Commentary Magazine

“Necessary Murder&rdquo : Spender and Auden in the 1930s

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.

W.H. Auden wrote that in 1937, in his poem “Spain.” A year or two earlier, Cecil Day Lewis, a friend and fellow poet, had written:

It is now or never the hour of the knife,
The break with the past, the major operation.

And in 1938, the poet Stephen Spender’s political play, The Trial of a Judge, ended like this:

Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!

With a background chorus of

We shall be free
We shall find peace.

Spender’s new book, The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1930’s-1970’s,1 a collection of literary and political odds-and-ends that includes several pieces from the mid-30’s, revives the question: what was it that made these young men, the leading poets of their generation in England, write in this ferocious way? (They were not all that young, by the way; Auden was thirty when he wrote “Spain,” Day Lewis twenty-seven when he wrote the lines just quoted, and Spender was twenty-nine when he wrote The Trial of a Judge.) Consider their background: the calmly civilized British pre-war upper-middle-class world, still untouched by panic and emptiness. Auden was the son of a doctor, Day Lewis’s father was an Anglican clergyman, and Spender’s a high government official. All went to respectable public schools, and all inherited in one way or another the British liberal-democratic tradition. Yet their poetry in the 30’s celebrates the Necessary Murder, the Knife, Killing; it is a poetry of extreme violence.

They were also all adherents, in one way or another, of the Communist party of Great Britain. Day Lewis was a member throughout the mid-30’s; Spender, though only officially a party member for a few weeks, was an ardent self-proclaimed fellow-traveler. Auden, as always a more complex case, hovered on the edges—“a paddler’s willingness to splash about on the shores of the revolutionary ocean,” says David Caute.2 Orwell, in his Usual acerbic way, dismissed Auden as a “parlor-bolshevik,” yet there has been some recent revision of that view; George Watson claims unequivocally that “Auden was an active Marxist revolutionary through most of the 30’s . . . many of his writings then, both in verse and prose, are manifestoes in a political cause.” The recently published English Auden, a compilation of everything he wrote in the 30’s, reveals that Watson is not far from the truth. Auden, like Spender and Day Lewis, was frequently active in a revolutionary cause.

These poets, and many other intellectuals from the same world, spoke freely of violence, made art out of violence, and aligned themselves with what was, at that time at least, the most uncompromisingly and organizedly violent of political parties, the party that believed with Marx that violence was the midwife of history. Their prose commended revolution, their poetry celebrated it.

Where did this enthusiasm come from? Spender and his friends, the Auden Generation, as Samuel Hynes has called them, all had Edwardian childhoods and grew up in bourgeois comfort, far from the world of the oppressed, in the years immediately before World War I. They were born just too late to participate in that catastrophe, but in good time to experience some of its traumas. The direct impact of the war on these writers cannot be overstressed. Its literary impact was everywhere around them in the 20’s. It is useful, for instance, to read D. H. Lawrence with this in mind—not only Kangaroo, but the great short novels like The Fox and The Captain’s Doll. And Women in Love can be read as a novel about England and the war. One imagines the impact of other works of the early 20’s, the various bitter anatomies of a war-destroyed world like Huxley’s Antic Hay and of course “The Waste Land.” Then late in the 20’s came the books by their immediate elders who had been in the war: Robert Graves, Siegfried Sas-soon, Herbert Read, David Jones—books of horrified reminiscence and revulsion from the war’s violence.

A favorite poet of Spender, Day Lewis, and Auden was Wilfred Owen, a handsome young man who had fought bravely through the years of the war only to die in its very last week. His poetry, written in the trenches, had begun with orthodox patriotic flourishes but ended in haunting, de-romanticized evocations of the terrible reality. His “Abram and Isaac” must have had powerful resonances for Spender and his group:

Abram . . . stretched forth the knife to slay his
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket, by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not do so, slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.



The 30’s poets thought and wrote a lot about the war. Auden’s puzzling play, Paid on Both Sides (1928), can most fruitfully be read in terms of war-hatred, war-fear, the sense of the meaninglessness of it all. Spender in 1931 was saying,

Who live under the shadow of a war,
  What can I do that matters?

In the early 30’s the anti-war, anti-violence movement was at its height. Pacifist groups flourished: the League of Nations Union, the Peace Pledge Union, the Anti-War Council, the Scientists’ Anti-War Group, the New Peace Movement. Pacifism was mixed with a sense of betrayal: the fathers had spilled their sons’ blood in an empty cause. So pacifism was bound up with a rejection of the immediate past and an accompanying search for a new order. Hence Auden’s call for “new styles of architecture, a change of heart.”

But by 1930, the poets were ready to strengthen the “politics of the heart” with Marx. In another arresting poem in 1932, Auden draws a picture of war-broken bourgeois civilization at its last gasp:

Get there if you can and see the land you once
  were proud to own
Though the roads have almost vanished and the
  expresses never run;
Smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges, rotting
  wharves and choked canals,
Tramlines buckled, smashed trucks lying on
  their side across the rails;
Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew
 the boiler fires;
Pylons fallen or subsiding, trailing dead high-
 tension wires;
Head-gears gaunt on grass-grown pit-banks,
 seams abandoned years ago;
Drop a stone and listen for its splash in flooded
 dark below.

Readers who knew Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” an early Victorian hymn to progress, would catch the dead echo of that poem’s jaunty rhythms and get the ironic point. “Power-stations locked, deserted”—England was in extreme economic depression. The worst off were miners and steelworkers in the stagnant heavy industries. One town in the north, Jarrow, with 80 per-cent unemployment, came to symbolize the general misery. From Jarrow in 1932 came the first hunger march, when poor, undernourished, often sick men marched through the heart of England to London to dramatize their plight. Little help resulted, and nothing seemed more clearly to underline the breakdown of parliamentary democracy. The Labor party’s crisis-coalition with the Conservatives, and the new National Government’s apparent indifference or impotence seemed a classic illustration of the hostile Marxist analysis of 20th-century social democracy.

Spender, Auden, and the novelist Christopher Isherwood had also spent considerable time in Germany, where they had seen the breakdown of that country’s experiment in social democracy, the Weimar republic, and the spectacle, in 1932, of the Rhine-Ruhr industrialists financing the Nazi party. Having already rebelled against the conventional bastions of bourgeois culture—the school, the church, the family—they were ready to add Marx to a pantheon already housing Freud and Nietzsche, and to share in that powerful and concerted swing to the Left among British intellectuals that is the most striking feature of literary life in the England of the early 30’s.

Marx and Lenin may not in fact have been read much, but everybody in 1932 read John Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power, a book that analyzed England’s past, present, and future in clear Marxist terms. Echoing Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Strachey in looking at the past could treat the last war in terms going beyond Wilfred Owen’s Ram of Pride. It had been a war for markets between competing imperialists who had duped their workers into seeing it as an honorable national struggle. The present was a turmoil of capitalist self-contradiction, and the future offered a simple choice between fascism and Communism. Strachey’s book gave the Spender world a rationale for its growing left-wing enthusiasm and gave a sense of direction to its growing anti-fascism. Many in that world became Communists, most declared themselves strong supporters of the party. By 1934 a British branch of Writers International had been firmly established, and in 1935 Left Review, an official Communist party political journal, was launched.



What else turned them toward Communism? No doubt that sense of uncertainty and anxiety that pervades so much of their early work. It offered an escape from their past, and an urgency for the future, a sense of purpose. Stephen Spender in 1933 sought to communicate this sense of purpose:

Oh young men, oh young comrades
it is too late to stay in those houses
your fathers built where they built you to breed
  money on money. . . .
Oh comrades step beautifully from the solid
Advance, to rebuild. . . .

Communism offered the assurance, repeated in poem after poem, of being on the right side, and even more, the central Marxist idea of being on the side of history, which, Auden wrote, “May say Alas, but cannot help nor pardon.”

Further, as is often pointed out, Communism fulfilled a quasi-religious need for community. It offered an escape from private guilt, especially the guilt of a privileged class (the young comrades Spender exhorts to step beautifully are all assumed to come from rentier homes), and, with its authority, an escape from private awareness, the loneliness of individualism. It is strange to read in André Gide’s Journal for 1932, when he was going through his Communist phase: “La personnalité ne s’affirme jamais plus qu’en se renonçant . . . seules peuvent s’inquieter du communisme les personnalités indecises” (“Personality is never so strongly affirmed as in the act of self-renunciation . . . only indecisive souls are capable of becoming agitated by Communism”). Yet is does not ring all that differently from the comment that Auden’s friend and collaborator, Louis MacNeice, made in his autobiography: “The strongest appeal of the Communist party was that it demanded sacrifice; you had to sink your ego.”

Poets now needed to see their art as something more than art. “What shall the self-conscious man do to be saved?” asked Auden in 1934. He meant, what should the artist do to be saved? The clever young poet, John Cornford, sprung from a long line of Cambridge academic aristocracy, then in his second year at the university and already a Communist party member with considerable influence, wrote in a pamphlet:

The whole field of British industry presents a picture of productive waste that capitalism cannot overcome. . . . Out of the breakdown of the standards of an entire class a compact revolutionary core is being formed.

Faced with such language, the poets were hard-pressed. (Cornford, as it happens, dismissed Spender’s work as “poetry of revolution as a literary fashion, not as historic reality . . . an idealist, romantic affair.”) In order to answer Auden’s question, in order “to be saved,” to feel part of the “revolutionary core,” they had to write poems that would be acceptable as modes of political action. Spender published a critical study, The Destructive Element (1935), in which he urged a synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis on “the writer who wishes to write about society as a whole, and not about the individual severed from his background.” Later he spoke of “wanting to relate the public passion to my private life.” The public passion was politics, and the private life was his life as a lyric poet. Lyrics and politics did not easily mix. But politics became the subject of the poets’ verses and the counter-claims of art and political action the subject of their critical debate.

Here is the kind of thing they wrote. Auden, in the jokey-serious manner he must have picked up in Germany:

Comrades who when the sirens roar
From office shop and factory pour
. . . . . .
We know, remember, what it is
That keeps you celebrating this
   Sad ceremonial.

On you our interests are set
Your sorrow we shall not forget
   While we consider
Those who in every county town
For centuries have done you brown,
But you shall see them tumble down
   Both horse and rider.

Day Lewis attacks the British press lords:

Scavenger baron and your jackal vassals
Your pimping press-gang your unclean vessels
We’ll make you swallow your words at a gulp,
And turn you back to your element, pulp.
Dont bluster, Bimbo, it wont do you any good;
We can be much ruder and we’re learning to

And Spender, more oracular as was his way, but just as violent in the end, contemplating the Marxist vision:

    No one
Shall hunger; Man shall spend equally.
Our goal which we compel. Man shall be man.
   That program of the antique Satan,
Bristling with guns on the indented page,
With battleships towering from hilly waves:
For what? Drive of a ruining purpose
Destroying all but its age long exploiters.
Our program like this, but opposite.
Death to the killers, bringing light to life.

Now that the distance of forty years has weakened the political and moral support that no doubt made them more easily acceptable to their contemporary audiences, poems of this kind sound either glib or uneasy. There is an evident gap between public position and private sensibility. Paradoxically, all these would-be political poets worked best in essentially non-popular modes. They liked arcane illusion, ellipses; they were full of high-speed references, private jokes, and the assurance of their class. In his new book, Spender remarks, justly enough: “If their poetry strikes one as addressed to anyone in particular, it is to sixth-formers from their old schools and to one another.” A typical instance: Auden’s long political poem “The Orators” conceals in its opening lines an imitation of his preparatory-school headmaster preaching a sermon, a fact hidden no doubt to all but the intimates; hidden to me too until I happened to read the same marvelously funny passage introduced casually by Isherwood in his autobiographical novel, Lions and Shadows (1937). This is a fact of no great importance, but symptomatic of the intense coterie side of these poets.

They all had difficulty in assuming the mantle of a Marxist bard. But: “You shall see them tumble”; “We’re learning to shoot”; “Death to the killers”; and Auden’s call for “the death of the old gang”—it is impossible to miss the real violence in these 1933 poems written by anti-war pacifists. Brooding anticipation of the next war no doubt helped to produce those obsessive images: guns, knives, executions, enemy frontiers to be crossed. But powerful pressures came also from the reverse side of their extreme reaction to the war of their childhood, namely, their own fascination with it. Isherwood, whose father, a regular army colonel, was killed early in the war, wrote in Lions and Shadows about how he and his peers imagined the war as a great test, a proving of manhood that his generation had just missed. They felt uneasy about it, and half-regretted that lost community of danger and of common simple aims: the attractive simplicity of violent solutions, of necessary murders. Party membership helped here. To be a Marxist struck a note of courageous challenge. Even E. M. Forster, everybody’s ideal of woollen-waistcoated, two-cheers-for-democracy English peace-and-quiet, announced about this time that he would have been a Communist if he had been “a younger and braver man.”



The characteristic writing of this period and this generation can be found in the periodical New Writing, founded by John Lehmann in 1936. It announced itself as anti-fascist, and clearly had a strong Communist and fellow-traveling bias. Spender, Auden, and Day Lewis all appeared there regularly. Here is another fragment of lively Auden:

It’s farewell to the drawing-room’s civilized cry,
The professor’s sensible whereto and why,
The frock-coated diplomat’s social aplomb,
Now matters are settled with gas and with

Auden, as so often, maintained a saving lightness. Day Lewis was more heavy-handed as he reached for the same “popular” touch in a poem addressed to Death:

When the time comes for a clearance,
When light brims over the hill,
Mister you can rely on us
To execute your will.

One notes also the attempt at a tough man-to-man effect. And ending on a threatening note was a favored strategy (“We’re learning to shoot”).

New Writing went in for down-to-earth social realism in its prose, and tried hard, with only moderate success, to encourage proletarian documentary work of a kind familiar in the U.S. in the 30’s—there was a long account of the Jarrow march by a participant, for instance. It published a lot of translated work from Germany, Italy, Spain, most of it by political refugees. There was some American writing, and fairly frequent Russian contributions appeared, often agit-prop work of startling woodenness, as in a notably dreadful story, “The Road To Affluence,” by one P. Tchikvadze, depicting a peasant farmer, Ambako, delightedly welcoming collectivization:

I want to work hard for the State and myself.
What a lot of good is being done all around!
You can kill Ambako if by the end of the second
Five Year Plan a motor-car isn’t bellowing in his

Here also appeared Rex Warner’s “Hymn”:

Light has been let in. The fences are down. No
  broker is left alive.
Now you can join us, now altogether sing All
To lovers of life, to workers, to the hammer, the
 sickle, the Blood.
Come then companions, this is the spring of the
Heart’s heyday, movement of masses, beginning
 of good.

Awful stuff, of course.



But reconciling poetry and revolution was often difficult. Young Christopher Caudwell and the very young John Cornford (both of whom were killed fighting in Spain) both insisted to the end that a writer’s only hope lay with Communism, total identification with the workers, and total support for the USSR. Spender and his friends, however, were less at ease with this absolutism, and clung to “bourgeois” ideas of individual freedom. It is instructive to watch Day Lewis and Spender struggling in their various 30’s tracts with the dilemma of the individual artist confronted by the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was all very difficult for them. And yet—to return to the central point—how easily they accepted and used the language of extremism and violence. And, as we shall see, how easily they accepted the practice of violence. They reacted honorably enough to the news coming out of Germany and Italy, but they closed their minds to the news coming from the USSR.

An explanation is usually made in terms of a necessary loyalty to the demands of the anti-fascist struggle. Russia was the effective enemy of fascism, the socialist country, where revolution was really working, where the Five Year Plans substituted progress for capitalist decadence, where, in the place of bourgeois freedom for one class only, all men, including artists, were free to create the future. Any attack on the USSR would be a victory for fascism, and so on. The truth-versus-expediency dilemma is common enough in political life, but it is especially acute when the disciplines of revolutionary politics are at work (Sartre and Camus had a famous encounter on this issue in the 50’s). In the 30’s, whether one was a party member like Day Lewis or a fellow-traveler like Spender and Auden, a commitment to the Left meant strong pressure for accepting all of Communism’s tactics. Anti-fascist attachments of this kind led Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, to turn down Orwell’s 1937 revelations about Stalinist suppression of the anarchist POUM group in Spain on the grounds that they “controverted the political policy of the paper.” Commitment demanded the necessary falsehood.



All these British intellectuals cultivated some version of the fellow-traveler mentality. With it, as David Caute has pointed out, came the notion not only of a geographical but of an intellectual and emotional distance from the revolution, “a matter of having your revolution vicariously.” No doubt this state of mind encouraged the ease with which they came to accept and talk with enthusiasm about the great Red Terror of earlier days, in 1918-21. It is harder to comprehend the ease with which they accepted the violence of the 30’s.

Orwell’s comment on Auden’s “necessary murder” was that the poem had been written by “a person to whom murder was only a word,” and à propos produced a celebrated epigram: “so much left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” Yet it seems to me that Spender and Day Lewis and especially Auden were not fools, knew perfectly well what fire was, and were perfectly serious about “preparing the way for the new Lenin,” as their anthologist Michael Roberts put it in New Country (1933). Nothing is to be gained from not taking them and their politics seriously. It is a temptation British critics tend to fall into—Julian Symons, Robin Skelton in his useful Penguin anthology Poetry of the Thirties, and, despite the astuteness of his social analysis, Martin Green in Children of the Sun. All, for their various reasons, seem most attached to an ironic treatment of their subjects’ political life, on the lines of Cyril Connolly’s brilliant 1937 satire, “Where Engels Fears To Tread,” a campy-comic view of it all as nothing more than the latest literary game. Watson (whose book I quoted earlier) insists on the other hand that Auden, like Spender and Day Lewis, saw violence as a serious guarantee of sincerity. But it is difficult at this distance to understand, let alone sympathize with, the way this world of cultured humanists—fascist threat or no fascist threat—could let the successive Stalinist purges go by, the killings after Kirov’s death go by, the terrible rigged trials go by in silence or with only the lightest murmurs of concern.

Available evidence about these affairs was often scanty, fragmentary, puzzling, it is true. Spender, still uneasy about all this, as well he might be, says about the Moscow trials:

Of course to the reader today the very idea that anyone could have thought them to be guilty is shocking, as it is to me myself. However, to understand the 30’s one ought to realize that at the time it was not at all certain that they were innocent, despite the grotesqueness of some of the accusations made against them and the extravagance of their confessions. The reader who assumes that the innocence of the accused was common knowledge forty years ago should ask himself a few questions about current events to test the degree of knowledgeability about such that exist at the time of their happening. For example, how many people were killed in China on the death of Mao? What reasons does he have for supposing three Baader Meinhof terrorists who died in prison in October 1977 to have (a) committed suicide (b) been murdered? If he considers the available evidence on which he can consider these questions in 1978 he will appreciate how bemused we were in 1937 by the Soviet trials.

Spender has a point here. But he understates the amount of information available to the literate British public. The Manchester Guardian, to take only one example, printed long reports from reliably non-reactionary correspondents, and ran what was a sort of open forum on the issue. In France, André Gide had come back from an extended visit to Russia very disturbed by what he had seen, had left the Communist party, and published his Retour de l’URSS (1936) announcing his disenchantment. It is an uneven book, but it had clear and unequivocal information about the Stalinist terror of a kind that initiated a prolonged and intense open debate in France. Gide went on through the 30’s writing exposés of the Moscow trials in the French press. Kingsley Martin reviewed the English translation in the New Statesman (January 1937), and pinpointed the main issues Gide had raised. Martin also wrote two articles, “Will Stalin Explain?” and “The European Nightmare,” in which he moved in a gingerly fashion toward a position of doubt about the trials (though he could not escape the fatal 30’s words: “Much may be justified by necessity”). Even in early 1937 there was enough information about the trials to give serious pause to any left-wing intellectual.

If we look at what was going on in the United States at this time and examine the reactions of American writers to the situation in Russia, the contrast is striking. In 1932, Culture and Crisis appeared; it was a pamphlet declaring general support for the Communist party, signed by many young American intellectuals, among others Newton Arvin, Erskine Caldwell, Malcolm Cowley, Sidney Hook, and Edmund Wilson. The young Lionel Trilling also seems to have been involved with this group. But by 1934 at least, fierce debate had got under way, and in 1935, as Daniel Aaron has recorded, Mark Van Doren, Clifton Fadiman, Newton Arvin, and Lionel Trilling had all resigned from the NDCCP, a fellow-traveling organization of writers dominated by the Communist party. Others stayed in, of course, but the debate over violence in Russia was public and vehement throughout the decade.

This intense debate was developed partly because Marxism in the U.S. was more sophisticated and had some intellectual tradition behind it, as it had not in England, and partly because, again unlike England, this country had a strong and articulate Trotskyist faction. Like the New Statesman, the New Republic responded to the Zinoviev trials, though it came down firmly on the side of the prosecution. It must be said that its editorials on this issue have an odious complacency about them. But other views were to be heard. In April 1937, for instance, Edmund Wilson was urging Malcolm Cowley to read the “Trotskyist and socialist stuff,” and to check the evidence in the International Review: “I guess that all the trials have been fakes since the time of the Ramzin sabotage trial.” The recent republication of Philip Rahv’s essay on Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, and of his remarkable 1938 essay on the Moscow prosecutions, “Trials of the Mind”3—its epigraph was “after such knowledge what forgiveness?”—reminds us of the part that the reborn anti-Stalinist Partisan Review, which was centrally a literary magazine, played in the American intellectuals’ political consciousness in the late 30’s.



Returning to England, we find that these violent and disturbing questions were largely ignored by the writers I have been dealing with. The violence in Russia raised hardly a flicker of interest. There is certainly nothing in New Writing about the trials,4 nor is there mention of them in John Lehmann’s autobiography. Day Lewis had nothing to say in his poetry, and his memoirs give a bland, even charming account of his adventures in the 30’s. Of the forced collectivizations, the purges, the terrible trials, the secret police and their methods, not a word. Auden, as far as I can discover, said nothing either. When “Spain” was republished in 1940 he changed the phrase “necessary murder” to “the fact of murder,” and later, after announcing that “false beliefs lead to bad poetry,” he expunged the poem from his collected works as “all lies.” He looked back on the 30’s as “a low, dishonest decade,” and by 1940 both he and Day Lewis had abandoned politics for good.

Spender, who has persisted in politics of one kind or another (in the 50’s he tells us in the new book, he was “largely taken up with anti-Communism”), did pay some attention to the Russian trials in the 30’s, and he reprints some of that writing here. Before turning to it I should say that to brandish his “Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!” line now is a little less than fully just. The Trial of a Judge, as Louis MacNeice wrote at the time (Spender reprints his comment here in full), was intended to point out that liberalism was weak and that Communist violence was strong, but Spender’s “unconscious integrity” ended up coming down on the side of the liberal judge after all. MacNeice made an amusing story of the reprimand handed out to Spender by the comrades after a Group Theater performance. It is also true that Spender’s 30’s poetry elsewhere presents a divided mind and an imagination uneasy, uncomfortable, even muddled, about the revolution and its human implications.

But now we come to the two 1937 pieces that Spender reprints having to do with the situation in Moscow. Neither of them does him any credit. First he includes the account he published in New Writing of the Writers International Congress held in Madrid in the summer of 1937. Fourteen years later, in his autobiography, World Within World (1951), he gave quite another version of that famous conference, a witty and cynical story of its “hidden theme.” That theme was the Communist party versus the Gide of Retour de l’URSS, the Gide who was now attacking the trials at every opportunity. Spender made no mention in this revised version of his own earlier carefully laundered story, and for this he was taken to task, notably by Julian Symons in 1960. Now Spender gives us again that old and obviously misleading 1937 version with a brief comment that skates over the truth—that the purpose of the Congress was to attack Gide and whitewash the trials. What can have made him reprint these old falsehoods in 1978?

And why does he republish his “I Join the Communist Party,” a 1937 contribution to the London Daily Worker that he admits is “abject and shameful”? In the course of it, Spender apologized for having taken an incorrect view of the Moscow trials in his book Forward from Liberalism, published earlier in 1937 by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club:

When I wrote this book the Soviet trial had only just begun; I realized that if I ignored it the critics in the capitalist press might use it as an argument to refute the latter part of my book about the new Soviet constitution. I therefore thought that it was necessary for me to prejudge it against the USSR as far as possible. Some time before my book had appeared I had read the rest of the evidence and I became convinced that there had undoubtedly been a gigantic plot against the Soviet government and that the evidence was true. However it was too late for me to alter my book.

Well, many others were deceived, too. And Spender in his book, unlike most of his fellow writers, was at least exercised about the matter. Yet when one looks at the book Spender so abjectly apologized for, his comments there seem to illustrate as well as anything else the terrible ease with which the extremism of violence could be accepted by liberal consciences:

In the New Constitution the Soviet has removed the main barrier to real liberty of thought and discussion: terror.

We know now that this was being written at the very point that Stalinist terror was being stepped up. We can let that pass. Lack of information? Misinformation? Naiveté? At worst wishful thinking? But then Spender turned to the aftermath of the Kirov assassinations. Here he expressed deep concern for the victims of the trials and of collectivization, and wondered seriously about the rule of law in Russia. Then he wrote:

It is difficult to see how Russian Communism could have survived its appalling difficulties by any other means. Unfortunately the secret police are bloody as well as farcical. The savage reprisals which followed the murder of Kirov, in which, after summary trials, over a hundred people were shot, do show the system at its worst, and if public criticism is not to become a fatal disease in Russia it must soon be legalized.

“Fortunately,” Spender added, reassuringly—and this is surely the true fellow-traveling spirit—“in the democratic countries . . . the price of socialism is not so great.” Then he summed up in this chilling way: “It is only by realizing the penalties and mistakes as well as the strengths of dictatorship, that we can determine not to use such methods, except in the face of urgent necessity.” The poet’s “necessary murder” again.

It is difficult to understand why Spender wants these dismal pieces to see the light of day. It is like an act of public masochism. Can they be intended as a penitential exercise? If so, they are hardly edifying. “To the man of intellect, pride is a primary necessity,” said Philip Rahv in “Trials of the Mind.” The best that can be said for Spender’s offerings is that they turn the puzzled mind back inquiringly to those dark and confusing years, and challenge us yet again to try to get things straight about them.


1 Random House, 236 pp., $10.00.

2 The Fellow-Travelers (1973). Several interesting books on the 30's have appeared in recent years. Julian Symons's brief and bright The Thirties (1960) has been followed by Jonrney to the Frontier by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams (1966); Poets of the Thirties by D.E.S. Maxwell (1969); Children of the Sun by Martin Green (1976); The Auden Generation by Samuel Hynes (1976). See also Stuart Samuels's essay, “English Intellectuals and Politics in the Thirties,” in Philip Rieff's On Intellectuals (1969). Most recently there has been a lively contribution from George Watson in Politics and Literature in Modern Britain (1977), especially his chapter, “Did Stalin Dupe the Intellectuals?”

3 In Essays on Literature and Politics (Houghton Mifflin, 1978).

4 The other important literary magazine, New Verse, Geoffrey Grigson's lively, iconoclastic little magazine that published a great part of the best poetry to appear in the 30's in England, made a point of not being politically aligned. But its sympathies were clearly on the Left. I can find only one small note of uncertainty about the USSR in its files. In a special double-number (1938) on writing and political commitment, among the editor's brief notes and comments we find: “We are not Trotskyists, but we should like to know more about the arrest of Boris Pasternak.”

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