F.R. Leavis, Politics and Religion
- The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ by Francis Mulhern
New Left Books, 354 pp, £11.75
- The Literary Criticism of F.R. Leavis by R.P. Bilan
Cambridge, 338 pp, £12.50
The appearance of the 20-volume reissue of Scrutiny in 1963 should have made it possible to evaluate at last the achievement of F.R. and Q.D. Leavis and their colleagues with some degree of unanimity. Here at last were the actual essays, beautifully reprinted and laid out, essays which had been virtually unobtainable for many years, and of which original sets (even incomplete and battered) had enjoyed a prestige which was not merely commensurate with their rarity.
But no. Although a sizable secondary literature greeted the 1963 reissue – ranging from reminiscence and regret to hostility and outright Schadenfreude – there was still no consensus. Francis Mulhern, who now attempts to tell the whole story of that journal for the first time, announces: ‘The true measure of the problem is that, 25 years after its closure, and 15 after its triumphant reissue, there exists not a single systematic examination of Scrutiny.’
There isn’t one even now, though Francis Mulhern has done valuable work towards making such a thing possible. His book offers an analysis of the major periods of the journal’s history, and what emerges is a kind of contour map of a very rugged terrain. But Mr Mulhern has, he admits it frankly, an ulterior purpose in writing this account of Scrutiny. His aim is to warn Marxist writers and thinkers to be less naive, less dismissive of a man whose work still threatens Marxist ‘discourse’. F.R. Leavis, he implies, even from beyond the grave, insists that we shall all continue to misunderstand each other. Marxists must be wary of this harassment.
Among younger writers, Mulhern says, Leavis’s work ‘is usually figured in the past perfect’ and is considered to be ‘not a central issue today’. But Mulhern admonishes them: ‘This attitude is understandable but perilous … it is historically evasive and may, in the worst outcome, prove self-defeating.’ Why so? Mulhern is quite clear about this. For him, as for, say, a group like the Tel Quel group in Paris, criticism is part of the class struggle, an attempt to overthrow the bourgeoisie and ‘the dominant culture’. He announces a battle to come: ‘If “Leavisism” still constitutes a “problem” for the dominant culture, how can it have ceased to disturb the vulnerable, minoritarian exponents of Marxism? What is in question, now as much as in the far-off Thirties, is a cultural struggle, to which the composed, self-sustaining practices of peaceful methodological competition will sooner or later prove fundamentally inadequate.’
So Mulhern’s stance is an embattled one. He is a Marxist trying to ‘place’ and understand and master the significance of 20 years of ‘discourse’. Scrutiny refused right from the beginning to take political sides, as is well-known. What perhaps is not quite so well-known is the sheer force and power with which Leavis refused to join the Marxist camp in particular. His essay of 1932, ‘Under which King, Bezonian?’, is impressive reading, even today. His discussion of Trotsky and the Marxist cause in general is bitingly sarcastic, and he feels it morally irresponsible for a journal such as Scrutiny to take sides with a position which intellectually, so far as he could see, held about as much water as a colander. To talk politics, he says there, to talk any kind of politics, is to betray political responsibility. Only constant attention to, only constant scrutiny of, political language (from whichever faction it might come) would be an adequate political commitment.
‘Leavis’s polemic,’ writes Mulhern, ‘drew a prompt response from a leading Communist intellectual of the time, A.L. Morton, who, writing in the following number of the journal, greeted “Bezonian” as a “challenge … very welcome to Marxists”, and attempted to allay the misgivings of its author.’ Needless to say, this did not work, and Scrutiny kept up its policy of proud and lonely independence all through the Thirties. The reason for this was itself impressive, seen from this distance: ‘The editorial circle and more regular contributors were basically at one with Leavis: ostensibly revolutionary, Marxism was in fact not radical enough, in its analyses of the contemporary era or in its programmatic solutions. “What has disintegrated,” Leavis insisted, “is not merely ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’ civilisation; it is the organic community.” ’
With that concept, of course, Mulhern’s whole intellectual commitment is at odds. He has to describe, without believing a word of it, and as levelly as he can, the famous doctrine of irreparable cultural loss, of the ‘organic community’ gone and never to be seen again, and of trans-historical verities which must at all costs be preserved by the self-appointed guardians of high culture. It is a theory which, for a Marxist, is distasteful because it is not true. Nothing, for the Marxist, is ‘trans-historical’ in this sense, and some of the reasons why Mulhern is anxious to warn Marxists not to dismiss Leavis and Scrutiny too lightly may have their origin in the perception that the view of history propounded by Leavis and his collaborators has never been falsified, though it may often have been denied.
Vol. 2 No. 2 · 7 February 1980
SIR: I write in response to Roger Poole’s article on F.R. Leavis (LRB, 20 December 1979). When Leavis said that Scrutiny was ‘anti-Marxist’ he meant ‘anti-English Marxist’. The curious admixture of romantic idealism and attenuated Marxism which is peculiar to England was obviously of little use or value in relation to the real function of literature and criticism as Leavis saw it. Its notions were greatly oversimplified, its concepts and terminology poorly defined and its whole method eagerly dogmatic. The whole question of ‘economic determinism’ illustrates the vitiating lack of subtlety or penetration on the part of these interpreters of Marx. Leavis (in ‘Under Which King, Bezonian?’) resists the claim for attention to the material conditions, the ‘dogma of the priority of economic conditions’. This dogma does not occur in Marx’s own writings and it is a contention of the so-called ‘vulgar Marxists’. Both Marx and Engels recognised that, in the realm of the arts, the interaction between the ‘economic base’ and the overlying ‘superstructure’ was a far more complex activity than this dogma allows. In the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy Marx asserts that ‘certain periods of the highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and the skeleton structure of its organisation.’ The complexity of the problem was recognised and consciously engaged by the theory. Engels, in a letter to Starkenburg in 1894, wrote: ‘It is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and everything else a passive effect. But there is a reciprocal interaction within a fundamental economic necessity, which in the last instance always asserts itself.’
It is essential to realise that it is the ‘reciprocal interaction’ that finally asserts itself, not the ‘fundamental economic necessity’. This kind of insight into the issue derives from the proper understanding of the dialectical method, which was not widely possessed by the early Marxist writers in England. It was their simplified sociological model (after Plekhanov) of ‘art as a reflection of the class struggle’, and the insistence on the absolute primacy of the material conditions in relation to the arts, that Leavis rejected as inadequate. There is in fact a greater contiguity between his ideas and those of Marx and Engels.
Leavis is not a crypto-Marxist. That there are major similarities between Leavis and Marx is clear enough, nevertheless. In the article referred to above, Leavis refutes, through his discussion of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, the ‘orthodox’ Marxist dogma concerning the relationship between culture and the ‘methods of production’. This misses the point, he says, because the central feature of the contemporary (1932) situation is the potentially catastrophic ‘breach in continuity’ of our cultural tradition. This has fractured the relationship between the tradition and the ‘real culture’ that existed until the 19th century: ‘When England had a popular culture, the structure, the framework, of it was a stylisation, so to speak, of economic necessities.’ The industrialisation of the 19th century undermined this relationship (resulting in the ‘loss of the organic community’), so that ‘what survives of cultural tradition in any important sense survives in spite of the rapidly changing “means of production”.’
The significance of this is the qualification ‘in any important sense’. First, because, if it were not for that qualification, the substance of the argument would be rendered contradictory: a ‘popular culture’ still exists and it still, in essence, bears a dialectical relation to the prevailing ‘economic necessities’. The qualifying clause is a qualitative judgment designed to avoid this logical fallacy. It is an illustration of the peculiar complexity of Leavis’s approach to literature. On the one hand, he accepts the principle of the relationship between culture and the ‘methods of production’ (‘a stylisation … of economic necessities’); on the other hand, with regard to the present situation, he exhibits a curious, atavistic tendency to dismiss this relationship as no longer functional. Yet, according to the logic of his own reasoning, this relationship must still operate.
It is this atavism which produces the flaw in Leavis’s methodology, and which highlights the essential distinction that must be made between it and the methodology of dialectical materialism. If one accepts the principle of the interaction between the arts and the social and economic reality, as Leavis does, then it cannot logically be dismissed in favour of individual preference. ‘Logic’ is the crux. Marx and Engels recognised that the nature of the interaction cannot be statically defined – hence their insistence on the idea of constant change. Leavis chose the alternative, which was effectively to abandon the concept of interaction/stylisation of economic necessities – claiming that the line of continuity had been broken and the relationship therefore nullified – and to embark upon a form of criticism which regards each text as an autonomous, sealed entity. The point is, his judgments are subjective, a matter of individual preference. Hence his insistence on the ‘training of the sensibility’ and the development of ‘critical awareness’, which requires a sensuous responsiveness to the words on the page, for all practical purposes to the exclusion of everything else. By making that choice, Leavis moved from a position of close proximity to Marx’s original conception to one almost diametrically opposed to it.
Vol. 2 No. 4 · 6 March 1980
SIR: Kevin Keys’s attempt (Letters, 7 February) to outline a ‘non-vulgar Marxism’, for the sake of his argument that Leavis was once nearer to Marx than he knew, involves him in a serious misunderstanding. He quotes Engels’s in recent years much-discussed letter in which he says that ‘it is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and everything else is passive effect. But there is a reciprocal interaction within a fundamental economic necessity, which in the last instance always asserts itself.’ He then proceeds completely to misinterpret it. Despite the fact that the syntax of this rather free English translation of the quite unambiguous German makes it clear enough that Engels meant that it was the ‘economic necessity’ that ‘always asserts itself’, Mr Keys asserts that ‘it is essential to realise that it is the “reciprocal interaction” that finally asserts itself’ – whatever that might mean – and makes matters worse by informing us that ‘this kind of insight into the issue derives from the proper understanding of the dialectical method, which was not widely possessed by the early Marxist writers in England’!
If this is the basis of what Kevin Keys calls ‘the methodology of dialectical materialism’, as opposed to what he refers to as the ‘dogma of the priority of the economic conditions’, then Marx was certainly a ‘vulgar Marxist’, though this did not mean that he was narrow or prescriptive in his literary tastes or judgments, or indeed that his judgments were any less ‘subjective, a matter of individual preference’, than Leavis’s.