From New International, Vol.2, No.1, January 1935, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Literature and Dialectical Materialism
By John Strachey
54 pp. New York. Covici-Friede. $1.
One of the chief businesses of Oxford University, the training school for English gentlemen, is to teach its students to write well and talk well on subjects with which they have little acquaintance. So important is this task considered, that for their first two years every Oxford student, no matter what field he may be specializing in, is required to write one essay a week on a literary or philosophical theme; and every ambitious student is also a member of the Oxford Union, the famous debating society whose weekly meetings train the future members of the British Parliament. In Parliament itself, the same course is continued. There, too, members are expected to talk well on subjects about which they know little; and to write well in the leading weeklies.
John Strachey has gone through the full curriculum. His Oxford days were followed shortly by several years as a Labor member of Parliament. He split with the Labor Party along with the group headed by Sir Oswald Mosley. As Sir Oswald moved more openly into the Fascist current, Strachey broke to the Left, and steered toward the revolutionary movement. He marked his passage by the excellently readable The Coming Struggle for Power; but shortly after became diverted into the shoals of Stalinism, where, unfortunately, he still flounders. Even an Oxford manner cannot resist Stalinism: The Menace of Fascism, which followed The Coming Struggle for Power, is a bad book, badly thought and badly written.
I do not minimize the importance of being able to write well and speak well. Strachey can do both. He is perhaps the first contemporary English writer who has been able to make Marxism reasonably intelligible and reasonably persuasive to many individuals from the middle classes, particularly to intellectuals and professionals. This is not a small matter. The movement needs, and must have, supporting sections from the audience he addresses. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that it is Strachey’s duty to think somewhat further, and to know more. When Marx spoke of members of the middle classes who attained a perspective of the historical process as a whole, he did not visualize this as leading them to make barnstorming tours for pacifist substitutes for a political party like the American League Against War and Fascism – Strachey’s current occupation.
Literature and Dialectical Materialism is not, as its title suggests, a systematic attempt to present a rounded Marxian approach to literature. It is the expansion of a lecture delivered last year to the New York John Reed Club, and is not so much an essay as a scries of partly connected reflections on certain literary and social problems. Strachey discusses briefly the incompatibility between Fascism and good literature; the general division between bourgeois and proletarian literature; the decadence of contemporary bourgeois literature; a poem of Archibald MacLeish’s as an example of bourgeois literature; a poem of Stephen Spender’s as an example of proletarian literature; and Hemingway as a literary Nihilist. In spite of its slightness, this book is not without value. It is easy reading, persuasive, and if it does not answer fundamental problems it at any rate poses a number of them.
The last word has by no means been said about Marxian literary criticism. Indeed, we have got but a short distance beyond the first page. The recognition of the dependence of the ideology and content of works of art upon social conditions, and the analysis of social conditions in Marxian terms is, however indispensable, hardly more than a starting point for criticism. There remain the myriad specific and concrete problems of the analysis of the works and schools and traditions and trends of literature and art; and these alone are what give meaning to tne abstract categories of our starting point. Strachey is aware of the difficulties, as he suggests when, after praising Granville Hicks highly, he says of him nevertheless that “He hardly seems to pay enough attention to the merits of writers as writers”. But this is hardly an answer. It is, after all, close to the crux of the issue.
Last updated: 8.3.2005