E.P. Thompson




From The Socialist Register 1977, pp.228-276.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the Socialist Register Website.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


Christopher St. John Sprigg (Christopher Caudwell) was killed in action, forty years ago, on February 12th, 1937, on the Jarama River, covering with a machine-gun the retreat of his fellows in the British battalion of the International Brigade. He was then twenty-nine years old. [1*] He was unknown to the intellectual world, even of the Left. All his significant works – Illusion and Reality, Studies in a Dying Culture, Further Studies, The Crisis of Physics, and Romance and Realism [1] – were published posthumously.

All these works were written in two years, 1935-36, years in which his output included also poems and short stories (mainly unpublished), free-lance journalism, detective novels. He also joined, at the end of 1935, the Poplar branch of the Communist Party, and took an active part in branch life.

There was also, throughout this period, a voracious ingestion of new reading. Caudwell was ‘self-taught’: he had left school (for journalism) before he was fifteen, and he was never exposed to formal advanced education.

Caudwell defies the usual stereotypes of the literary Left of the Thirties. These stereotypes are, in any case, of questionable validity. Even so, Caudwell does not belong to the ambience of Left Review, the Left Book Clubs or Unity Theatre; and he had avoided public school and university altogether. He disliked, and avoided the company of intellectual circles, even (perhaps especially) of the Left. He appears to have had few friends, and to have developed his thought in isolation. His style, with its polemical attack, its lack of any reverence for the demarcation-lines of disciplines, its impatience of scholarly apparatus, must appear strange, even ‘vulgar’, to today’s practitioners of the Marxism of the Academy. And there can be no doubt that Caudwell wrote too much and wrote too fast; some parts of Illusion and Reality were written (in the summer of 1935 in Cornwall) at the rate of 5,000 words a day. This book, at least, he was able to prepare for the press. All the remainder was left in manuscript (sometimes corrected, sometimes requiring further revision) when he left for Spain. We cannot be certain as to the author’s own intentions with these unfinished manuscripts. [2]

All this is unpromising. It is not difficult to see Caudwell as a phenomenon – as an extraordinary shooting-star crossing England’s empirical night – as a premonitory sign of a more sophisticated Marxism whose true annunciation was delayed until the Sixties. But we would be foolish to expect much more of such a brief, intense and isolated intellectual episode. The image which comes to mind, involuntarily, is that of fire: a consciousness too bright and self-consuming – images of burning, of ignition, of phosphorescence, came readily to Caudwell’s own pen. That being said (and tribute having been paid) it is easy to tidy Caudwell away, as an episode in the pre-history of British Marxism.

I cannot accept this conclusion. Some part of Caudwell’s thought seems to me more significant than this, and its impulse is not yet exhausted. Studies in a Dying Culture played a significant part in the intellectual biography of my own generation. Recent studies by younger scholars seem to me to misunderstand what were Caudwell’s central and most creative preoccupations. Moreover, as our own preoccupations change, so Caudwell’s work presents itself for a new kind of interrogation. In his Foreword to Studies Caudwell asked, rhetorically, for an explanation of the ‘anarchy’ of bourgeois intellectual culture: ‘Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science, and art.’ But in the past two decades the Devil has come amongst Marxists, having exceeding great power, productive of a comparable anarchy. It is no longer possible to suppose a Marxist orthodoxy against which Caudwell can be judged, confirmed or found wanting. We can no longer ask whether Caudwell was or was not ‘correct’; we have to approach his work with a renewed attention, and examine whether he may have offered solutions to difficulties which are far from being resolved. This changes the whole character of the necessary investigation.


But to write about Caudwell’s thought brings one, at once, face to face with a problem of unusual difficulty: what was Caudwell’s thought about? The question seems to call for two quite easy answers. First, Caudwell was centrally concerned with problems of aesthetics and of literary criticism. A serious recent study assumes (but does not show) that Illusion and Reality was his ‘major work’; ‘indubitably’ it was ‘his most important production.’ [3] This is the received view; it has not been contested; and one suspects that younger Marxists today do not read Caudwell at all unless they are interested in aesthetics, and that those who do content themselves with an impatient survey of Illusion and Reality. [4]

If Caudwell’s central work was about literary criticism, in any of its generally accepted connotations, then we must accept the judgement that this work remains of interest only in a disconcerting, admonitory way. Raymond Williams noted, in Culture and Society, that Caudwell ‘has little to say of actual literature that is even interesting’: ‘his discussion is not even specific enough to be wrong.’ [5] I do not wish to contest this judgement. [6] Nor do I think that it can be evaded by shifting our attention from Caudwell’s criticism to his ‘aesthetics’. Certainly, Caudwell was concerned with ‘the function of literature’, and he developed interesting arguments from cultural anthropology which bear upon aesthetics. But I cannot see that large claims can be made for Caudwell’s ‘aesthetics’ if it cannot be shown that he was engaged in any close way with the study of literary artefacts. The arguments remain as assertions, insecurely grounded upon unexamined evidence. So that we are now forced back upon the second, and easier, answer to our question. Caudwell’s thought – so runs the answer – was about a great many things. He was ‘brilliant’ and ‘versatile’. He moved eloquently among problems of physics, philosophy, literary criticism, anthropology, neurology, psycho-analysis, and so on. He said, perhaps, nothing definitive about any of these. But we have – as Professor J.B.S. Haldane noted in an early review – ‘a quarry of ideas’. With singular unanimity, commentators on Caudwell have grasped at this conclusion. It is the consensus (sometimes grudging) reached in the famous ‘Caudwell controversy’ in The Modern Quarterly in 1950-51. It is a conclusion also of Mulhern: ‘Caudwell’s work is best seen not as a system to be appropriated as a whole, but as a copious source of insights and arguments needing critical reflection.’ [7]

But here the difficulties enlarge. One quality in Caudwell which attracted, and sometimes bemused, his contemporaries was the extraordinary width of his intellectual range. But what if this width went along with error and shallowness in each field which he touched? This would appear to be another conclusion in today’s received wisdom. Eagleton has expressed it with eloquence:

Insulated from much of Europe, intellectually isolated even within his own society, permeated by Stalinism and idealism, bereft of ‘a theory of superstructure’, Caudwell nonetheless persevered in the historically hopeless task of producing from these unpropitious conditions a fully-fledged Marxist aesthetic. His work bears all the scars of that self-contradictory enterprise: speculative and erratic, studded with random insights, punctuated by hectic forrays into and out of alien territories and strewn with hair-raising theoretical vulgarities. [8]

This passage might usefully be examined. We have, once again, the ‘quarry of ideas’ (’studded with random insights’); but, with ‘random’, we must suppose the quarry to produce many kinds of stone as well as much useless shale. It is, again, assumed (but not shown) that Caudwell’s project was to construct ‘a Marxist aesthetic’. But how far can that other assumption (now widely accepted as a revealed truth) as to the utter poverty and provincialism of the thought available to a British Marxist in the Thirties be sustained? In the bibliography to Illusion and Reality (over 500 titles) one is struck by the preeminence of anthropology [9], an attention appropriate in a work which was sub-titled, A Study in the Sources of Poetry. [10] Psychology and neurology also take a prominent position. How far was this enterprise ‘insulated from much of Europe’? Allowance must be made for changing fashions and for the slow establishment of certain reputations. But it may be noted that the bibliography includes works by Bukharin, Cassirer, Croce, Durkheim, the Gestalt psychologists, Levy-Bruhl, Malinowski, Piaget and Saussure, as well as Freud, Jung, Adler, Pavlov, Van Gennep, Planck, Ribot, Roheim, Sapir and so on. There are gaps, of course, but this can scarcely be described as ‘insulation’.

But the most striking phrase in Eagleton’s summary is ‘punctuated by hectic forays into and out of alien territories’. The bibliography suggests that the territories which Caudwell inhabited most securely while writing Illusion and Reality were anthropology and psychology (with neurology) and that, if anything, the forrays were into literature and linguistics. But what is that word alien doing there? Must genetics, anthropology, mathematics, neurology and physiology be alien to literary pursuits, irrelevant to an investigation into the sources of poetry? One fears that this is, indeed, the implication.

The dissociation between ‘science’ and ‘art’ was, in Caudwell’s view, a prime symptom of the crisis in bourgeois culture. Indeed, he argued that this culture could be seen to be dying because of its inability to hold together in any one philosophic place a unitary world-view. His argument here was strenuous, even obsessive, and we can scarcely meet him, in his own chosen terms, if we disregard it. But yet, how far did Caudwell himself really succeed in straddling the two halves of our culture, and how are we, who fall within one or the other, to decide?

Whatever virtue exists in The Crisis in Physics and in two of the Further Studies rests upon their general competence in areas which are normally terra incognita to poets, critics, historians and sociologists. I am certainly unable to judge this virtue. Moreover, certain of Caudwell’s arguments rest not only upon the supposition that he has correctly understood the knowledge of the science contemporary to him, but also – as in his argument about the cortex and the unconscious in ‘Consciousness’ – upon whether the science then available to him has stood the test of the past forty years. To sit in judgement on these copious insights we are forced to convene an inter-disciplinary committee. But the experts, as always, fail to speak with a united voice. When his work was first presented it was commended by scientists as eminent as Haldane. But there followed, in 1951, a devastating judgement from a scientist of unusual breadth of knowledge, J.D. Bernal: ‘It is largely on account of his use of the language of popular science that Caudwell’s work has had ... such an appeal to intellectuals, particularly to literary intellectuals.’ His formulations, Bernal argues, were not only schematic or, sometimes, plainly wrong [11], but they were accompanied by a capitulation to ‘contemporary bourgeois scientific philosophy.’

This would seem to leave us with a negative judgement of finality. And yet, embedded in Bernal’s critique (to which no other scientist had an opportunity to reply [12]) there is a large reservation which has gone unnoticed: ‘It is true that Caudwell criticised, brilliantly and destructively, the philosophical conclusions of bourgeois scientists ...’ So Caudwell’s criticism of bourgeois science was (his sternest critic allows) ‘brilliant’, and it is not easy to see how a mere populariser could mount such a critique. And are we entitled to absolute confidence in the judgement of Bernal (and of other critics in that controversy) as to what was, or was not, ‘bourgeois’ about the science or the psycho-analysis of their time? For these same critics were, at that same time, apologising for or applauding Zhdanov’s crass interventions in Soviet intellectual life, Stalin’s masterful solution of the problems of linguistics, and the revolutionary character of Lysenko’s genetics. Indeed, this may have been one reason why the ‘Caudwell Controversy’ ever broke the surface of the British Communist Party’s normally monolithic press. In those worst years of the intellectual Cold War the international Communist movement had embarked on a rigorous campaign to correct or expose all ‘bourgeois’ heresies, and the assault on Caudwell was perhaps seen, by the directors of the Party’s press, as a small purgative exercise in the Zhdanov mode.

I suggest, with hesitation, that Caudwell’s scientific incompetence has not been finally shown. If the vocabulary of neurology, [13] of physics, and of linguistics have been revised since his time, the problems which he pointed towards (with an inadequate vocabulary) may still remain. As we shall see, Caudwell’s preoccupations within the sciences were not substantive but epistemological. Even so, just as we cannot reasonably offer Caudwell as a literary critic, so we cannot suffer him as ‘a scientist’. Perhaps, then, he was no kind of specialist, but should be seen simply as a creative Marxist, or a Marxist philosopher, who could deal ‘brilliantly and destructively’ with the methods and conclusions of bourgeois scientific or literary study? But this leads us into further difficulties again. For it raises at once the question: was Caudwell a Marxist at all? And, if so, of what kind?

Undoubtedly Caudwell supposed himself to be a Marxist. He was also an active Communist, and his commitment led him to that death on Jarama Ridge. That death, in its turn, threw light retrospectively upon his intellectual commitment, authenticating it beyond interrogation. But, while honourable, his political judgements are not thereby shown to have been always wise or philosophically well-founded. His Studies assume throughout an orthodox antinomy between a dying bourgeois culture, on one hand, and an ascendant and healthy Soviet and Communist culture on the other. The Soviet Union appears, not as a subject for enquiry, but as a rhetorical affirmative antithesis to the maladies of the capitalist world; and these rhetorical flourishes date his work as surely as the rhetorical anti-Jacobinism dates the later work of Burke or much of the work of Coleridge. We must agree that this is so, although in none of these cases does this ‘dating’ altogether disallow or overthrow the ulterior argument. But, in Caudwell’s case, it has often been asked whether this ulterior argument was Marxist at all?

Once again, it is Raymond Williams who defines the problem with the most accurate touch. He shows, with reference to Illusion and Reality and Further Studies, that certain of Caudwell’s definitions appear to revalue Marx’s basic conception of the relation between social being and social consciousness. This might (he adds in passing) be ‘an improvement of Marx’, but the question is left unresolved: it is ‘a quarrel which one who is not a Marxist will not attempt to resolve.’ Williams, whose relation to Marxism has become increasingly close and complex, would not (one supposes) take the same exit today; indeed, he has recently signalled that his views of Caudwell have undergone some revision. [14] For it is a point of some substance. If Caudwell had in fact offered ‘an improvement of Marx’, and opened the way to a resolution of rather familiar difficulties, then this would raise immensely the interest of Caudwell’s work. At the time when Culture and Society was written, Williams was mainly concerned with identifying these difficulties and defining these contradictions. Today we should be more concerned with moving on to resolutions.

That was not, however, the spirit in which, several years before, the ‘Caudwell Controversy’ had been conducted. As one might expect, in that place and at that time, the argument was initiated (by Maurice Cornforth) on the grounds of whether Caudwell was or was not a proper and orthodox Marxist, according to an orthodoxy increasingly petrified by Stalinist doctrine. [15] Despite the efforts of Caudwell’s defenders [16], the argument never succeeded in escaping from the terms in which it had at first been set.

We are in difficulties. Caudwell (it is agreed) was a poor critic. His credentials as a theorist of aesthetics, as a scientist, and as a Marxist have all been questioned. His political judgement was honourable but naive. But in this train of argument something has been left to him, and this has not (to my knowledge) been adequately examined. I will not go over my tracks again. Instead, I will propose, assertively, a different way into Caudwell’s work.

This must commence by down-grading Illusion and Reality very severely. But then we must up-grade, equally firmly, Studies in a Dying Culture, some part of The Crisis in Physics, and several of the Further Studies. The strengths found here will enable us to retrieve a part, but only a small part, of Illusion and Reality. Only this procedure can lead us to Caudwell’s central theoretical concerns.

Caudwell was an anatomist of ideology. He was obsessed with the characteristic illusions of the bourgeois epoch, with the logic of these illusions (their epistemological expression and their epistemological consequences), and with the way in which, possessed by these illusions, we ‘stand in our own light’. Caudwell’s insights were not only copious: they were connected by unitary preoccupations. These preoccupations carry him quite far into significant questions in cultural anthropology, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and also, possibly, in physics and neurology. Insofar as certain of these same ideological illusions had penetrated deeply into orthodox Marxism also, so that what went by the name of Marxism was standing in its own light, Caudwell was potentially a heretic within the orthodox Marxist tradition. He may or may not have known this: we should at least note that his dismissal of conventional Marxist reflection theory was blunt, even brutal, and suggests a conscious polemic. His heretic potential was, anyway, sensed subsequently by the orthodox and by fellow heretics alike: this alone can explain the sudden blossoming, at the zenith of ideological Stalinism, of the ‘Caudwell Controversy’, like a crimson cactus in flower in the sand-hills of The Modern Quarterly. For that argument was, at root, a displaced and ill-conducted argument between dogmatic and creative Marxism, for which the structures of the Communist Party offered no other outlet. And, finally, it will be argued, Caudwell’s heresy, or his creative impulse, is not exhausted yet.


Let us, then, enter Caudwell’s world from a new direction. Illusion and Reality is in no respect to be seen as his major work. It was written while Caudwell was undergoing a self-conversion to Marxism, from late 1934 to the autumn of 1935. I do not wish to labour its deficiencies, but will assert these as I find them. Despite an impression gained from the chapter-headings, of massive and complex organisation, it is an ill-organised, involuted, and repetitive book. In the first two chapters, and thereafter in passages in the later chapters, Caudwell draws on occasion to advantage upon the findings of anthropologists as to the function of song and verse in primitive and tribal societies. This proper junction between anthropology and aesthetics was not original, but Caudwell gave a new emphasis to this junction within terms of a Marxist exposition. The creative possibilities of this approach were realised, less in Caudwell’s own work than in that of those most directly influenced by him: notably, in George Thomson’s Aeschylus and Athens (1941) and in his lucid Marxism and Poetry (1945).

There follow four chapters on the development of English poetry – chapters (and a notorious ‘table’) which have only been a source of embarrassment to Marxist critics. Then we pass, by way of some uneven (but sometimes interesting) passages on language and epistemology, to those chapters (The Psyche and Phantasy, Poetry’s Dream-work) in which Caudwell seeks to come to terms with contemporary psychoanalysis. In general, Caudwell’s nose is pressed too closely against the window-pane of his recent reading, and the interval between ingestion and critical reflection has been too brief for him to get his thoughts into order. Finally, we come to some euphoric conclusions about Communist art, in which the influence of Bukharin’s optimistic public rhetoric (1934) [17] can be clearly seen. Assertively throughout the book ‘the bourgeois’ (an epochal noun) has been denounced, but since the denunciation lacks specificity, the tone becomes over-bearing and pharasaical.

It is a bad book. Cornforth and Mulhern have correctly indicated certain deforming weaknesses, and in particular the analytic preference for simplistic binary oppositions: Man/Nature: Science/Art: Instincts (or ‘genotype’)/Society. Other criticisms, as to Caudwell’s ‘idealism’, are (I will argue) less well-founded.

The relation between Illusion and Reality and the Studies still needs clarification. I have always supposed that the Studies are the later work; many passages in both works are clearly and closely related, but in every case the statement in the Studies is more lucid and more cogent. The account given by Caudwell’s latest editor confirms this sequence. [18] Caudwell commenced Studies in a Dying Culture late in 1935, shortly before joining the Communist Party, and a first draft was completed in April 1936. All the studies (including Further Studies) were part of a single conception. Caudwell had planned to use, as an epigraph to all the studies, a quotation from Lenin: ‘Communism becomes an empty phrase, a mere facade, and the Communist a mere bluffer, if he has not worked over in his consciousness the-whole inheritance of human knowledge. [19] This is a quite extraordinary project, to undertake in real earnest and to commit to paper. During the summer and autumn of 1936 revision and expansion continued: the study on physics was expanded (in The Crisis in Physics) to book-length. Romance and Realism is another expanded study, and a further study, on biology, remains unpublished. It is not possible to say how far Caudwell considered any of the work to be completed: some part clearly stood in need of revision, and has suffered from inexpert editing. [20]

So the studies are, not the mature Caudwell, but as mature as Caudwell became. For opposing reasons they were deprived of the full light of critical attention when they appeared. Studies in a Dying Culture (1938) was obscured, as by a magnesium flare, by the illumination of his self-sacrifice in Spain: friends were elegaic, critics were subdued. Further Studies (1949) appeared in some of the worst ideological moments of the Cold War; damned or ignored by an ascendant conservatism, it aroused the suspicion of a consolidating Stalinism. Nor was this suspicion without some basis. For Caudwell’s reputation had by then begun to acquire a kind of underground, proto-revisionist status.

Caudwell’s style was one occasion for this suspicion: it has often been thought to be difficult. Initiating the debate in The Modern Quarterly, Cornforth argued that the difficulty arises ‘because his thought is nebulous, shifting, eclectic and inconsistent; because he clothes simple things in a veil of obscure phrases, and drags with him the confusions of bourgeois ideology. Caudwell’s style ... is not yet the style of a Marxist.’ Let us take, from the first few pages of Studies in a Dying Culture, a sample of this style: Shaw (he is arguing) fails because he represents human beings ‘as walking intellects’:

Fortunately they are not, or the human race would long ago have perished in some dream-fantasy of logic and metaphysics. Human beings are mountains of unconscious being, walking the old grooves of instinct and simple life, with a kind of occasional phosphorescence of consciousness at the summit. And this conscious phosphorescence derives its value and its power from the emotions, from the instincts; only its form is derived from the intellectual shapes of thought. Age by age man strives to make this consciousness more intense, the artist by subtilising and intensifying the emotions, the scientist by making fuller and more real the thought form, and in both cases this is done by burning more being in the thin flame. Shaw, however, is obsessed with the ‘pure’ flame, phosphorescence separate from being ...

This mixed thought and feeling of consciousness is not the source of social power, only a component of it. Society with its workshops, its buildings, its material solidity, is always present below real being and is a kind of vast reservoir of the unknown, unconscious and irrational in every man, so that of everyone we can say his conscious life is only a fitful gleam on the mass of his whole existence. Moreover, there is a kind of carapacious toughness about the conscious part of society which resists change, even while, below these generalisations, changes in material and technique and real detailed being are going on.

It is the tension ‘between man’s being and man’s consciousness, which drives on society and makes life vital.’ (S.D.C., 5-7).

Two comments spring to mind. First, this is not the style of ‘a Marxist’, in the conventions sanctioned as ‘correct’ in Communist publications of 1946-56 (but very much less in the Thirties): it is Caudwell’s own style. He has thrown away the crutches of authorised texts, and is walking on his own. Everything that he writes is thought through afresh and is expressed in his own way. But (the second comment) it is not always thought through consistently. For the passage exposes him to the criticisms expressed by Cornforth. ‘Nebulous’: are we to take ‘the emotions’ and ‘the instincts’ (from which consciousness ‘derives its value’) as being, ultimately, the same effects? ‘Shifting’: is ‘being’ to be taken as ‘instinct and simple life’ or as ‘society’, which is ‘always present below real being”? ‘Inconsistent’: is the tension which ‘drives on society’ between being and consciousness, or between social being and social consciousness (two different propositions), and can a ‘tension’ drive society unless some ulterior dynamic gives rise to this tension?

Caudwell’s style is fluent, cogent and assertive. There are repetitions – repeated nodal points of argument to which we return again and again: notably, the compulsive nature of market relations in contradiction to the bourgeois illusion of freedom. There are also lesions of logic, shifts and jumps; there are long views which are sometimes very much too long – whole historical epochs characterised in a paragraph, or passages of scientific allusion which are not always apt. There is also, on occasion, a millennarial or messianic tone. It is a dying culture, and the alternative – Communism – appears clear, absolute and immanent. Caudwell is throughout impatient of mediations; the passage from economy to ideology is swift and compulsive. Above all, the dialectical mode of analysis in his hands leads to an over-readiness to propose binary oppositions: there are, frequently, only two forms or two choices; we move always among antinomies, and society or ideology arrange themselves around two ‘poles’. Even the passage we have considered moves always between being/consciousness: value/form: the artist/the scientist: instinct (emotion)/thought.

But the passage prompts a third comment. It succeeds, in places, in conveying a metaphoric meaning which is not co-incident with its apparent rational argument. Caudwell is polemicising against Shaw’s belief in ‘the solitary primacy of thought’; his emphasis falls upon the immense inertia of habit, custom and tradition (’mountains of unconscious being, walking the old grooves of instinct and simple life’), upon the social determination of thought (’Society ... with its material solidity ... a vast reservoir of the unknown, unconscious and irrational in every man’), upon the precariousness of consciousness (’occasional phosphorescence’) and yet upon the ardour and consuming force of the intellectual enterprise (’burning more being in the thin flame’). The passage has, as it were, a dual life: a rational argument, imprecise and shifting in its terms, and a metaphoric and allusive life, persuasive and suggestive and of greater vitality. That the two lives do not cohere should properly arouse suspicion: logic is becoming subservient to rhetoric. But the vitality of the metaphoric life – which is the signature of all of Caudwell’s best writing – suggests a different kind of confidence in handling ideas, and a capacity to precipitate abstractions into concrete images. Where the two lives do cohere (and they often do in the studies) the imagination seizes upon the concept and endows it with passion.

What then is communicated is not just a new ‘idea’ (or an old idea freshly communicated) but a new way of seeing. For such images may be both concrete and conceptually ambiguous, in the sense that they cannot easily be slotted into the categories which we have prepared in our minds to receive them: ‘mountains of unconscious being’, ‘phosphorescence’. Hence they prompt unease, they generate further enquiry, they challenge habitual mental routines. It is this kind of challenge which Caudwell presented to his generation, and we cannot understand this if we discard his metaphors, disregard his antithetical figures, reduce his thought to expository precis, and then measure it beside a precis of Marx or Stalin or Althusser. For what we have then lost, with Caudwell’s ‘style’, is Caudwell’s way of seeing.

His way of seeing, his mode of apprehension, was ‘dialectical’. This tells us little: the term can cover as many sins as virtues. It can indicate mere schematism, barren and wilful paradox, inflated mystification, as well as the binary oscillations and polar antitheses of which we have already convicted Caudwell. These certainly are present, but they are not all that is present. He also has a way of seeing coincident and opposed potentialities within a single ‘moment’ and of following through the contradictory logic of ideological process. This strength is not only a way of seeing, it is a way of teaching others how to see. After Blake and Marx, this faculty of dialectical vision has been rare enough for us to regard it with a special respect. Nor was this vision easily attained. It was attained, although only insecurely, in his final year of writing, and it was the product of a cogent and clearly-developed interactionist epistemology. This is what we must now examine.


To attempt to work over ‘the whole inheritance of human knowledge’ would be to go on a fool’s errand if one did not suppose there to be some uniting structures or qualities to be found in this inheritance. Caudwell supposed these to be epistemological and ideological. He studied thought, less in its products than in its process. He watched himself as he thought. He watched himself as he loved. He even watched love as he loved –

A wind impalpable that blows one way
All the mind’s stiff and treelike qualities ...

To be in love, when ‘flesh usurps the brain’s forsaken zone’, prompted a sense of epistemological crisis:

When I could bite my tongue out in desire
To have your body, local now to me,
You were a woman, and your proper image
Unvarying on the black screen of the night,
What are you now? A thigh, a smile, an odour:
A cloud of anecdotes and fed desires
Bubblingly unfolds inside my brain
To vex its vision with a monstrous beast ... [21]

Fulfilled love, by breaking down the distance between subject and object, proposed questions, not about loving, but about knowing.

We recall also the references to the ‘occasional phosphorescence’ of consciousness, and to the artist and scientist ‘burning more being in the thin flame’. The images appealed to him. But we should go on to note that they were something more than a gesture of rhetoric. In ‘Consciousness’ he asks: ‘What governs the tiny localisations of conscious light in the vast Arctic night of the cortex?’ (F.S., 192-3). A good question, perhaps, but not one to which we should anticipate an answer. But Caudwell does, then, go on to propose an answer, in terms of the relation between the thalamus and the cortex. This is decidedly unsettling to a literary consciousness, which does not like to be seen in such a material aspect. And it is interesting that it lies almost wholly outside the terms of today’s dominant Marxist consciousness also – at least of that part which has been defined as ‘Western Marxism’. It is one thing to assert, as an abstract proviso, that all matter, society and culture are mutually related or mutually determining; it is quite another thing to examine, or even to argue about, their mediations and determinations; and another thing again to take this argument into the privacy of our own theoretical heads, and to suggest that even Theory itself may be composed of ‘the affective “heating” of cortical traces’. This is, presumably, an example of a ‘hectic foray’ into ‘alien territories’.

For much Western Marxism has been able to dispense with material (and sometimes even historical) determinants of thought, unless in a ‘last instance’ way, as a kind of pre-theoretical proviso. By obscure and not-always-acknowledged routes (one being phenomenology) this Marxism has arrived at the oddly-idealist conclusion that all that can be known to thought are thought and its ideal materials: we may correctly examine a category but not a cortex. To examine a cortex, during the course of an epistemological enquiry, would be, according to this orthodoxy, to surrender to the most vulgar positivism or behaviourism.

Yet, oddly enough, Caudwell himself polemicises stridently and even repetitively against mechanical materialism and positivism. And (what is equally odd) the burden of the criticism brought against him in the Modern Quarterly controversy of 1950-1 was that of ‘idealism’. It is necessary to situate Caudwell’s writings against the background of epistemological ‘reflection-theory’, that intellectually-constrictive orthodoxy which, descended in some part from Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, had been congealed by Stalin and dispersed throughout the international Communist movement as doctrine. In his summation to that controversy, Maurice Cornforth (who subsequently wrote some better philosophy than this) expressed the common-sense of his own orthodox generation:

It is a fundamental idea of materialism (I quote Stalin and add my own italics) ‘that the multifold phenomena of the world constitute different forms of matter in motion,’ and ‘that matter is primary, since it is the source of sensations, ideas, mind, and that mind is secondary, derivative, since it is a reflection of matter, a reflection of being.’ [22]

What is implicit here is that ‘mind’ affords some kind of copy of ‘matter’, although a copy distorted by ideological illusions. A uniting theme of all the studies (of which The Crisis in Physics was originally one) is a critical examination of exactly this proposition. Although I cannot recall any place where these are cited, Caudwell might well have been exploring the consequences imposed by Marx’s first two theses on Feuerbach. [23] These consequences were detected equally in the arts, the sciences, and in philosophy. The bourgeois, brought up on a diet of dualism, cannot conceive that subject and object are not mutually exclusive opposites.’ But in fact, ‘complete objectivity brings us back to complete subjectivity and vice versa.’ (R.&R., 56).

’The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism’, Marx had written, ‘is that the object, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Thus it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real sensuous activity as such.’ With Stalin Marx’s ‘human sensuous activity, practice’ have been forgotten, and the subject/object dualism has returned (’mind is secondary, derivative’) with the additional authority of being the doctrine of the First Proletarian State. Now Caudwell does not waste breath denying that being is historically prior to thought: ‘Thought guides action, but it learns how to guide from action. Being must historically and always precede knowing, for knowing evolves as an extension of being.’ (S.D.C., 4) But neither matter/mind nor being/knowing can be seen in terms of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ (’derivative’) relations; dialectical materialism recognises the ‘mutually determining relations between knowing and being’ – ‘knowing is a mutually determining relation between subject and object’ (F.S., 254-5). A central passage in Reality must be cited at more length:

The question of which is first, mind or matter, is not ... a question of which is first, subject or object. Every discernment of a quality (mind, truth, colour, size) is the discernment of a two-term relation between a thing as subject and the rest of the Universe. Mind is the general name for a relation between the human body as subject, and the rest of the Universe ... Going back in the Universe along the dialectic of qualities we reach by inference a state where no human or animal bodies existed and therefore no minds. It is not strictly accurate to say that therefore the object is prior to the subject any more than it is correct to say the opposite. Object and subject, as exhibited by the mind relation, come into being simultaneously. Human body, mind, and human environment cannot exist separately, they are all parts of the one set. What is prior is the material unity from which they arise as an inner antagonism.

We can say that relations seen by us between qualities in our environment (the arrangement of the cosmos, energy, mass, all the entities of physics) existed before the subject-object relationship implied in mind. We prove this by the transformations which take place independent of our desires. In this sense nature is prior to mind and this is the vital sense for science. These qualities produced, as cause and ground produce effect, the synthesis, or particular subject-object relationship which we call knowing. Nature therefore produced mind. But the nature which produced mind was not nature ‘as seen by us’, for this is importing into it the late subject-object relationship called ‘mind’. It is nature as known by us, that is, as having indirect and not direct relations with us. It is nature in determining relation with, but not part of, our contemporary universe. Yet, by sublation, this nature that produced mind is contained in the universe of which the mind relation is now a feature; and that is why it is known to us.

Such a view of reality reconciles the endless dualism of mentalism or objectivism. It is the Universe of dialectical materialism. (F.S., 228-9) (my italics)

What is remarkable in Caudwell is the tenacity with which he explored outwards from this central insight, into the materiality of thought (Consciousness, Freud) and into the ideality of ‘nature’ (Reality, The Crisis in Physics). The ‘crisis’ in physics had arisen, in his view, as a consequence of the inadequacy of the categories of mechanical materialism: ‘When the bourgeois considers matter as the object of cognition, he is unable to conceive of it except under the categories of mechanism.’ (C.inP., 29). Mechanism had ‘stripped Nature, the object of all qualities which had in them any tincture of the subjective.’ (Ibid., 55) ‘Thus nature ... appears as the object in contemplation, the object as it is in itself, measured in terms of its own necessity,’ an object ‘quantitative, bare of quality.’ (Ibid., 45).

At first matter is only stripped ‘of colour, sound, ‘pushiness’, heat, which all prove to be modes of motion. Motion, length, mass and shape are however believed to be absolutely objective qualities, independent of the observer. However they prove one after the other to be relative to the observer. Thus matter is left finally with no real i.e. non-subjective qualities, except those of number. But number is ideal, and hence objective reality vanishes. Matter has become unknowable. (Ibid., 46)

But, in a parallel movement, bourgeois philosophy underwent a process ‘in which man or mind, figuring as active, sensuous subjectivity, was stripped of all those qualities which had an objective component in them.’ This stripping left mind ‘as bare as matter when it was stripped of all subjective quality. Matter was left with nothing but mathematics existing in the human head. Subjectivity was left with nothing but the Idea ... But ‘the Idea existing apart from the brain is objective reality and therefore enters the category of matter. Idealism has become materialism, just as mechanical materialism when it ended in mathematics, had become idealism.’ (Ibid., 56-7) [24]

Positivism attempts to resolve this crisis but is dismissed by Caudwell as ‘a confused, amateurish and dishonest philosophy’:

Consciousness (phenomena) is a relation between Man and Nature, but positivism attempts to take the relation without the terms ... It is impossible to have real activity without two terms, without a contradiction, and a unity of opposites whose activity springs from their interpenetration. Hence consciousness becomes a mere passive ‘reflection’ of the world; its function becomes merely to be a pale copy of existing practice. The relation of knowing ceases to be an active and mutually determining relation, and becomes a godlike apprehension separate from material reality. (Ibid., 65)

But reflection-theory must lead on ‘to a regretful admission that it is a “misleading” reflection’, since ‘all the known subjective qualities (colour, scent, shape, mass, pushiness, beauty) are merely symbolic ciphers for the thing in itself.’ (Ibid., 65) Consciousness ‘has become a screen’.

It is not my intention to attempt any judgement as to the adequacy of Caudwell’s account of ‘bourgeois’ philosophy or of ‘bourgeois’ physics. I will say that I consider his account has merits, and, in particular, his diagnosis of a phenomenon repeatedly witnessed within bourgeois culture: that is, the repeated generation of idealism and mechanical materialism, not as true antagonists but as pseudo-antitheses, generated as twins in the same moment of conception, or, rather, as positive and negative aspects of the same fractured movement of thought: ‘It is not Berkeley who fights mechanical materialism, but Berkeley who generates it.’ (F.S., 212) But my main intention is simply to present Caudwell’s epistemological preoccupations (which were consistent and which inform all his work) and to assert – contrary to a well-known stereotype – that these cannot be reduced to the dominant reflection-theory of that time.

It is true that in Illusion and Reality, when discussing language, Caudwell uses the term ‘reflection’ unselfconsciously:

By means of the word, men’s association in economic production continually generates changes in their perceptual private worlds and the common world [i.e. common perceptual world], enriching both. A vast moving superstructure rises above man’s busy hands which is the reflection of all the changes he has effected or discovered in ages of life. Presently this common world becomes as complex and remote from concrete social life as the market, of which its secret life and unknown creative forces are the counterpart.

This is the shadow world of thought, or ideology. It is the reflection in men’s heads of the real world. It is always and necessarily only symbolical of the real world. It is always and necessarily a reflection which has an active and significant relation to the object, and it is this activity and significance, and not the projective qualities of the reflection, which guarantee its truth. (I.&R., 160-1)

This passage reveals, once again, some strain between the apparent, rational argument and the metaphoric meaning. At the first level Caudwell’s attention is slack: ‘thought’ is bluntly equated to ‘ideology’: ‘reflection’ suggests ‘shadow world’. But at the second level (’a vast moving superstructure rises above man’s busy hands’) he is intent upon conveying a complexity of relationship which cannot be sustained by the image of ‘reflection’. For Caudwell, even when writing about language, remains a student of the sciences. And ‘reflection’ recalls to his mind the strict definition of projection in geometry. But how can a ‘shadow’ or ‘reflection’, when considered in its projective qualities, have ‘an active and significant relation to the object?’ The question is left unresolved; it is not even clearly posed.

By the time that he wrote the Studies Caudwell’s emphasis upon the ‘active and significant relation to the object’ (and his implicit hostility to orthodox reflection theory) has hardened:

Social consciousness is not a mirror-image of social being; If it were, it would be useless, a mere fantasy. It is material, possessed of mass and inertia, composed of real things – philosophies, language habits, churches, judiciaries, police. If social consciousness were but a mirror-image, it could change like an image without the expenditure of energy when the object which it mirrored changed. But it is more than that. It is a functional superstructure which interacts with the foundations, each altering the other. There is a coming-and-going between them. (S.D.C., 25)

This is an argument from the sociology of ideas, and, as I think, a legitimate one. But Caudwell argues the point also in more strictly epistemological terms. In The Crisis in Physics there is a significant passage:

When I say ‘reflection’ I mean that the same general development has taken place in the sphere of social relations as in ideological categories, because the latter are merely subtilizations, qualitatively different, of the former ... Of course it is not suggested that physical theory is a mirror-reflex of social relations. It gives information about non-social reality. But it gives such information to society. The knowledge is conscious knowledge. It has therefore to be cast into the categories of society.

These categories are not like Kantian categories, eternal and given in the nature of the mind, a set of tools which work up into a cognizable shape the unknowable thing-in-itself. Man interpenetrates actively with Nature ... This struggle is not merely physical – practical – it is also theoretical, a relation of cognition. (C.inP., 27-9)

It is (we recall) Caudwell’s principal accusation against positivism that it reduces consciousness to a passive reflection of the world, ‘a pale copy of existing practice.’

I fear that I am labouring a point. But perhaps it requires to be laboured. For according to one widely-accepted stereotype, British Marxism – at any time before the annunciation in this island of ‘Western Marxism’ in the Sixties – was subdued to a vulgar epistemological positivism. It can be seen that this was not true of Caudwell, nor of his considerable influence upon the Marxism of the Forties. Sebastiano Timpanaro has directed a polemic against the idealism of ‘Western Marxism’, which has managed to shuffle off concern with material (physical, biological) determinants as’vulgar materialism’ or ‘positivism’. [25] If Timpanaro is right (and I think that on many points he is) then Caudwell’s astonishing attempt at epistemological synthesis is in need of attention. For we may have been witnessing within the heart of the Marxist tradition itself a reproduction of that phenomenon which Caudwell diagnosed within bourgeois culture: the generation of those pseudo-antagonists, mechanical materialism and idealism. The same subject/object dualism, entering into Marxism, has left us with the twins of economic determinism and Althusserian idealism, each regenerating the other: the material basis determines the superstructure, independent of ideality, while the superstructure of ideality retires into the autonomy of a self-determining theoretical practice.

It is true that the majority Marxist tradition had been invaded by positivism by the Thirties. It is also true that the forerunners of ‘Western Marxism’ resisted this invasion, but at a very heavy cost. This cost is now evident in what passes today as a fashionable Marxist epistemology which has become locked into an idealist theoretical practice which, in its turn, constitutes a serious regression from the positions occupied by Caudwell. These positions might have been an elaboration of Marx’s second thesis on Feuerbach. [26] The relation between being and knowing, Caudwell asserted, ‘can only be understood in a dialectical manner’ (S.D.C., 130). But dialectics is not a formal logic, ‘a machine for extracting the nature of reality from thought’:

It is a recognition of the mutually determining relations between knowing and being ... Thought is knowing; the experience is being, and at each step new experience negates old thought. Yet their tension causes an advance to a new hypothesis more inclusive than the old. (F.S., 254) [27]

In this interactionist epistemology, there could never be tolerated that bleak theoretical closure (or confusion of empirical engagement with empiricism) which has been imposed by Althusser:

Truth always appears as a result of man’s successful interaction with his environment ... To attempt to. find it in a mere scrutiny of the conscious field, by ‘pure’ thought, results not in truth but in mere consistency. The contents of the mind are measured against themselves without the incursion of a disturbance from outside, which disturbances in fact, in the past history of the field, are what have created it. (F.S., 95)

Knowledge arises in a continual passage between conceptualisation and empirical observation, hypothesis and experiment, just as, in its origin, it arises from a similar interaction in the heart of the labour process: ‘The plough is as much a statement about the nature of reality as the instructions how to use it. Each is useless without the other; each makes possible the development of the other.’ (F.S., 96) At points Caudwell demands a test of theory by the praxis of experiment which has a Popperian ring:

No hypothesis, religious or scientific, can have any meaning unless it can give rise to a crucial test, which will enable it to be socially compared with other hypotheses. (S.D.C., 164-5)

These arguments are all resumed in his study of Reality:

Our active contact with reality ensures a continual dialectical change in thought and perception, and the constant ingression of the new as a result of our changing relations with it. Thought therefore only needs to go out in action to remain dialectical; hence the dialectical nature of scientific hypotheses: The hypothesis goes out in the experiment, and, as a ‘result’, becomes changed, and returns upon the hypothesis to alter it ...

Whenever we see thought becoming non-dialectical and logical, there must be a breach between thought and action. Instead of preoccupying itself with the changing subject-object relation, mind preoccupies itself with the forms of that symbolism which, in the past, has contained old dialectical formulations of realities ... Thought has become introverted. (F.S., 253-4)

Thus Caudwell was able to write the epitaph of theoretical practice before it had even been imagined.


This interactionism was carried over, in a somewhat modified form, from epistemology to historical and cultural analysis. In his study of religion, The Breath of Discontent, he noted that religious ideas ‘are causally linked with material reality, and are not only determined but also determine, in their turn exerting a causal influence on their matrix.’ (F.S., 18) And in Reality,

Thus thought is naturally dialectic in so far as it is part of the process of society. At each stage thought and material being are flung apart and return on each other, in mutual determinism, generating the new qualities of society. (F.S., 248).

But what meaning are we to give here to ‘determine’ and to ‘mutual determinism?’ And is this a ‘dialectic’ or merely a barren oscillation which, escaping the problem of determinism, simply leaves us with an antithetical model?

I do not think that Caudwell was consistent in this part of his thought. But what he offers is not a barren paradox but a fruitful contradiction, a tension which he leaves unresolved. This contradiction was greatly superior to the flat resolutions offered by most of his contemporaries. Nor was it a naive contradiction. One should recall that a great part – from chapter VI to the end – of The Crisis in Physics is committed to the discussion of determinism and causality. Some part of that argument is relevant only to the natural sciences, and more than a part of it is too specialised for me to follow with confidence. But we should note that Caudwell distinguishes between determinism and pre-determinism or ‘absolute’ determinism; and that by the former he indicates not pre-emptive or predictive ‘law’ but the given character and properties of an entity, occupying a given ‘space’, and hence setting limits upon the ‘space’ of other entities and thus determining their properties also. All properties in nature are, in this sense, mutually determining; Caudwell reaches for the image of the pool and the crevice, the river and the river-bed [28]; and this might be understood, in contemporary terms, as a structuralist argument. This corresponds to one sense of ‘determination’, as defined recently by Raymond Williams: the setting of limits. [29]

But if we transfer the term to social and cultural analysis, what are we left with? If ‘thought and material being’ are ‘in mutual determinism’, then we may say that ‘social being determines social consciousness’, but we must add that ‘social consciousness determines social being’. Since (as Williams insists) ‘in practice determination is never only the setting of limits: it is also the exertion of pressures’, it would seem that we are left with an alternating current of interaction. But ‘a Marxism without some concept of determination is in effect worthless’ [30], and mutual interaction is scarcely determination. We are pulled back (I think) by Caudwell from a merely interactionist historical theory in several ways. First, in a certain epistemological priority afforded to being. ‘I live, therefore I think I am’ (F.S., 239): Vivo, ergo cogito sum. There is no sense in which either sum or cogito can be ‘prior’ to each other, since both are part of the same relation of being/cognition. But sum (when taken together with vivo) is always in the process of change, of becoming; and it is becoming (’experience’) which thinking is about (F.S., 240); ‘consciousness is therefore change, it is the ingression of the new.’ (F.S., 92). Second, the source of this change, this becoming, is always situated by Caudwell primarily in the labour process: ‘From the very start the labour process, by the society it generates, acts as a mediating term in the generation of truth.’ (F.S., 96-7) ‘Thought flows from being, and ... man changes his consciousness by changing his social relations, which change is the result of the pressure of real being below those relations.’ (S.D.C., 11) The argument is muddy here (does consciousness change social relations or vice versa, and what is the ‘real being’ below both?), but clearly determination, in the sense of ‘the exertion of pressures’ is moving from being to consciousness. Third, when discussing class society, Caudwell continually shows the exertion of determining pressure in the form of ideological distortions of consciousness, as expressed in the very categories within which thought is ordered. To this point we will return.

But Caudwell cannot be said to be consistent. In the polemical passages of Studies in a Dying Culture he ascribed, with wit and even with sympathy, brutal class determinations to the products of the bourgeois intellect. Loosely in Illusion and Reality and with more precision and sophistication in Further Studies he exalted the role of the artist and the scientist, who have in some way detached themselves from ‘the bourgeois’. And he introduced the concept of ‘inner energy’ which, more than anything else, brought (some years after his death) the ‘Caudwell Controversy’ about his head.

It was on this count that Cornforth assailed Caudwell for his ‘idealism’. He cited these lines from Illusion and Reality:

Energy is always flowing out to the environment of society, and new perception always flowing in from it; as we change ourselves, we change the world ... (I.&R., 296) [31]

And Cornforth comments:

Where Marx said that by acting on and changing the external world we develop our powers and change ourselves, Caudwell puts it the other way round ... From him, evidently, this ‘energy flowing out’ has not its source in the external material world, but comes from somewhere within us ... This idealist notion of ‘inner energy’ plays no small part in his writings. [32]

And in his reply to the discussion, a year later, Cornforth added:

The energy of man is itself a form of the motion of matter, just as the consciousness of man is a reflection of matter. Any other idea of energy or consciousness is idealism and mysticism. [33]

We have come a long way from those happy days of Marxist certainty. Of course, the energy of man may be seen as ‘a form of the motion of matter’ (Caudwell himself took more pains than most writers to see it in this aspect), but this does not settle, finally, the question of the directions in which it moves. As Williams remarked, in Culture and Society:

It is clear that many English writers on culture who are also, politically, Marxists seem primarily concerned to make out a case for its existence, to argue that it is important, against a known reaction to Marxism which had established the idea that Marx, with his theory of structure and superstructure, had diminished the value hitherto accorded to intellectual and imaginative creation. [34]

Cornforth reminds us that this ‘known reaction’ was not only outside the Marxist tradition (among Marxism’s critics) but also deeply entrenched within it. Perhaps Williams mistook whom the English Marxist critics of the late Thirties and Forties were arguing with? When Alick West (in defence of Caudwell) noted that Marx also referred to ‘inner energy’, Cornforth replied that Marx must have been thinking of ‘the minimum of food necessary’ if the capitalists were to be able to exploit the workers: ‘To imagine some inner store of human energy is to think of man and of his energies and powers in a merely abstract, idealist way.’

The entire body of Caudwell’s work may be read as a polemic against mechanical materialism of this kind, masquerading as Marxism. Men can do nothing significant without consciousness and passion: all that they do is passionate and conscious. In Illusion and Reality he is ‘making out a case’ for the part played by the arts in the generation and organisation of spiritual energies; indeed, poetry and the arts come to be shorthand for almost all of culture that is not-science. This is one valid criticism of his work: in making a general case for culture, he lost sight of the particular case of art, and of the particularity of each art product. And I have already indicated that I have such extensive criticisms of this apprentice-work (Illusion and Reality) that I consider it to be beyond the repair of close criticism. But my criticisms certainly do not extend to the propriety of the project itself: that is, the renewed emphasis, within a Marxist problematic, upon human subjectivity and (in consequence) upon the arts.

The difficulty of Caudwell’s project was greatly enhanced by the positivism, indeed philistinism, of the Marxist tradition within which he worked. Cornforth was especially incensed at Caudwell’s careful (and rational) definition of poetry as ‘irrational’: ‘So poetry does not, as Marxists had hitherto supposed, portray in poetic images the reality of the world and of our own life in it.’ ‘The reactionary theory that poetry “is irrational” and is concerned, not with the real world, but with some “underworld” of emotions’ is one which Marxists should reject ‘with indignation’. It must have been comforting, in those distant days, to have known with such assurance what was the ‘real world’ (a world somehow distinct from that of the emotions?), and to have had such ready reserves of indignation for all who strayed from the truth. But it must also have been a difficult and discomforting time for Caudwell, and, perhaps also, for Fox, for West, for Rickword and Slater and Swingler, and other pioneers of socialist cultural theory and practice.

What Caudwell has to say about affective culture is cogently argued and always suggestive, although the proposals in the studies are generally superior to those in Illusion and Reality. It is not my business to rehearse these arguments again; they are familiar and readily available, have been explored by Margolies and Mulhern, and perhaps should now be re-examined by anthropologists as well as by critics. What I wish to stress is that Caudwell’s insights (however disorderly) were bought at a cost which orthodox Marxism was unwilling to pay. For Caudwell argued:

The value of art to society is that by it an emotional adaptation is possible. Man’s instincts are pressed in art against the altered mould of reality, and by a specific organisation of the emotions thus generated, there is a new attitude, an adaptation. (S.D.C., 54)

’All art is produced by this tension between changing social relations and outmoded consciousness.’ (Ibid., 54) Art modifies the subject’s ‘general attitude towards life ... Viewed from the society’s standpoint, art is the fashioning of the affective consciousness of its members, the conditioning of their instincts.’ (Ibid., 50) So that we are, once again, within an inter-actionist field: art operates upon men and changes them affectively. Pseudo-art, the commercialised product, is ‘simply affective massage. It awakens and satisfies the instincts without expressing and synthesising a tension between instinct and environment.’ (F.S., 107)

The critical problem, when situating Caudwell within the Marxist tradition, lies in his recourse to the concept of the ‘genotype’. This is by no means a casual or carelessly-introduced concept. Caudwell’s central notions of cultural adaptation and of the function of the arts rests upon the concept of an unchanging genotype in friction with changing social environment. This is no elision of thought: it is a deliberate and repeated proposition:

This contradiction between instinct and cultural environment is absolutely primary to society ... (I.&R., 137)

[Great art is expression of] the timelessness of the instincts, the unchanging secret face of the genotype which persists beneath all the rich superstructure of civilisation. (Ibid., 228)

All art is emotional and therefore concerned with the instincts whose adaptation to social life produces emotional consciousness. Hence art cannot escape its close relation with the genotype whose secret desires link in one endless series all human culture. (Ibid., 231)

While Caudwell’s treatment of the ‘instincts’ becomes refined in the subsequent studies, he nowhere disclaims the concept of the genotype.

Now it is necessary to identify, not only what the difficulty is, in Caudwell’s use of ‘genotype’, but also what the difficulty is not. For a common response, among historical materialists, is immediately to identify the concept of genotype with that of ‘human nature’, and to dismiss the argument unheard as ‘reactionary’. There has been, and still is, for observable and honourable reasons, a deep hostility in the Marxist tradition to any such concept of human nature, and Cornforth’s reaction is typical of the commonsense of the tradition:

The whole idea of the genotype and the instincts is a piece of made-up idealist metaphysics. For it supposes that something exists within the organism – the genotype and the instincts – which is not susceptible to change; which is not born and modified and developed in the course of the life of the organism, but which precedes it and stamps its own pattern on it.

Applied to human affairs, this is a singularly reactionary theory. It teaches that human nature never changes ... Timeless human nature, the instincts of the savage, persist unchanged and unchangeable beneath the developing social and cultural ‘superstructure’; civilisation is but a thin veneer covering the volcanic underworld of primitive instincts ...

Marxism does not explain society and its development in terms of eternal genotypical instincts. It rejects these reactionary hypotheses of bourgeois biology and psychology. [35]

But, of course, Caudwell does not ‘explain society and its development’ in terms of the genotype either. This is, exactly, what he does not do, for if he could have explained social development in this way, then no function would have been left for the arts. Nor is it correct that the genotype is synonymous with ‘human nature’. The genotype gives us, rather, ‘brute nature’ – the nature of man as a brute, prior to his or her acquisition, through socialisation and culture, of humanity, or human nature. The ‘constancy of man’ Caudwell sometimes illustrated in a figure of the feral child:

By constancy we mean his constancy as bare individual. If a Melanesian, an ancient Athenian and a modern English babe were allowed to grow up in a wood ... none would share any of the characteristics of its parents’ culture – either their language, their economic production, or their consciousness. They would grow up sub-human. This shows that man remains through the ages relatively unchanged, or that at least his genetic change is in no way proportioned to his change as a member of contemporary society. (F.S., 137-8; see also I.&R., 151)

It is not clear to me that this is shown (for the ‘sub-human’ genotype cannot then be described as ‘man’), and the experiment is unlikely to be made. But it is clear that Caudwell intends the concept (or hypothesis) of the genotype to stand, not for human nature, but for pre-human nature, a common biological and instinctual ground, persisting relatively unchanged through historical time, prior to acculturation. So far from being a ‘reactionary’ thesis, which seeks to reduce all change to a timeless human nature, it emphasises that everything that is ‘human’ arises within society and culture.

Indeed, it is not so much a concept as a commonplace. Without further definition it offers little more than the hypothesis that brute, pre-human nature remains the nature of the brute homo and not that of the dog or the ape. And what alternative concepts could be proposed? One might be that cultural adaptations are genetically transmitted, and that every babe is born, in some part, a Melanesian, an ancient Athenian, a Cockney, or, perhaps, an Aryan or a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Another might be that every babe is born without any genetically-transmitted species-inheritance: that is, as a natural blank. Neither concept offers an improvement on that of the genotype. The problems arise when we attempt to define this genotype, with its attendant instinctual ground, and then employ the concept in historical or cultural analysis.

The genotype is a concept which Caudwell took from biology, and we do not know what clarification is offered in his still-unpublished further study on that theme. But clarification is to be found in other studies. These suggest that it is unfair to characterise Caudwell’s theory as ‘a psychologism’, or to suggest that his concept of ‘the instincts’ remains undefined. [36] ‘The innate responses of an organism, the so-called instincts, as such are unconscious, mechanical, and unaffected by experience.’ They are the concern, not of psychology, but of physiology (S.D.C., 184):

Instinct is what we call a simple repetition of hereditary habits, the mechanical reappearance of the old. Such simple responses to external or internal stimuli change from age to age, but, in relation to the rapid tempo of social life, there is a consistency about them which leads us to separate them as hypothetical entities [my italics], the instincts. Situations which, while evoking instinctual responses, do not permit their emergence unchanged, but cause a suspension or interruption of the pattern, produce affects or emotions. The result of such a situation is the transforming, or conditioning (Pavlov), repression or sublimation (Freud) of the response. (F.S., 90) [37]

It is in the study of Consciousness that we have Caudwell’s most sustained critique of ‘instinct psychology’, and, precisely, of psychologism, in which ‘the drama of the instincts ... becomes a kind of bourgeois novel, in which the heroes are the instincts; and their experiences, mutual struggles and transformations generate not only all psychical but also all cultural phenomena’:

What in fact are these instincts? They are innate patterns of behaviour automatically elicited by stimuli. They are therefore inevitable recurrences amid the sea of change, like the seasons. They are determined in fact (predetermined) by past events.

The bourgeois however sees them ‘as freely striving for unconscious goals, and psychology becomes the adventures of the free instincts in their struggles against the restraints of the environment (in Freud, of society) which impede and cripple their freedom’:

The magnificent story of human culture becomes ... simply the tragedy of the crippling of the free instincts by the social restraints they have freely created ... Experience, art and science are in this psychology the fetters of the instinctive energy; all experiences are the scars of the wounds to this freedom (inhibition and repression). Moreover the unconscious plays a strange role. Since experience is in this inversion of life’s story the prison house of the free instincts, consciousness (the most recent and least innate products of the psyche) acts the part of gaoler to the unconscious (the most archaic and least conditioned psychic products). Quite a little coercive State reigns in the psyche, complete even to the Censor. Abominable things are done to the instincts; screams (dreams and obsessions) issue from time to time from the dungeons where the noble bourgeois revolutionaries are being tortured by the authorities. It is a picture in the best anarchist style ...

But ‘the instincts are not free springs of connation towards a goal. They are, so far as they can be abstractly separated, unconscious necessities, as Kant realised. They are unfree.’ Above all,

They are changed in human culture. As a result of this change, these necessities become conscious, become emotion and thought; they exist for themselves and are altered thereby. The change is the emotion or thought, and now they are no longer the instincts ... (F.S., 179-82)

Caudwell, then, is retaining the concept (or ‘hypothesis’) of the instincts and of the genotype, while flatly rejecting ‘instinct psychology’. He is placed in a difficulty in that the dominant available psychological vocabularies offer conditioning (Pavlov) and repression or sublimation (Freud), whereas the change he wishes to express is that of transformation and exfoliation. Socialisation, by transforming the instincts, by changing the pre-social and pre-human genotype into the human, is a process of realisation. ‘Man, as society advances, has a consciousness composed less and less of unmodified instinct, more and more of socially-fashioned knowledge and emotion.’ (S.D.C., 217) ‘Emotion, in all its vivid colouring, is the creation of ages of culture acting on the blind unfeeling instincts. All art, all education, all day-to-day social experience, draw it out of the heart of the human genotype and direct and shape its myriad phenomena. Only society as a whole can really direct this force in the individual.’ (S.D.C., 183) Hence psychology,

can only have for its material all those psychic contents that result from the modification of responses by experience. It is this material that changes, that develops, that is distinctively human, that is of importance, and psychology should and in practice does ignore the unchanging instinctual basis as a cause. (S.D.C., 184)

Well and good. The genotype stands for the genetic transmission of pre-human nature, a ground of instincts or innate responses (a predetermined programming) which remains relatively constant through historical time, but which, in the absence of repeated ‘Mowgli’ experiments, can only be inferred as a hypothesis. The genotype signifies the genetic transmission of whatever is left when we have subtracted all that is culturally or socially acquired. There does not appear to be anything inherently reactionary, or idealist, or anti-Marxist in such a concept. It is, however, a singularly weak and indefinite concept; everything depends upon how it is put to use, and how the ‘innate’ instincts are defined. Moreover, the term entails once again that dislocation between a rational and a metaphoric meaning which we have noted before in Caudwell’s writing: but in this case the rational signification (when taken together with his critique of ‘instinct psychology’) is greatly preferable to the metaphoric drift. This drift arises, in large part, from the use of a singular concept – the genotype – to describe a clump of genetically-transmitted physical properties and instinctual propensities. By assimilation into this singular noun, the particular components of the typical genetic complement become lost to view, and with the least imprecision or lapse of attention – as in the shift from ‘genotype’ to ‘man’ – the metaphor drifts towards an unchanging human nature. More than this, the metaphor, in its singular sense, is then brought into conjunction with the collective noun, ‘society’; and we have then drifted back towards the very position which Caudwell sought to reject – that of the unchanging instinctual extra-social ‘individual’ type facing a changing society. [38]

Caudwell is guilty, especially in Illusion and Reality, of this kind of inattention. There are times when he slides carelessly between the notion of instinctual responses, inherent in the genotype (’man’), and affects or ‘emotions’, which are seen as belonging to a common perceptual and affective world (adhering to the affective properties of language itself), the product of complex processes of cultural formation. But what is critically wrong is the use to which he put the concept in cultural and historical analysis. There is surely a contradiction between Caudwell’s argument that ‘psychology should ... ignore the unchanging instinctual basis as a cause’, and the central place which he invoked for the genotype in his theory of art. For the accurate definition of the human genetic inheritance (even if only as ever-more-precise hypotheses) might appear to be a valid concern of physiology, neurology, and thence by extension of psychology or linguistics; but only thence by further extension, and through these mediations, of aesthetics. And in general, in historical and cultural analysis, the extension becomes so remote that the genotype or pre-human nature must remain an unknowable and unobservable entity, and hence a concept not so much false as without meaning. As I argued in these pages four years ago:

The bare forked creature, naked biological man, is not a context we can ever observe, because the very notion of man (as opposed to his anthropoid ancestor) is coincident with culture ... Thus to propose the investigation of ‘man’ apart from his culture (or his lived history) is to propose an unreal abstraction, the investigation of non-man. [39]

Caudwell was seeking to hold in one place a materialist theory of art which took into serious account the evidence of physiology, neurology, psychology, anthropology. The intention was valid, and the enterprise should not be abandoned. But the concept of the genotype obscured rather than clarified the linkages. If this clumpish singular concept is broken apart, then the way is open to the scrupulous examination of particular (biological, instinctual, mental) links and determinations. As these knowledges advance, so they may be brought together again in a ‘natural history of man’ (or, as I would prefer, of natural determinants within history) to which even historians may give a hesitant recognition. But Caudwell proposed an unmediated conflict between instinct and social environment, not as some original hypothesis (a primeval cultural ‘contract’), but as an operation continuing throughout history, in which the original instincts, freshly renewed with each genetic transmission, must be socialised by ‘art’. The difficulty is, first, that Caudwell places far more upon ‘art’ and ‘poetry’ than they can bear. And, second, that in his practice, he must often attribute to the genotype or the instincts an active, assertive presence (’secret face’, ‘secret desires’) which is at odds with his more careful definitions in the studies.

In the following passage both difficulties are presented:

Man himself is composed like society of current active being and inherited conscious formulations. He is somatic and psychic, instinctive and conscious, and these opposites interpenetrate. He is formed, half rigid, in the shape of the culture he was born in, half fluid and new and insurgent, sucking reality through his instinctive roots. Thus he feels, right in the heart of him, this tension between being and thinking, between new being and old thought, a tension which will give rise by synthesis to new thought. He feels as if the deepest instinctive part of him and the most valuable is being dragged away from his consciousness by events. (S.D.C., 26)

Once again, we have a conflict between a rational and metaphoric meaning. But in its rational argument the passage does, after all, merit the term, ‘psychologism’. The ‘somatic’ and the ‘instinctive’ become ‘being’, the ‘roots’ through which reality is sucked into consciousness. This not only contradicts all that Caudwell has to say, in his more measured appraisals, as to the instincts as innate behaviour patterns, prior to culture and to social being: it also inverts the argument of ‘Consciousness’, for, with ‘rigid ... insurgent ... new being and old thought’, it appears that the instinctive life alone is ‘active’ and that culture is resistant to change and ‘inherited’. The passage exemplifies the tendency of his concept of the genotype to escape from his own controls.

What have become lost in this passage are the concepts of social being being and of culture. Caudwell has forgotten that the instincts ‘are changed in human culture ... The change is the emotion or thought.’ And that social being is as remote from ‘the instincts’ as an agrarian system is from hunger. The genotype was used by Caudwell (and here I am in agreement with Mulhern) in an essentialist and often reductionist manner. By identifying one essential, basic function for the arts (’man’s instincts are pressed in art against the altered mould of reality’) Caudwell is continually reducing his analysis to a circulation within his original terms. But if man’s instincts are pressed against the mould of reality, this finds expression not only in art but in every form of acculturation and socialisation; indeed, by the time the child ventures to lisp its first nursery rhyme, it has acquired, through language and socialisation, a character in which the genotype is already masked or transformed beyond recall. Language is already naming and changing instincts into emotions; and the contradiction, or tension, which arises is less between the instincts and reality than between inherited cultural modes and fresh experience. The conflict arises, not between pre-culture and culture, but within culture itself.

In Caudwell’s hands the concept of the genotype becomes a blunt instrument which he wielded monotonously, like an unhoned scythe with which he tried to hack a way through a dense undergrowth of other mediations to reach some ever-present original source. But the source, unless as aboriginal hypothesis, was never there. Caudwell’s failure to elaborate any concept of value or of value-system (for values cannot be comprised in a vocabulary of instincts, emotions or affects) is the inadequacy in his conceptual terms which has the most serious practical consequences. His theory offers instincts adapted into emotions or even attitudes, but the ordering of feeling can only be understood in terms of value. And when we consider value and poetry, concepts so large as Man’s Struggle with Nature (a debilitating and repetitious concept, and yet a necessary correspondent concept to that of the genotype and culture), obliterate where all the significant questions lie. For value will be found, most often, in particular historical contexts, and in particular men and women’s struggle with, or adjustment to, or love for, other particular women and men. All this escapes from Caudwell’s view, just as, in his essentialist paradigm, he often loses all sight of the real historical contradictions, in social being, of social class.

This enforces a severe judgement upon that part of Caudwell’s enterprise. But reservations must be entered. Marxism’s resistance to the concept of ‘human nature’, however deployed, may be proper. But the resistance may also cover, as I think it did with Cornforth, an ulterior flight from the subjective. Caudwell is not to be pilloried because he found poetry ‘irrational’, nor because of his emphasis on the operative, transforming role of the arts. Nor is he to be dismissed as ‘idealist’ because of his notion of ‘inner energy’ (even if his proper emphasis upon subjective ‘energy’ sometimes confuses instinctual drives and internalised cultural resources); nor yet (in my view) because of his arguments as to the mutually-determining interaction between social being and social consciousness. This remains the most critically-difficult area of any general Marxist theory of history and of culture, and if Caudwell did not resolve the problem he is to be commended for not tidying it away, in the conventions of his time, and for placing it upon the agenda of theory. Indeed, his emphasis upon active subjectivity, and his fruitful ambiguity as to being/consciousness, accounts in large part for his liberating and ‘heretical’ influence.

The terms of Caudwell’s attempted revision are often unsatisfactory: the conceptual vocabulary which he inherited or which he invented from diverse disciplines sometimes broke apart in his hands: but the Marxism of his time offered him no other. And I am less confident than some others that ‘Western’, or any other, Marxism has subsequently resolved these problems. I would prefer to accept the judgement of Williams, the first half of whose Marxism and Literature is the most substantial work of critical reflection upon the terms of Marxist analysis to appear from any English thinker since the time of Caudwell: all these problems still remain on the agenda.

A further reservation may be entered. I have been over-severe when I suggested that Caudwell was trapped in his cultural theory in an oscillatory passage between Man/Nature, genotype/social environment. True, he fell back into this far too often; but there are middle terms in his more extended arguments; for the first, the labour process; for the second, language. And on both he had significant ideas to offer.

For the labour process, we will simply report his argument. It is, once again, presented more cogently in the further study, Beauty, than in Illusion and Reality:

The nature of fields and plants imposes on the organism specific types of co-operation in sowing and reaping and determines the shape of the plough. It imposes on them language, whereby they signify to each other their duties and urge each other on in carrying them out. Once established the labour process, extending as remotely as the observation of the stars, as widely as the organisation of all human relations, and as abstractedly as the invention of numbers, gathers and accumulates truth. (F.S., 96-7)

Not only truth, but also the arts (or ‘beauty’) are generated in the labour process:

In primitive civilisation this intimate generation of truth and beauty in the course of the labour process and their mutual effect on each other is so clear that it needs no elaboration. The harvest is work, but it is also dance; it deals with reality, but it is also pleasure. All social forms, gestures, and manners have to primitives a purpose, and are both affective and cognitive. Law is not merely the elucidation of a truth in dispute, but the satisfaction of the gods, of the innate sense of rightness in man’s desires. Myths express man’s primitive instincts and his view of reality. The simplest garment or household utensil has a settled beauty. Work is performed in time to singing, and has its own fixed ceremony. All tasks have their lucky days. Truth and beauty, science and art are primitive, but at least they are vitally intermingled, each giving life to the other.

It is the special achievement of later bourgeois civilisation to have robbed science of desirability and art of reality. (F.S., 105-6)

The passage presents the usual essentialist difficulties (’Innate sense of Tightness?’ ‘Man’s primitive instincts?’) but these are not so severe as to disqualify the argument.

In Illusion and Reality Caudwell argued persuasively for a derivation of the arts within the heart of the labour process, in adapting and organising human attitudes in co-operative ways, in summoning up necessary psychic energies in expectation of harvest or in mimesis of the hunt; and, by extension, he derived myth from the labour process also:

The dead and the not-dead are the two great divisions of primitive society which seem almost to stand to each other in the relation of exploited to exploiting classes. The living owe their productive level to the capital, the instruments of production, the instruction, the wisdom, and the transmitted culture of the dead who therefore continue to live in the interstices of the society they have departed from in body. This half-life of the dead, constantly recalled to the living by their instructions, their leavings and their social formulations, is the other-world survival of the dead in all primitive societies ... This immortality of the dead is a fantastic reality. The dead really live on socially in the inherited culture of society, but to the primitive they live fantastically, clothed in the affective and concrete images of his dreams in another, ghostly world. (F.S., 32)

All these arguments – although some have been refined since Caudwell’s time – continue to command our sympathetic attention. But while Man and Nature are mediated by the labour process, the mediation is only provisional, and the two parties to the relation are sometimes offered, inexplicably, as implacable antagonists:

The war between man and nature is waged on more and more fronts; and it is precisely this undying hostility, this furious antagonism, which produces a greater humanisation of the environment by man and a greater environmentalisation of man by nature. (F.S., 27)

This is perhaps an example of a lapse in Caudwell’s style into the dominant ‘Soviet’ rhetoric of the mid-Thirties: the military vocabulary of the opening, the barren antithetical epigram of the conclusion, and the central proposition, then acclaimed in Soviet orthodoxy, that in socialist society the struggle between classes would give way to the more basic struggle between men and nature: massed battalions of tractors, each flying a red flag, waging furious war upon the virgin steppes.

Even when the middle term, the labour process, is held to, it is held in terms of struggle or war. (Men might – a gardener or a stock-breeder might argue – co-operate with nature). A certain kind of drama is insisted upon which colours Caudwell’s view of art. And we are in danger of replacing one essentialist paradigm with another, only slightly more refined. Caudwell’s move from primitive to modern society is so swift that (despite passing references to class) it allows for the interposition of only one new important concept: that of the market, and of commodity-fetishism:

Labour now becomes, not labour to achieve a goal and to attain the desirable, but labour for the market and for cash. Labour becomes blind and unconscious. What is made, or why it is made, is no longer understood, for the labour is merely for cash, which now alone supports life. Thus all affective elements are withdrawn from labour, and must therefore reappear elsewhere. They now reappear attached to the mythical commodity which represents the unconscious market – cash. Cash is the music of labour in bourgeois society. Cash achieves objective beauty. Labour in itself becomes increasingly distasteful and irksome and cash increasingly beautiful and desirable. Money becomes the god of society. Thus the complete disintegration of a culture on the affective side is achieved, and has resulted from the same causes as its disintegration on the cognitive side. (F.S., 107-8)

The thought is pressed forward powerfully, like a logical imperative; it is derivative from Marx and also, perhaps, from Morris [40], but it is, once again, essentialist – the rapid delineation of the deep process of a whole epoch – and it has no location within the complexity of particular historical and cultural formations: what happened (one wonders) in the interval between ‘primitive: and’later bourgeois civilisation?’ The ‘complete disintegration of a culture’ comes through as a kind of swearing at ‘the bourgeois’.

What Caudwell says about language is less clear. His approach to linguistics was more amateurish than was his approach to anthropology, physiology, psychology. None of his studies was centrally concerned with language, and the treatment in Illusion and Reality is glancing and unsystematic and is diverted into consideration of the polar antitheses of language’s cognitive and affective attributes (’science’/’art’). What may be more significant than anything which he says is the number of vulgarisations and reductions which he avoided making. Williams has noted that the dominant Marxism from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century tended to neglect langauge theory, and to group practical language activities ‘under the categories of “ideology” and “the superstructure”.’ What was lost was the understanding of language as ‘practical consciousness’ or as ‘practical, constitutive activity’:

Language ... became a tool or an instrument or a medium taken up by individuals when they had something to communicate, as distinct from the faculty which made them, from the beginning, not only able to relate and communicate, but in real terms to be practically conscious and so to possess the active practice of language. [41]

There are times when Caudwell writes of language as a simple medium of exchange (’the expression of a transfer between one man and another’ (I.&R., 160)); but this medium is not supposed as an exchange between already-formed, pre-given individual consciousness. For it is through language that consciousness is generated. The ‘elaborate activities’ of primitive economic production –

Can only be co-ordinated by an elaboration of affect and word organisations which thus contain within their interstices a social view of outer reality and a community of emotionally tinged ideas. Thus any picture of the individual consciousness at the start detaching itself as a simple ego from all reality, and acquiring its own presentations and organising them, is false; for consciousness emerges as the concomitant of economic production, as part and parcel of man’s interpenetration with outer reality. The interpenetration generates consciousness, which is therefore full of the impress of both. The formation of consciousness is an active process, now and historically ... (F.S., 23-4)

’We can never prove consciousness in terms of the theory of the common perceptual world because it is entirely that world.’ (I.&R., 192) Language generates consciousness by creating a common perceptual world and also a common affective ‘ego’: the conscious ‘I’ is always, through language, a social creation. Caudwell is content to describe this world as ‘symbolic’, and to enquire into its operation very little further. Language is always more rigid (’the mind’s stiff and treelike qualities’) than the changing reality which it stands for:

The socially accepted pictures we make in words of reality cannot change as if they were reflections in a mirror. An object is reflected in a mirror. If the object moves the reflection moves. But in language reality is symbolised in unchanging words, which give a false stability and permanence to the object they represent. Thus they instantaneously photograph reality rather than reflect it. This frigid character of language is regrettable but ... it is probably the only way in which man with his linear consciousness, can get a grip of fluid reality. Language, as it develops, shows more and more of this false permanence ... This permanence is part of the inescapable nature of symbolism, which is expressed in the rules of logic. It is one of the strange freaks of the human mind that it has supposed that reality must obey the rules of logic, whereas the correct view is that symbolism by its very nature has certain rules, expressed in the laws of logic, and these are nothing to do with the process of reality, but represent the nature of the symbolic process itself. (S.D.C. 50-1)

That is an odd passage. In moving away from ‘reflection’, Caudwell seems to be about to discuss the ‘autonomy’ of language and its rules. But he seizes, instead, upon ‘photograph’, which defeats his purpose. [42] And then, by stressing the rules of logic rather than grammar, he diverts attention from language to its products. But the confusion arises from an inadequate linguistic theory, and not from an assimilation of language to ideology or to superstructure. Moreover, in evading attention to the symbolic structure of language, Caudwell was also evading (perhaps deliberately) Saussurian structuralism.

We cannot say that Caudwell had even an incipient, unformulated theory of language. Rejecting the theories available to him, he was concerned with skirting around their traps and with offering certain affirmations. If we accept Williams’s analysis of the problem, then Caudwell’s notion of language remained stubbornly ‘constitutive’, a ‘practical consciousness’ which ‘is saturated by and saturates all social activity.’ [43] He does not place ‘the individual’ here and a linguistic system there; his cumbersome notions of a common perceptual world and a common affective ego entail an insistence that language is ‘the means of realisation of any individual life.’ [44] Language is seen both as a medium of communication and as internalised, the very stuff of consciousness. He attends more carefully to the affective than to the cognitive properties of language. Writing of the ‘mimic representation’, not of language but of art, he argued:

The emanation is in us, in our affective reaction with the elements of the representation. Given in the representation are not only the affects, but, simultaneously, their organisation in an affective attitude towards the piece of reality symbolised in the mimicry. This affective attitude is bitten in by a general heightening of consciousness and increase in self-value, due to the non-motor nature of the innervations aroused, which seems therefore all to pass into an affective irradiation of consciousness. (S.D.C. 49)

Caudwell commonly ascribed to ‘art’ functions and properties which might more properly be ascribed to language, and thence to culture. There is, more than once, the suggestion that the affective are the fluid and dynamic properties of language, as opposed to the ‘frigidity’ and false ‘permanence’ of its cognitive symbolism. ‘In the fashioning of consciousness the great instrument is language. It is language which makes us consciously see the sun, the stars, the rain and the sea – objects which merely elicit responses from animals.’ (I.&R., 192) Men inherit through their language particular modes of consciousness:

The primitive does not see seas, but the river Oceanus; he does not see mammals, but edible beasts. He does not see, in the night sky, blazing worlds in the limitless void, but a roof inlaid with patines of bright gold. Hence all natural things are artificial. (F.S., 111)

In the same way:

a civilised man’s view of outer reality is almost entirely built up of the common perceptual world: he sees the sun as a fiery star, cows as animals, iron as metal, and so on. The extraordinary power and universality of language guarantees this. But it is just as true that his whole emotional consciousness, his whole feeling-attitude to the sun, iron, cows and so forth, is almost entirely built up from the common ego which enables us to live in close relation as men. (I.&R., 167)

But whereas the cognitive system of language’s symbolism finds expression in fixed (frigid) categories, which can only be broken down and reconstructed in the course of strenuous intellectual conflict (this is one theme of The Crisis in Physics), the concrete properties of poetry can reach deeply into the inherited affective modes transmitted by language, conveying directly ‘an experience’ which modifies ‘the subject’s general attitude towards life’, thus also modifying the common affective ego which is thence transmitted to the future. (S.D.C., 49) It is this direct, concrete, operative power of poetry which continues to afford a challenge, the possibility of revolutionising inherited modes of consciousness.

I do not offer all this as any kind of systematic theory. We slide around too much between language, culture, art and poetry. But I do not think it is all nonsense either. At least, it leaves open doors which, as Williams has shown, the Marxism of Caudwell’s time was closing or whose existence it refused to acknowledge. And Caudwell declined also to take another available exit (which has currently become more fashionable) in which men are seen as ‘acting out the laws and codes of an inaccessible linguistic system.’ [45] Caudwell’s was a way of muddling through, among shifting terms. But what was saved, in the midst of this muddle, was not negligible; it was a sense of the nobility and import of poetry among the arts. The attack upon Caudwell in 1950-1 assumes some of its significance from this, and must be seen alongside Zhdanov’s attack on Pasternak and that of Revai on Lukács. It is not just that Stalinism feared poets as heretics; there was an ulterior fear of consciousness itself, in its active and creative attributes, of which poetry is the sign. Hence poetry must be allocated an inferior, reflective function – to ‘portray in poetic images the reality of the world’ – a reality that was ‘objective’ and given independent of consciousness. In defending poetry from this relegation Caudwell was also defending a view of human creativity. But with creativity must also go uncertainty: failures in prediction, failures to conform to objective law, threats to a positivist ‘science’ of society. Such threats were intolerable. The Party, guided by Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, should be able to decide what was ‘reality’, and then poets could set reality to rhyme. It was for these reasons – and not because Caudwell had failed in some parts of his enterprise – that his whole work came under official attack. Yet the attack was not (as we have seen) without some legitimate basis, and Caudwell’s own confusions, in Illusion and Reality, inhibited the defence. [46] By the time the dust had settled, his work had fallen into general disrepute.


And should it now be rehabilitated once again? That is not the intentionof this essay. I hope to have shown that Caudwell’s work was more interesting, more complex, and more heretical than has been supposed. But nothing that he wrote is of a maturity or consistency to merit election as a Marxist or any other kind of ‘classic’.

Yet if we replace the Studies where they should always have been – at the centre of Caudwell’s work – then we are entitled to make a favourable revision of the accepted judgement. In the transition from Illusion and Reality to the Studies more had changed in Caudwell than could be expected in the passage of one year. After completing that book in Cornwall, he had moved to Poplar, where he soon became a member of the local branch of the Communist Party, sharing rooms with several of his new comrades. Until this time he seems to have been withdrawn and introverted, within the protection of his kindly older brother, Theodore, and with few friends apart from Paul Beard, a school-fellow and critic, and his wife, Elizabeth, a writer. Now, developing late, he discovered in himself new resources of sociability. He had almost nothing to do with the intellectuals of the Party (he attended some lectures on Marxism and Literature by Alick West and Douglas Carman), but in a year of activity which included battles with the Blackshirts he won the comradeship of his fellow Poplar Communists. [47] It is evident, in the Studies, that he had found a new style and a new sense of audience; there is a new fluency of polemical attack and a new self-confidence. He also focussed his mind in a new way upon one central problem: that of ideology.

Even here Caudwell’s work does not allow for a simple judgement. We may set aside the sectarian stridency, which belonged to a strident (and critical) historical moment. But we meet, once again, the old problem of Caudwell’s ‘essentialist’ tricks of mind, his tendency to intellectualise the social process. Every critic, from Cornforth to Mulhern, has noted that in his work any real sense of history is missing. In Williams’s view, ‘To describe English life, thought, and imagination in the last three hundred years simply as “bourgeois”, to describe English culture now as “dying”, is to surrender reality to a formula. [48] There is nothing in Caudwell’s writing which speaks to the actual texture and mediations of social and cultural process; if he explored the consequences of Marx’s first two theses on Feuerbach, he failed to take the point of the sixth. [49] His study on history (Men and Nature) is quite the worst in Further Studies, and his interesting study of religion (The Breath of Discontent) is suddenly made ridiculous by a jejeune sectarian political parable on the life of Christ (Jesus was a premature social-democrat, and ‘by his treatment of the vital question of workers’ power, Jesus had from the start ensured the defeat of his communist programme’). The study is in fact very much more interesting in its comments on magic than in any part of its treatment of religion. (see F.S., 30)

While Caudwell encounters and despatches various kinds of philosophical idealism, idealism re-enters into his history: first, as a transcultural idea of progress – Man/Nature/Progress – which, while showing men as being irredeemably stunted and thwarted by class division and ideological illusion, nevertheless always hypostasises a Man who is progressively enriched and fulfilled. Second, idealism returns as the epochal idea of’the bourgeois’, who maintains across centuries an archetypal ideal character, imposing its ideal logic upon the historical evolution of the epoch:

The absolutist Tudors are only a phase of the bourgeois revolution ... The full bourgeois state comes later into being as a democratic constitutional state. The bourgeois has then achieved his desire, which is that there should be no overt dominating relations over himself. There are only to be dominating rights over property ... (R&R., 42)

Thus the democratic state is seen as the fulfilment of some primal and constant bourgeois idea. This idea is seen to arc across time, from those unlikely bourgeois, the Tudors, to the Thirties, disclosing its consecutive logic, from a rich individualist protest at its origin to its final loss of identity within the compulsive and unfree anarchy of uncontrolled market relations, of Fascism and of war.

But this epochal idealism, I would argue, is a vice attendant upon significant virtues. I suggested earlier that Caudwell should be seen as an anatomist of ideology. He was preoccupied centrally in all his work with ideology, and above all with its own authentic logic. If he was wrong to afford to this logic autonomy – an idea imposing itself on history – he was not wrong to identify this logic as an authentic element within the social process. He was concerned with the characteristic ‘illusion of the epoch’; the ‘deep structure’ of myth; the generation of modes of intellectual self-mystification.

In this preoccupation Caudwell anticipated some part of ‘Western Marxist’ thought. He gave a similar primacy to the ways in which the mind becomes estranged from reality through its self-imprisonment in its own categories. The categories of the critic, he remarks in Romance and Realism, are ‘generated below the surface by one developing thing, bourgeois social relations. As all the critic’s other categories are bourgeois, he could never see this; it is like trying to look through himself ...’ (R.&R., 33) He carried this central concern into every area of his studies: literature, psychology, physics. He noted, in a criticism of functional anthropology which anticipates much subsequent debate:

The view of human society taken by this school is not really functional, for it does not include, as functions of society, the ‘civilised’ equipment the observers themselves bring to the survey of primitive society. (F.S., 17)

Or, in The Crisis in Physics, ‘the social relations are reflected in all the products of society (including the ideology of physics) as categories’ (C.inP., 29):

The genius does not escape from the categories of his age, any more than man escapes from time and space, but the measure of his genius consists in the degree to which he fills these categories with content – a degree which may even result in their explosion. This explosion is, however, in turn dependent on a certain ripeness in the categories, (Ibid., 25)

In suggestive comments on the limitations of bourgeois feminism he remarked: ‘The woman revolts within the categories of bourgeois culture.’ She finds herself an alien in ‘man’s world’, for ‘this world is a vast cognitive expression of man’s notion of reality.’ But if her revolt does not transcend these categories, then it ‘is bound to fail, because it asserts woman’s right to be man in other words to enslave herself to masculine values.’ (R.&R., 72, 113)

The Studies then are each in different ways explorations of the illusion of the bourgeois epoch, and of the deforming or limiting character of bourgeois categories. The method is assertive; the judgements hard and sometimes ungenerous; the temptation to marshal evidence in binary oppositions is too often taken; and the tone is at some points pharisaical. ‘The bourgeois’, in Caudwell’s essays, is always tripping up on his own categories and falling full length in the epistemological mud, but somehow, despite these repeated exposures to ridicule, someone called Man is advancing in knowledge and producing great art. But these polemical vices were perhaps the inevitable concomitants of a venture which was, in Caudwell’s time, original and arduous. He was attempting to offer, not an alternative view in one special area (economics or politics), but to effect a rupture with a whole received view of the world, with its vocabulary and in terms of argument:

When categories are first imposed, they seem arbitrary, violent, the expression of individual personalities ... When one is born into these categories, so that from childhood one’s mind is moulded by them, they seem reasonable, peaceful and impersonal. (R.&R., 42)

Caudwell’s acrid style expresses the violence and novelty of exactly such an encounter.

The method of the Studies seemed to me, when I first read them, and still seems to me today, to have been productive. Caudwell understood the nature of ideology better than it is generally understood today, and his work developed this understanding in new directions. This follows in some part upon his ‘heretical’ rejection of reflection-theory. Ideas, art, intellectual artefacts do not appear to Caudwell (as they did to some of his contemporaries) as sociological symptoms expressed (inconveniently) in other terms, or as simple reflections of class interests. Nor did he (as is often still done) use ‘ideology’ as an indiscriminate and replaceable term for any system of beliefs. Ideology gives the ‘characteristic shape’ to a society’s intellectual culture; it is ‘a basic world-view’, with attendant categories, which:

Is only revealed on analysis as an unseen force, not explicit in the formulations of that culture, but acting like a pressure from without. It gives to that culture a characteristic distortion which is not visible to those who still live within the framework of that economy. (F.S., 116)

The ‘carapacious toughness’ of ‘the conscious part of society’ consists in the fixity of the categories into which knowledge is sorted, and these categories ‘always reflect in a class society the particular conditions of functioning of the ruling class as felt by them.’ (C.inP., 89) But these categories, while resistant to change, are not. inert; they also exert ‘a pressure’, they direct intellectual interests in certain directions (C.inP., 53). They determine a certain drift of the mind which is, ultimately, itself determined in class ways. We can observe this pressure, this drift, by observing the way in which in different historical periods, similar illusions reappear within quite distinct fields of thought. Hence we may legitimately analyse ideology not only as product but also as process; it has its own logic which is, in part, self-determined, in that given categories tend to reproduce themselves in consecutive ways. While we cannot substitute the ideological logic for the real history – capitalist evolution is not the acting out of a basic bourgeois idea – nevertheless this logic is an authentic component of that history, a history inconceivable and indescribable independent of the ‘idea’.

The bourgeois illusion of freedom is the central character of all the studies. ‘The deepest and most ineradicable bourgeois illusion’, upon which all others are built, is that ‘man is free not through but in spite of social relations’. (S.D.C., 69) This demand of bourgeois culture was in fact unrealisable’, since ‘man cannot strip himself of his social relations and remain man.’ ‘Freedom is secreted in the relation of man to man’. (S.D.C., xxi) But repeatedly the logic of bourgeois ideology enforces a refusal to acknowledge social determinations. ‘The bourgeois by his position is committed to the belief that a dominating relation to a thing (private property) is not a dominating relation at all’; ‘the relation between a man and his property is a relation between man and a thing, and is therefore no restraint on the liberty of other men.’ (F.S., 167; S.D.C., 100) Throughout the studies the bourgeois is seen as a man ‘standing in his own light’:

As a bourgeois he had been unconscious of any necessity determining his action, for the bourgeois law of social action is ‘Do as you will’. It forgets to state whether (a) you can do as you will; (b) you can will what you will. (F.S., 168)

As the growing complexity of economic organisation, the rise of the State, and the threat of the working-class movement make older bourgeois notions of social liberty come to appear increasingly unpracticable, nevertheless the bourgeois illusion continued to reproduce itself in the arts and the intellectual disciplines. It reappears, with astonishing vigour, in modern psycho-analysis (see ‘Freud’, ‘Love’, ‘Consciousness’); it supports the ineffectual pacifism of the Thirties; it diverts D.H. Lawrence from the sources of his own genius; above all, it is stubbornly defended in the bourgeois self-image:

The bourgeois cannot admit himself to be a determined individual – to do so would be to uncover the determining relations which are all social relations... Thus the bourgeois reserves for himself an area of spontaneity or non-causality in all values in which the human mind is concerned, and since there is no determinism there, they are all arbitrary and might be anything. (F.S., 72)

Ideology, as seen by Caudwell, is not a cunning and wilful class imposition, a mask to disguise social realities and to mystify the oppressed. It is, in its most essential effects, a form of self-mystification, a drift of the mind and of the sensibility. But it does also mystify the oppressed, impose an approved view of social reality, and, hence, enforce the hegemony of the rulers. About this – and the institutional consolidation and reproduction of ideology in its dominative aspects – Caudwell has less to say. But he does, repeatedly, jab at the central legitimating notion of the ‘freedom’ of market relations, a notion astonishingly regenerate in the capitalist world today:

Man is completely free except for the payment of money. That is the overt character of bourgeois relations. Secretly it is different, for society can only be a relation between men, not between man and a thing, not even between man and cash. (S.D.C., 151)

This way of seeing ideology is of course derived from Marx, but Caudwell has thought it through once again, and has made it his own. I find it congenial, and also contagious. It has influenced my own historical thinking, although the imbrication of ideology, with its own authentic logic, within particular social contexts whose logic need not be congruent, presents problems both of reciprocal determination and of contradiction of a complexity which Caudwell’s epochal analysis glosses over. And I must also confess to another area in which Caudwell influenced me, an area in which his thought is unclear, ambiguous and perhaps heretical. This concerns the relations between ‘basis’ and ‘superstructure’, between needs and norms, between ‘economy’ and value-system or ‘morality’.

Caudwell does not often employ the basis/superstructure analogy, and if he does so it is clearly as a figure-of-speech. He is more concerned to close than to force open the gap between social being and social consciousness; one is not seen as primary, the other as derivative. Yet at the same time he is given to statements that intellectual artefacts are ‘economic products’. ‘Religion’, he notes at one point, is, ‘like the consciousness of which it is a part, an economic product.’ (F.S., 18) And again,’man’s inner freedom, the conscious will, acting towards conscious ends, is a product of society; it is an economic product.’ (S.D.C., 216) If religion and free-will are economic products, what then is the economy? Caudwell has an answer to this too:

By economic production we mean an active interpenetration of organism with nature that is not innate, is not genetically inherited, but is transmitted by external means, and yet is not environmental in the biological sense. It is cultural. (F.S., 27)

So we are in a circle. Religion and free-will are economic products. What is economic production? It is cultural. But this is not the word-spinning of an ideologue: Caudwell is not shuffling his papers at random, and grabbing at whatever term comes to hand. It is true that he may be trying to shock us out of certain received bourgeois (or Marxist?) categories, in which the purity of culture can never be sullied by vulgar ‘economies’ or in which economic production is substantial ‘material reality’ and culture an insubstantial accessory. That the assimilation is mediated and deliberate, and is of a piece with his interactionist epistemology, is made clear in his study of Love. Love ‘is man’s name for the emotional element in social relations’:

If our definition of love is correct, it is true that love makes the world go round. But it would be rather truer to say that the society going round as it does, makes love what it is. This is one of those relations like that of knowing and being, which can only be understood in a dialectical manner. Thought guides action, yet it is action which gives birth to consciousness, and so the two separate, struggle, and return on each other, and therefore perpetually develop. Just as human life is being mingled with knowing, society is economic production mingled with love. (S.D.C., 730-1) (My italics)

Thus Caudwell is refusing to allow us to place ‘economics’ in a conceptual basis, and consciousness and affective culture in a conceptual superstructure. Needs and norms must be taken together, and knowledge must be taken with them, as part of a unitary process in which men in particular forms of association (mode of production) produce both goods and culture. This may be seen clearly in primitive society: ‘as the researches of anthropologists show, economic production is inextricably interwoven with social affection.’ (S.D.C., 150) The dichotomy between ‘economy’ and ‘love’ has no transcultural heuristic value: it is historically-specific to capitalist society.

The bourgeois was determined to believe that the market was the only social relation between man and man. This meant that he must refuse to believe that love was an integral part of a social relation. He repressed this tenderness from his social consciousness. (S.D.C., 152)

In all distinctive bourgeois relations ‘it is characteristic that tenderness is completely expelled, because tenderness can only exist between men, and in capitalism all relations appear to be between a man and a commodity.’ (Ibid., 151) ‘Economies’, in short, is a category invented by the bourgeois, in his utilitarian stage; and the same category imposes a particular, limited and instrumental view of human motivations and satisfactions which excludes all needs and faculties which are not responsive to the stimuli of the market, or subject to its operations:

To our generation the association of economic relations with sexual love seems arbitrary, not because our idea of love is too rich but because our notion of economic relations is too bourgeois. Bourgeois civilisation has reduced social relations to the cash nexus. They have become emptied of affection. (Ibid., 148)

But ‘economic’ is not a category which Caudwell rejects. He holds onto it, as a very general term for men and women in association producing the means of life, and at the same time producing themselves and their own culture, and he tries to stuff back into it those qualities which the bourgeois category has excluded:

The misery of the world is economic, but that does not mean that it is cash. That is a bourgeois error. Just because they are economic, they involve the tenderest and most valued feelings of social man. (Ibid., 156).

(‘They’, I take it, refers not to ‘misery’ but to a missing term, ‘social relations’). This thought carries him on to his apocalyptic conclusion:

To-day it is as if love and economic relations have gathered at two opposite poles. All the unused tenderness of man’s instincts gather at one pole and at the other are economic relations, reduced to bare coercive rights to commodities. This polar segregation is the source of a terrific tension, and will give rise to a vast transformation of bourgeois society. They must, in a revolutionary destruction and construction, return in on each other and fuse in a new synthesis. This is communism. (Ibid., 157)

This is powerful as a parable, but the parable is too neat. Metaphor and logic are slipping in different directions, rhetoric is dominant, the idea is imposing itself on the social process, old errors (man’s a-historical ‘instincts’) reappear. Moreover, on the previous page Caudwell had sketched an alternative scenario: displaced societal feelings might equally reappear in the form of social neuroses – ‘hate, patriotism, fascism’, anti-semitism, ‘absurd and yet pathetic Royal Jubilee enthusiasms’, or ‘mad impossible loyalties to Hitlers and Aryan grandmothers. [50] All this is forgotten or brushed impatiently aside. ‘Emotion’ (affirmative) will ‘burst from the ground in which it has been repressed with all the force of an explosion ... This is a revolution.’

The conclusion, then, will not do, although I confess that I was long attracted by its metaphoric vitality. It is not altogether spurious, for it serves to remind us, forcibly, that the injury which capitalist process inflicts on us is not only that of economic exploitation. It is also that of defining us, in this abbreviated way, as economic creatures at all. And men and women do, continually find ways of resisting these definitions. And this resistance has often proved to be more difficult for capitalism to accommodate than the direct resistance of exploited economic men, which can often be bought off in economic ways. So that the ‘tension’ upon which Caudwell builds his parable is not of his invention.

But the conclusion is less significant than the train of argument which led up to it. This is not without difficulty, of several kinds. It is possible to ask, for example, why love should be the distinctive emotional element in social relations, and not hate, greed, envy, aggression, &c. To this Caudwell has, implicitly, his own answer; if society is dependent upon men and women associating co-operatively in economic production, then only the adhesive affective qualities are functional, and these we decide to call ‘love’; greed, aggression, &c., are dysfunctional. This answer scarcely suffices. But the ulterior methodological problems are, to the dominant Marxist tradition, even greater. The assimilation of ‘economies’ and ‘culture’, and of social affection to the productive base, are plainly heretical. And if the notion that the misery of the world is economic, in the sense of cash, is ‘a bourgeois error’, it is also an error which has penetrated very deeply into the interstices of the Marxist tradition. And where in all this ‘dialectical’ interaction (’society is economic production mingled with love’) are we to insert – as Caudwell elsewhere does insert, sometimes brutally – the determining pressure of social being? Have we not lost sight of the critical concept of society organised according to a specific and structured mode of production? [51]

Caudwell does not resolve these questions. I have already said that his thought in this area was unclear and ambiguous. There was a time, a very recent time, when to ask such questions and to receive an irresolute answer would have been to have courted dismissal. Marxism – or the people who spoke most loudly and authoritatively in Marxism’s name – already knew the answers. I am glad that this intellectual iron age is now passing; one has waited for a long time for it to go by. Caudwell, in my view, was asking questions which had to be asked, and his ambiguity was a fruitful ambiguity. In refusing the orthodox closures offered by reflection theory, by the basis/superstructure model, and by the allocation of ‘economies’ to the base and norms, or affective culture, to the superstructure, he was holding open a door to a more creative tradition.


Some of us strayed through that door, hesitantly and with many backward looks. That is, I suppose, one reason for my writing this essay. Caudwell’s insights and Caudwell’s confusions were imprinted upon many of my generation. I hope that I may have shown – and Caudwell, if Promethean, was by no means an isolated figure – that the Marxism available in England as we entered the Forties was more complex than is often supposed. But I may only have confirmed, in the eyes of modern critics, the poverty and confusion of our resources. Even so, one should not swing from one fashion to the next without making some settlement of intellectual accounts.

In these accounts I still feel myself to be in Caudwell’s debt. The examination has proved to be more difficult than I anticipated. I now find that very much of Caudwell’s work, perhaps ninety per-cent, must be set aside. It no longer affords any point of entry. But there is a residue, a ten per-cent, which still holds an extraordinary, searching vitality. Above all, Caudwell was walking abroad in the intellectual world of his time, encountering the largest ideas and issues of his contemporary culture. He was not, as sometimes happens today, retreating into the introverted security where Marxists speak only to Marxists in a universe of self-validating texts. His enterprise – to work over in his consciousness ‘the whole inheritance of human knowledge’ – was impossibly ambitious, but it is not for that reason discredited. Studies in a Dying Culture remains, with Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age (with which it bears, at some points, comparison), an outstanding diagnosis of a particular moment of intellectual history.

This moment was not just ‘the Thirties’. It was a particular point within the Thirties. One of his editors, recalling the year (1935-6) when the studies were written, has summarised it thus:

It was a good time to be a left-wing idealist: during that year Hitler occupied the Rhineland, Abyssinia fell to the Italians, and the Spanish Civil War began. In London, troops of Sir Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists made their most serious effort to invade the East End, and were repulsed by the workers, and the Hunger Marchers from Jarrow arrived in Westminster ... [52]

It was, moreover, a time of sustained and exalted illusion about Soviet reality. The major purges and trials had yet to come. At the first Soviet Writers Congress (1934), whose proceedings were translated when Caudwell was completing Illusion and Reality, Bukharin, in one of his last public appearances (but who could know that?), had appeared to offer a charter to the poets endorsing their creative autonomy. [53] Whether or not it was ‘a good time’ to be a left-wing idealist, it was a time in which one might easily take one culture to be dying and another to be coming of age.

Caudwell’s utopian vision of Soviet Communism leaves a dusty taste in our mouths today, and inevitably this must date some part of his writing. But the poles and oppositions between which he made culture and history swing were not by any means factitious. He lived at a time when bourgeois individualism did, in extremity, effect alliances with Fascism; when peaceful laissez-faire did undergo a transformation into armed imperialism; when the commercial degradation of art did appear to gather at one pole and self-contemplating aestheticism at the other; when eminent scientists were proclaiming the rediscovery of God and of free will in the indeterminacy of physical laws; when ascendant psycho-analysis was presenting society as the prison-house and culture as the warden constraining the nobility of the free expressive instincts. That crisis was not imaginary. It imposed itself ‘like a pressure from without’ upon his acrid style and within the antinomies of his thought. At length it imposed itself upon his life, and took him to his death in Spain. His body was never recovered. The unfinished manuscripts which were recovered [54] represent the most heroic effort of any British Marxist to think his own intellectual time:

I see a man
Last heard of alive on a hill-crest
In Spain, expecting to die at his gun,
Alone, his youth and work all over,
His stars and planets
Reduced to yards of ground,
Hoping others will harvest his crop. [55]


1*. I am grateful to those who have read or heard different versions of this essay for their critical comments: these include Philip Corrigan, Alan Dawley, Martin Eve, Dorothy Thompson, Raymond Williams, the editors of the Socialist Register, and members of the Birmingham University Caudwell Society.


1. The Crisis in Physics (1939); Illusion and Reality (1937); Romance and Realism: a Study in English Bourgeois Literature (Princeton 1970); Studies in. a Dying Culture (1938); Further Studies in a Dying Culture (1949). My references in the text are to these editions, abbreviated as C.in.P., I.&R., R. & R., S.D.C., F.S. In 1965 Lawrence and Wishart issued a selection from Caudwell’s writings as The Concept of Freedom. There is a Monthly Review paperback edition (1972), of S.D.C. and F.S. within a single cover.

2. Biographical evidence is patchy and sometimes contradictory: see the biographical note in Christopher Caudwell, Poems (1939); and material in Stanley E. Hyman, The Armed Vision (New York 1948) and David N. Margolies, The Function of Literature: a Study of Caudwell’s Aesthetics (1969). The most informative account is undoubtedly in Samuel Hynes’s introduction to R.&R. Since writing this essay, I have had a sight of an unpublished biography by George Moburg, Christopher Caudwell: The Making of a Revolutionary, which is based on letters and manuscripts in the possession of Caudwell’s brother, Mr. Theodore Sprigg. Mr. Moburg’s study fully confirms the account given by Samuel Hynes.

3. Francis Mulhern, The Marxist Aesthetics of Christopher Caudwell, New Left Review, 85, May/June 1974, pp.37-58. While I disagree with Mulhern on many points I welcome his careful and thoughtful study.

4. See Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams: an Appraisal, New Left Review, 95, January/February 1976, p.7: ‘Who is the major English Marxist critic? Christopher Caudwell, hélas. It is in such pat question and answer that the problem of a Marxist criticism in contemporary Britain is most deftly posed. For though Caudwell is the major forebear – major, at least, in the sheer undaunted ambitiousness of his project – it is equally true that there is little, except negatively, to be learnt from him.’

5. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (Penguin edition, 1961), p.272, 269.

6. It should, however, be noted that the late essay, planned as one of the Studies, and published only in 1970 as Romance and Realism, reveals a quite new specificity of judgement, a more watchful eye and a more attentive ear, notably in its treatment of Meredith, Hardy, Kipling, Moore and Virginia Woolf. This suggests reserves of critical power only casually drawn upon in Caudwell’s earlier writings.

7. Loc. cit., p.58.

8. Loc. cit., p.7.

9. A rough-and-ready breakdown into categories gives us: Linguistics, 14; Mathematics, 14; Philosophy, 33; General science (including genetics, physics), 37; Ancient civilizations (Egypt, Greece, Rome), 39; Marxism, 39; History, economics, general politics, 64; Literary criticism and the arts, 75; Psychology and neurology, 78; Anthropology and archaeology, 122. A few titles evade even these classifications. And there are two or three volumes of poetry.

10. Caudwell at first intended to call the book Verse and Mathematics – a Study of the Foundation of Poetry: see R.&R., p.10. Caudwell in fact disavowed any claim to have studied aesthetics: ‘to deal fully and appreciatively with [aesthetic] values in one author alone would perhaps occupy several books.’ His concern was, rather, with ‘the social generation of art’, and at a time when ‘a culture disintegrates’ this must be a prior concern: R.&R., 139-40.

11. Bernal’s criticism (Modern Quarterly, Vol.6, no.4, Autumn 1951, pp.346-50) does not in fact identify specific errors in Caudwell’s scientific writing, although he indicates one passage (F.S., 243) as ‘word-spinning’: i.e. an overstrained analogy rather than an error of fact.

12. The discussion was closed with Cornforth’s reply (loc. cit., Autumn 1951), with the remark that it would ‘have to be continued elsewhere’. But there was, in the conditions of that time, in the Party’s control of its own press and in the virtual absence of any independent journals interested in Marxist discussion, nowhere else for its continuance. The number of contributions to that discussion (Summer and Autumn 1951), often heavily edited and cut (as well as other contributions which never appeared?), indicates the very general interest that had been aroused. In my view the ‘controversy’ was editorially controlled throughout and directed to a foregone conclusion.

13. A neurologist, B.H. Kerman, added some helpful footnotes to the study of Consciousness in Further Studies, which offered corrections to Caudwell in the light of subsequent research: but it is also made clear that these corrections did not undermine his basic argument, and, indeed, his argument ‘brilliantly anticipates a whole trend which is now discernable in modern neuro-anatomy’: F.S., 11.

14. See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, pp. 269, 271; Marxism and Literature (Oxford 1977), p.30.

15. Maurice Cornforth, Caudwell and Marxism, Modern Quarterly, Vol.6, no.1, Winter 1950-1. In describing this orthodoxy as ‘Stalinist’ I of course employ hindsight, but not complacent hindsight. There were a good many frustrated proto-revisionists in the Communist Party in those days; in my own circles we designated the enemy as ‘King Street’ and as ‘Jungle Marxism’, of which we increasingly came to see The Modern Quarterly as the leading intellectual organ. For a superb example of Jungle Marxism, see (in the same number as Cornforth on Caudwell), Dr. John Lewis (the review’s editor) on The Moral Complexion of our People, from which we learn, inter alia, that ‘the militant worker exemplifies kindness, courage, comradeship, mercy, integrity and truth to a degree not known before.’ The spectacle of Althusser going hammer-and-tongs at Lewis (King Street’s leading lay preacher of the most vulgar orthodoxy) as an idealist and revisionist heretic defies one’s sense of the ridiculous.

16. Caudwell’s leading defender was George Thomson (In Defence of Poetry, Modern Quarterly, Vol.6, no.2, Spring 1951). I have been told by Professor Thomson that he was given an exceedingly short time – only a few days – to prepare his reply to Cornforth; perhaps this explains why he was driven to defend Caudwell mainly by trading quotations from Marx. It seems that it had been the intention that Cornforth’s article should go uncontested, as an ex cathedra statement of the ‘correct’ view on Caudwell’s work. Only an outcry among Party members, and the high standing of several of them – including George Thomson (who had been on the Party’s Executive Committee) – forced the discussion to be opened.

17. N. Bukharin, Poetry, Poetics and the Problems of Poetry in the USSR, in Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers Congress, 1934, ed. A. Zhdanov, N. Bukharin, K. Radek, &c. (1935). Margolies, op. cit., pp.86-91, discusses the influence of Bukharin’s ideas on Caudwell. But he fails to convey the intelligence, flexibility and soaring confidence of this report.

18. See Hynes, Introduction, R&R. Earlier editors and critics had supposed that Studies in a Dying Culture preceded Illusion and Reality.

19. Hynes, op. cit., pp.13-14.

20. See below, note 54. Several of Caudwell’s works are marred by evident mis-readings or mis-transcriptions of the manuscripts, notably The Crisis in Physics, with ‘defendent’ for dependent (p.11), ‘conscience’ for conscious (p.20), ‘ethers’ for ethics (p.74), ‘denominated’ for denominator (p.81), ‘with’ for without (p.150), ‘sun’ for sum (p.220), and so on. Such errors reduce whole sentences to nonsense.

21. Poems, p.41.

22. Modern Quarterly, Vol.6, no.4, Autumn 1951.

23. The 1886 edition of Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, is cited in the bibliography to I.&R.

24. A related argument appears in I.&R., pp.164-5 and in Beauty, F.S., p.93.

25. Sebastiano Timpanaro, Considerations on Materialism, New Left Review, 85, May/June 1974; On Materialism (New Left Books, 1975).

26. ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the “this-sidedness” of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.’

27. Compare C.in P., p.58: ‘Dialectics can only be filled with content by activity upon the object – that is, by practice and experiment. Since the object did not exist for Hegel, his dialectic could never be filled with realistic content, and remained a beautiful and intricate mill grinding the air of theory and producing nothing but his prejudices and aspirations.’

28. See e.g. C.in P., pp.126-7, F.S., p.247.

29. Marxism and Literature, p.85.

30. Ibid., pp.83, 87.

31. The passage continues: ‘as we change the world we learn more about it; as we learn more about it, we change ourselves ...’

32. Loc. cit., p.18.

33. Loc. cit., p.356.

34. Loc. cit., p.266.

35. Loc. cit., pp.22-23.

36. As Mulhern suggests, op. cit., p.54.

37. Cf. S.D.C., pp.135-7: ‘An instinct is a certain innate behaviour-pattern or chain of reflexes, conditioned or modified by experience’; we must ‘rid our mind of mythological entities of these separate instincts, like distinct souls, planted in the animal or human breast ...’

38. See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, p.87. In a private communication to me, Williams suggested the way in which the metaphor ‘drifts’.

39. Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski, Socialist Register, 1973, p.67.

40. Morris’s Hopes and Fears for Art is included in the bibliography of I.&R.

41. Marxism and Literature, p.30.

42. The image of ‘photograph’ appears in a more complex form in I.&R., p.161:

‘Words are tied to percepts which are photographic memory-images of bits of reality. These percepts are fused into concepts, are organised and ordered in the broadest and most abstract way. Or, more accurately, out of the broad humming chaos of “existence” – the simplest percept, other concepts and percepts arise by differentiation and integration.’

43. Williams, op. cit., p.37.

44. Ibid., pp.41-42. See Caudwell’s comment on Russell, S.D.C., p.214: ‘Language filled his head with ideas, showed him what to observe, taught him logic, put all other men’s wisdom at his disposal, and awoke in him affectively the elementary decencies of society.’

45. Marxism and Literature, p.36.

46. The most helpful contributions to the controversy (Modern Quarterly, Vol.6, no.3, Summer 1951) were from Montagu Slater and Geoffrey Matthews, both of whom accepted extensive criticisms of Caudwell. Matthews wrote (p.272): ‘Caudwell’s great weakness as a Marxist literary critic is surely not that he invented the bourgeois illusion within which all the modern English poets have written, but that he does not study these poets from any other angle than that of the illusion.’

47. Moburg, cit. supra, note 2.

48. Culture and Society, p.273.

49. The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.’

50. In this notion of displaced ‘love’ as social neurosis, Caudwell may have been influenced (like Auden) by Gestalt psychology.

51. The difficulty appears in a passage in Love (S.D.C., p.132): ‘What does matter to men is the emotional element in social relations ... which makes man in each generation what he is. This emotion is not separate from but springs out of the economic basis of these relations, which thus determine religion. Man’s quality in each age is determined by his emotional and technological relations, and these are not separate but part of the one social process.’ I strongly assent to the implications of the words which I have italicised. But what ‘springs out of a basis must be inherent in this basis and these relations, and hence the analogy of basis/superstructure has only a limited (and often misleading) analytic use. What then is ‘economic’ about this basis’? Is ‘economic’ the same as ‘technological?’ What Caudwell has failed to elaborate is the concept of a mode of production, which entails both ‘economic’ and normative correspondent attributes: the priority afforded to ‘economy’ is historically-specific to capitalist market relations. There is nothing about a mode of production which demands our attributing priority to the (bourgeois) category of ‘economies’ as opposed to the norms, affective qualities, and social relations (of power, domination and subordination) without which that mode of production would be inoperative and inconceivable. All are part of the one set. On these points I find helpful Maurice Godelier, Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology (Cambridge 1977), esp. chapters one and two. Godelier still maintains a concept of infrastructure/superstructure, which is, however, almost dissolved in his rich and scrupulous analysis. I understand that his thought is still developing in this area, and we must await his conclusions with interest.

52. Samuel Hynes, in R.&R., p.12.

53. Bukharin’s eloquent and affirmative report (cit. supra, note 17) came to a climax with the slogan: ‘Culture, culture and yet again culture!’ (p.257). It was received by the delegates with ecstatic excitement, as the signal of reconciliation between the Soviet regime and the intelligentsia: for the circumstances, see Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (1974), pp.355-6.

54. In a letter to Elizabeth and Paul Beard (cited by Moburg, above, note 2), which constitutes his literary testament on leaving for Spain, he referred to Studies as ‘imperfect hasty sketches’, and ‘only drafts’. They would ‘all have to be rewritten and refined ... it needs refining, balancing, getting in it the movement of time, ripening and humanising.’

55. R.F. Willets, Homage to Christopher Caudwell, Envoi, no.15, 1962.

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