centre of a group of inhibited, neurotic patients – us.’ (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, pp.19-20)

Freud was one of the numerous modern thinkers whose ideas Auden played with in his poems like toys and Freud’s psychosexual theories influenced all the writers. Indeed Freud is the subject of an extended and highly impressive obituary poem Auden wrote right at the end of the decade, in his magisterial, end-of-the-thirties manner.

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
so many plausible young futures
with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
of problems like relatives gathered
puzzled and jealous about our dying.

For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
and shades that still waited to enter
the bright circle of his recognition

turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
to go back to the earth in London,
an important Jew who died in exile…

(from In Memory of Sigmund Freud by W.H. Auden, 1940)

Freud seemed, to traditional liberals, to have freed the new generation from its Victorian repressions. But he had other uses than the strictly scientific or psychological.

Surrealism The French group who invented surrealism and automatic writing, who fetishised coincidences and the unconscious, took Freud as their inspiration and ideology. Obviously people had read about them for a decade or more but the Surrealists made a big splash as a result of a famous exhibition held in Mayfair in 1936 which brought together the best of European Surrealist painting and was visited by record crowds and covered even in the popular press.

Elements of devil-may-care surrealist absurdity and irrelevance can be found in many of the poets and was a feature of Auden’s skipping from image to image, and invocation of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. But a handful of writers devoted themselves more seriously to exploring the surrealist mode, figures such as Hugh Sykes Davies (private school, Cambridge, communist party, surrealism) and above all David Gascoyne (private school, Regents Street Poly, communist party, surrealism).

today is the day when the streets are full of hearses
and when women cover their ring fingers with pieces of silk
when the doors fall off their hinges in ruined cathedrals
when hosts of white birds fly across the ocean from america
and make their nests in the trees of public gardens
the pavements of cities are covered with needles
the reservoirs are full of human hair
fumes of sulphur envelop the houses of ill-fame
out of which bloodred lilies appear.

across the square where crowds are dying in thousands
a man is walking a tightrope covered with moths

(from And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis by David Gascoyne, 1933)

Obscurity Having made the point that many of the poets revived popular forms and rhyme schemes and so on, partly out of a wish to be better understood, there’s no denying that a lot of their poetry is, in fact, quite obscure.

More beautiful than any gift you gave
You were, a child so beautiful as to seem
To promise ruin what no child can have
or woman give…

From The Token by F.T. Prince

Not many poets had the blunt factual subject matter to hand of John Cornford in his Spanish Civil War poems, or were as crudely political and declamatory as Cecil Day-Lewis.

Many tried to express their feelings and emotions as poets always have done, but using the new styles and imagery of the age. The tortured syntax and stylistic quirks unleashed by Auden in his first collection, published in 1930 – omission of the words ‘the’ or ‘a’; use of ‘O’ as at the beginning of a prayer –

O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches..

(from O for doors to be open by W.H. Auden, 1936)

And the vague wartime imagery of maps and leaders and ambushes – all these went on to infect a generation who, as a result, often found themselves caught in a mesh of sub-Audenesque mannerisms.

Lord O never let lose this habit
of expected strangeness, a kind
of alertness ambushed in the eye,
at once to strike on, to select
the deep the dangerous uniqueness down in things…

(from Request For The Day by Randall Swingler, 1933)

As a rule, the advice for coping with obscurity or anything you don’t immediately understand in a poem, is to go with the flow, read on past it, don’t let it put you off, and come back later and try to work it out, like a crossword puzzle.

Sometimes things become clearer on reflection, sometimes they’re deliberately obscure and only annotations or explanations by a scholar can help. Other times you can just let the obscurity settle in your mind – after all poetry is not a PowerPoint presentation with clear bullet points, it’s meant to work its way into the mind through other channels.

Take Dylan Thomas, none of his poems make much logical sense, but that doesn’t stop them being magnificent.

But hang on…

So that is a thumbnail portrait of the classic style of Thirties poetry, as exemplified by the gang of Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Day-Lewis and their followers – highly political, highly confrontational, highly engaged. But the range and breadth of Skelton’s anthology is meant to show us that there were lots of other 1930s, too.

Probably the most striking alternative to all of the above is the gentle, Anglican satire of John Betjeman, destined for a long career and the Poet Laureateship (1972). It is surprising to think of him as a ‘thirties’ poet, but he was.

In a completely different zone was the semi-surreal, religious trumpeting of Dylan Thomas, who didn’t go to a spiffing public school (Swansea Grammar School) and who stood outside literary London and its backbiting (though forced to work there during and after the war).

In a room of his own was the eccentric literary critic William Empson. I’ve always liked his poetry because it is larky.

And it’s hard not to be impressed by the diamond hardness of dedicated communist John Cornford, who died aged just 21 fighting in Spain.


Some poems from the thirties

Lullaby by W.H. Auden (1937)

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

In Westminster Abbey by John Betjeman (1940)

Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England’s statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady’s cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.

Although dear Lord I am a sinner,
I have done no major crime;
Now I’ll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.

I will labour for Thy Kingdom,
Help our lads to win the war,
Send white feathers to the cowards
Join the Women’s Army Corps,
Then wash the steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

Two Armies by Stephen Spender (1939)

As you know I don’t much like Stephen Spender’s verse. I think it’s a good impersonation of poetry but it’s not the real thing. Here he is trying to write a poem about the Spanish Civil War because it’s expected of him.

Deep in the winter plain, two armies
Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.
Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
These have their leave; while new battalions wait
On time at last to bring them violent peace.

All have become so nervous and so cold
That each man hates the cause and distant words
Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.
Once a boy hummed a popular marching song,
Once a novice hand flapped the salute;
The voice was choked, the lifted hand fell,
Shot through the wrist by those of his own side…

Now here is a poem included in a letter from the front by John Cornford, who fought in Spain, serving with the POUM militia on the Aragon front, where he wrote this poem which was included in a letter home.

A Letter from Aragon by John Cornford (1936)

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: ‘Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.’

Spender is very earnest but he’s posing, he’s playing the part of young lyric poet, he knows he is the Percy Bysshe Shelley of the Movement. But Cornford isn’t playing.

Missing Dates by William Empson (1940)

Empson earned his living as an English professor and critic. He wrote a small number of odd poems. This is the most famous. Read each line slowly.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice (1938)

An example of MacNeice’s deceptively simple lyricism and lulling, cradle rhythms.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

And death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas (1936)

The great clanging cathedral bell of Thomas’s stern verse.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


The poets

  • Kenneth Allot b.1912
  • W.H. Auden b.1907
  • George Barker b.1913
  • Julian Bell b.1908
  • John Betjeman b.1906
  • Ronald Bottral b.1906
  • Norman Cameron b.1905
  • Christopher Caudwell b.1907
  • John Cornford bb.1915
  • Hugh Sykes Davies b.1909
  • Clifford Dyment b.1914
  • William Empson b.1906
  • Gavin Ewart b.1915
  • Edgar Foxall b.1906
  • Roy Fuller b.1912
  • David Gascoyne b.1916
  • Geoffrey Grigson b.1905
  • Bernard Gutteridge b.1916
  • Robert Hamer b.1916
  • Rayner Heppenstall b.1911
  • Peter Hewitt b.1914
  • Kaurie Lee b.1914
  • John Lehmann b.1907
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904
  • Louis Macneice b.1907
  • Charles Madge b.1912
  • H.B. Mallalieu b.1914
  • Philip O’Connor b.1916
  • Clere Parsons b.1908
  • Geoffrey Parsons b.1910
  • F.T. Price b.1912
  • John Pudney b.1909
  • Henry Reed b.1914
  • Anne Ridler b.1912
  • Michael Roberts b.1902
  • Roger Roughton b.1916
  • Francis Scarfe b.1911
  • John Short b.1911
  • Bernard Spencer b.1909
  • Stephen Spender b.1909
  • Randall Swingler b.1909
  • Julian Symons b.1912
  • Dylan Thomas b.1914
  • Ruthven Todd b.1914
  • Rex Warner b.1905
  • Vernon Watkins b.1906

Related links

Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


Related links

Related reviews

William Morris reviews Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1889)

In 1888 the American author Edward Bellamy published his utopian novel, Looking Backward. It tells the story of an upper-class citizen of Boston who falls into a deep sleep in 1887 and wakes up in the same city, one hundred and thirteen years later, in 2000.

Bellamy was a socialist and uses the Perfect Society he describes as existing in 2000 to:

  1. highlight the appalling inequality and inefficiency of the runaway capitalism of his own day
  2. explain very systematically how a centrally planned socialist economy – which has abolished money, gives everyone the same education, requires everyone to work but assigns them jobs best suited to their abilities, and pays everyone the same monthly amount of ‘credits’ – has eliminated the economic chaos, gross waste, and revolting inequality of the society of his day

William Morris was born in 1834 and, despite his privileged upbringing at private school and Oxford, and his lifelong interest in arts and crafts, he became a deeply political figure. During the 1860s he became increasingly disgusted by the appalling exploitation of much of Britain’s working population by the class of factory owners, bankers and lawyers, and the poverty and misery which resulted.

In 1883 Morris joined the newly-founded Social Democratic Federation, the first official socialist party in England, and spent the last years of his life writing pamphlets arguing for socialism, and travelling around the country, making passionate speeches to working class audiences.

Himself the author of a number of medievalising romances, Morris was, therefore, intellectually well-suited to sympathise with the aims and style of Bellamy’s book, and in 1889 he published a review of it in the SDF’s official magazine, The Commonweal.

Bellamy’s main points

The crux of Morris’s short review is a profound disagreement with Bellamy on a central issue.

Bellamy’s future society is profoundly regimented. It’s the kind of utopia in which strict rules and regulations have been introduced and which everyone unquestioningly follows. Everyone is educated till they’re 21, then does exactly three years of manual labour, during which they discover their skills and abilities, at which point they opt for the career which best suits them, from coal mining to cardiology.

A state of ‘equality’ is achieved by ensuring that those who do unpleasant work do so for relatively short hours, while those doing rewarding jobs, work longer hours. But everyone is paid the same regardless of hours, getting paid in ‘credits’ rather than money, credits which only the state can issue and which can only be redeemed at state shops. So there is in effect no money and no private enterprise.

This is all highly organised, specified and regimented.

Bellamy spends quite a few pages describing how the workforce is, in effect, organised like an army, with the world of work divided into ten or so ‘divisions’ representing types of industry, and goes into considerable detail about how people are assessed and ranked within each ‘division’, how they can earn promotion (which doesn’t bring more money, just more responsibility and respect), how their work is assessed, and so on.

At the age of 45 everyone is forced to retire, and is free to devote their lives to whatever pastimes they wish.

At one point, back in 1887, the narrator of Bellamy’s book sees a squad of soldiers march by and observes that how much better the world would be if the world of work was as unified and organised, with a central chain of command and plan, as the army.

Bellamy envisages a socialist future in which work has been militarised.

Morris’s criticism

When I read all this I accepted it, partly because nearly all utopias are like this – that is, they tend to imagine that everyone in a future utopia will be regimented, will live according to a fairly small set of rules. The same is also true of dystopias, like Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But it is this central point which Morris strongly objects to.

For Morris, the whole point of a socialist world would be that nobody is forced to do anything. Bellamy’s notion of militarising the world of work is the exact opposite of Morris’s aspiration. For Morris, Bellamy makes the cardinal error of accepting modern industrial civilisation at face value. He accepts factories and mass production and regimented work forces. Bellamy’s

temperament may be called the unmixed modern one, unhistoric and unartistic; it makes its owner (if a Socialist) perfectly satisfied with modern civilisation, if only the injustice, misery, and waste of class society could be got rid of.

As I understand it, Bellamy incorporates the idea of Marx and Engels that there is an unstoppable tendency in capitalism towards larger and larger monopolies. Already the state has taken over some monopolies such as the Post Office, because everyone realises it’s in their best interest to have just one post office and not a whole load of competing post offices. Well, hopes Bellamy, the population will eventually realise that every industry is better off in state hands. The state will step in and take over the capitalist monopolies at which point you will have state socialism.

Morris thinks that Bellamy relies too much on this notion of monopolies evolving into state socialism. He thinks it too passive, a kind of ‘economical semi-fatalism’ which is ‘deadening and discouraging.’

Also it runs the risk, in terms of short-term political strategy, that, if there is an economic upturn and a return to full employment and people feel well-off again (which is what, in fact, happened as the 1890s proceeded) then people will simply abandon their ‘socialist’ views.

Back to the main point – which is Bellamy’s view of the militarisation of working life. Morris hates it. For Morris, this view simply inherits and intensifies the capitalist view of life in that is mechanical, that focuses on the machinery of life and not its content.

At bottom, Bellamy’s book is about economics and production and attributes the poverty of 1887 to the absurdity of leaving production to ‘private enterprise’, with all its competition and waste and regular crises of over-production leading to recessions and unemployment. Bellamy’s solution is State Communism organised on military lines.

The result is that though he tells us that every man is free to choose his occupation and that work is no burden to anyone, the impression which he produces is that of a huge standing army, tightly drilled, compelled by some mysterious fate to unceasing anxiety for the production of wares to satisfy every caprice, however wasteful and absurd, that may cast up amongst them.

What Morris finds oppressive is Bellamy’s reliance on the machine to solve problems.

A machine-life is the best which Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us.

Morris objects to Bellamy’s central contention that more and better machines will improve life for everyone. Bellamy’s ‘only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery’. Because work, even in Bellamy’s utopia, is acknowledged to be sometimes unpleasant, Bellamy replaces the motive of contemporary capitalism – fear of starvation – with new motives, namely patriotic spirit, altruism and pride engendered by membership of the army of labour.

Morris disagrees. He thinks Bellamy is barking up the wrong tree. He thinks that if you conceive of work this way, you will never be able to eliminate the element of compulsion and alienation in work. Relying on machines to eliminate the unpleasantness of work will just lead to a world of more and more machines, each requiring more boring maintenance.

By contrast, Morris starts from a completely different basic assumption, an assumption summed up in the title of one of his most famous essays, Useful Work versus Useless Toil (1884).

Morris thinks that work itself must be made rewarding.

It cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself.

Morris doesn’t think machine civilisation can be improved: he rejects machine civilisation completely. It is the machine which enslaves workers, turning them into mere ‘hands’; it is the inhuman requirement of machines which alienates people from their work.

Increasing the role of machines in society, indeed relying on machines to solve the central problem of work is, for Morris, a cardinal error. Work must reject machinery altogether. Work must be personal, small-scale, individual. Then it will be its own reward.

Thus, in this essay, we can see two diametrically opposed types of Socialist. The Bellamy type thinks:

  • that the problem of the organisation of life and necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national centralisation, working by a kind of magic for which no one feels himself responsible
  • that individual workers can shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called ‘the State’

The Morris type thinks:

  • that, on the contrary, it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself personally responsible for its details, and be interested in them
  • that individual workers cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other

Bellamy’s Socialism is based on a large, urban army of industrial labour who work at often unpleasant tasks from a sense of duty to the nation.

Morris’s Socialism is based on small, scattered, semi-rural villages of craftsmen and women making what they want for themselves, when they want it, and so finding real meaning and reward in their work.

A warning

What’s interesting is that Morris considers the success of Bellamy’s book to be not only noteworthy but actively dangerous. Looking Backward was, indeed, a tremendous, almost unprecedented, publishing success. To quote Wikipedia:

It was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many socialist writings of the day. ‘It is one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement’ (Erich Fromm). In the United States alone, over 162 ‘Bellamy Clubs’ sprang up to discuss and propagate the book’s ideas. Owing to its commitment to the nationalization of private property and the desire to avoid use of the term ‘socialism’, this political movement came to be known as Nationalism. (Looking Backward Wikipedia article)

All this clearly unnerves Morris. Throughout his review he worries that casual readers might take this version of Socialism as canonical.

The book is one to be read and considered seriously, but it should not be taken as the Socialist bible of reconstruction…

Because Morris, of course, wishes to promote his own, more or less diametrically opposed, version of socialism. In this respect, the review is less a review than a warning to readers of The Commonweal not to be lured into what Morris considers a profoundly incorrect version of socialism.

The moral

And that, I think, is the real point.

On one level the review is fascinating because of the light it sheds on both Looking Backward and especially on Morris’s own socialist ideals.

But stepping back from the detail, what it also indicates to the modern reader is the profound inability of ‘socialists’ to agree on their programme and their ultimate goals.

Reading any biography of Marx, you are struck by the violent disagreements among the tiny groups of revolutionaries who officially preached brotherhood and unity, yet in all their writings violently attacked and criticised each other.

The same tone dominates the writings of Lenin, the man responsible for splitting the Russian Socialist party into ‘bolsheviks’ and ‘mensheviks’ – and who was extremely prolific in vicious abuse, helping to found that special Soviet rhetoric which generated an apparently endless armoury of terms to vilify anyone who deviated from ‘the party line’.

All this reflects what I take to be a fundamental psychological fact about socialism and revolutionary movements, especially revolutionary writings. Which is that every person’s image of ‘the good place’ is different. Everyone’s image of utopia is unique to them.

If you think about it, the real, actual world of the here-and-now enforces a certain level of uniformity on people who write about it – politicians, commentators, economists and so on – because they are forced to concede most of the facts about currently existing society. Their readers can see it in front of them. (Though even given the ‘hard facts’ it is amazing how much politicians, commentators, economists and so on manage to wildly disagree with each other. Listen to any panel of politicians. Listen to any group of economists.)

So, bearing in mind the ability of intellectuals to disagree about the world which is right in front of their noses, how much infinitely more are they likely to disagree about some ideal future world which they are making up, in which there are no constraints of reality whatsoever.

This fissiparousness of revolutionary or alternative or utopian or socialist thinking goes a long way to explain its persistent failure. Part of the reason radicals have consistently failed to create a better world is because they can’t even agree among themselves what it looks like, let alone persuade other people to sign up to their visions.

As Morris predicted, the economy did indeed pick up in the 1890s and, despite much entrenched poverty, misery and degradation, despite fierce ongoing battles between labour and employers, capitalism in the West survived and flourished.

If Bellamy’s notion of state communism, of the entire workforce mobilised like an army to build the New Jerusalem, triumphed, it was in Stalin’s Russia, with its Five Year Plans. Bellamy’s vision of the militarisation of the workforce came true in the Russia of the late 1920s and 30s.

Unfortunately, the life of grace and leisure lived by the characters in Looking Backward never arrived, what it produced was a world of hunger and fear. And Morris’s vision of the future as scattered hamlets full of contented craftsmen vanished like the morning dew.


Related links

Reviews of other William Morris articles and essays

To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (1940)

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was one of mid-twentieth century’s great literary journalists and critics. (In her biography of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings describes Wilson as being, in 1945, ‘America’s most influential critic’ p.482)

Friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other authors from that generation, he wrote extended essays on the French Symbolist poets, on T.S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce and the classic Modernists, on Kipling, Charles Dickens, a study of the literature of the Civil War, memoirs of the 1920s and 30s, a book length study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and much, much more.

Edmund Wilson in 1951

Edmund Wilson in 1951

His style now seems very old-fashioned, a leisurely, bookish approach which was long ago eclipsed by the new professionalism of academia and the blizzard of literary and sociological theory which erupted in the 1960s.

Most of Wilson’s books are not currently in print, and many passages in this book demonstrate the relaxed, belle-lettreist, impressionist approach – often more in love with the sound of its own rolling prose than with conveying any clear information – which shows why.

Though Marx has always kept our nose so close to the counting-house and the spindle and the steam hammer and the scutching-mill and the clay-pit and the mine, he always carries with him through the caverns and the wastes of the modern industrial world, cold as those abysses of the sea which the mariner of his ballad scorned as godless, the commands of that ‘eternal God’ who equips him with his undeviating standard for judging earthly things. (p.289)

That said, Wilson was an extremely intelligent man, more of a literary-minded journalist than an academic, capable of synthesising vast amounts of information about historical periods, giving it a literary, bookish spin, and making it accessible and compelling.

Some themes or ideas

To The Finland Station is Wilson’s attempt to understand the Marxist tradition, and its place in the America of his day i.e. the angry left-wing American literary world produced by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He began researching and writing the book in the mid-1930s as well-meaning intellectuals all across America turned to socialism and communism to fix what seemed like a badly, and maybe permanently, broken society.

Like many guilty middle-class intellectuals who lived through the Great Depression, Wilson went through a phase of thinking that capitalism was finished, and that this was the big crisis, long-predicted by Marxists, which would finish it off.

He was simultaneously attracted and repelled by the psychological extremism and religious fervour of communism. Even after actually visiting Russia and seeing for himself the poverty, mismanagement and terror as Stalin’s grip tightened, Wilson couldn’t eradicate this feeling. He tried to analyse its roots by going back to the intellectual origins of socialism – then reading everything he could about Marx and Engels – and so on to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. This book is a kind of diary of his autodidactic project.

The myth of the Dialectic As Wilson prepared the book he realised that to understand Marx and his generation you need to understand Hegel – and he couldn’t make head or tail of Hegel, as his chapter on ‘The Myth of the Dialectic’ all too clearly reveals. He ends up comparing Hegel’s Dialectic to the Christian notion of the Trinity (Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis as a kind of modern version of Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in a way that’s superficially clever, but ultimately wrong. To understand Hegel’s importance for Marx and the German thinkers of that generation you should read:

More telling is Wilson’s point that Marx invoked his version of Hegelianism to give a mystical, quasi-religious sense of inevitability, a pseudo-scientific rationale, for what was simply, at bottom, the burning sense of moral outrage (i.e. at poverty and injustice) shared by so many of his contemporaries.

Aesthetics in Marx A later chapter dwells at length on Capital Volume One, pointing out that it is an aesthetic as much as an economic or political text, before going on to point out the ultimate inaccuracy of Marx’s Labour theory of Value.

The Labour Theory of Value Marx thought he had invented a new insight, that the value of a product is the value of ‘the labour invested in it’ – and that because the bourgeois owners of factories only paid their workers the bare minimum to allow them to live, they were thus stealing from the workers the surplus value which the workers had invested in the finished products.

This theory appeared to give concrete economic basis for the moral case made by trade unionists, socialists and their allies that capitalists are thieves. 

The only flaw is that there are quite a few alternative theories of ‘value’ – for example, as I’ve discovered whenever I’ve tried to sell anything on eBay, the ‘value’ of something is only what anyone is prepared to pay for it. In fact ‘value’ turns out to be one of the most tortuously convoluted ideas in economics, deeply imbricated in all sorts of irrational human drives (what is the ‘value’ of a gift your mother gave you, of your first pushbike, and so on?).

Wilson is onto something when he says that both the idea of the ‘Dialectic of History’ and the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ are fine-sounding myths, elaborate intellectual schemas designed to give some kind of objective underpinning to the widespread sense of socialist anger – but neither of which stand up to close scrutiny.

And although socialism or communism are meant to about the working class, Wilson’s book about Marx and Lenin, like so many others of its ilk, is a surprisingly proletarian-free zone, almost entirely concerned with bourgeois intellectuals and their highfalutin’ theories, with almost no sense of the experience of the crushing work regimes of capitalist industry, which were at the heart of the problem.

I’ve worked in a number of factories and warehouses (a Dorothy Perkins clothes warehouse, a credit card factory, the yoghurt potting section of a massive dairy) as well as serving on petrol pumps in the driving rain and working as a dustman in winter so cold the black binliners froze to my fingers. As in so many of these books about the working classes, there is little or nothing about the actual experience of work. The actual experience of actual specific jobs is nowhere described. Everything is generalisations about ‘History’ and ‘Society’ and ‘the Proletariat’ – which may partly explain why all attempts to put Socialism into action have been so ill-fated.

To The Finland Station

Wilson’s book is more like a series of interesting magazine articles about a sequence of oddball left-wing thinkers, often throwing up interesting insights into them and their times, always readable and informative, but lacking any theoretical or real political thrust. The book is divided into three parts.

Part one – The decline of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition

I was deeply surprised to discover that part one is a detailed survey, not of the pre-Marxist socialist political and economic thinkers – but of the careers of four of France’s great historians and social critics, namely:

  • Jules Michelet (1798-1874) author of a massive history of the French Revolution
  • Ernst Renan (1823-1892) expert on Semitic languages and civilizations, philosopher, historian and writer
  • Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) critic, historian and proponent of sociological positivism
  • Anatole France (1844-1924) poet, critic, novelist and the most eminent man of letters of his day i.e. the turn of the century and Edwardian period

Why? What’s this got to do with Lenin or Marx? It is only in the very last paragraph of this section that Wilson explains his intention, which has been to follow ‘the tradition of the bourgeois revolution to its disintegration in Anatole France’ (p.68).

Scanning back through the previous 68 pages I think I can see what he means. Sort of.

The idea is that Michelet came from a poor background, taught himself to read and study, and expressed in his sweeping histories a grand Victorian vision of Man engaged in a Struggle for Liberty and Dignity. He was heavily influenced by the memory of the Great Revolution, which he dedicated his life to writing about. Thus Michelet is taken as a type of the post-revolutionary intellectual who espoused a humanist commitment to ‘the people’. He provides a kind of sheet anchor or litmus test for what a humanist socialist should be.

Renan and Taine, in their different ways, moved beyond this humanist revolutionary vision, Renan to produce a debunking theory of Christianity in which Jesus is not at all the son of God but an inspired moral thinker, Taine embracing Science as the great Liberator of human society. Both were disappointed by the failure of the 1848 French Revolution and its ultimate outcome in the repressive Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.

Anatole France, 20 years younger than Renan and Taine, was a young man during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. This turned him completely off revolutionary politics and steered him towards a dandyish appreciation of art and literature. France represents, for Wilson, a disconnection from the political life around him. He continues the trajectory of French intellectuals away from Michelet’s humane engagement.

Anatole France

Anatole France A Corpse

During the 1890s the Symbolist movement in art and literature continued this trajectory, moving the artist even further from ‘the street’, from the deliberately wide-ranging social concerns of a Michelet.

The Paris Dadaists moved even further away from the Michelet ideal, choosing the day of Anatole France’s funeral in 1924 to publish A Corpse, a fierce manifesto excoriating France for representing everything conventional and bourgeois about French culture which they loathed.

And the Dadaists morphed into the Surrealists who proceeded to turn their back completely on politics and the public sphere – turning instead to ‘automatic writing’, to the personal language of dreams, to the writings of people in lunatic asylums.

So Wilson’s point is that between the 1820s and the 1920s the French intellectual bourgeoisie had gone from socialist solidarity with the poor, via sceptical Bible criticism and detached scientific positivism, to dilettantish symbolism, and – in Dada and Surrealism – finally disappeared up its own bum into art school narcissism. It amounts to a complete betrayal of the humanist, socially-conscious tradition.

Now all this may well be true, but:

  1. It would have been good manners of Wilson to have explained that describing all this was his aim at the start of part one, to prepare the reader.
  2. It is odd that, although he takes a literary-critical view of the writings of Michelet, Taine et al, he doesn’t touch on the most famous literary authors of the century – for example, the super-famous novelists Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, to name a few.
  3. And this is all very literary – there is next to nothing about the politics or economics of the era (apart from brief mention of the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 as they affected his chosen writers). There is no historical, social, economic or political analysis. The whole argument is carried by a commentary on the literary style and worldview of the four authors he’s chosen, with no facts or figures about changing French society, industrialisation, wars, the rise and fall of different political parties, and so on.

So even when you eventually understand what Wilson was trying to do, it still seems a puzzling if not eccentric way to present an overview of bourgeois thought in the 19th century – via a small handful of historians? And why only in France? What happened to Britain or Germany (or Russia or America)?

Having made what he thinks is a useful review of the decline of bourgeois thinking of the 19th century, Wilson moves on to part two, which is a review of the rise of socialist thinking during the 19th century.

Part two – The origins of socialism through to Karl Marx

You might disagree with his strategy, but can’t deny that Wilson writes in a clear, accessible magazine style. The opening chapters of this section present entertaining thumbnail portraits of the theories and lives of some of the notable pre-Marxist radical thinkers of the early 19th century, men like Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.

Wilson’s account of the large number of utopian communities which were set up across America in the first half of the century is particularly entertaining, especially the many ways they all collapsed and failed.

The Mormons It is striking to come across the Mormons being described as one of the early American utopian communities. They were pretty much the only idealistic community from the era to not only survive but thrive, despite fierce opposition. As Wilson reviews the fate of the various utopian communities set up during the early nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the key to survival was to have a strong second leader to succeed the founding visionary. For example, all the communities which Robert Owen founded failed when he left because they were only held together by his strong charisma (and dictatorial leadership).Hundreds of Fourieresque communities were set up, flourished for a few years, then expired. The Mormons were the exception because when their founder, Joseph Smith, died (he was actually murdered by an angry mob) he was succeeded by an even stronger, better organiser, Brigham Young, who went on to establish their enduring settlement of Utah.

Babeuf François-Noël Babeuf was a French political agitator during the French Revolution of 1789 who vehemently supported the people and the poor, founding a Society of Equals, calling for complete equality. As the bourgeois class which had done very well out of the overthrow of the king and aristocracy consolidated their gains during the period of the Directory (1795-99) Babeuf’s attacks on it for betraying the principles of the revolution became more outspoken and he was eventually arrested, tried and executed for treason. But his idea of complete equality, of everyone living in communes with little or no property, no hierarchy, everyone working, work being allotted equally, everyone eating the same, was to endure as a central thread of 19th century communism and anarchism.

Robert Owen ran a cotton factory in Scotland, and focused in his writings the paradox which plenty of contemporaries observed – that the world had experienced a wave of technological inventions which ought to have made everyone better off – and yet everyone could see the unprecedented scale of misery and poverty which they seemed to have brought about.

Young Karl Marx was just one of many thinkers determined to get to the bottom of this apparent paradox. The difference between Marx and, say, most British thinkers, is that Karl was drilled in the philosophical power of Hegel’s enormous Philosophy of World History.

Marx arrives in chapter five of part two and dominates the next eleven chapters, pages 111 to 339, the core of the book. Wilson gives us a lot of biography. Karl is the cleverest child of his Jewish-convert-to-Christianity father. He rejects advice to become a lawyer, studies Hegel, gets in trouble with the police and starts work as a newspaper editor.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels Through this newspaper Karl meets Friedrich Engels, who sends him articles to publish. Two years younger, handsome and full of life, Engels is sent by his father to supervise the family factory in Manchester, north-west England. Here Engels is appalled by the staggering immiseration of the urban proletariat, several families packed to a damp basement room in the hurriedly-built shanty towns surrounding Manchester, enslaved 12 hours a day in the noise and dirt of factories and, whenever there was a depression, immediately thrown out of work, whole families begging on the street, boys turning to theft, the girls to prostitution, in order to survive.

And yet when Engels talked to the factory owners – and he was a man of their class, an owner himself – all they saw was profit margins, capital outlay, money to be made to build big mansions in the countryside. Questioned about the lives of their workers, the owners dismissed them as lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothings. Engels was disgusted by their greed, selfishness and philistinism.

Traipsing the streets of the city, shown into the homes of hundreds of workers, awed by the scale of the misery produced by the technological marvels of the industrial revolution, Engels could see no way to reform this society. The only way to change it would be to smash it completely.

The hypocrisy of classical economists As for contemporary British political and economic writing, it was a con, a sham, a rationalisation and justification of the rapacious capital-owning class. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the rest of the so-called ‘classical’ economists merely provided long-winded rationalisations of exploitation. Smith said that the free market worked with a kind of ‘hidden hand’, a magic force which united people all over the globe in common enterprises, like the cotton pickers in America who supplied factories in Manchester to manufacture clothes which were then sold in India. Smith predicted that this ‘hidden hand’ of capitalism would, as if by magic, mean that, although everyone in society pursued their own interests, they would ineluctably be brought together by ‘the market’ to work together, to improve the lot of all, to create a balanced and fair society.

Well, Marx, Engels and anyone else with eyes could see that the exact opposite of these predictions had come about. British society circa 1844 was full of outrageous poverty and misery.

Marx meets Engels These were the thoughts Engels brought when he met Marx in Paris in 1844. His ideas and his practical experience electrified the brilliant polymath and provided Marx with the direction and focus he needed. He set about reading all the British political economists with a view to mastering classical economics and to superseding it.

Although Wilson periodically stops to summarise the development of their thought and give a précis of key works, I was surprised by the extent to which this middle section about Marx was mostly biographical. We learn a lot about the squalid conditions of Marx’s house in Soho, about Engels’s ménage with the Irish working class woman, Mary Burns, and there are entertaining portraits of rival figures like Lassalle and Bakunin.

All this is long on anecdote and very thin on theory or ideas. Wilson tells us a lot more about Lassalle’s love life than the reason why he was an important mid-century socialist leader. I learned much more about Mikhail Bakunin’s family life in Russia than I did about his political theories.

Wilson is at pains to point out on more than one occasion that he has read the entire Marx-Engels correspondence – but makes little more of it than to point out how Engels’s natural good humour struggled to manage Marx’s bitter misanthropy and biting satire.

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

Swiftian insults Wilson is happier with literary than with economic or political analysis, with comparing Marx to the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, than he is trying to explain his roots in either German Hegelianism or economic theory. He repeatedly compares Marx’s misanthropy, outrage and sarcasm to Swift’s – passages which make you realise that bitterly anti-human, savage invective was core to the Marxist project right from the start, flowering in the flaying insults of Lenin and Trotsky, before assuming terrifying dimensions in the show trials and terror rhetoric of Stalinism.

Failures of theory In the last chapter of the section Marx dies, and Wilson is left to conclude that Marx and Engels’s claim to have created a scientific socialism was anything but. Dialectical Materialism only works if you accept the premises of German idealist philosophy. The Theory of Surplus Labour doesn’t stand up to investigation. Their idea that the violence and cruelty needed to bring about a proletarian revolution will differ in quality from the violence and cruelty of bourgeois repression is naive.

There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at it. (p.303)

The idea that, once the revolution is accomplished, the state will ‘wither away’ is pitiful. For Wilson, their thought repeatedly betrays:

the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx (p.295)

the inadequacy of the Marxist conception of human nature (p.298)

In a telling passage Wilson shows how happy Marx was when writing about the simple-minded dichotomy between the big, bad exploiting bourgeoisie versus the hard-done-by but noble proletariat in The Communist Manifesto and to some extent in Capital. But when he came to really engage with the notion of ‘class’, Marx quickly found the real world bewilderingly complicated. In the drafts of the uncompleted later volumes of Capital, only one fragment tries to address the complex issue of class and it peters out after just a page and a half.

Marx dropped the class analysis of society at the moment when he was approaching its real difficulties. (p.296)

Larding their books with quotes from British Parliamentary inquiries into the vile iniquities of industrial capitalism was one thing. Whipping up outrage at extreme poverty is one thing. But Marx and Engels’ failure to really engage with the complexity of modern industrial society reflects the shallowness and the superficiality of their view of human nature. Their political philosophy boils down to:

  • Bourgeois bad
  • Worker good
  • Both formed by capitalist society
  • Overthrow capitalist society, instal communist society, everyone will be good

Why? Because the Dialectic says so, because History says so. Because if you attribute all the vices of human nature to being caused by the ‘capitalist system’, then, by definition, once you have ‘abolished’ the ‘capitalist system’, there will be no human vices.

At which point, despite the hundreds of pages of sophisticated argufying, you have to question validity of the Marxist conception of both the ‘Dialectic’ and of ‘History’ as anything like viable explanations of what we know about human nature.

Marx’s enduring contribution to human understanding was to create a wide-ranging intellectual, economic and cultural framework for the sophisticated analysis of the development and impact of industrial capitalism which can still, in outline, be applied to many societies today.

But the prescriptive part of the theory, the bit which claimed that capitalism would, any day now, give rise inevitably and unstoppably to the overthrow of the capitalist system, well – look around you. Look at the device you’re reading this on – the latest in a long line of consumer goods which have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ people around the world (the telephone, cheap cars, fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, radios, televisions, record players, portable computers, smart phones) invented and perfected under the entirely capitalist system of America which – despite a century of hopeful prophecies by left-wingers – shows no signs of ceasing to be the richest, most advanced and most powerful nation on earth.

As so many people have pointed out, the Great Revolution did not take place in the most advanced capitalist societies – as both Marx and Engels insisted that it inevitably and unstoppably must. Instead it came as, in effect, a political coup carried out in the most backward, least industrialised, most peasant state in Europe, if indeed it is in Europe at all – Russia.

Part three – Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The final section of 123 pages goes very long on the biography and character of its two main figures, Lenin and Trotsky. (It is strange and eerie that Wilson describes Trotsky throughout in the present tense because, in fact, Trotsky was alive and well, broadcasting and writing articles when Wilson was writing his book. It was only later the same year that To The Finland Station was published – 1940 – that Trotsky was assassinated on Stalin’s orders).

Thus I remember more, from Wilson’s account, about Lenin and Trotsky’s personal lives than about their thought. Lenin’s closeness to his elder brother, Alexander, images of them playing chess in their rural house, the devotion of their mother, the family’s devastation when Alexander was arrested for conspiring with fellow students to assassinate the Tsar, Lenin’s exile in Siberia and then wanderings round Europe – all this comes over very vividly.

I was startled to learn that Lenin lived for a while in Tottenham Court Road, where there was a longstanding centre for communist revolutionaries. Wilson also quotes liberally from the memoirs of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, about their trials and tribulations.

What comes over is that Lenin was good at lending a sympathetic hearing to working men and women, quick to make friends everywhere he went. Unlike Marx he didn’t bear rancorous grudges. Unlike Marx he didn’t have an extensive library and lard his books with literary references. Lenin was totally focused on the political situation, here and now, on analysing power structures, seizing the day, permanently focused, 24/7 on advancing the revolutionary cause.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Hence his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement addresses the practical problems of the communist movement at that specific moment.

I know a reasonable amount about the Russian Revolution itself. What fascinates me are the dog years between the death of Engels in 1895 and the Great War broke out in 1914. These were the years in which the legacy and meaning of Marxism were fought over by a floating band of revolutionaries, and in the meetings of the Second International, right across Europe, with factions splitting and dividing and reuniting, with leading communists bitterly arguing about how to proceed, about whether there would ever be a workers’ revolution and, if so, where.

Wilson brings out the constant temptation to so-called ‘bourgeois reformism’ i.e. abandoning the hope for a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society, and instead forming a democratic party, campaigning for votes and getting into the national parliament (in Britain, France, Germany, wherever).

This was the position of Edward Bernstein in Germany, who pointed out that the Social Democratic Party was having great success being elected and introducing reforms to benefit the working classes, building on the establishment of a welfare state, old age pensions and so on by Bismarck.

Reformists could also point to the way that the middle classes, far from being removed by the war between monopoly capitalists and an evermore impoverished proletariat, were in fact growing in numbers, that the working classes were better off, that all of society was becoming more ‘bourgeois’ (p.382).

This, we now know, was to be the pattern across all the industrialised countries. A large manufacturing working class, frequently embittered and given to strikes and even the occasional general strike, was to endure well into the 1970s – but the general direction of travel was for the middle classes, middle management, for ‘supervisors’ and white collar workers, to grow – something George Orwell remarks on in his novels of the 1930s.

The vision of an ever-more stark confrontation between super-rich capitalists and a vast army of angry proletariat just didn’t happen.

Lenin was having none of this bourgeois reformism. Wilson calls him the watchdog, the heresy hunter of orthodox Marxism. He turns out pamphlets attacking ‘reformism’ and ‘opportunism’. In Russia he attacks the ‘Populists’, the ‘Legal Marxists’, in books like Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) (p.384).

His 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement attacks Bernstein and bourgeois opportunists. What is to be done is that the working classes can never get beyond trade union level of political activity by themselves – they need to be spurred on by a vanguard of committed professional revolutionaries. People like, ahem, Comrade Lenin himself.

The same thinking was behind the creation of the ‘Bolsheviks’. At the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in summer 1903 some delegates brought forward a motion that the party should let concerned and sympathetic liberals join it. Lenin vehemently opposed the idea, insisting that the party must remain a small, committed vanguard of professional revolutionaries. When it came to a vote Lenin’s view won, and his followers became known as the majority, which is all that Bolsheviki means in Russian, as opposed to the Mensheviki, or minority. But over time, the overtones of majority, the masses, the bigger, greater number, would help the Bolsheviks on a psychological and propaganda level in their forthcoming struggles.

Throughout his thought, Lenin also dwells on the special circumstances of Russia, namely that:

a) 999 in a 1,000 of the population are illiterate peasants
b) even educated intellectuals, liberals and socialists, had been demoralised by centuries of Tsarist autocracy, reinforced by the recent decades of anti-socialist repression (all the revolutionaries had been arrested, spent time in prison even – like Trotsky – long periods in solitary confinement, as well as prolonged stays in Siberia)

The vast gulf in Russian society between a handful of super-educated elite on the one hand, and the enormous number of illiterate peasants sprinkled with a smaller number of illiterate proles in the cities, meant that the only practical way (and Lenin was always practical) to run a revolution was with top-down leadership. Lenin writes quite clearly that Russians will require a dictatorship not only to effect the revolutionary transformation of society, but to educate the peasants and workers as to what that actually means for them.

While even close associates in the communist movement such as Bernstein and Kautsky criticised this approach, while many of them wrote accurate predictions that this approach would lead to dictatorship pure and simple, others, like Trotsky, were energised and excited by the psychological vision of a ruthless and cruel dictatorship. The only thing the Russian people understood was force, and so the revolutionaries must use force, relentlessly. Amid the civil war of 1920 Trotsky found time to write a pamphlet, The Defense of Terrorism, refuting Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik government and defending the shooting of military and political enemies.

What this all shows is how difficult it is for liberals and people with moral scruples to stop revolutionaries who eschew and ignore moral constraints, particularly when it comes to revolutionary violence and terror. The most violent faction almost always wins out.

At the Finland Station

In his chapter on Marx’s Capital Wilson had pointed out (rather inevitably, given his belle-lettrist origins) that the book has an aesthetic, as well as political-economic-philosophic aspect – i.e. that Marx had crafted and shaped the subject matter in order to create a psychological effect (namely arousing outrage at the injustices of capitalist exploitation, then channelling this through his pages of economic analysis into the climactic revolutionary call to action).

Wilson’s book is similarly crafted. Having moved back and forth in time between the childhood of Lenin and Trotsky and their actions in the 1920s and 30s, even mentioning Trotsky’s activities in the present day (1940), Wilson goes back in time to conclude the book with a detailed account of Lenin’s train journey.

In April 1917 Lenin and 30 or so supporters were provided with a train by the German Army High Command which took them from exile in Switzerland, across Germany to the Baltic, by ferry boat across to Sweden, and then on another train through Finland, until he finally arrived in St Petersburg in April 1917, into the political turmoil caused by the overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a very shaky provisional government.

Lenin was welcomed by pompous parliamentarians but it was to the workers and soldiers present that, with typical political insight, he devoted his speeches. He knew that it was in their name and with their help, that his small cadre of professional revolutionaries would seize power and declare the dictatorship of the proletariat. Which is what they finally did in October 1917.

‘All power to the soviets’ would be their catchphrase. Only time would reveal that this meant giving all power to the Bolshevik Party – leading to civil war and famine – and that, a mere 15 years later, it would end with giving all power to Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time.


Related links

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Marx and Engels

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

Communism in England

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008)

1848 became known as ‘the year of revolutions’ and ‘the springtime of nations’ because there was political turmoil, fighting and unrest right across Europe, resulting in ministries and monarchies being toppled and new nation states proclaimed.

Causes

The underlying causes were agricultural, economic and demographic.

1. Agricultural failure

From 1845 onwards grain harvests across Europe were poor, and this was exacerbated when the fallback crop, potatoes, were hit by a destructive blight or fungal infection which turned them to mush in the soil. The result of the potato blight in Ireland is estimated to have been one and a half million deaths, but right across Europe peasants and small farmers starved, often to death. Hence the grim nickname for the decade as a whole, ‘the Hungry Forties’.

2. Economic downturn

This all coincided with an economic downturn resulting from industrial overproduction, particularly in the textile industry. Textile workers and artisans were thrown out of work in all Europe’s industrialised areas – the north of England, the industrial regions of Belgium, Paris and south-east France, the Rhineland of Germany, around Vienna and in western Bohemia.

3. Population boom

Hunger and unemployment impacted a population which had undergone a significant increase since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Countryside and cities alike had seen a population explosion.

The surplus of population was across all classes: it’s easy to see how an excess of many mouths to feed in a countryside hit by bad harvests, or in towns hit by economic depression, would result in misery and unrest. A bit more subtle was the impact of rising population on the middle classes: there just weren’t enough nice professional jobs to go round. Everyone wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or to secure a comfortable sinecure in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the autocracies – but there just weren’t enough vacant positions. And so this created a surplus of disaffected, well-educated, middle-class young men who found roles to play in the new liberal and radical political movements.

If the surplus poor provided the cannon fodder in the streets, the surplus professional men provided the disaffected theoreticians and politicians of liberal reform and nationalism.

Inadequate response

As usual, the politicians in charge across Europe didn’t fully understand the scale of the poverty and distress they were dealing with and chose the time-honoured method of trying to repress all and any expressions of protest by main force.

Rapport’s book describes massacres in cities all across Europe as the garrisons were called out and soldiers shot on marching protesters in capital cities from Paris to Prague. This had an inevitable radicalising effect on the protesting masses who set up barricades and called on more of their fellow workers-urban poor to join them, and so on in a vicious circle.

However, these three underlying problems (population, hunger, slump) and the repressive response by all the authorities to almost any kind of protest, did not lead to one unified political movement of reform in each country. Instead the most important fact to grasp is that the opposition was split into different camps which, at the moments of severe crisis formed uneasy coalitions, but as events developed, tended to fall apart and even come to oppose each other.

There were at least three quite distinct strands of political opposition in 1848.

1. Liberalism

Of the big five states in 1840s Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – only France and Britain had anything remotely like a ‘democracy’, and even in these countries the number of people allowed to vote was pitifully small – 170,000 of the richest men in France, representing just 0.5% of the population, compared to the 800,000 who were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act in Britain (allowing about one in five adult British men the vote).

Despite the small electorates, both Britain and France at least had well-established traditions of ‘civil society’, meaning newspapers, magazines, universities, debating clubs and societies, the theatre, opera and a variety of other spaces where views could be aired and debated.

This was drastically untrue of the three other big powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia had no parliaments and no democracies. They were reactionary autocracies, ruled by hereditary rulers who chose ministers merely to advise them and to carry out their wishes, these moustachioed old reactionaries being Czar Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Frederick William IV of Prussia.

Therefore, while liberals in Britain merely wanted to expand the franchise a bit, and even the radicals were only calling for complete manhood suffrage (encapsulated in ‘the Great Charter’ which gave the movement of ‘Chartism’ its name and whose collection and presentation to Parliament amounted to the main political event of the year in Britain) and whereas in France liberals wanted to see expansion of the suffrage and the removal of repressive elements of the regime (censorship) – in the three autocracies, liberals were fighting to create even a basic public space for discussion, and a basic level of democracy, in highly censored and repressive societies.

In other words, the situation and potential for reform in these two types of nation were profoundly different.

But to summarise, what marked out liberals across the continent is that they wanted constitutional and legal change, effected through what the Italians called the lotta legale, a legal battle (p.43).

2. Nationalism

Sometimes overlapping with liberal demands, but basically different in ambition, were the continent’s nationalists. Italy and Germany are the obvious examples: both were geographical areas within which the population mostly spoke the same language, but they were, in 1848, divided into complex patchworks of individual states.

In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the 1,000 year-old Holy Roman Empire, creating a host of new statelets, kingdoms, duchies and so on. Some thirty-nine of these were formed into the German Confederation. The German states were a peculiar mix of sovereign empires, kingdoms, electorates, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and free cities. The German Confederation was dominated by the largest two states, Prussia in the North and the Austrian Empire in the south.

Italy was arguably even more divided, with the two northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont under Austrian rule, the central Papal States under control of the Pope, while the south (the kingdom of Sicily and Naples) was ruled by a bourbon king, with other petty monarchies ruling states like Tuscany and Savoy.

1848 was a big year for the famous Italian nationalists, Garibaldi and Mazzini, who attempted to stir up their countrymen to throw off foreign rule and establish a unified Italian state. It is an indication of how dire Italy’s fragmentation was, that the nationalists initially looked to a new and apparently more liberal pope to help them – Pope Pius IX – the papacy usually being seen as the seat of reaction and anti-nationalism (although the story of 1848 in Italy is partly the story of how Pope Pius ended up rejecting the liberal revolution and calling for foreign powers to invade and overthrow the liberal government which had been set up in Rome.)

So 1848 was a big year for nationalists in Italy and the German states who hoped to unite all their separate states into one unified nation. Far less familiar to me were the nationalist struggles further east:

  • the struggle of Polish nationalists to assert their nationhood – after 1815 Poland had been partitioned into three, with the parts ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria
  • as well as a host of more obscure nationalist struggles east of Vienna – for example:
    • the struggle of Magyar nationalists – the Hungarians – to throw off the yoke of German-speaking Vienna
    • the Czechs also, attempted to throw off Austrian rule
    • or the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists to throw off the domination of their land by rich Polish landowners

Many of these movements adopted a title with the word ‘young’ in it, hence Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Hungary, Young Ireland, and so on.

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire in blue, but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire (Source: Age of the Sage)

Rapport shows how nationalists in almost all the countries of Europe wanted their lands and peoples to be unified under new, autochthonous rulers.

N.B. It is important to emphasise the limits of the 1848 revolutions and violence. There were no revolutions in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, in Spain or Portugal or in Russia. The Springtime of Nations most affected France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

3. Socialism

After liberalism and nationalism, the third great issue was the ‘social question’. While the rich and the upper-middle class seemed to be reaping the benefits from the early phases of the industrial revolution – from the spread of factory techniques for manufacturing textiles, the construction of a network of railways which helped transport raw materials and finished goods and so on – a huge number of rural peasants, small traders, and the urban working class were living in barely imaginable squalor and starving.

The paradox of starvation in the midst of plenty had prompted a variety of theoretical and economic analyses as well as utopian visions of how to reform society to ensure no-one would starve. These had become more prominent during the 1830s. It was in 1832 that the word ‘socialism’ was first coined as an umbrella term for radical proposals to overhaul society to ensure fairness and to abolish the shocking poverty and squalor which so many bourgeois writers noted as they travelled across the continent.

So ‘socialist’ ways of thinking had had decades to evolve and gain traction. Rapport makes the interesting point that by 1848 Europe had its first generation of professional revolutionaries.

The great French Revolution of 1789 had propelled men of often middling ability and provincial origin into high profile positions which they were completely unprepared for. By contrast, 1848 was a golden opportunity for men who had devoted their lives to revolutionary writing and agitating, such as Louis-August Blanqui and Armand Barbès.

(As Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his marvellous biography of Karl Marx, Marx himself was notorious to the authorities as a professional subversive, and his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the bestselling radical journal in Germany, but he had little impact on the actual course of events.)

The various flavours of socialists were united in not just wanting to tinker with constitutions, not wanting to add a few hundred thousand more middle-class men to the franchise (as the liberals wanted) – nor were they distracted by complex negotiations among the rulers of all the petty states of Italy or Germany (like the nationalists were).

Instead the socialists were united in a desire to effect a comprehensive and sweeping reform of all elements of society and the economy in order to create a classless utopia. For example, by nationalising all land and factories, by abolishing all titles and ranks and – at their most extreme – abolishing private property itself, in order to create a society of complete equality.

A crisis of modernisation

Rapport sums up thus: The revolution and collapse of the conservative order in 1848 was a crisis of modernization, in that European economies and societies were changing fast, in size and economic and social requirements, but doing so in states and political cultures which had failed to keep pace and which, given the reactionary mindsets of their rulers and aristocracy, were dead set against any kind of reform or change. Something had to give.

1848

Rapport tells the story of the tumultuous events which swept the continent with great enthusiasm and clarity. He gives us pen portraits of key reformer such as the nationalists Mazzini and Garibaldi and the socialist Blanqui, and of arch conservatives like Klemens Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, the young Bismarck of Prussia, and the sneering Guizot, unpopular premiere of France.

This is a great cast to start with but quite quickly the reader is overwhelmed with hundreds more names of radicals, republicans, liberals, reactionaries, conservatives and monarchists, ordinary workers and emperors – Rapport clearly and effectively presenting a cast of hundreds of named individuals who played parts large and small during this tumultuous year.

The first and decisive event of the year was the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and his replacement by a hastily cobbled-together Second Republic, in February 1848. This was a genuine revolution, and in what many took to be Europe’s most important nation, so news of it spread like wildfire across the continent, emboldening radicals in Italy, Austria, Prussia and further east.

Rapport describes events with a keen eye for telling details and the key, often accidental incidents, which could transform angry hunger marchers into an revolutionary mob. For example, the outraged citizen of Milan who knocked a cigar out of the mouth of a preening Austrian officer, sparking a street fight which escalated into a ‘tobacco riot’, prompting the city’s Austrian governor to call out the troops who then proceeded to fire on the mob, killing six and wounding fifty Italian ‘patriot and martyrs’. That is how revolutions start.

There is a vast amount to tell, as Rapport describes not only the turmoil on the streets, but the complex constitutional and political manoeuvrings of regimes from Denmark in the north to Sicily in the south, from Ireland in the west to Hungary, Ukraine and Poland in the east. I didn’t know so much happened in this one year. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Berlin revolution, in March, one day of epic street fighting between liberal reformers, backed by the population against the king’s army, resulted in 800 dead!

Fierce streetfighting around Alexanderplatz in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

Fierce fighting at the Alexanderplatz barricade in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

It was eye-opening to be told in such detail about the scale of the violence across the continent.

I knew that the ‘June Days’ in Paris, when General Cavaignac was tasked with using the army to regain control of all the parts of the city where revolutionary barricades had been set up, resulted in vast bloodshed, with some 10,000 killed or injured. But I didn’t know that when Austrian Imperial troops retook Vienna from the liberal-radical National Guard in the last week of October 1848, the use of cannon in urban streets contributed to the death toll of 2,000 (p.287).

There were not only soldiers-versus-workers battles, but plenty of more traditional fighting between actual armies, such as the battle between the forces of the king of Piedmont and Austrian forces in north Italy leading to the decisive Austrian victory at Custozza on 25 July 1848.

But it was the scale of the urban fighting which surprised and shocked me.

In another example, for a few months from April 1848 the island of Sicily declared its independence from the bourbon king of Naples who had previously ruled it. However, the king sent an army by ship which landed at Messina, subjecting the city to a sustained bombardment and then street by street fighting, which eventually left over two thirds of the city in smouldering ruins (p.260).

The social, political but also ethnic tensions between native Czech republicans and their overlord Austrian masters, erupted into six days of violent street fighting in Prague, June 12-17, during which Austrian General Windischgrätz first of all cleared the barricades before withdrawing his troops to the city walls and pounding Prague with a sustained artillery bombardment. Inevitably, scores of innocent lives were lost in the wreckage and destruction (p.235).

So much fighting, So much destruction. So many deaths.

New ideas

Well, new to me:

1. The problem of nationalism The new ideology of nationalism turned out to contain an insoluble paradox at its core: large ethnically homogenous populations were encouraged to agitate for their own nation, but what about the minorities who lived within their borders? Could they be allowed their national freedom without undermining the geographical and cultural ‘integrity’ of the larger entity?

Thus the Hungarian nationalists had barely broken with their Austrian rulers before they found themselves having to deal with minority populations like Romanians, Serbs, Croats and others who lived within the borders the Hungarians claimed for their new state. Should they be granted their own independence? No. The Hungarians not only rejected these pleas for independence, but went to war with their minorities to quell them. And in doing so, split and distracted their armies, arguably contributing to their eventual defeat by Austria.

Meanwhile, Polish nationalists were dead set on asserting Polish independence, but in Galicia quickly found themselves the subject of attacks from the Ruthenian minority, long subjugated by Polish landowners, and who claimed allegiance to a state which they wanted to call Ukraine. Like the Hungarians, the Poles were having none of it.

Thus nationalism spawned mini-nationalisms, sub-nationalisms, and ethnic and cultural conflicts which began to look more like civil wars than struggles for ‘independence’.

As a result, two broad trends emerged:

1. The chauvinism of big nations Nationalists from the larger nations developed an angry rhetoric castigating these troublesome little minorities as culturally less advanced. Rapport quotes German nationalists who criticised the Slavic minorities for their alleged racial and cultural inferiority – a rhetoric which was to have a long career in Germany, leading eventually to the Nazis and their Hunger Plan to starve and enslave the Slavic peoples.

2. Austro-Slavism In response to the breakaway aspirations of Hungary, the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy developed a strategy of Austro-Slavism. This was to appeal directly to the many minorities within the empire, and within Hungarian territory in particular, and guarantee them more protection within the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire than they would receive in one of the new, ethnically pure, nationalist states. ‘Stay within our multicultural empire and you will be better off than under repressive monoglot Hungarian rule.’

Thus when representatives of the Slovaks asked the new Hungarian Parliament (which had been created in March 1848 as a concession from Vienna) to allow the teaching of the Slovak language and the flying of the Slovak flag in Slovak regions within the new Hungary, the Hungarians vehemently refused. They accused the nationalists of ‘Pan-Slavic nationalism’ and of wanting to undermine the integrity of the new Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) state. Not surprisingly when, later in the year, open war broke out between Austria and Hungary, many Slovak nationalists sided with Austria, having made the simple calculation that they were likely to have more religious, racial and linguistic freedom under the Austrian Empire than under the repressively nationalistic Hungarians.

3. The threshold principle of nationalism The threshold principle is an attempt to solve the Nationalism Paradox. It states that a people only ‘deserves’ or ‘qualifies’ to have a state of its own if it has the size and strength to maintain and protect it. Surprisingly, Friederich Engels, the extreme radical and patron of Karl Marx, espoused the threshold principle when it came to the smaller nationalities in and around Germany. Being German himself he, naturally enough, thought that Germany ought to be unified into a nation. But the Czechs, Slovaks and other ‘lesser’ peoples who lived within the borders of this new Germany, Engels thought they didn’t deserve to be nations because they didn’t come up to ‘German’ standards of culture and political maturity. (Explained on page 181).

This was just one of the problems, paradoxes and contradictions which the supposedly simple notion of ‘nationalism’ contained within itself and which made it so difficult to apply on the ground.

Nonetheless, 1848 marks the moment when nationalism clearly emerges as a major force in European history – and at the same time reveals the contradictions, and the dark undercurrents latent within it, which have dominated European politics right down to this day.

4. Grossdeutsch or Kleindeutsch? Uniting the 39 states of Germany sounds like a straightforward enough ambition, but at its core was a Big Dilemma: should the new state include or exclude Austria? The problem was that while the Austrian component of the Austrian Empire spoke German and considered themselves culturally linked to the rest of Germany, the Hapsburg monarchy which ruled Austria had also inherited a patchwork of territories all across Europe (not least all of Hungary with its minorities, and the northern states of Italy): should those obviously non-Germanic part of the Austrian empire be incorporated into Germany? Or would Austria have to abandon its empire in order to be incorporated into the new Germany?

Exponents of a Grossdeutsch (Big Germany) option thought it ridiculous to exclude Austria with its millions of German-speakers; of course Austria should be included. But that would mean tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire in half because obviously you couldn’t include millions of Hungarians, Romanians and so on inside a ‘German’ state (the Kleindeutsch, or Little Germany, position).

Or could you? This latter thought gave rise to a third position, the Mitteleuropäisch solution, under which all of the German states would be incorporated into a super-Austria, to create a German-speaking empire which would stretch from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, a bulwark against Latins in the west and south, and the Slavic peoples to the east and south-east, promoting German culture, language and way of life across the continent, by force if necessary. (pp.298-300)

Comical and hypothetical though this may all sound, it would prove to be at the centre of world history for the next century. It was the ‘German Problem’ which lay behind the seismic Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophic First World War, and the global disaster of the Second World War.

The European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, at bottom was an attempt to settle the ‘German Problem’ i.e. to tie the German and French economies so intricately together that there could never again be war between the two of them.

Some people think the ‘German Problem’ was only really settled with the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, but others think it still lives on in the disparity between the rich industrial West and the mostly agricultural and impoverished East.

And the question of German identity, of who is or isn’t Germany, has been revived by Angel Merkel’s over-enthusiastic acceptance of a million refugees in 2017, which has led to the widespread popularity of far right political parties in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.

All of which tends to suggest that the virus of nationalism, unleashed in 1848, can never really be cured.

Results

It takes four hundred pages dense with fact and anecdote to convey the confused turmoil of the year 1848, but Rapport had already spelled out the overall results in the opening pages.

Although all the protesters hated the reactionary regimes, they couldn’t agree what to replace them with. More specifically, the liberals and socialists who initially found themselves on the same barricades calling for the overthrow of this or that ‘tyrant’ – once the overthrow had been achieved or, more usually, a liberal constitution conceded by this or that petty monarch – at this point these temporarily allied forces realised that they held almost diametrically opposed intentions.

The liberals wanted to hold onto all their property and rights and merely to gain a little more power, a little more say for themselves in the way things were run; whereas the socialists wanted to sweep the bourgeois liberals out of the way, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church and all the other tools of oppression.

It was this fundamentally divided nature of the forces of ‘change’ which meant that, as events worked their course, the forces of Reaction found it possible to divide and reconquer their opponents. Almost everywhere, when push came to shove, middle-class liberals ended up throwing in their lot with the chastened autocracies, thus tipping the balance of power against the genuine revolutionaries.

The high hopes of 1848 almost everywhere gave way to the resurgence of the autocracies and the restoration of reactionary regimes or the imposition of old repression in new clothes. Nowhere more ironically than in France where the overthrown monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the deeply divided Second Republic which staggered on for three chaotic years before being put out of its misery when the canny Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – who had gotten himself elected president right at the end of 1848 – carried out the coup which brought him to power as a new Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1851.

Rapport’s account also makes clear that the violence and turmoil wasn’t limited to 1848 – it continued well into 1849:

  • in Germany where the newly established ‘national’ parliament was forced to flee to Frankfurt and, when the Prussian king felt strong enough to surround and close it, its suppression sparked a second wave of uprisings, barricades, vicious street fighting and harsh reprisals in cities all across Germany e.g. Dresden where Richard Wagner took part in the insurrection, whose violent suppression left over 250 dead and 400 wounded.
  • and in Italy where the republics of Rome and Venice were besieged and only conquered after prolonged bombardment and bloodshed. (It is a real quirk of history that the Roman republic was besieged and conquered by French troops, ordered there by ‘President’ Napoleon. Why? Because the French didn’t want the approaching Austrians to take control of Rome and, therefore, of the Papacy. Ancient national and dynastic rivalries everywhere trumped high-minded but weak liberal or republican ideals.)

More than anywhere else it was in Hungary that the struggle for independence escalated into full-scale war  (with Austria) which dragged on for several years. By the end, some 50,000 soldiers on both sides had lost their lives. When the Austrians finally reconquered Hungary, they quashed its independent parliament, repealed its declaration of rights, reimposed Austrian law and language and Hungary remained under martial law until 1854.

The Hungarian revolt led to the establishment of an independent parliament in 1849 which seceded from the Austrian Empire. Unfortunately, this was crushed later in the year by a combination of the Austrian army which invaded from the west, allied with Russian forces which invaded from the East. The parliament was overthrown, Hungary’s leaders were arrested, tried and executed, and the country sank into sullen acquiescence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until 1918, when it finally achieved independence.

None of the ‘nations’ whose nationalists were lobbying for them to be created ended up coming into existence: both Italy and Germany remained patchwork quilts of petty states, albeit some of them reorganised and with new constitutions. Italy had to wait till 1860, Germany until 1871, to achieve full unification.

Polish nationalism completely failed; Poland didn’t become an independent nation state until 1918.

Same with the Czechs. They only gained nationhood, as Czechoslovakia, in 1918 (only to be invaded by the Nazis 20 years later).

Only in France was the old order decisively overthrown with the abolition of the monarchy. But this, ironically, was only to give rise to a new, more modern form of autocracy, in the shape of Napoleon III’s ’empire’.

It is one among many virtues of Rapport’s book that he explains more clearly than any other account I’ve read the nature of Napoleon’s widespread appeal to the broad French population, and the succession of lucky chances which brought him to the throne. Karl Marx dismissed Napoleon III as an empty puppet who made himself all things to all men, not quite grasping that this is precisely what democracy amounts to – persuading a wide variety of people and constituencies that you are the solution to their problems.

Everywhere else the European Revolution of 1848 failed. It would be decades, in some cases a century or more, before all the ideas proclaimed by liberals came into force, ideas such as freedom of expression and assembly, the abolition of the death penalty (1965 in Britain), of corporal punishment and censorship (Britain’s theatre censorship was only abolished in 1968), the emancipation of minorities and the extension of the franchise to all men and women (in the UK it was only in 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed a vote – 80 years after 1848).

Order over anarchy

The political and economic situation had certainly got bad enough for a constellation of forces – and for hundreds of thousands of alienated urban poor – to mobilise and threaten their rulers. But none of the reformers who inherited these situations could command the majority needed to rule effectively or implement their plans before the Counter-Revolution began to fight back.

The failure of the French Second Republic, in particular, made clear a fundamental principle of advanced societies. that the general population prefers an able dictatorship to the uncertainty and chaos of ‘revolution’.

(This is also the great lesson of the wave of anarchy which swept across Europe after the Great War, described in by Robert Gerwarth’s powerful book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923.)

Again and again, in different countries, Rapport repeats the lesson that people prefer order and security, albeit with restricted political rights, to the ‘promise’ of a greater ‘freedom’, which in practice seems to result in anarchy and fighting in the streets.

People prefer Order and Security to Uncertainty and Fear.

When faced with a choice between holding onto their new political liberties or conserving their lives, their property and their communities against ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’, most people chose to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of security. (p.191)

A simple lesson which professional revolutionaries from Blanqui to our own time seem unable to understand. It is not that people are against equality. If asked most people of course say they are in favour of ‘equality’. It’s that most people, in countries across Europe for the past 170 years, have time and time again shown themselves to be against the anarchy which violent movements claiming to fight for equality so often actually bring in their train.

P.S.

I get a little irritated by readers and commentators who say things like, ‘the issues in the book turn out to be surprisingly modern, issues like freedom of speech, constitutional and legal reform, the identity of nations and their populations’.

Rapport himself does it, commenting that many German states expressed ‘startlingly modern-sounding anxieties’ (p.337) in response to the Frankfurt Parliament’s publication of its Grundrechte or Bill of Basic Rights, in December 1848.

This is looking down the telescope the wrong way. All these themes and issues aren’t ‘surprisingly relevant to today’. What phrases like that really express is that, we are still struggling with the same issues, problems and challenges – economic, social and cultural – which have dogged Europe for over 200 years.

The past isn’t surprisingly ‘relevant’. It is the world we live in that is – despite all the superficial changes of clothes and cars and techno-gadgets – surprisingly unchanged. We are still struggling with the problems our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, failed to solve.

If you’re of the tendency who think that handfuls of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago – early socialists or feminists or freethinkers – were ‘prophets’ and ‘surprisingly relevant’ it’s because this way of thinking tends to suggest that we standing tip-toe on the brink of solving them.

I, on the contrary, take a much more pessimistic view, which is that this or that thinker wasn’t a startlingly far-sighted visionary, simply that they could see and express problems and issues which over the past two hundred years we have completely failed to solve.

When so many better people than us, in more propitious circumstances, have failed, over decades, sometimes centuries, to solve deep structural issues such as protecting the environment, or how to organise states so as to satisfy everyone’s racial and ethnic wishes, or how to establish absolute and complete equality between the sexes – what gives anyone the confidence that we can solve them today?

All the evidence, in front of the faces of anyone who reads deeply and widely in history, is that these are problems intrinsic to the human condition which can never be solved, only ameliorated, or fudged, or tinkered with, in different ways by different generations.


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Gareth Stedman Jones on Marx and 1848

Having just read Karl Marx’s two great works of political analysis about the ill-fated French Second Republic (The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon), I thought I’d reread the hundred or so pages of Gareth Stedman Jones’s masterly intellectual biography of Marx which cover the same period – to remind myself of the wider European political and intellectual context, and to have Jones explain the development of Marx’s thought to me.

The Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in January 1848. According to Jones, Marx was:

  • the first to evoke the seemingly limitless powers of the modern economy and its global reach
  • the first to chart the staggering transformation unleashed by the productive powers of modern industry
  • the first to describe the restless, unfinished nature of capitalism which, in order to survive, must continually invent new human needs and new products to satisfy them
  • the first to describe how capitalism disrespects all previous boundaries and hierarchies, dissolving all conventional relationships, turning all humans into objects for sale, reducing all human relationships to the cash nexus

There is no doubting the innovativeness and power of much of Marx’s thought.

The creation of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’

Karl’s writings of the earlier 1840s had used concepts inherited from the Hegelian tradition: ‘the Christian state’, ‘the philosopher’, ‘the rational state’, ‘civil society’, ‘the peasantry’, ‘the Germans’, ‘the Philistines’. From about 1845 these were replaced by a new ‘cast of characters’, as Jones describes them – ‘the modern state’, ‘the class struggle’, ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘the proletariat’.

Karl borrowed bourgeoisie from contemporary French radicals, notably Louis Blanc. Blanc wrote about the banking industry enthralling trade and commerce, enforcing competition in all sectors, pushing small businesses and traders to the wall, undermining those of middle stature and creating ‘an oligarchy of bankers’. That sense of capitalism’s all-conquering dynamism would become familiar in Marx’s writings. But whereas in France the word ‘bourgeois’ referred to individual fat cats, often satirised in contemporary cartoons, Marx greatly expanded the idea to make it identical with the great impersonal historical force of Capital itself.

The words proletarian and proletariat derive from the Latin root meaning ‘child’. They also were widely used in French radical writing of the 1840s to refer to the lowest order of society who have no property and so nothing to offer the state except their children. Again Marx adopted the word and vastly increased its meaning by using it to denote the entire working class population, not just of one, but of all the European nations, indeed of the whole world. (cf Engels, quoted on page 243.)

On the plus side, this drastic simplification enabled the stirring rhetoric of The Communist Manifesto which paints the contemporary world as a titanic clash between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. On the down side, it led Marx to lump together all kinds of disparate groups under his new master terms – for example, lumping the mill owners of Lancashire with the financiers of Paris or the ruling elite of Berlin, groups which, in actuality, had very little in common and were acting in completely different situations and often with very different aims.

Similarly, despite superficial similarities, factory workers from Wigan, the unemployed of Paris and army conscripts in Berlin were all described by Marx as ‘the proletariat’ but, once again, didn’t really have that much in common, and were thinking and acting in completely different societies and political systems.

This Great Conflation and Conceptual Simplification encouraged Marx and his followers to minimise or just plain ignore the very real differences between actually existing social groups, groups which sometimes came into active antagonism to each other, as well as the very real differences in the economic situations and the political systems of Britain, France and Prussia.

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The revolutions of 1848

Jones gives detailed accounts of the revolutions which broke out in France in February 1848 and in Germany in March 1848, as well as the parallel uprisings which occurred across the continent in countries like Austria, Italy and Poland.

Karl was expelled from Brussels for his political activities in March 1848, and went to Paris (arriving 4 March) where he witnessed at first hand the early developments in the French Republic which had been created when King Louis-Philippe had been forced to abdicate only a few weeks earlier.

These were heady, euphoric days when radicals thought the final workers’ revolution had arrived. But Karl had barely settled into digs in Paris before news came of anti-government disturbances in Germany, specifically in the Prussian capital Berlin, as well as other cities like Frankfurt and Dresden. Karl decided to return to his homeland, arriving in Cologne on 10 April, and remaining there for the next thirteen months.

Along with fellow communists, Karl set up a radical newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung which quickly established itself as the leading radical journal in Germany, with a circulation of 5,000. However, Jones cautions that it never had any influence because of ‘its dogmatic tone and its reductive conception of politics’ (p.295).

The problem Karl and his journal created for themselves was they had a schizophrenic position created by their split worldview. On the one hand Karl believed the Great Proletarian Revolution was just around the corner and that therefore he needed to support whatever events were pushing the situation to extremes, whatever seemed likely to spark the Final Insurrection. From this grand historical point of view Marx was often in favour of governments taking repressive actions; the more repressive, the more they would hasten The Great Uprising.

But, on the other hand, as editor of a journal claiming to represent the best interests of the working classes, Karl had to give some kind of practical advice about who to support and what to campaign for as events unfolded day by day – forcing him to take part in the messy, compromising business of actual politics.

In Jones’s view Marx’s flip-flopping between these positions not only made the Neue Rheinische Zeitung an unreliable guide for working class readers, it looked to many like indecisiveness, and led some on the left to ridicule it (and Karl) for his often grandiose visions of a world on the brink of utopian transformation.

Karl’s political commentaries

During his eight months in Cologne Karl wrote intense and furious commentary on political developments, but this is where – for Jones – it starts to go wrong, for a number of reasons.

1. Jones says that Karl and his circle thought the 1848 revolution would follow the pattern of the Great French Revolution i.e. there would be an initial bourgeois phase dominated by the usual liberal rhetoric about the rights of man and democracy (1789-1792), but this would then be followed by the True Proletariat Revolution (which is how Karl interpreted the rise of Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Terror of 1792-3).

This was the part of the French revolution which executed the king, declared a republic, created universal suffrage, abolished church land and took far-reaching radical steps which all of which Karl strongly admired. So Marx expected the events of 1848 to fit into this pre-ordained schema: first bourgeois revolution, then proletariat revolution.

But he was wrong.

Jones says that the very strength of the Communist Manifesto is also its weakness. It appeals because of its simplicity: the wicked bourgeois grow richer but numerically smaller and smaller; the impoverished proletariat grow poorer, but more and more numerous. The result is as inevitable as a simple maths problem: eventually the proletariat will outnumber the bourgeoisie to such an extent that the Great Proletarian Revolution will become inevitable, the oppressed Proletariat will rise up, overthrow their exploiters and bring human history to an end in a peaceful utopia.

But the world wasn’t and isn’t that simple, never has been.

One of the undoubted strengths of Karl’s analysis is that it enabled him to look behind the scenes of daily politics in France and Germany to identify the class-based interests of different political groupings in a way that more conventional commentators couldn’t. But this X-ray vision also led to what Jones sees as Karl’s greatest mistake: which was to underestimate the messy and unpredictable realm of actual politics.

Karl’s conviction that History proceeds along an unavoidable course, moving through inevitable stages (industrial revolution, the economic then political triumph of bourgeoisie, the rise of proletariat, the communist revolution) led him and his colleagues in the Communist League and on the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to underestimate the complexity of the societies they were commentating on (Britain, France and Germany) and to ignore the complexity of the actual political manoeuvring taking place in them, under very fraught circumstances.

It led them to overlook the massive differences between all three countries (for instance, Prussian liberals and radicals had no republican tradition whatever to look back to or draw upon, unlike the French radicals who had the 1789 revolution and the 1830 revolutions to refer back to and invoke).

It led them to make mistakes in the history they claimed to be so fond of (the French state of 1789 was bankrupt and tied to a moribund church, whereas the French state of 1848 was relatively well off and backed by the richest parts of society, the industrial and financial bourgeoisie: no wonder the two revolutions unfolded in completely different ways).

The opening of Karl’s essay on French politics, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is one of the most quoted things he ever wrote:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The clarity, the sweep, the confidence, the shiny brilliance of this insight are typical Marx and typically misleading. It may well be true that politicians drape themselves in the costumes, postures and words of their predecessors, particularly at times of stress. But rereading Marx this time round has made me realise that one clever insight is not enough. While Karl was elaborating the parallels between the actors of 1848 and their predecessors in 1789 (or, as he often does, to figures in classical Rome, or Biblical times) the real politicians of his time were getting on with their plotting and reacting to completely new circumstances in the here and now.

Americans have an irritating phrase – ‘If you’re so clever, how come you ain’t rich?’ You can apply a variation of this to Marx and his followers: ‘If you’re so clever, with all your unique insights into economic and social forces — how come your cause lost?’ Lost again and again.

Because it did lose.

In Britain, the Chartist agitation which looked like producing a real change of the political scene in early 1848, fizzled out.

In Germany, Jones shows how the Prussian emperor cleverly manoeuvred his way through the revolutionary turmoil, until he finally outwitted his National Assembly, carried out a coup and imposed a new constitution, retaining all his powers.

In France, it took three years of very complex political chicanery until the preposterous figure of Louis-Napoléon managed to make himself emperor (December 1851), crystallising the defeat of the revolution.

The Polish uprising of 1848 was crushed by Russia.

The January rising in Sicily was defeated with the return of its Bourbon rulers. An uprising for independence in Hungary was eventually crushed by Russian and Austrian armies. And so on.

By 1853, Queen Victoria (Britain), King Frederick William IV (Prussia), the emperor Louis-Napoléon (France), the emperor Francis Joseph (Austria) and Czar Nicholas I (Russia) were all secure on their thrones as they had been in 1847.

Karl underestimates the importance of politics

In all his political analyses, Karl can’t hide the tone of contempt and sarcasm (the ‘contemptuous tone’, the ‘derision and condemnation’ as Jones describes them p.283) directed at the politicians he regards as mere puppets fronting various conflicting ‘class interests’.

The assumption in all of his writings is that he and his communist group alone in all of Europe understand the true nature of technological, economic and social change.

This, in fact, may have been true: his economic and class-based analyses are fascinating and way ahead of his time — but nonetheless, they ignore the reality of politics, which is that victory goes not go to the virtuous or to ‘the vanguard of History’ – it goes to the cunningest and most Machiavellian.

Karl is more in thrall to ‘the histrionics of revolution than to its actuality’; ‘he underestimated the ability of the leaders of the reaction’ (p.284). His ‘hostility towards the modern representative state’, his ‘consequent belittlement of the significance of manhood suffrage and the democratic republic’, his ‘disregard of political and legal forms’ (p.307) led Karl and Engels to systematically underestimate the importance of these goals for the working classes of their time, and explains the way their predictions for all the 1848 revolutions (and indeed for the rest of the century) turned out to be diametrically wrong.

Jones’s critique of The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850

Jones says it is the difficulty of reconciling the great global Hegelian vision of the two vast world-historical categories which Marx had invented (the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat) lumbering towards the Great Day of Revolution with the day-to-day confusing and messy manouevrings of political factions, which gives Marx’s long essay The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 its ‘strangeness’ of tone and content.

For a start it omits a surprising amount of basic information:

1. There is very little mention of the political causes which the left and radicals were fighting for, almost nothing about the actual political platforms of workers’ leaders like Blanqui and the radicals, next to nothing about the actual mechanics of the ‘right to work’ movement which inspired many of the workers throughout the revolution. It was rhetoric around the ‘right to work’ which mobilised huge numbers of the unemployed in Paris. The opening of National Workshops for the unemployed was the central issue in working class politics: the June riots weren’t the result of some abstract confrontation between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie, they were sparked by the government’s threat to close the National Workshops and were the mass protests of the thousands of men who stood to lose their life-supporting dole money. By always moving to the most abstract level, Karl consistently misses the importance of the quotidien, of practical details.

2. There is surprisingly little detailed economic analysis. Karl followed French socialist theorists who thought that capitalist crises were the result of periodic overproduction which flooded markets and produced slumps. This is what Karl attributes the 1847 economic crisis to. But Jones says it was caused by entirely different factors: the potato blight of 1846 and poor wheat harvests – which both produced hunger – and a poor cotton crop which led to lack of work in the textile industry (mass unemployment). In fact the collapse of linen production across much of northern Europe was part of a turning point in European history, which resulted in the de-industrialisation of much of the countryside of northern Europe, the movement of rural artisans to the cities or to flee starving Europe altogether and migrate to America. None of this is in Karl’s account.

3. Karl is always itching to represent every confrontation as that between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, but this forces him to overlook or distort all kinds of inconvenient facts: for example, the government of the French Republic which did all the repressing, was mostly not made up of employers, industrial or otherwise; the Paris insurgents included just as many small employers as helpless wage earners; and the armed forces which confronted them, the Mobile Guard, was just as working class as the workers they were trying to control.

Karl knew this but to save his theory invents the concept of the lumpenproletariat, consisting of drunks, crooks, thieves, prostitutes and so on to explain the behaviour of the Mobile Guard. In reality they were from the same ‘class’ as the marchers, but had simply decided to take the government’s shilling and wear a uniform. The entire concept of the lumpenproletariat can be defined as ‘the elements of the working class which don’t behave in the way Karl Marx’s theory says they ought to behave and so he has to call by a different name and go out of his way to abuse and discredit’.

4. Karl takes no time to analyse the central problem the young French Republic faced, which was what to do with over 100,000 unemployed working class men and their families. Paying some to join the newly established Mobile Guards solved part of the problem. Setting up the National Workshops for the unemployed solved the rest, but cost the government a fortune. Where was the money to come from? The republic decided to tax the peasants – (which resulted in the peasants hating the new Republic and voting for the first person who promised to reduce taxes – Louis-Napoléon – in the electoin of December 1848.

So much for key elements of the revolution which Karl ignored. But Jones says that at a much deeper level, Karl’s entire analysis was wrong-headed.

It was hardly rocket science to notice that 1848 saw insurgencies against almost every established government in Europe; other people did notice this too, not least the governments in question. But Karl made two cardinal mistakes in his analysis of these events:

1. He couldn’t escape his own blinkered interpretation of the insurgencies in terms of the French Revolution of 1789. Having just read Karl’s text, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850, I can confirm that Karl is much more haunted by 1789 (and especially by the rise of the Jacobin party in 1792) than the workers and middle-class liberals he’s describing. Having interpreted the French Revolution as in fact two revolutions taking place in sequence – the ‘bourgeois’ revolution of 1789 and then the Jacobin or radical revolution of 1792 – Karl time and time again describes the political actors of 1848 as repeating, invoking, walking in the steps of and generally copying their great predecessors.

Only they weren’t. They were reacting to completely different situations, economic pressures and political realities, in completely new and unpredictable ways.

2. Karl’s philosophical position had been developed in the early 1840s, and a central tenet was that modern life in a capitalist system alienated people from traditions, customs and from themselves. Of nobody was this more true than of the industrial proletariat, who were reduced to the status of ‘hands’, to mere appendages which tended the genuinely valuable items in factories, the machines. Alienated from their work, from the products of their labour, from the value of their labour, Karl saw this class as being subjected to such an extreme of dehumanisation, that it would eventually – by a kind of law of physics – rebound, reclaim the means of production and distribution, overthrow its oppressors, and institute a new era of history in which all men and women live alienation-free lives, in touch with themselves, enjoying the fruits of their labours in harmonious associations.

You don’t need a degree in politics and economics to see that this is a pitifully simple-minded fairy tale.

What Jones specifically accuses Karl of is placing his own ideologically-blinkered philosophy over the actual facts. Karl thought the proletariat had to be pushed right to the brink, to be ground into utter misery, before the world-shaking transformation could come about. But in the event the working classes of Europe turned out not to be so keen on being ground into the mud in order to prove the theory of an obscure German philosophy student; what they wanted was work, shorter hours and more pay.

And most of the radical leaders in Britain, France, Germany, Austria and beyond thought this could best be achieved not by overthrowing the existing political system but by being granted entry into it.

The central demand of the Chartists wasn’t to abolish property and overthrow the bourgeoisie: it was to have the vote. Similarly, the issue of male suffrage was central to the 1848 revolution in France. The ‘class consciousness’ of workers in Britain or France was caused less by the notional stage of development of capitalist technology, than by the fact that they wanted the vote so that their representatives could fight their cause in Parliament and the National Assembly.

Jones’s point is that the central issue of the 1848 revolutions was not Karl’s ‘class consciousness’, it was widespread concern about ‘political exclusion’.

When Marx and Engels ridicule the whole notion of parliamentary politics, when they pour scorn on the English Constitution as ‘a tissue of lies’, when they mock moderate socialist leaders in Britain and France – they are denying the voices of the working classes themselves.

Highly ideological and doctrinaire themselves, Karl and Friedrich projected onto working class people their own theories and ideas about how the working classes ought to think and behave, ignoring the actual stated wishes of the majority of the workers – shorter hours, better pay and the vote.

Is there any way of adjudicating between these conflicting interpretations of events? Yes. By seeing what happened subsequently: Did the working classes of Britain, France and Germany turn out to want violent revolutionary overthrow, or did they just want more say in existing political systems?

The fact that exclusion and lack of recognition rather than exploitation were the prime precipitants of the insurrectionary sentiments of the peoples of 1848 was borne out by the subsequent history of Western Europe. With manhood suffrage and a representative system established in France after the fall of the Second Empire, and renewed talk of Reform in England, the working classes were progressively re-incorporated back into the political system. Thus the political and extra-constitutional significance of the ‘class struggle’, as it had been invoked by the Communist Manifesto, faded away. (p.313)

Karl superimposed over the actual stated aims of working class radicals in 1848 an arcane schema derived from the Idealist philosopher Hegel, which bore little relation to economic, social or political realities, and which has bedazzled restless intellectuals ever since.

Workers didn’t want to overthrow the system; they wanted more of a say in the system, and a fairer distribution of the spoils. The proof is the way that, as the century progressed, the ‘proletariat’ didn’t rise up against the ‘bourgeoisie’ of England, France or Germany – it was step by step co-opted into the system and running of those countries, which all avoided revolution and became social democracies – the precise opposite of what Karl and Engels predicted and never gave up hoping for.

Jones’s critique of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

In the summer of 1849 the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, introduced a new cabinet of his reactionary supporters, who implemented counter-revolutionary measures to expel leftist and other revolutionary elements from the country. The paper Karl had been editing and writing for, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung was soon suppressed and Marx was ordered to leave the country on 16 May.

He returned to Paris, which was then in the grip of both a reactionary counter-revolution and a cholera epidemic. But he wasn’t there long before he was expelled by the city authorities, who considered him a political threat. With his wife Jenny expecting their fourth child and unable to move back to Germany or Belgium, in August 1849 Karl arrived as a refugee in London, where he was to live for the rest of his life.

It was in Dean Street, in London’s Soho district, between December 1851 and March 1852, that Karl wrote his analysis of the rise of Louis-Napoléon, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which went on to be published in 1852 in Die Revolution, a German monthly magazine published in New York.

On pages 334 to 343 of his biography Jones analyses The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. For a start it was, apparently, Engels’s idea that the grand history of 1789 was repeating itself as farce in the 1848 events, and that the coup by which Louis-Napoléon seized power in December 1848 echoed the coup by which his uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte seized power on 9 November 1799. We know this because we have the letter in which Engels suggests the idea to Karl.

At the time of the first Bonaparte’s coup, France was still living under the fanciful calendar dreamed up by the earlier French revolutionaries, according to which November was known as Brumaire and the 9th of November translated as the 18th day of ‘Brumaire’. Thus Bonaparte’s coup was known as the 18th Brumaire, and so the title of Marx’s long article is a direct reference (once again) to the events of the first French Revolution, jokingly labelling the coup of the nephew by the term previously used for the coup of the uncle.

As with his critique of Marx’s writings about the 1848 revolution, Jones heavily criticises Marx for being trapped and blinkered by his own theory. His obsession with interpreting everything as part of the great struggle between the abstract categories of Capital and Proletariat, and his obsession with the revolutions of the past, completely blinded him to the novelty of the situation in 1848.

This consisted in the fact that the Second Republic had consciously created the role of a president, something which had never existed in France before and which they modelled on the role of the American president.

It seemed like a good idea, but in practice nobody in France knew how to manage the resulting political situation, specifically the confrontation between president and National Assembly, both claiming the authority of having been elected.

It was Louis-Napoléon’s wisdom (or luck) to realise that he could appeal over the heads of both the liberals and the so-called ‘Party of Order’ in the National Assembly, and even of the radical socialist leaders of ‘the street’, to the largest element in the Paris population – the petty bourgeoisie – and to by far the largest section of the population of France – the peasants – to secure power.

Far from being a pygmy reincarnation of his giant forebear, a retread of an old formula (as Marx saw him), Jones claims that Louis-Napoléon was in fact a talented pioneer of an entirely new politics – he was arguably the first European populist politician, happy to ignore the entire political class and appeal directly to ‘the people’.

Once again, Karl’s dismissal of democratic politics as a mere smokescreen concealing the ‘reality’ of class conflict, and his obsessive interpreting of every twist and turn in the complex story solely in terms of his wished-for conflict between Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, completely blinded him to the novelty of this situation and to the actual power politics on the ground, which led to an outcome exactly contrary to what he predicted.

As a result Karl’s reading of the sequence of events which had culminated in the implementation of universal suffrage, Bonaparte’s massive electoral majority and finally his coup d’état was wilful and perverse. He claimed that these events signified the ripening of the ‘party of insurrection’ into ‘a really revolutionary party’, and the establishment of the Second Empire was not a defeat of the bourgeoisie, but a new form of bourgeois rule. But he had little to say about what was to be its more obvious consequence – that, as a result of the political demand for universal male suffrage in France in 1848, and again in Germany in the 186os, both the liberals and the more traditional parties of order found themselves defeated, not by radical democrats on the left, but by the demagogic manoeuvres of maverick post-Legitimist leaders on the right – Bonaparte and Bismarck. (p.341)

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Conclusions

Marx developed a way of interpreting society and history which is simultaneously powerful, persuasive and deeply misleading. Societies are driven forward by technological innovation. Capitalism does suck all societies into its vortex of trade and banking. (By now, 2018, the entire world has been subsumed into a global capitalist ‘system’, or system of interlocking systems.) Political leaders are often the puppets of big business and finance. Culture as a whole, and even individual artists or writers, can very usefully be thought of as expressing class interests or of reflecting the stage of development of their society.

All of these ideas have gone on to have brilliant careers in sociology, literary and wider cultural theory.

BUT the fundamental teleology, the view that History is inevitably and unstoppably heading in a particular direction, turns out to be completely unfounded.

And the idea that that direction amounts to the ‘Bourgeoisie’ becoming a tiny class of all-powerful capitalists grinding the faces of an enormous class of propertyless ‘Proletariat’ who will, inevitably, rise up to overthrow them – turned out to be completely wrong.

His position of teaching his followers to belittle and ignore the complexities of the political sphere, dismissing democracy, constitutions, the vote and the law as ‘bourgeois fictions’, and instead to rely on completely fictional ideas of ‘historical inevitability’, goes a long way to explaining why Marxist parties have repeatedly failed in industrialised and developed countries and have always been defeated by parties which understood the realities of power in complex societies much better.

Where Marxist tenets were to triumph was in the backward, economically more simple states of Russia and China and, even then, only under the chaotic conditions created by devastating wars. These essentially military seizures of power led to state dictatorships which were able to export or impose their ideologies on their neighbours by force (Eastern Europe in Stalin’s case, South-East Asia in Mao’s), with terrible consequences.


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