“Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art.”
75 Years after the Death of Christopher Caudwell
On February 12, 1937, Christopher Caudwell, a Marxist scholar and revolutionary, was killed by fascists in the valley of Jarama during the Spanish Civil War. He died at a machine gun post, guarding the retreat of his comrades in the British Battalion of the International Brigade. He was 29.
The following year, his remarkable Studies in a Dying Culture was published posthumously. In addition to other posthumous works, a second volume, Further Studies in a Dying Culture, was published eleven years later.
Monthly Review Press is proud to present Studies & Further Studies in a Dying Culture in a single volume as part of our MR Press Classics Series. We agree with E.P. Thompson, writing in the 1977 edition of the Socialist Register, that it is a mistake to overlook Caudwell today. As Thompson wrote,
It is not difficult to see Caudwell as a phenomenon – as an extraordinary shooting-star crossing England’s empirical night – as a premonitory sign of a more sophisticated Marxism whose true annunciation was delayed until the Sixties. But we would be foolish to expect much more of such a brief, intense and isolated intellectual episode. The image which comes to mind, involuntarily, is that of fire: a consciousness too bright and self-consuming – images of burning, of ignition, of phosphorescence, came readily to Caudwell’s own pen. That being said (and tribute having been paid) it is easy to tidy Caudwell away, as an episode in the pre-history of British Marxism.
I cannot accept this conclusion. Some part of Caudwell’s thought seems to me more significant than this, and its impulse is not yet exhausted. Studies in a Dying Culture played a significant part in the intellectual biography of my own generation. Recent studies by younger scholars seem to me to misunderstand what were Caudwell’s central and most creative preoccupations. Moreover, as our own preoccupations change, so Caudwell’s work presents itself for a new kind of interrogation (http://marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1977/caudwell.htm)
Indeed, a new interrogation and appreciation of Caudwell is at hand. In recent years there has been a well-deserved renewal of interest in Caudwell’s work, including the ecological implications of his thought. According to Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, writing in Marx’s Ecology,
Caudwell’s breathtaking intellectual achievements in a brief period of time, the years 1935-1936, in which all of his major works were written, ranged widely over the cultural and scientific landscape, resulting in such brilliant (if somewhat rough) works as Illusion and Reality, Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture, The Crisis in Physics, Romance and Reaction, a volume of Poems, and Heredity and Development—all published posthumously. His general viewpoint is best expressed by his famous statement in the foreword to Studies and Further Studies: “Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art.” Caudwell saw the central problem as the atomized, alienated world of bourgeois science and culture, characterized by dialectical rifts between nature and society, idealism and mechanism, and mechanism and vitalism within science. These dualisms and partial, one-sided rationalities so characteristic of bourgeois society arose, in his perspective, out of the necessary defenses of a dying culture (Marx’s Ecology, p 246).
We urge readers to take the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Christopher Caudwell’s death to discover—or rediscover—the work of this profoundly dialectical thinker and committed socialist revolutionary.