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The Literary Left

WRITERS ON THE LEFT, by Daniel Aaron. Part of the Fund for the Republic's series on "Communism In American Life." Harcourt, Brace, 1961, 460 pages.

By Joseph L. Featherstone

Writing recent history can become a painful exercise in intellectual humility. There is no quicker way to discover how much the present dominates our concerns than to try to write about our fathers and their generation. Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left is a brave, if futile, attempt to exorcise some myths about Communism and the American literary Left during the period between the world wars; myths which, despite Aaron's absorbing book, are not likely to die soon.

The Right: Sin

Both the Right and the Left in America have their own memories about the period of flirtation with Marx. To the Right, it has become the decade of treason, when Americans ate of totalitarian fruit and knew sin; the guilt and hysteria of the late '40's and early '50's extended to liberals who had never been associated with the Communist Party in the '30's, even to men who were born too late to be part of the decade of treason. Thus the weakest and least sympathetic portion of Arthur M. Schlesinger's Age of Roosevelt is his treatment of the American Left; Schlesinger is too scarred himself, too much involved in the post World War II liberal anguish to see the radicals of his period clearly.

The Left: Happy Days

The American Left has another myth about the '30's. Despite its recollections of the Depression and its strikes, the Left today looks back wistfully on the '30's as a time when class consciousness and ideology mattered to Americans, when a genuine American workers' movement seemed possible, and when some of the country's most brilliant minds gladly collaborated with the working class. The Left has tended to forget how much it let the Communists occupy the center of the stage. The villain of Aaron's piece is the American Communist Party, as servile and stupid a group of men as ever tried to engineer a cultural revolution. For, if there is one theme linking his loose collection of episodes, it is the destruction of American cultural radicalism at the hands of an alien party that was always totally out of touch with American life.

The party was successful when it could act with American writers on an issue like the Scottsboro case, or join intellectuals in picketing for Sacco and Vanzetti, but it displayed a great, lumbering ineptness whenever it interfered in strictly cultural and artistic matters. This ineptness that Aaron writes of, this inability to deal with American writers on American terms is something that the myths of both the Right and the Left have forgotten. Even someone as useful to the Party as Dreiser was continually embarrassing its leaders; he was, at heart, an individualist, and his allegiance was always conditional. Dreiser talked of "equity" and "service," and "opportunity," and his social protests always were closer to the moralistic Progressives than to agitprop.

Proletcult Critics

The same was true of another cultural stalwart of the Party, John Dos Passos. For all his proletarian sympathies, Dos Passos never found any form of collectivism congenial. He was never able to shake off the feeling that the Party was using him, never able to swallow the Party's slogans and the doctrine of two truths (one for the elite, one for the masses), and found it especially hard to stomach the Party's leadership. Like so many other writers, Dos Passos wavered a long time before he finally broke with the Party; but his break could have been predicted. (In his case, it came when the OGPU shot a friend of his in Spain--unlike Hemingway, Dos Passos found the Spanish Civil War a bitterly disillusioning experience.)

Writers like Dreiser and Dos Passos stayed close to the Party because it seemed that the Communists were one of the few outlets for serious social protest in the country. Since the First World War, political and cultural radicalism had followed separate paths in the United States; in more sentimental pre-war days, you could meet radicals from Max Eastman's Masses and Wobblies like Big Bill Haywood at Greenwich Village tango teas--and if there was something frivolous and arty about such political reformers, there was also a close identification on their part with cultural reform. Literature was an ally in the class struggle. After the war, this was no longer true; the political radicals and the Bohemians drifted apart.

A decade later in the Depression, art-for-art's-sake writers like Malcolm Cowley became interested in politics, but the Communists had in the meantime preempted the positions of radical social protest. As the instances of Dreiser and Dos Passos show, they were not able to make any cultural use of their pre-eminence. The American intelligentsia turned left in the grim years between '28 and '32, but the Party was never able to adapt itself to it. It was not simply that Marxism produced no literary criticism worth printing, though that was true enough; but even the social criticism of the American Left during the '30's came from men like Parrington, Beard, and Veblen, rather than from Marx. And Aaron's sketch of a figure like Edmund Wilson shows how the its ideology blinded the Party to the efforts o the few liberal thinkers consciously seeking to adapt Marx to America.

The liberal writers Aaron talks about were men thoroughly convinced that the Depression had finished off capitalism. They had tired of the stale Progressive dogmas of the '20's, and the reality of class antagonisms was an enormous shock to them. Also, as Bohemians, readers of Veblen and Mencken, they hated the men and the ideas that dominated American society. Most, of course, satisfied personal needs in joining the party. But, as Leslie Fiedler has pointed out, a radical movement is not to be explained by adding up the pathologies of its individual members. It was not the writers who were sick. Breadlines and Hoovervilles were no fantasies; America was sick.

Aaron's various sketches are uneven. The least original are those where he painstakingly describes the Party's cultural affairs and the amazingly scurrilous and passionate squabbles in the magazines that were closely identified with the Party. No part of Writers on the Left seems more remote from our own concerns than the world of little Marxist magazines, writers' congresses and manifestoes that flourished during the '30's. Nowadays the kind of book review that devotes 11 paragraphs to telling you about the crisis in capitalist culture and its last 3 paragraphs to explaining why the reviewer is a better Marxist than the author of the book seems hopelessly dated and quaint. Occasionally the proletcult critics were unconsciously quite funny--witness Mike Gold's attacks on Thornton Wilder. Wilder's religion was "a pastel, pastiche, dilettante religion, without the true neurotic blood and fire, a daydream of homosexual figures in graceful gowns moving archaically among the lilies. Or his description of Archibald MacLeish: a "white collar fascist out of Harvard and Wall Street." But they were mostly as dreary as the proletarian novelists they praised so excessively. Marxism's direct cultural impact on America was slight, and is mercifully forgotten.

In the end, America's liberal culture could not assimilate Marx; American writers felt increasingly that the Party was an enemy of any sort of creativity. Aaron's conclusions and his story may lay to rest the ghosts of some myths of the '30's. Particularly his chapter on Granville Hicks should be read by anyone who thinks that Americans were total dupes of a foreign ideology.

There was never a time during the years from 1929 to 1939 when being anti-Communist wasn't easier and more lucrative for a writer than being Communist. The Party was not important because it put any kind of stamp on American thought; Aaron shows that it exerted a totally negative effect on American literary radicalism. The Party seriously crippled radical political and cultural criticism of American society, and left scars that would still hurt twenty years later.

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