Christopher St John Sprigg (Caudwell), the son of a journalist, was born in Putney in 1907. A Roman Catholic, his sister became a nun. After leaving school at the age of 15, he worked as a reporter on The Yorkshire Observer before launching his own journal, Aircraft Engineering.
Caudwell joined the Communist Party of Great Britain after reading the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in 1934. He wrote that: "The eating disintegration of the slump. Nazism outpouring a flood of barbarism and horror. And what next? Armaments piling up like an accumulating catastrophe, mass neurosis, nations like mad dogs. All this seems gratuitous, horrible, cosmic to such people, unaware of the causes. How can the bourgeois still pretend to be free, to find salvation individually? Only by sinking himself in still cruder illusions, by denying art, science, emotion, even ultimately life itself. Humanism, the creation of bourgeois culture, finally separates from it. Against the sky stands Capitalism without a rag to cover it, naked in its terror. And humanism, leaving it, or rather, forcibly thrust aside, must either pass into the ranks of the proletariat or, going quietly into a corner, cut its throat."
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Communist Party of Great Britain helped establish the International Brigades. Caudwell volunteered to go to Spain to defend the Popular Front government.
After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on 11th February, 1937.
General José Miaja sent three International Brigades including the Dimitrov Battalion and the British Battalion to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. Jason Gurney pointed out in his book, Crusade in Spain (1974): "I got back to Wintringham's HQ and relayed the Brigadier's orders. Runners were sent out to 1, 3 and 4 Companies to order the advance. I went up to No. 2 Company's trench to observe their movement and report back. William Briskey's No. 3 Company on the Casa Blanca hill was the first to move down the hill from its summit, followed shortly after by No. 1 Company under Kit Conway."
William Rust, the author of Britons in Spain (1939) remarked: "Even the bravest would have shuddered as they took up position in the morning, had they known what the day had in store for them." Caudwell and his friend, Clem Beckett, took control of a Charcot light machine-gun. On 12th February, 1937, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. Hugh Thomas, the author of The Spanish Civil War (1961) has commented: "A mere two hundred and twenty-five out of the original six hundred members of the British Battalion were left at the end of the day." Caudwell's friend, George Sinfield, later pointed out: "Clem and Chris were posted at a vital point. They faced innumerable odds: artillery, planes, and howling Moors throwing hand-grenades. Their section was ordered to retire. Clem and Chris kept their machine-gun trained on the advancing fascists, as a cover to the retreat. The advance was halted, but Clem and Chris... lost their lives."
Several books by Christopher Caudwell were published after his death. This included Illusion and Reality (1937), Studies in a Dying Culture (1938), The Crisis in Physics (1939) and Poems (1939).
(1) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)
Three weeks before his death Christopher Caudwell asked his CPGB branch "to raise money" so that, among other things, he and his comrades could receive "Left books and periodicals, however few." In the spring of 1937 Wally Tapsell, the able, tough cockney commissar, who was one of the four battalion commissars educated at the Lenin School, asked Harry Pollitt to send the Battalion ioo copies of the monthly selection." A few weeks later George Aitken, the brigade commissar, wrote to Pollitt, requesting him to "be sure and get Left Book to send all publications." Gollancz's brilliant creation made it possible for both middle-class and proletarian "thinkers" to find a common intellectual ground in Spain as well as Great Britain.
(2) Christopher Caudwell, Pacifism and Violence (1938)
There is not much left of importance in bourgeois ethics. Chastity, sobriety, salvation and cleanliness have ceased to be topics on which the bourgeois feels very deeply. There is, in fact, only one issue on which the bourgeois conscience is to-day warmed into activity. Pacifism, always latent in the bourgeois creed, has now crystallised out as almost the only emotionally-charged belief left in Protestant Christianity or in its analogue, bourgeois ‘idealism’.
I call it a distinctively bourgeois doctrine, because I mean by pacifism, not the love of peace as a good to be secured by a definite form of action, but the belief that any form of social constraint of others or any violent action is in itself wrong, and that violence such as war must be passively resisted because to use violence to end violence would be logically self-contradictory. I oppose pacifism in this sense to the Communist belief that the only way to secure peace is by a revolutionary change in the social system, and that ruling classes resist revolution violently and must therefore be overthrown by force.
But modern war is also distinctively bourgeois. Struggles such as the last war arise from the unequal Imperialist development of the bourgeois powers, and earlier wars of bourgeois culture were also fought for aims characteristic of bourgeois economy or, like the wars of the infant Dutch republic, represented the struggles of the growing bourgeois class against feudal forces. In its last stage of Fascism, when capitalism, throwing off the democratic forms which no longer serve its purpose, rules with open violence, bourgeois culture is also seen as aggressively militant. Are we Marxists then simply using labels indiscriminately when we class as characteristically bourgeois, both militancy and pacifism, meekness and violence?
No, we are not doing so, if we can show that we call bourgeois not all war and not all pacifism but only certain types of violence, and only certain types of non-violence; and if, further, we can show how the one fundamental bourgeois position generates both these apparently opposed viewpoints. We did the same thing when we showed that two philosophies which are apparently completely opposed – mechanical materialism and idealism – were both characteristically bourgeois, and both generated by the one bourgeois assumption.
Bourgeois pacifism is distinctive and should not be confused, for example, with Eastern pacifism, any more than modern European warfare should be confused with feudal warfare. It is not merely that the social manifestations of it are different – this would necessarily arise from the different social organs of the two cultures. But the content also is different. Anyone who supposes that bourgeois pacifism will, for example, take the form of a University Anti-War Group lying down on the rails in front of a departing troop train like an Indian pacifist group, is to be ignorant of the nature of bourgeois pacifism and of whence it took its colour. The historic example of bourgeois pacifism is not Gandhi but Fox. The Society of Friends expresses the spirit of bourgeois pacifism. It is individual resistance.
To understand how bourgeois pacifism arises, we must understand how bourgeois violence arises. It arises, just as does feudal or despotic violence, from the characteristic economy of the system. As was first explained by Marx, the characteristics of bourgeois economy are that the bourgeois, held down and crippled productively by the feudal system, comes to see freedom and productive growth in lack of social organisation, in every man’s administering his own affairs for his own benefit to the best of his ability and desire, and this is expressed in the absolute character of bourgeois property together with its complete alienability. His struggle to achieve this right did secure his greater freedom and productive power as compared with his position in the feudal system. The circumstances of the struggle and its outcome gave rise to the bourgeois dream – freedom as the absolute elimination of social relations.
(3) Christopher Caudwell, Studies in a Dying Culture (1938)
The War at last survived, there came new horrors. The eating disintegration of the slump. Nazism outpouring a flood of barbarism and horror. And what next? Armaments piling up like an accumulating catastrophe, mass neurosis, nations like mad dogs. All this seems gratuitous, horrible, cosmic to such people, unaware of the causes. How can the bourgeois still pretend to be free, to find salvation individually? Only by sinking himself in still cruder illusions, by denying art, science, emotion, even ultimately life itself. Humanism, the creation of bourgeois culture, finally separates from it. Against the sky stands Capitalism without a rag to cover it, naked in its terror. And humanism, leaving it, or rather, forcibly thrust aside, must either pass into the ranks of the proletariat or, going quietly into a corner, cut its throat.
(4) Christopher Caudwell, Liberty (1938)
Many will have heard a broadcast by H. G. Wells in which (commenting on the Soviet Union) he described it as a “great experiment which has but half fulfilled its promise,” it is still a “land without mental freedom.” There are also many essays of Bertrand Russell in which this philosopher explains the importance of liberty, how the enjoyment of liberty is the highest and most important goal of man. Fisher claims that the history of Europe during the last two or three centuries is simply the struggle for liberty. Continually and variously by artists, scientists, and philosophers alike, liberty is thus praised and man’s right to enjoy it imperiously asserted.
I agree with this. Liberty does seem to me the most important of all generalised goods – such as justice, beauty, truth – that come so easily to our lips. And yet when freedom is discussed a strange thing is to be noticed. These men – artists, careful of words, scientists, investigators of the entities denoted by words, philosophers scrupulous about the relations between words and entities – never define precisely what they mean by freedom. They seem to assume that it is quite a clear concept, whose definition every one would agree about.
Yet who does not know that liberty is a concept about whose nature men have quarrelled perhaps more than any other? The historic disputes concerning predestination, Karma, Free-Will, Moira, salvation by faith or works, determinism, Fate, Kismet, the categorical imperative, sufficient grace, occasionalism, Divine Providence, punishment and responsibility, have all been about the nature of man’s freedom of will and action. The Greeks, the Romans, the Buddhists, the Mahomedans, the Catholics, the Jansenists, and the Calvinists, have each had different ideas of liberty. Why, then, do all these bourgeois intellectuals assume that liberty is a clear concept, understood in the same way by all their hearers, and therefore needing no definition? Russell, for example, has spent his life finding a really satisfactory definition of number and even now it is disputed whether he has been successful. I can find in his writings no clear definition of what he means by liberty. Yet most people would have supposed that men are far more in agreement as to what is meant by a number, than what is meant by liberty.
The indefinite use of the word can only mean either that they believe the meaning of the word invariant in history or that they use it in the contemporary bourgeois sense. If they believe the meaning invariant, it is strange that men have disputed so often about freedom. These intellectuals must surely be incapable of such a blunder. They must mean liberty as men in their situation experience it. That is, they must mean by liberty to have no more restrictions imposed upon them than they endure at that time. They do not – these Oxford dons or successful writers – want, for example, the restrictions of Fascism, that is quite clear. That would not be liberty. But at present, thank God, they are reasonably free.
(5) Christopher Caudwell, Hymn to Philosophy (1937)
I saw your figure in a Grecian mode:
A stripling with the quiet wings of death,
Touching with your long fingers a marble lyre.
I was impressed by your immortal age,
I was seduced by your adventurous strength,
I was relieved by your polite reserve.
A winged Idea down the rainbow sliding,
With steady steps treading the smoky air,
All ranks you visit, courteous swamp-foul.
The world's great engines pound asthmatically
Fed through Time's recurrences.
Man walks to man across a trembling swamp.
The scientific sportsman lifts his gun;
The second barrel blasts your blue pin-feathers
And you fall spluttering, a specific bird.
I see your stuffed breast and boot-button eyes
Preserved in cases for posterity
And lean on my umbrella thoughtfully.
I have caressed your sort, I must confess,
But give me beauty, beauty that must end
And rots upon the taxidermist's hands.