Christopher Caudwell
His aesthetics and film

by Ellen Sypher

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 65-66
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Christopher Caudwell’s career as a Marxist culture theorist was very brief. Two years after he began serious Marxist writing he was killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War at the age of thirty. Yet in that brief time his output was prodigious: a reputable book on physics from a dialectical materialist perspective (The Crisis in Physics) and four theoretical works on culture. One of these is dedicated to poetry (Illusion and Reality), another to the novel (Romance and Realism) and two to general essays in such fields as history, psychology and religion (presently combined in a single volume, Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture). Caudwell’s reputation, based solely on these five works, is considerable. His name has been a familiar one to Marxists since his death, and he is known of by the literary establishment. Serious evaluation of his writings is, however, only a fairly recent phenomenon.(1) This more recent assessment of him from a Marxist perspective is generally that while immature and deeply flawed, he is so richly suggestive and often so sound that every serious Marxist thinker on culture should deal with him.

He was and remains more or less of a maverick. From upper middle class roots, he left school at fifteen to work in aeronautics. After his commitment to Marxism he moved to Poplar, a working class section of London, where he wrote and did menial party work for the British Communist Party, whose leadership did not even know of him until after his death. He apparently undertook his serious theoretical work in isolation. His work bears all the weaknesses of such an individualistic position in that he uncritically accepts prevailing attitudes. Especially he ignores proletarian culture, and he depends too much on the then very influential Freud. Yet notwithstanding these narrow dimensions of his work, some of his perceptions of literature’s basis and workings stand alongside those of the best of Marxist aestheticians. Caudwell’s work, undoubtedly because of its mixed character, has not substantially influenced any writer on aesthetics although he is undisputedly the major Marxist writer on aesthetics in the British and U.S. tradition.

Literature and especially poetry is Caudwell’s first love. Yet in Illusion and Reality he frequently branches out to mention other cultural forms: music, dance, drama, and film.(2) The comments on film are theoretical and frustratingly brief, yet always provocative and never mechanical. By themselves they cannot stand as a cornerstone for a Marxist theory of film. Placed, however, in the context of his general views on culture and particularly literature, his comments form a springboard for other Marxist film theoreticians.

Unlike more mechanical Marxist writers, Caudwell approaches art neither as primarily a reflection of historical reality nor as a mere vehicle for expressing the author’s class perspective. Rather, for Caudwell art is ultimately an instrument in social production. For Caudwell as for Marx, it is the act of social production which makes humans human, non-animal. Art thus is guaranteed its place as a necessary feature of human social life. Science serves this same end of fostering social production and is likewise necessary. Science, however, operates more in the realm of cognition, while art operates primarily in the realm of emotion. Poetry seems to operate more directly on the emotions, while the novel in its more literal representation of social relations contains somewhat more of the reflective, cognitive, or as Caudwell calls it, “referential” element.

Yet in each case, art serves ultimately to direct the participant’s subjective life toward social production. Art achieves this end by creating an “illusion” of reality which many people can participate in together. It draws out what is common in people’s socially formed, yet idiosyncratically experienced thoughts and emotions. Caudwell seems to suggest that the poem is more effective than the novel in ensuring this collective response. In any case Caudwell is insistent (see particularly his essay on D.H. Lawrence in Studies on a Dying Culture) that there is no area of consciousness or the unconscious, no area of thought or feeling, that is asocial as Freud and Lawrence believe. Both areas are repositories and transformers of one’s social, historical experience. Thus art’s effect in focusing common responses can be profound. Art can be a powerful instrument in encouraging social cooperation, social production.

Caudwell recognizes, however, that in a class society all art is class art, or, the life experiences of people and their interests are class specific. The shared pool of experience and thus art’s potential reach is limited. This brings up the question of which art is “good” art. For Caudwell art which encourages cooperation in the revolutionary class in any era is the period’s progressive art. Only art that can help people move forward in human social evolution is the art that can free people. For as Caudwell reminds us through Hegel,

“Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.”

In his essay “Liberty” Caudwell examines the idea that freedom is the consciousness of one’s potential efficacy in the context of the larger forces that make up historical process. Art from the revolutionary class is the only art which can squarely face this process.

Other art, rooted in the perspective of the dying class, cannot reflect necessity accurately because such a recognition would invalidate that class’s position. Thus this reactionary art cannot be liberating art, art which fulfills its raison d'etre as promoter of cooperation in the further evolution of human society. This art rather promotes a false consciousness. Caudwell observes that artists of the late capitalist period (capitalism is the only class society Caudwell examines) who retain the view of the now dying class, the bourgeoisie, do suffer intensely because of their false consciousness. At once they rebel against the alienating and dehumanizing effects of capitalism (art is humanistic by nature), yet seek only individualistic retreats from society. This is because the dominant characteristic of bourgeois consciousness is individualism. Throughout his works Caudwell refers to individualism as the “bourgeois illusion” that the subject, the human, can separate himself or herself from the object, or social process.

The question posed above has not, however, yet been answered: Where is the “good” art of the present? For Caudwell this is a sticky question, one that he does not answer to the satisfaction of many Marxists today. For while he recognizes that only proletarian art now can be liberating art, and while he theoretically accords art an important role in social change, he hardly discusses progressive tendencies in existing art that the proletariat is involved in. Rather he seems to despair of its capability as “good” effective art until the revolution has already been won. Caudwell examines only artists who retain strong ideological ties with the bourgeoisie—the proclaimed major artists in the British tradition.

It seems as if his writings were primarily addressed to these bourgeois artists in the hope of getting them to change sides—not to proletarian artists seeking a tradition. This is presumably because he feels bourgeois artists have a sensitivity and technique lacking in proletarian artists (or artists who address the proletariat) of today. Caudwell categorizes most contemporary art as “high” or “low brow” art, where bourgeois or “high brow” art is refined and artistic, and “low brow” art is escapist and trashy, art only “for the proletariat.” For Caudwell “low brow” art is less significant as art than bourgeois art. To him, such popular art is only an expression of the poverty of the proletarian intellectual and emotional life that helps to perpetuate that poverty. “High brow” art, on the other hand, is more sensitive to thought and feeling, and more technically innovative, and so offers something worth saving for socialism.

It is in the passage describing the characteristics of “low brow” art that Caudwell makes one of his few references to film and particularly to popular films. Caudwell observes that mass production art helps

...enforce a dead level of mediocrity.. art’s role is now that of adapting the multitude to the dead mechanical existence of capitalist production, in which work sucks them of their vital energies without awakening their instincts [or potentialities], where leisure becomes a time to deaden the mind with the easy phantasy of films, simple wish-fulfillment writing, or music that is mere emotional message ... Immense technical resources and steady debasement and stereotyping of the human psyche are characteristics alike of factory production and factory art in this stage of capitalism ... The modern thriller, love story, cowboy romance, cheap film, jazz music or yellow Sunday paper form the real “proletarian” literature of today—that is, literature which is the characteristic accompaniment of the misery and instinctual poverty produced in the majority of people by modern capitalist production. It is literature which proletarianizes the writer. It is at once an expression of real misery and a protest against that real misery. This art, universal, constant, fabulous, full of the easy gratifications of instincts starved by modern capitalism, peopled by passionate lovers and heroic cowboys and amazing detectives, is the religion of today, as characteristic an expression of proletarian exploitation as Catholicism is of feudal exploitation. It is the opium of the people; it pictures an inverted world because the world of society is inverted. High-brow” bourgeois art grows on the bourgeois class’s freedom. “Low-brow” proletarian art grows on the proletariat’s unfreedom, and helps, by its massage of the starved revolting instincts, to maintain that unfreedom in being. Because it is mere massage, because it helps to maintain man [sic] in unfreedom and not to express his [sic] spontaneous creation, because of that, it is bad art. Yet it is an art which is far more really characteristic, which plays a far more important and all-pervasive role in bourgeois society than, for example, the art of James Joyce.” (pp. 197-98)

This mass art Caudwell describes characteristically reproduces alienation and false consciousness by providing only escape, only a vent for “starved” desires—not a vision for the solution of problems. Presumably Caudwell would include with the “easy phantasy” of the opiate film (the detective, cowboy, and sentimental films of the forties and fifties) the more recent cult of violence films. Just as earlier films play on people’s need for ingenuity, heroism and passion, so the modern violence films play on people’s desperate need for power in a system where war, genocide, crime, police brutality, unemployment, and a higher rate of exploitation have become commonplace.

What kind of films, then, would Caudwell assess as being good art? Seemingly he would gravitate toward “high brow” bourgeois films rather than “low brow” ones. Of course he would not find “high brow” films wholly acceptable, even as he finds the vision embodied in “high brow” literature deeply flawed by bourgeois illusion. In the passage quoted above, it is true, Caudwell seems to contradict his general theory of art outlined earlier as he speaks of “high brow” bourgeois films growing on the “freedom” of the bourgeoisie. This suggests perhaps that the artists who address this class are still capable of producing films which reflect reality accurately, thereby fostering the freedom of the bourgeoisie. To achieve consistency with his general theory, however, we must interpret “freedom” here as the bourgeois illusion of freedom, a consciousness fostered by their wealth and power that individual retreat is possible. Thus we would have to extrapolate that Caudwell does not see “high brow” art films of today as liberating films.

While Caudwell would certainly have studied Bergman even as he studied Joyce—for technique and sensitive, unsentimental, and critical depiction of human interaction—he would undoubtedly find Bergman’s films limited and ultimately bourgeois. Even as Caudwell criticizes writers such as Joyce and Eliot for their individualist and idealist perspective, so he would undoubtedly find films like CRIES AND WHISPERS and SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE a reaffirmation of the bourgeois vision of the limitation and temporality in contact and commitment among humans. In the case of Bergman, however much contact is urged, whether it be responding to the cries and whispers or continuing human relationships throughout life, the cause of alienation which limits contact is not located in historical and materialist social forces. Anna’s isolation from heterosexual relationships and possibly even her religiosity, rather than her proletarian history, are the only reasons offered for her emotional responsiveness. Likewise, the difficulties in communication between husband and wife in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE are presented as aspects of male and female patterns of behavior rather than as a consequence of a petty bourgeois alienation that would encourage the development of such patterns. Caudwell would undoubtedly find in filmmakers such as Bergman another example of the bourgeois artist who recognizes the ossification and alienation of the society yet who is not able to recognize the transforming and cleansing power lying dormant in the proletariat. Such artists develop an attitude of despair or moralism but do not advocate class struggle.

But is Caudwell’s preference for “high brow” over “low brow,” more highly commercialized films politically acceptable? Aren't there trashy, escapist films in the “high brow” camp? What about the technical excellence of some “low brow” films? What about Charlie Chaplin, or Hitchcock? Where would Caudwell rank them? Presumably they are “low brow” and commercial, but clearly these films do not enforce a “dead level of mediocrity.” Caudwell’s categories of “high” and “low” brow for art which is not overtly revolutionary are clearly of dubious utility and would probably better be scrapped. Caudwell is too easy on the degeneracy of the bourgeoisie and too elitist in his idea of what appeals to proletarian tastes.

As mentioned above, Caudwell does not spend much time discussing existing genuine, liberating proletarian art. He hints briefly that the Russian filmmakers are beginning to show us both the extent of our alienation and a way out of it. Presumably he is referring to people like Eisenstein. Were he living, Caudwell would undoubtedly have much to praise in directors such as Humberto Solas and Pontecorvo, who show us proletarian revolutionary struggle as historically necessary and positive.

The summary and extrapolation above of Caudwell’s views on class art and class film—his scrapping of mass art, his failure to discuss revolutionary proletarian artists—is characteristic of a strong trend particularly in European Marxism. It is also probably a consequence of Caudwell’s living at a time when socialist revolution and flourishing socialist art to inspire the rest of us was not the world-wide phenomenon it now is. Caudwell’s narrow focus on “high brow” culture does not hold interest for us except as an historical phenomenon and as an example of a perspective we shouldn't adopt. Nor is Caudwell useful in providing observations on how to make revolutionary films (as is Eisenstein for example). Caudwell’s more original and positive contributions to a Marxist theory of film lie elsewhere: in his theoretical comments on some basic generic features of film.

Caudwell already perceived in his time that, like drama, film as “starring” vehicle would remain with capitalism. He could not, of course, imagine the extent to which this hero/heroine worship would be carried. Yet Caudwell makes an important distinction between drama and film in this respect. This distinction does not lead him quite into Lenin’s estimation that cinema is the most important of all arts for socialism, but it at least leads him to estimate that film would be the more appropriate of the two forms for a collective society. Dance, drama, and film, Caudwell maintains, are all related forms in that they are mixed in their effect. Like the novel, they are symbolic forms. That is, they tend to refer us immediately out toward the world of external social relations. Yet, like music and poetry, they also contain a non-symbolic dimension, encouraging us to remain more within the medium. That is, they focus us toward our inner, emotional world, where social relations appear in a ““refracted, masked state. Just as the sounds of music or the carefully selected words of poetry do not direct us immediately toward a moving social reality beyond the music or the words, so the human dancer or actor keeps us riveted on himself or herself. A tension thus emerges in these forms between the non-symbolic and symbolic dimensions. The person mimicking, the vehicle of the non-symbolic dimension, conflicts with the director, the one who forces attention on the thing mimicked, the symbolic dimension.

Such a tension, Caudwell affirms, can be successfully overcome only in film

“where the mechanical flexibility of the camera makes the cast wax in a good producer’s [sic, director’s] hands.” (p. 255)

The egoism of the actors and actresses, their tendency to emphasize the non-symbolic side, or said another way, their individualistic attitudes, can be more easily contained by the director’s moving the camera from static close up to other characters, to larger events. Such flexibility, such ability to restrain individualism means that film is therefore a more appropriate form for a collective society. In fact, Caudwell feels film’s potentiality as a form can only be fully explored when freed from reflecting the fragmentation and individualism of our society, epitomized in the star system. This does not mean that individuality of character will cease in a collective society, as Caudwell is careful to note. Rather, individuality can be “given more elaborate and deeper meaning because it will be a collective meaning,” (p. 296) as directors more effectively create a sense of human interdependency through the flexibility of the camera than can the dramatist. Caudwell is not saying here that drama will disappear with socialism, for under socialism the individual actor or actress will develop a less individualistic consciousness. But film, for Caudwell, seems the higher socialist art form because it can achieve this sense of individuality through collectivity in a “richly powerful and more flexible form.” (p. 296)

There seems to be, however, another reason why Caudwell finds film a highly appropriate art form for socialism. Caudwell observes that dance, drama, and film fall into the category of “temporal arts,” those arts which reflect various individual actors and actresses “crisscrossing” in time. (p. 254) All these forms developed their present character under capitalism, which intensified the division of labor to create highly differentiated people. The novel, Caudwell asserts elsewhere, likewise reflects various individuated humans interacting in time. While socialism certainly works to remove the alienating division of labor of a class society, it nevertheless seeks to encourage individual development. These art forms, shorn of their individualist aspects, would thus have a strong support under socialism.

Yet perhaps there is an even more special suitability of film for socialism than Caudwell suggests above. It may not be insignificant that film and the novel are the forms born in capitalist social relations. Insofar as socialism builds upon certain aspects of these relations, perhaps there are qualities in these two forms alone which make them especially suitable for socialism. When contrasting the novel with the poem, Caudwell intimates at least one aspect of the novel that would make it a crucial form for socialism. Perhaps his observation could be applied to film too. Caudwell observes that capitalism produces the notion of “life as process, as dialectic” (p. 205) and that the novel embodies this consciousness in its form in contrast to the poem.

Caudwell here seems to be fumbling toward the kind of more extensive and more powerful explanation formulated by Lukács some years earlier in History and Class Consciousness, Lukács observes that capitalism is the first fully “social” society, the first mode of production to break down every artificial barrier of religion, caste, or race to draw all areas of life and all peoples into its all-penetrating nature.(3) This, of course, flows from its expansive, commodity-dominated character. Such a fully social society means that people are for the first time in history able to see that they, and not some supernatural force, make history and themselves. Thus emerges the notion of life as dialectical process between human and environment, the notion of evolution. Thus emerges a qualitatively new kind of incursion of the time element into human consciousness and art. Socialism, of course, transforms the alienating effects of this social society created by private ownership, eventually creating in communism a society where all humans will be fully conscious of their role in making history and themselves, and not thwarted by the exigencies of class.

If Caudwell were to adopt this fuller description and explanation for capitalist and communist consciousness, he would have to show how the novel and film actually reflect this consciousness in their forms. Do these forms alone communicate a sense of life as dialectical process? How is this different from the sense of time passing created by dance and drama, forms born long before capitalism? These questions need answering to establish film as a dominant, crucial form under socialism.

As do all critics of Caudwell, I can only reiterate regret over his untimely death. Ideas such as those analyzed above are incomplete and too abstract. Yet these ideas are nevertheless highly provocative. Particularly important is Caudwell’s concept of film’s greater potentiality than drama as a collective form in terms of film’s ability to combat egoism and present the individual more flexibly in a collective context. In addition, his observation on film’s projection of individuated lives interacting and changing in time suggests film’s eminent suitability for a socialist society which encourages diversity among individuals. More especially, one wonders if, like the novel, the other form born in capitalism, film reflects a consciousness of life as dialectical process—a consciousness which Lukaçs explains emerges only with capitalism to become dominant under socialism. If so, both these forms, transformed of course, will become major art forms in socialist society. Caudwell’s suggestions concerning the relation between genre and social relations and the questions they raise should surely be stimulating of further work.


1. Following scattered introductory essays and dissertations on him over the years (the best of these is Stanley Edgar Hyman’s essay appearing in the hardbound edition of The Armed Vision), in 1967 David Margolies published the only book thus far on Caudwell, The Functions of Literature, in which he compares Caudwell’s views of literature’s function with those of George Plekhanov. Two recent dissertations continue raising the level of scrutiny of Caudwell. Francis Mulhern’s dissertation (a portion of which appears as “Caudwell’s Literary Theory” in New Left Review, 35, May-June 1974, 39-57) examines from a Marxist perspective some of Caudwell’s theoretical weaknesses. My own dissertation (“Christopher Caudwell: The Genesis and Function of Literary Form,” University of Connecticut 1976) studies Caudwell’s views on literary form as they contribute to a Marxist approach to the meaning of genre.

2. Christopher Caudwell, Illusion and Reality (New York: International, 1937). Page numbers in text refer to this book.

3. See George Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge: M.I.T., 1968). pp. 55-59.