George Novack

American Intellectuals and the Crisis

(February/June 1936)

First Published: New International, Volume III Number 1, February 1936, pp.23-27, and Volume III Number 3, June 1936, pp.83-86.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The crisis caught American intellectuals unawares. They had not the slightest presentiment of the storm which broke over their heads and swept with increasing fury through the nation. The illusion of permanent prosperity had dazzled the intellectuals along with everyone else during the boom era. Even though their reactions to this myth had been quite different from those of the banker, businessman, farmer or worker, they rested at bottom upon the common premise that prosperity everlasting was to be the normal condition of American life. The tremendous force of the world crisis smashed this illusion; tore one group of intellectuals after another loose from their accustomed moorings; and dispersed them in all directions. Since 1929 they have been driven far from their social and ideological starting points.

The Trend toward Reaction

In their anxiety to shut themselves off from the chaos outside, the gilded youth in the great Eastern universities sought sanctuary in the ancient verities. The orthodox religions of their fathers could no longer satisfy even the most conservative. T.S. Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism was regarded as a step to be admired, but not imitated. Infected by the poisonous individualism they believed themselves to be combating, these intellectuals proceeded to fabricate private philosophies out of the odds and ends of classical learning. They ransacked the cultures of antiquity and turned to Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, Aquinas, and even the Bhagavad-Gita for authorities and revelations.

The spurious “Humanism” of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, two Puritan Tories who had discarded the theological tiewigs of their Calvinist forefathers but retained the body of their conservatism, provided a temporary rallying point for these embryonic reactionaries. In thunderous tones reminiscent of the Puritan divines, from their chairs at Harvard and Princeton these professors hurled anathemas against democracy, equality, freedom, progress, individualism, all the heretical spawn of the French and American Revolutions. Their own philosophies were curious amalgams of obsolete ideas collected during a long lifetime of reading books written before the French Revolution—or against it.

For a brief season conservative and liberal intellectuals polemized over this “Humanism”; then promptly abandoned and forgot it. So narrow and sterile a set of dogmas was obviously inadequate to interest active-minded people or to provide an answer to the social and cultural problems clamoring for solution. The more moderate Humanists remained in their academic cells haunted by the ghosts of dead ideas. Certain of the more consistent of Babbitt’s disciples, however, began to develop his political position, notably Seward Collins, editor of The Bookman, now The American Review. Yesterday Collins advocated a monarchy for America without specifying how it was to be brought about or who was eligible for the throne. Today he is having a chaste flirtation with Fascism in the guise of a romantic reversion to medieval economy—with modern improvements.

The little intellectual circles which undertake to rationalize the course of reaction are not yet so well organized here as in Europe, nor are their philosophies so clearly formulated. The Southern agrarians, who turn away from the horrors of wage slavery to embrace the corpse of chattel slavery; outright Fascists like Lawrence Dennis and Seward Collins; and the disciples of Pareto in the universities have almost no intellectual or political influence. This fact alone indicates that Fascism, which mobilizes its intellectuals along with other sections of the middle classes, is not an imminent danger in this country, despite the oracles of the Stalinist Leagues.

The prevalent state of mind among reactionary intellectuals is rather one of great confusion than of confidence in their beliefs. This can be observed, for example, in the intellectual gyrations of Archibald MacLeish, who has wrestled so boldly with social and political problems since they suddenly beset him a few years ago. During this period of storm and stress MacLeish has in turn called upon the Young Men of Wall Street to arise and save the nation; become a votary of Social Credit; and written several fierce polemical pamphlets in poetry and prose against the pseudo-Marxists. In his poetry, where he formerly limited himself to questioning nature and his mortal soul for the ultimate meaning of life and death, he has glorified the heroic violence of Cortez’s Conquistadors and turned to the pioneer past for inspiration, a stagnant pool which he mistakes for a healing spring. His latest production, the poetic play Panic, deals with the crisis itself. Whatever its merits as drama and poetry (and it is doubtful whether MacLeish’s poetry is yet the better for this widening of his interests), Panic is certainly a perfect mirror of ideological confusion.

Where MacLeish stands today politically or where he will stand tomorrow, none, including himself, probably knows. But Lo and behold! The Stalinist literateurs, who yesterday branded him “an unconscious Fascist” (presumably in contrast to the unconscious Stalinists), have recently admitted him into the front rank of the literary section of the People’s Front! The case of MacLeish should serve as a warning that in the present transitional period it is extremely hazardous to regard any intellectual’s political position as fixed, or to predict the path of his development. Intellectuals have no firm social anchorage; their ideas can change direction with lightning speed.

It frequently happens that intellectuals must take one step backward before they take two steps forward. Many radical intellectuals can verify this observation from their own experience.

The Liberals Face Left

As the deepening crisis exposed the utter bankruptcy of the Hoover regime, the liberals turned their faces toward the left and looked hopefully in the direction of socialism for guidance and inspiration. The beginning of the Five-Year Plan, which coincided with the outbreak of the crisis, fired their imaginations. The belief in the supremacy of American capitalism, which had been a primary article of faith among the liberals and their principal argument against socialism, was shaken by the energetic advance of Soviet construction in the face of the equally rapid collapse of American economy.

The liberals were compelled to reconsider their attitudes toward capitalism, democracy and reformism. The differentiation that took place in the liberal camp as a result of this process can be clearly traced in the ideological evolution of the leading members of the editorial board of the New Republic, foremost liberal organ.

Early in 1931 the editors of the New Republic published a series of articles which gave an accurate picture of the prevalent states of mind among the liberals. After noting “the dreadful apathy, insecurity and discouragement that seems to have fallen upon our life”, Edmund Wilson made “an appeal to progressives” to abandon their hopes in “salvation by the gradual and natural approximation to socialism”, which had been the creed set for the New Republic by its founder, Herbert Croly, and urged them to become a militant minority, actively struggling to attain socialism here and now. While Wilson was extremely vague about the character of this socialism and the method of its realization, he did oppose himself to the program and tactics of the communist party in the name of Americanism and democracy and proclaimed the necessity of “taking communism away from the communists”.

The political errors and limitations of Wilson’s position were not so significant, however, as his attempt to cast off the inertia of reformism and to submit its dogmas to critical examination. Liberal intellectuals are not transformed into radicals in a day. They necessarily undergo a process of development which requires them to pass through several critical stages before they reach a revolutionary position. Wilson’s advice “to stop betting on capitalism” indicated that a segment of left liberals was beginning to break with reformism and head towards socialism. The seriousness of Wilson’s own efforts to arrive at political clarification is shown by his resignation from the New Republic when he could no longer agree with its policies; by his tour of the country in order to extend his knowledge of American life and deepen his political ideas, and, above all, by his candid self-criticism. Wilson performed an indispensable service to the advanced intellectuals by conducting his political education, so to speak, in public. The reports of his pilgrim’s progress guided their own political development, even if they arrived at different conclusions and destinations. Wilson, himself, as one of a group of radical intellectuals, was later attracted into the orbit of the American Worker’s Party, although he never took an active part in its political life.

George Soule represented the official views of the New Republic and the liberals of the center. Wilson was a literary critic in whom a flame of passion for social justice had been kept alive during the boom years; Soule was an economist of the institutional school. Under the influence of “the Russian experiment”, he and his colleagues, Beard, Chase, Dewey, et al., placed their hopes for a regeneration of American capitalism in the idea of national planning. What the Russians had achieved with their backward technology, their argument ran, we Americans can do a hundred times better with our advanced technology. The productive plant had already been built; the task was now to “create a brain for our economy”.

John Dewey next came forward to express the periodical disillusion of the liberals with the two old parties of capitalism and to call for the formation of a third party on the La Follette model. The programs, the philosophies and the leadership of the Socialist and Communist parties were equally alien to the peculiar progressive and democratic spirit of the American people They direct their propaganda to the working class and against the middle class. “The first appeal of a new party must be to what is called the middle class” because this is a bourgeois country. The industrial workers cannot take the lead in such a movement, but they will follow it.

Such were the ideas animating the liberals during the 1932 Presidential campaign. They emphasized the need for social planning and a new progressive party while they voted for Roosevelt or Norman Thomas.

The cordial reception accorded John Chamberlain’s lively history of the Progressive movement, entitled Farewell to Reform, was another straw in the wind, indicating the shift of the left liberals away from reformism. But Chamberlain had bid “farewell to reform” much too soon for history and the majority of his fellow liberals. The incoming Democratic administration immediately embarked upon so colossal a reorganization of American capitalism that the trumpeters of the new rhyme termed it ‘“the Roosevelt Revolution”.

The advent of the New Deal deflected the leftward movement of the liberals into governmental channels. Their unquenchable faith in the vitality of American capitalist revived when they heard the Squire of Hyde Park assert that the heart of the New Deal throbbed for “the forgotten man”. Were not the intellectuals, too, among the forgotten men? Their hopes seemed confirmed when they were told that the head of the New Deal was to be the Brain Trust Roosevelt had collected about him. They began to reason: “Perhaps we have been overhasty in predicting the death of capitalism.” While there was life in American capitalism, there was at least hope for them.

The glad tidings that the departments set up for the New Deal required hundreds of executives spread throughout intellectual circles like wildfire. For the first time in American history the doors of the government bureaucracy were thrown open to the middle-class intelligentsia. Professors and their protégés, lawyers and architects without clients, literary men without political convictions and with political connections, liberal and “radical” intellectuals alike hurried to take advantage of this golden opportunity to work for God, for country, and for four thousand dollars a year. For the idealists there was the irresistible invitation to participate in the remolding of American society, no less; for the careerists there were comfortable berths in the government. The pilgrimage to Washington became a veritable children’s crusade. How soon the slaughter of the innocents began!

Even the hardest-headed liberals were seduced, at least for a time, by the siren-song of the New Deal. George Soule and the New Republic saw in the professional kitchen cabinet the brain which they had called for not long before, the one revolutionary force in the Roosevelt regime. In a book entitled The Coming American Revolution, published in June, 1934, Soule said:

“The brain-trust theory is true to the extent that, in an effort to rescue our economic life, the President saw the necessity of enlisting expert advice. Professors of economics and political science and law, people who have studied social problems with some approach to scholarly care must be called into positions of responsibility when any attempt is made to govern industry and finance instead of letting individual profit-seekers do exactly what they like. In broad sense, therefore, the New Deal gives us a foretaste of the rise to power of a new class, and this foretaste does have a distinctly revolutionary tinge, just because it indicates a shift in class power. The forefront of the white-collar workers, the productive professions, are just beginning to assume some of the political prerogatives which their actual place in a highly organized industrial society warrants, and to which their superior competence in matters of social theory [!] entitles them.” (P. 207. My ital. G.N.)

The entrance of the intellectuals into the administration, which Soule regarded as a revolutionary “shift in class power”, was only the rush of the liberals to secure places in the apparatus when the Roosevelt administration required agents with a liberal coloration to carry out the operations necessary to restore a sick American capitalism to health. Soule’s highly unrealistic estimate simply expressed the yearning of the liberal intelligentsia for places in the bureaucracy, which had long been accorded their English cousins but had hitherto been denied them. Events quickly proved the shallowness of Soule’s analysis. “The Roosevelt Revolution” lasted just long enough to get American capitalism back on its feet. When Roosevelt pronounced the patient recovered, if not completely cured, the New Deal measures were allowed to collapse or were decapitated by the Supreme Court. The Brain Trustees, who had been summoned to do the dirty work during the emergency, were either dismissed or relegated to subordinate places in the administration, where they faced the alternatives of resigning in disillusion, or settling down in their jobs with the cheerful cynicism that distinguishes the careerist from the ordinary run of mortals.

As soon as Soule and his colleagues awakened to the fact that the main benefits of the New Deal had fallen to monopoly capital, they became severe critics of Roosevelt for his failure to perform the miracles he had promised. Today, as another election approaches, they are again advocating the formation of a third, Farmer-Labor party, “uniting all liberal, progressive, and radical elements”, ready to carry out social reforms and build toward “a collective society with a planned economy”.

The Radicals turn to Stalinism

As the radical intellectuals traveled along the road to the left, they passed by the Socialist camp without stopping. It had nothing to give them. Since the 1921 split under the regime of the Old Guard, American socialism had been thoroughly drained of all political and intellectual vitality. Possessed of all the defects and none of the powers of European social democracy, it had grown senile before it reached maturity. This negative attitude of the radical intellectuals towards the socialist party has on the whole been maintained up to now. Only recently Norman Thomas publicly bemoaned the fact that the Stalinists had completely captured “the cultural front”.

The communist movement constituted the main center of attraction for the radicals. The Stalinists waved the banner of the October revolution; they claimed Lenin and his International for their own; they were the official spokesmen for the Soviet Union. The more Utopian saw in the land of the Five-Year Plan the promised paradise; the more realistic saw in the parties of the Comintern the instrument of the world revolution. They had yet to plumb to its depths the meaning of the doctrine of “socialism in one country”.

Few of these intellectuals had any previous acquaintance with Marxian thought or the history of the revolutionary movement. This did not deter them, however, from blossoming forth overnight as dyed-in-the-wool revolutionists and authorities on Marxism. They planned grandiose projects for Marxian critiques of American culture, which were never executed, and set up shop in the liberal magazines as political experts. Equipped with a meager handful of commonplaces, skimmed from a superficial reading of the Marxian masters and supplemented by a few Stalinist perversions of communist policy, they proceeded to apply their newly acquired intellectual tools to everything that came within their ken, from the history of music to the fluctuations of the stock market.

This hasty mechanical experimentation with Marxian ideas was an unavoidable phase in the education of radical intellectuals in a country like the United States without deep-rooted socialist traditions. A genuine revolutionary party, striving to carry on the ideological inheritance of Marxism, would have helped to shorten and correct this phase. But the radical intellectuals encountered something altogether different in the communist party.

Throughout this period from 1929 to 1934 the Stalinists were in the throes of the ultra-Left policies of the so-called “third period.” They were building red trade unions by the score—on paper; branding all other labor parties “social-Fascist”; united-fronting “only from below”, that is, not at all; momently expecting the revolutionary insurrection in Germany; and gathering timber for the barricades soon to be set up here. While their noisy demonstrations frightened the bourgeoisie half to death, and even impressed themselves with their revolutionary ardor, they had no real connection with the organized labor movement. It was the pounding of an empty barrel. The communist party was only a bureaucratic shell, cracked by expulsions of its Right and Left wings, completely cut off from the working masses, and pursuing a policy that was a caricature of Leninism.

Nevertheless, most of the radicals mistook this activity—and the theory behind it—for the real thing. Who was there to disillusion them? All except the few who later became interested in the American Workers party felt the futility of Wilson’s slogan: “Take communism away from the communists.” Wilson himself, at that time, was a Stalinist sympathizer. Meanwhile, the Stalinist slanders against the “counter-revolutionists” kept them away (if indeed they were aware of their existence or ideas) from the isolated group of Trotskyists, who were struggling to wrest the banner of communism from the usurpers.

The Stalinist leaders greeted the approach of the radical intellectuals with an equivocal attitude compounded of joy and suspicion. While the new recruits provided welcome forces and finances to the party, some of them were also inclined to be inquisitive and critical. They did not simply turn their backs upon the party, as did the workers, when they mistrusted its policies, but remained to ask questions and to air their complaints. As a safeguard, the Stalinists tried to keep these intellectuals at arms-length as second-class citizens in the network of paper organizations surrounding the party, preventing their penetration into the party circles.

The intellectuals plunged into political activity with great zeal. They assumed leading posts in labor defense, propaganda, and organizational fields; they went on trips to Kentucky for the Harlan miners and sent delegations to Washington protesting the shooting of bonus marchers. They accompanied the bonus marchers and the unemployed in their treks to the capital and covered strike situations for the liberal and communist press.

The peak of their activity was reached in the 1932 presidential campaign. The meetings and manifestoes of the intellectuals were more prominent than any meetings of organized workers the Stalinists could muster. “The League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford”, organized by half a hundred writers, artists, teachers and professionals, issued a pamphlet entitled Culture and the Crisis, calling upon “all men and women—especially workers in the professions and the arts—to join the revolutionary struggle against capitalism under the leadership of the communist party.”

This manifesto reads today as though it had been written by a different set of people in another era—as, from a political point of view, it was. Every line burns with revolutionary fire, radiating confidence in the communist party and contempt for the moribund socialist party.

“The socialists do not believe that the overthrow of capitalism is the primary essential for successful economic planning... The socialist party is a party of mere reformism which builds up state capitalism, and thus strengthens the capitalist state and potentially Fascism... It does not wage an aggressive campaign against war... It indirectly helps Fascism by its insistence on democracy, evading the issues of militant organization and struggle... To insist on democracy as the answer to Fascism is to oppose air to bullets, for Fascism repudiates democracy and develops out of bourgeois democracy... The socialist party is the third party of capitalism...” and similar statements.

Opposed to the socialist party is the “frankly revolutionary communist party, the party of the workers”, which

“... stands for a socialism of deeds, not of words. It appeals for the support of the American working classes [sic!] not, like the socialist party, on the basis of broken and unfulfilled promises, but with concrete evidence of revolutionary achievement both at home and abroad. It proposes as the real solution of the present crisis the overthrow of the system which is responsible for all crises. This can only be accomplished by the conquest of political power and the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government which will usher in the Socialist commonwealth. The communist party does not stop short merely with a proclamation of its revolutionary goal. It links that goal up with the daily battles of the working class for jobs, bread and peace. Its actions and achievements are impressive evidence of its revolutionary sincerity.”

Not one member of the group who wrote this pamphlet today adheres to the communist party! The times change, and, not infrequently, our politics change with them. Every word then uttered against the socialist party can today be applied with deadly accuracy to the present policy of the communist party. In the preface of the pamphlet these “intellectual workers” boasted that “it is our business to think and we shall not permit businessmen to teach us our business”. Nevertheless, some of those who signed (but did not write) it—Malcom Cowley, Kyle Crichton, Granville Hicks, Isador Schneider and Ella Winter, to mention no others, have found it possible to accept with equal enthusiasm the two irreconcilably opposed programs of reform and revolution without, apparently recognizing that there is any difference between them. Are these intellectuals “whose business it is to think’? Or are they people who let, others do their political thinking for them? They have not maintained their intellectual independence in shifting from reformism to Stalinism; they have merely changed masters and remain as obedient as ever to their master’s voice.

More critically-inclined intellectuals, such as Sidney Hook and James Rorty, continued to think and to act on their own, and, even before the Stalinists reversed their policies, turned towards the American Workers party. For criticizing the policy of “social-Fascism”, for advocating a genuine united front policy with other working class organizations, and, above all, for doubting the infallibility of Stalinism, they were themselves attacked as agents of Fascism by the Stalinist character assassins. Soon the older and more established literary figures, Anderson and Dreiser, who had been impelled toward the revolutionary movement by an upsurge of emotion rather than by any intellectual convictions, began to drift away as casually as they had come, when their first spurt of revolutionary vigor had spent itself. Dreiser was later to be revealed as an anti-Semite. And, lest we forget in these days when the Stalinist scribes are singing hymns of praise to Heywood Broun, back in 1932 he was called the most dangerous of social-Fascist demagogues—and a bar-fly to boot.

Throughout this period the majority of radical intellectuals preserved a reverent attitude towards the communist party. It is easy to understand why. The objective circumstances outlined above reinforced certain subjective weaknesses that tended to repress their critical faculties. They became the victims of their own ignorance, inexperience and superstition. Lacking political education, they were willing to extend almost unlimited credit to the recognized revolutionary leadership. Their deference to Stalinist authority was augmented by the awe with which they regarded the Soviet Union and the revolutionary proletarian movement as a whole.

Inspired by the great ideal of communism, many of them entered the revolutionary movement in the same unquestioning spirit of obedience as a Catholic convert enters a religious order. They feared that the slightest expression of doubt concerning the correctness of party policy, or the admission of any imperfections in the Soviet Union would give aid and comfort to the enemy. This excess of zeal led them to accept intellectual and political practices they might otherwise have rejected out of hand. In the sacred name of “the cause,” they winked at the systematic misrepresentation of facts in the Stalinist press. As good soldiers of the revolution, they gave up the habit of forming independent opinions on political questions or of struggling for them and mutely accepted every order handed down from above.

They became half-ashamed of being “intellectuals” or of having middle-class origins and, in order to rid themselves of their original sin, tried to pass themselves off as “intellectual workers”, as in the pamphlet quoted above, and even invented fanciful proletarian genealogies for themselves. Intellectuals who stop being critical in any field of intellectual endeavor quickly decay. Those intellectuals who failed to stand upon their own feet and reach the solid ground of Marxism, but blindly followed the Stalinist orders, completely failed to develop their intellectual capacities along Marxian lines. Instead of assimilating the heritage of Marxian thought, they were content to feed upon the dry husks of Stalinist theory. Not a single theoretician of any importance has been developed among them; none who has added anything of value to the treasury of Marxism. They have either mutilated and depreciated their intellectual talents by offering them as a sacrifice upon the altar of Stalinism or they buried themselves in the routine of organizational activity.

These psychological phenomena were, in part, infantile diseases which a vigilant party can aid individual intellectuals to overcome. But instead of removing any of these congenital weaknesses of the intellectuals, the Stalinists accentuated them. For the communist party itself had degenerated into an organization less like a workers’ party than a religious sect with an infallible Pope, unassailable dogmas, and lazy-minded believers.

The Intellectualsand the Crisis—II

The events since Hitler’s victory, which have produced such profound changes in world politics, and, above all, among the labor parties, have had their repercussions in the ranks of American intellectuals. The impact of these events and the lessons to be drawn from them have propelled fresh strata toward the left and enabled others to find their way to a genuine revolutionary position. On the other hand, the advance of Fascism has created a resurgence of faith in the virtues of bourgeois democracy among the liberals and given rise to energetic efforts on their part to discover new methods of preserving them. Hitler and Mussolini have some of their strongest admirers in those conservative academic circles where intellectual life is weakest, but even in the faculty clubs of the universities unabashed advocates of the triumphs of reaction in Europe are difficult to find. This is in itself eloquent testimony to the retrogressive and viciously anti-intellectual character of Fascism and to the narrowly nationalistic sources of its inspiration and support.


For over a year after Hitler’s conquest of power, the Communist International continued the policies which had brought disaster to the German workers. Their climax in the United States occurred in the riot between Socialists and Communists at Madison Square Garden in February 1934, where a meeting called by the New York Socialist Party and trade unions to demonstrate their solidarity with the heroic Austrian Socialists was broken up by the Stalinists, incited by their leaders to carry out “the united front from below” in action.

Factional warfare prevailed at the meeting. Speakers were howled down, fists flew, chairs were hurled, scores were injured, including Hathaway, editor of the Daily Worker. Broadcast over the radio and featured the following day in the bourgeois press, the brawl was a completely disgraceful performance for which the Stalinists, despite the provocations of the Old Guard Socialist leaders, were directly responsible.

This shameful incident brought to a head the growing dissatisfaction of a number of radical intellectuals with the adventuristic policies of the Stalinists. Twenty-five, including John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, John Chamberlain, James Rorty, Meyer Schapiro, and Clifton Fadiman, sent an open letter of protest to the Communist party. Standing upon revolutionary premises and sharply distinguishing themselves for the Fascist victories and for working class disunity, they condemned the conduct of the Stalinists and the united-front-from-below policy that provoked it, and called for joint action of the proletariat in the struggle against reaction.

The New Masses took upon itself the burden of answering these critics. In defense of the united-front-from-below, the editors asserted:

“If a leadership obstructs the natural gravity of the masses toward unity, there seems to be only one solution: to attempt to throw the masses together, despite the saboteurs on top... This the communist party tried to do at Madison Square Garden.”

They ridiculed the right of these dissenting intellectuals to criticize the Stalinist leaders.

“Just juxtapose a John Chamberlain to a Bill Foster, a Clifton Fadiman to an Earl Browder, and you will see the utter absurdity of these literati, politically illiterate, turned revolutionary pedagogues.”

They concluded by dividing the protestants into two categories, “the honest but misguided” and “the shady and stupid” (i.e., the politically salvageable and the politically suspect), and called upon Dos Passos in particular to dissociate himself from “the queer company” of “these generals yearning for armies, these leaders minus experience, minus integrity, these revolutionary butterflies”, etc. Dos Passos spiked this attempt to separate the sheep from the goats by replying that he not only stood by his protest but by the other signers, who, he pointed out, were the same people with whom he had signed an appeal a few months earlier to support the communist presidential candidates.

This act of protest resulted in the first organized break with Stalinism on a political basis among the radical intellectuals. The anti-Stalinist initiators of the protest split into two groups, one aiding in the formation of the American Workers Party, the other going over to the Trotskyists. They later rejoined each other when the two organizations fused into the Workers Party.

Significant as were the implications of this rupture with Stalinism, it proved to be an isolated phenomenon. The bulk of the radicalized intellectuals remained in sympathy with the communist party. The successes of the Stalinists in spreading their ideas among the lower middle class intellectuals have been as conspicuous as their failure to win the support of any significant section of organized labor. The ultra-left policies, which repelled so many class-conscious workers, were easily swallowed by the radical intellectuals, who were ready to accept the most radical conclusions in theory, especially since they were not required to stake their vital interests upon them.

The support of many of these fellow-travelers was obtained as much on a cultural as a political basis. During this period the Stalinists built around themselves a cultural movement of impressive proportions. A national network of literary organs, theatre and dance groups, and professional associations gave sympathetic intellectuals and professionals an opportunity to function in their professional capacities at the same time that it gave them the feeling of participating in the radical movement.

In the last few years the Stalinists have taken possession of commanding positions in one field after another on the cultural front. It proved to be easier to take over the leadership in the literary world than in the field of organized labor. While it is not our present purpose to examine the character of this movement as much as to note the extent of its influence, it is necessary to make four observations upon it.

First, the movement was conceived and permeated by the most rigid sectarianism, which not only demanded that works of art and their authors be politically orthodox, but that they conform to the specifications laid down by the official pundits of the party. The party line was to reign supreme in the creative arts no less than in politics; and the party spokesmen demanded equal authority in both. This false and anti-Marxist conception of the relation between the revolutionary party and the living cultural movement it is interesting to note, has not been liquidated along with the rest of the policies of the third period. It has simply changed its form in accordance with the new political requirements. Whereas yesterday a novelist had to be one hundred and fifty percent a revolutionist in his point of view and in his portrayal of his characters on penalty of being rejected out of hand or stigmatized as a social-Fascist, today he need only have a kind word to say for bourgeois democracy and a harsh word for the Fascists to win commendation. Thus Sinclair Lewis has been miraculously transformed from a petty-bourgeois liberal writer, who turned his back upon the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat, into a literary hero of the Popular Front.

Second, the chief offspring of this harsh sectarianism was the false cult of proletarianism. While it is necessary to bring forward the ideas of Marxism in critical opposition to those of bourgeois ideologists in all spheres of theoretical activity, this is a far cry from creating a new class culture specifically proletarian in its content.

Rich and comprehensive cultures are not created at the command of any party overnight; they are the product of many generations of experimenting in all the diverse fields of cultural activity. It took several centuries for bourgeois culture to develop and flower in the arts and sciences. The bourgeoisie moreover had the means and the leisure to create or to foster the arts, and an urgent necessity to advance and utilize the sciences.

Prior to the conquest of power the proletariat has neither the resources and the time nor the opportunity to create a complete culture of its own. Not only must it strain its resources to the utmost in its economic and political struggles, but it is faced with the task of assimilating all the valuable elements in the culture of bourgeois society. The idea of the categorical necessity for the proletariat to fashion its own culture to replace that of their masters is based upon a false analogy with the historical development of bourgeois culture.

But there is an even more fundamental error in the notion of “proletarian culture”. The historical mission of the working class is to establish socialism and the classless society, and to create for the first time in history a classless culture accessible to all, a truly human culture, which will absorb within itself all the cultural wealth of the past. The notion of a specifically proletarian culture is therefore a contradiction in theory, reactionary and Utopian in practice.

Its contradictions manifested themselves in the endless controversies carried on by the radical intellectuals amongst themselves and with such liberal critics as Henry Hazlitt and Joseph Wood Krutch over the interpretation to be given the concept of “proletarian” literature. Did it mean literature written by a proletarian, for proletarians, or about proletarians? Or did it mean literature written according to the revolutionary point of view? In their debates the Stalinists shifted uneasily from one of these means to another without coming to any conclusion; in practice, they used whichever one was suited to their particular purpose at the moment.

The proletarian cult was not only responsible for such sterile controversy in advanced literary circles and considerable theoretical confusion in the minds of radical intellectuals. It also had disastrous effects upon the artistic development of many writers and artists new to the revolutionary movement. Instead of broadening their sympathies and interests to include the lives and struggles of the working class, it narrowed them by demanding that their attention be concentrated solely upon them. Even more, the high priests instructed their acolytes what themes to choose, what treatment to give them, even what kind of ending they should have. Works which did not conform to specifications were held up as horrible examples or summarily thrown into the junk-heap. This reign of terror on the cultural front paralyzed many promising talents and led them into blind alleys.

Although the proletarian cult has not been officially repudiated, it is being forced into the background. It is incompatible with the new line which tries to obscure all class divisions and exploit national traditions of liberty, justice, etc. The symposium on Marxism and Americanism in the latest issue of Partisan Review and Anvil is indicative of the new trend. Not one of the contributors, who include some of the most prominent of the Stalinist intellectuals, approaches the question from either the class or the Marxist standpoint. The tendency here as in the political arena is to smear over fundamental class antagonisms, and to submerge the red in the red, white and blue.

Third, despite the size of this movement, it has so far been almost exclusively restricted to the domain of arts. The sphere of the social sciences, philosophy, history, political economy, etc., which should be the special province of Marxist theoreticians, has been untouched by it. This is a manifestation of the extremely low theoretical level upon which the movement has developed.

Fourth, the Stalinist predominance on the cultural front is quantitative, but scarcely qualitative. Many of the more thoughtful of the radical literary figures—Dos Passos, Louis Adamic, Anita Brenner, etc.—are not Stalinist stooges. The ablest radical historian, Louis M. Hacker; the leading Marxist philosophers, Sidney Hook, James Burnham and Jerome Rosenthal, are anti-Stalinist. The new orientation of the Stalinists has for the time being enabled them to make even greater inroads than before among left intellectuals and professionals. But signs of revulsion are even now becoming noticeable among the most thoughtful of them.


While the radical intellectuals constitute the most aggressive element in contemporary American intellectual life, they are at best an active minority within it. The majority of American intellectuals are still liberals by conviction, however interested they may be in radical ideas. The intellectual changes which have taken place among representative liberal intellectuals are therefore of greater immediate importance for the decisive sections of the intellectuals than events among the radicals. The advance of Fascism and the menace of a new world war have deeply disturbed American liberals. They are having nightmares in which every demagogue who catches the ears of the masses is represented as a Fascist Fuehrer. See Sinclair Lewis’s latest novel It Can’t Happen Here or the pages of the New Masses passim for reflections of the phantasmagorias Fascism has evoked in the imaginations of these people.

The easy faith in the omnipotence of bourgeois democracy and in its gradual growth toward a more perfect society, which sustained the liberals in the past, has been rudely shaken. As the vise of the class struggle begins to exert more pressure upon them both from the right and from the left, the liberal vanguard is rousing from its lethargy.

John Dewey’s latest book, Liberalism and Social Action, indicates how far some leaders of American liberalism have been pushed by fear of reaction. Dewey still worships at the shrine of bourgeois democracy. He still condemns the Marxists for their “dogmatic” belief in the function of force as an instrument of” social change, and opposes to the organized might of the working class the abstraction of “socially organized intelligence” materialized presumably in a middle-class party of reform.

But his faith in the old gods is beginning to weaken. He explicitly recognizes that force is one of the pillars of the existing social order, and goes on to concede, in words at least, the right of “an organized majority to employ force to subdue and disarm a recalcitrant minority.”

“The one exception—and that apparent rather than real—in dependence upon organized intelligence as the method for directing social change, is found when society through an organized majority has entered upon the path of social experimentation leading to great social change, and a minority refuses by force to permit the method of intelligent action to go into effect. Then force may be intelligently employed to subdue and disarm the recalcitrant minority.” (Page 87)

A dogmatic rejection of the idea that the use of force can ever be “intelligent” or progressive has hitherto been the hallmark of the American liberal. Properly interpreted, Dewey’s general remarks would go far towards justifying the Marxist position in reward to the historical function of organized force. The revolutionary party, which is “the organized intelligence” and the will of the working class, demands nothing more than the right to employ force intelligently “to subdue and disarm the recalcitrant minority” of exploiters and their agents, who will inevitably oppose themselves to “the organized majority of the people who have entered upon the road of social experimentation leading to a great social change”.

Dewey’s political history, taken together with his qualification that “the exception is more apparent than real”, indicates that he, for one, will never advance beyond the liberal standpoint in practice. But his admission that force can under certain circumstances play a progressive role opens a theoretical breach in traditional liberalism through which others can make their way towards the revolutionary position.

The ferment among American liberals created by their fear of Fascism presents the American revolutionists with a splendid opportunity to intervene and draw significant layers of the middle classes, and especially the best-trained professional and intellectual minds, to the side of the revolutionary movement. If Dewey, in his seventies, can open such a breach, how much can be done with the younger generations!

The road to the revolutionary movement is barred for these elements however, by two varieties of intellectuals now being assiduously encouraged by Stalinism. These are the “Stalinist liberals” and the proponents of the “People’s Front.”

The “Stalinist liberal” may be briefly characterized as one who holds that, although the dictatorship of the proletariat is an excellent thing for the benighted Russians, enlightened democratic America needs none of it. Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb, whose recent treatise, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? is the current sensation among the liberal cognoscenti, are perfect examples of this type. Stalin himself has given such people his blessing in his declaration to Roy Howard that:

“American democracy and the Soviet system can exist and compete peacefully, but one can never develop into the other. Soviet democracy will never evolve into American democracy, or vice versa.” O

rganizations like the Friends of the Soviet Union are recruited from the ranks of these liberals.

Now it is certainly more creditable to be a friend of the first workers’ state than a friend of Hearst. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that it is not a difficult matter to be a friend of the Soviet Union in the United States today, especially for those who need take no political responsibility for their actions. Even President Roosevelt, who bears the responsibility for carrying out the policies of American imperialism, is today, in his own fashion, an avowed “friend of the Soviet Union” and cables birthday greetings to Kalinin.

No one can tell in advance how loyal such fair-weather friends will be to the Soviet Union in more dangerous circumstances. But we do know this. It is one thing to be a friend of the Stalinist bureaucracy and quite another to be a real friend of the Soviet Union, just as it is one thing to admire the achievements of a victorious revolution from a safe distance and quite another to be an active revolutionist. There is a world of difference between those who simply praise the October Revolution of eighteen years ago and those who know that to preserve these conquests it is absolutely necessary to extend them throughout the world.

The Stalinist liberals, however, fail to make any distinction between defending the Soviet revolution and defending the Stalinist exploiters of this revolution against the criticisms of devoted revolutionists. They undertake to defend, not only the Soviet Union against its real enemies in the reactionary camp, but also the Stalinist bureaucracy against their political opponents, the Trotskyists. They lecture the Trotskyists on the properly reverent attitude one should take toward the present regime in the USSR; condemn them for being “unrealistic”; “sectarian”; and “firebrands”; and some even echo the monstrous Stalinist accusation that the Trotskyists are “the vanguard of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.” These apologists for Stalinism ,who often affect to disdain politics as a dirty business, play, in effect, the most despicable of all political roles in sanctioning the crimes committed by the Stalinists against the interests of the world proletariat.

Consider, for example, the part such people played in the Kiroff assassination. Comrade Trotsky devoted an article in a recent issue of this magazine to Romain Rolland’s feeble efforts to cover up the crimes of the Stalinists in this connection. We can trade scores of American Olivers for the Rollands of France. Did not the New Republic publish an editorial white-washing the bureaucracy’s reprisals against the revolutionists, the shooting of scores of worker-communists without trial, the punishment of Zinoviev and Kamenev, on the ground that “the Russians” were accustomed to use violent methods in such matters and should not be judged according to the standards of the enlightened West? The use of such double-entry bookkeeping is characteristic of the Stalinist liberal’s methods of shielding the Soviet bureaucracy against the rightful criticism of the Marxists—under the misapprehension that they are thereby protecting the Soviet Union against its foes.

The “Stalinist liberal” used to be the most serious obstacle to the revolutionary development of the liberal intellectual, is now giving way before the bourgeois-liberal proponent of the “People’s Front”. The thoroughly petty bourgeois and reformist character of the new Stalinist line is demonstrated by the promptness with which the most advanced organ of liberal opinion has seized upon it. The January 8 issue of the New Republic featured a fervent plea for A People’s Front for America. The editorial called upon socialists and communists to forget their political differences; heal their old antagonisms; and join with all other men of good will to form an anti-Fascist front in this country on the French model.

The single requirement for a seat in this political omnibus is a professed opposition to Fascism.

“Under these circumstances there is, it seems to us, only one test to apply to possible adherents to a united front: are you for fascism (under that or some other name) or against it? If you are against it—against maintaining or raising prices at the expense of wages, against suppressing labor unions, against militarism in the classroom—that is enough. It is better to win with the aid of people some of whom we don’t like, than to lose and come under the iron-fisted control of people all of whom we dislike a great deal more. Whatever may have been the underlying motives of Stalin’s famous speech in Moscow, what he said was true as applied to America today: against a common enemy you need a common army.”

This appeal for a People’s Front is based upon three assumptions. First, that Fascism is the chief danger threatening the American people today; second, that the Fascist nations are belligerent while the democratic nations are pacific in policy; third, that the way to prevent Fascism is by combining all classes in a common front against reaction. All three propositions are false to the core; all three are essential elements in the social-patriotic program of Stalinism; all three serve only to blindfold the American people to the real dangers before them.

We cannot here enter into a prolonged discussion of the People’s Front. Providential as it may seem and plausible as may be its claims, all the teachings of Marxism go to prove that it is a snare and a delusion. Both war and Fascism spring out of the world crisis of capitalism; the struggle against them is inseparable from the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the present social system. The theory of the People’s Front, however, is based upon a negation of the class struggle and a denial of the necessity for the proletarian revolution. Instead of preventing either Fascism or war, the policy of the People’s Front can only smooth the path for their advance.

All historical experience stands witness to this fact. For this latest panacea, imported from Moscow and guaranteed to ward off the constitutional ills of capitalism, is nothing new. In the form of an alliance with the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek, it led to the beheading of the Chinese revolution and the triumph of reaction in China in 1927; in the form of the Iron Front against Hitler, it brought disaster to the German workers in 1933. The same fate awaits the French and Spanish proletariat, if the Socialist and Stalinist leaders are permitted to play the same game through to the bitter end.

American liberals are today using the same arguments in favor of the People’s Front as they formerly used for the New Deal, for the same purposes and for the same end. The division of labor that is growing up between them and the Stalinists in propagating these fatal doctrines makes it more imperative than ever to disclose their real nature and the dangers that flow from them.


Since 1921, the Socialist party has remained in a state of intellectual sterility. With insignificant exceptions, it exerted no influence upon the living cultural movement nor attracted any important group of radical intellectuals to its banner. The Old Guard, obsessed by the single idea of combating the ideas and the influence of the communists, had no further use for theoretical investigation; they were quite content with the moth-eaten social-democracy they had absorbed in their youth. The world-shaking experiences of the Russian revolution and the ensuing events made not the least dent upon their consciousness. The feeble flickers of intellectual life displayed here and there within Socialist circles beyond the precincts of the Rand School were fed by such doctrinaires as Laidler, who simply regurgitated for American consumption the platitudes of English Fabianism.

With the changes which have recently taken place within the Socialist party, there will undoubtedly be a tendency for radical intellectuals to be drawn towards it. However, the theoretical weakness of the Socialist party, the absence of a vigorous intellectual life, and its lack of a cultural apparatus equal to that of the Stalinists definitely lessen its attractive power. One of the main tasks of the left wing in the Socialist party should be the systematic encouragement of theoretical work in order to raise the theoretical level of the party; to draw closer those radical intellectuals who have broken with Stalinism, and thereby prepare to combat the false ideas of Stalinism on the cultural as well as the political front.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006