The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Red Britain: The Russian Revolution in Mid-Century Culture

Red Britain: The Russian Revolution in Mid-Century Culture. By Matthew Taunton. Oxford University Press, 2019. 303 pp. $82.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Nick Hubble, Brunel University London

In Red Britain, Matthew Taunton makes a compelling case for the Russian Revolution of 1917 to be considered as central to the literature and culture of 20th-century Britain as the events of 1789 were to the nineteenth century. Red Britain is a serious and complex work, full of rich readings, that revises our understanding of the influence of the Bolshevik Revolution on British culture within a broad context of English socialism and Anglo-Russian relations stretching back into the Victorian period. The book seeks to unseat the binary thinking of the Cold War, which continues to exert a strong influence on literary scholarship more than thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union, and reassess the thinking of communist and anti-communist figures, who were much more interesting and productive thinkers than their ideological categorization tends to suggest. To this end, each of the book’s five chapters focus on “one key debate that was energized and given a new political force after coming into contact with Bolshevik ideas” (7). These debates range from the issue of whether the future would be a radical break from the present – Taunton draws on works by H.G. Wells, C. Day Lewis, and Dorothy Richardson, among others – to a consideration of the way in which a structural opposition between orality and literacy shaped the way British observers understood the Russian context of the revolution, including the influence of the Orthodox Church. The latter relationship encompasses a range of contemporary discussions including whether the revolution should be understood as a continuation of the Protestant Reformation, whether Communism was actually a political religion, and whether the problems of Stalin’s Soviet Union stemmed from a residual orality in Russian culture. After mapping the complexities of these ideological and intellectual debates, Taunton concludes the monograph by reconsidering a dilemma familiar to scholars of the “Space Between”: Is the characterization of the 1930s as a “Red Decade” a fair designation for a brief period of commitment within upper-middle-class literary circles, or a term that distracts from a much longer-lasting reshaping of British culture to radical ends by intellectuals and writers across the twentieth century?

Red Britain differs from a spate of recent publications that reconceptualize the engagement between politics and literature in the 1930s as central to, rather than an exception to, mainstream twentieth-century British culture, because Taunton argues that the concerns of that decade should be read back, into the modernist writing of the 1910s and 1920s, as well as forward. He suggests not only that modernist aesthetics are not the central paradigm for understanding twentieth-century culture but also that some of the works labelled modernist might more productively be read within the political and historical frameworks he sets out. For example, in chapter 1, “The Radiant Future,” Taunton reads Richardson’s Pilgrimage in terms of its engagement with Russian culture and its rejection of the idea of a defined future in favor of the exploration of personal life. As he notes, such a trajectory is typical of “the strand of literary modernism that Richardson belonged to—turning away, in the terms of Virginia Woolf’s [“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”], from the Utopia out of the window (or in the future) in order to look more closely at Mrs. Brown in the present” (51). So far as this goes, it is a conventional modernist reading, but when put in the context of a modernity defined by orientation to a transfigured future, the terms of the argument shift unexpectedly. Taunton cites François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time to the effect that the twentieth century began more futurist than presentist and ended more presentist than futurist. However, Richardson’s presentist free indirect discourse is not some “postmodern, post-historical malaise” (53) but a specific construction of temporality “that includes memory and retrospect but that does not situate these in any perspectival hierarchy” (54). Taunton contrasts Richardson’s paratactic presentism with Woolf’s hypotactic style in To the Lighthouse, concluding that Richardson’s approach is not, after all, “representative of modernism as a whole” (55). Rather, he compares Richardson’s style with the famous passage from The German Ideology in which Marx describes a communist society that enables the individual to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner. Taunton reveals Pilgrimage as, if not quite millenarian, a novel that may be read in dialogue with the concerns of the Russian Revolution because Richardson’s style resonates with “the objective of Marxist politics … to transcend the ordered hierarchies of hypotaxis, and the fixation on a radiant future to come, in order to live in a state of paratactic presentism” (57).

A book on this topic is always going to refer to George Orwell, but here his work is made central to Taunton’s re-examination of mid-century texts. The second chapter of Red Britain, on the politicization of mathematics and numbers by Communism, takes its title, “Two and Two Make Five,” from Nineteen Eighty-Four and makes a point of historicizing the phrase. Taunton counters the conventional wisdom that Orwell used this phrase simply to mobilize “a common-sense anti-Communism in which the stable certainties of simple arithmetic – twice two is four – might hold off the illogical tyranny of a regime that has forgotten how to add” (91). Critics from the left have typically focused on how Nineteen Eighty-Four represents the relationship between Communism and rationalism, but Taunton pivots from this view through John Strachey’s 1960 essay, “The Strangled Cry,” which criticizes Orwell for failing to develop his commonsensical critique into a political philosophy capable of taking up the Enlightenment project. Building on the idea that Orwell was not advancing a simplistic Romantic anti-Communism, Taunton argues that Nineteen Eighty-Four raises “epistemological questions about what we can know and how we can know it” (94). While the character Winston believes that the propositions of arithmetic exist outside any social ideology, the novel contradicts his belief that these universal truths will be enough to resist the Party. As further support, Taunton examines Orwell’s review of Bertrand Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis (1938) as evidence that Orwell believed that common sense will not always win in the end. This chapter shows how Orwell – and Arthur Koestler, whose work is discussed in detail – share ideas emerging from revolutionary debate around mathematics as a kind of writing that could create political freedom, rather than as a privileged means of revealing an underlying material reality.

The subsequent chapters on “Crime and Punishment,” “Homestead versus Kolchoz” (which takes its title from one of Ezra Pound’s Cantos), and “The Compensations of Illiteracy” further elaborate on the interwoven relationship between the apparently antithetical poles of Communism and anti-Communism. As Taunton shows, “The Russian Revolution had a disruptive effect on the ‘right and left’ metaphor, and in time gave rise to new and widespread understandings of what it meant to be on the left” (178). Indeed, one might even go so far as to argue that Taunton systematically undermines the opposition altogether. Part of the pleasure of Red Britain is the way that it approaches wearily familiar debates from unfamiliar directions so that there is often a surprising and uncanny edge to the reading experience. Taunton explains the origin of this sensation in his brief Conclusion, in which he notes that throughout the book “Marxism (and its reception) appear as a part of the object of analysis rather than as a methodological frame through which to view the culture” (265). It is not that he does not draw on the traditions of Western Marxism and the New Left but, updating Raymond Williams for the twenty-first century, he discards the last vestiges of an economic determinism that has limited Marxist cultural analysis. Red Britain argues that culture and politics are not determined by the mode of production: “Consciousness is fully capable of determining social being” (265). Such a shift in foundational principle liberates the subject for consideration as equally important to the radicalization of society. Scholars of twentieth-century literature should embrace the opportunity that this philosophical paradigm shift affords because it undermines another binary opposition that, despite the best efforts of the last twenty-five years, continues to plague mid-century studies: the divide between modernism and everything else. There is room for Richardson, Woolf, and Orwell alike to be read afresh in the light of the invigorating new literary-political paradigm that Taunton outlines.  

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