Partisan Review: A Commentary

I have been a London-based New Yorker for the last 25 years, where I was an academic within the University of London. I read and wrote about 18th century and Romantic Age literature. I have now turned my eye toward my native city and am starting a sustained reading of the entire run of PARTISAN REVIEW — a journal that was begun in the 1930s in New York City and that offered a radical and socialist anti-Stalinist version of modern thought and literature and theory and politics.

Though later many contributors to PR moved much further to the right and became not only anti-Stalinist but anti-left well, in the 1930s and during WWII, Partisan Review shaped a critique of politics, art, and literature and inspired a generation of young women and men to understand and engage in debates that remain important in our own cultural and political time. I will be reading and writing about each issue in chronological order

I welcome everyone who is interested in this material to join the discussion and offer comments and corrections as necessary.

Partisan Review is available to read on-line through the
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center
hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review

Annie J

Introduction:

In December, 1937 Partisan Review ceased to be the cultural and
political serial publication of the John Reed Club, an organisation
run by the Communist Party, USA. Under its new editors, it became an
edgy retort both to the Stalinism of the CPUSA and to forms of Liberalism associated with the Popular Front during the Depression. It allied itself, as a “Literary Monthly” with Modernism, and against the Socialist Realism and Prolitcult programme of the USSR. At the same time as they were critics of capitalism, some PR writers, such as
Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald, took aim at the rise of ‘middle brow’and ‘mass’cultural forms.

The first issue, Vol.4, No.1 1937 was edited by Philip Rahv, William
Philips, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald,George L.K. Morris, and
F.W. Dupee. Macdonald’s first wife, Nancy, was the business manager.

The Editorial Statement Begins:
“ANY magazine, we believe, that aspires to to a place in the vanguard of literature today, will be revolutionary in tendency; but we are also convinced that any such magazine will be unequivocally independent. PARTISAN REVIEW IS aware of its responsibility to the revolutionary movement in general, but we disdain obligation to any of its organized political expressions.”

Rahv and Philips were the chief editors, working not only on the day to day demands of creating a journal, but on the main themes of Partisan Review‘s political and literary positions.  Other names connected with the journal in its early years  have been burnished over the decades, including Mary McCarthy (novelist, political journalist, and ),  Dwight Macdonald (who left to start his own journal, Politics), and Delmore Schwartz (who has steadily become reified as the poet maudit of New York in the 20th century).

These clever, articulate, and intellectually aggressive thinkers were happy to
adjust the already familiar habits of revolutionary rhetoric to shape
their publication.  Fred DuPee had been a member of the CPUSA, but was drawn to the arguments and interests of his friends at PR.

 Rahv, McCarthy, and MacDonald were all happy to argue with wit, on high volume, and at times with
cruelty. What they were able to do together was put together a table of
contents for their first issue that included a stunning array of
brilliant thinkers, poets, and fiction writers. The ‘Editorial Statement’ endorsed Marxism without Stalinism:

“Marxism in culture, we think, is first of all an instrument of analysis and evaluation; and if, on the last instance, it prevails over other disciplines, it does so through the medium of democratic controversy. Such is the medium that Partisan Review will want to provide in its pages.”

The latest post is right below this information page.

Anatomy of the Popular Front. Sidney Hook. PR, vol. 6, no.3, Spring 1939. Part 3.

Part 3: The distinction between united and popular fronts specified.

Popular Fr.jpeg                                                 oyflat550x550,075,f.u6.jpg

In the next section of his essay, Hook looks at the critical differences between a “United Front” and a “Popular Front.”  He writes that there is a ‘basic theoretical confusion’ that goes along with discussions of the Popular Front.  This confusion,

Consists in an identification of two propositions: (1) The working class and its mass organisations must be the basis of the socialist movement; and (2) the working class and its mass organisations can by themselves win power and achieve socialism.The falsity of the second proposition is obvious, especially when it is doubtful that the working class constitutes a majority of the population. But the falsity of the second proposition does not imply the falsity of the first. The socialist movement must be based upon the working class, to mention only one of many reasons,  because in virtue of its situation in contemporary society there can be no solution of its problems. or even the plausible appearance of a solution, short of the abolition of the profit system. …The program of socialism can no more be taken away from the workers than capitalism can be taken away from the capitalists.

Despite this,  it remains true that without allies from the farmers and the lower middle classes the workers can never enjoy socialism in our time,… To state it positively, the problem is to make their potential allies see that that the  socialist solution proposed by the working class parties is ultimately the only solution possible for all producers and consumers.

Hook looks to the techniques of  persuasion, organisation, and militant struggle for continuous improvements in living conditions.

It is simply not the case, as Max Lerner imagines, that it is impossible for a program which expresses the immediate interests of a class to receive the support of the majority of the population.  It is precisely for this reason, i.e.,because it does want to win over sympathisers from all other classes, that the working class should not join the Popular Front of political parties representing different classes, not to speak of a National Front of all parties. For if it does, it thereby accepts and publicises a program of stabilising capitalism which, on its own economic theory, is doomed to fail, leaving its credulous followers easy picking for Fascism.. 

A United Front is an agreement between different political organisations with different political programs for joint action of a specific issue for a limited period of time. It is NOT an agreement of a common political program.

The moral of the whole discussion may now be drawn. A Socialist who calls for the formation of a Popular Front cannot do so without surrendering his socialism — no matter what he says in his heart. 

You may have, as readers, become a bit weary of Hook’s argument. However, even now when we look at the history of the revolutionary movements of the first decades of the 20th century, it is easy to get mixed up about what the Popular Front strategy meant as a structure.  But the precision of Hook’s discussion should, I think, make the liabilities of a Popular Front much easier to understand.

Unknown-9

Next Week: W.H. Auden on W.B. Yeats

 

Anatomy of the Popular Front. Sidney Hook. PR, vol. 6, no.3, Spring 1939. Part 2

Since it is Hook’s aim to show both that Lerner is both rational and also mistaken, the next part of his ‘anatomy’ is to follow in that rationality, until it is proven to be..irrational…..wrong.

“It is admitted on this position that the decline of capitalism cannot be checked by political measures of any kind. It is also admitted that in any Popular Front government it is the policy of the most conservative wing, which is pledged to support capitalism, that must prevail. Without capitalist parties there is no Popular Front. With them the workingclass parties become hostages of fear, timidity, and class interest of their allies.”    

Basically, Hook points out here that all the concessions that might be won from a Popular Front government could be won by working-class mobilisation of labor. SO there is no real need to support a Popular Front. Hook also agrees with Lerner that on this position, “that the first real step towards socialism will probably bring what Marx described as a pro-slavery rebellion to save capitalism.  Could such a movement be effectively met with a key party in the government which is itself intent upon saving capitalism?” Clearly: not.

So, Hook argues, Lerner’s own analysis “leads to an invitation to disaster.”:

“Either he must withdraw his critique of capitalist economy admitting that it can be stabilised both nationally and internationally in an era of decline, or he must acknowledge that the Popular Front is a dangerous illusion which, precisely because it cannot undertake any fundamental change in the economic order, makes it easier for the Fascists to develop a mass base.” 

Now, Hook turns to history to explore some related issues: first of all, readers should acknowledge that the Social Revolutionary period, under Kerensky, was from its start until just before the October Revolution a Popular Front government, which is why it failed “in every crucial test.”

“The menace of German militarism and the restoration of Czarism was as great a threat then as the menace of Fascism now. It had become a gigantic mass party of  heterogeneous social composition, with factions ranging from the extreme right to let, which prevented it from carrying out its own principles. 

The member of the Kerensky government most close to him was Chernov, who dithered about which sections of the mass party would be given the first concessions in a revolutionary situation. Chernov got caught on the question of giving land to the peasants. Chernov was not convinced, so began to abstain on votes…: ” SO strange and unwonted was Chernov’s silence that it enabled Trotsky to get off one of his brilliant quips: ‘Abstaining from the vote became for [Chernov] a form of political life.”  The lesson Hook draws from this is: The program of the group farthest to the right prevails and must prevail for this is the purchase price of its alliance: Everything else is rhetoric.

Hook’s second example is from Germany. “During most of the life of the Weimar Republic Germany was ruled by an informal coalition of Social Democracy, the Catholic Centre and some of the smaller parties on the the right and the left. But it did not and could not  take measures to transform Germany into a socialist economy. When an Arbitration Board decided an important dispute in favour of the Ruhr workers, the Ruhr industrialists refused to honour it. And the Social Democrats capitulated. And that gave the Fascists a new run at recruiting the unemployed and poorly paid.”

For his third example of the disaster of Popular Frontism,  Hook turns to France, where the “Popular Front was able to win some reforms because the conservatives feared the mood of the masses. ..The rise in the cost of living soon nullified the gains made earlier..and the Popular Front sought ‘to restore confidence in capitalism’. Hook notes that the strikes kindled by these economic problems led to accusations that the strikers were described as ‘agent-provocateurs’ by the working class parties supporting the Government, particularly the Communists.”

But more important is his argument that the international politics of French imperialism was a big factor in the problems of the Popular Front:

Most fateful of all, the Radical Socialists refused to permit the Popular Front government, organised to defeat Fascism, to send aid and supplies which the Spanish Popular Front needed to defeat Franco. France and Russia joined the Non-Intervention (!) Committee. 

The defeat of France’s General Strike, and with it the ‘back’ of the Popular Front: “At the present writing the French workers are in retreat, weaker than they have ever been. The menace of Fascism which was to be laid by the Popular Front looms larger than before.”

“WHAT WAS THE ALTERNATIVE? Had the working class parties made a United Front; had they stayed out of the Government and permitted the Conservative Parties, including the Radical Socialists, to take full responsibility for the failure to help the Spanish in their fight against international Fascism, if and when it triumps, will be able to attack France in the rear; had they permitted the Conservative Parties to take the complete onus for undermining the conditions of the life of the masses; had they laid the Munich Pact and everything that led up to it and followed it, at the door of the classes whose interests were not there betrayed — had they done all this, it is altogether likely that France would now have had a Socialist government supported by a majority of the people.”

nextweek: Hook on Spain, and Hook’s explanation of the ‘theoretical confusions’ that attend discussions of  Popular Frontism.t

 

 

Anatomy of the Popular Front. Sidney Hook. PR, vol. 6, no.3, Spring 1939.

Part I: Sidney Hook sets the Stage.

Sidney Hook, known to my generation as a Marxist who became a Cold Warrior, has, over the years, become something of a sadder and truer icon: not as a Stalinist, but as an intellectual whose clarity of argument and presentation in his early writings gave way to apologetics for Capitalism, in battle against Communism, and led him to denounce the New Left of 1968. You can look back to my post of 27 May, 2017 about “Sidney Hook’s uses of Logical Positivism,” to find a more benignant understanding of Hook, and an example of the silliness of Reed College students in the 1970s (the example being me), if you want a different entry into his work.

In fact, Hook was a serious philosopher who was a student of Dewey’s Pragmatism, with an early commitment to socialism and soviet communism, and it was only with the rise of Stalinism and the Communist party’s advocacy of Popular Front politics in the war against Fascism and Nazism that he felt that the revolutionary thrust of the United Front had been de-fanged by the ideology of the Popular Front, with its authorising of stable Capitalism as the  defence against the Fascists.

Before looking more closely at Hook’s arguments about the Popular Front, it is worth noting that he was dogged by criticism throughout his distinguished career at NYU

In the 1960’s,  Hook was criticized by the New Left for his positions on the Vietnam War, racial quotas and academic freedom.

He maintained during the American war effort in Indochina that, while a withdrawal of American forces was desirable, it should come only in conjuction with a similar action by the North Vietnamese.

Professor Hook criticized quotas in university admissions designed to redress racial imbalances, calling them perversions of the concept of equality of opportunity. And, while he debated publicly with Bertrand Russell, Hook criticized American universities for refusing to allow Russell to teach in this country because of his political views.

In this blog, we have had lots of articles about the Popular Front, and the damage it caused for any revolutionary position in WWII.  But it is interesting to hear Hook’s analysis of it from the position of a wavering fellow-traveler, and in response to a widely read book by Max Lerner, Its Later Than You Think,  which Hook describes as “one of the few earnest attempts to make sense of a policy which almost the entire Left is following despite the tragic results of such policies wherever they have been tried.  For this reason, if for no other, the book deserves the attention of every student of the American political scene.”

itslaterthanyouthinkMax Lerner Max Lerner

Hook points out that many intellectuals on the Left have already praised the Lerner book, particularly those who support the Roosevelt Administration: “The upshot of the book is an argument to show why anyone who accepts socialism should support an American Popular Front.”

Hook is clear that there is a crisis of political revaluation going on, but rather than being about the reformulation of ideas, it has instead been in “the form of strategical maneuvers, new combinations, with an eye to the day to day situation, not to a long term perspective.”  And so there has been a splitting and quarrelling and the proliferation of small groups, all on the outs with each other: who are they?: “The Social Democrats, Communists, Laborites,  Farmer-Laborites, some Socialists, the liberals and progressives of indeterminate hue who sleep in a different political bed every Election Day. All, practically but the Bolshevist-Leninists, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since 1917, and who in their simplistic thinking, imagine the only alternative to the murderous despotism of Stalin, is the ‘enlightened’ minority one-party dictatorship of Lenin, out of which Stalin grew…” Hook was supportive of the Trotskyists, and he worked for his mentor, Dewey’s tribunal to exonerate Trotsky.  SO he has a kind of floating critique, not entirely from a party position , but from his philosophical training which often makes one liable to maverick peculiarity (think, for example, of Christopher Hitchens’s random political positions after he moved from the UK to Vanity Fair, etc.).

Hook takes Lerner’s arguments seriously, in particular Lerner’s position  that Liberalism now [that is the late 1930s] has to incorporate the influences and pressures of ‘democratic collectivism,’ if it aims to further its own values and ideals. Yet, Lerner sees that the consequences of its internal movement leads to the perils of capitalism: “economic crises, fascism, and war.”  Hook says that Lerner understands that “the Left, Right, and Centre’ are cursed either by sectarianism or opportunism”.  And therefore, “The only alternative that remains is a Popular Front opposed to reaction for the defence of whatever democracy now exists.” What Lerner is going for is a Labor Party to be formed, outside the Popular Front.

Next Week:   Part II:  Lerner anticipates his critics, and Hook replies

 

 

“We Rented to the Lenins,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring 1939

Krupskaja_1890  Krupskya

 

“We Rented to the Lenins,” is a sort of ‘human interest’ anecdote by a Swiss cobbler and his wife who rented space in their house in Zurich to Lenin and his wife, Krupskya,  in 1917.  As the editors note, this unusual piece for PR contains ‘naive and shrewd comments’ about the Lenins’ domestic life in exile.  It also gives us a portrait of Lenin’s wife, Krupskya, who was his colleague, carer, and a serious writer-revolutionary herself.

IMG_0340

IMG_0343

IMG_0346

For those of you who are reading on a Saturday morning, here is something that also sheds some light on Krupskya, written after her death by Leon Trotsky:

Leon Trotsky

Krupskaya’s Death

(March 1939)

Written: 4 March 1939.
Source: New International [New York], Vol. V No. 4, April 1939, p. 117.

“IN ADDITION TO being Lenin’s wife which – by the way, was not accidental – Krupskaya was an outstanding personality in her devotion to the cause, her energy and her purity of character. She was unquestionably a woman of intelligence. It is not astonishing, however, that while remaining side by side with Lenin, her political thinking did not receive an independent development. On far too many occasions, she had had the opportunity to convince herself of his correctness, and she became accustomed to trust her great companion and leader. After Lenin’s death Krupskaya’s life took an extremely tragic turn. It was as if she were paying for the happiness that had fallen to her lot.

Lenin’s illness and death – and this again was not accidental – coincided with the breaking point of the revolution, and the beginning of Thermidor. Krupskaya became confused. Her revolutionary instinct came into conflict with her spirit of discipline. She made an attempt to oppose the Stalinist clique, and in 1926 found herself for a brief interval in the ranks of the Opposition. Frightened by the prospect of split, she broke away. Having lost confidence in herself, she completely lost her bearings, and the ruling clique did everything in their power to break her morally. On the surface she was treated with respect, or rather with semi-honors. But with the apparatus itself she was systematically discredited, blackened and subjected to indignities, while in the ranks of the YCL the most absurd and gross scandal was being spread about her.

Stalin always lived in fear of a protest on her part. She knew far too much. She knew the history of the party. She knew the place that Stalin occupied in this history. All of the latter day historiography which assigned to Stalin a place alongside of Lenin could not but appear revolting and insulting to her. Stalin feared Krupskaya just as he feared Gorky. Krupskaya was surrounded by an iron ring of the GPU Her old friends disappeared one by one; those who delayed in dying were murdered either openly or secretly. Every step she took was supervised. Her articles appeared in the press only after interminable, insufferable and degrading negotiations between the censors and the author. She was forced to adopt emendations in her text, either to exalt Stalin or to rehabilitate the GPU. It is obvious that a whole number of vilest insertions of this type was made against Krupskaya’s will, and even without her knowledge. What recourse was there for the unfortunate crushed woman? Completely isolated, a heavy stone weighing upon her heart, uncertain what to do, in the toils of sickness, she dragged on her burdensome existence.

To all appearances, Stalin has lost the inclination to stage sensational trials which have already succeeded in exposing him before the whole world as the dirtiest, the most criminal and most repulsive figure in history. Nevertheless, it is by no means excluded that some sort of new trial will be staged, wherein new defendants will relate how Kremlin physicians under the leadership of Yagoda and Beria took measures to expedite Krupskaya’s demise.

But with or without the aid of physicians, the regime that Stalin had created for her undoubtedly cut short her life.

Nothing can be further from our mind than to blame Nadezhda Konstantinovna for not having been resolute enough to break openly with the bureaucracy. Political minds, far more independent than hers, vacillated, tried to play hide and seek with history – and perished. Krupskaya was to the highest degree endowed with a feeling of responsibility. Personally she was courageous enough. What she lacked was mental courage. With profound sorrow we bid farewell to the loyal companion of Lenin, to an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history.”

March 4, 1939
L.T.

Next Week:”The Anatomy of the Popular Front,” by Sidney Hook

 

 

 

 

“Life on a Battleship,” Wallace Stevens

The second poem of Stevens in the Spring, 1939 issue of Partisan Review, “Life on a Battleship,” was one of the few that he left out of his Collected Poems of 1954, as he had left it out of Parts of a World, the volume he next published in 1942.   There have been  recent attempts to admire it, or at least, to prove Stevens’s engagement the topics of politics and art, politics and literature, Stalinism and Trotskyism that the Partisan Review had been addressing from 1937 through WWII.  Since the 1960s there has been even more urgent and complex arguments to grant to lyric poets the credentials of political activism and political understanding. You won’t have missed it, I am certain.  And its just as true that poets aiming to address political topics have flourished over the last 70 years, keeping up with the human and natural crises that require elegiac as well as sharp-edged lyricism.

Wallace Stevens met and admired Philip Rahv and the two poems in the Spring 1939 issue of PR,  must be counted among those of a lyric poet who aims at contemporaneity.  But where “I knew a Woman who had more Babies than That,” makes a ironises and makes “wild” as Harold Bloom said of the poem, the political external world, “Life on the Battleship” begins in the now but abstracts from it not ideas of reality but of a false comedy of the arrogant captain.

Here it is: see what you think of it. Let me know.

LIFE ON A BATTLESHIP

I. The rape of the bourgeoisie accomplished, the men
Returned on board the “Masculine”. That night,
The captain said,
“The war between classes is
A preliminary, provincial phase,
Of the war between individuals. In time,
When earth has become a paradise, it will be
A paradise full of assassins. Suppose I seize
The ship, make it my own and, bit by bit,
Seize yards and docks, machinery and men,
As others have, and then, unlike the others,
Instead of building ships, in numbers, build
A single ship, a cloud on the sea, the largest
Possible machine, a divinity of steel,
Of which I am captain. Given what I intend,
The ship would become the centre of the world.
My cabin as the centre of the ship and I
As the centre of the cabin, the centre of
The divinity, the divinity’s mind, the mind
Of the world would have only to ring and ft!
It would be done. If, only to please myself,
I said that men should wear stone masks and, to make
The word respected, fired ten thousand guns
In mid-Atlantic, bellowing, to command,
It would be done. And once the thing was done,
Once the assassins wore stone masks and did
As I wished, once they fell backward when my breath
Blew against them or bowed from the hips, when I turned
My head, the sorrow of the world, except
As man is natural, would be at an end.”

II. So posed, the captain crafted rules of the world,
Regulae mundi, as apprentice of
Descartes:
First. The grand simplifications reduce
Themselves to one.
Of this the captain said,
“It is a lesser law than the one itself,
Unless it is the one itself, or unless
‘the Masculine’, much magnified, that cloud
On the sea, is both law and evidence in one,
As the final simplification is meant to be.
It is clear that it is not a moral law.
It appears to be what there is of life compressed
Into its own illustration, a divinity
Like any other, rex by right of the crown,
The jewels in his beard, the mystic wand,
And imperator because of death to oppose
The illustrious arms, the symbolic horns, the red
For battle, the purple for victory: But if
It is the absolute why must it be
This immemorial grandiose, why not
A cockle-shell, a trivial emblem great
With its final force, a thing invincible
In more than phrase? There’s the true masculine,
The spirit’s ring and seal, the naked heart.
It was a rabbi’s question. Let the rabbis reply.
It implies a flaw in the battleship, a defeat
As of a make-believe.

III. Second. The part
Is the equal of the whole.
The captain said,
“The ephebi say that there is only the whole,
The race, the nation, the state. But society
Is a phase. We approach a society
Without a society, the politicians
Gone, as in Calypso’s isle or in Citare,
Where I or one or the part is the equal of
The whole. The sound of a dozen orchestras
May rush to extinguish the theme, the basses thump
And the fiddles smack, the horns yahoo, the flutes
Strike fire, but the part is the equal of the whole,
Unless society is a mystical mass.
This is a thing to twang a philosopher’s sleep,
A vacuum for the dozen orchestras
To fill, the grindstone of antiquest time,
Breakfast in Paris, music and madness and mud,
The perspective squirming as it tries to take
A shape, the vista twisted and burning, a thing
Kicked through the roof, caressed by the river-side.
On “the Masculine” one asserts and fires the guns.
But one lives to think of this growing, the pushing life,
The vine, at the roots, this vine of Key West, splurging,
Covered one morning with blue, one morning with white,
Coming from the East, forcing itself to the West,
The jungle of tropical part and tropical whole.”

IV

The first and second rules are reconciled                                                                                                  In a Third: The Whole cannot exist without/The parts(part IV continues on this photo)

IMG_0309

Next Week: “We Rented to the Lenins”

Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.3

Our next stop in the Winter, 1939 issue of PR is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” one of two that make up the set of Stevens’s contribution to this issue.   It is mid-summer here in London, 35 degrees, and its too hot to do much in the way of research or anything else, and the pavements are burning, but its a perfect day to think about thirst, water and the sea…and about Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, and W.B. Yeats, and the poetic consideration of Nature’s barriers.

I
An acrobat on the border of the sea
Observed the waves, the rising and the swell
And the first line spreading up the beach; again,
The rising and the swell, the preparation
And the first line foaming over the sand; again,
The rising and the swell, the first line’s glitter,
Like a dancer’s skirt, flung round and settling down.
This was repeated day by day. The waves
Were mechanical, muscular. They never changed,
They never stopped, a repetition repeated
Continually—There is a woman has had
More babies than that. The merely revolving wheel
Returns and returns, along the dry, salt shore.
There is a mother whose children need more than that.
She is not the mother of landscapes but of those
That question the repetition on the shore,
Listening to the whole sea for a sound
Of more or less, ascetically sated
By amical tones.
The acrobat observed
The universal machine. There he perceived
The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.

Many of you will hear in the first verse paragraph of what Harold Bloom calls Stevens’s  “wild poem”  murmurings of what had become “The Idea of Order at Key West” in his 1936 volume, Ideas of Order. That force of the ocean’s tides is a machine not an organic form, or rather, it has an organic infrastructure of a machinic repetitive activity.  It might also make you think of William Carlos Williams’s repeated cry against Nature in Paterson IV, “Thalassa, Thalassa, the Sea is not our home.” Both Stevens and Williams are in struggle against the claims of Nature’s authority and  instead seek the articulations of speech. For Williams, invention wins:  making rather than growing, on and off rather than more or less, these days, digital rather than analogue.  This argument between the natural organic and the humanly made poetic belongs to William Blake’s tradition as well.  “Where Man is Not, Nature is Barren.”

So we begin this poem with its evocation of the romantic waters, ‘the rising and the swell’ of the waves, at first evoking its beauty and in the pun of ‘the first line’ of both the border etched by the retreating water, and the first line of poetic invention, but soon separating out into an antinomy between flow and articulation.  ‘The woman who has had more babies than that,’ repeats the machinic and regular movements of the water, and which is grating and wearing away the fullness of the oceanic roar in itself.

But she becomes humanised, a mother,  not blind, not machinic,  who knows that her ‘children need more than that’. She protects those who question the repetition on the shore. Like the poet-acrobat, she  listens ‘to the whole sea for a sound’; and the poet-acrobat perceives/The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.’

You may have read, studied, memorised ‘The Idea of Order at Key West,’ and if you read it again now you can hear the movement, the motive to utterance of that more polished poem being formed in this one published in 1939.

II
Berceuse, transatlantic. The children are men, old men,
Who, when they think and speak of the central man,
Of the humming of the central man, the whole sound
Of the sea, the central humming of the sea,
Are old men breathed on by a maternal voice,
Children and old men and philosophers,
Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears.
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds
And of sounds so far forgotten, like her voice,
That they return unrecognized.
The old men, the philosophers, are haunted by that
Maternal voice, the explanation at night.
They are more than parts of the universal machine.
Their need in solitude: that is the need,
The desire, for the fiery lullaby.

Now, to the sound of the ‘Transatlantic lullaby (Berceuse)’ Stevens walks on the land, among the ‘central men,’  Emerson’s ‘man of good will and speech and morality, who performs the work of authorising the human as an articulating transformation of natural repetitions in their barrenness into aesthetic form.  And, here, the question which Stevens answers, has been written earlier, by  Yeats, in his 1933, “Among School Children”.

“What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?”

Yeats’s youthful mothers are first in the grip of the pains and tidal movements of birth, but Stevens brings the old men, ‘breathed on by a maternal voice, Children and old men and philosophers,/ Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears,’ to the continuity and transformation of the maternal sound into its voice, ‘The self
Detects the sound of a voice that doubles its own,
In the images of desire, the forms that speak,
The ideas that come to it with a sense of speech’.

And the old men speak with the voice the ideas that come to them.

III
If her head
Stood on a plain of marble, high and cold;
If her eyes were chinks in which the sparrows built;
If she was deaf with falling grass in her ears—
But there is more than a marble, massive head.
They find her in the crackling summer night,
In the Duft of town, beside a window, beside
A lamp, in a day of the week, the time before spring,
A manner of walking, yellow fruit, a house,
A street. She has a supernatural head.
On her lips familiar words become the words
Of an elevation, and elixir of the whole.

We can see here how Stevens attributes the power of speech to the nurturing mother, but reserves its transformative ‘thesis’ for the articulations of the Emersonian “Central Man,” and there are some who have complained about that… , but for today, a hot sunny one, in which I am wearing my complacencies in the boudoir, I say,  ‘That was in another era, and besides, the poet’s dead.’

Next Week:  Wallace Stevens, ‘Life on a Battleship’

 

 

 

 

This Quarter, Dwight Macdonald…end

images-7 Macdonald turns now to the failure of the New Deal to solve the problems of American Capitalism – unemployment, not enough social welfare, etc.—resulting in Roosevelt’s Administration turning to the European conflict:

“It is true, says the President with his famous smile, ten million of you are unemployed and we have had to cut relief payments, but just think what social progress we’ll make once we have rid ourselves of those monsters in black or brown shirts three thousand miles across the Atlantic!”

“Whatever side wins will impose it’s Versailles on the loser, and the Third World War will begin to grow before the ink is dry on the treaty. Imperialist aims are still of major importance but modern warfare must also be regarded as the chief instrument whereby the obsolete bourgeoisie maintain their death-grip on the social order.”

“ ‘The real error of nearly all studies of war,’ writes Simone Weill in a remarkable article published in International Review last year, ‘ an error into which all socialists have fallen, has been to consider war as an episode in foreign politics, when it is really an act of interior politics, and the most atrocious act of all.’ Her development of this idea seems to me to open novel perspectives on the war question. ‘Marx has shown forcefully’, she writes, ‘that the modern method of production consists essentially of the subordination of the workers to the instruments of labor, which are disposed of by those who do not work. He has shown competition, knowing no other weapon than the exploitation of the workers, is transformed into a struggle of each employer against his own workmen and, in the last analysis, of the entire class of employers against their employees’.”

“‘In the same way, war in our days is distinguished by the subordination of the combatants to the instruments of combat, and the armaments, the true heroes of modern warfare, as well as the men dedicated to their service, are directed by those who do not fight. And since this directing influence has no other way of fighting the enemy than by sending their own soldiers, under compulsion, to their death—the war of one state against another state resolves itself into a war of the state and the military apparatus against its own army.’

‘War, in the last analysis, appears as a struggle led by all the state apparatuses and their general staffs, against all men old enough and able to bear arms.’”

SImone Weil

At the end of Macdonald’s presentation of Weill’s Marxist analysis of  how wars  serve the ‘interior state,’ he turns back to the issue of why contemporary  intellectuals have backed away from Marxism:  “Why should a Marxist analysis [like Weill’s] be so alien to the way of thinking of our intellectuals?”

“Their moral indignation is turned against a scapegoat fascism across the ocean, to defeat which they are making common cause with the class and the economic system which in this country right under their very noses is preparing the next world slaughter. The explanation is to be found in the peculiar relationship of the intelligentsia to the class struggle. They conceive of their own thinking as being disinterested, free from class loyalties, taking as its referent ‘society in general.’ In a sense this is true. They have not the direct economic interest in one side or the other of class war which the proletariat and the big bourgeoisie have. But in a deeper sense they deceive themselves.  Like the petty bourgeoisie which produces most of them, the intellectuals shift back and forth between the two polar antagonists, attaching themselves to which ever at the moment seems to be the stronger. But since the bourgeoisie is usually very much in the ascendant, the intellectuals generally think in its terms. So today, they follow along after the bourgeoisie towards war.”

Macdonald’s pessimistic warning to the intellectuals concludes his essay: “The American intellectuals are off again on another moral spree. They will come to their senses in the cold grey dawn of a war-torn world, and they will experience again what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1916:

“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands, not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics, but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilence devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”

 

Next Week: Wallace Stevens, “The Woman who had more babies than that”

 

“This Quarter,” cont’d. Dwight Macdonald

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Frankline Delano Roosevelt
    Part II: Words, Words, Words. 

After Macdonald discusses more fully the  steps leading to entry of America into the Europe of WWI, including  the floating of “vast loans in the country, for the Allies, and that our industrial boom was based on the huge Allied purchases of goods and munitions,”  he returns to the present approach of another war in 1939:

“Today, as in 1917, the intellectuals have one set of war aims, and the Administration they support, another. The intellectuals would rescue Western Civilisation from Fascism and restore it to the ways of progress and democracy.  Their government however as a serious capitalist enterprise, of necessity takes a less romantic view of the affair. Its aims are the destruction of a threatening competitor in world markets and the defence of a status quo, both international and domestic, which is greatly to the advantage of the ruling bourgeoisie. The intellectuals in a word, want to crush fascism, the State Department thinks rather of Germany.

“The intellectuals are very articulate about their war aims, which are idealistic and inspiring. When the State Department, for that very reason, publicly echoes these aims,  the intellectuals conclude that they are leading the world  towards the light… For if the intellectuals provide their government with fine sentiments, the process also works the other way around. One might think that a group whose chief occupation is writing would offer resistance to the wiles of language.  It has not been so. As the savage hopefully calls the dreaded volcano, ‘the blessed source of all good things,’ so the intellectual bathes in the power of the verbal formulae to sweeten the ghastliest realities. … Now once more, we have in the White House a statesman who knows well how to use the rhetoric of heart-warming abstractions and moral earnestness which attracts the intellectuals. The President speaks their language.

The great objection to the program of the intellectuals is not so much that it will get us into a war — the bourgeoise will decide that question for themselves… but that it is diverting us from the main task: to work with the masses for socialism; which alone can save our civilization.  And so in all the current discussions nothing is ever said about the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, and its product, war. Social  revolution is no longer thought about. The Lady has Vanished. 

“It is hard to realise how our thinking has changed. How distant they seem, those early  years of the depression, when the bourgeoisie was demoralised and discredited, when the Soviet Union and socialism were in the forefront of every intellectual’s consciousness? There has been a change in the weather. The success of fascist foreign policy, the unsuspected depths of decay and corruption in the Soviet Union, the failure of the New Deal’s reformist program and its replacement with business ‘appeasement’ and armaments, and above all, the right-wing reaction that is still gaining ground throughout the nation — all this has struck dismay into the hearts of the intellectuals. In the hot blast of such world events, the tender shoots of socialism have withered. As those who suffer some great psychic shock sometimes develop amnesia, so the intellectuals, retreating to the solid base of bourgeois democracy, have forgotten the very idea of socialism.

Macdonald’s essay now asks what would the defense of the Soviet Union mean in the event of this  new World War?

“As a means of lining up the left intelligentsia, the Communist Party has manipulated the left with its usual skill. But are we to defend the present regime in the Soviet Union? Or the October Revolution, to the extent that it is still symbolised by the Soviet Union? It seems to me that the corrupt dictatorship that has arisen under Stalin is proof the correctness of Lenin and Trotsky that the holy spread of the October Revolution to more advanced countries could preserve its gains inside Russia….The problem of social revolution is an international one.

‘The major force that is pulling the intellectuals into the orbit of war, however, is not their sympathy for the Soviet Union, but their fear and hatred of fascism. For the next war, as for the last, Lenin’s: the only possible slogan for all who pretend to be o the side of the masses: “Turn the imperialist war into civil war!”  This war is a purely defensive action.  Far from being a crusade for a new world order, the coming war is at best an effort to turn the clock back and restore that fine old world order which the last war was fought to abolish.

Next Week: Final part of Dwight Macdonald’s discussion of the approach to a new war.

 

 

 

“This Quarter,” Dwight Macdonald on the past and current political situations: Partisan Review, Vol. 4, No.3, Spring, 1939

The third issue of Partisan Review for 1939 opens with Dwight Macdonald’s editorial survey of the role of intellectuals at the start of America’s entry into World War I, in 1917 and the current positions of the intellectual community on the  brink of World War II, in  the spring and summer of 1939. Its a depressing read, the mistakes of 1917 are being repeated in 1939, and the values of intellectual life, except for a very few circles of writers and political activists, have been shredded and compromised.

1: War and the Intellectuals: ACT TWO

Macdonald begins by recalling an article written by Randolph Bourne in 1917, a year before his death, and at the time of the Russian Revolution. Bourne, along with Waldo Frank, and James Opphenheim, founded an important American literary journal called The Seven Arts, which, under Opphenheim’s editorial lead, took an anti-war position to American entry into WW I. Waldo Frank was a political activist and though he had supported the Communist Party in its early days, broke with it in 1937 when he met with Leon Trotsky, who was at that time living in exile in Mexico.Bourne Randolph Bourne

Portrait_of_Waldo_Frank Waldo Frank.

Unknown-8

Macdonald begins by showing how Bourne castigates American intellectuals for their support for, and pride over the US’s entry into WWI: “Twenty-two years ago, 1917, The Seven Arts printed Randolph Bourne’s article, “The War and the Intellectuals.” Bourne wrote: “A war made deliberately by intellectuals!… A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalise the world!… Whence is our miraculous intuition of our moral spotlessness? …Whence our confidence that history will not unravel huge economic and imperialist forces upon which our rationalisations float like bubbles? …Numbers of intelligent people who have never been stirred by the horrors of capitalistic peace at home were shaken out of their slumbers by the horrors of the war in Belgium… Never having felt responsibility for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they had a large fund of idle emotional capital to invest in the oppressed nationalities and ravaged villages of Europe.”

Macdonald uses the Bourne quotation to match the present moment: “If ‘Belgium’ be changed to ‘Czechoslovakia’, these sentences apply as closely to American intellectuals in the spring of 1939 as they ever did in the spring of 1917.”   The American intellectuals are supporting the New Deal, the Communist Party (and its Popular Front organisations) offer space for ‘leftish’ intellectuals to promote a war.

“And Van Wyck Brooks [also an editor of The Seven Arts] proposes in a letter to Time that our reply to Hitler’s book burnings should be a series of public bonfires of things Made In Germany.”

2.The Road to Hell:

Macdonald returns to the present:

“Let us grant the good intentions of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the laws of motion of monopoly capitalism work themselves out, with brutal disregard for intentions, much the same under a Roosevelt as under a Coolidge. How can an Administration act in important matters contrary to those class interests of the dominant bourgeoisie  which have shaped the American state, the American law and constitution?  Their enormous mass throws its inertia against following new paths, impelling the republic along the historical path destined for it. The good intentions of Roosevelt simply make him the more dangerous, since he is the unwitting prisoner, along with his intellectual following, of capitalist necessity.,

“The contradiction between the concept of a war for democracy and what is actually taking place under that slogan has already begun to appear. The closer the second great crusade for democracy draws near,  the feebler grows the forces of democracy inside the country; the more battleships, the lower the relief standards; the bolder the President’s utterances against Hitler, the more conciliatory his attitude towards our own business rulers. The intellectuals will open their eyes some day, but not until it is too late. ….  The liberal weeklies, which once devoted their main energies to exposing and protesting social injustice at home have become more interested in demonstrating how much inferior fascist capitalism is to democratic capitalism. Left intellectuals are rallying to the defense of the British Empire, on the grounds that India is better off under British than it would be under German rule. But why shouldn’t the Indians rule India? The intellectuals take such positions, it is true, with all sorts of mental reservations. Once the fascist menace is destroyed, then they will take up the old fight again.  In politics, however, the mask holds the face. You become what you do and say; you don’t become what your reservations are.

Next week: More of  Macdonald’s “This Quarter”