John Cornford

Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound: Collected Writings

Edited by Jonathan Galassi

Fyfield Books, Carcanet, 238pp., $14.99

The Spanish parliament voted in September 2018 to exhume the remains of Francisco Franco, and to remove the remains of the fascist dictator from the site of the giant mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid, which also contains the bodies of tens of thirty-four thousand victims of the 1936-39 civil war. Only two graves are named, Franco’s own, and that of Primo de Rivera, who founded the Falangist party. The grimmest aspect of the whole business is that the other bodies were disinterred from graveyards all over Spain; they were supposed to be those of both republicans and nationalists, united finally in a grisly gesture of reconciliation. The site is surmounted by a 150-metre high cross, and was built 60 years ago, during the reign of El Caudillo, partly by captured republicans and political prisoners. The families of the tens of thousands other dead combatants hope that DNA testing will allow them to identify their loved ones, so that they can be reinterred in the churchyards from which they were dug up.

​It is not obvious that all these old bones will qualify for re-burial in Spain, for some are the remains of members of the various International Brigades; and many of them were not fighting for Spain at all, but for an ideology represented by one of the sides in the conflict. I was struck recently by a comment by Sir Max Hastings, who was speaking about his new book, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75. When the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam morphed into the Viet Cong, this force was no longer fighting a patriotic war for love of country, but for a cause – communism. This is precisely what motivated some of the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. They knew little about Spain, some did not even speak the language, and they were not fighting for love of Spain, patriotism, or admiration of its culture. They were fighting in Spain because the communist parties of their home countries urged them to do so. John Cornford is a chilling example.

John Cornford was a prodigy in everything – even his death. Although his name rings few bells today, his brief life made him a hero to a generation of left-leaning people in the English-speaking world. The exact date and manner of his death in the Spanish Civil War isn’t known (his body was never found), but he perished in the battle for Lopera on, or the day following, his twenty-first birthday, December 27, 1936. He got a First Class degree in history at Trinity College Cambridge at eighteen, at nineteen fathered a child, and at twenty, was the “first Englishman to enlist against Franco,” says poet, novelist, translator and publisher Jonathan Galassi[1] in the introduction to his new edition of Cornford’s collected writings. Its title, “Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound,” is taken from one of his handful of poems. Poet and polemicist, lover and soldier, Cornford was both a great-grandson of Charles Darwin and a doctrinaire communist.

Born to privilege, Cornford ardently embraced the dictatorship of the proletariat he believed he was witnessing in Catalonia (like George Orwell, he was charmed by the abandonment of “Señor” and other titles of respect). Tall, with dark, rugged good looks emphasized by pronounced cheekbones, his apparent expression of vanity was to dress badly. A self-conscious class-warrior, he nonetheless broke with Ray Peters, the Welsh working-class mother of his son, and took up instead with Margot Heinemann (1913-1992), who, though of German Jewish descent, was, like him, born into Britain’s intellectual upper-middle class. Galassi sees this short life of contradictions as providing “all the necessary raw material for the forging of a myth,” adding, “as the protagonist of several different sagas, Cornford has served the dramatic needs of a number of ideologies.”

In one, he’s the re-embodiment of Rupert Brooke (for whom he was named –Rupert John Cornford discarded his first name as soon as he could). This quixotic version has him dashing off to Spain to defend freedom with his own father’s WWI revolver. Cornford’s contemporaries who celebrated him as a latter-day Brooke weren’t aware of, or didn’t mention, the furious hatred Brooke felt for his erstwhile, anti-War, conscientious objector, gay Bloomsbury friends – stemming largely from Brooke’s own confused sexuality. Nor the snobbery that led Brooke to court the Asquiths in Downing Street, while abandoning the woman he’d made pregnant (Ka Cox, 1887-1938) and the actress (Cathleen Nesbitt, 1888-1982) who loved him and told me that though they never had sex, she had hoped to marry him.[2] The fable fudges the fact that Brooke never saw battle, but died from an infected fly-bite suffered aboard a ship moored off the island of Skyros during the Gallipoli campaign; and it cloaks the plan—involving Churchill, who wrote the Times obituary of Brooke, and his private secretary, Eddie Marsh, who adored Brooke, his much younger fellow-Cambridge Apostle – to make the embittered versifier appear to have been a war hero.

A second, “liberal left” Cornford story, saw him as epitomizing “the spirit of all advanced and progressive mankind.” This view, held by people formerly comfortable with the idea that communism was both benign and inevitable, vanished with the revelations about Stalinism that, says Galassi quoting Hannah Arendt, “forced them ‘to give up all belief in history as the ultimate judge of human affairs’.”[3] A truer version of the Cornford myth emphasized his loyalty to the Party, holding that he’d been one of “the most dedicated, brilliant and unswerving of Party members, whose death seriously retarded the development of Communism in Britain.”

There’s a nod to this last in the attitude of Bernard Knox (1914-2010), the great classicist, a war hero on the American side who later took U.S. citizenship. He went to Spain because his friend Cornford “had come back from a first foray into Spain to recruit fellow Communist students at Cambridge and Oxford to follow him into the war against Franco’s fascists.” Knox told Garry Wills this, adding that “Cornford, a poet and charismatic leader, was ‘the most extraordinary person I have ever known…. Perhaps it was the fierce single-mindedness of his thought and action that compelled admiration’.” [4]

The myth-making began soon after his death. John Cornford: A Memoir (1938), edited by Party stalwart, Pat Sloan, featured recollections by Cornford’s father and brother, and by Knox, along with some alarmingly prodigious schoolboy essays, letters to friends and to Margot Heinemann, plus some poems. Moreover, it contains Cornford’s essay “The Situation in Catalonia (Hitherto Unpublished),” which agrees with Orwell’s account in Homage to Catalonia in its details of the Spanish Republic’s utopian dictatorship of the proletariat – in everything except Orwell’s disillusionment. Cornford died before what Orwell saw as the game-changer, the “May days” of 1937 battle for Barcelona’s telephone exchange, which separated the anarchist sheep from the Stalinist goats, and has kept Trotskyists arguing fissiparously ever since.

In 1966 Peter Stansky and William Abrahams published Journey to the Frontier: Two Roads to the Spanish Civil War, their careful double biography of two much-mourned Cambridge men killed in the conflict: Cornford, and the Bloomsbury-related, elder by seven years, Julian Bell (1908-1937). In the case of Cornford, this fastidious account is probably the only biography of him that will ever be needed.

In his own introduction (his new edition also has contributions by Richard Baxell and Jane Bernal, Margot Heinemann’s daughter), Galassi comments that Sloan’s compilation itself “helped to foster the ‘liberal’ myth about its subject,” remained silent on some matters, such as Ray and his illegitimate son, and was on the whole “eulogizing.” He acknowledges Stansky and Abrahams’ “impeccable reliance on detail,” but is critical of their interest in their subjects’ supposed heroism, as it makes their narrative “fundamentally romantic.” This he thinks is inevitable, because of John Cornford’s “reputation as a poet.” Stansky and Abrahams were well aware of the trap, and say that almost as soon as they began their research, “it became evident that in our phrasing of the question” of why young men such as these went to Spain to fight, “we had been misled by legend, which has tended ever since 1939 to overpopulate the Spanish conflict with poets, especially young English poets…” They say eighty per cent of the English volunteers for the International Brigades were working-class, often unemployed and certainly not poets (though the writers Ralph Fox, Christopher Caudwell were another pair of communist casualties in Spain.)

From our longer viewpoint, the answer to why they fought in Spain seems obvious: their Communist Party membership. The Comintern urged British and American members to go to Spain, and there to pursue coalition with the Republican forces, and shun the “direct revolutionary tactics” favoured by the anarchists and Trotskyists.[5] Readers of Orwell will remember that it took him some time to work out the implications of this.

Of course there was a justified casus belli: the legitimately elected, left-wing, Second Spanish Republican government, formed following the departure of King Alfonso XIII, was subjected to a coup, ultimately led by General Franco, with the support of military groups, especially from the Spanish protectorate in Morocco, and with supplies, munitions and even troops from the German Nazis and Italian Fascists.[6] The Republican side was aided solely by the Soviet Union, while the UK, French and Americans maintained an official policy of non-intervention. Though there were atrocities committed by some on the Republican side, in some cases enthusiastically by Communists, even including some on the same side in the conflict, it was the Nationalist rebels whose murder-squad victims included many non-combatants.[7]

What would have become of Cornford, had he lived? Would he have remained a dogmatic Communist? The 21-year-old could not conceive of leaving the party: “Though Communism was my waking time, Always before the lights of home/Shone clear and steady and full in view/Here, if you fall, there’s help for you/Now, with my Party, I stand all alone.”[8]

Home was Cambridge, where his mother Frances Darwin (1886-1960), was a much-published poet. She wrote what became her close friend Rupert Brooke’s gaudiest epitaph: “A young Apollo, golden-haired,/Stands dreaming on the verge of strife./Magnificently unprepared/For the long littleness of life”, as well as the much-anthologized “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train,” with its couplet, “O fat white woman whom nobody loves, /Why do you walk through the fields in gloves?” His father, also named Francis (1874-1943), was a distinguished Cambridge classicist and author of the still-funny satire on academic life and politics, Microcosmographia Academica (1908), with its “doctrine of unripeness of time” (“people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived”) and the “Principle of Dangerous Precedent” (“Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”)

John, an older and younger sister and two younger brothers, lived in a comfortable Trinity College house, Conduit Head, in a Cambridge well supplied with Darwin cousins. Stansky and Abrahams speculate that, at the time of John’s birth in December 1915, because the father, an expert shot, had been safely “assigned to train recruits” at Grantham, only 60 miles away, “Mrs Cornford gave to her children, and to John in particular, a much more concentrated, undivided, continuous love and attention that would ordinarily have been the case.”[9] (The Cornfords were not exceptionally virtuous. Galassi prints Frances’s anti-Semitic riff of 2 December 1932 on the theme of “it is also a tragedy that Marx should be a Jew.”

Somehow instead of making him a spoiled brat, the consequence of such intense maternal affection was John’s remarkable self-confidence. Only 15 years old, and a boarder at Stowe School, he wrote comparing Frances’s latest poems: “Dear Mumma, I have just finished reading the ‘Tapestry Song’ which I did not like in the least. I did not think it one-tenth as good as the ‘Autumn Fantasia,’ which I nearly liked.” In a letter to Sidney Schiff (1868-1944, the translator of the last volume of Proust and, as “Stephen Hudson,” author of several novels) we gasp at the patronizing tone of the 15-year-old to the 25-year-old: “I sympathize with you about your work. I too am in something of the same position: several times this term I have had a poem utterly ruined by not being able to write it down at once”. To Frances, Schiff wrote about her adolescent son (16 April 1932): “The austerity of his intellect is quite outside of my experience of youth and the only naïveté I have so far perceived in him is in his apparent unconsciousness of his own apartness and in his ignorance of (innocence) the limits of his own consciousness.”

In September 1931, Cornford argued to his mother that he should be allowed to leave Stowe, and return home to study independently, as “I think that I should be able to learn as much or more than I do now in less time: and would leave myself a great deal more spare time to read and write what I wanted to. Also I might be able to make a certain amount of money from journalism of some kind.” You have to remind yourself that the writer of this letter was three months short of his sixteenth birthday. In the same letter he complains that the 10 o’clock bedtime “means altogether 9 hours in bed, [and] since I need so little sleep I have to waste about two hours a day doing absolutely nothing, not even sleeping.” (His mother responded that Dostoevsky “thought out the plots of 4 entire novels” in similar circumstances – when he was “in prison in Siberia.”) Worse, “I am distinctly bored by almost every one this term. I miss the intelligent people more than I had expected because I find that only by talking with them or writing can I ever really find out what I think about anything”. Yet he is not actually arrogant: he humbly tells his mother he has read three plays by Chekhov: “I am at present so puzzled by them that I am perfectly ready to believe I have misunderstood them from beginning to end.” The next month, Frances chides John for the hasty “small scrawly writing” that he has adopted because he thinks it “much more adult”: “I know you & I both have a certain amount of Darwin hand-clumsiness to contend with.”

On November 27 of the same year, Frances told her over-developed son a home truth: “Surely nobody at 15 can hope to be doing really original work?… All one can do is to react originally.” She gives an example: “When you were quite a small boy & I asked you what you were thinking about & you said: – ‘Whether Cromwell was really sincere’ or that you were wondering what Napoleon could have done for France if he’d cared more about France than himself – these were really original reactions.” But she suspects the pressure comes from the Darwin genes: “I feel you are wanting something too soon. This seems to me to fit into what I wrote about the unconscious demanding-too-muchness of all of us in this family.” And in this letter we learn that he is already flirting with Communism. Frances says her son is “a born generous person,” tolerant and forgiving to all other people. Why, she muses, is he so capable of being “ugly & cold blooded about only criticizing destructively” institutions, such as Stowe? She ends her letter: “I often wonder why Communism, which means giving so much more (far more than I can envisage doing) to an institution attracts you so much?”

Six months later (10 July 1932), he presents himself to his mother as a fully-fledged revolutionary: “The need for a revolution with fighting. I think all that is needed is enough force to hold up communications – telegraph besides roads and rails – and get wireless stations and newspaper offices. Army must be managed with fairly clever moderate propaganda…an election-organised party could never do it.” In September, still at Stowe: “I have bought myself a Kapital and a good deal of commentary on it… Also the Communist Manifesto, with which I was a little disappointed, though part of it was an extremely remarkable prophecy.” The 16-year-old was capable of reading critically, arguing to his mother that Marx “went wrong in applying terms like the class struggle (which is a legitimate abbreviation of what actually happens) as the whole and simple truth.” More flexible in his adherence to the party line than he was to become, he notes in this letter that Rajani Palme Dutt (1882-1957) later a leading theorist of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and for a time during Second War, its General Secretary “is extraordinarily intelligent but almost equally bitter.” He follows this with an announcement: “I have found it a great relief to stop pretending to be an artist.” How can we read this as anything but brattish pretension? Do we make a special concession for this teenager because we already know how his story will end?

When he entered Cambridge, still sixteen, Cornford instantly emerges as a strikingly mature student-journalist, with pieces such as “Art and the Class-Struggle,” “The Class Front of Modern Art,” (which show that his wide reading included not only Pound, Eliot, Auden and Spender, but also Rilke, Proust, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Louis Aragon). He also penned non-literary, increasingly doctrinaire pieces such as “The Struggle for Power in Western Europe,” and the purely polemical “What Communism Stands For,” in which he rehearses all the standard a priori arguments for Communism, and then denies them in his conclusion: “Communism is not a scheme of social revolution according to an abstract scheme of what seems desirable, but according to existing realities, which are the realities of capitalism.” He’s self-aware, though: “If there are certain assertions without sufficient factual material behind them, that is not because Communists in general are dogmatic, but because there is not space here for a comprehensive study.”

As a student-journalist Cornford got into a scrap with Julian Bell. Though both these young lives were to end in Spain, there was a curious difference in their Cambridge careers, as “Comrade” Bell had been elected to the elite secret society, the Apostles. Though Bell went to China for a year to teach, he became more and more convinced that it was his duty to fight fascism in Spain. He described himself as a Marxist, but found most Communists had “a hysterical and quite unrealistic notion about violent methods”.[10]

Why were John Cornford, and his equally clever friend and house-mate, James Klugmann (for whom Cornford’s son was named) not elected to the then-largely-Marxist Apostles? We know (from Klugmann’s biography by Geoff Andrews, The Shadow Man [2015], in which he says that this Communist Party theoretician was involved in a little light espionage) they came to the attention of Apostles such as the Soviet spies Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Alister Watson, and can be fairly confident that they knew the leftist Michael Straight and the communists Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Sykes Davies. Both, I’ve no doubt, were vetted and considered “embryos,” potential members. Perhaps Cornford and Klugmann’s Communism was non-Apostolic, having too much in common with narrow religious faith; Cornford was thoroughly heterosexual, which would have been regarded by some Apostles as a disqualification.

In a long letter (written as a diary entry, 1-30 August 1936) to Heinemann, Cornford avers: “I am beginning to find out how much the Party and the International have become flesh and blood to me. Even when I can put forward no rational argument, I feel that to cut adrift from the Party is the beginning of political suicide.” This was prompted when four Spaniard soldiers left the Party because “they genuinely believe” that the Communist International “has deserted the revolution.” While it is admirable that this twenty-year-old boy-soldier has the grace to admit that his lack of Spanish means he cannot really argue with or completely understand them, an earlier passage in this document chills: “The party was my only other love. Until I see you again, bless you my love, my strength. Be happy. I worked for the party with all my strength, and loved you as much as I was capable of.”

[1] Galassi (my own publisher) originally assembled this collection of Cornford’s work when he was at Cambridge himself in 1976, having made a social connection with the family.


3 Galassi, p.xii, Arendt, The New Yorker, 20 Jan 1975

4; in Stansky and Abrahams he is disguised as “Andrew Knight”

5 Galassi, xvii.

6 There was “a large contingent of Italian troops” in the battle of Guadalajara, and the German Condor Legion was involved in the bombing of Guernica. Paul Preston, The Last Days of the Spanish Republic, 2016, pp.12-13.

7 See Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2016); Paul Preston, The Last Days of the Spanish Republic (2016); Jeremy Treglown, Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 (2014).

8 Section 3 of his most often quoted poem written in Spain in 1936, “Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca.”

9 Galassi, p. 142

10 Stansky and Abrahams, p. 301