The more highly public life is organised the lower does its morality sink; the nations of today behave to each other worse than they ever did in the past, they cheat, rob, bully and bluff, make war without notice, and kill as many women and children as possible. 

E.M. Forster, ‘Liberty in England’ (1935)

On a blisteringly hot day in 1935, the writer E.M. Forster gave the opening speech to the first International Congress of Writers in Paris. His speech feels uncannily relevant today. The congress had been organised by the French author, and later government minister, André Malraux against a background of disintegration and fear in Europe. Hitler was rearming Germany. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia was imminent. Franco had taken complete control in Spain and killed thousands of people. 

Malraux, a communist who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), invited leading radicals to the Congress, including Bertolt Brecht, Louis Aragon, and surrealist André Breton. Amongst such a crowd, Forster’s presence seems at first sight surprising. He accepted the invitation out of desperation. The whole world seemed to have become one of ‘telegrams and anger’, he wrote. He tried to persuade Virginia Woolf to join him in Paris – ‘I don’t suppose the conference is of any use – things have gone too far. But I have no doubt as to the importance of ​people like ourselves inside the conference. We represent the last utterances of the civilised.’ – but she decided not to accompany him. 

The speech was poorly received. According to journalist Katherine Porter, a contemporary who was there: 

He paid no attention to the microphone, but wove back and forth, and from side to side, gently, and every time his face passed the mouthpiece I caught a high-voiced syllable or two, never a whole word, only a thin recurring sound like the wind down a chimney as Mr Forster’s pleasant good countenance advanced and retreated and returned. Then, surprisingly, once he came to a moment’s pause before the instrument and there sounded into the hall dearly but wistfully a complete sentence: ‘I DO believe in liberty!’ 

Best known for his fiction, Forster was also a powerful advocate in the emergent civil liberties movement. But there are those who question the depth of his legacy on human rights and justice. Re-reading his novels after a gap of twenty years, I am struck anew by how strongly they speak of the tragic consequences of social exclusion, racism, and hypocrisy. His life was one of fear, hope, and enforced compromise. He had one foot within the British establishment and one foot firmly outside. He was a creature of his time but with a passionate vision for a different world. Perhaps it is the enforced marginality of his life which has given his works resonance down the decades: or perhaps the hopeful generosity of his belief that, in the end, it is the ‘wonderful muddle’ of human relationships that brings life and joy. 

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