MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic

THE 1950S

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THE POLITICS OF THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION: THE LITERARY SYNTHESIS OF THE 1950s – LECTURE – MALCOLM BRADBURY

The topic I want to consider in this lecture is the way there grew up, among a significant and influential group of intellectuals, writers and literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic, in the period just after World War 2, a new version of liberalism.  It is not hard to see where it came from.  Following the defeat of Fascism, the continued ominous presence of a totalitarian politics on the other side of what quickly became known as the Iron Curtain, and the general spirit of kulturkampf which affected the early postwar era, a new ideological mood was inevitable.  Add to that the fact that across the world, in the wake of war, new governments and indeed quite new political systems were emerging.  Empires, political systems, monarchies and imperial leaderships had collapsed; new states were inventing fresh political cultures.  The new liberalism was thus a historical recovery, a process of reconstructing something that in western societies was perfectly familiar:  a culture of democratic principles, progressive institutions, freedoms and rights, a spirit of pluralism, variousness and contradiction.  It was also a reaction:  against the totalistic and totalitarian ideologies that had swept through the early twentieth century – National Socialism or Fascism, Communism – largely in the wake of the great European collapse in 1914-18 and had had powerful appeal for many intellectuals, especially during the 1930s, following the Wall Street Crash and the apparent failure of liberal bourgeois capitalism.

The new liberalism took much of its intellectual energy both from the radical politics that had fed the 18th century Enlightenment – the spirit of liberty and reason – and the reforming progressivism that had shaped much 19th century thought and, for that matter, led to the emergence of modern democratic politics and its ideological divisions and party allegiances.  But liberalism was far from being – or at any rate, as a Marxist would say, seeing itself as – an ideology; indeed its point was that it lay beyond ideology.  It took itself to be the spirit of progressive humanism, and it transcended party.  If it was politically committed to democratic institutions, its faith was in multiplicity of interest.  It had a taste for rational empiricism (it was reasonable), and it believed in the ethics of compromise.  The instinct of liberalism is, I shall suppose, to interpret history as progressive, a force for human development and enlightenment.  It seeks to balance the humanistic claims of individualism with those of social obligation.  It believes in the certainty and the autonomy of the self, and the need for individuals to determine their own destinies.  It believes in the rational power of fair minded and disinterested observation, and casts the intellectual in the role of an independent thinker, observing judging beyond and above the claims of party, cause or self-interest.

Artistically it is equally open, and equally concerned with artistic endeavour as pluralism, multiplicity, discovery, as a form of humanism.  It values what is dialogic in art and therefore perhaps most values those forms where life is most clearly represented in its diversity, plurality, and contrast – forms like drama and the novel.  It respects art's concerns both with individuality and society, and attaches a high value to the achievements of, for example, the 19th century novel, where the great dramas of selfhood and society, individualism and community, self-benediction and social being, are performed.  It can be located as a philosophy of bourgeois values, and modern theorists have constantly done so, therefore seeing the high season of artistic liberalism as lying in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the great artistic achievements include the emergence of the novel as a central western literary form, the development of literary realism, and the displacement of a religious world-view with a humanistic or a secular one with its own exploratory morality.  The crisis of modernism is thus a crisis for liberalism, and the 20th century literary and artistic forms, marked with ideological tension, revolutionary passion, fragmentation, cosmic pessimism, and vitalism, in various ways compromised it.  English liberalism reached its political peak in the Victorian period, and went through a collapse in the first decade of the century, the strange death of liberal England.  American liberalism also suffered its great crises, in the face of progressive and socialist politics in the early part of the century, and again in the leftward politics of the 1930s.  But in both countries the liberal spirit, the liberal attitude, the liberal imagination survived as an essential middle ground, the negotiable space between conservatism and socialism.  In America, Louis Hartz has argued, liberalism is the essential philosophy of the revolutionary nation, virtually a 'natural' phenomenon, hardly needing to be identified by name because it is the unspoken ideology of the entire nation and constitution.

So if, after 1945, there was a revival of liberalism both in Europe and America, it could be seen simply as an affirmation of the constitution, the culture or of nationhood.  Yet it meant something more.  For it came from a specific situation and occasion:  a deep reaction against totalitarianism that arose from the battle against Nazism and the emergence of the new threat from totalitarian Communism, the ideology of the one-party state and the individual in thrall to party and history.  It came in part from the war mentality, and the kind of self-propagandizing that a nation in conflict with others needs to do to see the character of its own cause and the principles which it lays down lives to defend.  In fact it came from the mentality of two wars, one hot and one cold.  From the point of view of western intellectuals, many of whom had been Marxist in the 1930s, it represented a definable cultural shift of thought and allegiance, as any reader who follows the passage of intellectual argument through from the magazines of the 1930s to those of the 1950s will see.  But of course the intellectual positions taken – in striking books like Hannah Arendt's On Totalitarianism (1951) or Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies – also reflected, anxiously and sometimes very ambiguously, the growth popular mood of affirmation and consensus that marked the political life of Britain and America during the 1950s, when victory in war, however qualified, was followed by a period of social reform and in the USA of rapidly growing affluence and modernization.

In fact Britain and America were in quite different situations, and just as they had behind them somewhat different traditions or versions of liberal ideas, and different types of liberalized institutions (in America an elected bi-cameral system, in Britain a monarchical democracy), so they had different reasons for their liberal revivals.  Britain was in process of losing much of its modern imperial history and was witnessing the collapse of its economic and industrial strength.  A postwar Labour government took the opportunity to institute a period of substantial reform, establishing the Welfare State, which fundamentally altered the social nature and mood of the society.  Austerity persisted, but the sense of common purpose that had developed during wartime offered the foundation for a period of meliorative social and socialistic change.  The Festival of Britain in 1951 celebrated sturdy nationhood, and the coronation of a new queen soon afterwards suggested the dawn of a new, confident Elizabethan Age.  The USA was now self-evidently a Superpower with only one world rival, Russia, and as the one outright winner of the recent conflict had been suddenly thrust into a powerful global role, as first protector of western democratic values and western security.  It had a Democratic president, Truman, a Fair Deal to replace the New Deal, and, thanks to the boost military spending had given to American production and the American economy, an era of accelerated economic growth, generating a fresh time of participatory consumerism.  America was now an affluent society;  Britain had yet to start having it so good.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, the two liberalisms had never seemed so close.  As far as western Europe, dependent as it was on the Marshall Plan for its revival and its security, this was a time of deep cultural inter-penetration.  Western intellectuals went in large numbers to the USA, aided by Fulbright and other travel grants and scholarships; American intellectual magazines circulated massively in Europe, thanks to the benevolence of the Ford Foundation (we did not exactly know the degree to which they were assisted by the CIA);  an intellectual special relationship flourished.  American culture was itself now deeply shaped by the large number of European intellectuals and artists who had become emigres to America during the dangerous Thirties, most of whom knew the experience of totalitarianism at first hand, and who played a significant part in intellectual, artistic and scientific life thereafter.  This was a period of ideological kulturkampf, which in recent times has been splendidly researched and documented by Frances Stonor Saunders in a book, Who Paid the Piper?, which looks at many of the political forces underlying the re-alignment of many leading intellectual figures, like Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin and many others.  In European terms, this was a period of massive Americanization, at every level.  While intellectuals might passionately deplore what was called Coca-colonization, the penetration of Europe by American corporations and commodites, they managed to admire the fiction of Saul Bellow, the drama of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, the abstract expressionism of Pollock, the music of Kern and Copeland.  The economy, politics, culture, ideology and sensibility all passed within the American orbit, despite the survival of an energetic radicalism and Marxism in many intellectual groups.  Hence it is proper to think of the late 1940s and the 1950s as very much an American decade, and for many more people than Americans.  American values were in the ascendent and were promoted worldwide;  and these were 'liberal' values.

According to many critics in the 1960s, writing from the standpoint of the resurgent 'New Left,' the New Liberalism was not all that it seemed.  According to them, it was conservative, conformist, consensual, the politics of the cultural Cold War.  It was a reversal of the progressive intellectual direction of the century, a rejection of radicalism and the proper duties of an avant garde, a trahison des clercs.  The liberal model of the intellectual function – humanistic, critical, speculative, investigative – was itself rejected, in demonstrations against the institutions of education themselves.  The Arnoldian intellectual and artist, the critically disinterested figure pursuing the spirit of right reason through the best that is known and thought in the world, was yet again displaced by the familiar late-19th century figure of the anarchic radical, bohemianized, displaced, disobedient, alienated, millenarian, utopian, in alliance with revolutionary forces and energies against the powers of corporatism, capitalism and the over-dominant state.  It was a model of political and cultural radicalism that had appealed at several times in the 20th century, and in its light the 'liberalism' of the Fifties could be read as a period of cultural and ideological inertia:  the 'tranquillized Fifties,' according to a phrase of Robert Lowell's.

Since then the term 'liberalism' has had an odd history, perhaps because of some of the ambiguities and pluralities lying inside the term itself.  There is a familiar process by which one decade discards and revolts against the cultural themes and values of its own predecessor.  This is often seen as a natural oscillation between progressive and conservative decades, so that, as it were, it takes another ten years for adjustment to occur.  The New Left had its ideological season in the Sixties;  it then suffered its own rejection, and Marxism itself collapsed in the great meltdown of November 1989.  Yet 'liberalism' has remained a term under suspicion from almost every side of the political spectrum, whether progressive or conservative – to the point where it now seems virtually unusable.  Yet it has been a fundamental theme in modern western culture and a basic force in American society, and in that sense is indispensible.

But what is also true is that recent intellectual, cultural and artistic history is a good deal more complicated than these oscillating patterns might suggest.  For instance, the term 'liberalism' had a good deal of currency in the 1930s as the safe common ground from which one might venture into radicalism.  In a famous book called Forward From Liberalism (1937), Stephen Spender advanced just that argument, suggesting that the logic of progressive humanism pointed the way to membership of the Communist Party.  But in most reasonably sensible quarters the disillusionments set in early – with Stalin's Show Trials, with the role of the Bolsheviks in Spain during the Civil War, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – and the urgent path was backward to liberalism again.  The wartime re-alliance of the allies with Stalin's Russia proved a temporary phenomenon;  within a short time of the wars end Marxism was, as the book title said, The God That Failed.  Liberalism was already constituted as the place of intellectual origins, and by the time war had begun, in 1939 in Europe and in 1941 in the USA, the spirit of democratic liberalism was visibly active again.

In a similar way, the Fifties themselves was an age not of intellectual quiescence but of mixed and bitterly divided allegiances, strong ideological rages, politically urgent congresses, large-scale public debates.  If in retrospect the decade appeared tranquil or tranquillized, this is essentially an illusion.  It was the decade of McCarthyism and political witch-hunting, of Hiss's trial and the Rosenbergs' execution, and was not a time of intellectual peace.  Questions of commitment, allegiance and responsibility were pervasive, as can be seen in the arguments of Existentialism, with its Sartrean command that essentialism can only come with political choice.  The Fifties was neither an a-political nor an anti-political decade, and many of the radical attitudes of the Sixties were already seeded there – including much of the New Left agenda and the entire spirit of Beat.  The age of the liberal imagination was also the time of the end of innocence, and many Americans were coming to suspect that strange things were being done in the nation's name.  Yet the trend or tendency is unmistakeable even so.  The Fifties did see a movement away from millenarian or utopian convictions and avant garde passions.  It saw a trend toward the cultural centre, toward populism, models of consensus and community, an affiliated, civic, responsible intellectual style.  Confronting both their disenchantment with Marxism and their anxiety about the conformist, materialist, consumerist cast of postwar, mass-society America, intellectuals reformed and re-defined their critical role.  They looked, indeed, to be not radical reformers, but critics of life and literature alike.  In so doing, they seemed to seek for a post-political politics, an anti-ideological ideology, a post-alienated alienation, a friendly anomie.  They expressed a new moral seriousness, an ethical responsibility, an exposed anguish that went along with the grim flavour of the Cold War post-atomic age, and they seemed to seek a new function.  And many found it either on the campus, in teaching, or else in the writing, and even the reading, of literature.

In this time of anxious postwar revisionism, there can be little doubt that one of the great beneficiaries was literature.  For, true to the spirit of liberalism, it was the literary imagination, rich, generous and humane, that came to be identified as the central, pluralistic, comprehensive (or as F.R. Leavis would put it 'mature') form of intellectual exploration and concern.  In its scepticism and empiricism, its irony and ambiguity, its great moral and analytical power, in its concern with selfhood and the human person and the personal relation to society, in its passion to know and discover, to love and to dream, to criticize and to understand, literature in its liberal, humanistic and educative functions became important, and it also became culturally redefined.  One part of the reason for this was increasingly obvious:  after the war, thanks to the GI Bill in America and the provisions of the Welfare State in Britain, the numbers of those going to university expanded massively.  Literature and the humanities were central subjects for those who felt the framework of their lives and the personal meaning of their existence had been pressured by recent history.  This was the age of the New Criticism, which revised the meaning of literary study and turned it from a scholarly enterprise into a readerly vocation.  And writers themselves turned, in the absence of the traditional bohemias, to the campus, as teachers of literature or, increasingly, creative writing.

What in fact seemed to be recovered, at this time, was the tradition of that romantic critique that, reaching back certainly to Coleridge, had been socialized in 19th century literature, and then been remade according to modern anxieties by some of the great writers of the early 20th century, whose works at this time became central to study.  Modern literature took its place at the centre of the syllabus, above all a literature that canonically treated the modern anxieties, and dwelt on the edge of humanism and at the point of an 'absurdist' vision of life.  Thus the canon of American literature went through a considerable transformation, following on from the reassertion of American literary values that came with books like F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance, published in 1941, Harry Levin's The Power of Blackness, and other similar works that presented a radical, outreaching literary tradition.  Writers like Hawthorne, Melville and Emily Dickinson became central figures, as did Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Faulkner and Hemingway.  These were writers who went to the edge, as D.H. Lawrence had said;  who knew paradox and darkness, the opposing self.  But in them the extremity, alienation and despair of modernist experiment, the No in Thunder, was modified, amended, and mythified.  These were not writers of outright extremity, and they represented the humanistic strand in modernism, the strand that faced darkness, terror and moral ambiguity yet affirmed the human spirit.

The same sense of modified extremity was visible in Fifties literature itself.  It was the age of the Jewish-American novel, of books with titles like Dangling Man, The Victim, Invisible Man, The Naked and the Dead, A Good Man Is Hard to Find.  These writers were the immediate successors of Modernism (Joyce had died in 1940, Woolf in 1941), a vigorous new generation aware that it was their task to invent a new literature in a quite new cultural and ideological situation.  They had good reasons to diverge from Modernism:  from the nature of its politics, the cast of its sense of tradition and anti-traditionalism, the nature of its despair.  Saul Bellow's Dangling Man of 1944 is a handy text that expresses the new mood:  a work cast in the introverted diary form of modernist and existentialist writing, and dealing with alienation, solipsism, self-withdrawal, it also hungers for civility, society and duty, and finally it discovers it, as the hero Joseph joins the army.  It is an ambiguous and ironic salvation:  'Long live regimentation; freedom cancelled.'

One of my assumptions in this lecture is that there is a significant relationship between politics and literary forms, between ideology and the elusive and ambiguous world of form and style.  I shall presume then that style is form of cultural expression, and that the significant options, attitudes, presumptions and world views of a society at a given time are given strong expression in the grammars, discourses and themes of their arts.  Works of literature, then, can be read as versions of contemporary consciousness, are attempts at distilling a contemporary reality by connecting subject and object, self and world, figure and background.  Thus the liberalism I am talking about here can be seen not just as an attitude expressed in some of the literature of a given time;  it is also a pervasive style in its writing.  One important development we associate with the Fifties is the movement out of Modernism and toward a modern and modified realism – realism being, according to David Lodge in his influential essay 'The Novelist at the Crossroads.' "an aesthetics of compromise."  Styles change with cultures;  the Sixties was marked by an aesthetic as well as a political reaction, in the direction of what we generally categorize as 'Postmodernism.'  The realism of the Fifties – the age of Sartre and Camus, Orwell and Angus Wilson, Amis, Murdoch, Golding and Sillitoe, Bellow, Salinger, Mailer and Malamud – has its own atmosphere and distinct season.

It is, after all, the literature of a time of darkened history:  of postwar and cold war, containment and co-existence, espionage and conspiracy, revived hopes for liberal democracy combined with critical anxieties about alienation, mechanization, urbanization and suburbanization, new corporatism, the hidden persuaders and conformist life in the grey flannel suit.  It was perceived as an era of shrinking individualism and autonomy, of mass culture and growing crowds of a struggle for domination all over the globe and in space with the Russians, and a time of military industrial dominance.  As Eric Goldman suggests in his book The Crucial Decade, the Fifties was a time when, accelerated by wartime boom, a fundamental redirection of the economy, a set of new technologies and a changed view of history, we saw the founding of much in our own historical situation and the creation of many of our contemporary dilemmas.  The postwar period began in ex-Marxist apologetics, and a move from ideological politics to a more pragmatic sincerity.  But ideology was never more important, since the world was now clearly divided between two competing ideological systems:  liberal capitalism and totalitarian communism.  And it ended with a reverse process, as the era that was proclaimed by Daniel Bell as 'The End of Ideology' spawned a new politics, of pacifism, free speech, sexual liberation and civil rights, and insisted that even the personal was the political.

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