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Whatever Happened to Socialism?

NOT UNTIL THE MID-THIRTIES was the cult of proletarianism effectively challenged. In 1934 the New York John Reed Club, founded by The New Masses in 1926 as part of Gold’s effort to create a writers’ “corps,” launched a new magazine, Partisan Review. But whereas Gold wanted the workers “not to be bored with all the fake problems of the intelligentsia,” for William Phillips and Philip Rahv, the editors of the new journal, those problems had more meaning than “the sensations of the robust young man,” extolled by The New Masses as the ideal literary subject, “[who] sees his strength sapped by the furnace’s mouth.” Almost immediately it became obvious to Fred Miller, editor of Blast (“A Magazine of Proletarian Short Studies”), that Rahv and Phillips had “lost all sense of revolutionary direction.” In 1936, having broken not only with Communist cultural philistinism but with Stalinist politics, PR suspended publication. In 1937 it resumed as an openly anti-Stalinist magazine unblushingly “intellectualist” in its cultural standards.

Partisan Review was the most ambitious attempt since pre-war Village days to fuse radical politics and cultural modernism. From the beginning it tried “to put forward the best writing then produced by the Left,” in Rahv’s words. Attracted to communism for the same reasons that attracted other radicals of the Thirties—because it seemed to represent the best hope of social change—Rahv and Phillips had also been strongly influenced by Eliot, Joyce, james, Lawrence, Yeats, Kafka, Dostoyevsk and other architects of the modernist tradition and by Edmund Wilson’s defense of that tradition in Axel’s Castle, published in 1931. Somewhat disconcerted by the fact that much of this literature had been written by political reactionaries, they nevertheless recognized in the modern European classics a powerful statement of the terror and pain of contemporary existence—a revelation, they rightly perceived, that was of infinitely greater value to radicals than the shallow “realism” preached by V. F. Calverton, Mike Gold, and in slightly different form by Granville Hicks. “It is true,” Gold sadly observed, “that the intellectual brings into the movement many of his bourgeois hangovers, but they can be controlled.” Rahv and Phillips, however, as James Gilbert writes, were not prepared “to bury the culture of the past.”

Eventually the writers and critics around Partisan Review, unable to sustain both their radicalism and their devotion to avant-garde culture, despaired of politics and confined themselves to cultural criticism. It is this failure to achieve a durable synthesis of socialism and avant-garde culture that makes the history of Partisan Review important: the reasons for the failure, if understood, would tell us a great deal about the state of American culture in the Thirties and after. In Writers and Partisans, which is largely a study of PR from 1934 to the mid-Forties, with some account of its antecedents in the pre-war Village renaissance, James Gilbert suggests that the failure of Partisan Review was related to the general failure of the radical movement in the United States. He does not very clearly explain, however, exactly how they were related. It is obviously difficult for a young scholar in the Sixties, even an extremely talented scholar like Gilbert, to get a feeling for the kind of experience that produced Rahv, Phillips, and Partisan Review, or to understand their special sort of passionate intellectualism. Gilbert is correct, of course, when he places PR in a longer tradition of literary radicalism; but some of the circumstances surrounding the magazine were unique.

At its inception Partisan Review was the voice of a little circle of intellectuals in New York who were swept into the Communist party at a time when it was assimilating large numbers of Jews from immigrant families, but who for special reasons of their own found themselves uneasy with the party’s cultural philistinism. The founding of Partisan Review also coincided with the emergence from the New York universities of the first generation of Eastern European Jews who had gone through the American academic system. Under these conditions it was to be expected that the editors of Partisan Review, some of whom were the products of East European Jewish immigrant families, would “search for the solutions to problems of American culture in Europe”; Gilbert, it seems to me, tends too much to see their effort to “internationalize” American culture merely as a political tactic—a means of combatting the exponents of cultural “Americanism” who were also, in the mid-Thirties, adherents of the Popular Front, which PR opposed. Rahv and Phillips, as half-Europeans, would surely have condemned the Americanism of Van Wyck Brooks and Archibald Mac-Leish even if it had not been temporarily allied with Stalinism.

Gilbert’s difficulty in placing Partisan Review in its distinctive setting is illustrated by his assumption that the “alienation” of Jewish intellectuals in the Thirties can be compared to the alienation of young radicals today. He finds “striking parallels” between the Trotskyite intellectuals of the Thirties and the New Left, “one of whose characteristics is…its renewed belief in the compatibility of Bohemianism and radicalism.” The “bohemianism” of the New Left, however, even when it exists, has almost nothing in common with the literary radicalism either of the early Masses or of Partisan Review. Far from carrying on the tradition of cultural modernism, much of the New Left is resolutely anti-intellectual, bored by the theoretical disputes of the Thirties and generally indifferent to the literary “high culture” promoted by Phillips and Rahv. Most of the new radicals, even if they thought about it, would be quite incapable of understanding the contributions of Partisan Review in the Thirties, not only to American culture but to radicalism.

Those contributions, however, were by no means negligible. In the first place, the editors exposed the brutality of Stalinism at a time when not only radicals but many liberals still looked to the Soviet Union as the hope of the world. In the second place, their insistance on the importance of European and “modern” culture in a provincial country was surely a service. Most important, Rahv, Phillips, and their associates battled tirelessly, even after they had ceased to argue effectively for political radicalism, not only against proletarian “realism” but against the general proposition that “radical art” should be simple, easily understood, healthy, clean, and free from “bourgeois” influences.

The issue by no means died in the Thirties. In a recent article in The Minority of One Maxwell Geismar used the disclosures of CIA influence among anti-communist organizations in the Fifties as the occasion for an ill-tempered harangue against the “New York literary establishment,” which according to Geismar is not only politically but culturally reactionary. “It was Lionel Trilling,” Geismar complains, “who outlawed such writers as Dreiser [earlier outlawed, it might be noted, by Mike Gold himself] and Anderson, and who then ‘discovered’ that Henry James’ Princess Casamassima was a counter-revolutionary novel worthy of Dostoievski. (Pure nonsense, and biased political criticism of the lowest order, since Henry James knew nothing about either revolution or counter-revolution.)” Geismar goes on to warn that “it has already been decreed” by these same “interlocking cultural institutions” (the ones that presumably foisted both anti-communism and the James revival on an unsuspecting public) that “William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, a rich and ripe if not fruity product of the Plantation School of Southern Liberals, is to be the book of the year.” The heated denunciations of Styron’s novel, coming not only from Geismar but from Herbert Aptheker, black militants, and other radicals who object to the book’s allegedly unflattering picture of slave militancy, is a perfect example of neo-socialist realism; the whole controversy is so reminiscent of the Thirties that intervening events seem almost not to have occurred.

JUST AS THE PROLETARIAN SCHOOL of the Thirties sought to dignify the workingman, the new-style socialist realists of the Sixties and their historiographical counterparts in the field of Negro history insist that radical artists and scholars should glorify the black man in America and awaken him to his heroic past. The attack on Styron’s Nat Turner, together with the attack on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a few years ago, as “a vicious distortion of Negro life” depicting Negroes as “Uncle Toms, pimps, sex perverts, guilt-ridden traitors,” could easily have been written by Mike Gold. In resisting this type of criticism, always so tempting to radicals, Partisan Review performed a service that has to be performed again, it would seem, in every generation. It kept alive a literary tradition repeatedly threatened with extinction, and broadened and deepened the understanding of that tradition as well.

The magazine did not, however, achieve a successful fusion of politics and culture. That failure was inevitable, given the absence of a mass base for radicalism in the United States. The only thing even approaching a mass radical movement in the Thirties was the Communist party, which ultimately had to be rejected for obvious reasons. In the absence of a mass movement, literary radicals could hope for social change, as Gilbert points out, only by postulating the intellectuals themselves as a kind of revolutionary “International.” This position, however, merely reinforced the intellectuals’ isolation. Worse, it contributed to the retreat from politics which in the Forties led most of the radicals of the 1930s to renounce radicalism altogether. By the mid-Forties, the editors of Partisan Review, horrified by Stalinism in Russia and weary of inconclusive struggles at home, were taking the position that politics at best offered “partial answers” to questions. In the context of generally diminished political expectations, this view melted almost indistinguishably into the retreat from ideology and the emerging postwar “realism.” A 1948 symposium on “The State of American Writing” showed what was happening: the defense of “high culture” had come to be identified almost exclusively with anti-Stalinism, while the search for “alternatives to naturalism,” as Leslie Fiedler put it in one of the contributions to this discussion, took on the quality of a search for alternatives to politics itself. In 1950 PR devoted several issues to “Religion and the Intellectuals”—an ominous sign of the times, marking a further stage in the retreat from politics, since the kind of religious commitment under consideration tended to focus not on social issues but on what Dwight Macdonald called the “small questions”—“What is a good life?… How can I live lovingly, truthfully, pleasureably?”

By 1952 the accommodation of literary intellectuals was complete. Noting that American intellectuals had “ceased to think of themselves as rebels and exiles,” Partisan Review announced a symposium on “Our Country and Our Culture.” The “reconciliation” of intellectuals, according to Rahv, reflected not merely the collapse of “Utopian illusions and heady expectations” of the Thirties but American culture’s coming of age. “The passage of time has considerably blunted the edge of the old Jamesian complaint as to the barrenness of the native scene.” Most of the contributors agreed with this optimistic assessment of American culture, even though they could give no convincing reasons for doing so; indeed they all deplored “mass culture.” Rahv himself admitted, moreover, that “the rout of the left-wing movement has depoliticized literature” and given rise to “a kind of detachment from principle and fragmentation of the literary life.”

Yet the illusion persisted that in rejecting “extreme ideas,” intellectuals had become “more open to the persuasions of actuality.” Norman Mailer found the entire symposium “shocking”; and it is hard to avoid his judgment that the fashionable sneers at economics and the concern with “the human dilemma,” reversing without correcting the distorted perspectives of the Thirties, indicated a pervasive belief that “society is too difficult to understand and history impossible to predict”—indicated, that is, a wholesale defection of intellectuals from social criticism.

This capitulation not only contributed to the cold war and to the rise of such organizations as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, it obscured the degree to which American society, far from having reached maturity, remained essentially what it had been in the Thirties when the editors of Partisan Review launched their campaign for an international high culture. In spite of their efforts, American culture remained primitive and provincial; but instead of reminding their readers of this fact, the editors now allowed themselves to be diverted into a polemic against “middlebrow” culture. Emphasis on this issue made it difficult to see the more important point that “we are still,” as Steven Marcus wrote in PR in 1958, “a provincial and decentralized society, a society without a center of cultural intelligence and sanity.” Marcus himself neglected to point out that not only the second-rate but even the highest products of such a culture are necessarily “eccentric and provincial.” Nor did anyone writing for Partisan Review point out that this cultural failure both reflects and contributes to the failure of radical politics.

Not only literature and literary criticism but critical thought in general suffers from the spiritual and philosophical chaos of American life. The correction of this condition ought to be the work of an intellectual class committed not only to the most rigorous intellectual standards but to a thoroughgoing transformation of American institutions. But the emergence of a class committed to these objectives largely depends on the expectation that social change is a real alternative and not merely a theoretical possibility. It depends, in other words, on the existence of mass movements for change, based not on alienated intellectuals but on the needs of large numbers of people in their working lives.

In the Fifties, however, Dwight Macdonald expressed an undeniable truth when he observed that “in terms of mass action,…our problems appear to be insoluble.” Not since the early part of this century, as we can now see with the help of Weinstein’s book on the decline of socialism and Bottomore’s essay on the poverty of American social thought, has mass action along radical lines been a live possibility in the United States. Political maturity and cultural maturity alike await its revival.

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