by William Guynn
Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 10-12, 27
The appearance of Paul Rotha’s Documentary Diary (Hill & Wang, 1972) affords a new opportunity to evaluate the British documentary film. The British documentary has, over the years, maintained its reputation as the only long-lived political movement in cinema to succeed the revolutionary Soviet films of the 20s. Even today it is viewed as a cinema of social protest, an expression of the mass movements of the 30s depression, as the cinema which finally gave an honorable place in its films to the worker. And yet, despite its avowedly political character, this movement has been subjected to very little political analysis. Film historians have uncritically catalogued its achievements, without defining its political nature. Political filmmakers, such as Joris Evens, have chided its “softness”; formalist critics have condemned its aesthetic poverty.
The major questions remain to be answered. Why did the movement arise at a given moment in history and how and why was it sustained for more than fifteen years? These questions need to be answered because the history of the British documentary film poses the problem of the relation between the artist and class society in the age of decadent capitalism. The British movement is of interest to us because the British documentarists took the wrong road—leading them artistically to mediocrity and politically to class collaboration.
Paul Rotha’s’ Documentary Diary is the intimate history of the British documentary film, written by one of its filmmakers and chief theoreticians. It evokes that period between 1930 and 1939 when the British documentarists, headed by John Grierson, came together in collective film units under government, sponsorship and produced, on shoestring budgets, a seemingly endless stream of films intended to revolutionize the art of cinema. As Rotha states,
Ironically, the impact of the British documentary on film as art has been practically negligible. What the British formed was in essence a political not an artistic school.
There was no consistent artistic theory underlying the movement; the film art was to be used as a means to a political end. Hence the films themselves reveal a multitude of influences. And they are made in several styles: documentary montage (Soviet cinema), documentary re-enactment and dramatization (Flaherty), “symphonic” avant-gardism (Cavalcanti, Ruttmann), and journalistic documentary (newsreels, MARCH OF TIME). The theoreticians of the movement were unable to define exactly what documentary film was. We are left with Grierson’s formulation, which has more resonance than meaning, “the creative interpretation of actuality.” As Alan Lowell points out in Studies in Documentary,
If the films have been dismissed by subsequent generations of filmmakers, the legend of the movement remains, and it has never been seriously challenged.
Rotha’s diary—a collection of reminiscences, anecdotes, private letters and documents—gives us many insights into the internal life of the British movement. He chronicles the hand-to-mouth existence the documentarists lived in their struggle to secure from government agencies and private industry the financial backing for their film productions. The film units’ existence, particularly during the lean years of the depression, was precarious and strife-ridden. Not surprisingly, it was sustained primarily by political maneuvering and bureaucratic backroom deals, As Rotha puts it,
Whether the individual filmmakers were conscious of it or not, this intense struggle for survival was instrumental in imposing on the British documentary its particular political character. The documentarists found themselves forced to compromise, both artistically and politically. Grierson, as head of the movement and chief negotiator, made it clear from the outset that the film unit was directly tied to the state and that
He further warned against any subversion of this purpose by artists with
The British documentary film was not, then, the simple voice of social protest; despite its claims, it was no worker’s cinema of class struggle. As I will attempt to show, it served, rather, the interests of capitalism during a period of the potentially revolutionary upsurge of the masses, It arose and was formed on the political battlefield of Britain after World War I. In order to understand the political significance of the British documentary film, it is necessary to examine its political roots.
World War I officially inaugurated what Lenin called the “epoch of wars and revolution.” Capitalist society had entered the age of imperialism characterized by the domination of the monopolies over competitive capitalism, the merging of finance capital (the banks) with industrial capital, the export of capital by international monopolies, and the complete division of the world among the strongest imperialist nations (Lenin: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism). Britain had been the most highly developed capitalist nation of the 19th century, with a colonial empire of unparalleled wealth, In World War I, Britain attempted to maintain its world hegemony, its colonies, and spheres of influence against its rival imperialist power, Germany. It emerged from the war victorious in name, but in reality profoundly weakened. As the oldest capitalist power, Britain suffered from its own history. Its level of technology and organization of the productive forces were antiquated by comparison with the younger industrialized nations, in particular the United States. Coal—at the basis of British industry—was quickly being supplanted by the superior power of electricity, characteristic of industry in the United States.
In addition, the British colonies, in particular Canada and Australia, were achieving a high level of self-sufficiency, both industrially and politically. National movements in India, Egypt, and the East were further indications that England was rapidly losing its position as the metropolitan and industrial center of its empire. Furthermore, the so-called pacification of Europe which followed the war all but guaranteed the rebirth of German capital as a severe threat to the maintenance of British hegemony.
In his analysis of the British situation in 1926, Leon Trotsky summarized its social development in this way:
Britain’s position as the leading capitalist power of the 19th century to a large extent determined the character of the British working class. As Lenin observed, imperialism, because of the super-profits it squeezes from its own workers and from the plunder of the entire world, is able to create privileged sections of workers, to encourage opportunism among than, and to stifle, if only temporarily, the militancy of the working class movement.
Hence Engels was able to say in a letter to Marx (October 7, 1858):
It is significant in this regard that, although the British trade union movement was well advanced and had managed to extract numerous concessions from the bourgeoisie, it was late, by comparison with continental neighbors, in producing a political party of the working class independent of the bourgeois parties. Until the turn of the century, the working class was represented in parliament only by a half-dozen Lib-Labs (“labouring” men elected on the Liberal ticket).
The ideological development of the British proletariat was further retarded by its dependence on the Fabian bourgeois. The Fabian Society, organized in 1983, was a group of intellectuals, among them Bernard Shaw, which preached reformism and served as the ideological cover for opportunism in the British labor movement. Its principal thesis was that the British working class could gradually and peacefully worm its way into power. Presumably, the working class could capture parliament through the “democratic” process, subsequently control the means of production by a gradual extension of state ownership and transform the existing state into an instrument for public welfare. The British Labour Party, through its right wing (MacDonald and Thomas), was thoroughly nourished by Fabian reaction and largely adopted its ideology.
In contradistinction to the Communist strategy—“workers of the world, unite”—the social democratic British Labour Party attempted to link the destiny of the British working class with that of the British bourgeoisie by promulgating the notion that the capitalist state was reformable and could be forced to act in the interest of the proletariat. On the eve of imperialist war, which could only bring death, impoverishment and misery to the working class, the British Labour Party called for the patriotic defense of the fatherland. It was at this decisive historic moment, as the parties of the Second International embraced the politics of social patriotism, that Lenin broke from their ranks and called for the creation of the Third (communist) International.
The British Labour Party, which contained great numbers of subjectively revolutionary elements, was, in the final analysis, dominated by its right wing. The right wing had the distinct advantage of a thoroughly consistent program based on the strong national bourgeois ideology: for tradition and experience, for the nation, for the maintenance of the ruling class. It became the historic role of this party, during the war and in the subsequent misery of the depression, to organize the betrayal of the working class and to bring to the proletariat the ideas of the bourgeoisie.
As Britain entered the era of the 30s and the great depression, the situation of the British proletariat was desperate. The British bourgeoisie, weakened by war, bogged down by its own industrial conservatism, outstripped by both German and U.S. capitalism, was quite incapable of granting any concession to its working class. As a measure of the depth of the coning crisis, one needs only to note that by the mid-20s, Britain’s key industry, coalmining, was unable to pay its workers without a subsidy from the state. In response to their own economic collapse, the capitalists began a counterattack, hoping to lay the burden of crisis on the backs of the proletariat.
The social democratic British Labour Party, which constituted the leadership of labor, immediately began to give ground, surrendering without a struggle reforms and concessions which had previously been extracted from the capitalist class. The social democrats recognized that, given the bankruptcy of the capitalist system, to struggle in this period for significant politico or even economic gains would pose before the proletariat the question of the conquest of state power. As Trotsky observed in 1925:
The social democrats—created by capitalism and destined to perish with it—were forced by history to attempt to defend the existing order. At this critical moment, the masses were confronted with their historic task of the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois order with no revolutionary vanguard to lead them. Instead, they were tied to a social democratic labor aristocracy, the “lieutenants of capital in the working class” (Lenin), which would stood at every point as an obstacle to revolution.
It was in the historic context of the intensification of class struggle in Britain in the 1930s that the British documentary was born. As a political movement in film, its outlook was social democratic. This is not difficult to prove. Grierson, the organizing force of the movement, is quite specific in defining its origins:
This does not mean that the British documentary was directly affiliated with the British Labour Party. On the contrary, the documentarists complained with some bitterness about the lack of support from the laborites. Ironically, they were forced to seek sponsorship from the right-wing Tory government. This sponsorship was a source of embarrassment, since it exposed the bourgeois character of the documentary movement. As Grierson states, with uncomfortable good humor:
It is nonetheless true that the British documentary movement adopted as its own the ideology of social democracy. The documentarists’ films were destined for a working class audience, but they were produced by the capitalist state or by the capitalists themselves. As Lenin pointed out, social democracy represented an historically developed ideology through which the bourgeoisie communicated with the proletariat. Caught in the class forces of depression Britain, the documentarists did not so much choose social democracy as they were an historical product of that movement. Although individual filmmakers, such as Rotha, occasionally moved to the left in response to the militancy of the working class, they were irresistibly drawn, under the pressure of bourgeois sponsorship, to defend the existing order.
In the following paragraphs I will attempt to present the major components of the documentary ideology and their relationship to the politics of social democracy. I will place special emphasis on Rotha’s and Grierson’s contributions, as they were the political theoreticians of the movement. Rotha was the left face of British documentary and its more serious thinker. As such, he felt impelled to reconcile the movement’s burning contradictions. Grierson, on the other hand, was the movement’s right wing, its essence, a bureaucrat who did net hesitate to assert, for example, that the “socialist” revolution had somehow taken place in Britain in the 1950s (unbeknown to the British proletariat). The diverging of views is only apparent. The British documentary’s political program was thoroughly consistent.
The documentarists, in particular Rotha as left pole, were faced with the task of resolving the obvious contradiction between the “proletarian” orientation of the documentary and its subservience to bourgeois sponsorship and control. In seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable, Rotha is inevitably forced to deny the class character of the state. The documentarists, like the Fabian social democrats, subscribe to the idea that the state (the army, the police, the parliamentary, judicial and executive bureaucratic apparatus), rather than being an instrument by which one class maintains domination over another, is a structure though which class antagonisms can be reconciled.
In The German Ideology Marx combats the idealist, Hegelian conception of the state as standing above class divided society. He asserts that, on the contrary, the state exists precisely because of class oppression:
It is this erroneous conception of a classless state which is at the root of the politics of the British documentary film, and on this foundation the documentarists formulated their ideas of film as a force for social transformation.
In his analysis of the social aspects of documentary film (Documentary Film, 1936), Rotha propounds the idealist view of the relation between society and the state, and on it he builds a “strategy” for the salvation of the working class. This strategy follows, in fact, the scenario developed by the Fabians for the peaceful seizure of power, except that Rotha’s version grants a key role to documentary film. Rotha notes first, with a symptomatic note of fear, that Britain is in a period of massive social upheaval in which there is a singular “lack of collective enthusiasm” (in the form of militant strikes and mass disenchantment with the state). He observes, with something more than British understatement, that “present methods of ordering society are in some cases proving inadequate ...” (p. 47) In order to eradicate social upheaval, Rotha suggests that, since “democracy” has been mismanaged by the greedy few, the “ordinary citizen” must step in and save Britain by returning it to the control of the majority:
Hence Rotha propagates the Fabian myth that state control of the economy can cure the national economic disaster and consequently alleviate the misery of the masses. His assertion is based on the supposition that the state is an impartial body which belongs to the whole people and through which, by democratic means, the working class can control the greedy impulses of capital. Rotha not only denies the class nature of the state but also implies that crises, instead of being an integral part of the capitalist economic cycle, can be eliminated without the overthrow of capital itself. Obviously the documentarists’ idea of social transformation had nothing to do with revolution. What they proposed was a scheme—and an unrealistic one—for returning the nation to the conditions of “healthy” capitalism.
The problem is (the scenario continues) that the working class is not “intelligently equipped.” That is, it has suffered from a class-biased educational system. Hence, it has been prevented through ignorance and consequent apathy from taking its proper place in the mechanism of bourgeois democracy. This is the fault not only of the educational institutions but also of the mass media, which are in the hands of industry and serve to lead the public down the primrose path. Rotha concludes that cinema, “one of the most influential factors in the guidance, of public thought,” must be liberated from capitalist trade control so that it may participate in the “economic and morel regeneration of the world.” (p. 57) In this scheme of things, how is cinema to achieve its liberation? Through what Rotha calls propaganda:
The obvious models of liberated cinema are the EMB and GPO film units. Hence, propaganda is to be produced for the state, which, since it is not class dominated, is capable of creating an educational instrument for the liberation of the oppressed classes. In State and Revolution Lenin exposes the reality of this kind of “democratic” fantasy:
According to Rotha’s political theory, documentary film liberated itself from capitalism by allying itself with the “impartial” state. And yet, strangely enough, Rotha and the documentarists did not disapprove of sponsorship by industry. In fact, they sought it out, as the Shell Film Unit’s 17-year existence proves. One can legitimately wonder what exactly constitutes British documentary’s independence from capitalism. Rotha gives us the following answer: What is essential in determining the ideology of cinema is not the ideological message it communicates nor the political forces which act on it, but simply the process by which it is produced. The “entertainment” film is produced in the capitalist manner, in emulation of “modern manufacture.” That is, it is a commodity produced on a large scale and for profit. The documentarists’ films, on the other hand, are created in a “collective” manner through the cooperative effort of individual filmmakers.
This simplistic reasoning—which characterizes most “independent” filmmakers in this country who think of themselves as “political”—explains Rotha’s excessive hostility to Hollywood. On the basis of this analysis, Rotha quite easily dismisses Hollywood as political and artistic “whoredom” and those critics who appreciate Hollywood film, as the equivalent of “partly educated teenagers flashing swastikas and cloth iron crosses.” It is of course undeniable that Hollywood films as a whole are infused with bourgeois ideology and that the filmmaker is subject to political and artistic constraints. But to counterpose to the “entertainment” film the capitalist- or state-sponsored propaganda film as a model of “free” cinema is absurd. The irony is that cinema directly controlled by industrial sponsorship or by the state must submit to the most direct kind of political interference. And this is what Rotha’s Documentary Diary eloquently confirms.
The social democrats and the documentarists shared an ambivalent—in reality, hostile—attitude toward the world communist movement. As Engels observed in a letter to Karl Kautsky (September 4, 1592), the Taylor “socialists” are “united only by their fear of the threatening rule of the workers....” It was essential, however, for the social democrats, as they addressed the working class in time of crisis, to assume a left posture. This included an appreciation for far-away revolutionary movements, in particular for the Soviet workers’ state.
It was, at the same time, essential for the social democrats to make it clear that the lessons of the October revolution could never he applied to Britain. Consequently, they sought refuge in a theory of exoticism. The Russian revolution was simply a product of that country’s peculiar political traditions, ethnic collates and climes. Britain had its own enduring political forms and its national genius for “democracy.” The documentarists, like the social democrats, were fond of quoting Marx, and even Lenin, who had exposed social democracy for what it was. But they were, in fact, much fonder of Stalin, whose theory of “socialism in one country” obviated the international revolutionary perspective and, in a sense, validated the theory of exoticism. The social democrats, in their desperate desire to prove that workers are incapable of ruling society, took advantage of Stalinist reaction, i.e., that a bureaucratic caste had usurped the political power of the working class in the Soviet Union. In so doing, they ignored Russia’s profound social revolution and the socialized property forms which continued to exist, even under the political role of Stalin and his bureaucracy.
Grierson expresses it this way,
In the domain of the arts, documentarists were, for the same reason, enamored of Stalin’s policies. Grierson, who called the Soviet filmmakers the forerunners of documentary, was quick to disassociate himself and his movement from the early revolutionary period and its insistence on class war (POTEMKIN, THE END OF ST. PETERSBERG):
Grierson frankly condemns the early Bolshevik policy on art, which called for the independence of the artist, as a disastrous indulgence. He greeted the Stalinist policy of state censorship and artistic control with a sigh of relief.
In fact, Grierson pointed to the Stalinist policy of state interference in the arts as a model. With this gesture to the left, he justified his own thoroughly reactionary theory, which proposed the direct political appropriation of the cinematic art by the bourgeois state.
What Grierson, Rotha, and the documentarists counterposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat was the alternative of a “community” of classes, the obvious precondition of which is class peace. One of the principal propagandistic aims of the documentary movement was to “make peace exciting” (Grierson), i.e., to prevent the eruption of class struggle. Pacifism as an ideology is thoroughly reactionary in that it is directed, not at the purveyors of war, the capitalist class, but at the working masses, who are, as it is, disarmed, and who are daily subjugated by class violence. It was the mission of the Empire Marketing Board film unit to “bring the empire alive.” That is, it aimed to convey to the public the idea that British colonialism was developing into a benevolent venture that would bring the international working class and exploited peasantry into a harmonious cooperative relationship:
Grierson correctly points out that imperialism had created an international economy and an international division of labor. But what he obviously ignores is the colonial and class violence under which this “internationalism” functions. He ignores the crucial fact that, although the international working class does share the labor of production, it does not produce for its own needs but for the profit of the bourgeoisie. Films such as Basil Wright’s SONG OF CEYLON , sponsored by the British Tea Consortium, are deliberate obfuscations of the burning issues of colonialism and class oppression.
This celebrated EMB-GPO production describes the cultural differences between do colonizer and colonized, the contrast between advanced capitalism (railroads) and mauve “backwardness” (elephants), the frenetic pace of British business versus the gentle manners of the Ceylonese—all of which are skillfully edited together. Montage, as the British documentarists understood it, did not present a world of conflict. Rather, it was a method for reconciling contradictions. Wright uses contrast, not conflict, and submerges the reality of colonial oppression in the primeval foliage and harmonious rituals of Ceylon.
On the home front, the documentarist worked for the maintenance of class peace and asked the British proletariat in the throes of the depression to “make an art from what we have ...” They consistently avoided raising any significant economic or political issues in their films since to do so in this period of profound crisis was to question the legitimacy of bourgeois rule. To evade the question of exploitation of labor, the documentarists portrayed the proletariat as existing in an economic and political vacuum.
This extremely circumscribed and depoliticized representation of reality often relied on the old symphonic style of the European avant-gardists of the 20s. The images of modern life are torn from their social context and delivered to us as abstractions. Typical subjects of the documentary are the beauty of men at work (INDUSTRIAL BRITAIN, Flaherty, 1933) or the heroism of the collective effort which makes the mechanism of industrial society function. It was as if the greatest task confronting the proletariat were to propel a train to the summit of the Scottish highlands, encouraged in verse by Auden and in music by Benjamin Britten (NIGHT MAIL, Basil Wright, Harry Watt, 1936). When the documentarists did address the social problems of the depression, they did so in a journalistic style so innocuous that the critical misery of the proletariat could be exposed by the Gas Company, sponsor of HOUSING PROBLEMS (Anstey & Elton, 1935)
In Documentary Diary Rotha ends his discussion of the documentary movement at the outbreak of World War 2. It was, Rotha asserts, the war which killed the documentary film. On the contrary, this was the period of its most successful integration into the state, the period of its flowering. The documentarists were at first so caught up in their own pacifist rhetoric that they did not see where opportunity lay. But after a short period of stagnation, due in part to the unenlightened policies of the Ministry of Information, government sponsorship of documentary began in earnest. The filmmakers could for the first time work without the sad task of having to “educate” government bureaucrats. The documentarists, collected into the Crown Film Unit and under the leadership of Alberto Cavalcanti, found themselves installed at Pinewood studios with ample personnel and the latest equipment at their disposal.
World war 2 had come to fulfill Lenin’s prediction of 1914:
The social democrats, and in their wake the documentarists, came to the defense of the “fatherland,” that is, to the defense of the interests and privileges of British imperialism. In the “struggle for democracy” against fascism, they seemed to have forgotten that it was the British government which had sided with Hitler in his rise to power. As Lenin had shown, the only answer to imperialist war is socialist revolution. The politics of the British documentary in this period were the politics of open class collaboration. Instead of proposing a working class offensive against imperialism, it attempted to defeat class consciousness and to tie the British proletariat to its class enemy.
It was perhaps Humphrey Jennings’ films which best exemplified the documentary spirit during the war years. While other documentarists were realizing film’s potential as an arm of military technology (training and technical films, reconnaissance films, etc.), Jennings became the “humanist” poet of war. In LETTER TO BRITAIN (1941), perhaps his best known film, Jennings uses montage as a cinematic structure which reconciles in an imaginary construct the antagonistic interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He orchestrates a “symphony” of Britain at war, the music of armament factories, dance halls, transport trains, and the concert at the National Gallery where the Queen Mother and proletarian war widows listen to Myra Hess play Mozart.
The history of British documentary film provides an illustration of cinema’s predicament in the epoch of decaying capitalism. As a mass art, cinema is extremely influential in the development of mass ideology. It is also the most susceptible of all art to bourgeois domination. It needs capital in order to exist as an art form. Diego Rivera and André Breton, in their “Manifesto: Toward a Free Revolutionary Art,” Partisan Review, Autumn, 1935), quote the young Marx as saying:
Most cinema, because of the financial conditions of production, is a business activity, and the independence of the filmmaker from capitalism is problematic from the beginning. The British documentary film does not represent a solution. Despite their independence from the film trade and despite their innovations in production and distribution of films, the documentarists did not succeed in liberating their art but simply made bourgeois domination more directly political by allying themselves with the state. What Marxist critics must reproach the British documentary film with is that it failed to expose the contradictions of the decadent capitalist social system. Wittingly or not, it made of itself a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Succumbing to the dominant ideology, it sowed illusionism to its working class audience concerning the ultimate reformability of capitalism, and it promulgated the politics of class collaboration.