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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Dave Harker

Marxists and Literature


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Marxists on Literature
David Craig (ed.)
Pelican, £1.50

Them and Us in Literature
Paul O’Flinn
Pluto Press, 60p

Marxists on Literature includes pieces by Thomson (2), Plekhanov (2), Caudwell, Matthews, Craig (2), Kiernan, Marx, Engels (3), Kettle, Mitchell, Lukac (2), Lenin, Trotsky, Lu Hsun, Brecht, Serge, Adereth and Fischer. At first glance, a liberal principle of selection seems to be at work, and the Introduction makes great play with the idea that there is no unified Marxist view of literature. But this selection is offered as representative of the ‘rich and various’ Marxist interpretations of literature, and it is not representative. George Thomson gets three times as much space as Trotsky. There is no Benjamin, no Goldman, no Williams, no Sartre, no Eagleton, no Anderson – in fact, no work from Marxist contributors to New Left Review or to Working Papers in Cultural Studies. No piece (apart from the Introduction) is newer than ten years old. Can it be that these writers represent Marxist critical traditions ‘rather different from the ones represented in this book’ (to quote Craig’s weak excuse for omitting the seminal work of Raymond Williams) or have nothing significant to say? Or are there other reasons for leaving out the work of writers whose life’s work has been spent negotiating with the kind of Marxism represented by Craig? In any event, the pretended Marxist pluralism must be seen as liberalised Stalinism, or Stalinised liberalism.

Craig’s failure to keep his fingers on the pulse of developments in the production of an adequate Marxist aesthetic is of a piece with his own position as a critic. With regret, I believe it is. Even in his own best work, Craig’s allegiance goes first to Leavis and only second to Marxism. In this book, we are invited to appropriate reified ‘texts’ through the mysterious process of a ‘sensitive reading’ and to measure that text’s ‘creative effect’ – to estimate whether or not the ‘work’ succeeds artistically’ – by somehow applying our ‘touchstones of the significant and the fine’. This is not Marxism: it is Matthew Arnold appropriated through the medium of F.R. Leavis. It is, in short, liberal mystification. And it is not enough to claim (as Craig implicitly does) that his aesthetic theory is made flesh in critical practice, or to write off the (admittedly difficult, and sometimes opaque) writing off of Marxists and near-Marxists who have broken with Leavis.

Part and parcel of this central inadequacy in Craig’s position is his (in practice) unquestioned thinking about Literature, which is given an unproblematic status. We all know, it is assumed, what Literature is and has been. But the breakdown of the same Leavisite consensus which once allowed critics to beg such fundamental questions has forced other critics (notably the ones omitted by Craig) to a fuller examination of Culture, in which it is not admissible to fetishise any body of pre-selected writing. And it is precisely in his attitude to culture – particularly working-class culture – that the logical contradictions in Craig’s own position show themselves most clearly. For example, he maintains that would-be socialist-realist artists should ‘draw upon’ those ‘human qualities’ which are ‘especially embodied in the working people.’ On the next page, he reconstructs this relationship so that (in the case of language) those ‘human qualities’ may be regarded as raw material. Artists, evidently, should express ‘the experience of working people in their own language or styles based on it (my italics)’.

However, if ‘the problem of creating a new art proceeds entirely along the lines of the fundamental problem of constructing a socialist culture’ (Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 1961 ed., p.12), it is mere liberalism to aunt-sally Zhdanov and the Stalinist bureaucracy, because, in their capacity as a ruling group, they did set about trying to make art ‘a social servant and historically utilitarian’ (Trotsky, ibid., p.168). The problem in Stalinist Russia was quite simply that the ruling group was not revolutionary. In a revolutionary situation, Trotsky maintained that Party restraint was positively harmful for artists. Any disciplining that might be necessary, as Brecht discovered in 1930s Germany, would come from revolutionary workers. Seen in this light, Craig’s own support for the sentimental Radio Ballads of Charles Parker (notably The Big Hewer) signifies a desire to glorify the worker as hero when the worker is doing a shitty job, and such a standpoint may be based either in soggy middle-class liberalism or in guilty Stalinism, for both bourgeois ‘democracy’ and Stalinist states need to keep men down coal pits ‘happy’. Some Marxists on (Some) Literature needs to be read in the light of the editor’s unresolved and un-resolvable contradictions.

Them and Us in Literature has the incisiveness and the reconstructed commitment to revolutionary socialism which David Craig’s book lacks. O’Flinn makes no excuses, evades no ideological opponent, and at the same time succeeds in writing a Marxist book which is (New Left Review take note) ‘accessible and not boring’. The discussion centres around the work of Golding, Orwell, Forster, Conrad, Hardy, Dickens, Shakespeare, Marx and Lenin; but the 86 pages of text deal not with individual writers/genres/traditions and suchlike trappings of professional lit-critics so much as they tackle fundamental ideological conflicts. In this way, O’Flinn copes with Original Sin, Socialist Revolution, Personal Relationships, Capitalism, Racism, the End of Empire, Alienation, Competition, Coppers’ Truncheons and Superman, using various kinds of writing as a way into the analysis of the dominant contemporary ideology in Britain, making explicit the cultural linkages between that ideology and the maintenance of the power of the dominant social and economic groups.

O’Flinn refuses to fetshise great men and great traditions: his book is a contribution to the pathology of British capitalism and at the same time (necessarily) to the pathology of LIT-RAT-CHA. In this way his short book is subversive where Craig’s is radical. For example, while Craig (p.12) ‘corrects’ Lukacs by adding Conrad to the list of the best ‘critical realist’ novelists, O’Flinn sums up The Secret Agent as ‘an attempt to present all revolutionaries as a poisonous gaggle of drunks, bores, foreigners, maniacs, drones, fatties, loons and physical and racial degenerates’ (p.41). Craig concentrates on Conrad’s alleged ability to present ‘the insulating divisions between people and how these arise on the basis of unequal access to the means of life’; but O’Flinn points to the £500 grant given to the emigre novelist by a grateful Tory prime minister and to the fact that this novel was serialised in Ridgeways: A Militant Weekly for God and Country, and then relates Conrad’s (at best) ambivalent relationships with imperialism and racialism to the dominant ideology.

There is, then, an alternative to the subjectivist radical liberal tradition represented by David Craig; and it is time this emergent Marxist tradition should be made available in an anthology the better to complement (and contradict, where necessary)the position which underpins Marxists and Literature. In any such anthology, the racy sharp-edged prose of Paul O’Flinn will be sure of a place.

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