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“More liberty than bourgeois society can reach”: Socialism & Democracy reviews “Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell”


Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell
184 pp, $25 pbk, ISBN 978-1-58367-686-8
By Christopher Caudwell; edited by David Margolies

Reviewed by Ronald Paul for Socialism and Democracy, March 2019, pp232-36

Ever since he died fighting for the Republican cause in Spain in February 1937, there has been a recurring critical debate about the work of
Christopher Caudwell. Indeed, between 1950 and 1951 there was what came to be known as “the Caudwell controversy” where leading members of the British Communist Party, of which Caudwell was a member, debated in the pages of The Modern Quarterly whether Caudwell was really an orthodox Marxist or just a bourgeois idealist. Since then, the characterizations have varied to and fro. In 1976 Terry Eagleton seemed to set the seal on the final rejection of Caudwell as a literary critic of any relevance in his damning acknowledgement of his achievement:

Who is the major English Marxist critic? Christopher Caudwell, hélas.… For though Caudwell is the major forebear – “major” – at least, in the sheer undaunted ambitiousness of his project – it is equally true that there is little, except negatively, to be learnt from him.1

However, one year later, in reply to Eagleton and others, E.P. Thompson sought to rehabilitate Caudwell’s Marxist credentials declaring that 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”.2 Since then, it is without doubt Thompson’s more judicious assessment that has prevailed, allowing others to follow in his celebratory wake. In his comprehensive discussion of Caudwell’s oeuvre, Christopher Pawling for example concludes:

On balance, though, there is no doubt that the creative side wins through, guaranteeing [Caudwell] a permanent place in the history of English cultural theory and ensuring that his opinions will continue to command interest and respect, long after the majority of his Marxist contemporaries have been forgotten.3

David Margolies has been another unfailing promoter of Caudwell’s work, ever since he published the first full-length study of it in 1969 – The Function of Literature: A Study of Christopher Caudwell’s Aesthetics – which certainly helped to maintain a level of critical interest in both the person and his ideas. Part of Margolies’s engagement has also involved keeping other leftwing cultural criticism from the 1930s available in print, where his selection of articles from the iconic radical journal, Left Review (Writing the Revolution, 1998), remains an excellent source. Although there has been a certain resurgence in the reprinting of Caudwell’s major works in recent years, it has still been difficult to find a representative collection of the broad range of his publications. It is therefore an invaluable service that David Margolies has done in putting together this selection of some of Caudwell’s most famous and still challenging critical writings. The anthology contains three key essays from Caudwell’s Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture: those on D.H. Lawrence (“A Study of the Bourgeois Artist”), Freud (“A Study in Bourgeois Psychology”) and Liberty (“A Study in Bourgeois Illusion”). He also reprints a sizeable chunk of Caudwell’s most famous and complex book, Illusion and Reality, subtitled “A Study of the Sources of Poetry.” The selection finishes with the essay “Heredity and Development” (“A Study in Bourgeois Biology”), which Caudwell originally intended to be part of his Studies in a Dying Culture, but which was left out by his Communist Party editors who did not want to veer from the Stalinist party line on the subject. The reason for this was, according to Margolies, that “Caudwell’s dialectical view of genetics contradicted the official anti-genetics position based on the views of the agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who falsified research to ‘prove’ ‘environmentally acquired inheritance’” (Margolies 2018, 141). Much other work by Caudwell has of course had to be left out and any selection is always somewhat arbitrary. However, I myself would have liked to have seen at least part of Caudwell’s book length study of English bourgeois literature, Romance and Realism, which Christopher Pawling describes as “in many ways, the most important of all the Studies and the culmination of Caudwell’swork.”4 Another highly original and still relevant contribution to the Marxist debate about science, which is also unfortunately left out of Margolies’s selection, is Caudwell’s book, The Crisis in Physics. A chapter or two from it would have given the reader a deeper understanding of the intellectual range and versatility of Caudwell as a Marxist thinker. Happily, this book has recently been republished by Verso.

The first thing that strikes one when reading Caudwell is his style of writing, which is a provocative mixture of the analytical, polemical and lyrical. This was something that his Communist critics in the postwar “controversy” picked out as being proof of his “petit bourgeois” thinking, whose ideological confusion had led to political idealism. They also reacted to his use of scientific jargon which, it was claimed, might fool some of his readers into thinking he had a true grasp of historical materialism. One must recall that Caudwell was trying to create a comprehensive Marxist theory of culture out of what was available to him by other Marxists in English translation at the time. Doubtless, Caudwell was in every way an autodidact within this context. Moreover, his untimely death in Spain left all of his writings in manuscript form, much of it unrevised. Nevertheless, there is what Margolies describes as “an attractive energy and optimism” in his style that remains both quirky and appealing (Margolies 2018, vi). There is also a profound sense of political urgency in Caudwell who was writing in the face of a total crisis of the capitalist system, not least in terms of the rise of fascism and the threat of world war. In his study of D.H. Lawrence for example, there is the feeling that Lawrence, a working-class writer of great talent, who hated modern capitalism, had the philosophical and creative capacity to contribute so much more to the struggle against what Caudwell characterized as false bourgeois ideas about personal freedom. In the concluding words of his essay on Lawrence, Caudwell’s sense of frustration and impatience is eloquently expressed:

One may stop one’s ears and hide oneself in Cornwall like Lawrence, but the cry of millions of suffering fellow-humans reaches one’s ears and tortures one. And, the War at last survived, there come new horrors. The eating disintegration of the slump. Nazism outpouring a flood of barbarism and horror. And what next? Armaments piling up like an accumulating catastrophe, mass neurosis, nations like mad dogs. All this seems gratuitous, horrible, cosmic to such people, unaware of the causes. How can the bourgeois still pretend to be free, to find salvation individually? Only by sinking himself in still cruder illusions, by denying art, science, emotion, even ultimately life itself. Humanism, the creation of bourgeois culture, finally separates from it. Against the sky stands Capitalism without a rag to cover it, naked in its terror. And humanism, leaving it, or rather, forcibly thrust aside, must either pass into the ranks of the proletariat or, going quietly into a corner, cut its throat. (Margolies 2018, 21)

This assertive side of Caudwell is also reflected in the whole trajectory of his writing which could be characterized as a celebration of the grand narrative of Marxism. There is an almost breathless sense of wonder at the way Marxism could be applied to all areas of human knowledge and creativity – from the origins of poetry to the latest development in the theory of relativity – in order to link these fruitfully together within a class-based discourse of revolutionary praxis. It was truly a formidable intellectual task that Caudwell set himself as a newly fledged and largely self-taught Marxist thinker and writer. The end result is also both groundbreaking and thought provoking, despite Caudwell’s occasional lapses into vulgar Stalinist reductionism, as when he characterizes both Freud and Lawrence as “fascists.” In Illusion and Reality, Caudwell’s made his most ambitious attempt to trace the historical development of poetry from its mythical origins as a response to nature to its contemporary Modernist expression as a critique of capitalist alienation. Long before it became a critical commonplace to situate the changes in literary forms and genres within the historical context of the time, Caudwell established a systematic class analysis of poetry in terms of its social function, as in his discussion of Wordsworth’s attempt to achieve a poetic revolution in vernacular language:

Wordsworth therefore is a pessimist. Unlike Shelley, he revolts regressively – but still in a bourgeois way – by demanding freedom from social relations, the specific social relations of industrialism, while still retaining the products, the freedom, which these relations alone make possible.


With this goes a theory that “natural,” i.e. conversational, language is better, and therefore more poetic than “artificial,” i.e. literary, language. He does not see that both are equally artificial – i.e. directed to a social end – and equally natural, i.e. products of man’s struggle with Nature. They merely represent different spheres and stages of that struggle and are good or bad not in themselves, but in relation to this struggle. Under the spell of this theory some of Wordsworth’s worst poems were written. (Margolies 2018, 117)

Raymond Williams (1958) once said that Caudwell “has little to say, of actual literature, that is even interesting…for the most part his discussion is not even specific enough to bewrong.”5 It is certainly true that much of Caudwell’s analysis is of the broader lines of literary history rather than of close readings of individual works. Yet his discussion is always full of sharp observations that provide sometimes startling insights. Raymond Williams was himself associated with the post-war emergence of the field of Cultural Studies in which the inclusion of Popular culture was seen as a key strategy in shifting the academic discourse away from the established Canon. Clearly, Caudwell pre-empts this cultural reorientation. Before he became a Marxist, Caudwell worked as a journalist and writer of crime novels, a genre that he later saw as forming part of a wider ideological context of capitalist cultural hegemony:

Let any artist who has had to earn his living by journalism or writing “thrillers” testify to the inexorable proletarianisation of his art. The modern thriller, love story, cowboy romance, cheap film, jazz music or yellow Sunday paper form the real proletarian literature of today – that is, literature which is the characteristic accompaniment of the misery and instinctual poverty produced in the majority of people by modern capitalist production. It is literature which proletarianises the writer. It is at once an expression of real misery and a protest against that misery. This art, universal, constant, fabulous, full of the easy gratifications of instincts starved by modern capitalism, peopled by passionate lovers and heroic cowboys and amazing detectives, is the religion of today, as characteristic an expression of proletarian exploitation as Catholicism is of feudal exploitation. (Margolies 2018, 123)

It was easy to think in the 1930s, as Caudwell did, that culture was dying and that the concept of bourgeois freedom was in serious need of radical transformation. Fascism was on the march all over Europe and it looked more and more likely that there would be a cataclysmic confrontation with the Soviet Union. It is a tribute to Caudwell’s political engagement as a Communist that he volunteered to fight in Spain despite the fact he would have been much more of an asset as a writer of the revolution. In all of what he wrote during those few hectic years before he died, there is nevertheless a dialectical understanding of the interdependence of theory and practice. Caudwell was writing on the edge of time, something that we can relate to very tangibly today when the alternatives facing humanity involve the very survival of the planet itself. For Chris Caudwell, the choice was an ineluctable one:

That is why all lovers of liberty, who have understood the nature of freedom, and escaped from the ignorant categories of bourgeois thought, turn to Communism. For that is simply what Communism is, the attainment of more liberty than bourgeois society can reach. Communism has as its basis the understanding of the causality of society; so that all the unfreedom involved in bourgeois society, the enslavement of the have-nots by the haves, and the slavery of both haves and have-nots to wars, slumps, depression, and superstition, may be ended. (Margolies 2018, 52)


© 2018 Ronald Paul
University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

1. Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London: Verso Books, 1978), 21.
2. Reprinted in E.P. Thompson, Persons & Polemics (London: Merlin Press, 1994), 78.
3. Christopher Pawling, Christopher Caudwell: Towards a Dialectical Theory of Literature (London: Macmillan Press, 1989), viii.
4. Pawling, 126.
5. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780–1950, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 268.

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