Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

The Dilemma of Partisan Review

(February 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 1, February 1942, pp. 20–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One by one the war takes its political toll of the organizations and groups that were not prepared to meet it. First came the sensational case of the Lovestone group which voluntarily dissolved itself and went into the business of supporting imperialist war, man by man. It was followed by the “Stamm group,” which managed to collect enough people to a meeting to vote its dissolution. This in turn was followed by the vote of the Industrial Union Party to give up organized existence. The American Guardian, which had followed a semi-Populist, semi-socialist-isolationist opposition to war, gave up the ghost. Then came the collapse of the opposition to the war, such as it was, of the Socialist Party. All these groups suffered to one extent or another from the lack of a firm base in Marxian principle, as elaborated by the Trotskyist movement. As the great war crisis grew in seriousness, they all melted away, without the government having to lift a finger to accomplish its end. Now comes the case of the Partisan Review, which is dealt with in the following article, and has its importance not by any means for itself but rather because it is a symptom of the times – of how some people react in these times. – Ed.

“All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be faithful.”
                                                                                                     –Wilfred Owen

In the four years of its existence, Partisan Review has served a unique function both in the revolutionary movement and the cultural world. Edited by a group of intellectuals who broke away from Stalinism because of their revulsion for its political and cultural prison life, PR was the only magazine in the country which attempted to relate Marxism to the cultural life of our time. In its introductory statement, PR declared its purpose to be that of an organ of expression for the revolutionary writers who grouped around it, announced its adherence to the basic political principles of revolutionary Marxism, while strictly affirming – the fingers of its editors were still burned from their Stalinist experiences – its intention to be “unequivocally independent” of any specific political organization. In conformity with its adoption of a general revolutionary Marxist position on political questions as well as its belief that “literature in our period should be free of all factional dependence,” PR announced that it welcomed the work of any serious or accomplished writer, regardless of his political point of view, while retaining the right to hew to its own political and social course.

As such, PR performed a number of valuable services to both the revolutionary movement and American culture. It served as a center for those intellectuals who broke from Stalinism and were moving – temporarily, at least – toward a revolutionary point of view. It opened its pages to obscure young writers and its editors exhibited that catholicity of taste and sympathy for innovation and experimentation that is essential for a left wing literary journal. It succeeded in bringing to a considerable section of the American liberal and radical intelligentsia a portion of Marxist ideas (a rather small portion, it is true, and often not too accurate or accomplished – but a portion nonetheless). And not least important, it brought literature and aesthetics a bit closer to the politics of the revolutionary movement.

If PR was often hesitant in its approach, if much of its creative writing was unsatisfactory, if it raised more problems than it solved – this should by no means be held to its discredit.

In its initial period, at least, PR played a stimulating and unique rôle.

The Founding Program of Partisan Review

After its very first issue, it became clear that the kind of magazine PR was and desired to be could not possibly steer clear of political polemics and disputes. PR stepped on too many toes and touched too many sensitive issues. The Stalinists appointed their culture expert, V.R. Jerome, to smear PR with some of his most choice language. The bourgeois intellectuals looked at PR with some distrust and disdain, though many of the more able among them were convinced at least of its sincerity and therefore agreed to contribute creative or critical writing to it.

The reception given PR by the Trotskyist press was warm but critical. The Socialist Appeal, the then Trotskyist paper, welcomed PR as a sign of “a revolt against Stalinism among the intellectuals,” but charged it with proposing “to remain independent, i.e., neutral and indifferent, not toward politics in general, but only toward revolutionary labor politics.” Thereupon the Appeal stated that PR should decide which “among the tendencies struggling for supremacy within the ranks of the American working class most clearly and consistently fights for the ideas, interests and aims of socialism and most faithfully carries on the best traditions of Marxism? Which must be considered the vanguard of the revolutionary movement?”

Ironically enough, the one other journal which agreed with the Appeal’s criticism was the genteel Poetry Magazine, which asked “whether a magazine professedly revolutionary in character can avoid having some definite political program ...”

To these criticisms, PR editorially replied – and its words are of utmost importance for the theme we are to develop – “Our program is the program of Marxism, which in general terms means being for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society, for a workers’ government, and for international socialism. In contemporary terms it implies the struggle against capitalism in all its modern guises and disguises, including bourgeois democracy, fascism, and reformism (social democracy, Stalinism).” It can readily be seen, then, that despite its desire to be “free from all factional dependence,” PR took a stand on a number of rather consequential political questions.

The Rôle of the Artist

The issue in dispute between PR and the Socialist Appeal at that time is a very old one; it will crop up every time a similar situation arises. It would appear to this author that a sensible position would be somewhere in between the haughty “independence” which PR assumed and the ultimatistic insistence of the Appeal writer. In a letter which the late John Wheelwright, a poet and himself a member of the Trotskyist organization, sent to the Appeal, he implied a position which appears to us the most valid under the circumstances. We would put it as follows: While art is clearly related to and, in some measure, dependent upon politics, it is necessary for the revolutionary artist to maintain complete artistic and intellectual freedom. Art, as Trotsky has stated, has laws of its own, and the discipline of a revolutionary party does not often function in harmony with those laws.

The writer or artist must necessarily take his stand with the revolutionary proletariat; both his social awareness and responsibilities as a human being and his special interest in protecting the existence and promoting the growth of culture require him to do so. But it is only in an exceptional situation where this stand can best be expressed through adherence to the party. And in the case of a group of intellectuals who have taken a big step leftward, it is clearly wrong and tactless to demand of them that they immediately label “the vanguard of the revolutionary movement.” It is far better to attempt to persuade the individual intellectuals concerned of the correctness of this “vanguard’s” program, rather than insist on a statement of adherence. What ultimately determines the relations between a revolutionary movement and a journal such as PR is primarily the political development of the editors of this journal.

And such turned out to be the case. For a considerable period of time, PR moved leftward. It specialized in literary criticism which attempted to relate the political backslidings of formerly radical, Stalinist and bourgeois liberal writers with their aesthetic development, while at the same time refraining from automatic literary condemnations because of political disagreements.

As examples of this dominant preoccupation of the magazine in its initial period, we may give the analysis of Malraux’s book on Spain, the various critiques of Thomas Mann from several conflicting points of view, etc. In addition, the main political editor of the magazine, Dwight Macdonald, published a series of essays of social criticism and politics in which he generally came back to the theme that true cultural growth required the victory of socialism. At that time, he had close organizational relations with the Trotskyist movement and guided PR, as best he could, in a general revolutionary direction.

The War – and a Turn

It is only after the outbreak of the war – approximately – that PR begins to stumble and equivocate. The literary section of the magazine plays an increasingly dominant rôle and the political section becomes subordinate. That difficult to define but very much present quality which can best be described as its “tone” becomes more timid. As Macdonald brings up the rear guard of the left intellectuals drawing away from revolutionary Marxism, some of whom retreat into the respectable folds of bourgeois liberalism, the magazine – to the degree that it notices politics at all – is concerned less and less with its former task of smiting those ex-radicals who jump onto the war bandwagon and more and more with Macdonald’s personal “theoretical” predilections – his fatal desire to criticize what he has failed to study and understand sufficiently; Marxism, his view of the nature of German economy and his rather pretentious espousal of an ill-digested and poorly understood “Luxemburgism” – and this to the exclusion of the far more important social themes arising from the outbreak of the Second Imperialist World War!

What the editors of PR had lectured so many writers about had now become the case with themselves: the intellectual in modern society cannot stand still; either he moves forward to a consistent and clear socialist doctrine and stands on the side of the revolutionary proletariat, or he must necessarily retrogress, willingly or not, into one form or another of support of or, what amounts to the same, toleration of the status quo. Their failure, both as a group and as individuals, to move leftward resulted in an abrupt turn toward the right. This may be a somewhat crude statement of the situation, but it is completely accurate.

The first explicit indication of this rightward tendency appeared in the November–December 1941 issue, wherein one of its editors, Philip Rahv, violently attacked an article in the previous issue written by two other editors, Clement Greenberg and Macdonald. Rahv attacks, in a completely unbridled and cynical manner, their Ten Propositions of the War (which, by whatever circuitous routes, came to the conclusion that the present war is reactionary on both sides, deserves no political support from the workers and that the road for the liberation of humanity is socialism).

Were such a display of bad polemical taste to appear in a Marxist magazine, Macdonald would undoubtedly yell blue murder about the “bad tone” characteristic of the Marxists. But, as the old saying goes, in the house of the hangman ...

Rahv attacks revolutionary policy in regard to the war; he also attacks the reformist policies of Laski and Williams and their American counterparts. He sees no solution at present (since there is no large revolutionary movement, therefore a revolutionary policy is at present illusory, he cogently argues) other than support (critical, to be sure) of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in the war.

Partisan Review Adopts a New Program

It is in the next, and most recent, issue of PR that the trend toward surrender and compromise takes its full expression. We print below the entire statement of the PR editors on the entry of America into the war – rather brief for such a portentous occasion, even if the necessity for printing the insipid, gossipy purrings of Marianne Moore about the old Dial did crowd the editors ...

The country is now actually at war. Partisan Review, while mainly a cultural magazine, has always been concerned with politics. A question, therefore, as to our future editorial policy naturally arises.

For some time, as recent issues of the magazine have made clear, the editors have disagreed on major political questions. The complexity of the world situation, indeed, is reflected in the fact that no two editors hold the same position on all major questions. The actual outbreak of hostilities has not altered this line-up. It is clear, therefore, that Partisan Review can have no editorial line on the war. Its editors will continue to express themselves on the issue as individuals.

We believe that a magazine like Partisan Review cannot undertake the kind of programmatic guidance one expects of a political party. Our main task now is to preserve cultural values against all types of pressure and coercion. Obviously we cannot even speak of the survival of democratic civilization apart from the survival of our entire cultural tradition. This includes the fullest freedom of expression on political matters. All of us can at least agree on this: that in times like these it is a necessity, not a luxury, for Partisan Review to continue to give space to radical – in the literal sense of “going to the roots” – analysis of social issues and the war. No intelligent decisions can be made without a full consideration of alternatives.

Even the casual reader, not acquainted with PR or its history, will see what a far cry this statement, in its flaccid and timid equivocations, is from the initial bold and challenging statement of position. We are convinced that this statement is not merely timid and equivocal, but also – and we choose our words advisedly – intellectually misleading and dishonest. It goes well beyond the bound of even a rotten compromise; if is the beginning of a surrender. Let us dissect it, almost sentence by sentence, to prove our charges.

1) “We believe that a magazine like Partisan Review cannot undertake to present the kind of programmatic guidance one expects of a political party.”

This sentence we submit as Exhibit A to substantiate our charge of intellectual dishonesty. We are only too well aware of the attacks to which we lay ourselves open by such a charge: “You Trotskyists accuse everyone with whom you disagree of intellectual dishonesty.” But Dwight Macdonald, we are certain, will understand fully why we say that such a sentence is intellectually dishonest, why we say that it goes even beyond the needs of a rotten compromise with Rahv and the other pro-war editors.

Let me first illustrate from an article by Macdonald himself in the very same issue of PR. He reviews James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution and comments on Burnham’s complete abandonment of Marxism to the point where Burnham even “forgets” that Trotsky had a theory of the “permanent revolution.” Burnham had written that the outbreak of the revolution in backward Russia was “contrary to the opinion of all socialist theoreticians prior to 1917” and that once the revolution had taken place in Russia “the leaders of the revolution itself” expected it to develop steadily toward socialism. Macdonald expresses amazement that a man as familiar with Leon Trotsky’s works as Burnham is (or was) could possibly write such preposterous nonsense. And then he says: “The most charitable explanation is that Burnham is suffering from ... ‘cultural amnesia’ ...”

Exactly the phrase! And it is the most charitable explanation for Macdonald signing a statement which contains a sentence such as the one under examination – he, too, is suffering from “cultural amnesia.” For Macdonald knows only too well that the need for a magazine such as PR to adopt a position on the war is not in any way connected with an expectation that it furnish “the kind of programmatic guidance one expects of a political party.”

What Is Fundamental and Subordinate

If we were to insist that PR take a position, say, on the class character of the Russian state; if we were to insist that PR take a position on the Murray Industry Council Plan; if we were to insist that PR take a position on the role of Chinese colonial nationalism in the war; if we were to insist that PR take a position on any number of other strategical or tactical issues facing the revolutionary movement – then it would be true that we ask PR to give “the kind of programmatic guidance one expects of a political party.” But nobody asks PR to do anything of the kind; we do not believe that anyone should.

But a position on the most fundamental and important fact of our times, a fact which is not without relation to the future of our cultural life and inheritance – that is a different matter. If not because of any political impulsions or responsibilities, then certainly from the point of view of an exclusively aesthetic and cultural preoccupation, PR is obligated to take an editorial position on the war.

In its very inception PR took a position on: 1) Marxism, 2) the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society, 3) Stalinism, 4) social democracy and 5) capitalism in all its guises and disguises, including bourgeois “democracy” and fascism. Nor were these mere editorial generalizations which had no relation to the life of the magazine. On the contrary, they vitally affected and molded the character of the entire magazine; they gave the magazine its political and cultural “tone.”

Now PR faces the greatest test of its existence; and not only does it fail to take a stand on the war – it even denies any obligation to do so! But it will not solve its problem so easily. PR will have to say something about the profound repercussions which the war will have – in fact, which it has so clearly had already – on precisely those cultural matters with which it mainly concerns itself. Will it merely be satisfied with campaigning for freedom of expression for everyone and then not attempt to probe deeper into the problems of the war? Will it be satisfied to serve as a sort of cultural civil liberties magazine?

It is not, on this occasion at least, the ultimatistic demands of some sectarian revolutionary group that insist on PR’s taking a stand on the war; it is the pressure of life itself. The war is one issue on which nobody can be neutral. Even, we venture to predict, the most esoteric and detached literary magazines – those that have never had the political pretensions of PR, nor plunged nearly so heavily into political issues as PR has done – will be forced to take some attitude toward the war.

2) “The complexity of (he. world situation, indeed, is reflected in the fact that no two editors hold the same position on all major issues. The actual outbreak of hostilities has not altered this lineup.”

Again, we reiterate: these sentences are deliberately misleading. Macdonald and Greenberg, at the very least, know better. And Rahv, from his point of view, knows it at least as well. For the statement here deliberately confuses, as in the previously quoted passage, the distinction on which the editors of PR so carefully insisted in their old polemic with the Socialist Appeal: the distinction between taking a position on the general class issues facing society and taking a position on the subordinate issues which are better left to a political party.

A Clear Cleavage on the War

Of course the five editors of PR disagree on all major issues. But there is a clear cleavage on the one essential, most determining issue: Is the war imperialist or not? Should one give political support to Allied imperialism or not? In the answer to these two simple questions there is enough to draw the line. (We do not wish to suggest that merely shaking one’s head one way or the other in response to these questions solves all the problems of our time – but it certainly helps!) Macdonald and Greenberg, despite their disagreements about the nature of German economy and the character of Russia’s participation in the war, saw sufficiently eye to eye to jointly write Ten Propositions on the War. And we are certain that the other editors who support the imperialist war can agree on enough fundamental issues to be able to draw up their basic statement.

That is how the lines are joined in reality; that is how they are joined in the editorial committee of Partisan Review. To speak of other subordinate disagreements is sheer sophistry. For or Against the Imperialist War – that is the issue. And Macdonald and Greenberg are not unaware of this fact.

3) “Our main task now is to preserve cultural values against all types of pressure and coercion. Obviously we cannot even speak of a survival of democratic civilization apart from the survival of our entire cultural tradition.”

Here again, we must insist, Macdonald surrenders his entire intellectual position when he signs his name to sentences like that with people who support the imperialist war, and one of whom at least, is openly cynical about the possibility of achieving socialism in the near future and believes the revolutionary perspective to be an illusion.

Out of Macdonald’s Past

Why, it is precisely such vague and weasel-worded pronuciamentos of good will that Macdonald has spent a major portion of his literary time in attacking. Only in the previous issue of PR he wrote in his splendid article on Van Wyck Brooks’ call to burn the books:

Confronted by a frustrating historical situation – the breakdown of the political, social and cultural values of the bourgeois order, and the simultaneous impotence of any progressive revolutionary force to sweep clear the debris – our intellectuals have for the most part either tried to find their way back to the long discredited values of the bourgeoisie, or else have begun to move toward a totalitarian solution. But for the values they instinctively want to preserve, both roads lead to historical dead ends. (Our emphasis – I.H.)

And again, in the statement of the short-lived League for Cultural Freedom and Socialism, which every editor of the Partisan Review signed, we read:

It goes without saying that we do not subscribe to that currently fashionable catchword: “Neither communism nor fascism.” On the contrary, we recognize that culture is inseparable from the liberation of the working classes and of all humanity. Shall we abandon the ideals of revolutionary socialism because one political group, while clinging to its name, has so miserably betrayed its principles? Shall we revert to a program of middle-class democracy because the Kremlin government, in obedience to its own interests – which are no longer the interests of the Soviet people or of the masses anywhere – directs us to do so? On the contrary, we reject all such demands. Democracy under industrial capitalism can offer no permanent haven to the intellectual worker and artist. In it’s instability it becomes the breeding ground of dictatorship and such liberties as it grants us today, it will violently revoke tomorrow. The idea of democracy must come to flower in a socialist democracy. In the revolutionary reconstruction of society lies the hope of the world, the promise of a free humanity, a new art, an unrestricted science. (Our emphasis – I.H.)

This is a far cry, is it not, from the more recent editorial statement on the war, (Incidentally, it is interesting to compare the first sentence of this quotation: “We do not subscribe to the currently fashionable catchword ‘neither communism nor fascism’” – with the statement about PR not undertaking “to present the kind of programmatic guidance one expects from a party.”)

Macdonald has always emphasized: the prerequisite for a genuine defense of culture is opposition to imperialism and its war and support of the struggle for socialism. The attempt to divorce the struggle to preserve culture from the struggle to build a new society is an illusion. But how is Macdonald to fight in defense of culture with Rahv, who believes that socialism is an illusion for the near future? True, he can make a “united front” with Rahv against a given act of literary suppression, but he surely cannot unite with him on any serious, long range programmatic scale, when they have two such diametrically opposed concepts of how to “preserve cultural values.”

Does not Macdonald remember what he signed not so long ago – “Democracy under industrial capitalism can offer no permanent haven to the intellectual worker and artist ... In the revolutionary reconstruction of society lies the hope of the world, the promise of a free humanity, a new art, an unrestricted science”?

Is not every word of this as true as when it was originally written? What, then, is the value of his promise to jointly “preserve cultural values” with Rahv and to fight with him for the “survival of democratic civilization”? Doesn’t the war and one’s attitude have anything to do with all this? Are they not, in fact, the basic determining factors which give specific content and direction to these generalizations?

What Future For Partisan Review?

For there is a more general consideration involved here. While the major preoccupation of PR was with cultural affairs, the specific impulse toward its creation and its unique raison d’être were essentially political. Now that PR has no particular political position on the decisive issue of our time, what special role can it play which any number of literary magazines do not already play? Are its literary contents so superior to those of, say, Kenyon Review or Virginia Quarterly or the Antioch Review that they give PR a special reason for existence? It will be free and tolerant of all points of view. But what will it say? It was created because it had a unique political attitude and because it desired to apply this attitude as sensibly and as sensitively as it could to cultural life. Now that this political attitude is gone, what is left?

As a matter of fact, the most recent issue of PR already shows that it contradiction is insoluble. To the degree that there is political content in the magazine it is all pro-war. There are several letters from England which are uniformly pro-imperialist. One of them, by George Orwell, even makes the assertion that “to be anti-war in England today is to be pro-Hitler.” And this preposterous statement – fit for the garbage pails of the New Republic or The Nation – goes unchallenged by the editors!

Marianne Moore contributes a particularly vacuous piece of obnoxious literary gossip – which really belongs in the Saturday Review of Literature – and has the gall to append a footnote declaring her disagreement ... with Macdonald and Greenberg’s Ten Propositions on the War. Nor do the editors bother to reply to this insulting humiliation.

How unresponsive to the world about us is this issue of PR! A month after the entry of America into the war a magazine which raised the banner of “Marxism” and “international socialism” in its first issue appears with its lead article ... a study of Stendhal. It is a very good study, it should be published, but tell us, Macdonald and Greenberg, did you honestly feel that when you published an issue with this article as your lead in such a situation that you were really fulfilling your social and intellectual obligations?

The magazine has no future, no perspective, no axis around which to revolve. For an esoteric literary magazine – say one such as View or Kenyon Review are, or such as Transition or Dial were – to ignore the war is perhaps possible, but for Partisan Review it is fatal.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29 December 2014