By Elinor Taylor

Haymarket Books. 224 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-60846-046-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

What is a “Popular Front”? One definition I turned up says it is “a broad coalition of different political groups usually made up of leftists and centrists. Being very broad (it) can sometimes include centrist Radical or liberal forces as well as social democratic and communist groups”.

That’s a general definition, but what about The Popular Front, a coalition as described above, that existed for a time in the 1930s, and was probably to be seen at its most effective in France and Spain, when Popular Front governments were elected. It had a presence in other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, but never to the same extent. The Popular Front of the 1930s was largely a construct of the Communist Party, and though there were active Communist Parties in America and Britain, they didn’t have the same power and influence as they did in France and Spain.

Depending on how one views the activities of the Communist Party it’s possible to see the 1930s Popular Front as either a well-meaning and practical endeavour to resist the rise of fascism, or a cynical attempt to make up for the mistakes that, in some ways, had not only allowed, but even almost practically assisted the Nazi takeover in Germany. The “class against class” policies laid down by Stalin and his supporters, and slavishly followed by national communist parties, meant that there was a refusal to co-operate with social-democrats and socialists. They were, in fact, looked on as “social fascists”, and more time was spent abusing them than in building a broad front that might have been able to withstand a Nazi assault on the German state. This is a contentious suggestion, and it’s possible, even probable, that the levels of support Hitler had from banks and business leaders, and in the army and police, not to mention among large numbers of the general public, could have enabled him to come to power, anyway, even if faced by a Popular Front coalition of communists, socialists, liberals, and others.

Elinor Taylor points out that, though it was only in August 1935 that the Popular Front strategy became the official Party policy, communists in France had, in 1934, already decided to form an alliance with the social democrats. There was a strong fascist movement in France, and there had been an unsuccessful right-wing attempt to overthrow the government. By 1934, also, the Soviet Union’s entry into the League of Nations “appeared to signal its willingness to work with the capitalist countries in the interests of collective security”.

If a Popular Front proposal was to succeed it was necessary to amend ideas about such matters as national histories, literature, and even the “masses”, as communist theoreticians liked to refer to the people whose interests they claimed to represent. Taylor quotes Georg Dimitrov as saying that those masses “must be taken as they are, and not as we should like to have them”. She then comments: “This turn towards the popular and the historical displaced a rhetoric of class and of imminent revolution; instead, ‘the outlines of a better future were now to be detected in the patterns of the nation’s past’ “. It seems certain that the notion of a Popular Front did lead, in Britain, to a social movement that expressed itself through readership of newspapers that supported the Popular Front, and with interest in the publications of the Left Book Club. How many of the masses shared in these activities is not easy to ascertain. I suspect that Left Book Club readers were largely drawn from the middle-classes, and even then only certain elements of a white-collar constituency.

I think it’s important to add that the switch to a Popular Front policy ran alongside an emphasis on socialist realism as the dominant driving force in the arts. Experimentation was frowned on, and in the Soviet Union it led to purges of those writers and artists who did not toe the party line. Taylor says that Karl Radek “spelled out a stark choice for writers, ‘James Joyce or Socialist Realism’ “.

Was it, in practice, as clearly defined as that? Taylor’s contention is that, despite party policies, writers were prepared to use lessons picked up from Joyce and other modernists to deal with matters relating to communist activities, working-class concerns, and economic and social factors that affected people’s lives. Georg Lukács had stressed that ”the broad mass of people can learn nothing from avant-garde literature”, but Bertolt Brecht “attacked the notion that only realism in the nineteenth-century mode could represent popular life”. 

John Sommerfield’s May Day (1936) is, perhaps, the best example of a British politically-committed novel that was at least partially experimental in form. Taylor describes it as “a formally experimental novel that appropriates a number of techniques and themes closely associated with the literary modernism of the 1920s”. And she refers to a “montage principle” which attempted “an expression of the social totality”.  Sommerfield was not alone on the Left in deciding that the lines laid down by Lukács needn’t be followed too closely. A couple of novels by 1930s American writers that spring to mind might be seen as moving in the same direction. I’m thinking of Edward Dahlberg’s Those Who Perish and William Rollins Jnr’s The Shadow Before, both published in 1934, as examples of radical writing that didn’t feel the need to adhere to “realism in the nineteenth-century mode”. The example of John Dos Passos loomed large over all these writers, I would suggest. But it’s also necessary to consider the impact of the cinema. As Andy Croft indicated in Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), when discussing Sommerfield’s fast-moving images, the “borrowed cinematic technique gave a novel like May Day the feel and force of documentary non-fiction”.

Arthur Calder-Marshall’s Pie in the Sky,(1937), a novel heavily concerned with class and   commitment, was, on the whole, less-adventurous in terms of the writing than Sommerfield’s book. Taylor quotes an interesting passage from an essay that Calder-Marshall wrote in the 1930s which seems to suggest that he was more-inclined to follow Lucác’s ideas: “(w)here the bourgeois novelists have been driven to the pursuit of the abnormal, the perverted or the minute, in order to find fresh material, the revolutionary is concerned with the normal and typical in his portraiture of society as a whole”.

If the evidence of Pie in the Sky is anything to go by, it’s certainly true that Calder-Marshall aimed to describe the “normal and typical” in his work: “We went to a dance once, given by a friend of mine at the Assembly Rooms. This was a few months after we’d been married. I was eighteen and still terribly in love with him. And this fellow who was giving the dance was a boy I’d known before I knew Charlie. There was nothing in it, but in the course of the evening I danced four times with this boy”. It’s easy to see how he is aiming to deal with a world that is mundane, but can still have tensions within seemingly ordinary situations. These tensions can be political, as when there are differences of opinions among family members, and when the urge to create a Popular Front might clash with the feelings of resentment and anger against another class which, given the appropriate influential circumstances, could be prepared to swing either to the left or the right

Calder-Marshall, unlike Sommerfield, who had been a merchant-seaman and served in the International Brigades in Spain, became disillusioned with the Communist Party, and had left its ranks by 1941. Lewis Jones, a communist from the mining communities, wrote two novels, Cwmardy (1937) and We Live (1939), which dealt with life in the coalfields of South Wales. Jones sadly died young, but his books, largely traditional stylistically, can be seen as attempts to create panoramic accounts of a period stretching from 1900 to the 1930s, and thus taking in pre-1914 agitation, sometimes verging on syndicalism, the General Strike of 1926, and the dark days of the Depression and the Spanish Civil War, in which a number of Welsh miners fought.

James Barke’s Scottish novels, Major Operation (1936) and The Land of the Leal (1939), were also panoramic in intent, tracing the fortunes and misfortunes of a family driven to leave the countryside and move to the city. Barke was probably never a member of the Communist Party, though he appears to have been sympathetic to its aims. Curiously, he did have doubts about the notion of a Popular Front and its adaptation of what he thought of as liberal policies. Taylor has a few lines from a letter that Barke wrote to a fellow-Scottish writer, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, in which he referred to himself as “a hopelessly intolerant doctrinaire” and stated that “Toleration belongs to the period of toothless liberalism”. He also claimed that the Communist Party was the “heroic vanguard” of the working class. Despite sounding like a loyal follower of Party ideology, Barke was happy to use modernist techniques in his fiction. Andy Croft came up with a good description of a passage in Major Operation which dealt with a National Unemployed Workers’ Movement march in Glasgow: “It is a crazy picture, slapstick and satiric, allusive, inclusive and nonsensical, the life of the city caught in snapshots, snatches of conversation and thought; James Joyce writing about Glasgow wIth a Communist Party card in his pocket”.

Historical novels were seen as a way of providing a good story with an insight into aspects of history that had often been ignored or altered by establishment historians to support their view of what took place. Jack Lindsay’s 1649: A Novel of a Year (1938)  is “structured through multiple perspectives and short chapters, interspersed with original documents”. It deals with the endeavours by the Levellers to obtain “popular consent for The Agreement of the People”, their manifesto which outlined changes they required in the English constitution. Cromwell crushed the Leveller rebellion or mutiny at Burford Church in 1649, executing several men and breaking up what was essentially a small radical element within the New Model Army. Their demands were mostly met as British society developed over the next three centuries, but were hardly likely to have been agreed to at the time.

The problem of how much steady support the Levellers had is still debated, and it puts me in mind of a question that could be asked about the readership of the novels that Taylor deals with. Do we have any figures for sales? Admittedly, such figures do not necessarily tell us how many people actually read a book. It may have been borrowed from a library many times, or loaned among friends of the owner. But I suspect that most radical novels, especially if they could be identified as written by  communists (“communist propaganda in the form of fiction”, was the verdict of the Times Literary Supplement on May Day), might not have circulated widely, apart from among Party members and sympathisers. Surviving records for the workers’ libraries in South Wales and elsewhere would indicate that, when it came to fiction, westerns and crime stories were the most popular books taken out on loan. Ken Worpole’s Dockers and Detectives (Verso,1983) likewise asserts that most working-class men, if they read novels, were likely to choose a western or a detective story.

Leaving aside such questions regarding readership it’s obvious that Elinor Taylor has produced a scholarly, well-researched and informative survey of selected novels from the Popular Front period of the 1930s, with added references to other left-wing writers. It’s not a book designed for what might be termed a general readership in the way that Andy Croft’s Red Letter Days was, but both can be usefully read to give a broad picture of an area of British fiction too often neglected by literary historians.

Taylor’s analysis of the books she discusses is always thorough and she successfully combines the literary values of a novel with comments on its political content and context. She’s also honest enough in her conclusion to consider that there was probably little that was revolutionary, in any sense of the word, in the Popular Front novels. She quotes one fellow-academic as describing Popular Front aesthetics as “Stalinised pastoral”, and another saying that there was “little that was genuinely socially transformative in the Popular Front; instead its coordinates were liberal, not Marxist; it affirmed a valorisation of bourgeois culture“ under the mask of ‘humanist’ Marxism, and required intellectual commitment to only the most minimal demands”. 

Her explanations of the edicts coming from Moscow are relevant, though I admit to backing away from sentences like: “Lukács developed Hegel’s central category of totality into a vision of the social totality marked by ‘the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts’ “. Taylor’s book is, presumably, her Ph.D thesis, so perhaps words like those are to be expected, and I can work out what she means. But they offer a contrast to how she writes elsewhere, when she can be concise and clear as she outlines a story or describes a character. At her best she made me want to pull one or two old novels from the shelves and re-read them.