The beloved Scottish poet…who loved Hitler and Stalin
This week we’re poking through George Orwell’s 1949 list of writers and journalists whom he suspected of being “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way,” and therefore not to be trusted by the British government. We’ve seen that in one case after another, Orwell was right on the money.
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978) was widely considered the great Scottish poet of his day, and is now viewed as something of a Scottish hero. He was also a Stalinist and self-declared “Anglophobe.” Born under the name Christopher Murray Grieve (MacDiarmid was a nom de plume), he was, in the 1920s, an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini — and of fascism in general, which he considered a version of socialism. In 1923, he “argued…for a Scottish version of Fascism, and in 1929 for the formation of Clann Albain, a Fascistic para-military organisation that would fight for Scottish freedom.” In 1928 he helped found the Scottish National Party and became a leading champion of Scottish independence. In the 1930s he joined and was expelled from the British Communist Party; in 1956 (the year Soviet tanks crushed Hungary’s democratic revolution) he rejoined the Party.
Some of his wartime writings — which weren’t published during his lifetime — reveals a mind drawn even more passionately and perversely to totalitarianism than most of his published work suggested. In a 1940 letter, he wrote that while “the Germans are appalling enough…the British and French bourgeoisie…are a far greater enemy.” In June of the same year, on the eve of the Battle of Britain, he wrote (but didn’t publish) a poem that included these lines:
Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air
I realise, horror atrophying me,
That I hardly care.
The next year, writing to his friend and fellow poet Sorley MacLean, MacDiarmid maintained that while the Axis powers might be “more violently evil for the time being,” they were, in the long run, “less dangerous” than the government in London and in any event “indistinguishable in purpose.” In other words, Scotland might well be better off under Hitler than under Churchill. (MacLean disagreed: “I cannot see what the Nazis would give Scotland when they give Vichy to France, Franco to Spain and Quisling to Norway.”)
These documents, note well, didn’t come to light until recently — the letters in 2010, the poem in 2013 — when they were discovered by scholars in the archives of the National Library of Scotland. Their publication made headlines; as James MacMillan wrote three years ago in theTelegraph, they reveal MacDiarmid to have been “a clear and Scottish example of that melding of nationalism, fascism and Leftism which seemed so seductive to young idealists at the time.” But Orwell didn’t need to see that poem or those letters to know just what a foul stooge for totalitarianism — of whatever stripe — Hugh MacDiarmid really was.
More to come.