This book is an attempt to rescue a generation of literary critics associated with the British Communist Party (CP) from what EP Thompson famously called “the enormous condescension of posterity”.
Philip Bounds argues that thinkers like Alick West, Ralph Fox and Christopher Caudwell have been too carelessly dismissed as crude apologists for Stalinism. While clearly acknowledging the deadening influence of Stalin’s rotten bureaucracy, he seeks to draw attention to some of the more insightful aspects of their work. In doing so, Bounds has produced a thoughtful and well written book.
Marxist literary critics were buffeted by the shifting line of the Communist International. Between 1928 and 1933 the non-Communist left were routinely denounced as “social fascists”, only to be embraced, alongside conservatives, in the “popular front” period of 1934 to 1939.
Reacting against the CP’s sectarianism in the early 1930s, some Communist intellectuals reached out to other traditions in an attempt to establish Marxist literary criticism as a serious discipline. Bounds plausibly suggests that the onset of a protracted crisis of capitalism after 1929 created the conditions in which both conservative and progressive critics were willing to ask fundamental questions about the production of literature under capitalism and beyond. Later in the decade critics attempted to position Communist criticism as the culmination of a long history of plebeian radicalism in Britain – though notably Alick West implicitly criticised the popular front by attacking fellow travellers like the Surrealists and progressive Christians.
Books like West’s Crisis and Criticism and Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality register both obedience and disquiet, as their authors simultaneously seek to implement and obliquely criticise directives from Moscow.
The Soviet Writers’ Congress of 1934 is usually (and correctly) understood to have imposed a philistine straitjacket on CP authors while crudely dismissing most “bourgeois” literature. Bounds broadly accepts this interpretation of the Congress’s conclusions. The “socialist realist” doctrine that the conference inaugurated was meant to ensure CP writers produced literature that served the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy. The conference endorsed synoptic works able to express the whole of “Soviet advancement”, the use of proletarian “positive heroes” and the unity of form and content while rejecting the idea that literature could be “disinterested” in the class struggle.
Ancient myths could be regarded as precursors of socialist realism because they articulated humans’ need to master nature and were spurred by real improvements in the forces of production. This programme was coupled with a deep hostility to modernism, which was taken as proof of the fundamental incompatibility of culture and capitalism, and a consequent idolisation of certain pre-mid 19th century authors.
Bounds nonetheless argues that the output of CP critics in the 1930s remains worthy of study – and he’s right. Bounds’s arguments are authoritative and clearly expressed throughout.
This book should be read by all students of Marxism and literature, but also deserves the attention of readers interested in the history of communism in Britain.
British Communism and the Politics of Literature 1928-1939 is published by Merlin, £18.95
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