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Julius Falk

Books in Review

Not on the Recommended List

(Winter 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 1, Winter 1958, pp. 58–60.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

American Radicals: Some Problems and Personalities
Edited by Harvey Goldberg
Monthly Review Press, New York City, 1951, 308 pp., $5.00.

There has been a noticeable and welcome increase in the number of books recently published concerned with the history, problems and prospects of radicalism and trade unionism in the United States. Although the quality of these studies is uneven almost all have something knowledgeable, challenging or stimulating to offer. At least one exception to this general rule, however, is American Radicals: Some Problems and Personalities, a collection of essays by 15 contributors, edited by Harvey Goldberg and published by the Monthly Review Press – the publisher of the journal, Monthly Review. Unfortunately the book’s title promises more than it gives. The editor, publisher and most of its contributors have managed to take an enormously exciting subject and transform it into a dull and academic volume. But, to be truthful and not artificially polite, academicism is a relatively minor flaw in the book; it is guilty of more serious intellectual offenses.

The American radicals discussed in the book are Heywood Broun, John Jay Chapman, William Demarest Lloyd, Walter Weyl, John Brown, Dreiser, Marcantonio, LaFollette, Altgeld, Haywood, DeLeon, Debs, Beard and Veblen. There is no portrait of a trade union figure other than Haywood. Perhaps that was an oversight. There is no evaluation of important radical figures such as Morris Hillquit and Victor Berger, center and right wing Socialist leaders who were in many ways more representative of the Socialist Party than Debs. Perhaps this merely shows poor judgment and not bias. Perhaps. But what about the Communist Party – its personalities, its problems and the problems it posed for the radical movement? Not a single essay devoted to any of these questions; not even a few pages; just a sentence here and a phrase there. Yet it was the Communist Party which had dominated the radical scene for more than three decades. In the opinion of democratic socialists for most of these years it was the bane of American radicalism, but for this book’s editor the CP was a legitimate wing of the American labor movement. However, whether it was a bane or a boon, or somewhere in between, it is impossible – so it would seem – to avoid a discussion of Communism and/or Communists in a book purporting to deal with problems of American radicalism. Had any other publisher or editor ignored the CP in a book of this nature it might be chalked up to plain stupidity. But, given the nature of the publisher and editor Goldberg’s views, no such generous allowance can be made. Here, it is not stupidity; neither is it mere bias nor an oversight. It stems largely, in my opinion, from a pose affected by so many former Stalinoids – who have not abandoned all their illusions about Russia – of being Real American radicals, respectable as all get out. For them to discuss the Communist Party might only prove embarrassing. A portrait, say, of William Z. Foster or a more general analysis of the Communist Party could hardly avoid the question of Russia. And a discussion of Russia by former Stalinoids who still hold that it is some sort of a progressive socialistic society would hardly present the reader with a confirmation of the image they project of themselves as more thoughtful variants of good old-fashioned grass roots radicals. Better, then, to perpetrate a fraud: ignore the Communist Party of today, the past decade, the Thirties and Twenties; forget about its leaders, not only Foster today and Browder yesterday, but disregard the record of leading Communists in the early days – men like Reed, Fraina, Ruthenberg and Lore.

The most extensive “treatment” of American Communism can be found in a paragraph in the book’s introductory essay, Thoughts About American Radicalism, written by Harvey Goldberg (the book’s editor) in collaboration with William A. Williams. It is a precious “thought” indeed, worth quoting:

In the ’30s and early ’40s the pitfalls were deep and the failures great for American radicals. Abandoning the independence and vigor attached to the rich tradition of the men described below, many sincere men and women were tempted into the easy solution. Either they became Russophiles, or they cast in their lot with the liberals and sought to change America by using the power of the existing national government. Now an intelligent, insightful, and Marxian American Communist might have developed an argument around the thesis that supporting the Soviet Union through famine, purge, and Stalin was actually, in spite of the illiberal features of that government, the only way to establish the necessary preconditions for a truly American radicalism.

The authors’ Stalinoid mentality – at least in 1957 – is clearly revealed in this passage. Theirs would have been a more “insightful” and “Marxian” policy: “supporting the Soviet Union” while admitting that in Russia there was “famine, purge and Stalin” and, to use their hilarious euphemism, “illiberal features” in its government. But of greater interest for the moment is the view that “supporting the Soviet Union” – critically, of course – was a precondition for building a healthy radical movement. This thought is certainly worth some elaboration, particularly as in subsequent lines the authors vaguely intimate that a renascent radical movement in this country would have to adopt a similarly critical but friendly attitude toward Russia. However, this point is dropped as abruptly as it is raised; it is more of a teaser than a thought.

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER ESSAYS in the book? There is not one which is first rate or nearly so. The sketches of Veblen, Beard, LaFollette and most others are pedestrian. Bert Cochran contributes an article on Debs that plays with a comparison of the Socialist leader and Lincoln, and winds up with a half hearted defense of Debs’ dual unionist inclinations. Nevertheless, it is superior to most other chapters in the book.

A measure of the book as a whole is the inclusion of a eulogy of the cheap little politician, Vito Marcantonio. The effrontery of including him as one of America’s foremost radicals, preceded in the book by a sketch of John Altgeld and followed by the essay on Debs, is matched only by the vulgar apologia of his biographer, Richard Sasuly. When Mr. Sasuly writes of Marcantonio that, “on the foreign issues as on the domestic ones, his position had an underlying consistency throughout his seven terms in Congress” he must be relying on the naiveté of his readers – unless the consistency he is talking about was Marcantonio’s consistent kow-towing to the tortuous twists, turns and somersaults of the Communist Party. (Marcantonio’s public criticisms of the Communist Party came only at a time when he had no chance of being re turned to Congress and the Party and he had outlived their usefulness to one another.)

One essay does deserve special mention: The Renegade: A Study of Defectors by Russell Fraser. Mr. Fraser is an English professor and he lets his reader know it in a chapter that is almost painful to read. His turgid prose liberally sprinkled with Latin and French and his incredible name dropping reads like a parody of a would-be “belletrist” on a rampage. One of the defectors and renegades who drives Mr. Frazer to a religious frenzy is Walter Reuther. Reuther, you see, was guilty of “pulling down ... the moderate [R.J.] Thomas on charges of Red domination” which was reminiscent of Homer Martin’s earlier campaign to organize an auto union “cleansed of Red elements.” And Homer Martin was praised by Harry Bennet, Ford’s chief of police. So where does that leave Reuther? Get it?

But, as a literary man, Mr. Fraser concentrates his fire on such writers as John Steinbeck, Clifford Odets, Irwin Shaw and John Dos Passos. These were all writers who once found it possible to work with the Stalinists but have long since repudiated the Communist Party. They are, naturally, on Fraser’s list of defectors and renegades from radicalism. Of Dos Passos, we are assured that “A novel like 1919 proclaims on every violent page, in each meaningless incident in every joyless character, the future course of its creator.” (Shades of Mike Gold!) After polishing off Dos Passos, Mr. Fraser gets right to the core of another defecting writer’s weakness. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath we are told that “... the shoddiness of that novel as a portrait of ‘the people,’ its basic lack of integrity, are the best indication that the radicalism of Steinbeck et hoc genus omne was only of the surface, after all.” With Steinbeck out of the way Fraser hops right into an assault on the “jeremiads” of Robinson Jeffers, takes a poke at Edgar Lee Masters for a “pitiful attempt to diminish the stature of Lincoln” and in a few polished phrases disposes of the “maunderings” of Ezra Pound. It is not clear from who or what Pound, Jeffers or Masters defected or reneged. But what’s the difference? A little bit of learning can’t hurt.

In a charitable mood and in restrained manner the best I can say about the book is that it is not on my recommended list.

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