Rebecca West: From socialist suffragist to Cold War conservative


Review by Phil Shannon

Rebecca West: A Life
By Victoria Glendinning
Phoenix, 1998
288 pp., $19.95 (pb)

Cicely Fairfield was not one to blindly accept the wisdom of her elders. Despite her father's view that the women campaigning for the vote in 1906 were "unsympathetic and repellent", 14-year-old Cicely became a "fiery, teenage suffragette", joining their organisation, demonstrating and selling their newspaper on the streets of London.

So says Victoria Glendinning in her biography of the woman who was to become famous as the writer Rebecca West (the pseudonym came from a character in an Ibsen play who declares: "Live, work, act. Don't sit there and brood and grope among insoluble enigmas.").

As a young socialist and feminist, West lived, worked and took action through her writing. With a fertile imagination, mischievous wit and some self-indulgent verbosity, West's articles for feminist weeklies attacked, with savage refinement, the repression of suffragists by politicians and police, especially the barbaric force-feeding of suffragist prisoners on hunger strike.

West defended trade unions, especially their efforts to organise women workers, and also argued for the need for the suffragist movement to link the demand for the vote with the needs of working women.

West also took on the literary giants in her reviews, sometimes from personal antipathy, sometimes from a desire to shock and sometimes with genuine insight.

She laid waste to Henry James for his fear of ideas and "lack of intellectual passion". Tolstoy's War and Peace she thought "a stodgy pudding of events mixed by a loveless, zestless boring egotist who wanted to write a big, big book". The reputations of Yeats, Eliot and Byron were among those that lay at the feet of West's still-smoking satire.

West did not fit easily into any left organisation. A liberal individualist from the start, she first joined the Fabians. This was a comfortable home for middle-class, elitist and technocratic reformers who boasted amongst their number G.B. Shaw (who admired West's stylish pen) and H.G. Wells (West's lover and father to her ex-nuptial child).

West shared both the view of the "official" Marxists of the Social Democratic Federation that the Fabians were "not revolutionary" (they weren't) and the view of the Fabians that the members of the SDF were "abstract doctrinaires" (they were).

West joined the staff of the Clarion, a popular socialist paper which was a personal platform for its editor, Robert Blatchford. Blatchford saw socialism as a movement of ideas and sought to "make socialists" through ideological conversion rather than through class struggle.

Middle-class in accent, content and readership, the Clarion accommodated West's politics smoothly until even Blatchford's benign model of socialism proved too troubling for her.

West left, warning against the "destructiveness of hunting in packs", by which she meant trade union and working-class political movements. (She had no problem with other "pack-hunting" activities, however, such as those of the military, supporting England in the imperialist slaughter of World War I.)

West could still be indignant about inequality: she recalled the England of her youth as "black with industrialism, foul with poverty, iridescent with the scum of luxury, held up to my infant eyes as the noblest work of God and the aristocracy". But, especially after the Russian Revolution, her distaste for militant working-class mass movements and revolution became obsessive.

West's decline from socialist to conservative anticommunist is one of the more tragically wasteful of such falls. She flirts with Lord Beaverbrook, millionaire capitalist and media mogul. She organises the tour of England in 1924 by Emma Goldmann, the anarchist on an anti-Bolshevik mission to expose so-called Soviet tyranny.

During the 1930s, West is anti-Nazi but racist: "if only we had put every man, woman and child of that abominable nation to the sword in 1919".

She votes Labour in 1945 but can't sleep because of the Communist bogey, supposedly revealed in Soviet infiltration of the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Times (which she describes as "a Communist Party organ") and "most of the BBC".

She defends Senator McCarthy, whilst Admiral Rickover sends her details of each new US nuclear submarine deployed to fight the "red menace".

West finds solace in "law and order", taking furious exception to spies for their treason against the state. She also finds solace in the monarchy; it's off to Buck Palace with a new hat and facial in a rented Daimler in 1949 to interview Princess Elizabeth about her wedding, and again in 1959 to be knighted with feudal baubles.

Dame Rebecca West's socialist fire is well and truly extinguished. "I am a socialist", she declares to the last (she died in 1983), attempting to ignite the red flame that will no longer spark in the Cold War winds of her anticommunist obsession.

A writer with more analytical depth than Glendinning could have made a biography of West with more political substance. For the story of Rebecca West is how a middle-class "socialism" of liberal and individualist hue, which spurns the democratic temper and organisation of the working class, can tumble down the anticommunist road into Tory reaction.

Even in West's early and better years, the seeds of her degeneration are visible. Almost as important to the young West as attacking the bourgeoisie was dining with them. As she was proclaiming her "democratic socialism" she was lapping up the goodies at "all the best parties in London, Paris and New York".

Glendinning's biography is politically superficial. Blink, and you'll miss World War I, whilst West's anti-Bolshevik and anti-Soviet neuroses are accepted as unarguable.

It is probably best to pass this biography by, but find some time to visit the early work of Rebecca West.

For this West, feminism was more than just the vote: "It was a fight to grow in art, in science, in politics, in literature: it is a fight for a place in the sun". It was also more than women occupying positions of power in capitalist society: "The arguments of oppression are not less dangerous from the lips of women than they are from men".

If only she had followed her own advice, a biography of West would have been worthy of unbroken celebration by today's socialists and feminists.

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