Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Alan M. Wald, The Revolutionary Imagination, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Mill and London, pp247

The modernist poets John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan were part of the move to the left in America of many middle and upper class intellectuals in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This was a result of the Great Depression which brought with it sudden doubt as to the efficacy of the capitalist system. However, unlike most of their contemporaries, neither Mangan nor Wheelwright succumbed to Stalinism, and therefore did not come under the censure of bureaucrats authorised to limit their literary opinions. Nor did they have to go through the traumas of writers such as Phillips, Rahv and others who eventually broke away from Stalinism in the first instance because of the Communist Party’s antagonism to literary and artistic modernism. (See the review of Alan M Wald’s The New York Intellectuals, Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no.2). Instead, both Mangan and Wheelwright from the first supported Trotsky, and became members of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.

With regard to writing, the difference Wald draws between the two men is that, whereas Wheelwright regarded the making of poetry as his revolutionary contribution, Mangan shelved his need to write poetry and redirected his creative impulse into missions and work for the Fourth International. In fact Wheelwright considered part of his revolutionary activity to be reciting his poems to proletarian groups, such as Workmen’s Circles, the WPA Writers’ Group, the Young People’s Socialist League of Boston, the Chelsea Labor Lyceum and at branches of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party. A quotation from a letter written by John Wheelwright at the beginning of the book reads: “be a Socialist painter, as another is a Socialist cook, mechanic, lemon picker or as with Engels, manufacturer”. Mangan, on the other hand, made a dichotomy between art and politics, and in a letter also quoted by Wald states: “Even though revolutionary politics are an honourable occupation, it's poetry I still love best”.

It is not uncommon for revolutionaries to consider the political tasks in hand as too important for them to spend time on the arts and literature, although Trotsky never took this view. Trotsky would no doubt have agreed with Wald that the discourse of poetry works on the emotional, aesthetic, imaginative and moral senses, which can result in a leap in understanding from the subconscious to then conscious. In this way, a poet imaginatively reworks experience in order to communicate a new form of consciousness. Certainly, Wald’s concern is to what extent Wheelwright and Mangan were able to use the lives and experiences of the working class in poems to transform their vision to a Socialist society, for poetic discourse is not bound by the: same limitations as political discourse.

Therefore, the Socialist poet need not use the rationality of prose. As an example of this, Wald provides two simple poems to compare from the Communist Party’s 1935 anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States. The first, by Maxwell Bodenheim, in short lines states the horrors of Tsarist Russia and the glories of the Soviet Union, four lines of which read:

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

And in the Russia of today
Men and women proud of work hours
Take their summer vacations
On the steppes in cleaner games.

Against this he posits Langston Hughes’ Sharecroppers, an ironic work-song in simple nursery rhyme metre, which illustrates the rhythm of working, of which four lines read:

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

When the cotton’s picked
And the work is done
Boss man take the money
And we get none.

Apart from its tortuous construction, the first could have been written in prose as part of a political polemic, while the second is there with the workers, and brings to the surface their thoughts and feelings.

Generally, the construction and vocabulary of Wheelwright’s poems are more involved than the above, but he also is intent upon presenting in poetry a vision of society in which the rôle of the working class is central.

Wheelwright’s poem Skulls as Drums, for instance, was written as an answer to Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem Beat! Beat! Drums! Whitman’s poem calls upon the populace to sink all their individual activities and interests into the war. Wheelwright’s poem, on the other hand, counterposes resistance and reflection by all citizens in order to determine the appropriate response to war. Whereas Whitman’s poem commences each of the three stanzas with a stirring “Beat! Beat drums! Blow! Bugles! Blow!”, Wheelwright disperses the references to these irregularly throughout the poem, so as to indicate that they are outside of the true interests of the population and also includes images of First World War battlefields and marching corpses:

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Gaze on the corpse, pre-mortified
– gas bloated – of Mars. And on the fearful helm of Suicide

Inc, drum, drum, drum drum louder to drum up more fear.

While Wheelwright’s poems differ in their accessibility to the general reader, there is no doubt that from a reading of the poems from Wheelwright’s Collected Poems, New Directions, 1972, that he achieved what Wald refers to as “a public poetry ... a distinct rhetorical voice, colloquialisms, jolts and other devices aspiring to evoke a revolutionary myth”. Wheelwright himself writes in his notes entitled Argument that he had found no way of turning with scientific Socialism “from a mechanical to an organic form of life than to draw from moral mythology as well as from revolutionary myth”.

Mangan, on the other hand, Wald writes, was unable to forge the poetic myths necessary to poetry. From my limited reading of Mangan’s work, for I have been unable to obtain any apart from the poems and prose reproduced in Wald’s book, it is clear that he was a very different writer from Wheelwright. Wald provides two extracts from Mangan’s prose writings which I see as highly satirical and very funny in a Monty Pythonish sort of way. The first concerns a performer of the Indian rope trick who no longer wants to put dye on his face so as to appear Indian. The quick-witted proprietor brings him on in an oxygen tent and tells the audience he is dying but “the show must go on”! The second shows a man absentmindedly playing pat-a-cake with buildings as he looks out of his 14-storey apartment. Hitting at one too hard, he accordions it so that he has to grab its cornices, but even then it shoots up to send the man cartwheeling over the city. Wald says that Mangan assaults the pseudo-rationality of bourgeois society by making pseudo-irrationality or ironic ‘insanity’ a central theme of his work. Mangan undoubtedly had a gift for irony, and the poems included in the book which exclude this sense of the ridiculous, are readable, but pedestrian.

Wald writes that he has written this book to “perform ... function of enriching the vision of the revolutionary Marxist political and cultural tradition”, and I would say from my reading that this aim has been largely achieved. The book is of especial interest to us in this country where 1930s poets, such as Spender and Auden, were attracted to Stalinism and, on disillusionment, turned away from politics altogether, or moved to the right. Therefore, it is good to find Trotskyist poets such as Wheelwright and Mangan. Wheelwright was run down and killed by a drunken driver in 1940 at the age of 43. This was at a time when, as Gregory and Zatureska write, Wheelwright’s mature life as a poet had just begun. (A History of American Poetry 1900-1940, Gordian Press, 1969.) So, it is difficult to know what his future development, both politically and poetically, would have been. Mangan remained a Trotskyist to the end of his life and during the Cold War period sacrificed both financial security and health to the movement. He died in abject poverty in 1961 at the age of 57 years.

Sheila Lahr

However gifted a poet he may have been, Mangan left very much of a mixed legacy to the revolutionary movement.

On the one side there is his fine reportage, among the best the movement has ever produced. His description of the arrival in France of Spain’s left refugees in 1939 conveys not only the atmosphere, but even the entire essence of the tragedy of the politics of the Spanish Civil War. [1] His account of the fall of Paris to Hitler’s armies must rank with the most profound narrations ever to be composed upon the theme of fallen glory. [2]

Unfortunately, his belief that he was a Marxist political leader was at some distance from the facts. There was always something theatrical about him, like “a sort of upper class boy scout”, as Sam Bornstein put it. We have it on good authority from Haston that the famous revolver at the 1946 Pre-Conference contained no bullets at all [3], the same, no doubt, that he delighted in showing to John Goffe beneath his pillow in a room in one of London’s top hotels.

His conception of his international rôle lay somewhere in the mists where the ghosts of Bela Kun, Valtin and Zinoviev converse with each other. The repeated failure of the unifications that he glued together on no discernible political basis whatsoever does not appear to have broken him of the habit. The catch-all unity he created in Argentina in 1941 not only fell apart on the spot, but his article in Fortune magazine cost the Fourth International entire sections in Latin America, and allowed its critics there to associate it with Yankee imperialism for years to come. [4] As midwife to the RCP in Britain his obstetrics were so Byzantine that he not only produced a group that was half entry and half open, but it even had within it a secret faction with no political basis that ultimately tore it apart. [5] His career as International Secretary was crowned by the comic opera adventure of the April 1946 Pre-Conference. [6]

There can be no doubt that he was sincere. Perhaps he might have not done so much damage if he had not been. He should have stuck to poetry and reporting.

Al Richardson



1. Wald, p.184; S. Mangan (Terence Phelan), Spanish Militants Describe Escape from Barcelona, in Socialist Appeal (USA), 3 March 1939. To be republished with other material on the Spanish Civil War later this year by Socialist Platform Ltd.

2. Wald, p.185; S. Mangan (Terence Phelan), The End of French Democracy, in Fourth International, Volume 2, no.3, March 1941, pp.79-83.

3. Wald, p.196; Haston in Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, War and the International, London 1986, p.180.

4. Wald, pp.186-7; cf. R.J. Alexander, Trotskyism in Latin America, Stanford, 1973, pp.56-7, and Osvaldo Coggiola, The History of Argentine Trotskyism, in Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no.2, Summer 1989, pp.l5ff., 23, etc.

5. Bornstein and Richardson, op. cit., pp.104ff.

6. Wald, pp.195-6; Bornstein and Richardson, pp.178-81.

Updated by ETOL: 15.7.2003