Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 01 Nov 2018

British Communism & The Politics of Literature 1928 – 1939 by Philip Bounds

First published in 2012, British Communism & The Politics of Literature 1928 – 1939 is a scholarly attempt to reassess the contribution to literary criticism made by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the inter-war years.

It’s quite hard from this distance to appreciate the political and cultural influence that communism played in these years – it was, I think, the high-tide of British Communism even if that wasn’t necessarily reflected in a mass membership. Artists, writers, musicians (many of them household names) from across all aspects of those disciplines joined and left in rapid succession. They were, in fact, probably outnumbered by those who didn’t join but were sympathetic to ‘the good old cause’ – the so-called ‘fellow travellers’.

So why have the communist thinkers, the literary critics of that period, been lost to what EP Thompson famously called "the enormous condescension of posterity"? Bounds tries to answer that question and, at the same time, illuminate the key ideas that these writers were seeking to draw out. To do this, he focuses on three specific figures he sees as being at the core of the CPGB’s literary and critical vanguard – Alick West, Ralph Fox and Christopher Caudwell – and argues that their work has been too readily dismissed as crude Stalinist propaganda.

However, before turning to the work of these individuals, Bounds takes some time to set out the international politics of this period and describes in some detail the way in which the Soviet Union used its influence to shape and mould artistic output and, especially, the role of the writer in the attempt to spread global communist revolution.

Two significant and contradictory ideological positions dominate the nature of the  literary criticism coming from the CPGB during these inter-war years. Firstly there were the years between 1928 – 1933 when a policy known as ‘class against class’ was advocated, where the Soviet directive was to withdraw from any co-operation with other Leftist groups who they characterised as accommodating capitalism ( the so-called ‘social fascists’). This was, however, followed by a sharp U-turn in that policy to what became known as the ‘popular front’ where CPGB members were encouraged to form alliances with allies of any political persuasion who opposed the march of fascism. Unsurprisingly perhaps, a number of writers found conforming to these very different positions a difficult thing to do.

All of this was informed by what was perhaps the most significant policy development in terms of literature – the Soviet Writers Congress of 1934, which attempted to dogmatically assert that the only legitimate form of fiction could take was a ‘social realist’ one and that its purpose should always be the furthering of the communist revolutionary message.

Reviewing Bound’s book on its release, Jack Farmer writing in the Socialist Review has this to say:

“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.”

But what Bounds goes on to argue is that West, Fox and Caudwell responded to these constraints in very different ways and cannot be simply passed over as CPGB stooges. His analysis of their output is meticulous – perhaps sometimes too meticulous for the interested lay reader – but the case he makes for these literary critics to have a place in the wider pantheon of writers from that time is a strong one. He acknowledges that these writers were working under constraints that made moving beyond the ‘deformations of Soviet Marxism’ difficult but:

“..what it overlooks are the parallels between the communist criticism of the 1930’s and the founding texts of Cultural Studies – especially the three books ( Culture and Society, The Long Revolution and Communications) in which (Raymond Williams) laid out his proposals for cultural reform. As is well known, Williams argued that the New Left should strive to create a ‘common culture’ in Britain that would be rooted in the communitarian values of the working class.”

It’s certainly the case that this book is a niche interest and it’s not going to appeal to those readers who like a relaxing read and a good story. It does however do precisely what Andy Croft claims for it:

“ It is a real triumph: wide-ranging, lively, original and engaged, showing the practical application of literary criticism to politics, rescuing some long-lost reputations from the ‘enormous condescension’ of posterity and reminding us that there was once a time when the Left believed literature could help change the world.”

As with many academic books, copies don’t come cheap and you should expect to pay over £15 for a paperback edition.


Terry Potter

November 2018