The Earle Birney – Malcolm Lowry Connection

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The eminent Canadian poet, Earle Birney (1904-95), and the late-modernist writer, Malcolm Lowry (1909-57) shared not only a supportive, Vancouver friendship (ignited by Sybil Hutchinson in 1947) involving the patronage of each other’s verses. Their deeper connections were rooted in shared experiences under the influence of Marxist ideas in 1930s England.
A self-proclaimed “working-class boy,” Birney was radicalised towards Marxism whilst studying for a Toronto PhD during the Great Depression. Attracted to the Young Communist League, he was won over to Trotskyism in 1933 by Kenneth and Sylvia Johnstone. Convinced that the Communist position was “basically unMarxist” for failing to build a united front against Hitler, he co-launched a branch of the International Left Opposition (Trotskyist) of Canada and organized political groups in Utah. Yet it was in the UK in 1934 that he co-led (with Esther Heiger, C. L. R. James, and others) the Marxist Group within the Independent Labour Party. His correspondence with Trotsky culminated in a visit to Norway to seek advice. His doctoral thesis, 1930s criticism, and literary works – including “David” and Down the Long Table - were shaped by Marxist aesthetics.
A Cambridge undergraduate in English in 1929-32, Lowry was aware of the appeal of Marxism to many UK intellectuals. He became involved in political debates hosted by the Haldanes at Roebuck House and contributed to The Venture and Experiment. Liaising with the “Cambridge Five,” he was impressed by Guy Burgess who lent his surname to a character in his thirties novel, In Ballast to the White Sea (2014) - a treatise on communism and revolutions of politics and the soul. Inspired by Waldo Frank, he ensured that Trotskyism and its impact on Mexico are central themes in Under the Volcano (1947) and praised the election of a Marxist government in British Columbia in 1952.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-77
Number of pages29
JournalUniversity of Toronto Quarterly
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2022


  • Earle Birney
  • Malcolm Lowry
  • Marxism
  • Trotsky
  • modernism
  • Vancouver


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