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James T. Farrell

Stalinist Literary Discussion

An Answer to Maltz and The New Masses

(April 1946)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 4, April 1946, pp. 112–115.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The American Stalinists are currently engaged in a heated literary discussion. Like all previous discussions of this kind, the polemics read as if they were concerned with a lynch campain or a pogrom. Once again, the Stalinists are giving a deeper cultural significance to such words as “rat,” “renegade,” “degenerate,” “fascist,” “enemy of the peopIe,” “enemy of the working class,” etc. And now, they are also. adding a new word to the lexicon of literary criticism – “Browderite.”

For years the Stalinist movement has used literature as a party instrument. This is the practical significance of their slogan which holds that “Art is a weapon.” On every occasion that the Kremlin bureaucracy has changed the party line, there has been a corresponding change in the Stalinist cultural orientation. A study of the back issues of New Masses would clearly document this fact. In accordance with the party line, practically every contemporary writer of any significance or reputation has been damned and praised in this magazine, and often by the same man. [1] In recent years, the social-patriotic Stalinists had a corresponding cultural orientation corresponding to their politics: this was expressed in a vague patriotic populism. So long as a writer did not attack the party line he was allowed a certain latitude in which to move and yet could be praised and accepted by the Stalinist critics. With this formally loose policy, which was nonetheless managed with a bureaucratic whip that would be snapped at any writer who would threaten to direct a possible criticism at the party line, the Stalinists built up a broad cultural front of various kinds of fellow travelers: these included a large number of hack writers, radio writers, Hollywood scenarists: they gave a seeming political status to writers who came from cafe society, that upper slum of capitalist America: they collected pulp writers, detective story writers, worn-out poets and literary stuffed shirts. Now and then, one of their alleged critics, such as Samuel Sillen would stuff a few of the pieties of Marxian phraseology into a book review or an article; now and then Howard Fast or someone else would pay passing respects to the dialectic. But withal Stalinist criticism was loosely populist.

The New “Left” Line

Now the Stalinists have a new line. Their left or pseudo swing is adventuristic in its emphasis on class struggle, demagogic in its attack on monopoly capitalism, and, at the same time, it uses this new leftism to conceal the deepening reaction within the Soviet Union and as a cover-up for Stalin’s nationalist-expansionist policies. The new line was established with the attack on Earl Browder, yesterday’s beloved leader. If we would believe the Stalinists, Browder misled them for years: he derailed them from Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist theory, imposed a Wall Street line on them, acted as an alien element within their ranks, and fooled almost everyone of them. The Communist Party has now expelled Browder. Those who fawned before him in the most servile spirit only yesterday are now attacking him with typical Stalinist venom. They call this attack a defense of Marxism. However, these Stalinists were such independent thinkers, such morally brave theoreticians, such politically capable men that almost all of them did not even know that they were fooled. They only learned that they were not following a Marxist line when a French Communist named Duclos – who had never been to America – wrote an article in French and told this to them. After Duclos told them that they were being fooled by Earl Browder, they flung themselves on the floor and grovelled in penitent confessions. The spectacle of these Stalinists admitting their errors, vying with one another in proclaiming their mistakes, announcing what dupes they were in the hands of their beloved leader – this furnished us with one of the most obscene political spectacles in recent political history. It was a variation of the Moscow Trials, a minor American Moscow Trial in itself. Now, however, they have confessed. Having done this, they are now “Marxists” again.

The literary discussion which they have now opened is, in essence, a concomitant of these developments. It is the literary and cultural corollary of their turn from social patriotism to demagogic leftism. In essence, then, it is a cultural swing from social-patriotic cultural populism to bureaucratic, leftist cultural “class struggle.” This is the way it must be understood.


If we read New Masses, it seems that this new literary discussion began, believe it or not again, with problems of conscience. Back on October 23rd, Isidor Schneider wrote about the problems of conscience of the left writer. This problem is, briefly, to be seen in the moral dilemma – should he write art or should he write journalistic political propaganda? What should he do if the two don’t seem to mix?

Concerned with this problem of conscience the Stalinist writer Albert Maltz contributed a rather long piece, What Shall We Ask of Writers? to New Masses of February 12. Maltz’s article was theoretically unclear and, in consequence, somewhat confusing. His confusion, however, was an old one in Stalinist writing. He could not distinguish between the politics of a writer and the art of a writer, and in consequence, he left them completely separated, and he argued that, in New Masses, the critics should discuss art in the book reviews, and that the editors, on the editorial page, should criticize if they deemed this necessary the politics of the same writer. [2] He distinguished between the writer as a citizen and as an artist. Then he urged that a writer could be a good or even a great literary artist and at the same time, a bad citizen. He appealed to the authority of Engels and to the example of Engels admiration for Balzac, who was a monarchist in the period of the Restoration. [3] He then cited some modern examples, and in his citations, he committed the unfortunate blunder of using me as his major instance. He praised some of my work, declared that he did not approve of the committees to which I belong, and also stated: “Farrell’s name was a bright pennant in New Masses until he became hostile to the New Masses.” [4] He spoke, similarly, of Richard Wright. He argued that the novels of Wright and myself are to be considered differently than those of Arthur Koestler’s. Koestler, he declared, “always writes with a political purpose so organic to his work that it affects his rendering of character.” And, most inexcusably Maltz added that the literary future of Wright, and of myself, could not be predicted: in other words, he left it as an open question as to whether or not we were degenerated literary artists.

At the same time, Maltz complained of the “straitjacket” into which Stalinist critics were constantly trying to put the writer. He explained this straitjacket criticism by attributing it to the narrow application of the formula – “art is a weapon.” He declared he agreed with this “doctrine” broadly, but that it has been abused and applied in the narrowest fashion. This, he affirmed, created endless difficulties for the writer. He confessed that it has created for him these problems of conscience of which Schneider spoke. Of course, it has for long been no secret that the Stalinists apply constant pressure on any writer who will allow them to do so. Nonetheless, it is important to note that Maltz – a loyal, patient, plodding Stalinist writer of fifteen or more years’ duration – here admitted everything that critics of Stalinist literary practices long knew and stated in print. Maltz charged that these practices produced “schematic writing,” “wasted writing”; he spoke of the results as a “calamity”; he stated that they aided in the production of works which were politically shallow as well as artistically inferior. He also remarked that as a consequence of this atmosphere the creative power of the writer was deformed.

Listen to him:

“I know of at least a dozen plays and novels, discarded in the process of writing because the political scene altered. Obviously the authors in question were not primarily bent upon portraying abiding truths, either of character or of the social scene, but were mainly concerned with advancing a political tactic through the manipulation of character. Otherwise, a new headline in the newspapers would not have made them discard their work. I even know of a historian who read Duclos and announced that he would have to revise completely the book he was engaged upon.”

Fate of Young Writers

This all reveals that the Stalinists use literature as a weapon of political tactics. The Stalinist cultural movement has always been the graveyard of promising literary talent. In the early 30’s, for instance, there was a burst of creative energy: there were little magazines all over the country; young left wing writers were numerous; the Communist Party bragged about helping them; Michael Gold, Granville Hicks (whom Gold of course defended when writers such as myself attacked him) and others saw the future of American literature in these young writers. Where are most of them now? What has happened to them? [5] The Stalinists have to create anew, and almost from the ground up, the same kind of movement they once helped to create. For this they must find new talents. The old talents of the 1930’s are almost all dried up. After all, living creative literature depends on creative effort, creative works more than it does on critical dicta. The new line which the Stalinists are now starting to lay down is something like that of their third period. This was proved a failure in practice. When writers were imposed on by the Stalinist literary bureaucrats, they fought back, and often they left the Stalinists bag and baggage. When writers were found who would write according to the proscriptions laid down for them, it became an almost insuperable task for the bureaucratic critics to get anyone to read their books. And with changes in the world political situation, this line was abandoned. The little magazines were liquidated. Archibald MacLeish, once described as a “fascist” by Mike Gold, and similar writers were courted, and the promising young left wing writers were shoved into the background, to be treated like poor relations.

Albert Maltz himself states that he is not an aesthetician and that, perhaps, some of his formulations may not be sufficiently precise, but urges the reader to consider his main point. He asks that the writer be given greater freedom and that his work be not judged in terms of the immediate political needs of the movement. With this, it is obvious that anyone with the least bit of sense will agree, if he is not dragooned into disagreeing by Stalinist functionaries and party line critics. However, the way in which Maltz discusses his problems leaves the whole issue open to various confusions.

Literature and Politics

I can only comment on this is passing. The general relationships between literature and politics is a question which is both theoretical and empirical. It demands theoretical analysis and investigation. In this context, it is a problem involving the relationship, the series of correlations among different types of human activities. In correlating literature and politics, it is necessary to investigate the problem historically and to note what has been the case in different periods of the past; and further it is necessary to note the differences between the problems of politics and the problems of literature. And, in tum, such an investigation requires that the investigator have his own values, that is that he be clear on what he wants for himself and for other men. If complicated problems of this kind are reduced to the question of applying political tactics, the entire discussion is most likely to be arid.

Finally, the state of consciousness of a period must be taken into account. The level of education in a society, the variations of level of education among the members of different classes, the context of the emotional problems of different persons in a society, all of this must be taken into account if one deals in the formulation of perspectives for writers and critics.

Maltz does not see the problem as so involved and as complicated as I have here indicated. He approaches it from the standpoint of a writer who has sat between two stools for years; a writer who has tried to be an artist and a party liner at the same time. He presents the problems from the standpoint of the dilemma which Stalinism imposes on loyal writers. In doing this he urges that more freedom be allowed to Stalinist writers. His appeal is better late than never and, in itself, it ought to be supported by the adversaries of Stalinism. [6] In this sense, it is to be welcomed. But if Stalinist writers feel more free, they will strive more earnestly to understand themselves and the world around them, and they will write in such a way as to aid in blowing up some of the false claims of Stalinism. Because of such possible consequences of freedom, the Stalinists have to discredit Maltz. To confirm this, I need merely to point out that in practically every case where a writer refuses to let the Stalinists tell him what to think, they attack him and declare over and over again ad nauseam that he has degenerated artistically. In order to try to give the least warrant to such charges, they need to attack a writer’s character; they need to castigate him for his political views: they need to put him into an amalgam with fascists, reactionaries and so on. Then, without analyzing his work, without letting their doped readers have any real idea of what they are doing, they correlate a literary production with political actions, real or invented. At present, in their ferocious attacks on Maltz, they are using Richard Wright, John Dos Passos, Koestler, Silone and myself as scapegoats. Without showing differences in the books and in the orientations of all these writers, they are all lumped together as degenerates; and then the name of Ezra Pound is added to give a finishing touch to the amalgam. And to cap the climax, this is literary “Trotskyism.” Why? Because by using this word here, they can then give a pretense of proof of their charge. They can cite the official version of the Moscow Trials as seeming proof. Ergo! writers are conspirators.

What Maltz was really trying to do in this article was to get the Stalinist bureaucrats to give him a little more literary freedom and, at the same time, to win from them permission to admire in public the same books he appreciates in private. But this is what he put his foot into: this is, also, a revelation of the reason why Stalinists don’t want writers to create freely. Further, the naïveté of Maltz suggests how little Stalinism can educate the writer. How is it to be explained, for instance, that a writer like Maltz can be in this allegedly Marxist movement for something like fifteen years and yet he cannot learn from it, with all of its alleged theory, how to pose questions clearly, how to think about his own questions with some rigorousness. Year in and year out, the Stalinists have appealed to the writer, on the ground that they can help him in his work. Maltz exposes this appeal. He exposes it in his very person. The looseness of his article shows how little Stalinism has taught him.


I have indicated the nature of the reaction to Maltz’s article. In the same issue as that in which it appears, Isidor Schneider, literary editor of New Masses, also contributed one dealing with these same problems, Background to Error. Here, I do not have space to discuss Schneider’s article. Suffice it to say that he didn’t take sharp issue with Maltz, didn’t correct him for praising “renegade” writers and, in fact, he didn’t really disagree with Maltz. Rather, he tried to show that there was more to be said on the questions and that the political and historical conditions had forced these errors on the Stalinist movement. He called for both a party apparatus literature and culture, and a freer fellow traveler one of the type that Maltz wants. In this sense, he said yes and he said no, and in order to do this, he wrote a new version of the Stalinist cultural past in America. Inasmuch as the dialectic has been introduced into this controversy by Howard Fast and others, I might apply it to Schneider. Schneider does not know if he is yes, and doesn’t know if he is no. Hegel used the word “chemism” to describe this condition of dialectical tension. It fits Schneider. He is a man turned into a dialectical chemism and he hangs suspended in dialectical extremis waiting until he is told whether he is yes, or whether he is no.

More importantly, it is significant to observe that Schneider has not been subjected to the same attacks as has Maltz. On the face of it, the situation suggests that poor Maltz was maneuevered into becoming a scapegoat. He can, thus, be turned into a horrible example of the dangers of “Browderism,” “Trotskyism,” “anti-Marxism,” “fascism.” If other Stalinist writers yearn. to be as free as Maltz, they have received in advance an impressive warning that they had better keep their mouths shut.

Now, let me comment briefly on the nature of the attacks directed against Maltz. In a political report on the expulsion of Browder, Robert Thompson, a party functionary, characterized Maltz’s article as “Trotskyite.” Samuel Sillen, an alleged critic, wrote a series of articles in the Daily Worker. Leaving aside his attacks on myself, Sillen’s articles are cut to the typical bureaucratic pattern. He states Marxist propositions in a generalized and slovenly manner, and associates himself with these propositions. He does not render them concrete in any manner. Then he hides behind Lenin. This is achieved by quotations. In consequence of this, if Maltz does not agree with Sillen, Maltz is, presumably, attacking Lenin. At the same time, Sillen piously admits that errors have been. made, and even admits that the Stalinist critics, himself included, were misled by Browder. In fact, in the late 1930’s, Sillen was describing Browder as the continuation of the American tradition, and when writing about literature, he would quote Lenin, quote or paraphrase Browder, associate them and present his own slovenly banalities as an extension of the views of Lenin and Browder. [7] Withal, the following point can, suffice in, a discussion of Sillen. He says that Browder misled him; he admits that errors were made by himself and others. Then, what guarantee should anyone have that he is not now being misled, that he is not making new mistakes? Why should he be taken seriously, even by his own comrades, when he was so easily fooled by Browder? Here is a passing sample of the meaningless drivel which he presents in Marxist language:

“Let us remember that the solution of our problem requires not a retreat from Marxism, but an ever more vigilant and militant struggle for Marxism in theory and practice.” [8]

In New Masses for February 26th, Joseph North, one of the editors of New Masses, contributed an article, No Retreat for the Writer. North has been a party journalist and editor for fifteen years or more. In this period he has justified every zigzag, every change of line! His capacity to think what he is told to think has had no apparent effect on his duodenum, his arteries, his heart – or his brain. He is a journalistic example of how a man can flourish if he is obedient. He has always been a mere journalist. Here he shines forth as if he were a theoretician. In the usual pattern of the third period, he opens his article by talking of world crisis. This pattern puts onto the shoulders of the writer the burden of the crisis. He must be responsible. Hence, he must do what North says, just as North does what he is told to do. For the rest, North admits that he and his comrades have all made errors, and he states that they are all earnestly searching for clarity. But why? North has been, as he admits, a true Marxist for years. He has the Marxist science to teach him. He, along with endless others, have been denouncing all opponents for not being Marxist. Their denunciations of writers have been reprehensible, shameful. And North denounces anew in the same old spirit. He denounces me, he denounces Maltz. And yet, he declares that he doesn’t have all of the answers, that he is groping for Marxist clarity. His humility would be touching if he were not so insolent. He admits his incompetence to discuss the questions at issue. And then, he launches forth into vituperation. Searching for Marxist truth that he admits he has not found, he interprets Maltz’s article as one which could well “destroy the fruitful tree of Marxism.” North’s article is irrelevant to all theory. It has one real purpose, that of laying down anew the Moscow trial amalgam in New Masses. Furthermore, it needs to be pointed out that North, as a responsible editor of New Masses, allowed Maltz’s article to be printed. He is, in the eyes of his comrades, a man who wittingly or otherwise allowed what is now called a “Trotskyite” article to appear in New Masses. This leads me to remark that he had better hurry up and gain the Marxist clarity that he searches for in print.

The “High-Falutin” Touch

North, Sillen, Gold are merely routine in their attempts to refute Maltz. The real blow against the poor fellow is delivered by the writer, Howard Fast. Fast is not only the white-haired boy of the Stalinist cultural front: he is also one of the most distinguished cold storage patriots in these United States. And it is he who gives the high-falutin touch of art and theory to the controversy. Alongside of the North article he writes one entitled Art and Politics. He charges that Maltz rests his article on a platitude; that Maltz doesn’t quote Engels (which he doesn’t either, if it means anything); that Maltz’s proposals will liquidate the Marxist and the whole progressive movement in America; that Maltz does not know how to think; that Maltz praises Trotskyites; that Maltz’s formulations are “shoddy,” and that all of this leads to the road of sterility, whether it be that of fascism, neo-fascism, or of mere mediocrity. But that is merely a detail. In showing up Maltz, and giving us some real theory, Fast tells us: “One must look deeper than the obvious.” And then, at the same time that he “destroys” Maltz, he also says: “Of course, we are not free from critical mistakes, vulgarity, incompetence; that we know, and the reasons for the situation are manifold. Some of these critical failings we have corrected; others we will correct.” But he is sweating with profundity so intensively that he just doesn’t go into details on the vulgarity, incompetence and mistakes to which he confesses. And we can be sure he will correct them, for he belongs to the Left, and how could mistakes not be corrected when you consider that “The Left has never denied change; it strives to understand change, which is the very essence of dialectics.” But then, after showing that Maltz doesn’t know much about the theory of art, speaking of that “far from admirable trio, Farrell, Wright and Koestler,” and indulging in various types of literary Fancy-Dan shadow boxing, he dives down so much deeper than the obvious that he breaks what little head he has. Listen to him clinch his analysis with this lecture on art:

“The writer, however, has a singular responsibility;for he must select from life those factors which suit his purpose; he must turn them into word-pictures and thought-pictures; and he must arrange them on paper in such juxtaposition taking into consideration rhythm and emotion of sound and beauty of phrase, as to achieve that rare and splendid result we call art. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he does not; for in the best of worlds, art is not common. But unless he can engage in his original selection with a degree of clarity and understanding, and unless he can bring to his appraisal of life that relationship with life which we call philosophy, he will fail – even if he has the talent of the gods.”

Believe it or not, this paragraph of Fast’s is the high-water mark of the controversy. And Howard Fast most bravely hurls it into the face of writers who are “far from admirable,” who are sterile mediocrities, who are “reactionary.” The cream of the jest here is that it is completely compatible with all that. Maltz has to say if Maltz will only stop approving of Trotskyite books such as Studs Lonigan and Black Boy. After pother, denunciations, confessions, admission of errors, promises to do penance and then more denunciations, the formal content of the controversy – as distinguished from its political character – all boils down to a vague, pretentious and almost vacuous banality.


1. Cf. New Masses: Friends and Enemies, by Herbert Solow, Partisan Review, March 1938. Solow made a brief and amusing little study of just this point. His article began: “The Communist Party – the New Masses in the literary field – is never content to ‘prove conclusively’ that all critics of Moscow executions, the People’s Front or the American Writers Congress are fascist agents.” Solow pointed out, then, how many “enemies of mankind” were former contributors to New Masses itself. He found that a number of writers were in this category. Also, he quoted from reviews of various writers at different periods, indicating how literary judgments had changed with the changes in the political line. The most amusing (but in a grisly way) instance of this which I know is the following. In 1935, Edwin Seaver praised and tried to apply views on literature which were expressed by Bukharin and Radek. I criticized these in my book, A Note on Literary Criticism. Seaver solidarized himself on literature with Bukharin and Radek. Shortly afterward, Bukharin and Radek were put on trial in Moscow.

2. I have tried to present my views on some aspects of these problems in my books, A Note on Literary Criticism, op. cit., and The League of Frightened Philistines, New York, 1945. I hope I shall have the time to deal further with these problems in the future.

3. Although I agree with the comments of Marx and Engels on Balzac, I should like to add that by 1946 it is time for one to be able to like a book and yet not like the politics of the author, without having to support oneself by repeating that Marx and Engels admired Balzac. What are we to say of the moral character, the intelligence, the independent of spirit of people who can’t say in public that they found interest or value in some work of art without, also, feeling constrained to, support their admiration by this argument from authority?

4. In New Masses, August 19, 1936, I had a controversy with Isidor Schneider somewhat similar to this new one of Maltz’s. I suggest that the reader compare what Schneider said then with his statements in Background to Error, New Masses, February 12, 1946. I would add that the common practice of New Masses critics is that of admitting errors in general when they are criticized. and of then discrediting the particular critic by accusing him of wanting to liquidate Marxism.

5. In an article, The Last American Writers Congress, printed in the Saturday Review of Literature, June 5, 1937. I discussed this point. I cited a number of the young writers whom the Stalinists hailed as promising in 1935, and noted on the meager quantity of the work they had produced. I further indicated that this was the case even though they had affirmed a view on literary creation which demanded that they show great fertility.

6. Merely for the record, and in no spirit of vengeance, I think it must be set down here that during all the years when Maltz patiently, ploddingly, loyally followed the party line, fellow writers of his were denounced and slandered because they tried to maintain their independence. Maltz was, then, silent on all of these questions. His silence now rebounds on him, for he is given the same treatment which he silently watched others receive. We might ask – how many others remained timidly silent because of the silence of Maltz and of others who may share his views?

7. Browder, when he delivered speeches to writers at writers’ congresses, always managed to say precisely nothing. However, in 1937, he did launch into a vicious attack on Waldo Frank because the latter had, in a most feeble manner, asked some questions which implied the possibility of doubt concerning the official version of the Moscow Trials. Here, Browder himself laid out the lines of the amalgam for writers, and to this day that same amalgam is being used. It is a little gruesome to think that Browder is now being put into his own amalgam.

8. I’d make bold to remark that Engels would have described the writings of people like Sillen as rubbish. For that was how he described the parallel drivel of the Sillens of his own day.

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