The Proletarian Writer

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Hawkins I have always doubted if there is such a thing as proletarian literature — or ever could be.[1] The first question is what people mean by it. What do you mean by it? You would expect it to mean literature written specifically for the proletariat, and read by them, but does it?

Orwell No, obviously not. In that case the most definitely proletarian literature would be some of our morning papers. But you can see by the existence of publications like New Writing, or the Unity Theatre, for instance, that the term has a sort of meaning, though unfortunately there are several different ideas mixed up in it. What people mean by it, roughly speaking, is a literature in which the viewpoint of the working class, which is supposed to be completely different from that of the richer classes, gets a hearing. And that, of course, has got mixed up with Socialist propaganda. I don’t think the people who throw this expression about mean literature written by proletarians. W. H. Davies was a proletarian, but he would not be called a proletarian writer. Paul Potts would be called a proletarian writer, but he is not a proletarian. The reason why I am doubtful of the whole conception is that I don’t believe the proletariat can create an independent literature while they are not the dominant class. I believe that their literature is and must be bourgeois literature with a slightly different slant. After all, so much that is supposed to be new is simply the old standing on its head. The poems that were written about the Spanish Civil War, for instance, were simply a deflated version of the stuff that Rupert Brooke and Co. were writing in 1914.

Hawkins Still, I think one must admit that the cult of proletarian literature — whether the theory is right or not — has had some effect. Look at writers like James Hanley, for instance, or Jack Hilton, or Jack Common. They have something new to say — something at any rate that could not quite be said by anyone who had the ordinary middle-class upbringing. Of course there was a tremendous amount of cant about proletarian literature in the years after the Slump, when Bloomsbury went all Marxist, and Communism became fashionable. But the thing had really started earlier. I should say it started just before the last war, when Ford Madox Ford, the editor of the English Review, met D. H. Lawrence and saw in him the portent of a new class finding expression in literature. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers really did break new ground. It recorded a kind of experience that simply had not got into print before. And yet it was an experience that had been shared by millions of people. The question is why it had never been recorded earlier. Why would you say there had been no books like Sons and Lovers before that time?

Orwell I think it is simply a matter of education. After all, though Lawrence was the son of a coal miner he had had an education that was not very different from that of the middle class. He was a university graduate, remember. Before a certain date — roughly speaking, before the nineties, when the Education Act began to take effect — very few genuine proletarians could write: that is, write with enough facility to produce a book or a story. On the other hand the professional writers knew nothing about proletarian life. One feels this even with a really radical writer like Dickens. Dickens does not write about the working class; he does not know enough about them. He is for the working class, but he feels himself completely different from them — far more different than the average middle-class person would feel nowadays.

Hawkins Then, after all, the appearance of the proletariat as a class capable of producing books means a fresh development of literature — completely new subject-matter, and a new slant on life?

Orwell Yes, except in so far as the experience of all classes in society tends to become more and more alike. I maintain that the class distinctions in a country like England are now so unreal that they cannot last much longer. Fifty years ago or even twenty years ago a factory worker and a small professional man, for instance, were very different kinds of creature. Nowadays they are very much alike, though they may not realize it. They see the same films and listen to the same radio programmes, and they wear very similar clothes and live in very similar houses. What used to be called a proletarian — what Marx would have meant by a proletarian — only exists now in the heavy industries and on the land. All the same, there’s no doubt that it was a big step forward when the facts of working-class life were first got onto paper. I think it has done something to push fiction back towards realities and away from the over-civilized stuff that Galsworthy and so forth used to write. I think possibly the first book that did this was The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists; which has always seemed to me a wonderful book, although it is very clumsily written. It recorded things that were everyday experience but which simply had not been noticed before — just as, so it is said, no one before AD 1800 ever noticed that the sea was blue. And Jack London was another pioneer in the same line.

Hawkins And how about language and technique? Cyril Connolly, you may remember, said last week that the great innovations in literature have been made in technique rather than in content. As an example, he said that there is nothing new in Joyce except his technique. But surely these revolutionary proletarians have not shown much interest in technique? Some of them seem to be little different in manner from the pious moralizing lady novelists of the last century. Their revolt is entirely in content, in theme — is that so?

Orwell I think in the main that’s true. It’s a fact that written English is much more colloquial now than it was twenty years ago, and that’s all to the good. But we’ve borrowed much more from America than from the speech of the English working class. As for technique, one of the things that strikes one about the proletarian writers, or the people who are called proletarian writers, is how conservative they are. We might make an exception of Lionel Britton’s [2] Hunger and Love. But if you look through a volume of New Writing or the Left Review you won’t find many experiments.

Hawkins Then we come back to this: that what is called proletarian literature stands or falls by its subject-matter. The mystique behind these writers, I suppose, is the class war, the hope of a better future, the struggle of the working class against miserable living conditions.

Orwell Yes, proletarian literature is mainly a literature of revolt. It can’t help being so.

Hawkins And my quarrel with it has always been that it is too much dominated by political considerations. I believe politicians and artists do not go well together. The goal of a politician is always limited, partial, short-term, over-simplified. It has to be, to have any hope of realization. As a principle of action, it cannot afford to consider its own imperfections and the possible virtues of its opponents. It cannot afford to dwell on the pathos and the tragedy of all human endeavour. In short, it must exclude the very things that are valuable in art. Would you agree therefore that when proletarian literature becomes literature it ceases to be proletarian — in the political sense? Or that when it becomes propaganda it ceases to be literature?

Orwell I think that’s putting it too crudely. I have always maintained that every artist is a propagandist. I don’t mean a political propagandist. If he has any honesty or talent at all he cannot be that. Most political propaganda is a matter of telling lies, not only about the facts but about your own feelings. But every artist is a propagandist in the sense that he is trying, directly or indirectly, to impose a vision of life that seems to him desirable. I think we are broadly agreed about the vision of life that proletarian literature is trying to impose. As you said just now, the mystique behind it is the class war. That is something real; at any rate, it is something that is believed in. People will die for it as well as write about it. Quite a lot of people died for it in Spain. My point about proletarian literature is that though it has been important and useful so far as it went, it isn’t likely to be permanent or to be the beginning of a new age in literature. It is founded on the revolt against capitalism, and capitalism is disappearing. In a Socialist state, a lot of our left-wing writers — people like Edward Upward, Christopher Caudwell, Alec Brown, Arthur Calder-Marshall and all the rest of them — who have specialized in attacking the society they live in, would have nothing to attack. Just to revert for a moment to a book I mentioned above, Lionel Brittain’s Hunger and Love. This was an outstanding book and I think in a way it is representative of proletarian literature. Well, what is it about? It is about a young proletarian who wishes he wasn’t a proletarian. It simply goes on and on about the intolerable conditions of working-class life, the fact that the roof leaks and the sink smells and all the rest of it. Now, you couldn’t found a literature on the fact that the sink smells. As a convention it isn’t likely to last so long as the siege of Troy. And behind this book, and lots of others like it, you can see what is really the history of a proletarian writer nowadays. Through some accident — very often it is simply due to having a long period on the dole — a young man of the working class gets a chance to educate himself. Then he starts writing books, and naturally he makes use of his early experiences, his sufferings under poverty, his revolt against the existing system, and so forth. But he isn’t really creating an independent literature. He writes in the bourgeois manner, in the middle-class dialect. He is simply the black sheep of the bourgeois family, using the old methods for slightly different purposes. Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying that he can’t be as good a writer as anyone else; but if he is, it won’t be because he is a working man but because he is a talented person who has learnt to write well. So long as the bourgeoisie are the dominant class, literature must be bourgeois. But I don’t believe that they will be dominant much longer, or any other class either. I believe we are passing into a classless period, and what we call proletarian literature is one of the signs of the change. But I don’t deny for an instant the good that it has done — the vitalizing effect of getting working-class experience and working-class values on to paper.

Hawkins And, of course, as a positive gain, it has left behind quite a lot of good books.

Orwell Oh yes, lots. Jack London’s book The Road, Jack Hilton’s Caliban Shrieks, Jim Phelan’s prison books, George Garrett’s sea stories, Private Richards’s Old Soldier Sahib, James Hanley’s Grey Children — to name just a few.

Hawkins All this time we have said nothing about the literature that the proletariat does read — not so much the daily papers, but the weeklies, the twopennies.

Orwell Yes, I should say that the small weekly press is much more representative. Papers like Home Chat or the Exchange and Mart, and Cage-Birds, for instance.

Hawkins And the literature that really comes out of the people themselves — we have said nothing about that. Take, for instance, the camp-fire ballads of the men who built the Canadian Pacific Railway; the sea shanties; Negro poems like ‘Stagolee’; and the old street broadsheets — especially the ones about executions, the sort of thing that must have inspired Kipling’s ‘Danny Deever’. And epitaphs, limericks, advertisement jingles — sticking simply to poetry, those are the special literature of the proletariat, aren’t they?

Orwell Yes, and don’t forget the jokes on the comic coloured postcards, especially Donald McGill’s. I’m particularly attached to those. And above all the songs that the soldiers made up and sang for themselves in the last war. And the army songs for bugle calls and military marches — those are the real popular poetry of our time, like the ballads in the Middle Ages. It’s a pity they are always unprintable.[3]

Hawkins Yes, but I’m afraid now we are drifting into folk literature, and it seems to me that we must keep the two things distinct. From what you say I imagine that this word ‘proletarian’ is going to be quite meaningless if you detach it from revolutionary politics.

Orwell Yes, the term ‘proletariat’ is a political term belonging solely to the industrial age.

Hawkins Well, I think we are completely in agreement that the theory of a separate proletarian literature just doesn’t work. For all its apparent difference it comes within the framework of what you call bourgeois writing.

Orwell By ‘bourgeois’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ I don’t mean merely the people who buy and sell things. I mean the whole dominant culture of our time.

Hawkins If we agree about that, we have still got to assess the contribution that these so-called proletarian writers have made. Because it is a contribution and it would be absurd to pass that over in disposing of the theory.

Orwell I think they have made two kinds of contribution. One is that they have to some extent provided new subject-matter, which has also led other writers who are not of the working class to look at things which were under their noses, but not noticed, before. The other is that they have introduced a note of what you might call crudeness and vitality. They have been a sort of voice in the gallery, preventing people from becoming too toney and too civilized.

Hawkins And then there’s another contribution, which you yourself mentioned earlier, and that is language. T. S. Eliot stressed the importance of constantly drawing newly minted words into the language, and in recent years it is pre-eminently from the working class that new words and phrases have come. It may be from the film or the street or through any channel, but the proletarian writer deserves credit for giving modern English much of its raciness and colour.

Orwell Well, of course, the question is whether it has got much colour! But the thing you can say for the typical prose of the last ten years is that it has not got many frills or unnecessary adjectives. It’s plain. It is rather questionable whether the sort of prose that has developed in this way is suitable for expressing very subtle thoughts, but it is excellent for describing action, and it is a good antidote to the over-refined type of prose which used to be fashionable — very good in its way, of course, but tending to emasculate the language altogether.

Hawkins Well, to conclude — it looks as if the slogan of proletarian literature has made a nice rallying-point for some work that was well worth having and it has been a focus for working-class writers, whether they were revolutionary or not, either in technique or in politics or in subject. But the phrase itself as a critical term is virtually useless.

Orwell It has had a certain use as a label for a rather heterogeneous literature belonging to a transition period, but I do agree with you that for there to be what could really be called a proletarian literature the proletariat would have to be the dominant class.

Hawkins Yes, and in assuming that it would certainly have to change its character. And that still leaves open the question we have only just touched on — how far can politics be introduced into art without spoiling the art?


[1] For broadcasting convenience, parts of the discussion were spoken by a participant whether or not he had generated the ideas initially.

[2] Britton’s name is spelt ‘Brittain’ in The Listener.

[3] But see Songs and Slang of the British Soldier, 1914-1918, edited by John Brophy and Eric Partridge (1930; revised edition, also 1930). This includes words to bugle calls, chants and sayings (often with the ‘unprintable’ represented by dashes). Peter Davison

‘The Writer in the Witness-Box’, discussion between George Orwell and Desmond Hawkins. Broadcast on the BBC Home Service, 6 December 1940. Published in The Listener, 19 December 1940.