‘Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell’ by Christopher Caudwell reviewed by Helena Sheehan

Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

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

Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2018. 192pp., $25 pb
ISBN 9781583676868

Reviewed by Helena Sheehan

About the reviewer

Helena Sheehan is Emeritus Professor at Dublin City University. She is author of such books as …


Christopher Caudwell was a brief and breathtakingly brilliant presence in the world. Born Christopher St John Sprigg in London in 1907, he published prolifically and died fighting in the Spanish civil war in 1937, before he even reached the age of 30.

He left school at the age of 15 and began his working life as a cub reporter at the Yorkshire Observer, where his father was literary editor, and then as editor of British Malaya. Upon returning to London, he ran an aeronautics publishing company with his brother, edited one of its technical journals and designed gears for motorcars. In addition, he wrote reams of poetry, plays, short stories, detective novels, and aeronautics textbooks. He even edited a volume of ghost stories.

On top of all this, he read voluminously in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, politics, linguistics, mathematics, economics, physics, biology, neurology, literature and literary criticism and much more besides. He did so, not as a dilettante, but as one striving to come to terms with the knowledge of the centuries and to comprehend what it meant for himself and his own age. Despite his lack of a university education, he became a person of very considerable learning.

In 1934, at the age of 27, Caudwell became interested in Marxism and began to study it with extraordinary intensity, discovering quickly that it provided the key to the synthesis he was seeking. In the summer of 1935, he wrote his first Marxist book, originally called Verse and Mathematics, but sent off and accepted for publication by Macmillan as Illusion and Reality.

Upon the completion of this book, he moved to the east end of London and joined the Poplar branch of the Communist Party. He threw himself into all the routine party tasks, fly-posting, street-corner speaking, selling The Daily Worker, as well as joining battle with blackshirts, bravely facing consequent batterings and even arrest.

During this period of intense activism, he also wrote feverishly, producing a body of theoretical manuscripts posthumously published as Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture, The Crisis in Physics, Heredity and Development, Romance and Realism and Poems. Previous selections from his work have been published as The Concept of Freedom and Scenes and Actions. Verso has recently brought out a new edition of The Crisis in Physics.

This new collection called Culture as Politics is a welcome addition to the history of Caudwell publication. It is edited by David Margolies, who wrote The Function of Literature: A Study of Christopher Caudwell’s Aesthetics, the first book on Caudwell, who played a key role in bringing the work of Caudwell to his own generation, the so-called sixties generation. In bringing out this collection, he is continuing his sustained work on Caudwell and bringing his work to the attention of yet another generation.

He has selected passages from Illusion and Reality, Studies in a Dying Culture and Heredity and Development. Although they might not have been the same selections as someone else might have made, they have been chosen carefully and do provide a good introduction to the work of Caudwell that will hopefully lead readers to seek out more from Caudwell’s whole body of work.

Margolies also provides introductions to each section, which locates these selections within the context of Caudwell’s whole body of work as well as the circumstances of his life. Margolies has a thorough knowledge of Caudwell’s work, both published and unpublished, and is currently the executor of the Caudwell literary estate. Among many interesting features of his commentary is his identification of proto-Marxist dimensions in Caudwell’s pre-Marxist fiction.

For Caudwell, culture (in the broadest sense of the word, including science, technology, philosophy, etc) was shaped by the socio-economic conditions of its time. His work was infused with the explanatory force of historical materialism. He saw the dynamic not as a passive one, but as an active interaction in which culture in turn played a role in shaping the socio-economic milieu. He developed his ideas with a sweeping sense of history and his distinctive interpretation of past eras, such as ancient Greece and modern Britain, are really striking. The breadth of his knowledge and depth of his thinking are still remarkable and memorable.

What Caudwell was doing in whatever he wrote, whether it was about literature or anthropology or psychology or biology, was reaching out to conceptualise the world and nothing less than the world. He was determined to work over the whole inheritance of human knowledge from a new point of view. Philosophy, in the sense of an integrating Weltanschauung, was what gathered up all else. No matter what he was addressing, from poetry to politics to physics, he wanted to penetrate to the very core of it, to illuminate it within its full field of forces, to highlight it within its the network of interconnections, to see it within the whole. He sought to identify the world’s most basic patterns, to take the pulse of the world’s most basic rhythms.

Looking to the culture of his time, he saw that there was something at the very core of the social order that inhibited this impulse to integrality, that obstructed the search for synthesis. Everywhere he turned, it was fragmentation that prevailed. He asked why. He remarked: “Either the devil has come among us having great power or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art?”

Despite the magnificent achievements that he saw in his time – relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, psychology, anthropology, art, aeronautics – it was nevertheless an epoch of confusion and dissension. Why, he asked, did each new discovery come as a Midas touch that brought new disappointment? Why did this strange doom hang over bourgeois culture in such a way that progress seemed only to hasten decline? Why was it that the search for a common truth, a common faith, brought only the proliferation of partial, myopic and contradictory views of reality?

At the heart of it all, he argued, was the subject-object dichotomy, that had its basis in the social division of labour, in the separation of the class that generated theory from the class that engaged actively with nature. This dichotomy distorted all realms of thought and activity, and indeed all social relations. It was a disease endemic to class society that had become more acute with its higher development. Only an integrated world view grounded in a vision of a new social order could bring to a higher synthesis what had been severed, to what had grown pathologically far apart.

As he looked around him, he concluded that many theories and many activities were rooted in the basic bourgeois illusion: that man was born free but was crippled through social organisation. In his illusory separation of individual consciousness from the natural and social matrix of its existence, the bourgeois had brought to a new level the dualism inherent in class society, generating in philosophy an ever sharper separation of individual from society, of mind from matter, of freedom from necessity, of history from nature, of emotion from rationality, making the fundamental subject-object relation increasingly insoluble. Instead, he stood in his own light, imagining that he could direct the social process without being directed by it, to determine without being determined, able to conceive only of self-determined mind in a one-way relation to its determined environment, an active subject contemplating a passive object, oblivious to the nexus of natural forces and social relations determining both.

Looking to the philosophical landscape of his time, Caudwell mapped the terrain and characterised the forces contesting the terrain. He took the pulse of the various players and detected the pounding beat of the tensions tearing at all efforts to comprehend. He knew that the history of philosophy throbbed to the rhythm of a wider, deeper process, even if philosophers themselves were oblivious of it.

He traced the history of modern philosophy in terms of the development of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie. The first stage, that of bourgeois revolt against feudal restriction, had sparked a great crescendo into the environment, with the voyages of exploration, astronomy, geometry, gravity, with mechanistic materialism its climactic philosophy. The next stage, as capitalism consolidated, its materialism turned into its opposite, mentalism, turning away from the object toward the subject, reproducing the dualism of subject and object from the opposite direction. The rebirth of idealism came as the philosophy of a ruling class whose distance from its environment was increasing with the growing differentiation of labour.

He analysed the opposite philosophies of mechanism and idealism, as both dichotomising the world into inert matter and creative spirit. Then came positivism, marking the passing of the bourgeoisie from a progressive class to a reactionary one. If mechanism had sacrificed subject to object and idealism had sacrificed object to subject, positivism sacrificed both. Both matter and mind became elusive and unknowable.

Philosophy became increasingly impoverished with escalating and esoteric dualisms. Philosophy, instead of being an integrating force, became a divisive one. In every way, theory was flying apart from practice. Philosophy, even philosophy of science, was becoming increasingly remote from science. Art was drifting away from experience. Theory and practice were sundered in consciousness, because they were divided in social reality.

No longer able to discern the rhythms of the historical process, the bourgeois distorted whatever he beheld. It was not possible to break through the intellectual dissolution, to connect the parts to the whole, without addressing its social matrix and he could not connect the parts to the whole without querying his whole modus vivendi.

Consciousness tended to gather at one pole and activity at the other, causing distortion of both. This played out, not only in the distance between the pursuit of knowledge and other aspects of the labour process, but even within areas of knowledge. Even the sciences were subject to this rupture, bringing a morass of contradictions, both within and between sciences, with much scientific practice becoming more empirical, narrow, fractured and with theory becoming more remote, diffuse, disconnected. Experiment was generating a growing body of empirical knowledge that could not be fit into a theoretical framework. Without such a framework, scientists fell back on eclecticism, reductionism or mysticism. This process has escalated since his time.

Caudwell’s epistemological position was a critical realism grounded in socio-historical interactionism. Knowledge is generated in a social process, in an interaction between subject and object, which come into being simultaneously. They are mutually constituting and therefore inseparable. We can never know a thing apart from our knowing of it. Breaking with the illusion of the detached observer, he saw knowledge as an active relation, the product of social labour past and present.

The weight of his attention in his various studies in a dying culture was to the mentality of the bourgeois, the dominant ideology of his time and ours. He was, as E P Thompson noted, a superb anatomist of ideologies. He also looked to alternative ideological positions, to outsiders to the dominant world view, primarily the proletariat, but also women and oppressed races and nationalities. His anticipation of feminist consciousness and the dynamics of moving from oppression to liberation through various stages of exclusion, inclusion, critique, rebellion, was most advanced for a male Marxist of his era. As to the proletariat, his view of their active engagement with nature, capacity for critical consciousness and revolutionary transformation may seem idealised now, but it is not hard to see how it seemed to him then. Such optimism does not come so easily to us now.

We live in another time. The dying culture has not died. Indeed, in its way it thrives on a scale beyond anything he could have imagined. Yet his critique of it stands. Its decadence is manifest everywhere, overpowering whatever else struggles for life.

Looking at the philosophical landscape since he vacated the terrain, the battle of ideas for some decades intensified. Universities in the 1960s, 1970s, even into the 1980s, were full of conflicting ideas, contending paradigms, debates that went to the theoretical foundations of all disciplines. Along the same lines as his studies, all these debates in diverse areas ran along parallel lines and expressed deeper lines of cleavage. What has happened since is that this has died down, but without any of the problems raised by these debates being solved.

Theory has flown yet farther from practice in that now theory itself is repressed. The global system functions in such a way that it needs a higher level of education, but education aligned to the precise needs of the market and not oriented to conceptualising the system, let alone contesting it. Theory and theoretical debate is not thriving in this milieu. Unreflective particularity prevails. Where there is theory, it is much debased, mired in every sort of confused dualism, lazy eclecticism, ungrounded and mystified holism. The search for synthesis is more subverted than ever.

It is impossible not to wonder what Caudwell would have written about all this, about all that has unfolded since he died. What insights might he have had into the trajectory from positivism through neo-positivism to post-positivism, into existentialism, phenomenology and postmodernism, into the accelerating commodification of culture and knowledge? What studies might he have produced of film, television and cyberculture? What might he have done during the turmoil in the communist movement in 1956, 1968, 1989? What would he have made of the Moscow trials, the 20th Party Congress, the new left, third world liberation movements, new social movements, Marxism Today, perestroika, the end of the USSR?

We cannot be sure. Various commentators have had their say. When I was first reading Caudwell, I bought the 1971 edition of Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture with an introduction by Sol Yurick, who speculated that he might have become either a bitter cold warrior or a numbed apparatchik. In the margins I wrote: no and no.

His life would have been very different if he had returned. He would have become a major party and public intellectual. His thinking would have been challenged, not least by his own reflections on the world as it unfolded. Whether he would have left the party at some stage, I do not know, but I do believe firmly that, whatever he did, he would have lived by the views and values that he evolved in the last years of his life. Of course, any of us who have ever thought that we got him think that he would have thought what we think. Still, I believe that I am right about this at least.

I have lived now many years longer than he had the opportunity to live. I have looked at the world he never saw with eyes that saw in the way that they did shaped by the way that he saw. It has been no substitute for what the world lost when it lost him, but it has carried him on in the world. He wrote of the half-life of the dead in what they leave behind when they die. In reading him today, he lives on. I commend Pluto, Verso and Monthly Review for publishing these new editions and bringing Caudwell to the attention of new audiences.

29 April 2018


  1. Thompson added that although ‘Caudwell’s insights and Caudwell’s confusions were imprinted upon many of my generation… Caudwell, in my view, was asking questions which had to be asked, and his ambiguity was a fruitful ambiguity. In refusing the orthodox closures offered by reflection theory, by the basis/superstructure model, and by the allocation of ‘economies’ to the base and norms, or affective culture, to the superstructure, he was holding open a door to a more creative tradition… Some of us strayed through that door…’ He mentions George Thomson as an instance. Perhaps Alfred Sohn-Rethel is another. Certainly Mike Cooley. But then EPT is dismissed as ‘A Twentieth Century Romantic’ by Christos Estathiou, a charge Mark Jones at once accepts and transcends in the latest review in this archive.

  2. There is another review available at the US magazine The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/e-p-thompsons-search-for-a-new-popular-front/

    I haven’t read Estathiou’s book yet. I am not familiar with his line, so I don’t know why he wants to hang the label of “Romantic” on E.P. Thompson, and what he means by that.

    The Nation review notes that Thompson’s “personal” papers still reside in a closed archive, and so we do not know many details about the in’s and outs of his personal life.

    I suppose that Karl Marx was a “romantic’ too, because not only did he love theatre, poetry, drama and literary/philosophical classics, he also got it into his head to get involved in founding the First International… what a silly man! (sic.).

    In fact, when I think of it, most of the new social movements in the New Left epoch of 1957-1990 were created by “romantic” people. The Maoists and Trotskyists hardly created any mass movements, they just operated within the movements that were already there, or took them over, among other things to recruit new people to their own Marxist-Leninist brand.

    1. Thanks for the ref to Stefan Collini’s review. We certainly need ‘a new popular front’ – maybe that is what the romantic quest is all about!

  3. “A romantic quest for a popular front” sounds quite good, of course.

    Romanticism could refer e.g. to a preoccupation with love as a progressive force in human life, or it could refer to idealizing people and circumstances (the faith in the power of an idea), or it could refer to an anti-industrialist or anti-modernist revolt.

    I think though it’s more about “populism” and “nihilism” these days, about heckling the ruling elites, circulating slogans, exposing the limits and fragility of everything, and making a show of brawn over brain. And “Me too” campaigns. And “intersectionalist complexity”.

    What you get with the modern social and anti-social media and the internet, is a profusion of theories, ideologies, academic beliefs and interpretations – a sort of intellectual porridge – which is never tested properly for its validity or truth content, and without any clear method for establishing which theory or position is better (and why). Theory choice becomes a matter of taste.

    People might identify with a public figure, like e.g. Jeremy Corbyn, until e.g. a rage about antisemitism is stoked up and he falls out of favour. The affiliations of the public have become rather flighty, they fall out of love with a media-massaged leader, just as quickly as they fell in love with him or her.

    Often people feel, that if they would join some movement, it’s going to be difficult to stay in control of their participation, and they cannot really predict or oversee what the consequences of their own actions will be. A lot of lefties just want to “participate” to grab some freebies too.

    All of that makes a popular front difficult, because then people have to really unite and rally behind a cause or an issue, for much longer than half an hour, that is a long-term commitment, and they have to feel confident and comfortable about associating with something that is bigger than themselves.

    Yet they don’t even like anybody else to tell them what to do, they want to be able to opt out, if they disagree with something, and they don’t want to get too involved or committed in an organization outside of their paid work. They don’t even want to be “too identified” with anything in particular.

    It’s fascinating to watch videos about what happened in Egypt in 2011-2013, because there you can see some of the biggest demonstrations and protests in the whole history of the world – literally millions of people on the march, often just spontaneously. But interestingly they were unable to get the army on their side, and they were unable to take over the state and the government – even when they had quite sophisticated telecommunication technologies.

    Inversely, I remember for most of the 1980s nobody really thought that Solidarnosc was going to go anywhere much in Poland, beyond some heroic actions. The government held all the political and military cards. Yet the Communist Party was down the tubes in 1989-90.

    When people think nostalgically or sentimentally of Caudwell in Spain, or Thompson standing on a soap box with a loudhailer, giving an impromptu speech to the crowd, it is not really these heroes who are the romantics (Thompson wrote a book about “exterminism”, among other things). It is more the admirers and fans who are the romantics, or at least they aspire to a romance, and they project it.

    Thompson and Caudwell exhibit human qualities which seem ever more elusive these days, and yet they are the qualities which make life worth living. It’s the difference between producing something yourself and (vicariously) consuming it from a package.

    When Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats recorded their fairly brutal and cynical popsong “Joey’s on the street again” in 1977, the message was, that “there is no romance in the city”, there is nothing romantic about it, a disappointed cynicism. It was sort of saying: “David Harvey, f*** off or go home”. Geldof was replying directly to Bruce Springsteen’s songs, which portrayed romance amidst urban decay, poverty and negligence. But in the end, more people preferred Springsteen’s music , just because it has a positive, hopeful and optimistic (dare I say “romantic”) quality, even when there was not much reason to hope for anything.

  4. When I said that “Theory choice becomes a matter of taste” I wasn’t joking you know. It wasn’t intended as a polemical exaggeration. You can see it also in some of the M&PR reviews.

    For example, reviewing Sara Farris’s book on the “Returns of Marxism”, Bill Bowring (who is a law professor at Birbeck) literally calls the book “a rich collection, to be acquired and savoured.”

    The book as an article of consumption is, as it were, a flavoursome meal to be ingested, or, if you prefer, an acquired taste, yet – and this is the point – what is so good about the recipe, or what the real purpose of the endeavour actually is, remains open to interpretation.

    Indeed, what the recipe is, is not even clear (it might just be that yesterday’s sobras were tossed into the wok, and stir-fried with some new ingredients and spices, to make the whole thing palatable again).

    Sure, the academic elite regards a book in a different way than ordinary mortals. They operate in an intellectual marketplace of ideas.

    The only proof that they have that they are worth something in the status hierarchy, is that they are studded with educational qualifications, endorsements and publications. This is what “drives” their entire culture, and allows them to say that “I am better than you”. You have to get those peer endorsements all the time, like it or not.

    Yet in social media, anybody can publish anything, and in fact yesterday’s qualifications might be worth little today. How then to obtain and retain that competitive edge? Often this is done, through clubbing together with some “star” intellectuals, big names, or exclusive outlets.

    You can get yourself a personal upgrade, improve your branding and sales, and reach a new rung on the status ladder – by rubbing shoulders with some famous people and high-reputation organizations in the field.

    With experience, you can get so well-versed in the intellectual marketplace, that you can generate an articulate response to just about any idea.

    Yet, this endeavour also means that the elaboration, language and display of theory acquires new functions: to enhance status, and sell more product, with an authentic allure.

    These additional business agenda’s often makes things more complicated and tricky.

    At one and the same time, you have to stay in control of your own product, and protect yourself against competitors. To maintain status place, you have to support “insiders” and your protégés, and ward off “outsiders”, skimmers and predators from your own imperium. It’s kinda political.

    So at one and the same time, the theory henceforth begins to serve many more (unstated) purposes, than its original scientific purpose.

    This is, roughly, the ideological path by which the commodification of ideas can lead to more and more confusion by the intellectual authorities.

    Regrettably, something gets obscured, distorted or lost . It’s a bit like Joni Mitchell’s song “Free man in Paris”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hcXdtqojFg

    What was the original motivation and purpose of the theory? It was to describe, explain and predict accurately large and specific phenomena in the world, better than the theories of competitors. But who knows what it is about anymore, these days? What can you believe about it?

    The ideological process is complete, when the theorists no longer really comprehend what drives their own theoretical productions, and “imagine” all sorts of things – standing, as it were, on the shoulders of Charlie Marx, directing the consciousness of their subjects in the world, while effortlessly ingesting the cream of the most advanced insights the world has to offer.

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