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Introduction: Right Left Right1

Introduction to this issue of E-rea
Stan SMITH et Jennifer BIRKETT

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  • 1 . These essays are revised versions of papers delivered at the conference Right Left Right: Revolvi (...)

1By the close of the 1920s, the European mood had changed from the disenchantment and nihilism or apolitical hedonism that followed the Great War to a more serious engagement with a politics of crisis generated by economic collapse and the social and cultural disintegration which accompanied it. After the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 inaugurated the Depression years, it became increasingly difficult for writers in Britain and Europe to remain aloof from political concerns. Loyalties, whether to left or right, remained surprisingly fluid, however, until at least the triumph of Hitler in 1933. Politically naïve, writers often shifted allegiance from left to right or vice versa, convinced only that the status quo was uneasy, and would not last. Revolving commitment intellectually and morally, many also found that the idea of revolution was a revolving door through which they passed to emerge, at the end of the decade, confused, baffled, disenchanted, their convictions transformed or subverted by the whirligig of a rapidly changing history.

2The essays in this issue address a range of reactions by Anglophone and French writers to the turbulence of the 1930s, its immediate causes and aftermath, and analyse the variety of forms in which writers confronted the politics of the age. The abject surrender to capital of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1931, leading to the formation of a “National” coalition government, was matched on the continent by the emergence of Right-wing totalitarian movements modelled in part on Mussolini’s Italian fascism, and poised to capture power in Germany under Hitler, in Spain with Franco, and throughout Eastern Europe. In reaction, an increasingly authoritarian, Moscow-dominated Communist movement extended its influence throughout the European Left in the 1930s. The early years of that decade found the European intelligentsia in ferment, intensely aware that neither ivory tower aestheticism nor the frivolity of the “bright young things” of the post-war years was any longer a viable response to crisis. The deeply ambiguous mood of the years preceding Hitler’s pseudo-democratic seizure of power in 1933, caught for ever in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, led many intellectuals and writers to espouse authoritarian and radical allegiances as the only way forward. In the period 1929-1933, political commitment could be inflected to Left or Right; indeed, many writers vacillated between extremes.

3Much of the writing of the period reveals this deep ambiguity. This was reinforced by the postures of Comintern policy, which, until Hitler’s succession, had taken an “ultra-leftist” line, condemning all political movements on the left not dictated by the Comintern as “social fascist”. After Hitler’s accession, Comintern policy shifted to endorse the class collaboration strategies apparently vindicated by the election of Popular Front governments in Spain and France in 1936.

4The disillusioning experiences of Popular Front Governments and the Spanish Civil War, the brutality of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Hitler’s triumphant Drang nach Ostern (the Anschluss with Austria and the seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the invasion of Poland 1939), put these strategies under intense strain, until they were destroyed by the Hitler-Stalin Pact in August-September 1939. The outbreak of the Second World War, and the fall of France in 1940, saw the final dissolution of the old Left consensus, bringing new disillusions, or the hardening of commitments to rigid dogmas, or renunciation of political commitment altogether.

5Extending from the origins of the European crisis in the late 1920s to its consequences in the immediate aftermath of the War, these essays examine the complex and contradictory responses in British and French intellectual and cultural circles to that key political moment of the Twentieth Century, when, as Leon Trotsky put it in 1932, history was poised like a ball on top of a pyramid, and “the slightest impact [could] cause it to roll down either to the left or to the right”.

6Stan Smith’s essay opens the collection in the perspective of the radical left-wing politics of the period in Britain. Smith reviews the shifts of Comintern policy throughout the 1930s, and the attempts to accommodate to them by individual British writers, both Communist Party members and fellow-travellers, until the moment when the Hitler-Stalin Pact made it impossible for all but the most unwavering devotees of the Party line to maintain their support. Martyn Cornick analyses three key moments in the interwar years when the Nouvelle Revue française opted to review the competing demands of fascist and communist ideology and the prejudices of nationalism, and pointed its influential readership towards the collective reconstruction of republican ideals. Alan Munton’s and John Lucas’s studies of Wyndham Lewis and E. M. Forster enable us to juxtapose two very different individual voices: the emphatic rhetoric of Lewis, here shown in the course of his political journeying between Proudhon and Marx, and the deliberately low-pitched tones of a liberal voice, seemingly private, that nevertheless spoke up for all those under threat, and for intellectual freedoms. Joseph Pridmore and Simon Goulding provide contrasting studies of writing from the heart of class politics in Britain: the proletarian communities evoked by the working-class writers Jack Hilton, George Garrett, James Hanley and Jim Phelan, who explore the ramifications of “mass protest” and “mass violence” in the streets and homes of provincial cities, and Patrick Hamilton’s landscapes of déraciné middle-class London, breeding-grounds for fascism. Angela Kershaw returns discussion to a wider European horizon, studying the political connections and consequences of the travels undertaken by French and British women writers in the Soviet Union in the interwar years. The dilemmas posed for the Communist Party in France by the Hitler-Stalin pact are evoked by Angela Kimyongur in her examination of Louis Aragon’s epic novel, Les Communistes. Jennifer Birkett describes the work of the London PEN Centre in the Second World War, under the Presidency of Margaret Storm Jameson, its linked defence of intellectual freedom and social justice, and the impact of its commitment to the advocacy of post-war social reform. Gisèle Sapiro’s study of the post-Liberation Purge Trials in France shows how the strategies of counsel for the prosecution and defence undermined the concept of the responsibility of the intellectual, just as Resistance writers such as Sartre were reasserting commitment and responsibility to form a new paradigm of engaged literature.

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1 . These essays are revised versions of papers delivered at the conference Right Left Right: Revolving Commitment: France and Britain: 1929-1950, held in the University of Birmingham 20-21 April 2006, and organised by Jennifer Birkett for the Department of French, in collaboration with Martyn Cornick (French, Birmingham), Angela Kershaw (School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University) and Stan Smith (English Section, School of Arts and Humanities, Nottingham Trent University). The Co-ordinating Committee would like to thank theInstitut Français of the United Kingdomand the University of Birmingham for their generous sponsorship and support. Stan Smith’s work on this edition is part of a research project supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology (BFF 2002-02842), the Communidad Autonóma of La Rioja (ANGI -2002/05), and the University of La Rioja, Logroño, Spain (API-02 – 35).

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Stan SMITH et Jennifer BIRKETT, « Introduction: Right Left Right », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.198

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