Socialism and the Intellectuals: A Confession of Impotence
The Fabian Society have just issued Tract No. 304. It is by Kingsley Amis and is entitled Socialism and the Intellectuals. On the inside of the cover we are told that he is “a poet, novelist, literary critic and lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea. Author of the widely-acclaimed and best-selling Lucky Jim” Having read this we rubbed our eyes and looked at the title again, but right enough it was Socialism and the Intellectuals.
That the Fabian Society should have thought that this statement of Mr. Amis’ qualification was a reason for giving weight to his pronouncements in a field quite foreign to him is an example of how foreign the field is to the futile Fabian Society—futile as far as understanding and changing the present basis of society is concerned.
We asked ourselves why on earth was a man with the qualifications mentioned straying into a field that must be practically unknown territory to him? We read the opening sentences of the pamphlet and were still more bewildered, for this is how he begins: “As will soon become obvious from what I have to say, I am not a politician, nor am I specially well informed about politics.” After reading the pamphlet we came to the conclusion that the last phrase was too modest; he obviously is not informed at all! As he puts it on page 10: “The intelligentsia—and once more I include myself—doesn’t understand economics.” However, this does not prevent him from saying what should and should not be done! Nor does it prevent him from adopting the patronising attitude that is typical of his kind.
In spite of the title there is not a word of explanation of Socialism in the whole pamphlet, though the word is used a few times. The inference we gather from his remarks is that Socialism is what the Labour Party stands for, and Marxism is what the Russian State stands for.
Before he comes to a definition of the Intelligentsia Mr. Amis has some illuminating remarks to make on himself. He tells us that his father was an “office worker” and “I grew up in a modest but comfortable lower middle-class house in the London suburbs.” Here one can find the outlook of the man laid bare. He could not say “working class,” it would have stuck in his priggish throat. He was a scholarship boy at a London day school “and, also on a scholarship, studied English at one of the less pretentious Oxford colleges.” How beautifully indefinite and smug this is. In other words his father depended upon the sale of his labour power in an office, at what job we don’t know, in order to obtain the means to live and keep his family. We gather that Mr. Amis also depends for his livelihood upon the sale of his labour power in order to live, in spite of the scholarships. But the thought of identifying himself with the working class, of which in fact he is a member is abhorrent to him, just as it is abhorrent to his fellow so-called intellectuals.
Here is how he defines the Intellectual:
“I want to make a few distinctions and definitions. I take as my general field of reference the middle-class intellectual, using the phrase in a pretty wide sense. One could reel off a fairly long list of the occupations pursued by the kind of people I am discussing, and this may be helpful in attaining some sort of precision. 1 mean occupations like those university, college and school teachers, perhaps the lower ranks of the civil service, journalists, industrial scientists, librarians, G.P.’s, some of the clergy (predominantly the non-conformist sects?) and the various brands of literary and artistic, or arty intellectual.” (Page 2.)
There you have it. It will be seen that the groups he mentions all depend for a livelihood upon selling their mental and physical energies, just as John Smith the mechanic does, or Bill Jones, the fish porter. In fact they are all members of the working class. But this prosaic fact would take the self-imposed gilt off the scholarship boy produced by the “lower middle class.” A pity he didn’t go further in his precision. We would be interested to know what group he would designate as the “middle middle-class” and the “upper middle-class.”
All through the pamphlet Mr. Amis sets his group apart from the rest of society as a group that has no interest to defend. This is how he puts it on page 6:
“Anyway, by his station in society the member of the intelligentsia really has no political interests to defend, except the very general one (the one he most often forgets) of not finding himself bossed around by a totalitarian government. But compared with, say, a steelworker or a banker, he is politically in a void. Furthermore, he belongs to no social group which might lend him stability.”
This is the sort of rubbish that comes from the attitude of superiority; an attitude that has belonged to the Fabian Society from its inception. How does Mr. Amis think the teachers have reached their present status except by the struggles of the past? And how do they get their jobs except by setting forth their qualifications to their employers and hoping they will be the applicants chosen? In other words they act in a similar way to that of other members of the working class, and if they don’t come up to the required standard they get the sack—pardon us Mr. Amis—are asked to resign! Teachers, civil servants, etc., have “no interests to defend” and yet, like other members of the working class, they strike, or threaten to strike, for higher pay or better conditions, or to resist a worsening of conditions, even the G.P.’s are in that position at the moment.
Here are some specimens of the political outlook of Mr. Amis:
“Marxism, however, has a second attraction not offered by the Church: It involves violence.” (Page 6.)
There is no evidence offered for this nonsensical view. In his ignorance Mr. Amis apparently blindly accepts Russian Communism as Marxist without investigation.
“One feels that a progressive party should have this reform [reform of the laws relating to homosexuality] on its programme.” (Page 10.)
This gives an idea of the kind of question that looms large in Mr. Amis’s intellectual mind.
“Until very recently there has been only one political issue of anything like the same proportions and of the same kind as the Abyssinias and the Spains of the Thirties: I mean, of course, Cyprus. There, at any rate, is something which potentially unites the romantic with the practical man. But what gets done about it? Compare what does get done about it with what would have got done about it in the Thirties.” (Page 11.)
We have compared, and, in both cases found the answer to be—nothing that fundamentally matters! Of course there has been an issue of political importance, both then and now, that reduces the ones he mentions to insignificance, but Mr. Amis hasn’t seen it. That issue is the ownership of the means of production by a privileged section of society which compels the mass of society to occupy a subject position beset by insecurity and want of the means to live a comfortable care-free life.
Here is a specimen of his idea of what moves some of his fellow intellectuals to action:
“Violence has a good deal of charm for some sections of the intelligentsia (as the cult of bullfighting shows) or, at any rate, the thought of violence is attractive. It provides a way of getting one’s own back by proxy on one’s parents and one’s old headmaster; one can work off the guilt of having been to a public school, and so on, by chatting about blowing up the class one was born into; one can compensate with some dash for one’s thwarted desire for power, which is often obversive in these circles. Quite soon it becomes natural to write airily about political murders and read about them with appreciation.” (Page 6.)
We presume that Mr. Amis knows what he is talking about as he is referring to members of a group to which he keeps insisting he belongs. However, if the idea were not so absurd, and if we were not convinced he was romancing, we would be inclined to ask: “What kind of lunatics are these who masquerade as intellectuals?”
Now let us give a final quotation:
“I may have shown a certain animus towards Orwell, and I have not had occasion to do more than mention some of his many fine qualities. But animus remains, and the reason for it is this. He was the man above all others who was qualified to become the candid friend the Labour Party needed so much in the years after I945. But what he did was to become a right wing propagandist by negation, or, at any rate, a supremely powerful—though unconscious—advocate of political quietism.” (Page 8.)
This seems to sum up the real reason for writing the pamphlet—to express his spleen against those of his fellow “intellectuals,” like Orwell, Auden, Koestler, Spender, and Day Lewis, whom he felt had let him down. On the other hand, of course, it may have been to “work off the guilt of having been to a public school!”
For the rest Mr. Amis’s pamphlet has no value as a contribution to clearing the vision on the cause of social subjection and its removal. He evidently has no glimmering of the answers. What he has done is taken the opportunity to jibe at those of his fellow “intellectuals” who have deserted the Labour Party, make the usual clever remarks of this kind, and, with his tongue in his cheek, lump himself in with his impotent fellows. He displays the usual impudence of his fellows in straying into a field of which he is ignorant and giving his patronising opinions. If he had looked at facts instead of stratifying groups he might have got somewhere.
There is something about Left and Right wings in the pamphlet. Mr. Amis should take to his wings, fly out of discussions that are out of his depth, and get back to “best sellers.”