I WANT TO address the theme of Proletarian and Revolutionary Art in the United States between 1928 and 1935; that is to say in the years of the so-called Third Period line in the tactics of the international Communist movement. Although the terms “Proletarian Art” and “Revolutionary Art” were often used seemingly interchangeably at this time — or even used in combination — they are not synonymous, and I will argue that the distinction points up tensions between different forms of art practice produced in the Communist Party’s orbit and to important intellectual confusions.
Before analyzing the theory and practice of this art and the reasons for its emergence and decline, something needs to be said about its genealogy.
The writings of Marx and Engels provide no support for the idea, frequently associated with Marxism, that the movement of the working class to emancipate itself from capitalism and build a classless society requires a proletarian or revolutionary art as an aid to its struggles. (In any case, the first compilation of Marx and Engels statements on literature and art wasn’t published until 1933 [in Russian] and the first systematic attempt to extract an aesthetic theory from their writings did not appear until two years later as the period I’m dealing with was ending).(1) Although they were interested in the propagandist uses of Tendenzkunst or Tendenzliteratur in spreading revolutionary ideas — that is, in didactic forms of art and literature that pointed to a desired historical outcome – Marx and Engels distinguished such work from true realist art; and, while they admired some of the great works of 19th-century realist literature, neither were committed to the idea of realism as a transcendental aesthetic.
Having said this, the most prominent Marxists who sought to develop a theory of the arts consonant with Second International Marxism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — Franz Mehring and Georgii Plekhanov — were critical of modernist tendencies and favored forms of realism. Thus Plekhanov — whose famous 1912 articles on “Art and Social Life” were often cited by American communist critics even before the appearance of the English translation in pamphlet form in 1937(2) — decried “art for art’s sake” as a phenomenon of bourgeois decay and recommended a utilitarian conception of art. Impressionism and literary Naturalism demonstrated that without meaningful content “realism collapses”;(3) while Cubism was just a degenerate form of “art for art’s sake” that reduced the tendency to “complete absurdity.”(4)
This kind of thinking was found more widely within the Second International and particularly within its largest member organization, the German Social Democratic Party. Over the years 1910-12 an intense debate over Tendenzkunst took place in the pages of the SPD’s central organ, Die Neue Zeit, sparked off by an article by the Dutch dramatist Herman Heijermans (pseudonym Heinz Sperber). Heijermans argued that the leading Social Democratic intellectuals were too passive and uncritical in the face of the increasing commercialization of bourgeois art production and in their assumption that a socialist art was impossible under capitalism. By contrast, he called for an actualized socialist art that would be spread through workers’ organizations. Such art would have a “proletarian Tendenz.” Terms such as “Tendenz,” “Klassenkunst,” and “proletarische Kunst” were invoked again and again in SPD debates on art and cultural politics in the years up to 1914.(5)
Although there was certainly considerable interest in German Social Democracy in the much smaller Socialist Party of America — which had 118,000 members at its largest in 1912 compared with the SPD’s 970,112 — as far as I know the “Tendenzkunst-Debatte” was not reported in the United States. Discussion of art in The Masses (1911-17), the premier cultural magazine associated with the Socialist Party, took place at a much lower theoretical level; after all the SPA did not have Marxism as its official doctrine and many of its leaders regarded Marx’s writings as overly theoretical.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 associated Marxism not only with a new model of the revolutionary party and of revolutionary politics; it also offered a laboratory of socialist culture in the making. Almost from the outset this was reported positively in The Liberator, the successor to The Masses, which ran from 1918-24 and carried not just eye-witness accounts of the revolution by John Reed but also an astonishing conspectus of reporting on the revolutionary wave that swept Europe at the end of the War.(6)
However, although the color covers and numerous cartoons make The Liberator visually rich (figures 1 and 2), it was not primarily a cultural magazine. Much of the most authoritative reporting on the Soviet arts in this period was by the young Russian-American artist Louis Lozowick, who published a string of articles and reviews in magazines such as Broom, Little Review, Theatre Arts Monthly, and the Menorah Journal, which fed into his short 1925 book Modern Russian Art — the first book-length treatment of the theme published in the United States. By 1924, if not earlier, Lozowick was communist aligned.(7)
In these years the American Communist Party was still in the process of formation. Rent by ethnic differences and disagreements over strategy, the two communist groupings that emerged from the Socialist Party in 1919 were not united as a single party (the Workers’ Party) until 1921, by which point it was reduced to 12,000 members, the majority of whom were Finnish-Americans. It was hardly in a position to spearhead a broad cultural movement.
Indeed, the American Communist Party never became a truly mass party. Although its General Secretary Earl Browder claimed in 1939 that membership had reached 100,000, he admitted privately it was somewhat less than that.(8) And in any case that was at the height of the Popular Front. In the 1920s and early 1930s the membership was much smaller. The imposition of a top-down leadership on the American Party in 1925 — a process known as “Bolshevization”(9) — led to a drop in membership to 7,213 in October 1925. By 1927 membership had grown again to around 9,500 and stayed there until 1930.(10)
To put these figures in perspective, while the population of Germany was around half that of the United States, its Communist Party had a membership of 350,000 in early 1921.(11) Membership of the CPUSA finally rose above 10,000 in 1932 – hitting more than 18,000 after the presidential election in November. But it shrank to under 15,000 the following year.(12) These figures do not represent the extent of Communist influence in the labor unions and in culture, but they are a necessary backdrop to the rest of my argument.(13)
The Communist Party began to emerge as a political force in 1925-26, when its members helped organize a number of bitter strikes in the fur, textile, garment, and coal industries. Although it lost to the employers and AFL bureaucracies in most of these struggles, through them the party established a record of militancy and showed its willingness to organize amongst types of worker the AFL craft unions generally ignored.(14)
In January 1924 the party launched its national daily paper, the Daily Worker — which carried cultural material from the outset — and some of its members were active in the group that set up the magazine New Masses, which had its first issue in May 1926. Joseph Freeman, one of the communists involved in launching New Masses, recalled in a 1934 retrospect that the board had been divided between “the mass of editors and contributors” who were liberals and “the small nucleus of revolutionary artists of whom only one or two were party members.” For “several years” the former were dominant, and the magazine “was not only against serious political discussion; it was also against serious theoretical discussion about art and literature.”(15)
This hardly does justice to the rich and interesting discourse of the magazine in these years, but it is true that discussions of art and literature made few references to Marxist theory and the magazine’s flavor was close to that of the pre-war Masses. In a report of 1932 Freeman admitted that “we have not in this country in the English language basic Marxian writings about art and literature.”(16)
In fact, the character of New Masses in the years after it first became a Communist organ was decidedly non-intellectual. As a result of a financial crisis, the magazine appeared intermittently in the first half of 1928. When the first number of volume 4 came out in June, the communist Mike Gold was announced as the editor with another communist, Hugo Gellert, as art editor. From this point onwards, New Masses began to propagate a distinctive proletarian aesthetic, inspired by a highly romanticized vision of the new workers’ culture of the Soviet Union. Gold — who seems to have dominated the magazine until the end of 1930 and remained an important voice in it until it changed from a monthly to a weekly in 1934 — set the tone.(17)
Born Itzok Granich on New York’s Lower East Side in 1893, Gold adopted his pseudonym during the Red Scare of 1919-20. He had discovered The Masses in 1914 and was reportedly so enthused by it that he moved to Greenwich Village. In 1921 he became an editor of The Liberator, which published his manifesto “Towards Proletarian Art” in February. This is an apocalyptic Whitmanesque outpouring that calls for “the masses,” the former children of the tenements, to replace the art of intellectuals, filled with “solitary pain” and “complexities,” with a new art, “primitive and clean,” filled with the breath of LIFE. It was not in the “hot-house air” of little magazines such as Seven Arts and Little Review that the “lusty great tree” of such art would grow; it was rather in “the fields, factories and workshops of America.”(18)
Gold’s call has been associated with the 1921 book Proletcult by the British Marxists Eden and Cedar Paul, which contained a brief account of the Russian Prolet’kult movement and called for the setting up of a “Red Proletcult International.” But if Gold thought Prolet’kult was the future of Soviet culture he had got things badly wrong.
Although some Bolshevik leaders such as Lunacharsky and Bukharin were sympathetic to the movement, the party’s Central Committee was not prepared to tolerate a mass organization that sought autonomy from the party and by the end of 1920 it was subordinated to the Commissariat for Education. This was at the insistence of Lenin, who had engaged in a series of theoretical disputes with one of Prolet’kult’s leading figures, Aleksandr Bogdanov, before 1914 and who thought the idea of making a proletarian culture ex novo was nonsense.(19) Gold was seemingly unaware of all this. In an otherwise favorable review of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution in October 1926, he took issue with Trotsky’s argument that there neither was nor could be a proletarian art: “It is not a matter of theory; it is a fact that a proletarian style is emerging in art. It will be as transitory as other styles; but it will have its day.”(20)
Gold’s efforts to promote an American proletarian art in the late 1920s and early 1930s may have found encouragement in the rhetoric of proletarianism and renewed class struggle that were part of the so-called Cultural Revolution that accompanied the launching of the First Five Year Plan in 1928 and of the Collectivization of Agriculture the following year.(21)
One aspect of the Cultural Revolution was a harsh stance towards non-party intellectuals, the beginnings of which was marked by the trial of engineers and technicians from the Shakhty area of the Donbass on charges of conspiracy and sabotage in May-June 1928, followed by purges in schools and universities and anti-bureaucratic campaigns in the government apparatus.(22)
Another was what Sheila Fitzpatrick has called the end of “NEP in culture,” and the dominance of a “coercive, ignorant or contemptuous” attitude to “inherited culture” and a valorization of so-called proletarian culture.(23) In literature the principle voice of this new “hard line” was the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (or RAPP), which from 1928-32, without any official party mandate, assumed leadership in a campaign to unmask “the rightist danger” in the arts in the name of proletarian purity.(24) RAPP’s counterpart in the visual arts was the Association of Revolutionary Artists, or AKhRR.
The new turn in Soviet domestic policies was matched by a shift in interpretation of the international situation which was announced at the Sixth Comintern Congress in July-September 1928, where the so-called Third Period line was defined. This was premised on the view that the capitalist system was entering a new period of crisis that would issue in wars between the imperialist states and war against the USSR.
In the words of the “Theses and Program” adopted on the last day, “When the revolutionary tide is rising, when the ruling classes are disorganized and the masses in a state of revolutionary ferment, when the middle strata are inclined to turn towards the proletariat and the masses display their readiness of battle and for sacrifice, it is the task of the proletarian party to lead the masses to a frontal assault on the bourgeois State.”(25) The onset of the Great Depression at the end of 1929 seemed at least to confirm the thesis about capitalism entering a renewed phase of crisis.
Gold described the policy of New Masses under his editorship as to make “a non-literary, non-pretentious, non-intellectual magazine.”(26) At the start of 1919, after he had seen eight issues through the press, Gold wrote that New Masses had been slowly finding its way to a proletarian literature.
A new writer has been appearing; a wild youth of about twenty-two, the son of working-class parents, who himself works in the lumber camps, coal mines, and steel mills, harvest fields and mountain camps of America… He writes in jets of exasperated feeling and has not time to polish his work… He is a Red but has few theories. It is all instinct with him. His writing is no conscious straining after proletarian art, but the natural flower of his environment. He writes that way because it is the only way for him.(27)
Underlying this was a confidence that a new style of art would emerge organically out of working-class experience.(28)
In some degree Gold’s call for workers to send in their writings and not worry about style — on the model of the worker correspondents in the Soviet Union — was answered.(29) The magazine showcased a small cadre of worker writers such as Joseph Kalar (“a paper-miller worker and timber handler”), Martin Russak (a Paterson textile worker), and Herman Spector, who had taken a whole array of jobs including shipping clerk, truck driver, soda jerker and factory hand.(30)
Among these was Gold himself, who from June 1928 began publishing autobiographical texts in New Masses under the general title “From a Book of East Side Memoirs.” In 1929 Gold’s sketches — which dated from as far back as 1917 and had in many cases been dramatically reworked — were gathered together in book form under the title of Jews Without Money.
This was Gold’s most substantial literary achievement, a mix of reminiscences and character sketches that suggest the irrepressible energy of working-class immigrants living in poverty and squalor. The episodes are by turns violent, brutal, and sentimental. There is scarcely a hint of politics in the book until the final page, where the desperate adolescent narrator hears a man on an East Side soap-box proclaim “that out of the despair, melancholy and helpless rage of millions, a world movement had been born to abolish poverty.” “O workers’ Revolution,” Gold writes, “You are the true Messiah. You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit.”(31)
In itself New Masses could not perform the role of building a proletarian culture. Communist organizing of culture required the same mechanisms as the party’s organizing in other fields, namely the setting up of fronts to serve as a transmission apparatus between the small vanguard of disciplined communists that made up the party and those sympathizers outside its ranks whose consciousness needed to be raised and energies channeled in useful directions.(32) The name of the main cultural front in the United States was the John Reed Clubs, the first of which was set up in New York by members of the New Masses circle in October 1929.(33)
It is hard to be sure of the scale of the clubs. The “Draft Manifesto of John Reed Clubs,” published in June 1932 claimed there were thirteen clubs “throughout the country”;(34) in May 1934 the leading Communist critic Joshua Kunitz claimed in New Masses that there were 30.(35) An internal memorandum of 1932 gives total membership of the clubs as 735, with the largest being in New York with 160 and the smallest being in Portland, Oregon, and Carmel, California, each with a mere 12. A later party memorandum gives membership of the New York club as approximately 250 and presumably the membership of other clubs had also grown.(36)
One thing that can be said with certainty is that the Clubs did not function satisfactorily from the party’s perspective. This was partly because they were set up haphazardly and proved hard to weld into a cohesive national organization. Many branches contained “very few writers and artists” and most members were “teachers, lawyers, dentists and other types of professional.”(37) A party memorandum from 1932 describes many members of the New York club as “uprooted bohemian elements” without abilities.(38) While a discussion document circulated in the New York Club in 1931 or 1932 described the clubs’ object as to provide “a functioning center of proletarian culture; to clarify and elaborate the point of view of proletarian as opposed to bourgeois culture; to extend the influence of the club and the revolutionary working class movement,”(39) this emphasis on proletarianism rubbed against the imperative to draw fellow travelers into the movement.
In late 1930, New Masses and the John Reed Clubs sent a six-man delegation to a Conference of Revolutionary and Proletarian Writers at Kharkov in the Ukraine, organized by the International Bureau of Revolutionary Literature. The Conference was dominated by RAPP (The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, discussed above). But although the Program of Action that the delegation brought back emphasized that the American comrades should extend “the proletarian base” of the movement “by drawing in new proletarian elements,” they were also instructed to win over “radicalized intellectuals.” The delegates reported that this was not a perfunctory injunction: the Plenum had warned that the “straightjacket of sectarianism… must be fought in all countries.”(40) In fact, under this international instruction the clubs had been set a contradictory agenda.
[Part II will conclude the essay in the following issue.]
Abbreviations: NM = New Masses; DW = Daily Worker
July-August 2015, ATC 177