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

Annie J


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.

Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter 1939– Our Quarter– 2.”Anti-Fascist Jitterbug” 3. “T.S.Eliot’s Last Words” 4. “Hello Reform” 5.”Dictatorship at Cooper Union”

Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 2. Winter, 1939

The Summer of regret, nostalgia, fear with and without objects, has turned into a Winter of confusion, anger, and debate. The issue is out in late November, 1938.

Partisan Review Editors in 1939: F.W. Dupee, Dwight Macdonald, George L.K.Morris, William Phillips, Philip Rahv.

back: Morris, Rahv, McDonald, sitting:  Dupee, Phillip

The second part of “Our Quarter” must be by Dwight Macdonald — just his kind of word,  Titled, “Anti-Fascist Jitterbug,” it trounces Lewis  Mumford’s ignorant version of a “man of good will.” It has got that acerbic wit that Macdonald was known for, and he makes a comic hash of Mumford’s irrational idea that there is something about the ‘German Mind’ that has produced fascism….

“Once an anti-fascist is far gone into jitterbuggery, he suffers a total loss of memory. But Mr. Mumford improves upon most of the jitterbugs by raising amnesia to the level of a principle. He is simply oblivious to the fact that besides poets and philosophers of imperialist conquest, German culture also nurtured the socialist humanism of Marx and Engels.”

“Mr. Mumford and his friends cannot assail fascism for what it is but must picture it as something vast and mysteriously irrational, or as the dreadful aberation  of a particular national mentality.  This has become all the more necessary now, as the New Deal government — of which the anti-fascist jitter-bugs are enthusiastic partisans — is scuttling its domestic program of mild social reforms and moving into the war zone”. 

You might want to look back at this blog for September 17, 2017, which is about Meyer Shapiro’s essay on Lewis Mumford.

3.The third contribution to “Our Quarter” is about T.S. Eliot, ‘T.S. Eliot’s Last Words.’ I like  this one in particular,  because it is so stuck in the problem of what do you do with Modernism’s bad attitude. The pith of the squib is that Eliot is a great writer; that Eliot tried to place London on the metropolitan cultural map alongside Berlin, Paris, Madrid; that it didn’t work:  Eliot’s journal, The Criterion, lost its drive as a social crisis emerged….the magazine became eclectic…and Eliot”became more and more  the grave apostle of detachment. In other countries the literary humanists have been forced into exile. [aj: think of  that discussion of Thomas Mann by William Troy and James Burnham earlier in 1938.] In England,if Eliot’s decision is a symptom, they are preparing to retire into voluntary seclusion.”  The problem of the reactionary stance of a significant strand of  modernism, with its conservatism, racism, anti-semitism, and among some, its fascism… is simply presented by the writer as quicksand into which Eliot and others are slipping.

4. “Hello Reform”, the fourth piece in “Our Quarter” is about John Chamberlain, a jobbing reviewer, and a man who began on the left and moved to the right, including but not limited to a strong individualism, along the lines of Ayn Rand, and other libertarian thinkers and writers. His first book,  “Farewell to Reform,” published in 1931, was an analysis of the failure of reformism to challenge fundamentals in American society. He attacked the ‘trust-busting’ of Teddy Roosevelt, the populism of William Jennings Bryan, and the ‘New Freedom’ of Woodrow Wilson;he became a supporter of FDR’s ‘New Deal’ later in the 1930s, and was one of those who organised the campaign to support Trotsky after the Moscow Trials, and contributed to the report written by John Dewey: Not Guilty: the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials (1938).  He wrote for William Buckley’s National Review later on.  Chamberlain’s impact hasn’t survived into the revivals of either liberalism or parties further to the left. So the energy with which the piece ends, doesn’t possess the driving polemical edge that both Rhav and Macdonald were able to provide when they were seriously provoked.

5.“Dictatorship at Cooper Union” is the last of the short editorial essays. It begins with the state of  this Arts and Sciences college, and its faculty.
“Cooper Union is familiar to most New Yorkers as an antiquated caravanserai on lower Fourth Avenue, huge, dingy, and hideous. Actually it is a large school of Art and Science, handsomely endowed by the Coopers and the Hewitts, which offers completely free tuition to hundreds of acceptable students.” But something wasn’t right with the school. Even though the students were eager to learn and they invited Gropius down from Harvard to lecture and Leger as well, and both men enjoyed teaching the Cooper Union students, the administration and directors of the school couldn’t see the importance of these creative ventures.

After winning a law case against the city of New York, which gave a large new tranch of money to the school, and unfolding a new plan of redecoration, the new Director, Burell, was not convinced of the need to bring the avant garde into the curriculum.

” It is disheartening to come upon the losing battle by the students for the preservation of these courses in modern and abstract painting”

And so, the piece concludes, “And thus ends the history of modern painting at Cooper Union,” another example of the crisis of Western Culture.

“This Quarter”, Vol.6, No.2.. 1. “Crisis in Paris.”

Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.2 Winter, 1939
edith piaf main-m
Edith Piaf, 1939

Paris in 1939


images      Unknown-2

Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 2. Winter, 1939

The Summer of regret, nostalgia, fear with and without objects, has turned into a Winter of confusion, anger, and debate. The issue came out in late November, 1938.

The Fall leads into the Winter issue of Partisan Review, and opens with the journal’s  “This Quarter” editorial, the second in a series of five. These editorials were excellent additions to a developing sense of  immediacy in Partisan Review in the Winter issue of Vol.6, No. 2.  Remember that this journal was in some ways quite parochial: written by people in a  defined coterie, at this point more pointedly Trotskyist than other anti- Stalinist publications in the USA, but now, and through 1939, above all, determined to keep a revolutionary internationalist perspective on Europe from the New York telescope.  By making each “This Quarter,” a collage of inter-related but distinct set of editorials, it was able to appeal to different constituencies at home as well.

HerschelHerschel Grynspan.

The first short article. “Crisis in Paris” was probably written close to the time when Herschel Grynspan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, assassinated a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, November 7th, 1938, at the German Embassy in Paris, protesting the expulsion of Jews from Germany. He was immediately arrested by the French Police. He was eventually sent back to Germany, where he was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he is thought to have died  by 1945. It was in retaliation for Grynspan’s act that Kristallnacht/  The Night of Broken Glass riots against Jews took place across Germany the 8 &9th of November, 1938.

Scenes from Kristallnacht — burning building, smashed interior of Berlin Synagogue

kristllnacht  Unknown-1

But the “Crisis in Paris” piece takes as its focus the international meaning of Paris as a symbol of and centre for political, intellectual and cultural life and how Nazism would destroy that image and that reality.

For a century  the history of France was the history of European politics: from the great revolution of 1789 to the 1848 ‘year of revolutions,’ the proto-fascist reaction of ‘Napoleon the Little,’and finally, the Paris Commune of 1871, which sketched out a whole new theory of revolution, to be realised in 1917.” oh dear……first time as tragedy, second time as farce, tenth time as Trump…

“SO, too, in arts and letters. The current of modern art, from Cezanne to Picasso, has been channelled deep in Paris. And it was to Paris, not to Berlin or London or Rome, that our own expatriates of the twenties went to write their novels and publish their independent ‘little’ magazines. In that benign and quickening air, the expression of the best integrated culture of modern times — the avant-garde —   the very term is French — in art and literature has found it least impossible to survive.”

“Now all this is threatened, the eye of Western culture is dimming. For months now, the newspaper correspondents have been filling in, bit by bit, the now sadly familiar image of a nation that is preparing to take leave of democratic government. We know well by now what happens to intellectual life under a totalitarian regime. If France goes fascist, we shall be saying goodbye to Western culture in all seriousness and for a long time to come.

SO, the first part of the piece is a view of what has been, and what may be to come, suffused with both nostalgia and fear, retrospect and the prospect of the death of democracy. But Partisan Review returns to its contemporary world, the politics of Stalinism, and the ‘disastrous’ ‘People’s Front,’ policy which led to the Munich Pact (the agreement between Britain and Germany in 1938, under which Germany was allowed to extend its territory into parts of Czechoslovakia in which German-speaking peoples lived). and the openly reactionary Daladier government. Daladier was also in attendance at the Munich agreement, but fled to North Africa when Paris fell to Hitler in 1940.

“The French masses still have a respite left them — several months, a year, even two, perhaps — in which to set in motion the only kind of anti-fascist struggle that can succeed: a revolutionary struggle against the whole capitalist order. The nucleus of such a movement already exists, in such militant left-wing organisations as the Lutte de Classe, a semi-syndicalist trade union, the Pivert group, which split off last summer from the Socialist Party of France, and the International Workers.[affiliated with the Fourth International.]”  The piece ends by asking readers in the USA to send donations to these parties.





Mary McCarthy, “The People’s Choice.”

Mary McCarthy Mary McCarthy


Mary McCarthy’s rapid fire, “The People’s Choice” is a review of the book scene in late 1938, and she chooses, as her targets, publishers, best-sellers, and the publicity machine during this time of uncertainty.

Taking the Herald-Tribune’s book review of October 23, the week she writes this essay, she lists the top best-sellers:  Marjorie Rawlings, The Yearling; Howard Spring, My Son, My Son; Laura Krey, And Tell of Time.  “Almost all summer and well into the Fall, this fiction triumvirate has been reigning unchallenged as the People’s Choice. And the fact that two of these novels deal with the pre-bellum South, and one with pre-war England would seem offhand to confirm the opinion, held by many superior people who never buy best-sellers, that the America public is finding in its reading matter an escape from contemporary social dilemmas.” So she starts with a crack at the facile and often patronising argument that people read to escape, which is a shallow shadow of Marxist critique.

In its stead, she offers the argument that “In 1938, most ‘people’ taken as a whole are not reading fiction at all. And even that genteel America that feeds on fiction is reading the newspapers, the news magazines, and the non-fiction best-sellers as well…. The romantic novel is not so much an escape for the reader from contemporary realities, as it is an escape for the novelist from competition in realism with the journalist and the photographer.”

McCarthy turns to subject the whole business of publishing and its ‘trends’ to this blunt analysis — in an age before focus groups and Oprah’s global market Book Club: “A trend is more likely to originate in the mind of the publisher than in the heart of the public.”  “Always on the hunt for thought-saving devices,” she points out, a publisher who has had a ‘natural’ hit…” will cap  one 1936 Gone with the Wind with a hundred outsized romances of the Old South.” And the person who buys Laura Krey’s…And Tell of Time, also a novel of the South garners the investment, not only of the reader who reads it in the hope of enjoying as much as they had enjoyed Gone with the Wind. A bit of surplus glamour will already surround the later And tell of time, whose subject matter is life in Reconstruction Texas.  McCarthy ridicules Krey’s novel by showing how, on the one hand, it has dead characters, with deadening personalities, White Southerners. “The most stirring episodes are all concerned with the glorious battle to deprive the Negro of his legal rights, and the indomitable spirit of the Southern Gentlemen who drove the Yankee meddlers and Freedmen’s Bureaus out of the free, white state of Texas.”

‘The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, was another 1938 best-seller. When I was going into either 6th to 7th grade, we read it and loved it. I feel pretty sure that it was on the syllabus from 1939 till at least 1963…and may still be. I remember not liking it for the first pages but getting drawn in, and I mostly remember weeping in the chair in my bedroom when it drew to a close.  McCarthy is quite kind to The Yearling, considering it to be a ‘natural. ‘

“Its setting is Florida in the post-bellum period, but the tropical forest in which it is centered is not truly moored in time or geography; it is the Garden of Eden of a child’s imagination… The twelve-year old hero of the story, inhabits a universe of wonder, in which each fresh sensation is a discovery that must be weighed, examined, and laboriously charted. To her close observation , Miss Rawlings has added a good, simple plot involving a fearful bear who is to be hated and hunted down, and a delightful fawn who is to be loved and finally relinquished. She concludes by noting that in The Yearling, “Pain exists, but there is always an antidote, hardship exists but there is not a hint of misery and squalor.”

The final best-seller in McCarthy’s piece is Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son. She objects here, as she had about ….And tell of Time, that there isn’t enough sex in it to compel a reading. She says that this is not one of those “antimacassar” novels which specialise in opening the cedar chest of the past. It tells the story of two men who each have a son, and they raise the boys in ways that the fathers believe will compensate for the families’ failings in each childhood and youth.

As a result, the son of a novelist who was denied love and affection as a child turns into a cheat and a cad, and finally is hanged for murder. The son of the other father, a man who lacked the courage to join the Irish Rebellion, raises his son to be an “Irish Rebel”, and ends by being shot in a barn during the Troubles by his childhood playmate, the novelist’s son, who, in his caddish way has joined the War in the Black and Tans.

“The moral of the story is that no man has two lives: if he tries to mould his sons career to compensate for his own frustrations, he will be punished for it.”

McCarthy goes on to give a psychological analysis of the reason for this novel’s success: “It is a success story which suddenly goes into reverse. Thus the reader is allowed to identify himself with the Man Who Gets Ahead, and also to revenge himself on that Man for being exceptional. As in the David-Absalom story from which the book gets its title, the hero is raised up to almost godlike heights, and then, as a punishment for his pride, quickly, brutally cast down to the level of common humanity. It is interesting that in both the popular Biblical story and in the popular modern novel the revenge is visited on the person of the son and only indirectly on the father. This is, I suppose, because the reader has so thoroughly identified with the father that the father must not be permitted personally to fail: only a certain part of him, a projection of the ‘bad’ side of him, his son, can be shamefully laid low.

McCarthy’s discussion shoots sparks of insight all over the issues of the time: the fear of war, the marxist analysis of literature, the problem of popular culture, which problem she shunts nicely over to the publishers’ heads and market goals, and the immediacy of newspapers and news magazines such as Time, Fortune, and Life, in showing us on a daily basis the starkest of American realities.    I do love her energy and her ability to think with both her Vassar head and her Partisan Review partisanship. And the piece leaves us in the old ‘animal soup of Time’:  the issues may simply be “that nobody takes fiction very seriously any more”.




Letter from Paris. “Sean Niall”– Sherry Mangan

  • Sherry Magnan   Volume VI, No.1 Fall, 1938 brings a “Letter from Paris,” by a “Young Irish Poet,” who was born in 1904 as Sherry Mangan, into an Irish-American family in Massachusetts, so he was 34 when he wrote his wonderfully full and amusing response to the situation in Paris during the late summer of 1938. He was a long-time Trotskyist activist in North and South America, closely tied to the Fourth International, as well as working for those sources of regular pay checks for men such as Dwight Macdonald and other PR writers — Time, Fortune, and Life magazines.


HIs letter begins with the Parc Monceau, which had originally been built in the 1780s as a series of garden arrangements, which displayed small versions of follies and amusements and which drew those ‘fairy duchesses’,  who have been called home to the US to try and earn their own pay through the WPA —  Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal form of state employment during the Depression–  and which gave jobs to over 8 million people between 1935 and 1943. This is a period of the American- Parisian romance with its Duchesses, now ‘tearfully ruined,’ along with those ‘sensitive well-dressed young men, their unfinished novels still unfinished, [who] have sailed home to America to help in Dad’s business.’ 

But it is the remainers (ah… most of us still are now in London in 2018) and the Bohemians and the artists who still maintain that special sense of Paris that even now clings to the edges of metropolitan America — and Nina Hamnet, the girl from Wales who came to be known as the “Queen of Bohemia,”

Robert McAlmon   440px-Roger_Fry_Nina_Hamnett

standing up to Robert McAlmon  in a late night Paris argument, by finding him “too intellectual.” They were both part of the 1920s Paris scene.

Of four practising poets taken at random, one binds books, one proofreads, one lectures, one draws cartoons – and everybody writes articles…the bogus Bohemia based on monthly allowances, duly wept, sung, and only half regretted, has in its turn passed into history, its place taken by a sterner quotidian reality productive in French artists of a remarkably intense, if not always soundly Marxian, pre-occupation with economics and politics.” And he surprises us, not entirely, “Paris is the pleasanter for it.”

Having created the scene — Mangan turns to the current political situation in Paris. The atmosphere is tense and the world of Stalinist trials and executions is taking place right in front of him. Rudolf Klement, who was on the Secretariat of the Fourth Interational has been kidnapped in the centre of Paris by the G.P.U. of the Soviet Union — its State Political Directorate — — Klement has been decapitated and thrown into the Seine.

You might remember that in the first post about Partisan Review Vol.VI, No1,  we looked at the announcement of the founding of IFIRA –The International Federation of Independent  Revolutionary Artists — by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera with some support from Leon Trotsky.  And now, from France, Mangan says that the increasing betrayal of Communist principles by Stalin has resulted in a significant number of French artists joining the anti-Stalinist artists’ federation.

From here he goes on to look at the fortunes of various ex-Communists in Paris. Gide, you may recall from an earlier post {December 25, 2016:“But we shall not turn our face from you, O glorious and grieving Russia”} broke with Communism in 1936. Romain Rolland, after the Czech crisis of 1938 throws off his Communist sympathies in  a sensational defection from the ranks of the Third International’s literary fellow-travellers, for years its most respectable and revered apologist in international cultural circles.” He broke with the  war-policy of “collective security.” That is, Stalin wanted an international alliance of the Soviet Union with Great Britain and France, which led many to leave the CP, as this approach set aside revolutionary principles.   Mangan writes that given the extent of Rolland’s “moral influence, it is to be supposed that his example will be followed by many French artists.”

Mangan points out, though, that some artists think that Gide was just looking for a way of burnishing his revolutionary credentials by  abandoning the Communists. He offers a poem by Benjamin Peret.

IMG_0134Monsieur Comrade Gide
sings between his arse and his elbow the “Young Garde” song of the Paris youth
tells himself its time to drape his belly with the red flag
He loves me, He loves me not
“Not at all”  reply the balls of the choirboy,
like a tomato blown in the breeze
Monsieur Comrade Gide made a red fucking flag
No arse would want a red flag hiding  a cross
and as French as no  janitor’s dog
licking its balls  to the sound of  the Marseillaise
who shits out Monsieur Comrade Gide
Yes, Monsieur Comrade Gide
You shall feel the hammer and the sickle
the sickle in your belly and
the hammer in your gob.


Mangan concedes… “This is perhaps a little hard on Gide.”  He goes on to skewer the Surrealists, “The  Surrealist pomp funebres have been issuing regularly from the editorial mortuaries and wending their way to the surrealist cemetery where practically every major literary talent in France has been buried”.  But, he goes on, “just when everybody had given up  expecting ever to see the end of Surrealism, internal explosions permit one to observe with relief the first cracks of breakup appear in its structure.”

There are other witty put-downs, and from his position as a bona fide Fourth Internationalist, Mangan demonstrates his political acuity, his literary taste, and his broader sense of humour.  Go read it for yourself.  Can’t imagine a better “Letter from Paris” to read in this terrible Winter of 1938-1939, when a good dose of anarchic wit is just the thing before the anticipated troubles of the coming war. It is in Vol VI. No.1, Fall, 1938  Sean Niall. Letter from Paris. “Sean Niall”– Sherry Mangan

Next Week, and on time, Mary McCarthy again!

Many thanks to Edwin Collard, for cruxes uncruxed.


William Troy, “A Further Note on Myth”

UnknownThe debate about Thomas Mann’s novels and his place as liberal or socialist still occupied members of the Partisan Review coterie, and in this follow-up essay by William Troy, also in Vol.6,No 1, he returns to his original topic of Mann & Myth {see this blog,October 14, 2017, & November 4, 2017, for related discussions}. You can cut and paste the link below into your browser to read the entire essay.

In this argument about myth, however, he redirects his analysis, looks at the functions and alterations of myth within literature, and by the end of the piece, derives lessons for the contemporary world from within what will seem to be an abstract language.  I find it to be a great improvement on his original discussion of Mann as mythmaker because it clarifies ‘myth’ as a imaginative structure that is, first, not available to what his generation thought of as the scientificity and hence objectivity of Marxism. And he is also able to see what the dreadful possibilities of myth can be in the age of Fascism.

James Burnham’s criticism of Troy’s earlier essay on Mann took as its object Troy’s disparagement of science: “Chucked overboard is all centuries-assembled baggage of laboratory and telescope, of carefully elaborated and ever-revised hypotheses, of plans rationally analysed and predictions precisely made and verified, of theories called ever to account, publicly before the eyes of all who wish to see, by the marshalled evidence. From this Troy beckons us once more to  re-baptizing it as Myth — the dark religion of the blood.”

Troy’s response is to open the ‘scientific’  Marxist method to its own process: “The procedure of the scientific analysis of literature is as follows: the isolation of one or another aspect of the object, the reference of this aspect to an already completed scientific or quasi-scientific structure of logic (philosophical, psychological, or political), and the evaluation of the whole in terms of the latter. The apparent  effort is to replace the original concrete aesthetic structure by an altogether abstract structure of thought.   But, as a matter of fact, the aesthetic  structure has not been affected at all. It retains its original imponderable structure”. The idea that literature can be understood scientifically presupposes, as Burnham does, that “what we call works of literature are material objects produced by the conscious will of man” (Burnham). But, asks Troy, ” Is literature an object like a sewing machine, and of what is it the product? But what that means is that a literary work can be known, just like a piece of paper. 

What Troy offers in place of science is myth, because the production of imaginative literature requires a different mode of cognition: mythic. That is, he writes, myth is found in all the literatures of the world; myth is a method and a body of ordered experience. And, perhaps most importantly, myth is the foundational structure of imaginative literature over time. And through the movement of time, myths are changed and reinterpreted to offer new meanings and are altered from new sources.

Now the reason that some people respond even to the sound of the word myth with horror and trepidation is that they confuse the notion of myth as the particular equilibriums of the past with the notion of myth as a process. They fail to recognise that  for society, as for the individual, the materials of experience undergo an unbroken process of modification and change. If an individual does not achieve a fresh reordering of these materials, as Freud has explained, he will relapse into a former state of equilibrium, which is indistinguishable from the state of death.” 

“In brief, it must be understood that while every myth corresponds only to a temporary resolution of a conflict, the conflict itself itself is ever alive, ever becoming involved in new terms of experience, and ever seeking a resolution. In every epoch there are the old myths of the past, haunting the present like a fixation of childhood, and the new myths struggling to be born. And it is a mistake not to be able to tell them apart”.

SO Troy not only rescues an analytically persuasive argument for the importance of myth as a literary form, but also weaves into it a warning and a perspective on the fascist myths and their danger as well as their advance into a ‘state of death,’  I think this piece as an addendum to the earlier piece by Troy on Mann and Myth makes a good case for why understanding the structure of myth in literature can indeed be a crucial tool in making sense of one’s own time’s myths– the dead and the living.


D.S. Savage’s “Little Anthology of British Poets,”

Dear Readers:  The next piece in Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.1 is an Anthology of Poems assembled by D.S.Savage.  Having neglected to heed the advice of reason, and hence not getting a flu jab, I am now unable to do much better than wheeze and  cough.  SO I have decided to re-post this week some paragraphs from my earlier post about D.S. Savage, who was such an interesting and somewhat eccentric poet, and which will serve as the preface to the ‘Little Anthology’ in Partisan Review:  I hope this will give you some interesting reading. The poems are by important poets: David Gascoyne, the Surrealist Poet, Dylan Thomas, George Barker, and a few others, and they were all inflected by the malaise and fear of late 1938.

So who was D.S. Savage?   Well, he too was a revolutionary defeatist in the sense that he was a pacifist, and today we might think of him as  a member of the ‘simple living’ movement of late capitalism.  He grew up in Hertfordshire  and he said that he became a pacifist at 13 years old, when he saw wounded and mutilated soldiers of WWI in the hospital where Savage was being treated for leg injuries from playing football.  I imagine that the editors at Partisan Review  were interested in a poet-pacifist, since Trotsky had written and spoken about the relationship between pacifism and revolutionary  defeatism.

‘Only very slight injury can be done to the machinery of war of the ruling class by pacifism. This is best proved by the courageous but rather futile efforts of Russell himself during the war. The whole affair ended in a few thousand young people being thrown into prison on account of their conscientious objections…. In the old Tsarist army the sectarians, and especially the Tolstoyans, were often exposed to persecution because of their passive resistance to militarism; it was not they, however, who solved the problem of the overthrow of Tsarism.’ (L.D. Trotsky, ‘On Pacifism and Revolution’, 1926, written in reply to a review by Bertrand Russell of Trotsky’s book Where Is Britain Going?)

By 1938, Trotsky had become more open to what pacifism might contribute to revolutionary defeatism.

‘Bourgeois pacifism and patriotism are shot through with deceit. In the pacifism and even the patriotism of the oppressed there are elements which reflect on the one hand a hatred of destructive war and on the other a clinging to what they believe to be their own good elements which we must know how to seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions. Using these considerations as its point of departure, the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand, if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie.’ (L.D. Trotsky, Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, 1938.)

Though he had left organised religion in his youth, he was reconfirmed at St. Paul’s and added a commitment to living sparely and simply to his pacifism. Savage’s first pamphlet of poetry, The Autumn World was published by Reginald Caton’s Fortune Press in 1939, after Caton’s press, under the watchful eye of the Law, stopped printing gay erotica and porn.  Caton turned to poetry, and  also  published early work by Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin, as well as Savage’s  The Autumn World.

He married in 1938, and when the poems were published, he and his wife  moved to a village near Cambridge, where, Alison Olson wrote in an  2007 obituary of Savage, the couple lived in a condemned cottage without water, light or sanitation in Dry Drayton, Cambridgeshire.

Savage  remained a pacifist, and in 1940 he taken to a tribunal on that account.  He was ridiculed as a coward, but he felt that war was a manner of ” legalised murder”. In 1944, he moved to Bromsash Hertforshire, where the family — they had six children — lived in a pacifist  market-gardening village. Savage was committed to simple living, Anglicanism,     and Pacifism.

In 1947, Savage discovered the pleasures of Cornwall and the literary-artistic community around St.Ives  The family moved to Mevagissey, and he became friends with the poet W.S. Graham, Nessie Dunsmuir, and also knew Roger Hilton.  The Savages  lived  in the  Heligan Woods, continuing his decision to live a life of poverty. They went without  running water, and had no oven. Savage took the family dinners to be cooked in the Village Oven, part of a long-time community ritual.  He did move from the Heligan Woods into the Village after two years and lived there until his death in 2007.

Savage is known to many as a  literary critic, who wrote The Withered Branch against the modernist novel in the 1950s. But in 1938, he was beginning a life of asceticism, piety, pacifism, and poetry.

“My central idea,” he wrote, “is the necessary unity of poetry, religion and politics in integrity. Politics needs to be ethically grounded and pacifism is the ethical ground of political action.”

As the day slips away now for this ailing blogger, I think I can understand why the urban and urbane, Jewish and non-Jewish, Trotskyists and non-Trotskyists in New York in 1938 might be pleased with this young poet: ascetic, simple in his habits,  clear in his commitments and with a wife and child living in a Hertfordshire Village, and so free of contradictions.  Savage as an adamant pacifist and a Christian and a socialist and a poet, was a comfort in a way, and his poems, not very loud, and not very brilliant, give the reader a chance to rest a moment before 1938 moves on to its bitter end.
Here are the poems…IMG_0489.
IMG_0491 2
IMG_0492 2

“The Devil-Theory”: A Reply to Edmund Wilson’s Critique of the ‘Dialectic’ — William Phillips, Vol.6, No.1

Photograph of Edmund Wilson [n.d.]
Edmund Wilson
“As against those who would mummify Marxism into a system of eternal truths, one can only welcome the irreverent and civilised approach of Edmund Wilson. . .. . Wilson, however is not concerned with bringing Marxism up to date; on the contrary he has set out to prove that Marxism is alien to modern thought and he all but urges that it de deported back to the nineteenth century.” Thus begins William Phillips’s response to Wilson’s piece.

Phillips charges that Wilson, by placing the dialectic at the centre of his argument, and deriving all parts of the theory from it without regard to the movement of history itself, turns living Marxism into a static polemic. So, while Phillips agrees with Wilson’s argument about the difficulties of thinking of Marxism as a modern science, he thinks that Wilson has chosen the wrong topic: he should be looking at its philosophy of history. Here, Marx indeed thought of the dialectic of history in relation to the stages of his model. And so the historical movement from Greek and Roman slaves systems through feudalism, capitalism, and then to Socialism. Importantly, it was not a natural dialectic at work here, but an historical one – developed through and in relation to actual human consciousness.

William PhillipsIgnoring this distinction as well as the empirical evidence which Marx cited to prove  his theory, Wilson simply attaches all the odium of the ‘natural dialectic’ to Marx’s laws of history. Yet the actual conclusions of Marx and Engels about the direction of history were not derived from the Dialectic, but were arrived at inductively through a study of political and economic facts. Surely, Mr. Wilson cannot hope to bury all this scientific in the grave of the dialectic..”

Phillips next defends the Marxist approach to ‘inevitability’ against what he takes to be Wilson’s idea that Marx was preaching patience and inevitability in a passive way. He says:
“All that can be said– and all that he did say was that the alternative to [socialism] is barbarism or chaos: nor has the evidence of history from the upheavals of 1848 to the October Revolution and the Spanish Civil War provided any refutation of Marx’s political theories.”
  Marx, that is, was a revolutionary activist.  Yes, admits Phillips, Marx may have spoken of the inevitability of socialism, but only if Marx’s model was right, that is.  And anyway, Phillips writes that Marx was an agitator, so give him a little rhetorical slack.

Next in his criticism of Wilson comes the issue of the ‘last instance’ a discussion that is certainly not settled in the late 1930s. You have only to consider Louis Althusser’s insistence on the importance of the ‘last instance’ – which in the 1970s and early 1980s was often seen as the Euro-Communist answer to the brutality of the ‘Tankies’ and their supporters in the  theory-wars —  What Wilson writes is, indeed, vague about the problems of the superstructure, problems which many over the last 50 years have tried to solve or at least model in more productive ways than simply the ‘superstructure ‘reflects’ or more analytically, is produced by the ‘base.’

But what is most galling to Phillips is that Wilson metaphorises Marxism as a ‘myth, ’ which is a serious blow to the status of the model itself.  But this, is a way is part of the problem of the last instance itself. Wilson has just been finishing his history, To the Finland Station, a strong narrative of the philosophical pre-history of the October Revolution, and he is aiming, I would say, to draw in readers who need to know more of what happens in lived experience to ideas and concepts. That he draws on the category of myth for discussing what he sees as a pathway that some accept as the core of Marxist thinking – the Dialectic – and in doing so clarifies that this pathway leads back into Idealism, is an important caveat to the reductionism that has plagued revolutionary Marxism, as we know.

Phillips next defends the Marxist approach to ‘inevitability’ against what he takes to be Wilson’s idea that Marx was preaching patience and inevitability in a passive way. He says:
“All that can be said– and all that he did say was that the alternative to [socialism] is barbarism or chaos: nor has the evidence of history from the upheavals of 1848 to the October Revolution and the Spanish Civil War provided any refutation of Marx’s political theories.”
  Marx, that is, was a revolutionary activist.  Yes, admits Phillips, Marx may have spoken of the inevitability of socialism, but only if Marx’s model — that of “social action” was right, that is.  And anyway, Phillips thinks of Marx was an agitator, so we should give Marx a little rhetorical slack.

But what is most galling to Phillips is that Wilson metaphorises Marxism as a ‘myth, ’ which is a serious blow to the status of the model itself.  But this, is a way is part of the problem of the last instance itself. Wilson has just been finishing his history, To the Finland Station, a strong narrative of the philosophical pre-history of the October Revolution, and he is aiming, I would say, to draw in readers who need to know more of what happens in lived experience to ideas and concepts. That he draws on the category of myth for discussing what he sees as a pathway that some accept as the core of Marxist thinking – the Dialectic – and in doing so clarifies that this pathway leads back into Idealism, is an important caveat to the reductionism that has plagued revolutionary Marxism, as we know.

Phillips’s main argument is that Marx’s empiricism was a function of his commitment to what Phillips calls a ‘way of  life.’   The problems that Marxism presents can be avoided “only by seeing Marxism as a philosophy of social action.”

He goes on:  “Marxism is  way of life: a way of  acting, thinking, feeling… it also reflects the moral needs of the proletariat.” Phillips thus finds that cultural and emotional aspects of Marxism are indeed the way in which the superstructure acts as a conduit of creativity to the proletariat.  His polemical voice breaks out here: “The value of Kant’s system, for example is hardly a live issue outside the classroom; whereas the Marxism is debated in the streets, gaining new supporters when the working class is flushed with victories, and losing them after defeats.”  Phillips gives a reading of Marxism here as in movement always and always attached to, as he had said often, the state of consciousness of humans themselves.  


Edmund Wilson on “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic” Vol. 6, No.1


WIlson McCarthyIf you have been reading here for a while, you know that the marriage of Edmund Wilson to Mary McCarthy in 1938 lasted long enough, was complex enough, and tempestuous enough to keep people talking about it over the decades. And they were writing about it as, in the later 1980s, when the great stream of narrative books about the people and politics of Partisan became a summer reading holiday for those who still had cottages in Amagansett, or who were students at Columbia and were readying themselves for their futures. Not least, young women trying to find out if it was going to be Sontag or McCarthy who would be a decent model for an intellectual life.

James Atlas offered a list of these books in 1985, in an article in the New York Times:“The surest sign of any group’s demise is the appearance of memoirs, and the New York intellectuals have been busy writing theirs: Lionel Abel’s ”The Intellectual Follies,” William Phillips’s ”A Partisan View,” Irving Howe’s ”A Margin of Hope” and William Barrett’s ”The Truants” have appeared in the last three years( 1982-1985)”. Atlas quotes Morris Dickstein: ”The definition of a New York intellectual is to think he’s the last one,” and I would think that Atlas thinks that of himself, with his recent history of himself,  along with others of my generation, including Louis Menand (though not in NY — though NY is, we know, a state of mind) — anyway, the marriage of McCarthy and Wilson is one of the central social events among the NYI, or as we called them at home, the JIs — Jewish intellectuals, though neither Wilson or McCarthy was jewish, ‘either by birth or osmosis’ as Irving Howe had defined a characteristic of the New York Intellectual.

Which is to say that the Wilson-McCarthy marriage brought high literary, high cultural, and high art criteria in to the PR office on 17th street.  Which isn’t to say that Wilson, educated at the Hill School and then at Princeton, friend and patron of F.Scott Fitzgerald, wasn’t  part of the 1930s interest in the Soviet Union, Socialism, Communism, and as a critic reader, Marx and Engels.  Though he was older than Rahv and McDonald and the rest, they welcomed him to their office, and asked him to write for the PR, while Mary McCarthy, as Frances Kiernan writes, ‘[for] this occasion Mary McCarthy wore her best black dress and carried a silver fox stole— a costume “more suited to a wedding reception,” she would later recall. As it happens a drunken dinner with Wilson and a few others, and what should have been a casual affair, became McCarthy’s awkward agreement to marry him.  She also later said that she thought that if she slept with him, she had to marry him.“So finally I agreed to marry Wilson as my punishment for having gone to bed with him— this was certainly part of the truth. As a modern girl, I might not have called that a “sin”; I thought in logical rather than religious terms. The logic of having slept with Wilson compelled the sequence of marriage if that was what he wanted. Otherwise my action would have no consistency; in other words, no meaning. I could not accept the fact that I had slept with this fat, puffing man for no reason, simply because I was drunk. No, it had to make sense. Marrying him, though against my inclinations, made it make sense.”

You might recall as well, that she was deeply involved with the man who she later wrote was the only one who she truly loved, Philip Rahv.


Now, Wilson was very interested in Marx and Freud and if you look back , you can read his wonderful essay on “Flaubert’s Politics,” which featured in the first issue of PR. The essay here, “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic,” is a chapter from Wilson’s highly regarded history of ideas of socialism and communism, To the Finland Station, which would be published in 1940. William Philips writes a response to it, which immediately follows in this issue of PR, and he takes a rather severe approach to Wilson’s argument. {I have to say that I find William Philips’s writing to be hard-going and at times gratingly insistent}.  But Wilson’s galaxy was close to but not the same as that of PR, and there is little evidence that his growing reputation as a literary critic and intellectual was tarnished by his discussion.

Wilson begins by looking at the history of the idea of a dialectic in philosophy, principly the Hegelian dialectic, in which a thesis is a stated position, its antithesis is ‘a process of splitting of from the thesis, and negating it; the third is a new unification, which reconciles the antithesis with the thesis and is known as the synthesis.. . the synthesis is always an advance over the thesis, for it combines in a ‘higher’ unification the best features of both the thesis and the antithesis’. Hegel makes the argument through a discussion of the changes inherent in the movement from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

This is what Marx and Engels take into thinking about the future, rather than an analysis of the past: they have the thesis as   bourgeois society, the antithesis as the proletariat, and as synthesis, the Communist society. So, as Marx argued, what he and Engels did was to take Hegel’s categories and turn them ‘right-side up,’ that is, to understand ideas as the product of human making, “ALL IDEAS WERE HUMAN,” and every ‘idea was bound up with some specific social situation, which had been produced in the first instance, in turn, by man’s relation to specific material conditions.”

Wilson’s criticism of the ‘dialectic’ is that for Marx, no less than for Hegel, this dialectic is itself idealist. But only insofar as the ideas that humans make are themselves generated by material life.  Wilson’s targets are what today we call “reductionists”, collapsing the dialectical framework to the more structural one of base/superstructure, in which all those things which are not part of the basic apparatus of economic life are reduced to being offshoots of that base. Wilson argues that Marx and Engels didn’t ever really get round to discussing seriously those elements of superstructure: religions, ideologies, psychic life, etc. because they had enough to do right at hand.

But a problem for Marx and Engels was the status of their analysis as ‘science’. Was ‘science’ an element of the superstructure or was it an objective discourse? In the 21st century ‘science’ is more awkwardly theorised that it was at the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.  Wilson writes: “Natural science then, is not to be numbered among the ideological outgrowths of the super­stucture, but has a precision of which they are incapable; and this precision social science may share.”   Can the ‘dialectic’ of marxism really be admitted as a ‘science?’  Some of the attempts in the 20th century to hold on to that argument have had to resort to re-making it as a structure instead, linked to psychoanalysis, another theory in trouble. Or simply holding on to the ‘science’ part of ‘social science,’ without much of an audience or a rationale. Wilson thinks that if they had only stayed away from trying to ‘scientise’ the dialectic, they would have avoided what ends up looking like a form of ‘mysticism’ or “a religious myth, disencumbered of divine personality and tied up with the history of mankind.”

copy and paste to read full text of “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic”pp 66-81

next week: William Philips replies to Wilson.

Blumfeld: An Elderly Bachelor, Franz Kafka.


In the first issue of Partisan Review is a review by F.W. Dupee, of Kafka’s The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, and published  by the prestigious New York firm of  Alfred A. Knopf in 1937.  From then on, Kafka became something of a presiding spirit over the imaginary persona of the Partisan Review. Starting with Dupee’s  review, between 1937 and 1944 , PR published an essay on Kafka in 1938 by Max Brod, his biographer; between 1939 and 1942, three Kafka short stories; in 1944, “Kafka: A Re-evaluation,” by Hannah Arendt; and in 1946, a section from Kafka’s diaries.   And there were many more discussions about Kafka through the next four decades of Partisan Review. Arendt looks for what makes Kafka so modern:

All his admirers …are struck  by something new in his art of story-telling, a quality of modernity which appears nowhere else with the same  intensity and unequivocalness. … ” And she goes on to make a case for his simple style as a form of modernism:‘Without in any way changing the German Language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence.”

 It was also the case that the  NY Intellectuals wanted their journal to show not only America on the verge of great change, but also a connection to and  yearning for their European connections and origins.  Franz Kafka was Jewish, troubled, and a ‘problem’ to his father. He died in 1924 at 41 of tuberculosis, with a fairly small oeuvre and a voice that moves between the ‘fabulous and the familiar,’ as Dupee described it, creating a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity common to both German Expressionism and Modernism.   (for more of this, turn to post of 21 July, 2017, which begins with the three paragraphs above…..)

In this issue, Vol 6,.No 1. and No.2, we have a story by Kafka, Blumfeld: an Elderly Bachelor.  It was written around 1915, and it has a feeling of DADA about it, and even though it is funny, it has none of the joy of DADA.  It was left unfinished when Kafka diedKafka, and we don’t know much about what he had planned for its continuation either as a longer story, or as part of a novel.  What became clear to me as I have roamed the internet picking up comments about the story, is that very few readers care that it isn’t finished: they treat it as complete because it belongs to the genre that Hannah Arendt called ‘the analysis of bureaucracy,’ and that we can assume it will go on, if it does, in the same vein as The Trial and The Castle, and as it has already been going. 

What also struck me as I read the story was how much like Melville’s Bartleby our ‘hero’ was in his behaviour — except inside out.  While Bartleby ‘prefers not to’  Blumfeld ‘prefers to.” Bartleby’s is the power of silence and passive resistance, while Blumfeld’s is the power of  low-key insistence. Both are in struggle with the conventions of their oppression, but Blumfeld has internalised them so thoroughly that they become his now impotent being. He is the next step in Arendt’s discussion of Kafka’s work as the analysis of bureaucracy.

‘Blumfeld’ is ‘ a man hounded by bouncing balls’. He comes home to his sixth-floor apartment, musing (and amusing) on the pros and cons of having a dog to keep him company, when he hears a rattling sound from within. He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light. He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the wooden floor; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play.

What makes the story itself powerful is the way the narrator keeps it comic, with a continual juxtaposition of Blumfeld’s internal dialogue about the pros and cons of owning a dog, which never is resolved because Blumfeld’s is a mind that is always ready with an ambivalent response to his own query. Here is the link for you to copy and paste to read the story:first part:  pages 55-64; second part: Vol 6, No.2, pages 96-103.

Hannah Arendt’s   “Kafka. A Revaluation” was published in Partisan Review, Vol 11, No.4, pages 412-422,  cut and paste:      Or you can wait till we get there!  1944…jeez



Next week: Edmund Wilson on Marxist Dialectics




Andre Breton & Trotsky and Diego Rivera: Manifesto.

You may remember that the ‘Our Quarter’ editorial for Volume 6, No. 1 began with a discussion of a new activist group:the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art: here is that paragraph again.

 “Andre Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, the painter of the  Mexican Revolution, are two artists who have long been active on the Left.  Some time ago they rejected the Third International (the Comintern, 1919-1943), politically as well as culturally. They now propose a new federation of artists and writers, Left-wing in tendency and free of all organizational dependence. [In this issue] we print their manifesto calling for the formation of the International Federation of Independent  Revolutionary Art. An increasing number of writers, artists, and intellectuals are coming to realize that socialism offers the only permanent escape from barbarism that is gaining ground so fast in capitalist society. We believe that these intellectual forces, hitherto scattered and isolated, should now draw together into some sort of organization for free discussion and for defense against their common enemies. We are, therefore, in complete sympathy with the general aim of the IFIRA, and we are ready to take part in the formation of an American section of the Federation. This, we think, should incorporate the international aims of the IFIRA in a program otherwise strictly adapted to American conditions. We invite all those interested in forming such a group in the United States to communicate with the editors of Partisan Review.”

The Manifesto signed by Breton and Rivera was an attempt to create a leftist, anti-Stalinist, association of Artists that would be Marxist, but stand outside the artistic aims of socialist realism and and prolit cult. It was 1938, and it was clear that Stalin’s trials had betrayed the Revolution of 1917.  Scholars have argued that it was when Breton went to visit Trotsky, then living in exile in Mexico, that the two men drew up this ‘Manifesto,’ which was then signed by Rivera instead of Trotsky.

The Manifesto is part of a European network of socialist ideas that attracted anti-conventional, anti-conformist, and anti-war artists. It’s first and explosive appearance is with the group of Swiss artists who called themselves DADA. The Cafe Voltaire in Zurich was founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings in the middle of the First World War, and advanced an art of irrationality, anti-authoritarianism, allied with comic and satirical events — ancestors of 20th century Performance Art —  Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and others, including Andre Breton, joined them.

Andre Breton was an intellectual adventurer and after WWI, he announced the beginning of a new movement, which combined the attributes of DADA with those of Freudian analysis: He defined SURREALISM as  “pure psychic automatism by which one proposes to express, either verbally or in writing or otherwise, the actual functioning of the thought.”

Andre Breton by Man Ray
Andre Breton, by Man Ray

It was through Breton that SURREALISM attached itself to the idea of proletarian revolution and to the overthrow of bourgeois society.  Breton joined the Communist Party in 1924 and left in 1937 because of the Stalinist programme and the Moscow Trials.  This is the link to the Manifesto we are looking at today.  Trotsky was expelled from the Party in 1929,  and with the formation of the Fourth International, and Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico, Breton became a closer ally and went to visit him where he was living with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

During his exile, Breton had the opportunity to meet Léon Trotsky. Together, they composed the manifesto for an independent revolutionary art.  Surrealism as a movement died in the 1950s. It was, as we shall learn more of, the attack on SURREALISM by Jean-Paul Sartre, who, through his entire career,  argued against  surrealism.

So, back to the Manifesto itself.

It begins with an assault on the geo-politics of 1938, and the force of its style is both politically radical and  anti-Stalinist: you will know from earlier posts that Trotsky was an advocate of freedom in artistic creation: “True Art,” the Manifesto repeats, “is unable not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society…We recognise that only the social revolution can sweep clear the path for a new culture.”   From there it is a small step to a denunciation of Stalin: “If we reject solidarity with the Soviet Union, it is because  it represents not Communism, but its most treacherous and dangerous enemy.”

So, because art is what conceives of the radical reconstruction of society, “The opposition of writers and artists is one of the forces that can usefully contribute to the discrediting and overthrow of regimes which are destroying, along with the right of the proletariat to aspire to a better world, every sentiment of nobility and even of human dignity.”

Trotsky and Breton both carry the romantic gene of creativity as central to their quite different positions on authority, struggle, and really, the functions of the imagination, but in this manifesto, the importance of the artistic spirit is critical to the political point. Much like our own days here in 2018 — its the death of imaginative  freedom that will thwart the Revolution.

The paragraph below is flung against the shadow of Stalinist ‘aesthetics’ and asserts the humanism that is marching both with anti-fascist Liberalism and against Stalinism:

“The free choice of themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of [their] explorations – these are possessions of which the artist has the right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must, under no pretext, allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who would urge us, whether for today or tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal, and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula: complete freedom for art.”

To enable this, the authors of the manifesto suggest that even if we need centralised control over the building of the material conditions for improved production,  “an anarchist regime of individual liberty should first be established.”    

What an amazing demand!  I love it.

“In the present period of the death agony of capitalism, democratic as well as fascist, the artist sees himself threatened with the loss of his right to live. Only naturally, he turns to the Stalinist organizations, which hold out the possibility of escaping his isolation….He must understand that his place lies elsewhere, not among those who betray the cause of revolution, but among those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to this revolution, among those who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to its fruition.”

So, what happened to the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art?  In 1997, Frank Brenner of the [still active, if not very….active] 4th International, wrote about the fate of the IFIRA:

“It is instructive to note the fate of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (IFIRA) called into being by the 1938 manifesto. Breton was able to rally fellow Surrealists such as poet Benjamin Péret, painters Yves Tanguy and André Masson; Victor Serge, Marcel Martinet, Ignazio Silone, Herbert Read [who, in turn, solicited the support of George Orwell] and others. Despite this the French section ceased operations after the publication of two issues of its journal Clé (Key) in January and February 1939.

Internal differences played a part in the IFIRA’s failure to take root, but the greatest problem was the extremely difficult political environment: the influence within the intelligentsia of the Stalinist apparatus and the demoralized condition of many of those not under the latter’s thumb, as well, of course, as the outbreak of war in Europe. In his last letter to Trotsky in June 1939, Breton wrote: “Perhaps I am not very talented as an organizer, but at the same time it seems to me that I have run up against enormous obstacles. (The tragic element in this should not be lost on the reader.)

The tragic element is going to unfold even more dismally over the following months of 1938 and 1939.

Next Week: “Blumfeld, an elderly Bachelor”, by  Franz Kafka