Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2


The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Alan Wald,
The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment,
Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1992, pp239, £35.00

THIS book brings together Alan Wald’s essays of the last decade on Marxist writers and intellectuals, and is divided into three parts: Trotskyism and anti-Stalinism, Communism and culture, and race and culture.

Chapter one gives consideration to the life and work of Duncan Ferguson, a sculptor and a member of the US Socialist Workers Party, whose bust of Trotsky is illustrated in the book. Duncan’s art was turned in a public direction by the impact of the Depression, and he executed a series of architectural commissions, for instance a high relief topographical map of Louisiana. Ferguson, however, suffered from the dilemma facing many a revolutionary artist and writer – whether to devote one’s life to art or politics – and for some years made politics his priority, and returned to sculpting almost too late. Today, his name does not appear in any recent histories of American sculpture, and his works sit shrouded in the basements of the Whitney Museum and other museums which once displayed them.

In the second chapter, entitled Victor Serge and the New York Anti-Stalinist Left, in which he considers Serge’s writings and political development over the years, Wald cites an observation made by Daniel Singer (author of The Road to Gdansk, 1982): ‘To bury Stalinism really means to revive the idea of Socialism, and to begin its construction all over again.’

In an essay repudiating a reference made by the historian Paul Buhle to ‘an undying revolutionary “faith”‘, Wald says: ‘What is required is the constant rethinking and reworking of data and ideas so as to approximate as closely as possible what has happened in the past and what we may expect in the future.’ Wald is possibly referring to the method of George Breitman, for five decades an activist in the US Trotskyist movement, and to whom Wald pays tribute in the last chapter of Part III of the book for his uncompromising interrogation of all empirical data, and his repudiation of Socialist groups which lacked an interest in the past, except inasmuch as they could use it to validate their own political line.

The Stalinists, of course, were past masters in the distortion of politics, economics and culture in support of a specific and temporary tactic, and in Chapter three of Part I, in reviewing recent books by three authors, Wald touches again on the matters discussed in his The New York Intellectuals (reviewed in Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 2, Autumn 1989), once again giving consideration to the Stalinist John Reed Clubs and the era of ‘proletarian culture’ during which unknown working-class writers were promoted, until the turn to the Popular Front dictated the dissolution of the John Reed Clubs in favour of the courting of well-known anti-Marxist writers such as Hemingway and Macleish, resulting in James T. Farrell and other Marxist writers who had condemned the Moscow Trials being denounced as ‘gangsters of the pen’.

In the same vein, Wald writes on the career of Howard Fast, whom many Socialists will know for his early books, Freedom Road, Conceived in Liberty and Citizen Tom Paine. Fast was a supporter of the Popular Front in the late 1930s, and joined the Communist Party during the Second World War. Unfortunately, the promise of his earlier books never flowered, because the ideology of the Popular Front ‘inculcated him with the notion that radical politics could be transmitted to a large audience in the garb of liberal sentiments and idealised patriotism all aimed at a reader imagined to represent the “common man”‘. Wald concludes that if Fast had been formed in a different period of American culture or had been subject to different influences after achieving his initial success in the 1940s, he might have made a contribution to our literature that would have commanded more respect, even if it had resulted in fewer sales.

In Chapter 19 of Part IV, Continuity in Working-class Literary Movements, Wald compares the 1930s ‘proletarian’ literature with the publications of Singlejack, a little press set up in the late 1970s by three West Coast longshoremen, the catalyst being Stan Weir, a leader of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party in the 1940s and 1950s. These books by workers are aimed at providing for workers images of themselves in the workplace, as these images are not being provided by popular literature or the media. Wald writes that whilst ‘proletarian’ literature dealt little with the actual process of work, but was devoted to depicting the social consequences of capitalism by showing down-and-outs, demoralised victims of unemployment, working-class solidarity in strikes, inspiring international developments such as the struggle against Fascism in Spain, ‘club-swinging cops, placards with Communist slogans, and the singing of the Internationale‘, the Singlejack books rarely offer working-class writers dramatising militant class struggles, or exhort readers to engage in revolutionary politics, although in at least one story, Night Shift in a Pickle Factory (1980), Wald considers that the writer, Steve Turner, subtly interweaves a number of Marxist economic concepts incorporating various strategies by capitalists to increase their profits and surplus value, so that Wald writes: ‘It is unlikely that one will come away from this story without a strong sense of the seething rebelliousness that lies beneath the surface of the US workforce – a rebelliousness awaiting leadership and focus.’

However, Wald concludes that although the Singlejack project is in certain ways more authentic than the 1930s ‘proletarian’ literature, as a natural expression of the need for workers to write, the publishing house to date has yet to make a mark with a memorable work of drama, vision and, especially, characterisation. Conversely, some of the 1930s ‘proletarian’ writing shows that memorable art could still triumph over dubious programmes. Wald refers to Ben Field’s Cow (in Proletarian Literature of the United States), in which the radical is characterised powerfully and ultimately as of heroic stature, probably as a result of the writer’s own radicalism and in accord with the visionary zeal of the 1930s movement as a whole, which are elements considerably tempered in the Singlejack books. However, whilst I agree that memorable literature requires strong characterisation, I am doubtful of the need for heroes – even radical heroes – and I tend to agree with Brecht: ‘Unhappy is the land which needs heroes.’ It has to be remembered that the Singlejack books are written and published in an age of disillusionment in which ‘heroes’ are knocked flat on their backs every day of the week, the current need being ‘to revive the idea of Socialism, and to begin its construction all over again’ …

With regard to ‘the constant rethinking and reworking of data’, Wald reviews Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Middletown 1982). Isserman is one of the younger US historians, such as Paul Buhle, Roger Keeran, Mark Naison and Kenneth Waltzer, who are challenging the traditional histories of US Communism (for example, Theodor Draper’s Fund for the Republic’s Project on Communism and American Life, and Howe and Coser’s The American Communist Party: A Critical History). Isserman’s book covers roughly the same period as Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson’s Two Steps Back (Ilford 1982), but whereas the latter examines the record of the British party from an uncompromising revolutionary Socialist position, it seems from Wald’s review that Isserman is intent on defending Earl Browder’s policies from June 1941, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Isserman goes as far as to call the CPUSA’s support for the no-strike pledge ‘a difficult but principled stand’, and attempts to refute the criticism that Communists ‘abandoned’ or ‘suspended entirely’ the struggle for black equality during the war, by claiming that all it did was to limit ‘its struggle for black rights to those areas it believed benefited the war effort’.

Browder was expelled by Moscow in 1945, only a year after he had abolished the CPUSA to replace it with the Communist Political Association, which was formed in anticipation of an expected postwar class harmony. Following his expulsion, the party was reorganised under the leadership of William Z. Foster, and Isserman, searching for a basis for the unity of the left, centres his defence around the pre-Foster party and especially ‘the generation that left the party in 1956’. They, he states, showed that ‘the American left could not be built on foreign models: that civil liberties and democratic institutions should be at the centre of any vision of the American Socialist future’. To me, this smacks of ‘Socialism in One Country’ all over again, and, as Wald asks, what does Isserman mean by the ambiguous term ‘democratic Socialist’, and what type of unity of the left does he actually advocate? Whilst it is obvious that the whole question of Stalinism became muddied for liberals during the McCarthy era and through the intensity of the Cold War in the USA, with Communists being seen as victims of a right-wing establishment, it is clear that for Socialists an adequate historical interpretation demands an understanding of Marxism.

In Chapter four of Part I, Wald reviews CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary by Paul Buhle, a leading figure in the US New Left and a founding editor of Radical America. In tracing James’ political history and development, Wald says that eventually James’ stature will surpass that of most Marxist theorists of his generation, even though his theories were mostly partial, if provocative, insights, for Jamesian theory is sufficiently profound to rebound among ‘larger circles of left activists, and will live on as a constructive and ineradicable component of the revolutionary left tradition’. Because James used the Marxist sensibility and imagination variously and creatively, Wald sees Buhle’s subtitle The Artist as Revolutionary as appropriate. However, whilst Buhle has written a book which carries out the almost impossible task of reconstructing a career defying a conventional notion of shape or form, Wald criticises him for assessing and valorising James in opposition to much of the broader left movement from which he emerged, and of which he remained a part.

The most serious deficiency in Buhle’s work, Wald states, is the lack of a serious summary or criticism of James’ theory of state capitalism and his eccentric interpretation of dialectics. Buhle also apparently praises James’ anti-party viewpoint, stating that ‘amid the Hungarian Revolution [of 1956] he would find his vindication in the substitution of the mass for the party of any kind’. As Wald points out, the revolt of the Hungarian workers and students might well have gone further with an organised instrument of leadership. This, of course, can be said about the rest of Eastern Europe in view of what has happened in the past few years!

In Part III much consideration is given to the fight against racism, and in Chapter 10 Wald discusses the 1960s liberal notions that racial minorities should have the ‘freedom’ to acculturate to Euro-American values – a doomed effort, Wald points out, for one of the hallmarks of Euro-American culture is its deep-rooted racism. He quotes from Robert Blauner’s Racial Oppression in America and Mario Bomera’s Race and Class in the South-West, stating that the colonised minorities – native American peoples, the descendants of slaves brought from Africa, populations of Mexico and south-west states invaded by Euro-Americans – differ from the European immigrant ethnic minorities, in that the colonised minorities were incorporated into the nation by force and violence, and their cultures and religions suppressed. In the same way, there is a difference between the nationalism of the oppressor and the oppressed, and Wald quotes Amilcar Cabral ‘that for a colonised people the cultural struggle is inherently political’.

Translating this into the situation in Britain, whilst our ‘colonised minorities’ arrived here as immigrants, their transfer has been as a result of British imperialism, which makes their situation doubly difficult, for this immigration is mistaken by many for a free choice. With regard to their cultures, it is of interest to note that the previous policies of multiculturalism which took root in the 1960s have now been abandoned by the Tory government, in favour of the imparting of standard English middle-class mores. In Britain we have been through a similar process in education to that described in Chapter 18 of Part IV, in which Wald reviews Ira Shor’s Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration 1969-1984 (1986). Shor writes that in response to the ‘leftist’ challenge of the 1960s, the Nixon and then Reagan administrations launched a three phase political counter-attack, masking itself as concern over educational issues. The first attack was the emphasis on ‘career’ (vocational) education. The second was based on a perceived crisis in literacy, requiring a return to basic education, and ‘most recently conservative policies have been instituted under the guise of “excellence” against “mediocrity”’. The result has been an ideological war waged continuously in the education system. Wald remarks that Shor identifies the problem, but gives no answer, but of course there is no answer except militant action against the straitjacketing of education, such as that taken by teachers and many parents in Britain against the tests in schools, which hopefully will lead to a discussion on the purpose of education, followed by political action. Wald also discusses how to fight racism on campus, and the position of Socialist academics, concluding that movements from below must be supported, for strictures operated from above rebound onto areas of student freedom, and are used against the left.

The essays in this book cover a wide area, and it is not possible to review them all individually. But surely the questions raised by Wald add to the discussions which must take place if we are to construct Socialism once more.

Sheila Lahr

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011