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Letters

Vol. 2 No. 4 · 6 March 1980

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Orwell depoliticised

SIR: Samuel Hynes’s review of Stansky and Abrahams’ Orwell: The Transformation (LRB, 24 January) was short on review and long on opinion. As a reader, I favour discursive reviewing, yet a writer who adopts this style has a duty to restrain his enthusiasm for his own political views and predilections. Hynes singularly fails to keep his under control. Admittedly, George Orwell – like most human beings – was a complex individual, difficult to categorise. Yet at least five assertions made by Hynes are bizarre enough to warrant comment. These are: Orwell was not a political thinker; had no philosophy of political action; was never able to relate himself comfortably to any political party; wrote nothing before 1936 that could be called political; his political idealism died in Barcelona in 1937.

Hynes turns Orwell into a minor literary figure of the Isaac Disraeli mould who flirted with politics. Orwell himself stated that he became a socialist in 1930, and the Adelphi, for which he wrote in the years following, was recognised as the vehicle of the intellectual Left within the Independent Labour Party. Similarly, if his idealistic socialism died in 1937, how come he joined the ILP in 1938 and later wrote so consistently for Tribune? As for Orwell’s tendencies towards nationalism, Luddism and anti-intellectualism, and his limited philosophy of political action, he shared those with the British Left. They remain today – much to the disgust of the programmed Left – as part of that set of ideas held within, for example, the Labour Party. Finally, Orwell’s political thinking in Animal Farm and 1984 has outlived the pronouncements of many of the political theorists of the succeeding decades. Ideology has yet to end, and as the US completes its switch in allies from Russia to China, 1984 keeps its point.

Glyn Ford
Ashton-under-Lyne

‘The Climate of Treason’

SIR: Further to Neal Ascherson’s review of Andrew Boyle’s book (LRB, 7 February), I should like to make the following observations. It has long been known that a number of British literary intellectuals acted on behalf of Russia before the war, though we are only now discovering how many. Some have even avowed it. Stephen Spender, in his 1951 autobiography World within World, describes how he joined the British Communist Party during the Spanish Civil War and went to Spain, at the invitation of the Daily Worker, to ascertain for the Soviet Government what had happened to the crew of a Russian ship sunk by the Italians. ‘It raised the question whether to supply such information would be spying,’ he remarks coolly, years after he had left Communism. ‘However, it certainly did not involve betraying my country, nor obtaining military secrets … All the same I had a scruple about being paid.’

A more curious incident involves the late Goronwy Rees. In December 1973 I published an article on the Thirties in Encounter, which I later reprinted in Politics and Literature in Modern Britain (Macmillan, 1977) as ‘Did Stalin dupe the intellectuals?’ My answer to that question was no, and the article was greeted with a fair bit of fury, because it documented a view I had long held: that Auden and Co were more deeply involved in the Communist Party than it was by then fashionable to admit, and no mere fellow-travellers or utopian idealists; that they were attracted to Stalin precisely because he was an exterminator; that they knew of the Soviet death-camps, and wanted something of the same thing here – the destruction of the bourgeoisie being no idle metaphor in their mouths. Like Hitler, if less effectively, they purposed the death of millions. The annoyance this article aroused was not confined to that last sad remnant of intellectual Marxism known in those days as the New Left. It surprisingly included Rees. In the following issue of Encounter, he praised me for documenting a case but chided me for getting the whole tone of the Thirties wrong: ‘To anyone who in the 1930s knew the writers from whom Mr Watson quotes so liberally – Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Day Lewis et al. – there is something so inherently improbable about Mr Watson’s picture of them that at first one is tempted to laugh. The idea of Stephen Spender as an icy doctrinaire, a kind of literary St Just, of Louis MacNeice as an avenging angel of Communism, has all the elements of farce in it. In the role of executioner, actual or potential, they would have carried about as much conviction as Morecambe and Wise, and I hasten to add that I say this out of old affection and not as a reproach … ’ He accused me of having read too much poetry for my own good, and of failing to notice that poets often use ideas as raw materials without believing in them. What is more, he went on, these men of letters were Englishmen and had been to good schools and ancient universities, and the English ‘do not take easily to those large, universal, metaphysical and philosophical systems of which the Continent is so productive and of which Marxism is perhaps the last heir’; and they can have known nothing of Soviet atrocities, since to them Russia was ‘a blank space on the map which they could fill according to their fancy’. So they were neither seriously pro-Soviet nor even seriously Marxist.

A hard try at a whitewash, in fact – or, as Americans say, a snow-job. But it is now plainer than ever that Rees always knew that some of these well-born young men just down from ancient universities were Comintern agents. He had lived with one of them, Guy Burgess, who had tried to recruit him as an agent. He must have known that some of them had visited the Soviet Union – no unusual journey for a Thirties intellectual. He certainly knew they were working with other Soviet agents in the West. And none of this depends on Rees’s dying testimony alone. A few years before his death in 1973, W.H. Auden wrote to me in terms that made it plain that he could not deny to himself or others that as a Communist he had known a good deal about Soviet brutality. In a letter of January 1971, Auden wrote:

During the Thirties I and, I think, most of my friends, though we did not know the whole awful truth, were well aware that very unpleasant things were happening in Russia. For this reason I never joined the Party, because I was afraid I might have to defend the Soviet Union. The mistake we made was to think: ‘What can one expect of the Russians? They are barbarians who have never had a Renaissance or a Reformation and have always lived under a dictatorship … ’

Just how much of this is an accurate reflection of Auden’s views in the Thirties is a matter for investigation, and I wish someone who knew him then could come forward with a letter or a recollection that could prove decisive. Early in 1939, in I Believe, Auden was writing about the need ‘to defend what we believe to be right, perhaps even at the cost of our lives and those of others,’ and the context does not suggest he is talking about wars between nations. ‘We are seeing the end of Liberal Democracy,’ he wrote in a journal in December 1939, to be replaced by either socialism or fascism, and this is ‘a good thing’. Hardly the language of the uncommitted, or even of the milder sort of fellow-traveller.

My conclusion in Politics and Literature was that Stalin did not dupe the intellectuals, and I now wonder why Goronwy Rees rejected it so publicly and so vehemently. He must have known it was true, and known it before I did. The revelations of the Blunt affair have sharpened and deepened that conclusion, abruptly and even tragically. My acquaintance with these men was so late in their highly changeable lives that I am forced into an almost total dependence on the documents. That is why I wrote: to present the documents of the Thirties as a counter to the self-excusings of the Sixties and Seventies. I am not sorry to have done so, though the act itself is not universally thought to have done me much credit as a literary historian. But I had not supposed that self-excusing could have gone so far as to infect the fervent journalism and even the last confessions of a man as amiable as Goronwy Rees.

George Watson
St John’s College, Cambridge

Literary Criticism we could do without

SIR: As the perpetrator of one of the ‘unpublished theses’ (actually, a brief essay) cited in Colin MacCabe’s James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word, may I say how delighted I am that Miss Brophy, author of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, is bringing her sledge-hammer to bear on works of literary criticism (LRB, 21 February)? How soon may we expect to know the names of the other 49? Keep at ’em, Miss Brophy!

Patrick Parrinder
University of Reading

Supersellers

SIR: John Sutherland (Letters, 20 December 1979) is wrong about Dickens’s writing habits, and since Mr Sutherland goes as far as to call me ignorant, perhaps you will allow me to reply. It is misleading to say that Dickens took more than a year to write Bleak House, for he was at the same time writing A Child’s History of England and ‘To be Read at Dusk’; he was full-time editor of Household Words; he took his theatrical company on provincial tours; he was involved in slum-clearance schemes in East London; he travelled abroad and he led a hectic social and public life. Sometimes he wrote only in the mornings; sometimes for only a fortnight in each month; often not at all. If it took him more than a year to finish a book, that was because he was not working full-time on the book; when he was writing, he wrote fast. ‘Mr Dickens writes too often and too fast,’ said a contemporary critic, making the same mistake as Mr Sutherland by confusing speed with haste. Now as then, quality is not necessarily related to pace of work; nor to life-style, publishers’ publicity, or any other of the red herrings in Mr Sutherland’s article. He says he is in favour of more thoughtful commentary on contemporary thrillers, yet when I complain that he writes about an author’s jewellery instead of the book, he finds space in his reply for a gibe about my house in the South of France. I think he’s insincere.

Ken Follett
Grasse, France

Leavis and Marxism

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.

Nicholas Jacobs
London NW5

Schlepping

SIR: Oi veh, what a schlimazel! To accuse Joan Didion of a ‘schlepping style’ for saying that in her shopping-centre she ‘would have monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourine,’ as Martin Amis does (LRB, 7 February), is the mark of a goyisher kop. When a yente like Didion offers her reader such rare freylakhs, it is a mitzvah; she should be encouraged, not mislabeled.

Matthew Hoffman
London NW1

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