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Review: Hugh MacDiarmid - Playboy of the Northern World

Hugh MacDiarmid, Black, Green, Red and Tartan - Bob Purdie, Welsh Academic Press, Cardiff, 2012.

reviewed by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght

1 September 2014

Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Grieve) was the Scots' greatest poet of the last century, perhaps their greatest poet since Robert Burns. Like Burns, too, he was a committed political radical. These facts justify Bob Purdie's book, an investigation into and an explanation of MacDiarmid eclectic politics.

It must be said that it has one major weakness. The politics could be related more than they are to the poetry. Did either change from the dawn of his career to the post-1918 reaction (when he was tempted to flirt with Fascism), through his early years as a Scots Nationalist, his zigzagging between that and the Stalinising Comintern and his final attempt to square the circle so as to allow himself a coherent overall justification of his positions. There is plenty here from MacDiarmid's prose writings, including his correspondence but relatively little of his poetry. Yet, as Bob Purdie knows, without the poetry, not only would there be fewer readers of this book, but the work itself could not be published except as a monograph in an academic journal.

On the other hand, Purdie does expose the contradictions in his subject's politics. One stands out in particular. MacDiarmid was strangely detached from the class his politics tried to advance. It appears in his polemic with Kerrigan on Scottish self-determination. Purdie suggests that his subject's inevitable defeat in this was because he lacked Kerrigan's power base. There was more to it than that.  Kerrigan was, of course, a Stalinite philistine, but he saw his first duty as being to his class even if he understood that class in terms of its bureaucratic strata. MacDiarmid does not seem to have had such a vision of class war. Whereas Kerrigan wanted a deformed Soviet state, his opponent saw class dissolving in an ideal utopian Scottishness. This enabled him to consider a Scottish Fascism, and later the very petty bourgeois idea of Social Credit. Along with his growing literary prestige, too, it made him useful to the Communist Party in what seemed the glorious dawn of the People's Front. Eventually his Scots Nationalism became too much for it (his continuing Social Credit economics do not seem to have caused so much trouble) and he had to rely on the Executive of the Comintern to keep him in good standing, until Popular Frontism collapsed in 1939. Later his second period in the party would be more obviously symbolic.

Although made something of a bogey by the right when he returned to the CPGB after the Hungarian Rising, MacDiarmid was less a Marxist than a Scots nationalist.   Despite his interest in foreign affairs, he had no consistent internationalist perspective until given one whole sale by the Communist Party. He was too ready not just to work with others (no bad thing) but to accept their ideas uncritically, as he did with Douglas, the Social Credit guru.  His perspective was one of a Scottish Popular Liberation Front. How it would work would be a question for others, but those others were less trusting. If Scotland undoes the parliamentary union this month, his ideas will have been of little service. His poetry is another matter.

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