1And No Man’s Wit, Rose Macaulay’s 1940 novel set in the post-Civil War confusion of Franco’s Spain in late 1939, depicts a middle-class English family searching for a son who has disappeared after serving with the International Brigade. On a precisely dated 24 August 1939, the family and their Spanish host, a right-wing aristocrat who despises Franco as an upstart, hear the first incredible news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The family’s younger son, Hugh, a well-meaning “University communist”, tries to dismiss it as “obvious nonsense” and Fascist propaganda, and then to rationalise it as an astute move on Stalin’s part because the western democracies have let him down. Stalin, he says, “‘had to turn to Germany instead’”, and “‘you can’t well blame him. Besides, he probably has some scheme of getting Hitler on a string; it’s probably all right really.’”
2Their Spanish host finds some entertainment in the discomfiture this “‘alliance of our gallant saviours with the Red Devil’” will afford his fellow-countrymen. Hugh, “red with surprise and dismay”, has turned “moody and disagreeable”, he opines, because the coming war will not now be “‘the anti-Fascist war, but the imperialist, capitalist war against democracy.’” When asked how he makes that out, he is brutally to the point: “‘M. Stalin has just told him so… by siding with your intended foes’” (314-6).
3For Hugh ‘“It’s the wrong war”’ because it overturns all his generation’s ideological narratives. His missing brother Guy, who makes an unexpected appearance at the end of the novel, observes that Hugh has always been “‘Russia-mad…. He’s been shouting for the anti-Nazi war ever since he could shout for anything but his bottle, and now it’s come he’s ratted because his dear Joe Stalin’s on the wrong side.’” By contrast, this former combatant parallels the Spanish aristocrat’s amusement, thinking it interesting to watch British Tories “‘arranging with their patriotism to hate Hitler and his gang. It’s the wrong war for them too; they’d have liked it to be against Russia’” (372-4). Claud Cockburn, in his memoirs, Crossing the Line, recalled of this time that, while “that ‘hammer’ Molotov and champagne merchant Ribbentrop were together in Moscow, arranging to be friends for evermore”, in London, “Witty, encouraging and inaccurate to the last”, a British Foreign Office spokesman had observed that now, “‘All the Isms are Wasms’” (39).
4The Communist Party of Great Britain found itself in a similar dilemma in September 1939. For a month it continued to campaign for “Peace Blocs” to defend democracy against fascism. “How to win the War”, a pamphlet written by Harry Pollitt, the Party’s General Secretary, published two weeks after Chamberlain’s declaration of war, described it as “a just war which will be supported by the whole working class and all friends of democracy.” (On this, see King & Matthews, and the trenchant review of their book by Fryer.) Pollitt was shortly obliged to resign. Thereafter the Party propagated the orthodox line that this was an inter-imperialist war, in which “the struggle of the British people against the Chamberlains and the Churchills” was “the best help to the struggle of the Germans against Hitler”. (It continued however to call in Popular Front terms for a “People’s Government” and a “People’s Peace”.) On 24 August 1940, the Daily Worker even celebrated the anniversary of the Pact by reproducing an article from Izvestia that translated opportunism into the new historical orthodoxy:
For a number of months before the Pact Britain and France made persistent attempts to harness the Soviet Union in their chariot, to use the Soviet Union for their imperialist aims. Above all they strove to provoke armed conflict between the USSR and Germany... The good neighbourly and friendly relations between the Soviet Union and Germany was not based on fortuitous considerations of a transient nature, but on the fundamental State interests of both the USSR and Germany. This truth has long been understood in the USSR and Germany.
- 1 See on all this Bornstein & Richardson. There is a lucid scholarly summary of Left responses to the (...)
5Proletarian patriotism only returned to the British Communist Party after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and the signing, on July 12, of an Anglo-Soviet Mutual Aid Pact. Pollitt was now reinstated as General Secretary, and the “imperialist war” reverted to being a war to defend democracy, requiring a “fight for a united national front” to give “the most whole-hearted support to the Churchill government in every measure it adopts”. In a variation on a familiar formula, opponents of the war were now dubbed “fascists in disguise.”1
6Harold Laski’s explanation of Stalin’s motives in Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time in 1942-3 demonstrates how sections of the British intellectual Left were able to recuperate their position once the Soviet Union was safely in the “democratic” camp, courtesy of Operation Barbarossa. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, Laski wrote,
convinced the Soviet Union that Great Britain no longer had the will to resist aggression. The outcome… was the conclusion of a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. The one thing that might have deterred Hitler from risking a war for European domination was the fear of being attacked on two fronts; the agreement with the Soviet Union removed this fear (20-1).
7According to Laski, the reason Britain “deliberately cold-shouldered the Soviet Union” in the five years from 1934 lay in the psychology of Chamberlain’s class:
Their whole outlook on life was built upon hatred of its philosophy. They may well have regretted the more brutal habits of Hitler and Mussolini. But the Fascist dictators had left untouched the class-structure of their societies. To risk their overthrow… was to risk revolutionary upheaval, perhaps Communist upheaval, in Italy and Germany. If peace was a major objective of Mr Chamberlain, so, also, was the avoidance of any policy which might further the coming of socialism. (22-3)
- 2 For the attempt to confirm this reading of Stalin’s foreign policy from Soviet archives, see Robert (...)
8Certainly, as late as April 1939, the Soviet Union had suggested a mutual defence pact with Britain. But the co-founder of the Left Book Club and future General Secretary of the Labour Party in 1945-46 is being somewhat disingenuous. If Chamberlain’s foreign policy aimed to set the totalitarians of Left and Right against each other, Stalin’s strategy equally was that of fomenting inter-imperialist conflict, as Laski himself acknowledges, observing that fear of “attack from some alliance of capitalist states” meant that Soviet policy “was built upon the assumption that its safety lay in the division of its enemies” (26-7). The argument that Stalin “made terms with Hitler which assured it, at least temporarily, of neutrality from that quarter” (27) would be more convincing had Stalin not greeted the German Blitzkrieg in 1941 with total disbelief and unpreparedness. The fear of “some patched-up peace in western Europe”, Laski argued, “drove Stalin and his associates into exactly that cynical policy of brute force they had, for long years, been foremost in denouncing”(29). “[T]he policy of Stalin, between the Finnish attack and Hitler’s assault on Russia, went a long way towards dividing and confusing working class opinion in the democracies”, he wrote, a policy not “defensible to any save those for whom all Soviet action has the character of a religious dogma it is unnecessary to defend”, “accompanied by a vituperative hypocrisy which… before the Russo-German treaty… Stalin would have been the first to condemn in phrases that would have been obediently echoed by Communist parties all over the world” (29).2
9When I was young, exponents of that “religious dogma” still deployed the formula of “the unwavering line” to assert the consistency and continuity of Communist policy in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet, when I recently typed in the phrase on Google, with a variety of link words such as “Communism” or “Stalin”, I could find only one precise instance of this specific usage. The phrase appears to have been airbrushed from (at least electronic) history. The exception occurs, not unexpectedly, in an article on the website of “The Istitutes [sic] Of Marxist-Leninist Studes [sic], at the CC Of The PLA, Tirana 1980”. The article is the “memoir” of an Albanian delegation to Moscow at the time of Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956. It reports on “The struggle of the delegates of the Party of Labour of Albania, the representatives of the Communist Party of China and of some other party” (charmingly, they don’t appear to have made note of which) against “the revisionist theses” of the Khrushchevites, proclaiming that “In Moscow we were to expound the unwavering line of our Party, and display the ideological and political maturity and the rare revolutionary courage which has characterized our Party throughout its whole heroic existence”.
- 3 Cognate formulae appeared in an electronic version of the book Thirty Years – 1922-1952: The Story (...)
10There was one other half-apposite instance of the formula, in what is clearly a nostalgic and possibly ironic harking back to earlier days. This was in a Moscow Times report about the re-election to office, in 2003, of “A controversial former chief judge of the Constitutional Court, who quit in 1993 after unsuccessfully opposing President Boris Yeltsin in his violent stand-off with rebellious lawmakers”. “The mild-mannered but fiery-eyed Zorkin”, we are told, affirmed the court’s resolution to keep its nose out of politics, as it had been since 1994: “This will be the court’s unwavering line. Nobody should bother hoping that we can be pulled to the left or the right or to the political center. We are in the legal center… ‘History never repeats itself.’”3
11Steering an unwavering line between Left and Right deviations in the name of History was an essential part of Comintern rhetoric during the interwar years, through all its policy contortions. John Lehmann, editor of New Writing and a dedicated fellow-traveller with strong Moscow connections in the 1930s, writing on “The Influence of Spain” in a 1939 pamphlet originally published in Moscow, preserves a faint trace of this rhetoric when he speaks of those who discovered in Spain, for all their “original enthusiasm”, that adjusting to “the realities of modern warfare and modern political struggle was a much more complex and painful process than was generally admitted, while their loyalty to the anti-fascist cause never wavered” (20).
12But let me go back to the beginning.
13I have started this story at the end, because it is only in retrospect that the shifts and accommodations of the British literary Left in the 1930s can fully be understood. There is, though, some danger in hindsight as foresight, as is exemplified by such Cold War recantations as those of Stephen Spender, Gide and Silone in the volume edited in 1950 by that former Comintern agent, Arthur Koestler, The God that Failed, and we should always bear in mind that these writers lacked the benefit we have of knowing what happened next.
14In the decade before the Hitler-Stalin pact, there were two key phases to Comintern policy. The first was the so-called “Third Period” strategy, which ran from 1928 until Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 required a major ideological revision. This gave rise, some time in 1934-35, to the policy officially announced at the Comintern’s Seventh Congress in 1935 as that of the “United Front Against Fascism”, more commonly known as the“Popular Front”.
15The “Third Period” strategy was adopted by the Communist International at its Sixth Congress in 1928, following the failure of its China policy, which had culminated in the disastrous 1927 Shanghai Uprising. André Malraux’s fictionalisation of this, in La Condition Humaine, published in 1933, is probably the outstanding literary representation of “Third Period” ideology. This ultra-left policy argued that capitalism was now entering its third and final period, following the ascendancy challenged by the revolutions in the wake of the Great War and its temporary stabilisation after 1921. National Communist parties were now called on to denounce all other worker and socialist organisations as “false lefts”, reject collaboration with them and participation in all “United Front” strategies. A cult of armed insurrection was favoured, irrespective of local circumstances, logistical capacity, or the likelihood of success. “Class against class” was the slogan adopted for this phase of the struggle. The French Communist Party in 1932, for example, declared that:
The tactic of class against class… tested in France during four years of economic or political struggles will be firmly applied by the whole of the Party during the course of this electoral campaign. The responsible organisms of the Party, from the cells up to the Political Bureau, will be on the alert so that there nowhere re-occur the defections and compromises with the Socialist, or even the Radical, Party, as occurred in certain regions in 1928…
During its electoral campaign our Party must be on the alert so as not to fall into the error where right opportunism allies itself with the most narrow-minded sectarianism… It must once again be repeated that far from being a sectarian tactic, our tactic of class against class, which prohibits any electoral bloc in any form with the Socialist Party, supposes and signifies a united front at the base with Socialist workers…
The objective current conditions are very favorable for convincing Socialist workers to fight in common with their Communist brothers against the bourgeoisie and its principal supporter, the Socialist Party… The objective situation has never before so pushed the Socialist chiefs down the openly reactionary path at the same time as it pushes the Socialist workers onto the path of revolutionary struggle. This is the material, objective basis for our entire tactic of a class against class united front. (Cahiers)
16“United front at the base”, or “from below”, was contrasted with the allegedly “revisionist” and “opportunist” imposture of the “united front from above”, at the level of party leaderships. Orthodoxy lay in maintaining this unwavering line between “right opportunism” and left “sectarianism”.
17There was a certain rationality to such a strategy at a time of apparently terminal capitalist collapse. The Wall Street Crash in 1929, and the economic and political crisis it generated for social-democratic parties – many, as in Britain and Germany, then in government – gave some credibility to the apocalyptic rhetoric, while the example of Ramsay Macdonald, who in August 1931, faced by a bankers’ ramp, led his Labour government into a coalition with Baldwin’s Tories, seemed to confirm the worst representations of social-democrat behaviour.
18The “Third Period” policy explains many of the apparent political confusions in W. H. Auden’s strange early text, The Orators: An English Study, first published in 1932 and again, in revised form, in 1934. To T. S. Eliot, early in 1932, Auden had explained that “The central theme is a revolutionary hero” (Carpenter 122), but he confided to a reader shortly after publication that the book was “far too obscure and equivocal. It is meant to be a critique of the fascist outlook, but from its reception among some of my contemporaries, and on rereading it myself, I see that it can, most of it, be interpreted as a favourable exposition” (Carpenter 129-30). Its obscure narrative imagines a military-style insurrection beginning in a public school, and led by a T. E. Lawrence-like charismatic Leader, the Airman. One of its Odes envisages the arrival of this leader, like Lenin, in a special train, but he also, like Mussolini, leads a march on the capital.
19In his Foreword to a revised edition in 1966, Auden conceded that “My name on the title page seems a pseudonym for someone else, someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi.” But he went on to argue that “it is precisely the schoolboy atmosphere and diction which act as a moral criticism of the rather ugly emotions and ideas they are employed to express”, and his own “juvenile” discourse, he says, was intended to “make it impossible to take them seriously”. “In one of the Odes, I express all the sentiments with which his followers hailed the advent of Hitler”, he confessed, but he hoped this was rendered innocuous “by the fact that the Führer so hailed is a new-born baby and the son of a friend” (in fact, of Rex Warner, at that point also a Communist fellow-traveller).
20Auden’s allusion to Wyndham Lewis in this 1966 apologia suggests that there are other undercurrents to the original text, in particular, the favourable impression of the future dictator Lewis gave in his 1931 monograph, Hitler. For Auden in 1932, as for Lewis the previous year, Hitler was still an iconoclastic rebel, inveighing against the dilatory and corrupt Social Democratic regime of the Weimar Republic, in hock to capitalist interests. He could be seen, therefore, as a wrong-headed but sympathetic figure. But the putschism of TheOrators also has its Third Period analogies.
21In the immediate pre-Hitler Berlin that Auden knew well, there had been much talk in left-wing circles of a “Red-Brown” coalition against their supposed common enemy, the Social Democrats. In line with the policy of winning all proletarian militants at the base, irrespective of political alignment, KPD leaders had sometimes condoned practical and tactical collaboration between Communists and Nazis, in street demonstrations, strikes and similar insurrectionary activities, against the “social fascism” allegedly represented by the Weimar Republic’s ruling SPD. Christopher Isherwood in Christopher and his Kind in 1977 recalled writing to Stephen Spender on November 3, 1932, for example, of the Berlin transport strike, in which, he said, “Nazis and Communists are assisting each other on the strike pickets”. His retrospect explains to the reader that “The Nazis had forced themselves into this uneasy temporary alliance because they couldn’t let the Communists take credit for being the sole supporters of the striking transport-workers, just before an election. The strike resulted in widespread public violence against strike-breakers and others” such as he described in Goodbye to Berlin (89). What Isherwood doesn’t add is the Communist motive for such collaboration: fostering violent agitation in such a way that divisions of Left and Right at the base might give way to the solidarity of insurrection. July and August 1931 had already seen collaboration between the KPD and the National Socialists to oust the Social Democratic-led Prussian state government in the notorious “Red-Brown Referendum” (which the KPD preferred to call simply the “Red Referendum”). Similar instances can be multiplied throughout Europe in this period. On February 6, 1934, in the wake of the Stavisky corruption scandal, several thousand armed fascists and Royalists marched on the French Parliament building. Members of the ARC, the Communist ex-servicemen’s organisation, marched alongside the extreme right Croix de Feu. For several days Paris was the scene of riots and street fighting. The Communist newspaper L’Humanité seemed to suggest at first that any onslaught on a bourgeois parliament should be supported from whatever quarter it came. Any repression it occasioned would simply prove the secretly fascist nature of the government. On the evening of the 6th, Maurice Thorez refused a proposal from the Social Democrats for collective working-class mobilisation against the prospect of a fascist coup. Under increasing pressure of events, the PCF eventually called for a joint demonstration on February 9th. The PCF and the French Socialist Party were not formally to sign their “Unity in Action Pact” until July 1934 – the first indication that the “Third Period” strategy was on its way out.
22The Orators’ birthday Ode for John Warner also reflects Third period strategies. Auden’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter misread the book’s stance when he claimed that the Ode takes a “neutral and mocking attitude to politics”, attacking both “Mosley’s extreme right-wingers” and the ILP (which he incorrectly describes as “a breakaway group from the main Labour movement” – their secession came later), and concluded that “Auden as yet made no distinctions; all politics appeared equally absurd to him” (134). Rather, in celebrating direct insurrectionary action, the Ode lumps in the Labour Party rump that survived Ramsay Macdonald’s defection, the left-wing Independent Labour Party, and Mosley’s “New Party”, the political complexion of which in 1931-2 was still ambivalently on the left, as all varieties of “social fascism”. Seeing all these “false lefts” as “social fascists”, The Orators opportunistically grafted on to Auden’s Sorelian anarchism the idées reçus of orthodox Stalinism he would have encountered via Gabriel Carritt, the dedicatee of the book’s second Ode, and an intimate of the inner circles of the CPGB, at whose Pembrokeshire home, the book records, Auden was staying, in the company of such fellow-travellers as Richard Crossman, in “The week the Labour Cabinet resigned”. The Orators, that is, has a precise political signature.
- 4 I have explored the ideology of this poem more fully in my own contribution to the same symposium, (...)
23Auden’s poem later called “1929”, written probably between late 1929 and early 1930, tells of workers’ street demonstrations and running battles with the police in Berlin, “Shooting and barricade in street”, “a friend / Talking excitedly of final war / Of proletariat against police”, and ends with a vision of revolutionary apocalypse in October 1929, the month of the Wall Street Crash (Auden Poems 61-6). Critics have nevertheless consistently sought to dissociate its chiliasm from any immediate political application. It is more difficult to deny the political implications of the poem first published as “A Communist to Others” in The Twentieth Century in September 1932, though Auden’s later rejection of this embarrassing text has been generally approved. Its publishing history tracks the decisive shift in Comintern policy that took place during the course of 1934. Julian Symons, reading it when it first appeared, thought its intention “straightforward: an appeal to join the Party. We never doubted that the poet was himself a Party member” (Bucknell & Jenkins 178).4 At this stage, the poem is indeed a straightforward piece of “Third Period” recruitment literature. The “Others” it addresses are, to begin with, those non-Communist workers who have to be persuaded that it is in their “objective” interests to join with the Communists. But it also addresses another “Other”, one Auden is much happier to confront, gloatingly informing the bourgeoisie that the future is “not in love with you at all”, but with us, the Communists. It goes on to address an even more insidious enemy, what the poem calls “That army intellectual / Of every kind of liberal / Smarmy with friendship but of all / There are none falser”. Such petty-bourgeois “false lefts” will “fade away like morning dew” once the revolution begins in earnest, exposed as what the original title of his 1934 essay on his old school called “The Liberal Fascist”. There is little doubt about Auden’s hard-line leftism at the time he was writing these poems. Harold Nicolson, who had been a minister in Macdonald’s cabinet, and had left the Labour Party with Oswald Mosley and John Strachey to found the “New Party”, recorded in his diary for 4 August 1933 a very similar indictment, in another poem of Auden’s:
- 5 It is possible to reconstruct, from Nicolson’s somewhat garbled recollection, that the poem Auden (...)
Wystan Auden read us some of his new poem in the evening…. It is not so much a defence of communism as an attack upon all the ideas of comfort and complacency which will make communism difficult to achieve in this country. It interests me particularly as showing, at last, that I belong to an older generation. I follow Auden in his derision of patriotism, class distinctions, comfort, and all the ineptitudes of the middle-classes. But when he also derides the other soft little harmless things which make my life comfortable, I feel a chill autumn wind. I feel that were I a communist the type of person whom I should most wish to attack would not be the millionaire or the imperialist, but the soft, reasonable, tolerant, secure, self-satisfied intellectuals like Vita and myself. A man like Auden with his fierce repudiation of half-way houses and his gentle integrity makes one feel terribly discontented with one’s own smug successfulness. I go to bed feeling terribly Edwardian and back-number, and yet, thank God, delighted that people like Wystan Auden should actually exist (Nicolson 153).5
24By the time “A Communist to Others” came to be collected in Look, Stranger! in 1936, Auden had revised it considerably, dropping the combatively sectarian title, deleting several stanzas, and substituting, for the “Comrades” of the opening address, the less contentious “Brothers”. These revisions are usually interpreted as evidence that he was already backing away from Communist commitment (though he had yet to go to Spain). There is an alternative explanation. The revisions certainly soften the aggressively militant tone of the original, but with a specific political purpose in mind. “Comrades” spoke only to the converted, whereas the ecumenical “Brothers” opens out to the wider Labour and trade union movement, where it was the customary mode of fraternal address, with Christian rather than explicitly Communist associations. What we see in the changes is the emergence in poetry of the political line associated with the Popular Front strategy initiated by the Comintern at its Seventh Congress in 1935.
25There is little sign of a retreat from Communist commitment anywhere in the volume. Rather, in a book which merges homo-eroticism with spilt Christianity, “communism” masquerades under the buzz word of universal “love” (the “Charity” of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians). The book is all atremble with the expectation of apocalypse, and of renewal the other side of catastrophe. Its “Prologue” evokes some “possible dream” that, in Leninist terms, will “lay on our talk and kindness / Its military silence, its surgeon’s idea of pain”, emerging “out of the Future into actual [and capitalised] History”. Its second poem, “Out on the lawn”, rebukes “Our metaphysical distress” and liberal “kindness to ten persons” in the name of “The gathering multitudes outside / Whose glances hunger weakens”, and welcomes the “crumpling flood” of revolution that will overwhelm this bourgeois complacency. The third poem invokes an anonymous Lenin’s description of the Communist militant’s preparedness “To hunger, work illegally, / And be anonymous”. In “The chimneys are smoking”, the “political orator” (originally “Communist orator”) lands at the pier to proselytise. “Here on the cropped grass” concludes in Marxist terms that “men are changed by what they do”, while “August for the people” speaks of “this hour of crisis and dismay” which will “Make action urgent and its nature clear”, as “all sway forward on the dangerous flood / Of history”. The volume’s “Epilogue” invokes Lenin again anonymously as “the neat man / To their east who ordered Gorki [the city, that is] to be electrified” as the figure of the future’s “really better / World”, echoing his formula that “Communism equals soviets plus electricity.” Auden is not retreating from Communism here. He is simply converting the tone of his polemic into a more inviting, even seductive idea of Communism, as did that symptomatic volume of the Popular Front to which he, John Cornford and many other left-leaning intellectuals had contributed in 1935, Christianity and the Social Revolution, published by the fellow-travelling Victor Gollancz and edited by the Communist John Lewis.
26The most revealing instance of the way Look, Stranger! toes the Party line can be found in what is now an almost completely opaque allusion in “Out on the lawn”. In later years the poem was severely edited, shortened and rewritten by Auden to become an instance of his first inklings of a return to Christian communion, a cover story insistently exposited in his 1964 Introduction to Anne Fremantle’s book The Protestant Mystics (Auden Forewords and Afterwords 69-70).
27In its initial form, however, it is clearly a political revelation that the poem affirms. Exactly halfway through the original version, it speaks guiltily of “we / Whom hunger cannot move”, enduring self-indulgently only “The tyrannies of love”, who “do not care to know / Where Poland draws her Eastern bow, / What violence is done”. Most readers have lazily conflated this allusion with Hitler’s invasion of Poland six years later, which provided the impulse for the famous, subsequently suppressed, “September 1, 1939”. In this scenario, this is “brave little Poland”, subjected to Nazi tyranny. But in June 1933, when “Out on the lawn” was written, Poland was itself seen by most people on the Left as a semi-fascist dictatorship, ruled by General Jósef Pilsudski, from 1926 until his death in 1935 de facto dictator of the state resurrected from the collapse of empires by the Treaty of Versailles. Read properly, “Out on the lawn” makes it clear that it is Poland that is the aggressor, Poland which does the violence. That drawing of an “Eastern bow” – one, that is, pointing towards the Soviet Ukraine – is the key. The conundrum is illuminated by a passing reference in John Cornford’s essay “The Struggle for Power in Western Europe”, published in Cambridge Left in Spring 1934:
Fascism exploits the Nationalist feelings of the petty bourgeoisie to divert their hostility towards the existing regime by whipping up a chauvinist frenzy against some foreign scapegoat – in Germany, the Jews; in Poland the Ukrainian minority(Galassi 64).
28The ultra-nationalist Polish state instigated, during 1932-34, a series of brutal assaults on the predominantly Ukrainian civilian population of Galicia, in eastern Poland, as reprisals for anti-Polish terrorist activities by the secessionist “Ukrainian National Army”. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this conflict, Soviet Realpolitik in this period cynically and self-interestedly encouraged such secessionist movements among Poland’s Ukrainian minority. Auden’s poem evokes what his left-wing readers would have immediately recognised as a cause célèbre of Communist propaganda. That Stalin was at the time himself responsible for massive repression and famine in the Soviet Ukraine is an irony more apparent in hindsight than it was to fellow travellers of Auden’s and Cornford’s day.
29Poem 21 in Look, Stranger!, later called “A Bride in the 30s”, written in November 1934, is perhaps the most interesting illustration of this volume’s ideological transition from Third Period to Popular Front mindsets. The recollection of a trip to central Europe, including Nazi Germany, in the summer of 1934, the poem deploys a classic image from the decade:
Ten thousand of the desperate marching by
Five feet, six feet, seven feet high:
Hitler and Mussolini in their wooing poses
Churchill acknowledging the voters’ greeting
Roosevelt at the microphone, Van der Lubbe laughing
And our first meeting.
30It goes on to construct a textbook Audenesque convergence of personal and political:
The voice of love saying lightly, brightly –
“Be Lubbe, Be Hitler, but be my good
31When the poem was written, Comintern policy was volatile and uncertain, in transition between Third Period and Popular Front strategies. By the time Look, Stranger! appeared in 1936, the Popular Front rationale had been formally in operation for nearly two years. This explains, I’d suggest, the ambiguity of a list which includes Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill and Roosevelt. With hindsight, we think of the latter two names as on the side of liberal democracy, and therefore as necessary antagonists of the first two. In the Third Period rhetoric, however, they had been reviled as prospective fascists. The writing of Auden’s poem is exactly contemporary with, for example, Fenner Brockway’s book,Will Roosevelt Succeed? A study of fascist tendencies in America (1934). The poem leaves astutely unclear precisely what political complexion it gives to the Anglo-Americans: are they with us, or against us? Stalin’s name, though, is significantly absent from this list of dictators and demagogues, as is, perhaps more interestingly, that of the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, jointly charged at the Leipzig show trial with the Dutch anarchist Marinus van der Lubbe with burning down the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe was executed by the Nazis, while an orchestrated international outcry got Dimitrov acquitted.
32At the time, the name of Van der Lubbe was inextricably linked with that of Dimitrov, so that one would inevitably have called up the other to any contemporary reader. As Claud Cockburn observed three decades later, in 1958:
Nothing prods and stimulates one’s time-sense more healthily than the realization that some figure, some name which was a household word and played a major role in your own thinking and living for years, means precisely nothing to almost anyone more than about fifteen years younger than oneself. It is that way, I suppose, with Dimitrov.
In the blackness of 1933, with Hitler triumphant in Germany, the heroic figure of Dimitrov at the Reichstag Fire trial was a signal rocket, seeming to tell the world that the blackness had not after all triumphed wholly and for ever. He was the first man to show the dictators that, however big they were, a man with an idea could still take the stuffing out of them. Dimitrov, in fact, symbolized not only the struggle against Fascism, but the struggle of the thoughtful and the civilized against the philistines. Millions of people who were not Communists, millions, even, of anti-Communists, were inspired and rallied by him (Cockburn 145).
- 6 Van der Lubbe’s manic laughter left a strong impression on audiences who saw it broadcast widely in (...)
- 7 Cf. J. V. Stalin: “According to the five-year plan, by the end of the five-year period we were to (...)
33Perhaps Auden’s omission was strategic, since the allusion to the tragi-comic figure of Van der Lubbe, seen at the time as a buffoon or madman,6 almost inevitably carried with it a subliminal association with the heroic Communist icon of that Trial. This would be consistent with the poem’s stress on the secrecy and duplicity by which “love” “through our private stuff must work / His public spirit”, to “perform / The programme that we think of merit”, as “Crooked to move as a moneybug or a cancer”. “Programme”, after all, is here a charged word, in an era of Soviet Five Year Programmes.7 But the word could also, given that verb “perform”, be a theatrical usage, apposite to the ethos of the poem, in which the earnest and the histrionically self-dramatising jostle each other.
34It was Dimitrov who in 1935, as General Secretary of the Communist International, proposed at its Seventh Congress, in a speech entitled “The Unity of the Working Class against Fascism“, the programme of anti-fascist unity subsequently known as the “Popular Front.” This policy went further than collaboration with the leadership of the previously reviled “social fascist” parties. It now involved collaboration across classes with what was henceforth called the “progressive” bourgeoisie. The foremost literary-critical expression of this programme is probably George Lukács’s reaching out, in his 1936 study The Historical Novel, to what was now seen as the objectively “progressive” interpretation of history in the novels of the (subjectively) ultra-conservative Sir Walter Scott. Such a cross-class alliance required, as many on the Left both within and outside the Communist International made clear, that a brake be imposed, in the interests of “anti-fascist” unity, on the radicalisation of working-class expectations. And indeed, the Communist-backed Popular Front governments elected in France and Spain in 1936 sought strenuously to suppress the proletarian insurrections, factory occupations and land expropriations which accompanied their victories. In Spain, the class accommodations required by Popular Front strategy opened up the major divide between the Moscow-backed Communists and the non-Stalinist Leftists of POUM, the Anarchists and other socialists, resolved only by the murderous Barcelona pogrom Orwell records in Homage to Catalonia (1938).
35There is a significant political stutter at the heart of John Cornford’s powerful meditation in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, “Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca” (Galassi 38-40), which can, I think, be elucidated in the context of this bloody debate. John Cornford joined the Communist Party in Cambridge in 1935. He was killed on the Cordoba front in December 1936. His poem speaks of Spain as the place where “our testing has begun”, a “testing” not only of courage in the fight with fascism but of political resolve. Increasingly, this seemed to involve an internal moral struggle with one’s bourgeois self, to maintain loyalty to the Party amidst misgivings about its policies and practice. The dilemma is expressed at length in a long, rambling letter Cornford wrote to Margot Heinemann from the Aragon front in which, speaking of his sense of solidarity with “German comrades” in his unit, he nevertheless noted that several of them had left the Party “because they genuinely believe the C.I. [Communist International] has deserted the revolution”. He, however, was “beginning to find out how much the Party and the International have become flesh and blood of me. Even when I can put forward no rational argument, I feel that to cut adrift from the Party is the beginning of political suicide” (Galassi, 171-81; at 180).
36If there had actually been no doubts, however, cutting adrift would not have entered his thoughts. Cornford’s struggle to forge the self into a dedicated and unquestioning cadre is clearest in the prayer at the heart of the poem. “Now, with my Party, I stand quite alone”, he proclaims, apparently unaware of the paradoxical union of solidarity and isolation this implies:
Then let my private battle with my nerves…
The loneliness that claws my guts,
Fuse in the welded front our fight preserves.
37A careless reading might attribute to Cornford himself the closing exhortation to “Raise the red flag triumphantly / For Communism and for liberty”. But the strident affirmation is in fact imaginary, projected by him into an uncertain future when “the workers of all the world” will gather on the plain of Huesca to raise the red flag and “Swear that our dead fought not in vain”. That last uncertain note is symptomatic. The poem is riddled with doubt and intellectual anxiety, speaking of the “Crooked… road that we must tread” and “freedom’s crooked scars”, acknowledging that “Freedom is an easily spoken word/ But facts are stubborn things”, all of which is focused in the poem’s heretical hesitation about “what the Seventh Congress said,/ If true, if false”. In his essay “What Communism Stands For” in Christianity and the Social Revolution, which was published in 1935, Cornford is emphatic that the present era is “the epoch of imperialist wars, of wars between the great powers for the redivision of the world”, in which “each successive crisis in the imperialist epoch is the prelude to a more desperate world war” (Lewis 242). For, he continues, “the whole structure of capitalist rule eliminates the possibility of the peaceful conquest of power by the working class. If the working class ever wishes to take power, it must prepare for civil war” (256). Indeed, Cornford goes further, in terms not often heard in the period of Popular Front politics, calling attention to “The fate of the dozens of constitutional ‘Socialist’ Governments – in Germany, Austria, Australia, Great Britain, Scandinavia, Spain, etc., not one of which has been able to introduce an atom of lasting Socialism”, which is “the fate of the Socialists who ‘reject’ civil war”, and continuing with an attack on the line of “the Socialist League, the left of the English Labour Party” for misunderstanding “the whole structure of the capitalist State” (257).
38The book’s editor, the Communist John Lewis, reported in his Preface that it was “conceived in the summer of 1933”, but “Many unexpected difficulties have delayed the publication” (13). Given the time it took for books to go through the press in those days, Cornford’s essay is not likely to have been written after early 1934 (it contains a 1934 quote from Palme Dutt that may well be a late addition). It probably predates, then, the official formulation of the Popular Front policy. Whatever the timescale, Cornford’s views in this essay are heavily charged with the insurrectionary assumptions of the Third Period, assumptions even more apparent in the article “Left?”, which appeared in Cambridge Left in the winter of 1933-34, which asserts, in attacking Stephen Spender, that “there is no middle position between revolution and reaction” (Galassi 59), and actually quotes two caustic stanzas from Auden’s “A Communist to Others” with the comment “There is no ambiguity about this”, commending its “far more virile and direct revolutionary form” (Galassi 61). Cornford’s essay “The Struggle for Power in Western Europe”, published in Cambridge Left in Spring 1934, likewise shows little signs of a burgeoning Popular Front mentality, pouring scorn on Social Democracy for facing “in two directions – to show the bourgeoisie its absolute loyalty and to present the revolutionary workers revolutionary phrases without giving any lead in the immediate struggles” (66).
39Indeed, quoting D. Z. Manuilsky’s denunciation of the Second International at the 17th Congress of the CPSU for seeking “Socialism but without the proletarian revolution”, and for claiming Roosevelt’s programme as its own in common with Mussolini, he concludes that “In sharp opposition to the theory and practice of the democratic transition from Capitalism to Socialism stands the Communist International. It has always resolutely put forward the slogan of class against class” (Galassi 66-7). Cornford’s private battle with his nerves, then, was also a struggle to convince himself that “what the Seventh Congress said” was true, not false. In the poem it is immediately followed by the invocation of Dimitrov, not as the Seventh Congress’s advocate for the Popular Front, but as the lonely and embattled revolutionary who, three years earlier, in the lair of the “Leipzig dragon”, had “fought alone / And we stood taller when he won.” If, as the poem reports, “Communism was my waking time”, it was the Communism not of the Popular Front but of the Third Period strategy, now branded an ultra-left, sectarian heresy, espoused only by such alleged “Trotskyists” as the POUM division to which Cornford found himself accidentally attached. The last poem Cornford wrote, “A Letter from Aragon”, ends with the words of an anarchist fellow-soldier, urging him to “‘Tell the workers of England/ This was a war not of our own making.’” For all the struggle to drown his subjective doubts in the “objective” programme of a “welded front”, Cornford’s hesitations reflect a sympathy with the critiques of Popular Front strategy around him, among POUM, anarchists and his dissident, ex-Communist German comrades, a state of mind similar to that Orwell records in Homage to Catalonia and in the article “Spilling the Spanish Beans” (Orwell, 302-4).
- 8 On the actual politics of POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), and attacks on it by both (...)
40I want to remind you of that proclamation by the PCF in 1932, and particularly the last paragraph, with its insistence on the alleged objectivity of the Party’s unchallengeable analysis of events, with the insistent phrases, “objective current conditions”, “objective situation”, “material, objective basis for our entire tactic”. The weasel word “objective” lies at the heart of the intellectual defence of the “unwavering line”. It fulfils the same function as the idea of the “counter-intuitive”: it might look to you, as a subjective individual, that the sun goes round the earth, but the Party, with its “scientific” knowledge, knows that it is actually the reverse. I can illustrate how it operated with one sentence from Frank Jellinek’s The Civil War in Spain, published by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club in 1938, which, while recognising that the POUM was not a Trotskyist organisation, argued that “it was objectively helping Trotskyism – and, by extension, fascism” (Jellinek 339).8
- 9 Koestler had been recruited to the Comintern by the charismatic Willi Muenzenberg, who met his own (...)
41The binary could be used to dismiss any argument for the defence which insisted on authentic subjective motivation: to disagree with the Party’s unwavering line was always “objectively counter-revolutionary”. The formula was used throughout Stalin’s show trials, and in many internal inquisitions within the national parties, sometimes to murderous effect. Arthur Koestler’s novel of Communist disenchantment, Darkness at Noon (1940), demonstrates how it worked. The imprisoned revolutionary Rubashov, based in part on N. I. Bukharin, tortured by KGB thugs, rediscovers in his condemned cell that, after years of believing his self to be a mere “grammatical fiction”, required to submit his “subjective” perceptions to the “objectivity” of a shifting Party line, he still has an authentic self which can say “I”, and say “No” (231-54 passim).9
42In his semi-fictionalised memoir from 1977, Christopher and his Kind, Christopher Isherwood quotes from a diary of 1938 the subjective reasons why his generation could find attractive such submission to omniscient higher authority:
The more I think about myself, the more I’m persuaded that, as a person, I really don’t exist… I cannot believe in my own soul. No, I am a chemical compound, conditioned by environment and education. My “character” is simply a repertoire of acquired tricks, my conversation a repertoire of adaptations and echoes, my feelings are dictated by purely physical, external stimuli. (277)
43Stephen Spender’s autobiography, World Within World, explained in 1951 his brief conversion to Communism in similar terms:
- 10 Auden’s elegy for Louis MacNeice, “The Cave of Making”, has a dry comment on this phenomenon. One (...)
Communism seemed to offer a way out of my dilemma. It suggested to me that after all I was not myself. I was simply a product of my bourgeois circumstances. By “going over to the proletariat” and entering a different set of circumstances I could become another kind of social projection. I would be “on the side of history” and not “rejected” by it. (311)10
- 11 “Our generation”, Stephen Spender recollected half a century later, “was conscripted into politics (...)
44John Lehmann too envisaged commitment to the Spanish cause in a metaphor of pseudo-scientific determinism in which subjects became part of an impersonal force like Cornford’s “welded front”, as he wrote in The Whispering Gallery in 1955: “everything, all our fears, our confused hopes and beliefs, our half-formulated theories and imaginings, veered and converged towards its testing and its opportunity, like steel filings that slide towards a magnet suddenly put near them” (273).11
45In Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood claimed that his and Auden’s disenchantment with Communism preceded the Hitler-Stalin Pact. On board the Champlain, bound for the USA in January 1939, he reports,
Alone with Wystan, he was able, literally, to speak his mind – to say things which he hadn’t known were in it, until the moment of speaking. One morning, when they were walking on the deck, Christopher heard himself say: “You know, it just doesn’t mean anything to me any more – the Popular Front, the party line, the anti-fascist struggle. I suppose they’re okay but something’s wrong with me. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful.” To which Wystan answered: “Neither can I.” (247-8)
46The text however admits that these were “not their exact words”, and there is an element of retrospective fictionalisation to the whole episode,
but, psychologically, it was as simple as that. They had been playing parts, repeating slogans created for them by others. Now they wanted to stop. Christopher felt almost equally surprised by his own statement and by Wystan’s agreement with it. The surprise was mutual. Their agreement made them happy. (248)
- 12 Auden knew his poetry could have a similar effect. The self-loathing of the reformed sinner lies (...)
47Later, newly arrived in New York, Auden spoke at a dinner to raise money for Spanish refugees. The speech’s success provoked a bout of self-contempt. As he wrote to a friend a few months later, “I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring. I felt just covered with dirt afterwards” (Carpenter 256). The “low dishonest decade” was almost over.12