Culture is a mutable phenomenon. Still, its constant motion in a society tends to maintain certain fundamental aspects which, when examined, represent the economics and organizational basis of that society. Although most cultural critiques one finds in today’s media and classrooms rarely mention the economic basis of modern culture and accept the idea that it is something that naturally depends on its commercialization, a deeper economic reality exists. This fact, while acknowledged in a general way by some Marxists, tends to get pushed aside by most people on the left. Indeed, cultural critics are rarely found in most leftist media. There are a few worthy attempts to remedy this lack of left cultural criticism (Red Wedge being one of the more consistent such entities in the US), but, as anyone attending a leftist conference can tell you, there’s just not much talk about the role and meaning of culture on the Left.
Monthly Review Press recently published a small collection of selected writings by the British poet and critic Christopher Caudwell. The texts, written in the 1920s and 1930s, discuss the nexus of culture and economics with an emphasis on poetry and its transition from a collective experience of oral recitation to the modern understanding of poetry as a mostly private matter between the poet and their world. Caudwell, who was a poet and a novelist, died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. One can only speculate as to what he would have observed and written if he had lived into the world that evolved after World War Two.
Titled Culture and Politics: The Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell, the book itself contains selections from three of Caudwell’s texts: Studies in a Dying Culture, Illusion and Reality, and Heredity and Development. Chosen and introduced by David Margolies, editor of the cultural journal Red Letters, the sections of these three books published here reveal a coherent and convincing argument on the nature of bourgeois culture and its role in capitalist society. At the same time, Caudwell’s writing raises questions regarding the nature of history in both its making and its telling.
Margolies opens the text with Caudwell’s consideration of the writer D.H. Lawrence. In this piece, Caudwell immediately challenges the conventional notion of freedom. In essence, he argues that freedom is not found by isolating one from society, but by humanity’s very nature as a social creature. In other words, it is human interaction and cooperation with each other that provides the potential for the truest form of individual freedom. Capitalism and the culture of the class it upholds—the bourgeoisie—replaces the relationship between humans with a relationship between people and things. It is through the exchange of these things for money that prevents humans from realizing their full potential as individuals and as humans. Why? Because one becomes defined by their relationship to those things, those commodities; one either is a laborer whose labor is exploited to make those things or one is the one who exploits said labor. One becomes defined by their relationship to the means of production. There is no such thing as free choice in modern civilization, write Caudwell, because the class structure prevents it. Not only does this structure limit one’s choices, it actually eliminates certain choices altogether. A perfect example of this latter case is the person who wants to be a poet. Since there is no genuine way for most people thinking of such a future to make a living, this option is rejected. After all, one prefers a warm place to sleep and food on the table and that requires an income, something that is not a guarantee for the poet. This observation remains true to this day, despite the considerable changes in the nature of production and the nature of labor. Indeed, it is probably even truer.
Caudwell argues that the ideal of a return to nature is essentially a surrender to the reality of capitalism. Although there is an appeal in the idea of returning to a simpler time when human industry was based more on common lands and shared goals, the romanticization of such ideals in the modern world can easily pave the way to fascism. In order to accomplish such a goal would require a retreat from the consciousness humanity has achieved. This conundrum is not a solution, but a surrender to the forces that make true freedom difficult, thereby leaving the social sphere open to subjugation by those who prefer their capitalism with fascist accouterments.
This book is much more than a critique of Lawrence and other writers. It is a fascinating analysis of the history of poetry and, in turn, the nature of song. In addition, it is a Marxist take on the economics of culture, the role played by art and literature in human society, and the nature of the bourgeoisie. Caudwell moves seamlessly from the specific to the universal, strengthening his argument with each sentence placed on the page. After reading this collection, I was left with a desire to read more works by Caudwell and a newfound understanding of the English poets Milton and Pope.
We live in an ugly time. The forces of reaction conspire with capital to subjugate all of humanity in the name of freedom. Their task is monumental, but so is their effort. Just as they control the means of production, so do they control the means of creating culture. The sophistication required by Caudwell to make his argument regarding the nature and role of culture in capitalist society is barely needed in this period of decay. The nature of art is that it both reflects and encourages that decay in a manner insidious and otherwise. Most are none the wiser. The product being sold as culture leaves much to be desired. So, indeed, does the civilization from which it is derived.