George Novack’s

Radical Intellectuals in the 1930s

Delivered: September 1967
First Published: International Socialist Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, March-April 1968, pp. 21-34. (Text of speech to Socialist Scholars Conference, N. Y., Sept. 1967)
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.

It befits a convocation of socialist scholars in the 1960s to concern itself with the radical intellectuals of thirty years ago. Their behavior through a period of storm and stress is highly instructive to all students of this mercurial segment of American society. But we have closer ties with them. The Left intellectuals had the most widespread antagonism to capitalism and intense attachment to revolutionary socialism during the thirties. Although these attitudes did not endure, that decade forms the most important part of our heritage from the past. If the present resurgent radicalism can learn what its precursors did that was admirable and worth emulating, and where they went astray, it should benefit greatly from the lessons of that experience.

Historical determinism does not nowadays enjoy the vogue it had at the height of the thirties. Yet the record is plain that from the twenties to the forties the majority of anti-capitalist intellectuals passed through three phases which were marked out by the mighty national and world events of the time. From the stock market crash to Hitler’s victory and Roosevelt’s, assumption of office they were torn loose from their previous moorings and swung sharply to the left. From 1933 to the Spanish civil war and the Moscow trials they deepened their commitments and produced the initial differentiations. From 1937 through the crushing of the Spanish revolution, the Stalin-Hitler pact and the Second World War they began the flight from radicalism which was consummated in the wholesale recanting characteristic of the cold war.

Each participant made his free choices at every point along this path of development. Some moved forward or backward faster and farther than others. Nevertheless, the main line of march proceeded irresistibly from quarrelsome coexistence with the regime of big money before 1930 through a deep-going opposition that wound up in eventual reconciliation with the status quo. Let us review the decisive steps in this process.

As American capitalism toboganed downhill until it hit bottom with the closing of all banks on March 4, 1933, the nation went into traumatic shock. The illusion of permanent prosperity had mesmerized all classes during the boom era. None of them, from the ruling rich to the working and nonworking poor, had any presentiment of the tornado that broke over their heads and bore down with increasing fury upon the population.

If the crisis caught the intellectuals unawares along with everyone else, the most aroused among them took the lead in asserting that American capitalism was undeserving of support or survival. From 1930 on they began to voice their dissidence, setting out on the quest for a reorientation that carried many of them far from their social, political and philosophical starting points.

In the main the vanguard intellectuals of the golden twenties had been more concerned with cultural and moral values than with social and political issues. Their criticisms and protests flowed largely through literary channels. Under Harding and Coolidge they were disposed to leave the direction of politics and economics to the possessors of power whom they could not hope to influence. Many derided democracy, socialism and politics in the supercilious accents of their popular mentor, H. L. Mencken—or else they munched upon the mild progressivism provided weekly by The Nation and New Republic. Not a few (my friends and I were like that) adopted both these contradictory stances.

The battering of the great depression dispelled that apathy and politicized the outlook of the most aloof esthetes. The bohemians began a transit from Greenwich Village to Union Square. How could they—or anyone—be indifferent to a system that was creating so much havoc and misery and careening blindly toward the abyss?

Liberalism was the first ideological casualty of the awakening. This tranquillizing philosophy became insolvent along with thousands of businesses because its spokesmen had failed to foresee the catastrophe and were unable to explain its causes or cope effectively with its consequences. Its doctrines appeared more and more out of touch with the critical problems at hand.

In this emergency the leading liberals had to reconsider their attitudes toward American capitalism, bourgeois democracy and gradualism. Their stirrings can be traced in the shifts among the foremost figures around the New Republic. Early in 1931, its editors wrote a series of articles which mirrored the prevailing states of mind among discomfited liberals. Edmund Wilson appealed to his fellow progressives to give up their expectations of “salvation by the gradual and natural approximation to socialism” and urged them to become a militant minority actively struggling to attain socialism here and now. This was to be done quixotically, by “taking communism away from the communists.” The seriousness of Wilson’s determination was shown by his candid self-criticism, his resignation from the weekly’s literary editorship when he could no longer agree with its policies, and the tour he took through the country to get firsthand knowledge of the effects of the crisis. His articles collected in The American Jitters vividly report the turmoil of the times.

Under the influence of “the Russian experiment” George Soule, an economist of the institutional school who spoke for the official center of the New Republic, transferred his hopes for regenerating America to the idea of national planning within a capitalist framework. What the Russians were achieving with their backward technology, he argued, we Americans can do far better with our advanced facilities. The production plant had been built; now it was urgent to “create a brain for our economy.” Soule was to see this temporarily incarnated in the professorial brain trust of the New Deal’s first phase.

John Dewey came forward to proclaim the bankruptcy of the old parties and call for the formation of a third “middle class” party on the LaFollette model. Thus, while the New Republic’s staff economist and its patron philosopher sought to amend traditional liberal positions, its most perceptive literary critic went further and repudiated them in favor of Marxism.

The aversion of the younger minds toward liberalism was given lively expression in John Chamberlain’s postmortem of the Progressive movement entitled Farewell to Reform. This trend was accelerated by two other influential publications: Lincoln Steffens’ Autobiography and The Coming Struggle for Power by the newly converted British Communist, John Strachey. I remember going into the New York Times cubicle in February 1933 where Chamberlain, its daily reviewer, was annotating Strachey’s book for an article that week. “This is remarkably convincing in its logic,” he told me. And so it proved for thousands like us.

The strength of the leftward sweep was coupled with the feebleness of right-wing opinion. Except for a spasm of excitement around the academic Tory Humanism of Professors Babbitt and More, the nostalgia for the plantation past on the part of the Southern agrarian writers, and the isolated outright fascism of Lawrence Dennis, reactionary views found few adherents after Hoover’s debacle.

While the liberal luminaries were edging a few degrees to the left, the bulk of the radicalized intellectuals was moving much faster and farther in that direction. Along that road they passed by the Socialist Party without stopping. It had nothing to offer them. Since the 1921 split, the American Socialists, dominated by the old guard, had been drained of political and intellectual vitality. Despite the personal appeal of its standard bearer, Norman Thomas, his party had all the defects, without the mass base, of the European Social Democracy.

The Communist movement was the unchallenged center of attraction—and for good reasons. It bore aloft the red banner of the October Revolution; it was the official representative of the Soviet regime; it claimed Lenin, his International and its program for its own. The starry-eyed saw a promised paradise in the land of the five-year plans; the more realistic were impressed by the achievements of a planned economy operated on the foundation of nationalized property which was successfully propelling a backward country forward and eliminating unemployment in contrast with capitalism’s creeping paralysis. They regarded the Communist International as the leader of the world revolution and the Soviet government as the most reliable bulwark against fascism, war and reaction. The dedicated energy of the Communist cadres in organizing the unemployed, fighting the Herndon, Scottsboro and other cases, and plunging into the industrial union drive after 1935, seemed to vindicate the party’s claim to be the champion of the oppressed and vanguard of the working class.

Few of these intellectual newcomers had been acquainted with the labor movement and Marxist thought or knew anything about the history and controversies of international Communism. They were mostly middle-class individuals with a social conscience that was swiftly being transformed into a socialist consciousness. These political fledglings were at the mercy of the Communist Party in which they reposed unlimited trust.

Paradoxically, after the first shocks, the depression lifted a heavy burden from these intellectuals. Their earlier iconoclasm and cynicism were replaced by the splendid vision of a new world in the making. For the first time since the Civil War, revolution acquired an actuality for the American people and, most of all, for the Left intellectuals who welcomed what others feared or were more hesitant to accept. In addition to acting as a cultural vanguard, they now envisaged a grander role for themselves as revolutionary critics and reconstructors of society. Socialism pointed the way out of the encircling gloom and immensely broadened their sympathies and horizons. They were convinced that capitalism was on its deathbed. This breeder of injustice, poverty, misery, unemployment, war and fascism could no longer even keep itself going. Its abolition would give birth in this country, as it was doing in Russia, to a new society of human solidarity, peace and abundance. The counter-power delegated to do that job, Marxism taught, was the industrial proletariat; the method was revolutionary mass action. And, as part of the Third International, the CP was predestined to organize and lead the American masses to that overthrow.

Although existentialism had not yet appeared to rationalize their agonies, the intellectuals of the twenties had also been troubled by the egotism and alienations of bourgeois existence. Now these were being overcome by a gratifying sense of comradeship with the mass of workers who possessed the potential power and needed only the will, knowledge and organization to rise up, dislodge the capitalist masters, and bring a better world to birth. By merging their lives with such a creative social and political force they gained purpose, integration, dignity and rationality in an otherwise anarchic madhouse.

Although such expansive optimism over the prospects of revolution gave way to more somber moods as fascism spread and another world war loomed, it actuated the radical intellectuals throughout those years. The lofty hopes deposited in this outlook likewise accounts for their inconsolable bitterness once they found or felt that they had been manipulated, deceived, betrayed and sold out.

Most of these rebels did not embrace the cause of proletarian revolution primarily through careful weighing of theoretical alternatives. Unlike the emergent radicalism of the sixties their discontent had direct economic sources. Many came to Communism as victims of the world crisis, cast out of jobs or faced with dim career prospects. Capitalism was no longer working for them or fundamentally workable; Soviet Communism seemed the only realistic replacement.

There was nothing wrong in adopting socialism on such empirical grounds provided the movement of their new allegiance could give the relocated intellectuals a sound theoretical education, a correct program and honest leadership which would permanently advance the best of them to higher plateaus of understanding and activity. At this juncture the contradictory development of world communism set a terrible trap for the unwary radicals. They sincerely believed they were absorbing the ideas of Marxism and the program of Lenin’s Bolshevism. Actually they were being indoctrinated with the precepts and practices of the Stalinized bureaucratic caste which had taken over the Soviet Union and the Third International after crushing the Leninist Left Opposition. By the close of the decade elements of this truth were disclosed to many of them. But at its beginning the procommunist neophytes had no more premonition of this calamity than they had of the collapse of American capitalism.

They zealously dove into activity, taking responsible posts in labor defense, propaganda and cultural work. They went to Kentucky to help the Harlan miners; sent delegations to Washington protesting the shooting of the bonus marchers; covered strikes and unemployed demonstrations for the radical press.

The first period of their participation was crowned by the manifesto Culture and the Crisis, issued by the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford in the fall of 1932 and signed by fifty-three prominent writers, artists, and educators, including Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edmund Wilson, Waldo Frank, Sidney Hook, Malcolm Cowley and Granville Hicks. Every line flamed with revolutionary passion. The declaration rejected capitalism forever, breathed confidence in the CP and contempt for the reformist SP, and called for the overthrow of the system through “the conquest of political power and the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government which will usher in the Socialist Commonwealth.” Never before or since have American intellectuals displayed more faith in the socialist future or the revolutionary capacities of the working class. Their certitudes stand in sharp contrast with the doubts on these points pervading the New Left today.

Not one of the drafters of that pamphlet remained with the CP three years later. Here is one reason: Stalin’s foreign policy veered from one extreme to another during the decade, making twists and turns that greatly befuddled his followers. From 1929 to 1935, in accord with the Comintern’s mandate, the CP embarked on an ultra-left course. It branded all other labor tendencies as “social-fascist,” applied the united front in a divisive manner only “from below,” and, long before the workers were ready, proclaimed that the time had come to storm the barricades. Knowing no better, most radicals mistook this declamatory adventurism for Leninism.

The delirium reached its climax in February 1934 when a Stalinist squad, led by Daily Worker editor Clarence Hathaway, threw chairs and broke up a Madison Square Garden meeting held by the Socialists and garment unions to demonstrate solidarity with the Austrian workers shot down by the Dollfuss reaction. This shameful violence called forth a letter of protest from 25 intellectuals headed by previous supporters of Foster and Ford. Justifying the action, the New Masses editors replied: “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.” The tactic didn’t throw any masses together. But it did tear the first sizeable segment of dissident intellectuals from the CP orbit. Since I was involved in that development from the beginning, some personal reminiscences may cast light on it.

My evolution was in many respects typical of other idealistic college students who entered the socialist movement at the start of the thirties. It paralleled the path of Granville Hicks, for example. After five years at Harvard, I migrated from Boston in 1927 to make a career in New York’s publishing business where I worked in the advertising departments of Doubleday and Dutton. The 1929 crash converted me from a -Nation-New Republic devotee, who cast his first—and last—vote for a Democratic president in 1928, into a Marxian revolutionary.

I belonged to a group that was acidly satirized at the time by Tess Schlesinger in her recently republished novel, The Unpossessed. Among its members were such aspiring and talented writers, critics and educators as Clifton Fadiman, Sidney Hook, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, Louis Hacker, Elliot Cohen, Herbert Solow, Felix Morrow and others of lesser repute. Most of them had come out of Columbia and contributed to the Menorah Journal (the predecessor of Commentary) and the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

This coterie was drawn toward the CP, although few took out party cards. In the early thirties they concentrated on defense work and journalistic assignments and became the builders of an adjunct of the International Labor Defense, the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, whose literary notables ranged from Dos Passes, Dreiser and Anderson to Lewis Mumford and Waldo Frank. Together with James Rorty, they wrote the manifesto of the supporters of Foster and Ford and canvassed the signatures for it.

We also spearheaded the first contingent of newly hatched radicals to come into conflict with the Communist high command. During 1932 and 1933 we objected to the blind factionalism which refused to aid victimized followers of other working-class groups on the false premise that all political adversaries of the CP were ipso facto “social fascists.” I remember one stormy meeting at the Manhattan apartment of Ella Winter, the wife of Lincoln Steffens, where William Patterson, ILD national secretary, told us that IWW organizers, thrown into jail with Communist organizers of the National Miners Union in Harlan, Kentucky, could not be supported because “objectively they were agents of the class enemy.” Dos Passos, who had just come back from that embattled area, expostulated: “But, Comrade Patterson, objectively they are class war prisoners in jail!” Such encounters prepared the transformation of the libertarian novelist into a conservative Republican.

The major source of disagreement arose from our opposition to the Communist line in Germany which, by rejecting united antifascist action with Social Democratic organizations, had helped the brown shirts come to power. We were assailed at meetings as “Trotskyist disrupters” and forced to resign from the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. If we wished to stay in radical politics, we faced three options: to affiliate with the Lovestone group, the American Workers Party of A. J. Muste, or the Trotskyists. None chose Lovestone; some of us adhered to Trotskyism, while Hook, Rorty and others went with the Musteites. Early in 1934 both branches collaborated in the fusion of these two.

This group made up the hard core of the anti-Stalinist intellectuals for the rest of the decade. They formed the backbone of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, on which I served as national secretary in its campaign against Stalin’s frame-ups. They wrote for the Partisan Review after it cut loose from the CP. They collaborated in varying degrees and for different spans of time with American Trotskyism and then, with the onset of the Second World War or soon thereafter, turned away altogether from the socialist revolution. They transmuted their anti-Stalinism into anti-Communism and anti-Marxism, readjusted their ideas and lives to the established order, and contributed their quotas to the ideological virulence of the Cold War. I am the sole survivor of that band currently active in revolutionary politics.

The rupture of this group did not diminish Communist predominance since the party kept recruiting fresh adherents in all sectors of radical activity. As Mary McCarthy testified about her attitude in the mid-thirties: “The CP was the only party.” That held true for over 90 per cent of her intellectual associates. At the writers’ colony of Yaddo in the summer of 1934, where James T. Farrell was finishing the final volume of Studs Lonigan, I was a lone oppositionist amidst thirteen Communist members or sympathizers.

Obedient to the Seventh Comintern Congress in July-August 1935, the CP switched to the people’s front line which, except for its rhetoric, projected a policy substantially the same as left liberalism while the SP was becoming more militant. Finally, at the close of the decade, after the Soviet-Nazi pact, the CP briefly reverted to its earlier anti-capitalist intransigence. This was abruptly terminated as soon as Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union.

How the mentality of that generation was warped and confused by the gyrations of the counterfeit Marxism of the CP may be gauged by the opposing appraisals of the Roosevelt regime given by the Stalinist leadership from 1934 to 1944.

First, Earl Browder’s report to his central committee in April 1934: “Roosevelt’s program is the same as that of finance capital the world over. It is a program of hunger, fascination and imperialist war . . . The New Deal is not developed fascism. But in political essence and direction it is the same as Hitler’s program.”

By 1938 the General Secretary was acclaiming the alliance with Roosevelt as follows: “With all its weaknesses and inadequacies, its hesitations and confusions, the New Deal wing under the Roosevelt leadership is an essential part of the developing democratic front against monopoly capital.”

Browder’s 1940 election platform sang a different tune. “The Democratic Party is the party of Roosevelt and Dies, of the Garners and Woodrums, of the du Ponts and Cromwells, of the Boss Hagues and Kelleys, of Tammany and the KKK. It is the party of 'liberal’ promises and reactionary deeds . . . Both parties are war parties, M-Day parties, parties of imperialism, reaction and hunger.”

By 1944 Browder announced to the CP national committee: “We know, as we go into it boldly . . . that the Teheran Declaration which was signed by Churchill, Roosevelt and the great Marxist Stalin represents the only program in the interest of the toiling masses of the whole world in the next period.”

Irony is virtually disarmed before such prescient and mutually destroying judgments.

John Chamberlain had bid farewell to reform much too soon for his contemporaries. The vaunted “Roosevelt Revolution” slowed down the leftward momentum and deflected a stream of radicals into the federal apparatus. This was the first time in the century—though not the last— that the White House courted compliant intellectuals. Their faith in the vitality of American capitalism revived with the economic upturn and the President’s assurances that his heart throbbed for the forgotten man.” Were they not also among the forgotten?

Such liberals were joined by Stalinists eager to implement the people’s front with the chief of the “progressive, peace loving bourgeoisie.” How alluring the New Deal became for those zealous Communists who, as cogs in the Democratic administration, could be anti-fascist fighters, defend the cause of labor, promote the aims of the CP and the Soviet Union, and pursue a government career at a good salary— all in one wondrous package!

At the same time, Communist students and intellectuals inspired by more worthy objectives went to fight and die with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, manned the picket lines which created the new industrial unionism, and led militant campus actions.

New Deal reformism did not extend much beyond the 1937 recession when it changed over into a war deal as the urgency of domestic rehabilitation was displaced by plans for worldwide combat. Despite Roosevelt’s invectives against the economic royalists, princes of privilege and merchants of death, they came back stronger and more arrogant than ever.

The Moscow Trials from 1936 to 1938 convulsed the entire Left. Stalin’s frame-ups and executions of the old Bolsheviks posed acute problems of conscience to friends of the Soviet Union as they confronted the puzzling circumstances of the trials and were compelled to take a stand on them. Passions flared to fever pitch because these tragic events were staged amidst the Spanish Civil War. How were anti-fascists to remain loyal to the Republican side if the justice of its sole government ally was questionable or to be condemned?

The torment afflicting such individuals was articulated by Waldo Frank who complained to Trotsky: “It is difficult for me to believe that you entered into an alliance with fascism; but it is equally difficult for me to believe that Stalin carried out such horrible frame-ups.”

The furor around the trials split American intellectuals into fiercely opposed camps. Edmund Wilson observed in an article on “The Literary Left” early in 1937 that “one of the worst drawbacks of being a Stalinist at the present time is that you have to defend so many falsehoods.” The findings of the Dewey Commission later that year further undermined trust in the Communist cause and detached important figures from it, among them the Partisan Review editors, Rahv and Phillips.

There was no lack of volunteers to uphold the trials against our efforts to expose them. Under the spell of the popular front and the demagogic promises of democratization in Stalin’s 1936 constitution, both the Nation and New Republic decried the Dewey Commission investigation. An open letter from 150 intellectuals affirmed the guilt of the defendants and advised that “the preservation of progressive democracy” demanded that Stalin’s crimes be ratified. Many signers came to regret their endorsement.

The difficulties of maintaining a periodical of Marxist theory which included all the Left currents of thought in the mid-thirties was demonstrated by the brief career of the Marxist Quarterly. This magazine, almost wholly subsidized by Corliss Lamont, was organized during 1936 by a coalition of prominent intellectuals representing the Lovestonites, the Trotskyists, left-wing Socialists and some independent figures who inclined to one or another of these tendencies.

It was ostensibly to be a publication open to all shades of socialist scholarship and opinion. The Communists were formally offered a seat on its editorial board but refused to accept. Their declination was no surprise to those sponsors who were well aware that Stalinists would have nothing to do with those they castigated as “agents of the class enemy.”

On the editorial board were Louis Hacker, James Burnham, Bertram D. Wolfe, Sterling Spero, Meyer Schapiro, Herbert Zam, William Henson and myself. The influential economist Lewis Corey was managing editor and the historian Louis Hacker its publisher.

The first issue came out early in 1937. No sooner had it appeared than the second of the Moscow Trials was staged and the furor around them and the Dewey Commission of Inquiry reached fever pitch. This split the board down the middle. The Trotskyists (Burnham and I) and Zam resigned. That left the Lovestone grouping together with Lamont. However, when the idol of the Lovestonites, Bukharin, was indicted, they finally recognized the frame-up character of the trials. Meanwhile Corliss Lamont, as chairman of the Friends of the Soviet Union, was zealously defending them. These developments gave the coup de grace to the Marxist Quarterly.

Lamont withdrew his financial support in August 1937 on the ground that events in the Soviet Union and Spain “had had such serious repercussions everywhere in the radical movement that the quarterly could not help but be affected.” In a letter to Corey, he stated that, while he did not mind a critical attitude toward the Soviet Union, the remaining editors manifested an attitude of such complete hostility that he could no longer continue his subsidy.

Corey blamed the Trotskyists for the breakup of the publishing venture. However, it was shattered, as Lamont indicated, by the hammer blows of the great political events abroad. The irreconcilable dissension that brought about the demise of the Marxist Quarterly proved three things: 1. the practical impossibility of overcoming the conflicts dividing the radical movement and keeping together under one roof a heterogeneous coalition of Left views; 2. the importance of international events in determining the direction and shaping the development of American radicalism; 3. the extremely narrow margin of operation left open for radical intellectuals unaffiliated with any of the contending major groupings on the Left.

The disillusionment flowing from the blood purges rose to tidal proportions when the Hitler-Stalin pact raised the curtain on the Second World War. Granville Hicks and Malcom Cowley led the legion of fellow travelers who renounced both the CP and Marxism. This retreat swept all sectors of the Left from the sympathizers with the Trotskyists to the Lovestone group which obligingly dissolved itself.

As the vision of proletarian revolution went into eclipse behind the war shadows, the journey back to bourgeois democracy quickened into a stampede. The radicalism of the thirties was finally swamped by the super-patriotic fervor which was abetted by the CP’S all-out support for the war.

Protest against the conventions of Babbitry had keynoted vanguard culture in the prosperous twenties. It was ironic that the cultural field during the turbulent thirties should have been overcast by an opposite type of conformist, emanating from advocates of the theory of proletarian culture. Stalin had saddled this misbegotten conception of the relations between the revolutionary movement and artistic creativity upon international Communism after Lenin had rejected it as sectarian and non-Marxist in the early years of the Russian Revolution.

While the proletcult partisans did well to direct attention to the dispossessed and their struggles, they quelled that free experimentation which is the wellspring of originality, freshness and advancement in the arts, by setting up arbitrary models for imitation. Artistic merits and criteria were subordinated to political orthodoxy. Writers were told to fit their works to the prescriptions of an indefinable socialist realism enforced by party pundits. The sterile, inconclusive debates over the meaning of proletarian culture caused considerable confusion in Left literary circles and deformed the development of some promising writers.

Through its sympathizers Stalinist ideas exerted heavy influence in publishing, literary, journalistic, radio, Broadway and Hollywood precincts as well as on Federal Writers’ Theater and Art projects. When the popular front was proclaimed, party surveillance over the cultural front did not end. The criteria of official approval were simply brought into accord with the changed political requirements. Whereas previously writers had to portray characters and situations in ultra-revolutionary ways on penalty of being stigmatized as petty-bourgeois or fascist-minded, now they needed only say hurrah for democracy and refrain from public criticism of the CP to be praised. Thus Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis were recast from villains to heroes of the popular front.

Under the Stalinist cultural patrol it would not have been possible to hold a gathering of radical intellectuals as broadly representative as this Socialist Scholars Conference. The nearest facsimiles were the three congresses of the League of American Writers whose first chairman, Waldo Frank, was replaced in that post for questioning Moscow’s justice during the purge trials.

Despite the meagerness of Marxist resources on American soil, Communist theoreticians of that period should have made useful pioneering studies in history, sociology, philosophy, economics and other fields of particular interest to socialism. No such contributions survive. The few valuable initiatives in the social sciences were undertaken by scholars outside the Stalinist ranks like Lewis Corey, Louis Hacker and Sidney Hook before they departed from Marxism.

In considering the evolution of the intellectuals Edmund Wilson’s case is especially significant. After coming over to Marxism about 1931, he devoted the remainder of the decade to a study of historical materialism. His views on the development of socialist thought finally appeared in 1940. In his review of this estimable work in October of that year Malcolm Cowley pointed out that the title To the Finland Station was misleading in the light of Wilson’s serious reservations about Leninism and Marxist philosophy.

To the Finland Station is not a book that Wilson would undertake to write in 1940,” he remarked. “The question that probably concerns him today, and certainly concerns the rest of us, is not the evolution of communism up to Lenin, but its devolution in the writings and acts of his successors. How was it that the almost selfless revolutionaries of Lenin’s day were transformed into (or executed and replaced by) the present Soviet and Comintern officials, the timid and inefficient bureaucrats, the ferocious pedants, the finaglers, the fanatics and the party hacks . . . Where did the original weakness lie— in Lenin, in Marx himself, or in the applications of Marx’s and Lenin’s theories by people who lacked their singleness of purpose and their genius? The book we should like to read today is one that would try to answer these questions.”

The book Cowley asked for had already been written before the Moscow Trials. The author was their principal defendant Leon Trotsky, and it is called The Revolution Betrayed. However, Cowley and his fellows who were galloping “away from the Finland Station” were disinclined to find the Marxist conclusions of Trotsky’s work convincing. The imperialist democracy, rearming for a second world slaughter, had again become irresistibly persuasive.

“The Red Decade” is depicted by ultra-rightists as an ugly spectacle of subversion rampant. More benevolent judges liken its errant intellectuals to disappointed prospectors who staked a claim on Utopia, turned up fool’s gold, and then, as Auden phrased it, “the clever hopes expired of a low dishonest decade.” Was the ardent revolutionary faith of that time an anomaly which cannot recur, thanks to an increasingly affluent welfare state safeguarded by the controls of the “New Economics?”

If, as many here believe, socialism has a future in these United States and Marxism retains its validity, the vicissitudes of that eventful stage in the development of our middle class radicals have to be differently evaluated.

Ideologically and politically, the American Left intellectuals of the thirties lagged far behind their European counterparts who had assimilated Marxist ideas decades before. The crisis spurred them to catch up in a hurry and they did their best with the equipment at their disposal. However, in this first large-scale exposure to socialist thought and communist influences, they had the misfortune of receiving them through the dogmatic, falsified and malignant forms of the Stalinist school. Most radicals proved unable to decipher the enigmatic nature of the extremely contradictory bureaucratic reaction which had fastened itself upon the first post-capitalist state.

The failure to distinguish between authentic Marxism and its defilers and distorters produced profound theoretical and political disorientation among them. Their relapse, prompted by disillusionment with Stalinism, was reinforced by the most powerful factors in the immediate environment: a re-stabilized American capitalism which entered upon an unparalleled boom, a bureaucratized and conservatized labor movement, and fearful cold war pressures. These circumstances thrust the intellectual radicals into an excruciating bind. They were called on to remain true to revolutionary socialist perspectives first during a political reformation of American capitalism and then through its prolonged postwar expansion. A larger saving remnant could have stood fast only with firm moral and political backing from an incorruptible revolutionary organization able to adjust itself to the ebbs and flows of the class struggle.

In recent recollections of the thirties Partisan Review editor William Phillips stated: “If the Communist Party had been a genuinely democratic and revolutionary party . . . I think most intellectuals would still be supporting” it. Instead, their contacts and collisions with Stalinized communism sapped their convictions and hastened their reversion to the democracy of big business.

Many claim that the thirties once for all demonstrated the irrelevance of Marx’s and Lenin’s teachings to America. That contention would be more plausible if the major political forces on the Left had really propagated and practiced their ideas. But the experience certainly testifies to the bankruptcy of Stalinism as a dependable guide to socialism. If this single lesson is assimilated in its full implications by the oncoming generation of radicals, the ordeals of the thirties will not have been endured in vain.

Memoirs and Accounts of Radicalism in the 1930s:

Aaron, Daniel Writers on the Left
The Thirties—Then and Now, American Scholar, Summer 1966. (Symposium with Cowley, Hicks, Phillips, Kazin)
Agee, James Letters to Father Fly
Bendiner, Robert Just Around the Corner
Carleton Miscellany Winter 1965. The 1930s
Chambers, Whittaker Witness
Clurman, Harold The Fervent Years
Cowley, Malcolm Think Back On Us
Dos Passos, John The Theme is Freedom
Farrell, James T. Yet Other Waters
With Dewey in Mexico (in JohnDewey, A Symposium, edited by Sidney Hook)
Men and Politics
Freeman, Joseph An American Testament
French, Warren The Thirties
Hicks, Granville Where We Came Out
Part of the Truth
Howe, Irving Steady Work
Kazin, Alfred Starting Out in the Thirties
Kempton, Murray Part of Our Time
Lewis, Sinclair The Man from Main Street
Lyons, Eugene The Red Decade
MacDonald, Dwight Memoirs of a Revolutionist
MacLeod, Norman You Get What You Ask For
Mailer, Norman Advertisements for Myself
McCarthy, Mary The Company She Keeps
On the Contrary
The Oasis
Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the U.S. 1900-1954
Schlesinger, Tess The Unpossessed
Simon, Rita James, Ed. As We Saw the Thirties (Essays by Norman Thomas, Earl Browder, A. J.Muste, Max Shachtman, et al)
Swados, Harvey Writers of the 30s
Trilling, Lionel In the Middle of the Journey
Young In the Thirties, Commentary, May 1966
Wilson, Edmund The American Earthquake
The Shores of Light