Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Pluto, London, 2018. 192pp., £17.99 pb ISBN 9780745337227 Reviewed by Derek Wall

On 15th March this year Anna Campbell died in Syria. A feminist from Lewes in Sussex she fought as a member of YPJ, the women’s’ protection force, established by the Kurds and their allies. She was killed by the invading Turkish forces in Afrin, who used British military equipment. Christopher Caudwell was, like Anna, a British revolutionary killed in campaign of solidarity. In 1937 at the age of just 27, he died at the battle of Jarama, during the Spanish Civil War, defending the Republican forces from Franco’s far right army, in 1937.

Caudwell was a rising star of Britain’s Marxist left during the 1930s. There is little doubt that if he had survived he would have made a measure intellectual and practical contribution. David Margolies has produced an anthology of some of Caudwell’s most important work, published by Pluto and Monthly Review Press.

Caudwell joined the Communist Party of Britain, undertaking paper sales, confronting the British Union of Fascists and throwing himself into other practical activities. He also wrote a series of works on Marxism, culture, biology and other matters. He had begun to become interested in Marxism in 1934, just three years before his death.

Caudwell’s key insight was to read culture dialectically, seeing works such as poetry or a novel both as a product of society and as an intervention that could contribute to either conserving or changing the world in which they were fashioned.

He read and wrote extremely quickly. He had worked on newspapers and happily produced three or four thousand words a day. His output is astonishing, he wrote several books on flying and between 1929 and 1937, eight sets of crime novels. The novels challenged racist and sexist assumptions common in the 1930s.

There is an essay on D.H. Lawrence, who is criticised as a reactionary looking backward to a more organic past. Sections from his survey of English literature entitled Studies in a Dying Culture contain much of interest. Freud is discussed and praised by Caudwell for his insights, but challenged for failing to see us as products of collective interactions.  Individual therapy will fail in a society that erodes our mental well-being.

Caudwell has limits Marxist culture theory has come on considerably since he wrote. Equally his gendered language, while universal at the time, can jar. He often writes well but his capacity for an extraordinary daily word count can lead to thinness in places.

He also wrote on science and is of interest to ecosocialists. He argued that science was a product of a class society. Thus Darwin’s theory of evolution, while revolutionary and materialist, was a product of a market society and could be distorted to legitimate a vicious social Darwinist order.  While he saw class as influencing science, he rejected the Lysenkoism that was adopted by Stalin. This led to some embarrassment and challenge from the Communist Party after his death.

Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist ,rejected a genetic explanation for crop development, suggesting instead that environmental changes led direct to species change. This was advocated as the official view by Stalin and experiments were falsified to promote it. The Lysenko affair diminished Soviet science which was subsumed by an ideologically constrained approach.

John Bellamy Foster, argues ‘Christopher Caudwell was enormously advanced in his ecological discussions’, but the material on science in this book is relatively brief. While this is unsurprising given Caudwell’s huge output and the focus here on culture,  it would be good to see a more detailed study of Caudwell’s ecological views. Certainly the collection gives a flavour of the remarkable work of a remarkable man.

The British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson in a summary of Caudwell’s contributions , cites a poem written in Caudwell’s memory, which is worth repeating:

I see a man
Last heard of alive on a hill-crest
In Spain, expecting to die at his gun,
Alone, his youth and work all over,
His stars and planets
Reduced to yards of ground,
Hoping others will harvest his crop.

(R.F. Willets, Homage to Christopher CaudwellEnvoi, no.15, 1962)

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