Chris Harman


Writing on the wall

(May 1997)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.208, May 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Cultural Front
Michael Denning
Verso £20

In any society the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. But that does not prevent culture also reflecting the discontent and struggles directed against the ruling class. American culture in the 1930s is a case in point. The economic, social and political upheavals of those years had a huge impact on American culture.

The artistic reaction to the crisis had a profound impact not only on highbrow art and literature, but also on the mass culture of popular music and the Hollywood dream factory – the echoes of which are still around today. The Cultural Front is an attempt to describe this impact. Unfortunately, a combination of poor politics and academic gibberish make it a flawed attempt, despite a mass of fascinating material. What is good is the way in which the author shows how widespread was the impact of the crisis both on already successful writers and artists and on a whole new generation just beginning to try to give expression to their experiences.

Denning shows in detail how this influenced the output of writers such as John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck, film makers such as Joseph Losey, Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan and the young Orson Welles, musicians like Aaron Copland, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, and, through these, the whole texture of American cultural output. He argues, for instance, that the immensely popular film noir gangster and thriller movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s would have been inconceivable without the prior experimentation of those who liked to think of themselves as ‘proletarian’ writers in the mid-1930s.

But Denning’s attempt to put the record straight is damaged by two great failings. One is a lumping together of everyone who was influenced by the 1930s left. This ties in with Denning’s second failing. He sees there as being one movement in the 1930s, which he describes as the ‘cultural popular front’. But American society – and its artists – were presented with two competing alternatives. As well as the revolutionary socialist alternative present, in embryo, in the great mid-1930s strikes and sit-ins, there was also the alternative represented by the Roosevelt, Democratic Party wing of the American ruling class. This was prepared to make certain gestures to the dissident intellectuals as part of its project of using the state to reshape American capitalism through the New Deal.

Until 1936 most of the American left recognised the distinction between their aims and Roosevelt’s very clearly. This was the period when all the stress was on ‘proletarian’ art, which, for all its faults in theory and execution, meant trying to relate to working class struggle and a working class audience.

Then the Communist Party, the most influential section of the left, suddenly received the call from Stalin to establish ‘Popular Fronts’ with supposedly ‘anti-fascist’ capitalists and mainstream politicians – which in the US meant the governing New Deal Democrats. On the cultural front, the party decisively shifted its emphasis. It no longer tried to direct the spontaneous radicalisation of intellectuals towards the overthrowing of existing society, but rather towards exerting pressure within it.

One aspect of this was adopting for itself the language of ‘Americanism’ traditionally used by the right wing – the party’s slogan became ‘Communism is 20th century Americanism’.

Denning obscures this whole process, claiming for the Popular Front people like C.L.R. James who denounced it throughout, and describing the arguments within the left over the Popular Front as ‘sectarian’ disputes. At points he even insists that the alliance with New Deal Democrats was a step forward, opening up ‘possibilities for mobilisation and organisation’.

These are not marginal matters. The way the Popular Front in culture conciliated with New Dealism served to weaken the impulse to the left of many thousands of radicalised artists. It encouraged them to take the easy option of making concessions to the mainstream Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley culture, so advancing their own careers. It also lead to reactions like that of the hero of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, who became disillusioned with socialism as the party backed off from a principled anti-racist stand in order to conciliate Democratic Party politicians. The view that all socialists were dishonest and manipulative was further encouraged by the party’s behaviour once the US entered the Second World War – its refusal to criticise the military, its opposition to strikes, its willingness to join in the witch hunt against the left in the unions like the Teamsters, its expulsion of its own Japanese-American members.

Such a record made it easier for mainstream politicians – Republican and New Deal Democrat alike – to succeed in turning the witch hunt against the Communist Party itself from 1947 onwards.

James T. Farrell, himself one of the ablest novelists of the early 1930s, writes of its ‘bottom dog’ literature:

‘It implicitly asserts the humanity of its characters ... It boldly introduced men and women and boys and girls of the lowest social stratum as human beings whose problems and whose feelings demand the urgent attention of the reading public ... The boy on the street, the uneducated Negro, the sharecropper, the worker, and the many others are here introduced, irrevocably, into the consciousness of America ... It states social problems, not in terms of generalisations but rather in terms of direct characterisation, of the immediacy of life described on the printed page ... In this literature, social causation is translated into individual motivation of action, thought, dream and word.’

By contrast: 

‘The New Deal cultural climate which evolved in America during the 1930s, and which was patently exemplified in many motion pictures, radio plays and novels of the war period, helped to produce a pseudo populist literature of the common man. This neo-populist art and literature emphasises the concept of Americanism as the means of unifying all races, creeds and classes. Instead of a literature which penetratingly describes class differences ... this literature has generally stressed and sentimentalised the theme that the common man is human; it has also used the theme that the rich are Americans too, and that they are like the common man.’

The blacklisted director Joseph Losey later wrote, ‘After Hiroshima, after the death of Roosevelt, after the investigations, only then did I begin to understand the complete unreality of the American dream.’ One reason it took so long for people like him to grasp the truth was that the Popular Front was based on obscuring it. By failing to grasp this Denning spoils his own book.

Last updated on 22 December 2009