“Written English begins with us” (or does it?)

Submitted by Anon on 3 May, 2007 - 9:50

We continue our series about socialist novels. Steve Cohen introduces May Day, by John Sommerfield, published in 1936

The Communist Party in this country throughout most of its history had proportionately far greater political influence than members, and this influence was mainly felt in the trade unions, anti-colonial movement and culture. The emphasis the Party put on developing the cultural sphere was quite unlike anything today — when indeed the conceit of the Socialist Workers Party in calling itself a “Party” is shown by its complete lack of cultural output.

The image we hold today of the CP being a boring, monotonous, economistic organisation is only partially true. Its promotion of culture was quite unique, as can be seen by just a few examples from the Daily Worker. The paper celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday by reproducing the full text of one of John of Gaunt’s speeches from Richard II – suggesting this was Shakespeare’s posthumous evaluation of the Marshall Plan!

Harry Pollitt, the Party’s leader, used to review children’s fiction, and the paper even had the poet Sean O’Casey on its editorial board. In 1956 it required the revelations about Stalin at the Soviet Party’s 20th Congress to interrupt a prolonged controversy in the paper over Burns Night. Even in its decline, as late as 1977, the Party and its paper were able to attract over 11,000 people to Alexandra Palace for the People’s Jubilee.

Within Trotskyism only the personally and politically grotesque Gerry Healy and the WRP modelled in his repellent image were able (thanks to the Redgraves) to mount such spectacles — but Healy’s only ability was that of a showman, of the Barnum and Bailey of renegade politics.

The emphasis the Communist Party leadership placed on literature (promotion of Left Book Clubs groups), music (Workers’ Music Association, though the Party Musician Group was once described by the distinguished pianist Geraldine Peppin as “dead from the cock up”) and theatre (Unity groups) is recorded in Andy Croft’s book A Weapon In The Struggle. However, as Croft explains, the very title of the book — from the CP slogan that culture is a weapon in the fight for socialism — exposes a contradiction, one found for instance within the literary fiction of Communist novelists.

The crudity of such a slogan, with culture being portrayed as simply a mechanism for social change, reeks of the sterile absurdities of Stalinist inspired “socialist realism”, of “prolekult” — in which all bourgeois culture is dismissed as decadent and all workers portrayed as monotonous robots of class struggle and as having no life outside of such struggle.

The dismissal of the entire literary heritage prior to Joseph Stalin is seen in the preposterous, frightening, Orwellian slogan “Written English begins with us” expressed by the novelist Alec Brown in Left Review in 1934. Brown considered all English literature since Caxton and the printing press to have been simply a construct of bourgeois jargon.

In fact to a large degree the British CP did not follow, or slavishly follow, such socialist realist absurdities. A great deal of artistic endeavour was promoted not so much by the slogan that culture is a weapon in the struggle for socialism but rather that “socialism is part of the struggle for culture”.

Remarkably in 1953, at the height of cold war Stalinism, John Gollan (later to become CP leader), speaking at a conference on culture, told party members that the Party was not concerned with “society and social issues” for their own sake but because they believed in the cultural “flowering” of the individual. He recalled the Chartist slogan “political power is our means, social happiness our end”.

In the 1930s an abundance of novels were written by Party members. May Day by John Sommerfield is well worth reading today. It defies the dull, tedious linear development dictated by socialist realism. In fact at one point the narrator of May Day seems to be referring to the dead hand of Stalinoid fiction when he says: “Art and literature were a racket without the saving grace of gunmen”.

Counterposed to such a tedious racket, the style of May Day is highly experimental. It covers just over forty-eight hours in the life of London leading up to a May Day demonstration. Rather than linear, its style is more that of a panoramic spiral — describing the interconnections between over ninety named characters from the West End to the City, the East End to Fleet Street, the docks to the factory, the factory to the bedroom. This format is now quite familiar. It can be found in the movies such as Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.

May Day itself is very cinematographic, with sharp intercutting scenes that at first appear quite unrelated. Other commentators have compared it to the films of the Soviet experimentalist Eisenstein or to Walter Ruttman’s 1927 silent German film Berlin, Symphony Of A City, whose aim was to portray the multi-layered nature of city life.

The novel fails to break completely from Stalinoid views of reality and of socialism. For instance the very last page, in describing the funeral of a character murdered by the police en route to the march, reads like some prolekult monotone poster of workers reduced to a collective, indistinguishable mass: “A hundred thousand clenched fists raised in the air, a hundred thousand shouts of Red Front”. Sommerfield’s vision of socialism, like his Party’s vision, was statist, top-down, autocratic and technocratic.

Socialism is equated with planning, with one character saying “Once we’ve got power we’d be able to go ahead easily ’cos everything’s organised already and there’s so many factories and everything.” And socialism is to be achieved not by democratic discussion but by following the leader. In one scene we are introduced to Bill Riley, a rank and file Party member, “a good type . . . but looks as if he needed leadership”.

The novel was written at the time Stalinism was breaking from its ultra-sectarian Third Period phase and was entering into its ultra-reformist Popular Front incarnation. The book is a reflection of this politically, not least because of the complete absence of any characterisation of its enemies within the labour movement as “social fascists”. This reflects a distancing from the iron grip of socialist realism. The book is ultimately a positive contribution to the imaginative fictionalisation of struggle.

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