Erudite activists

Besides the Communist Classics dons, there was a substantial group of CPGB intellectuals who did not operate within the ‘Ivory Tower’ but in the public world of letters. In the 1920s and 1930s they were often associated in the public imagination with ‘fellow-traveller’ poets and authors such as Siegfried Sassoon (see above p. 467), W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and Naomi Mitchison. Sassoon’s socialist activism has often been overlooked.44 Auden’s politics are clear enough from the beggars, the ‘lurcher-loving collier, black as night’ and the lonely Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall in ‘Twelve Songs’, composed in the 1930s.4’ MacNeice, the public-school-educated Anglo-Irish lecturer in Classics at the University of Birmingham between 1930 and 1936, ironically pondered the relationship between the ancient languages and social privilege in his autobiographical poem Autumn Journal (1938):

Which things being so, as we said when we studied

The classics, I ought to be glad

That I studied the classics at Marlborough and Merton,

Not everyone here having had

The privilege of learning a language

That is incontrovertibly dead,

And of carting a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal phrases

Around in his head.46

Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999), a convinced Socialist and in 1935 a Labour candidate for parliament, had studied Classics at the Dragon School in Oxford, and even performed in a production of Aristophanes’ Frogs as a teenager;47 her first two novels were experimental works of historical fiction responding to the carnage of World War I, set respectively during Caesar’s campaign against the Gauls (The Conquered, 1923) and Athens during the Peloponnesian War (Cloud Cuckoo Land, 1925). Her masterpiece is The Com King and the Spring Queen (1931), set in Hellenistic times on the northern coast of the Black Sea in a half-Hellenised barbarian community. It is written under the influence of radical feminism, Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris and Frazerian ritualism.48

None of these famous authors took out membership of the CPGB, despite sympathy with its aims, but other literary figures did. Christopher Caudwell (1907-1937) was an energetic party activist, poet and the author of a work of literary theory influential in British left-wing circles, Illusion and Reality, published after his death in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. His real name was Christopher St John Sprigg, and he was a member of the educated Roman Catholic middle class. At 15 he was forced to leave his Benedictine school, where he had learned both Greek and Latin; he soon became radicalised when his father lost his job as literary editor of the Daily Express newspaper, joining the CPGB in London.49

There is a debt to Classics in Caudwell’s poetry. He translated Greek epigrams. His finest poem, ‘Classic Encounter’, laments recent war fatalities. The ‘I’ voice meets the Athenians who had died miserably in Syracuse in 413 bc (described in tragic detail in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War book VII) after the military debacle that concluded Athens’ disastrous invasion of Sicily. The speaker mistakes them for those fallen in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-1916, when combined British and Anzac fatalities alone are estimated at 76,000. The poem thus draws a parallel between the victims of warmongering generals in the Mediterranean at distances of more than two millennia.50 ‘Heil Baldwin!’ (1936), a satire on the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, is framed as a pastiche of the Aeneid, opening ‘Arms and the man I sing’.51

Yet Caudwell’s poetry, like the classical foundations of his major work on aesthetics and society, has largely been ignored. Chapter 2 of Illusion and Reality, ‘The Death of Mythology’, is essentially a study of Aristotle’s Poetics. Caudwell’s fundamental thesis is inspired by the argument between Plato and Aristotle on the relationship between the empirically discernible world (reality) and the worlds conjured up in art (mimesis). Caudwell writes that ‘Aristotle’s theory of mimesis, as our analysis will show, so far from being superficial, is fundamental for an understanding of the function and method of art’.52 He is here linking Aristotle’s theory that all art was fundamentally mimetic of reality with his theory that tragic art’s aim is the production of a socially beneficial function by somehow addressing the painful emotions aroused in tragedy. His teleological model of the evolution of genres resembles Aristotle’s teleological description of the development of tragedy and comedy in the Poetics. But other things have impressed Caudwell about Aristotle: he analyses literature as a social product—a body of cultural data to be analysed for what it can tell us in its own right, rather than as an expression of the individual writer’s subjectivity.’3 There were other influences on Caudwell, besides Marx and Engels, including LA. Richards and Nikolai Bukharin. But Aristotle’s Poetics shaped both the form taken by the questions Caudwell asked and his answers.

Caudwell worked in isolation from other CPGB literary figures. His posthumous reputation was established by Professor George Thomson. But several other party members saw the maintenance of a debate on the role of the arts in society as a collective enterprise. The Left Review, first published in October 1936, was a response to the rise of fascism in Europe and a platform for the development of Marxist literary criticism and socialist literature and art. One of the founding editors was the writer and activist, Edgell Rickword, also instrumental in the formation of the Left Book Club and the British Section of the Writers’ International. Before its final issue (May 1938) the Left Review was the mouthpiece of the British Left and attracted impressive contributors’ reviews of literature, poems, short stories and songs on communist themes, some even for mass declamation. Satiric cartoons and jocular advertisement campaigns served to lighten the tone. The démocratisation of culture was an important goal, and therefore one of the key preoccupations of the early contributors was the British education system and the role of the classical education within it.

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972), poet laureate in the 1960s and now known mainly by his accessible translations of Virgil, was a regular contributor to the Left Review and a CPGB member from early 1936.54 He wrote—in an article entitled ‘An Expensive Education’—that just as capitalism in its earlier phases was a progressive force ... necessary for the higher development of the means of production, so was the classical education ... necessary for the development of the human mind.”

Now, he explained, both forces had become reactionary, and the teaching of the Latin language, in particular,

with its emphasis on syntax, its constant appeal to the past, its abstraction from contemporary issues, its combination of intellectual snobbery and imagination-deadening drudgery-may well be the most effective “mental discipline”, but only when by “mental discipline” was meant: “the maintenance of the capitalist system.56

Not to be outdone, the poet Randal Swingler (1909-1967), editor of the Daily Worker (1939—1941), regular contributor to the LR and a CPGB member since 1934, claimed that ‘the present state of classical education is the most efficient method designed for arresting the development of the individual mind’. He argued that ‘to boys whose minds have been hammered out on the anvil of grammar* a knowledge of classical literature is nothing more than a knowledge of texts, and that culture, by extension, became a thing divorced of life, the ‘possession’ of a gentleman and no longer a ‘function, or rather the condition of a function* of man.’7 Swingler had been expensively and classically educated at Winchester and then New College, Oxford.

The traditional British method of classical education, which had indeed often functioned to exclude the lower classes from accessing middle-class careers and institutional power,’8 had always been considered, by some in the British Labour movement, an enemy of socialism. Attempts made by writers to engage with the material of classical culture in ways that bypassed the socially corrosive landscape of the classical education were welcomed. One of the most prolific of the writers associated with the Left Review was Jack Lindsay (Figure 23.3), the Australian-born classicist awarded a ziiak pocheta (badge of

Jack Lindsay (1900—1989), Authors photo, Henry Stead’s private collection

FIGURE 23.3 Jack Lindsay (1900—1989), Authors photo, Henry Stead’s private collection.

honour) by the Soviet government in 1968. He wrote a biography of Mark Antony, about which the scholar George Thomson effused:

What he has given us is of considerable value, suggestive and stimulating, especially to those who have not yet succeeded in shaking off the stultifying effect produced on their minds by the sort of Roman history they learned at school.

Thomson called the Late Roman Republic ‘an excellent field for Marxist research’ and explained that the great merit of Lindsay’s book was that he ‘exposes the real nature of the forces that brought about the fall of the Republic’.59

Lindsay, the son of the famous Australian artist Norman Lindsay (1879-1969), was born in Melbourne in 1900, brought up from the age of5 in Sydney, and won scholarships to Brisbane Grammar School and the newly founded University of Queensland. There he studied Classics under the Scottish Professor John Lundie Michie, developing the skills in translation he would exploit for the rest of his life. Michie was the son of an Aberdeenshire blacksmith and a celebrated beneficiary of the north-eastern Scottish educational system discussed in Chapter ll.60 After university, Lindsay continued to write and translate poetry, while eking out a living as a Workers’ Educational Association of Australia lecturer. He arrived in London in 1926, the year of the General Strike. He met leftleaning middle-class literary men, including Rickword, Douglas Garman and Alec Brown.61

His relationship with Rickword (1898-1982) was intellectually intense. Rickword had studied Classics amongst other subjects at Colchester Royal Grammar School, before fighting on the Western Front briefly in 1918. He later commented on his experience of the war, in Literature and Society (1940), ‘It was not the suffering and slaughter in themselves that were unbearable, it was the absence of any conviction that they were necessary, that they were leading to a better organisation of society’.62 In his poem, ‘Fatigue’, the fetishisation of ancient Greek culture represents the lost dreams of obsolete ruling classes resisting human progress towards a better world.63 His political views intensified when he could not live on his disability benefit after losing an eye, and he was an ardent supporter of the General Strike. He became convinced that Marxist theory was the best way to understand the world during a conversation with Lindsay about Aristophanes and Athens, and in 1934 he joined the CPGB. Rickword gave up poetry, and worked for Lawrence and Wishart. He subsequently edited a prominent left-wing review called Our Time, and was convinced that classicism was not good for poetry, criticising the Imagists thus: ‘All that Grecian business, a Greece that never had been’.64

A colleague of both Rickword and Lindsay, Douglas Garman won a scholarship in Classics to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, spent the 1920s between London and Paris, and was in Leningrad in 1926. With Rickword, he edited and wrote for a journal, The Calendar of Modern Letters, which briefly appeared from March 1925 as a monthly literary review. A committed activist, Garman was Education Organiser of the CPGB from 1934 until at least 1950, and remained a member until he died in 1969. Lindsay, meanwhile, did not become a convinced socialist until around New Year 1936, after the editor of his book Rome For Sale (1934) added a preface in which he compared the Catilinarian revolt with Fascism and the start of the Spanish Civil War.65 He then embarked on a lifelong and somewhat gruelling struggle with Marxism and the increasingly dogmatic postwar Communist Party.

In the mid-1930s Lindsay’s writing changed ideological gear. There is a Marxist line running through his book for a broad popular audience The Romans (1935), part of the ‘How-and-Why Series’, edited by Gerald Bullett. Lindsay explicitly did not ‘seek to tell the story of her [Rome’s] wars and all the romance of her long adventurous career’, but instead preferred, ‘to unravel some of the main qualities that made a small Italian hill-town the most important factor in the building of modern Europe’.66 In a chapter entitled The End of Farmer-Aristocracy he writes,

As always when a landed aristocracy is broken up by the advent of a commercial class to power, there was great misery and uncertainty. All the old ideas of duty and social service were gone, and nothing seemed to take their place.67

The New Zealand-born classicist Ronald Syme reviewed The Romans from Trinity College, Oxford. Aside from a couple of points of detail, the review is entirely positive:

Mr Jack Lindsay has won repute for his translations from the Latin poets and his novels of Roman life and politics. He has now set himself a more difficult task—to delineate in this brief compass of a hundred pages the spirit and character of the Roman people. This little book may be called a success: it is written with knowledge, with sympathy and with passion.68

Subscribing to the Daily Worker and plunging into the politics he had previously avoided, Lindsay realised that his old London friends, Rickword, Garman and Brown were following the same path, and that ‘in Left Review there was a rallying-point of the movement’.69 Lindsay’s first piece for the Left Review was a seven-page declamatory poem called ‘Who are the English?’70 It was reprinted, circulated as a pamphlet71 and performed by the recently formed Unity Theatre, the dramatic limb of the CPGB. Rickword asked him to write a similar poem on the Spanish Civil War, which produced the famous song ‘On Guard for Spain’. This poem was quickly developed into a text designed for mass declamation all over England by socialist theatre groups.72

In his autobiography, Lindsay explains that if he were asked to summarise what his work since 1933 was about, he would answer: ‘The Alienating Process (in Marx’s sense) and the struggle against it’.73 Such words from the mouth of a committed Marxist are no surprise, but it is notable that his own ‘struggle against it’ took a predominantly classical form. He published 11 historical novels based in the Greco-Roman world, the majority in late Republican Rome. One, To Arms (1938), was aimed at young people and set in ancient Gaul. He produced seven book-length translations from Greek and Roman literature, mainly poetry; some were anthologies, including the accessible and cheaply printed collections Ribaldry of Rome and its twin Ribaldry of Greece (1961). Amongst his historical non-fiction are his biography of Mark Antony (1936), The Romans were Here (1956), Our Roman Heritage (1967) about Roman Britain and Leisure and Pleasure in Roman Egypt (1965). Song of a Falling World (1948), probably his most well-received contribution to scholarship, is a Marxist history of the declining Roman Empire based on discussion of the period’s poetry.

Lindsay produced around 160 books in his lifetime.74 His classical output, in terms of books of which he was principal author, amounts to over 40 titles between 1925 and 1974. From the beginning of his writing career he expressed little interest in ancient authors who had, through the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, gained the ‘classical’ stamp of academic authority (especially Virgil and Cicero). He preferred to work with what he regarded as ancient ‘popular literature’ and especially that written by those he considered outsiders. He is now occasionally acknowledged as having usefully popularised the ancient novel, mime and everyday social world of the Oxyrhynchus papyri.75 He was drawn to the poetry and prose of the spoken word, not the ‘deadening side of the tradition’, which he considered to have been fetishised by traditional ‘academic criticism’.76

His favourite classical authors included the demotic and obscene Herodas (whom he first translated in 1930), Petronius (whose Satyricon and poems he translated in 1927), Apuleius (whose Golden Ass he translated first in 1932), Longus (whose Daphnis and Chloe he translated in 1948), and Aristophanes (whose Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae he translated in 1925 and 1929 respectively). He was especially fond of Theocritus, whose poetry he first translated in 1929 and saw (as he said in an article advocating mass declamation as a political instrument) as being beautifully alive ‘because it is tissued in a poetry derived in large part from popular Mimes’.77 His lifelong passion, however, was for the poetry of Catullus, which produced not only two different full translations of his works, the first as an exclusive fine press edition in 1929, and then in 1948 as an affordable commercial edition,78 but also his first trilogy of historical fiction, i.e. Rome for Sale (1934), Caesar is Dead (1934), Last Days of Cleopatra (1935c); also Despoiling Venus (1935), which is a narrative delivered in the first-person voice of Caelius Rufus, and finally Brief Light (1939), a fictionally embellished biographical account of Catullus.

Lindsay’s Marxism gave him an ideological bedrock from which he could spring into the ancient world and an intellectual method of socio-economic analysis into which he could pour his substantial literary experience and his powerful imagination. The new angle on the ancient world that the hopeful, creative Marxism of the 1930s offered simultaneously repelled the traditional Ivory Tower classicists from his work, and attracted other Marxist intellectuals, like Browning and Thomson, who could see how such pioneering work could re-energise the traditional ‘stultifying’ realm of Classics. Lindsay’s skill as a translator of Greek brought him right to the foot of the Ivory Towers, if never through the door, when he contributed translations to The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (1938), edited by T. F. Higham and C.M. Bowra, which accompanied The Oxford Book of Greek Verse (1930). The neglect of Lindsay in mainstream cultural history offers one of the most spectacular examples of the absence of people’s Classics from our histories of the discipline.

Will Crooks, portrait in Vanity Fair, 6 April 1905. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

FIGURE 23.4 Will Crooks, portrait in Vanity Fair, 6 April 1905. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Two factors have contributed to this occlusion. First, the traditional suspicion of linguistic classical education on the British Left. This was best articulated by Will Crooks, son of a ship’s stoker from Poplar, East London, and close friend of Ben Tillett,79 who became only the fourth ever Labour MP in 1901 (Figure 23.4). He famously asked the Conservative Prime Minister 1902-1905, Arthur Balfour, to refrain from speaking in Latin in parliament.80 The other factor is the continuing discomfort, both inside and beyond the Ivory Tower, with excavating the history of British communism. There remains much work to be done investigating the instrumental presence of classical ideas and texts across the different political constituencies that made up the British Labour and Socialist movements, especially via the intellectual work at the heart of the CPGB. One way of continuing this project would be to investigate Andy Croft’s fascinating collection of novels featuring CPGB members, written by card-carriers including Upward, Brown and Lindsay, many fellow travellers and also some writers more hostile to the cause.81 It is fascinating to learn from Croft, for example, that in the first draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by the classically educated Nottinghamshire miner’s son D.H. Lawrence, Oliver Mellors the gamekeeper was secretary to his local cell of the Communist Party in Sheffield.

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