Illusion and Reality, Christopher Caudwell 1937



When we use the word “modern” in a general sense, we use it to describe a whole complex of “modern” in Shakespeare, Galileo, Michael Angelo, Pope, Goethe and Voltaire which we can distinguish from Homer, Thales, Chaucer and Beowulf, and compare with Valery; CÚzanne, James Joyce, Bergson and Einstein. This complex rests on an economic foundation. The complex itself is changeful – no epoch of human history has been so variegated and dynamic as that from the Elizabethan age to ours. But then, the economic foundations too have changed, from feudal to “industrial.” This culture complex is the superstructure of the bourgeois revolution in production – a revolution whose nature was first analysed completely by Marx in Das Kapital. Modern poetry is capitalist poetry.

It is impossible to understand modern poetry unless we understand it historically – in motion. We can only bring back dead formulae from a study of poetry as static “works of art,” something frozen and ossified. This is particularly true where poetry is the organic product of a whole society violently in motion.

Yet to study the poetry of bourgeois culture as a whole during that time is a formidable task. Many nations and many languages have been caught up into the bourgeois movement, and yet it is the characteristic of poetry that it demands for its appreciation a more intimate knowledge of the language in which ii was written than any other form of literature.

But as it happens, England pioneered the bourgeois revolution in economy. Italy preceded it – but its development was stifled early. America outstripped it – but only at a late date. In England alone the greater part of the bourgeois revolution unfolded itself, and from there spread to the rest of the globe.

In France during the period 1789-1871 the bourgeois revolution moved through many stages with greater speed, greater precision and more relentless logic than here, but its very speed made the ideological superstructure more confused. For a study of bourgeois literary art in general, France during that short period is more valuable; but for the study of poetry in particular; England – where the revolution unfolded itself so much more evenly and in so much more detail – is a better field.

Owing to its earlier and fuller development, the decay of English bourgeois economy arrived later than in other countries. Therefore during the period of Imperialism the poetic symptoms come to light at first in other countries than England – in France, Germany and Russia. With the exception, therefore, of this concluding period, our historical survey of modern poetry will be confined to one country – England.

It is no accident that this same country, England, has also been notable for the volume and variety of its contribution to modern poetry. The fact that England for three centuries led the world in the development of capitalism and that, during the same period, it led the world in the development of poetry, are not unrelated coincidences but part of the same movement of history.

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked seif-interest, than callous “cash payment.”

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the means of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.[1]

Capitalist poetry reflects these conditions. It is the outcome of these conditions. The birth of poetry took place from the undifferentiated matrix of the tribe, which gave it a mythological character. It separated itself from religion as the art of a ruling class in class society, but, except in moments of revolutionary transition like that of fourth century B.C. Greece, this art led a quiet existence, mirroring the slow rise and slow collapse of a class “whose first condition of existence is conservation of its mode of production in unaltered form.” Then a class developed beneath the quiet, stiff art of feudalism, whose vigour is first announced by the Gothic cathedrals. This class in turn became a ruling class, but one whose condition of existence is a constant revolution of the means of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.

Its art is therefore in its essence an insurgent, non-formal, naturalistic art. Only the art of revolutionary Greece in any way forecasts the naturalism of bourgeois art. It is an art which constantly revolutionises its own conventions, just as bourgeois economy constantly revolutionises its own means of production. This constant revolution, this constant sweeping-away of “ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions,” this “everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” distinguishes bourgeois art from all previous art. Any bourgeois artist who even for a generation rests upon the conventions of his time becomes “academic” and his art lifeless. This same movement is characteristic of English poetry.

The characteristic of capitalist economy is that it apparently sweeps away all directly coercive relations between men – and seems to substitute for them the coercive relations of men to a thing – the State-upheld right to property. Men are no longer coercively tied together, as in a feudal society serf is tied to lord and lord to overlord, but they produce independently for the free market, and buy independently from this same free market. They take not merely their products but their abilities to the market and are entitled to sell their labour-power there without let or hindrance to the highest bidder. This unreserved access to an unrestricted market constitutes the “freedom” of capitalist society.

Thus there appear to be no coercive relations between men, but only force-upheld relations between men and a thing (property) which result in relations between an individual and the market. The market seems to be a part of Nature, a piece of the environment, subject to natural “laws” of supply and demand. Its coercion does not seem the coercion of men, but of blind natural forces, like a gale or volcanic eruption.

In fact the market is nothing but the blind expression of real relations between men. These relations are relations of coercion, the characteristic exploitation of capitalism by ownership of the means of production and the purchase of the labour-power of the free labourer – free of all property but his bare hands. But just because it is a blind expression, it is coercive and anarchic, and acts with the violence and uncontrolled recklessness of a natural force. Just because the coercive relations between capitalist and wage-labourer are veiled, they are so much the more brutal and shameless.

Capitalist economy, therefore, is the economy of a sham individualism and a hollow freedom for the majority. The condition of existence of the bourgeois class as a ruling class, and therefore the condition of its freedom in society, is the absence of directly coercive relations between man and man. Such coercive relations are restrictions – like the feudal restrictions which bind serf to lord. But freedom without social relations would be no freedom at all, but only a blind anarchy in which society must perish. In addition, therefore, to the absence of direct relations between men, bourgeois society must include the presence of rights to absolute ownership of means of production – the right of “private property.” This absolute right is maintained by the device of a coercive State power, with its laws and police and army, which, because it enforces a property right and not any direct ownership of men by men, seems to tower over society as something mediating and independent. But in fact, since this property right gives the bourgeois coercive power over the “free” labourer through ownership of the means of production, both the State and the bourgeois economy it enforces veil a coercive society for the majority , and the only freedom it contains is the freedom of the bourgeois from nature – due to his monopolisation of the social product – and his freedom from human coercion due to the elimination from society of all directly coercive relations of feudal character. Seen from the viewpoint of the bourgeois, bourgeois society is a free society whose freedom is due to its individualism, to its completely free market and its absence direct social relations, of which absence the free market is the cause and expression. But to the rest of society bourgeois society is a coercive society whose individualism and free market is the method of coercion. This is the basic contradiction of bourgeois society, which must be grasped to understand the whole movement which secures the development of capitalist culture.

We saw in our analysis of the birth of poetry that early poetry is essentially collective emotion, and is born in the group festival. It is not collective emotion of an unconditioned, instinctive kind, such as might be roused in a herd by a foe; it is the collective emotion of a response conditioned by the needs of economic association.

Now bourgeois culture is the culture of a class to whom ,freedom – man’s realisation of all his instinctive powers – is secured by “individualism.” It might therefore seem that bourgeois civilisation should be anti-poetic, because poetry is collective and the bourgeois is an individualist.

But this is to take the bourgeois at his own valuation. Certainly we must first of all do this, whether to understand him as capitalist or as poet. The bourgeois sees himself as an heroic figure fighting a lone fight for freedom – as the individualist battling against all the social relations which fetter the natural man, who is born free and is for some strange reason everywhere in chains. And in fact his individualism does lead to a continual technical advance and therefore to an increasing freedom. His fight against feudal social relations permits a great release of the productive forces of society. His individualism expresses the particular way in which the bourgeois economy continually revolutionises the base on which it stands, until the base becomes too much for the superstructure and bourgeois economy explodes into its opposite.

And, in the same way, the bourgeois poet sees himself as an individualist striving to realise what is most essentially himself by an expansive outward movement of the energy of his heart, by a release of internal forces which outward forms are crippling. This is the bourgeois dream, the dream of the one man alone producing the phenomena of the world. He is Faust, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Satan and Prufrock.

This “individualism” of the bourgeois, which is born of the need to dissolve the restrictions of feudal society, causes a tremendous and ceaseless technical advance in production. In the same way it causes in poetry a tremendous and ceaseless advance in technique.

But both capitalist and poet become darker figures – first tragic, then pitiful and finally vicious. The capitalist finds his very individualism, his very freedom, producing all the blind coercion of war, anarchy, slump and revolution. The machine in its productiveness finally threatens even him. The market in its blindness becomes a terrifying force of nature.

By means of the market, capitalist constantly hurls down fellow capitalist into wage-labour or relegates him to the ranks of the temporarily privileged “salariat.” The artisan of yesterday is the factory hand of to-day. The shop-owner of this year is the chain-store manager of the next year. Last week, owner of a small business – to-day, salaried executive in a large trust: this is the dramatic process whereby capitalism revolutionises itself. It does so by means of the very free market on which the bourgeois depends for freedom. This guarantee of individualism and independence produces the very opposite – trustification and dependence on finance capital. This golden garden of fair competition produces the very opposite of fairness: price-cutting, wars, cartels, monopolies, “corners” and vertical trusts. But all these evils seem to the bourgeois, who is hurled from his freedom by them, to be – as indeed they are – direct and coercive social relations and he revolts against them as the very opposite of his ideal recipe, the free market. He therefore revolts against them by demanding a fairer market and keener competition, without realising that since these ills are created by the free market, to demand the intensification of its freedom is to demand an intensification of the slavery he hates. He therefore drives on the movement he detests and can only escape by escaping from the bourgeois contradiction. The bourgeois is always talking about liberty because it is always slipping from his grasp.

The bourgeois poet treads a similar circle. He finds the loneliness which is the condition of his freedom unendurable and coercive. He finds more and more of his experience of the earth and the universe unfriendly and a restraint on his freedom. He ejects everything social from his soul, and finds that it deflates, leaving him petty, empty and insecure.

How has this come about? We can only discover why if we now cease to take the bourgeois at his own valuation, and lay bare the economic motion of which his own valuation of himself is the reflection. At each stage the bourgeois finds that his abolition of social “restrictions” leads to their intensification. His drive towards a free market exposes the producer to a gale of competition of which the only outcome is – an amalgamation. His destruction of feudal “complexities” in favour of the simple bourgeois right to property produces all the staggering elaboration of the bourgeois law of contract. His hate of feudal rule and social coercion produces the strongly-centralised, bourgeois State with its endless petty interferences with the liberty of the individual. Individualism has produced anti-individualism. The very economy whose mission it seemed to be to sweep away all social relations, produces a society more overwhelmingly complex than any hitherto known. His demand for freedom is a negation of freedom. He is a “mirror-revolutionary” and continually revolutionises society by asking for that which will procure the opposite of what he desires.

This self-contradictory movement is given in the fundamental law of capitalist production. It is a result of the same law which brings about a price-cutting war, in which each capitalist is compelled to ruin the other, and cannot do otherwise, for to delay the final ruin of all would ensure his earlier extinction. This movement produces the continual increase of constant capital in every industry, which leads to a falling rate of interest and causes the familiar capitalist crisis, from which recovery is only possible by means of the destruction of a large portion of the country’s wealth. This same contradiction produces also the expansive growth of capitalism, its constant revolution of its own basis and its eager pressure into every corner of the world. It produces a continual amalgamation and trustification which, by increasing the proportion of constant capital, only accelerates the falling rate of profit.

This contradiction in capitalist production, which secures its revolutionary expansion, also brings about its revolutionary decline. When the expansive powers of capitalism have laid the whole world under tribute, the rival centres of advance clash against each other in concealed or open war, only to intensify in each other the causes which demand expansion. The productive forces strain at the productive relations. There is a final crisis of “over-production.” The falling rate of profit, unavoidable fruit of the self-contradiction in the heart of capitalism, becomes apparent in mass unemployment, a world crisis, a general slowing-down of capitalist expansion, war and revolution. And this final movement, in which the bourgeois finds his charter of freedom the very bond that seals him slave to necessity, is reflected also in his poetry, in the poetry of Imperialism and Fascism.

The very destruction of all direct social coercion – which was the condition of bourgeois pre-eminence and therefore freedom – is the condition of slavery for the exploited and expropriated, because it is the means of maintaining the indirect coercion of capital, and for this uses the openly coercive machinery of the State. Therefore in the latter part of capitalist development, the bourgeois finds himself confronted by a class , the means of whose freedom is an organisation into trade unions, which alleviate the rigour of the free market. These can only secure freedom for themselves by imposing coercive restrictions on him. This class is the class of wage-labourers or proletarians. Organising themselves first as Chartists, then in the trade unions, and finally led by a conscious political Party, they impose on the capitalist coercive restrictions, such as the Factory Acts, social insurance and the like, which are the conditions of such liberty as they can obtain within the categories of bourgeois economy. But each class’s freedom secures the unfreedom of the other – that is the contradiction which now comes nakedly to light.

Bourgeois production imposes on this class the means of organisation. Bourgeois economy groups its members in towns and factories and makes them work in co-operation. The bourgeois class temporarily buried the competition of men and appealed to the brotherhood of men whenever it required their alliance to overthrow feudal restrictions; and this gave wage-labourers a political education and led to the formation of their political party.

This new class finally secures its own freedom by a complete executive organisation of itself as a ruling class – the Soviets of workers’ power – and imposes on the bourgeoisie the final “freedom” of release from ownership of private property, thus exposing the lie on which the bourgeois notion of freedom was based. But with the disappearance of the bourgeoisie the last coercive relation rooted in the necessities of economic production disappears, and man can set about becoming genuinely free.

This proletarian revolution is accomplished in circumstances which necessarily uproot and proletarianise numbers of the bourgeoisie themselves.

“Just as therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular a portion of the bourgeois ideologists who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole. They thus defend not their present, but their future interests; they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat."[2]

This desertion of the bourgeois ideologists to defend their own interests, in the final movement of capitalism, is also reflected in English poetry.

We cannot therefore understand the fundamental movement of capitalist poetry unless we understand that the self-contradiction which drives on the development of bourgeois poetry so rapidly and restlessly is the ideological counterpart of the self-contradiction which produces the increasing movement of capitalist economy and is the cause of the growth of constant capital, the falling rate of profit, and the recurrent capitalist crisis. What the bourgeois encounters in real life necessarily moulds his ideal experience. The collective world of art is fed by the collective world of real society because it is built of materials which derive their structure and emotional associations from social use.


To the bourgeois, freedom is not the consciousness of necessity but the ignorance of it. He stands society on its head. To him the instincts are “free,” and society everywhere puts them in chains. This is the reflection, not only of his revolt against feudal restrictions, but of capitalism’s continual revolt against its own conditions, which at every step drives it forward to revolutionise its own base.

The bourgeois is a man who believes in an inborn spontaneity which secures man’s free will. He does not see that man is only free in so far as he is conscious of the motive of his actions – as opposed to involuntary actions of a reflex character, like a tic, or imposed actions of a coercive character, like a shove in the back. To be conscious of the motive is to be conscious of the cause, that is of the necessity. But the bourgeois protests against this, because determinism seems to him the antithesis of free will.

To be conscious of one’s motives is to will freely – to be conscious of the necessity of one’s actions. Not to be conscious is to act instinctively like an animal, or blindly like a man propelled by a push from behind his back. This consciousness is not secured by introspection but by a struggle with reality which lays bare its laws, and secures to man the means of consciously using them.

The bourgeois refusal to acknowledge this is paralleled by his attitude to society, in which he thinks he is free if he is free from overt social duties – the restrictions of feudalism. But at the same time the conditions of capitalist production demand that he enter into an increasingly complex series of relations with his fellow men. These, however, appear as relations to an objective market controlled by the laws of supply and demand. He is therefore unconscious of their true nature and ignorant of the real determinism of society that has him in its grasp. Because of this he is unfree. He is ruined by blind forces; he is subject to crises, wars, and slumps and “unfair” competition. His actions produce these things, although he is undesirous of producing them.

In so far as man understands the laws of outer reality – the determinism or necessity of dead nature as expressed by science – he is free of nature, as is shown by machines. Freedom here too is the consciousness of necessity. The bourgeois is able to attain to this freedom, which is lacking in earlier class societies. But this freedom is dependent not on the individual but on associated men. The more elaborate the machine the more elaborate the association needed to operate it. Hence man cannot be really free of nature without being conscious of the laws of association in society. And the more the possibility of being really free develops with the development of machinery, the more rudely he is reminded of the slavery of ignorance.

In so far as man understands the nature of society – the determinism which connects the consciousness and productive relations of men – he can control society’s impact upon himself as an individual and on nature as a social force. But the very conditions of bourgeois economy demand that social relations be veiled by the free market and by the forms of commodity production, so that relations between men are disguised as relations to things. The bourgeois regards any demand that man should control economic production and become conscious of determinism as “interference with liberty.” And it is an interference with liberty in this respect, that it interferes with his status as a bourgeois and his privileged position in society – the privilege of monopolising the products and therefore the freedom of society.

Thus the root of the bourgeois illusion regarding freedom and the function of society in relation to the instincts, is seen to spring from the essential contradiction of bourgeois economy – private (i.e. individual) property in social means of production. The bourgeois ceases to be bourgeois as soon he becomes conscious of the determinism of his social relations, for consciousness is not mere contemplation, it is the product of an active process. It is generated by his experiments in controlling social relations, just as his consciousness of Nature’s determinism is generated by his experiments in controlling her. But before men can control their social relations, they must have the power to do so – that is, the power of control the means of production on which social relations rest. But how can they do this when these means are in the power of a privileged class?

The condition of freedom for the bourgeois class in a feudal society is the non-existence of feudal rule. The condition of the freedom of the workers in a capitalist society is the non-existence of capitalist rule. This is also the condition of freedom for a completely free society – that is, a classless society. Only in such a society can all men actively develop their consciousness of social determinism by controlling their associated destinies. The bourgeois can never accept this definition of freedom for all until he has ceased to be a bourgeois and comprehended the historical movement as a whole.

The nature of this contradiction in the bourgeois notion of freedom only becomes apparent in so far as bourgeois society decays, and the freedom of the bourgeois class becomes increasingly antagonistic to the freedom of society as a whole. The freedom of society as a whole consists in its economic products. These represent the freedom man has won in his struggle with Nature. In proportion as these expand, not only does the bourgeois feel himself free, thanks to the conditions of bourgeois economy, but the rest of society, which shares these products, is not proposed to challenge these conditions in a revolutionary way. It also – passively – accepts them. All this seems therefore a confirmation of the bourgeois theory of freedom. In these particular circumstances the bourgeois theory of freedom is true. It is an illusion, a phantastic illusion, which at this stage realises itself in practice. Man is gaining freedom by denying the relations of society, for these were feudal relations, already made obsolete by the development of bourgeois economy in their pores.

“But in order to oppress a class , certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence. The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population or wealth. And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie: in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society."[3]

At this point, therefore, the contradictory nature of the bourgeois definition of freedom discloses itself because the advance of society has objectively negated it. This, therefore, gives way to a definition of freedom as a consciousness of determinism, and the condition of man’s freedom is now seen to be the consciousness and the control of the determining causes of social relations – the productive forces. But this is a revolutionary demand – a demand for socialism and proletarian power, and it is opposed by the bourgeois as the negation of freedom – as indeed it is for him, as a bourgeois. He attempts to speak here in the name of all society, but the revolutionary movement of the bulk of society itself denies him this right.

Thus the bourgeois illusion regarding freedom, which counterposes freedom and individualism to determinism and society, overlooks the fact that society is the instrument whereby man, the unfree individual, in association realises his freedom and that the conditions of such association are conditions of freedom. This illusion is itself the product of a particular class-society, and a reflection of the special privilege on which bourgeois rule rests, and which rends society in two as long as it persists.

Other class societies have their own illusions. Thus a slave-owning society sees freedom, not in the absence of coercive relations, but in a special coercive relation, that of Will, in which the Lord directs, and the slave blindly obeys as of right. In such a society, to be free is to will. But the development of classes sunders the consciousness that directs the will from the reality with which the slave, who blindly obeys the will, must actively struggle. The economic decline which results from this is a reflection of unfreedom due to man’s increasing unconsciousness of necessity, due to the increasing inactivity of the class which is supposed to be the vehicle of consciousness and therefore of freedom. Consciousness is generated by man’s active struggle with Nature, and perishes in a blind formalism once that grapple ceases.

To be aware of the true nature of freedom – that it involves consciousness of the determinism of the environment and of man and of the society which expresses their mutual struggle – to be aware of this, not as a result of contemplation, which cannot generate consciousness, but in active struggle, is to be engaged in a struggle to end those very relations of blind coercion or exploitation in society which obstruct the development of this consciousness. To end them is to end classes and give men the means of becoming truly free: but this can only happen because capitalism has evolved its own grave-digger – the class whose conditions of existence not only drive it to revolt and make possible a successful rule, but also ensure that its rule can only be based on an extinction of all rights which can produce classes.


The gradual self-exposure of this illusion is the history of bourgeois freedom. We may find it as tragic as Macbeth, as comic as Falstaff, as inspiring as Henry V, or as disgusting as the world of Timon of Athens – all these aspects are reflected in its development, corresponding to a similar development in the economic foundations.

Have we not said that tragedy is always a problem of necessity? To Oedipus tragedy appears in the very guise by which freedom seems to be secured in a slave-owning society – as Will, as Fate visualised in the form of a divine, superior will overriding all human wills.[4] To Macbeth tragedy appears to the cloak of bourgeois freedom: man’s free desires intemperately issuing forth are reflected back upon him by circumstances and now appear as their opposite – Macbeth’s wishes, granted by the three Witches, reappear as those wishes inverted, as a contradiction of their very essence. Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and he is slain by a man not of woman born.

All bourgeois poetry is an expression of the movement of the bourgeois illusion, according as the contradiction rooted in bourgeois economy emerges in the course of the development of capitalism. Men are not blindly moulded by economy; economy is the result of their actions, and its movement reflects the nature of men. Poetry is then an expression of the real essence of associated men and derives its truth from this.

The bourgeois Illusion is then seen to be a phantasy and bears the same relation to truth as the phantasy of primitive mythology. In the collective festival, where poetry is born, the phantastic world of poetry anticipates the harvest and, by so doing, makes possible the real harvest. But the illusion of this collective phantasy is not a mere drab copy of the harvest yet to be: it is a reflection of the emotional complex involved in the fact that man must stand in a certain relation to others and to the harvest, that his instincts must be adapted in a certain way to Nature and other men, to make the harvest possible. The collective poetry of the festival, although it is a confused perception of the real harvest-to-be, is an accurate picture of the instinctive adaptations involved in associated man’s relation to the harvest process. It is a real picture of man’s heart.

In the same way bourgeois poetry reflects, in all its variety and complexity, the instinctive adaptations of men to each other and Nature necessary in those social relations which will produce freedom – for freedom, as we saw, is merely man’s phantastic and poetic expression for the economic product of society which secures his self-realisation. We include of course in this economic product not merely the commercial or saleable product of society, but the cultural and emotional products, including men’s consciousnesses themselves. Hence this bourgeois illusion regarding freedom, of which bourgeois poetry is the expression, has a reality in so far as it produces, by its existence, freedom – I do not mean in any formal sense, I mean that just as primitive poetry is justified by the material harvest it produces, which is the means of the primitive’s freedom, so bourgeois poetry is justified by the material product of the society which generates it in its movement. But it is a freedom not of all society, but of the bourgeois class which appropriates the major part of society’s products.

For freedom is not a state, it is a specific struggle with Nature. Freedom is always relative, relative to the success of the struggle. The consciousness of the nature of freedom is not the simple contemplation of a metaphysical problem, but the very act of living and behaving like a man in a certain state of society. Each stage of consciousness is definitely won; it is only maintained as a living thing by social movement – the movement we call labour. The working-out of the bourgeois illusion concerning freedom, first as a triumphant truth (the growth and increasing prosperity of capitalism), next as a gradually revealed lie (the decline and final crisis of capitalism) and finally as its passage into its opposite, freedom as the life-won consciousness of social necessity (the proletarian revolution), is a colossal movement of men, materials, emotions and ideas, it is a whole history of toiling, learning, suffering and hoping men. Because of the scale, energy and material complexity of the movement, bourgeois poetry is the glittering, subtle, complex, many-sided thing it is. The bourgeois illusion which is also the condition of freedom for the bourgeoisie is realised in their own poetry, because bourgeois poets, like the rest of the bourgeoisie, realise it in their lives, in all its triumphant emotion, its tragedy, its power of analysis and its spiritual disgust. And the consciousness of social necessity which is the condition of freedom for the people as a whole in classless, communist society, will be realised in communist poetry because it can only be realised in its essence, not as a metaphysical formula, but by living as men in a developing communist society, which includes living as poets and readers of poetry.


The bourgeois sees man’s instincts – his “heart,” source of his desires and aims – as the source of his freedom. This is false inasmuch as the instincts unadapted are blind and unfree. But when adapted by the relations of society they give rise to emotions, and these adaptations, of which the emotions are the expression and mirror, are the means whereby the instinctive energy of man is diverted to drive the machine of society: the machine of society, revolving, enables man to face Nature and struggle with her, not as individual, instinctive man but as associated, adapted men. Thus the instincts drive on the movement which secures man’s freedom. This illusion and this truth about the relation of the instincts to freedom and society work themselves out in bourgeois poetry and constitute its secret energy and constant life. Thus, knowing the essence of this bourgeois illusion to be a special belief concerning “individualism” or the “natural man,” which in turn derives from the conditions of bourgeois economy, we cannot be surprised that the bourgeois poet is the lonely man who, apparently turning away from society into himself, by so doing expresses the more strongly the essential relations of contemporary society. Bourgeois poetry is individualistic because it expresses the collective emotion of its era.

We saw that all literary art – originally generated by the passage of mythology into religion, so that poetry separated itself from mythology – is rooted in freedom, and is the expression of the spontaneity of society, which in turn is based on the material products of society and is a kind of mould of the emotional relations these material products demand of associated man. It is because art is the expression of freedom that, in a developed class-society, art is an expression of the illusion, not of all society but only of the ruling class In the course of the development of the bourgeois illusion, literary art in turn separates the story from poetry. Poetry, younger more primitive, more emotionally direct, is therefore in capitalist culture concerned with the emotions struck from the instincts – like sparks from flint – in the conditioning of instinctive responses by the relations of society. It expresses that part of the bourgeois illusion which sees the heart and the feelings of the individual man as the source of freedom, life and reality, because the freedom of society as a whole rests ultimately on the drive of those instincts whose struggle with Nature has created society. Because it must use the collective world of language it focuses all the emotional life of society in one giant “I” which is common to all, and gives to all men one breathless experience.

The story takes the reverse of the tapestry, and expresses the instincts as they emerge in society in one adapted individual. In this case the individualism of bourgeois society is expressed as an interest in men not as abstracted into one common experience, but as characters, as social types living in a real world.

We shall understand the way in which the bourgeois illusion gives rise to poetry, how this self-contradiction works itself out in actual poems, when we have studied (a) the development of English poetry in the persons of representative poets, schools and trends, (b) the technique of poetry, (c) its relation to language as a whole, (d) the nature of the impact of the poet’s life on his environment, and (e) the particular way in which this impact gives rise to poems.

1. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

2. The Communist Manifesto.

3. The Communist Manifesto.

4. “The God to whom men pray, whether it be Compulsion or blind Fate, or all-fathering Zeus” (Euripides).