For British intellectuals, the years after the economic catastrophe of 1929 were a devastating experience. footnote1 Before their incredulous gaze, the old revenants of European history—mass action and the threat of revolution—turned to trouble the serenity of life under the Constitution. The certitudes of liberalism seemed unequal to these new and foreboding realities: the poor, for long the beneficiaries of reforming schemes and the corporal works of mercy, were suddenly the hungry, unappeasable proletariat; political contention, once expressed in the decorous alternation of parliamentary majorities, began to assume the form of a manichean struggle between Communism and Fascism. ‘No one can expect’, commented one of the leading intellectual journals of the period, ‘that even if we now get through without disaster, we can long avoid social disintegration and revolution on the widest scale.’ footnote2 Others, like John Strachey, attempted to find a new direction: ‘As not only the last vestiges of freedom for the masses, but also the books, and the whole possibility of existence, for any who attempt scientific thought, go up in the new autos da fé, we shall all find that we shall be forced to choose between our own mental and moral suicide, and communism.’ footnote3

Strachey’s feelings were shared by a growing number of intellectuals. Interest in Marxism quickened. Laski’s Communism went through five impressions in less than three years; only two years after publication, Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power was in its fourth edition. New periodicals appeared, like New Writing, which, though ‘first and foremost interested in literature,’ refused ‘to open its pages to writers of reactionary or Fascist sentiments,’ footnote4 and Left Review, the organ of the British Section of the Writers’ International, whose inaugural statement diagnosed ‘the collapse of a culture, accompanying the collapse of an economic system.’ footnote5 Early in the decade, the Bodley Head announced its Twentieth Century Library, which sought to redirect the prevailing emphases of social thought; footnote6 and only a few years later, the Left Book Club could claim 40,000 subscribers. During the thirties, for the first and so far last time in their history, large numbers of British intellectuals found themselves compelled to pay serious attention to Marxism.

Christopher St. John Sprigg was one such intellectual. footnote7 Born in London in 1907, Sprigg left school at the age of fifteen and joined his father on the staff of the Yorkshire Observer. In 1925, he returned to the capital and, with his brother, founded an aeronautical publishing house. For the next nine years, he devoted himself to poetry and scientific studies, supporting himself meanwhile by writing detective novels and popular books on aviation. In the autumn of 1934, after a summer spent reading Marx, Engels and Lenin, he joined the Communist Party. In the two years that followed, he worked hard to carry out his day-to-day party duties, and in his spare time, wrote the books which he signed ‘Christopher Caudwell’. footnote8 In December 1936, he enlisted in the International Brigade and went to Spain as an ambulance-driver. Less than two months later, Sprigg was killed while manning a machine-gun above the Jarama River.

The fate of Caudwell’s posthumously published oeuvre is striking. His major work, Illusion and Reality, was enthusiastically received on its publication in 1937; and, whatever their ideological disposition, subsequent estimates agree on his pre-eminence among the English Marxist literary critics of his generation. Hostile commentators cite him as the epitome of all that was inept in this movement, and many Marxists in the English-speaking world continue to remember him with respect and to attend to his arguments. footnote9 Yet, in nearly forty years, very few attempts have been made to provide any critical assessment of this body of work. Summarily banished by some and uncritically sheltered by others, Caudwell leads a clandestine existence somewhere on the frontiers between cultural orthodoxy and Marxist theory. The present essay will attempt to provide such a critical assessment, and to clarify Caudwell’s relations with his cultural context and with Marxist aesthetics. His most important production is indubitably Illusion and Reality, ‘a study in the sources of poetry,’ and accordingly, although his more general cultural studies will receive some treatment, the primary stress of the essay will fall on this text. footnote10

No serious appraisal of the decade has yet been made. The popular after-images of ‘The Thirties’ (in the main, the handiwork of the contrite and the scornful) can be displaced only by scrupulous research and argument. However, one problem presses for immediate attention. Although Britain was not the only country to produce a radical intelligentsia in those years, ‘the intellectual fellow-traveller’ was not, as has sometimes been supposed, a globally undifferentiated phenomenon. It is necessary to delineate, however provisionally, the specific character of the Marxist milieu in which Caudwell was formed.