Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America
In the years immediately preceding the First World War, the socialist movement laid down deep roots in the United States, in spite of many obstacles. James Weinstein, in a brilliant study of the Socialist party that will alter many of the prevailing assumptions about American radicalism, shows that at its numerical peak in 1912, the party had 118,000 members well distributed throughout the country. It claimed 323 English and foreign-language publications with a total circulation probably in excess of two million. The largest of the socialist newspapers, The Appeal to Reason of Girard, Kansas, had a weekly circulation of 761,747. In 1912, the year Eugene V. Debs polled 6 percent of the Presidential vote, Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. As late as 1918, they elected 32 state legislators. In 1916, they elected Meyer London to Congress and made important gains in the municipal elections of several large cities.
In sharp contrast to later radical organizations, the Socialist party was broad enough to include many different tendencies and points of view; nor did these harden into factions. Contrary to an accepted view of pre-war Socialism as narrow and marginal—a view, according to Weinstein, that reads back into an earlier period the characteristics of American radicalism in the-late Twenties and Thirties—the party was inclusive, nonsectarian, and given to “searching and open debate.” Another cliché about Socialism is that the party declined rapidly after 1912; but a close study of the evidence, Weinstein argues, discloses “a patchwork pattern [of losses and gains] which does not lend itself to generalizations.” In his view, neither Wilson’s New Freedom nor the war destroyed the Socialist party; rather, it died from internal wounds inflicted in a series of struggles growing out of the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of a militant new left wing. Weinstein’s detailed analysis of these battles, together with his reassessment of the pre-war Socialist party, casts the entire history of the American Left into a new light.
The strength of the pre-war party, according to Weinstein, lay in its ability to combine a commitment to thorough-going social transformation with “constructive” political action, in the party’s terminology—that is, responsiveness to the needs of its constituents. Thus the Socialists cooperated with the trade union movement in its attempt to win immediate gains for workers, and opposed dual unionism on the grounds that it jeopardized those gains. Yet, on the other hand, it did not identify itself so closely with the union movement that the party itself, as in Europe, was absorbed into the industrial system, becoming dependent on its continuation and therefore unable to dissociate itself from the catastrophes into which capitalist society was about to plunge. If the Socialist party of America, alone among socialist organizations in the West, opposed the First World War, that was because it saw its function not as the promotion of unionism as such, but as the creation of socialist consciousness in the working class and its middle-class allies. On the one hand the party consistently criticized those tendencies in American unionism which tied the unions ever more closely to capitalism, while on the other hand it refused to lend itself to raids on existing unions which for all their inadequacies spoke for the immediate interests of the working class. Eugene V. Debs joined the IWW when it appeared that it would organize the unorganized and promote the growth of industrial unionism; he left it when the IWW began to devote itself not to organizing workers whom the trade unions had refused to organize, but to winning workers away from established unions.
IN THE REVOLUTIONARY MYSTIQUE currently fashionable in some sections of the Left, the IWW, not the Socialist party, represents the vanguard of American radicalism. It is not hard to see why: Haywood’s militancy, his advocacy of violence and sabotage, his tirades against the “scum proletariat” of “lawyers, preachers, authors, lecturers and intellectual non-producers generally,” and his view of radicalism as a movement based on marginal people, all correspond to the anti-intellectual tendencies of the contemporary student Left. Weinstein’s study, however, argues convincingly that “while the romantic appeal of the Wobblies has triumphed in literature and history, as a social force the IWW did not approach the Socialist Party in its impact on contemporary American life.”
Even the Communists, who joined the IWW in denouncing the Socialists as bourgeois reformers, eventually recognized that the Wobblies’ dual unionism, their refusal to join political movements, and their obsession with direct action were attitudes fatal to the attempt to organize a mass movement for revolutionary change. As William Z. Foster pointed out in 1921, shortly before he entered the Communist party, the Wobblies violated “the first principle of working class solidarity” by forsaking the “real organizations of labor, based on the common economic interests” of workingmen, and forming instead “outside organizations, based upon revolutionary creed.” Only when the Communists adopted this position regarding the IWW—in other words, the Socialist position, which they had earlier opposed—did respected unionists like Foster join the party.
BY THAT TIME the Socialists themselves had been fatally weakened by the revolt of their own left wing, and could derive little comfort from the Communists’ belated acknowledgment of the superiority of certain Socialist principles. The immediate effect of the war and the Russian revolution, Weinstein shows, had been to move “the Socialist Party’s center of gravity leftward, and…to reduce earlier hostilities” within the party. The left and right wings joined in condemning the war, Events in Russia, however, led some left-wing Socialists to believe that the Bolsheviks’ success could be duplicated in America, and thus revived the lingering suspicions of the moderate leaders, Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit, who argued that the war had “strengthened capitalism, reaction and treason within the working class,” making the prospects for immediate revolution even bleaker than before. “While we can learn from [the Bolsheviks],” Berger wrote, “we cannot transfer Russia to America.” The new left wing, including Louis Fraina, Louis Boudin, Charles E. Ruthenberg, and Ludwig Lore, disagreed.
The growing militance of the IWW-oriented American Left coincided with the increasing influence of the foreign-language federations which made up only 35 percent of the Socialist party membership in 1917, but which by 1919 had grown to 53 percent—a reflection of wartime losses suffered by Western and Southern Socialists and of the growth of socialist feeling among immigrant workers in the industrial cities of the North. The foreign-language federations, in their preoccupation with European events, convinced themselves that the Socialist party had played the same role in American politics as the social democratic parties in Europe—in Fraina’s words, “had become part of the governing system of things, indirectly its ally and protector.” This analysis made some sense in Europe, where the social democrats had supported the war and now opposed the Bolsheviks (though even there it rested on the fundamentally erroneous premise that world revolution was imminent); but its application to the United States showed nothing but ignorance of American conditions. As Weinstein points out, “In the American Party, there were virtually no right wingers in the European sense: i.e., supporters of the war and of the postwar attacks on the Soviet Republic. But…the left wing converted the European reality into a universal formula. If the facts did not fit the formula, in the United States, so much the worse for the facts.”
Convinced that splitting the Socialist party was the necessary prelude to revolution, the new left wing, led by Nicholas I. Hourwich and Santeri Nuorteva of the Russian Language Federation and their American allies, prepared either to capture the party or to desert it. The moderates responded by expelling the dissidents, who themselves split into hostile factions, one dominated by the Russian Federation, more Leninist than the Leninists, and the other by American left-wingers carrying on the dual-unionist, anti-political traditions of the IWW. In September, 1919, the former organized the Communist party, and the latter the Communist Labor party. (In 1921 the Comintern ordered them forcibly merged.)
The effect of these events, not only on the Socialist party but on American radicalism itself, was immediately reflected in the decline of membership. Early in 1919 the Socialist party still contained 109,000 members; after the split, the three parties together had a membership of only 36,000. Nor was this all. “Socialist influence in the labor movement, except for pockets in the garment trades, was all but destroyed by the split, and the socialist press…was permanently debilitated. In the decade that followed the split, the lines drawn in 1919 were erected into walls, and the movement became one of hostile and warring sects.” By the middle Twenties American radicalism had acquired the characteristics it has retained until the present day: sectarianism, marginality, and alienation from American life.
THE HISTORY of white radicalism in the twentieth century, as it emerges from Weinstein’s history of the decline of socialism, remarkably resembles, in essential respects, the history of black radicalism as analyzed by Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Together these works help to provide a new understanding not only of radicalism but of the nature of American society itself, which differs in critical ways from the European societies on which so much of the radical tradition has, unfortunately, been based. In both cases, the early years of the twentieth century saw impressive and partially successful attempts to create a mass-based, indigenous radicalism among disaffected groups—socialism among the working-class poor and among middle-class intellectuals, black nationalism in the Negro ghetto. Had these efforts persisted, they might eventually have converged, each movement enriching and strengthening the other. Had a dialogue between socialists and black nationalists taken place forty years ago, the black nationalists would have provided radicalism with an awareness of the need to shape socialism to the peculiar requirements of American ethnic-group pluralism; while the socialists could have led “self-determination for the ghetto” to its logical conclusion, not to a separate black capitalism, but to the socialization and decentralization of the entire economy. Instead both movements simultaneously underwent a process of Europeanization which set in directly after the Bolshevik revolution. Black nationalism gave way to the “revolutionary solution” of the Communists—“a fighting alliance of the Negro masses and white workers” to organize the working class and create a proletarian culture.
The Socialist party suffered a similar fate. Instead of perfecting their analysis of American conditions and continuing to present alternatives appropriate to those conditions, the new militants, both white and black, imposed on their movements an ideology drawn from European experience and tied organizationally to the fluctuating political requirements of the Soviet Union. The tremendous prestige of the Russian revolution overrode the opposition even of those supporters of the revolution who nevertheless argued that it was not necessarily the best guide to events in America. The new militants enjoyed the inestimable advantage of their association with what appeared to be a worldwide revolutionary wave, and even when the immediate hope of revolution receded, the Soviet Union continued for a long time to command an “almost mystical prestige.” Moreover, during the years immediately following the revolution, the Kremlin’s call for the immediate overthrow of capitalism coincided with, and reinforced, the romantic, anarchistic tendencies within American radicalism, undermining those who believed in the patient work of organization. The militant left wing of American radicalism, as the Socialist Ralph Korngold pointed out in 1919, appealed to “revolutionary romanticists” who were “tired of voting” and “tired of teaching the masses how to vote,” and who proposed to make a revolution, “as far as anyone is able to make out,” by “the general strike, supplemented by general rioting.” The euphoria of 1919 was quickly dissipated, but by that time the radical movement had been split beyond repair.
THE DESTRUCTION of socialism in the United States had enduring consequences for American radicalism. The most important, perhaps, was the isolation of intellectuals from the rest of society. Marxian theory, no longer joined to a mass movement, became almost entirely a preoccupation of literary intellectuals attracted to Marxism not as a social theory but, as T. B. Bottomore points out in Critics of Society, principally as a means of continuing “in another fashion, that alienation from American society which had begun towards the end of the nineteenth century.” Bottomore’s short historical essay, which attempts to demonstrate and to explain the reasons for the poverty of social criticism in the United States, makes one aware of the degree to which American Marxism has served as a form of cultural protest and withdrawal rather than as a method of social analysis.
Even in the Thirties, an allegedly Marxist period of American intellectual life, Marxism was not widely accepted; its influence even on “Marxists” was superficial; and “there was not created any significant body of Marxist social thought applied directly to American society and culture.” The major works of social criticism in the 1930s, Bottomore reminds us—for example, Berle and Means’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property—were not Marxist; while the writings of Veblen, which in other countries have been absorbed into a socialist tradition of thought, became associated with theories of the “managerial revolution” many of which ended up by giving implicit support to the status quo. Socialist theory, meanwhile, remained “an affair of small political sects” among “socially isolated intellectuals.”
IF SOCIAL THEORY in the United States has been until recently “a somewhat weakly growth,” the chief reason for this, Bottomore argues, lies in the lack of strong links between theory and political action. “The absence of a broad radical movement…and the inability to work out an effective social theory [are] related.” There is a “two-way intellectual traffic,” according to Bottomore, between criticism and politics. “The social movements produce new ideas about their problems and about their possible solutions, while the critics seek to interpret on a broader scale the meaning of the social conflicts in which the movements are involved.” This interchange between action and theory, and more broadly between politics and culture, was just beginning to bear results in the early years of this century, which produced not only the “new history,” the beginnings of a critical sociology, and brilliant theorists like Veblen, but the artistic awakenings in Greenwich Village and Harlem. “During this time, the socialists, the trade unions,…the pragmatists, the muckrakers, the new generation of sociologists, seemed to be converging, and even uniting, in their criticism of American society.” After the war these movements split apart.
In several chapters dealing with the revival of radicalism in the Sixties, Bottomore shows how social criticism still suffers from the debacle of radicalism in the early Twenties. Popular criticism like that of Vance Packard or William H. Whyte, which under different circumstances might have been fertilized by socialist theory, remains wholly satirical. As Mencken ridiculed the “booboisie,” Whyte satirizes the organization man, without, however, asking whether “conformity” is a function of organization in general or of the particular circumstance that a certain kind of organization, the business corporation, “which should be merely an instrument, has set itself up in the United States as a way of life and a source of ultimate values.”
The popular critics, Bottomore notes, have simplified and distorted the ideas of Mills, Riesman, and Erich Fromm—and even these more serious writers, he thinks, suffer from the isolation in which they work. Since the First World War, the social critic in America, deprived of the advantages of the sustained tradition of criticism that would have evolved in connection with a broad movement for radical change, tends to present his ideas “as extremely personal judgments upon the state of society.” This helps to explain “the lack of agreement or even clarity about what is being attacked in present-day society and what is to replace it.” While the analyses of Mills and Riesman converge in some respects—as in their common concern with collectivism of opinion and styles of life—in other respects they diverge, Mills drawing on the Marxian tradition, Riesman on Freud and cultural anthropology; Mills stressing ways in which American power was concentrated, Riesman its dispersal. “There is little here which resembles the coherent philosophical outlook of the pragmatists in the progressive period.”
Another tendency in recent social criticism is existentialist irrationalism—the one philosophy that seems to have made some impression on the New Left. The popularity of this point of view, even more than that of the others, betrays the association between social criticism in the United States and the intellectual’s “alienation.” The irrationalist critiques of modern society, ranging from new Hegelian versions of Marx to various existential social philosophies, are “undogmatic, highly personal and idiosyncratic,” and therefore inadequate “to sustain effective social criticism or to bring about any radical social change.”
BOTTOMORE’S JUDGMENTS, delivered matter-of-factly and without the stridency so often associated with books about American radicalism, seen consistently sound. None of them is novel or startling in itself. Nor do they have the force of arguments richly elaborated and supported by a mass of historical data. This is too thin and hasty a survey to have the impact of a work like Weinstein’s, which immerses the reader in concrete details while at the same time furnishing him with a coherent analytical perspective from which to understand their meaning. In any case the material covered by Bottomore is thoroughly familiar. The value of his book is that the point of view is not.
It is a point of view, however, to which Americans need very badly to be exposed. For one thing, Bottomore is a Canadian. This gives him a healthy distance from the subject; more important, it makes him aware, as many Americans are not, of the degree to which political ideas in the New World have necessarily derived from Europe, specifically from the classic social theorists of the nineteenth century. In addition Bottomore is a Marxist and takes for granted that effective social criticism has to begin by cultivating a more systematic awareness of this European intellectual tradition, which, on the one hand, provides an indispensable foundation for a theory relevant to the history of English-speaking societies in North America, but which, on the other, needs important revisions if it is to account for the differences between America and Europe. Ignorance of the Marxian tradition and an overly literal application of Marxism to America have alike impeded social criticism in the United States. If, as Bottomore hopes, the present political chaos should generate a collective effort among critics and scholars to take up the great themes of nineteenth-century theory where they were abandoned in the Twenties, this work would nevertheless come to nothing without a recognition that these themes represent the beginnings, not the final form, of a critical theory appropriate to American conditions.
The new Marxists will have to ask, for example, whether the classic tradition of social theory did not all along under-estimate the importance of national, ethnic, and racial divisions. As a Canadian, Bottomore recognizes the importance of national questions in the contemporary politics of advanced countries. Americans, faced with a “national question” of their own, ought to be similarly sensitive to such issues; but European influences, moving into the vacuum left by the failure of indigenous criticism, have consistently obscured them. Here as elsewhere, the early beginnings of an American sociology, which would have incorporated the experience of American Negróes and other experiences peculiar to the United States, proved abortive.
THE COLLAPSE OF RADICALISM after the First World War did more than impoverish social theory. It also created a cultural crisis, the effects of which began to be felt almost at once. Before the First World War, radical politics and cultural experimentation often converged. The Masses, in many ways the most impressive cultural product of the postwar rebellion, owed its distinctive vitality to a combination of socialism and “paganism,” as Max Eastman called it. Wedded to no cultural orthodoxy, genteel or revolutionary, the magazine under Eastman, Floyd Dell, and Art Young consistently upheld high standards of artistic excellence. It prided itself on being “arrogant, impertinent, in bad taste, but not vulgar.” And although Eastman and Dell were eager to print “revolutionary” works of art, “neither of them for a moment,” as Daniel Aaron insists, “would have judged a writer by his political affiliations. The artist as artist was beyond social criticism.” Not until the Russian Revolution did they begin to think otherwise; and even then it was impossible for men like Eastman to accept for very long the view that revolutionary writers had to subordinate their art to politics. Eventually Eastman broke with Stalinism over this and other issues—one of the first of many Americans to conclude that “instead of liberating the mind of man, the Bolshevik Revolution locked it into a state’s prison tighter than ever before.”
When The Masses stopped publication in 1917, its place was taken by The Liberator, which attempted for a time to carry on the cultural traditions of its predecessor. The new left wing, however, had very little use for the “paganism” of the old Masses, which smacked of “estheticism.” Mike Gold, writing in The Liberator as early as February, 1921, issued a call for “proletarian art,” and attacked The Seven Arts, one of the voices of the Greenwich Village awakening. No “great lusty tree,” Gold wrote, could grow in “that hot-house air.” Subsequent articles by Gold denounced “the mad solitary priests of Dada” and other purveyors of sterile pessimism and “pure art.” “Since 1912,” Daniel Aaron writes, “a polarizing process had been under way which divided the Bohemian from the revolutionary” and forced writers to choose between art and radical politics. This polarization had not become critical so long as American socialism remained a broad and inclusive movement devoted, among other things, to creating a better understanding of life under the existing order—something art is supremely equipped to do. Only when the new left wing shattered the Socialist party and substituted for long-term efforts to revolutionize American consciousness a mystique of immediate communist revolution did art come to be suspect in radical circles. The role of artists then came to be defined as dutiful servants of the “revolution”—that is, propagandists for mass culture, as against the stale and artificial culture, as it had come to be regarded, of the literati. The New Masses, which succeeded The Liberator in 1926, devoted itself even more enthusiastically to “proletarian realism.” Gold shared the belief that the magazine should be read, as one contributor put it, “by lumberjacks, hoboes, miners, clerks, section-hands, machinists, harvesthands, waiters—the people who should count more to us than paid scribblers.” “Who are we afraid of?” Joseph Kalar demanded. “Of the critics? Afraid that they will say The New Masses prints terribly ungrammatical stuff? Hell, brother, the news-stands abound with neat packages of grammatical offal.” In searching out writers with their “roots in something real,” Gold explained that he hoped to organize writers “on an industrial basis” and to create a “national corps of writers” who would report and dramatize the class struggle. Meanwhile he kept up a running fire against the “dull, bloodless, intellectualistic poetry” of T. S. Eliot; against Thornton Wilder, the “prophet of the genteel Christ”; against Dostoyevsky; against Proust (the “masturbator” of the middle class); and against other “politically imbecile” writers, whom he denounced in addition as “pansies.”
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.