by John Strachey (1938)

‘You know how I feel about the importance of democratic freedom. The Spanish People’s Army needs help badly; their struggle, if they fail, will certainly be ours to-morrow, and, believing as I do, it seems clear where my duty lies.’

The author of this book gave the above explanation for enlisting in the British Battalion of the International Brigade, which he did on December 11th, 1936.

On February 12th, 1937, he was holding a hill above the Jarama River, as one of a machine-gun section under the command of a Dalston busman. That afternoon he was killed.

‘... What I feel about the importance of democratic freedom.’ Now Caudwell was a Communist. And many people sincerely suppose that Communists are the dangerous enemies of democratic freedom; they believe that if Communists declare their attachment to democracy, or to freedom, they are only doing so in order to deceive. Yet here we have a Communist, not merely declaring his attachment to democracy and freedom; not merely declaring, as Mr. Neville Chamberlain has recently done, for example, his readiness to die in defence of democracy, but, in actual fact, dying for democracy.

Surely there is something to puzzle over here? Do men fight and die for a political manoeuvre? Do they face the Fascist assault; do they face the onrush of the new barbarism armed with every device of infernal science; do they face that charge, made by war-maddened Moorish Tribesmen, supported by the perfected products of German and Italian aviation which killed Caudwell; do they leave home to face all that, for the sake of a democratic freedom in which they do not really believe? And yet Caudwell was a Communist; a Communist who died for democratic freedom.

The Elizabethans said that death was eloquent. Perhaps the death of Caudwell, and of the men from London and Glasgow and Middlesbrough and Cardiff who have died with him in Spain, may so speak that the people of Britain will begin to understand why Communists fight and die for democratic freedom; for it seems that nothing less than the indubitable signature of death will make men believe in their sincerity.

Caudwell, however, did more than die for his beliefs. For twenty-nine years he lived for them. And into these years he packed a remarkable amount of activity. He wrote a quite startling number of books. For instance, he wrote, under his real name of Christopher St. John Sprigg, no less than seven detective stories (I have read one of them and thought it very poor, as a matter of fact), five books on aviation, and a great number of short stories and poems.

And these were merely his pot-boilers. For the work he really cared about he reserved the pseudonym of Caudwell. Above this name he wrote a serious novel called This My Hand (which, in my view, is a failure) and three major works, namely, Illusion and Reality, The Crisis in Physics and the present volume.

We catch the impression of a young man possessed by creative energy; a young man turning out a flood of work, good, bad and indifferent; a young man, however, marked with one of the most characteristic and one of the rarest of the signs of promise, namely, real copiousness. He was a young man who not only warmed his hands before, but gave great hearty pokes at, the fire of life; a young man so interested in everything, from aviation, to poetry, to detective stories, to quantum mechanics, to Hegel’s philosophy, to love, to psycho-analysis, that he felt that he had simply got to say something about them all.

That is what a man in his ‘twenties ought to be like. It is true that such a man isn’t very likely to say anything conclusive about aviation, love or quantum mechanics.[2] When such a man is about thirty years old, however, his omnivorous attention will settle upon the intensive study of one, or perhaps two, chosen fields; and it will be incomparably the richer for its wandering decade.

Caudwell was just twenty-nine, he was finding himself; his last books show a sharp gain in precision, in capacity to focus; and then the Moors came.

It is not my purpose to say anything of his two other considerable works, Illusion and Reality and The Crisis in Physics. The single purpose of this introduction is to proclaim the unity between the theme which runs through every one of the eight studies of this book and the cause for which its author died; to proclaim the exquisite unity between Caudwell’s theory and his practice; the unity which is, I suppose, what people mean when they talk about sincerity.

For this book is about Liberty. It is a sustained, complex, elaborate, vehement attempt to explain what liberty is, why Communists fight and die for it, and why they know that in the final analysis Communism is Liberty.

The book takes the form of a number of essays on such contemporary figures as Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence, Wells and Freud, with a paper on pacifism, and another on love, and a summing up on Liberty itself, thrown in. Such a diversity of subjects might be expected to make the book scrappy and disconnected; but it has not done so. Almost every page is knit together by a central and never forgotten theme, namely, the analysis, from every angle, of the concept of human liberty. The method which Caudwell chose, that of exemplifying his theme by studies of some of the more influential contemporary minds, makes the book rich and concrete where it might easily have become meagre and abstract.

Caudwell’s introductory chapter gives out his theme. By universal admission something is wrong with contemporary culture. In spite of the enormous achievements of twentieth-century science, everyone feels that the whole vast body of culture, of which science, art, religion, and philosophy are component parts, is rotting. Yet, no one can diagnose the disease.

What is the explanation? Caudwell writes:

Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art. Why then have not all the psycho-analysts, Eddingtons, Keynes, Spenglers, and bishops who have surveyed the scene, been able to locate a source of infection common to all modern culture, and, therefore, surely obvious enough? For answer, these people must take to themselves the words of Herzen: “We are not the doctors, we are the disease.”

Caudwell’s answer is given by the whole of the rest of his book, but he attempts to sum it up both in the introductory chapter and in his last essay on liberty. His answer is that the men of to-day, the men who determine the mental climate of our epoch, have profoundly mistaken the nature of human liberty. As the achievement of liberty is, explicitly or implicitly, the universal goal for which all men work, a mistake about the very nature of liberty vitiates all our endeavours from the very outset. In a few sentences (but to state the idea ui a few sentences is to mutilate and to impoverish it) the leaders of contemporary culture are still dominated, whether they know it or not, with the Rousseauesque belief that man was born free but has enslaved himself in a net of social relations; that the freest man is the most isolated; that what we have to do in order to regain the liberty of the ‘natural man’ is to unloose all the coercions and ties of society; to dissolve the community into its original elements again.

Caudwell’s theme, to which he returns again and again, is that this conception is the prime error which is at the root of all our confusions. This wholly negative conception of liberty had its justification when the task before mankind was the striking off of feudal fetters, the dissolution of a rigid outworn system of social relations within which the powers of mankind were cabined. Then it was true, relatively and temporally, that the dissolution of an obsolete set of social relations, by which men consciously dominated each other, was the task of the liberator. To-day this old truth has died and its corpse has become the most pestilence-breeding of errors.

It is not that we do not still need to seek liberty as the highest of all human ends.

‘There are many essays of Bertrand Russell,’ Caudwell writes, ‘in which this philosopher explains the importance of liberty, how the enjoyment of liberty is the highest and most important goal of man. Fisher claims that the history of Europe during the last two or three centuries is simply the struggle for liberty. Continually and variously, by artists, scientists, and philosophers alike, liberty is thus praised and man’s right to enjoy it imperiously asserted.

I agree with this. Liberty does seem to me the most important of all generalised goods – such as justice, beauty, truth – that come so easily to our lips.’

But the achievement of liberty to-day depends an a process opposite to that undertaken by the anti-feudal liberators. It is not a question to-day of dissolving conscious, overt, feudal bonds by which one man, or class of men, is dominating another. The task of the twentieth-century liberator is, an the contrary, a treble one.

First his analytic task is to make conscious the contemporary, unconscious, unseen social bonds and compulsions which have grown up in the society which resulted from the work of the men, and the class, which destroyed feudalism. This side of the twentieth century liberators’ task is to make men conscious of the fact that when they, rightly, destroyed the overt feudal bond of serf to lord, and slave to slave-owner, they, all unknowingly, wove new, subtle, invisible bonds of domination. Of these the bond between the employer and the employee is the type; and these bonds have become, for all their intangibility, more cruel and coercive in many respects, than the old, overt bonds of servitude.

This tragic result was inevitable because of a profound though, perhaps, historically necessary contradiction in the conception of the goal towards which the anti-feudal – the liberal – liberators were working. Because they thought that the freest man was the most isolated; because, as Caudwell points out, the beast of the jungle is the ultimate ideal of freedom for the liberal who has taken liberalism to its ultimate conclusion; because they did not see that when they destroyed the putrescent connective tissue of the feudal body politic, they must perforce evolve some new social connective tissue to take its place, they neglected the wholc constructive side of their task.

But their omission did not mean that new social relations were not established. That would have been impossible; that would have meant the dissolution of human society. It simply meant that the new, post-feudal, social relations, under which we still live, were established unconsciously. These are the social relations of capitalism, the social relations of the market. Every man is now free, none has legal, compulsive powers over any other. Society is composed of free atoms.

But how are these human atoms to meet at all? How are men to organise any form of co-operation for associated labour? How are social interconnections of any kind to be achieved? The answer is that new and tighter, though now unconscious and invisible, bonds have grown up behind men’s backs out of those commercial relations of buying and selling which were the one form of social intercourse allowed in the theory of post-feudal society. This single relation of buying and selling, by turning into the relation of buying and selling men’s power to labour, has become the compulsive relation of employer to employee; it has become an acute form of domination. In modern society almost the only relation of which men are conscious is their relation to the commodities which they buy and sell. But behind this relation to things has lain concealed a social relation; a relation of domination to other men. To make all this conscious; to make men realise that they live in a highly, though invisibly, intergraded society, is the first, analytic step of the work of the modern liberator.

The second step is to make men realise that all that is good in capitalist society; that everything in which it shows its superiority to feudal society, arises, by a supreme historical paradox, from the higher degree of integration, the richer growth of social connective tissue, which the new form of society has unconsciously produced; that everything which is bad in capitalist society; the subservience of man to man; the extreme and ever-growing instability of the whole system; its slumps and its wars, and its present disintegration, arises because of the unconscious and, therefore, uncontrolled and uncomprehended nature of those new, close and dominating social relations.

The third and highest task of the contemporary liberator is to make men realise that they will find liberty, first, by breaking down, it is true, the existing, unconscious, set of social relations and coercions. But then, if they are to be free, they must build up new, conscious, rich, close and complex social relations; they must build up those social relations which we call socialism. Somehow we must make men understand that they can find liberty, not in the jungle, which is the most miserably coercive place in the world, but in the highest possible degree of social co-operation. Liberty is a positive and not a negative concept; liberty is the presence of opportunity rather than the absence of constraint; liberty is the ability to do what we want. And that we cannot do, upon this obstinate earth, except in close, conscious and organised co-operation with our fellow-men.

These few sentences maim and constrict Caudwell’s exposition of the concept of liberty as a positive social relation; the concept of liberty as the attainment of the highest degree of mutual aid. The reader of this book will find this concept diversely illustrated and illuminated in almost every one of its pages.

Again, it has been to misrepresent Caudwell’s book to suggest that it is simply an essay on liberty. It is true that this theme runs through it; that this theme is what gives it unity and singleness of purpose. But there are many other suggestive and stimulating themes in the book. Caudwell makes a real contribution, for example, to the study of Freudian psychology as a social phenomenon. Again he has some amusing and shrewd things to say about Wells and Shaw.

Indeed the particular essay which interested me most was that on T.E. Lawrence. In it, Caudwell develops what I can only call a theory of heroism. He asks the question, what is a hero? Why did the huge convulsion of the world war produce no hero in that part of the world which stayed within the confines of capitalist society? Why does Lenin, the man who burst those confines for one great people, alone stand out to give our epoch from incomparable mediocrity? He answers this question by a study of the nearest thing to a hero which the British ruling class was able to produce, the hero manqué, T.E. Lawrence.

There is profound understanding and sympathy in Caudwell’s study of this supremely original, supremely unhappy, genius. This essay, above all perhaps, makes us feel how profound has been our loss through the death of Caudwell. In this essay Caudwell shows a capacity which is as yet tragically rare amongst the writers, and leaders, of the British working-class movement. He shows a width of perception, a generosity of sympathy, a capacity to understand the motive forces which move the minds of men. He shows an ability to use his Marxian insight into impersonal social forces in order to gain an understanding of the tragedies of individual men.

Well, because we were too lazy, too selfish, too frightened to see to it that our country played its part in preventing the world from becoming the playground of the Fascist aggressors, Caudwell has been killed and many another such, who might have lived to bless the world, will be killed. Let us, at least, use the words which Caudwell did have the opportunity to leave us, to make all those who are becoming men and women in the blood-stained nineteen-thirties understand for what it was he died.


1. Here is an extract from an eye-witness account of his death.:

‘On the first day, Sprigg’s (Caudwell was a literary pseudonym) section was holding a position on a hill-crest. They got it rather badly from all ways, first artillery, then machine-gunned by aeroplanes, and then by ground machine-guns. The Moors then attacked the hill in large numbers and as there were only a few of our fellows left, including Sprigg, who had been doing great work with his machine-gun, the company commander, – the Dalston busman, gave the order to retire.

‘Later I got into touch with one of the section who had been wounded while retiring, and he told me that the last they saw of Sprigg was that he was covering their retreat with the advancing Moors less than thirty yards away. He never left that hill alive, and if any man ever sacrificed his life that his comrades might live, that man was Sprigg.’

2. The extraordinary thing is that Professor Levy says that Caudwell did say some extremely significant things about physics.