Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos (1988)

Our innate desire for meaning and pattern can lead us astray… (p.81)

Giving due weight to the fortuitous nature of the world is, I think, a mark of maturity and balance. (p.133)

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who won fame beyond his academic milieu with the publication of this short (134-page) but devastating book thirty years ago, the first of a series of books popularising mathematics in a range of spheres from playing the stock market to humour.

As Paulos explains in the introduction, the world is full of humanities graduates who blow a fuse if you misuse ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, or end a sentence with a dangling participle, but are quite happy to believe and repeat the most hair-raising errors in maths, statistics and probability.

The aim of this book was:

  • to lay out examples of classic maths howlers and correct them
  • to teach readers to be more alert when maths, stats and data need to be used
  • and to provide basic rules in order to understand when innumerate journalists, politicians, tax advisors and other crooks are trying to pull the wool over your eyes, or are just plain wrong

There are five chapters:

  1. Examples and principles
  2. Probability and coincidence
  3. Pseudoscience
  4. Whence innumeracy
  5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

Many common themes emerge:

Don’t personalise, numeratise

One contention of this book is that innumerate people characteristically have a strong tendency to personalise – to be misled by their own experiences, or by the media’s focus on individuals and drama… (p.1)

Powers

The first chapter uses lots of staggering statistics to get the reader used to very big and very small numbers, and how to compute them.

1 million seconds is 11 and a half days. 1 billion seconds is 32 years.

He suggests you come up with personal examples of numbers for each power up to 12 or 13 i.e. meaningful embodiments of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and so on to help you remember and contextualise them in a hurry.

A snail moves at 0.005 miles an hour, Concorde at 2,000 miles per hour. Escape velocity from earth is about 7 miles per second, or 25,000 miles per hour. The mass of the Earth is 5.98 x 1024 kg

Early on he tells us to get used to the nomenclature of ‘powers’ – using 10 to the power 3 or 10³ instead of 1,000, or 10 to negative powers to express numbers below 1. (In fact, right at this early stage I found myself stumbling because one thousand means more to me that 10³ and a thousandth means more than more 10-3 but if you keep at it, it is a trick you can acquire quite quickly.)

The additive principle

He introduces us to basic ideas like the additive principle (aka the rule of sum), which states that if some choice can be made in M different ways and some subsequent choice can be made in N different ways, then there are M x N different ways these choices can be made in succession – which can be applied to combinations of multiple items of clothes, combinations of dishes on a menu, and so on.

Thus the number of results you get from rolling a die is 6. If you roll two dice, you can now get 6 x 6 = 36 possible numbers. Three numbers = 216. If you want to exclude the number you get on the first dice from the second one, the chances of rolling two different numbers on two dice is 6 x 5, of rolling different numbers on three dice is 6 x 5 x 4, and so on.

Thus: Baskin Robbins advertises 31 different flavours of ice cream. Say you want a triple scoop cone. If you’re happy to have any combination of flavours, including where any 2 or 3 flavours are the same – that’s 31 x 31 x 31 = 29,791. But if you ask how many combinations of flavours there are, without a repetition of the same flavour in any of the cones – that is 31 x 30 x 29 = 26,970 ways of combining.

Probability

I struggled with even the basics of probability. I understand a 1 in five chance of something happening, reasonably understand a 20% chance of something happening, but struggled when probability was expressed as a decimal number e.g. 0.2 as a way of writing a 20 percent or 1 in 5 chance.

With the result that he lost me on page 16 on or about the place where he explained the following example.

Apparently a noted 17th century gambler asked the famous mathematician Pascal which is more likely to occur: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice. Here’s the solution:

Since 5/6 is the probability of not rolling a 6 on a single roll of a die, (5/6)is the probability of not rolling a 6 in four rolls of the die. Subtracting this number from 1 gives us the probability that this latter event (no 6s) doesn’t occur; in other words, of there being at least one 6 rolled in four tries: 1 – (5/6)= .52. Likewise, the probability of rolling at least one 12 in twenty-four rolls of a pair of dice is seen to be 1 – (35/36)24 = .49.

a) He loses me in the second sentence which I’ve read half a dozen times and still don’t understand – it’s where he says the chances that this latter event doesn’t occur: something about the phrasing there, about the double negative, loses me completely, with the result that b) I have no idea whether .52 is more likely or less likely than .49.

He goes on to give another example: if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?

The probability that the first three drinks overflow and the next seven do not is (.2)x (.8)7. But there are many different ways for exactly three of the ten cups to overflow, each way having probability (.2)x (.8)7. It may be that only the last three cups overflow, or only the fourth, fifth and ninth cups, and so on. Thus, since there are altogether (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) = 120 ways for us to pick three out of the ten cups, the probability of some collection of exactly three cups overflowing is 120 x (.2)x (.8)7.

I didn’t understand the need for the (10 x 9 x 8) / (3 x 2 x 1) equation – I didn’t understand what it was doing, and so didn’t understand what it was measuring, and so didn’t understand the final equation. I didn’t really have a clue what was going on.

In fact, by page 20, he’d done such a good job of bamboozling me with examples like this that I sadly concluded that I must be innumerate.

More than that, I appear to have ‘maths anxiety’ because I began to feel physically unwell as I read that problem paragraph again and again and again and didn’t understand it. I began to feel a tightening of my chest and a choking sensation in my throat. Rereading it now is making it feel like someone is trying to strangle me.

Maybe people don’t like maths because being forced to confront something you don’t understand, but which everyone around you is saying is easy-peasy, makes you feel ill.

2. Probability and coincidence

Having more or less given up on trying to understand Paulos’s maths demonstrations in the first twenty pages, I can at least latch on to his verbal explanations of what he’s driving at, in sentences like these:

A tendency to drastically underestimate the frequency of coincidences is a prime characteristic of innumerates, who generally accord great significance to correspondences of all sorts while attributing too little significance to quite conclusive but less flashy statistical evidence. (p.22)

It would be very unlikely for unlikely events not to occur. (p.24)

There is a strong general tendency to filter out the bad and the failed and to focus on the good and the successful. (p.29)

Belief in the… significance of coincidences is a psychological remnant of our past. It constitutes a kind of psychological illusion to which innumerate people are particularly prone. (p.82)

Slot machines light up and make a racket when people win, there is unnoticed silence for all the failures. Big winners on the lottery are widely publicised, whereas every one of the tens of millions of failures is not.

One result is ‘Golden Age’ thinking when people denigrate today’s sports or arts or political figures, by comparison with one or two super-notable figures from the vast past, Churchill or Shakespeare or Michelangelo, obviously neglecting the fact that there were millions of also-rans and losers in their time as well as ours.

The Expected value of a quality is the average of its values weighted according to their probabilities. I understood these words but I didn’t understand any of the five examples he gave.

The likelihood of probability In many situations, improbability is to be expected. The probability of being dealt a particular hand of 13 cards in bridge is less than 1 in 600 billion. And yet it happens every time someone is dealt a hand in bridge. The improbable can happen. In fact it happens all the time.

The gambler’s fallacy The belief that, because a tossed coin has come up tails for a number of tosses in a row, it becomes steadily more likely that the next toss will be a head.

3. Pseudoscience

Paulos rips into Freudianism and Marxism for the way they can explain away any result counter to their ‘theories’. The patient gets better due to therapy: therapy works. The patient doesn’t get better during therapy, well the patient was resisting, projecting their neuroses on the therapist, any of hundreds of excuses.

But this is just warming up before he rips into a real bugbear of  his, the wrong-headedness of Parapsychology, the Paranormal, Predictive dreams, Astrology, UFOs, Pseudoscience and so on.

As with predictive dreams, winning the lottery or miracle cures, many of these practices continue to flourish because it’s the handful of successes which stand out and grab our attention and not the thousands of negatives.

Probability

As Paulos steams on with examples from tossing coins, rolling dice, playing roulette, or poker, or blackjack, I realise all of them are to do with probability or conditional probability, none of which I understand.

This is why I have never gambled on anything, and can’t play poker. When he explains precisely how accumulating probabilities can help you win at blackjack in a casino, I switch off. I’ve never been to a casino. I don’t play blackjack. I have no intention of ever playing blackjack.

When he says that probability theory began with gambling problems in the seventeenth century, I think, well since I don’t gamble at all, on anything, maybe that’s why so much of this book is gibberish to me.

Medical testing and screening

Apart from gambling the two most ‘real world’ areas where probability is important appear to be medicine and risk and safety assessment. Here’s an extended example he gives of how even doctors make mistakes in the odds.

Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be? The surprising answer is that you should be cautiously optimistic. To find out why, let’s look at the conditional probability of your having cancer, given that you’ve tested positive.

Imagine that 10,000 tests for cancer are administered. Of these, how many are positive? On the average, 50 of these 10,000 people (.5 percent of 10,000) will have cancer, and, so, since 98 percent of them will test positive, we will have 49 positive tests. Of the 9,950 cancerless people, 2 percent of them will test positive, for a total of 199 positive tests (.02 x 9,950 = 199). Thus, of the total of 248 positive tests (199 + 49 = 248), most (199) are false positives, and so the conditional probability of having cancer given that one tests positive is only 49/248, or about 20 percent! (p.64)

I struggled to understand this explanation. I read it four or five times, controlling my sense of panic and did, eventually, I think, follow the argumen.

However, worse in a way, when I think I did finally understand it, I realised I just didn’t care. It’s not just that the examples he gives are hard to follow. It’s that they’re hard to care about.

Whereas his descriptions of human psychology and cognitive errors in human thinking are crystal clear and easy to assimilate:

If we have no direct evidence of theoretical support for a story, we find that detail and vividness vary inversely with likelihood; the more vivid details there are to a story, the less likely the story is to be true. (p.84)

4. Whence innumeracy?

It came as a vast relief when Paulos stopped trying to explain probability and switched to a long chapter puzzling over why innumeracy is so widespread in society, which kicks off by criticising the poor level of teaching of maths in school and university.

This was like the kind of hand-wringing newspaper article you can read any day of the week in a newspaper or online, and so felt reassuringly familiar and easy to assimilate. I stopped feeling so panic-stricken.

This puzzling over the disappointing level of innumeracy goes on for quite a while. Eventually it ends with a digression about what appears to be a pet idea of his: the notion of introducing a safety index for activities and illnesses.

Paulos’s suggestion is that his safety index would be on a logarithmic scale, like the Richter Scale – so straightaway he has to explain what a logarithm is: The logarithm for 100 is 2 because 100 is 102, the logarithm for 1,000 is 3 because 1,000 is 103. I’m with him so far, as he goes on to explain that the logarithm of 700 i.e. between 2 (100) and 3 (1,000) is 2.8. Since 1 in 5,300 Americans die in a car crash each year, the safety index for driving would be 3.7, the logarithm of 5,300. And so on with numerous more examples, whose relative risks or dangers he reduces to figures like 4.3 and 7.1.

I did understand his aim and the maths of this. I just thought it was bonkers:

1. What is the point of introducing a universal index which you would have to explain every time anyone wanted to use it? Either it is designed to be usable by the widest possible number of citizens; or it is a neat exercise on maths to please other mathematicians and statisticians.

2. And here’s the bigger objection – What Paulos, like most of the university-educated, white, liberal intellectuals I read in papers, magazines and books, fails to take into account is that a large proportion of the population is thick.

Up to a fifth of the adult population of the UK is functionally innumerate, that means they don’t know what a ‘25% off’ sign means on a shop window. For me an actual social catastrophe being brought about by this attitude is the introduction of Universal Credit by the Conservative government which, from top to bottom, is designed by middle-class, highly educated people who’ve all got internet accounts and countless apps on their smartphones, and who have shown a breath-taking ignorance about what life is like for the poor, sick, disabled, illiterate and innumerate people who are precisely the people the system is targeted at.

Same with Paulos’s scheme. Smoking is one of the most dangerous and stupid things which any human can do. Packs of cigarettes have for years, now, carried pictures of disgusting cancerous growths and the words SMOKING KILLS. And yet despite this, about a fifth of adults, getting on for 10 million people, still smoke. 🙂

Do you really think that introducing a system using ornate logarithms will get people to make rational assessments of the risks of common activities and habits?

Paulos then goes on to complicate the idea by suggesting that, since the media is always more interested in danger than safety, maybe it would be more effective, instead of creating a safety index, to create a danger index.

You would do this by

  1. working out the risk of an activity (i.e. number of deaths or accidents per person doing the activity)
  2. converting that into a logarithmic value (just to make sure than nobody understands it) and then
  3. subtracting the logarithmic value of the safety index from 10, in order to create a danger index

He goes on to say that driving a car and smoking would have ‘danger indices’ of 3.7 and 2.9, respectively. The trouble was that by this point I had completely ceased to understand what he’s saying. I felt like I’ve stepped off the edge of a tall building into thin air. I began to have that familiar choking sensation, as if someone was squeezing my chest. Maths anxiety.

Under this system being kidnapped would have a safety index of 6.7. Playing Russian roulette once a year would have a safety index of 0.8.

It is symptomatic of the uselessness of the whole idea that Paulos has to remind you what the values mean (‘Remember that the bigger the number, the smaller the risk.’ Really? You expect people to run with this idea?)

Having completed the danger index idea, Paulos returns to his extended lament on why people don’t like maths. He gives a long list of reasons why he thinks people are so innumerate a condition which is, for him, a puzzling mystery.

For me this lament is a classic example of what you could call intellectual out-of-touchness. He is genuinely puzzled why so many of his fellow citizens are innumerate, can’t calculate simple odds and fall for all sorts of paranormal, astrology, snake-oil blether.

He proposes typically academic, university-level explanations for this phenomenon – such as that people find maths too cold and analytical and worry that it prevents them thinking about the big philosophical questions in life. He worries that maths has an image problem.

In other words, he fails to consider the much more obvious explanation that maths, probability and numeracy in general might be a combination of fanciful, irrelevant and deeply, deeply boring.

I use the word ‘fanciful’ deliberately. When he writes that the probability of drawing two aces in succession from a pack of cards is not (4/52 x 4/52) but (4/52 x 3/51) I do actually understand the distinction he’s making (having drawn one ace there are only 3 left and only 52 cards left) – I just couldn’t care less. I really couldn’t care less.

Or take this paragraph:

Several years ago Pete Rose set a National League record by hitting safely in forty-four consecutive games. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that he batted .300 (30 percent of the time he got a hit, 70 percent of the time he didn’t) and that he came to bat four times a game, the chances of his not getting a hit in any given game were, assuming independence, (.7)4 – .24… [at this point Paulos has to explain what ‘independence’ means in a baseball context: I couldn’t care less]… So the probability he would get at least one hit in any game was 1-.24 = .76. Thus, the chances of him getting a hit in any given sequence of forty-four consecutive games were (.76)44 = .0000057, a tiny probability indeed. (p.44)

I did, in fact, understand the maths and the working out in this example. I just don’t care about the problem or the result.

For me this is a – maybe the – major flaw of this book. This is that in the blurbs on the front and back, in the introduction and all the way through the text, Paulos goes on and on about how we as a society need to be mathematically numerate because maths (and particularly probability) impinges on so many areas of our life.

But when he tries to show this – when he gets the opportunity to show us what all these areas of our lives actually are – he completely fails.

Almost all of the examples in the book are not taken from everyday life, they are remote and abstruse problems of gambling or sports statistics.

  • which is more likely: obtaining at least one 6 in four rolls of a single die, or obtaining at least one 12 in twenty four rolls of a pair of dice?
  • if 20% of drinks dispensed by a vending machine overflow their cups, what is the probability that exactly three of the next ten will overflow?
  • Assume there is a test for cancer which is 98% accurate i.e. if someone has cancer, the test will be positive 98 percent of the time, and if one doesn’t have it, the test will be negative 98 percent of the time. Assume further that .5 percent – one out of two hundred people – actually have cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor sombrely informs you that you have tested positive. How depressed should you be?
  • What are the odds on Pete Rose getting a hit in a sequence of forty-four games?

Are these the kinds of problems you are going to encounter today? Or tomorrow? Or ever?

No. The longer the book went on, the more I realised just how little a role maths plays in my everyday life. In fact more or less the only role maths plays in my life is looking at the prices in supermarkets, where I am attracted to goods which have a temporary reduction on them. But I do that because they’re labels are coloured red, not because I calculate the savings. Being aware of the time, so I know when to do household chores or be somewhere punctually. Those are the only times I used numbers today.

5. Statistics, trade-offs and society

This feeling that the abstruseness of the examples utterly contradicts the bold claims that reading the book will help us with everyday experiences was confirmed in the final chapter, which begins with the following example.

Imagine four dice, A, B, C and D, strangely numbered as follows: A has 4 on four faces and 0 on two faces; B has 3s on all six faces; C has four faces with 2 and two faces with 6; and D has 5 on three faces and 1 on three faces…

I struggled to the end of this sentence and just thought: ‘No, no more, I don’t have to make myself feel sick and unhappy any more’ – and skipped the couple of pages detailing the fascinating and unexpected results you can get from rolling such a collection of dice.

This chapter goes on to a passage about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a well-known problem in logic, which I have read about and instantly forgotten scores of times over the years.

Paulos gives us three or four variations on the idea, including:

  • Imagine you are locked up in prison by a philanthropist with 20 other people.

Or:

  • Imagine you are locked in a dungeon by a sadist with 20 other people.

Or:

  • Imagine you are one of two drug traffickers making a quick transaction on a street corner and forced to make a quick decision.

Or:

  • Imagine you are locked in a prison cell, and another prisoner is locked in an identical cell down the corridor.

Well, I’m not any of these things, I’m never likely to be, and I am not really interested in these fanciful speculations.

Moreover, I am well into middle age, have travelled round the world, had all sorts of jobs in companies small, large and enormous – and I am not aware of having ever been in any situation which remotely resembled any variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma I’ve ever heard of.

In other words, to me, it is another one of the endless pile of games and puzzles which logicians and mathematicians love to spend all day playing but which have absolutely no impact whatsoever on any aspect of my life.

Pretty much all of his examples conclusively prove how remote mathematical problems and probabilistic calculation is from the everyday lives you and I lead. When he asks:

How many people would there have to be in a group in order for the probability to be half that at least two people in it have the same birthday? (p.23)

Imagine a factory which produces small batteries for toys, and assume the factory is run by a sadistic engineer… (p.117)

It dawns on me that my problem might not be that I’m innumerate, so much as I’m just uninterested in trivial or frivolous mental exercises.

Someone offers you a choice of two envelopes and tells you one has twice as much money in it as the other. (p.127)

Flip a coin continuously until a tail appears for the first time. If this doesn’t happen until the twentieth (or later) flip, you win $1 billion. If the first tail occurs before the twentieth flip, you pay $100. Would you play? (p.128)

No. I’d go and read an interesting book.

Thoughts

If Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences is meant to make its readers more numerate, it failed with me.

This is for a number of reasons:

  1. crucially – because he doesn’t explain maths very well; or, the way he explained probability had lost me by about page 16 – in other words, if this is meant to be a primer for innumerate people it’s a fail
  2. because the longer it goes on, the more convinced I became that I rarely use maths, arithmetic and probability in my day today life: whole days go by when I don’t do a single sum, and so lost all motivation to submit myself to the brain-hurting ordeal of trying to understand his examples

3. Also because the structure and presentation of the book is a mess. The book meanders through a fog of jokes, anecdotes and maths trivia, baseball stories and gossip about American politicians – before suddenly unleashing a fundamental aspect of probability theory on the unwary reader.

I’d have preferred the book to have had a clear, didactic structure, with an introduction and chapter headings explaining just what he was going to do, an explanation, say, of how he was going to take us through some basic concepts of probability one step at a time.

And then for the concepts to have been laid out very clearly and explained very clearly, from a number of angles, giving a variety of different examples until he and we were absolutely confident we’d got it – before we moved on to the next level of complexity.

The book is nothing like this. Instead it sacrifices any attempt at logical sequencing or clarity for anecdotes about Elvis Presley or UFOs, for digressions about Biblical numerology, the silliness of astrology, the long and bewildering digression about introducing a safety index for activities (summarised above), or prolonged analyses of baseball or basketball statistics. Oh, and a steady drizzle of terrible jokes.

Which two sports have face-offs?
Ice hockey and leper boxing.

Half way through the book, Paulos tells us that he struggles to write long texts (‘I have a difficult time writing at extended length about anything’, p.88), and I think it really shows.

It certainly explains why:

  • the blizzard of problems in coin tossing and dice rolling stopped without any warning, as he switched tone copletely, giving us first a long chapter about all the crazy irrational beliefs people hold, and then another chapter listing all the reasons why society is innumerate
  • the last ten pages of the book give up the attempt of trying to be a coherent narrative and disintegrate into a bunch of miscellaneous odds and ends he couldn’t find a place for in the main body of the text

Also, I found that the book was not about numeracy in the broadest sense, but mostly about probability. Again and again he reverted to examples of tossing coins and rolling dice. One enduring effect of reading this book is going to be that, the next time I read a description of someone tossing a coin or rolling a die, I’m just going to skip right over the passage, knowing that if I read it I’ll either be bored to death (if I understand it) or have an unpleasant panic attack (if I don’t).

In fact in the coda at the end of the book Paulos explicitly says it has mostly been about probability – God, I wish he’d explained that at the beginning.

Right at the very, very end he briefly lists key aspects of probability theory which he claims to have explained in the book – but he hasn’t, some of them are only briefly referred to with no explanation at all, including: statistical tests and confidence intervals, cause and correlation, conditional probability, independence, the multiplication principle, the notion of expected value and of probability distribution.

These are now names I have at least read about, but they are all concepts I am nowhere near understanding, and light years away from being able to use in practical life.

Innumeracy – or illogicality?

Also there was an odd disconnect between the broadly psychological and philosophical prose explanations of what makes people so irrational, and the incredibly narrow scope of the coin-tossing, baseball-scoring examples.

What I’m driving at is that, in the long central chapter on Pseudoscience, when he stopped to explain what makes people so credulous, so gullible, he didn’t really use any mathematical examples to disprove Freudianism or astrology or so on: he had to appeal to broad principles of psychology, such as:

  • people are drawn to notable exceptions, instead of considering the entire field of entities i.e.
  • people filter out the bad and the failed and focus on the good and the successful
  • people seize hold of the first available explanation, instead of considering every single possible permutation
  • people humanise and personalise events (‘bloody weather, bloody buses’)
  • people over-value coincidences

My point is that there is a fundamental conceptual confusion in the book which is revealed in the long chapter about pseudoscience which is that his complaint is not, deep down, right at bottom, that people are innumerate; it is that people are hopelessly irrational and illogical.

Now this subject – the fundamental ways in which people are irrational and illogical – is dealt with much better, at much greater length, in a much more thorough, structured and comprehensible way in Stuart Sutherland’s great book, Irrationality, which I’ll be reviewing and summarising later this week.

Innumeracy amounts to random scratches on the surface of the vast iceberg which is the deep human inability to think logically.

Conclusion

In summary, for me at any rate, this was not a good book – badly structured, meandering in direction, unable to explain even basic concepts but packed with digressions, hobby horses and cul-de-sacs, unsure of its real purpose, stopping for a long rant against pseudosciences and an even longer lament on why maths is taught so badly  – it’s a weird curate’s egg of a text.

Its one positive effect was to make me want to track down and read a good book about probability.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

‘Entre deux amants il-y-a toujours un qui aime, et un qui se laisse aimer.’

After the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth in 1897, the 23-year-old William Somerset Maugham optimistically abandoned his career as a trainee doctor to become a professional writer. Later in life, Maugham considered this to have been a bad mistake, for literary success came only slowly and he spent nearly a decade churning out ten novels which sold little or poorly.

All the time his real ambition was to be a playwright, but none of his plays were accepted either. It was only in 1907, ten years after Liza, that his play Lady Frederick was finally staged and, to his own surprise, became a runaway success, transforming his reputation and fortunes. Within a year he had four plays running in the West End and had arrived.

Mrs Craddock

Mrs Craddock, from 1902, is a product of his lean early years, and you can see why. It is a long and uneven narrative, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, covering ten or so years in the life of Bertha Leys:

  • from when she is a head-strong, romantic orphan under the guardianship of her aunt Mary living in the family home, Court Leys in Kent
  • through her infatuation for and marriage to the virile local farmer Edward Craddock
  • her slow realisation that Edward is conventional, unimaginative and boring and cares more about his wretched cows and pet dogs than about Bertha’s feelings
  • (something she starts to suspect on their honeymoon in London where he laughs at crude vaudeville and can’t see the point of the art galleries which Bertha adores)
  • she is mortified when he humiliates her at tennis at a big party of the local gentry
  • she hopes that getting pregnant and having a child will bring them close together again, or at least provide a focus for her thwarted love
  • but, inevitably, she has a long, drawn-out miscarriage and the baby is still-born
  • worse than anything is the calm, sensible way Edward accepts this and its corollary, the doctor’s conclusion that she will never again be able to have children – news at which Bertha is, understandably, distraught (chapter 17)
  • their married life becomes a series of niggling arguments – like the one about whether the farm workmen should chop down some beech trees which overshadow an important field (Edward) or should not, because they are old and beautiful (Bertha)
  • these escalate into flaring rows and, slowly, Bertha is forced to admit that she can no longer stand her husband
  • so she leaves Edward and Kent to go travelling with Aunt Mary on the Continent for months
  • on her return to London she has an ill-advised but madly passionate fling with a distant cousin, Gerald Vaudrey
  • but when, after torments of separation, and even mad thoughts about going with him to the New World, Gerald finally leaves for New York, Bertha’s spirit snaps and she returns to Court Leys emotionally empty

Ironically, throughout the novel, as Bertha’s love for him dwindles and dies, we watch as Edward’s career has gone from strength to strength. He manages the Ley property superbly, making a hefty profit and buying up surrounding land, restoring the house, building a tennis court in the grounds, and becoming the life and soul of local North Kent society.

It’s just a shame that Bertha loathes and detests local North Kent society for its parochialism and small-minded snobbery. In the final chapters of the book Bertha and Edward live together but utterly separate in spirit. Bertha, bored out of her mind, walks the local countryside, watches the changing seasons, goes down to the sea and stares for hours at its endless waves, dreaming of escape, dreaming sometimes of suicide or some kind of painless dissolution, anything to make the dreary routine of morning, noon and night, boring dinners with her husband or dreary visits to the local vicar or other landowners, all go away.

Then Edward, stubborn and confident to the end, goes out riding on a horse which has already thrown him once and broken his collarbone. The horse shies at a fence, falling on top of him and he dies. Stunned, Bertha staggers to her bed and reviews her life. Shocked and dismayed, she realises that she is… free!

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about who should get order of precedence in the funeral parade among the various organisations Edward which was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party).

But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book. The End.

Response

I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ (or giving in to contemporary literary fashion) but which really don’t come off.

One of them occurs half way through, when Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it, a bizarre stream-of-consciousness hallucination – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

The book is also heavily garlanded with over-ripe, purple prose passages describing the Kent countryside or the romantic air of Italy, which go on for pages.

That said, the book has two obvious virtues or strengths:

One is the effectiveness of the social comedy generated by the stiflingly conventional provincial society of Blackstable (the thinly disguised version of Whitstable where Maugham was himself brought up in the 1880s).

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community – are often very funny.

The vicar’s sister, Miss Glover, is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It would later reappear in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, as described in his short stories of the 1920s.

Another is Maugham’s knack for beginning or setting his stories in very mundane settings, and often mundane incidents, but from this base working up passages of tremendous emotional intensity which stay with the reader.

Thus, for example, Bertha’s passionate lust and master-worship of Edward are described with real heat, as is her second great infatuation, the sensuality leading to inflamed lust for young Gerald. You can almost smell the sex. Unusual for its day.

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving.

And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

So far so good. But whether all these passages really come together to form a convincing description of a plausible personality, such as literature is meant to, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure and I’m also not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say?

Secondly, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

What can be confidently made is the criticism that the number two figure in the story – Edward Craddock – never really comes alive. Tall, strong and good-humoured he remains throughout the novel – admittedly putting on weight and growing red-cheeked as the years pass – an unbendingly good, honest, efficient and utterly boring man, the straight man to Bertha’s fireworks display of emotions.

Maybe it’s the failure to bring the man in this novel fully alive which has contributed to it being more or less forgotten.

But what is good, I think, in the novel, is the slow, slow pace at which Maugham describes Bertha’s slow, slow, slow loss of her infatuation, then loss of her love, then her loss of respect for her husband. The book has to be long because its whole point is to describe the very gradual erosion of her love in great detail. In this respect, in the care with which Maugham has plotted the decay of passionate love, I think the novel works.

Sex and lust

Without much by way of introduction or preparation the book launches us straight into the flustered mind of twenty-one-year-old Bertha – living calmly and respectably with her aunt in the family home Court Leys – and her fiercely physical infatuation with the tall, strong, dark local farmer, Edward Craddock who is a tenant farmer on the Ley family land, at Bewlie’s Farm.

He came nearer, a tall fellow of twenty-seven, massively set together, big boned, with long arms and legs, and a magnificent breadth of chest. Bertha recognised the costume that always pleased her, the knickerbockers and gaiters, the Norfolk-jacket of rough tweed, the white stock and the cap – all redolent of the country which for his sake she was beginning to love, and all vigorously masculine. Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure; their dimensions suggested a certain firmness of character, a masterfulness, which were intensely reassuring… His cheeks were flushed and his eyes glistened. His vitality was intense, shining out upon others with almost a material warmth.

Although it’s hard for us now to imagine, a number of later writers, in the 1930s and 1940s, paid tribute to the way Maugham broke free of Victorian silence about sex, and wrote with a new openness and candour about passionate, physical love.

This fierce physicality was there right from the start in Maugham’swork, in the powerful descriptions of Liza’s pulse racing and her body swooning against the tall, strong, masculine figure of Jim Blakeston in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897) – and exactly the same thing is repeated here, as impressionable young Bertha thrills at the touch and swoons against the tall, strong, masculine figure of young Edward.

When he put it round her shoulders, the touch of his hands made her lose the little self-control she had left. A curious spasm passed through her, and she pressed herself closer to him; at the same time his hands sank down, dropping the cloak, and encircled her waist. Then she surrendered herself entirely to his embrace and lifted her face to his. He bent down and kissed her. The kiss was such utter madness that she almost groaned. She could not tell if it was pain or pleasure. She flung her arms round his neck and drew him to her.

When at last he bade her good-bye and shook hands, she blushed again; she was extraordinarily troubled, and as, with his rising, the strong masculine odour of the countryside reached her nostrils, her head whirled.

In a field she saw him, directing some operation. She trembled at the sight, her heart beat very quickly; and when, seeing her, he came forward with a greeting, she turned red and then white in the most compromising fashion. But he was very handsome as, with easy gait, he sauntered to the hedge; above all he was manly, and the pleasing thought passed through Bertha that his strength must be quite herculean. She barely concealed her admiration.

‘I’m rather frightened of you, sometimes,’ she said, laughing. ‘You’re so strong. I feel so utterly weak and helpless beside you.’
‘Are you afraid I shall beat you?’
She looked up at him and then down at the strong hands.
‘I don’t think I should mind if you did. I think I should only love you more.’

‘Let me look at your hands,’ she said. She loved them too. They were large and roughly made, hard with work and exposure, ten times pleasanter, she thought, than the soft hands of the townsman… She stretched out the long, strong fingers. Craddock, knowing her very little, looked with wonder and amusement. She caught his glance, and with a smile bent down to kiss the upturned palms. She wanted to abase herself before the strong man, to be low and humble before him. She would have been his handmaiden, and nothing could have satisfied her so much as to perform for him the most menial services. She knew not how to show the immensity of her passion.

It’s a commonplace enough word but in Maugham’s hands the word ‘thrill’, more nakedly than in other writers of the time, describes the physical impact of sexual arousal and lust.

Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure…

Craddock blushed. Bertha noticed it, and a strange little thrill went through her…

He took her hand and the contact thrilled her; her knees were giving way, and she almost tottered.

His letters had caused her an indescribable thrill, the mere sight of his handwriting had made her tremble, and she wanted to see him; she woke up at night with his kisses on her lips.

It gave her a queer thrill to see him turn white when she held his hand, to see him tremble when she leaned on his arm.

It’s a striking paradox that such an externally polite, formal, correctly dressed, well-mannered and self-contained man as Maugham wrote so obsessively and fiercely, throughout his career, of complete sexual abandonment and the heart-stopping power of sheer physical lust.

Never before had she experienced that utter weakness of the knees so that she feared to fall; her breathing was strangely oppressive, and her heart beat almost painfully.

And the candid way he describes the wish to be mastered, dominated, controlled, owned and directed by a powerful strong man.

For the moment Bertha forgot her wayward nature, and wished suddenly to subject herself to his strong guidance. His very strength made her feel curiously weak.

‘Shut your eyes,’ she whispered, and she kissed the closed lids; she passed her lips slowly over his lips, and the soft contact made her shudder and laugh. She buried her face in his clothes, inhaling those masterful scents of the countryside which had always fascinated her.

Later in the book, the same thing happens all over again when she becomes infatuated with Gerald. In the course of that affair there takes place something you don’t usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable.

You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, tracking him down to her aunt’s house, her aunt goes out and they are on the verge of doing something unforgiveable according to Victorian custom (Bertha was still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son) when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary reappears in the nick of time!

Still. The description of Bertha’s heat and arousal as` she gets so close to her goal is almost pornographic in its blood-heating intensity.

Later, in the 1920s, Maugham met D.H. Lawrence (but then, he met everyone) although they didn’t hit it off. From the limited knowledge I have, I can’t help thinking that this story about a passionate young woman’s lust for a farmer prefigures Lawrence’s novels of love among the haystacks, and I wonder what the younger man thought of the trail Maugham had blazed with his shocking-for-their-time descriptions.

The battle of the sexes

Arguably the central subject of ‘the novel’ since its birth has been the battle of the sexes – to be precise the struggle to find and keep the perfect partner.

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man who wants to ravish his servant girl (Pamela) and the said servant girl who insists that they are married before he takes her ‘virtue’. And the rest of ‘serious’ fiction continued to be centred on this theme for at least 150 years – the sly marriage markets of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, eachoed in the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus ‘serious’ literary critics for a long time refused to admit Sterne, Dickens or Conrad to the ‘canon’.

Love, marriage, infidelity, these are the topics which fill vast warehouses of ‘serious’ literature. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina.

Mrs Craddock is smack bang in the middle of that tradition for which marriage is the sole interest of human life and, in particular, unhappy marriage. Unhappy, mismatched and ill-fated love turned out to be the central theme of Maugham’s long career.

And Mrs Craddock amounts to an extended early exploration of this theme.

Maugham and women

And at the heart of these mismatched marriages is the women. Maugham throughout his long career had a special sympathy with women. Take imaginative, free-spirited, if naive, Kitty Garstin getting bored of her dull husband in The Painted Veil. Or Mary Panton, unsuitably married to an alcoholic gambler in Up At the Villa and then seriously considering a second (and obviously foolish) marriage to an eminent diplomat twice her age. Or Julia Lambert, famous actress throwing herself away on a worthless young cad in Theatre. Or Liza giving her heart and body to rascally Jim Blakeston instead of decent loyal Tom in Liza of Lambeth. Mismatches, all of them. And women all at the centre of the stories.

In Maugham’s theatrical comedies of manners, there is also a wide array of interesting women characters. There are old and amusingly cynical women (Lady Grayson in Our Betters), younger, powerful women (Constance Middleton in The Constant Woman) and mature, tragic women (Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame).

It is the women, and their often painful emotional journeys, who stick in the reader’s imagination, while the callow young men in these plays are often only dramatic ciphers.

Maugham’s subject is the eternal erring of the human heart, but it is nearly always a woman’s heart which is described, and felt, with greatest intensity.

The New Woman

As if the marriage theme wasn’t already central enough in the literary tradition, the 1890s saw a particular interest in the role and experience of women in contemporary society. It was the era of ‘the New Woman’, and a flurry of novels were published examining the issue of women in society, with narratives and characters being created to explore the rights and wrongs of women.

The term ‘New Woman’ was popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. Independence was not simply a matter of the mind: it also involved physical changes in activity and dress, as activities such as bicycling expanded women’s ability to engage with a broader more active world. The New Woman pushed the limits set by a male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). (Wikipedia)

The New Woman was in all the papers, in magazines, in articles, on the stage, discussed in Parliament, aired in a thousand short stories and novels. It even percolated through to the provincial backwater of Blackstable where Mrs Craddock is set, and where clever, cosmopolitan Miss Ley enjoys teasing the hide-bound locals.

‘Which do you think is the predominant partner?’ she asked, smiling drily [referring to Edward and Bertha].
‘The man, as he should be,’ gruffly replied the doctor.
‘Do you think he has more brains?’
‘Ah, you’re a feminist,’ said Dr. Ramsay, with great scorn.

Striking that old fuddy-duddy Dr Ramsay knows what a feminist is and uses the term ‘feminist’ in a story set in the 1880s. Amazing that women were arguing with men about the role of women, and both able to joke and josh about it, some 130 years ago. In that 130 years hundreds of novels, plays, films, thousands of factual books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been written about the New Woman, about feminism, women’s liberation and #metoo.

Quite clearly it is an issue, a real and enormous issue – but one like homelessness and poverty and managing the economy and the North-South divide and how to run the railways, which every generation of intellectuals thinks it has discovered, discusses to death, but which is, somehow, never finally solved.

Boldness about marriage

I mentioned Maugham’s surprising candour in describing the physical characteristics of lust. He makes at least one of his characters be just as scandalously blunt about the broader realities of sex and reproduction. It is Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, who is given a speech impatiently telling the dry-as-dust Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, that the basis of marriage is biological reproduction and nothing more.

‘Yes, I know what you all think in England,’ said Miss Ley, catching the glance and its meaning. ‘You expect people to marry from every reason except the proper, one – and that is the instinct of reproduction.’
‘Miss Ley!’ exclaimed Miss Glover, blushing.
‘Oh, you’re old enough to take a sensible view of the, matter,’ answered Miss Ley, somewhat brutally. ‘Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male, and that is the only decent foundation of marriage – the other way seems to me merely horrid. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station, the instinct has nothing to do with the walk in life; if I’d ever been in love I shouldn’t have cared if it was a pot-boy, I’d have married him – if he asked me.’
‘Well, upon my word!’ said the doctor.
But Miss Ley was roused now, and interrupted him: ‘The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species; and if she’s wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children. I have no patience with those women who marry a man because he’s got brains. What is the good of a husband who can make abstruse mathematical calculations? A woman wants a man with strong arms and the digestion of an ox.’
‘Miss Ley,’ broke in Miss Glover, ‘I’m not clever enough to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong. I don’t think I am right to listen to you; I’m sure Charles wouldn’t like it.’
‘My dear, you’ve been brought up like the majority of English girls – that is, like a fool.’
Poor Miss Glover blushed. ‘At all events I’ve been brought up to regard marriage as a holy institution. We’re here upon earth to mortify the flesh, not to indulge it. I hope I shall never be tempted to think of such matters in the way you’ve suggested. If ever I marry I know that nothing will be further from me than carnal thoughts. I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it is my duty to love, honour, and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him, to live with him such a life that when the end comes we may be prepared for it.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ said Miss Ley.

As with his hot-blooded descriptions of lust, Maugham’s correlation of human reproduction with animal reproduction i.e. as an animal instinct devoid of all moral or religious meaning, strikes me as definitely anticipating D.H. Lawrence.

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died, Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel).

Sometime in his student years, Maugham’s Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

Accompanying Miss Ley’s blunt truth-telling about sex, there is a similar passage in which Bertha brutally attacks the Christian faith. Devout, tightly-laced Miss Glover, the vicar’s spinster sister, has come to ‘comfort’ Bertha after she’s lost her baby in childbirth. Bertha demurs.

‘Oh, Bertha, you’re not taking it in the proper spirit – you’re so rebellious, and it’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong.’
‘I can only think of my baby,’ said Bertha, hoarsely.
‘Why don’t you pray to God, dear – shall I offer a short prayer now, Bertha?’
‘No, I don’t want to pray to God – He’s either impotent or cruel.’
‘Bertha,’ cried Miss Glover. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Oh, pray to God to melt your stubbornness; pray to God to forgive you.’
‘I don’t want to be forgiven. I’ve done nothing that needs it. It’s God who needs my forgiveness – not I His.’

The attack continues later, when Miss Glover returns with the vicar as back-up. Bertha initially starts off meekly reading the Prayer Book with them, but then breaks down:

‘I have no wish to “give hearty thanks unto God,”‘ she said, looking almost fiercely at the worthy pair. ‘I’m very sorry to offend your prejudices, but it seems to me absurd that I should prostrate myself in gratitude to God.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Craddock, I trust you don’t mean what you say,’ said the Vicar.
‘This is what I told you, Charles,’ said Miss Glover. ‘I don’t think Bertha is well, but still this seems to me dreadfully wicked.’
Bertha frowned, finding it difficult to repress the sarcasm which rose to her lips; her forbearance was sorely tried. But Mr. Glover was a little undecided.
‘We must be as thankful to God for the afflictions He sends as for the benefits,’ he said at last.
‘I am not a worm to crawl upon the ground and give thanks to the foot that crushes me.’
‘I think that is blasphemous, Bertha,’ said Miss Glover.
‘Oh, I have no patience with you, Fanny,’ said Bertha, raising herself, a flush lighting up her face. ‘Can you realise what I’ve gone through, the terrible pain of it? Oh, it was too awful. Even now when I think of it I almost scream.’
‘It is by suffering that we rise to our higher self,’ said Miss Glover. ‘Suffering is a fire that burns away the grossness of our material natures.’
‘What rubbish you talk,’ cried Bertha, passionately. ‘You can say that when you’ve never suffered. People say that suffering ennobles one; it’s a lie, it only makes one brutal…. But I would have borne it – for the sake of my child. It was all useless – utterly useless. Dr. Ramsay told me the child had been dead the whole time. Oh, if God made me suffer like that, it’s infamous. I wonder you’re not ashamed to put it down to God. How can you imagine Him to be so stupid, so cruel! Why, even the vilest beast in the slums wouldn’t cause a woman such frightful and useless agony for the mere pleasure of it.’

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century.

What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel tackling some of the fashionable Issues of the Day.

It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the great weight placed on them. But it’s a valiant attempt.

Miss Ley

All this is to overlook the third major character in the story who is, on one reading, arguably its most successful character – Bertha’s Aunt Mary, or Miss Ley as she’s referred to.

In the opening scenes of the novel, Bertha is still living under Miss Ley’s guardianship, we see them often together, and so she is one of the first characters we get to know and like. Although she then disappears from view for the long stretches which describe Bertha and Edward’s marriage, whenever Miss Ley does reappear – when Bertha goes to stay with her for a short break, and then runs away with her to the continent, and in the prolonged sequence when Bertha is staying with Miss Ley while she has her almost-affair with young Gerald – she was greeted with cheers from this reader. Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

Miss Ley sat on the sofa by the fireside, a woman of middle-size, very slight, with a thin and much wrinkled face. Of her features the mouth was the most noticeable, not large, with lips that were a little too thin; it was always so tightly compressed as to give her an air of great determination, but there was about the corners an expressive mobility, contradicting in rather an unusual manner the inferences which might be drawn from the rest of her person. She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was her precise opinion. Her thin grey hair was very plainly done; and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger.

‘Saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner’. Miss Ley emerges as the vehicle for the best of the book’s sub-Jane Austen sly wit, acting – especially in the first half – as the tart and comic centre of the novel, as drily cynical and Bertha is passionately romantic.

Humanity, Miss Ley took to be a small circle of persons, mostly feminine, middle-aged, unattached, and of independent means, who travelled on the continent, read good literature and abhorred the vast majority of their fellow-creatures.

She asked politely after [the doctor]’s wife, to whom she secretly objected for her meek submission to the doctor. Miss Ley made a practice of avoiding those women who had turned themselves into mere shadows of their lords, more especially when their conversation was of household affairs.

[Miss Ley] had already come to the conclusion that he [Craddock] was a man likely to say on a given occasion the sort of thing which might be expected; and that, in her eyes, was a hideous crime.

Miss Ley was anxious that no altercation should disturb the polite discomfort of the meeting.

Miss Ley revels in the embarrassment of other people, especially the uptight, narrow-minded provincials around her. She spends as much time as she can in London, and even more abroad in Italy (in another anticipation of a more famous novelist, this time E.M. Foster with his nice-girls-and-their-aunts-in-Italy stories). Whenever Miss Lay arrives back in Kent it is hilarious to watch the locals being affronted and outraged and shocked and tutting and twitching the curtains, under fire from Miss Ley’s dry wit and through Miss Ley’s quiet, sardonic gaze.

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments (throughout Bertha’s early infatuation with Edward, then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband, and then throughout the Gerald affair) Miss Ley’s role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective.

It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

Moreover, Miss Ley gets most of the book’s one-liners. Much of the dialogue of Mrs Craddock contains the sub-Wildean cynical wit which was to characterise Maugham’s later string of extremely successful plays, such Oscarisms as:

‘Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough money of her own to live upon.’

‘Marriage is an institution of the Church, Miss Ley,’ replied Miss Glover, rather severely.
‘Is it?’ retorted Miss Ley. ‘I always thought it was an arrangement to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court.’

‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with great success.’

‘My dear Dr. Ramsay, I have trouble enough in arranging my own life; do not ask me to interfere with other people’s.’

It is madness for a happy pair to pretend to have no secrets from one another: it leads them into so much deception.

‘I make a point of thinking with the majority – it’s the only way to get a reputation for wisdom.’

‘You wouldn’t rob us of our generals,’ said Miss Ley. ‘They’re so useful at tea-parties.’

And the fact that almost all of these lines are given to Miss Ley, and that she emerges as in many ways the most loveable character, explains why Maugham begins the book with a dedication – more precisely, a mock ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ – to her. He obviously liked her best of all the characters in the book, and she is the only one you would want to meet.

A tiny Marxist comment

Having just been to an extensive feminist art exhibition, and read numerous articles about the Judge Kavanaugh affair, and read some feminist articles about Maugham and Women and, given that Bertha is quite clearly a heroine who traditional feminist criticism would see as the oppressed, repressed, stifled, stymied victim of the Patriarchy – it is worth pointing out that Bertha never does a day’s work in her life.

Bertha lives her entire life off the labour of the workers on her father’s farms and estates, as does Miss Ley.

Both women live lives full of books and art and travel and galleries and fine feelings, their meals are cooked and served and cleared away by nameless faceless servants (we never learn the names of any of the Craddocks’ household servants or farm workers), their rooms are cleaned, their laundry is washed, trains run for them, boats sail for them, galleries open for them – without them ever lifting a finger to earn it.

They belong to the rentier class. They are social parasites. Edward works hard and is efficient and effective at transforming the fortunes of the Ley estate, at managing its livestock and agriculture, and joins local bodies like the parish council and freemasons, which he also runs with exemplary honesty and thoroughness. And for this – he is bitterly mocked by his wife:

Bertha soon found that her husband’s mind was not only commonplace, but common. His ignorance no longer seemed touching, but merely shameful; his prejudices no longer amusing but contemptible. She was indignant at having humbled herself so abjectly before a man of such narrowness of mind, of such insignificant character. She could not conceive how she had ever passionately loved him. He was bound in by the stupidest routine. It irritated her beyond measure to see the regularity with which he went through the varying processes of his toilet. She was indignant with his presumption, and self-satisfaction, and conscious rectitude. Edward’s taste was contemptible in books, in pictures, and in music; and his pretentions to judge upon such matters filled Bertha with scorn.

Books, art and music – that is how Bertha judges people, not for their character or dutifulness or patriotism or hard work. All these are rather ridiculous qualities in her eyes.

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents, who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant.

On one occasion Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, Gerald, the good-for-nothing idler, mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

‘His locks are somewhat scanty but he has a strong sense of duty.’
‘I know that,’ shouted Gerald. ‘It oozes out of him whenever he gets hot, just like gum.’

This, one cannot help thinking, is all too often the attitude of high-minded writers and artists – regardless of gender or race – to the actual, physical, hard, demanding labour of making and maintaining the world; the smug condescension of the bookish toward those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

Maugham pours so much feeling and sentiment and imagination and sympathy into hundreds of pages describing Bertha’s feelings and passions and thoughts and worries and fears and disillusion and unhappiness and despair – that it is easy to forget that she is a leech.


Plus ça change

Reading older literature, I am continually struck at the way that things which bothered the late-Victorians are still bothering us now. The status, roles and rights of women were exercising many of their best minds. Same now. And so was the problem of the poor, the homeless, and the huge inequalities in society. Same now.

But there are other, lesser issues, too, which made me think that some things really never change.

Railways For example, it was only last week that we were hearing about the Labour Party’s plans to renationalise the railways because, in private hands, the level of service given by the railways is shocking, and all the money they raise seems to end up as massive dividends for their shareholders. Well, here is what Maugham thought about British railways in 1902.

Though it was less than thirty miles from Dover to Blackstable the communications were so bad that it was necessary to wait for hours at the port, or take the boat-train to London and then come sixty miles down again. Bertha was exasperated at the delay, forgetting that she was now (thank Heaven!) in a free country, where the railways were not run for the convenience of passengers, but the passengers necessary evils to create dividends for an ill-managed company. (Chapter 23)

Brexit There’s a passage designed to contrast Edward’s narrow-minded Little Englandism and his simple patriotism with Bertha’s cultured cosmopolitanism and loathing of patriotic symbols (in this case, jingoistic late-Victorian music) which anticipates a lot of the rhetoric of Brexit. Manly if thick Edward is talking:

‘I don’t mind confessing that I can’t stand all this foreign music. What I say to Bertha is – why can’t you play English stuff?’
‘If you must play at all,’ interposed his wife.
‘After all’s said and done The Blue Bells of Scotland has got a tune about it that a fellow can get his teeth into.’
‘You see, there’s the difference,’ said Bertha, strumming a few bars of Rule Britannia, ‘it sets mine on edge.’
‘Well, I’m patriotic,’ retorted Edward. ‘I like the good, honest, homely English airs. I like ’em because they’re English. I’m not ashamed to say that for me the best piece of music that’s ever been written is God Save the Queen.’
‘Which was written by a German, dear Edward,’ said Miss Ley, smiling.
‘That’s as it may be,’ said Edward, unabashed, ‘but the sentiment’s English and that’s all I care about.’
‘Hear! hear!’ cried Bertha. ‘I believe Edward has aspirations towards a political career. I know I shall finish up as the wife of the local M.P.’
‘I’m patriotic,’ said Edward, ‘and I’m not ashamed to confess it.’
‘Rule Britannia,’ sang Bertha, ‘Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!’
‘It’s the same everywhere now,’ proceeded the orator. ‘We’re choke full of foreigners and their goods. I think it’s scandalous. English music isn’t good enough for you – you get it from France and Germany. Where do you get your butter from? Brittany! Where d’you get your meat from? New Zealand!’ This he said with great scorn, and Bertha punctuated the observation with a resounding chord. ‘And as far as the butter goes, it isn’t butter – it’s margarine. Where does your bread come from? America. Your vegetables from Jersey.’
‘Your fish from the sea,’ interposed Bertha.
‘And so it is all along the line – the British farmer hasn’t got a chance!’ (Chapter 12)

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

‘I’m quite content to be as I am, and I don’t want to know a single foreign language. English is quite good enough for me…. I think English people ought to stick to their own country. I don’t pretend to have read any French books, but I’ve never heard anybody deny, that at all events the great majority are indecent, and not the sort of thing a woman should read… What we want now is purity and reconstitution of the national life. I’m in favour of English morals, and English homes, English mothers, and English habits.’

Cosmopolitan contempt for Britain The cosmopolitan Miss Ley thinks there is something intrinsically pathetic about the English.

‘You’ve never had a London season, have you? On the whole I think it’s amusing: the opera is very good and sometimes you see people who are quite well dressed.’

To this day there is a broad streak of intellectual literary life which despises the English and worships the literature, climate, fashion and landscape of France or Italy.

Tourism When I went to Barcelona recently I couldn’t miss the graffiti everywhere telling tourists to go home and stop ruining their city. I’ve since read articles about other tourist destinations which are struggling to cope with the number of visitors. Back in 1902 Miss Ley shared this feeling that tourism was ruining everywhere, in this case Paris:

We have here a very nice apartment, in the Latin Quarter, away from the rich people and the tourists. I do not know which is more vulgar, the average tripper or the part of Paris which he infests: I must say they become one another to a nicety. I loathe the shoddiness of the boulevards, with their gaudy cafés over-gilt and over-sumptuous, and their crowds of ill-dressed foreigners. But if you come I can show you a different Paris – a restful and old-fashioned Paris, theatres to which tourists do not go; gardens full of pretty children and nursemaids with long ribbons to their caps. I can take you down innumerable grey streets with funny shops, in old churches where you see people actually praying; and it is all very quiet and calming to the nerves. And I can take you to the Louvre at hours when there are few visitors…

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris. If she had been describing immigrants, the book would be banned.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which disappointingly taper off, but still manages to end with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric.

Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life by its simple-minded idiocy. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

There is nothing so difficult as to persuade men that they are not omniscient. Bertha, exaggerating the seriousness of the affair, thought it charlatanry [of Edward] to undertake a post without knowledge and without capacity. Fortunately that is not the opinion of the majority, or the government of this enlightened country could not proceed.

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Many superficial details change – but arguments about the rights of women, the idiocy of politicians, the rubbish train system, the philistine patriotism and the snooty snobbery of the book and art world – all of this remains the same as ever.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale (2016)

Dominic Lieven’s book about the diplomatic build-up to the Great War – Towards The Flame – was very demanding, every page full of analyses and counter-analyses of complex international situations, which took a good deal of concentration to understand.

By contrast, Catherine Merridale’s book is like a series of articles in a travel supplement, or the book version of a TV script – chatty, opinionated, entertaining, lightweight and, in the end, a bit disappointing.

The story

In April 1917 the German High command laid on a sealed train to transport Lenin and 30 or so communist colleagues to war-weary Russia, in the hope that his subversive activities would weaken the Russian war machine. It was a strategy they’d been trying elsewhere. The Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate Lenin’s fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation which Lenin found in wartime St Petersburg when he arrived.

Lenin's train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Lenin’s train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Three parts

Merridale’s book isn’t formally divided into three parts, but it felt to me like it fell naturally into three big sections.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

For such an important and, in its consequences, tragic subject, the introduction and part one are disconcertingly light, chatty and frivolous.

In the introduction Merridale describes her own attempt to recreate Lenin’s journey on modern-day trains and ferries, with a great deal of travel magazine observations – people smuggling booze on the ferry from Germany to Sweden, it’s very cold in Finland, and so on.

Her observations are often disappointingly trite – in one place she points out that when Lenin took the journey Europe was at war, whereas in 2016 – Europe is at peace! Back then it was a dangerous and uncomfortable journey – but now crossing frontiers is easy, and the seating is nice and comfy! Golly.

So much for the introduction. In the first 80 or so pages of the text proper she plunges us not into the fraught economic, military and political situation of 1917 Europe but… into the world of quirky upper-class characters who populated the British Embassy and diplomatic corps in 1917 St Petersburg.

It was, she tells us gushingly, a simply magical city!

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. (p.17)

She introduces us at very great length to chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

Now, when Dominic Lieven introduces diplomatic personnel or political leaders into his narrative, it is always to summarise their ‘line’, their views on geopolitical issues, and to feed them into his intricate portrait of the complex debates about political and diplomatic strategy among the Russian ruling class.

When Merridale introduces key players, it is generally to tell us a funny story about their parrot or their umbrella.

When Lieven introduces Marxist revolutionaries, it is to explain their theories and how they had developed out of the economic and social situation of Russia, the threats they posed to the Tsarist order, and to clarify the complex concatenation of circumstances which made them viable.

When Merridale introduces her revolutionaries, it is to tell us about their love lives and taste in wine.

So, for example, she tells us that in 1905 Trotsky and his wife arrived at the Munich apartment of Alexander Helphand (known as ‘Parvus’), a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of the theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies, she tells us:

became unofficial lodgers at the big man’s place, sharing all the news and imbibing Parvus’ theories of revolution along with his strong coffee and delicious late-night wine. The two men talked about the revolutionary potential of the general strike, they honed their idea of a world revolution (for Russia was only ever meant to be a starting point) and they dared each other to get tickets for the next train east. (p.60)

Instead of anything about his theoretical contribution or political strategy, we learn that Parvus was so fat that the children of German Marxist leader, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed him ‘Dr Elephant’.

When Parvus persuades the German High Command to fund his plan to send revolutionaries to Russia, we learn that he used the initial down-payments to set himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he established an entourage of bosomy blondes and ordered champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages present serious, tragic, even catastrophic history, as jolly japes retold by Bertie Wooster. The British Embassy, we learn, was situated in the impressive Saltykov Palace, although the diplomats had to share it with:

an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious parrot. (p.31)

The British ambassador to Petersburg was supported by his wife, Georgina, his daughter Meriel, and – a bad-tempered Siamese cat.

The acting head of intelligence at the time was Major Cudbert Thornhill, an old India hand and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blowpipe.’ (p.33)

It feels a lot like ‘Miss Marple investigates the Russian Revolution’.

Part two – The Russian revolution and the train journey

Around page 100 things pick up. Merridale begins to pay more serious attention to Lenin’s beliefs and theories. We still get a lot about his haircut, his boots and how he was dragged off to a department store in Stockholm to buy new clothes so that he would look more presentable on arriving in Russia (plus some more gushing travelogue from Merridale who has, she assures us, visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as still remain).

But for the central hundred and fifty pages or so Merridale’s narrative becomes genuinely gripping.

The genesis of the idea to send Lenin to Russia remains a bit murky. Some communist fixers-cum-shady businessmen (hence the portrait of Parvus and others of his type) appear to have volunteered their services as go-betweens with the communist agitators, at just the time that the German secret services were casting around for characters likely to cause the most damage to the Russian state.

Contacts and discussions had been floating in the foggy atmosphere of war more or less since the outbreak of hostilities. What suddenly kick started everything was the February 1917 Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracted other protesters, swelled in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refused to obey orders, with some turning on their own officers.

After a winter of escalating strikes and unrest, exacerbated by severe food shortages, it was the mutiny of the soldiers in garrisons all across Petersburg which led to the Revolution.

The members of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, were confused by events. The conservatives fled, many resigned, but a hard core of liberals stayed on to set up what they called a Provisional Government, under the benign figurehead of kindly old Prince Lvov.

At the same time, there was unstoppable momentum from politicised workers (especially from the working class Vyborg area of Petersburg) and representatives of the mutinous regiments, to set up their own council or soviet.

Meanwhile, the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, excluding his sickly son from the succession, and passing the throne on to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who himself deferred taking it up until ‘the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic’.

This never happened, and it was Grand Duke Michael’s demurral, his refusal to accept the poisoned chalice of monarchy, which, in effect, brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end.

Thus in a few hectic days came about a situation in which Russia had become a republic, but was lumbered with two governing bodies – the Provisional Government and the Petersburg Soviet – who eyed each other with suspicion.

The initial euphoria of the revolution settled down into a pattern of all-night debates and arguments in smoke-filled rooms – while all the while Russia was still fighting a war against an extremely professional opponent, imperial Germany, and the government was trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what and who they were fighting for.

Merridale explains all this very well, not least because she draws heavily on the eye witness accounts of the British diplomats and writers present in Petersburg. It is only now that the reader understands why we were introduced to all these upper-class twits in the first 80 or so pages – it was because they would turn out to be invaluable source material for describing and interpreting the confusing chaos of events in Petersburg that fateful spring.

It would have helped a lot if Merridale had prefaced her opening chapters by explaining this, by saying: ‘I am now going to introduce you to a florid collection of British upper class eccentrics, incompetents and curiosities which might seem odd but, trust me, they will turn out to be vital eye-witness testimony to one of the most seismic events in history.’

Anyway, Merridale now skillfully intersperses pretty much everything that is known about the eight-day journey of the train – the organisation of the train by German authorities, the gathering up of Lenin’s associates, the setting off, the stops, the delays, the invasions by drunken soldiers, the professional and personal rivalries of many of the figures aboard it, the border passports control (which, I was surprised to read, included humiliating strip searches) – all interspersed with sections describing the fast-moving events in Petersburg.

Above all, for the first time, the narrative starts to sound political. For the first time Merridale descends into the feverish mesh of argument and counter-argument which engulfed every educated person living in Russia, and gives it a sense of urgency:

Should Russia continue fighting? Some socialists thought Russia should offer an immediate ceasefire in what was, after all, a brutal imperialist war. Liberal pacifists agreed. But right-wing traditionalists thought Russia must fight on to defend her honour, the Holy Church etc. And many socialists thought to surrender would be simply to allow imperial Germany to invade and conquer European Russia.

Among socialists there was fierce and bitter debate about whether the ‘revolution’ needed to be continued or whether it had achieved its aim. You have to understand that Marx thought that Western societies would inevitably and unstoppably pass through certain fixed stages of development, and that orthodox Marxists therefore thought that Russia had to pass from a peasant autocracy into a bourgeois democracy, before it could go on to have a workers’ revolution. The Tsarist autocracy had quite clearly been overthrown and the new provisional Government, made up mostly of lawyers, academics and some industrialists, quite clearly represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. This stage should be given a chance to bed in, to establish Western norms of democracy, a free press and so on, while the socialists continued to educate the workers and peasants in order to prepare for the next stage, the socialist revolution which was just around the corner. Manana. Soon. Probably.

Merridale’s very English, pragmatic, unintellectual approach to the situation brings out some of the more basic, humdrum psychological explanations for delay – namely, that many of the so-called socialists and communists were in fact scared of assuming responsibility in such a perilous situation. Power looked like a poisoned chalice. Russia was losing the war and the people were starving. With the convenient scapegoat of the Tsar removed, whoever took the reins would get all the blame.

This is the fraught backdrop against which Lenin’s train finally steams into the Finland station and he is greeted by a large cheering crowd and dignitaries with bouquets of flowers etc.

Merridale has, by this stage, done such a good job of bringing out Lenin’s spartan, puritan, obsessive personality that we’re not at all surprised that he throws away the bouquets, ignores the pompous welcome speeches, and goes straight out onto the balcony to address the crowd of workers to announce that – ‘The Time Is Here, the time is now for uncompromising revolution. No-one must cooperate with the bourgeois provisional government. It must be stormed and overthrown and all power vested in soviets or communes of workers and peasants.’

Merridale brilliantly conveys the shock Lenin’s unbending zealotry had on absolutely everyone: the bourgeois liberals, the meek-minded socialists, let alone the cowering conservatives and scheming reactionaries. Even the radical Bolshevik faction of the Party, which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903, was surprised by his single-mindedness. Bolsheviks who had only just arrived back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin found themselves having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s extremism.

No-one else was thinking so radically and violently.

Merridale shows how Lenin was in a minority of one even among his own followers, and quotes both socialists and provisional government officials, who were eye-witnesses in the days and weeks that followed to meetings, debates, speeches and presentations in which Lenin was booed and roundly lost the argument.

The acting premier, Kerensky, initially worried by his return, watched Lenin alienate his entire party and confidently concluded that he was ‘finished’.

How to end?

If you think about it, Merridale and her publishers had always faced a problem with this book which is, Where to end it? The train journey lasted just eight days, from 9 to 17 April. How far either side of the actual journey should the book extend?

You can see how you’d need a build-up to the journey, in Merridale’s case using the accounts of British diplomats to paint in the privations and discontents of wartime Petersburg.

You can see how you’d need a middle section describing the shady activities of the immense swamp of spies, middle men, entrepreneurs, smugglers, double agents, conspirators, fanatics, political zealots of all colours and so on who infested wartime Switzerland, in order to give a flavour of the struggle the German High Command had to weed out hundreds of absurd plots from the handful of ideas which might really contribute to their war effort.

And how you’d then drill down to the specific contacts between Russian Bolshevik supporters (often themselves pretty shady businessmen) and try to identify the specific individuals in the German secret service who carried out the negotiations (whatever archive material still exists).

Merridale does all this and summarises what is currently known about the contacts, agreements, payments and practical details fixed up among these men.

Then you’d want a detailed description of the train journey itself, right down to the most trivial detail, right down to the way Lenin hated smoking and so insisted that people use the only toilet in his set of ‘sealed’ carriages to smoke in – which made it uncomfortable for people who actually wanted to use the loo as a loo. So that, in the end, Lenin devised a ticketing system: second class tickets for those who wanted to smoke in the lav, first class tickets for those who needed to use it for its primary function.

Then you’d want to gather all the eye witness accounts that exist, from the memoirs and diaries and letters of survivors, to describe Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station.

And then you’d want to follow the excitement of his arrival and track the stimulus it gave to the left-wing cause, on into the days and weeks afterwards to gauge the impact Lenin had on the political situation (and, incidentally, to assess the value for money which the German High Command got for what, it turns out, was quite a hefty investment in the train plan).

But where should the book end? One week after Lenin arrives? One month? A year?

In fact six months were to pass between Lenin’s arrival in April and the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Is Catherine going to describe all six months in the kind of intense detail with which she had described the crucial eight days of Lenin’s journey and the first week or so of his arrival?

No.

It would be too much, it would be too long. Other people have done it better, more comprehensively and thoroughly following the immensely complicated twists and turns of the revolution – and the ongoing fighting – for that six months and beyond.

Even if you took the story up to the October Revolution, you’d still have to stop at some stage – before the peace with Germany, before the Russian civil wars break out.

In the event Merridale continues her account of the fierce arguments among all shades of political opinion which Lenin’s arrival had brought to a head, up until the writing of the ‘April Theses’, the set of ten directives which Lenin hammered out immediately upon his arrival, announced in speeches on 17 April and subsequently published in Pravda.

The core of Merridale’s book is devoted to showing Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, and required peace with Germany, the complete overthrow not only of the Provisional Government but of all the bourgeois instruments of the state, and the assumption of power by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.

With the April Theses Lenin established clear blue water between the Bolsheviks and every other party in Russia, and positioned them as more or less the only alternative to the bodged ‘dual government’ situation of Provisional government and Petersburg Soviet. So, from Merridale’s point of view, there is a compelling logic to stopping here and this is where her chronological account of events does, indeed, stop.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

The historical narrative morphs into a chapter devoted to investigating one specific issue: how much did the German High Command fund the Bolshevik revolution? (‘Gold’, pp.242 to 266)

Quite clearly the German High Command laid on the train to carry Lenin back to Russia. His opponents weren’t blind to the propaganda value of this simple fact, and many of them – both rival socialists and opposition liberals and conservatives – set out to prove that the entire Bolshevik operation was in fact a German front designed to take Russia out of the war and let Germany win. That the Bolsheviks were German agitators, and traitors. But were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how, down the years, opponents of Bolshevism continued to make them, on until well into the 1950s and even 60s.

Russians in exile after the Revolution spread the accusations that the Bolshevisks were hired dupes of the Germans and, from time to time, dubious individuals popped up, both in Russia and later in Europe, even including an American (Frank Chester) – all of whom claimed to have been involved and to have proof that the entire Russian Revolution was a German scam.

I found Merridale’s exposition of all this a little confusing. I think in the end she is saying that (apart from the obvious fact of the Germans laying on the train, making all the practical arrangements, arranging all the passports and visas etc) the initial operations of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg – the running of the printing press, distribution of pamphlets and so on – must have cost a lot more money than the party was making simply through membership fees (although membership of the Bolshevik party did rocket from some 13,000 to around 80,000 by the time of the October coup).

Where did this money come from?

Well, there is archive evidence that several of the dubious middle-men who we met earlier, socialist-minded fixers who ran a healthy smuggling trade from Germany through Sweden to Russia – did indeed receive substantial payments from German authorities, which can’t be accounted for solely by their business activities. So, yes, it is quite possible that the Germans continued to fund the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s arrival, via various middle-men.

But this is all very murky. It was wartime. The Germans didn’t keep full accounts of their off-the-record espionage activities and anyway Berlin was bombed to the ground in 1945, destroying most archives. For their part, the smugglers didn’t exactly keep legitimate accounts. The Bolsheviks had no incentive to tell the truth at the time and, under Stalin, became past masters at suppressing any inconvenient truths.

So this whole question is sort of interesting in a gossipy, John le Carré sort of way, but I mentally consigned it to the same place as speculation about who killed JFK or whether an alien UFO landed at Roswell.

Does it really matter? Even if it could be proved that the Germans actively funded the Bolsheviks in the months between Lenin’s arrival and the October Revolution, it is only really icing on the basic fact that they sent Lenin back to Russia in the first place.

Moreover, no-one denies the fact that the Germans were pouring millions of marks into funding all kinds of subversive activity in Russia (in April 1917 alone, the German Foreign Ministry alone authorised five million marks to be used for propaganda, and there were numerous other German agencies doing the same – p.257).

And in any case, once the war in Europe was over, the civil wars in Russia got into full swing, and the sums of money which the Allies poured into Russia to support the White Armies dwarfed anything the Germans might have spent on the Bolsheviks.

The money, important on one level, is only really of interest to obsessives who think that somehow the Russian Revolution could have been averted – exactly like the geeky types who think that, if only JFK hadn’t been assassinated the Americans would never have gone into Vietnam and brought their own country to the brink of civil war. If only, if only, if only.

But, in my opinion, ‘if onlies’ like this, counterfactuals and hopeful speculations, are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scale of the economic and political crisis, the enormity of the vast social collapse Russia found itself in. It was falling to pieces. It was the Titanic sinking.

For me, this and the other accounts I’ve read tend to show that Lenin’s unflinching extremism matched up to the extremism of the situation.

If it hadn’t been Lenin, Russia would still have collapsed into chaos and probable civil war between red and white factions, maybe allowing Germany to have advanced into undefended territory and establishing a Germanic empire in Russia. Other extremists would have been pushed to the surface and into leadership roles, and any of these would have found it very difficult if not impossible to resist the soldiers’ calls for peace and the hundred million peasants’ clamour for land reform.

Extreme circumstances called for extreme solutions, no matter who provided them.

But none of these alternatives took place. Deeper realities prevailed. And even though sending Lenin to Russia did lead to not only political disruption, as the Germans hoped, but to a comprehensive revolution – which must have exceeded their wildest fantasies – and then to a hugely advantageous peace settlement in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, precisely what they wanted in order to free up their eastern armies to take part in the massive Spring 1918 offensive against the West —-

The Germans still lost the war. In the end, the entire policy of the Lenin train and payrolling the Bolsheviks was a failure for the Germans. So what if they funded the Bolsheviks. They still lost.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to an end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of the key characters and personalities we have met through the book, before jotting down a few final reflections.

Most of the Bolsheviks who greeted Lenin so enthusiastically, and were either appalled or enthused by the fierce line he took, were murdered in the 1930s during Stalin’s judicial purges. So the final pages turn into a litany of gruesome and ironic deaths.

The shrewdest members of the Provisional Government, such as the egregious Kerensky, managed to escape, living on in exile in Paris or New York. And the British embassy staff, with their Siamese cats and expertise at blowpipes, lived on to claim their knighthoods from a grateful monarch.

Merridale’s concluding thoughts mix reflections on the characters we’ve met in the narrative, and of her own visits to museums enshrining the memory of Lenin – in Zurich, or at his sisters’ flat in Petersburg (where he stayed in the period before the October Revolution) – with reflections about the lasting significance of Lenin in Russian history.

These are, to be polite, disappointing. Having worked hard to attain the level of Dominic Lieven’s intellectually demanding account of prewar Russian and European diplomacy, it was a long plummet back down to the Readers Digest level of many of Merridale’s reflections.

She is, basically, a nice Radio 4-type of white, middle-class professional lady, who often finds herself wondering why the world is such a beastly place. For example:

There is as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in central America since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Middle East. (p.9)

This paragraph contains almost no useful information at all, in fact it blunts understanding. Great powers use regional conflicts to their advantage? This is elementary, GCSE-level knowledge.

The most salient feature of the paragraph is the centrality of Catherine herself to it. The way she ‘thinks’ of South America in the 1980s doesn’t tell us anything at all about South America but is designed to emphasise what a thoughtful and concerned soul she is. And then, whenever she thinks about the current conflicts in the Middle East, Catherine shudders, yes shudders.

In these final pages we learn that Stalin used the cult of Lenin to underpin and validate his own authority, and so Lenin’s reputation was whitewashed as thoroughly as his body was preserved in its mausoleum.

That both Lenin’s memory and his body rotted in the stagnant decades of the 1960s and 70s due to incompetent mummification techniques. That the 1980s period of glasnost under Gorbachev was a period of ‘dangerous’ change. That after a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russia reverted to the strong man rule of Vladimir Putin.

We learn, in other words, nothing that any fifth former studying history or anybody who reads serious newspapers, doesn’t already know.

Merridale’s book ends with sentimental descriptions of her visits to the fading museums of Leninism and chats with their sad curators.

Shame. There are few if any insights or ideas worth recording or summarising in her final section.

Still, to emphasise the positive – the long central section of the book detailing the personalities and circumstances surrounding the train journey, and Merridale’s description of the incredibly intense political crisis into which Lenin arrived, are thrilling, convey a gripping sense of the chaos and confusion and knife-edge political atmosphere of the time, and are worth reading.

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917 by Nicolai Babasiouk (1960)

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917, painted by Nicolai Babasiouk in 1960

Nowhere man

Maybe the most symptomatic of the various encounters Merridale describes having with railway officials, passport checkers, museum keepers and so on when she undertakes her own version of the Lenin journey, is when she arrives at the swanky Savoy Hotel in Malmö, where Lenin and his entourage stopped for lunch after an unpleasant crossing of the stormy Baltic Sea.

Merridale knows that Lenin ate here. In fact, she later finds a plaque commemorating his visit tucked away in a corridor. But when she asks about him, the concierge looks blank. ‘Lenin? Lenin? Oh, you mean John Lennon?’

Quite. The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history and are busy with their own day-to-day concerns. And – it could be argued – that’s a blessing.


Credit

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale was published by Allen Lane in 2016. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels (1880)

Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms existing in the society of today between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production. (Opening sentence)

I bought my copy of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in a cheap Chinese edition from the Marxist bookshop under Brixton railway arches in the 1980s. It cost 45p. Neither the Chinese editions nor the bookshop exist any more.

Prefaces

A feature of the texts by Marx and Engels is the way they come festooned with prefaces and introductions. This is because:

  1. The societies they were describing in such detail, kept evolving and changing: the Europe of 1848 for which the Communist Manifesto was written had changed a lot by 1868, and out of all recognition by 1888.
  2. More subtly, socialism itself kept changing, in the hands of socialist and communist parties spread right across the continent, some of which were banned, some of which (e.g. in Germany) entered Parliament, some of which (e.g. in England) were tempted to join forces with the increasingly well-organised trades unions who weren’t interested in overthrowing capitalism at all; they wanted to keep it in place, but with better pay and conditions for their members.

And thus Marx and Engels found themselves having to tag new introductions and prefaces to all their works in order to keep up with the changing realities of European society, and also the changing nature of socialist belief, which included the continual eruption of new and heretical brands of socialism.

This text has a foreword by Marx, two prefaces by Engels and then an introduction by Engels which is nearly as long (30 pages) as the original text (56 pages).

Origins and impact

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is such a short text because it is an extract from a longer work Engels wrote in 1878, entitled Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science or the Anti-Dühring, as it became known.

During the 1870s the German philosopher, positivist, economist, and socialist Eugen Karl Dühring (1833–1921) published a sequence of books in which he enunciated a ‘positivist’ philosophy, on which he based a form of ‘ethical communism’, along with an economic theory which suggested there would eventually be a harmony of the interests of capitalists and labourers. Things, in other words, could only get better. Dühring’s extensive erudition across numerous fields, and his ‘soft’ form of communism, made his ideas influential in left-wing circles.

Marx and Engels were naturally alarmed because Dühring’s views undermined their insistence on the necessity of class warfare, and the inevitability of a violent revolution in which the radicalised proletariat would overthrow bourgeois capitalism. Dühring denied all this.

Also, it happened that both Marx and Engels had for some time being mulling over the fact that Marx’s great masterwork, Capital, was impenetrable to ordinary readers and that they should probably write a more accessible summary of their philosophical, political and economic theories for the man in the street.

Thus the need for a handy summary of Marxism combined with the urge to refute Dühring’s views inspired Engels to write his lengthy Anti-Dühring – and then to extract three chapters of it into the present work.

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific went on to become probably the most influential single work written by either Marx or Engels. It was quickly translated into over ten European languages, and widely distributed. It became the main vehicle publicising their socialist ideas in the key decades from 1890 to 1910.

In his epic biography of Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones quotes contemporaries testifying to its impact. According to the communist David Riazanov, founder of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow after the revolution (and then a high-profile victim of Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s):

Anti-Dühring was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation, which began its activity during the second half of the 1870s, learned what was scientific socialism, what were its philosophical premises, what was its method… all the young Marxists who entered the public arena in the early 1880s – Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov – were brought up on this book.

And Karl Kautsky, the Czech communist and torch bearer of orthodox Marxism between Engels’ death in 1895 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, said:

Judging by the influence that Anti-Dühring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Dühring that we learned to understand Capital and read it properly. (quoted in Jones, p.560)

Structure

Overall the book aims to distinguish Marx’s communism from all other previous and current versions of socialism, which Engels dismisses as ‘utopian’. Those other theories were or are based on morality – on moral feelings of outrage, sympathy for the oppressed, appeals to ‘justice’, and so on and so on.

Marx’s communism alone was scientific in the sense that Marx claimed to have uncovered the economic laws which underpinned the development of human civilisation and to have shown that a communist revolution will come regardless of anyone’s feelings or intentions.

Marx’s sociology had revealed that all previous societies have been based on class conflict. More than this, Marx had shown how societies evolve through the process of Dialectical Materialism, namely that at any given epoch there is a master narrative or ideology which, of necessity, contains within it the seeds of opposition and of its eventual overthrow. Within the slave society of ancient Rome lay the seeds of the feudal system. Within the feudal system lay the guilds and the seeds of the mercantilism which superseded it. Within mercantilism lay the seeds of the more organised, competitive capitalism.

And the capitalist system now triumphing in the West contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For, by concentrating more and more wealth and power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the system inevitably, and unstoppably, created a larger and larger and larger class of powerless, impoverished, immiserated people – the proletariat – which sooner or later, must inevitably realise their superior strength, rise up and overthrow their capitalist masters and thus give rise to the communist society where everyone carries out productive labour, as they wish, and where everyone is equal.

This process was reinforced by the fundamental instability of capitalism – this was caused by the endless clash of rival companies and their products, an economic chaos which created day to day social anarchy, led inevitably to regular financial crashes and depressions and, at its highest level, gave rise to wars between rival capitalist empires fighting over raw materials and new markets in the third world.

This ‘system’, Engels explains, is simply not sustainable and will sooner or later crash under the weight of its own ‘contradictions’.

Chapter one

Engels begins the book by describing the thought of some characteristic ‘utopian’ socialists, starting with Saint-Simon, before going on to Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. He shows how their versions of socialism contained many insights but, at bottom, merely reflected the personal opinions of the authors.

Saint-Simon had the genius as early as 1802 to enunciate the principle that ‘all men must work’; to realise that the French Revolution had been a struggle not only between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie but also the propertyless poor; and by 1815 was predicting that politics would soon boil down to issues of production: politics, in other words, would morph into economics – ‘the administration of things and the guidance of the processes of production’.

Fourier declared that humanity had progressed through four stages – savagery, patriarchy, barbarism and civilisation – each of which, including the bourgeois society of his time, partaking of the same tensions and stresses.

Robert Owen set up a model cotton factory at New Lanark in Scotland where he made the workers work shorter hours, and not the then customary seven days a week, provided hygienic accommodation and invented the infant school for the children. With the result that there was no drunkenness, no crime – and yet his investors still made sizeable returns on their money. Owen developed the idea that the wealth the working class produced ought to be retained by the working class instead of being siphoned off to support the aristocracy and the endless war against Napoleon. As his attacks on private property, religion and marriage became more strident, so Owen was dropped by his initial supporters.

According to Engels, each of these three political thinkers had valid and sometimes insightful contributions – but mixed up with hobby horses, personal views and experiences. The net effect was to contribute to a confused and confusing mish-mash of opinions welling up from the obvious injustices of society, and a thousand different schemes to put them right.

By contrast ‘scientific socialism’ derives from the close study of reality. It is based on a materialist conception of human history, and on the premise that the most important feature of any society is its level of technological achievement. The technology, and the economic system which derives from it, are the basis of the classes into which any given society is based, and underpin the ideology which is the collective value and belief system of that society.

  • The economic basis of society.
  • The instability of the capitalist system, constantly forced to seek out greater profits, new markets, resulting in periodic gluts and recessions.
  • The inevitability of class conflict between factory owners and workers.
  • The unstoppable triumph of the proletariat.

Chapter two

This is a short but genuinely interesting attempt to explain what dialectical materialism is.

Engels starts by asking you to reflect on your own experience and thoughts, how they are a constant flood of impressions and mental leaps and connections. Similarly, a moment’s reflection suggests that all organisms, people, objects, are in a constant state of flux. The Greeks knew this. They called it the dialectic, the acceptance of flow and change.

It was only from about the 16th century that western philosophers began to develop what became the natural sciences, whose central methodology is to isolate and define entities. This led to the triumph of Newtonian cosmology, which was reflected in the eighteenth century effort to define and categorise everything into static categories. Fixed entities. Unchanging mechanisms. The opposite of flow and change.

Engels sees the philosophy of Hegel as a rebellion against this mechanistic view of the universe and people. Hegel wanted to re-establish the impermanence of all entities and of all thought as the central feature of existence.

Engels goes on to claim that, as the 19th century had progressed, all the sciences had tended to prove Hegel right. We now know that planets and solar systems and even galaxies aren’t static, but come into and out of existence. The very landscape of the earth has changed out of all recognition over billions of years and is continually changing. Charles Darwin had proved that species are in a permanent state of flux. Even biology had proved that individual human beings – and all life forms – consist of cells which are continually dying, being sloughed off and replaced.

We are all of us, at the same time, something and not something. We are all processes.

This is the rebirth of dialectical thinking based on up-to-date science. This is a dialectic of matter. This is dialectical materialism, a worldview based on the idea that all things are in a state of flux, including humans and including human societies.

There is no such thing as a static society, there are no such things as static social ‘values’. A scientific study of history (such as the kind Marx and Engels claimed to have pioneered) shows that all previous societies have been in states of flux, always changing and evolving.

What Marx has proven in Capital and other writings is that these changes are not random, but the product of certain historical laws – laws which show that:

  • all societies are based on the technology of the day
  • the technology is owned and exploited by a ruling class which is always pitted against those it exploits, whether slaves or serfs or workers
  • the ruling classes produce an ‘ideology’ which contains the ideas used to justify and bolster their power – ‘religion’, ‘morality’, ‘the sanctity of marriage’ etc

But each era has not only had a dominant class, but contains within itself seeds of the opposing class which will rise up and overthrow it.

From that time forward, Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict. But the Socialism of earlier days was as incompatible with this materialist conception as the conception of Nature of the French materialists was with dialectics and modern natural science. The Socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad. The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose.

Lacking a proper understanding of a) dialectical thinking i.e. the constant process of becoming, and b) the material basis of society and human nature, the reformers Engels mentioned in chapter one – Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen – certainly had ‘inspired moments’, but were unable to effect any real change.

The theory of surplus labour

Added to this philosophical breakthrough is another insight, just as important, in the field of economics, which is Marx’s discovery of how capitalism works.

Capitalism works through squeezing out of each worker the ‘surplus value’ of his labour. Vampire-like, capitalism accumulates wealth by stealing the worker’s productive labour.

The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose. For this it was necessary to present the capitalistic mode of production in its historical connection and its inevitableness during a particular historical period, and therefore, also, to present its inevitable downfall; and to lay bare its essential character, which was still a secret.

This was done by the discovery of surplus-value.

It was shown that the appropriation of unpaid labour is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and of the exploitation of the worker that occurs under it; that even if the capitalist buys the labour power of his labourer at its full value as a commodity on the market, he yet extracts more value from it than he paid for; and that in the ultimate analysis, this surplus-value forms those sums of value from which are heaped up constantly increasing masses of capital in the hands of the possessing classes. The genesis of capitalist production and the production of capital were both explained.

These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus-value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries, Socialism became a science.

Chapter three

Applies Marx and Engels’s materialist view to history.

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.

This passage introduces a lengthy description of the way capitalist production arose out of medieval, feudal production, of how individual cottage producers gave way to workshops and then to factory owners who could produce goods cheaper than individual artisans and craftsmen, who drove them to of business, and forced them to become wage-slaves working in their factories.

But, remember – according to Hegel’s dialectic, any system is always changing, always contains within itself the seeds of its own overthrow.

For example, the capitalist, by creating a huge labour force of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers – creates the very force that will overthrow him, a huge mass of exploited workers who are capable, because of their new proximity to each other, of discussing and understanding their plight, of organising and educating and, eventually, of rising up and ending their exploitation.

The joy of paradoxes

Marx and Engels enjoy paradoxes. In fact their argument often proceeds by paradoxical reversals rather by than strict logic. For example, there’s a long, involved passage where Engels explains that new technology and new machinery – which ought to make everyone’s lives more pleasant – is twisted by the capitalist system (i.e. the ravenous competition between capitalists, the need to keep costs down) into the very thing which oppresses the worker. For the spread of new technology leads to the laying off of workers, who then create a pool of unemployed labour, ready and willing to be re-employed and the cheapest rates, which allows the capitalist to reduce wages to his existing staff.

Thus it comes about, to quote Marx, that machinery becomes the most powerful weapon in the war of capital against the working-class; that the instruments of labor constantly tear the means of subsistence out of the hands of the laborer; that the very product of the worker is turned into an instrument for his subjugation.

This is given as an example of dialectical thinking, although to the literary-minded it could also be interpreted as a love of ironic reversals and paradoxes, a love of binaries which Marx and Engels again and again collapse into their opposites.

But the chief means by aid of which the capitalist mode of production intensified this anarchy of socialized production was the exact opposite of anarchy. It was the increasing organization of production, upon a social basis, in every individual productive establishment

Accumulation of wealth at one pole [among capitalists] is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the [workers].

In the trusts, freedom of competition changes into its very opposite – into monopoly.

The rise of monopolies

Engels points to a number of trends in contemporary capitalist society where, he claims, you can see the dialectical opposite of capitalist production already appearing.

For example, there is a tendency to monopoly in a number of industries e.g. railways or telegraphs. By an irony the tendency of a handful of big companies to buy up all the smaller ones repeats on a higher level the way early capitalists drove out small, cottage producers. Now it’s a lot of the capitalists who are turned into a ‘reserve army’ with nothing much to do all day except count their dividends.

At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population…

One step further along this line, in many European countries the state has bought out the monopoly capitalists, nationalising the railways and some other industries. This move is at one and the same time the peak of capitalist monopoly control but also – a forerunner of the way the state run by the workers will abolish all companies and run everything themselves.

The capitalist relationship is not abolished, rather it is pushed to the limit. But at this limit it changes into its opposite.

There is something powerful, slick, and magically persuasive about this rhetoric, like the famous phrases in The Communist Manifesto which describe the constructive/destructive impact of capitalism:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…

It is a very effective way of thinking and makes for a powerful rhetoric.

The communist utopia

Having explained why previous socialist thinkers were mere rootless dreamers, having explained how Hegel’s theory of the dialectic can be allied with modern science to generate a theory of how things change, having explained how a materialist view of history throws out all fancy talk about God and Sin and Justice and focuses on the changing nature of production and the class antagonisms this throws up – and having looked in detail at why capitalist production is so unstable and gives rise to regular crises and recessions – Engels has prepared his reader for a vision of what a communist state should look like.

Namely that the means of production should not be used to enslave people and to create an unregulated chaos of competition – but brought into the ownership of the state, a state acting on behalf of everyone, so as to plan work and production, so as to maximise human life, health and happiness.

This solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonizing with the socialized character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control, except that of society as a whole. The social character of the means of production and of the products today reacts against the producers, periodically disrupts all production and exchange, acts only like a law of Nature working blindly, forcibly, destructively. But, with the taking over by society of the productive forces, the social character of the means of production and of the products will be utilized by the producers with a perfect understanding of its nature, and instead of being a source of disturbance and periodical collapse, will become the most powerful lever of production itself.

And the state, which has hitherto all through history been nothing more than the legal instrument through which the oppressing class dominates society – once it is identified with the great mass of the oppressed class, once it becomes truly representative of all of society – will die out. The state will wither away. Because its repressive function is no longer required in a society where production is controlled and planned by the whole population.

Insofar as the (repressive) government of persons is replaced by the (fair and just) administration of things. of the products of industry – so the entity which repressed people (the state) will simply vanish 🙂

It is here!

Engels has one last point to make, which is that the time for revolution is now, not because this, that or the other activist thinks so: but because it is objectively the case in the economic development of the West. In the early industrial revolution the amount produced by factories was barely enough to maintain subsistence living among the immiserated proletariat. But in the past forty years the amount of output, the wealth and variety and richness of industrial products, have reached new heights.

The socialized appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in each new economic crisis.

Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today, and their political representatives.

The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now, for the first time, here. It is here.

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production [i.e. chaotic competition between capitalists which leads to regular crises] is replaced by systematic, definite organization.

The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, will finally be marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerge from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.

The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, will now come under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization.

The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will now be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.

Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, will now become the result of his own free action.

The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, will pass under the control of man himself.

Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him.

It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Thoughts

Wow. This is mind-blowing rhetoric, a heady, drunken mix of German philosophy, English economics, underpinned by the latest scientific theories and brought to bear on the great social issues of the age.

You can see why scads of people, from illiterate workers to highly educated intellectuals, would be roused and inspired by this vision. It is, at the end of the day, a wish for a better society, a wish every bit as utopian as the wish of Saint-Simon or Owen – but it is dressed up in a battery of ‘scientific’ and philosophical and economic arguments which pummel the brain like a heavyweight boxer.

Without doubt Marx brought an incredible rigour and thoroughness to left-wing thought across Europe, and then around the world, and his insights into how capitalism works, why it seems condemned to periodic crises, and into the way a culture’s ‘ideology’ masks the true nature of class conflict or exploitation of the poor by the rich, all these remain fertile insights right down to our own time.

But the entire prophetic and practical aspect of his creed failed. The most advanced economies – America, Britain and Germany – instead of experiencing a millennial revolution, managed to co-opt the workers into the fabric of bourgeois society by offering them the benefits of a welfare state – shorter hours, better working conditions, health benefits, pensions.

Exploitation continued, strikes and riots continued and the entire fabric of the West came under strain during periods of depression and seemed to many to have completely collapsed during the Great Depression, and yet…  even amid this ruinous failure of capitalism, the promised communist uprising never took place.

Instead, the revolution occurred in the most economically and socially backward society in Europe, Russia, and even then, less as a result of the inevitable triumph of capitalism magically morphing into its opposite – the process so beguilingly described by Engels in this entrancing pamphlet – but by straightforward social collapse brought about by prolonged war and starvation.

A political vacuum in which Lenin and his zealots were able to carry out a political and military coup, which then took years of civil war and immense suffering to settle down into the kind of prolonged totalitarian dictatorship which would have horrified Marx and Engels.


Related links

Related blog posts

Karl Marx

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

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

Related blog posts

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

Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constantly expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of techniques of rhetorical persuasion in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.

Insults 

For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal male suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Note how solid factual analysis (of the results of debt on French peasants) is inextricably entwined with highly alarmist and exaggerated similes and metaphors – of enslavement, troglodytes and vampires. Abuse and insults are an intrinsic part of Marx’s analysis, not an accident, not a removeable element – bitter hatred of the bourgeois enemy is a key part of Marx’s worldview.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.

Antitheses 

He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of modern stand-up comedy.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.

Lists

There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Note the use of three clauses to build rhetorical power. Note the insult words (scum, refuse). Note the ad hominem attack on Louis-Napoléon (a crafty old roué with a vulgar sense of theatre). Rhetoric and insults are central.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, we, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

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. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as being a stage, a platform on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the cognoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.

Summary

There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.


Related links

Related blog posts

Karl Marx

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.
  • 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,during the Spanish Civil War, the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies – specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was a member of – and how Orwell, having fought bravely for the Republic, was forced to flee the country, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

%d bloggers like this: