Politics and the Novel: Three British Marxist Critics of the 1930s


In his retrospective declaration of literary intent, "Why I Write," George Orwell recalled that "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art."1 This candidly programmatic statement was written in 1946 and the decade referred to brings us back to the pivotal moment of 1936. In the same essay, Orwell himself points to the decisive political and personal impact of that year: "The Spanish war and other events in 1936-7 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood."2 The "other events" indicated here would have included of course the struggle against fascism at home in Britain, which culminated in the famous Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists were successfully driven out of the East End of London by anti-fascist protesters. Branson and Heinemann make clear the central political significance of this particular struggle: "To many who participated in the huge anti-fascist demonstrations at the time, Mosley was the symbol of an international menace... all over Europe democratic strongholds appeared to be going down in front of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, with, it was believed, the connivance of the British government."3 Such momentous clashes taking place everywhere between the forces of democracy and dictatorship clearly seemed to demand a more unequivocal sense of political commitment on the part of intellectuals in the 1930s, compared to that of the previous generation. Thus, a sense of radical urgency was shared by many writers who, like Orwell, sought to forge a more tangible link between the aesthetic concerns of their art and the pressing ideological exigencies of the day.

This connection between politics and literature expressed itself not only in the many socially oriented novels, stories and poems published at the time, but also in the critical discussions which developed in response to these literary texts. The decisive year in this particular radical context was 1937, which turned out to be the annus mirabilis of Marxist literary theory in Britain, seeing the publication of three of the most influential texts on the subject: Christopher Caudwell's Illusion and Reality, Ralph Fox's The Novel and the People, and Alick West's Crisis and Criticism. Not only did these three works create almost out of nothing and at once a broad field of Marxist literary criticism in Britain. They also brought the whole debate about the relationship between art and politics onto a new and more elaborate theoretical plane. As David Margolies comments, taken together they represent an extraordinary outpouring of Marxist literary theory at one time, all in one way or another responding to the crisis, especially as it was reflected in the dislocation of literary values, the lack of direction of the novel or poetry, and the abdication of criticism.4

Indeed, the profound nature of this cultural crisis was also reflected in both the title and the content of another seminal work, written during the same period Caudwell's Studies in a Dying Culture which begins by asserting the critical diagnosis that "bourgeois culture is seriously ill"5 and that the correspondingly comprehensive response would require a radical realignment of the whole aesthetics of politics and literature. It is this unique and exciting moment of the emergence of Marxist literary theory in Britain that I address here. In particular, I want to examine the way in which these three early Marxist critics responded to the theoretical challenge of the relationship of art to propaganda and of politics to the novel. My aim is not, however, merely to complicate some of the later, more stereotyped images of 1930s Marxist criticism in Britain as being essentially Stalinist and therefore vulgarly reductive. I also want to re-assert the central importance of their political readings of the literary text, through a re-interrogation of the fundamentally ideological approach to the novel which these three critics developed.

In order to do this, however, I am compelled to make an initial critical choice myself and exclude Caudwell's perhaps most famous work, Illusion and Reality, as part of the prime focus of the essay, as this book deals exclusively with the origins and development of poetry. Instead, I have chosen to include one of his longer Studies in a Dying Culture which concentrates almost entirely on the novel itself Romance and Realism: a Study of English Bourgeois Literature a text which, although also written in 1936, remained unpublished until 1970.

Despite the fact that both Caudwell and Fox were killed in the Spanish Civil War, this ultimate expression of political and personal commitment did not guarantee them iconographic status in the canon of Marxist literary criticism. On the contrary, Caudwell, who had been the most prolific of these three radical pioneers, became the object of a critical debate that raged in the pages of the Modern Quarterly throughout 1951. Thus, in what became known as the "Caudwell Controversy," the bourgeois or Marxist credentials of Caudwell's writings, and of Illusion and Reality in particular, were dissected and scrutinised. Not only was Caudwell accused of evincing bourgeois idealist lapses in his view of the human psyche; the basic thrust of his aesthetic argument was also condemned by some as being un-Marxist.6 However, despite being thus the target of cold-war Stalinist orthodoxy, Caudwell's writings were later also attacked together with those of both West and Fox as epitomising the very same ideologically reductive approach to literature of which they themselves had been the victim. Thus, Eagleton for example characterises their failings in the following way:

English Marxist critics of the 1930s fall often enough into the "vulgar Marxist" mistake of raiding literary works for their ideological content and relating this directly to the class-struggle or the economy.7

Indeed, over the years a range of similarly damning criticism has been levelled at these three early Marxists from several different directions. In Culture and Society (1958), Raymond Williams writes for instance that "Christopher Caudwell remains the best-known of these English Marxist critics, but his influence is curious. His theories and outlines have been widely learned, although in fact he has little to say, of actual literature, that is even interesting... for the most part his discussion is not even specific enough to be wrong."8 Samuel Hynes in his classic study of literature and politics in the 1930s The Auden Generation (1976) characterises the significance of Fox's The Novel and the People also in mainly negative terms: "...it argues for socialist realism, and is anti-Freud, anti-Joyce, and anti-Proust. But it is not doctrinaire."9 More recently, Eagleton and Milne in Marxist Literary Theory (1996) introduce an extract from West's Crisis and Criticism by commenting that the author belonged to a group of Communist Party literary critics, including Caudwell and Fox, who were "compromised by the cultural politics of Stalinism" and "hegemonically defeated by the more formally acute 'new' criticism associated with I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis and William Empson."10

In contrast, however, rather more positive critical judgements have begun to appear in recent years. Adrian Caesar maintains for instance that

The left... has been discredited because of its association with Stalinism. But this should not be an adequate reason for obliterating the part the left played in the literary history of the 1930s, or ignoring the commitment and achievement of such people as Slater, Rickword, Caudwell and West.11

Nonetheless, one of the fundamental charges made against all three critics has to do with their attitude toward art and politics. It is alleged that they place undue emphasis on the ideological content of a literary work at the expense of its artistic form. Raymond Williams viewed much of the Marxist literary criticism of the 1930s as a "notorious" expression of such an approach:

"Is this work socialist or not in tendency? Is it helping forward the most creative movement in society?" where literature is defined solely in terms of its political affiliations. Marxists, more than anyone else, need to repudiate the kind of end-product, in practice as firmly as in theory.12

These are cautionary words indeed, although the critical practice of Caudwell, West and Fox did not for the most part correspond to such received images of vulgar Marxism. Moreover, when he wrote this, Williams unfortunately did not have access to Caudwell's Romance and Realism, which contains a more specific and subtly dialectical view of the development of the novel. Indeed, this particular work represents, in Christopher Pawling's judgement "in many ways, the most important of all the Studies and the culmination of Caudwell's work."13 But even in relation to West's Crisis and Criticism and Fox's The Novel and the People, the charge that they reduce literature to propaganda also needs revising. This widespread claim about their downplay of artistic form in favour of political content seems on closer scrutiny to be itself an oversimplification. It is these aspects of their three texts that I want to examine more closely here in order, hopefully, to elicit a deeper and more lasting appreciation of the complex and highly politicised theoretical analysis of the novel provided by Caudwell, West and Fox.

In her recent survey, Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories (2000), Moyra Haslett notes: "One of the most common attacks on 'vulgar' marxist literary theories is that, in examining literature in its ideological, historical and social contexts, all considerations of specifically literary modes are forgotten." At the same time, Haslett reminds us that the tradition of Marxist literary criticism has in fact always maintained a strong focus on such formalist concerns: "Yet marxist theories have, since their inception, been preoccupied by the nature of literary form, and this is especially apparent in the debates concerning realism and modernism."14 This discussion within Marxism came to a head as early as the 1930s in the exchanges on aesthetics and politics that took place between, among others, Lukács and Brecht. Despite his rejection of the formal experimentation of modernism, Lukács himself was accused by Brecht of upholding a basically formalist view of art. Lukács's own position involved, as Fredric Jameson has shown, "an implicit critique and repudiation of traditional content analysis" which led him to place "unwarranted confidence in the possibility of deducing political and ideological positions from a protocol of purely formal properties of a work of art."15 Following on from this debate, the complex relationship between form and content has continued over the years to provide a fruitful theoretical starting-point for Marxist aesthetics. Indeed, in his own magisterial contribution to the discussion, Marxism and Form (1971), Jameson makes even bolder claims about the issue underpinning the application of the whole dialectical method itself:

in some way, which it is the task of Marxist theory to determine more precisely, literature plays a central role in the dialectical process. I might also add that the closed realm of literature, the experimental or laboratory situation which it constitutes, with its characteristic problems of form and content and of the relationship of superstructure to infrastructure, offers a privileged microcosm in which to observe dialectical thinking at work.16

Although Caudwell, West and Fox would most likely have only had access to the 1930s form/content debate through reports from the Soviet Writers' Congress in 1934 and in the pages of radical journals like Left Review, their own position, as will be seen, was clearly closer to Brecht's celebration of modernism in the arts than to Lukács's rejection of such technical innovation as being anti-realist and therefore regressive. In Fox's case, however, there seems at first to be little or no discussion of the formal critical criteria that lay behind his close reading of the English novel.17 Nonetheless, the question of form and content does recur throughout Fox's text as one of his fundamental aesthetic preoccupations. In a preface to the 1979 reprint of Fox's book, Jeremy Hawthorn comments that "'modernist' writing is criticized by Fox for what he sees as the more serious failure¾that of abstracting a part of life and experience from its social and historical context." In this respect, Hawthorn suggests that Fox's position "is strikingly reminiscent of Lukács."18 In contrast, however, I would claim that Fox's view is more dialectical than the above characterisation would allow. Fox writes for instance:

Marxism insists that neither form nor content are separate and passive entities. Form is produced by content, is identical and one with it, and, though the primacy is on the side of content, form reacts on content and never remains passive.19

It is a point which Fox returns to throughout, insisting on a number of occasions that "It is completely foreign to the spirit of Marxism to neglect the formal side of art."20 Indeed, although he seeks to promote social realism in modern literature, Fox recognised the artistic weaknesses of such writing. It was, moreover, a brave and rather unusual position to take in the 1930s especially by a Communist for Fox to draw attention to the aesthetic flaws of the proletarian novels that were then very much in vogue, particularly among Soviet writers:

So far, let us admit it, we have not succeeded. The least credible figures in the novels written about revolution are the revolu- tionaries. This is true even of the very best of these novels, by men like Sholokhov, Malraux or Bates. Sholokhov's Communist heroes have energy, force, will-power, they are alive and they are con- vincing, but they are nonetheless flat surfaces, rather than men in the round.21

The central critical question, Fox reminds his readers, once again revolves around the problematical relationship between politics and the novel form, and it is this complex aesthetic consideration that revolutionary writers neglect at their peril: "For the novelist of Socialist realism formal questions are of first importance."22

A similar emphasis on the dialectical link between form and content marks Alick West's Crisis and Criticism. Although West begins by stipulating that in "this unity of content and form, content is of prior importance," their mutual interdependence nonetheless remains, for him, at the heart of the creative process. West finds this point exemplified in Shakespeare's adaptation of the sonnet form:

[T]he form which Shakespeare finds ready in his hand is itself the result of an endless number of new contents slightly modifying the form in which previous contents have been embodied. In this sense, content, the particular action, determines form, the result of previous action.23

In Crisis and Criticism, the culminating contrastive critique, where West fleshes out the approach to literature outlined in the rest of his book, is embodied in two individual chapter discussions, on Joyce's Ulysses and on Harold Heslop's The Gate of a Strange Field. Although West celebrates Joyce's work in contrast to the vulgar but influential Stalinist rejection of it by Karl Radek in his speech at the Soviet Writers' Congress24 the argument about form nonetheless leads West to spotlight what he sees as some of the ideological limitations of Joyce's style. West identifies this general modernist preoccupation with language as being historically conservative and as representing, in terms of the social impact of literature, an artistic cul-de-sac:

Hence the only way he can satisfy his growing need of social identification, is to sink himself in the feeling of words, in words as the result of the previous activity of the social organism, in their sound and in the sum of all their possible meanings, echoes and puns. But words as sense, not as the result of activity in the past, but as instruments for organising activity now, mean nothing to him. For he has nothing to do with them. Joyce does not construct a private language; he plays with the social language in order to sleep secure in the feeling of the past, and safe from the sense of the present. Work in Progess where to?25

However, perhaps more surprisingly, Heslop's novel, The Gate of a Strange Field, while receiving praise from West for its "new spirit" as part of the more socially committed trend in proletarian literature,26 is not spared West's criticism with respect to similar formal problems in the writing. Once again, West's sensitivity to style belies the view of his aesthetics as being vulgar Marxist:

The style is marred by obvious and loose generalisations . These qualities of the style convey the impression that the final reality is not on earth, but on the heights beyond the class struggle, from which it is contemplated. It is to this contemplation, rather than to the struggle itself, that the book, as propaganda, directs our energy. Heslop can show social organisation in productive activity as a living reality. When it is a question of the change of that organisation through class-war, he becomes abstract and aloof; what he describes, is an empty, unreal show.27

Although West continues by making the disclaimer that "the weakness of the book cannot be satisfactorily discussed in terms of literary style alone,"28 relating literary value instead to the novel's social relevance, his argument nonetheless rests on a critique of the formalistic preoccupations of both Heslop's and Joyce's work. Heslop's political ambition is let down by his inability to make social processes convincingly real. As for Joyce, his technical brilliance is marred by a lack of awareness of the social processes underlying the human alienation that he portrays. In both cases the effect is, according to West, one of formal literary abstraction and lack of psychological conviction.

In Caudwell's Romance and Realism, this critical connection between form and content is viewed as part of the epistemological crisis of bourgeois literature as a whole.29 In an illuminating parallel to the relationship between form and content in literature, Caudwell points to the growing contradiction, in class society, between illusion and reality an ideological binary which he used as the title for his famous study of the sources of poetry. He argues that it is no longer possible to ignore the growing gap between the illusory (bourgeois) view of the world as being subject to rational, "free" human control¾and the increasingly fragmented and fractious reality of daily existence. In his foreword to the Studies, Caudwell calls this crisis in bourgeois consciousness "the lie at the heart of contemporary culture, the lie which is killing it."30 The lie was, to adapt Rousseau, that man appears free even though he is everywhere in chains. It is the maintenance of this mythical concept of freedom that underpinned the grand narrative of bourgeois culture, a position that by the 1930s could no longer be sustained.

Caudwell drew another revealing literary parallel with what he described as the "Crisis in Physics," to which he also devoted a separate study.33 Here he argued that modernism in literature was similar to the displacement of Newtonian physics by the theory of relativity. Caudwell situated the emergence of the modernist novel in a similar context of narrative breakdown. Thus, the omniscient form of the classical realist novel was being superseded by the subjective view of the modernist observer a new and more fragmented narrative where everything is relative and which reflected the growing alienation of the individual author. The ensuing collapse of the bourgeois illusion of freedom Caudwell saw as the underlying cause of the general crisis in culture, science and the economy an almost breathtaking analogy which is typical of the comprehensive concerns of 1930s Marxist criticism:

In bourgeois physics a magnificent attempt is made to solve the problem by the principle of relativity, in which the closed world of Newtonian physics is recreated in the subtler form¾the four-dimen- sional. In the novel, various attempts are made to solve the problem. All aiming at eliminating the error involved in the god-like observer.34

As part of the various modernist attempts to solve the problem of the crisis in the novel, Caudwell points specifically to the replacement of the linear narrative form by the stream-of-conscious- ness technique a literary version of the theory of relativity. This paradigmatic shift is made possible by what he identifies as the alienation of post-Romantic writers, which defines their outsider status an argument which prefigures Terry Eagleton's subsequent discussion of the exiled and emigré perspectives of English modernism.35 Caudwell writes that it is this essentially estranged vantage-point of the often expatriate author that is intrinsically linked to the rupture of modernism:

It is also not an accident that these authors, who are to be preoccupied with this epistemological problem of the observer, are each in some way alien to the culture they describe... James was an American expatriate. Hemingway, during the most important period of his artistic development, was a member of the American colony in Paris. Joyce and Moore are Irish expatriates. Conrad is a Polish expatriate . This sense of alienation is very vividly expressed in their writing by both Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.36

Indeed, the social alienation of the latter two novelists- Richardson and Woolf-is given an extra gender twist by Caudwell, again in a way which seems prescient of the much later debate among feminist critics about the culturally or biologically defined otherness of female writing:

Woman's critical attitude cannot be mainly cognitive or "rational" in form, because the cognitive elements in culture, as a result of man´s scientific role, are masculine. It must be therefore an uncognitive or emotional criticism. But bougeois art also is male and is also emotional, so that even here her emotion has to be of a special sort, alien to the emotional formulations of current art, which she regards as slick and artificial (cp. Virginia Woolf's criticism of Bennett and Wells). This primarily emotional attitude must be, for example, quite opposed to that of a Tolstoi; it must be fluid, tremulous, undefined, insecure, and blurred. Those particular emotional attutides which have given shape and direction to an art must, owing to their foreignness and lack of ready-made forms, issue as fluid, vague, and tremulous until they have built up a tradition of their own.37

Not only does this represent an early attempt to characterise what has later been called "female writing on the body";38 it also represents a pioneering call for the creation of a women's literature in its own right. Passages like this reveal the richness of Caudwell's criticism. Moreover, his eleborate analysis of the relationship between form and content, which he develops throughout his work, also undermines the repeated claim that his aesthetics were ideologically reductive. As Sol Yurick notes in his introduction to the Studies:

One begins to read; one is annoyed at the crudity, the groping; but one also reacts favorably, emotionally, to meaningful insights to be found in Studies in a Dying Culture.39

However, the purpose of this essay is not only to reassert the continued critical appeal of certain texts. These 1930s writers were trying to create a body of Marxist literary theory with hardly any antecedents, at least in terms of the English critical tradition. Therefore, their texts do of course bear the sometimes naive ideological stamp of their times, not least in their unequivocal political support of the Soviet Union. But the argument here is that their critical writings represent no mere historical curiosities, but contain much that is of value in the debate about literature and politics which still faces us today. One of the greatest critical strengths of the work of Caudwell, Fox and West is its reassertion of the central political aspect of the novel. It is to this nexus of politics and literature that I now turn.

It is perhaps not surprising that in the contemporary 1930s estimate of these three Marxist critics, the essentially political nature of their aesthetics was immediately recognised and celebrated. The reviews of their work, written soon after the death of Fox and Caudwell in Spain and published for instance in Left Review, focused naturally on the unity between radical theory and practice in their lives. In his "Testament of a Revolutionary," Douglas Garman reflected what many felt when he wrote of Caudwell as being

at the opposite pole to all those writers who set out from the assumption that art is a separate, isolated function to be discussed only in terms of itself. For him it is a force which, far from being static and subject to immutable aesthetic laws, is constantly changing and being changed by life, by social activity.40

In reviews of The Novel and the People and of Crisis and Criticism, Jack Lindsay also focused on the fundamentally political aspect of their critical works. Lindsay praised Fox for the "forceful way in which he reveals the relation of the great novelists to social struggles of their day, puts the modern novel in its proper perspective, deepens our sense of the aesthetic issues before us, and shows up the pure-artists in all their rootless triviality."41 In West's case, Lindsay, revealingly at this early stage, counters the potential accusation of vulgar Marxism:

His book, with Ralph Fox's The Novel and the People, finally explodes any notion that Marxism blunts aesthetic feeling. In the right hands, as here, Marxism strengthens aesthetic feeling. It makes deeper and wider the sense of relations within the work of art, and so heightens enjoyment... West has a profound sense of the relations of writer and society, of mental symbol and social fact.42

Although West, Fox, and Caudwell all take as their ideological starting-point the decisive contrast between a bourgeois culture in decay and a more dynamic socialist one in the making, this did not lead them to adopt a facile argument about the radical political content in the last analysis always defining literary value. As has been shown, both Fox and West were at particular pains to draw attention to the formal weaknesses of socialist realist novels written both inside and outside the Soviet Union. Caudwell on the other hand, in a less assertive manner than usual, chooses to reserve judgement on the gains of socialist realism. His reservation suggests, however, that he was not all that impressed by what had been achieved:

The next phase implies revolution and a negation of bourgeois culture, not as a mere negation but with a positive world-view, that of proletarian or Marxist culture. This phase with Gide, Dos Passos, André Malraux, and Barbusse in Europe, and the post-revolution Russian novelists in Russia, has already begun, but is still far too new for comment.43

In the sphere of poetry, Caudwell, himself a poet, went further. He criticised in no uncertain terms the overtly propagandist work of writers like Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis:

Such agitational poetry cannot be great poetry, because it springs from a divided world-view. It has an obscure bourgeois basis, on which is imposed a mechanical pseudo-Marxist revolutionary formula.44

One thus finds a refreshing lack of ideological prejudice in Caudwell's aesthetic views. Samuel Hynes, in his introduction to Romance and Realism, encapsulates well this quality in Caudwell's writing:

it is unlike much Marxist writing of the time in that it is not topical, or programmatical, or incendiary. It does not damn bourgeois literature; it does not predict a golden age of literature in a classless society; it does not exhort poets to write proletarian poems.45

Despite this openness on Caudwell's part, the question nonetheless remains, what was the central political thrust of Marxist aesthetics in his work, as well as in that of the other two critics? While characterising Caudwell, West, and Fox as "the most significant English Marxist writers on literature of the 1930s," Jeremy Hawthorn gives a largely implicit definition of the strengths of their critical writing, saying only that it does not deserve to be labeled as "sectarian, mechanical and Stalinist."46 Francis Mulhern, in his own elaborate and often turgid analysis of Caudwell's work, seems to conclude, along similar lines, that his contribution remains in the form of intellectual raw material¾"a copious source of insights and arguments needing critical reflection," but whose actual value is a matter of dispute.47

There is however, I would maintain, a much more specific quality¾a decisive critical preoccupation which all three of these 1930s Marxist writers share, and which retains its fundamental rele- vance today when postcolonial, postfeminist and perhaps even postdeconstructionist debates all seem to be reconverging onto the ideological function of the text.48 I refer to their foregrounding of an ideological analysis of the novel, which is, according to Fredric Jameson, "the appropriate designation for the critical 'method' specific to Marxism."49

At the same time, within this political framework, the dialectical reading of both text and context needs to be kept paramount. Caudwell thus warns against the mechanistic use of binary thinking when applied to art, counterposing a more subtle and sensitive application of dialectical discourse.50 Like West and Fox, he sought the key to a dialectical understanding of literature in the context of the social forces that shape it. Moreover, in a society in profound cultural crisis, such study of the social basis of aesthetics becomes particularly decisive. For Caudwell, the poet as well as the political activist, the two sides of this question formed a unified ideological whole. Faced with the increasing fragmentation of society, he saw the pursuit of political criticism as contributing to the rebuilding of a genuine human culture¾a utopian gesture perhaps, but still fundamentally necessary:

When a culture disintegrates, when we lose a world-view, then aesthetics too disintegrates: our values, which seemed so clear, so much part of the art-work, abruptly fade. To restore them, to advance beyond, to create a new art or new world-view, a new set of aesthetic values, a new life, is the purpose now of any analysis of the social generation of art. It then becomes an essential preliminary task for the recreation of art and aesthetics.51

In an appendix to The Novel and the People, Fox also raises the issue of the essentially dialectical relationship between literature and politics, in particular in connection with the work of Maxim Gorki, who had recently died. It is here that Fox makes some of his most clear-cut statements about the ideological function of the novel. However, while on the one hand reiterating that "in many cases literature is political, openly and deliberately political art,"52 Fox nonetheless stresses, on the other hand, the need to defend against the threat of fascism the humanist values that were upheld by the tradition of the middle-class realist novel: "The novel is the most important gift of bourgeois, or capitalist, civilisation to the world's imaginitive culture."53 It was also from this ideological standpoint that he judged the prime social significance of the genre itself. Indeed, Fox identifies this "philosophical" view of the novel as being at the heart of what makes great literary art:

It is true that novel-writing is a philosophical occupation. The great novels of the world ... are great precisely because they have this quality of thought behind them, because they are highly imaginative, inspired, if you like, commentaries on life. It is this quality which distinguishes the first-rate from the second-rate in fiction. It is true that there are philosophers who have lamentably failed to write novels, but no novelist has ever been able to create without possessing that ability for generalization about his characters which is the result of a philosophical attitude to life.54

More specifically, Fox saw this aesthetic achievement as being linked to the dialectical connection betwen type and individual in literature, a recurring aesthetic problematic which only the greatest of writers, such as Shakespeare, had succeeded in negotiating smoothly and convincingly in artistic terms:

Both Engels and Marx considered Shakespeare to be the one author who solved in a supreme way the problem of the presentation of the human personality. Shakespeare's chararaters are their ideal of how the Marxist writer should present man, as being at one and the same time a type and an individual, a representative of the mass and a single personality.55

Moreover, Fox once again emphasises the need for the novel's politics to be subsumed in its art. His own "Marxian" view, he hoped, did "not at all correspond with the popular illusion concerning revolutionary, or proletarian, literature, that such literature is little more than a scarcely disguised political tract."56 Yet although he maintained that "the author's own views must never obtrude [and that] the outlook must not be preached [but] should appear quite naturally from the circumstances and the characters themselves,"57 he nonetheless saw it as the function of the critic to tease out the ideological subtext the link between individual and social type. At such a nexus, the successful psychological depiction of character would coincide with the broader relevance of the text itself as a mirror of its time. In this, as in his own life, Fox remained true to the celebration of the radical cultural heritage he loved so well. With reference to the impact of world imperialism and the struggle for people's liberation everywhere, Fox thus recognised no artifical lines of demarcation between culture, criticism, and personal commitment:

Why have I dwelt in such detail on a political question? Because with the proper solution of this question is bound up the artistic question which is the subject of my essay. Our fate as a people is being decided today. It is our fortune to have been born at one of those moments in history which demand from each one of us as an individual that he make his private decision ...We are part of that spiritual community with the dead of which Wordsworth spoke, we cannot stand aside, and by our actions we shall extend our imagination, because we shall be true to the passions in us.58

Although West held, according to Arnold Kettle, "a certain suspicion of the kind of 'ideological' criticism found in the work of continental Marxists trained in the Hegelian tradition,"59 there is nonetheless in Crisis and Criticism a profound understanding of the ideological function of literature, in particular in relation to the debate about art and propaganda. Here West reproduces the classic Marxist argument concerning the triumph of realism over the political prejudices of the author. In West's version, however, the dialectical nature of this connection emerges with particular sharpness:

Though literature is propaganda, its value, as Marx and Engels insist, does not depend on its manifest programme. A work may talk revolution; but if it does not show revolution through society's creative movement, it is not fulfilling its function as literature; and the consequent abstractness of presentation in what claims to be a poem or novel, may repel the aim it sets forth. Or a work may talk reaction; but if it conveys the sense of the social movement it condemns, the manifestly reactionary work is more valuable than the manifestly revolutionary.60

Perhaps more than any other literary theoretical text from the 1930s Crisis and Criticism deals, as the title suggests, with a moment in historic time when the impact of the general political malaise on the cultural climate was seen to be most acute. In his discussion of the critical tradition laid down by Eliot, Read and Richards, West identifies this epistemological crisis not only in terms of a gradual retreat into bourgeois individualism and subjectivism, but also as an abandonment of the essental connection between the literary and the social, between the culture of the present and that of the past.61 At the same time, like Raymond Williams later, West identifies a powerful countercurrent of Romantic criticism in Britain, which still could be invoked as a progressive ideological force. Indeed, all three Marxist critics of the 1930s shared this tangible appreciation of the cultural and critical gains of the past, which could be mobilised to challenge the grave political threats of the present:

Romantic criticism was a great achievement. Its conception of social relations as constituting beauty in art, of a conflict reconciled in art, of poetry as the voice of humanity against oppression and injustice and of the duty of the poets to co-operate in ending them all these ideas are of the highest value. Instead of abusing them, or divorcing them from their social meaning, or preserving only their idealism, we have to use them.62

It is, however, once again in his concluding comparative chapters, on the work of James Joyce and Harold Heslop respectively, that West's theoretical approach is given its most persuasive dialectical direction. Here we see in practice what West means by "our pleasure and our power of criticism":

Consequently, the criticism of our lives, by the test of whether we are helping forward the most creative movement in our society, is the only effective foundation of the criticism of literature. The results of both kinds of criticism have the same validity.63

The result of this dual or dialectical approach to criticism can be discerned in West's close reading of Joyce's Ulysses, which is at once both sensitive to and critical of the ideological complications of the text. Where Radek at the Soviet Writers' Congress saw in Joyce's work only "a heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope,"64 West responded to Ulysses with a genuine feeling for the tangible sense of realism in the novel's literary method:

This seems to me the strength of Joyce's technique: his power to make us feel the content through bodily movement, to show the world as it is and yet in its human significance, and to give the sense of some indefinable, imminent event...65

At the same time, West identifies a certain lack of actual physical presence in Joyce's text, which in contrast he finds in the lesser linguistic talent of Heslop. It is a point of criticism that brings out in full the political essence of West's appreciation of literature:

Heslop´s general mood is that of participation in the productive activity of society; Joyce's [is one of] isolation. In spite of the difference in the relative gift of language, life in Heslop´s novel has a warm, bodily reality which Joyce, cut off from the social experience that makes life such, cannot create.66

Thus, once again, West locates the aesthetic weaknesses not in terms of the literay powers of the authors, but in their differing attitudes towards the social forces that lie behind what is being portrayed. Hence West's view of the function of criticism: "To understand the literary weakness, critcism must understand the underlying relation to society."67 This approach, common to all three critics, informed their exploration of the interdependence between literature, criticism, and the ideological context. In the 1930s, when the political attacks of fascism threatened to destroy all that was left of democratic culture, the merging of these spheres could be promoted as a necessary act of cultural resistance. In the light of what they were up against, the contribution of these three critics appears both unique and increasingly relevant to our own period of postmodern dislocation and political disorientation. As Francis Mulhern comments, these early critics were able, in the space of a year and with almost no previous Marxist cultural theory to build on, to produce a body of writing containing a rich and long-lasting legacy of ideas, from which we can still draw inspiration. Together with the radical British poets of the 1930s, Caudwell, West, and Fox were at the forefront of what Mulhern describes as "a literary Left" whose 

intellectual preoccupations were preselected by the very culture against which it pitted itself. Thus, while the decade produced no important political or sociological analyses of the British crisis, its output of "revolutionary poetry" and literary criticism was truly prodigious.68

The real achievement of these critics of the 1930s is at once more subtle and rich in critical awareness, as well as more vibrantly relevant to the concerns of our own time, than has often been suggested. In response to critics of his Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida asserts the need for a radical reassessment of the heritage of Marx and Marxism¾its victories as well as its defeats.69 The same could be said for the Marxist literary criticism of Britain in the 1930s. Not only were its texts less predictable in their literary preferences than has been claimed; their emphasis on the social and ideological aspect of literature is something which cultural theory still has to grapple with. For this, the writings of Christopher Caudwell, Alick West, and Ralph Fox continue to provide us with a vital source of both inspiration and instruction.


1. Orwell, George. "Why I Write," in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 1. An Age Like This. 1920-1940. Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1975. p. 28.

2. Ibid.

3. Branson, Noreen & Heinemann, Margot. Britain in the Nineteen Thirties. St. Albans: Panther Books, 1973. p. 321.

4. Margolies, David. "Left Review and Left Literay Theory," in Clark, Jon, et al. Culture and Crisis in Britain in the 30s. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979. p. 72.

5. Caudwell, Christopher. Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. p. xvii.

6. See for example Cornforth, Maurice. "Caudwell and Marxism," Modern Quarterly. Vol. 6, no. 1. Winter 1950-51.

7. Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. London: Methuen, 1976. p. 24. In a footnote reservation (p. 79), Eagleton also acknowledges Caudwell's "heroically" critical attempt "to construct a total Marxist aesthetic in notably unpropitious conditions."

8. Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society 1780-1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975. p. 268.

9. Hynes, Samuel. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s. London: Pimlico, 1992. p. 256.

10. Eagleton, Terry & Milne, Drew. Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. p. 103.

11. Caesar, Adrian. Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991. p. 236.

12. Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society. p. 268. Williams exempts West from the charge of taking the final step across these critical boundaries into vulgar Marxism.

13. Pawling, Christopher. Christopher Caudwell: Towards a Dialectical Theory of Literature. London: Macmillan, 1989. p. 126.

14. Haslett, Moyra. Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories. London: Macmillan, 2000. p. 86.

15. Jameson, Fredric. "Afterword," in Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso, 1977. p. 200.

16. Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974. p. xi.

17. Margolies, David. "Left Review and Left Literary Theory," Op. cit.(n. 4), p. 74.

18. Hawthorn, Jeremy. "Preface" to The Novel and the People. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979. p. 16.

19. Fox, Ralph. The Novel and the People. London: Cobbett Publishing & Co.,1944. p. 40.

20. Ibid. p. 130.

21. Ibid. p. 112.

22. Ibid. p. 130.

23. West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975. p. 98.

24. Radek, Karl. "Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of the Proletariat," in Soviet Writers´ Congress 1934: The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism. (1935) Reprinted: London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977. pp 73-162.

25. West, Alick. op. cit. p. 124.

26. West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1937. p. 183. At West´s bequest, this final chapter was removed from the 1975 reprint of the book.

27. Ibid. p. 197.

28. Ibid. p. 198.

29. See Hynes, Samuel. "Introduction" to Christopher Caudwell. Romance and Realism: A Study in English Bourgeois Literature. Pinceton: Princeton University Press, 1970. p. 25.

30. Caudwell, Christopher. Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture. p. xxiii.

31. Caudwell, Christopher. Illusion and Reality. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1966. p. 273.

32. Ibid.

33. See Caudwell, Christopher. The Crisis in Physics. Reprinted in The Concept of Freedom. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977.

34. Caudwell, Christopher. Romance and Realism. p. 98.

35. See Eagleton, Terry. Exiles and Emigrés: Studies in Modern Literature. London: Chatto & windus, 1970.

36. Caudwell, Christopher. Romance and Realism. pp. 99-100.

37. Ibid. pp 113-14.

38. See for example the articles on the "Body" in Robyn R. Warhol & Diane Price Herndl. eds. Feminisms: an Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1997. pp. 343-424.

39. Yurick, Sol. "Introduction" to Studies & Further Studies in a Dying Culture. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. p. 29.

40. Garman, Douglas. "Testament of a Revolutionary," Left Review. Vol. 3, No. 7. August 1937. Reprinted London: Frank Cass & Co, 1968. Vol. 7. p. 352. All references are to this edition.

41. Lindsay, Jack. "Marxism and the Novel," Left Review. Vol. 6. p. 51.

42. Lindsay, Jack. "Writer and Society," Left Review. Vol. 6. p. 115.

43. Caudwell, Christopher. Romance and Realism. p. 118.

44. Ibid. p. 135.

45. Hynes, Samuel. "Introduction" to Romance and Realism. p. 27.

46. Hawthorn, Jeremy. "Preface" to The Novel and the People. p. 17.

47. Mulhern, Francis. "The Marxist Aesthetics of Christopher Caudwell," New Left Review. No. 85. May-June 1974. p. 58. Mulhern maintains for instance that Caudwell's "most important production is indubitably Illusion and Reality." Ibid. p. 39. In contrast, E. P. Thompson suggests that any assessment of Caudwell's work "must commence by down-grading Illusion and Reality very severely. But then we must up-grade, equally firmly, Studies in a Dying Culure, some parts of The Crisis in Physics, and several of the Further Studies." Thompson, E. P. "Christopher Caudwell." Reprinted in Persons and Polemics: Historical Essays. London: Merlin Press, 1994. p. 84.

48. See for example Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx. London: Routledge, 1994. Also, Sim, Stuart ed. Post-Marxism: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

49. Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Routledge, 1989. p. 12.

50. Caudwell, Christopher. Romance and Realism. p. 33.

51. Ibid. pp 139-40.

52. Fox, Ralph. The Novel and the People. p. 161.

53. Ibid. p. 53.

54. Ibid. pp. 54-5.

55. Ibid. p. 106.

56. Ibid. p. 107.

57. Ibid. p. 108.

58. Ibid. p. 148.

59. Kettle, Arnold. "Foreword" to Crisis and Criticism. (1975) p. 3.

60. West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism. (1975) p. 99.

61. See ibid. p. 66.

62. Ibid. p. 70.

63. Ibid. p. 102.

64. Radek, Karl. op. cit. (n. 24), p. 153.

65. West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism. (1975) p. 126.

66. West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism (1937) p. 185.

67. Ibid. p. 198.

68. Mulhern, Francis. op. cit. (n. 47) p. 40.

69. Derrida, Jacques. op. cit. (n. 48) p. 221.