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Ian H. Birchall

The Novel and Revolution

(June 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Novel and Revolution
Alan Swingewood
Macmillan £7.95 hardback/£4.95 paperback.

Swingewood has succeeded in one thing; he has taken an exciting title and wasted it on a trivial and irrelevant book. In this study of political novelists from Gissing to Solzhenitsyn, Swingewood is concerned to rescue Marxism from what he sees as deterministic and reductionist distortions. Thus he tells us that ‘Marx saw writers who directly expressed class interests in their work as mediocre artists’. This may come as a surprise to those of us who have dragged ourselves away from Marx’s unpublished manuscripts long enough to read what he actually did publish (in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), namely his reference to ‘the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.’ On the next page, we are even more startled to read that Engels, in a letter to Margaret Harkness (rechristened Mary by Swingewood) ‘urged that she adopt a less militant and obvious political standpoint’. In fact Engels wrote:

‘The rebellious reaction of the working class against the oppressive medium which surrounds them, their attempts – convulsive, half-conscious or conscious – at recovering their status as human beings, belong to history and must therefore lay claim to a place in the domain of realism.’

Swingewood’s insistence that novel-writing is to be seen as a specific ‘praxis’ rather than an integral part of the total process of making the revolution is, purely and simply, a cop-out. Not only does it allow one to talk, or write, about revolution without putting one’s head on the block; it also allows one to bask in the glory of having a ‘praxis’ all of one’s own. It is profoundly conservative in that it takes the activity of literature for granted. The real human choice between writing novels or engaging in some more direct form of political action (a choice that repeatedly confronted, for example, Victor Serge in his long career as writer and activist) cannot even be confronted in terms of this framework.

Swingewood scores some easy points by looking at the more obviously absurd pronouncements of Georg Lukacs and Zhdanov. But he ducks the real issues here too. Despite all his colossal concessions to Stalinism, Lukacs’ work centres on a real problem – how does the effort to seize reality as a whole found in great realist literature relate to the need of the proletariat to see society as a whole in order to achieve revolutionary consciousness. Zhdanov is rebuked for insisting that ‘literature was part of the class struggle’. But the real criticism of Zhdanov starts, not from a liberal assertion of the autonomy of literature, but from an analysis of the class interests that Zhdanov represented, and his attempt to harness literature as a weapon in the Russian bureaucracy’s fight to increase productivity and discipline workers.

Swingewood deals in patronising fashion with writers whose work flows from the heart of the class struggle – Lenin’s comrade Gorky is ‘insipid and unreal’, Victor Serge ‘naive’. Swingewood’s hero turns out to be Solzhenitsyn. He points triumphantly to the ‘paradox’ of Solzhenitsyn’s reactionary politics. Now of course Engels, writing of Balzac, and Lenin of Tolstoy, pointed to a similar phenomenon of writers whose ideas were conservative but whose work has a progressive impact. One might speculate that in all three cases -Balzac, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn – one has writers criticising capitalist societies in terms of pre-capitalist values – values which stress community and attack dehumanisation and therefore – to a certain extent – overlap with a socialist critique. Certainly socialists should read all three writers and learn from them. But they hardly offer a model for generalisation.

Swingewood demands that the heroes of novels be ‘problematical’. But the ‘problems’ of working-class heroes are different from those of bourgeois heroes. Zola’s heroes are cursorily dismissed as ‘non-problematical’. But Etienne Lantier in Germinal, ahead of, behind, or just catching the mood of his fellow-workers, precisely embodies the ‘problematical’ relationship of leaders and masses in the working-class movement.

Once, long ago, it was thought that the study of literature had something to do with the effective use of language. Swingewood, who writes of ‘conflictive social classes’ and ‘novelistic universes’, clearly would not agree.

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