The Popular Front Novel: An Interview with Elinor Taylor

Writers congress

This interview was conducted by Selim Nadi and originally published in French in Période.

Elinor Taylor is a lecturer in English at the University of Westminster in London, a member of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, and a member of the executive committee of the Raymond Williams Society. She is the author of The Popular Front Novel in Britain, 1934-1940 (Brill), and of articles on the communist writers John Sommerfield and Jack Lindsay.

Selim Nadi: How did you first become interested in the British “literary Popular Front”? Why did you focus on communist novels rather than other “cultural forms” (cinema, theatre, dance, etc.). Can one speak about a “cultural front” in Britain as it existed in the US (see: Michael Denning, The Cultural Front, Verso, 1997) – even if what we understand as the Popular Front in Europe was not exactly the same phenomenon as in the US?

Elinor Taylor: I became interested in literary relationships with communism and anti-fascism when I was an undergraduate student. I was curious about how modernist writing, often thought to have peaked by the mid-1920s, was transformed by the rise of fascism and the coming of the Second World War. I was interested too in working-class and socialist writers, but found that these figures, and the larger socio-political developments of the later interwar years, were rarely discussed by major literary histories of the time. Part of the problem is that twentieth-century writing has come to be defined by the periodisation of modernism and post-modernism, so that writing at mid-century is often thought of as either late modernist or early postmodernist. That excludes a lot, especially the persistence and transformations of realism. It was the question of the relationship between realism and political commitment during the 1930s that became the focus of my doctoral thesis, and that was the rationale for focusing on novels rather than other forms.

There isn’t a study of the British Popular Front that encompasses the breadth that Michael Denning’s study of the American Popular Front, The Cultural Front, does. There are important studies of particular developments, like Colin Chambers’ The Story of Unity Theatre (Lawrence & Wishart, 1989) and Mick Wallis’s work on the Popular Front pageants. But I would say that it’s certainly possible to speak of a ‘cultural front’ of politically engaged art and writing in Britain, though I think it was less diverse and less developed than in the American case. The USA had a longer history of cultural organisation via institutions like the John Reed Clubs, established in 1929, and the New Masses journal, established in 1926, while in Britain the institutions of the Popular Front, such as the journal Left Review and the Left Book Club, had no real precedents. The cultural infrastructure that sustained the ‘cultural front’ in Britain was always quite fragile and subject to financial and ideological pressures.

SN: Your forthcoming book – The Popular Front Novel in Britain (Brill, 2018) – is focused on five major British communist novelists (John Sommerfield, Arthur Calder-Marshall, James Barke, Lewis Jones and Jack Lindsay), could you please explain why you chose those authors? Could you please come back on how these writers evolved in the 1930s and after – in their relationship to communism – and if this political evolution appears in their later writings?

The Popular Front Novel in Britain book cover

E.T.: These five writers provide something of a cross-section of writers on the left. Studies of 1930s literature, especially its poetry, tend to focus on upper-middle-class English writers like W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, all of whom were ‘fellow travellers’ of communism and all of whom publicly broke with their earlier commitments within a few years.

But these figures are rather more diverse. Lewis Jones, for instance, was a Welsh communist coal miner who had a background in industrial organisation and Communist Party activities (he was imprisoned during the 1926 General Strike, for example) before he began writing fiction in the 1930s. He died in January 1939, in the week that Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces, after years of exhausting campaigning for the Spanish Republican cause. One story has it that he died after addressing 30 meetings that day.

James Barke worked for a shipbuilding company in Glasgow, Scotland, while pursuing his writing career. Although never formally a member of the Communist Party, he nonetheless wrote during the 1930s and 40s as a committed communist; in the book I suggest that his two novels of the Popular Front period, Major Operation (1936) and The Land of the Leal (1939), show him thinking through the problems and possibilities of the Popular Front line. His main literary project in later life was a quintet of novels about the life of the poet Robert Burns. Barke saw Burns as a radical popular hero for Scotland, someone speaking to and from a popular constituency and so performing something like the function of the ‘organic’ intellectual theorised by Antonio Gramsci (though Barke would not have read Gramsci’s work). He died in 1958.

John Sommerfield was an important figure in a number of cultural initiatives of the left, such as Mass Observation, and was involved in housing campaigns in London. He also fought in the Spanish Civil War. He left the Communist Party in 1956, but the memory of the 1930s is often present in his later writings. His novel-memoir, The Imprinted (1977) is concerned with the ways that anti-communism had colonised the memory of the 1930s and with the difficulties of retrieving and preserving the memories of commitment in a very different historical moment.

Arthur Calder-Marshall’s attachment to communism was quite short-lived and he is something of a classic fellow traveller; an upper-middle-class intellectual drawn to communism by the political crises of the 1930s. He had abandoned communism by 1941, but does not seem to have become an outspoken anti-communist like Stephen Spender and other fellow travellers did. He wrote novels, screenplays and biographies for the rest of his career, though I am not aware that his commitments in the 1930s influenced his later output.

Jack Lindsay is a crucial figure in the intellectual and cultural history of British communism; born in Australia, he became a Marxist in the mid-1930s and produced novels, plays, translations, biographies and poems, among other things. Very much in contrast to the ‘fellow travellers’ like Calder-Marshall, he remained committed to communism throughout his life, remaining in the Communist Party after the crises of 1956 during which many intellectuals left the Party, some of whom, like E. P. Thompson, became key figures of the New Left.

SN: Could you please come back on Jack Lindsay’s work? Not only was he of Australian origins, but a great part of his novels take place in Ancient Greece (Cressida’s First Lover, 1932), in Ancient Rome (Rome For Sale, 1934) or during King Charles I trial in the 17th Century (1649: A Novel of a Year, 1938). How did these kinds of historical novel fit with the aesthetic and political issues of the British Popular Front period?

E.T.: Lindsay is, I think, one of the most interesting and wide-ranging intellectuals in the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Popular Front turn, as it was articulated by the Comintern, placed considerable stress on the ideological role that national histories could play in anti-fascist activism. Thus, at the Comintern’s Seventh Congress in the summer of 1935, its General Secretary Georgi Dimitrov declared that, ‘The fascists are rummaging through the entire history of every nation so as to be able to pose as the heirs and continuators of all that was exalted and heroic in its past’, and argued that communist intellectuals should engage national histories in their work. Dimitrov’s speech was quite widely quoted in the British leftist press and seemed to capture the imagination of a number of communist intellectuals. This turn towards national culture is clearly bound up with the development of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and it reflects the de-prioritisation of international revolution and the consolidation of ‘socialism in one country’. But its consequences, at least in Britain, are culturally significant, and I think it was Lindsay who thought through the implications of this historical emphasis for British culture more thoroughly than anyone else.

I’m particularly interested in how Lindsay’s handled the idea of ‘bourgeois’ revolution as it played out in English history. An important part of the politics of the Popular Front was the claim that there were progressive elements in bourgeois culture as a result of the bourgeoisie’s formerly revolutionary history role. This is a claim Lindsay pursues, I think, through his trilogy of English historical novels, 1649, set during the English Civil War, Lost Birthright, set in 1769, and Men of Forty-Eight, set during the European revolutions of 1848. In the Leveller movement of the Civil War, Lindsay sees a revolutionary impulse that, although unrealised at the time, was nonetheless carried into the future: it was in the 1930s that he thought it might finally come to fruition. But the novels struggle to uphold both the necessity of the victory of the ‘revolutionary’ bourgeois and the other historical possibilities represented by defeated radical movements like the Levellers and the nineteenth-century Chartists. The historical novel as a form was advocated as a medium especially suitable for the rehearsal of Popular Front politics; the last chapter of Georg Lukács’ The Historical Novel, written during this period, makes the claim that the Popular Front was the context in which the form might be revived after what Lukács considered its long retrograde phase that had commenced in 1848. Lindsay made a similar claim in a 1937 article in New Masses. The historical novel was felt to lend itself to the expression of the relationship between diverse social groups and world-historical events. While Lindsay’s novels are trying to bring about that revival of the historical novel, I think in many ways they end up suggesting the contradictions within it. They end up struggling to valorise the bourgeois victors and furthermore often find themselves drawing attention to the implication of the novel form itself in the histories they aim to represent. Like other Popular Front novels I discuss, they end up being about the novel itself in ways that certainly don’t fit with classic models of socialist realism that depended on fairly simplistic notions of linguistic representation.

While in the 1930s Lindsay wrote a great deal on English historical themes, from the 1940s onwards he addressed contemporary British life in many novels. Most notably, in the 1950s and 1960s he produced a series of nine novels, the ‘British Way’ series that began with Betrayed Spring (1953), in which he explored post-war social change through  class, political and industrial struggles. Those novels might be understood, loosely, as thinking through the implications of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s post-war British Road to Socialism programme (1951), just as the English historical novels of the 1930s think through the implications of the Popular Front line. While remaining a Party member until his death in 1990, Lindsay was often in conflict with the Party’s hierarchy and was an influence on dissident communists who left the Party after 1956 (for more on this, see John T. Connor’s 2015 article, ‘Jack Lindsay, Socialist Humanism and the Communist Historical Novel’).

Left Review

SN: What kind of review was the Left Review? How important was the British Section of the Writers’ International?

E.T. : Left Review was established in 1934 and was published monthly until its closure 1938. It was set up as the journal of the British Section of the Writers’ International. It had a very broad cultural remit and published stories, poem, extracts from plays, cartoons, reviews of films, music and art, photographs, political commentary, discussions of historical figures, and writing in translation. It was always aligned with the Communist Party, but its relationship with the Party was often uncomfortable, which contributed to its closure. Even from its first issue, it was quite conflicted about whether it was a specifically communist journal or something with a broader, more heterodox agenda. The first issue features a number of contributors disagreeing strongly about what the Review was for, what the Writers’ International should do, and so on, and disagreements and inconsistencies are present all the way through. There was a persistent ambiguity, arguably reflective of the ambiguity of the Popular Front more generally, between a defence of culture as it already existed, on the one hand, and a more modernist, vanguardist line of thought that positioned the journal less as a venue for the defence of culture and more as a vector for a radically new cultural upsurge. While some material it published clearly reflected the priorities of the Communist Party and the cultural policy of the Soviet Union, its Party alignment was less overt than that of its American contemporary the New Masses, for instance.

The Writers International was the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, a Soviet body that aimed to promote and organise cultural work outside the Soviet Union. It ran an important journal, International Literature, which was published in Russian, English, French, German and Spanish editions from 1932 to 1945, and carried translations of Soviet literary criticism, literary and critical work by European communist intellectuals, and translations of work by Marx and Engels on literature. It’s not clear what role the Writers’ International played after 1935, when the Stalinisation of cultural organisations in the Soviet Union created an climate more hostile to foreign writers and International Literature reflected an increasingly prescriptive aesthetic approach. The Left Review’s connection with the Writers’ International is not mentioned in its later issues; I am not sure whether that is significant though it may reflect the diminishing interest of the Soviet Union in cultural work abroad.

SN: How was the aesthetic of British Communist writers linked to the debates around the Nation and about the English people?

E.T.: As I mentioned earlier, the Popular Front turn foregrounded national cultures and traditions both as the stake in the anti-fascist struggle and as the site and means of resistance. One difficulty for British communist writers, though, was the problem of what constitutes the ‘national culture’ in Britain, given its internal composition of English, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Often in British communist writing Britain is reduced to England, as is commonly the case in Jack Lindsay’s work. The 1930s saw the foundation of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, and for some Scottish writers on the left the deployment of Scottish national culture in Popular Front projects inevitably raised the question of Scotland’s lack of political autonomy. This problem was the subject of a discussion in Left Review in 1936. James Barke argued there against Scottish nationalism on the grounds that it was predicated on a cultural integrity that has since been lost, but his fiction of the later 1930s suggests a rapprochement with the idea of a coherent Scottish national culture. In Major Operation, published in 1936, Scottish history is intertwined with the history of British capital, and the novel rejects the possibility of using the cultural resources of Scotland’s past as a defence against fascism and imperialism. In his later novel The Land of the Leal (1938), however, the history of the Scottish working class is figured as a resource of resistance to capitalism and to fascism, so that one character feels that his ancestors’ struggles are now being played out in Spain. The novel’s perspective moves from the local community of the rural working-class, to one of the major cities of British capitalism, Glasgow, and finally beyond the nation to internationalist struggle. Elsewhere in the Popular Front novel, though, writers struggle to write national histories ‘from below’ in this way. As I say in the book, the ‘national turn’ is problematic in many ways because it elides the role of imperialism in British history, and particularly the ways that the British working class benefited from imperialism. This makes the idea that British history can be deployed as a tool of ideological resistance to global capital very difficult to sustain. Lindsay’s novels attempt to do so, but they often expose the limitations of the Popular Front’s emphasis on national cultures.

SN: Did the Brecht/Lukács debate on socialist realism have an influence on those British communist novelists during the Popular Front period? Did British Communist writers take a position on the issue of socialist realism? Did a literary vanguard exist in the British Left of the Popular Front?

E.T.: The main texts of the Brecht/Lukács debate, which were part of a wider debate about the politics of Expressionism, weren’t published in English until later, so the controversy didn’t have a direct influence at the time. However, Lukács published a number of important essays on realism and modernism in International Literature, including ‘Essay on the Novel’ in 1936 and ‘‘Narration vs. Description’ in 1937. It’s difficult to gauge whether these directly influenced British writers, but Lukács’s account of the development of realism and the historical novel are echoed in Lindsay’s writings on the novel and in Ralph Fox’s The Novel and the People (1937). The Soviet debates around socialist realism were partly transmitted  through International Literature, and the term ‘socialist realism’ is certainly used in British Marxist criticism with a positive connotation. But it wasn’t theorised in a very thorough way; ‘socialist realism’ as it was understood in Britain was usually taken to mean something closer to Lukács’s ‘critical realism’, with its roots in the nineteenth century, than to the Soviet interpretation that was endorsed by figures like Karl Radek and Andrei Zhdanov. I am not sure one can speak of a vanguard on the left; while I think it’s important that formally experimental texts like Sommerfield’s May Day and Barke’s Major Operation appeared during this time, they are often borrowing certain techniques already established in modernist writing and turning them to new political ends, rather than establishing new terrain for the novel altogether.

Authors take sides

SN: What kind of influence did the Spanish civil war have on Left-wing (not only Communists) writers?

E.T.: The Civil War provoked a sense of crisis in intellectual life that, on the left, was often characterised as a moment of choice between liberal neutrality and political responsibility. The important Left Review pamphlet, Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War, published in 1937, gives some sense of the breadth of support for the Republican cause among leading writers and intellectuals. For a number of writers on or moving to the left, the war presented a test of commitment, and the engagements of major figures like George Orwell, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender are well-documented (Valentine Cunningham’s Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War (1986) records this history). In Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front (1985), Jim Fyrth calls the Aid Spain campaign ‘the largest movements for international solidarity the biggest movement of international solidarity in British history’. The Communist Party of Great Britain lost three important intellectuals, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Christopher Caudwell, who all died fighting for the Republic. The war also had a huge influence on all the writers I discuss in my book, and it is featured in Lewis Jones’s We Live and James Barke’s Major Operation, in both of which characters fight and die in Spain.

Of course, a number of prominent writers came to believe that anti-fascist sentiment had been manipulated in the service of the Soviet Union in Spain, and distanced themselves from their commitments, as in Auden’s revision and renunciation of his poem Spain (1937).  

SN: Beyond the political content, to what extent was John Sommerfield’s novel May Day (1936) “formally experimental” (p. 57) as you write it in your book – especially concerning its modernism?

E.T.: May Day borrows a number of formal features from modernist novels: like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for instance, it is set on a single London day and traces the movements of a number of characters across the city. Like Woolf, Sommerfield’s London is a city of fragmented and traumatic memories experienced by isolated characters. Sommerfield, though, aims to depict how urban experience can be transformed by political action. It inherits a modernist concern with textuality and representation, but ultimately it resists the conclusion that linguistic representation is always subjective and individual by suggesting that the fragmentation it depicts can be repaired by the language of communism. The novel also does interesting things with the relationship between narrative and the commodity form, as the commodity that is produced and circulated through the text is used as a device to reveal the underlying connections between characters as nodes in a capitalist system. I wouldn’t say that the novel breaks wholly new ground, but it certainly suggests the ways that the modernist techniques that were dismissed by Lukács, for example, could be turned to different political ends.

SN: Could you please come back on the influence that other soviet artistic forms (like cinema for example) had on British Communist writers during the Popular Front period?

E.T.: Soviet cinema was certainly influential, and popular; In the Daily Worker, the Communist Party’s newspaper, you can find adverts for film clubs in which Soviet films were shown. The influence of Soviet cinema on the emerging British documentary film movement has been discussed by Laura Marcus and Lara Feigel in their work. It’s clear that cinematic montage pioneered in the Soviet Union formally influenced novels like Sommerfield’s May Day and James Barke’s Major Operation, with their dynamic juxtapositions of images and scenes. But Barke returned to a more conventional realism in his 1938 novel, The Land of the Leal, which perhaps suggests that he felt the need to abandon his more experimental impulses in favour of a more popular and familiar mode. I am not sure about the impact Soviet literature had on Jack Lindsay’s novels, but he read and wrote about Soviet fiction and poetry quite frequently. Lindsay’s work, interestingly, was translated and read in the Soviet Union, at it would be fascinating to know whether his work influenced Soviet writers.

SN: Beside the novels that those writers produced, did the British Popular Front period also produce theoretical writings on the role a novel should play in the political struggle or on aesthetic issues?

E.T.: There are no systematic treatments of aesthetics, only the rather sporadic and fragmented reviews and discussions that appear in the left-wing press. I believe that James Barke began an ambitious work on aesthetics but it was never completed. The most extensive work on the role of the novel is Ralph Fox’s The Novel and the People, published in 1937, shortly after Fox had died, aged 36, fighting in the Civil War in Spain. The book is mostly a history of the English novel in which Fox aims to account for how the novel’s development relates to its social context. In the final chapter, he makes an appeal for socialist realist fiction, which he understood as the only hope for overcoming the decline of the novel by ‘restoring the historical view which was the basis of the classical English novel’ – the realist novel he thought was best embodied in the work of Henry Fielding. Echoing Lukács, Fox thought that the novel after 1848 had split into the twin tendencies of naturalism and modernism, the former transcribing reality divorced from the social history of its production, and the latter focusing only on the subjective perception of reality. A renewed realism would overcome this divide and restore the novel’s ‘epic’ character. This account of the novel and its possible recuperation is repeated by Arthur Calder-Marshall, Philip Henderson and Jack Lindsay, among others on the British left. In general, though, I think the novels themselves are more interesting than British Communist writing critical writing on the novel as a form.

SN: Your book that discusses all these debates around literature during the British Popular Front was fascinating to read and I was wondering to what extent the question of the “Popular Front Novel” was analysed in any previous work and what, in your opinion, are the limits of those works?

E.T.: My book is the first to specifically address the interaction between the novel and the politics of the Popular Front. Some of the novels I discuss have been analysed in different frameworks; Lewis Jones’s novels are usually situated in the history of proletarian literature, for example, but I think this misses the importance of the specific formation of communist politics in which he was writing. The modernist resonances of James Barke’s and John Sommerfield’s novels have been noted by Keith Williams and Nick Hubble in the context of the history and development of modernism, but I think their engagements with the modernist heritage can be usefully understood in terms of the political priorities of the Popular Front. My book is much indebted to Andy Croft’s ground-breaking study of the leftist novel in the 1930s, Red Letter Days (1990), but I aimed for a more sustained account of the relationship between realism and the modulations of communist politics during the decade. John Coombes’ Writing from the Left: Socialism, Liberalism and the Popular Front (1989) is one of the few studies focused on the intellectual culture of the Popular Front, though situates the British Popular Front primarily in the political developments of Bloomsbury figures such as Leonard Woolf and John Middleton Murry, and in the Stalinist turn of Fabians like Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Examining the novel enabled me to look at a more diverse range of figures and also to suggest that the novel is under-valued as a venue in which the politics of the Popular Front were explored and sometimes challenged. I think there’s more to be said about the cultural left in Britain; my focus on a small group of authors omits or only briefly discusses other interesting writers on the left such as Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edward Upward, Katherine Burdekin, Storm Jameson, Rex Warner and Ralph Bates. But I hope the book suggests some of the ways that the British novel shaped and was shaped by communist politics for a brief period.