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Notes on Christopher Caudwell’s *Studies In A Dying Culture*

These analytical essays illuminate aspects of contemporary capitalist culture: including literature, liberty, and psychology. Underpinning these essays is the insight that a commodified approach to art and life erodes fundamental human relations, and impoverishes our souls. Caudwell argues — not for regressing into an imagined “glorious past” — but for us to fight together for a future of universal human dignity.

NOTE: This is not a book review. I may review this book sometime in the future. This blogpost is notes on the book, with a brief preface. The notes simply summarise Caudwell’s thoughts on some key topics; based on the progress of thought since Caudwell’s day, I offer annotations in one or two places.


Christopher Caudwell was a British Marxist writer, born 1907. He was a Marxist who wrote detective pulp novels; dove into many areas of human endeavour; and died in 1937, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Studies In A Dying Culture is a slim volume of eight of Caudwell’s essays published posthumously. Three of the essays address specific topics in contemporary western society: Pacifism  and  Violence; Love; and Liberty. The other five essays study figures from contemporary capitalist culture. These figures are analysed critically in themselves; but, Caudwell being a Marxist, believing in social determination above all – ultimately treats these figures, very fruitfully in my view, as the context in which to study aspects of capitalist culture.

(Throughout the essays, Caudwell uses ‘bourgeois’ both in its modern sense of a particular class owning the means of production; and also the now dated sense of ‘bourgeois’ to indicate all capitalist society. I have updated this usage to reflect current terminology. I’ve also made minor changes like updating “men” to “humans/persons,” except when it’s clear he’s referring only to men (i.e. men in war, “all men’s” desire for a wife  and  children). Notably, Caudwell’s terminology is modern: he uses “cognition” and “affect” (emotion) accurately in these words’ contemporary scientific sense.)

Caudwell left school at 15, and died at 30. Caudwell’s insights into areas (war, literature, social revolution, anthropology) including areas I have some knowledge of (biology, cognitive science, psychology), are incisive, in some cases prophetic; his arguments – about why we misidentify our problems as individuals and as a society – are well-reasoned.

Caudwell died doing what he believed in: fighting against fascism and for liberty. His early death – among the death of millions in the wars and genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries – reminds us that the fight for human sanity is still underway. This fight relies on each of us to recognise the systematically oppressive structure of current social reality, and to play a part on the right side of  the struggle for change. Current events are showing us that this our socioeconomic system is fundamentally flawed, and has no interest in the welfare of the majority.

This book opened my eyes, and also put me back in touch with a part of my childhood and my family heritage from which, in the pursuit of individual goals, I had become alienated.

The Essays:

George Bernard Shaw: A Study of the Bourgeois Superman

T. E. Lawrence: A Study in Heroism

D. H. Lawrence: A Study of the Bourgeois Artist

H. G. Wells: A Study in Utopianism

Pacifism and Violence: A Study in Bourgeois Ethics

Love: A Study in Changing Values

Freud: A Study in Bourgeois Psychology

Liberty: A Study in Bourgeois Illusion


The illusion that social or individual problems can be solved by regressing; the relationship between neurosis and social ills: In times of stress, the neurotic regresses pathologically to childhood behaviours, and civilisation longs to return to an imaginary state of past glory. Charlatans seize this opportunity to seduce men. They promise a return to this great and safe past. But because we can never return to the past, we hurtle headlong into an unforeseeable future… Today some intellectuals  and  others try to solve the problems of capitalist society by calling for regression to a primitive state of society, driven by instinct: DH Lawrence, Hemingway,  and  Fascists… In life, faced with any difficult situation, one always wishes to return to a solution achieved in an earlier stage of development. This is why immortality appeals to us most when we’re feeling inferior or depressed. Immortality = the regression to the blind, unconscious, primitive being-without-consciousness of matter… A dictatorship is based on a powerful participation mystique. Fascism, Nazism… the more violent the exploitation in a society – the more ardent  and  mythological becomes the patriotism, the more heartless  and  unemotional the relations between persons, and the greater the parade of hypocritical feelings…The neurotic is not free: for him to become free, he would need to become conscious of the motives for his actions. To be free, humans need to be conscious not only of our own souls, but also of outer reality – and this latter consciousness can come only via action. If a man cannot act on outer reality, he is not free. Free will requires not just free thought, but also the ability to do that which one freely wills to do.

Heroes vs. charlatans; what makes a hero: What distinguishes a charlatan from a hero? At first, the two appear to be the same. Charlatans soon show themselves to be conservative, not revolutionary. Charlatans seek to dissolve all social relations, and to transfer all social affections to the state, embodied in themselves (e.g. Hitler’s Youth Camp). Charlatans waste people’s energy in regression… Heroes have control over both men and matters (I.e. heroes know both how to persuade people, and how to do what they promise.) Every individual both shapes, and is shaped by, their environment. Heroes influence their environment more than most people. But, crucially, heroes arise from historical circumstances: the tension of the new vs. the old at a crisis of history. Heroes never offer regression – heroes promise, and create, progress.

The appeal of the armed forces and of war: In fragmented capitalist society, the army is one of the last places that offers an oasis of meaning, community, and order. War, for all its horrors and tensions, creates a wild elation and wellbeing: it fills men with a collective delirium that lifts them out of the grayness of capitalist existence. In war, capitalist society temporarily suspends its usual [declared] belief in nonviolence, and puts its fate into the hands of a class generally voiceless [the working-class constituting the body of the army]

How capitalism justifies war; why huge wars are inevitable in capitalism: Capitalist ethics justifies war via Christianity. In capitalism, all attacks on another person’s liberty are immoral, justifying retaliation. In a capitalist war, both sides sincerely believe themselves to be fighting in self-defence. In capitalism, wars are inevitable. It is impossible for one bourgeois to exercise his full liberty [exclusive ownership of natural resources/territory etc.] without infringing on the liberty of another, and thus giving cause for “just wars.”

Liberals, trying to expand liberty, end up constricting it: The liberal’s ideas of liberty, instantiated in free trade, lead to tariffs, imperialism,  and  monopoly. The liberal imagines himself to be a revolutionary; in fact, he ends up upholding  and  expanding coercion  and  violence  and  slavery. The liberal wrongly attributes wars to the existence of social relations per se. So, the liberal’s solution to the wars he finds happening is to abstain from fighting, to abstain from participating in any social relationships whatsoever. But to refrain from social relations is impossible. The liberal ends up reinforcing precisely those social relations that maintain capitalism.

Why pacifism is selfish and solves nothing: To the religious pacifist, the purity of his own soul matters more than all the world. “The world may go to the devil, as long as I salvage my own soul.” Spiritual laissez-faire leads to a selfish preoccupation with oneself. The pacifist, like all bourgeois theorists, is obsessed with absolutes: absolute principles that he can discover and live by. Give me moral edicts, like “Violence is always wrong.” So that I can simply refrain from all violence. But principles are not given/discovered – they are made, through action, through interacting with outer reality.

Why the bourgeois religion = Protestantism: If Catholicism is tribal  and  mystical, then Protestantism = [Catholicism minus social elements plus individualism]. Each man is his own priest, own judge, own saviour. This is why Protestantism goes well with laissez-faire economics.

The illusion that art-forms curb the artist’s self-expression; the myth that either art or the self are developed in isolation, and achieve sociality only in the final act of expression: Art = Ideas expressed in a socially recognised format. There is no art without social consciousness. The idea that the artist deigns to express his individuality, developed free of society, in socially recognised forms – is a bourgeois illusion. The artist does not ‘adulterate his free self-expression to make it more socially relevant.’ No: the artist finds free self-expression only via the social relations embodied in art. Art, and the self, are both socially constructed.

The myth that feeling and cognition are opposite forces in a zero-sum game: Contemporary bourgeois intellectuals have set up ‘feeling’ as the opposite of ‘cognition’; they also view feeling=unconscious, and cognition=conscious. This is a false dichotomy. There is neither a feeling, nor a thought, without at least some portion of it being conscious. Even the simplest feelings are accompanied by consciousness e.g. “It is hot” or “My hand hurts.” Only instinct [reflex action] is purely unconscious. In the individual, as well as in society, an increase in cognition always occurs along with an increase in affective experience. The more intelligent the animal [species or individual], i.e. the more its behaviour is modifiable by experience, the less it is influenced by heredity – the more feeling it displays… Intelligence, the capacity to have behaviour modified by experience, is accompanied by increasing affective complexity, depth,  and  richness.

[Note: the idea that ‘intelligence’ equals ‘modifiability by environment’ reflects contemporary views of intelligence: the human brain is considered a ‘general problem-solver,’ though I have problems with this view, as do many evolutionary psychologists. Plants have many more genes than humans do: this was one surprising discovery of the Human Genome Project. But plants need more genes: they need predetermined solutions to a huge host of problems; whereas we can use our sort-of-general-purpose brain to respond flexibly to whatever challenges we end up facing.]

Despite bourgeois illusion, the conflict is not between unconscious affect (emotion) vs. conscious cognition. The real conflict is between (a) bourgeois affect  and  cognition vs. (b) the affect  and  cognition of the individual in another type of society. The bourgeois intellectual correctly detects, in contemporary society, a deep flaw in consciousness. His solution to this is to turn away from the intellect [which he equates with consciousness]: he wants to make the intellect the enemy. But the bourgeois intellect can be fought only with another type of intellect [just as bourgeois feeling can be fought only with another type of feeling]. To deny intellect is to assist the forces of social regression and of conservatism – a process we see in a hundred faces [of prominent intellectuals] across Europe. These forces preach, not new vigour, but old decadence. In reality, a return to the past is always impossible; an attempt to do so [always leads to violence].

Consciousness can be abandoned only in pure action. Thus the Fascist’s first act is to crush culture and burn books. No artist can think consistently as a Fascist: he can only be like DH Lawrence: self-contradictory; appealing to the consciousness of men, telling them to abandon consciousness.

Why even well-meaning, well-read bourgeois intellectuals only end up perpetuating elsewhere the same limited non-freedom of their own capitalist society: For the bourgeois – even the enlightened individual, aware of class relations etc. – liberty only means bourgeois liberty. This is the only thing that her (e.g. T.E. Lawrence/TEL) can think of giving to the colonised peoples whom he wishes to free from the western capitalist civilisation he despises. What TEL was, in the end, able to give to the Bedouin was unworthy of a hero moulded by Plato  and  Xenophon… Later [after WW1], all this bloodshed  and  wasted effort reproached TEL, like a murdered opportunity [to give the Arabs true freedom]. TEL freed Arabia [from the Ottomans] – but for what had he freed Arabia? If one frees a society whose organisation belongs to the past, but has been artificially preserved in the present, what can that society do, now, but advance to the present? [Imperialist capitalism.] If one gives a country liberty as the capitalist understands liberty – then what can one expect now to find there except the same bourgeois relations from which [TEL] had tried to escape?

Why overeducation is often fatal to effective action; and why Lenin’s type of revolution required Lenin to break this rule: TEL’s failure [to really free the Arabs] was partly a problem of over-education. To be effective, a hero must be highly intelligent. But to be an intellectual, to be highly educated – is to have one’s mind ossified into the forms of current thought; is to have one’s psychic potentials all twisted by accepted wisdom… Lenin was [an exception to this rule that being intellectual prevents one from being a true, revolutionary, hero – as opposed to the charlatan that TEL unfortunately proved to be]. Lenin was the first fully self-conscious hero. For his task was to create a wider self-consciousness in people; so, he himself had to necessarily shed the mysticism that wrapped up the hero of former times. This old hero lived a myth, a fairytale. Lenin had to end all this. His task was to raise his followers out of the childhood of the human race. So, he himself had to be an adult hero.

The decay of art: Bourgeois art disintegrates under the tension of two forces, both originating in the same feature of capitalist culture. On the one hand, [the necessity of] production for the market causes vulgarisation  and  commercialisation. On the other hand, the “hypostatisation” [reification/the act of representing something abstract as a physical object] of the art-work as the goal of the art-process i.e. art for art’s sake, for pure individual self-expression – art as pure [unintelligible, form-defying] private fantasy. [Caudwell considers both types of art inferior: because of their failure at social engagement.]

Capitalism conceals all relations between person and person as relations of persons to things (money; commodities). All relationships are commercialised: employer-employee, husband-wife (the wife must be beautiful to be a desirable possession; wife must be loyal because a man’s property must not alienate itself from him). In all the distinctive bourgeois relations, it is characteristic that social tenderness is [dismissed]. For tenderness can exist only in relations between persons, whereas in capitalism all relations are between person-money/person-commodity… Capitalism did not invent private property: acquiring private property was always a feature of human nature. What capitalism did was to privatise the ownership of means of production; and to elevate property-ownership above all other features of human life.

Capitalism’s systemic failure generates social and individual ills: Capitalism fails to allow channels for our rich emotional capacities for social tenderness. So, thwarted, humans turn in vain to religion, hatred, patriotism, and the sentimentality of films  and  novels. He becomes neurotic, sick, unhappy, liable to mass-hatreds. Life appears empty, stale, unprofitable.

The most profound and persistent capitalist illusion is that individualism is the key to freedom: Rousseau claimed “Man is born free, yet is everywhere in chains.” This is false, but widely believed; this leads to the illusion that: Man has only to cast off his chains – i.e. social relations per se – to regain his natural state of freedom. Freedom and happiness can be found only in individual action: find the right circle of friends, find the right life-partner, the right job, move to the right country – But, in fact, a return to a primitive state is not a ‘return to freedom.’ Humans are not born free. We become free only via social relations; by cooperating with each other for shared goals… Bertrand Russell’s idea of liberty = an idea of [animalness]. Narkover School exemplifies this conception of liberty. “Man, alone, unconstrained, answerable only to his own instincts – this is the free man.” If this is true, we should abandon all civilisation and return to the jungle. Russell, HG Wells, EM Forster: all have this wrong idea of freedom… Whereas in fact, man the individual cannot do alone all that he wants to do. He attains freedom from cooperating with his fellows. The freedom that Russell  and  co dream for humans is in fact the state of the beasts [nonhuman animals]. Of the solitary carnivore, roaming in the jungle, totally unconstrained. But man, by himself, without society, is not free; man, alone, is neither good nor evil: he is a beast, not a man. From society alone can man obtain freedom, much more freedom than any beast has… The bourgeois believes that freedom is a negative entity i.e. a mere lack of social constraints. He refuses to see that the limitations on his own liberty (e.g. one man cannot afford a yacht, so is not at liberty to sail the seas alone) is in fact linked with the unfreedoms of factory-workers, with war  and  fascism, hatred  and  disease – that all this is bound up in one causal net. So, it is wrong to think that the simple effort  and  act of will of any one individual can free anyone, even that individual himself. For the causes of, say, the intellectual’s relative unfreedom are inextricably linked with the causes of the factory-worker’s much greater unfreedom… Yet, labouring under this individualist fallacy, this type of bourgeois intellectual always tries to cure social evils via individual actions of non-cooperation and non-participation: passive resistance, pacifism, and conscientious objection… The bourgeois believes that freedom is the absence of any social organisation. He refuses to believe that this belief of his is itself the result of bourgeois social relations. Once the bourgeois understands that society is the only instrument of freedom, he has made the first step. The individual who believes that he can free himself in an unfree society, the individual who acts in ignorance of social reality – is like a man who, believing that he can walk on water, drowns.

Insect societies are ~asexual: only the queen reproduces; the workers function like daughter cells of the queen, losing their own individual lives  and  reproduction. A beehive is composes less of individual organisms, than it is a single organism with bees acting as cells.

[Today, we know that the genetic resemblance between a worker bee and her queen is 75%, as opposed to the 50% between human parent-child or human sibling-sibling. This is why each worker bee can best serve her own genetic interest by helping the queen to reproduce – the worker’s bee’s own offspring would not resemble her as much as she resembles the queen. Of course, the worker bee is sterile, so doesn’t have the choice of reproducing herself… I don’t know how much hymenopteran biology was known in Caudwell’s time.]

Why Freud was a ‘fabulist,’ not a true scientist: Freud was a mythmaker/fabulist. The fabulist’s perspective of science = ANY fable connecting the set of facts at hands constitutes an adequate explanation of those facts. This is not science: for, for any set of facts, we can generate an infinite set of myths covering (but not causally explaining) those facts. Myths can coexist; scientific theories cannot. A scientific theory for a phenomenon is intolerant of other scientific theories for the same phenomenon. Science recognises only those explanations which, with as little symbolisation as possible, exhibit the mutual determination of the phenomena at hand, as well as the relationship between these phenomena and the rest of reality.

Why bourgeois psychology, as exemplified in Freud, fails to explain psychological causality: It is impossible for any psychology [as a science] to exist without a background of sociology. It will be impossible to find causal connections in the human psyche without knowing the social forces acting on us. Without sociology, one wrongly considers that the current condition of the human psyche is universal and unchanging; that all the laws discovered now will be true in all times and places. To a bourgeois idealist, nothing exists except an unchanging environment against which individual lives play themselves out. Freud is unable to see psychological truth – because he is unable to see sociological reality. Bourgeois psychology is the psychology of “the individual in civil[ised] society.” Thus Freudism, like ALL ‘individual psychologies’ [approaches to psychology that fail to situate the individual in the larger social context] fails at the most elementary requirement of science: explaining causality. Though developed as a therapy, Freudism is a philosophy of undiluted pessimism. In this view, our instincts lead inevitably to strife, and to bitterness; no vital part of our consciousness comes from the environment. We regard these categories [Oedipus complex etc.] as final  and  absolute, meaning that the problems of the present times – neurosis, despair, [economic] slumps, wars – are inevitable; there can never be a better way of life. Believing this, what is there to do but regress to infantilism in individual lives, and to feudalism in society? [Caudwell believes Freud’s science and his conclusions and his pessimism are all wrong.]

[The contextual poverty of mainstream psychology is what led on the one hand to sociobiology (which in turn became evolutionary psychology); and on the other to cross-cultural psychology – there is now increasing recognition of the truism that what we call universal human psychology = the psychology of the white male American college student (i.e. the participant in most psychology experiments). Contributions to the deep effect of culture on psychology has also come accidentally via discoveries of (a) culture-specific clinical psychology disorders; (b) enormous cross-cultural variability in how a disorder, say depression, is experienced. As well, there is no increasing awareness of “risk factors” and “protective factors” in individual development. However, in contemporary psych, the individual still remains the focus of study and the unit of analysis, with ‘social factors in the background. – So Caudwell’s insight that social conditions must inform ground-up the science of psychology is profound, and prophetic, and is still not being heeded – contemporary psych is still very much individual psych, with the assumption that these psychological processes are universal and invariant.]

The relationship between free will, knowledge,  and  consciousness: To have knowledge of the causes of our situation/actions is to be free. Free will exists only insofar as the cause of action is an antecedent motive in our minds, [regressed indefinitely backwards through a link of motives and actions]. Free will is not the opposite of causality [i.e. our ability to causally explain an action does not mean that Free will did not produce that action]. Free will is a special and late aspect of causality. Free will = consciousness of causality. It is because humans are conscious of causality in ourselves, that we fit everything we see around ourselves into a causal narrative frame. Therefore causality  and  freedom are aspects of one another. Parts of the universe have varying degrees of freedom, according to their varying degrees of self-determination. In the sensation of FW, the antecedent causes of action are the conscious thinking of the individual. Knowledge is what gives us the freedom to self-determine.

Capitalist society is based on economic production: but on an incorrect understanding of the role of economic production in society: Why does capitalist society fail to fulfill the needs of its members? Because it doesn’t understand the laws of economic production: because capitalist economy is unplanned, unorganised. Capitalism believes that freedom equals mere lack of social organisation/social constraints  for the individual; that freedom = private production. In capitalist society, money is the only overt relation between person and person; and people are believed to be otherwise completely free. [Wrongly so.] This is problematic because: when the means of production are privatised, then many people become alienated from their right to a livelihood.

Freedom is the highest good, but not freedom as the bourgeois understands it: Freedom contains [in itself] all the other goods. Science is  the means by which humans learn what they can do: science explores the necessities [contingencies] of outer reality. Art is the means by which humans learn what they want to do; art explores the essence of the human heart. Capitalism closes its eyes to beauty, crucifies [true] freedom, and claims to do all this in the name of preserving personal freedom.


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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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