You recall how Plato treats the poets in his projected State. In the interest of the community, he does not allow them to live there. He had a high idea of the power of poetry. But he considered it destructive, superfluous—in a perfect community, needless to say. Since then, the question of the poet’s right to exist has not often been stated with the same insistence; but it is today. Certainly it has rarely been posed in this form. But you are all more or less familiar with it as the question of the poet’s autonomy: his freedom to write whatever he may please. You are not inclined to accord him this autonomy. You believe that the current social situation forces the poet to choose whom his activity will serve. The bourgeois writer of popular stories does not acknowledge this alternative. So you show him that even without admitting it, he works in the interests of a particular class. An advanced type of writer acknowledges this alternative. His decision is determined on the basis of the class struggle when he places himself on the side of the proletariat. But then his autonomy is done for. He directs his energies toward what is useful for the proletariat in the class struggle. We say that he espouses a tendency.footnote1

There you have the key word about which there has long been a debate, as you well know. It is well-known to you, so you also know how fruitless it has been. It has never broken away from the boring ‘on the one hand—on the other hand’: on the one hand we should demand that the poet’s work conform to the correct political tendency, on the other hand we have the right to expect that his work be of high quality. Naturally this formula is unsatisfactory as long as we do not understand the connection which really exists between the two factors: tendency and quality. Of course we can simply decree what this relation is. We can say: a work which exhibits the correct political tendency need demonstrate no further qualities. We can also decree: a work which exhibits the correct tendency must necessarily exhibit all other qualities.

The second formulation is not uninteresting. What is more, it is correct. It is the one I adopt. But at the same time I refuse to decree it. This assertion must be proven. I ask your attention for an attempt at this proof. ‘That is’, you will perhaps object, ‘a very peculiar, not to say farfetched, subject. Yet you want to advance the study of fascism with such a proof?’ That is indeed what I have in mind. For I hope to be able to show you that the concept of tendency, in the summary form that it usually occurs in the above-mentioned debate, is a completely inappropriate instrument of political literary criticism. I want to show you that the political tendency of a work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct. That means that the correct political tendency includes a literary tendency. For, just to clarify things right away, this literary tendency, which is implicitly or explicitly contained in every correct political tendency—that, and nothing else constitutes the quality of a work. The correct political tendency of a work includes its literary quality because it includes its literary tendency.

I hope I can promise you that this affirmation will shortly become clearer. For the moment I would point out that I could have chosen another starting point for my observations. I started from the fruitless debate over the relation between a work’s political tendency and its quality. I could have started from an older but no less sterile debate: what is the relation between form and content, in political literature in particular? This way of formulating the question is decried: rightly so. It is considered an academic method of trying to fit literary relations undialectically into compartments. Very well. But what does the dialectical treatment of the same question look like?

The dialectical consideration of this question, the one by which I come to the subject itself, can never lead anywhere by starting with isolated and lifeless objects: work, novel, book. It must be situated in the living social context. You reply, correctly, that this has been undertaken an innumerable number of times in our friends’ circles. Certainly. But in so doing, they have often proceeded to generalities right away and thus necessarily became lost in vagaries. As we know, social relationships are determined by relationships of production. When it examined a work of art, materialist criticism was accustomed to ask how that work stood in relation to the social relationships of production of its time. That is an important question. But also a very difficult one. The answer to it is not always unambiguous. Thus I would now like to suggest a question which lies closer at hand. A question which is somewhat more modest, which is less encompassing, but which seems to me to have a better chance of being answered. Namely, instead of asking: what is the relationship of a work of art to the relationships of production of the time? Is it in accord with them, is it reactionary or does it strive to overthrow them, is it revolutionary?—in place of this question, or in any case before asking this question, I would like to propose another. Before I ask: how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, I would like to ask: how does it stand in them? This question aims directly at the function that the work has within the literary relationships of production of a period. In other words, it aims directly at a work’s literary technique.footnote2