Hugh MacDiarmid and Prejudice
Hugh MacDiarmid was a fascist. As well as a communist, Scottish nationalist, Scots Republican, and Social Creditor. And – what is sometimes forgotten – often a great poet, too. Scott Lyall argues that supporters of independence need to acknowledge MacDiarmid’s fascist statements, but that the persistence of this debate tells us something much more revealing about the nature of modern Unionism.
The recent front page story on Hugh MacDiarmid in The National (20 May 2016) sparked the usual round of social media arguments about the poet’s controversial politics, with Unionist pundits repeating the accusation of his support for Nazism.
MacDiarmid had pre-empted all of this. The poet who wrote hymns to Lenin in the 1930s set out his credo in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle from 1926:
I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet – it’s the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt
That damns the vast majority o’ men.
Paradox was central to MacDiarmid’s creative and political modus operandi: the Scots poet who turned to writing global English, the Scottish nationalist who was also a communist. When accused of contradictoriness he liked to quote Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
To look in MacDiarmid’s poetry – any poetry – for the ‘correct’ political attitudes is to go hopelessly astray. Prejudice, in the broadest sense of the term, is what he invites and what he seeks. MacDiarmid was, and continues to be, a lighting-conductor for prejudice in contemporary Scotland. And just as the critic Michael Wood sees violence as being fundamental to W. B. Yeats’s poetry, prejudice was a spur to MacDiarmid’s creativity.
MacDiarmid’s extremism relates in part to how he saw Scotland just after the First World War. MacDiarmid wanted to defeat the Kailyard: Scotland as parochial, couthy, Presbyterian, and pre-industrial. Scotland as represented by the comedian Harry Lauder and J. M. Barrie’s ‘Thrums’. For MacDiarmid the popular Kailyard vision of Scotland did not match the realities of industrialisation, slum poverty, and increasing Irish immigration (for the record, MacDiarmid thought Irish immigration a good thing). The Kailyard, for MacDiarmid, paralysed the Scottish imagination.
But Scotland-as-Kailyard is more than merely ‘false’ cultural representation. It is an attitude of mind that for MacDiarmid is a forerunner of the Scottish cringe. The Kailyard, as represented by the likes of Lauder, breeds cultural stereotypes enabling Scotland to be more easily controlled. The postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha makes the point that stereotyping is an integral part of colonialism: ‘An important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of “fixity” in the ideological construction of otherness’.
Of course, historians such as Tom Devine, Michael Fry and others, have shown that Scotland was central to the business of empire. But, rather than being an English colony, MacDiarmid thought Scotland was self-suppressing. And the main agent of that self-suppression was the canny Scot, described by MacDiarmid in Scottish Eccentrics as ‘very dour, hard-headed, hard-working, tenacious people, devoted to the practical things of life and making little or no contribution to the more dazzling or debatable spheres of human genius’.
MacDiarmid countered the canny Scot – a ‘demographic’ we can imagine was targeted by indyref Project Fear strategists – with the Scottish eccentric: figures such as James Macpherson, author/discoverer of the Ossian poems, and James Hogg, whose masterpiece is Confessions of a Justified Sinner; the world’s worst poet William McGonagall; linguist and evolutionist, Lord Monboddo; author and critic Christopher North, pseudonym of John Wilson; and Elspeth Buchan, founder of religious sect the Buchanites. Often polymaths, sometimes barely sane, what these figures have in common, apart from mostly being born in the eighteenth century, is the willingness to follow their chosen paths through to an uncompromising conclusion, no matter what the odds or the opposition. This is important for MacDiarmid because of course in the eighteenth century Scotland followed a path in union with England that precipitated the canny Scot myth. These eccentrics, whatever their politics may be, are indicators of the possibility of other Scotlands and other Scottish characters that challenge the dominant stereotype.
Chris Grieve created his own Scottish eccentric when he invented ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ in 1922, year of Eliot’s Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses. It is important to remember that ‘MacDiarmid’ was a fiction, similar in some ways to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s multiple ‘heteronyms’ or Yeats’s Mask. For Yeats the concept of the Mask is ‘a form created by passion to unite us to ourselves’. For Pessoa the heteronyms – writers he invented with distinct personalities – were in many ways a release from the individual personality. Yeats, Pessoa and Grieve all wanted to spark nationalist literary and cultural revivals in their small, home nations. The Mask, the heteronym and the pseudonym are factors in this, enablers of creative multiplicity. MacDiarmid allowed Grieve to speak truth to power in and beyond Scotland, inspired him to write poetry, challenge embedded interests, and explore various, often mutually contradictory, positions and prejudices. If these positions are sometimes extreme – calling for a Scottish fascism in the 1920s, for instance – then that is because he saw the cultural and political position of Scotland as being in extremis.
Yeats, Pessoa and MacDiarmid are also united by the cultural and political contexts of interwar literary modernism. They were all attracted in varying degrees to fascist ideas. MacDiarmid wrote ‘Plea for a Scottish Fascism’ and ‘Programme for a Scottish Fascism’ in 1923, only months after Mussolini took power in Italy. He called for a fascism of the Left, ‘because nationalism is opposed to capitalist materialism’. He also proposed an agrarian policy: ‘the land for those who work it’. MacDiarmid cites fascism in the Twenties – ‘whether it be called Fascist or pass under any other name’ – as a means primarily to revitalise depopulated rural Scotland.
But the evidence against the accused mounts in the 1930s, during which MacDiarmid was watched by the British Security Services. His ‘The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea’ (1931-32) asks Scottish nationalists to adopt the ‘race-consciousness’ of National Socialism. Around the same time he reviewed Wyndham Lewis’s Hitler with approval. By 1940, writing to Sorley MacLean, MacDiarmid thinks the Germans − ‘appalling enough’ but ‘they cannot win’ − a lesser threat to a future communist society than ‘the French and British bourgeoisie’. In ‘On the Imminent Destruction of London, June 1940’ the poet claims to ‘hardly care’ as ‘London is threatened / With devastation from the air’.
Unionists raise MacDiarmid-as-fascist as a means to kick the SNP, a party he was expelled from in the 1930s for communism. Fascism was not unusual among European modernists, and MacDiarmid’s brand is superficial in comparison with other writers of the period such as Ezra Pound. Nonetheless, Scottish nationalists need to acknowledge the fascist component in the poet’s politics.
What is more interesting and serious about the ‘MacDiarmid’s a Nazi’ debate is what it tells us about modern Scotland and Britain. If MacDiarmid in the Thirties believed the canny Scot to be a stereotype keeping Scotland within controllable political and cultural limits, then the Scottish and British press has played its own more recent role in perpetuating insulting, dangerous and controlling ideas about the modern nationalist movement in Scotland. One such is their continued correlation between the contemporary politics of Scottish independence and interwar fascism.
A case in point is when in April 2013 Scotland on Sunday photo-shopped the swastika onto the Saltire to illustrate an article by Gavin Bowd, author of Fascist Scotland. Predictably it caused, and was designed to cause, controversy. But little of that controversy focused on how such representations reflect on national identity, both in Britain and in Germany. As Petra Rau, a German academic working in England, argues:
there is a complex relationship between ‘fascism’ and the cultural presence of the Second World War in the popular memory of Britain […], and the way in which that presence is made to serve political purposes and underpins national narratives of heritage and identity.
Unionists see a fascist MacDiarmid as their politico-cultural trump card. The Second World War and opposition to fascism serve to bind the nations of the United Kingdom in a continuing political union, as well as fixing Britain in ‘our finest hour’. Equally, such representations also freeze Germany in its darkest hour. Both Scotland and Germany, modern civic nations, are caught in historical aspic, pinned to a superannuated Britishness, and how that reflects on others, that is maintained by the British state and the fourth estate in Britain.
Hugh MacDiarmid remains a controversial figure, not only because he was not afraid to write combatively to challenge stereotypes and change Scottish culture, but because he exposes – often through his own prejudices – the prejudices upon which much cultural and political power remains premised.
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 2nd edn (London/New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 66.
Hugh MacDiarmid, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, in Complete Poems, Vol. 1, ed. by Michael Grieve and W. R. Aitken (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993), p. 87.
Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea’, in Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. by Duncan Glen (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 62.
Hugh MacDiarmid, letter to Sorley MacLean, 5 June 1940, The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. by Alan Bold (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 611.
Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Plea for a Scottish Fascism’, The Raucle Tongue, Vol. 1, ed. by Angus Calder et al. (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996).
Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Programme for a Scottish Fascism’, Selected Prose, ed. by Alan Riach (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992), pp. 36, 37.
Hugh MacDiarmid, Scottish Eccentrics, ed. by Alan Riach (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993), p. 285.
Petra Rau, Our Nazis: Representations of Fascism in Contemporary Literature and Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 5.
Michael Wood, Yeats and Violence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
W. B. Yeats, MSS of A Vision, in Birgit Bjersby, The Interpretation of the Cuchulain Legend in the works of W. B. Yeats (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckeri, 1950), p. 128.
Scott Lyall is Lecturer in Modern Literature at Edinburgh Napier University. He is author of Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry and Politics of Place, and editor of the recently published International Companion to Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Community in Modern Scottish Literature.