Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig today reassures her readers that, pace Dana Disbiber, William Shakespeare’s work passes the Progressive Catechism Test and should thus be taught in school. “The past,” she writes, can in fact “be a very powerful resource for those with progressive hopes for the future.” In doing so, she reminds me of a critique that George Orwell leveled in the Road to Wigan Pier.
Orwell was an avowed socialist — albeit he never quite defined what that meant — but he was also appalled by socialists. Toward the end of his life this was mostly because he wondered whether socialism would lead the world into totalitarianism and repression. In 1937 it was primarily because he considered them to be dull, unappealing, overly focused on orthodoxy and conformity, and likely to repel with their “priggishness” anyone with vaguely left-wing sympathies. ”If only,” he proposed amusingly, “the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!”
In Wigan Pier, Orwell writes:
Take for instance the dreary attitude of the typical Marxist towards literature. Out of the many that come into my mind, I will give just one example. It sounds trivial, but it isn’t. In the old Worker’s Weekly (one of the forerunners of the Daily Worker) there used to be a column of literary chat of the ‘Books on the Editor’s Table’ type. For several weeks running there had been a certain amount of talk about Shakespeare; whereupon an incensed reader wrote to say, ‘Dear Comrade, we don’t want to hear about these bourgeois writers like Shakespeare. Can’t you give us something a bit more proletarian?’ etc., etc. The editor’s reply was simple. ‘If you will turn to the index of Marx’s Capital,’ he wrote, ‘you will find that Shakespeare is mentioned several times.’ And please notice that this was enough to silence the objector. Once Shakespeare had received the benediction of Marx, he became respectable. That is the mentality that drives ordinary sensible people away from the Socialist movement. You do not need to care about Shakespeare to be repelled by that kind of thing.
“We don’t want to hear about these bourgeois writers like Shakespeare,” says Disbiber; “worry not, teaching him helps the progressive cause,” replies Bruenig.
“It sounds trivial,” Orwell observes. “But it isn’t.” Why not? Because when politics is everything and everything is politics, nothing escapes the commissar’s judgment. It is one thing to analyze art for its political content — critically necessary even – but it is quite another to subjugate one’s view of that art to one’s politics. Plus ça change.