Sometimes Writers Have to Take Sides

11 minute read
Watling is the author of Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War. She holds degrees from the University of Cambridge and the University of London.

The first thing I ever knew about the poet, journalist, and activist Nancy Cunard was a commanding broadsheet she dispatched in the summer of 1937, containing the challenge that, decades later, would spark the questions that prompted my book, Tomorrow Perhaps the Future. She addressed it to many of the most important writers of Britain and Ireland, sometimes sending multiple copies with the idea that they’d pass them on. It made its way to George Bernard Shaw and Evelyn Waugh; to T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett; to Rebecca West, Rose Macaulay and the Woolfs; to Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden. It reached Aldous Huxley and George Orwell; Vita Sackville-West and Sylvia Pankhurst. It went to Vera Brittain and H. G. Wells; to Rosamond Lehmann and her brother, John; to Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner, Valentine Ackland.

Nancy printed her missive in black and red and addressed it, broadly and grandly, to ‘the Writers and Poets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales’. Large type announced: THE QUESTION. Along the left-hand side of the sheet was added, vertically: SPAIN.

The Question (though technically there were two) appeared perfectly straightforward. ‘Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the People of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism?’

Nancy assured her writers that she would publish the answers they chose to send, by which she meant: you are asked to state a position publicly. As far as she was concerned, not taking a position was impossible.

Nancy Cunard
Photo shows Hon. Nancy Cunard, daughter of Lady Cunard and apparent heiress to the Cunard steamship millions, who has taken up residence in the Grampion Hotel in Harlem while gathering material for a new book.Bettmann Archive

The project centered around her fundamental and appealingly simple belief in the value of taking sides, and on an arresting proposition: that history will sometimes present moments when convictions have to be decided upon, when lines are drawn that must be acknowledged.

The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 when a group of disaffected generals – including Francisco Franco, who would emerge as their leader – attempted to launch a coup against their country’s elected government. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany offered decisive material support to Franco’s side (the nationalists) while the Republican government received from its fellow democracies in France, the United States, and Great Britain only a queasy refusal to intervene. As the Republic battled to survive this well-resourced attack, relying on a tenacious popular resistance to the military takeover and on arms from Soviet Russia and Mexico, many observers understood the war as an opportunity to halt the global advance of fascism: one that their own governments seemed loath to take up.

Almost a year into the war, Nancy Cunard was framing things like this: ‘It is clear to many of us throughout the whole world that now, as certainly never before, we are determined or compelled, to take sides. The equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do.’

More from TIME

These were the questions I had in response: what happens when the stakes of political life have become so high that people no longer feel neutrality is an option? Can the mere act of declaring a ‘side’ be of any value? And do writers really have any particular responsibility – or, indeed, any special right – to weigh in on the causes of the day? By the time I finished the book, many writers around the world had been asking themselves that final question. Just last year, PEN America held an ‘Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers’ in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet the crises deemed relevant to practitioners of literature went beyond the war. ‘In this moment of chaos and violence,’ the chief executive, Suzanne Nossel, said, ‘we can address what the role of the writer is, as we face down the rise of authoritarianism, disinformation run amok, social fissures that are widening here in this country, and a surge in book banning and threats against free speech.’ In the late 1930s, writers were mobilizing to address very similar trends, but not all of them agreed that it was their place to do so.

When the idea of a pamphlet announcing the partisanship of Britain and Ireland’s most eminent writers and intellectuals occurred to Nancy Cunard – who had already spent months in Spain as a journalist in 1936, and would return in 1937 and 1938 – she assembled twelve additional signatories (all of them male) to the questionnaire, but later claimed it solely as her own. It was she who drafted the questions, arranged for them to be printed in Paris, and came up with a list of recipients. Names kept on occurring to her, until she had mailed out over two hundred copies. The cooperation of the other signatories was in fact of little significance. ‘Had every one of them said “No”,’ she told a scholar in the sixties, ‘I should have made the little work all the same – and how! You see in those days there did exist ENTHUSIASM for what was felt to be good and right and true.’

Her enthusiasm, it turned out, was matched by others. The pamphlet eventually consisted of 148 replies, but at least twenty-five were left out for space, which implies that a great proportion of Nancy’s dispatches hit home. In London, the Left Review agreed to publish it. They printed 3,000 copies of Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War and immediately sold out.

Nancy had not limited her outreach to writers she knew or to those she assumed would agree with her, but she was convinced that the results would overwhelmingly favour the Republic, and she was right. Of the printed responses, only sixteen chose neutrality, and just five were against the Spanish government. (The responses left out for space were all pro-Republican.) In Paris, she had sorted the answers herself, categorising them as ‘For’ the Republic, ‘Against’ or ‘Neutral?’ without adhering to any particularly discernible method, just as her basis for approaching respondents had hardly been scientific. Some of those who ignored her commands and chose to equivocate were overruled and placed in the ‘For’ pile, when perhaps they intended to be ‘Neutral’. On the other hand, there were statements published under ‘Neutral’ that could convincingly have been designated as ‘For’. And at least Nancy did allow for Neutral. The phrasing of her questions had been unashamedly leading. The point of the questionnaire was not to achieve a balance of opinion. The intention was to publish a declaration.

‘It is to be hoped that some methodical person has made a collection of the various manifestos and questionnaires issued . . . during the years 1936–7,’ Virginia Woolf later remarked, taking a very dim view of the ‘inquisition’ to which she felt herself subjected in those days. ‘Private people of no political training were invited to sign appeals asking their own and foreign governments to change their policy; artists were asked to fill up forms stating the proper relations of the artist to the State, to religion, to morality . . .’

Some of the hostile responders assumed that Nancy was asking them to choose between fascism and communism, which she wasn’t; others assumed she would leave out anything unfavourable to her pro-Republican position (their responses duly appeared in the pamphlet). Not everyone was convinced that the simple act of declaring themselves could be of much use. Rebecca West, sending hers in, worried that ‘six lines is terribly little and it sounds very trite and boring’. E. M. Forster could not share Nancy’s conviction ‘that manifestos by writers carry any weight whatever’.

Nancy’s questionnaire was in a sense asking too much and asking too little. It is all too easy to sit down in some quiet place, compose a few lines, and settle back satisfied in the fulfilment of a civic duty. ‘To scribble a name on a sheet of paper is easy,’ Woolf pointed out in the book she was writing that summer, but an expression of opinion was not ‘positive help’. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine intellectuals baulking at nailing their colours to the mast as publicly – or as simplistically – as Nancy wanted. A war in someone else’s country was surely more complicated than she was prepared to allow.

Yet it’s not difficult to see why Nancy thought the project important. At the League of Nations in Geneva, she had witnessed the Republic’s fellow democracies still refusing to confront Germany or Italy over their ‘invasion’ of Spain. ‘While the powers pass resolutions,’ she had reminded her readers, ‘international Fascism kills.’ With so much relying on changing the narrative outside of the country, harnessing the opinions of articulate public figures – the publishers listed forty of them down the front cover – and having them sound the alarm in their cumulative authority was a sensible, even inspired, contribution. Her pamphlet was a signal that what was happening in Spain was a matter of gravity and relevance. The following year, Donald Ogden Stewart took up the idea and canvassed American authors in Writers Take Sides: Letters About the War in Spain from 418 American Authors. John Steinbeck and William Faulkner were among those who put their opposition to Franco on record.

Barcelona Crowd Waiting For Franco Troop
Barcelona populace greets Franco troops after city's successful seige by rebels. Undated photograph.Bettmann Archive

Nancy wasn’t asking her respondents to merely lament ‘how wicked it all is’, as George Orwell would accuse her, but, in stating a side, to do something more difficult: to forsake such unimpeachable generalisations in favour of specifics. But in the pamphlet that emerged, the particularity of Spain – its history and traditions; the nature of its political scene – often fell by the wayside. Many took Nancy’s cue in using it as an opportunity to voice their suspicion of the fascist powers in Europe. Nancy had set up a symbol that allowed her correspondents to continue their own debates. To read the pamphlet is to see a cohort of writers pondering their place in the world.

When Nancy asked James Joyce for a response to the pamphlet, she received a strident telling-off. Joyce would provide no such thing, she later told his biographer, ‘because it [was] “politics”’. ‘Politics’ was ‘getting into everything’. T. S. Eliot replied to her request with the opinion that ‘at least a few men of letters should remain isolated’, claiming a special position for writers – a place above the fray. The author and traveller Norman Douglas, one of her closest friends, boasted, ‘If Fascists annoy me, I hop it. If Communists annoy me, I hop it,’ turning neutrality into merely the good fortune of having options.

But Nancy’s exhortation to writers was more than just a statement of faith in their influence. She also saw in fascism an implacable enemy of the arts. Most of her responders regarded fascism – particularly as demonstrated in the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini – as not just hostile to intellectuals and repressive of artistic freedom but antithetical to culture: mere ‘barbarism’, as Leonard Woolf and others put it. (As it happened, ‘barbarism’ was also how Franco described socialism.)

The poet Valentine Ackland expected both ‘reason and tenacious courage’ from artists: attributes required for making a stand. After all, the deployment of reason alongside the imagination helps us to make sense of phenomena confronting us. Writers, whether identifying as intellectuals or artists, are dealers in trust. They have to be able to convince, on some level at least, if they want their creations to move and engage. This, I think, is why Nancy saw writers endowed with a special responsibility towards truth, why they were the natural enemies of fascist movements that warped and suppressed it.

As any censor knows and fears, in the arts there are secret languages which can encode, and thus protect, independence; that can entrench dissent in realms where it is difficult to identify and impossible to root out. ‘A press is very dangerous!’ Nancy once wrote of her time as a publisher in the 1920s. ‘It means the dissemination of ideas.’ Responding to her questionnaire, Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine, pointed out that the aggressive aims of fascist states required a populace that was ‘rendered both warlike and servile’ – the ‘stultifying’, in other words, ‘of the human race’. When a system relies on the prevention of independent thought, the use of the intellect (the dissemination of ideas) becomes a primary form of resistance.

Adapted from Sarah Watling’s new book, Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War, published by Knopf

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.