Is there such a thing as a British intellectual?
In my recent posts on Tolkien I've tried to relate Lord of the Rings to wider trends in British intellectual life during the first half of the twentieth century. I thought I'd try to pad out my arguments by posting these notes, which were made a couple of years ago as part of my PhD research. Apologies for their rather stiff and formulaic language...
1. The modern British intelligentsia began to take shape in the mid-nineteenth century. Its emergence was encouraged by the growth of the British empire and state, the expansion of the reading public, and controversy over the nature of the university system.
The intelligentsia drew most of its members from the middle class professions and from the prosperous petty bourgeoisie. Many of its members had nonconformist and Evangelical backgrounds. The ‘reforming’ wing of the aristocracy was represented. Intermarriage and patronage eventually led to the emergence of what Noel Annan has called an ‘intellectual aristocracy’ .
Conflict provided the stimuli for the emergence of a modern British intelligentsia. The British state grew to control the consequences of industrialisation. The foreign service grew as inter-imperialist rivalry led Britain to take direct political control of the territories it exploited economically. The debate over the role of universities was prompted by challenges to the exclusion of non-Anglicans from Oxbridge, challenges which were part of a wider call for the reform of the British elite’s institutions by an emergent industrial capitalist class .
2. British capitalism was stronger than its rivals throughout the nineteenth century. British pre-eminence helped limit social and cultural conflict in British society, and is ultimately responsible for the peculiar nature of the nineteenth century British intelligentsia. To get a sense of this peculiarity, we should note the situation of the intelligentsia in several other European countries.
The rigorous rationalist ideology and prestigious public institutions of the French intelligentsia were the products of the intense struggle the French bourgeoisie had to wage against the feudal aristocracy it replaced. Later, the development of the creed of positivism and the discipline of sociology were a response to the challenges to the bourgeoisie’s rule by an insurgent working class.
In Germany, where the relatively late development of industrial capitalism made a good measure of economic planning and a ‘Bismarkian bureaucracy’ necessary, intellectuals entered the twentieth century as a distinct social stratum with a strong public identity.
In Russia, the creation of an intelligentsia as a distinct social stratum was a necessary condition for the very appearance of industrial capitalism. The backwardness of the Romanov aristocracy and extreme weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie gave Western-educated ‘experts’ a vital role in the country’s crash course in industrialisation. But the backwardness of the aristocracy and the weakness of the bourgeoisie also ensured that Russian intellectuals would come to develop an almost existential sense of isolation and a highly distinctive cultural milieu.
By contrast, the British intelligentsia did not enjoy a great deal of institutional and cultural autonomy – it was informally integrated with the country’s political and economic elites.
The elite of the intelligentsia enjoyed an ‘Old Boys’-style relationship with the British ruling class. Old school ties, friendship and marriage were more important integrating devices than ‘public’ institutions with more or less meritocratic criteria for membership. Dissident fringes excepted, the British intelligentsia was not culturally alienated from its ruling class.
Informal integration and a lack of cultural distance had their political corollary in a ‘high liberalism’ which was characterised by a belief in the progressive nature or progressive potential of British capitalism and imperialism. Britain’s ‘deep-rooted traditionalism’ was held to be at one with its ‘lively progressiveness’. Economic dynamism and social cohesion made gradual social improvements possible. Intellectual influence was a matter of a word in the right ear, not a manifesto. The improvement of the individual and of society both depended on moral education. Divisive ‘sectional’ interests could be undercut by appeals to moral individualism and transcended by appeals to a national community with a single moral conscience.
3. Britain’s nineteenth century pre-eminence was largely a product of its having been the first industrial capitalist nation. But it can be argued that Britain’s advantage began to be a weakness as the nineteenth century drew to a close .
The unification of the United States and Germany in the 1860s and 70s and the opening of Japan at the same time would lead to the creation of economic rivals to Britain. The new industries of Germany and the United States were in many cases more efficient than the old industries of Britain, and external investment became more important to the British economy. By 1870, more British capital was being invested outside than inside the country. The last decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of London as a world financial centre, but this development also signalled the relative decline of Britain as an industrial power.
Large-scale remodelling of the economic base of Britain and its Empire was made difficult by the antiquated political and ideological superstructure of British society. The British bourgeoisie never waged a serious struggle for power with the old aristocracy or with the industrial working class created in the nineteenth century.
In the late nineteenth century, the problems of British capitalism were reflected in a number of social conflicts. The New Unionism of the 1880s challenged the post-Chartist passivity of the British working class; the issue of Irish Home Rule split the Liberal Party and raised wider questions about imperialism; and there was increasing dissatisfaction, especially amongst the rising middle classes, about the fustiness of a number of Britain’s public institutions.
After the Liberal split the Conservatives rallied around Salisbury, and the 1890s were a decade of aggressive imperialism abroad and union busting at home. But the Tories were unable to achieve political hegemony for their programme, and Asquith’s Liberals won a landslide election victory in 1906.
The nascent Labour Party and its trade union allies hoped for major social reforms, but the new administration proved unable to use the state to cohere British society. Class divisions were highlighted by intense industrial struggles; the Irish issue returned with a vengeance, threatening civil war in Ulster; and women’s suffragettes staged increasingly militant protests against a glaring example of the failure to modernise Britain’s political superstructure.
War in 1914 helped briefly to defuse the Ulster issue, and a mixture of patriotism and the bureaucratic repression practiced by a new cross-party government cooled class conflict for several years. But the respite came at a terrible cost, and the end of the war brought a wave of militant strikes which was really only exhausted by the General Strike of 1926. The spectre of war in Ireland returned after the Easter Rising of 1916.
The end of the war in 1918 also brought home the fact of Britain’s relative decline – anti-Americanism became fashionable in the British elite, as it became clear that US was well on its way to usurping Britain as the pre-eminent imperialist power.
After 1929 the US was unable to keep bankrolling European economies, and Britain followed the rest of West into deep depression. Britons looked anxiously at a continental Europe riven by fascism and communism.
A minority Labour government elected in 1929 collapsed after only two years in power, and both the Labour and Liberal parties split, with a minority of Labour MPs and about half the Liberal MPs joining the Conservatives in a new ‘National Government’ which held power for the rest of the 30s. This government has long been symbolised in the popular imagination by its last leader, Neville Chamberlain.
Chamberlain’s name has become a byword for cowardice and incompetence, yet he was heading for a landslide election win when World War Two broke out in September 1939. Neither the Labour Party and its trade union allies nor the radical left succeeded in advancing a credible alternative to the National Government’s combination of economic austerity at home and appeasement of fascism abroad.
The bold ‘experiments’ of the Soviet Union’s five year plans and the US’s New Deal contrasted starkly with the British bourgeoisie’s tepid response to the Great Depression. No British Roosevelt or Hitler emerged to reorder British capitalism, and the hopes of the New Country poets for ‘an English Lenin’ proved forlorn. Harry Pollitt disappointed Stephen Spender, and Oswald Mosley disappointed Lord Rothermere.
We should say that early twentieth century Britain suffered not from crises but from a malaise. In almost every other important country, events like World War One and the Great Depression led to revolutionary crises and something like civil war. In Britain, though, the opposition faced by the political and economic elites did not seem a proper reflection of the severity of objective conditions. Many Britons were aware of the problems afflicting their society, but few of them were inclined to embrace the radical solutions used overseas to tackle similar difficulties.
4. I’ve given that little historical narrative – a narrative which is of course very simplistic and very derivative – so as to provide a bit of historical backdrop for the patterns of British intellectual life in the early decades of the twentieth century. What I’m particularly interested in is the impact of the malaise on a relatively small but very important minority of British intellectuals.
I want to suggest that this minority was deintegrated from the British economic and political elites. I’ve made a rough and ready distinction between two types of deintegration – between ideological deintegration and institutional deintegration.
Ideological deintegration meant a loss of ideological common ground with Britain’s political and economic elites. Institutional deintegration meant a loss of formal or informal contact with the institutions connected with these elites.
Ideologically deintegrated individuals lost their faith in British society as the grounds for knowledge-claims and value-judgements. British capitalism and imperialism ceased to embody, even potentially or in distorted form, the ‘civilization’ which intellectuals had seen themselves inheriting and defending.
Ideologically deintegrated intellectuals did not give up on the notion of ‘civilization’, but they tended to locate ‘civilisation’ within their own heads, and in the artefacts of the intellectual and high cultural tradition they saw themselves as representing. Intellectuals and not the British empire were the chief guardians of civilization. The territory of civilization had shrunk, and the interests of intellectuals were now the interests of civilization.
When we talk about the old grounds for knowledge-claims and value-judgements disappearing, we are talking about an epistemological change in the thinking of deintegrated intellectuals.
The two types of deintegration did not have to go together. An intellectual might be shunted out of the foreign service or an academic post or be shipped off to the trenches of the First World War, and yet retain his loyalty to the general ideological outlook of Britain’s economic and political elites .
It is certainly true, though, that directly material factors could lead to ideological estrangement amongst intellectuals. Frustration at a career as a teacher in a third-rate public school, instead of in academia; the loss of a publisher due to a general decline in book sales; the threat of obliteration in the First World War, or the new war that loomed over the 30s: all of these could estrange.
But intellectuals can also experience estrangement for more or less ideological reasons. Marx noted, after all, that ideas can become a material force. To see an extreme example of this we might look to nineteenth century Russia, where the contradictions between the post-Enlightenment ideology learnt from the West and the backwardness of the Romanovs’ society led many young men and women to forsake comfortable lives and court imprisonment or death as revolutionaries.
Ideological reasons for the estrangement of British intellectuals could include the contrast between the ethical pronouncements of liberalism and the behaviour of the government elected in 1906, and of Lloyd George’s liberals in the World War One coalition government; or the gap between civilising liberal imperialist rhetoric and the suppression of independence movements; or the helplessness of Whiggish narratives of progress and plenty before the sight of the ghostly mill towns of the 30s; or the National Government’s denying of aid to Republican Spain in the name of the preservation of British civilisation.
5. It would be useful to catalogue some of the different ideological tendencies arising from the deintegration of British intellectuals early in the twentieth century. Before I do that, though, I’d like to suggest what all the tendencies I’ll describe had in common.
Adapting Imre Lakatos’ methodology of scientific research programmes, I’d like to argue that a distinct ‘programme’ emerged amongst (ideologically) deintegrated British intellectuals.
For Lakatos, a ‘research programme’ consists of a ‘hardcore’ and a ‘softcore’ of propositions and/or methodological devices. The ‘hardcore’ contains the indispensable propositions and/or methodological devices that define the programme; the ‘softcore’ consists of dispensable propositions and/or methodological devices used to prevent the programme from being discredited.
Substituting ‘worldview’ for ‘research programme’ – the latter sounds a bit too scientific – I’d like to suggest that at the end of the nineteenth century the vast majority and (more importantly) most of the best and brightest of British intellectuals shared the worldview of the British bourgeoisie. To be sure, the liberalism that characterised the thought of many intellectuals had points of difference with the aggressive conservatism increasingly attractive to their bourgeoisie.
But I’d suggest that conservatism and liberalism constituted different ‘softcore’ justifications for the same ‘hardcore’ beliefs. Liberal and conservative shared a faith in the progressive potential of British capitalism and imperialism, as well as the view that British society furnished the grounds upon which judgements could be made about social, political and aesthetic values. To put it another way, British civilization, however defined, supplied the criteria for its own judgement, and for the judgement of the rest of the world.
Reactionary Tories appealed to the inherent authority of church and King; liberal utilitarians appealed to the happiness of the middle class Briton; Gladstonian liberals appealed to the moral conscience formed by the upstanding Briton. The liberal’s faith in the ability of the middle class Briton to distinguish good from bad was as absolute as the reactionary’s faith in the divine rights of church and King.
Intellectuals who became ideologically deintegrated broke with the worldview I’ve been describing. It is important to understand that their break did not have as a necessary condition any particular political position. It did not necessitate the abandonment of patriotism, or a move to the left, or a move to the right.
The break with the old worldview was fundamentally epistemological. To say this is not to say for even a moment that most British intellectuals were particularly interested in epistemology, let alone liable to base their thinking on the strictures of philosophy.
What I’m suggesting is that when we do what Lakatos calls a ‘rational reconstruction’ of British intellectuals’ thought we can isolate an epistemological position, or rather a change from one epistemological position to another, and use this isolated fact as a sort of portal through which to view and understand the whole intellectual scene.
6. Bloomsbury is perhaps the most famous intellectual institution in modern British history, and it provides a good study of some of the changes we have been discussing.
Any attempt at a close examination of Bloomsbury must face an preliminary objection. Leonard Woolf famously protested that Bloomsbury was characterised by informal ties – ties of friendship, love, and marriage – rather than any public institution or manifestoes. Bloomsburians showed an antipathy, as well, to any overly systematic exposition of their views, of their methodology, and of the social milieu they worked in. Such general reflections as emerged – Keynes’ My Early Beliefs is the outstanding example – were filtered through autobiography and anecdote, and produced for a select audience.
It is not hard to understand why Bloomsburians have often castigated for their cliquishness, but the group’s method of organisation was only the flipside of the old informal integration of the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie. It was informal deintegration.
In his study of Bloomsbury Raymond Williams emphasises the enormous importance to group members of the notion of ‘space’, and in particular of the notion of the ‘space’ or autonomy of intellectuals.
‘Space’ was at a premium because the Bloomsburians felt that they could no longer morally and intellectually conflate themselves with the mainstream of the British bourgeoisie, as earlier intellectuals had done. They were disillusioned with a ‘civilization’ which sent its young men to die in foreign trenches and kept its best and brightest young women out of the best university colleges.
For the members of Bloomsbury, the ‘space’ of intellectuals constituted the ‘hardcore’ of a new worldview.
It is necessary here to understand the importance of the method of rational intuitionism, which the Bloomsburians appropriated from the philosophy of their hero GE Moore. The significance of the rational intuitionist method came from the way that it made the subjectivity of its user into the grounds for metaphysical, ethical, political and aesthetic judgements.
Viewed dialectically, rational intuitionism represents the degeneration of bourgeois ideology from the high empiricism of nineteenth century positivism and from the late nineteenth century British Hegelianism of Francis Bradley and TH Green.
Along with the ethical-political creed of utilitarianism, so-called ‘Podsnapian positivism’ had reflected a rather gauche enthusiasm for the dynamism and supposedly progressive qualities of mid-nineteenth century competitive capitalism.
British Hegelianism became popular during a period which saw great imperial expansion, the beginning of a transition from industrial to financial power, and increased awareness of the social problems caused by competitive and industrial capitalism. In this context British Hegelianism could serve the ends of both the conservative and liberal wings of the intelligentsia. Statist liberals like TH Green used it to attack methodological individualism and high liberalism. High Anglicans used it to defend the role of the church, the House of Lords and other traditional features of British society.
British Hegelianism and positivism were two distorted halves of the dialectical materialism being developed out of earshot of the British intelligentsia. Without dialectics, the empiricism of the positivists tended towards the crude reproduction of the needs of industrial capitalism. Without the discipline of empiricism, British Hegelianism fell easily into the multiplication of artificial categories and speculative arguments valourising Britain’s outworn political and cultural superstructure.
Bloomsbury’s rational intuitionism is the degenerated successor to both British Hegelianism and Podsnapian positivism. The positivists had always rejected dialectics, regarding the individual as the building block of analysis and theory as the generalisation of particulars. The Hegelians had criticised this procedure as crudely empirical, insisting that phenomena could not observed and described in isolation and only linked to other phenomena later.
Bloomsburian rational intuitionism rejected both the empirical aspect of empiricism and the dialectical aspect of British Hegelianism. The Bloomsburians retained the methodological individualism of the positivists and the neo-Hegelian emphasis on conceptual rather than empirical investigation.
With the tool Moore provided them, Bloomsbury group members did not have to look to the mainstream British bourgeoisie or to the nature of British society for help in making knowledge-claims and value-judgements – they could simply use the intuition honed by their own sophisticated sensibilities.
Because it required such a sophisticated sensibility, the Bloomsbury method was necessarily the preserve of an elite. Because it claimed to be rational and capable of uncovering objective truths, the method could claim a validity that extended beyond any clique or culture.
But how was the essential ‘space’ of civilization to be preserved? Bloomsburians found no single answer to this question. Their divisions reflect wider divisions between different ideological tendencies amongst deintegrated British intellectuals early in the twentieth century.
In his history of Bloomsbury Quentin Bell recalls arguments between Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell over ways to preserve the ‘civilization’ they both so valued. Woolf insisted on the importance of improving the conditions and education of the ‘masses’ so that they could come to develop sophisticated sensibilities and partake of the products of civilization. Civilization could only be protected by being made available to new layers of the population. Bell disagreed, arguing that it might be not only possible but desirable to defend minority civilization by repressing the majority of the population.
Woolf and Bell shared a ‘hardcore’ belief – the equation of intelligentsia, civilization, and moral and aesthetic value – but they disagreed about how to act upon this belief. Their different ‘softcore’ deductions from their shared ‘hardcore’ belief mean that they can be identified with different ideological tendencies amongst ideologically deintegrated British intellectuals.
7. The different ideological tendencies of deintegrated British intellectuals are defined, then, by the different ‘softcore’ features of their common ‘hardcore’. Let us distinguish and describe five such tendencies.
Let us first discuss New Liberalism. New Liberalism was not confined to intellectuals – it found adherants in the mainstream bourgeoisie and in the working class, as a reaction to the failure of Old Liberalism’s prescription of hands-off economic policy, moral education and liberal imperialism to cohere early twentieth century Britain. New Liberals sought to extend the timid advances toward economic planning and a welfare state made by the 1906-1914 Asquith government.
Intellectuals who became New Liberals hoped that an expansion of the state and a degree of economic planning would be able to lessen social divisions allegedly responsible for Britain’s malaise. The state would work ‘for the masses, against the classes’.
Keynes made a landmark statement of the New Liberal creed to the 1926 Liberal Party national conference; three years later, the party ran an election campaign on a platform heavily influenced by New Liberalism. Shortly after the election, though, the Liberals elbowed Keynes and other New Liberals aside, and in 1931 most of the party’s younger MPs joined the Conservative-dominated National Government fronted by McDonald.
In the 1930s New Liberals looked increasingly to the representatives of the working class as possible political partners, and it was the Attlee government that ended up overseeing the implementation of some of the key proposals of Liberal ideologues like Keynes and Beveridge. The accommodation that the New Liberals sought with the working class was intitially pragmatic, and based on a very gloomy analysis of the political situation in the 1930s.
The eventual creation of a de facto Popular Front government in 1940 and its succession by Attlee’s forst majority Labour government coincided with changes in the nature of New Liberal ideology. Increasingly, key New Liberals like Keynes saw their policy proposals as grounded in the wishes (to put it more technically, in the subjectivity) of the majority of the British population, not in the special insights of an intellectual stratum. Keynes’ gradual abandonment of the method of rational intuitionism for a ‘consensus-based’ epistemology was one result of this change. Another was the distinctly middlebrow agenda he pursued as an arts bureaucrat in the 1940s – an agenda that upset some Bloomsbury stalwarts.
It can be argued that Keynes was an exalted but not isolated case, and that the massive expansion of the state bureaucracy and the education system under the wartime and Attlee governments provided a material basis for the reintegration of a large number of intellectuals into a very different British capitalism. The New Fabian Essays of 1951, which famously declared the obsolescence of Marxism and other radical socialisms, symbolised this ideological reintegration of New Liberals. The conservatism of British intellectuals in the 50s was of course widely acknowledged, with the Old New Left and Angry Young Men bemoaning the phenomenon and Cold War ideologues like Daniel Bell applauding it.
8. Lumpen technocrats is a name we can give to members of another tendency amongst deintegrated British intellectuals. Three important groups are subsumed by the label: the white collar workers drawn to the Fabians before the 1940s; scientists who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s and 30s; and many of the intellectuals who clustered around Oswald Mosley after his split from the Labour Party in 1930 .
Each of the groups had some quite distinctive beliefs. The early Fabians embraced an authoritarian statism that went well beyond the views of the New Liberals, incorporating in some versions even the abolition of capitalism. The CPGB’s scientists held to a mechanical materialism similar to that developed by Britain’s working class autodidact Marxists. The New Party clique was attracted by Mosley’s theories of corporatism, which held that a state controlled by a fascist party should force capital and labour to collaborate in a new programme of industrialism, and in the substitution of an imperial autarchy for trade with other imperialist nations and their colonies and semi-colonies.
All of the lumpen technocrats’ programmes had as corollaries a massive expansion in the state bureaucracy, and the placing of more power in the hands of state bureaucrats and technocrats. The lumpen technocrats were frustrated by the inability of the British bourgeoisie to modernise its political superstructure, and sought formal institutional integration into either a modernised British capitalism or a technocratic socialism .
9. Reactionaries is a label which can cover a large number of British intellectuals who were ideologically deintegrated from the British bourgeoisie, but who pinned hopes of an end to their isolation not upon an alliance with the working class or a more ‘rational’ state but rather upon a return to an earlier, semi-mythical society which allegedly offered a better set of social values and a better role for intellectuals.
The reactionaries tended to be creative artists, rather than scientists or bureaucrats. Key reactionaries included Eliot, who empathised with the Anglo-Catholic section of the ruling class and with a vision of a pre-industrial capitalist Britain and Europe; Evelyn Waugh, who espoused a sort of foppish Catholic semi-feudalism; and Wyndham Lewis, whose sympathy for fascism was really a sort of ultra-elitism.
There is no contradiction in the fact that many of the most important modernists, in the United States and Europe as well as Britain, were reactionaries. Faced with crisis in Europe and malaise in Britain, many artists and writers felt they needed to create new forms to contain and transmit the cultural inheritance they valued. Innovation often had conservative motives. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin’, wrote Eliot near the end of The Waste Land.
Many of the reactionaries favoured irrational intuition when thinking about social and political as well as aesthetic problems.
The work of TE Hulme provides a bridge between the rational intuitionism popularised by Bloomsbury and the irrational intuitionism of many reactionaries. Hulme rebelled against nineteenth century scientism, but also rejected the notion that intuition could uncover a rational basis for value-judgements and knowledge-claims. He insisted on the necessity of an ‘effort of will’ to create an arbitrary ‘rock’ upon which judgements and knowledge-claims could rest, and from which conceptual systems could map the world. Hulme was a conservative with a radical, relativist epistemology, a symbol of the breakdown of the smug old justifications for the ‘natural order’ of King and country.
The reactionary politics of many of the great modernists embarrassed many of the younger writers of the 30s. In his study of modernist poetry, Stephen Spender tried to argue that the reactionaries’ politics were too quixotic to be taken seriously. What Spender failed to see was that the quixotry of the reactionaries’ politics expressed very well the malaise of the British (and in Yeats’ case the Irish) bourgeoisie. It was the chronic inability of the British bourgeoisie to formulate a strategy for its own renewal that left the door open to the fancies of the reactionaries.
10. Some British intellectuals made Bloomsburian intuition and disinterested contemplation into ends in themselves, and developed a lifestyle and subculture that revolved around aestheticism, radical individualism, and political and moral nihilism. The ‘dandies’ of the teens and early 20s represented a muted, curiously British version of Dadaism – their whims and follies were frequently a direct response to the militarised, bureaucratised madness of the First World War, a conflict they frequently felt guilty for missing.
It is important to see how the dandies of the teens and 20s differed from the circle Oscar Wilde made famous in the 90s. The Wildeans had offered criteria for the beauty they worshipped, and even developed a sort of political programme around the defence and extension of beauty that anticipates the ideas of the likes of Leonard Woolf. The next generation of dandies, on the other hand, made aesthetic judgements on the basis of irrational intuition.
Towards the end of the 20s dandyism developed from a reaction to the last war to a response to the threat of the next one. With the onset of the Depression, the object of beauty-worship frequently became the ‘industrial follies’ common in many areas of Britain .
The rejection of bourgeois ideals of beauty reflected a rejection of bourgeois civilisation, and as the 30s went on the cult of the ruined factory would give way to the cult of the worker.
11. The ideological tendency I call radical liberalism became prominent amongst British intellectuals in the 1930s. We can understand the movement toward radical liberalism by returning to the views of Leonard Woolf. Woolf argued that the only way to preserve the ‘civilization’ that intellectuals possessed was to equip a large swathe of the working classes to partake of that ‘civilization’. Since people who lacked money or decent housing or a decent education could not become civilized, socialistic measures (albeit relatively mild) were required in Britain.
Woolf’s proposals can be related to the arguments put forward a couple of decades later in Forward From Liberalism, a book Stephen Spender published during his flirtation with the Communist Party .
Spender held to the same basic position as Woolf – intellectuals were the guardians of civilization, meaning high culture, and high culture could not survive unless it became accessible to many more people, something which could not occur without the reorganisation of British society. Spender recommended a reorganisation more thorough than the one Woolf had advocated. Spender also differed from Woolf in seeing ‘the people’, and in particular the British working class, as already eager for the fruits of civilization.
For Spender, the liberal democratic discourses initiated by Godwin and Paine had foundered on the rock of capitalist class relations. Liberalism had atrophied because it was not possible to revolutionise the political and cultural superstructure of British society without changing the economic base of that society. The bourgeoisie and many of its intellectual defenders had not unnaturally drawn back from undermining the basis of their own power.
Spender cautions that the workers’ movement may not always be a force for civilization and a potential ally for intellectuals – he explains fascism as a symptom of the disappointment of the hopes of ‘the people’. Spender also warns about the potential for a philistine communism. It is important for intellectuals to intersect with workers, and to show workers the correct use of the cultural resources their coming accession to power will give them. The workers’ movement and the Communist Party represent a sort of Trojan horse which bourgeois intellectuals might advance inside .
There are important differences, then, between Woolf’s and Spender’s arguments. Spender is much readier to reject the bourgeoisie altogether, and to throw his lot in with the workers. But Spender still sees the grounds of civilization as inhering in intellectuals. Only the intersection of intellectuals and the workers’ movement and the establishment of a healthy communist society could expand the epistemological grounds of ‘civilization’ and end the isolation of deintegrated intellectuals.
Spender’s position is taken a step further in the life and work of John Cornford, the first British intellectual to volunteer to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Like Spender, Cornford came from a liberal intellectual dynasty – he was the great-grandson of Charles Darwin and the son of a noted Georgian poet. Unlike Spender, Cornford came to identify completely with the communist party and with the British working class, and reject completely the notion of intellectuals as the guardians of ‘civilization’.
Cornford, who became a communist after reading The Waste Land, came to see the subjectivity of the working class, as allegedly personified in the Communist Party, as the grounds for all his thinking.
It is crucial to understand that Cornford was not a Marxist . He held fast to liberal and radical democratic principles – to the tradition of Godwin and Blake – but came to identify these principles with ‘the people’, and more specifically the working class, represented for him by the Communist Party in its Popular Front period. The history of the working class and ‘the people’ became the history of radical democratic values, and the source of what was best in high culture. Working class ‘experience’ was venerated as a source of value-judgements and knowledge-claims. Cornford passed from deintegration from the British bourgeoisie to an almost complete identification with a different class . How warranted that identification was is a matter for debate.
12. It is possible to identify five stages in the pre-history and history of radical liberalism. In the first stage, which can be said to have lasted from the late twenties until about 1934, many liberal intellectuals became radicalised, but did not identify a real historical agent for the amelioration or resolution of their grievances.
These were the years of The Orators and New Country – years when many intellectuals saw themselves as doomed and damned, sick cells in a diseased class. Apocalyptic imagery filled poems, and hope for the future tended to be associated with strange dreams of a ‘messiah’ or ‘healer’ . When it was considered, the working class tended to be seen not as an ally but as the alien agent of a justice which would have cataclysmic results for bourgeois intellectuals. New Country’s English Lenin was a messianic rather than political figure.
The second stage of radical liberalism had as necessary conditions the intensification of the crises in Europe and the abandonment of ultra-left Third Period Stalinism by the Communist Party and the Comintern . Encouraged by the new politics of the Popular Front, intellectuals began to look to ‘the people’ – an ‘anti-fascist’ or ‘anti-monopolist’ alliance of classes dominated in theory at least by the working class – as an agent of radical liberal politics. To the ideology of radical liberalism was added the strategy of the Popular Front.
This new ‘masses against the classes’ approach was validated by catastrophist forecasts and could be made successful by a heroic exertion of the will. The idealism and anti-sectionalism of Gladstone remained, but the transcendence of class and achievement of the ‘ethical vision’ would be accomplished by the overhaul of British society, not its peaceful evolution. Radical liberal populism was liberalism transformed dialectically by crisis, or the perception of crisis.
The mid-30s were the years of the Left Book Club, Aid for Spain, the rediscovery of a ‘progressive national history’, ‘proletarian literature’ in The Left Review, and the rise of a ‘documentary’ art exemplified by the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier.
The third stage of radical liberalism lasted from roughly late 1938 to early 1940 and saw significant numbers of intellectuals becoming disillusioned with their old political project. Some like Isherwood and Auden detached their radical liberalism from a belief in the potential of ‘the people’. Others like Spender abandoned radical liberalism for ordinary liberalism but retained a sort of degenerated populism . Munich, the failure of the Spanish revolution, the Nazi-Stalin pact, and the impotence of the ‘phoney war’ induced a pessimism which lasted a lifetime for some, but which was lifted for others by the heroism shown at Dunkirk and in the Battle of Britain, and by the Churchill government’s populist rhetoric and broader political base .
For radical liberals, World War Two was a people’s war which promised social transformation as well as victory. The entry of the USSR into the war reinforced the optimistic mood, and the campaign for a second front echoed the Aid for Spain campaign . Tom Wintringham’s home guard manuals, Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, and JB Priestley’s radio talks are some of the key relics of revived radical liberalism.
The fifth stage of radical liberalism saw disillusionment with the failure of the wartime Popular Front and anti-Axis alliance to lead to the achievement of radical liberal goals. It is impossible to give the beginning of this fifth stage anything more than a very rough date. For some like Orwell disillusionment began as early as 1943, as the war began to be won without revolutionary transformation . For others the breaking point was the Teheran or Yalta Conferences, or British intervention in Greece, or Labour’s acceptance of US terms for a new loan soon after being elected, or the ‘left turn’ of the Comintern in 1946-47 .
It can be argued that from the late 40s intellectuals tended to detach liberalism from a populist belief in the agency of the working class and its allies. Radical liberalism adapted itself to the depoliticised 50s and became a sort of quietism; populism adapted itself to the real consciousness of workers and became one or another sort of social democracy. EP Thompson was one of the few post-war British intellectuals who tried to keep the torch of radical liberalism burning.