The Last Great Cause
Between the Bullet and the Lie
The Fifth Column and four unpublished stories of the Spanish Civil War
The events of the Thirties are sufficiently remote to be “historic” while at the same time sufficiently near to be discussed among people—some of them still not old—who participated in them. They are therefore a wide-open subject for research. Today, moreover, they interest the young in America and Europe, some of whom feel that there is a parallel between the political-moral issues of that decade—in which politics seemed suddenly concerned with choices between life and death, civilization and barbarism—and issues such as those of Vietnam, racism, and the manipulation of the society by vast military and industrial interests today. Some young people begin to feel that they live in a society influenced by powers—such as those in the Thirties that permitted the Fascists to strangle the Spanish Republicans—which can be met only by their totally committing themselves to an equally all-inclusive counter-political activity.
It is scarcely surprising then that there is a steady flow of books about the attitude of intellectuals to politics in the Thirties. Two outstanding examples, about English and American writers during the Spanish Civil War, are Stanley Weintraub’s The Last Great Cause and Katharine Bail Hoskins’s Today the Struggle (which is exclusively about the English writers).
Both these books, covering much the same ground, are in their ways helpful and interesting. Stanley Weintraub has the advantage that he relates the unfolding events of the war with the parallel activities of the writers. Miss Hoskins consigns the issues of the war to a somewhat thesis-like Appendix. However, in keeping the events separate from the literature she allows herself room for a thorough discussion of some writers and their works: for example, her account of the changes of Wyndham Lewis’s political front (surprising they are, too), and her excellent analysis of his novel largely concerned with Spain, The Revenge for Love.
In the main, these authors simply illustrate the stated attitude of the writers toward the war without venturing far beyond this. Although they give some biographical information, they do not—as Peter Stansky and William Abrahams did in their remarkable book, Journey to the Frontier, about Julian Bell and John Cornford—go into matters of class, education, and upbringing, or of literary relationships, which influenced—sometimes unconsciously—the attitudes of the writers. An exception is Stanley Weintraub’s discussion of Hemingway’s attitudes during his Spanish visits. (Hemingway also receives much intelligent attention by Cecil Eby, in his Between the Bullet and the Lie, which I will discuss later.) Hemingway went to Spain as a war correspondent hypnotically drawn to wars but also having a great love of Spain.
He was not a communist, but whole-heartedly supported the Republic, toward which his attitude was benevolent and rather paternal. He interested himself greatly in the personalities and the activities of International Brigaders. He had a strong disagreement with his colleague John Dos Passos in Valencia. Dos Passos had shown excessive concern when he discovered that his friend and translator José Robles had been shot as a spy. Hemingway cannot be fitted into any category describing the motives of writers for taking sides over Spain. So when he writes about Hemingway, Mr. Weintraub seems to lean less heavily than in other chapters on information obtained from books, and to be seeking his own conclusions.
To give an example of an inadequacy in the approach of these authors, let me consider the question of the relations of the “right-wing” pro-Fascist writers with the left-wing anti-Fascist ones. Both authors have chapters in which they record that, among others, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and Roy Campbell (violently pro-Franco) were rightist (though Eliot announced during the Spanish Civil War that he “preferred to remain isolated, and take no part in these collective activities”). On the face of it this gives the impression of there being two writers’ parties, one of the left, the other of the right: the division being qualified by the fact that T. S. Eliot, as a director of Faber and Faber, published much of the poetry of the leftist poets. But this political division is cut across by the fact that Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, and Spender felt nothing but admiration for the poetry of Yeats and Eliot, by whom they were influenced.
On account of this there was more division between them and a slightly younger group of left-wing writers than between them and these older “right-wing” writers. The poets of the “Auden generation” admired Eliot “this side of idolatry”; and to meet Yeats in a London drawing room in the Thirties was, for them, to meet a god. But to a more completely politicized younger generation Yeats was a reactionary, and Eliot a poet who, having had an insight into the decadence of bourgeois Western Civilization, failed to draw the conclusion that it must be succeeded by revolutionary communism.
These distinctions may seem oversubtle, but for today’s young generation interested in the Thirties, they may be important because they have to do with the fact that among writers, within the general orthodoxy of anti-Fascism, there was a conflict between literary and political dedication. Sometimes this conflict was an inner one taking place within the mind of a writer himself.
Mr. Weintraub and Miss Hoskins rightly pay much attention to Auden’s poem “Spain,” a political poem supporting the Spanish Republic. However, neither of them discusses his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (January 1939), which is almost as much an epitaph on Auden’s political commitment during the Thirties as on Yeats himself: “Poetry makes nothing happen…in the valleys of its saying…it flows south….” And “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry…,” which is to deny that Yeats’s poetry had any influence over Irish politics (which Yeats believed it did). Poetry is a stream running deeper than the events with which the political executives tamper and the poems of the poets—whatever their surface disagreements—meet by those waters. Mr. Weintraub and Miss Hoskins probably feel that “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” being written in 1939, does not belong to the period they discuss. The point is though that it expresses the underlying feelings about poetry which Auden certainly had even while he was writing “Spain.”
According to Miss Hoskins, it is unfortunate that since the poets of the “Auden generation” wrote so little before the Thirties, one cannot know what their attitudes would have been if there had never been Fascism. It is a pity she leaves it at that. In fact, Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, and Spender all published volumes before they became involved in Thirties’ politics. Moreover a good deal has been written about their attitudes when they were Oxford undergraduates. Although one cannot take the opinions of such young men very seriously, nevertheless it is symptomatic that—apart from a rather dutiful acceptance of pacifist socialism—they were unpolitical, indeed anti-political, and above all completely opposed to the idea that there was any connection between politics and literature.
Their generation inherited attitudes which were the aftermath of the First World War. Important among these was a profound contempt for politics. The politicians were the cynical old men who had sent the young men into the trenches of the Western front. So the true “fathers” of this generation were not the older generation of the England of neurotic colonels and imperialist flag-wavers, but the rebellious sons of the 1914-1918 generation who had been sent to fight in the trenches—or who had been pacifists—and who were cynical about all politics and all politicians: Wilfred Owen, the Robert Graves of Goodbye to All That, E. M. Forster, and (as an outsider) D. H. Lawrence. They regarded T. S. Eliot as a poetic revolutionary, who in The Waste Land—that poem which insulates the decadent Western civilization from all idea that it might be saved by politics—expressed a poetic consciousness creating, against a background of social despair, a poetry unhampered by any social or political involvement. A very similar end-game view of civilization is conveyed by Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Homage to Sextus Propertius, and in much of D. H. Lawrence (where the orgasm of a Lady Chatterley and her game-keeper is offered as the alternative to social revolution), in A Passage to India, and in books that reached us from America—E. E. Cummings’s The Enormous Room and Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle.
So the “Auden generation” grew up in an atmosphere of enforced social despair, cultivated and productive of late blooms, like Rimbaud cultivating his hysteria. To a considerable extent this remained their attitude during the Thirties. They certainly felt the attraction of seeing all contemporary literature as, wittingly or unwittingly, playing a role in a political drama written by History, of interpreting every contemporary work as revolutionary, reactionary, or escapist. But perhaps more than they were aware, they had mental reservations which prevented them from taking the political interpretation of literature altogether seriously. They never succeeded in turning themselves into ideological Marxists (any more than Edmund Wilson in his Thirties’ writing succeeded in this). These poets considered their poems of political consciousness second string to work judged by values of imagination which they regarded as self-justifying without reference to outside events. Even when writing political Gebrauchs-literatur, they were glad to point out that most of their writing had no political design on the reader. MacNeice—more than the others—could not write about politics without giving the impression—in the work itself—that he did so with curled lip.
And the corresponding generation in America had, surely, a basically apolitical attitude.
So long as there was in Europe no government whose declared intent was to suppress art and intellect, freedom of speech, and all political opposition, the writers whose values were non-political and exclusively literary could believe that the decline of the West was a condition within which a Silver Age living culture might function—an irreversible process, like the Fall of Rome. But with the rise of Hitler the tiger of inhumanity moved into the waste land. It was the murders and vandalism and suppression of liberal freedoms which forced the non-political Thirties’ generation into politics—the writers whom Stanley Weintraub calls the non-combatants.
The slightly younger generation, of the combatants, had a different attitude. Stansky and Abrahams relate how John Cornford, reading The Waste Land when he was still a schoolboy in 1935, interpreted it as a declaration of the bankruptcy—not of “the West”—but of capitalism. He could see it in this way because, by 1935, “Fascism” seemed a single front with Hitler at the center, but whose flanks were the governing classes of England, France, and even America. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the signing of the Non-Intervention Agreement those who connived at the Fascist intervention in Spain included not only conservatives like Stanley Baldwin, but also Roosevelt and Léon Blum.
Today, looking back at the Thirties across the gulf of the “war against Fascism,” one finds it difficult to see the idea of the young that the democracies were part of the same capitalism as Hitler, other than as an example of the group paranoia which sometimes affects young generations. Above all, the America of the New Deal and of Roosevelt’s frequent anti-Nazi growlings seems anything but pro-Fascist. However, Cecil Eby corrects the impression that the Roosevelt administration gave comfort and secret aid to the American Volunteers in Republican Spain. On the arrival of the first American volunteers in Spain, Cordell Hull cabled instructions to the American consul in Barcelona that American nationals in the Brigade should be given none of the protection—not even if they deserted and wished to leave Spain—accorded to American citizens. These instructions were—with very few exceptions made on grounds of mercy—carried out, and in the later stages of the war young American deserters were being hounded by Brigade security agents, without being able to claim protection as American citizens.