the imaginative conservative logo

ideology

Literature in Revolution. Edited by George Abbott White and Charles Newman. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston-Triquarterly Book, 1972). 

Time was when the study of humane letters stood central in formal education. Public men were brought up in a literary discipline, and “rhetoric” meant more than an orator’s style. The domination of the political order by men who knew their poets and their philosophers went farthest in old China, but it existed to some degree throughout the civilized world until the First World War. Woodrow Wilson was the last American president representing this literary culture – and he imperfectly.

In political leaders, and even among those many unknowable individuals who (in Dicey’s argument) are the real authors of public opinion, the literary culture nurtured political understanding. To those who must make political decisions, humane letters supplied two principal supports. First, the literary discipline set them in a tradition, which gave them ethical awareness and historical consciousness. Second, the literary discipline woke their imagination, so that they might approach the complexity of public concerns with broader views than a vulgarized pragmatism can give.

In such an age as ours, afflicted by what Mr. Glenn Tinder calls “the crisis of political imagination,” a renewed awareness of great literature might help us toward a tolerable political order. As G. K. Chesterton says, all life is an allegory, and we can understand it only in parable. To apprehend reasonably well the nature of order and justice and freedom, we require those insights into soul and community called “poetic”: the vision of Plato or Virgil or Dante. And it is not to the classics only that one may turn for this kind of penetration into the human condition. Santayana’s novel The Last Puritan teaches us more about American character than can any number of doctoral dissertations on that theme, and Conrad’s novel Nostromo gives us an analysis of Latin American disorder more convincing than is a shelf of behavioral studies.

The twenty-one contributors to Literature in Revolution believe that imagination rules the world; that humane literature influences politics and is affected by political circumstance. This collection is one response to a growing recognition that students of politics ought to understand something of humane letters, and that students of humane letters ought not to ignore politics – a trend which, so far, has produced one promising university curriculum in literature and politics (at the University of Dallas) and a number of snippet-textbooks meant for use in departments of English or of political science. To judge from the paperback printing of this new volume, the editors hope that Literature in Revolution may obtain college adoptions – perhaps at Harvard, where one of the editors, George Abbott White, offered in 1969 a course in “Politics and Literature.” (More than a thousand students enrolled, but soon the program was riven by New Left factionalism.) Such serious collections are to be welcomed as bases for discussion. What impairs the present volume for this purpose, nevertheless, is its strong ideological cast.

I am far from implying that the study of literature ought to be kept pure from political contamination. When recently I spoke at a Michigan college on the moral imagination of T. S. Eliot, one member of the staff remarked that he did not care for poets who mingle politics with verse. But if that is so, he must dislike Plato, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Shelley, Wordsworth, and many of the Victorian poets, as well as Eliot. The great poet, concerned with the order of the soul, finds it difficult to ignore the order of the commonwealth; and that is as true of great novelists. George Orwell wrote in 1946 that “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”[1]

Yet recognizing that the poetic imagination often extends to politics is one thing; while chaining the poet, the dramatist, and the novelist to an ideology is something different. “Ideology,” as that term has been employed by systematic writers (distinguished from newspapermen), signifies political dogmatism – what Burke called “an armed doctrine.” An ideology promises salvation through politics. For the ideologue, literature and the arts must serve fixed political ends. The mastery of triumphant ideology over humane letters results in “the captive mind,” as Czeslaw Milosz puts it: the poet, ceasing to be the seer, is reduced to the propagandist and is subjected to the compulsions of “Soviet realism” or to comparable literary canons.

Ideology is a great sickness of our time, says Mr. Irving Howe, who happens to be a socialist.

The growth of ideology, I would suggest, is closely related to the accumulation of social pressures. It is when men no longer feel that they have adequate choices in their styles of life, when they conclude that there are no longer possibilities for honorable maneuver and compromise, when they decide that the time has come for “ultimate” social loyalties and political decisions – it is then that ideology begins to flourish. Ideology reflects a hardening of commitment, the freezing of opinion into a system. It speaks of a society in which men feel themselves becoming functions of large impersonal forces over which they can claim little control. It represents an effort to employ abstract ideas as a means of overcoming the abstractions of social life. It is the passion of men with their backs to the wall.

Dostoevsky, he remarks, “shows how ideology can cripple human impulses, blind men to simple facts, make them monsters by tempting them into that fatal habit which anthropologists call ‘reifying’ ideas.”[2]

Political theory, then, is not identical with ideology. In their cast of mind, the editors of Literature in Revolution are ideological, rather than theoretical. “Some of the contributors would call themselves Marxists,” Mr. Newman writes; “others would simply say they find Marxist methodology useful.” He hopes that they form a band of brothers: “I see no evidence of the rigid ideological polarization, at least regarding the function and uses of literature, which is often attributed to the Left. The editors find no need to consider other critical judgments. They do acknowledge having omitted “essays written from the black and feminist points of view,” but tell the reader that “it becomes very difficult to find statements which haven’t already been articulated elsewhere, particularly when the major energies of the respective movements have been expended in establishing the legitimacy of the viewpoint in question.” They take it for granted that the legitimacy of Marxist interpretation of literature is established.

This volume is the principal specimen, so far, of the Marxist criticism that has obtained a certain vogue in some universities’ departments of English literature – a kind of autumnal fruit of the New Left, or “The Movement.” About three years ago, these Movement scholars captured control of the Modern Language Association by a coup at a business meeting of the MLA convention. The antics of those Movement ideologues, headed by Mr. Louis Kampf, are examined mordantly in this collection by Mr. Frederick Crews, in an essay entitled “Offing Culture: Literary Study and the Movement.” (Perhaps Crews is not so faithful a member of this band of brothers as Charles Newman would like.) Since then, the New Left has declined in power among professors of English, as in other quarters, but it remains aggressive, especially when sheltered by academic tenure.

For in America it is possible to play at being a Marxist critic, without having to pay the usual price of servitude to a political regime. A recent number of College English, the journal of the National Council of Teachers of English, was devoted wholly to Marxist literary criticism; that journal’s editor, Mr. Richard Ohmann, of Wesleyan University, proclaims himself a Marxist. He has numerous colleagues scattered across the land. Take Mr. Frederic Jameson, who teaches comparative literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara: he declares that Marxist dogma “has once again seemed to many the only intellectually coherent and fully satisfying historical and economic explanation for the things that have happened to us. It is a total explanation.”

Although Marxism may not supply a “total explanation” of literature for all the contributors to this collection, certainly it helps them. By “revolution,” they have in mind principally Marxist revolution. Mr. Newman subscribes his introduction “Budapest, Hungary, December 1971” – from a country where an anti-Marxist revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks a dozen years earlier. At Budapest, annually, there occurs a big writers’ conference. But the participants from Eastern Europe do not share Newman’s veneration of Marxist literary dogmas; they have had practical experience of such canons. Mr. Anthony Kerrigan, an American writer living in Ireland, was invited to one of these congresses, a year after Mr. Newman’s pilgrimage to Budapest, and gave me a candid report. He found himself – though he is the translator of Miguel Unamuno, distinctly no Marxist – genuinely welcome among Hungarian writers:

It is no mistake that they invite non-Reds. They are trying to get through to us. Not one word of propaganda at the congress: we heard the epithet “Marxist” twice in three weeks there, and both times in derision.

We were asked for nothing in return for the free trip on Malev Air Lines, the stay at the Royal (I) Hotel, the endless banquets, state car with chauffeur – and even a stipend for myself and my wife. Nor as repayment for the hours in the medieval carriages with medieval-uniformed coachmen, out to see the seventy-seven Lipizaner horses lined up for us by Magyar horsemen on the windswept plain. Nor as repayment for meals in the private dining rooms off beside the state “people’s dining halls.”

We were asked for nothing in return – except perhaps to think kindly of them, of Hungary, of Hungarian literature, of their (intolerable) history. I was interviewed about Ireland, over a period of two days as we were taken around and over Lake Balaton. This resulted in their printing my anti-Marxist analysis in “Magyar Hirlap,” the government daily paper – without changing a word. This was quite unlike my experience with certain American quarterly journals.

The creative and critical writers of Hungary, it appears, are dissatisfied with the “total explanation” of Marxist criticism – as is Soviet Russia’s most eminent writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (The most “relevant” piece in Literature in Revolution is Mr. Raymond Williams’ essay on Solzhenitsyn.) In Soviet Russia, Solzhenitsyn cannot be published at all nowadays; while in the “capitalist” United States, a thousand flowers of Marxist criticism bloom. This irony does not much distress the editors of Literature in Revolution.

This book’s title is ambiguous. Literature in revolution? What revolution? Do the editors have in mind literature describing revolution, or literature in a revolutionary time, or revolutionary developments in literature itself? Mr. Newman seems to experience misgivings about his own title. He cannot share “Trotsky’s faith in the existence of revolutionary man,” nor entertain “any clear notion of the historical situation which predicates his existence.” The contributors to this volume are not sure that anyone is listening to them – a melancholy change, this, since 1967: “There is a sense here not only of unease, but rather of a desperate attempt to re-establish a constituency – an audience, in a word. And as much as the collection as a whole is a lament for the consequences of radical protest of the last few years, there is very little `repentance’ here.” Is this book a summons or a farewell? The best mentor whom its editors can find is Leon Trotsky.

In his Literature and Revolution (1924), Trotsky wrote of two kinds of revolutionary art-the first reflecting the [Bolshevik] Revolution, the second made up of “the works which are not connected with the Revolution in theme, but are thoroughly imbued with … the new consciousness arising out of the Revolution.” Trotsky called for      “merciless criticism of everything that exists – merciless criticism in the sense that it is not afraid of its findings, and just as little afraid of conflict with the existing powers.” Well, no new revolution having occurred in the 1960’s, the contributors to this volume must content themselves with a “new consciousness” arising out of … out of … why, out of earlier revolutions. Certainly no new consciousness emerged from the turmoil of the Sixties: already The Greening of America has been remaindered. For such “new” consciousness, one must turn back to Trotsky’s Revolution, which devoured Trotsky.

Tutelage to Trotsky, however, involves today’s writers in difficulties – some of them mentioned by Newman, others not. Karl Marx had next to no interest in humane letters, except so far as the writer might be employed as a propagandist in the class struggle, but Leon Trotsky was friendlier toward literature. “He is certainly a man of first-rate intelligence,” T.S. Eliot wrote of Trotsky in 1933, “expressing himself in a rough and ready metaphorical style, and he utters a good deal of sound sense … as an antidote to the false art of revolution his treatise is admirable.”[3] Trotsky’s primary shortcoming, said Eliot, is the notion that art can arise out of ideology: “If we assume for the moment that the revolution is to take place, and that the final classless society will appear, then I concede the possibility that great works of art in new forms will subsequently appear too; I disbelieve, not only that the new art will be any better than the art of all the past, but that the new art will owe its life to communism. The chances for art are no better than out of any other possible development of society, and are not improved by a flood of anticipatory criticism.”

Eliot denies the premise of Trotsky that art is merely the product of social environment; Eliot believes that the writer must do more than come to terms with his environment. “There are also people who, while recognizing the interest of the work of literature as a document upon the ideas and the sensibility of its epoch, and recognizing even that the permanent work of literature is one which does not lack this interest, yet cannot help valuing literary work, like philosophical work, by its breaking through the categories of thought and sensibility of its age; by its speaking, in the language of its time and in the imagery of its own tradition, the word which belongs to no time,” Eliot continues. “Art, we feel, aspires to the condition of the timeless; and communist art, according to the sentence of those who would foretell what it is to be, is bound to the temporal.”[4]

Whether or not the contributors to Literature in Revolution have read these remarks of Eliot upon Trotsky, some of them do attempt to rise above the merely temporal. Indeed, the eagerness of certain contributors to withdraw from political activism into literary scholarship is almost embarrassing. Take Mr. Carl Oglesby, who once led the riots at the University of Wisconsin. Mr. Oglesby here gives us an essay entitled “Melville, or Water Consciousness 8c Its madness.” Herman Melville, he says, found a madness he could live with. Ahab was evil, exploiting his crew, and Moby Dick was the victim of Ahab’s imperialism.

So with a subdued Melville, I ask: Given some broad estimate of the scale, tempo and rhythm at which protoimperial systems condense out and acquire historical outline and social architecture, then swell and grow fevered, finally either to hang suspended a moment before a sometimes luminously sweeping descent, or else to burst all at once and splash blood everywhere, leaving little behind besides shards, cripples and memories that everyone who survives them pants to forget: given ‘these choices, what is the political utility of the concept anti-imperialism?

Is this rich, beautiful prose, transcending the sorry time? Mr. Oglesby clearly hopes so. But Mr. Oglesby’s prose will make no revolution; it may not even make sense. He sedulously avoids any direct reference to Viet Nam, as if he were writing in the Circum- locution Office – as if he would be prosecuted for so heroic a dissent. One thinks of a remark by Georges Sorel, meant to be approbatory: “Our experience of the Marxian theory of value convinces me of the importance which obscurity of style may lend to a doctrine.”

Oglesby departs from Marxist orthodoxy only in the final paragraph of his essay. Melville wrote that “history cannot be justified from within by historical action” – while Marx regularly argued otherwise. Carl Oglesby improves our understanding as follows:

“The attempt to impart meaning to history from within history, however unchallengeable its aura of necessity, succeeds for the most part only in historicizing meaning. In other words, succeeds only in changing the creature one by one into a creature of sovereign economy. No doubt the need for this economy is great. But unless politics is more than history instead of the reverse, how can some people ever ask other people to die?”

In this fashion does Carl Oglesby rise above the mere contemporaneity that T. S. Eliot so often reproached. A similar escape from activism is accomplished by Mr. Conor Cruise O’Brien, in an essay called “Passion and Cunning: the Politics of W. B. Yeats.” Mr. O’Brien tried to conduct the United Nations’ “Operation Smash” in Katanga, but succeeded there only in getting the Irish contingent of the “Peace Force” captured by a band of Baluba warriors. Later he accepted a professorship, endowed by public funds, in New York City, and sat down upon the steps of a draftboard office. More recently, O’Brien has been elected to the popular house of the Irish Republic. Unlike most other Marxists, O’Brien writes well, and knows that his fellow-ideologues do not.

“A Marxist critique which starts from the assumption that bad politics, make for bad style,” he remarks, “will continue `not to succeed.’ The opposite assumption, though not entirely true, would be nearer to the truth. The politics of the left – any left, even a popular `national movement’ – impose, by their emphasis on collective effort and on sacrifice, a constraint on the artist which may show itself in artificialities of style, vagueness or simple carelessness. Right-wing politics, with their emphasis on the freedom of the elite, impose less constraint, require less pretense, allow style to become more personal and direct.”

Yeats was pro-Fascist, O’Brien argues (with a hundred and three footnotes); Yeats’ politics were “sinister.” (Should not the epithet be “dexter”?) Certainly, his flirtations with Cathleen ni Houlihan notwithstanding, Yeats was no revolutionary. But how much of a revolutionary is Conor Cruise O’Brien nowadays? Since he wrote this essay, political terror and assassination have returned to Ireland. One faction of the Irish Republican Army professes its Marxism. What does O’Brien do? He demands in the Dail Eireann that the IRA be put down promptly and severely. He understands, as Edward Gibbon learned while watching from Switzerland the progress of the French Revolution, that revolutionary ideologues kill people like himself. Marxist revolutionary theory is all very well, so long as it is not put into Irish practice. Perhaps the IRA now regard the latter-day O’Brien as a pro-Fascist. O’Brien does praise the timeless in Yeats; he may grow in sympathy with the temporal Yeats.

Not all the contributors to this volume would join the latter-day O’Brien on the wrong (Right) side of the barricades. Most of them, enjoying the protection of an entrenched capitalist regime in these United States, do not have to dread personally the consequences of actual revolution. Mr. Truman Nelson, in his piece “On Creating Revolutionary Art and Going out of Print,” (actually about John Brown of the Pottawatomie Massacres), laments that “No one talks of this, but somewhere along the line our primary right has been taken from us: the right of revolution, of resistance to any government which is clearly destructive of all other inalienable rights of man.” (It would be interesting if the government of the Irish Republic should affirm the IRA’s inalienable right to blow up the Dail, or if a President should protect Mr. Nelson in his inalienable right to storm the White House.) Somebody came and took away our right of revolution; won’t somebody please give it back?

For Nelson, John Brown is the “Great Man,” because Brown killed on principle. Nelson has discovered that Brown was indeed strictly political in his Pottawatomie slaughter, and went at the task in a scientific spirit: “As a surveyor, he did what was occupationally natural to him. He selected his victims from those residing on a survey line running directly north and south, which he could follow in the night by consulting his pocket compass. It was a tactic of great economy of action and he brought it off with complete success.”

Counter-revolutionaries now control our universities and our publishing houses, Nelson instructs us. Among these vicious reactionaries are “the super-liberals of the New York Review of Books.” How shall we rid ourselves of these tyrants? Why, recover that inalienable right of revolution: “It is no longer possible to circumvent them by writing revolutionary history in the form of a novel nor is it possible to attain the distribution or viability of revolutionary essays or tracts until they appear somewhere on a `reading list.’ The only sensible suggestion on this matter comes from Lenin. “The first thing to do is deprive capital of the possibility of hiring writers, buying up publishers and buying newspapers, and to do this the capitalists and exploiters have to be overthrown and their resistance suppressed.”

Aye, the counter-revolutionary editors of the New York Review of Books will rue the day they slighted Mr. Nelson’s fiction, when Nelson leads the proletariat down Madison Avenue. But conceivably that hour of righteous wrath never may arrive; for Truman Nelson is not steeled to his duty by Brown’s Calvinism, with its “revolutionary cutting edge and its revolutionary righteousness.”

Mr. Sol Yurick also celebrates killing in Kansas – a more recent massacre, the slaughter of the Clutter family, which enriched Truman Capote through In Cold Blood. Yurick says that he is writing a “Marxist detective story “; then he runs on for fifty pages, even though his essay (“The Politics of the Imagination: the Problem of Consciousness”) seems to have been severely cut by the editors of this volume. He offers his comments on Grayson Kirk, Gross National Product, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Capote, Heisenberg, McLuhan, Bleak House, Oedipus, Freud, the Great Chain of Being, Faust, the conspiracy theory of history (which he embraces), “the mind-narrowing Stalinist debacle” (which he disapproves), the Old Testament, Norman Mailer, the Puritan Ethic, John Foster Dulles, Moby Dick, and much else besides: all this in a fantastic tapestry. Marx would have had a crushing epithet for Yurick; Lenin would have locked him up; Stalin would have shot him.

In the end, we learn that in Yurick’s detective novel, the killing of Clutter and his family was justified, because Clutter “had been a county agent in his youth.” (The italics are Yurick’s.) You don’t follow? “Wasn’t Clutter, just out of an agricultural land grant college (established by the Morrill Act) a county agent; and wasn’t the county agent system in the past funded by railroads and Rockefellers who endowed the General Education Board, those same Rockefellers who take such an interest in the education of students at Columbia, at Cornell, at Chicago, etc.? Obviously, Clutter was an exploiter of poor farmers, as richly deserving of a nasty end as was Krook in Bleak House.

So, in Yurick’s Marxist detective romance, “What is it that the Marxist detective does? Recognizing the execution of the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, to be a crime, a restoration of an ongoing criminal system, he recognizes the death of the Clutters to be an execution, a revolutionary court judgment, and goes back to find where the real crime took place in order to make Smith and Hickock aware of the political motives of their act … an awareness that would have saved them from execution…” Is Sol Yurick jesting?

No: faithful to Marx, he doesn’t indulge in humor. His paper is written to create “comradely struggle . . . which means responses and counter-responses.” Conversion to Christianity, says Yurick, is “an act of murder.” Nevertheless, he admires T. S. Eliot, even though he charges him with being “the father of the fast cut of the television commercial; he is the father of the modern bourgeois movie.” Eliot, who did possess a sense of humor, would have been tickled.

What can be said of the motives and impulses of this curious range of contributors to Literature in Revolution? Here it is profitable to turn again to Eliot’s Commentary in The Criterion. “It is natural, and not necessarily convincing, to find young intellectuals in New York turning to communism, and turning their communism to literary account,” Eliot wrote in 1933. “The literary profession is not only, in all countries, overcrowded and underpaid (the few overpaid being chiefly persons who have outlived their influence, if they ever had any); it is embarrassed by such a number of ill-trained people doing such a number of unnecessary jobs, and writing so many unnecessary books and unnecessary reviews of books, that it has much ado to maintain its dignity as a profession at all. One is almost tempted to form the opinion that the world is at a stage at which men of letters are a superfluity. To be able therefore to envisage literature under a new aspect, to take part in the creation of a new art and new standards of literary criticism, to be provided with a whole stock of ideas and words, that is for a writer in such circumstances to be given a new lease of fife. It is not always easy, of course, in the ebullitions of a new movement, to distinguish the man who has received the living word from the man whose excess of energy is the result of being relieved of the necessity for thinking for himself. Men who have stopped thinking make up a powerful force. There are obvious inducements, besides that – never wholly absent – of simple conversion, to entice the man of letters into political and social theory which he then employs to revive his sinking fires and rehabilitate his profession.”[5]

Just so: the Movement of 1932, the Movement of 1972. Eliot, a kindly man, did not mention an additional or a different motive of some persons for submitting to the clutch of fanatic ideology: the vicarious gratification of paranoiac impulse. The men who shot John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and George Wallace were able to gratify such impulses directly. Entrenched behind their typewriters, certain writers -mild-mannered, perhaps – may find in distant revolution the satisfaction of a lust: in Bloody Kansas, or in a Siberian cellar.

In our society, Mr. Newman writes in his introduction, “the word `revolution’ has been so debased that it can hardly be used unself-consciously (even in titles for anthologies).” True; yet apparently Newman does not much dissent from Nelson’s and Yurick’s form of “new consciousness.” Let us have no polarization on the Left. “We assume a revolutionary situation,” Newman says, “but wonder if we have genuine revolutionaries or an ideology/tactics equal to it.” Some contributors to this volume might retort that they already possess the ideology/tactics: all they require is a sufficient number of Orwell’s “streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets.”

A revolution in literature occurred nearly six decades ago: the revolution in style and purpose which was worked by Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, and a few others. The names of Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence appear in essay after essay of Literature in Revolution, and not as objects of detestation only. For the would-be revolutionary writers of this anthology, unable themselves to innovate in form or substance, remain the envious imitators of the “reactionaries” (in politics) whom Wyndham Lewis called “the Generation of 1914.”

Eliot especially haunts these New Left critics, which is one reason why I quote Eliot repeatedly in this review. “Eliot thought that his poetry could be understood by factory workers,” Sol Yurick says. Eliot, damn it, is right. Stalin and Mao on literature are dead wrong.” George Abbott White quotes “an ex-president of SDS” (perhaps Carl Oglesby?) who confesses his great admiration for Eliot: “Now it strikes me that hardly any American-English poetry has gone beyond him, that in any case he must be absorbed in order to be transcended….”

Mr. White himself devotes a large part of his essay about F. O. Matthiessen, “Ideology and Literature,” to a running commentary on Eliot: much to White’s vexation, for him Eliot’s communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. He wishes it were otherwise; for – shaking his finger – White instructs us primly, “Eliot, let us say it plainly, with his very bad politics,” is an enemy of the people, a damnable “elitist.” (White ignores, or is unaware of, Eliot’s demolition of Mannheim’s concept of elites, in Notes towards the Definition of Culture.) If only Eliot wouldn’t keep intruding on his consciousness).

As their contribution, Marge Piercy and Dick Lourie present a kind of dialogue called “Tom Eliot Meets the Hulk at Little Big Horn: the Political Economy of Poetry.” Miss Piercy was told by an SDS poet “that an individual’s aesthetics had to belong to the same world view as his politics: it was senseless to have Chē’s politics and Eliot’s poetics. Equally, I might add, you shouldn’t adopt socialist realism unless you dig Stalin’s politics too.” She hopes for New Left poetry consistent with New Left politics, but she finds such aspirations squelched by The New York Review of Books: “As soon as they start dealing with literature, they are the enemy. The dead hand of the Cold War Intellectual shows.” Eliot, confound his Anglo-Catholicism, was this century’s great innovator in poetry; while the dominant left-liberals of this decade, posing as arsonists, read aloud in the firehouse from the selected poems of Benito Mussolini. Who will redeem us from thralldom to Eliot the revolutionary in literature, Eliot the self-proclaimed reactionary in politics?

This conundrum has puzzled other heads than Miss Piercy’s. “Our liberal ideology has produced a large literature of social and political protest,” Lionel Trilling wrote a generation ago, “but not, for several decades, a single writer who commands our real literary admiration; we all respond to the flattery of agreement, but perhaps even the simplest reader among us knows in his heart the difference between that emotion and the real emotions of literature.” The serious critics and the educated public recognize as the monumental figures of our time, 

[certain writers to whom] the liberal ideology has been at best a matter of indifference. Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats, Mann (in his creative work), Kafka, Rilke, Gide – all have their own love of justice and the good life, but in not one of them does it take the form of a love of the ideas and emotions which liberal democracy, as known by our educated class, has declared respectable. So we can say that no connection exists between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary mind of our time.  And this is to say that there is no connection between the political ideas of our educated class and the deep places of the imagination.[6]

This is as true in the 1960s, to Marge Piercy’s sorrow. Where is the New Left’s audience? The “masses” never have heard of these radical critics, and would reject them if ever a New Left poem or novel or essay should penetrate to the proles; while the educated, however they may pride themselves upon political liberality, continue to be moved by Eliot and Yeats.

An Australian man of letters, Mr. James McAuley, does not find this inconsistency so strange and puzzling as does Mr. Trilling:

It is not, as Trilling seems to think, primarily a matter of the higher reaches of literature being attained only by antagonists of liberal politics. If many of the best writers have indeed shown this antagonism, might not the fault lie precisely in that complacency of the liberalists, who are so eager to tell everyone that only those can be genuine liberal democrats who have cut their communications with the Absolute, which every writer with the potentialities of greatness in him knows instinctively to be suicide, whether he be an orthodox believer or not? If liberal democracy is to be identified with liberalist negations and illusions, then every vital intellect will be bound to reject it with contempt. But this is nonsense. Free institutions and representative government do not require the collapse of the mind into positivism or pragmatism or agnosticism; indeed, they will not indefinitely survive such a collapse.[7]

Such a writer as Eliot, McAuley argues, rouses feeling and imagination “under the regnant star of intellectual ideas.” The “liberalist camp” has lost wisdom in knowledge, and then lost knowledge in information. By a failure of the higher imagination, the liberalists bring on sterility in literature and sterility in politics. Why wonder that radicals rise up against the liberalist domination? The radicals’ secular ideology fills a vacuum:

For the strands of spontaneous organic co-operation within society which liberalist individualism has frayed and snapped, it substitutes crude bonds of external compulsion, disposing men into categories manipulated by the State. Thus today, across the twilit Tom Tiddler’s ground of shallow humanism, Tradition and Anti-Tradition confront one another, each recognizing its supreme antagonist. Wherever the totalitarian reaction triumphs, the arts are assigned their definite place in the inversion of a natural order. They are degraded to the level of propagandist instruments, worn out in servile obedience to ignoble purposes. The slogans round the People’s Hall of Culture proclaim that the arts are to regain vital relation to social use and become eloquent once more of social values. And many of those who are sickened by the emptiness of liberalist humanism are deeply impressed, not distinguishing the counterfeit from the genuine ideal. [8]

Ideology, a pseudo-religion, would enslave promptly the revolutionary writers of the New Left – even though those people may fancy that they would form a new elite (always in the interest of The People, of course), a literary intelligentsia. And under Marxist ideology, although the state would not wither away, literature would shrivel: for ideology strikes at the sources of creative imagination.

What Eliot’s revolution in literature gave to our age was a recovery of moral imagination – with the possibility of a renewal of political imagination. As Rose Macaulay writes of the first impact of The Waste Land,

Here now was a poet who drew from the dim corridors of the febrile and fantastic human mind, conscious and subconscious, a new wealth of associated and disassociated images, a newly minted litter of notions, emotions, desires, fears, fantastic prodigies and dreams, the fabulous junk that gleams in the mind’s cellars and on its peripheries, a shifting kaleidoscopic mosaic of images, enriched and coloured literature of every land and age.[9]

Yet Eliot’s literary revolution was rooted in tradition; and from the first, one of Eliot’s purposes was resistance against the “low dream” of the ideologues-against the “Bloody Kansas” notion of social revolution.

Among people who read poetry and serious prose, during the 1920s and later, Eliot’s renewal of the moral imagination worked to diminish the influence of Marxist ideology -in letters and in political opinion. Eliot’s orthodoxy, expressed as it was in new forms, offered something more attractive to mind and heart than could either liberalist aridity or the ominous People’s Hall of Culture. Despising all English political parties, nevertheless Eliot held strong political principles; and one of his principles was contempt for ideology, whether that ideology might be communism or fascism or democratism.

In the name of “democracy,” he wrote in 1937, new oligarchies will be created; men of arts and letters ought to beware of leagues which purport to unite artists by some ideological manifesto. “The term `democracy’ must continue to be used, because it is sacred to the British mind; and it will continue to be used by people whose activities are really directed towards one kind of oligarchy or another – the kind of oligarchy you happen to prefer will always be the one which is `democracy.’ I fear that the groups of ‘artists’ who engage in political affirmations may bring about for themselves just the opposite of what they intend: instead of influencing political directions they may merely be cutting themselves off from the world of events.”[10] He might have written that about Literature in Revolution.

Eliot was not ignorant of Marx. In his quarterly The Criterion, over the years, he published a great deal about Marxism, including contributions by such eminent Marxist writers as D. S. Mirsky. He could find more in common with a Marxist, he said on occasion, than with a latter-day liberal: at least the Marxists were attached to moral principles and addressing themselves to important questions. But the grand fault of the Marxists, he reasoned, was their ignoring of the life of spirit – which must lead, among grimmer things, to false and disappointing premises in art. The Marxist, Eliot wrote, by his literary principles,

is compelled to scorn delights, even such moderate ecstasies as may be provoked by the reading of Emerson’s Essays, and live laborious days in deciding what art ought to be. For this knowledge of literature he is obliged to apply himself, not to the furtive and facile pleasures of Homer and Virgil – the former a person of doubtful identity and citizenship, the latter a sycophantic supporter of a middle-class imperialist dynasty – but to the arduous study of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos; and the end of his precipitous ascent will be an appreciation of the accomplishment of Sam Ornitz, Lester Cohen, and Granville Hicks[11]

(Since Eliot wrote, three of those names have become anathema to Marxist orthodoxy in letters, and two have been forgotten.)

It was no smug satisfaction with the British political order of his age that induced Eliot to oppose Marxism courageously – far ‘from it. All English political parties and factions, he wrote, were ignoring the greater political questions of the day: among them, the plight of education and the plight of the countryside and the environment generally. The western democracies did not come near to the idea of a Christian society; they were slipping into something worse than old paganism.

As his journal The Criterion approached its end, he wrote that he despaired of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, as they then stood.

There seems to be no hope in contemporary politics at all. Meanwhile the supposed progressive and enlightened “intellectuals” shout themselves hoarse in denunciations of foreign systems of life which they have not taken the trouble to comprehend; having never considered that the preliminary to criticizing anything must be an attempt to understand how it came about; and that criticism involves discerning the good from which we might profit, as a qualification for condemning the evil which we wish to avoid. Another characteristic of the type of mind which is doctrinaire without being truly philosophic, is to assume that all problems are soluble: which leads to the ignoring of those which are of such large compass as to appear to present insuperable difficulties. And here the simplifying theorist and the hand-to-mouth politician have a common ground against those who would like to look a little more widely and deeply, in the situation of the present, and a little further, in the prospect of the future.[12]

The contributors to Literature in Revolution share with Eliot a marked dislike of the present condition of society. But they are simplifying theorists, Burckhardt’s “terrible simplifiers,” most of them; and they have passion without eloquence. Some of the essays are pedantic, fragments of “work in progress,” dragging in Marx by the tail; other essays, aiming for spontaneity, nearly attain incoherence; yet others seem deliberately obscure, after the Marxist mode of ambiguity commended by Sorel. There will occur no mustering behind barricades at the clarion call of these litterateurs; these self-proclaimed revolutionaries, unlike Trotsky, are Hollow Men. Disdaining reforms, they insist upon revolution – which means that they must settle for nothing. They have no re- cent revolution to celebrate, no true revolutionary consciousness to analyze, no style adequate to work a revolution within literature on the scale of Eliot’s. A weariness runs through these essays, even though several of them are by young people – a fatigue perhaps with their own slogans. Knowing Eliot, they cannot shut their ears to an insidious whisper:

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Somebody came and took their revolution away. Was Eliot the thief? Indeed, was their intended revolution ever really a practical Marxist revolution? Was not the real philosopher of the New Left Jean Jacques Rousseau, with his “idyllic imagination” (in Irving Babbitt’s phrase)?

Surely Rousseau, not Marx, is the real author of the “convention of discontent” (as Miss Rebecca West calls it) which runs through English and American literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of Meredith and Hardy, Rebecca West writes,

They established the convention that the superior man must not only be ready to rebel against conditions which were inflicting some wrong on the community or a part of it, but also be a rebel as a second profession. It might have seemed obvious that he must sometimes be under an obligation to practice conformity, since it would be absurd if he did not acquiesce in some social arrangement, which he himself had initiated by rebellion. But this was disregarded. The convention demanded that he should be ready and willing to attack society at any moment…. [With Rousseau, Hardy and Meredith he] saw the human will as incorrupt, and therefore believed the courtiers capable of creating a court in which all things would be fair; but the courtiers were plainly handicapped by their ignorance, which century by century, decade by decade, was dispelled. The court as it was yesterday could not be so good as it was today or would be tomorrow; so reform was doomed to eat its children, and the reformer to be- come a rebel engaged in a permanent revolution.[13]

This plausible theory, Rebecca West continues, depends upon belief, total faith, in Progress. But even the courtiers who acknowledge the sovereignty of Marx and Lenin and Trotsky find it difficult nowadays to believe in the inevitability of Progress. Somehow the perfect “revolutionary situation” refuses to produce a revolution. There arises, instead, a popular willingness to settle for “good government,” for politics as the art of the possible, for Eliot’s “permanent things.” Rebecca West puts the matter lucidly:

Good government depends on the recognition of certain principles such as the necessity of suppressing physical violence and giving every citizen full opportunities to be as healthy in body and mind as his constitution permits, – which were discovered in the dim past, since they are so essential to good government that they emerged as soon as man tried to govern himself. For this reason antique institutions may serve modern needs, if they are rebelled against as soon as they operate in an obsolete manner, and if those who rebel against them conform as soon as they succeed in getting them modified, and stay quiet until the modifications are worked out in practice. It is therefore better when admiration is given to the man who can both rebel and conform, according to the needs of the time, and not to the man who can only rebel.[14]

Popular awareness of this truth, after a decade of turmoil, has undone the New Left’s “revolutionary consciousness.” Tradition may be decaying, but ideology is falling apart faster. For the man of letters, to believe even in an unknown god is a greater source of power than to profess belief in a god that failed-in exploded ideology. The fundamental point in the books of James McAuley and Rebecca West is T. S. Eliot’s fundamental point: that literature and society both depend upon faith in a transcendent order. “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin,” Eliot wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society. The contributors to Literature in Revolution no longer can stomach Stalin, or even Mao; they would have no more relish for Trotsky, really, had he been able to maintain himself in power. So they go adrift in politics, with that abstraction “permanent revolution” for compass; so they founder in letters, dragged down by the dead weight of a nineteenth-century ideologue who detested literary dilettantes.

The contributors to Literature in Revolution are not wrong to concern themselves with the political order; no more was Eliot. The liberal imagination’s sunken condition, confessed by Trilling, justifies their search for radical alternatives. Yet no one of the New Left has found his way to the timeless; by Marxism, perhaps, they all are too convention-bound. Karl Marx himself possessed insights of some shrewdness, but the scholars of the New Left read Marxist literature, rather than Marx.

“It is a tendency of creative literature,” Rebecca West concludes, “when it rises above a certain level, to involve itself with statecraft and religion: to exist and to belong to Him.”[15] The literary creations of the New Left have risen only to the level of ideology, which is the negation of statecraft and religion. Perhaps the New Left are not radical enough: Eliot scandalizes them precisely because he went so far, all the way to “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.”

They talk of liberty, but hunger for power; they idolize the People, but serve the ego. If one is bound for Zion, it is not well to plod round a prickly pear planted long ago by Mr. Marx of the British Museum; nor is that a good exercise for rousing the literary imagination. Nevertheless, the cactus land of ideology is perfectly safe for an American writer nowadays. Blessed are the academic revolutionaries, for they shall know tenure.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on or by Dr. Kirk may be found here

This essay originally appeared in the Fall, 1973 issue of the Political Science Reviewer and appears here by permission.


[1] Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (eds.), The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (New York, 1968), I, 4.

[2] Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (New York, 1957), pp. 71, 160.

[3] T. S. Eliot, “A Commentary,” The Criterion, Vol. XII, No. XLVII (January, 1933), p. 245.

[4] Eliot, op. cit., pp. 246, 248.

[5] Eliot, op. cit., p. 244.

[6] Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Doubleday, 1950), pp. 98-99.

[7] James McAuley, The End of Modernity: Essays on Literature, Art and Culture (Sydney, Australia, 1959), pp. vi, vii.

[8] James McAuley, op. cit., pp. 7-8.

[9] Rose Macaulay, in Neville Braybrooke (ed.), T. S. Eliot: A Symposium for His Seventieth Birthday (London, 1958), pp. 29-30.

[10] Eliot, “A Commentary,” The Criterion, Vol. XVII, No. 66 (October, 1937), p p. 83-8.

[11] 11. Eliot, “A Commentary,” The Criterion, Vol. XII, No. XLVII (January, 1933), p. 249.

[12] Eliot, “A Commentary,” The Criterion, Vol. XVII, No. LXX (October, 1938), p. 60.

[13] Rebecca West, The Court and the Castle: The Interaction of Political and Re- ligious Ideas in Imaginative Literature (London, 1958), pp. 145-146,

[14] Ibid., p. 147.

[15] Ibid., p.241.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: