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Irving Howe

Albert Maltz Confesses to His “Crimes”

(15 April 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 15, 15 April 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The intellectual section of the Stalinist movement has been wracked by a “literary discussion” in recent weeks. This discussion was initiated by an article by Albert Maltz in the New Masses in which Maltz made a very hesitant, timorous plea for a certain amount of discretion in condemning writers who had strayed from the “party line”; or rather for discretion in condemning writers merely on political grounds.

He gave as an example the indiscriminate condemnation of James T. Farrell in which the Stalinist movement indulges, a condemnation motivated exclusively by the fact that Farrell is sympathetic to revolutionary Marxism and therefore opposes Stalinism. Maltz, of course, has no sympathy for Farrell’s politics; but he wistfully hinted that Farrell’s politics were insufficient reason in themselves for which to condemn his novels on artistic grounds.

“Browderism” in Art

For this seemingly platitudinous statement – which all sensible people, let alone those professing to be Marxists, take for granted; that is, that art is not to be judged on the basis of party loyalty – Maltz drew upon his head a shower of abuse and condemnation which ended in his being labeled with the newest and most terrifying heresy: Browderism. The issues involved in this internecine dispute among the Stalinist intellectuals – or more accurately, in this hatchet campaign by them against Maltz – are of considerable importance. Labor Action has simply lacked the space to comment on them in detail, though we have followed the matter with a detailed discussion by James T. Farrell in the April New International, which we recommend to every interested reader.

A new development has arisen, however, which we cannot pass in silence: our scruples about space are overcome by this excellent opportunity to demonstrate the true intellectual level of Stalinism.

Albert Maltz has confessed! He has seen the errors of his ways! In the April 9 New Masses he prints as craven, as belly-crawling, as positively sickening a recantation as it has been our displeasure to read. (If Maltz were in the docket, you’d swear his piece was part of the Moscow trials.) And remember: in line of duty, we’ve read a good many Stalinist recantations, in which the offender humbly confessed to having betrayed everything from Socialism to Dialectical Materialism (the betrayal of which is of course the cardinal crime of all!).

Totalitarianization in Art

Listen to Maltz: “I severed the organic connection between art and ideology ...” (Horrors! Can there be anything worse than that crime?) And “... a word of comment on Farrell. I agree now that my characterization of him was decidedly lax, and that it was the inadvertent, but inevitable, result of the line of thinking in my article that separated art from ideology and politics.” (Ha! Betrayer that Maltz is! Giving aid and comfort to Farrell, than whom none is held in lower repute ... by the Stalinists!) “It seems clear to me ... that I have been discussing and illustrating revisionism, and that my article, as pointed out by others, was a specific example of revisionist thinking in the cultural field.” (It is clear that if Maltz has condemned himself to the lower depths, it is only because he hopes to sneak back into purgatory. He further flagellated himself with the onus of “Browderism” which makes it impossible, he informs us, to “really love the people.” (Oh woe, oh woe: Browder, the source of impotence which makes it impossible to love the people! But Foster, there’s a really virile chap, from whom writers can gain the ability to really “love the people.”)

But what really gets under Maltz’s all-too, delicate skin is this: his article was praised by the New Leader, the Social-Democratic weekly. And so, with the praise of the New Leader hanging like a millstone around his neck, Maltz confesses. “Good art,” he writes, “has always and will always come from the writers who love people, who ally themselves with the fate of the people, with the struggle of the people for social advancement.” And does it not follow as B follows A – to put it in the language of the Beloved Stalin – that those who do not “ally themselves with the people” (that is, are opposed to totalitarian Stalinism) must necessarily be bad writers?

Art in Relation to Society

Of course, this point of view happens to ignore history a little, but that has never fazed the Stalinists. It ignores the fact that there have been great writers who were not allies of “the struggle of the people for social advancement” – to mention only a few of the titans: Balzac, Dostoevsky, Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc., etc. (You can fill in your, own examples at will.) Art is not a mechanical replica of politics; it is an autonomous cultural activity which, while related to and drawing deep inspiration from social currents, can by no means be equated to them. This is not to say that the socialist movement does not desire and need the support of writers and artists; on the contrary. But it is to say that no political movement has the right to dictate what a writer shall write, how an artist shall paint, how a critic shall judge.

What a contrast between this point of view, which is, simply put, that of revolutionary socialists, and the point of view of Stalinism. Does a pathetic little soul like Maltz dare suggest that art is not the handmaiden of the Stalinist line? He is publicly whipped, denounced, humiliated. He is berated by that expert dialectician, Howard Fast. Stalinism cannot tolerate intellectual independence or critical thought. It either drives thinking writers from its midst ... or they confess and crawl back into their intellectual stockades.

Such is the sad case of Albert Maltz, once again goose-stepping in behalf of Stalinism. Of him, it will perhaps be said: he once tried to think – ever so slightly, to be sure – but the results were so terrifying, so unlike the slogans of others which he had habitually parrotted, that he returned to the intellectual position which he had always occupied: horizontal prostration before the intellectual dictatorship of Stalinism.

And to all the other little writers and artists who had sold their souls to Stalinism, it was a warning too: if you dare to think for yourself, you too will meet the fate of Maltz and will have to confess.

That is the way Stalinism works.

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