Edwin A. Roberts

Postscript: Christopher Caudwell,
Ghost of Marxism’s Future

Christopher St. John Sprigg, who wrote under the name Christopher Caudwell, is without doubt a most controversial figure in the history of British Marxism. In 1957, Raymond Williams dismissed his work as not specific enough to be wrong and implied that it was not particularly Marxist. [167] However, twenty years later, Williams claimed that his earlier assessment should be rejected. He felt that Caudwell’s work should be reevaluated “in the light of the knowledge that there are no truly orthodox Marxist positions.” [168] Terry Eagleton described Caudwell’s writings as “genuine insight woven into hair-raising theoretical vulgarities.” [169] E. P. Thompson similarly declared that Caudwell “wrote too much too fast” and implied that his works were about ten percent brilliant and ninety percent worthless. [170]

Even in a recent volume of Caudwell’s unpublished manuscripts, the editors, while remaining very favorably inclined toward Caudwell, still claim that “the rigor of his writings is only intermittent and allows him to indulge in sweeping statements of greater poetic appropriateness than material accuracy.” [171] The general impression of Caudwell left from these assessments is of a promise unfulfilled, as scholar after scholar looks for insights of what might have been.

Caudwell died at the age of 29, while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. In his lifetime, he had a rather erratic career as a writer. Before he did any Marxist works he had published five books on aeronautical engineering and eight detective novels. His relatives and his closest friends later recalled that they had no idea why or when he became Marxist. [172] Nevertheless, in November 1935 he joined the CPGB. By June 1936, he was trying to have his articles published in the Left Review and began working on a series of ambitious manuscripts covering physics, mathematics, psychoanalysis, and poetry, all from a Marxist perspective. [173] Of all he wrote, only the book on poetry, Illusion and Reality, achieved final draft form and was published the year he died, 1937. Five other manuscripts have since been published from the unfinished drafts. No doubt this accounts in part for the tentative nature of his status as a Marxist theorist.

Real interest in Caudwell did not begin until the late 1960s, when scholars began to notice in his writings’ affinities with some of the major conceptions found in Western Marxism, [174] ideas that had been unknown in Britain until the 1960s. For example, one scholar noted that he saw striking similarities between Caudwell and Georg Lukács, in that Caudwell believed in a dialectical interaction between subject and object and understood that the problem of commodity fetishism was reflected in all contemporary manifestations of romantic literature. [175] Other scholars have claimed to have seen such things in Caudwell’s writings as Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms, [176] poststructural notions about the subsuming of the subject into discourse and language, and neo-Freudian and Zen Buddhist readings of Marx. [177] The problem with all of this is that more often than not, Caudwell's arguments can simply be cataloged as vulgar Marxist, in that his most typical explanation for some phenomenon is simply to label it a “bourgeois illusion.” [178]

Among the generation of Marxist intellectuals who were his contemporaries, there was considerable negative reaction to Caudwell’s work, except for Illusion and Reality. In 1947, Maurice Cornforth was assigned by the CPGB leadership to provide an analysis of Caudwell’s unpublished manuscripts. He concluded that his work was too erratic, inconsistent, and eclectic to be considered coherently Marxist, let alone orthodox enough for the CPGB to approve of. [179] J. D. Bernal, when asked to comment on Caudwell’s thinking on science, argued that it was too subjectivist and maintained that Caudwell had not coherently formulated his theory that modern physics was trapped in a “bourgeois philosophy of science.” [180] What Bernal most likely objected to was Caudwell’s apparent claim that modern physics was in itself ideological. As will be seen, in this period, the idea that science as opposed to its use could be ideological was totally rejected by communist intellectuals.

The last point approaches the essence of the problem concerning the assessment of Caudwell. Whatever brilliance or originality he may have possessed, it must be seen as flashes of insight here and there, in Caudwell’s vast but dense output. Thus, for future generations Caudwell could be seen as a prophet of things to come, because he was careless enough or undisciplined enough to write down what others, with more circumspection, might have avoided or changed. For this a full-scale evaluation of Caudwell, does not belong in our study, for he was not a figure typical of his time but a spectre of some of what was to come.


167. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957), 276.

168. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 3.

169. Terry Eagleton, “Raymond Williams: an Appraisal,” New Left Review (Jan.-Feb. 1976), 7.

170. E. P. Thompson, “Caudwell,” Socialist Register (1977), 229.

171. Jean Duparc and David Margolies, “Introduction,” in Christopher Caudwell, Scenes and Actions (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), 10. One of the first defenders of the thesis that Caudwell was a man of underdeveloped talents was John Strachey. He argued that Caudwell was an overambitious young man who still had great insight into how to use historical materialism to study individual lives. See his introduction to Caudwell’s posthumous collection Studies in A Dying Culture (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.)

172. Duparc and Margolies, “Introduction,” 12-13.

173. Duparc and Margolies, “Introduction,” 12-13.

174. Thompson, “Caudwell,” 244.

175. Francis Mulber, “The Marxist Aesthetics of Christopher Caudwell,” New Left Review (May-June 1974), 42.

176. Stanley Aronowitz, “The Production of Scientific Knowledge: Science, Ideology and Marxism,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 224.

177. Duprac and Margolies, “Introduction,” 27.

178. Thompson, “Caudwell,” 228.

179. Thompson, “Caudwell,” 236.

180. Thompson, “Caudwell,” 232.

SOURCE: Roberts, Edwin A. The Anglo-Marxists: A Study in Ideology and Culture (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997), Chapter 3: The Emergence of Anglo-Marxism in the Era of the Communist Party: Postscript: Christopher Caudwell, Ghost of Marxism’s Future; pp. 95-96, 101-102.

Note: I have corrected typographical errors in the published text.

Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 29 July 2018

Site ©1999-2018 Ralph Dumain