F.R. Leavis, Politics and Religion

Roger Poole

  • 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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