Peter Morris. 'Re-thinking Grierson: The Ideology of John Grierson'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 20-30.
John Grierson can be considered a characteristic European intellectual of the 1930s, a member of the generation born around the turn of the century which grew to maturity during the period of post-war pessimism, cynicism and disillusionment and came to occupy positions of influence then.(1) This period was one during which older intellectual ideas lost prestige and new ones took their place. It was a period in the arts in Britain that gave rise to such radically different approaches as, on the one hand, aestheticism, formalism, art-for-art's sake and rejection of Victorian sensibility and, on the other, an approach that emphasised social purpose and the political role of the artist in a way that was almost social-messianic in spirit. It was also a period that witnessed a major struggle between fascism and communism - two political philosophies often considered radically oppositional which, in fact, shared many common ideological points of origin and dogma. One writer has characterized fascism as a special kind of socialism - "a socialism of class collaboration, not of class conflict" in which the worker was to enjoy a respected, but subordinate role within a strong nation.
Though the post-war period was one of apparently conflicting extremes, there was a strand of thought common to all: a central conviction that civilization was in crisis and, if a solution were possible, it would have to be a total one. That crisis was assumed to have been caused by the ideas of a former generation in the 19th century. So the new intellectuals revolted against those ideas: against positivism, against the world of matter and reason. They disputed the rationalistic foundation of individualism and of liberal society and pointed to the muddle in which liberal democracy had become mired. In sometimes identical terms they deplored the mediocrity and materialism of modern life, especially that of industrial life in the large cities. In place of claims that human behaviour is governed by rational choice, they argued that sentiment, feeling, intuition and instinct - the irrational - were of more significance in both politics and aesthetics. Almost inevitably, it seems, they came to see their role as rescuing society from itself, perhaps even despite itself.
John Grierson's ideology can only be understood within this larger intellectual climate. And I shall try to point to some of the more specific sources of his thinking in this context. But Grierson also, of course, had his own personal background and academic training. Some of the influences in his early years - like Calvinism, the philosophies of Kant, Hegel and Fichte - go back earlier than the late nineteenth century. I shall try to show, however, that these earlier philosophical influences do relate quite precisely to more narrowly defined influences of Grierson's own time.
It is possible to distinguish three strands of Grierson's ideology: those that relate to what he himself called "political philosophy", those that relate to aesthetic issues, and those that relate to organisational and practical issues. These strands are by no means separate and distinct. Indeed, I want to argue the opposite: that, for example, Grierson's views on production methods mesh with his political philosophy and aesthetics. And that, most certainly, his political philosophy necessarily generated a particular organisational vision and a set of aesthetic criteria.
Grierson sometimes referred to himself as primarily a "political philosopher." I'm not inclined to dispute that self-appraisal - even though Grierson would often use the term to deflect debate in other directions, such as film matters. However, the strongest continuing thread in both his published and unpublished writing is political philosophy.
Grierson, however, never makes his political philosophy explicit and certainly rarely refers to its sources. The two key exceptions here are the philosopher Kant and the political scientist, Walter Lippmann. When he is more explicit about his philosophy this is often simply part of an essay about something else - education or propaganda or the role of the filmmaker as public servant.
I want to approach an analysis of Grierson's political philosophy from two directions, on the one hand from the perspective of his origins and education and the ideas that appear to have influenced him; and on the other from the perspective of what Grierson wrote at the peak of his influence and prestige in the mid-thirties to mid
It is generally well-known that Grierson came from a Calvinist background. In particular, his family had been members of the very rigid sect known as the "Wee Frees". Calvinist attitudes involve a rigorous sense of discipline and obligation and a sense of duty to the community combined almost paradoxically with a rebellion against establishment orthodoxy. Calvinism was bitterly opposed to international capitalism, to banking and international finance yet, at the same time, saw wealth as a sign of the grace of God and, conversely, that poverty was deserved. Grierson himself was a lay preacher during his university years.
When Grierson studied at the University of Glasgow, the philosophy department was dominated by neo-Kantianism and the Scottish school of Hegelianism. If the mixture seems a curious one, it is perhaps best exemplified in the person of Edward Caird who held the chair in Moral Philosophy at Glasgow for some thirty years in the late nineteenth century. Caird's philosophy, and that of other Scottish philosophers at the time, was based on a re-interpretation of Kant using Hegel and German idealism as a guide. Grierson was to refer to Kant many times in his later essays and one of the last of his writings includes an almost exact paraphrase of Edward Caird's argument that our knowledge of objects will be imperfect except when we recognize that they are only partial aspects of the ideal whole towards which reason points. This has relevance especially in relation to Grierson's aesthetics, most particularly his view that observational cinema, direct cinema, was incomplete, a "cul-de-sac" that, almost by definition, does not point to "the ideal whole."
However, it was the idealism of Hegel that was to become a more formative influence - not least in terms of Hegel's analysis of change and his belief in progress, a progress that only comes about through opposition. One can see the influence most clearly in Hegel's analysis of social ethics. Hegel shows how the family entails first, civil society and how civil society then entails the state. Individuality has meaning only within the state, so that the state is the supreme embodiment of freedom. Hegel says states are organisms and that the mature state has thought and consciousness. States relate to each other like persons. The state is "the march of God in the world."
This Hegelian notion of the state is central to Grierson's ideology. I now quote from a letter Grierson wrote after the war, a letter that was, in part, a defence of his activities in Canada during the war:
My personal view is that such total planning by the state is an absolute good and not simply a relative good ... I do not myself think of the attitude I take as deriving from Marx - though this undoubtedly will be suggested - but from Fichte and Hegel. My view of the State, as you know, is that it is only through the State that the person and the will of the person can be greatly expressed. Here I am in sufficiently good academic company not to have particular qualms about attack.
Grierson was also, and perhaps more immediately, influenced by A.D. Lindsay, who held the chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow during Grierson's last two years there. Lindsay was a philosopher with not only a direct interest in political theory but also in practical politics. He participated - as Grierson did - in the radical socialist politics of Glasgow at the time. Lindsay was to continue to be active in left-wing politics throughout his career. But for Grierson the experience was traumatic - he once referred to it as "the smashing of an idyllic viewpoint." He came to regard practical politics in general and the party political process in particular as futile and, in fact, themselves seminal elements in creating the chaos and confusion of contemporary democracy.
One of Lindsay's key arguments was also to influence Grierson directly. Lindsay argued that ordinary people, workers in particular, lacked the education and knowledge to make informed political decisions. Lindsay himself went on to play an influential role in adult education for workers.
Lindsay was almost certainly instrumental in introducing Grierson to the work of the pioneer British political scientist, Graham Wallas - an author whose writings would likely have encouraged Grierson's pessimistic conclusions about the political process. Wallas' book Human Nature in Politics created a major stir when it was first published in 1908. Wallas (who was one of the original Fabians) argued that there was a basic, inherent flaw in liberal democracy - the flaw of human nature itself. Humans were not essentially rational beings as liberal democrats had assumed; they were essentially irrational and acted more by instinct and feeling than by reason. The irrational masses therefore did not - and inevitably could not - make informed political judgements. They voted more with their hearts than their heads. One consequence of this had been the rise of political parties as a kind of simplification of the issues. But political parties themselves had actually further undermined liberal democracy by distorting it, by introducing symbols and stereotypes. Wallas suggested, as Lindsay did later, that schemes to increase the knowledge and public spirit of voters were essential. Wallas also argued that the role of public servants needed re-examination in the light of the more complex world of technical decision-making. As experts in particular areas, they would inevitably come to play an increasingly powerful role and thought should be given to their method of appointment and their responsibility to the public at large.
Grierson's years in the United States did not essentially affect or challenge these initial influences. His supervisor at the University of Chicago was Charles Edward Merriam, a political scientist who had studied the rise of the party system in the US and who advocated centralized state planning and the use of technocrats in government. One of his books, The Making of Citizens (1931) essentially echoes both Wallas' book and Lippmann's book, Public Opinion (1922).
Grierson often referred to Walter Lippmann in later years and sometimes implies that his book was a revelation to him. It might be said, more properly, that Lippmann's book crystallised for Grierson many of the ideas with which he was already familiar. Most of them certainly, are there: Kant on perception, Hegel on the state, Machiavelli on power; psychologists (especially William James) on instinct, irrationality and the possibility of reshaping people's attitudes; sociologists on the ills of the modern world; political scientists on the failures and inherent weaknesses of liberalism. But Lippmann also goes farther than Wallas and other writers. He not only demonstrates that ordinary people, being irrational, could be manipulated. He analyses how the process takes place, the process he calls "the manufacture of consent." No one individual, says Lippmann, could know everything about everything and liberals had misdirected democracy into assuming this was true. What, in fact, was true throughout history was that leaders, with access to information the public did not have, necessarily made choices about what the public should know. It followed that every leader was always, in some sense, both a censor and a propagandist. Lipmann writes that leaders, because they had access to facts not known to the public, had to be prepared to use their knowledge:
When quick results are imperative, the manipulation of the masses through symbols may be the only quick way of having a critical thing done. It is often more important to act than to understand...there are times...when two conflicting opinions, though one happens to be right, are more perilous than one opinion which is wrong.
One might think here that Lippmann was both a prophet of modern politics and of TV advertising. But in any case, Lippmann's term for this "manipulation of the masses through symbols" was "the pictures in our heads." This comes interestingly close to Hegel's term "picture making" in relation to religion - something Hegel felt was all the masses were capable of. In suggesting there was a purpose to such manipulation, Lippmann not only looks back to such uses of "picture making" by the Catholic Church but also anticipates their use by fascists. When Grierson wrote about propaganda he not infrequently referred back to earlier uses of propaganda by the Catholic Church.
Lippmann also argued the merits of an increased role for expert advisers, for technocrats, in both government and industry. Politicians, like the general public, did not have the time to know everything about everything. They had discovered a need for a "disinterested expert" who "finds and formulates facts for the man of action." The expert, said Lippmann, will "exercise more power in the future than ever he did before, because increasingly the relevant facts will elude the voter and the administrator."
In his later book, The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann took this argument a stage further. He wrote that he "set no great store" on what could be done "by public opinion and the action of the masses," and argued that liberalism "remained an incomplete, a disembodied philosophy" primarily because it could not deal with the fact that people "submit unconsciously to the desires of the mind" instead of acting rationally. In the decision-making process there is a fundamental difference between what Lippmann calls "insiders" and "outsiders". Lippmann goes on to argue that education ought to be different for "insiders" and "outsiders":
Education for citizenship, for membership in the public ought to be distinct from education for public office. Citizenship involves radically different intellectual habits and different methods of action. The force of public opinion is partisan, spasmodic, simple-minded and external. It needs for its direction (emphasis mine)... a new intellectual method which shall provide it with its own usable canons of judgement.
Lippmann's arguments seem to have confirmed for Grierson not only that the public was irrational - and, therefore, necessarily removed from proper political judgement - but so, also, were politicians themselves. Only the expert, the technocrat, knew what was going on. Lippmann's writings, of course, have a distinctly elitist tone, not to say a potentially authoritarian one.
What is also true about Walter Lippmann's writings is that they reflect a body of neo-conservative thought in Europe that was very influential around the turn of the century. I am referring here to such theorists as Charles Maurras, Georges Sorel, Giuseppe Mazzini, Pierre Lasserre, Vilfredo Pareto and others whose writings were later to form a theoretical rationalization for the European fascist parties. I don't intend to explore these ideas in detail, only to suggest that there are a number of threads common to all of them.
Firstly, an absolute rejection of romanticism, liberalism and individualism. The neo-conservatives argued that their position was classical. Classical thought considered the state as logically prior to the individual, as the condition for the fulfillment of the individual's nature and destiny. Necessarily, this carries the implication that an individual's obligations to the state are more significant than individual rights.
Secondly, a profound distrust of international capitalism and financiers, though not, of course, of private enterprise capitalism. The neo-conservatives argued that capitalism should be made to serve the state, that capitalism owed obligations to the state just as the individual did.
As a corollary to this, the neo-conservatives emphasised the role of the state as a centralized planning agency, a powerful decision making apparatus that relied predominantly on technocrats, experts and managers. This was thought necessary to counteract the inherent weaknesses of the parliamentary system. Socialists had originally developed this idea. And, though the neo-conservatives rejected Marxism (especially the notion of class struggle) it is interesting to note that some of them - such as Georges Sorel - had once been Marxist socialists. As indeed, had Walter Lippmann.
The third element brings us back most clearly to Lippmann. Liberalism and Marxism had both argued people would understand their best interests and act in consequence. The neo-conservatives adopted the new psychological theories to argue that since the masses were irrational they could not be expected to act in their own best interests. In essence, this was no more than an elaboration of Thomas Carlyle's definition of freedom: that freedom is the right of the ignorant man to be governed by the wiser. Curiously enough, this contempt for the irrational masses was paralleled by an almost mythic faith in the prestige of labour - or, as the contemporary aphorism put it: "hail the hero worker."
Let me now try to bring all of this back to John Grierson's writings. Certainly, he admired Walter Lippmann and said so several times. But there is no direct evidence he was familiar with the neo-conservative ideas to which I've referred - with three, relatively minor exceptions. Firstly, he once said he "got as much from Gobineau as he did from Marx." Gobineau is the nineteenth century French writer best know for his racist theories. Secondly, Mazzini is quoted approvingly on the obligations of citizens to the state in a National Film Board (NFB) documentary. And, thirdly, and perhaps more significantly, two of Grierson's favourite terms - corporativism and corporate - were crucial conceptions in the neo-conservatism of Charles Maurras and were adopted by the Fascist movements. One might also add that he referred to Carlyle as "in some ways one of the greatest exponents of this documentary idea." Taken together, they at least suggest he had some awareness of neo-conservative ideas.
But, an analysis of Grierson's writings does reveal quite close affinities between his political philosophy and that of the neo-conservatives. For example, one of the single most important continuing threads in Grierson's ideology is the argument that Romanticism was in its last phase. Though this occurs on several levels, it is almost invariably coupled with individualism and with liberalism as a political philosophy:
For three hundred years we have had our focus on the individual. We have distinguished him from the objective world as the Middle Ages did not think of doing. We have given him the world and the universe as a playground for exploration and discovery. We have built our State on the freedom of personal adventure... In fact, the individual outlook becomes less and less valuable and more and more harmful unless it is transmitted into the corporate outlook.
The cultivation of sensibility on purely personal lines may, in fact, be the very worst training for a world where only the corporate and the cooperative will matter... Many have worked in this field from Machiavelli to Lippmann - some academically like Machiavelli and Lippmann, some more practically like Lenin. And the upshot of recent study is a sense of the impossibility of pursuing the old liberal individualist and rational theory on which so much of our educational planning is based.
One of Grierson's most revealing essays in this connection is one titled "Education and the New Order" (the term "New Order" was one used by the neo-conservatives). In this essay Grierson tells a story about growing up in a small Scottish village and about his father who was a school teacher. It is a story Grierson also recounts in similar terms in other essays and speeches. He recounts how his father had a philosophy that was:
strictly individualist. Education gave men a chance in the world. It put them in good competitive standing in a grim competitive world ...(But)... Behind it all was the dream of the 19th century - the false dream - that if only everyone had the individualist ideals that education taught - free men in a free society - each in independent and educated judgement - would create a civilization such as the world had never seen before.
In this essay Grierson goes on to argue why this system failed:
The very effect of the education they were given... was to make men think; and, thinking, they became less and less satisfied with the miserable pays they received. The life of the village became more and more affected by strikes and lock-outs. As amalgamations were developed, the employers stood even further and further away and the battle for wages and safety and securities became the fiercer as the fight became more abstract - as decisions came to depend on massed unions and massed corporations.
The implications of this paragraph are obvious: liberal education led people to understanding, but understanding led only to conflict and pain. Note, too, the reference to "massed unions" and "massed corporations" - two targets of neo-conservative thought. In fact, Grierson often refers to international finance and international corporations. As, for example, in a discussion of the romanticism of Robert Flaherty, he writes in reference to Nanook and the spear Nanook used to catch a walrus:
You may, with some justice, observe that no spear, held however bravely by the individual, will master the crazy walrus of international finance. Indeed, you may feel that individualism is a yahoo tradition largely responsible for our present anarchy.
Incidentally, Grierson exhibits a remarkable faith in the possibility of co-opting capitalism into the service of the state. This is apparent in one direction in terms of his belief that large corporations could be persuaded to accept a role in sponsoring films that were (as he puts it) "in the national interest." In another direction, it is reflected in his belief that Hollywood could be co-opted to serve the interests of countries other than the United States. During the war, he suggested that Hollywood had come to recognize its role as "a public utility." Indeed, he built what he calls his "Film Policy for Canada" in 1944 precisely out of the notion that Hollywood could be co-opted into serving the national interests of Canada.
Grierson was not at all afraid, even during the war, to use terms such as "totalitarian" and "authoritarian":
You can be "totalitarian" for evil and you can also be "totalitarian" for good. Some of us came out of a highly disciplined religion and see no reason to fear discipline and self-denial. Some of us learned in a school of philosophy which taught that all was for the common good and nothing for oneself and have never, in any case, regarded the pursuit of happiness as anything other than an aberration of the human spirit. We were taught, for example, that he who would gain his life must lose it. Even Rousseau talked of transporting le moi dans l'unite commune, and Calvin of establishing the holy communion of the citizens. So, the kind of "totalitarianism" I am thinking of, while it may apply to the new conditions of society, has as deep a root as any in human tradition.
In another speech he argues that democratic states had adopted "measures of authoritarianism which, the moment a country is driven to a common and total effort, prove completely logical and completely necessary."
I have already referred to Grierson's concept of the state as essentially Hegelian and classical. This concept runs right through Grierson's writings but here are two very clear examples: "The State is the machinery by which the best interests of the people are secured. Since the needs of the State come first, understanding of these needs comes first in education." And this: "We have a need for a vast new system of education by which people will be made aware of the needs of the state and of their duties as citizens."
Grierson made clear several times that his view of the state involved what he called "a moving toward each other of Capitalism and Socialism," a technocratic society that would emphasise centralized planning. Here is one example:
My view... would be that we are entering upon a new and interim society which is neither capitalist nor socialist, but in which we can achieve central planning without loss of individual initiative, by the mere process of absorbing initiative in the function of planning.
Given Grierson's concept of the state, it is perhaps of interest to consider Grierson's recollections in later years of his feelings about being demobilized from the Navy at the end of the First World War. He wrote: "I was scared to leave the disciplined, coordinated, harmonious life of the navy, where you knew exactly where you stood and what you had to do, and for your well-ordered duty received in return a well-ordered security."
I have already suggested that Grierson referred to the state and to the corporate as though they were linked. Indeed, the two terms together with "corporativism" constantly recur in his later writings - though the latter is sometimes linked with "co-operativism."
Corporativism was originally a socialist idea but the term "corporate state" originated with the neo-conservative Charles Maurras. Both terms were adopted and expanded, by two Italian Idealist philosophers, Giovanni Gentile and Ugo Spirito and their ideas became central planks in the ideology of Italian Fascism. Though philosophical discussions of corporativism and its practice became quite complex, the basic principle is simple: the state run as though it were a large corporation with a board of directors looking after policy and management and a group of skilled and trained experts or professionals actually handling operations. The shareholders might get a say from time to time but, in effect, knew nothing and, necessarily, could know nothing of the actual running of the company. It is a vision that coincides precisely with Grierson's own. Realizing this helps explain why Grierson would have used what was quite well-known Fascist terminology during the Second World War. It also explains quite precisely Grierson's approach to education, propaganda and the documentary film as a tool in relation to them. The approach derives from the vision of a technocratic elite who could indeed know "everything about everything" and the irrational masses who, of course, could not. As he said, the State could not afford:
..amateur judgements on matters beyond the general citizen's sphere of understanding ... The needs of the state in this great period of revolutionary change are urgent; and the citizen has neither the leisure nor the equipment for the promiscuous exercise of his mental and emotional interest ... for except the citizen's mind be so predisposed and shaped in its essentials he will find himself ... utterly at sea.
Grierson also makes plain that he is not talking simply about communicating government policies to the general public. Consider this:
The oblique paradox of propaganda is that the lie in the throat becomes, by repetition, the truth in the heart. And, consequently, the art of propaganda or public information becomes one of the most powerful forms of directive statesmanship (emphasis mine). The place of the educator and the artist in society changes entirely to one of definite social constructiveness.
This paragraph makes clear Grierson's views on the role of the public servant, the "expert" in government - a view he actually spelled out in detail in a letter to a Canadian cabinet minister after the war. The public servant in Grierson's view, was not merely a follower of policy, an interpreter of policy. The public servant created and initiated policy. It was this attitude that, almost inevitably, led to Grierson's difficulties with both the British and Canadian governments.
It also becomes apparent in Grierson's writings that the propagandist's communication with the public was not to be based on reason. How could it since the masses were irrational? It was to be based on instinct, on what Grierson often called "giving a pattern of thought and feeling." Or, as he says in the quote I gave earlier, predisposing and shaping the mind of the citizen.
One final point about Grierson's political philosophy. Class, class struggle and class conflict are concepts about which Grierson has relatively little to say - except to suggest that class conflict was essentially futile and that notions of worker management were impracticable. Interestingly enough, the same is true of other "conflicts" that might tend to disrupt the unity of the state. Such conflicts tended to be dismissed or negated. For example, when he discussed regional differences in Canada, these were constantly negated as "sectionalism" which would inevitably disappear as Canadian unity grew. Grierson quotes Paul Valery approvingly on the question of conflicts:
Political conflicts distort and disturb a people's sense of distinction between matters of importance and matters of urgency. What is vital is disguised by what is merely a matter of well being.
If we turn now to the question of aesthetics, some similar patterns of thought emerge. Grierson tended to avoid aesthetic debates, preferring to push the issues into what appear to be higher philosophical realms - as, for example, his statement that, "The penalty of realism is that it is about reality and has to bother for ever not about being `beautiful' but about being right." The catch here is that we have to know what Grierson meant by `realism.' And here, again, we have to bear in mind his origins and the origin of his political philosophy. Realism aside, for the moment, though he was careful to make clear that he was not anti-art, that what he was doing was indeed art. An example is when he discusses what he calls his "affection for the medium ... but I was always scared I might be found out, so I was careful to say the Hell with Art. The more I pursued it, the more I was careful to denounce my own pursuit of it." Though in later years, he was more explicit about the basis of his aesthetic, in general he tends to prefer such vague generalities as "the creative treatment of actuality" or "the documentary of work and workers." It is, however, possible to disentangle the threads of a consistent aesthetic approach. Consider, for example, his dislike for what he usually called the `merely observational' kind of film alongside his well-known definition of documentary as "the creative treatment of actuality" together with the quote I mentioned earlier about "the penalty of realism." Compare them with this statement by Hegel on art:
True reality lies beyond immediate sensation and the objects we see every day. Only what exists in itself is real ... Art digs an abyss between the appearance and illusion of this bad and perishable world on the one hand, and the true content of events on the other, to re-clothe these events and phenomena with a higher reality, born of the mind ... Far from being simple appearances and illustrations of ordinary reality, the manifestations of art possess a higher reality and a truer existence.
Or consider Grierson's several attacks on formalism, his rejection of the notion that the artist has "a personal right ... to express himself as he pleases." One clear example of this is his appraisal of the Soviet cinema of the twenties:
The Russian directors are too bound up - too aesthetically vain - in what they call their `play films' to contribute to Russia's instructional cinema. They have indeed suffered greatly from the freedom given to artists in the first uncritical moment of revolutionary enthusiasm, for they have tended to isolate themselves more and more in private impression and private performance ... For the future, one may safely leave them to the consideration of the Central Committee. One's impression is that when some of the art and all of the Bohemian self-indulgence have been knocked out of them, the Russian cinema will fulfill its high promise ... The revolutionary will almost certainly "liquidate" as they put it, this romantic perspective.
In a later essay that also used the Soviets as examples, Grierson was at pains to point out that he did not disregard the significance of form as such:
The degree of fresh and dynamic and progressive attitudes may be measured in terms of lines and masses as well as the choice of subject matter ... The Russian attack was not an attack on this significant aspect of form. It attacked a theory of significant form, which suggested that form was at its best when it was significant of nothing on earth; and in fact it attacked the pretention of the artist that he had no immediate obligation to society and the system under which it operated.
That this is not an entirely fair appraisal of what occurred in the Soviet Union is not particularly relevant here. What these passages make clear are Grierson's attitudes on formalism and form.
It should be noted, too, that Grierson was not at all opposed to modernist art, to abstract, non-representational art. None of the modern art forms, he points out, had been initially accepted by the dominant aesthetic of their times.
Such manifestations I account as representing the creative leadership of the new forces of thought and appreciation which attend changes in technological pattern and therefore of the pattern of human relationships in society.
There is an implication in this essay that Grierson counted himself among "the creative leadership of the new forces of thought." This is something I'll return to in a moment.
Given Grierson's disapproval of formalism, it might be assumed there could be no more obvious disjunction than that between Grierson and the Aestheticism of the Bloomsbury Group in the twenties and thirties. This extraordinarily heady group included Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and, not least, the aestheticians of the group, Roger Fry and Clive Bell. I want to suggest that the differences are more apparent than real, that the ideologies mesh quite closely in many ways and, indeed, stem from the same sources.
I want to begin with two quotations, the first by John Grierson - in fact, one of his most famous ones:
They tell us that art is a mirror - a mirror held up to nature. I think this is a false image ... In a society like ours, art is not a mirror but a hammer. It is a weapon in our hands to see and say what is right and good and beautiful, and hammer it out as the mould and pattern of men's actions.
The second is a statement by Clive Bell, a statement that has been described as "nearly a pure Aestheticist view of art":
To pronounce anything a work of art... is to credit an object with being so powerful a means to good that we need not trouble ourselves about any other of its possible consequences.
If those two statements appear to head in different directions consider replacing "work of art" in the second by "documentary film". Or consider another statement by Clive Bell, from his book Civilization (1927):
To be civilized society must be permeated and, what is more, continually nourished by the unconscious influence of this civilizing elite ... The majority must be told that the world of thought and feeling exists ... To point the road is the task of the few.
Told about a "world of thought and feeling" is almost exactly Griersonian - as in, "It is a question of giving people a pattern of thought and feeling ..."
Is "art is a hammer" in essence very different from what the Bloomsbury Group argued? Art, if you like, as a means to improve the soul, art to rescue society from itself. They differed in means perhaps but not in their underlying assumptions. The roots are in fact the same - the reaction to dominant nineteenth century ideas.
I have already argued that Grierson's ideology can best be understood as part of a larger reaction to dominant ideas of the nineteenth century - ideas about rationalism, positivism and so on. One aspect of this nineteenth century world-view was the art style known as Realism. Without going into this in any detail, it is fair to say it was based on observation, empirical formulations of direct experience and the assumption of a transparent style, or even a style-free style. From Realism, and its notions of a transparent style, comes the corollary that art is a mirror image of visual reality. This is, of course, a kind of mystification itself since Realism was no more a mere mirror image of reality than any other style. But it is this commonplace notion about Realism that Grierson is reacting to in "his art is a hammer" piece - just as he had reacted to other dominant nineteenth century ideologies. It is in this sense, it seems to me, that Grierson thought of himself among the "creative leadership of the new forces of thought and appreciation" - thought of himself as, indeed a member of the avant-garde.
The Bloomsbury Group were also reacting to the dominant Realism of the nineteenth century and to such Victorian ideas on art as those of John Ruskin and William Morris who had attempted to create links between art and the general public. The common point of contact between Grierson and the Bloomsbury Group is not only this but Hegelian Idealism. And if I were to locate a specific point of common reference it would be the aesthetics of Benedetto Croce - the only aesthetician to whom Grierson makes direct reference and whose theories, especially on intuition, also form the basis of the Bloomsbury Group's approach.
It would be possible to examine in detail Grierson's various uses of such terms as `real', `reality' and `realism'. I don't intend to do that here. But I would suggest that any such analysis would lead to the conclusion that Grierson was not a Realist (as is often, unthinkingly, assumed) but an Idealist - as much in aesthetics as he was in political philosophy.
I have also not attempted to analyse here Grierson's choice of subject matter for the films produced under his direction. An examination of this has already begun elsewhere by others. There are, though, a few general points worth noting. Firstly, although Grierson speaks of a "documentary of work and workers," it is clear he is only speaking of some work and some workers. Indeed, the list of those not included seems more remarkable in retrospect than those who were included. I give just one example: absent is any depiction of the group of workers to which Grierson himself belonged - the technocrat in government. One would have thought that in Canada during the war, giving "a pattern of thought and feeling" to Canadians about the war effort would have included at least some analysis of the contribution of public servants. But the Canadian films - and the British films before them - are dominated by images of industrial workers. These images are invariably those of industrial workers contributing their share towards a larger collectivity. One is reminded, inevitably, of the notion of "hail the hero workers." It is perhaps not insignificant to recall, here, that one of Grierson's early essays was titled "The Worker as Hero."
Secondly, the vision is always optimistic. Problems exist but are always solvable - usually by the state but sometimes by some abstract notion of the "collectivity" as a metaphor for the state. It is in this sense that we can understand Grierson's opposition to the film, Housing Problems. This was not solely in terms of its essentially observational approach but also because it presents a problem that is not clearly solved. As Edgar Anstey said in a recent interview: "Grierson thought that social criticism... could be dangerously negative. He believed that the documentary was at its best when it was being constructive and not critical." It is also in this same sense that we can, I think, understand Grierson's initial successes and later difficulties in both Britain and Canada. And this brings us to the third aspect of Grierson's ideology - the organisational.
It is probably obvious from some of the points I've already made why Grierson would adopt the state as the primary sponsor of documentary films. His Hegelian conception of the state was the determining factor in his vision of the role and purpose of the documentary film. So it was logical, indeed necessary, for the state to support its production and dissemination. But note that it was an Idealist conception of the state, not the state of political parties, practical politics and Cabinet government. Inevitably, this Idealist vision was bound to clash with the world of practical politics - as, indeed, it did in both Britain and Canada. Inevitably, Grierson's vision of himself as one of the leaders "of the new forces of thought and appreciation" would clash with the policies of his political masters - cabinet ministers who did not agree with Grierson's view that technocrats, not politicians, created policy. On the one hand, the Griersonian documentary was initially welcomed because it celebrated the state and encouraged identification with the collectivity. On the other, it was rejected when it came too close to the political process. That Grierson indeed saw himself as a visionary leader is clear from an interview he gave late in life:
If you think I do not feel I have been in the business of conditioning the imagination of mankind, you're crazy. But then every goddam rabbi, every prophet, every priest before me has been in the business of conditioning the imagination of mankind. I derive my authority from Moses.
There is a hint here - and in Grierson's ideology in general - of a possible explanation of why the British did not want Grierson back during the War. It is evident from Grierson's correspondence at the time that he fully expected to be offered a senior position in British information. Certainly, on the surface, one would have expected the British to make full use of the democratic world's most famous expert on propaganda and information. However, Grierson was not offered any position in Britain and many of his letters to his former colleagues during the war are full of bitterness about alleged weaknesses of British information in general and British documentaries in particular.
It is generally well-known that in Britain before the war there were many people in positions of power who favoured British accommodation with Germany, if not full collaboration. When Churchill became Prime Minister none of these people were prosecuted. They were simply moved to less sensitive positions. Among them were some members of the Imperial Relations Trust for whom Grierson was working on contract. I do not know whether there is any direct evidence that Grierson was suspected of being a collaborationist. But his views on the state and on liberal democracy were well known. This, together with his contempt for politicians and his reputation for interfering with the political process, could well have been enough to leave a suspicious question mark regarding his loyalty.
Curiously enough, all this also helps explain why he was initially so successful in Canada. Grierson wrote during the war that he had turned Prime Minister Mackenzie King "from a liberal into a totalitarian." I think he was fooling himself. Mackenzie King already had, at least, tendencies in this direction.
Canada was then going through a massive phase of centralization under the guidance of a cadre of key civil servants. This group believed in state intervention in the economy, in central planning and a diminution of the power of the provinces. Grierson's term "sectionalism" that I referred to earlier was, in fact, a term used by this group. As one historian has written: "Power had to be concentrated in the hands of the only government that could achieve these ends - and at the disposal of the only civil servants in the nation with the vision and skills to make Canada the kind of country it could and should be." It is apparent that Grierson's ideology would mesh quite closely with those of this group. And, indeed, much of his rhetoric during the war echoes the rhetoric of those other technocrats.
If we look at Grierson's organization of production, there is a similar reflection of his ideology. Grierson did not organize production in the various units he headed in the usual hierarchical pattern, the usual vertical structure with a chain of command. Production was organized in a manner very close to that associated with Max Weber's charismatic leadership structure: essentially a lateral or horizontal system with virtually everyone reporting directly to the head of the unit. Virtually everything went through Grierson.
Further, almost everyone hired initially in Britain and Canada was young and inexperienced. Most of them had little knowledge of films, let alone film making itself. There were, perhaps, some valid practical reasons why it was necessary for at least some of these people to be hired. But in both Britain and Canada, there were experienced directors, writers and cinematographers around who could have immediately brought a level of professionalism to government film production - and avoided all those numerous anecdotes we've all heard about the amusing side of learning on the job.
But Grierson preferred to hire young people, inexperienced in film. And in all the dozens of later interviews with those film makers one constant image recurs: the image of a Messianic father figure gathering his children around him and teaching the laws of the land. "I derive my authority from Moses."
It's impossible, now, to attach a particular political label to John Grierson. Fascism has become reduced to a simple term of abuse, divorced from its original political philosophic context, from its neo-conservative ideology. And fascism never developed a common basic dogma, as communism did. Though measuring against dogma has, of course, its own traps. I have, though, tried to show that Grierson's ideology shares, at least, common points of origin with neo-conservative thinking of the late nineteenth century.
In any case, I prefer to apply to Grierson a story that took place in the Canadian House of Commons in relation to a Cabinet Minister, C.D. Howe. Mr. Howe had the reputation of always wanting to get his own way. An opposition MP one day accused Mr. Howe of being a fascist. When the Speaker insisted the phrase be withdrawn, the MP replied: "Well, if Mr. Howe objects to being called a fascist then, of course, I withdraw the remark. I will simply call him an authoritarian with totalitarian tendencies." And, that, I think is not an unfair summary of the ideology of John Grierson.
1. Peter Morris provided us with his conference paper as delivered - unfortunately it was without references. As the paper attracted the most controversy at the conference we were anxious to publish it - even if it meant that many of its tantalising quotations were not sourced. We took the position that it was important that the issues about Grierson the paper raises be aired before an Australian audience through an Australian publication; and that the work of Peter Morris, this important film scholar be given an Australian hearing. Those interested in the paper's sources should keep an eye out for Morris' forthcoming book on Grierson.
This is a characteristic Griersonian argumentative ploy: asked a question on aesthetics he would respond he was a propagandist.