From the April 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Book Review from the March 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Narratives of British Socialism. By Stephen Ingle. Palgrave MacMillan, 2002
‘Narratives of British Socialism’ is an attempt by a layman to demonstrate the meaning and value of literary criticism to an untypical audience. The author is himself a political scientist, writing for students of political science, and trying to justify why they should make a serious study of the realm of ephemera, fairy-dust and make-believe.
Coming from without the paid-up priesthood of literature in the universities, Stephen Ingle bravely adheres to the unfashionable view of the value of literature lying in its capacity to grasp truth. It has certainly been a long time since literary realism was held in any esteem by the hooded minions of cloistered academe, so caught up are they in the contortions of their own cleverness which they seek to find reflected in the works they read. This text instead betrays the discipline and attention required of a practical breathing social science.
That said, it does also rely on the infamous ‘test of time’ for assessing the merit of works for consideration: a test that objectifies the work, and conceals the social and critical responses to it that enabled it to survive the Darwinian war of belle lettre against belle lettre. The test of time necessarily means suspending judgement on the contemporary, rather than being able to assess and enjoy the fray.
This is indicative of the character of the criticism within the work. It is far more a conspectus of canonical leftist writers than a deeply critical excursion into their works, and certain interpretations of works considered are highly debatable - for instance ignoring the contempt with which Orwell dealt with the proletarian characters in Animal Farm and 1984, or the way those works also dealt with contemporary Britain as well as foreign totalitarianism.
As a conspectus, though, it provides an invaluable list of authors, Wells, Tressell, Shaw, Orwell, etc. who made up the pantheon of left-wing authors. In this, even if it does not compete with the flair of such professional critics as Žižek - who claims that Bond movies are the greatest example of Socialist (Stalinist) Realist film making - it achieves its aims of opening such literature to new students.
Its critical short-comings, in this context, represent a strength, opening up the debate for the student to follow on their own rather than being awed by the cleverness of the author. The discussion ends with an examination of the weight such literary reading still carries in the workers’ movement. In a strictly practical manner this is assessed through a history of surveys of Labour MP’s, which shows the decline of reading of certain authors - or, indeed, in general, among the younger generation of politicians.
The ending of the book is dismal, with its noting on the lack of a contemporary literary mode of coalescing the vision of the workers movement, and the lack of consequent inspiration in leftist politics. We can hope this is just leftism having run its course, and a new genuinely socialist vision will emerge soon to fill the void.