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Ambiguity: Si!

(February 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.55, February 1973, p.26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Romance and Realism
Christopher Caudwell
Princeton University Press (no price given)

Culture and Agitation
Action Books, £0.30

Christopher Caudwell has been hailed in some circles as one of the greatest of English Marxists. Such a claim does no service either to Marxism or to a talented and unfortunate young man. Caudwelj was killed in Spain in 1937, having been a Marxist for little over two years. He left behind him a number of manuscripts on literary and philosophical subjects, of which Romance and Realism is the most recently published.

Caudwell had read a lot in his 30 years of life, as is clearly shown by this 110-page run-through of English literature, from Shakespeare to Auden and Spender. What he has not done, and could not have done, is reread the material as a Marxist, evaluating it afresh and in detail. Instead there is a frantic rush to fit predigested judgments into Marxist pigeon holes. His comments on, for example, Blake’s ‘mysticism which is almost psychotic’ or Scott’s ‘bourgeois daydreams’ are superficial and inaccurate.

All Caudwell succeeds in doing is to bring a few Marxist ideas into contact with a mass of bourgeois thought. There are a few sharp insights, but no consistent success, and he tends to make uncoordinated lunges into psychology and anthropology. Had Caudwell lived, he would probably be in the ranks of those who believe that Marxism has to be ‘supplemented’ by the work of Freud, Levi-Strauss or whoever the latest cult figure may be.

But it is precisely the dominance of milk-and-water academic Marxism that leads those, like the authors of Culture and Agitation, who are genuinely concerned with the problems of revolutionary culture, to lapse into opposite crudities.

The authors are committed to a propagandist view of art. They fall into pure gibberish – as in the case of one author who believes that renaming the police as ‘fuzz’ and ‘pigs’ is a necessary precondition for overthrowing the state. And nearly half the pamphlet is devoted to two self-indulgent articles which make the triumphant discovery that the West End theatre is saturated with bourgeois values. But the most interesting part of the pamphlet is the reprint of texts from Piscator, the Proletcult, etc. Piscator’s essay on the proletarian theatre has the key to the problem when he declares that ‘it must have a clear and unambiguous impact on the emotions of the working-class audience’. Apart from the patronising suggestion that workers are too thick to appreciate subtleties, this disregards the fact that all art (and indeed much propaganda, for example the self-mocking advertisement) is based on ambiguity.

Piscator’s colleague, Brecht, always combines deep commitment with a sense of the ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in it. Or to take a more recent example, the Red Ladder play on the Industrial Relations Act, analysed in the pamphlet and performed on many demonstrations: the one thing that saves this from being an insufferably crude caricature is the ambiguous figure of the trade-union leader Feather, torn between workers and bosses.

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Last updated: 27.1.2008