Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Alan Wald, The New York Intellectuals, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1987, pp 440, £12.95
We present two reviews of this book. Sam Levy investigates the political issues, and Sheila Lahr looks at the literary aspects.
The New York Intellectuals deals with a unique phenomenon, the emergence and development of an anti-Stalinist, mainly Trotskyist-influenced, left amongst the intellectuals. Fellow travelling as a major phenomenon arose as a consequence of the major slump of 1929 and the emergence of Fascism in all its brutal reality. Though fellow travelling existed before this period, it is after this time that it really flourished. David Caute’s The Fellow Travellers deals with the main beneficiary – Stalinism. Wald’s book, however, deals with that group of intellectuals who broke from Stalinism and went beyond it.
I have personal memories of this period, when, as a youngster, I first became involved in active politics and became a Trotskyist. The Moscow Trials and the Spanish Civil War acted as both a detonator and educator of my political development. I remember from 1937 going weekly to the Independent Labour Party bookshop at 35 St Bride Street, because only there could one get material that wasn’t Stalinist or Stalinist approved. Whilst one could buy cheap books and pamphlets in the Stalinist bookshops, particularly the Marxian classics, anything else was verboten. It was at 35 St Bride Street that one could buy material beyond the Stalinist hack work.
The most important material I acquired was Trotskyist, mainly from the USA. It was there that I first learnt about some of the many intellectuals dealt with by Wald, particularly those linked with the Socialist Workers Party, such as Max Shachtman, Felix Morrow, Albert Goldman and George Novack. They had a strong influence on me.
This book, however, goes beyond my recollections or even knowledge, as to the important roles played by the intellectuals. It gives an historical picture as well as biographical sketches of the leftward moving, though in many cases still young and unknown, intellectuals, whose geographical area was New York, the main centre of American intellectual life. Here was the start of a relatively large-scale movement of intellectuals to the left of Stalinism, whereas elsewhere those moving towards Trotskyism were few and far between, unstable and of often short-lived allegiance.
The rise of the US anti-Stalinist left was linked to the general rise of the left, the growth of industrial unionism and the rise of the CIO. Unlike in western Europe, the Stalinists could not dominate this rise. They grew, but segments of the struggles were not under their control, such as the Minneapolis Teamsters and the auto workers in Flint.
Whereas in Europe, where the class struggles were dominated by the Stalinists, the Trotskyists being marginalised, in the USA a different pattern emerged. Due to historic and certain economic factors, Stalinism was not all-powerful, and the Trotskyists had a small but creditable organisation with some working class base, which was involved in some of the biggest struggles of the time. They could therefore be a pole of attraction to the politicised intellectuals. The rô1e of Stalinism in Germany, the Moscow Trials, the Popular Front and the Spanish Civil War had left their mark on the young intellectuals who were coming out of the colleges after the Great Depression, and they passed by Stalinism to the left beyond it.
The book reveals the active and dynamic role played by these intellectuals in the advance of the left, particularly Trotskyists. Two examples convey the picture. Sidney Hook played a major rôle in the creation of the Muste group, in its fusion with the Trotskyists, and in pushing James Burnham along the same road. The intellectuals also took a key part in the fight against the Moscow Trials. Whilst the Stalinists’ cover-up was powerful, it was not as strong as in Europe. Likewise, the Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky was strong enough in the USA to have some influence: sufficient to convince John Dewey to play an active investigatory part on it, whereas Bertrand Russell, with his personal and philosophical affinity with Dewey, was almost silent on this issue.
However, with war clouds growing and the slowing down of working class struggle, the first cracks started to appear. There’s always a ’reason’ for political moves. If it’s a serious move away from Marxism, it starts with philosophy, the two front runners being dialectics and the labour theory of value. It’s amazing that whenever one looks at those who start with ’marginal’ revisions, they tend to move to the far right of the political spectrum. Burnham admitted as much in his resignation letter to the Workers Party. Though not all travel that far, the trend is there.
Trotsky knew the signs from years of experience. After all, a major feature of European revisionism at the beginning of the century was preferring Kant to Marx, the categorical imperative to the class struggle. The trend was so powerful so early that an article by Burnham and Shachtman, Intellectuals in Retreat (New International, January 1939), was vindicated by its authors travelling that very road – first Burnham, then Shachtman.
That is why Trotsky realised, particularly after Dewey’s response to his Their Morals and Ours, that this movement away from Marxism was not just the idiosyncracies of Max Eastman, but a trend of a stratum of intellectuals. The raising by Trotsky in the faction fight in the SWP in 1939-40 of the question of dialectics was to attack the central core of this movement. He tried to educate his comrades, not in abstractions as is so often presented, but as a method of reasoning and as a method of application to the problems of society. He tried to counter the move away from Marxism, both personally (it seems that he was writing a major article on dialectical materialism when he was struck down), as well as delegating Novack and Jean van Heijenoort, whom he hoped would carry on the struggle against the revisionists. Both proved totally incapable. Van Heijenoort ended up rejecting the working class on the grounds that it was incapable of carrying out its historic tasks. Novack turned out an intelligent hack and nothing else; today’s SWP proves this, a politically bankrupt bunch chasing after the golden mirages of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Daniel Ortega.
For the anti-Stalinist intellectuals it was downhill all the way in the post-war period, although their individual progressions went at an uneven rate and in an uneven pattern. Their strengths became their weaknesses. Their ability to go beyond Stalinism and expose its rottenness itself became the instrument for them to move towards the most reactionary elements of capitalism. Unable to understand the relationship between Stalinism and the working class, and with their lack of confidence in the working class, they had only one direction in which to go – towards supporting US capitalism.
As these intellectuals moved further to the right, they had to jump a series of hurdles, their attitude to which gave a stamp both to their character and how far they were moving. First was the McCarthy era. They came out very badly, the overwhelming majority endorsing elements of McCarthyism or keeping quiet. The Stalinists have used this as an indictment of Trotskyism. Wald points out that McCarthyism penetrated all left wing and fellow travelling movements. Wald also points out that, ironically, McCarthyism rescued the Stalinists’ reputations:
Robeson was one of the most vociferous denunciators of Trotskyism, supporting the imprisonment during the Second World War of the Trotskyists under the Smith Act. Only when he was himself being done under it did he fight against it. Hellman’s anti-Fascist credentials were glorified in the supposedly autobiographical film Julia, which was exposed by Mary McCarthy as a tissue of lies. The McCarthy period was not only a false indictment of Trotsky – through the rôle of the New York intellectuals – but it also permitted the glorification of some of the nastiest Stalinist hacks.
The next major hurdle they faced was the Vietnam War. Many more fell. This war was unique in American history, not in its objectives, but in its result. The heavy casualties and powerful opposition at home altered the outlook of large sections of American society. This war was a further marker in the rightward evolution of the old anti-Stalinist intellectuals. Some held back. Others, like Shachtman, whilst slow off the mark, rapidly overtook them, and went beyond them, defending the reactionary actions of an imperialist government.
This is dealt with by Wald, particularly the differences that emerged amongst the intellectuals, but one feels he does not deal adequately with it in the fundamental sense. The New Left was a major new force arising amongst the younger intellectuals, and whilst on the whole they were as confused a bunch as one could expect to see, they nevertheless correctly saw America’s rôle in that war. Wald, naturally, only touches slightly on them. They aren’t the main topic of his book, nevertheless the inter-relation between them and the older generation is missing. For my part, these New Leftists were the bastard children of the New York Intellectuals, whose disowning of their parentage is linked with the Vietnam war.
The main criticism I have of this book is that it does not give an adequate picture of the material and other conditions, such as the economy, the consciousness of the working class, the struggle of social systems, etc, from which flowed the ideological drift of the anti-Stalinist intellectuals, and the central ideological justification for the movement. Wald deals extensively with the intellectuals’ philosophical polemics, ending with what I feel is a correct observation:
This gives an historical slant to the debate, not arguing how it affects present-day thinking in both the USA and Europe. I think a part of this is due to the lack of intertwining the two aspects.
Each period has a basic material and ideological foundation which consciously or unconsciously intertwine. No dominant ideas or philosophy arise out of a vacuum. The ideological movement from Marxism, in the first instance away from Marxist philosophy, reflected the period precisely in the new guru, not Kant (old hat), but pragmatism, and John Dewey in particular. The liberalism of exposition and outlook hid the deeper basic concept from which the philosophy flowed. Being developed in a period of developing US capitalism, with the concept of wide open spaces, intelligent activism became the core, drawing ideas from that core, using developing US capitalism and wide open spaces as the scale, all things became possible – many roads lead to socialism. The difference in this sense between Kant and Dewey is but a reflection of the different material roots.
The essence of Dewey’s thoughts is shown in his short but concrete reply to Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours in the New International (August 1938) He concludes:
If that is the core of his criticism of Marxism extant, the real flavour of it is this:
What is posed here is an abstract argument, a universalist argument independent of reality, though liberal in form. This is counterposed to the narrow, therefore ‘religious’ concept of the class struggle. Whereas Trotsky tried to put a period scale on historical development in Their Morals and Ours, from capitalism to a new economic and social structure in which man would truly be free – Socialism – Dewey, on the contrary, tried to establish an absolute principle applicable to all periods under all conditions. He downgrades the class struggle in comparison to his many roads, under the banner of scientific thought and liberal content.
The accusation that the class struggle being the only means has been reached deductively, without scientific basis, is totally wrong. Most scientific discovery is based on deduction flowing from known facts. Again, the argument that class struggle as the only road is reached without critical examination, says more for the lack of knowledge of Marxism on the part of Dewey. Marx and Engels spent their lifetime analysing the economic and social structure of capitalism, from which arise the class struggle, examining the historical, social and economic developments. They made errors, but the structure on which they based their conclusions has stood the test of time.
The dominant characteristics of man are determined by the way he lives, his environment, and the social relations which arise from that. It is precisely the development of the various modes of production – economic and social relationships – that is the dominant (but not the only) characteristic of human development, and which determines the major relationships of classes, sub-classes and even groups. The emergence of capitalism – economically unconsciously and politically semi-consciously – reflected the various struggles of the lower classes – capitalists and workers, serfs and peasants – against the dominant class, which established both the political and the economic foundations of capitalism. The emergence of capitalism established the dominance of a new mode of production – production for the market.
This mode of production rests on certain fundamentals – the relationships to the production and distribution of commodities of those owning the capital, and those without capital but who produce the goods. It is a conflict of interests, based not on what Marx, the industrial proletariat, etc, wants or not, but on a permanent division at the point of production, independent of human consciousness. The class struggle exists, regardless of whether the workers are storming the barricades or believing that they have a common interest with their employers. Marxism arises in the consciousness, not in the class struggle itself.
Because modern human existence rest on the capitalist mode of production, other factors and relationships follow The class struggle becomes the key anc dominant force in social change. Fundamental social change means the destruction of capitalism by the elimination of the capitalists’ rôle in production transferring capitalist property to common ownership. Only the working class has a relationship with capital that enable this to be done. No other class can carry out this radical and necessary transformation.
To argue that the class struggle is central to modern society, does not, however, mean that there are not other forms of conflict, many predating capitalism, such as over the rô1e of women, and racial and religious prejudices, etc, or that many will not be a source of conflict, albeit declining, after the establishment of Socialism.
Dewey, on the contrary, blames the messenger, not the message. Dialectics does not create the class struggle, it is the method of showing and explaining the process. The scientific nature of the explanation is that, on the basis of the examination of capitalism, it cuts across the illusory desires of utopian Socialism. Its strength lies in showing – not postulating – that there is only one road to Socialism. It is Dewey who desires many roads and therefore becomes involved in abstract philosophical arguments independent of reality.
The post-war decline in working class consciousness, and the growing illusions in capitalism on the part of some workers, have been the material foundation of the adoption of a Deweyist outlook by some intellectuals and working class activists. That it first took shape amongst the anti-Stalinist left was no accident. They were brighter and more politically conscious. Nevertheless, today it permeates through the movement, from Euro-stalinists to trade union bureaucrats. The New Left, the bastard children of the New York intellectuals, revolted against their rightward-moving parents as a consequence of the Vietnam War, but took on as their basic creed that there are other means for radical social change, and thus downgraded the working class. With the student, black and women’s movements, struggles were diverted down blind alleys. And whilst many leading lights of the New Left of the 1960s have joined their elders in enjoying the fruits of capitalism, the philosophical basis remains. Many of the latest generation operate along the same lines, just adding new issues with corresponding movements, such as gays and the environment.
I think that Wald has illusions in the movement in Europe. The reality, however, is that Europeans merely imitate what’s happening in the USA, or develop similar themes. The flourishing of new movements at the expense of working class collective activity has become an impediment to developing conscious working class policies and struggle. The tendency to imitate the USA is ironic when one considers political developments there, with the fragmentation of the movement into small groups, some of which have so lost their basic class outlook that they support a black populist of the Democratic Party.
The growth of US capitalism has been a major factor in this development, but for Marxists these are factors to be fought. Whether they like it or not on the New Left, US capitalism is in decline, and to pick on aspects of the social problems in the USA instead of opposing US capitalism as a whole is a blind alley. The need for a total struggle, and in this perspective the re-emergence of the working class and its parties, is not only logical, but necessary.
To criticise the student, black or women’s movements, etc., is not to condemn the justifiable reaction of the disadvantaged, but to criticise their sectionalised outlook, as blacks, as women, independently of the class structure. One should fight for equal rights for women, blacks and gays, and take up ecological issues, but all this should be part of the central class struggle, under the working class and its parties.
I do not think that this has little to do with the New York intellectuals. It is the result of an historical development, of a process that started before the Second World War, the end result of the movement away from Marxism.
After about 55 years, the generation of New York intellectuals has nearly run its course. Such a book is necessary for a knowledge of the past, the rôle the intellectuals played, the weaknesses inherent in their situation, ideology, etc. As an historical documentation of the development of the New York intellectuals, the book is impressive. The hard work gone into it is clear for everyone to see. In that rôle it fulfills a first class function. It is in drawing the strands together and giving it a clear direction where the weaknesses arise, because it fails to draw the full implications of the effects of Deweyism on the working class, through its influence on the intellectuals. Nevertheless, I recommend without doubt this book to anyone who can afford it, because it advocates the need:
And that is a job worth doing.
To the general reader who regards books as providing entertainment or information, the arguments between the various literary schools of the early and mid twentieth century may hold no interest. However, it should be remembered that Trotsky regarded the question of such importance that in 1923 he published Literature and Revolution, in which his concern was with the development of literature following the Russian Revolution. To this end, he gave consideration to the possibility of the unfolding of a proletarian culture following the Revolution, coming to the conclusion that while every ruling class creates its own culture, it also takes several hundred years for this to flower. Therefore, as the dictatorship of the proletariat was expected to last a comparatively short time only before giving way to the abolition of classes and the establishment of socialism, no far-reaching proletarian culture would develop.
Certainly Trotsky did not consider that proletarian culture could flourish within capitalist society. However, from the beginning of the 1930s the Stalinists propounded against all other literary schools proletarian literature or, as it was also called, ‘realism’, and this was supported by clubs named after John Reed. One of the foremost proponents of proletarian literature in America was the Stalinist Mike Gold, who set forth a number of stipulations for its practice, among which he demanded that the world of work be described with technical precision; it must provide a useful social function; be presented in as few words as possible in a simple vocabulary; that action should be swift, and that there should be no melodrama. (M. Gold, A Literary Anthology [Ed. M. Folsom], International Publishers, 1972).
As may be understood, those literary intellectuals of the 1930s who were to become the anti-Stalinist left of Wald’s book found this formula over-prescriptive, which led to two of their number, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, both members of the Communist Party and the John Reed Clubs, to advocate that proletarian literature be leavened by ‘modernism’. At that time, the best known writers in the modernist style were Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Stein, and it was their style of writing which came under fire from the Stalinist proletarian literature school. To provide an example of the type of polemic between modernists and ‘realists’ I can do no better than quote Brecht, who wrote to Lukács in 1956 in defence of James Joyce. Brecht writes that an interior monologue of a woman lying in bed in Ulysses had been rejected by ‘Marxists’ as ‘formalistic’ (formalist – the reduction of writing to etymology and syntax: See Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution). But the criticism had been made in such terms, that it left the impression that the monologue would have been acceptable had it been set in a session with a psychoanalyst. (Aesthetics and Politics – Debates between Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno, Verso, 1980).
However, to return to Phillips and Rahv. With the support and assistance of established Communist cultural leaders, including Mike Gold, and financial support raised through a lecture by John Strachey, they launched the Partisan Review to concentrate primarily on cultural and literary questions, while leaving the New Masses to confine itself to the political and industrial. By 1937, when both Rahv and Phillips broke openly with the Stalinists, the Partisan Review had gathered around it most of the anti-Stalinist left and Trotskyists who are the subject of Wald’s book, and provided a central point of literary and cultural polemics.
However, Wald writes, although both Phillips and Rahv warned against the right wing dangers to writers “who seek to assimilate the Joyce-Eliot sensibility without a clear revolutionary purpose”, Rahv and Phillips held to elements of Elitism and a belief in High Culture. But they saw modernism as an avant-garde in literary protest against twentieth century commercialism. It is not pertinent that the modernist writers referred to above were not on the left in their politics, for their criticism of bourgeois culture in their works was seen as transcending their political views – an approach, Wald remarks, which recalls Marx and Engels’s treatment of Balzac and Lenin’s of Tolstoy. It must also be remembered that while Trotsky focused on the social aspects of literature in his criticism, he rigorously differentiated between his assessments of the political views of an author and his judgements of the artistic quality of the work.
Ironically, while these editors were gathering about them anti-Stalinist left intellectuals who accepted that “an error of leftism occurs from zeal to steep literature overnight in the programme of Communism, as this leads to sloganised and inorganic writing”, the Stalinists were abandoning their proletarian culture tactics in favour of the Popular Front and were closing down the John Reed Clubs!
Trotsky was now writing about the Moscow Trials, and, as he held a special appeal for radicalised literati which stemmed from his literary, historical and polemical achievements, left wing intellectuals increasingly became associated with the Partisan Review. As it happens, during the 1930s Trotsky had devoted extensive correspondence to the question of the significance of the American intellectuals for a small revolutionary workers’ party, for he saw the leftist intelligentsia, following the Russian revolution, as “binding its lot to the proletariat for the victorious revolution, but at the same time raising itself on the shoulders of the revolution”. He therefore urged that his followers exercise special precautionary measures when assimilating former Communist intellectuals who had gained an education in a Stalinist Party, and pressed that radical intellectuals and writers should strive for theoretical clarity. To what extent some, or all, of these left intellectuals sought the political clarity referred to by Trotsky at that time cannot be stated, but certainly a number of them had reservations with regard to Marxism and Leninism – Max Eastman, for instance, wanted to replace ‘mechanical Marxism’ with ‘social engineering’, and Sidney Hook with pragmatism. Perhaps one of the best known writers attracted to the group around the New Partisan Review was the novelist James T. Farrell (who was also a member of the Trotsky Defence Committee). Farrell’s novels presented Irish working class life in the first half of the twentieth century, and can be said to be written in the realist-naturalist school (examples of which are Zola and Dreiser) but Wald, possibly determined to find a modernist connection, states that he can be considered modernist because he allowed dreams and subconscious longings into his novels. He quotes as proof of this a vision seen by Studs Lonigan as he lies dying from the effects of bootleg liquor, to which he had turned to drown his frustrations and sorrows, instead of developing a class conscious response. As he lies on his sick-bed Studs dreams of a Communist led demonstration against unemployment in which are visible banners bearing slogans calling for revolutionary political action. Against Studs is posed Danny O’Neill “who breaks with the false consciousness perpetrated by (capitalist) society” to work his way through college. Not that this itself is a revolutionary act – in fact it can be quite the opposite!
However, by 1937 when a revamped Partisan Review was launched by Rahv and Phillips, the Moscow Trials, the Trotsky Defence Committee and the Dewey Commission had politicised a further group of young anti-Stalinist left-wing writers, and so Mary McCarthy who was a member of the Trotsky Defence Committee, and whose best known novel is probably The Group, and Dwight Macdonald, became members of the editorial board. Rahv and Phillips had remained intent upon the journal continuing its search for a Marxist aesthetic, and Phillips once again wrote that Trotsky was outstanding in that “he not only saw in literature a mirror of society, but was acutely conscious of those qualities which taken together make up the social vision of a work of art”. In fact, Wald writes that this revamped Partisan Review “was the most important cultural event following the Moscow Trials”.
Nevertheless, it did not last very long as a literary revolutionary catalyst, for within a few short years, as a response to the enthusiastic support of the Second World War by the Stalinists and the absence of a mass revolutionary movement, Rahv had come to the conclusion that the only way in which a writer could protest against the dominant values of ‘our time’ was by maintaining ‘intellectual integrity’. In this Rahv reflected the attitudes of an increasing number of anti-Stalinist left wing writers and intellectuals who had also become disappointed in, and disillusioned by, the failure of the working class to make a revolution. Of course, this process of disintegration was accelerated by Trotsky’s murder. Disillusionment with revolutionary politics brought forth a plethora of anti-socialist novels and stories from former left wing writers and Trotskyists who previously had included little of their revolutionary experience in their fiction. Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy and Joseph Howe all produced novels and stories, the purport of which was to illustrate the fallacy of attempting to change society by social theory and action. Wald writes that the fiction of the New York intellectuals in the 1940s must be read with a sense of irony, for the consistent theme of virtually every one of their important works published during and immediately after the Second World War proclaims the need for liberation from the ideologies of the radical movement. One might almost call this the school of anti-proletarian culture!
Insofar as ideology is concerned, Wald quotes the British Marxist Terry Eagleton, whose view of ideology is materialist as against that of the New York intellectuals’ philosophical pragmatism. Eagleton sees reality as “ideology’s homeland”. Therefore a work of art “has the potential of liberating us from ideological illusion. Inasmuch as a work of literature seizes upon, reshuffles and depicts experience it, too, resides in the realm of ideology”. (Criticism and Ideology, New Left Books, 1976)
As may well be understood, the opposition of many of these intellectuals to ‘radical ideology’ was to lead them during the ensuing years to support for American foreign policy, McCarthyism, Nixon and Reaganism.
With regard to ‘modernism’, it has become increasingly academic and the elite culture of an intellectual establishment “in which some of the New York intellectuals played a part”. Wald writes that the Marxist criticism of modernism of these intellectuals had never been more than a few penetrating insights “unlike the brilliant work of their European contemporaries such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukacs”. It should therefore come as no surprise that today students of Critical Theory largely study the essays written by these Europeans.
Perhaps in the West the political discussion has changed from a debate of literary schools to that of the effects of mass culture, or the ‘commercialisation of culture’ which Farrell perceived as “creating a struggle between the desire of the artist to present an authentic vision of the world and the desire of the film-makers and publishers to make art marketable, which they achieve by standardisation, repetition and by promoting established authors”. (J.T. Farrell, The Fate of Writing in America, quoted by Wald, p.223).
However, in the East, the debate with regard to ‘proletarian culture’ continues and, in fact, has become part of the fabric of daily life, as witness a recent Channel 4 programme on the dissident Czech writer Vaclav Havel, who has served several terms in prison and whose plays are banned because they satirise the bureaucracy, the plays being presented in a modernist style. In this programme a Stalinist Director of Arts stated that “art has the duty to serve the health of society”, which recalls one of the prescriptions set out by Mike Gold.
In conclusion, I would add that this is a book which poses many questions to all those interested in the connection between politics and the development of a Marxist aesthetic.
What I found especially interesting was the contemplation of why, in America during the 1930s, there was such an active anti-Stalinist and Trotskyist intellectual left, while in Britain our own radicalised intellectuals for the most part continued to support Stalinism or moved directly to the right.
The book itself is written clearly and comprehensively, and apart from detailing the debates and polemics involved, provides potted biographies of a star-studded cast.
Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003