Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 15, No. 12. July 3, 1952
Sir,—May I comment—I hope briefly—on the note by "Spectre" published in your last Issue. It is not my wish to criticise cither him or the student body whose apathy he deplores, but rather to outline the position as it appears to me.
The comparison between the Spanish Civil War and the Korean War is not, I feel, a very happy one, and failure to recognise the distinction may account for inability to understand the present apparent apathy. It seems almost superfluous to mention that the Spanish Civil War followed a period of world economic crisis, the effects of which were so Intense that they could not fall to mould the thought and actions of a whole generation. The failure of capitalism was apparent, and the necessity for some form of democratic socialism obvious. True freedom could only be achieved if the vagaries of a free market, so manifestly disastrous to the welfare of humanity, could be overcome, for freedom without economic security was meaningless.
Put into its historical context, the tremendous social awareness of students in the 'thirties can be seen to have had its roots in an international catastrophe the impulse or which was so powerful that there was only one answer to any further threat, as in Spain, to freedom. Communism and democratic socialism were strongly allied in what was almost a common ideal. Poetry was close to events. Up-to-date in language and imagery.
The issues seem to have been so clear-out then that the action of students is not surprising. Today however the position is not quite the same. The alliance between Western socialism and communism has broken; there is no common aim, the lessons of the thirties and the last war instead of being sharpened are being dulled. A common impulse such as that given by the depression does not exist. What then is the position? As far as one can generalise from personal experience, it is this:
In the mid-thirties communism and democratic socialism seemed but two not very dissimilar means to the same end. However the Stalin purges of 1935-36 put rather a different complexion on things; the means to the end seemed less attractive to the eyes of Western communists and socialists. Spender is one example of the many disillusioned. But the recognition of the need for social reform based on economic planning remained.
I myself was far too young to remember vividly the effects of the depression, but I could not escape the influence which it had on those most closely connected with me. I remained convinced of the failure and utter Inhumanity of capitalism, but at the same time disgusted with the methods which communism openly claimed were necessary. "The ruling class will never give up Its power without a struggle," said Marx. ("Without a bloody straggle," said Lenin.) But if my aim were the welfare of humanity, I could not morally condone the creation of misery to achieve this end.
And compromise such as accepting the lesser of two evils could never be morally satisfying. The conflict would always remain and unless it could be completely resolved there could be no assured crying out for or against.
The confusion created by this division of loyalties is increased when we consider the preaent war in Korea, and behind it the whole question of [unclear: East] and the treatment which it has received from capitalist hands.
Perhaps even "Spectre," while, deploring, racial segregation In South Africa, would Imitate to allow unlimited immigration of Chinese, Indians and Japanes into this country. I may be doing him a groan Injustice, but our own very strict laws regarding Asiatics show how very Concerned we sure with maintaining our own comfort and bow little the social fate of, for instance, the Chinese, matters to us. As long as we aspire to being democrat such views are morally untenable.
One is therefore in the awkward position of probably having to fight, on the one hand, against a movement whoso final alms one considers morally justifiable but whose means to achieve those aims seems crude, inhuman and indefensible, and at the same time, on the other hand, for the maintenance of a capitalist economic order which one is convinced can never bring world-wide economic security and the true freedom which so much depends on it The issue in Spain must have been crystal-clear by comparison.
[unclear: Also m] too experienced a propagandist myself—having lived by writing propaganda dally for the last three years—not to know how to read a newspaper, and I have learnt too much from Machiavelli to disregard the background to statements made either by so-called democratic or by communist interests. The difficulty of getting the facts is too great for one ever to be completely sure of a situation.
Hence in my own case a reluctance to make a final decision about some things, and therefore without such a decision an Inability to take action. As I said, I do not wish to generalise too much from personal experience, but I feel that the conditions outlined may be the cause of a great deal of what appears to be apathy. Because of the confusion and the lack of a social referent poetry has been taken into the individual and there has been a divorce from social realities. Many no doubt would disagree with me and it is of course impossible in such a short space to outline the relations which one thinks do or should exist between a society and its literature. It think it is a question which could well be thrashed out in the pages of Salient, but I do not wish to enter into it here. I have a great faith in humanity and very little—if any—in God, and such a movement away from the social to the introspective is not to ray mind for the best.
Moreover, my purpose in writing was to explain my reason for the apparent apathy and the difficulties which have to be overcome before decisions can be made and resultant action taken. So long as the world political situation remains unclarified, so long will the confusion exist. There will be a great deal of conflicting shouting, but no universal enthusiastic movement such as in the thirties, for there is no such common impulse.
I am sorry my letter is so long—I had hoped to keep it brief. However Salient has so often asked for letters and contributions that perhaps this one despite its length will be acceptable. If, in the discussion which I hope ensues, anyone can point to an acceptable way out of the difficulties which I have described, I—and I feel many others—shall be eternally grateful, for now we are like Hamlet.
[Although we must ask contributors to restrict letters to 250 words in the future, we must admit that it is a pleasure to receive such well-written and thought-provoking letters as above, and we regret that as we were overset we could not publish it sooner.—Ed.]