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.

As is well known, the advent of Marxism in Britain was remarkably belated. Socialism had occupied an imposing position in Germany since the 1860s; and in France and Italy, Marxist thought had been current since the 1880s. No comparable local heritage was available to the marxisant intellectuals of Britain in the 1930s. footnote11 Deprived of a ‘national’ tradition, they were also unable to make significant contact with their counterparts abroad. By this time, the intellectual effervescence of the post-war revolutionary period had been stilled; anathemas and encyclicals, promulgated from on high, had all but silenced creative debate. The works of Marx, Engels and Lenin were, of course, available, but for their knowledge of contemporary Marxism, the British neophytes were almost entirely dependent on the officially sponsored writings of Plekhanov, Bukharin and Stalin. The memories of Trotsky and Luxemburg had by this time been thoroughly effaced; and the works of Lukács, Korsch and the Frankfurt School remained undiscovered. Precisely because they lacked a revolutionary ‘memory’ in the national past, British socialists were unable to find their bearings in the international present. Doubly deprived of socialist community, the nascent Left failed to emancipate itself from the tutelage of the English intellectual tradition. Historically, the responsibility for social criticism had lain largely with the literary intelligentsia. Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society furnishes striking evidence of this strange and persistent osmosis: the social thinkers discussed in that book are, almost without exception, concerned primarily with the arts. The new generation of social critics was formed in the image of its predecessors: it was above all a literary Left. Its intellectual preoccupations were pre-selected by the very culture against which it pitted itself. Thus, while the decade produced no important political or sociological analyses of the British crisis, its output of ‘revolutionary poetry’ and literary criticism was truly prodigious.

These Marxist literary essays varied greatly in quality, scope and emphasis, but they were united in their insistence that literature could be understood and evaluated only in relation to the social conditions in which it was produced. Hence, literary criticism came to be regarded as the elucidation of the social determinations of a text, as the identification of the ‘social equivalent’ of a given character, sentiment or situation. footnote12 There was also a common limitation: although this criticism was newly sociological and political, no profound redefinition of literature was implied. Literature was a datum; only interpretation and judgment were controversial. The one Marxist critic of the period to escape these limitations was Christopher Caudwell, whose Illusion and Reality attempted a full-scale reconstruction of poetic theory. It is this new range and depth that make it the most important Marxist literary treatise of that or any other period in England. This book and its successors aim at nothing less than a unitary critique of bourgeois civilization.