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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950


page 9

Fascism and the threat of war dominated the course of international politics in the 1930s, and in consequence the consciousness of many writers, artists and intellectuals. At the beginning of the decade the depression had exerted a radicalising influence upon the intellectual community in western countries. But it was the threat of fascism, and the cumulative impact of the international political crises of the 30s—Manchuria, Abyssinia, Spain, China, Austria and Czechoslovakia, leading, with frightening inevitability, to the outbreak of war— which had a greater influence in turning many to the left. The increasing urgency of events on the world stage, building upon the existing apprehension of a crisis of capitalism, was the catalyst for the rise of a broadly based movement against fascism, both a political and a cultural movement, which was known as the Popular Front.

The emergence of the Popular Front followed a change in the policy of the international communist movement in response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Hider's accession to power in 1933. In 1935 the seventh world congress of the Communist International—the body to which all communist parties were affiliated—abandoned the sectarian policy which had been adopted by the sixth Comintern congress in 1928, a policy which rejected trade unionism and political labour movements as reformist, for a united or popular front strategy of collaboration with all progressive classes and organisations in the struggle against fascism. Although this was essentially a tactical change, it was supported ideologically by a revised analysis of fascism as qualitatively distinct from liberal democracy. In 1936 Popular Front governments, representing alliances of communist, socialist and liberal-left parties, were elected in France and Spain.

In other countries no such formal political alliance was formed. The Communist Party of Great Britain initially pursued a united front alliance page 10 between the Communist, Labour and Independent Labour parties and non-aligned socialist groups but this proved unsuccessful, and gave way to the broader concept of a popular front. This was the basis for cooperation between the Communist Party and elements of the labour movement, and for the emergence of a number of Popular Front organisations which brought together individuals from across a wide liberal-left political spectrum. The Popular Front policy ended the isolation of the communist parties during the sectarian phase of the depression years. And it brought many writers, artists and intellectuals into, or into association with, the communist movement from the mid 1930s. A considerable number joined the Party. Many more became 'fellow travellers': sympathisers but not Party members.

To the left, the meaning of the successive international crises of the 1930s was clear. The depression had heralded the beginning of the end of capitalism. Now the world was witnessing the final struggle between capitalism and labour, or fascism and democracy, a struggle of which the Spanish Civil War was seen as the culmination. Spain's importance to the left cannot be overestimated. It was Spain which dramatised the essential link between capitalism, fascism and war. It brought into focus the meaning of the depression as the crisis of capitalism and of liberal democracy, 'confirming all our beliefs',1 as the international armies of fascism lined up against the forces of socialism. It also brought about a shift in the language of the struggle. In the Popular Front, the terms capitalism and labour, or revolution, were displaced or supplemented by 'fascism' and 'democracy'. This discourse encompassed a variety of political interpretations and commitments. But from whatever political perspective one understood the Spanish Civil War, it was perceived in dualistic terms. Of all the international conflicts of the 30s Spain most polarised political opinions. From the left the non-intervention policy of the democratic powers, maintained in the face of Germany and Italy's open military support for Franco, was viewed with suspicion as an indication of their willingness to tolerate fascist aggression. Not to support the Spanish Republican government was to support fascism. The divisions between communist, socialist and anarchist factions within the Spanish Republican forces went largely unnoted.2

Spain was only the battlefield for the larger struggle of opposing ideologies. The centre of the left's world political map in the 1930s was the Soviet Union. The rhetoric of the Popular Front may have identified the anti-fascist struggle as a struggle being waged in the cause of democracy, rather than of socialism or communism; but to the communist left it was really about the defence of the first workers' state, as the Soviet Union was threatened by the growing military strength of the fascist powers. The continuing faith of the western communist parties in the Soviet Union as the model socialist state was ensured by their affiliation with the Communist International, and thus their adherence to the page 11 policies of the Russian Communist Party. The trials and purges of the Trotskyite faction in 1935-7 caused some defections, to a greater extent in America than within the British, or Australian and New Zealand, communist parties. For the most part, however, these problems were submerged by the communist movement's uncritical adherence to the Stalinist orthodoxy which constituted the Party line, and by the wider attraction of the Soviet Union.

Russia held an appeal, as much symbolic and emotional as political, to many who did not call themselves communists. For people of capitalist countries in the aftermath of depression, the absence of unemployment in the Soviet Union and its planned economic growth under the second Five Year Plan provided a stark contrast to the contradiction of poverty amidst plenty. Its international policy of collective security seemed the only prospect of peace, whereas the British government's refusal to enter into an alliance with the Soviet Union and its policy of appeasement towards Germany would, it seemed, lead only to war. Russia stood as the sole bulwark against fascism; the saviour of the revolution, or populist democracy, according to one's political view.

Above all it was the threat fascism posed to culture, and to the practitioners of culture, that was instrumental in mobilising intellectuals, writers and artists on behalf of the Popular Front. In the rhetoric of the left, the stakes in this contest were nothing less than western culture, or civilisation, itself. As Winston Rhodes wrote in Tomorrow in an article on the Spanish Civil War:

The forces of reaction, the tide of barbarism which is seeking to sweep over Europe will obtain little help from the men of letters, the workers or the scientists who more and more are being made to realise that there is a future for art and letters, a future for science, a future for a free society only if fascism can be checked.3

The commitment of western intellectuals to the Popular Front demonstrated, in the words of a young Australian volunteer in the International Brigade, 'not a misty idealism, but a realisation that their means of support are threatened by capitalist bankruptcy, and that their freedom to go on working is threatened by the forces of the Right.'4

The burning of books and censorship of classic literature in Germany, and the exile of writers such as Heinrich Mann and the playwrights Erwin Piscator, Friedrich Wolf and Ernst Toller, showed fascism to be the enemy of culture. The Soviet Union, by contrast, represented the promise of culture under socialism. Not only were writers, artists and their work valued by the Soviet state and people, and new forms of cultural expression such as 'proletarian literature' emerging, but the cultural heritage of the west received due respect and support. The left-wing media followed cultural development in the Soviet Union with reports of cultural events and statistics documenting the sale of books and the page 12 numbers of libraries, theatres, bookshops and educational institutions. This largely statistical approach was characteristic of the perception of Soviet development generally. As Russia's economic progress was documented in tons of pig iron and steel, so its cultural health was reported in terms of the numbers of performances of Shakespeare in Moscow, or Russian translations of western classics such as the novels of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Items of this kind from international socialist publications were reprinted in New Zealand in the Communist Party paper the Workers' Weekly and its successor the People's Voice, Tomorrow, and the Soviet News, organ of the New Zealand branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union.

The atmosphere and the cultural politics of the Popular Front period received their clearest expression in the International Brigade. Intellectuals and writers were among those who made the pilgrimage to Spain and fought (or drove ambulances and made radio broadcasts) for the Republican forces. This personal political commitment was the ultimate expression of the imperative of political engagement which, for the literary fellow traveller, became a defining principle of art itself: 'art must be purposive if it is to be art', wrote Winston Rhodes in Tomorrow.5 Not all those writers who went to Spain, or who in greater numbers aligned themselves with the Republican cause in the celebrated 'Writers Take Sides' manifesto published by the English Left Review in 1937, interpreted this theoretical maxim to mean that literature should be overdy political.6 But the need for the writer to confront the political realities of the moment was unquestioned. W. H. Auden wrote on the eve of his departure for Spain:

I am not one of those who believe that poetry need or even should be direcdy political, but in a critical period such as ours, I do believe that the poet must have direct knowledge of the major political events. ... I feel I can speak with authority about la condition humaine of only a small clan of English intellectuals and professional people and that the time has come to gamble on something bigger.7

The International Brigade was symbolic in another sense. Just as the political struggle against fascism was world-wide, so political action by artists must transcend national boundaries, as it traversed the boundary between politics and art. Andre Gide stated in June 1935: 'this culture is one common heritage, is common to all of us and is international'.8 The occasion was the first International Writers' Congress for the Defence of Culture, held in Paris. This meeting, attended by writers from 14 countries, resulted in the formation of the International Writers' Association for the Defence of Culture, an organisation which captures the cultural mood of the Popular Front. At the three congresses of the association, held in Paris, London and Madrid between 1935 and 1937, writers of page 13 such stature and political and intellectual diversity as Gide, Andre Malraux, E. M. Forster, Maxim Gorki and Bertolt Brecht (writers of right-wing sympathies, along with surrealist artists, were not invited) debated the political and social responsibilities of artists and the relationship between politics and aesthetics. Recognition of the necessary link between politics and art, albeit problematic, as these debates revealed, could not have been made clearer than by the progress of the 1937 congress. The congress was originally to have been held in Madrid, but with the city under siege by the time the event was due to open was transferred to Valencia, the centre of Republican government. After the opening session it moved back to Madrid, with the delegates 'assigned to a hotel... close to the battle lines', where it continued for three days under direct bombardment from Franco's forces, before returning finally to Valencia, thus situating culture at the centre of the political struggle and on the side of socialism and democracy.9

Smaller counterparts of the International Writers' Association were formed in a number of countries. No such organisation was formed in New Zealand, but in Australia the literary community followed the international trend. There the catalyst was the government's bungled attempt to ban Czechoslovak writer Egon Kisch, along with New Zealand communist Gerald Griffin, from entering Australia to attend a conference of the Movement Against War and Fascism (a Communist Party 'fraternal' organisation) in 1934. Kisch appeared on lecture platforms with his leg in plaster after a spectacular leap from his ship onto the wharf at Port Melbourne, an unplanned publicity coup which was followed by further official ineptitude as both Kisch and Griffin were forced to sit immigration tests in foreign languages (Kisch, renowned for his command of European languages, in Gaelic, Griffin in Dutch). The incident served to mobilise the Australian literary community against fascism by bringing the issue of freedom of speech and cultural expression directly into the Australian context. In early 1935 expatriate New Zealand writer and communist Jean Devanny, with fellow Communist Party member and novelist Katharine Susannah Prichard and the support of Kisch, was instrumental in forming the Sydney-based Writers' League (later renamed the Writers' Association), an organisation modelled on the Comintern-allied Writers' International. The Kisch affair also prompted a split within the Fellowship of Australian Writers, a normally staid organisation which until this time had concerned itself mainly with the question of cultural nationalism and the professional interests of writers. The Fellowship now attracted an increasingly influential left-wing membership, and in 1938 merged with the Writers' Association. The reconstituted FAW became the focus of Popular Front activity by Australian writers, although there was a degree of ongoing tension between its more and less politically-inclined factions.10

New Zealand did not support a professional writers' body, let alone a Popular Frontist writers' organisation of this kind. But the Kisch affair, and page 14 events such as the 1935 Paris congress, the London congress in 1936 and the congress of the American League of Writers in 1939 were reported in Tomorrow with lengthy quotations from the conference proceedings.

1 A. Blake, quoted in D. Carter, '"History was on our side": Memoirs from the Australian Left', Meanjin, Mar. 1987 (v.46, n.i), p.113

2 Reaction to the Spanish Civil War in New Zealand is discussed in S. M. Skudder, '"Bringing It Home". New Zealand Responses to the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939'. DPhil thesis, Waikato University, 1986

3 H. W. Rhodes, 'The International Brigade', Tomorrow, 12 May 1937 (v.3, n.14), p.426

4 A. T. Palmer, 'Intellectuals and Spain', ibid., 27 Oct. 1937 (v.3, n.26), p.827

5 Rhodes, 'The Left Theatre', ibid., 15 Jan. 1936 (v.2, n.10), p.13

6 See V. Cunningham, 'Neutral?: 1930s Writers and Taking Sides', in F. Gloversmith (ed.), Class Culture and Social Change. A New View of the 1930s. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1980, pp.45-69. Winston Rhodes gave a different interpretation of this manifesto in 'Spain and the Writer', Tomorrow, 16 Feb. 1938 (v.4, n.8), pp.241-2

7 Quoted in E. Mendelson (ed.), The English Auden. Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939. London: Faber and Faber, 1977, p.xviii

8 Quoted in Rhodes, The Paris Congress', Tomorrow, 9 Oct. 1935 (v.1, n.50), p.12

9 H. R. Lottmann, The Left Bank. Writers, Artists, and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War. London: Heinemann, 1982, p.107

10 See D. Modjeska, Exiles at Home. Australian Women Writers 1925-1945. London, Sydney: Sirius Books, 1981, ch.5; J. Devanny, Point of Departure. The Autobiography of Jean Devanny. Ed. C. Ferrier. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1986, pp.205-7, 215-19