Reading Group at Pushkin House, Friday 28 October, 5.30PM – Elinor Taylor on James Barke: The Novel, The Nation and the International

The Anglo-Russian Research Network will be holding its autumn reading group at 5:30 on Friday 28 October at Pushkin House, Bloomsbury. We are delighted to welcome Elinor Taylor of the University of Westminster, who will be introducing the work of James Barke and exploring his overlapping engagements with both Communism and Scottish Nationalism. The texts can be downloaded here. These are password protected: please contact Rebecca Beasley ( or Matthew Taunton ( if you would like to attend and we will gladly send you the password.

This session will explore the ‘national turn’ proposed by the Comintern in its Popular Front phase (1935-1940) through the work of the Scottish Communist writer James Barke, and will aim to assess the relationship between Communist revaluations of the nation and contemporaneous debates over literary form.

At its Seventh Congress in 1935, the Comintern’s General Secretary Georgi Dimitrov asserted the need for a Communist-oriented, populist cultural politics that would directly challenge fascist claims to national legitimacy. This call was attended by the increasingly unyielding endorsement of socialist realism as Soviet cultural doctrine. While English Communists met the call for a reclamation of national cultures with an outpouring of texts on historical themes in a range of genres and historiographic styles, for Communists elsewhere in Britain it was far from clear that Scottish or Welsh cultural traditions could be celebrated without any reference to questions of political constitution, nor was it clear that traditional realist forms could adequately encompass the complex class, national and regional dynamics of their communities.


James Barke, a Glasgow shipyard engineer, produced two novels directly engaged with the national politics of the Popular Front: 1936’s experimental Major Operation and the more conventionally realist The Land of the Leal (1939), and was an active participant in public discussions of the relevance of Scottish national culture to the anti-fascist struggle. Through extracts from these two novels, from Barke’s other writings on the national question, and from the work of his friends and correspondents, this session will consider how Barke negotiated, accommodated and resisted the national turn in his work, and how we might read the transition from modernism to realism in his work.

The texts we will be reading (available here) are:

  • an extract from Barke’s Major Operation
  • an extract from his The Land of the Leal 
  • some short selections from Barke’s correspondence with Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Neil Gunn, as well as from his Left Review essay ‘The Scottish National Question’
  • Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s essay ‘Glasgow’
  • extracts from a couple of unpublished letters and a Manchester Guardian article

Elinor Taylor is postdoctoral teaching and research fellow in English at the University of Westminster, London. She is the author of a forthcoming monograph, The Popular Front Novel in Britain (Brill 2017), and of articles on British Communist writers published or forthcoming in Keywords: A Journal of Cultural Materialism and Twentieth Century Communism. She has also written for Radical Philosophy, the TLS and Socialist History, and is a member of the executive committee of the Raymond Williams Society.