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Peter Cadogan


(Winter 1960/61)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 3, Winter 1960/61, p. 28.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Mountain in the Sunlight
Alick West
Lawrence & Wishart. 25s.

Alick West, a good man still fallen among Stalinists, has written an excellent book. He starts by examining the situation of the puritan revolutionaries 300 years ago and then traces the life of certain ideas and values from that day to this. It is useful to be reminded that political questions, as such, are not economic. They concern relationships between people, classes, groups and individuals as manifest in the structure, laws, policies and customs of the state.

Thus to John Bunyan politics was primarily a question of the absence of the freedom of speech and the struggle to secure that freedom. His problem was essentially simple. Was he to conform and obey – or was he to speak out and face the consequences? Was he, regardless of personal suffering to go on searching for “the mountain in the sunlight”, the truth, and a better world?

West identifies the original burial of English history by a middle class greatly embarrassed, even terrified, of its own revolutionary record; its forcible replacement of personal monarchy by representative government.

Bunyan had been a soldier in the New Model Army during the critical year 1648. He had then lived through the years of reaction and witnessed the calculated erasure of the memory of the Civil War and its politics from the consciousness of the English people. Mansoul (in the Holy War) was England. Bunyan in that book looked back and with historic perception seized upon the truth, that so long as the revolution is forgotten then so long will the English remain an enigma to themselves.

’Tis strange to me, that they that love to tell
Things done of old ...
Speak not of Mansoul’s wars, but let them lie
Dead like old fables ...
When men, let them make what they will their own,
Till they know this, are to themselves unknown.

And Oscar Wilde said much the same:

“For he to whom the present is the only thing that is present, knows nothing of the age in which he lives. To realise the nineteenth century, one must realise every century that has preceded it and that has contributed to its making. To know anything about oneself one must know all about others.”

The book is a series of studies – of Bunyan, Defoe, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, J.B. Priestley and Jack Lindsay. West goes through Pilgrim’s Progress, Grace Abounding and The Holy War. Of John Bunyan (on the possibilities and limitations of the new middle class society) he writes: ‘It is Bunyan’s power to show through a living character that man cannot become master of his ways through money, but only through being true to his soul, which also means being true to his fellow men.’

The discovery, not only of the primacy of people over things, but of the need to search unceasingly for what that means politically and act accordingly – come privation, come prison, come what may – this was something new in the English world, born of the Levellers and nurtured of Bunyan. It has been the heart of the radical, working class and socialist tradition ever since – the permanent revvolution itself. And this, if not by that label, is the thesis of the book.

West makes it clear that although it was Walter Pater in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) who launched the conception of art for art’s sake upon the world, he was not responsible for what other people made of it. “Art for art’s sake ... also meant for Pater art for life’s sake – the life not only of the individual but of humanity in its advance to perfection.”

He quotes Priestley: “Rightly or wrongly I am not afraid of the crowd. And to me art is not synonymous with introversion.” But after examining the novels West draws this conclusion: “Priestley has allowed himself too often in his writing to be contented with too little – with the sociable life of people from the politically most ineffective section of society. He has been roused too rarely into unity with the collective people, who learn in the fight for socialism to make history instead of to suffer it.”

As a literary critic Alick West is a first class professional and his intellectual honesty is such that he makes no attempt to separate his literary life from his politics as a Communist Party member. This makes his treatment of fellow CP member Jack Lindsay all the more interesting.

In Lindsay’s novel Time to Live the characters Dan and Jill are members of a local CP branch. They are married but drifting apart. Dan is called upon to make the usual political report to the branch and presents the customary well-worn collection of clichés. Suddenly Jill feels that she has had enough:

”We congratulate ourselves on our superior intellects, we’re so different to other people, we aren’t taken in by all the brazen lies and pretexts. We know all that’s happening but we don’t do a thing about it. The political report was nothing but an epitaph for martyrs, when what we want is a marching song.”

Then West, on the final page of his book, and with his integrity very much in the ascendant, makes this comment:

“As for The British Road to Socialism the reader has to take it on trust that this political programme of the Communist Party is the marching song for which Jill has called; the novel gives no ground for that trust.”

* * *

From this, and a great deal of other evidence, it is apparent that King Street encourages its scholars to keep away from subjects dangerous to its values and to spend their energies in relatively harmless exercises. The ban on Trotsky and the near-ban on Luxemburg are notorious, but the other ones are not so well known. (For many years there has been trouble among CP historians over the fact that Palme Dutt takes the view that Thomas Cromwell was the important member of the family!) It becomes a very subtle matter.

On the subject of early Stuart England our attention is always drawn to the classic time-server Sir Francis Bacon and his hideous political record played down to permit us to glean something of service to scientific empiricism. The crime is that this charade excludes the attention that ought to be given to the key man of the period Sir Edward Coke, the uncompromising opponent of the royal prerogative and the great tribune of the common law. John Milton, who hated the common people, gave evidence of intellectual cowardice (over Galileo) and habitually got to the barricades when it was all over, is commonly given precedence over John Liiburne, the authentic revolutionary. In the book under review Daniel Defoe is chosen – for the last Stuart and early Georgian period – in preference to the man who dwarfed him, Jonathan Swift. On the subject of Chartism attention is paid to Ernest Jones (see John Saville’s book) to the exclusion of George Julian Harney.

This is not a series of accidents. In each case the chosen and undoubtedly talented figure stands tor authority or conformity (or both) whilst the excluded one represents the critical and creative spirit, “part of that complex working towards freedom which may be described as the revolt against authority”. (Wilde)

The pity is that the choice of the wrong subject is fatal to good writing. The book under review sags sadly when the subject is Defoe since he fails to sustain its thesis – after being broken by the pillory, imprisonment and bankruptcy proceedings of 1703. Fortunately we have Michael Foot’s book on the same period and he makes West’s case for him, but through the life of Swift.

The Introduction to Mountain in the Sunlight contains three very strange propositions.

The English Revolution “did not destroy medieval England but changed it”. Are we now to have history rewritten to square with the absurd gradualism of “the British Road to Socialism”? So it appears! Can it be that our author has never heard of the Divine Right of Kings, of personal government through the Privy Council, of Star Chamber and High Commission, of knights service, forest laws, forced loans, the Court of Wards, commissions of array, heresy hunts and interrogation by ‘the question’? Perhaps these things are still with us! Does he not know that they were not ‘changed’ but consciously and suddenly abolished by revolutionary action and that a bloody civil war was fought to make sure of it?

Then there is an almost mystical characterisation of the class struggle. “These essays assume the unity of the English nation.” What on earth does that mean? There is indeed one possible interpretation but if West intends it he should say so. It can be maintained that a writer like Shakespeare had the capacity to be full of class values and yet above them and that the conditions of his time helped to make that possible. All great art seems to have something of this elusive quality of classful classlessness and in that sense is a portent of communism.

Finally: “My interest and motives are also political. I have been for over twenty years a member of the Communist Party, and throughout this time the greatest need has been to achieve the unity of the Labour Movement.” That so perceptive a critic should still not be able to see that the Communist Party stands over against the Movement and actively militates against unity, this is tragedy indeed.

Yet for all the sins of his political masters and his own continued bondage West is a man of great scholarship and he retains a certain integrity. May this reviewer who once “sat at the feet” of his subject presume to wish him final emancipation!

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