Illusion and Reality, Christopher Caudwell 1937



The future was once a place to which one relegated one’s hopes and aspirations: a place where one took revenge for the world’s unkindness by holding its future richness to the narrow categories of the present.

Of the future one can only dream – with greater or less success. Yet to dream is not to associate “freely” but to have certain phantasies, a certain reshuffling of memory-images of past reality blended and reorganised in a new way, because of certain real causes in present reality. Even dream is determined, and a movement in dream reflects perhaps a real movement into daylight of material phenomena at present unrecognised. That is why it is possible to dream with accuracy of the future – in other words, to predict scientifically. This is the prophetic and world-creating power of dream. It derives its world-creating power, not by virtue of being dream – this is denied by the phantasies of madmen – but because it reflects in the sphere of thought a movement which, with the help of dream, can be fully realised in practice. It draws its creative power, like the poetry of the harvest festival, from its value as a guide and spur to action. It is dream already passed out of the sphere of dream into that of social revolution. It is the dream, not of an individual, but of a man reflecting in his individual consciousness the creative rôle of a whole class, whose movement is given in the material conditions of society.

Again and again we have emphasised the importance of studying poetry as an organic part of society, historically – that is, in movement. But movement for its complete specification requires that we state not only from where but to where. In our survey of its past we were already standing in its future – our present – but now, to understand its present, we must think ourselves into the future. We can only do this broadly; we can only predict a quantitative movement produced by the most fundamental and elementary forces. Sociology as a real science is still only in its infancy because science is not mere contemplation; it arises from an active struggle with reality, whose successive changes are generalised in a scientific law. The science of sociology is therefore a product of revolutionary activity, for this is the activity which changes social reality. Man has not yet learned fully to control himself.

This movement will be fought out in our own consciousnesses and will be the very force enlarging and transforming them. Thus a whole new world of values will be born, which we can no more describe in terms of quality than a man can look down on himself.

The first limitation must make us careful of any predictions too exact and detailed – a small alteration can often make a quality transform itself into its opposite. The other limitation should set us on our guard against reducing the novelty of the future to the stale terms of the present.

The productive forces released by capitalism have developed to a stage where they are no longer compatible with the limitations which engendered “automatically,” for history is made by men’s actions, although their actions by no means always have effect they are intended to have. The results of history are the net product of actions willed by men, but the results of history are by no means willed by any men.

To-day all bourgeois culture struggles in the throes of its Basal crisis. The contradictions whose tension first drove on the development of society’s productive forces are now wrecking them and a new system of social relations is already emerging from the womb of the old – that of communism. Communism is not an ideal, it is the inevitable solution of the ripening contradictions in capitalism. On the one hand the increase of organisation in the factories; on the other hand the increase of competition for private profit between the factories. On the one hand an unparalleled development of productive forces; on the other hand a system of economy continually generating crises which result in a restriction of production. On the one hand an increase in international communication, unity of consciousness and interweaving of production; on the other hand an increasing nationalism and enmity. On the one hand a growing desire for peace; on the other hand an increasing preparation for war. Abroad idle capital wildly searching for profit; at home idle hands vainly searching for work. At one end of society the creation of a diminishing number of plutocrats with an income, power and purchasing capacity increasing beyond the dreams of earlier society; at the other end the growth of an army without possessions, without work, without hope to a degree unknown to any previous civilisation. On the one hand an efflorescence of the sciences and the arts in a new universe of technique; on the other hand their separation into spheres whose disintegration and contradiction reduces knowledge to chaos and men to spiritual despair.

These contradictions could be multiplied indefinitely, because they represent at various levels of social organisation the working-out of the basic bourgeois contradiction – freedom as the anarchic ignorance of social relations. This ignorance can only mean freedom to one class, the class whose existence depends on its continually revolutionising its own basis and therefore on its continually preparing the conditions for its own destruction. The “free” market – the blind lawlessness by means of which the laws of anarchy brutally assert themselves – has governed the bourgeois mind for four centuries. For four centuries it has idealised this one freedom, freedom from all social restrictions except that by which the bourgeois class lives – restriction of the means of production to itself. This formula means that freedom must increasingly be elevated to a vague ideal plane, for to interpret bourgeois freedom materially is to announce openly the claim of one class to monopolise the means of freedom. The social product is the condition of freedom, and to monopolise it means monopolising such freedom as society has produced. Stripped to its naked essence the bourgeois formula of freedom is all too true – for the bourgeois class. So stripped, it exposes its true significance. It shows that all the bourgeois demands for the equality of human souls, for the freedom of the individual, for the realisation of personal worth, stop short of the one issue which could make these demands real for the exploited majority. They stop short of attacking the private property of the few which is the condition for the annihilation of property for the many. They stop short of attacking the monopolisation of the surplus social product by the few which is the condition of the slavery of the many to necessity. This does not, however, shame the bourgeois into withdrawing his claims and ceasing altogether to talk about freedom and personal worth. On the contrary, this understanding by the unfree of the essence of his formula forces him to detach it still further from material reality and lift it completely into an ideal realm where it blossoms and spreads without restraint, forming an inverted world of ideal freedom which is at once a protest against real misery and an expression of real misery – a wholly bourgeois phantasy, the religion of humanism. It is precisely as the sum of human freedom diminishes in society that this phantastic ideal world of liberty and personal worth reaches its most characteristic development.

A class exists whose unfreedom is dependent on bourgeois private property. Its road to freedom is the destruction of the bourgeois right and therefore the destruction of the class whose continued existence depends on that right. This unfree class has long been famous as the proletariat. It is not merely the most suffering class of modern society. This typically bourgeois conception of it overlooks its most important rôle. History has always known a most-suffering class since classes existed. Slaves in ancient society, serfs and peasants in medieval society, wage-slaves in modern society, their miseries have been apparently ineradicable from the conscience of society since the day when economic production reached a level where a man could produce more than his means of subsistence and it became profitable to exploit other men. “The poor ye have always with you.” Buddha, Christ and Luther accepted the sufferings of the major part of humanity as part of the necessary lot of life on this world, and called into being a whole phantastic other world to redress the balance, to soothe the suffering and therefore the revolt of tortured men.[1]

But the movement of capitalist economy lays the foundations of its destruction by the way in which it creates its most suffering class. Its organisation of the proletariat into huge factories creates the conditions for a shadow, workers’ state behind the bourgeois state; the use of the exploited by the bourgeoisie in their early struggles for power educates the proletariat politically; the need of the proletariat to form its own organisations to protect itself in its struggle for part of the surplus value of its labour raises its political education to a higher plane; the improved communication and universal education necessary for capitalist economy welds it into a compact mass; the bourgeoisie proves its final incompetence to rule by the onset of permanent crisis in which it is unable to secure its slaves in the conditions of their slavery, and instead of being fed by them is forced to feed them, to hurl them into the concentration camp or the fighting line. The rise of permanent unemployment is the doom of an epoch; it foreshadows the end of the prehistoric or class era of society, when men’s actions made history, but a history quite other than what they meant to make.

The relentless law of capitalist competition, with its tendency to a falling rate of interest only offset by actions which hasten its own fall, accelerates the rise of monopolies which compete still more bitterly among themselves, until the contradiction between social organisation in the factory and individual ownership of the factories reaches its height.

The vast majority of the people see themselves faced by a few who have increasingly monopolised the means of production. This concentration, so far from easing the passage to socialism, makes it more painful and disturbed, because the increasing irrationality of the privilege on which all capitalist economy turns forces the bourgeoisie to employ increasingly brutal, conspiratorial and autocratic methods for its maintenance. It costs the keenest of human pangs to produce a man; events in Russia, Germany and Spain have only proved the correctness of the communist warning that a new society would be born only in suffering, torn by the violence of those who will do anything to arrest the birth of a world in which the freedom of the majority is based on their unfreedom.

This rebellion of the suffering people, which has already taken plane in Russia, is for the majority no clear-headed passage to a common goal. All classes injured by the final explosion of capitalism – workers, peasants, small farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, technicians, artists, specialists – compose that rebellious mass: all are agreed as to the intolerableness of the situation; but only one class is organised by its conditions of life to overthrow the old system and build a new. The other classes are organised only as part of the system – the capitalist State – and to overthrow it is to dissolve their only means of organisation. Only the industrial workers, via their trades unions, co-operatives and political parties, are organised against that system, and can therefore provide a structure able literally to overturn society and bring the bottom to the top.

This special feature of the industrial working class gives it the leadership in the struggle. All odds but its numbers and its organisation are against it. The bourgeoisie rule the old system and everywhere monopolise the key points of judiciary, police, army, civil service, finance and business. All men’s minds are distorted by bourgeois presuppositions through living in a bourgeois economy. But the pressure of material conditions not only drives on the proletariat to revolt as did slaves and peasants before it, but unlike them puts the means of success in its hands – its own organisation and the concentration of capitalism. The organisation of the proletariat, which gives it the de facto leadership of revolt in this first period, is expressed after the success of this period in the dictatorship of the proletariat – the most abused and least understood of categories in the Marxian analysis because it expresses the creative rôle of a class which the bourgeois can sometime regard as “most suffering” but never as “most advanced.”

The suffering majority are demanding the overthrow of the old, they do not all see that this means the construction of a new. Always it seems to the petty bourgeoisie that one may roll history backwards and return to an age when private property was not the means of exploitation, for tools were undeveloped enough and scattered enough to be owned by the man who worked them. Owner and producer were one. The proletariat knows that the factories cannot be owned individually like tools. The proletariat does not regret this, but understands that the whole development of capitalist economy, in so far as it has led to organisation in factories and the socialisation of labour, has raised the productive forces of society to a level where the freedom of a few no longer depends on the unfreedom of the many.

The social product can suffice to provide the freedom of all. The raising of the level of social productivity which follows on a proletarian revolution is the special task of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In it the other classes learn by practice that history cannot be turned back; that it is a question of storming new heights. And, when they understand that, the people as a whole becomes socialist, and the dictatorship of the proletariat begins to decay. This is already forecast by the birth of the new Soviet Constitution, which gives equal rights to all, not as the climax of communism but as the beginning of a new advance towards communism. Only when communism comes into being will the conception of equal “rights” pass from the fabric of the State, and the State, too, wither away. The very “right” of man to realise his freedom by association with others negates the bourgeois conception of equal right, which was the highest ethic to which bourgeois culture could aspire. Its average man was a reflection of the equalisation of labour power in the market. “From each, according to his powers; to each, according to his needs.” When men’s innate ability and desires vary, how could such a creed – that of communism – be compatible with equal rights? A right implies something exercised against another, and communism is a state of society in which material conditions no longer force man to be the enemy of man.

The State came into being to prevent a strife between the haves and the have-nots, a strife which would have paralysed society. The cessation of open strife does not remedy the inequality, for this inequality is the condition at this time for labour our reaching a level of increased productivity. The division between haves and have-nots is produced by the division of labour. The State makes possible the continued existence of this inequality, without the shipwreck of society. Since the interests of haves and have-nots are opposed, it can only maintain this continued existence of inequality by coercion. The State is the coercive organ whereby the conditions for exploitation by the ruling class are forcibly maintained. As long as men are sundered by a property right and by the material conditions of society into classes of opposed interests at secret war, a rate can only be maintained by the emergence of a coercive power apparently above both classes. This power is the State.

The property of the bourgeois class which secured its freedom is the condition of unfreedom for the majority. When this majority in turn secures its freedom by expropriating the bourgeoisie, the condition of its freedom is the unfreedom of the bourgeoisie; but whereas the bourgeoisie, like all other ruling classes, requires an exploited unfree class for its existence, the proletariat does not require to maintain the bourgeoisie in order to maintain its own freedom. Thus the conditions are prepared for the ending of class-society.

As long as the bourgeoisie and its camp followers exist either inside a nation or outside it, so long must the proletarian State exist as a coercive organ to maintain the conditions of freedom for the proletariat. The remnants of bourgeois education and the unique experience given them by their privileged life make the expropriated bourgeoisie dangerous enemies, ready at any time to assert the material basis of their ideal of freedom by plunging society into violence to regain it. But the conditions of their existence are not rooted in economy – the means of exploitation have been done away with. State by State the bourgeoisie withers away, and as it withers the State too withers, for the State is the expression of a class division in society, rooted in the material conditions of economy and affecting the consciousness of men. When all human consciousness is the consciousness of men who have never known bourgeois conditions of production, then the State no longer needs to exist as something separate and towering over society. The seemingly endless war, now secret, now open, but always tragic and brutal, can cease, for at last the misery of a suffering class has not been diverted against God or the Devil or the Jews or other members of their own class in other countries or any other fancied sources of evil, but against the material conditions which produced their suffering as a class. Once rightly directed against its source, this hate and misery ends. It does not end peacefully, for the majority find themselves opposed by the class whose happiness is rooted in just those conditions the majority wish to end, and who are therefore prepared to defend those conditions with violence.

But it is the last fight. The rôle of the proletarian party in this tremendous revolution is to be the vanguard of the class whose objective conditions make it the leader of the whole transition. To be the vanguard is to lead, not to be swept along; it is also to remain in touch with the class of which it is the organised front, to be the active expression of that class’s guiding theory and shaping will.

How then could the party fulfil this rôle and not be what it is in Russia to-day? – in relation to the expropriated class to express the dictatorship of the proletariat, the final use of coercion which will make coercion no longer possible; in relation to the liberated majority to be the leader, not by any coercive right but because it expresses most clearly and completely the aims and aspirations of the led. Hente the unique spectacle of a party which is a minority in the State, and has no rights or powers as a party, and yet which – by the tutelage its members exert in all the organs of contemporary soviet society guides everywhere the activities of the class whose experience it never ceases to epitomise and express. But the organisation of the leading members of society as a separate organisation, however uncoerced, indicates a residue of unfreedom in society due to the still imperfect level of social production. Only when it is raised to a plane where all members of society are able fully to realise their physical and mental individuality can the era of socialism end and that of communism begin. Then the party too will have withered away, for it will have expanded to a stage where it includes all, and therefore will no longer be a party. Only then will men pass completely from the realm of necessity to that of freedom, not by ignoring necessity but by becoming through action completely conscious of necessity. In the past man had attained consciousness of the necessity of the physical environment, but not of society itself, and so he was enslaved to the forms of society – the machine, the harvest and the relations they generated. How could he become fully conscious of the necessity of society except in the same way as he became conscious of the necessity of the environment – by experience in changing it? How could political science be anything else but the science of revolution? Thus man realises in particulars and concretely the general and abstract formula of freedom which is expressed as follows:

Men, in their struggle with Nature (i.e. in their struggle for freedom) enter into certain relations with each other to win that freedom, which consists of the social product resulting from the change of Nature by men in association for economic production. But men cannot change Nature without changing themselves. The full understanding of this mutual interpenetration or reflexive movement of men and Nature, mediated by the necessary and developing relations known as society, is the recognition of necessity, not only in Nature but in ourselves and therefore also in society. Viewed objectively this active subject-object relation is science, viewed subjectively it is art; but as consciousness emerging in active union with practice it is simply concrete living – the whole process of working, feeling, thinking and behaving like a human individual in one world of individuals and Nature.

An analysis of the kind we have just completed, an economic and political analysis of the movement of society to-day, would be ordinarily regarded as foreign to a study of poetry. But no one who has patiently followed the argument thus far can fail to see its relevance to contemporary art, and the importance of understanding the revolutionary transformation of the basis of society which is everywhere affecting art and the artist.


This tremendous revolutionary transition, in which the whole superstructure is “more or less rapidly transformed,” is not accomplished in the realm of ideology by a simple instantaneous movement. The transition is a material one, a change of a whole system of productive forces and social relations, and these material movements are reflected in men’s consciousnesses where all struggles are fought out to an issue. This transition has only begun, but already its effects are felt throughout the sphere of art, in all the variety and rich development of the struggle. It is impossible to understand modern art without some understanding, not only of the nature of the revolution, but also of future society, the pressure towards which is expressed in the trajectory of every flying fragment from the explosion taking place below the level of consciousness.

We speak of proletarian art; it is an art which expresses the movement of the proletarian class itself, and this movement is to annihilate its existence as a class by becoming coincident with society as a whole. It was the rôle of class society to gather at one pole all consciousness and so enrich the development of science and art. How then could proletarian art exist, as a higher form than bourgeois art, before proletarian society had developed its own distinctive consciousness? And this could only happen in any full measure when proletarian freedom had exceeded bourgeois freedom – for consciousness is the reflection in ideology of the social product which secures its existence. Art also is a productive problem.

Proletarian consciousness, when it has even equalled bourgeois consciousness, will be of a higher quality, for the reason that bourgeois freedom and consciousness was the monopoly of one class in society and expressed only the aspirations and aims of that class. Bourgeois art, because of this, is the art of a man, half of whose organism has been cut away. The bourgeois class is not a class or a minority in the sense that it is a group of men more or less taken at random: such men may excellently express in any sphere a complete and rounded consciousness of reality – artists or scientists in any society will be such a minority. But the bourgeois class is an economic class – a class defined by a difference in its whole material surroundings and mode of life; it is a class, not a self-sufficient society. It therefore handles only part of the concrete living of society. The rest of life’s movement goes out into the eternal night of the other class and returns from it into the day of consciousness, transformed – no bourgeois knows how. To know how would cease to be a bourgeois. Hence the final incompleteness of bourgeois vision, and as the material contradiction which is the cause of the separation of classes increases, so the gap in thinking and acting widens. Social consciousness is torn from social action like flesh from bone. The ravages in modern consciousness show that man can hardly endure the pangs of this dismemberment.

The consciousness which remains adhering to the pole of the ruling class contracts and stiffens because it is separated from its organic nexus. It becomes academic, reactionary and fascist and petrifies in a living death. The bulk of artistic consciousness cannot survive this fission. A part is attracted – by all the blindness and instinct in it – to the pole of the exploited class, but the effect of this is to explode the whole field of consciousness into fragments. This unendurable tension is shown in the chaotic and intoxicated confusion of all sincere modern bourgeois art, decomposing and whirling about in a flux of perplexed agony. It is expressed by the cries of the Lawrences and their followers, demanding a release from the torments of intellectual consciousness; and the schizophrenic vision of Joyce, condemning the whole Witches’ Sabbath of bourgeois experience.

Pulled to the opposite pole by instinct and dumb experience, retained there and clarified by the organising force of the proletariat’s life, part of the bourgeois artistic consciousness separates out, adhering to the pole of the exploited and revolutionary class. It fuses there with such consciousness as has already formed during the developing process of their separation: this already formed consciousness is scientific rather artistic; intellectual and active rather than emotional and expressive.

This new consciousness gradually attracts all the dispersed elements of the old. The pattern of the old consciousness almost vanishes. Organised along the “lines of force” of the bourgeois categories, it was necessary that it be wholly broken up before the old elements could enter into a richer pattern, a pattern that now, becomes the creation, not of a limited part of society but of a class which has expanded to include the whole of concrete living. This expansion will be evidenced in the fuller content of the new consciousness, which will now be fed by the whole process of human reality and can therefore blossom as organically as a flower, just as it did in tribal society, but with all the technical elaboration evolved since then. Proletarian art in realising itself will become communist art.

This process is simply a parallel in the sphere of ideology to what will take place in the sphere of material economy. Here the elements of bourgeois production, the productive forces, are bursting into anarchy as a result of the repulsive movement between the poles of the classes, generated by the development of the categories of bourgeois economy. Only when these are dissolved can the elements be arranged in the more fruitful organisation of socialism, but meanwhile the first clarifying outline of the forms of socialist economy has already appeared as an organising power at the proletarian pole, developing from trade unions to soviets of workers’ powers.

All this is fought out in the consciousnesses of men. In the sphere of art this appears as the fugitive or confused alliances of bourgeois artists with the proletariat, and the emergence (at first within the limits of bourgeois technique) of proletarian artists.

The bourgeois artist has three possible rôles in relation to the proletariat – opposition, alliance or assimilation. Opposition means a return to discarded categories: it is no longer possible to return to the discarded forms of yesterday; they have annihilated themselves. It is necessary to “regress” and return to almost mythological themes, to interpret the world in terms of the blood and the unconsciousness. It is necessary to barbarise both the ego and the external world in order to find a sanction for an opposition which can only be an alliance with the privileged forces of reaction. This attempt to roll history back gives us Spenglerian, “Aryan” and Fascist art.

Most bourgeois artists are at present treading the road of alliance – Gide in France; Day Lewis, Auden and Spender in this country – and many of the surréalistes have signed the same treaty. Such an alliance can only be an “anarchist” alliance. The bourgeois class cannot generate any higher organisation than that which it has generated – the organisation of the nationalist State, which reaches its extremest form in the Fascist State. If, therefore, any artists reject this organisation and become revolutionary, they can only be organised in the higher forms created by the proletariat. But this is the road of assimilation, and we are discussing now bourgeois artists who enter into an alliance, which means they do not enter the proletarian organisation but remain outside the ranks as “fellow travellers.” Their attitude to existing society therefore can only be destructive – it is anarchist, nihilist and surréaliste. They often glorify the revolution as a kind of giant explosion which will blow up everything they feel to be hampering them. But they have no constructive theory – I mean as artists: they may as economists accept the economic categories of socialism, but as artists they cannot see the new forms and contents of an art which will replace bourgeois art.

They know “something is to come” after this giant firework display of the Revolution, but they do not feel with the clarity of an artist the specific beauty of this new concrete living, for they are by definition cut off from the organisation which is to realise it, and which therefore alone holds in its bosom the nascent outlines of the future. They must put “something” there in the future, and they tend to put their own vague aspirations for bourgeois freedom and bourgeois equality. They attempt to visualise the brave new world in terms of their desires: this is in appearance not so different from the Fascist haters of communism, who attempt to hold back the new world to the measure of their desires. In both cases a sketch of the future is produced which is curiously pathological and spiritually hysterical; but in the one case it is evolving backwards, in the other case it is full of forward movement and blind presage.

Of course this anarchic position of the contemporary bourgeois artist is only a variant of the old tragedy of bourgeois revolt. At each stage the bourgeois revolts against the system by the assertion of contradictory categories which only hasten on the advance of the things he hates. But it is a new variant of the tragedy. Actively to help on the development of bourgeois economy at this final stage is to help on its destruction; hence these allies of the proletariat are genuine revolutionaries and the destructive element in their activity is not fake, it is real and complete. Their cleavage arises from the impossibility of a constructive approach to the Revolution.

This Trotsky-like element in their orientation expresses itself in many ways. The younger are Romantic Revolutionaries: it is the wild and destructive part of revolution that seems to them most picturesque: and in many cases it is evident that a revolution without violence would be disappointing. Baudelaire expressed this revolutionary spirit which is anarchic in an extreme form when he said, referring to his fighting at the barricades in 1848: “Moi, quand je consens à être républicain, je fais le mal le sachant je dis: Vive la Révolution! comme je dirais: Vive la Destructioni Vive la Mort”

It gives even the revolutionary element in their art a Fascist tinge, because they draw their hate at the same source, petty bourgeois suffering from bourgeois development. However, with them this hate is directed against its true source, capitalism, whereas with. Fascists it is directed against mythical sources – Marxists, Jews, and other nations. (The destructive element in genuinely proletarian art arises from proletarian suffering, which is a different kind of misery.)

On the constructive side the affective context of their work is often vague, disorientated and confused: it always conceals in some form or other a demand for “freedom for me” or “freedom from social restraints.” There is a slightly anxious preoccupation with personal liberties and a scurrying hither and thither for reassurances or corrections in the proletarian revolutionary theory because of its suspicious deviations from petty bourgeois limitations and ideals.

This is a source of confusion in their art, which too often reduces it to chaos, or may even silence them. It must be understood that this “refusal” to be assimilated in the proletarian organisation does not necessarily mean that they stand completely outside the proletarian revolutionary ranks. The proletarian revolution takes place under the hegemony of the proletariat; and this means that these artists must accept to some degree the marching orders of the proletarian general staff unless they are to condemn themselves to complete nullity in action, which few of them now do. They must work with the proletariat somehow, and this necessarily involves their accepting the obligations of united action. This is educative and has had, for example, a considerable effect on Spender and Day Lewis. In some cases it may even extend to their joining the party of the proletariat – the Communist Party – but the extreme reluctance of most of these artists to take this step is symptomatic. None the less, even if they join the party, this anarchist quality in their alliance takes a characteristic form. They announce themselves as prepared to merge with the proletariat, to accept its theory and its organisation, in every field of concrete living except that of art. Now this reservation – unimportant to an ordinary man – is absolutely disastrous for an artist, precisely because his most important function is to be an artist. It leads to a gradual separation between his living and his art – his living as a proletarian diverging increasingly from his art as a bourgeois. All his proletarian aspirations gather at one pole, all his bourgeois art at the other. Of course this separation cannot take place without a mutual distortion. His proletarian living bursts into his art in the form of crude and grotesque scraps of Marxist phraseology and the mechanical application of the living proletarian theory – this is very clearly seen in the three English poets most closely associated with the revolutionary movement. His bourgeois art bursts into his proletarian living in the form of extraordinary and quite unnecessary outbursts of bourgeois “independence” and indiscipline or quite apparent bourgeois distortions of the party’s revolutionary theory. It leads to an unconscious dishonesty in his art – as of a man exploiting the revolution for his own ends. This is due to the fact that he sees the revolution as a path to a bourgeois heaven and is aware that his fellow revolutionaries have different ideas. However, he is prepared to co-operate for the sake of overthrowing the present system. This is only dishonest because it is unconscious – if open, it would be a fair working alliance, an acknowledged treaty like that which politically unites the different parties of the People’s Front.

Since the reservation extends chiefly to the field of art, this artist’s main preoccupation with the revolution is to secure guarantees of his freedom in the field of art after the revolution. He is not at all concerned about what would to most people seem more important – his freedom in concrete living. He understands that his other activities will be freer then, because in these other matters he already has a proletarian point of view. He is concerned as to whether art will be free, whether there will be a “censorship” on art. All his conceptions of freedom are in fact summed up in one word – “censorship.” He goes to Russia not so much to see if the people are free, but if the artists are “interfered with” by the authorities. And this leads him to a typically bourgeois conception of the artist as a man whose rôle is to be a lone wolf, a man who realises beauty for society only because he is exempt from contemporary social restraints; and he attempts to patchwork this conception into proletarian theory.

Of course this is not peculiar to the artist. Scientists, for example, will make an alliance with the proletariat in the same way; they make reservations only in the field of science. They go to Russia prepared to “sacrifice” everything, provided scientific theory is not interfered with. They develop a typically bourgeois conception of the scientist as a “lone wolf.” And this extends to everyone – teachers, peasants, administrators, historians, actors, economists, soldiers and factory managers who see the necessity of an alliance with the proletariat, freely and consciously choose it, and are prepared to accept proletarian leadership in every field except the one which is valuable to them, and where they demand the retention of bourgeois categories. The fact that if all these different petty bourgeois claims were granted they would, when lumped together, negate any proletarian society at all, and simply equal the retention of the present system against which they revolt, does not of course affect the individuals who make the demand, for they have carefully segregated their particular fields of interest from the field of life as a whole, and the artist is, for example, quite content to see the scientist proletarianised. It is for this very reason that the more the petty bourgeois becomes revolutionary, the less he can operate in his own organisations with other bourgeois revolutionaries, and the more he becomes an individual under the hegemony of the proletariat.

This dichotomy between life and the most valued function is only possible because the development of bourgeois culture has produced a flying apart of all ideology into separate spheres of art, philosophy, physics, psychology, history, biology, economics, music, anthropology and the like which, as they increase their internal organisation and achievement, mutually repel each other and increase the general confusion. This is merely an equivalent in the field of thought of the way in which organisation within the factory has increased disorganisation between the factory; it is the struggle of productive forces with productive relations; it is the quarrel of real elements with bourgeois categories; it is part of the basic contradiction of capitalism. The task of the proletariat is just as much to integrate this ideological confusion and raise it to a new level of consciousness, as it is to integrate the economic confusion and raise it to a new level of production. One task is the counterpart of the other, and both have a common aim – to win more freedom for humanity.

To all these bourgeois revolutionaries the conscious proletariat therefore addresses the same kind of words:

“Your conception of freedom, because it is rooted in a part society, is also partial. All consciousness is determined by the society which produces it, but because you are ignorant of this mode of determination, you imagine your consciousness to be free and not determined by your experience and history. This illusion you exhibit so proudly is the badge of your slavery to yesterday, for if you could see those causes which determine your thought, you would be like us, on the road to freedom. The recognition of necessity in society is the only passage to social freedom.

“But when we say that consciousness is determined by the society which produces it, we say that thought is ultimately inseparable from concrete living, from practice. Each secures and develops the freedom of the other. You think that by separating theory from practice – and from the social obligations and forms that go with practice – you are making thought free from ‘censorship’. You hope to segregate thought from life, and so, by surrendering everything but this, in some way preserve a part of man’s freedom, like the man who wrapped his talent in a napkin rather than adventure it in the market. However, freedom is not a substance to be preserved and isolated but a force generated in an active struggle with the concrete problems of living. You would deliver thought to the bondage of unconscious bourgeois categories; you would rob practice of its soul.

“There is no neutral world of art, free from categories or determining causes. Art is a social activity. Yours is the fallacious freedom of dream, which imagines itself spontaneous when it is rigidly determined by forces outside consciousness. You must choose between class art which is unconscious of its causality and is therefore to that extent false and unfree, and proletarian art which is becoming conscious of its causality and will therefore emerge as the truly free art of communism. There is no classless art except communist art, and that is not yet born; and class art to-day, unless it is proletarian, can only be the art of a dying class.

“We shall not cease to criticise the bourgeois content of your art. You indignantly reject these ‘economic’ categories, not because they are incorrect but because they are economic. But what are correct economic categories except categories drawn from concrete living? Ours is simply a demand that you should square life with art and art with life, that you should make art living. Cannot you see that their separation is precisely what is evil and bourgeois? Cannot you see that in this one matter you line up with our enemies – you, our ally – which is why on this point we fight your theory so bitterly?

“Our demand – that your art should be proletarian – is not a demand that you apply dogmatic categories and Marxist phrases to art. To do so would be bourgeois. We ask that you should really live in the new world and not leave your soul behind in the past. It is your artist’s soul for which we value you; and how can your soul be in the new world if your art is bourgeois? We shall know that this transition has taken place when your art has become living; then it will be proletarian. Then we shall cease to criticise it for its deadness.

“Ours is not a demand that you should accept in the realm of art what you call proletarian dictatorship. On the contrary, we shall say you are still bourgeois as long as you impose a proletarian dictatorship on yourself and import formulations torn other fields of proletarian ideology to apply them mechanically to art. It is a demand that you, an artist, become proletarian leader in the field of art; that you do not take either of these easy roads which are in essence the same – or mechanically shuffling the outworn categories of bourgeois art or mechanically importing the categories of other proletarian spheres. You must take the difficult creative road – that of refashioning the categories and technique of art so that it expresses the new world coming into being and is part of its realisation. Then we shall say your art is proletarian and living; then we shall say, your soul has left the past – it has dragged the past into the present and forced the realisation of the future. You are not now ‘just an artist’ (which means in fact a bourgeois artist); you have become a proletarian artist.”

The proletariat addresses what is in substance the same message to the scientist, the engineer, the factory manager, the historian and the economist. But in each case the message is not understood; it is regarded as formal or even insincere. The debate cannot be solved in theory, for the essence of this dispute is that the antagonists live in two worlds – one of bourgeois categories and the other of proletarian. It can, however, be solved in the world of practice, for both are living in the same real world. Hence the progress of the socialist revolution hastens the assimilation of its bourgeois allies. Still, the bourgeois consciousness drags at the bourgeois revolutionary and produces in certain characters a hopeless cleavage, which makes the degeneration of some of its leaders a law of revolution. The record of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev are examples of how this may lead to complete treachery. On the other hand it may act as a “drag” to hold back the artist from full ripening. The lives and work of Yessenin, Mayakovsky, Pilnyak and Yury Olesha are examples of the conflict involved in this inability to recast creatively the categories of bourgeois art after the Revolution. Meanwhile, at the proletarian pole whole process of assimilation is hastened by the development of the socialist revolution.

On the one hand men with proletarian lives attempt to interpret these in terms of existing bourgeois categories, that is, they use the already existing bourgeois artistic technique. Necessarily marked at first by an uncertainty, a poverty in handling alien categories, this attempt gives rise to what is sometimes regarded as being essentially proletarian art, although it is really an art in transition. This art has a simplicity and openness of theme which goes with a certain crudity and clumsiness in handling the technique; rather like a proletarian occupying for the first time a rôle in administration which hitherto had been peculiarly the prerogative of the bourgeois. Yet it is by this means that bourgeois technique and bourgeois administration will be lifted to a new level by a laborious refashioning, in which at first every mistake is made except the fatal bourgeois mistakes.

On the other hand artists with bourgeois consciousnesses attempt to refashion these in order to express proletarian life. These meet the others, as it were, tunnelling from the opposite side. One group attempts to push proletarian living (practice) into bourgeois consciousness (theory); the other to push bourgeois consciousness into proletarian living. Both tasks demand a complete refashioning of consciousness and neither can be successful alone. The bourgeois attempt produces a characteristic art which is also sometimes regarded as really proletarian art instead of being bourgeois art in transition, an art in which the rich but vague, fumbling and disorganised elements in bourgeois art are imperfectly transformed into large, concrete, proletarian realities.

Great proletarian art can only arise from a synthesis of the two, from the complete assimilation after breakdown of the old consciousness by the proletariat, which assimilation raises that consciousness to a new level, the level of communist consciousness.

Because then the proletariat has become coincident with the whole of society, this consciousness is no longer partial and torn apart from life, like flesh from bone. Society and its reflection in man is no longer rent and wounded. Art returns life, and becomes a reality to all men.


Poetry expresses in a generalised and abstract way the dynamic relation of the ego to the elements of outer reality symbolised by words. This very generalisation is the source of its ability to voice with unique power the instinctive emotional element in man – the physiological component of the social ego.

Poetry begins, we recall, as the cries of primitive hunters and food-gatherers in which man attempts to master Nature by changing himself – by throwing himself into Nature so that his way of associated life conforms with the desired objects, just as his social perception expressed in art strives to conform with the track of the beasts, its special outline, its specific ferocity and vulnerability. This introjection of the self into Nature is conscious because it is social; man could only hunt and gather food successfully in co-operation even at this early stage. This is the poetry which summons from the breast of man a mimicry of Nature that is not a mere reflection, but Nature as man desires her woven from the strands of Nature as men share her in common effort. There is a tense bareness about the art of this stage.

This passes into the poem as myth and ritual, as chorus or chant, where Nature in the shape of herds and crops is taken into the heart of society. Men, instead of changing their associated perception and action to conform with the outline of Nature, change Nature’s outline to conform with their own. The world process is extravagantly distorted to suit man’s whim. Yet the society into which Nature has been dragged is still undifferentiated and collective. Society is passive yet creative, like a pregnant woman. It has a certain closed complacency. Life is now in it – not outside.

In the next stage the introjection of Nature into society has led to society itself splitting into antagonistic parts or classes. Division of labour is reflected in a division of society. The development of agricultural and pastoral civilisation leads to the creation of a ruling class which becomes ossified and has as its counterpart a class of serfs and slaves. The struggle with Nature is transformed into men’s struggle with each other. The first emergence of the ruling class is seen as the transformation of mythology into the epic, and into story, and in the evolution of ritual into play. The conflict of society is reflected in a poetry sombre and clouded with moral issues – questions of right and wrong – balanced by a poetry concerned with delight – with love and joy. Doubt, pathos, nobility, serenity, fear and a conscious beauty all enter the field of poetry. And the development of classes, by rendering possible the differentiation of function, gives more freedom to individuality. For the first time men speak personally in poetry. The lyric is born.

The bourgeois class comes to rule – a class the conditions of whose existence is the continual revolution of its basis. Poetry becomes dizzy, tragic, full of contradictions. Its technique undergoes the most rapid transformations. Its law of formation decrees that each step it takes in revolt against the conditions of its existence only urge on the ripening of those conditions and its own fall. The continual revolt of poets against the negation of poetry and individual freedom by concrete bourgeois existence only calls into being a whole world of poetry precisely fulfilling the conditions of concrete bourgeois existence. It flies away from life into a heaven of pure art, whose assertion of personal worth and open denial of concrete living increase in proportion to the rate at which concrete living strangles the realisation of personal worth. This withdrawal in itself reflects the movement of the bourgeois class from reality, the development of the contradiction between bourgeois consciousness and proletarian reality, between the productive forces of society and the social conditions of existence of the capitalist class.

Poetry reaches technically an unprecedented competence; it draws more and more apart from the world of reality; it asserts with increasing success the personal perception of life and the personal feeling until it becomes so desocialised that at first perception and then feeling cease to exist at all. The great mass of men no longer read poetry, no longer feel the need for it, no longer understand it, because poetry has moved away from concrete living by the development of its technique, and this movement was itself only the counterpart of a similar movement in the whole of society.

Thus the poet was forced by life – i.e. by his experience – to concentrate on just those words and organising values which were becoming steadily less meaningful to men as a whole, until poetry, from a necessary function of all society (as in a primitive tribe), becomes the luxury of a few chosen spirits.

The movement forward from bourgeois culture to communism is also a movement back to the social solidarity of primitive communism, but one which includes and gathers up all the development of the interim, all the division of labour which has mode possible an increase in freedom, individuation and consciousness. It is a movement back to the collectivism and integrity of a society without coercion, where consciousness and freedom are equally shared by all.

Such a society primitively was a society which, because of its low productivity, had an integrity that was crude and bare, and a sum of consciousness and freedom so scanty that although shared by all each share was small. It was necessary for freedom and consciousness to be monopolised, to gather for a time at the pole of a ruling class, for man to develop all the productive powers that slumbered in the lap of social labour. And when this is gives rise to a contradiction which can only be solved by communism, the productive powers based on division and organisation of labour have developed to a stage where individual differentiation can take place freely within the integrity of one society, where freedom and consciousness are sufficient for all to share and yet be rich in liberty; a society where freedom and consciousness, because it is general, is higher than in a class society, where it is perpetually maimed and torn. Individuality reaches a new and higher realisation.

This means a great expansion in the poet’s public. As freedom and consciousness become the right of all and not the prerogative of a class, the poet’s public must become gradually coincident with society, and poetry once more fulfil a function similar to that of poetry in the primitive tribe, but with this difference – that the tremendous growth of the productive forces has differentiated poetry from the other arts, the arts from the sciences, and changed poetry itself from the poetry of a tribe to the poetry of individual men. By becoming collective, therefore, poetry in the era of communism will not become less individual but more so. This individuation will be artistic – carried out by the change of the social ego, not personal and dream-like – carried out by the reduction of the social ego to unconsciousness.

The increase of the poet’s public can already be seen in the Soviet Union where poets have publics of two or three million, books of poetry have sales of a size unknown previously in the history of the world.

The same change is reflected in the poet’s vocabulary. The vocabulary of the bourgeois poet became esoteric and limited. It was not limited in the sense of limitation of number of words but limitation of useable public values of words. In fact the number and type of words useable by the bourgeois poet increased, paralleling the continual revolution in technique which, because it is the condition of capitalist existence, continues right down to the end of capitalism. But this increase and enrichment in technique is paralleled by a decrease and impoverishment of the social associations in words which can be used by the poet.

One after another these associations became vulgar, common, conventional, insincere, trite, jaded or commercialised because the life from which they sucked their souls was becoming these things. Hence modern poetry grows barer and barer of life, of real social content, and the only word-values useable by poetry become increasingly personal until poetry is altogether esoteric and private. It was for this reason that poetry became no longer acceptable to most people, submerged in the conditions of bourgeois civilisation. It was too rebellious, too openly critical of concrete living. It was rebellious, not revolutionary, but neither was it opiate. It did not take their vulgarised values and outraged instincts and soothe both in an ideal wish-fulfilment world like that of religion, jazz or the detective novel. It quietly excluded all those vulgarised values, but in doing so, it step by step excluded more and more of concrete living, and it was this process that called into being the world of art for sake, of otherness and illusion, the towering heaven of dream which ultimately became completely private and turned into an abyss of nightmare and submarine twilight.

Thus poetry lost that simplicity of outline, that grandeur and searching nobility which comes to it from being sited in the heart of concrete living and able to voice the most general and important experiences in the most universally meaningful way.

Though rebellious, poetry was not revolutionary, for revolution remains within the sphere of material reality and operates with the common values and outraged instincts of men. It does not organise them to soothe them in a phantastic heaven, but bends their hate and aspirations, however limited, to the task of wiping out the real cause of their misery here in the world of concrete life. The poet cannot be the leader of revolution though at a certain stage he can be its singer and inspirer), because his world has become by the pressure of allen values too small a part of the real world and it is part of the task of the evolution to widen it.

The change of values, the de-vulgarisation of life, the growth of collective freedom and the release of individual consciousness which takes place in communism, means the return of these social values, regenerated and ennobled, to the palette of the artist. His vocabulary may at first be even simplified as to number of words, precisely because the world of reality released by those words for poetry is complicated and enriched. Now he can speak in the old noble way. The world of values behind language will expand for poetry in the same way as it did during the Elizabethan era – then by the revelation of a whole world of values, before personal to the Poet but for the lost time made social; now by the injection into poetry of a whole world of purified social values for the first time made personal to the poet. This change in the technique of poetry is a reflection of the way art returns into the life from which it has flown away, bringing back with it all the development produced by the cleavage.

The individuality developed by bourgeois economy, which became anarchic and stifled itself, is still further elaborated by the categories of communism, and at the same time integrated, given a collective wholeness and sanity. This is likely to be expressed in two ways. On the one hand the development of broadcasting will give to poetry a new collective appearance, on the other hand the individuality of the actor will no longer conflict with the poetic instant, and poetry can return to drama making it once more collective and real. It seems also (though this is bare conjecture) that the film, because it realises the highest possibilities of the bourgeois stage in a more collective, more richly powerful and more flexible form, will only come into its own in communism.

As conductor is to orchestra, so producer is to film, the incarnation of the ego in which the story takes place, but his power is far greater than that of the conductor. It must not be supposed that communism involves the stifling of actor, “star” or author. On the contrary, it is just then that their individuality will be given a more elaborate and deeper meaning because in will be a collective meaning. It is no accident that the final period of bourgeois culture, which raised individuality to its height, produced no “heroes,” no great authors, artists, actors or poets. The great man is not just an individuality but an individuality given a collective embodiment and significance. The shadow is so enormous because it is cast over the whole of society. Bourgeois culture mocked the proletariat because it had in its first struggles produced Marx, Lenin and Stalin, while according to bourgeois culture communism “does not believe in great men” or “in the individual” and so had here contradicted its own teaching. In this mockery bourgeois culture only exposes the fallacies in its own conception of the relation of the individual to society.

It will be seen that the final movement of society has this parallel to primitive communism, that once again man turns outward from the ego to reality, and looks the world steadily in the face. But now the world is not the world of a few beasts and crops and a wandering sun, but a world enriched by the taking in of Nature into society during the period of class formation. It is a reality elaborated by centuries of interpenetration of Nature and man, evident in the division of labour in society, and due to the attempts of man to change Nature, at first solely by drawing her into himself without regard to the whole world of social relations this movement necessarily produces.

When this period is ended men can look steadily at this whole world of social relations with all its richness and complex values. Before it was only known to them by distortions in their cognised world, as secret presences or forces or gods, as a mere abstraction – man, the “human essence,” civil society. This concrete world of life which gathers up within itself as a rounded, developing whole the divorced and simpler abstract worlds of man and Nature, is the peculiar concern of the communist poet. He is interested in his own individuality, not in and for itself – a conception which conceals the contradiction that wrecked bourgeois society – but in its developing relation with other individualities in a communicating world that is not just a fluid amorphous sea, but has its own rigidity and reality. The communist poet is concerned to a degree never known before with the realisation of all the values contained in the relations of human beings in real life.

Every phase of art, every stage of culture, has its moving principle which is the source of ins tragedy, its Beauty, its satisfaction and its creative power. To primitive culture, the tragedy of the strong and savage beast; to pastoral society, the tragedy of gods and myth; to all class society, the tragedy of the will of the hero. To early bourgeois society, the tragedy of the will of the prince; to Tate bourgeois society, the tragedy of the will of Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Proust’s “I” living in a world wholly of personal phantasy. Tragedy is not in itself tragic; in is beautiful, tender and satisfying – in the Aristotelian sense cathartic. But there is also the spectacle of culture tragically perishing because its matrix, society, has become dispersed and sterile. This is the pathos of art, which cannot be tragic because it cannot resolve its problems in a tragic way, but is torn by insoluble conflicts and perplexed by all kinds of unreal phantasies. This is the tragedy of art to-day in all its dissolution and futility. It is the tragedy of will that does not understand itself; of the unconscious individual who is slave to he knows not what. Art is the privilege of the free.

All art is conditioned by the conception of freedom which rules in the society that produces it; art is a mode of freedom, and a class society conceives freedom to be absolutely whatever relative freedom that class has attained to. In bourgeois art man is conscious of the necessity of outer reality but not of his own, because he is unconscious of the society that makes him what he is. He is only a half-man. Communist poetry will be complete, because it will be man conscious of his own necessity as well as that of outer reality.

That everything which comes into being must pass away; that all is fleeting, is moving; that to exist is to be like the fountain and have a shape because one is never still – is the theme of all art because it is the texture of reality. Man is drawn to life because it moves from him; he has desires as ancient and punctual as the stars; love has a poignant sweetness and the young life pushes aside the old; these are qualities of being as enduring as man. Man too must pass away.

Therefore the stuff of art endures as long as man. The fountain dwindles away only when men are rent and wasted by a sterile conflict, and the pulsing movement of society is halted. All this movement is creative because it is not a simple oscillation but a development unfolded by its very restlessness. The eternal simplicities generate the enrichment of art from their own bosoms not only because they are eternal but also because change is the condition of their existence. Thus art is one of the conditions of man’s realisation of himself, and in its turn is one of the realities of man.

1. In so far as Christ preached a Kingdom of Heaven realisable for the poor in this world, and not in Nirvana or the next world, his teaching had a revolutionary content. This is fairly evident from the persecution of the early Christians by physical torture and “atrocity” slanders. However, since this Kingdom of Heaven was to be achieved by non-resistance, by heavenly forces and a general change of heart, it was bound to become mere reformism and end as a machine for tying the oppressed of the Empire to the throne of Constantine. If primitive Christianity is primitive Communism, Roman Imperial Christianity is Social Democracy.