Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The Popular Front Novel in Britain, 1934-1940 (Historical Materialism Book) Hardcover – 16 Nov 2017 by Elinor Taylor.


The question of the Popular Front was a political issue that was fought about over eighty years ago. To the uninitiated Elinor Taylor’s new book published in 2018 on the subject might seem a pointless exercise in navel-gazing at a dead issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Popular Front issue is alive and kicking.

One of the most recent examples of this is the former pseudo-left Paul Mason’s call for a popular front style collaboration between The Labour Party, Liberals and any Scottish nationalists that would be open to such a move.

According to Chris Marsden “The role played by Mason and others within Britain’s pseudo-left, and the liberal commentariat is to dress up this strategic reorientation of imperialist policy in a progressive cloak, in an attempt to build a popular political base of support. This appeal is pitched above all to upper-middle-class layers who see both Brexit and Trump’s election as a threat to the comfortable and economically privileged position they enjoy. In return, they have serviced the economic needs of big business in a managerial role, or in various cultural and academic fields that have benefited from access to the Single Market and EU subventions. However, the appeal is also directed at students and other young people fearful for their future and that of the UK. Utilising the racism, xenophobia and nationalism espoused by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and by Trump in America, they urge the formation of an alliance with supposedly progressive sections of the British bourgeoisie”.[1]

A second example is that of the Pseudo left book publishers Verso has just published Chantal Mouffe’s new book For a Left Populism. In this book, she argues for a new populist strategy. Her argument is both anti-socialist and has disastrous implications for the working class around the world. Mouffe glosses over betrayals by pseudo-left parties in Europe like Podemos and Syriza. The latter carried out a betrayal by imposing the EU austerity orders and blocking the emergence of an independent political alternative for the working class.

Elinor Taylor’s new book is part of a campaign to resurrect the Popular Front strategy in Britain. The origins of the Popular Front came from Joseph Stalin but were carried out by the Comintern. In this particular book, Taylor looks at the relationship between the Popular Front and its interpretation by English left-wing authors at the beginning of the 20th century.

Taylor examines several novels of the British Communists including Jack Lindsay, John Sommerfield, Lewis Jones, and James Barke. All these authors were in one shape or another proponent of the Socialist realist novel. All were far from political novices when it came to implementing Stalinist policies using this genre.

When asked how she became interested in the British “literary Popular Front, Taylor replied “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”.[2]

While Stalin was the author of the Popular Front policy it is clear that the various Communist parties around the world, especially in Britain, were willing accomplices and as Jonathan Haslam points out “It has been a common assumption that the Popular Front strategy was  designed by Stalin to complement the Franco-Soviet treaty of mutual assistance, signed in May 1935. Any explanation of Comintern policy which ignores the role of communist parties as instruments of Soviet foreign policy is bound to prove inadequate. However, there is another error rather more apparent in the literature on the subject. This takes the form of a tendency to see the world communist movement as a static entity open to complete manipulation by the Soviet government, without taking into account that membership of the movement was voluntary and that if it was to be retained or extended, strategy had to answer to its needs as much as to the demands of Soviet state interests.[3]

As Taylor points out in the book, Jack Lindsay was a crucial figure in implementing Comintern policy through his numerous novels and history books. Lindsay was born in Australia and like many at the time was radicalised by the growing capitalist crisis and the threat of war and fascism. He was to remain a convinced Stalinist throughout his life remaining in the Communist Party after the crises of 1956.

During the 1930s Lindsay wrote a significant amount on  English history, especially on the English revolution. Lindsay would have been heavily influenced by the new generation of historians that formed the CPHG(Communist Party Historians group). It is not that Lindsay’s or any of the other writer's work is rubbish it is that that they were the product of a political line that led to the betrayal of the struggles of the working class that is their most significant historical and political crime.

It is quite striking that when one of these writers did step out of line the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party came down on them like a ton of bricks. One such incident is recounted by John T Connor in his essay Jack Lindsay, Socialist Humanism and the Communist Historical Novel.

Lindsay had written a book in what he called a “pioneer spirit” . The book was attacked by Emile Burns in the Daily Worker. Lindsay capitulated and according to Connor “He stood chastened. In the self-report he submitted the following year, he acknowledged ‘the anarchic element’ in his personal development hitherto and confessed his failure ‘to come with all the force I can muster in the party-line.’ He now expressed his hope ‘every month to put my talents, such as they are, more effectively at the Party’s disposal.’29 This he did, becoming a public champion of socialist realism and explaining to all who would listen how the struggle for socialist realism is ‘bound up at every point with the function of leadership by the communist party,’ how “no writer is going to master socialist realism who does not understand what communist leadership is, who is not playing his part in development of that leadership, helping to change our people politically as well as culturally, seeing no division between politics and culture, and daily embodying in his own experience the experience of the Party.”

Lindsay’s mastery of Socialist Realism was expressed in his book After the Thirties. If ever there was a craven capitulation to Stalinism this was it. The fact that Taylor holds it up as some great piece of literature says more about her than it does about Lindsay.

Aside from the spiteful, unprincipled attack on George Orwell who because of his exposure of the Stalinist’s murderous activities in Spain was public enemy number one of the Stalinist Lindsay defends the Stalinist perspective of Socialist Realism. As Ken Coates in his review of the book brings out “Mr Lindsay's blindness to the betrayals of socialism by the rulers of the Soviet Union, immediately revealed by his treatment of Orwell makes spurious most of his case against the majority of ex-communist writers who lost sight of the ideal of socialism in the bloody haze created by  Stalin’s men as they carved it up all over the world whilst they cynically flashed the label of socialism on their executioners axes for the benefit of Mr Lindsay and the Dean of Canterbury.”
Socialist Realism

Not a single one of these writers protested against the Stalinist leadership of the USSR promotion of Socialist realism as a legitimate form of artistic expression.

One of their many crimes was to promote through their novels this socialist realism. Long ridiculed in the West this art form was officially sanctioned by the state under Stalin. Long after the death of the dictator, it is being revived by books like Taylor. “socialist realism” has suddenly acquired new respectability around the world.

As Leon Trotsky explained in 1938 “The style of present-day official Soviet painting is called ‘socialist realism.’... [T]he ‘socialist’ character apparently consists in representing, in the manner of pretentious photography, events which never took place. It is impossible to read Soviet verse and prose without physical disgust, mixed with horror, or to look at reproductions of paintings and sculpture in which functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers, glorify the ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’ leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.” [4]

Lindsay promoted this rubbish during his lifetime. Every twist and turn of the British Communist party political line was reflected in his work. His novels produced during the 1950s of which there were nine promoted the British Way. As Taylor explains “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 Socialismprogramme (1951), just as the English historical novels of the 1930s think through the implications of the Popular Front line.”[5]

History From Below

The Popular Front line led to the genre History from Below. A case could be made for the origins of the historical genre “History from Below coming from not the pen of A.L. Morton but the mouth of Georgi Dimitrov. In 1935 at the Comintern Dimitrov gave a speech that outlined many things, one of which was how to tackle in Dimitrov’s words the fascist’s use of the past to justify their actions.

He writes “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, while all that was degrading or offensive to the national sentiments of the people they make use of as weapons against the enemies of fascism. Hundreds of books are being published in Germany with only one aim -- to falsify the history of the German people and give it a fascist complexion. The new-baked National Socialist historians try to depict the history of Germany as if for the past two thousand years, by virtue of some historical law, a certain line of development had run through it like a red thread, leading to the appearance on the historical scene of a national 'saviour', a 'Messiah' of the German people, a certain 'Corporal' of Austrian extraction. In these books the greatest figures of the German people of the past are represented as having been fascists, while the great peasant movements are set down as the direct precursors of the fascist movement”.

Lindsay and his fellow Communist Party novelist and historians immediately took Dimitrov’s half baked theory on board and created the historical genre of “peoples history” or “history from below”. This type of history has seen a tremendous resurgence over the last few decades. However many of the historians promoting it do so from ignorance of its past or its class nature.
Ann Talbot states The Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of former rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr.[6]

Despite the two quotes from George Orwell and Georg Lukacs Taylor is uncritical of the Stalinist Popular Front policy and Dimitrov especially. Taylor freely quotes Dimitrov as if the Popular Front was a masterstroke that led to numerous victories of the working class. Taylor quotes the principal architect of the Popular Front Georgi Dimitrov without as much as a hint that this policy was opposed on a far higher political level than Lukacs and Orwell and that was by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky remains the great unmentionable in Taylor's book. None of his vast writings on the Popular Fronts are used by Taylor. The fact that that this policy was responsible for the Fascist victory in Spain, paved the way for the Second World War and led to the defeat of countless working-class struggles not to mention the deaths of millions passes Taylor by.

In 1935 Dimitrov was well aware that Trotsky was still alive and was able to oppose the right-wing line of the Stalinists. His speech in 1935 sought to dress up his collaboration with anti-working-class forces as a product of Bolshevik orthodoxy.

He writes “There are wiseacres who will sense in all this a digression from our basic positions, some sort of turn to the Right from the straight line of Bolshevism. Well, in my country, Bulgaria, they say that a hungry hen always dreams of millet. Let those political chickens think so. This interests us little. For it is important that our Parties and the broad masses throughout the world should correctly understand what we are striving for. We would not be revolutionary Marxists, Leninists, worthy pupils of Marx, Engels, and Lenin if we did not suitably reconstruct our policies and tactics in accordance with the changing situation and the changes occurring in the world labour movement. We would not be real revolutionaries if we did not learn from our own experience and the experience of the masses. We want to eradicate from our ranks all self-satisfied sectarianism, which above all blocks our road to the masses and impedes the carrying out of a truly Bolshevik mass policy.

One of the weakest aspects of the anti-fascist struggle of our Parties is that they react inadequately and too slowly to the demagogy of fascism, and this day continue to neglect the problems of the struggle against fascist ideology. Many comrades did not believe that so reactionary a brand of bourgeois ideology as the ideology of fascism, which in its stupidity frequently reaches the point of lunacy, would be able to gain any mass influence. This was a serious mistake. The putrefaction of capitalism penetrates to the innermost core of its ideology and culture, while the desperate situation of wide masses of the people renders certain sections of them susceptible to infection from the ideological refuse of this putrefaction. Under no circumstances must we underrate fascism's power of ideological infection. On the contrary, we for our part must develop along ideological struggle based on clear, popular arguments and a correct, well thought out approach to the peculiarities of the national psychology of the masses of the people”.

Why does Taylor allow this ideological rubbish to be passed by without as much as a comment? It would be nice to think that during the peer review of her PhD thesis that the learned professors would have drawn her attention to leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky who opposed these political concepts and that some of them should appear in her thesis. However, this is the real world and that did not happen.

As Leon Trotsky points out  "Fascism—is not feudal but bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletarian revolution. Menshevism, itself a branch of bourgeois thought, does not have and cannot have any inkling of these facts. The Bolshevik point of view, clearly expressed only by the young section of the Fourth International, takes the theory of permanent revolution as its starting point, namely, that even purely democratic problems, like the liquidation of semi-feudal land ownership, cannot be solved without the conquest of power by the proletariat; but this, in turn, places the socialist revolution on the agenda."[7]

Voronsky and Art as the Cognition of life

As mentioned earlier Trotsky was one of the great unmentionables. Taylor has worked hard on this book and has deep mined numerous archives. However, she has a blind spot for anyone that contradicts the Stalinist line on the Popular Front or Socialist Realism for that matter. Her selective bibliography is not down to sloppiness but political bias.I am not criticising someone who has a political bias in their work but when you leave out leading Bolsheviks such as Trotsky and figures like Alexander Voronsky whose collection of wirings published by Mehring Books in 1998 then this goes too far.

Voronsky is well worth reading if only for his work on the relationship between art and politics. As the Marxist critic David Walsh writes  “Voronsky writes about Tolstoy and Proust, the poets Mayakovsky and Esenin, the errors of Soviet “Proletcultists” and Freudians alike, with passion and urgency. His aim at all points: to encourage art that engages deeply and truthfully with life. The world must be present in the artist’s work, Voronsky wrote, “as it is in itself, so that the beautiful and ugly, the kind and repulsive, the joyful and sorrowful appear to be so, not because that’s the way the artist wants it, but because they are contained in real life.”

Taylor has the right to express whatever opinion she wants, but a publisher that purports to have sympathies for the Trotskyist movement to publish a book that is an open defence of Stalinism says a lot.[8]










[1] Trump’s victory, Brexit and Paul Mason’s call for a new “progressive alliance”-By Chris Marsden
16 November 2016-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/11/16/maso-n16.html
[2] The Popular Front Novel-An interview with Elinor Taylor-https://mronline.org/2017/11/03/the-popular-front-novel
[3] The Comintern and the Origins of the Popular Front 1934-1935-) Jonathan Haslam- The Historical Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Sep., 1979), pp. 673-691
[4]  (Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch”)
[5] The Popular Front Novel: An Interview with Elinor Taylor- www.historicalmaterialism.org/interviews/popular-front-novel-interview-with-elinor-taylor
[6] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot -25 March 2003- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[7] The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning-(December 1937)- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/xx/spain01.htm
[8] See : An assembly of political bankrupts: Historical Materialism and Jacobin host “Socialism in Our Time” conference-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/04/16/pers-a16.html