Brave New Classics (BNC) is a Leverhulme-funded ECF project designed to explore how the intellectual repercussions of the Russian Revolution affected British culture to 1956. It focuses on creative engagement with the Greek and Roman classics in British writing. In early 20th-century Britain diverse social groups were participating in culture to an unprecedented extent, and leftist writers — engaging with the classics — changed their creative practice to cater for these new readerships. This study examines the unexpected but electric convergence of British receptions of Soviet Marxism and classics, and their combined influence on British culture from 1917 to the Hungarian Revolution and Suez Crisis.
The idea for the project formed while I was working with Prof. Edith Hall on the AHRC-funded research project ‘Classics and Class in Britain 1789-1939‘ (2013-2016). In the early stages of that project I became aware of another project ‘Classics and Communism’ conducted largely between the University of Ljubljana and the University of Warsaw. I became fascinated with the later and Leftist receptions of classical antiquity I was working on for C&C, and realised that just as the history of British classics has been skewed by the omission of working-class voices, the influence of Soviet culture on British culture has been obscured by retrospective reshaping of cultural history, galvanized by mainstream anti-communist sentiment of the Cold War. There is excellent scholarly activity at the moment which seeks to counter the prevalent narratives, dominated and all too often distorted by “righteous hindsight” (see research). BNC is a tolerant and explorative study which takes seriously the ideas and ideals of the writers, artists and thinkers it examines.
There was among the radical British Left, especially before WW2 and the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a genuine belief in the Soviet programme, and—whatever our worldview—we ought to bear in mind that while our privileged historical vantage point allows us to see the horrors lurking below the surface, it also demands that we handle with due sensitivity the inspirational dreams that shimmer from it and captivated a whole generation. This same generation included those under-celebrated artists and intellectuals who were instrumental in forging a new relationship between the British public and ‘high culture’, not least ancient Greek and Roman literature and theatre.
The Australia-born British communist Jack Lindsay—whose writing was, in his own words, chiefly concerned with ‘The Alienating Process (in Marx’s sense) and the struggle against it’—translated and otherwise creatively engaged with a staggering number of Greek and Roman literary texts through the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His vision of the classical world was distinctly countercultural, inhabited by the creators of what he termed ‘popular literature’, from Aristophanes and Herondas, to Naevius and Petronius. Lindsay thus sought out (and found) in the work of the ancients examples of proto-communism, steering clear from the academic context and more common texts, which he saw as the ‘deadening side of the tradition’. Such an approach often led him to the more obscure extremes of the classical literary spectrum, but an important feature of his classical work is that it was written explicitly for the mass market, not an educated elite.
Although he was in many ways the most radical popular classicist of his time, he was by no means alone in his attempt to recast British classics. Other classically educated and leftist writers such as Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice and Rex Warner also made unprecedentedly accessible translations and rewritings of the classics for socially diverse groups of readers and listeners. One reason for their democratizing drive was that the British classical education and the cultural traditions it fostered—which had in the preceding century played a key role in social division—were being phased out. Its swan song may be located in the first half of the 20th century, e.g. TS Eliot’s essay ‘Modern Education and the Classics’ (1932). It was finally all but drowned out — beyond the ivory towers — by the democratizing work of British Left-wing classicists immersed in the writings of prominent Marxist theorists.
BNC explores the different social and political pressures, not to mention historical and personal events, which converged to bring about this dramatic shift in creative practice. Existing accounts of the creative writing of these predominantly university-educated classicists do not examine their engagement with the classics in any detail, which is problematic considering both that they were steeped in classics from a young age, and that their work consists of swathes of translations of and allusions to the classics.
Classical translation is often considered to have been a realm of ideological neutrality or refuge. For most writers considered in this project nothing could be further from the truth. WH Auden, MacNeice and Day Lewis were troubled by the perceived conservative conditioning of their classical educations. Each rebelled against it in their own way: some by rejection (e.g. Auden), others by appropriation. But can it really be so simple? The act of making the ancient classics accessible to the ‘unlearned reader’ may be seen as an ideological gesture in itself; but the sometimes overtly communistic interpretations of the ancient writers (and the selection of ideologically suitable texts) make plain certain individual authors’ underlying socio-cultural objectives.
By treating the period (1917-56) as a continuum I allow space to nuance the received account of the wholesale leftist disillusionment and rupture from their earlier communist idealism. It is a common misconception that a break with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) coincided with an ideological u-turn, which both overestimates the importance of party political affiliation and downplays the existing democratic social and cultural movements arising in the preceding century. Much excellent work is already being done. BNC will challenge a number of other prevalent assumptions about the topic, not only by providing evidence of a high degree of classical activity in a time usually associated aesthetically with a rejection of pre-existing modes of expression, and ideologically with the rejection of the (apparently) ‘bourgeois’ cultural practice of classicism, but also by assessing the cultural impact of specific events, including the Spanish Civil War and the fall of the British Empire, and the influence of ideology on classical scholarship, including the pathbreaking work of George Thomson.
- To ask to what extent were attitudes toward classical culture affected by revolutionary ideology and its legacy, and how these were reflected in creative, scholarly and theoretical practice? How much can the democratization of classics in this period be seen as an aid to ‘willful trespass’ on a formerly restricted cultural realm, akin to the ramblers on Kinder Scout (1932)?
- To examine through close-reading and comparative analysis the creative engagement with
classical texts in the work of the so-called ‘30s writers’ (whose practice in many cases extended through and beyond WW2). What new light do these modern receptions shine on interpreting the classics in their ancient reception contexts?
- To see how my focus on the contested cultural space of the classics can help illuminate the subtle gradations of the British Left, and the equally contested British reception of Soviet Marxism in the cultural realm.
My research will also build upon the foundations laid by key Cultural Studies texts, e.g. Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957) and Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958), and more recent contributions to those debates. While Classics and Class in Britain (AHRC, 2013-2016) revealed the prevalence of classical engagement among the British working classes in the long 19th century, BNC fixes attention on classics in the newly configured cultural realm.
Collaborators and Advisors