Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof.

Lichtenstein Critical 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 ten years.1 However, as Michael Rogin suggests in an otherwise laudatory review of Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, there are some worrisome oversights and elisions embedded in Denning’s interpretation of the historical formation he calls the “cultural front.” Rogin notes that politics are often absent from Denning’s analysis of the “cultural front” as social movement.2 Denning’s treatment of politics is symptomatic of wider trends. A recent article by Eric Arnesen, a historian critical of the CP’s role in the American labor and civil rights movements, identifies a common embrace of “history with the politics left out” among revisionist historians: “In revisionists’ hands, the politics of communism takes a distinct backseat to dedication, militancy, and even good-heartedness.”3 If Denning is correct in stating that the previous historiography of the Popular Front was weakened by the reliance on a “core-periphery” model, with CP leaders at the core and “fellow travelers” at the periphery, his interpretation tends to downplay the conflicts between the participants in this broad coalition (however conceived) and their anti-Stalinist antagonists.4 Denning is not alone in rejecting internecine conflict as the main theme of the American left. On the contrary, a shared objection to the emphasis on factional squabbling by early historians of

1

Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1997). 2 Michael Rogin. Review of The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century by Michael Denning. Journal of American History, September 1997, Vol. 84, No. 2, 712. 3 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. 4 Denning, The Cultural Front, xviii.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein American communism unites revisionists as much as the desire to correct the reductionist depiction of the CP as a puppet of Moscow. The Popular Front, especially, serves as a symbol of consensus among left-wing groups, a slice of “usable past” that can help inspire contemporary progressives frustrated by factionalism and particularism. For example, Robert Cohen’s When the Old Left Was Young sees the main accomplishment of the era in the formation of a united front against fascism. As a result, Cohen’s sympathies are with those political actors able to overcome narrow factionalism and work as part of 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, Cohen depicts the formation of the American Student Union as a triumph over internecine conflicts characteristic of the storied alcoves of City College of New York. He writes that “the one part of the Popular Front that did have an immediate and wide appeal within the student movement was its stress on the need to unite activists from all sides of the political spectrum in opposing fascism.” Cohen praises the efficacy of this “general anti-fascist ethos” in promoting “solidarity among student activists that initially outweighed any disagreement over which specific foreign policies were best suited to thwarting war and fascism.”5 This despite the fact that many antiwar students were motivated by entirely honorable commitments: 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 armament manufactures and war profiteers in America’s involvement in World War I. Most intellectually
5

Robert Cohen, When The Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement 1929-1941 (New York: Oxford, 1993), 135.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein coherent of all were the antiwar Trotskyites, the main antagonists of Popular Front leftists, who regarded “anti-interventionism as a means of curbing United States imperialism.”6 Yet these Trotskyites must necessarily be seen by Cohen (as they were by contemporary Communists) as villainous anti-unity agitators, if consensus and cooperation are elevated to supreme virtues in left historiography. At the heart of this reading is a powerful idée fixe: that a healthy left is a unified left, and that internal conflict is always a sign of spiritual disease within a progressive bloc. Close analysis of the premises upon which this interpretation rests, however, reveals deep contradictions, and a few 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 the contributions of CP and fellow-travelers to the political struggles and cultural accomplishments of the 1930s left is not at issue here—in fact, this aspect of his project is most welcome, and should be extended and elaborated upon by other scholars. Rather, it is his aversion to conflict and 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’t factionalism be seen as a healthy and productive force in American progressive politics and culture? Isn’t the most obvious conclusion that efforts at unification, rather than factional infighting, most weakened the left in the World War II era? 7 A recent exchange between Eric Arnesen and a number of scholars more sympathetic to the contributions of American communists demonstrates that much of the disagreement between the two camps hinges on the significance of conflict versus consensus on the left. Arnesen
6 7

Cohen, 135-37. See Richard Flacks’ argument that the American left has always been least successful when it has sought unity in European-style mass parties. Richard Flacks, Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (New York: Columbia, 1988), 190.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein focuses on the experiences of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader, civil rights activist, and lifelong socialist A. Philip Randolph in the National Negro Congress. For Arnesen, a dramatic scene that unfolded in April 1940 at an NNC conference in Washington, DC serves as an example of the sort of historical conflict with which revisionist historians of American communism have a hard time coming to terms. Randolph, then NNC president, denounced the domination of the organization by the CP, and especially the sudden reversals of NNC policy following changed in the party line after the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed in 1939. Arnesen asserts that revisionists “have sidestepped key aspects of the anticommunist scholars’ charges and the voices of contemporary African American opponents of the party, such as Randolph.” 8 Drawing on an impressively thorough survey of the historiographical literature, Arnesen presents a compelling case for the illegitimacy of revisionists’ reluctance to engage in questions of great moment: the significance of Stalinism, the degree to which campaigns for civil rights were subordinated during the World War II era (especially non-CP efforts, like Randolph’s March On Washington Movement), and the intellectual poverty of “vulgar Marxism.” One curiosity of the bitter polemics that seem omnipresent in scholarly debates on the history of the CP and the American left is the fact that “revisionists” do not revise so much as refocus. “Revisionist” scholars typically celebrate periods of unity and focus attention away from the key periods of conflict. Robin D.G. Kelley devotes only two short chapters and an epilogue to the period after 1937, providing the reader with very few caveats to his misleading (because of its implication of a reformist trend unaffected by intraparty politics) claim that: “By the close of the New Deal decade, Southern liberals had emerged from the closet as if in unison, assuming a stronger stance against poverty, racism, and civil liberty violations.”9 Similarly, Martha Biondi
8 9

Arnesen, “No ‘Graver Danger,’” 19. Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 176.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein avoids a serious confrontation with the turbulence of the years 1939-1943 by focusing on the left after the end of World War II, a period after which many of the key conflicts of the era had already been played out (and, it must be said, many communists and anti-Stalinists had already defected or disappeared).10 In her response to Arnesen in the journal Labor, Biondi provides a clear articulation of the factionalism-phobia and rhetorical legerdemain characteristic of revisionists. Beginning by considering the case of Randolph, Biondi points out that “sectarianism… riled sections of the black radical movement” during the late 1930s.11 Biondi suggests that Arnesen commits a grave scholarly error, although she does not specify its exact nature, by failing to acknowledge that Randolph “was a bitter foe of the Communist orbit in the 1940s” and also attacked noncommunists (for example, Marcus Garvey).12 The implication is that Randolph’s fondness for sectarian battle was somehow abnormal, and that principled objections to communist influence ought to have been sublimated by period activists. Biondi does not acknowledge that the National Negro Congress, of which Randolph was president, was the site of intense conflicts between party loyalists and anti-Stalinists; the United Negro Improvement Association was not actively trying to shape policy in the very organization over which Randolph presided. It is worthwhile to look at the rhetorical techniques used by Biondi in her reply to Arnesen. Like Denning, Biondi begins by situating the debate sociologically, as an “us-againstthem” struggle between reactionary traditionalist historians like Theodore Draper, and the revisionists who have emerged since the 1980s. This maneuver dismisses the legitimacy of any

10

Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge: Harvard, 2006). 11 Martha Biondi, “Response to Eric Arnesen.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006, 59-60. 12 Ibid.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein historian critical of the CP, and misses the point of Arnesen’s invocation of Randolph, which is that we should be sensitive to the criticisms of contemporary opponents of the CP, such as A. Philip Randolph (and by extension Trotskyites and other anti-Stalinists). The reader expects a discussion of the thorny questions of Party influence in the Popular Front and after, but is instead diverted from them. Biondi asserts that she and her colleagues “are less interested in Moscow machinations than in how African Americans… took advantage of the resources of the Left.”13 By claiming to be “uninterested” in “Moscow machinations,” Biondi skirts the issue of whether Moscow did in fact meddle in American politics, and leaves the reader uncertain of whether she finds these hypothetical machinations important but sufficiently worked-over in the historical literature, or on the contrary, irrelevant. Are we to understand by Biondi’s peculiar phrasing (African American leftists “making use” of the resources of the CP, which seems to echo the language of Levi-Strauss and James Scott vis-à-vis “bricolage” and “weapons of the weak” ) that this should be seen as a resistant strategy to overcome some odious quality inherent in the CP? The clear implication seems to be that we should: 1) acknowledge that the CP was unpleasant; 2) avoid paying attention to the unpleasant nature of the CP in order to avoid giving succor to conservatives; 3) focus instead on the uses made of the CP’s resources by civil rights activists; and, 4) ignore objections to this opportunism by contemporary activists for the same reasons undergirding point (2). Biondi’s program is both untenable and slightly demagogic, and is not likely to withstand serious scrutiny as the debate over these issues proceeds over the coming years.

13

Ibid.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein Like Biondi, Denning’s analysis employs a variety of rhetorical techniques that minimize the salience of conflicts within the left wing movements of the 1930s. For instance, when discussing the work of several 1930s-era New York intellectuals, Denning writes that “memoirists and historians alike have been distracted by the details of sectarian quarrels” and thus miss the significance of writers V.F. Calverton and Lewis Corey. Denning then proceeds to assert that “the group of radicals around Corey and Calverton pioneered the major themes of the Popular Front social movement before the Communist Party itself adopted them.”14 It is not at all clear why attention to sectarian debates and struggles should be “distracting” rather than fundamental to historical understanding. Furthermore, the fact that Calverton and Corey “pioneered” certain themes does not negate their complex place within the 1930s left-liberal coalition of intellectuals, nor does it establish that these thinkers were influential, only that they were original. Denning seems to suggest that intellectual historians can (or in this case, should) opt to selectively ignore significant changes in position and analytic orientation on the part of the writers they study. But it is precisely the questions of why these intellectuals changed in the way that they did, and how material, social, and political pressures shaped their work, that ought to animate critical intellectual history, differentiating it from mere antiquarianism. Especially because The Cultural Front makes strong arguments regarding the viability of the cultural front as a political movement and the role played by state repression in crushing it, these lacunae seem especially glaring. Another example of Denning’s limitations in this regard can be found in his discussion of Kenneth Burke’s speech to the 1935 American Writers’ Congress. Denning laments that the
14

Denning, 102.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein “controversy surrounding Burke’s speech at the American Writers’ Congress has usually overshadowed its substance, as critics have interpreted the quarrel as a morality play in which Burke is shouted down by philistine Communist ‘functionaries.’”15 It is unclear why a work that seeks to underline the political significance of intellectuals like Burke (and in Denning’s case to rescue them from premature obsolescence) should avoid direct engagement with these scenes of battle. Rather than perceiving these moments merely as embarrassing instances of adolescent sectarianism, we might read them as scenes of heightened intensity in intellectual debate, a situation which many activist intellectuals would prefer to the marginalization and obscurity which is typically their fate in capitalist societies. Rogin’s critique of The Cultural Front zeroes in out two more specific problems in Denning’s work. First, Denning’s presentation of the history of the 1930s glosses over the dynamics of deradicalization inherent in the Communist Party’s embrace of coalition with erstwhile enemies and work within mainstream political channels. The most powerful example of this deradicalization was the CP’s endorsement of union no-strike pledges during World War II, a source of important conflicts within the left that Denning overlooks.16 In fact, as Peter Drucker demonstrates, the more general issue of American entry into World War II produced heated conflict between CP loyalists and anti-Stalinists, with the communists taking a decidedly reactionary stand in favor of war mobilization, sometimes explicitly advocating that concerns for civil liberties be set aside for the duration of the war.17 This clearly worked against the cultivation of any sense of political or intellectual integrity among communists, and surely encouraged the

15 16

Ibid. See Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War At Home: The CIO in World War II (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003 [1982]). 17 Peter Drucker Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1994).

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein disillusionment of many party members and fellow travelers, weakening Denning’s argument that the Popular Front was viable beyond the late 1930s. Denning gives comparatively short shrift to anti-Popular Front thinkers who offered powerful critiques of the extreme jingoism of CP hawks. For example, anti-Stalinist intellectuals like Max Shachtman offered cogent and prophetic warnings of the cost to progressives and labor activists of American entry into the war, but receive little mention as critics of militarism in The Cultural Front. Rather, Denning focuses on the Trotskyites and anti-Stalinists primarily as critics of Popular Front culture, which they saw as “more pernicious than even the ordinary products of the culture industry”18 For Denning, such a perspective evokes the outdated stance of the “avantgarde” or “vanguard” intellectual, a critique which is, in my view, entirely accurate, although it is telling that Denning rarely subjects CP intellectuals to similar scrutiny, even when, as in the case of Mike Gold, they are probably equally if not more deserving.19 Debates on the left were not confined, in reality or in the minds of contemporary participants, to some imaginary discrete realm of human action called “politics.” If Denning’s interpretation of the Popular Front zeitgeist is correct, the 1930s was a moment in which ordinary Americans understood the interconnection of politics, economics, and culture to a much greater degree than would ever be true in the post-World War II United States. Conflicts, struggles, and factional battles mattered greatly in regard to the reception of cultural texts. Additionally, attention to conflicts between communists and anti-Stalinists is crucial to gaining an understanding of ways that the valences of, for example, pro-war or anti-war films or literature changed from one week to the next. If we are to take seriously the experience of rank and file

18 19

Denning, 110. Denning, 109.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein communists in the 1930s and early 1940s, we cannot ignore the impact of changes in the party line, which the preponderance of the evidence suggests communists took seriously. Howe and Coser provide a number of powerful examples of the ways that changes in party line affected culture—such as the serialization of Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun in The Daily Worker in 1939, which abruptly stopped once the CP adopted a prowar stance in June, 1941. If Howe and Coser’s analysis seems overly caustic fifty years after its publication, the thrust of their argument remains unimpeachable, even after the efforts of The Cultural Front to complicate our understanding of the period—“It was noteworthy that emotions about ‘mangled scraps of flesh’ or soldiers with their faces shattered had not troubled the Communists for some years before August 24, 1939, and were certainly not to trouble them for some years after June 22, 1941.”20 One reason why Denning avoids consideration of examples such as these is that he provides little discussion of the debate over the nature of the Soviet Union under Stalin or, as contemporaries called it, the “Russian question.”21 Nelson Lichtenstein argues more convincingly that the significance of the Soviet Union as a lodestar for American communists cannot be overemphasized. Lichtenstein notes that the sense that American CP was “part of a worldwide movement that took guidance from the successful revolutionaries (later antifascists) in Russia provided the emotive, cohesive glue which made the American Communists something other than another reform organization.” This connection to the Soviet Union and to an international

20

Irving Howe and Lewis Coser The American Communist Party: A Critical History (New York: Praeger, 1957), 390-91. 21 Rogin, 713.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein movement “gave even the most independent-operating Communists a collective élan shared by comrades both in nearby shops and old world cities”22 This insistence on the significance of the “Russian Question” is not meant to affirm the “gotcha” tendencies of post-Cold War historians of American communism. Rather, it stems from what would seem to be a clear obligation on the part of social historians to honor the experience of activists of the 1930s by recognizing the centrality of the Soviet experiment in their shared political imagination. It is impossible, for instance, to understand the stakes of the debates between Cannonites, Shachtmanites, and Communists without acknowledging that all parties were agonizing over the degree of allegiance they owed to the Soviet Union, and how “socialism in one country” ought to be characterized. This is something different than a social-democratic national left, as Denning wishes to convince us, or a civil rights movement, as Biondi would have us believe. Finally, the discussion of the fate of the “cultural front” in the decades after World War II is uncharacteristically pessimistic. Pegging his analysis to a reductionistic narrative of state repression and the “southernization” of American politics and culture, Denning fails to recognize important survivals of the Popular Front era in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.23 One major source of confusion is Denning’s splicing of Gramscian foundations and Frankfurt School conclusions. The great strength of Denning’s re-formulation of the history of the American left is its productive implementation of the framework pioneered by Antonio Gramsci, and refined in important ways by Birmingham Cultural Studies scholars such as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. Had Denning followed Raymond Williams in his consideration of the postwar left, rather
22

Nelson Lichtenstein. Review of Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions by Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin. New Politics, Winter 2004, 158.d 23 Denning, 35.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein than Walter Benjamin, he might have found greater continuity and a less monolithic conservative triumph. Williams, following Antonio Gramsci, argued that challenges to the culture of capitalism from the left should be seen within a historically contingent and continuously unfolding process of struggles for hegemony between residual, dominant, and emergent cultural forces.24 Benjamin, on the other hand, (and some of his American followers like Fredric Jameson), argued instead for a quasi-messianic reading of the history of the left through the lens of a “weak utopianism” of partially recuperated failures, in which defeat becomes a kind of success in the dialectical long run.25 Denning, following this latter tradition, concludes that the Popular Front was “defeated in the shakedown of 1947-48,” with the repression and expulsion of the Communists and fellow travelers, the descent underground of iconic figures like Paul Robeson, and the incorporation of the social-democratic intellectuals into the Cold War mainstream. A more accurate reading of the legacies of the Popular Front, following Williams, might look to the incorporation of residual elements of American folk culture and leftist hermeneutics into the postwar hegemonic mainstream, providing ballast for a wide variety of cultural initiatives, including Hollywood films, television, popular music, and works of history. In many ways, the postwar story is that of the triumph of the “cultural front,” not its defeat. While communists were treated to horrific repression in the age of McCarthy, the culture of the Popular Front enjoyed remarkable continuity. The legacy of the dissident, conflict-driven, and passionately anti-orthodox anti-Stalinist left, denigrated by most revisionist historians in ways both overt and subtle, became the main resource for Americans dissatisfied with consensus
24

Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” New Left Review, Vol. 82, December 1973, 3-16.
25

Denning, 464.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein culture in the 1950s and early 1960s. Despite the rightward turn of most of the anti-Stalinist leftist, they continued to speak to important frustrations felt by many postwar Americans, whether in the form of a critique of work unthinkable within the CP intellectual universe, engagement with artistic modernism and early postmodernism, or continued elaboration of historical materialism and dialogue with dissident forces within western Marxism. These strains would become vital to the hegemonic struggles by anti-capitalist and working-class activists of the 1960s and 1970s, arguably much more so than the thoroughly domesticated and gentrified tropes of the “cultural front.” Paying greater attention to them might help steer us away from unreflective nostalgia regarding the golden age of left-liberal consensus.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein

Works Cited Arnesen, Eric. “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. Biondi, Martha. To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City. Cambridge: Harvard, 2006. “Response to Eric Arnesen.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006. Cohen, Robert. When The Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement 1929-1941. New York: Oxford, 1993. Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 1997. Drucker, Peter. Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1994). Flacks, Richard. Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. New York: Columbia, 1988. Howe, Irving and Lewis Coser. The American Communist Party: A Critical History. New York: Praeger, 1957. Kelley, Robin D.G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor’s War At Home: The CIO in World War II. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003 (1982). Review of Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions by Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin. New Politics, Winter 2004. Rogin. Michael. Review of The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century by Michael Denning. Journal of American History, September 1997, Vol. 84, No. 2. Wald, Alan. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” New Left Review, Vol. 82, December 1973. 14

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