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Reflections on Michael Denning's the Cultural Front and the New Popular Front History

Reflections on Michael Denning's the Cultural Front and the New Popular Front History



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Published by: kurtnewman on Apr 25, 2007
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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. LichtensteinCritical Reflections on Michael Denning’s 1930s, on the Occasion of The Tenth Anniversary of 
The Cultural Front 
It is probably safe to say that Michael Denning’s revisionist interpretation of the Popular Front period has been the most influential treatment of the New Deal-era left of the last tenyears.
However, as Michael Rogin suggests in an otherwise laudatory review of Denning’s
TheCultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century
, there are someworrisome oversights and elisions embedded in Denning’s interpretation of the historicalformation he calls the “cultural front.” Rogin notes that politics are often absent from Denning’sanalysis of the “cultural front” as social movement.
Denning’s treatment of politics issymptomatic of wider trends. A recent article by Eric Arnesen, a historian critical of the CP’s rolein the American labor and civil rights movements, identifies a common embrace of “history withthe politics left out” among revisionist historians: “In revisionists’ hands, the politics of communism takes a distinct backseat to dedication, militancy, and even good-heartedness.”
If Denning is correct in stating that the previous historiography of the Popular Front wasweakened by the reliance on a “core-periphery” model, with CP leaders at the core and “fellowtravelers” at the periphery, his interpretation tends to downplay the conflicts between the participants in this broad coalition (however conceived) and their anti-Stalinist antagonists.
Denning is not alone in rejecting internecine conflict as the main theme of the American left. Onthe contrary, a shared objection to the emphasis on factional squabbling by early historians of 
Michael Denning,
The Cultural Front:
The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century
(London:Verso, 1997).
Michael Rogin. Review of 
The Cultural Front 
The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century
byMichael Denning.
 Journal of American History
, September 1997, Vol. 84, No. 2, 712.
Eric Arnesen, “No ‘Graver Danger’: Black Anticommunism, the Communist Party, and the Race Question,”
 Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas
, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006, 38.
The Cultural Front 
, xviii.
Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. LichtensteinAmerican communism unites revisionists as much as the desire to correct the reductionistdepiction of the CP as a puppet of Moscow.The Popular Front, especially, serves as a symbol of consensus among left-wing groups, aslice of “usable past” that can help inspire contemporary progressives frustrated by factionalismand particularism. For example, Robert Cohen’s
When the Old Left Was Young 
sees the mainaccomplishment of the era in the formation of a united front against fascism. As a result, Cohen’ssympathies are with those political actors able to overcome narrow factionalism and work as partof a broad-based left-liberal movement. Activists reluctant to compromise with other members of the Popular Front coalition are, not surprisingly, depicted as the main obstacles to political progress. Focusing his discussion of the Popular Front on the problem of isolationism, Cohendepicts the formation of the American Student Union as a triumph over internecine conflictscharacteristic of the storied alcoves of City College of New York. He writes that “the one part othe Popular Front that did have an immediate and wide appeal within the student movement wasits stress on the need to unite activists from all sides of the political spectrum in opposingfascism.” Cohen praises the efficacy of this “general anti-fascist ethos” in promoting “solidarityamong student activists that initially outweighed any disagreement over which specific foreign policies were best suited to thwarting war and fascism.”
 This despite the fact that many antiwar students were motivated by entirely honorablecommitments: for example, lingering attachments to the “Oxford Pledge” pacifist movement,and reaction to the release of the Nye Commission report that recognized the role of armamentmanufactures and war profiteers in America’s involvement in World War I. Most intellectually
Robert Cohen,
When The Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement 1929-1941
(New York: Oxford, 1993), 135.
Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtensteincoherent of all were the antiwar Trotskyites, the main antagonists of Popular Front leftists, whoregarded “anti-interventionism as a means of curbing United States imperialism.”
Yet theseTrotskyites must necessarily be seen by Cohen (as they were by contemporary Communists) asvillainous anti-unity agitators, if consensus and cooperation are elevated to supreme virtues inleft historiography.At the heart of this reading is a powerful idée fixe: that a healthy left is a unified left, andthat internal conflict is always a sign of spiritual disease within a progressive bloc. Close analysisof the premises upon which this interpretation rests, however, reveals deep contradictions, and afew patent absurdities. This paper will attempt to unearth the most significant of these, while pursuing a detailed critique of Denning’s reading of the 1930s left. Denning’s recuperation of thecontributions of CP and fellow-travelers to the political struggles and cultural accomplishmentsof the 1930s left is not at issue here—in fact, this aspect of his project is most welcome, andshould be extended and elaborated upon by other scholars. Rather, it is his aversion to conflictand valorization of a version of “cultural democratic centralism” that is unappealing. The reader of 
The Cultural Front 
is left with a number of nagging, unanswered questions. Why can’tfactionalism be seen as a healthy and productive force in American progressive politics andculture? Isn’t the most obvious conclusion that efforts at unification, rather than factional in-fighting, most weakened the left in the World War II era?
 A recent exchange between Eric Arnesen and a number of scholars more sympathetic tothe contributions of American communists demonstrates that much of the disagreement betweenthe two camps hinges on the significance of conflict versus consensus on the left. Arnesen
Cohen, 135-37.
See Richard Flacks’ argument that the American left has always been least successful when it has sought unity inEuropean-style mass parties. Richard Flacks,
Making History: The American Left and the American Mind 
(NewYork: Columbia, 1988), 190.

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