Giving a Damn: An Interdisciplinary Reconsideration of English Writers' Involvement in the Spanish Civil War

Article excerpt

In the twentieth century, a time that historian Eric Hobsbawm calls "The Age of Extremes,"(1) English writers have been singularly disinclined to enlist themselves in political causes in any substantive way. The great exception was the Spanish Civil War, the only conflict to which a substantive number of English writers spontaneously and enthusiastically devoted physical as well as literary energies. I will consider three related questions: why this particular time and conflict predisposed English writers to political participation; why they chose this particular conflict; and whether their participation was motivated most by reality, romanticism, or wartime propaganda. These questions are not new, but an interdisciplinary analysis offers more complex answers than those offered by previous studies.

Any revolutionary participation requires both the negative impetus of anger as well as the more positive stimulus of hope for reform. Within this century, the 1930s were optimum for these contrary emotions. World War I had irreparably shaken most artists' and intellectuals' faith in the future; by the time of Siegfried Sassoon's bitter poem "The Hero," little belief in heroism remained.(2) The crisis of the "lost generation" is well known; themes of alienation and loss of faith dominate the post-war period. The threat of fascism and the reality of economic crisis seemed great. Unemployment was two- to three-million, with even more affected by wage and social-services cuts; the failure of capitalism seemed clear.

Writers' guilt about their economically privileged status is evident in both their literary works and autobiographies. Stephen Spender remembers the middle-class crisis of consciousness in the 1930s, the new awareness of privilege and the sense of a "terrible burden of responsibility."(3) In part, he became a communist from "feelings of guilt and the suspicion that the side of me which pitied the victims of revolution secretly supports the ills of capitalism from which I myself benefitted."(4) Richard Bjornson believes that many writers became involved to avoid the guilt of inaction,(5) while Robert Sullivan finds a recurring guilt motif in autobiographies.(6) For W. H. Auden, the whodunit's popularity in this epoch was a quest for absolution, the genre itself a "dialectic of guilt and innocence."(7) Both the reading and the writing of whodunits offer means of vicariously affixing, punishing, and possibly diminishing this guilt.

The positive motivator, hope, was socialism. Not until the 1930s did socialism seem both viable, through the Soviet example, and necessary, due to the impending crises. The Communist Party in Britain grew rapidly, though its influence was greatest among intellectuals and artists: the masses remained supporters of the status quo, as Orwell regrets in "England your England."(8) Julian Bell speculates that British Communism was "largely literary,"(9) yet this phenomenon ought not be underestimated. T. S. Eliot, a strong anti-socialist, observed that Marx's "power is so great, and his analyses so profound, that it must be very hard ... to avoid accepting his conclusions."(10) C. Day Lewis penned these poetic lines: "Yes, why do all, / seeing a communist, feel small?"

As for purely literary motivations, the comparison between literature under fascism and under socialism was stark. Artistic development in the USSR's first decade had been extraordinary in both quality and influence; Stalin's purges and censorship were not yet known. Socialism seemed to be revitalizing literature, especially poetry, while English literature seemed to be stultifying.(11) English writers and the public were eager to embrace these new styles and politics. Many agreed with C. Day Lewis's manifesto A Hope for Poetry that industrial capitalism alienated poets from society, whereas communism offered the solidarity that makes good poetry possible. Only after Spain did writers see that socialism could also be subverted. …