Tuesday, July 29, 2014

RAK Mason and the taste of kava

[Poets often have small audiences, but their words can end up defining reality for large numbers of people. It can be argued that most twenty-first Pakeha New Zealanders understand their country and its place in the world using a set of images that were created in the 1920s and '30s by a handful of obscure young Bohemian versifiers.

When RAK Mason described New Zealand as a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'outer edge of space' in his 1923 'Sonnet of Brotherhood', he was expressing his sense of isolation, as a young intellectual living a long way from centres of culture and ideas like London and New York and Paris. In interwar New Zealand superphosphate was a much more important topic of discussion than literature, and Mason once grew so angry at his failure to find an audience for his work that he threw hundreds of copies of his poetry collection The Beggar into Waitemata harbour.

In the 1930s Mason's sense of the isolation and philistinism of New Zealand helped endear him to a set of younger writers, including Allen Curnow, who insisted, in his poems, essays, and anthologies, on the radical distance of his country from the rest of the world, and John Mulgan, whose novel Man Alone showed a young man wandering, mostly in solitude, through the stump farms and mute forests of the North Island, before fleeing for Europe in search of fraternity.

By the 1950s and '60s the image of New Zealand promoted by Mason and his admirers had been canonised, and was being absorbed by a new generation of Kiwi intellectuals and artists. In his history of cinema in New Zealand Sam Neil brandishes a copy of Man Alone, and talks about the influence of the novel on the actors and auteurs who created a professional New Zealand film industry in the 1970s. Today scholars of our culture talk about a 'New Zealand gothic', and find themes like isolation, loneliness, philistinism, and violence in everything from the films of Jane Campion, Vincent Ward, and Peter Jackson to the music of the Tall Dwarves to the novels of Ronald Hugh Morrieson. 

The notion of New Zealand as a radically isolated society can, of course, be expressed in a sanguine rather than a gloomy manner. In their song 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat', for instance, Split Enz imagine their homeland 'shining like a pearl at the bottom of the world'. Many Kiwis like the notion that their country sits at the 'outer edge of space', because that seems a safer place to be than, say, the Middle East.
And yet New Zealand is not, in geographical terms, as isolated as many Kiwis would like to believe. The same Pacific Ocean that poets like Curnow saw as an enormous barrier is also a road that can connect us, in surprisingly short time, with the tens of thousands of islands of Polynesia and Melanesia. The same writers who bemoaned the isolation and philistinism of New Zealand society in the 1920s and '30s periodically fantasised about escaping from their cold latitudes and exploring tropical societies like Fiji and Samoa and Tonga. 

RAK Mason is one of the few who went beyond fantasising, and visited New Zealand's nearest neighbours. In 1931 and 1932 he travelled to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Although Mason gathered a lot of information about each country, and wrote some important newspaper articles about New Zealand's repression of Samoa's nationalist movement, his tropical adventure does not seem to have altered his understanding of literature or his belief in his homeland's isolation.

I've written an essay about the relationship between Kiwi writers and Tonga for the forthcoming issue of Poetry New Zealand, the long-running journal that has just been taken over by Jack RossI won't put the whole of the essay, which details the visits that the poets Murray Edmond and Richard Von Sturmer made to the Friendly Islands last year, up here now, but I thought I'd quote the first few paragraphs, which indulge in a little counterfactual speculation by wondering how differently the history of Pakeha literature, and by extension Pakeha identity, might have played out, if RAK Mason had been served kava during his visit to Tonga in 1931. Brett Cross thinks my musings are 'outrageously romantic'. He might be right...]

In 1931, when he was twenty-six years old and had already published a couple of volumes of poetry, RAK Mason visited the Kingdom of Tonga on the Tofua, a steamship that connected Auckland with the ports of the tropical Pacific. Then as now, Tonga teemed with punake, or poets, whose works, which typically feature dance and music as well as lyrics, were performed around kava bowls and at events like weddings and festivals. Punake were part of the ornate culture that had developed over the three thousand years since humans had settled the Tongan archipelago. 

Although Mason enjoyed his short stay in Tonga - in letters home he described the kingdom as a 'delightful place', and reckoned that its people were 'the happiest' in the world - he does not seem to have sampled the local literary culture. It is fascinating to wonder what Mason might have made of his Tongan counterparts, had he encountered them at a kava circle or festival. Frustrated by his distance from the literary centres of Europe and by the indifference of his countrymen to his books, the young Auckland poet had often complained that he was trapped in a remote and philistine corner of the world - a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'friendless outer edge of space'. 

In the late 1930s and the '40s, Mason's vision of the South Pacific as a remote, rawly new, and philistine egion would be accepted and advertised by younger writers like Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, and Monty Holcroft; by the 1950s it would be an orthodoxy. 
Might the history of New Zealand literature be different, if Mason had been ushered into a kava shack on the shore of a Tongan lagoon, and found the work of the kingdom's esteemed caste of punake being performed there? Might the young poet's conviction that he lived in a remote and philistine corner of the world have melted, as he drank bowls of narcotics in the warm Tongan evening, and joined the clapping and foot-stomping that often accompanies kava songs? Might he have realised that a rich and highly valued literary culture could be found not just in faraway Europe, but in New Zealand's nearest neighbour? 

And might the punake of Tonga, rather than the Georgian poets of England or the verse propagandists of the Soviet Union, have become Mason's literary models? 
Tonga is a place that prompts this sort of counterfactual speculation. The only piece of the Pacific to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has evolved unusual and surprisingly robust economic and political systems. The kingdom's constitution bans the sale of land, and most of its people still work small farms land granted to them by the state. From the air even Tongatapu, the largest and by far the most populous island of the archipelago, resembles a forest of coconut, banana and mango trees. Palangi make up only a sliver of the Tongan population. A visit to Tonga can feel, then, like a journey into an alternative version of New Zealand history, where Polynesians were never robbed of their land and language, and where Wakefield never planted capitalism...

Read the rest in the issue 149 of Poetry New Zealand. You can hear Jack Ross talking his plans for his new possession on Radio New Zealand

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Felice Quail's truncated journey

A couple of months ago I posted a long and occasionally amicable dialogue I'd had with the writer and cartoonist Rachel Fenton about a character named Felix Quail. As the employee of a World War Two radar station, Quail had listened perhaps too obsessively to the crackling and blipping that flowed through his earphones, and had developed an obsession with poltergeists and alternative dimensions. Later, with the help of a fellow inmate of Tokanui Mental Hospital, he'd invented and - allegedly - visited a series of alternate versions of our world, where history, and in particular the history of New Zealand's nineteenth century land wars, had worked out differently.

Many of Quail's alternate worlds converged on the Great South Road, that route pushed bloodily into Maori territory by an avaricious colonial government in the 1860s, and I had briefly wanted to make him the focus of the film-art project-book that Paul Janman and I have been working on intermittently. As Rachel Fenton observed in her tenderly merciless way, though, Felix was an uncomfortably romantic character, a piece of wish-fulfillment.

Although Paul and I quietly marginalised Felix Quail, we replaced him with Felice Quail, who briefly seemed to us a more credible character. Felice was a young driver for an antiques dealer who was thrown through the windscreen of her yellow lorry at Rangiriri, where the Great South Road runs over the ruins of the pa on which the greatest battle of the New Zealand Wars was staged.

As she recovers from her injuries, which are mental as well as physical, in an Auckland hospital, Felice discovers the pleasures and obligations of books, and becomes fascinated by the literature on New Zealand's nineteenth century wars. Pushing Auckland's fifty-five public libraries and her hospital's mail system to the limit, she reads, in the clarifying haze provided by generous doses of dihydrocodeine, everything from the diaries of homesick Yorkshiremen shivering in redoubts beside the Great South Road to the megalomaniacal memoranda of Governor George Grey to the heretical anti-war tract prepared by Grey's one-time agent, John Gorst, to the historiographical manoeuvres of contemporary scholars like Jamie Belich.
Felice becomes obsessed with the notion that the apparently random and apolitical violence that flows through the modern history of the Great South Road as routinely as traffic - the fights in roadside bars and the botched bloody holdups of roadside dairies and pawn shops and the buckled and glassless cars pushed onto kerbs by dutiful cops - is connected causally to the great, meticulously prepared acts of violence that accompanied the building of the road in the 1860s.

Felice's peculiarities were based partly upon my own. At the end of 1999 I was involved in a serious car crash, and while recuperating I exchanged my undergraduate interest in philosophy and airy art and literary theory for a fascination with New Zealand history. Like Felice, I bothered librarians.

Paul and I decided that, once she had recuperated, Felice must make some sort of pilgrimage down the Great South Road to the site of her 'accident', and do something incomprehensible over the tarmacked ruins of Rangiriri. Paul talked about gelignite. Our documentary, which had become a mockumentary, would show Felice reconstructing her journey in the presence of an avuncular yet sinister police psychologist named Lloyd Wright.

We shot the opening segment of our film in the Auckland Domain, with the dancer Megan Ilgenfrentz playing Felice, but I soon realised I knew nothing about scriptwriting, and Paul realised that he would need two million dollars to tell the story of Felice Quail properly. We've reverted to the documentary, and Felice, like her ancestor Felix, has gone into quiet retirement. Here, for the sake of documentation, is a fragment of script.


Before you made this little journey of yours down the Great South Road –

A pleasant little historical ramble –

Not so pleasant. Before you started down the road, you visited the Auckland Domain.

I wanted to go back.

You spent a bit of time there when you were younger –

When I was a kid?

When you were a patient. I know about the therapy programmes the hospital runs for patients recovering from trauma –

The Domain is an overflow ward. Take your lorazepam and sit on that bench and be a good girl and feed the ducks. Here’s a piece of bread, some stale stuff from the hospital galley, don’t waste it, crush it between your fingers, crush it and spit on it, then feed the little pills of bread to those ducks, one at a time, one at a time, one pill per bird, that’s the rule –

You didn’t like the therapy? Wasn’t it pleasant to be out of doors, with trees and the birds and some water –

It’s funny. I kept thinking something terrible was about to happen.

That sort of feeling is common amongst trauma victims, but it doesn’t have to –

Doesn’t have to what?

Let’s think back to last winter. You went back to the duckpond?

I stayed as long as I could bear it, then went through the bush, down the hill, to the ruined railway station, the wrecked workshops – that’s where I used to go when I ran away from the therapy sessions –

You didn’t think of going in the other direction, to the museum? With your interest in history –

I hate history. I’m interested in reality. Museums make the past unreal, and call it history. The rust on the old carriages, the smashed windows and bird shit in the workshops, the winos and escaped psych patients bedding down there –

You felt at home?

We live in wreckage. We are wreckage.

I don’t understand -

It’s your job not to understand.

I’m trying to be patient, Felice. I could be a lot less patient. I could send you to talk with a detective, if you’re bored with doctors.

I sat on that bench, in my civilian clothes, not my hospital gown, in that bohemian duffelcoat, those boots – I sat on my bench and fed the ducks and felt the sun on my face and heard the wind in the trees – and I remembered that the Domain, this place where kids learn to run by chasing birds and teenagers root and old men walk dogs…well, there’s a small, dirty plaque beside the bench where I used to sit, there’s a plaque that commemorates commemorating the construction of this pond and the nearby gardens by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, which marshalled its army – its gorse bushes and willow saplings, its blue ducks and Jersey cows – in the Domain, on the eve of the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom. It was these forms of life which would continue the work of the solider, in the decades after the conquest of the Waikato, by occupying and subduing native ecosystems, until the only autochthonous creature in parts of the Hauraki Plains was the eel, which hid deep in the mud of the canals which had drained its old swamp home.

Did you memorise all that? It sounds like something out of a book. It sounds like something you didn’t need to be worrying about. Your injuries – that’s what you were in the Domain to heal. The car crash –

The past is a car crash. Rangiriri, Rangiaowhia, Orakau: listen carefully to those names and you can hear brakes screaming, you can feel metal tearing, you can taste shattered glass –

Why did you go back to the Domain last winter, then? And why did you go on down the Great South Road? Surely you knew it was a bad idea? Couldn’t you have stayed there, in your room – We can’t avoid travelling. I can. I haven’t had a proper holiday in years. You should talk with my wife, she’s always complaining –

You sit at that desk with that pile of textbooks and pull the curtain and think you’re safe. You’re not. You sit at that desk and the earth rolls at your feet. The earth travels ten thousands kilometres in a minute. It carries you with it, whether you want to go or not –

Alright, very poetic. But surely I’m travelling into the future, away from the past? Those things that obsessed, that have gotten you into trouble – they’re history.

Time is like the Greek serpent – it eats its own tail. We rush forward into the past. We run away from ourselves into ourselves.

What time is it now, then? I think it’s time to break. You’re on a manic –

It is July the 11th, 1863, and the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom will begin in a few hours, when Cameron’s army jumps the Mangatawhiri. The signal’s been sent by George Grey, who’s drinking whiskey in Government House with Thomas Russell. The signal’s been sent. Can’t you feel the earth throbbing like a telegraph wire? Can’t you smell Martyn’s cottage burning, beside the Great South Road?

[A rustling noise, and then a crash. The tape cuts out]

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Legalise P, but ban the Koran? The politics of Act's number six

Act leader Jamie Whyte has been promising voters that his party can have a stabilising influence on a National-led government. Act will stand solidly beside National, Whyte says, and can work constructively with Peter Dunne's United Future outfit, with the Maori Party, and with Colin Craig's Conservatives.

Whyte might like to check, though, whether all of the candidates on Act's recently-announced party list share his ecumenical philosophy. Stephen Berry, a former deputy leader of the Libertarianz Party who has been awarded the sixth slot on Act's list, has had some less than complimentary things to say about the organisations Whyte wants to work with. In a 2012 post to the Libertarianz-aligned blog Solo Passion, Berry condemned both the National and Maori parties as collections of 'talentless scumbag parasitical busybody politicians' who were forcing an ideology of 'pure fascism' on New Zealanders. Berry had been upset by National's support for Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia's call for more regulation of the tobacco industry.

When he ran as an independent candidate in the 2011 Tamaki byelection, Berry used a press release to promise that, if elected, he would refuse to support any government that included Peter Dunne. For Berry, Dunne's attempts to regulate legal highs made him an 'enemy of freedom'. In a blog post he made last year, when he was running for Auckland's mayoralty, Berry condemned Conservative Party leader Colin Craig as a 'village idiot' and a proponent of 'Big Socialism'.

Even the Act Party has at times seemed too much for Stephen Berry. In a press release written in 2003, when he was a member of the Libertarianz, Berry described Act as 'classically illiberal stinkers' with a 'Nanny-knows-best' attitude to politics. Berry had been outraged by Act MP Muriel Newman's warning that New Zealand was suffering a 'methamphetamine epidemic', and her call for more police resources to be given to the problem. Berry believed that Newman should have been supporting the 'individual freedoms' of P manufacturers and dealers, rather than sending the police after them.

There is a curious contrast between Berry's desire to legalise P and his apparent enthusiasm for a ban on one of the world's most popular books. In a post last year to Solo Passion, Berry mixed metaphors to warn that a 'plague of Islamic poison' was spreading across Europe, and suggested that followers of Mohammed's 'horrendous philosophy' might soon bring 'threats, violence' and 'sharia law' to New Zealand. Berry expressed his solidarity with Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who has famously demanded that the Koran be banned from Europe's libraries and bookshops and that mosques be closed down across the continent.
Islam is not the only religion that Berry considers a threat to freedom-loving Kiwis. In a 2012 blog post he denounced the Catholic church as an 'evil' organisation; in a statement issued during his fight for the seat of Tamaki he praised Guy Fawkes Day, which for centuries involved the burning of effigies of the Pope and the singing of anti-Catholic songs, as a 'celebration' of freedom.

Stephen Berry's sympathies for P dealers and hostility towards Muslims reflect his time in the Libertarianz, a party that has traditionally contested outfits like Democrats for Social Credit and McGillicuddy Serious for last place in New Zealand elections. Now he suddenly has a high spot on Act's list. If the party wins the Epsom electorate and grabs four percent of the vote, then Berry will enter parliament.

There is an embarrassing contradiction between Jamie Whyte's rhetoric about constructive partnership with other parties of the right and Stephen Berry's condemnations of the fascists, idiots, and other enemies of freedom in National, United Future, and even Act.

In different ways, both Whyte's rhetoric and Berry high list spot are products of the crisis of the Act Party over recent years.

As scandals and poor leadership have seen Act plunge in the polls, most of its more moderate, opportunistic members have defected to National or to Colin Craig's Conservatives. The defectors have left a vacuum which has been happily filled by Berry and other libertarians.

But Act's weakness has deprived its leaders of the ability to distance and differentiate themselves from National. With seven or eight members of parliament on his team, an Act leader like Richard Prebble could urge a radically right-wing programme on his National ally. Today, when his party is polling in the margin of error and dependent on National's charity for the seat of Epsom, Act's leader is forced to present himself as a guarantor of stability in a centre-right government.

If he wants his message of moderation to have any credibility, then Jamie Whyte might have to keep Stephen Berry away from the internet.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Occupying, not abandoning, the gallery

Over at EyeContact I've published a review of a recent exhibition at the Mangere Arts Centre by the Tuvaluan collective Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa, and an account of the ideas of that exhibition's co-curator, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai. 

In a series of papers delivered at conferences of Pacific scholars and museologists in recent years, Mahina-Tuai has argued that mainstream New Zealand art galleries, critics, and curators use a set of false distinctions - between art and crafts, between tradition and contemporaneity, and between individual and collective labour - to delegitimise the work of many Pacific Island artists. Because they are deemed to be mere craftsmen and women, who work inside static, pre-modern traditions, rather than creative artists responding to the contemporary world, Pacific Islanders who paint on tapa or carve wood or tattoo are denied grants, space in galleries, and critical attention. 

Mahina-Tuai is determined to force upon the doors of art galleries to Pacific creators like the members of Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa. But in an industry that revolves around individual 'art superstars' who sell their work for fantastically high prices to institutions and collectors, her championing of obscure Pacific Islands arts collectives that produce gifts for their communities rather than commodities for sale is not always understood, let alone appreciated.  

Mahina-Tuai’s determination to bring new communities into the austere white spaces of the contemporary art gallery was reflected in the launch party for Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa's show. To ensure that a significant section of Auckland’s Tuvaluan community was on hand to celebrate the collective's work, Mahina-Tuai and her co-curator Marama Papau hired a bus that drove to remote parts of Auckland's suburban archipelago, collected whole families, and brought them across Mangere bridge. Dancers adorned with kolose performed for these guests, who sang and beat time on the gallery’s walls and floor.

As I read Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai's polemics against the art establishment, I was reminded of a controversy started by the young Christchurch artist and political activist Jared Davidson, who in 2009 published a manifesto called Give Up Art.

Davidson's text condemns art galleries as squalid institutions where money is worshipped and creativity crushed. Instead of making commodities for the wealthy patrons of galleries, Davidson vowed to create an art of 'the barricades', by working to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a better economic and social system. For Davidson, the 'Red' Federation of Labour, whose working class members tried to seize power from New Zealand's capitalists during the Great Strike of 1913, was an exponent of the art of 'the barricades'. The manifesto's conclusion was uncompromising: 

A tree that has turned into a club cannot be expected to put forth leaves. Any artistic practice short of advocating the abolishment of capitalism and replacing it with logic, frankly, should be left to die.

Give Up Art was a deliberately provocative text, and it provoked negative responses from a number of art-lovers, including the poet and literary critic Ross Brighton, the Marxist scholar of Latin American modernism Tim Bowron, and me

I thought in 2009, and still think today, that Davidson's manifesto is a curious mixture of nihilism and utopianism. The text was nihilistic, because it asked us to abandon art altogether, when it could have differentiated between the positive and negative aspects of our art tradition and our arts institutions. 

Because of his justifiable anger at the abuse of art by wealthy, self-interested collectors like Alan Gibbs and his justifiable exasperation at the pretentiousness of certain inner-city galleries, Davidson wanted us to turn our backs on the taonga created by our greatest artists. 

Davidson seemed to lurch from nihilism into a sort of utopianism when he demanded that we begin to practice 'the art of barricades'. As Tim Bowron and Ross Brighton both pointed out, barricades are not being built in the streets of New Zealand in the early twenty-first century. No mass organisation like the Red Feds is leading the working class into battle with the bourgeoisie. Our trade union and our left-wing parties are weak and moderate. Davidson was fascinated by the radical years of the early twentieth century because they offered such a contrast to the uninspiring situation of the left and the trade union movement in the twenty-first century. 

Like Jared Davidson in 2009, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai is challenging some of the official tenets and procedures of the New Zealand art industry. But where Davidson wanted to abandon art galleries, Mahina-Tuai wants to democratise them. And where Davidson could offer no living movement as an alternative to the art establishment he despised, Mahina-Tuai can point to and champion groups like Fafine Niuato i Aotearoa and the communities they represent. For me, at least, Mahina-Tuai's campaign seems both more progressive and more realistic than Jared Davidson's enterprise. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Through the portal to Tongatapu

[This text began as yet another attempt to write something for the new online arts zine Hashtag500. Once again, I've rambled on past the five hundred word limit set by Hashtag's estimable editors, Lana Lopesi and Louisa Afoa. I can no more write five hundred words for Lana and Louisa than I could write haiku for Richard Von Sturmer...]

In the extended investigation of the magical powers of art he called The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, Martin Edmond suggested that paintings can emanate light and heat and even health. Edmond described visiting the homes of several very elderly owners of canvases by Colin McCahon, who sat beside their taonga the way other people might sit beside fires on a cold night. McCahon's miraculous arrangements of paint were, Edmond explained, nourishing and protecting their owners.

Outside my Glen Eden home the temperature has dropped to nine degrees; lamps stain the evening mist a mixture of yellow and green, so that it resembles a vast cloud of poison gas. I am protected from the Auckland weather by a heat pump, and by a series of artworks that I bought on Tongatapu, that flat ancient island where winter is no more than a tall story told by returning travellers. It is a quarter to eight, and I know that, two thousand kilometres away, in a shack that leans tipsily over Fanga'uta lagoon, the artists, musicians, and kava addicts of the Seleka Club are beginning their night's work.

I am sitting under a painting by Tevita Latu, who began his career spraying revolutionary slogans on the walls of Nuku'alofa, was tortured and charged with treason after the riot that levelled much of the business district of that city in 2006, and a few years later founded a kava club for Tonga's cultural and political avant-garde.
Seleka is a play on one of the Tongan language's more scatological verbs, and the Selekarians, as they like to call themselves, are notorious for drinking their kava from a toilet bowl. A disco ball hangs from the roof of their clubhouse, near a Tongan flag defaced with a swastika. The club's walls are covered in large, colourfully drawn lists of the names that the club gives its members and guests - my Seleka name, 'Sipi'i', which can apparently mean either 'Sheep' or 'Septic', sits close to that of 'Sosisi', or 'Sausage', which was awarded to the brilliant, troubled rapper Siua Ongosia, who records under the name Swingman. Ongosia recently returned to the kava houses of Nuku'alofa after finishing a stint on Tongatapu's prison farm. 
Some of the posters produced collectively by Seleka members - I remember a strange dragonwoman, who had emerged from the sea to confront Tonga's patriarchal ruling class - will be pinned to the walls, and a few prints of Picasso and Cezanne torn out of old art books will be scattered about a long table, in between pots of glue and a rubble of crayons. A stereo will emit an unpredictable mixture of death metal, rap, and reggae, some of it recorded at Seleka by Ongosia and his friends.

Tevita Latu will be moving up and down the long table, watching the club's young artists draw or paint or paste. Occasionally he will pause to offer praise or advice, or to grab a crayon or paintbrush and add a fish or star or halo to a work in progress.

Outside the shack moonlight and smoke from umu fires will lie over Fanga'uta lagoon, disguising the sight and smell of the sewage that flows endlessly out a pipe from Tonga's national hospital.

I am sitting beneath an untitled image - a mixture of collage and crayon work - by Tevita Latu. Like many of Latu's images, this one is disturbingly ambiguous. Three women stand on a piece of earth, beneath a sky that begins in a peaceable shade of blue and slowly grows purple with cyclonic rage. The women are topless, in defiance of the last one hundred and seventy years of Tongan history, but they are not the erotic South Seas maidens beloved of the palangi imagination: their breasts hang as heavily and ominously as war clubs.

The women's eyes are huge with wonder or alarm, and their three-fingered hands reach towards the sky. Are they waving at me? If they are waving, are they asking me to rise and step forward, into their warmer world, or do they mean to warn me of the storm that is turning their sky the colour of rotten talo? Are the women dancing, and, if they are, do they move in celebration, or for the pleasure of a powerful audience, like the ancient kings of Tonga, who pulled nubile dancers out of palace performances and stowed them in royal bedchambers?

What are not ambiguous, what do not require interpretation, are the heat and light that pour from Latu's image. This work was made in the midst of a permanent summer, where warmth is as reliable as the tapa makers who beat their bark in every village or the waves that wreck themselves on the rotten teeth of Tongatapu's reefs.

The heat has stripped clothes from Latu's women; the light has bleached their wide eyes.

The Selekarians will work until dawn, breaking only to step onto the gangplank at the edge of their shack and piss into Fanga'uta lagoon. They will sleep through the morning, and through the useless hot hours that follow noon, and then rise, and load their art onto the truck they have salvaged, repaired and painted. They will circumnavigate Tongatapu, pausing to swim, to buy bags of peanuts from Chinese shopkeepers, and to hawk their paintings, drawings, and collages to any palangi tourists or middle class Nuku'alofans they encounter. Tomorrow night they will be back in their shack, pouring the heat and light of their island into new images.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Yesterday the struggle: EP Thompson, Auden, and the thirties

[This is a chapter from my book The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics.]

I can understand, then, that some folks might think that writing sixteen and a half thousand words about the essay is a little, well, quixotic. I disagree, of course. 'Outside the Whale' is a superbly written summary of the careers of WH Auden and George Orwell, and its warning to left-wing intellectuals about the dangers of political disillusionment, quietism, and ultimate complicity in the nastier aspects of Western capitalism and imperialism remains all too relevant. Consider, for instance, these folks, who have, not coincidentally, followed the example of the lefties-turned-Cold Warriors of the 1950s and turned Orwell into a demigod.]

In her biography of Edward John Thompson, Mary Lago describes how in 1940 the sixteen-year-old Edward Palmer Thompson alarmed his family by announcing that he was considering leaving school to work on a farm. Many young men and women were taking similar jobs in 1940: as a blockaded Britain struggled to feed itself, ‘farm service’ was seen as an important part of the war effort. Edward John Thompson, who was chaplaining in the army in 1940, wasted no time in writing his son a stern letter. Edward John worried that ‘Palmer’ had too little respect for formal education. He feared that his youngest son might become trapped in the sort of frustratingly menial work that he had endured at a Bethnal Green bank in the first years of the century.

Perhaps feeling the need to mend bridges with father, Palmer wrote a long letter about his love of poetry. By 1940 Edward John Thompson had published half a dozen collections of verse, as well as two studies of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. But father and son seemed destined to quarrel even about poetry. Edward John was delighted by his son’s enthusiasm for the art, but perplexed by his words of praise for WH Auden. Auden was the most talented of a generation of writers who rebelled against middle or upper class backgrounds and became critical of British and European society in the 1930s. The epic struggle against fascism in Spain had helped to galvanise many of these young writers.

Like many of his peers, Auden had travelled to Spain and expressed his solidarity with the anti-fascist cause. His poem ‘Spain 1937’ had come to symbolise, in the minds of many left-wing Britons, the struggle to defeat fascism and make a better world. In a review of the poem in the New Statesman, John Maynard Keynes had called it ‘an expression of contemporary feeling’ about ‘heart-rending events in the political world’, and claimed that Auden ‘spoke for many chivalrous hearts’.

In 1939, though, Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood had fled Britain for the safety and relative prosperity of the United States. Their departure had caused an outcry in the press and debate in parliament. Auden’s rejections of his old political commitments in the new poems he wrote in America only rubbed salt into the wounds of those who had seen ‘Spain 1937’ as a symbol of the struggle against a fascist ideology that now menaced Britain itself.

Even before he left for America, Auden had been a controversial figure in Britain. George Orwell, a journalist and budding novelist with bitter memories of the intra-left struggles that were part of the Spanish Civil War, had used an article in the journal Adelphi to launch a brutal attack on Auden and on ‘Spain 1937’. According to Orwell, Auden and his friends Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis were ‘fashionable pansies’ who romanticised the horrors of war and apologised for the crimes of the Soviet Union and its agents in Spain. In 1940 Orwell would repeat and deepen these criticisms in the title essay of his collection Inside the Whale.

Orwell’s broadsides did not protect Auden from the criticisms of Britain’s pro-Moscow left. Despite its large sales and its frequent recital at anti-fascist public meetings, ‘Spain 1937’ had been condemned by the Communist Party’s Daily Worker newspaper for its ‘reflection of the poet’s continuing isolation’ from important political events.

Edward John was hardly breaking new ground, then, when he wrote to warn his son that Auden’s flight to America invalidated poems like ‘Spain’. Palmer would be better off reading a poet with more ‘moral courage’. But the elder Thompson seemed to feel a curious ambivalence about Auden: at the bottom of his letter he took some of his words back by suggesting that, in an ‘unworldly’ way, Auden might be ‘one of the supreme lovers of mankind’. Not for nearly twenty years would EP Thompson fashion a reply to his father’s criticisms.

By 1959 Edward John had been dead for thirteen years, and his rejection of WH Auden had long been out of fashion. Along with the Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ‘American Auden’ had become an object of admiration for intellectuals who had rejected the left-wing commitments of the 1930s as ‘romantic’ concessions to ‘Stalinism’. Auden himself had decided that ‘Spain 1937’ was a ‘wicked’ poem. A reaction against the ‘Natopolitan’ intelligentsia of the post-war world had taken hold amongst a minority of younger intellectuals, but these angry young men and women had little interest in reviving the politics of the 1930s, a decade they scarcely remembered.

In ‘Outside the Whale’, the text he would place at the beginning of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, EP Thompson set out to rescue the Auden of ‘Spain 1937’ and his 1930s comrades from the condescension of both left and right. An old argument had become more complicated, and perhaps more urgent.

Welcome to Natopolis

EP Thompson was fond of coining neologisms, and ‘Natopolis’ is one of his most memorable. The strange word, which occurs regularly in his New Left writing, expresses a contempt for the politically and intellectually conservative, heavily armed, relatively prosperous West that had emerged from the rubble of World War Two under the leadership of the United States. As we will see during the explication of ‘Outside the Whale’ later in this chapter, Thompson considered the Natopolitan era a betrayal of the hopes for a new, fundamentally reorganised Europe that he had entertained while fighting fascism in North Africa and Italy.

In the title essay of The Poverty of Theory, Thompson would remember the ‘voluntarist decade’ of 1936-46 - a decade which included the Spanish Civil War, the defeat of Nazism, and the election of the Attlee government – being followed by a ‘sickening jerk of deceleration’, as the Soviet Union and the United States divided Europe into spheres of influence and began the Cold War. Britain, weakened by the long struggle to defeat Hitler, sided with the United States against the Soviets, and Labour’s left-wing policy programme gave way under the pressure of a new wave of military spending, motivated in part by the spectre of a hot war in Korea. An economic upturn came at the price of the importation of a US-style ‘consumer culture’ and widespread political apathy amongst the working class.

Apathy also overtook swathes of an intelligentsia that had been radicalised by the rise of fascism in the 1930s. The conservative Anglophile TS Eliot emerged as the touchstone for a generation of writers and thinkers who were inclined to think the ‘red ‘30s’ an either incomprehensible or disreputable period in literary history.

The Question of Commitment

In the second half of the 1950s an unfocused but intense debate about ‘commitment’ gripped a section of the British left. In an extended commentary on the debate written in 1961, John Mander explained that the word ‘commitment’ came from Sartre, but that it had acquired new overtones in a British context. Mander noted that by 1956 the word had begun to be used by:

[A] freshly articulate branch of the English left: the post-Hungary and post-Suez regroupings that have since become known as the New Left.

The New Left emerged in Britain in 1956, the year the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt created crises for both the pro-Moscow left and the traditional right. The young people who protested Britain’s neo-colonial adventure in Suez and the veteran communists who ripped up their party cards as tanks rolled into Budapest were both looking for a political home, and the fledgling journals and chaotic discussion groups of the New Left offered a halfway house, if not a secure home.

The debate on commitment took place in a variety of fora. The New Statesman, which along with the Manchester Guardian was the most popular left-wing publication aimed at intellectuals, was one important theatre of argument. The most accommodating venue for discussion, though, was Universities and Left Review, which had been established by a circle of radicalised London and Oxbridge students in 1956. In the three years before the journal fused with the New Reasoner to become the New Left Review, it regularly set aside swathes of print for a wide variety of opinions on the subject of ‘commitment’.

The debate on commitment got considerable impetus from a Fabian Society pamphlet that Kingsley Amis published early in 1957 under the title Socialism and the Intellectuals. Amis, who had a reputation as a political radical as well as a talented young novelist, claimed that many intellectuals were guilty of ‘romanticism’, which he defined as an ‘irrational’ tendency to embrace ‘causes that have nothing to do with you your own’. In the 1930s, Amis suggested, romanticism had led British intellectuals into the Communist Party and the Spanish Civil War in surprisingly large numbers. In the second half of the 1950s, by contrast, romanticism expressed itself in non-political, albeit sometimes scandalous ways – in an ‘identification with juvenile delinquents’, for instance.

Amis had been identified with a loose group of ‘Angry Young Men’ who had written poems, novels and plays critical of the conservative mores of post-war British society. In the most famous of these works, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, a young character contrasts the sterility of his life with the commitment of the young men and women who went to Spain in the 1930s, and remarks that ‘there are no good causes left now’. Many leftists, including EP Thompson, had laid claim to the Angry Young Men, but Amis’ pamphlet made it clear that he, at least, was not interested in left-wing political activism. His wildly popular first novel Lucky Jim might have mocked the prudishness and ignorance of post-war Britain, but he was not interested in radically reconstructing that society.

In Socialism and the Intellectuals Amis relied on an interpretation of the left-wing intellectuals of the 1930s that George Orwell had coined in his 1940 essay ‘Inside the Whale’. Though he had some reservations - reservations he would later withdraw – about the essay’s ‘hysterical’ tone, Amis broadly endorsed Orwell’s vision of WH Auden and certain other left-wing intellectuals who went to Spain as irresponsible romantics.[1]
Socialism and the Intellectuals was widely, though not always sympathetically reviewed. Amis’ hostility to radical politics dismayed his admirers on the New Left. Dorothy Thompson remembered EP Thompson’s response to the pamphlet:

Everybody in the university world loved Lucky Jim, and Edward loved parts of That Uncertain Feeling [Amis’ second novel, published in 1955]. So [Edward’s] first response [to Socialism and the Intellectuals] was to feel a bit sad. Amis had been in the Communist Party and had moved right when he left.

The feeling of disappointment was surely understandable. The author of Lucky Jim, a novel which had seemed to embody the ill-focused but rebellious energy of the Angry Young Men, was parroting the arguments of the ‘Natopolitan’ establishment. It was clear that, for Amis as well as Natopolitan ‘gurus’ like TS Eliot and the ‘American’ WH Auden, resistance to political commitment and acquiescence in the status quo was built on a negative view of the left-wing intellectuals of the 1930s – a view which was first advanced by Orwell’s famous essay. Amis’ pamphlet helped to reinforce that interpretation. In a 1960 review of Julian Symons’ book The Thirties, John Mandler noted that:

The fiftyish image of the Thirties – remember Mr Amis’ Socialism and the Intellectuals – has passed though Orwell’s prism.

In George Orwell and the Politics of Literary Reputation, his careful study of the influence of Orwell, John Rodden notes that ‘Orwell became popular as an intellectual model’ for the Angry Young Men in the late ‘50s. It is not as though Amis’s pamphlet delivered George Orwell from some sort of obscurity. Orwell’s last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen and Eighty-Four, had become successful in his lifetime, partly because they had been co-opted by the right in the fiercely anti-communist atmosphere of the late 1940s. In 1955 and 1956 respectively Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were filmed, further boosting sales. Pre-war works which had languished in obscurity, like Homage to Catalonia, were reprinted in Britain and published in the United States. Orwell’s critical reputation grew as quickly as his sales. Looking back in 1986, Williams acknowledged the intensifying influence that Orwell exerted on British intellectuals in the years after his death:

In the Britain of the fifties, along every road that you moved, the figure of Orwell seemed to be waiting. If you tried to develop a new kind of popular culture analysis, there was Orwell; if you wanted to report on work or ordinary life, there was Orwell; if you engaged in any kind of socialist argument, there was an enormously inflated statue of Orwell warning you to go back. Down into the Sixties political editorials would regularly admonish younger radicals to read their Orwell and see where that led to.

The reputation of the young WH Auden and the left-wing thirties intellectuals he had symbolised in ‘Inside the Whale’ waned as the star of Orwell waxed. In 1961 John Mander opened a discussion of Auden’s poetry with a blunt question:

Must we burn Auden? Many people seem to think so. The reputation of Auden and the Thirties poets is probably as low now as it has ever been.

The poet and critic Ian Hamilton has concurred, remembering that, at the beginning of the sixties:

[T]he nineteen-thirties were…seen as a tragicomic literary epoch in which poets had absurdly tried, or pretended, to engage with current politics.

The newly politicised intellectuals of Universities and Left Review and the Angry Young Men had in common a dissatisfaction with British society, and a feeling that cultural and intellectual patterns set before 1945 were inadequate to the radically different Britain that had emerged since the end of the war. If it was clear what Universities and Left Review and the Angry Young Men opposed, it was not always clear what they favoured. Members of both groupings tended to be suspicious of political parties of both the left and the right. They had grown up with an emasculated, economistic Labour Party, and had witnessed the near-implosion of the Communist Party in 1956.

The debate spilled out of the pages of Universities and Left Review and into a meeting of the London New Left Club that Stuart Hall recalled as ‘electric’. The principal division in that meeting, and in the debate in Universities and Left Review, was between those who distrusted demands that intellectuals espouse politics too explicitly, and those who believed that politics and serious intellectual work were inseparable. Those who held the first view often feared that ‘commitment’ might come to mean the subordination of art and scholarship to political agendas, and bring a return to the dogmatic, philistine ‘Zhdanovism’ that had become notorious in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Those who held the second group often associated demands for the autonomy of intellectuals with the ivory tower high culture of Natopolitanism.

In a poem published in Universities and Left Review, Christopher Logue showed the passions that the ‘question of commitment’ could rouse. In ‘To My Fellow Artists’ Logue inveighed against writers who refused to speak out against nuclear weapons. Turning to John Wain, an ‘Angry Young Man’ who had been reluctant to support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Logue asked:

And do you agree with them,
Spender, and Barker, and Auden?
…Will you adopt their lie by silence?

To some extent, the arguments over commitment reflected wider divisions within the first New Left. After the euphoria of 1956, when the mass protests against the war in Egypt had seemed like a revival of radical politics, the inchoate movement had been the site of chronic disagreements. Some of its members, like EP Thompson and most of the ex-communists associated with New Reasoner, had hoped that the New Left could become a fighting mass movement, able to win the working class away from adherance to the Labour Party and the rump of ‘official’ Communists who still controlled a number of unions. Some of the leading members of the circle around the Universities and Left Review thought that such an ambition was unrealistic, and that the New Left should focus on rebuilding a left-wing intelligentsia in Britain. Other activists, especially those influenced by Trotskyism, wanted to turn the movement into a selective, highly organised political party.

The debate rumbled on when the fourth issue of Universities and Left Review gave up half its space to a set of ‘Documents on Commitment’. In a thoughtful introduction to these texts, Stuart Hall tried to clarify the parameters of the debate and find some middle ground between the antagonists. Admitting that the discussion had touched a nerve, Hall reaffirmed the importance of the 1930s, calling Auden’s ‘Spain 1937’ ‘the poem’ and Orwell’s ‘Inside the Whale’ a document ‘of our time’ which ‘stands between us and the International Brigade’.

Hall accepted Orwell’s criticisms of ‘Spain 1937’, but insisted that these criticisms did not imply that art and intellectuals should be separated from politics. Rather, it was necessary for members of the New Left to ‘deepen their understanding of what that relationship between [between intellectual work and politics] actually is’. Hall called for a literature that was politically committed yet still successful aesthetically. In an example that clearly drew on Engels’ famous contrast between Zola and Balzac, Hall compared Jack London’s The Iron Heel, which is politically correct but sometimes clumsily didactic, and thus supposedly similar to ‘Spain 1937’, with Lawrence’s subtler Sons and Lovers. Hall’s, though, was a lonely voice: most of the participants in the debate on the commitment remained polarised between the two positions he had tried to reconcile.

Thompson on Commitment

EP Thompson made three contributions to the debate on commitment in Universities and Left Review. In the very first issue of the journal he delivered what may have been the first detailed response to Amis’ pamphlet, which had been published only a few weeks earlier. Thompson began his essay by acknowledging that, as a recent departee from the Communist Party of Great Britain, he felt ‘caught in the crossfire of a divided world’. Conceding that ‘rejection of Communism, or Marxism, or Belief in Progress, is now a trivial routine affair’, Thompson took pains to differentiate himself from intellectuals who had departed the party and travelled toward some embittered acquiescence with the status quo. He complains of a ‘dogmatic anti-communism’ and a ‘retreat from humanism’, both of which have been quickened, in certain circles at least, by events in Hungary.

After a justifiable sneer at the fantastic pretensions of the young Colin Wilson, Thompson settles down to a discussion of Amis’ tract for the Fabian Society. Thompson makes it clear that he admires Amis’ writing, and still considers him a socialist. He detects, nonetheless, a ‘reluctant shuffle’ away from ‘humanism’ and ‘political commitment’ in Socialism and the Intellectuals. Thompson zeroes in on Amis’ claim that ‘it is easy to laugh’ at intellectuals who went to fight in Spain, and notes that this charge ‘is supported by a line from WH Auden, and a gloss from George Orwell’. He complains that in ‘Inside the Whale’ Orwell removed lines of Auden’s ‘Spain 1937’ from their proper context, and then misrepresented them as apologies for the crimes of Stalin’s agents in Spain. In a section of his article called ‘Spain: the Act of Choice’, Thompson insists that the decision to fight in Spain was prompted not by some sort of romantic reflex peculiar to intellectuals, but by a considered commitment to one side of a conflict that seemed likely to determine the course of European history.

In the last part of his article, which he gives the subtitle ‘The Intellectuals Disengaged’, Thompson talks of a gap that exists in postwar Britain between intellectuals and the labour movement. In the 1930s, by contrast, a ‘circuit’ connecting the two ran through institutions like the Left Book Club, the Unity Theatre, and the Left Review. The ‘block’ which has developed between intellectuals and the labour movement has bred a certain philistinism in the labour movement, as well as an ivory tower ‘detachment’ amongst too many intellectuals. Thompson believes that the ‘emergence of ‘socialist humanism’ – he is presumably referring to the appearance of the New Left of Britain, and the revolts against Stalinism shaking Eastern Europe – has the potential to break down the barriers between intellectuals and workers, and restore the ‘circuit’ that energised both groups in the thirties.

Thompson’s early entry into the debate about commitment meant that his response to Amis, as well as Amis’ pamphlet itself, was a topic for discussion in the second issue of Universities and Left Review. Mervyn Jones and the philosopher Charles Taylor both wrote responses to Thompson’s article; the editors of Universities and Left Review showed Jones’ and Taylor’s texts to Thompson, who felt he had been misrepresented, and wrote a text called ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals – a reply’ in time for the journal’s second issue. Thompson strenuously objects to his friend Jones’ claim that intellectuals are defined by their ‘public position’. He protests that ‘ordinary’ people can be intellectuals, and points to Britain’s working class autodidact tradition. Thompson also feels that Jones has erred by ridiculing the letter-writing and petition-signing campaigns frequently initiated by liberal British intellectuals like Bertrand Russell. Intellectuals have a duty, as citizens, to initiate and sustain such campaigns, Thompson insists, before suggesting that Jones has become fixated by the idea of intellectuals entering into and capturing the Labour Party.

Thompson responds angrily to Taylor’s claim that communism is a fatally flawed idea, and to his deprecatory remarks about the pro-communist intellectuals of the 1930s. Thompson particularly objects to Taylor’s claim that the work of the ‘30s writers was overly didactic, on account of their closeness to the Communist Party. Thompson argues that Taylor has read the politics of postwar Stalinism back into the 1930s. This is a mistake, because the rise of Stalinism in the European Communist parties was only made possible by the destruction of the politics and in many cases the personnel of those parties at the hands of fascism and Stalin’s agents. The parties which emerged from the long nightmare of fascism and World War Two had lost many of their old leaderships and rank and file members, and were thus easier for Stalin to bend to his will.

Thompson agrees with Taylor that much of the work of Lenin and some of the work of Marx needs to be questioned, and perhaps abandoned. But he insists that recent events in Eastern Europe prove, rather than disprove, the claims made for communism by sympathetic intellectuals in the 1930s. For Thompson, the opponents of Stalinism in Poland and Hungary are links to the Popular Fronts of the 1930s, and even echo an English socialist tradition – ‘the tradition of Morris and Mann, Fox and Caudwell’.
Thompson’s third contribution to the debate on commitment in Universities and Left Review came almost two years later, in the Spring 1959 issue of the journal.

By 1959, plans to fuse New Reasoner with Universities and Left Review were well advanced, and the New Left was an established, if still relatively marginal, part of the British political scene. But the movement was troubled by political infighting and organisational confusion, and Thompson was playing an increasingly divisive role in the movement. His initial optimism about the prospects for joint work with the young intellectuals around Universities and Left Review had been replaced by an unease which found expression in a stream of internal memorandums and a series of bad-tempered interventions at New Left Club meetings. ‘Commitment in Politics’, the article published in the Spring 1959 issue of Universities and Left Review, reflects Thompson’s troubled relations with the circle around the journal. Thompson begins on a bleak note:

Politics, for many of my friends, has meant some years of agonised impotence in the face of European fascism and approaching war; six years of war, whose triumphant conclusion and liberating aftermath were blighted by betrayals; a few years of makeshift defensive campaigns in the face of the Cold War and the fatty degeneration of the Labour Movement…

Thompson’s words place an immediate distance between him and most of the contributors to and readers of Universities and Left Review, young men and women who had only hazy memories of the years of World War Two, let alone the world of the thirties. The next part of ‘Politics and Commitment’ is no more conciliatory. Thompson notes that certain ‘jibes’ have been circulating about the Universities and Left Review circle, and then draws up a long list of these complaints. According to the anonymous jibers, Universities and Left Review believes in commitment to the arts, but not to class struggle; thinks that ugly architecture is worse than the ugliness of poverty; likes the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts, but not the Marx of Capital, and so on. Thompson does not mention that he has been the author of many of the jibes he lists.

In a rather disingenuous gesture of generosity, Thompson says that the criticisms he has listed are only half-justified. He believes that Universities and Left Review is occasionally guilty of ‘aestheticism’ and a ‘fear’ of the labour movement, but he thinks that these failings can be overcome if the journal and its readers can attain a ‘sense of history’. Universities and Left Review’s sensitivity to the new features and fashions of postwar British society is commendable, Thompson says, but these features need to be related to broad trends in British history, or else what is historically contingent may be unjustly generalised into an eternal truth. The less than militant working class of the 1950s, for example, should not be the basis of generalisations about the whole history and future of that class. The quiescence of the 1950s is an aberration, not a rule.

Thompson also stresses that the rising wages and democratic and legal rights attained by the postwar union movement are the results of popular struggles of the past, not the magnanimity of Britain’s ruling class. When these facts are understood, Thompson insists, the potential of the working class to awake from its postwar slumber and make new advances can be grasped. In a passage near the end of ‘Politics and Commitment’, Thompson invokes the Aldermaston march being held annually by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as an example of the potential for positive political action linking the intellectuals of the New Left to the working class:

The presence of some thousands of young ‘middle class’ people was a great feature of the march. Who could have supposed, from an aloof analysis of the reading matter of the intelligentsia three years ago – Waiting for Godot and 1984 [sic], the back end of the New Statesman and the front end of Encounter, [Colin Wilson’s] The Outsider, and Mr Krushchev’s secret speech – that out of such despair and contempt for common people, this swift maturity of protest could arise?

In the conclusion to his article, Thompson restates the case for commitment, though he emphasises that he does not use the word in any ‘narrow, organisationally-limited way’. Thompson argues that, by reopening connections between their work and the institutions and causes of the labour movement, intellectuals can help radicalise the working class. He maintains that it is the working class which has the power to change society, but insists that intellectuals can play a role in precipitating action by the class:

‘The power to compel’ must always remain with the organised workers, but the intellectuals may bring the hope, [and] a sense of their own strength and political life.

Fighting on Two Fronts

‘Outside the Whale’ has usually been viewed as an attack on the ‘Natopolitan’ intellectual and cultural establishment its author despised. The essay can also be seen, though, as EP Thompson’s lengthiest and most eloquent contribution to the debate on commitment that raged in the first New Left. ‘Outside the Whale’ is a text that fights on two fronts. The essay contains few explicit references to the debate inside the New Left, but the contexts that Thompson chose for it show his deep concern with the argument about commitment and wider confrontations within the movement he had helped to found.

‘Outside the Whale’ was delivered as a talk at a New Left Club meeting in 1959, and then included in Out of Apathy, the loose, book-length manifesto issued by the New Left in 1960. At a New Club meeting in 1959, ‘Outside the Whale’ would inevitably been taken as the latest installment in the long-running debate about commitment. Club members who read Universities and Left Review would have seen in the essay a continuation of the arguments of the three articles on commitment that Thompson had published in the journal.

The debate on commitment and the situation of the New Left explain not only a part of the purpose of ‘Outside the Whale’, but the text’s emphasis on the apparently obscure literary disputes of the 1930s. As we have seen, texts like Auden’s ‘Spain 1937’ and Orwell’s ‘Inside the Whale’ were not the object of antiquarian interest for left-wing intellectuals in 1950s Britain. For many contributors to the debate on commitment that had filled so many pages of Universities and Left Review, the thirties were a sort of ‘high ground’ that overlooked contemporary debates about the relationship between intellectuals and workers and the possibility of creating politically committed art.

The ‘Natopolitans’ wanted to control the high ground so they could prevent the development of a new generation of radical intellectuals. Both of the major factions of the New Left wanted to foster a radical intelligentsia, but they disagreed about how to do this, and their disagreements became intertwined with arguments about the meaning and legacy of the radical intelligentsia that had briefly existed in Britain in the thirties.

Key members of the Universities and Left Review circle like Stuart Hall saw the thirties as a warning, as well as an inspiration. For them, one of the important lessons of the thirties was that intellectuals and artists must not allow their work to become to be used too instrumentally in pursuit of political causes. The autonomy of the intellectual must be preserved, and journals must not be too concerned with winning a large working class audience, if the result is a ‘dumbing down’ of content. The building of a radical intelligentsia should not be subordinated to the building of a mass working movement. For many of the New Reasoner circle, though, a radical intelligentsia could not exist without a radical labour movement; intellectuals and workers needed each other.

In ‘Outside the Whale’, EP Thompson struggles to wrest that same ‘high ground’ of the thirties from both the Natopolitans of Britain’s literary establishment and the young men and women around Universities and Left Review.

The larger scheme

In Out of Apathy, a book whose unwieldy structure and diverse contributors reflected the disorder of the New Left, ‘Outside the Whale’ was accompanied by two other Thompson texts, ‘At the Point of Decay’ and ‘Revolution’, which laid out an analysis of the contemporary British political scene and a strategic road for the left to advance along. Together, the three texts acted as a sort of manifesto within a manifesto. ‘Outside the Whale’ may have lacked many specific references to the New Left, but Thompson’s two other contributions to Out of Apathy provided these aplenty. Together, ‘Revolution’ and ‘At the Point of Decay’ also illuminated the alternative to the Natopolitan intellectual culture Thompson condemned.[2]

We can say, then, that ‘Revolution’ and ‘At the Point of Decay’ concretise some of ‘Outside the Whale’. As chapter four shows, ‘Revolution’ fuses elements of British ‘gradualist’ socialism and ‘classical’ Bolshevism to map out a path to power for Britain’s radical left. Though it is never Thompson’s main subject, the critique of Natopolitan ideology runs through ‘Revolution’. Thompson criticises the tepid left social democracy of John Strachey and Richard Crossland, and ascribes the timidity of this ideology to its proponents’ failure to challenge the obligations the Cold War and NATO membership have imposed upon Britain.

Reading ‘Outside the Whale’

‘Outside the Whale’ begins in 1955, as Thompson revisits the election where the British plumbed for the Tory government ‘which was to see them through the crises of Quemoy, Suez, Hungary, hydrogen bomb tests, Jordan and other crucial incidents of the twentieth century’. Thompson argues that the 1955 campaign was characterised not by genuine political debate, but by the agreement of the three main parties on the ‘political and strategic premises of NATO’. No party campaigned against Britain’s role in the Cold War that had begun almost a decade earlier; no party dared to question an Anglo-American alliance in which Britain now played a decidedly junior role.

Worse, perhaps, was the acquiescence of Britain’s intellectuals in this Natopolitan consensus. EP Thompson notes that, with one honourable exception, intellectuals played no important independent role in the campaign. Only the eighty-three year-old Bertrand Russell dared to intervene, by mounting the stage at a big Labour campaign meeting and raising the issue of the nuclear annihilation that the division of the postwar world into two hostile blocs threatened to bring. For his pains, Russell was mocked by Alistair Cooke in the Manchester Guardian, ‘the favourite newspaper of British intellectuals’. How, Thompson wonders, could Cooke have been able to assume that his audience would share his scorn for the elderly man’s intervention? Why was it that Cooke could safely count on readers echoing his chuckle at the notion of ‘progress to mankind’ that Russell’s left-wing politics represented?

Thompson believes that the 1955 campaign in general, and the isolation of Russell in particular, demonstrate the ‘apathy’ to which both British intellectuals and wider British society had succumbed since the end of World War Two. The division of the world into two power blocs, and two competing official ideologies – ‘Stalinism’, in the East, and ‘Natopolitanism’, in the West – has much to do with this apathy.

Thompson believes that the ideology of Natopolitanism has been developing since well before the beginning of the Cold War and the creation of NATO, and that it has gone through two stages of growth. In its first stage, when it was confined mostly to intellectuals, it was a sort of ‘recoil’ from harsh, disillusioning facts. Intellectuals who had, in the midst of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, seen in the Soviet Union the promise of a better world, and in the Spanish Civil War a titanic struggle between pure good and pure evil, were confronted by events like the Moscow trials of 1938, and the execution of left-wing dissidents by pro-Moscow Republican forces in Spain. Shocked, they retreated from all political commitment, and indeed from all belief in the possibility of political action to change the world for the better. They abandoned the very idea of ‘progress to mankind’ in favour of a recycled notion of original sin. Their ‘disenchantment’ found its way into print, and became ‘a central motif within Western culture’.
In its second stage, Natpolitanism became a ‘capitulation’ to the status quo of Western capitalism and imperialism. Intellectuals drifted from a despairing withdrawal from politics to a weary acceptance of the structures and rituals of Western society. Thompson compares the rightwards movement of the victims of Natopolitanism to the ideological drift that Wordsworth recorded in some of his most famous poems. Where Napoleon had upset Wordsworth, Stalin and Stalinism upset intellectuals who had been radicals in the 1930s. There is an important difference, though:

If history has repeated itself, it has most certainly done so as farce. Half a century, and years of self-examination, divide Wordsworth, the ardent revolutionary, from Wordsworth, the Laurete of Queen Victoria. In our time the reversion took place in a decade. Napoleonic disenchantment and Victorian conformity have been telescoped into one. Wordsworth’s Solitary and Dickens’ Mr Podsnap have inhabited a single skin. [3]
Thompson admits that his picture is schematic, that there are few ‘pure’ Natopolitans and many ‘intermediate’ positions which stop short of the end of the march to the far right he has described. Thompson nonetheless believes that his characterization of the Natopolitan ‘drift’ is basically accurate. In the second section of ‘Outside the Whale’, Thompson turns to Auden and ‘Spain 1937’ to understand the first stage of Natopolitan ‘regress’. Thompson glosses the poem with a pithiness and sympathy that remind us that he had by 1959 spent more than a decade teaching English literature for the Workers Education Association:

The poem is constructed in four movements. First, a series of stanzas whose cumulative historical impressionism brings the struggle of ‘today’ within the perspective of civilisation. Second, a passage in which the poet, scientist and poor invoke an amoral life-force to rescue them from their predicament; and the life-force responds by placing the choice for moral choice and action upon them. (‘I am whatever you do…I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain’).

For Thompson, the third movement of the poem is the key to its meaning. In long, carefully weighted lines Auden describes the International Brigades that flocked to Spain to confront fascism:

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
Or sleepy plains, in the aberrant fisherman’s islands,
Or the corrupt heart of the city,
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower,

They clung like birds to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment snipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears that made us respond
To the medicine ad and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.

Tomorrow, perhaps, the future…

After quoting this passage, Thompson resumes his commentary:

In the fourth movement [the movement just quoted] we pass away, once again, from the Spanish war, into a passage of inventive impressionism (balancing the first movement) suggestive of an imagined socialist future; and this leads to the coda, which picks up once again the theme of the third movement, and which places ‘today’ in a critical poise of action and choice between yesterday and tomorrow:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; to-day the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

Thompson notes that ‘Spain 1937’ is ‘commonly underestimated today’, and he links this underestimation to the drastic changes Auden has made to his text over the years, as well as changes in the world outside the poem. When he collected ‘Spain’, which had originally been published as a pamphlet, in his 1940 book Another Time, Auden changed the controversial phrase ‘the necessary murder’ to ‘the fact of murder’. When he compiled his first Collected Poems ten years later, Auden cut the last two stanzas in the third movement of ‘Spain’, and thereby destroyed what Thompson calls ‘the fulcrum of the poem’s formal organisation and the focus of the preceding and succeeding imagery’. Auden even changed the title of his poem, dropping the date. Auden has, according to Thompson, committed ‘a calculated act of mutilation’ against his own poem. For Thompson, it is not only an individual poem which is compromised by the ‘excisions’ of 1950, but Auden’s whole achievement as a poet. Thompson sees ‘Spain 1937’ as the consummation of the poems of social malaise and personal unease that made Auden famous in the 1930s. In collections like The Orators and Listen! Stranger, Auden is aware of the destructiveness of personal neuroses – our private 'wounds’ – as well as the chronic and seemingly insoluble economic and political malaise of England, ‘this country where no-one is well’. Thompson thinks this tension between the personal and social ‘gives to some early poems their probing, undoctrinaire, diagnostic tone’. Nevertheless, the conflict between psychology and social analogy demanded some sort of resolution, and in ‘Spain 1937’ Auden found a theme ‘demanding a resolution’. The nature of this resolution was explained, Thompson claims, in the stanzas that Auden cut from ‘Spain 1937’ in 1950:

If the source of the conflict may still be traced to the individual human heart, the issue must be decided in the Spanish theatre of war. And the decision, if favourable, may be a watershed for human nature…[in ‘Spain’] …[t]here is no ambiguity.

By 1940, let alone 1950, Auden had changed his mind about the affirmations of ‘Spain 1937’, and thus decided to revise the poem. Thompson locates the reasons for the change in the international events of 1937-1939: Stalin’s purges and the bizarre Moscow show trials; the ‘increasing orthodoxy’ of the Popular Front there; and the Russo-German pact, which saw Stalin abandoning his anti-fascist rhetoric and dividing Poland with Hitler. Thompson does not fault Auden for being shocked by these events; it is the wholesale disenchantment which followed shock that he regrets:

It is not the authenticity of Auden’s experience which we are disputing, but the default implicit in his response. There is, after all, some difference between confronting a problem and giving it up. The giving up of the problem was punctuated by his emigration to America. In the interval between 1939 and 1945, when many were showing an affirming flame on the seven fronts of fire and oppression unleashed by the Spanish defeat, Auden’s own flame had been doused.

Turning to ‘September 1, 1939’, the poem Auden wrote in a New York bar after learning of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Thompson finds a picture of ‘a mind in recoil’ from the realities of what Auden now called ‘a low dishonest decade’. Thompson shows that, in place of the complex social analysis of ‘Spain 1937’, Auden introduces the concept of original sin into ‘September 1, 1939’. Original sin goes hand in hand with a kind of apathy. Where the Auden of ‘Spain 1937’ had believed in the possibility of redeeming humanity through mass political action, the Auden of ‘September 1, 1939’ is, by and large, resigned to the inevitability of the nightmare the world is experiencing. The poem’s few ‘affirmative’ lines, like the famous demand that ‘We must love one another or die’ are not related to any sort of political action. Rather than a ‘people’s army’, Auden imagines a few isolated ‘just men’ showing ‘an affirmative flame’ on the margins of a dark world, and ‘flashing messages’ to one another across the obscurity. If justice is possible, Auden suggests, it is possible only in a sort of ideal world – a Christian Platonist heaven. The real world and its history are not redeemable. In a magisterial passage, Thompson connects the turn in Auden’s thinking to the wider trend he sees in Western culture:

The regression exemplified in his case has been twisted into the pattern of Natopolitan ideology. For this most materialist of civilisations, characterised by conspicuous consumption within and nuclear power strategy without, has secreted a protective ideology so metaphysical in form and so purged of social referents that it must make the Yogi ashamed of sleeping on a bed of nails. The most marvellous thing about the adherence to the doctrine of original sin (in its Manichaean contortions) is that there is nothing to be done about it. The sin is there; and to attempt any large-scale demolition project would be blasphemy. The quietist…has attained through meditation and spiritual exercise to the great Natopolitan truth first stumbled upon by Henry Ford: ‘History is bunk’.

Thompson believes that Auden’s decision to cut ‘We must love one another or die’ and similarly ‘affirmative’ lines out of ‘September 1, 1939’ when he republished the poem in 1950 shows the logic of the Natopolitan ‘drift’ at work. For Thompson, the tone of the later, ‘American’ Auden, and of Natopolitan intellectuals in general, is ‘one of tired disenchantment’:

It is sufficient that the broad prospects of social aspiration be barred, and a notice in Gothic script – NO THROUGH ROAD – be nailed across. It is the tone of a generation that has ‘had’ all the large optimistic abstractions…The one really impassioned aspect of Natopolitan ideology is, of course, anti-communism.

Thompson argues that, for Natopolitans, ‘ritual demolitions of Marxism’ serve ‘necessary theological functions’:

[Communism] would remain a necessity to Natopolitans, as a Satanic Idea, even if the Soviet Union were to vanish from the earth. And the remaining intellectual apologists for Stalinism are as necessary to the functioning of the cultural life of the free world as was the odd atheist, witch, or Saracen within medieval Christendom.

In a section of his essay called ‘Inside Which Whale?’, EP Thompson turns his attention to George Orwell, whom he regards as another architect of Natopolitan ideology. Examining Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’, which became famous for its savage attack on Auden and his circle of left-wing ‘nancy poets’, Thompson finds a tone of ‘wholesale, indiscriminate rejection’. Repeating the argument he made in response to Charles Taylor in Universities and Left Review, Thompson insists that Orwell’s anti-communism and his jibes about left-wing intellectuals ignore the humanism and heroism of writers like Ralph Fox and Christopher Caudwell, both of whom died fighting fascism in Spain.

Thompson is particularly unimpressed by Orwell’s discussion of ‘Spain 1937’; he accuses Orwell of offering up a ‘sheer caricature’ of the meaning of Auden’s poem, and of ‘replacing the examination of objective situations by the imputation of motive’. Thompson claims that Orwell’s caricature of Auden and his cohorts as irresponsible romantic rebels has ‘passed into Natopolitan folklore’, and notes its reprise in Kingsley Amis’ Fabian Society pamphlet.

In Thompson’s view, Auden’s phrase ‘the necessary murder’ represented nothing more than an acceptance that any war, no matter how just, requires killing. Thompson claims a huge influence for ‘Inside the Whale’ when he argues that it was in Orwell’s essay, ‘more than any other’, that the ‘aspirations of a generation were buried’. Orwell’s belief that the fine causes of the ‘30s have turned out to be a ‘swindle’, and his vision of a world where authors substitute the apolitical quietism of Henry Miller for the commitment of ‘Spain 1937’, seem to Thompson like a prophecy of Natopolitanism. He concedes that ‘Inside the Whale’ had little influence during the first half of the forties, when the peoples of Europe were engaged in a new war against fascism:

It was after the war and after Hiroshima, as the four freedoms fell apart and the Cold War commenced, that people turned back to ‘Inside the Whale’.

In a section of ‘Outside the Whale’ he names ‘Pig’s head on a stick’, after a famous image in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, Thompson looks at some of the challenges to Natopolitanism that have emerged in the second half of the '50s. Yoking together the anti-Stalinist risings in Eastern Europe, the New Left, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he argues that:

It was the cockcrow of the Hungarian rising – by denying the horror of 1984[sic] – lifted the spell of impotence. It was the threat of annihilation that made the quietists rebel.

Like the hero of Lord of the Flies, Thompson’s readers have to face up to the horror, not recoil like Natopolitans. ‘The Beast is real’, Thompson tells us, ‘but its reality exists within our conformity and fear’.

Thompson’s Parable

It is worth noting what ‘Outside the Whale’ is not. Though the essay runs to more than thirty pages, it eschews a systematic survey of the 1930s intelligentsia, and avoids a careful analysis of the defeat of the Republican cause in Spain. ‘Outside the Whale’ is the work of a man fascinated by history, but it is not a piece of historical scholarship, like the monumental pre-history of the English working class which Thompson began to write in 1959. ‘Outside the Whale’ does not even include footnotes, let alone a bibliography.

Thompson also eschews the sort of impressionistic, semi-autobiographical account of the 1930s and ‘40s that was becoming popular by the late ‘50s. Although he had vivid memories of the crises of the late ‘30s and witnessed the war ‘unleashed by the failure of Spain’ at first hand, Thompson avoids personal reminiscence. ‘Outside the Whale’ cannot even be considered a political polemic, if the term is understood reasonably precisely. Thompson does not connect his criticisms of WH Auden and George Orwell to any concrete political positions and arguments, though he does supply such things in other places, like the two other texts he contributed to Out of Apathy. ‘Outside the Whale’ has many of the qualities of a parable, and like all parables it ends with a moral lesson.

In Thompson’s eyes, Auden and Orwell passed the ‘test’ of Spain, but not the ‘test’ of Stalinism. Their failure was moral, as much as intellectual – that is to say, it was not their initial analysis of Stalinism that was flawed, but their decision to ‘give up’ in the face of ‘disenchantment’. Their failure does not, of course, invalidate their actions in 1937, or the integrity and quality of works like ‘Spain’ and Homage to Catalonia. On the contrary, their commitment and its literary legacy ought to be an inspiration to the New Left two decades later.

The strongly moral flavour of Thompson’s explanation for Auden’s and Orwell’s trajectory is well-suited to his prupose, because it makes ‘teleological’ readings of their committed work difficult. The sad drift into Natopolitanism was caused not by some deep-rooted error in their thoughts and words, but by an isolated failure of nerve – the sort of ‘default’ in the face of unpleasant reality that knocked Wordsworth off course more than a century earlier. Neither the Natopolitan intellectuals nor the Young Turks of the New Left can draw a line between ‘Spain 1937’ and 'The Age of Anxiety', or Homage to Catalonia and Nineteen Eighty-four.

The style of ‘Outside the Whale’ suits Thompson’s intentions well. Thompson’s prose echoes Orwell’s, even when it criticises Orwell. Thompson builds Auden’s vocabulary into his text by quoting long stretches of ‘Spain 1937’ and also dropping catchphrases from the poem into his sentences. Thompson’s intense sympathy with the committed work of Orwell and Auden makes his style much more than a pastiche. ‘Outside the Whale’ can be considered a sort of ‘polemic-homage’: a text that pays tribute to its subjects, even as it delimits their achievements and explains their failings. The tone of ‘Outside the Whale’ also owes a debt to Orwell, as Christopher Norris notes:

[In ‘Outside the Whale’] we have what often reads like a latter-day Orwellian riposte, albeit on a level of argument more intricate and sustained than anything in Orwell…Thompson takes over some of the plain-speaking, common-sense, empirical ‘line’, even while deploring what it led to in Orwell’s case…There is the air of a knock-down common-sense argument, an exasperated appeal to what anyone must recognise unless they are in the grip of some half-baked ‘theory’ or other…

The Influence of Jarrell

Despite its idiosyncratic moralism, ‘Outside the Whale’ draws carefully on the literary-critical and academic literatures on Orwell and Auden. Thompson’s account of Auden’s career is indebted to the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell’s pioneering essay ‘Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry’. Jarrell accepted Auden’s own view that his move to America represented a fundamental ‘break’ in his work, but lamented the consequences of this break. Jarrell identified several stages in the development, or rather degeneration, of Auden’s work, arguing that the retreat from political commitment ushered in a period of quietism, and that, as Auden became more enamoured with Christianity, this quietism evolved into an acquiescence with the status quo of Anglo-American society.

Like Thompson, Jarrell criticises Auden’s physical and emotional distance from the war against fascism that took up the first half of the 1940s. In ‘From Freud to Paul’, his second essay on Auden, Jarrell responded angrily to some jibes at ‘prudent progressive values’ that he found in a book review Auden wrote during the war:

In the year 1944, prudent, progressive, scientific ‘bores and scoundrels’ were the enemies with whom Auden found it necessary to struggle. Were they your enemies, reader? They were not mine.

It is difficult to know whether Thompson read Jarrell’s essays on Auden for himself, or absorbed their arguments via the many critics and academics Jarrell influenced. John Boyle has described the impact of Jarrell’s view of Auden:

Jarrell’s may be the most influential criticism ever written about Auden. Its idea of a three-step development, from personal, to social, then back to personal (religious) concerns, has furnished a framework that both Auden’s defenders and detractors have been obliged to accept.

Revising Auden

‘Outside the Whale’s’ discussion of the ‘act of mutilation’ against ‘Spain 1937’, and the less dramatic changes to ‘September the 1st, 1939’, probably owes a debt to The Making of the Auden Canon, a book published by AW Beach in 1957. Beach was the first scholar to trace the numerous changes that Auden had made to his poems in the 1940s and ‘50s. Like Thompson, Beach believed that these revisions reduced the integrity of Auden’s work. In a perceptive review of Beach’s book for the journal Essays in Criticism, AE Rodway and FW Cook seized upon the later Auden’s tendency to capitalise his favourite abstract noun:

In [Auden’s] early verse, although the abstraction ‘love’ was primarily concerned with concrete action, was nevertheless also invested with peculiar mystical power…[it] appeared to reside at the points where the poet’s own versions of Marx’s and Freud’s theories conjoined in his imagination…this earlier use of ‘love’ lent itself, by capitalisation…to easy transformation into a ‘Love’ implying ‘God is Love’.

In ‘Outside the Whale’, Thompson makes a similar point:

It was also futile [for the quietist Auden] to affirm ‘love’ in its active social connotations; hence that retreat, in Auden’s…verse, into an abstract capitalised ‘Love’, undefined by any context of human obligation. And in this, once again, Auden exemplifies a more general pattern of regression.

Thompson’s interest in the successive revisions that Auden made to ‘Spain 1937’ may have been piqued by his study of William Blake’s poem ‘London’. In a 1958 issue of New Reasoner, Thompson published an article called “The Making of ‘London’” under the pseudonym William Jessup. Using a few of the plentiful manuscripts Blake left to posterity, Thompson’s article traces the evolution of ‘London’ through a series of rough drafts. Noting changes like the substitution of the famous line ‘I wander through each charter’d street’ for ‘I wander through each dirty street’, Thompson argues that Blake carefully constructed ‘London’ as ‘a poem with a clearly conceived, developing emotional logic’ which operated within ‘a central theme of [the hypocrisies of] bourgeois morality’.

It is hard not to believe that the multiple versions of ‘London’ were not on Thompson’s mind when he wrote about the revisions Auden made to ‘Spain 1937’. Of course, Thompson thought that Blake’s revisions had a very different purpose to Auden’s ‘mutilation’ of his greatest poem.

Orwell’s shadow

‘Outside the Whale’ includes a nod to Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society, which had ruffled Natopolitan feathers as soon as it appeared in 1958. Thompson had good reason to be grateful to Williams: his account of the career of George Orwell owes much to the sixth chapter of Culture and Society. John Rodden has carefully reconstructed Williams’ long and torturous relationship with Orwell’s work, and his observation that ‘Williams struggled…to cast himself as Orwell’s successor and to withdraw from Orwell’s shadow’ could easily be applied to ‘Outside the Whale’. By praising Orwell’s sacrifices in Spain and recognising the essential correctness of his anti-Stalinism, yet rejecting the ‘disenchantment’ and ‘tone of wholesale rejection’ in ‘Inside the Whale’ and later works like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Thompson tried simultaneously to praise Orwell and to put Orwell in his place.

As Rodden notes, though, Thompson’s criticisms of Orwell are more severe than Williams’, and his tone is a good deal harsher. Rodden attributes these differences to the fact that Thompson occupied a position to the left of Williams in the late 1950s, and favoured a more activist programme for the New Left than Williams, whose over-riding interest in scholarship drew him towards Orwell’s pioneering studies of popular culture, and perhaps made him less conscious of the virulent anti-communism of some of Orwell’s more straightforwardly political work.

There are two other likely reasons for the severe treatment of Orwell in ‘Outside the Whale’. The first is Thompson’s long-time membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain – a commitment that was only three years in the past when ‘Outside the Whale’ was written. The party had spent a lot of time and energy attacking Orwell in the first half of the 1950s, and some of its hostility may have remained with Thompson after 1956.

Thompson may also have received a firsthand, and very unsympathetic, account of Orwell the man, courtesy of the young poet David Holbrook, who lived for several weeks with the ailing anti-communist in the summer of 1946, when the first draft of Nineteenth Eighty-Four was taking shape. As members of the Communist Party’s writers’ group in the years immediately after World War Two, Thompson and Holbrook met regularly to discuss literature and politics. In 1946 they appear to have worked closely together to topple Edgell Rickword from the editorship of Our Time, a literary journal linked to the party (we will discuss Thompson’s involvement with Our Time in greater detail in chapter eleven). In his biography of Orwell, George Bowker describes Holbrook’s visit to the Jura Island, where his girlfriend had been working as Orwell’s housekeeper:

Holbrook, twenty-three and a member of the Communist Party, was just out of the army, and finishing an English degree at Downing College, Cambridge. He was anxious to meet the controversial author of The Road to Wigan Pier and Animal Farm, and was quite expecting to enjoy long conversations with him about literature and politics. He was to be disappointed. After struggling with his luggage over the last eight miles of track [to Orwell’s home], menaced by rutting deer, he was greeted by the sight of Orwell shooting a duck with a shotgun. Inside the house the mood was somber, the conversation gloomy and the atmosphere tense. He thought that having been told he was a Communist, Orwell suspected he had come to spy on him…[Orwell] feared something even worse…After all, Trotsky had been eliminated by a Communist agent who had insinuated himself into his household…Holbrook had walked on to the set of a Kafkaesque dream being played out in Orwell’s own mind.

Holbrook was not afraid to speak and write about his encounter with Orwell; he even wrote a few chapters of an abortive novel called Burrows based on the episode. It is easy to imagine him telling Thompson and his other colleagues in the party writers’ group about how unpleasant he found the author of Homage to Catalonia. Thompson may even have read Burrows: writers’ group members often shared work in progress with each other.

A chip off the old block

‘Outside the Whale’ is related to Thompson’s three contributions to the debate on commitment in Universities and Left Review. Many points made by the earlier texts are either recycled or refined in ‘Outside the Whale’. Thompson’s lament in ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals – a reply’ about the absence of intellectuals from the World Peace Conference in 1955 is clearly a precursor of the complaint in ‘Outside the Whale’ about the isolation of peace campaigner Bertrand Russell during the general election of the same year. ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals – a reply’, ‘Politics and Commitment’, and ‘Outside the Whale’ all end on an upbeat note, with invocations of the risings against Stalinism in Eastern Europe and of the success of the CND in Britain.

Thompson’s complaint about the indifference of the Universities and Left Review circle to history is echoed ‘Outside the Whale’s’ claim that ‘history is bunk’ for the Natopolitan intellectuals. Sometimes in ‘Outside the Whale’ Thompson simply recycles an image or turn of phrase from his University and Left Review articles.

Auden’s road to Spain

It is time for us to assess some of the main arguments in ‘Outside the Whale’. How correct were Thompson’s assessments of the political and literary trajectories of Auden and Orwell, and how fair are his claims about the influence the two men exerted on the postwar world?

We should begin by noting that Thompson simplifies the origins and themes of the vast amount of writing that Auden did before ‘Spain 1937’. Auden came from a wealthy northern family, attended Oxford, where he did badly despite his obvious talents, and became, at the beginning of the 1930s, a master in a second-rate British public school. Auden’s very early work sometimes has an intense, joyful lyricism, but it is also marked by a feeling of malaise. A sense of threat encroaches on the reveries of the young bohemian and his friends in poems like ‘A Summer Night’:

Soon, soon, through the dykes of content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
And, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.

There is a hankering, in some of the poems Auden and his friends wrote in the early thirties, for a messianic figure, like the ‘English Lenin’ that the editors of the landmark New Country poetry anthology called for in 1933. In his 1932 book The Orators, Auden appears to flirt with the idea that a strong, authoritarian figure can deliver the English people from their unhappiness, and from the threat of economic ruin and war. Looking back on The Orators from the safety of old age, Auden remarked that it seemed to have been written by a young man who was ‘talented but near the border of sanity’, someone ‘who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi’. At times, the young Auden seems to see the working class as a potential source of salvation, but he is never unequivocal.

Auden’s experiences in Spain remain somewhat mysterious. Auden had talked for a time of going to Spain as a soldier, but eventually signed on with a group of ambulance drivers. Perhaps because of a perception of political unreliability or his poor driving skills, Auden was never employed as a driver by the Republican government. He ended up drifting around Spain for several months, visiting Barcelona, which was in the grip of a power struggle between the Communist Party and its anti-Stalinist enemies, and settling for a few weeks in Valenica, the makeshift Republican capital.

Auden wrote a short, superficial article called ‘Impressions of Valencia’ and made a few propaganda broadcasts there, but these were in English, and only reached areas that were already under anti-fascist control. According to some reports, Auden spent most of his time in Valencia playing table tennis and drinking. He ended up returning home early and holing up in the Lake District, where he wrote ‘Spain 1937’ and a short but enthusiastic review of Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality. ‘Spain 1937’ was published as a pamphlet by Faber and Faber in July 1937; all profits from sales went to Medical Aid for Spain. The poem quickly sold out its first print run of three thousand copies, and was read aloud at pro-Republican public meetings throughout Britain.

After Spain

Auden seldom commented on his experiences in Spain, but he did once say that seeing the hundreds of churches revolutionary forces had burned in Barcelona upset him, and made him aware of his residual sympathy for religion. In 1938 Auden was certainly showing an increased interest in Christianity, a doctrine that had not greatly interested him since he was a child. Auden was particularly affected by a meeting with Vaughan Williams, a novelist and lay Anglican who belonged to the same social circle as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. When he met Williams for the first time in July 1937, Auden found that ‘for the first time’ he felt himself to be ‘in the presence of personal sanctity’.

But 1938 is also the year Auden co-wrote the play On the Frontier with Christopher Isherwood. The play has usually been judged aesthetically unsuccessful, but it appears, with its frequent use of Marxist jargon and left-wing slogans, to be one of Auden’s most politically committed works. Auden’s emigration to the United States in May 1939 has often been taken to mark the end of any residual loyalty he had to the cause of the left. Shortly after arriving in New York, Auden wrote his famous elegy for WB Yeats, which included the line ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. In a little-known mock-trial of Yeats written in prose at about the same time as the elegy, Auden dismissed the idea of a politically committed and efficacious poetry at greater length:

[A]rt is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question of whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal…the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.

‘September 1, 1939’ is one of Auden’s most famous poems, and its characterisation of the 1930s as a ‘low, dishonest decade’ can reasonably be read as a repudiation of the political commitment ‘Spain 1937’ had seemed to offer. ‘September 1, 1939’ did not appear to distinguish between the forces and ideas – socialism and the trade unions, fascism and its streetfighting gangs, the bourgeoisie and its press barons - that contested one another to determine the course of the 1930s: all of them, it seemed, were ‘low’ and ‘dishonest’. Yet ‘September 1, 1939’ was still filled with revulsion at the latest war fascism has started, and it included a few memorably urgent lines like ‘We must love one another or die’.

Auden’s odd influences

‘Outside the Whale’ appears to proceed under the assumption that the Popular Front which Auden supported, for a few months in 1937 at least, was built around a core of beliefs that united Communists, social democrats, liberals, left-wing Christians, and even some conservative anti-fascists. The Communist Party of Great Britain made great efforts to elaborate on the content of this ideological core – Edgell Rickword and Jack Lindsay’s A Handbook of Freedom, a book that deeply influenced Thompson, was one of the more notable attempts in this direction.

It is arguable, though, whether support for the politics of the Popular Front, and for organisations like Aid for Spain and the government in Valencia, really implied a coherent set of beliefs, beyond a basic desire to defeat fascism. Thompson’s overestimation of Auden’s commitment to the left and of the ideological coherence of the Popular Front strategy perhaps led him to disregard the influence that ideas which had nothing to do with the left exerted on ‘Spain 1937’ and other ‘committed’ Auden poems. Certainly, Thompson ignores signs of the influence that Freud, Jung, and diffusionist school of anthropological and historical thought popular in the 1930s had on Auden’s most controversial poem.

The first section of ‘Spain 1937’, which Thompson treats as a sort of verse essay in the historical materialist view of history, appears to have been strongly influenced by the peculiar writings of the then-popular WJ Perry. A heliocentrist as well as a diffusionist, Perry believed that civilisation had developed only once, in ancient Egypt, then spread around the world. In tomes like The Children of the Sun: a Study of the Egyptian Settlement of the Pacific, Perry ingeniously discovered ‘evidence’ for his theses. John Fuller has suggested that Perry’s shadow hangs over the opening section of ‘Spain 1937’. The poem’s opening stanza certainly seems to nod in Perry’s direction:

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade routes; the diffusion
Of the counting frame and the cromlech…

Another key feature of ‘Spain’, the alternating refrains ‘Yesterday’, ‘To-morrow’, and ‘To-day’ may have been prompted, in part at least, by a passage in Carl Jung’s book Modern Man in Search of Soul. Auden, who was fascinated by the new science of psychiatry, had certainly read Jung’s book by 1937. One of Jung’s passages may have suggested to Auden the structure of his poem:

‘Today’ stands between ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, and forms a link between past and future; it has no other meaning. The present represents a process of transition, and that man may account himself modern who is conscious of it in that name.

It may well be true that Auden wanted ‘Spain’ to be a progressive poem loyal to the politics of the Popular Front and committed to the defeat of fascism. Auden certainly wanted his poem to be used for political purposes, and the Aid for Spain movement made good use of it in the second half of 1937. It may nevertheless be true that Auden understood the Popular Front very differently from the Communist Party, and that he fashioned his poem out of elements that had little to do with the politics of the left, as well as more familiar materials.

The influence of Caudwell

One of the two main sources of Marxist influence on ‘Spain 1937’ was Christopher Caudwell’s book Illusion and Reality, which Auden reviewed at about the time he was composing his poem. Auden was enthusiastic about Caudwell’s hurriedly-written ‘study of the sources of poetry’, despite the fact that its final chapter included a critical account of his own work. Caudwell, who was killed in Spain at the beginning of 1937, months before Illusion and Reality was published, found Auden’s political commitment disappointingly incomplete. Caudwell was particularly unimpressed by the vision of the future that appeared in the supposedly socialist poems of Auden and his friends Spender and Day-Lewis:

They know ‘something’ is going to come after the giant firework display of the Revolution, but they do not feel with the clarity of the artist the specific beauty of this new concrete living…They must put ‘something’ there in the future, and they tend to put their own vague aspirations for bourgeois freedom and bourgeois equality.

Illusion and Reality may be a badly flawed book, but this passage shows a fine appreciation of the peculiar situation faced by Auden and other radicalised English liberals in the 1930s. Caudwell is critiquing what we called in chapter one the ‘Trojan horse’ view of the Communist Party – that is, the view that the party could assimilate a layer of bourgeois intellectuals, and help to preserve the best features of bourgeois high culture amidst the collapse of Western capitalist civilisation. As a Communist Party member who had made a sustained effort to escape his middle class origins and sensibility, Caudwell was unimpressed with ‘Trojan horse’ intellectuals who saw socialist revolution ‘as a path to bourgeois heaven’.
Caudwell’s criticisms of Auden’s vision of the future are extraordinarily applicable to ‘Spain 1937’. Consider, for instance, these lines from the fourth ‘movement’ of the poem:

To-morrow, perhaps, the future: the research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love;
The photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty’s masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and musician.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings…

Discussing the sections of the poem that used the refrain ‘To-morrow’, Edward Mendelson points out that they had:

[L]ess to do with the class struggle than with…visionary hopes to build Jerusalem in England’s green and promised land…The desired future in ‘Spain’ is a liberal one of freedom of expression and movement.

As Robert Sullivan, one of the first scholars to realise the link between Illusion and Reality and ‘Spain 1937’, has noted, Auden’s vision of the post-revolutionary future seems designed to confirm Caudwell’s criticisms. It is tempting to believe that, holed up in the Lake District writing ‘Spain 1937’ and reading Illusion and Reality, Auden decided to accept Caudwell’s criticisms of his political perspective and practice as a poet, without feeling the need to change either.

EP Thompson does not remark upon the traces of Illusion and Reality which can be found in ‘Spain 1937’. It is doubtful whether Caudwell, with his faith in the ‘science’ of dialectical materialism and his contempt for liberal and religious thought, would have found Lindsay and Rickword’s A Handbook of Freedom very edifying. Thompson was always sympathetic towards Caudwell, and wrote a fine appreciation of him for the 1977 Socialist Register, but he did not esteem Illusion and Reality, perhaps because it draws such a firm line between ‘genuine’ Marxism, on the one hand, and the ‘bourgeois’ ideas of Auden and his peers, on the other.

The shadow of Stalinism

Thompson is also reticent about the other main ‘Marxist’ influence on Auden’s poem: the Stalinism of Moscow and its representatives in Spain. In ‘Outside the Whale’ and his other writings that touch on Spain, Thompson tends to fold the Communist Party of Spain into Spain’s anti-fascist forces in general; by doing so, he elides the distinctions between the party and the rest of the Republican government, and between the party and its left-wing foes in Catalonia and Aragon.

Thompson never acknowledges the extent of the split within the anti-fascist camp over strategy. In Catalonia and Aragon, anarchists and the anti-Stalinist Party of Marxist Unification had moved from resistance against the fascist military rebellion to an offensive against sectors of society that supported Franco. They occupied factories and farms, driving capitalists and big landowners away, and burnt thousands of churches to punish the church for supporting fascism. The workers and peasants of Catalonia and Aragon attempted to run the occupied farms and factories, as well as their militia, along democratic and socialist lines. In other parts of the country more moderate groups were in control of the anti-Franco struggle, and industry and farms were not usually occupied.

By contrast, the Communist Party of Spain insisted that the building of socialism in Spain could only follow the defeat of Franco – war and social transformation were two distinct ‘stages’ of the revolution. Alliances with the local bourgeoisie, and international bourgeois powers like Britain and France, had to be built, and the confiscation of capitalist property would hardly help this. The Communist Party also wished to centralise the war effort, by combining all militia into one tight, hierarchical army, and focusing resources on the defence of Madrid, so that the Republican government could return from its ‘exile’ in Valencia. For their part, the anarchists and anti-Moscow Marxists saw their power base of Barcelona as the heart of the revolution, and for some time refused to place their militia under the control of the official government of Spain, or tie them up in battles to defend Madrid.

Auden gave his broadcasts from Valencia at the behest of the government there, and the report he wrote from the city for the New Statesman faithfully reproduced the perspective of the Communist Party of Spain. In ‘Spain 1937’ the influence of the party line can perhaps also be detected. The poem’s distinction between ‘To-day’ and ‘To-morrow’ recalls the argument for a ‘two-stage’ revolution, and the line ‘Madrid is the heart’ recalls the insistence of the Kremlin’s local allies on the predominance of that city’s needs over the needs of other theatres of the revolution.

Simplifying Auden

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that EP Thompson simplifies Auden’s pre-Spain career, Auden’s response to Spain, and the importance of this response to his subsequent political and literary trajectory. Auden’s career in the thirties was not a slow rise to a zenith of political commitment and literary achievement, followed by a sharp falling away. The journey to Spain was not some simplistic exercise in solidarity, marred by the ugly experience of Stalinism, and the poem arising from that journey was not a simple expression of all that was pure in the struggle against Franco. The period between ‘Spain 1937’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ does not resolve into a simple narrative of ‘disenchantment’ and political and moral ‘default’.

There is no doubt that Auden was, for at least a few months in 1937, a committed supporter of Popular Front politics and the Republican government, but his commitment had tangled roots, and it found expression in a poem as complex as it is beautiful. ‘Spain 1937’ is not a straightforward battle hymn for the Republic, but an unstable assemblage of many different ideological elements – ‘bourgeois’ utopian fantasy, Jungian gobbledygook, eccentric diffusionist theory-mongering, and Stalinist propaganda can all be located in the poem, alongside the moral outrage and political commitment that Thompson recognizes, and so eloquently defends from the enormous condescension of posterity’. Ultimately, Thompson’s reading of ‘Spain 1937’ is an exercise in simplification.

‘The necessary murder’?

EP Thompson may have misjudged some aspects of ‘Spain 1937’, but he was right to defend the poem from the criticisms George Orwell made in ‘Inside the Whale’. To concede that Stalinist ideology and rhetoric cast a shadow over ‘Spain 1937’ is not to agree with Orwell’s argument that parts of ‘Spain 1937’, and in particular the famous line about ‘the necessary murder’, were no more than an apology for Stalinism. It is fairer to say that Stalinist rhetoric was simply one of many elements that went into the forging of a very complex and ambiguous poem. Since it has played such an important role in readings of ‘Spain 1937’, let us quote Orwell’s criticism at length:

Nearly all the dominant writers of the ‘thirties belonged to the soft-boiled emancipated middle class and were too young to have effective memories of the Great War. To people of that kind such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial, etc., etc. are too remote to be terrifying. Look, for instance, at this extract from Mr Auden’s poem ‘Spain’…

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

The second stanza is intended as a sort of thumbnail sketch of a day in the life of a ‘good party man’. In the morning a couple of political murders, a ten-minutes’ interlude to stifle ‘bourgeois’ remorse, and then a hurried luncheon and busy afternoon and evening chalking walls and distributing leaflets. All very edifying. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word…Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

Auden’s decision to revise the controversial line when he collected ‘Spain 1937’ in his 1940 volume Another Time, and his eventual repudiation of ‘Spain 1937’ as a whole, should not be taken as an admission of Orwell’s charges. Another Time was published a week before Inside the Whale, whose title essay had not appeared in any periodical. Even before Orwell’s original attack on ‘Spain 1937’ had appeared in Adelphi at the end of 1938, Auden had begun to develop his own criticism of the poem. In November 1937, a mere four months after the publication of ‘Spain 1937’, Auden gave a public lecture called ‘The Craft of Poetry’, during which he wondered whether it was possible to write about ‘killing’ without being ‘a killer’. Auden’s talk also included the claim that ‘poetry could never be taken quite seriously’ – a statement that foreshadows the famous line ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ in the elegy for Yeats.

As we have seen, doubts about the efficacy and morality of mixing politics with poetry had all but overwhelmed Auden by the time he came to write ‘September the 1st, 1939’. He had arrived at his own, distinctive critique of ‘Spain 1937’ and his other ‘committed’ poems. What he objected to, in ‘Spain 1937’ and similar poems, were the notion that poetry could be used as propaganda, and the idea that morality was connected to the vicissitudes of political conflict.[4]

Auden’s failure to reply publically to Orwell’s attacks was a symptom of his disengagement from the commitment of ‘Spain 1937’, but it was not an implicit admission of Orwell’s charges. In a letter he wrote in 1963, about the time he decided never to republish ‘Spain 1937’, Auden insisted that he still did not accept Orwell’s argument about the poem’s most famous line:

I was not excusing totalitarian crimes…If there is such a thing as a just war, then murder can be necessary for the sake of justice.

Auden’s decision in 1940 to replace ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’ to ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder’ does not dilute this point. Auden’s line certainly cannot be taken as support for the execution of left-wing dissidents away from the frontlines by Stalin’s agents in Spain. Arguably, Auden’s decision to call the killing of one soldier by another ‘murder’ reflects an acute awareness of the horrors of war, rather than any sort of indifference to them. Thompson recognised this, and so did John Maynard Keynes, when he said in 1937 that Auden ‘speaks for many chivalrous hearts’. In a 1941 essay on pacifism, the great literary critic William Empson made a similar point, arguing that the reference in ‘Spain 1937’ to ‘the necessary murder’ is actually the mark of ‘a conscience sensitive about war rather than brutalised’.

An aside on Auden’s art

Like many commentators on ‘Spain’, Thompson tends to ignore the poem’s style and imagery, and instead focus discussion on the ideas embedded in the poem. This is a pity, because a large part of the poem’s appeal rests on Auden’s distinctive handling of rhythm and image.

Auden is often seen as a relatively conservative poet, a man who retreated from the extreme innovations of first generation modernists like Ezra Pound and TS Eliot by writing relatively clear poems in traditional forms like the ballad and the sonnet. It is a mistake, though, to think that Auden was a conservative poet, especially in the nineteen-thirties. Throughout that decade, Auden took the innovations of modernism and fused them with the best aspects of traditional English poetry, to create poems that are at once strange and familiar.

‘Spain 1937’ shows the subtlety and power of Auden’s idiosyncratic adaption of modernism. The poem is carefully arranged into twenty-six four-line stanzas, each of which has three long lines and one short line. The long lines tend to consist of six or seven loosely iambic feet; the indented short line, which is always the third line of each stanza, is about half their length. The juxtaposition of long and short lines creates a distinctive rhythm: the poem seems to surge forward, only to periodically recede.

It is not only the rhythm of ‘Spain 1937’ which is subtly varied. Auden repeatedly shifts the focus of his poem in space and time, moving back and forwards across continents and aeons, before settling on Spain and the fateful year of 1937. Modernist painters like Picasso and Braque had broken the old rules of perspective, and given viewers multiple points of entry into their canvases. In a similar way, modernist poets like Ezra Pound had broken with old habits of narrative and argument, preferring to juxtapose fragments. Pound’s Cantos takes place in an ‘eternal present’, where once-distant worlds collide:

What have you done, Odysseus,
We know what you have done…
And that Guillame sold out his ground rents
(Seventh of Pointes, Ninth of Aquitain).
‘Tant las fotei com auzirets
‘Cen e quatre vingt et veitz veitz…’
The stone is alive in my hand, the crops
Will be thick in my death-year…

‘Spain 1937’ shares Pound’s liberation from linear narrative, even though Auden’s lines and stanzas are much more conventionally paced and arranged than those of the Cantos.

Auden’s debt to modernism is also reflected in the imagery of ‘Spain 1937’. Auden often chooses images use sudden jumps of perspective to modify the meaning they are supposed to illustrate. When Auden evokes the journeys of International Brigaders to Spain, for instance, he unexpectedly uses imagery from the natural world:

Many have heard it and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.
They clung like burrs to the long expresses…
They floated over the oceans…

By linking them to the processes of the natural world, Auden’s images ‘distance’ the young men and women who went to Spain to fight fascism. The urgency of other parts of the poem is undermined, or balanced, as the dramatic response to the crisis of Spain in 1937 is suddenly seen in a sort of ‘longshot’. The shifting rhythms and complex images of ‘Spain 1937’ reinforce the complexity and ambiguity of the poem, and help to ensure its continuing appeal to lovers of poetry.

Misjudging Orwell

EP Thompson’s treatment of George Orwell is another problematic part of ‘Outside the Whale’. It is not unreasonable to contrast the hope Orwell vested in the Spanish revolution with the pessimism of ‘Inside the Whale’. But Orwell’s career as a writer and political thinker lasted two decades, and featured an extraordinary number of twists and turns. By the time that ‘Inside the Whale’ had been collected in the book of the same name in 1940 Orwell had well and truly ‘recovered’ from his bout of quietism.

Indeed, it is doubtful whether the pessimism of ‘Inside the Whale’ really reflected his politics at any point in the late ‘30s. Certainly, Orwell became more, rather than less politically committed after returning from Spain. While he was still recovering from his wounds he joined the Independent Labour Party: this was an important decision, because he had previously believed that writers should not belong to political organisations, even if they supported those organisations’ policies. In an article called ‘Why I Join the ILP’, Orwell insisted that a ‘new age’ of ‘rubber truncheons and concentration camps’ meant that writers had to be less distant from politics than they might prefer.

In 1938 and 1939 Orwell wrote often about the oncoming World War, arguing that British workers should refuse to fight in such a conflict. EP Thompson appears to associate this argument with the mood of ‘Inside the Whale’, but it had more to do with the ‘revolutionary defeatism’ preached by the Trotskyist left wing of the Independent Labour Party than with the despair. ‘Revolutionary defeatism’ was based upon an overoptimistic evaluation of the prospects for revolution, not upon any sort of despair.

We have seen that Thompson makes Orwell into an example of those ‘turned’ to arch-quietism by a late thirties disillusionment with Stalinism, but the Orwell of the 1940s developed a fierce faith in a peculiarly English socialism. The classic expression of Orwell’s alternative to Stalinism is The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, a little book published in 1941. The Lion and the Unicorn argued that the survival and advancement of the culture of the first capitalist country depended on its “going socialist”. Orwell claimed that Britain could only compete with ‘totalitarian’ societies like Germany and the Soviet Union by planning its economic and social development, and by eliminating the irrationalities of class and superstition.

Neither a quietist nor a Colonel Blimp, Orwell saw the war as a struggle for the transformation of British society as well as the defeat of fascism, and repeatedly tried to enlist in the army. Eventually he became active in the Home Guard, an institution which he promoted, in a series of articles and letters, as a potential people’s revolutionary militia. Like Thompson himself, then, Orwell held to what Raymond Williams described as ‘the notion…that British society could be transformed through the conduct of the war’. Looking back nearly four decades later, Williams thought that Orwell and others like him had made a mistake:

There was a crucial slippage from [their] position to social patriotism, in the sense that connects with a later labourism and chauvinism. Many people in my generation underwent that slippage.

Orwell’s belief that socialism could grow out of the war effort may have been mistaken, but it was far from the nihilistic quietism which Thompson charges him with, on the basis of a few quotes from ‘Inside the Whale’.

How disillusioned?

We have seen that in ‘Outside the Whale’ EP Thompson argues that the alleged drift of the British intelligentsia towards “quietism” and “Natopolitanism” has as its cause the disillusionment of a group of British intellectuals with socialism, aka Stalinism, at the end of the 1930s. Thompson is careful to say that his disillusioned group is an influential minority, not a majority, but his claim nevertheless exceeds the bounds of credibility.

To be sure, some British intellectuals became disillusioned with Stalin, the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party of Great Britain as a result of the debacle in Spain, the Moscow Trials, and the Russo-German Pact. It must be noted, though, that the intellectuals who became disillusioned at the end of the 30s were a tiny and not-very-influential group whose loss was more than made up for by the pro-Soviet sentiment that swept through every section of British society after the entry of the Soviet Union into World War Two in 1941. In his history of the Communist Party, Henry Pelling tackles head on the question of the attitude of intellectuals to the dark events of the late thirties:

It might perhaps be assumed that the intellectuals would be the first to sense the grim reality of the Moscow trials, and the readiest to declare their abhorrence...[but] [t]hey took at face value what they were told and saw on their carefully-shepherded tours of the USSR, or what they read in Russia Today...they really believed that the healthy athletes whose photographs appeared in the Daily Worker were typical of the Russian population as a whole...the number of intellectuals in the party continued to increase, and by August 1939 they must have been out of all proportion to their strength in the country as a whole.

Pelling’s argument can only be supported by the facts of the histories of the various campaigns that were launched in the late 30s to expose Stalin’s reign of terror and defend Trotsky from the hate campaign the Kremlin was waging against him. In the United States similar campaigns had some success, and attracted considerable support from heavyweight intellectuals like John Dewey, but in Britain they struggled to engage many left-wing intellectuals, or indeed workers.

In his Sociology of British Communism, Frank Newton argues that the period from 1934 to 1944 was exceptional in the history of the Communist Party, in the sense that in these years the party was able to attract a large number of intellectuals to its ranks. Newton claims that before the mid-fifties crises “quite a high proportion of British communists were intellectuals” . The suggestion is that the party retained many of the intellectuals it recruited in the thirties. Figures produced by Newton show that gross membership in the party increased in the years between 1938 to 1942 from 15, 500 to 56,000 . Few of those who were disillusioned by Stalinism in the late 1930s repudiated left-wing politics altogether.

A Burden Too Heavy?

There are related problems with some the causal relationships Thompson argues for in ‘Outside the Whale’. Thompson claims that ‘an influential minority’ of intellectuals moved from radicalism to quietism between 1938 and 1940, fashioning an ideology that a much wider section of the general population adopted later, after the Cold War put paid to the hope that the ‘second great anti-fascist struggle’ would lead to a transformed world.

But Thompson does not specify the mechanisms by which his small group of disillusioned socialist intellectuals supposedly influenced the wider intelligentsia, and the population at large. Thompson’s argued that Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’ played a particularly important role in the formation of Natopolitanism:

It was in this essay, more than any other, that the aspirations of a generation were buried; not only was a political movement, which embodied much that was honourable buried, but so was the notion of disinterested dedication to a political cause. Orwell, by indicting the cause as a swindle and by ridiculing the motives of those who supported it, unbent the very ‘springs of action’. He sowed within the disenchanted generation the seeds of a profound self-distrust. Socialist idealism was not only disconnected, it was also explained away, as the fruit of middle class guilt, frustration, or ennui.

If Thompson does not merely claim a parallel between ‘Inside the Whale’ and attitudes that became popular after the war: he argues that Orwell’s essay caused these attitudes in a quite direct way. It’s hard to see how his argument does not put too much emphasis on the influence of ideas in the course of modern British history. Thompson’s over-estimation of the influence of Orwell on the 1940s is matched, at the end of ‘Outside the Whale’, by an over-estimation of the potential influence of New Left intellectuals on the course of the future. According to Thompson, the young intellectuals radicalised by the dramas of 1956 and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament can spark revolutionary change in the West. Stefan Collini sums up the problem when he writes that Thompson:

[P]laces a surprisingly heavy burden on the shoulders of that elusive species, the British intellectual, since nothing less than the throwing off of both the Soviet and the American yokes seems to depend on their rebellion.

In a 1969 article called ‘George Orwell: International Socialist?’, Peter Sedgwick makes a similar point, complaining that Thompson attaches ‘extraordinary importance’ to ‘Inside the Whale’, when the text was far from being Orwell’s most influential, even in 1940.

The Good War?

Thompson suggests that his quietist intellectuals would have escaped their Natopolitan fate had they marched in tune with the “commuters and housekeepers” into the “seven fronts of fire” known as World War Two. In fact, some of the intellectuals who did join in the war effort viewed the enterprise as something less than heroic. Thompson castigates the Auden of the end of the 1930s and the ‘40s for his negativity, but poems like ‘September the 1st, 1939’ seem like warm slices of humanism compared to the output of Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, the two best British poets killed in World War Two. Poems like Douglas’ ‘How To Kill’ and Lewis’ ‘The Jungle’ speak of a nihilistic retreat from all human values effected by the extremity of the soldier’s experience of a war fought on an incomprehensible scale for an incomprehensible purpose.

In ‘How To Kill’ and his other great poems Douglas exults uneasily in the dehumanising distance that the techniques of the war create between him and other soldiers. In ‘The Jungle’, a poem written shortly before he took his own life in the midst of a battle, Lewis recounts a hallucinatory journey to a stagnant pool deep in a jungle where autumn is ‘rotting like an unfrocked priest’. In a crucial passage, Lewis claims that ‘we who dream beside this jungle pool’ prefer the alienation of the natural world to the alienations of the human world – prefer the ‘instinctive rightness of the poised kingfisher’s dive’ to ‘all the banal rectitude of states’. Lewis’ is not the voice of humanist socialism on the march, but of humanity outraged beyond sanity by inhuman war.

'Outside the Whale' is silent about the recalcitrance or outright resistance that World War Two at times inspired in important sections of the British working class and left-wing movement. Thompson fails to mention the ‘housekeepers and commuters’ who did not show an ‘affirming flame on the seven fronts of fire’. He does not discuss the opposition to conscription, to the militarisation of the workforce at home, to the cross-class ‘production committees’ in important factories, to the bans on strikes in key industries, and to the attempts to control consumption with ration books. He does not mention the fact that the later years of the war were characterised by high levels of working class militancy – that in 1942, for instance, there were more hours lost to strikes than in any year since 1931.

Thompson does not mention the anti-war working class politics of the Workers International League, a group ‘disillusioned’ enough with Stalinism to oppose the production committees of the Communist Party and lead tens of thousands of workers in strike action that roused debate in Westminster and prompted urgent Mi5 reports to Cabinet. Thompson does not mention the huge audiences Lord Haw Haw enjoyed, or the crime waves that accompanied ‘air raid’ blackouts in many cities.


‘Outside the Whale’ is Thompson’s attempt to lay claim to the Spain of 1937 and of ‘Spain 1937’, without apprehending and interrogating the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the poem and in the struggle that inspired the poem. But ‘Spain 1937’ has to be related to Auden’s subsequent literary and political development, not spared from analysis. The reasons for the ‘30s generation’s drift toward Natopolitanism cannot be reduced to the moral failure of two of that generation’s finest writers.

Because he failed to understand their lives, Thompson was doomed to repeat some of the mistakes of Auden and Orwell. The text which follows ‘Outside the Whale’ in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays is ‘Peculiarities of the English’, which mixes a lucid discussion of English historical development with a bitter account of the disintegration of the New Left, and concludes with a denunciation of the alleged Stalinism of Thompson’s erstwhile colleagues at the New Left Review. Thompson’s polemic hurt many of his readers, because it was indiscriminate enough and dismissive enough to have come from the pen of any of the Natopolitans who took the America Auden and the Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four as their models.

‘Peculiarities of the English’ is followed by ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, which Thompson presents as an extended appeal for ‘a certain quietism’. We have noted that in ‘Outside the Whale’ criticised Auden’s famous image of isolated intellectuals ‘flashing ironic points of light’ at each other across a benighted society. Thompson felt that the image, which occurs in the decisive poem ‘September 1, 1939’, signified the giving up of political action and the embrace of a quietist acquiescence in the status quo. Fourteen years after ‘Outside the Whale’, though, Thompson asked his friend Kolakowski ‘whether or not we might flash ironic points of light at each other’. Auden would have appreciated the irony.

[1] In 1967, responding to a letter from a belated reader of Socialism and the Intellectuals, Amis clarified his attitude toward Orwell. ‘[I]n the late ‘50s I still contained considerable vestiges of my early leftism’, Amis wrote. ‘I was often made uncomfortable by Orwell’s writings about Communism.’ Amis explained that he regretted calling Orwell ‘hysterical’, and argued that Nineteen Eighty-four had been proven a prophetic book (Kingsley Amis, The Letters of Kingsley Amis, ed Zachary Leader, HarperCollins, London, 2000, pgs 710-712, 5/4/67).

Amis’ pamphlet managed to nettle one or two of his fellow Angry Young (wo)Men. Two of the contributors to Declaration, a collection of statements by members of the ill-defined movement, took aim at Socialism and the Intellectuals and its author. Doris Lessing accused Amis of succumbing to ‘a temporary mood of disillusion’; Lindsay Anderson was harsher, claiming that, in Socialism and the Intellectuals, ‘Amis reveals himself as a coward’. Amis himself refused to write anything for Declaration.

[2] Unfortunately, few commentators on Thompson have recognized the unity of the texts he contributed to Out of Apathy. An honourable exception is Thompson’s old friend and comrade Staughton Lynd, who observed in a 2002 essay that ‘Outside the Whale’ is ‘justly remembered’, while ‘Revolution’ and ‘At the Point of Decay’ are ‘unjustly forgotten’. (‘Edward Thompson’s Warrens: on the Transition to Socialism and its Relation to Current Left Mobilisations’ (Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2002).

[3] Thompson would pursue the reasons for Wordsworth’s disillusionment in ‘Disenchantment or Default?’, a lecture he gave at New York University in 1968, and ‘Wordsworth’s Crisis’, a 1988 review of George McLean Harper’s biography of Wordsworth. In ‘Disenchantment or Default?’, Thompson once again connects Wordsworth to the ‘30s generation. Both texts are collected in EP Thompson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age, The New Press, New York, 1997.

[4] Auden explicitly disavowed ‘Spain 1937’ in the introduction to the 1966 edition of his Collected Shorter Poems. Auden claimed that the last two lines of his poem –‘History, to the defeated/May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon’ – equate ‘goodness with success’. Auden goes on to protest that he never believed that goodness equated success, but merely ‘stated it simply because it sounded effective’. He seems to be criticising himself not for being complicit in Stalinist murder, but for succumbing to the temptations of rhetoric. Auden appears to be suggesting that, in his eagerness to enlist poetry for a cause, he was prepared to play fast and loose with the meaning of his lines, and express ideas he did not actually believe.