By Christopher Caudwell. From his classic, Studies in a Dying Culture (1938)
A Study in Heroism
Although the leading powers of the world directed during the four years of the Great War all their material, scientific, and emotional resources to violent action, this unprecedented struggle produced no bourgeois master of action. The Great War had no hero. On the other hand, the Russian Revolution was guided from the start by Lenin, who has since grown steadily in significance, not only in Soviet Russia, but throughout the bourgeois world. Wherever there is a social ferment, the actions and words of Lenin are part of it; and each year makes clearer the fact that, as on a hinge, twentieth-century history turns on Lenin. Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Joffre, Jellicoe, French, Haig, Foch, Lloyd George, Wilson and Grey are figures which grow more and more ludicrous and petty as they recede down the tide of time. In the twentieth century millions of deaths and mountains of guns, tanks and ships are not enough to make a bourgeois hero. The best they achieved was a might-have-been, the pathetic figure of T.E. Lawrence.
Yet, if any culture produced heroes, it should surely be bourgeois culture? For the hero is an outstanding individual, and bourgeoisdom is the creed of individualism. The bourgeois age was inaugurated by a race of hero giants; the Elizabethan adventurers and New World conquistadors loom largely out of the rabble of history. The bourgeois progress gives us Cromwell, Marlborough, Luther, Queen Elizabeth, Wellington, Pitt, Napoleon, Gustavus Adolphus, George Washington. Indeed bourgeois history, for bourgeois schools, is simply the struggles of heroes with their antagonists and difficulties.
What is it that constitutes heroism? Personality? No; men with the flattest and simplest personalities have become heroes. Is it courage? A man can do no more than risk and perhaps lose his life, and millions did that in the Great War. Is it success – the utilisation of events to fulfil a purpose, something brilliant and dazzling in the execution, a kind of luring and forcing Fortune to obey one, as with that type of all heroes, Julius Cæsar? This is nearer the truth, but does not account for those heroes who were not successful. Thus Leonidas the heroic was overpowered by superior strategy. Nor does it account for men like Ludendorff or Rockefeller, possessed of resource, success, and brilliance, but very far from being heroes.
The truth seems to be that heroism is not something that can be defined from the quality of the hero’s character alone. The circumstances make the hero. We do not advance Tolstoy’s conception of the hero, a man of petty stature borne on the tide of fortune. There must be something in the man. But there must also be something in events. The conception of the hero as the man dominating and moulding circumstances to his will is as false as that of him simply lifted to achievement as on a wave of the sea. Or rather both are partial aspects of the same truth, that of the freedom of man’s will.
Man’s will is free so far as it is consciously self-determined. His will at any moment is determined by the causal influences of his environment and his immediately preceding mental state, including in his mental state all those physiological factors that combine in the conscious and unconscious innervation patterns. A man is born with certain innate responses determined by his heredity, in a certain environment determined by the past. As he lives his life, innate responses and environment interact to form his consciousness, which is thus the result of a mutual tension between environment and instinct, begetting a continual development of the mind. Since all action involves an equal and opposite reaction, he in turn changes the environment during each transaction which changes him. His environment of course includes other human beings.
A hero is a man whose life is such that, his instinctive equipment being what it is, and his environment being what it is, the effect he has on his environment is much greater than the effect it has on him. We may, therefore, say that he is a man who dominates and moulds his environment.
But, just as a man can only carve a chicken properly if he knows where the joints are, and follows them, so a hero dominates events only because he conforms closely with the law that produces them. The man masterfully carving a chicken therefore corresponds also to the Tolstoyan conception of the hero as a man who is really a slave to circumstances. There is only one way of carving a chicken perfectly, and therefore the man who completely dominates the chicken by carving it perfectly is also completely dominated by it in that he has to follow its anatomy slavishly. But all the same it ends by being carved up. Even this makes the situation seem too simple. For there is also a cause in the dialectic of man’s life why he wants to carve the chicken, why the hero wants to shake worlds.
Here we come to another characteristic of heroism, that the hero, even as he alters the world, seems unaware of what he is doing. Cæsar never consciously willed the Imperiate, nor Alexander the birth. of Hellenistic culture. And yet they willed something, and all their actions seemed directed to the ends they brought about.
The hero seems to act with a kind of blind intuition; and it is therefore particularly strange that the hero is master equally of matter and men, a thing foreign to the abilities of most great men. In this the hero fades on the one hand into the prophet or religious teacher, who can control men’s souls but cannot control events, and on the other hand into the scientist, who can teach men how to control events if they wish, but cannot teach them what to wish. The hero understands geography, war, politics, and cities, and new techniques are instrumental to him, but men are instrumental to him too. And with it all he hardly knows why it is so; he could not give a causal explanation of what is to come about in the future in conformity with his present action, but it seems as if he knows in his heart what to do. A goddess, like Cæsar’s divine patron and ancestor, Venus, seems to watch over his relations with men and events.
From whence does this gift spring? What is its meaning? Often the last thing the hero wishes to do is what he actually does. Like Cæsar he may be at heart a mere adventurer, and yet this knack of heroism ensures that in making his career he creates a civilisation, and irradiates his name with an almost divine lustre, whole strenuous altruists are forgotten, or if remembered are remembered like the Inquisitors with execration. This quality of heroism is then independent of their motives, and yet it is a value, and must adhere to something.
It adheres to the social significance of their acts. Their desires arise from the movement of social relations, and the same movement is the force they wield, the magical power which seems to make the stars in their courses fight for them.
All crises, all wars, all perils or triumphs of States, all changes of social systems in which the hero manifests himself, represent the cracking of the carapace of social consciousness and all its organised formulations beneath the internal pressure of changed social being. If social being were never to change, social consciousness, which bodies forth underlying social reality in terms of static symbols (words, thoughts, concepts, images, churches, laws), would always be adequate, and society would revolve like a gyroscope, stable and stationary. But in fact reality is never the same, for to say that it is the same means that time is at an end. Time is simply an unlikeness in events of a particular inclusive character, such that A is included by B, B by C, and so on. Becoming is intrinsic in reality which is therefore always cracking its skin, not gradually but like a snake, in seasons. The pressure rises until in a crisis the whole skin is cast. The superstructure of society is regrown.
At such times there is a tumult of action and thought, but since action precedes thought, the right thing must be done before the right thought can come into being. Social consciousness is not a mirror-image of social being. If it were, it would be useless, a mere fantasy. It is material, possessed of mass and inertia, composed of real things – philosophies, language habits, churches, judiciaries, police. If social consciousness were but a mirror-image, it could change like an image without the expenditure of energy when the object which it mirrored changed. But it is more than that. It is a functional superstructure which interacts with the foundations, each altering the other. There is a coming-and-going between them. So, life, arising from dead matter, turn back on it and changes it. The process is evident in the simplest use of language. The word is social, representing existing conscious formulations. But to wish to speak, we wish to say something new, arising from our life experience, from our being. And, therefore, we use the Word, with a metaphor or in a sentence, in such a way that it has a slightly fresh significance nearer to our own new experience. This process an a vast scale produces revolutions, when men dissatisfied with the inherited social formulations of reality – governments, institutions and laws – wish to remake them nearer to their new and as yet unformulated experience. And because such institutions, unlike words, possess inertia, because the men with new experience represent one class, and the men without it dinging to the old formulations represent another class, the process is violent and energetic.
Man himself is composed like society of current active being and inherited conscious formulations. He is somatic and psychic, instinctive and conscious, and these opposites interpenetrate. He is formed, half rigid, in the shape of the culture he was born in, half fluid and new and insurgent, sucking reality through his instinctive roots. Thus he feels, right in the heart of him, this tension between being and thinking, between new being and old thought, a tension which will give rise by synthesis to new thought. He feels as if the deepest instinctive part of him and the most valuable is being dragged away from his consciousness by events. The incomplete future is dragging at him, but because instinctive components of the psyche are the oldest, he often feels this to be the past dragging at him. That is why so often we come upon the paradox that the hero appeals to the past, and urges men to bring it into being again, and in doing so, produces the future. The return to the classics dominated the bourgeois Renaissance. Rome influenced Napoleon and the Revolution. The return to the natural uncorrupted man was the ideal of eighteenth-century revolutionaries. Yet it is the new whose tension men feel in their minds and hearts at such times. The new, implicit and informous, waits at the portals of man’s consciousness. But it is invisible. It is as yet only a force, a tension, adequate to make of the things which generate that tension a new and synthesised reality, but at this stage no clearer than a force, a bodiless power. When he hears this signal, imperious in its call to action, the hero will as likely as not give it a formulation from the obscure past, since he cannot clothe it in the unknown qualities of the future. Coming as it does, not from the established habits of society and of his mind but from a pressure in the depths of both, this call to action seems to arise from the depths of man’s soul. Therefore, he interprets it either as a personal devouring ambition (as indeed, in a sense it is) or as a call from God (as in another sense it is, for God always appears as a symbol of unconscious social relations). The mystic and the artist feel the same force, but they do not feel it as the hero does. To him it is a call to bring actively into the world this unknown thing, by shattering the material embodiments that oppose it or by creating new forms to receive it. He may think it is the past he is born to save or re-establish on earth and only when it is done is it seen that the future has come into being. The reformer returning to primitive Christianity brings bourgeois Protestantism into being; and the adventurer raising himself by destroying senatorial power creates the Roman Imperiate.
Concerned chiefly with action, the hero reasons crudely, for action not reason is his task. His ideals are crude; his aims perhaps personal, selfish, and mean. But we are not concerned with these. Watch his deeds. These express the force that is guiding him, and by these he conquers. Thus for all his irrationality he overcomes the more intellectual and enlightened spirits of his age. Wise and far-seeing men, perhaps, but they speak only the language of the present; and are caught in the conscious formulations of their past. He speaks no known language, only a preposterous mixture of childhood memories and half-baked notions. But he acts a philosophy wiser than that professed by his academic opponents. Cicero goes down before Cæsar for Cæsar speaks the language of to-morrow, and Alexander with the intelligence and manners of a public school cad has yet advanced to the Hellenistic empire while Aristotle is wasting his pupils’ time in investigating the constitutions of 158 obsolete city states. Although the hero’s language is mixed and self-contradictory, his hearers are in no doubt as to what he refers. They too have heard that call to action from the heart of reality and have felt the growing tension in their hearts. For its sake they are prepared to abandon consciousness; for it is the consciousness of past obsolete experience. Reason – all the arguments based correctly on premises that have since changed – is powerless to silence this voice.
They believe they are turning from consciousness and reason to the voice of the heart and of the instincts. They believe they are abandoning the wretched present for the golden past. But in fact, as history always shows, they are abandoning present consciousness only to synthesise it in a wider consciousness and it is not to the golden past they turn, but the golden future. Hero and followers, leader and revolutionaries speak the same almost intuitive language, for they learn it from the same source. The hero may talk wildly or be dumb, may be ridiculous and contradictory, yet his audience knows to what he refers and how it cannot be expressed in words, only in action. From this arises the hero’s masterful power over men. This power seems unconscious. Precisely because it is generated in reaching out, through action, to the consciousness of the new reality, it seems most true when least in the region of conscious formulation. The hero seems most successful when he follows blindly what he calls Luck or Inspiration or Divine Guidance, and what we as mystically call Intuition. That typical hero Cromwell explained this in his revealing comment to the French envoy Bellièvre:
‘No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.’
Every hero from Alexander to Napoleon might take this as his motto.
Yet the very source of this power outside the sphere of contemporary consciousness has its dangers. For the power, just because it does not consciously know its goal, may be wasted in a useless explosion. Because all men feel at such times, in the same vague and unformulated way the tension in society pressing for an outlet, they may be the prey of any charlatan who speaks a mystical language calling for change. The force will be tapped that could move mountains, but here the charlatan is as blind as they. For this is the difference between the charlatan and the hero. The charlatan has power over men but not over matter. He does not know the joints of the chicken of circumstance. He leads men back into abandoned ways and forgotten heresies.
For at such a time, because of the force that is being generated, there must be motion. The sum of things is tottering and man must go either backwards or forwards. Just as the neurotic goes back to a childhood solution, faced with impossible adult problems, so civilisation in times of stress such as we have pictured may move towards a previous solution, to some golden age of autocracy or feudalism which once was fertile. But the past can never be again. Just because the present has intervened, nothing can ever be as it once was. The fabric of society has become too changed and subtle to take up the old shape. Like the neurosis, social regression is no solution.
The charlatan appears at the same time as the hero, superficially like him, created by the same forces, and yet playing an opposite rôle. He is a Sulla, a Kerensky, a Hitler or a Mussolini. Hitler and Mussolini draw their power from the same source as Lenin drew his, from the tension between capitalist social relations and the growth in productive forces. And by the usual irony of revolutions, these charlatans appear at first as angels of construction and conservation and the hero seems the destructive element. Only later is it seen that their rôle is opposite, that the charlatans by wasting men’s energy in vain regression are disintegrating all social relations, and that the hero by the very movement that sweeps the old forms off the stage brings into being the new.
Heroes are known not only by their power over men, which charlatans share, but over events, over external reality, over matter. Their intuition of the new social reality extends beyond a knowledge of the tension between the two and teaches them, not fully and clearly but enough for action, the path to be followed to give this tension a creative issue. Thus they move prophetically towards the future and act according to history, history in an unfair manner therefore seeming to play into their hands while all that the charlatans tried to build is swept away by time. The hero may die before he sees himself justified, but we say rightly, that his teaching lives on. He fought for things that survive him, and what can survive the present but the future? This was the world to which he belonged, and we who live in it accord him the greeting of a fellow-citizen and all the admiration felt by a stay-at-home for a colonist.
Heroes are born with the aptitude perhaps, but are made by circumstances. And there is something peculiarly instructive as to the nature of heroes in the example of the bourgeois, Lawrence, dowered with all the hero’s legendary gifts, called to action and yet through circumstances unable to answer the call. A man of unusual force of personality, intense ambition, and rare intellectual ability, Lawrence showed from his early years a strange restlessness. This restlessness of the hero is not unusual. It is as if from the beginning he feels in his heart the tension of the new social relations, but it is at first an appetite without an object. With Lawrence as with other heroes the splendid past was to engross that appetite and not merely in the form of his technical interest in archæology, but also as an attraction to the something large and vivid that there was in the ancient world, submerged in the tawdriness of modern conditions, so that he was driven to wander through the spacious deserts of the primitive East.
The nostalgia which afflicted him was plain enough. It was for ampler social relations, purged of the pettiness and commercialisation of capitalism. Every stage in his life derives its explanation only from this ruling need. As a kind of scholar gipsy he rubbed shoulders in his youth with all classes and conditions of the East. He found his nostalgia satisfied to the greatest degree by the free and open manners of the Bedouin. Their freedom and the value they attached to character and leadership fascinated him, revolted as he was by a world in which value attached only to cash. His hatred of the bourgeois present and the call of the future were symbolised to him by a golden age, the spacious and simple vividness of the Odyssey. This noble life was not entirely dead, he found. In Arabia Deserta, a corner of the world as yet free from capitalist exploitation, this classic simplicity of society still lived on. True, he found that this desert culture could never fully sate the hunger that sent him on his travels. But he did not ask himself if after all the desires were what they clothed themselves in, whether it was in fact the past he hungered for. He explained it differently: they were Arabs and he was European; they were simple and he was over-educated and sophisticated.
Then came the War, and with it the opportunity to give liberty to these people so precious to him because he saw in them all that he yearned for and could not find. And here Lawrence failed of the hero’s grip on changing reality. Liberty – the word to him came simply with all the bourgeois conscious formulations he had absorbed at Oxford, and with it mingled the freedom he had experienced in the tents of the Bedouins, and the word seemed only an enlargement of the same gifts. He did not ask whether these liberties were the same, and if different, what bourgeois liberty really meant. Liberty was the gift he would give them. That was enough. He could act on that clear and classic issue.
So for a time he mastered men and events. He mastered men, because both he and the Arabs were in love with social relations free from the money taint, open, frank, and equal. Theirs was the openness of the past, and what appealed to him was a frankness of the future; but he did not know this, nor could he, there in Arabia Deserta. He, too, humbly twisted his ideals to theirs. His openness drew nothing from the future, but was crammed into an Arab dress, bloody, barbarous, without faith, and merciful only to those whose bread and salt it has shared. He cramped it into a liberty shared by a few men, savage and ignorant, disdainful of the rest of humanity. Here was something not without good because it was free and human; but because of its limitations it was unworthy of a bourgeois hero nourished on Plato and Xenophon. It was still more unworthy of a hero who had felt in his heart the emptiness of bourgeoisdom and the call of a new world. He had desired to be just and friendly and brave and to hate pomp and ceremony and wealth, and to love the essence of a man simply as it realised itself in action. These values, lost to the bourgeois world, and only partially and primitively realised among the Bedouins, are the core of communist honour. But he crushed them into the mould of a desert Arab – he who had tasted all the philosophy and art of bourgeois Europe. He slew and plundered and was ruthless and contracted his aspirations to the narrow hopes of an Arab leader. Afterwards all this blood or wasted effort and vain tension were to reproach him like a murdered opportunity.
Why was he able to show this gift of the hero, to master in this limited sphere as well as men the march of events? Because he knew intuitively how stiff and indurated and obsolete capitalist social relations had become. The Conquistadors in the springtime of the bourgeoisie when these developing social relations seemed sweet and golden could conquer without help a whole New World. One handful of them could master a dead civilisation. But now the bourgeois had grown still-jointed. In Arabia, as on the battle-fields of Flanders, the bourgeois fighting-machine had become as obsolete as a mammoth. A feudal society could baffle it. Lawrence was the first to make this discovery, and with his intuitive knowledge he struck at the weak points of the bourgeois fighting-machine, at its clumsy technical organisation, its inefficiency, its dependence on supplies. Moreover, simply because he loathed the values of bourgeois society, he could sway the minds of desert Arabs. Even, most difficult task of all, he could bribe without offence a patriarchal people to whom, unlike a bourgeois class, money is not everything, the sole bond of society.
So Lawrence freed Arabia. But what had he freed it for? If one frees a society whose social organisation belongs to the past, but has been preserved by a decadent autocracy, what can it do but advance to the present? If one gives a country liberty as the bourgeois understands it, liberty to be a self-governing independent bourgeois state, what can come into being there but bourgeois social relations?
So the Arabs Lawrence freed met two fates, apparently dissimilar but in essence the same. Some became part of the French Empire. Others were permitted to set up under British tutelage but with a king of their own blood, a complete bourgeois state, Iraq, with government, police, oil concessions, and all the other bourgeois paraphernalia.
Lawrence felt that he and the British Government had betrayed some of the Arabs. But he never fully realised how completely he had betrayed them all. He had brought into Arabia the very evil he had fled. Soon his desert Arabs would have money, businesses, investments, loud-speakers, and regular employment. But he could not realise this consciously, for he had never been fully conscious that it was bourgeois social relations he was fleeing, and he was not aware of the omnipotent destructive power of the present over the past. He was in fact like a man who, fleeing blindly from a deadly disease to a healthy land, himself afflicts it with the plague. Had he fully realised all this, he could also have comforted himself with the reflection that it was inevitable, that the past must bow to the present unless, indeed, as in Russia, it can invoke a stronger ally, and because the future is already ripe for delivery in the womb of the present, bring the future into being. Such work demands not only heroes, but that the future is ready to appear, is already fully implicit. And it is not so in the Wilds of Arabia.
Thus Lawrence could not realise clearly what had happened, but this he could realise, that Syria and Iraq were no answer to the nostalgia of his life and no great issue to his ruthless and extravagant expense of spirit.
In those bitter after-days Lawrence still heard that imperious call and tasted all the decay of dying bourgeois culture. He saw this decay in all State ceremony, in all the politenesses of society in the glare of publicity On every manifestation of bourgeois culture he saw the same dreadful slime. Only in the ranks of the Army he found a stunted version of his ideal, Barren of fulfilment but at least free from dishonour. In the Army, at least, though men have taken the King’s shilling, it is not the search for profit that holds the fabric together, but it is based on a simple social imperative and wields a force that never reckons its dividends. Like a kind of Arabian desert in the heart of the vulgar luxury of bourgeoisdom, the bare tents of the Army shield a simple comradeship, a social existence free from competition or hate. It is both survival and anticipation, for on the one hand it conserves old feudal relations, as they were before bourgeoisdom burst them, and on the other hand it prophesies like a rudimentary symbol the community of to-morrow united by ties of common effort and not of cash. This man desperately sick of bourgeois relations found in the Services something not found elsewhere, a comradeship of work as well as play, a sterile and yet comforting reminder of finer things. In peace the unproductive labour of a Fighting Service irks it, and fills the members in spite of their comradeship with a constant nagging sense of impotence. But when war comes and the issues of society are put into its hands by a bourgeoisie which in emergency is prepared to abandon the arbitrament of cash and law for the arbitrament of blood and violence to protect or extend its own – then an Army realises itself. In spite of all war’s horror and dangers, a kind of wild elation and well-being fills it, and millions of men who fought in the war can testify to the collective delirium that lifted them out of the greyness of bourgeois existence.
Even this peace-time impotence was better to Lawrence than the bourgeois relations which his soul revolted at. So he entered a Fighting Service. Not as an officer. It was bourgeoisdom he detested, and it would have been impossible for him to enter that class which preserved even in the Army the characteristics he loathed. He entered the ranks. He showed by this gesture his intuitive knowledge that the nostalgia of his life was for the future, the world of the proletariat. But still the conscious forms of his education prevented him from understanding himself.
He embraced, not only the proletariat, but the machine. In those bitter later years, machines had a fascination for him. The aeroplane, the motor-cycle and the motor-boat seemed to him entities somehow possessed of a strange power for man. He said and wrote that to participate in the conquest of the air was at least a work not altogether vain, yet why he could not say. With the machine was the future; and yet it was not in the machine as a profit-maker that he was interested.
He was right. In the machine lay the significance he sought. But not in the machine as mere machine, but in the machine consciously controlled by man, by whose use he could regain the freedom and equality of primitive relations without losing the rich consciousness of the ages European culture. The instrument was in Lawrence’s hands, as it is in bourgeois hands, but like them he did not know how to use it. Like the bourgeoisie he became intoxicated with the giddy sense of power of this machine, careering to disaster on it, supposing that he controlled it because it went faster and faster. They found him one day unconscious beside his huge motor-cycle, which he had not learned to control. A few days later Lawrence was dead.
What halted Lawrence on the nearside of achievement so that instead of becoming the communist hero, which his gifts and his hatred for the evils of capitalism fitted him for, he became a bourgeois hero who miscarried? Lawrence’s tragedy was partly due to his education. He was too intellectual. The hero should have plenty of native intelligence, but to be intellectual means that one’s psychic potentialities have been fully developed into the current forms. Lawrence was a man of high consciousness, but it was the consciousness of a culture now doomed. All the outworn symbols of the long noonday of bourgeois culture stiffened his prodigious memory, and made of his genius an elaborate osseous structure too tenacious for the instinctive movement of his soul. That is why thought, devised only to aid action, yet often seems to hamper action. Lawrence himself believed that his was the tragedy of the man of action who is also a thinker. This was to make his tragedy too simple. The deadlock was more profound and significant.
Other heroes have been educated and have overcome it in struggling for the past; they have achieved the future. Why could not he? A new factor entered into Lawrence’s tragedy which can best be understood by considering Lenin. Lenin is a hero of a stamp so different from the heroes of the past that one is tempted at first to revise one’s definition of the hero. The hero of past history was impelled by social forces he did not understand, whose power he symbolised in vague aspirations. Often he thought it was the past he was trying to create, or like a Joan of Arc, he was following simply ‘Divine Guidance’ or ‘Voices’. Such heroes create the future darkly, unaware of what they do or why they do it.
Lenin had no doubt as to his task. The future he had to call into bring was Communist society and he knew how it was contained within and could be released from bourgeois social relations. He did not merely know this intuitively but all is clearly set down in his speeches and writings He did not know the distinctive qualities of the future, for no one can know these, but he knew its general shape and the most important causal laws shaping social relations just as the scientist without knowing the qualities of the future knows certain causal laws that enable him to predict the tides and if necessary take advantage of them. This is the essence of prediction: a certain continuity of like persists in the process of reality and is the substrate of the continual development of the unlike which is Becoming. Like and unlike are not mutually exclusive entities, but one becomes another, and the change of one is the change of another. Quality just because it is unlike emerges suddenly, dialectically, as a new mutation. Quantity changes only gradually: it remains within the ambit of known relations. It is always the like with which science is concerned – the electron, time, space, radiation, and the conservation laws connecting them. Because it restricts its attention to known relations science can predict the knowable element in the future. To this degree the scientist of sociology can know the future. This Lenin did. But the heroes of old were necessarily ignorant even of the quantitative basis of the future. Lenin, although a man of action, was thus devoid of the mysticism, the lucky character of the hero, and took on much of the cognitive character of the scientist.
Yet was not this development essential in a man who was to bring to birth a society whose essence, distinguishing it from all earlier social relations, is that in it human beings are cognitively conscious of social relations, and understand not merely the environment of society like bourgeois culture, but society itself? Only the self-conscious hero could lead man towards the self-conscious society. If the characteristic of communism was to be that it would replace religion, mysticism, race and all the symbolical formulations in which men have clothed their dark intuitions of the true nature of social relations, the Banner-bearers of communism must be equally freed of myth and illusion. Such men must not see society as the active theatre of gods, demons, or vague statuesque personifications of Liberty, Fraternity and the Natural Man, but as it is in its causality. Lenin was able to do this, for Marx had already exposed the causal laws of society. Lenin, then, begins the new race of heroes or leaders just as Hitler and Mussolini stand at the end of the long illustrious line of anti-heroes or charlatans. It is not possible now for the hero, guided by an instinctive feeling, to do the right thing against his own intellectual limitations. Such heroes will like Lawrence only be strangled by their own consciousnesses. The very demand of communism, that man be conscious not merely of what he wills but of what determines that will, requires an equal consciousness of a communist leader.
It was Lawrence’s tragedy that he was baffled not merely by his intellectualism, but by the very nature of the new world whose cry for deliverance he had heard in his dreams. Other heroes, despite the distorting bias of yesterday’s consciousness, have managed to find the right path, pulled along it by the overwhelming force of the day’s experience. But no more such instinctive heroes are to be born. Before Lawrence could be a hero, it was not enough to disregard his consciousness, he had first to shatter it and build it anew on a wider and firmer basis. And how could he find that new consciousness in the groves of Oxford, or in the stark Arabian waste, still virginal to market and machine?
Thus the task of the heroes of to-morrow is more strenuous and yet more satisfying than that of the strong ones who lived before Lenin. They must first know what it is they help to bring to birth, but knowing it they will know also that they can bring it to birth, that they are dependent, not on luck, on divine inspiration or on an ancestral Aphrodite, but that they are part of the causality which is the self-determination of the Universe. This is the end of the hero who lives a myth and of the fairy-tales he tells his followers. The childhood of the human race, with all its appealing simplicity and pretty make-believe, is past, and its heroes too must be adult.
In China, too, a race of simple and peasant people, of millions captive to poverty and insolence, have been stirred to action by the name of liberty. It is not a story of one hero, but of an army of heroes, performing exploits believed impossible, not aided by bourgeois gold, but repelling again and again attacks financed by bourgeois gold, armed by bourgeois powers, directed by bourgeois experts. This national rising, led by the Red Army of China, and growing constantly in fire and influence, is also inspired by the name of liberty, but it is not bourgeois liberty. Bourgeois liberty, in the shape of Japanese Imperialism, British banking, and American trade, unites with the bourgeois Kuomintang Government to crush it. The Red Army is a Communist Army, and wherever it moves it establishes village soviets. Its leaders and its rank and file have read the words of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. While oil finance tightens its clutches on Iraq, creation of Lawrence, the liberator, the bourgeois hero, Chinese nationalism, baffled and outraged for so long, finds its last ardent victorious issue in Communism.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A Biographical Note on Caudwell by John Strachey (1938)
Who better than Strachey, one of the prominent lights in the British socialist movement of the 1930s to provide this background?
‘You know how I feel about the importance of democratic freedom. The Spanish People’s Army needs help badly; their struggle, if they fail, will certainly be ours to-morrow, and, believing as I do, it seems clear where my duty lies.’
The author of this book gave the above explanation for enlisting in the British Battalion of the International Brigade, which he did on December 11th, 1936.
On February 12th, 1937, he was holding a hill above the Jarama River, as one of a machine-gun section under the command of a Dalston busman. That afternoon he was killed.
‘… What I feel about the importance of democratic freedom.’ Now Caudwell was a Communist. And many people sincerely suppose that Communists are the dangerous enemies of democratic freedom; they believe that if Communists declare their attachment to democracy, or to freedom, they are only doing so in order to deceive. Yet here we have a Communist, not merely declaring his attachment to democracy and freedom; not merely declaring, as Mr. Neville Chamberlain has recently done, for example, his readiness to die in defence of democracy, but, in actual fact, dying for democracy.
Surely there is something to puzzle over here? Do men fight and die for a political manoeuvre? Do they face the Fascist assault; do they face the onrush of the new barbarism armed with every device of infernal science; do they face that charge, made by war-maddened Moorish Tribesmen, supported by the perfected products of German and Italian aviation which killed Caudwell; do they leave home to face all that, for the sake of a democratic freedom in which they do not really believe? And yet Caudwell was a Communist; a Communist who died for democratic freedom.
The Elizabethans said that death was eloquent. Perhaps the death of Caudwell, and of the men from London and Glasgow and Middlesbrough and Cardiff who have died with him in Spain, may so speak that the people of Britain will begin to understand why Communists fight and die for democratic freedom; for it seems that nothing less than the indubitable signature of death will make men believe in their sincerity.
Caudwell, however, did more than die for his beliefs. For twenty-nine years he lived for them. And into these years he packed a remarkable amount of activity. He wrote a quite startling number of books. For instance, he wrote, under his real name of Christopher St. John Sprigg, no less than seven detective stories (I have read one of them and thought it very poor, as a matter of fact), five books on aviation, and a great number of short stories and poems.
And these were merely his pot-boilers. For the work he really cared about he reserved the pseudonym of Caudwell. Above this name he wrote a serious novel called This My Hand (which, in my view, is a failure) and three major works, namely, Illusion and Reality, The Crisis in Physics and the present volume.
We catch the impression of a young man possessed by creative energy; a young man turning out a flood of work, good, bad and indifferent; a young man, however, marked with one of the most characteristic and one of the rarest of the signs of promise, namely, real copiousness. He was a young man who not only warmed his hands before, but gave great hearty pokes at, the fire of life; a young man so interested in everything, from aviation, to poetry, to detective stories, to quantum mechanics, to Hegel’s philosophy, to love, to psycho-analysis, that he felt that he had simply got to say something about them all.
That is what a man in his ‘twenties ought to be like. It is true that such a man isn’t very likely to say anything conclusive about aviation, love or quantum mechanics. When such a man is about thirty years old, however, his omnivorous attention will settle upon the intensive study of one, or perhaps two, chosen fields; and it will be incomparably the richer for its wandering decade.
Caudwell was just twenty-nine, he was finding himself; his last books show a sharp gain in precision, in capacity to focus; and then the Moors came.
It is not my purpose to say anything of his two other considerable works, Illusion and Reality and The Crisis in Physics. The single purpose of this introduction is to proclaim the unity between the theme which runs through every one of the eight studies of this book and the cause for which its author died; to proclaim the exquisite unity between Caudwell’s theory and his practice; the unity which is, I suppose, what people mean when they talk about sincerity.
For this book is about Liberty. It is a sustained, complex, elaborate, vehement attempt to explain what liberty is, why Communists fight and die for it, and why they know that in the final analysis Communism is Liberty.
The book takes the form of a number of essays on such contemporary figures as Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence, Wells and Freud, with a paper on pacifism, and another on love, and a summing up on Liberty itself, thrown in. Such a diversity of subjects might be expected to make the book scrappy and disconnected; but it has not done so. Almost every page is knit together by a central and never forgotten theme, namely, the analysis, from every angle, of the concept of human liberty. The method which Caudwell chose, that of exemplifying his theme by studies of some of the more influential contemporary minds, makes the book rich and concrete where it might easily have become meagre and abstract.
Caudwell’s introductory chapter gives out his theme. By universal admission something is wrong with contemporary culture. In spite of the enormous achievements of twentieth-century science, everyone feels that the whole vast body of culture, of which science, art, religion, and philosophy are component parts, is rotting. Yet, no one can diagnose the disease.
What is the explanation? Caudwell writes:
Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art. Why then have not all the psycho-analysts, Eddingtons, Keynes, Spenglers, and bishops who have surveyed the scene, been able to locate a source of infection common to all modern culture, and, therefore, surely obvious enough? For answer, these people must take to themselves the words of Herzen: “We are not the doctors, we are the disease.”
Caudwell’s answer is given by the whole of the rest of his book, but he attempts to sum it up both in the introductory chapter and in his last essay on liberty. His answer is that the men of to-day, the men who determine the mental climate of our epoch, have profoundly mistaken the nature of human liberty. As the achievement of liberty is, explicitly or implicitly, the universal goal for which all men work, a mistake about the very nature of liberty vitiates all our endeavours from the very outset. In a few sentences (but to state the idea ui a few sentences is to mutilate and to impoverish it) the leaders of contemporary culture are still dominated, whether they know it or not, with the Rousseauesque belief that man was born free but has enslaved himself in a net of social relations; that the freest man is the most isolated; that what we have to do in order to regain the liberty of the ‘natural man’ is to unloose all the coercions and ties of society; to dissolve the community into its original elements again.
Caudwell’s theme, to which he returns again and again, is that this conception is the prime error which is at the root of all our confusions. This wholly negative conception of liberty had its justification when the task before mankind was the striking off of feudal fetters, the dissolution of a rigid outworn system of social relations within which the powers of mankind were cabined. Then it was true, relatively and temporally, that the dissolution of an obsolete set of social relations, by which men consciously dominated each other, was the task of the liberator. To-day this old truth has died and its corpse has become the most pestilence-breeding of errors.
It is not that we do not still need to seek liberty as the highest of all human ends.
‘There are many essays of Bertrand Russell,’ Caudwell writes, ‘in which this philosopher explains the importance of liberty, how the enjoyment of liberty is the highest and most important goal of man. Fisher claims that the history of Europe during the last two or three centuries is simply the struggle for liberty. Continually and variously, by artists, scientists, and philosophers alike, liberty is thus praised and man’s right to enjoy it imperiously asserted.
I agree with this. Liberty does seem to me the most important of all generalised goods – such as justice, beauty, truth – that come so easily to our lips.’
But the achievement of liberty to-day depends an a process opposite to that undertaken by the anti-feudal liberators. It is not a question to-day of dissolving conscious, overt, feudal bonds by which one man, or class of men, is dominating another. The task of the twentieth-century liberator is, an the contrary, a treble one.
First his analytic task is to make conscious the contemporary, unconscious, unseen social bonds and compulsions which have grown up in the society which resulted from the work of the men, and the class, which destroyed feudalism. This side of the twentieth century liberators’ task is to make men conscious of the fact that when they, rightly, destroyed the overt feudal bond of serf to lord, and slave to slave-owner, they, all unknowingly, wove new, subtle, invisible bonds of domination. Of these the bond between the employer and the employee is the type; and these bonds have become, for all their intangibility, more cruel and coercive in many respects, than the old, overt bonds of servitude.
This tragic result was inevitable because of a profound though, perhaps, historically necessary contradiction in the conception of the goal towards which the anti-feudal – the liberal – liberators were working. Because they thought that the freest man was the most isolated; because, as Caudwell points out, the beast of the jungle is the ultimate ideal of freedom for the liberal who has taken liberalism to its ultimate conclusion; because they did not see that when they destroyed the putrescent connective tissue of the feudal body politic, they must perforce evolve some new social connective tissue to take its place, they neglected the wholc constructive side of their task.
But their omission did not mean that new social relations were not established. That would have been impossible; that would have meant the dissolution of human society. It simply meant that the new, post-feudal, social relations, under which we still live, were established unconsciously. These are the social relations of capitalism, the social relations of the market. Every man is now free, none has legal, compulsive powers over any other. Society is composed of free atoms.
But how are these human atoms to meet at all? How are men to organise any form of co-operation for associated labour? How are social interconnections of any kind to be achieved? The answer is that new and tighter, though now unconscious and invisible, bonds have grown up behind men’s backs out of those commercial relations of buying and selling which were the one form of social intercourse allowed in the theory of post-feudal society. This single relation of buying and selling, by turning into the relation of buying and selling men’s power to labour, has become the compulsive relation of employer to employee; it has become an acute form of domination. In modern society almost the only relation of which men are conscious is their relation to the commodities which they buy and sell. But behind this relation to things has lain concealed a social relation; a relation of domination to other men. To make all this conscious; to make men realise that they live in a highly, though invisibly, intergraded society, is the first, analytic step of the work of the modern liberator.
The second step is to make men realise that all that is good in capitalist society; that everything in which it shows its superiority to feudal society, arises, by a supreme historical paradox, from the higher degree of integration, the richer growth of social connective tissue, which the new form of society has unconsciously produced; that everything which is bad in capitalist society; the subservience of man to man; the extreme and ever-growing instability of the whole system; its slumps and its wars, and its present disintegration, arises because of the unconscious and, therefore, uncontrolled and uncomprehended nature of those new, close and dominating social relations.
The third and highest task of the contemporary liberator is to make men realise that they will find liberty, first, by breaking down, it is true, the existing, unconscious, set of social relations and coercions. But then, if they are to be free, they must build up new, conscious, rich, close and complex social relations; they must build up those social relations which we call socialism. Somehow we must make men understand that they can find liberty, not in the jungle, which is the most miserably coercive place in the world, but in the highest possible degree of social co-operation. Liberty is a positive and not a negative concept; liberty is the presence of opportunity rather than the absence of constraint; liberty is the ability to do what we want. And that we cannot do, upon this obstinate earth, except in close, conscious and organised co-operation with our fellow-men.
These few sentences maim and constrict Caudwell’s exposition of the concept of liberty as a positive social relation; the concept of liberty as the attainment of the highest degree of mutual aid. The reader of this book will find this concept diversely illustrated and illuminated in almost every one of its pages.
Again, it has been to misrepresent Caudwell’s book to suggest that it is simply an essay on liberty. It is true that this theme runs through it; that this theme is what gives it unity and singleness of purpose. But there are many other suggestive and stimulating themes in the book. Caudwell makes a real contribution, for example, to the study of Freudian psychology as a social phenomenon. Again he has some amusing and shrewd things to say about Wells and Shaw.
Indeed the particular essay which interested me most was that on T.E. Lawrence. In it, Caudwell develops what I can only call a theory of heroism. He asks the question, what is a hero? Why did the huge convulsion of the world war produce no hero in that part of the world which stayed within the confines of capitalist society? Why does Lenin, the man who burst those confines for one great people, alone stand out to give our epoch from incomparable mediocrity? He answers this question by a study of the nearest thing to a hero which the British ruling class was able to produce, the hero manqué, T.E. Lawrence.
There is profound understanding and sympathy in Caudwell’s study of this supremely original, supremely unhappy, genius. This essay, above all perhaps, makes us feel how profound has been our loss through the death of Caudwell. In this essay Caudwell shows a capacity which is as yet tragically rare amongst the writers, and leaders, of the British working-class movement. He shows a width of perception, a generosity of sympathy, a capacity to understand the motive forces which move the minds of men. He shows an ability to use his Marxian insight into impersonal social forces in order to gain an understanding of the tragedies of individual men.
Well, because we were too lazy, too selfish, too frightened to see to it that our country played its part in preventing the world from becoming the playground of the Fascist aggressors, Caudwell has been killed and many another such, who might have lived to bless the world, will be killed. Let us, at least, use the words which Caudwell did have the opportunity to leave us, to make all those who are becoming men and women in the blood-stained nineteen-thirties understand for what it was he died.
‘On the first day, Sprigg’s (Caudwell was a literary pseudonym) section was holding a position on a hill-crest. They got it rather badly from all ways, first artillery, then machine-gunned by aeroplanes, and then by ground machine-guns. The Moors then attacked the hill in large numbers and as there were only a few of our fellows left, including Sprigg, who had been doing great work with his machine-gun, the company commander, – the Dalston busman, gave the order to retire.
‘Later I got into touch with one of the section who had been wounded while retiring, and he told me that the last they saw of Sprigg was that he was covering their retreat with the advancing Moors less than thirty yards away. He never left that hill alive, and if any man ever sacrificed his life that his comrades might live, that man was Sprigg.’