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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Tony Dabb


The people’s poets


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Journey to the Frontier: Two Roads to the Spanish Civil War
Peter Stansky and William Abrahams
Constable £14.95

The 1930s represent a tumultuous and decisive period in world history. Poverty, unemployment, the rise of fascism and the threat of war were inescapable realities. Journey to the Frontier is a dual biography of two young English poets, Julian Bell and John Cornford, who died fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Stansky and Abrahams cite the war in Spain as ‘the event for young men of the left in the 1930s’ and they go on to create a fascinating amalgam of personal study, literary history and intellectual change.

The civil war was characterised by an international explosion of enthusiasm and hope. Thousands of (overwhelmingly working class) young men and women joined the fight at the front itself and many more worked feverishly in their own countries to promote the solidarity that could sustain their comrades in Spain.

Both Bell and Cornford came from a progressive middle class intellectual tradition which scorned the excesses of Victorian capitalism and imperialism but which at the same time did not go to any great lengths to change society. They could not remain aloof from the economic crisis of the early 1930s with the poverty, unemployment, Hitler, and the overbearing prospect of another bloody war.

A growing number of pacifists and socialists began to emerge who were not prepared to stand in silence. Bell, a member of the 1930s generation of poets which also included Auden, Day-Lewis and Spender, felt compelled to write that ‘it is time to take a hand in the politicians’ dogfight’. Art for both Bell and Cornford now needed to serve a purpose as a political weapon.

Bell was representative of his generation in moving leftward away from his pacifist position so that after the election of Hitler he was convinced that ‘there’ll never be any peace until fascism is destroyed’.

From here it was a short step to accepting that fascism was a result of the same system that bred poverty and unemployment, and that a war against fascism must include fighting to destroy that system. Thousands of young men and women identified with this perspective and like John Cornford they joined the Communist Party to fight fascism and work towards a better society.

Journey to the Frontier is uncritical of the CP and its leaders, but the description of Cornford’s involvement in the party, the anti-war marches, the breaking up of Mosley’s meetings, and his passionate commitment to the cause, provide some of the most inspiring passages of the whole book.

The outbreak of the civil war in Spain was met, in the words of one of Bell’s friends, with ‘a mixture of relief and apocalyptic hope’. Indeed Spain was not merely the scene of a civil war, but also of a revolution, in which workers were beginning to take collective control of their own lives. The contrast between socialism and barbarism could not have been more apparent, nor the prospect of either more immediate.

So it appeared to people like Bell and Cornford as a time when anything seemed possible. The reissue of this book is a timely reminder that ideas and people can and do change, rapidly, and in a revolutionary way.

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