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International Socialism, January 1978


Jean McNair

Rarified Criticism


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, pp. 28–29.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form
by Francis Barker
Macmillan 1977. £6.95

Francis Barker is very clever. He knows it too. The result is pretentious and very difficult to read – it is rarified Marxist literary criticism of the Terry Eagleton school.

What for instance do you make of this? – the literary critic has the ‘task of identifying in the text he examines those elements which are “reflective” of the conjuncture which shaped it, and those elements which stand over against the conjuncture, that make the text discontinuous with, subversive of, the situation that called it into being. And as, of course, these different aspects of the text – its character as historical product and as political activity – are not empirically distinct elements of the text at all, but are on the contrary, the contradictory “quality” of the whole text, this gnomic but dialectical formulation forces the critic to examine methods by which the text in its determinate specificity nonetheless distantiates itself from its ideological locale.’

All this is rather unfortunate since beneath the literary fog there lurks a useful, and much needed essay on Solzhenitsyn. After joyously acclaiming The First Circle and Cancer Ward as Trotskyist (e.g. Robin Blackburn) Marxist critics were rather embarrassed by the Solzhenitsyn of the Nobel Prize speech and the Gulag Archipelago – Barker attempts to explain the change. He believes that the ‘fragile democratic idea’ of the early novels was crushed by the hostile reaction of the Brezhnev regime, a reaction which turned Solzhenitsyn not just against the Soviet state, but against Marxism as such, and led him to bring out the elements of nationalism and mysticism always latent in his writings.

This is a phenomenon unfortunately only too typical of the Soviet intelligentsia. Instinctively recoiling from Soviet dogma, he has nevertheless been brought up in it and taught by it to see things in the crudest of terms – black or white, left or right. Having rejected the Russian state, and with it Marxism, he rushes to grovel at the feet of capitalism, in a manner embarrassing to all but the most reactionary westerners. However, Francis Barker also seems to think that Solzhenitsyn naturally feels more at home in the camp of authoritarianism than in that of democracy. While the criticism in his ‘democratic’ novels is just ‘by silent implication’, in August 1914 and The Gulag Archipelago his reactionary writings, there is ‘an articulate ideological perspective’. This, Barker believes, makes them far better fiction, (and the second part of his book, which deals with them is certainly much easier to read.).

This essay contains some interesting ideas on an interesting subject. However it is not only pompous but flimsy. And very expensively flimsy. It has 101 pages and it costs £6.95, i.e. almost 7p a page!!! Is this a record?

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Last updated on 24 March 2015