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.

Kafka / Brod — Vol IV, No.6, May, 1938

Delmore Schwartz: "Philip Rahv thinks that in The Trial it is death itself which is the justice — unfathomable or irrational — which has come for Joseph K." (Diary, 1951).


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.  And 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.   And what people knew in the late 1930s about Kafka's life and opinions came from his life-long friend, confidant, and executor of his estate, Max Brod.  They met at University when Kafka was 19, and stayed close for the rest of Kafka's life.

Brod introduces the reader to Kafka through the newish technique of psychoanalysis, quoting sections  of a 100 page long “Letter to my Father,” that Kafka told Brod he had sent to his mother to be given to his intimidating father.  Mrs. Kafka returned it, and the apparent guilelessness with which Kafka heaps, almost indifferently, both praise and blame on his father,  shapes the reader's understanding so that we can't help but judge Kafka as a man who is either unbelievably naïve to the point of obliviousness,  or at best intended to be so hostile, that the two would never be able to find a way to a workable father-son relationship. But Brod suggests also Kafka’s self-understanding was more nuanced than Freud’s theories could explain:  "For one thing Franz Kafka was thoroughly familiar with these theories and never regarded them as anything more than a very approximate, rough picture of things. He found that they did not do justice to details or, what is more, to the essence of the conflict."

Like a lot of us, Kafka found his father's parental strength and authority to be both a model and a rebuke. Never good enough, never strong enough, never masculine enough to meet his father's standards (as he arranged them in his head), the letter to his father presents Kafka's fears and hostility in the form of praise, submission, and guilt. Its hard to read and it invites our own rebukes and worse, pity. Brod's own analysis of this is pretty thin:"Must he not have known that between characters so diverse as himself and his father an intimate relationship was simply impossible?"

12403-franz-kafka-max-brod Max Brod and Kafka on the Beach

Brod makes a interesting link between Proust and Kafka,  linking their 'infantilism' to the  family scene. He goes on to list some of their shared qualities: "Their special precision in description, their love of detail, their meticulousness; the obsession of both with the family circle, a similarity of their racial make-up and even in their outwards lives…"  Brod's conclusion is to then match Kafka and Kleist's infantilism.. Kafka, he says, "read Kleist's  letters with special sympathy, underlined passages telling how Kleist's family regarded the poet as 'an utterly useless member of human society, unworthy of further consideration."   Kleist and Kafka,"both describe with the clearest, simplest, most definite words they can possibly find, the most secret, dark and unresolvable things."     

One of the things that attracted PR to European Intellectuals like Chiarmonte and Camus was that those men had been strong active partisans in the struggles against fascism before the United States entered the theatre of war;  but there was also this other intruiging pulse of the wars between two generations of Jewish men in Europe and the USA, between the old Hebraism and the re-styled themes of lostness, alienation, and wandering across the Atlantic, which was almost already a nostalgia for  young jewish intellectuals such as Delmore and Henry, my father, who kept his copies of first American editions of Kafka's works in brown paper  butcher's wrapping over the original covers and held onto them until he died at 93.   As for Jewish daughters and their fathers….well, that's for another day.


Max Brod

Here is the link  to the article:



Thomas Mann, William Phillips, and Man


Mark GreifSome of you may have read or read about Mark Greif’s recent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton University Press, 2015). It belongs to what I think of as one of a later generation of New York Intellectuals’s attempts to get the big picture, then give it both a polemical  universalist thrust and a specialist, coterie vocabulary.  In order to do this, though, Greif’s argument has to pass through the theory-years of the later 1960s and 1970s — the years of post-humanism, deconstruction, and those punitive analytical determinisms of Foucauldian genealogy. Greif builds an argument that on the one hand shows that the proliferation of that mid-century question, “What is Man?” was of value only to the extent that it produced thought without conclusions.  And on the other hand, Greif invents a “theoretical” vocabulary to explain the function of  asking questions that elicit no actual answers, but that open up towards as yet uncertain and unknown projects.  I found his book to be just as havering as the books and articles he has read and has declared evasive and not really worth reading.  The study has the air of discovery and excitement about it but it doesn’t explain or aswer anything, except to invent vocabulary to describe books that aren’t really worth their arguments. As Greif writes, “Many of the explicit ‘crisis of man’ books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to!”  Scholarly martyrdom is an strange road for an intellectual to take..

Why have I brought up this book here and now?  Mostly because I find its sententious pretentiousness hard to take — a house of cards, say — and I also think it makes a good foil for the piece we are looking at in this post, William Phillips’s discussion essay, “Thomas Mann: Humanism in Exile,”  which was the lead political essay in Partisan Review, Volume IV, No.6, May, 1938. Thomas Mann, 1914 (b/w photo)

Thomas Mann was a liberal anti-fascist hero to his readers and followers, and his experience of exile in California made him an American anti-fascist hero. He had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and had written Death in Venice, Buddenbrooks, and The Magic Mountain by the time he went to the USA in 1939, first to teach at Princeton, and then to move to the Pacific Palisades, near to Los Angeles. He and his family moved back to Europe in 1952.

William Phillips, [who featured in this blog’s post of 13 April, 2017] was, you may recall, Philip Rahv’s partner in editing of Partisan Review.  If you read the post on him, you will see that his colleagues felt that though he was lively and clever and witty in conversation, those fluid graces were never brought to the desk, and this essay is interesting less for Phillips’s argument, than for the way he manages what he calls the contemporary “intellectual crisis.”  He begins:

“Let us not be hypnotised by the drum-beats of progress… by the propaganda of hope. We have heard them before, especially on dark days; and they have come from governments and parties that wish to conceal some perfidy. If so many intellectuals have fallen prey to these deceptions, it is out of desperation; it is because they are ready to seize upon any escape from their terrible fears and doubts. These are the symptoms of intellectual crisis.”  Phillips generalises the idea of the intellectual as betrayed by their own traditions and values:[“the intellectual]’s normal condition, today, seems to be that of a liberal, anti-fascist, etc. Yet it is he who in the name of progress suppresses insurgency, in the name of peace clamours for war, in the name of truth condones lies.”  Against this malaise, Phillips announces the intellectual’s ‘vital function in society’: “to safeguard the dreams and discoveries of science and art, and to champion some political movement insofar as it fulfills the requirement of an intellectual. ideal.”   

Phillips quotes from Mann’s polemical manifesto published in 1937, that “an infamous pragmatism has been set up in the heart of Europe today. It refuses to make distinctions between truth and lies; it denies mind and spirit in favour of interest; it unscrupulously commits or condones crimes if they forward it’s interest– or what it conceives to be so; it shrinks not at all from falsification, rather it calls falsification truth, provided it is useful, in its interpretation of the word……”  (hmmmm….sounds like a fair presentation of the Trumpocracy.)

Phillips starts by praising Mann for his Humanism; and argues against the mechanical apparatus of fascist ideology. It is an early version of the contest between humanism and constructivism,  The language of revolution, of polemical politics, says Mann, “is hopelessly discredited and compromised, it is utterly worn out, having served these the years and more to persuade the herd-minded citizen to think of himself as a revolutionary.”  Phillips wants to argue as well that Mann’s Enlightenment values are saturated with the decay of culture and the end of the figure of the Artist as Saviour.  Phillips tries to write carefully about Mann’s universalist Christianity as if it were a politics and not a slogan of  the Fascist Crusade.

Having given credit, he then argues that Mann is forced to posit the decay of Artist and culture as a function of  his refusal to understand that ‘Science’ is what modernity offers us, and with science comes both knowledge and truth. Central to this is the project of Scientific Socialism, Phillips’ answer to the ‘crisis of the intellectual.’  “The Imagination of modern art bursts through the world-culture of Einstein and Freud and teems with the multitude of ideas and events that fill our days. We dream of socialism, but we do not come empty-handed to the threshold of a new world. We come with the riches of science.”  

So, his discussion becomes one in which Mann is the exemplary self-deluding voice of the intellectuals of the bourgeoisie. For Phillips, Mann’s anti-fascism becomes a way of not facing the struggle for Socialism.  There is a kind of over-heated enthusiasm in Phillips’ dream of Science that can’t really carry the drive of Phillips’s desire. William Phillips

The obituary writer for the New York Times wrote of Phillips: “As an occasional writer for the magazine, Mr. Phillips was overshadowed by his contributors. He was so able to see a question’s many sides that he found it difficult to chisel a tidy position”.

I think maybe Mark Greif could do something with this.

read the piece:






Delmore Schwartz, “The Statues,”and a few others.

Delmore Schwartz, who remains the patron poet maudit, and who has served as the 20th and 21st century (so far) accursed poet of mind and heart of the New York Jewish Intellectuals, began his career as the witty, lyrical, and astonishing new talent of Partisan Review’s Vol 4, No.1’s own new character and agenda in December, 1937.  His story, “In dreams begin responsibilities” his first publication with PR, was the first piece in the issue: its combination of avant-garde form, psychoanalytic content, movie technics, and the 1930s  Jewish-generation-gap was a brilliant beginning for the man who ended up as the mourned-for “Delmore”, who all lovers of, and writers about, call by his first name, as if he truly stands beside us. John Ashbery called him “Delmore, as everyone called him, including those who didn’t know him.”  Elizabeth Hardwick, after Delmore’s death wrote that ”Delmore, ”as it was natural to everyone, acquainted or not, to call him because of his own delight in the pretty challenge of his first name,” softened his own shame at his being called such an aspirational name, decided on by his mother, aspiring, it seemed, to the condition of a restaurant. Delmore young (see this blog’s post, Oct 16, 2016 for more on Delmore’s ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’). Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Lou Reed, made him a ‘poet’s poet’ as well, a voice who is generalised as the sound of a poetic world not known before.

In his second publication for PR Volume 4, No.2, January, 1938, Delmore offered a subtle poem, “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar”, (see this blog’s post for more on ‘the Children of the Czar” and John Berryman’s ‘The Ball Poem.’ December 31, 2016). In Volume 4, No.3, in a collective ‘Little Anthology,’ Delmore contributes ‘Someone, is harshly coughing as before,” a poem anticipating war, which has Audenesque and Yeatsian echoes in it, and he reviews Wallace Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar, and Other Poems and shows himself as a serious critical reader of his contemporaries’ work. (see this blog’s post on 25 March, 2017 for more discussion of Delmore’s review of Stevens– and some other remarks.)

And here in Volume IV, No. 6,  May, 1938, PR publishes Delmore’s,  “The Statues,” a fable that combines comedy and poignancy with a dash of Lucretian physics.  He dedicated the story to Meyer Schapiro, who would become a long-standing friend. I haven’t been able to learn from any of the usual suspects – either human or written – what in particular might have inspired this dedication, but it is certain that the two had been good friends and when Schwartz died, Meyer Schapiro wrote an elegy for him, published in The New York Review of Books,  September 8, 1966. Many critics and admirers of Schwartz cite the final quatrain of the poem as capturing the doubleness of Delmore’s  poetic range. Here is Schapiro’s poem:

meyer-schapiro-1930s Meyer Schapiro


“He lived in torment with imagined threats,
Spinning a thread of hostile signs,
Brooding on friends as secret enemies
And seeking among indifferent minds a friend.

Silenced was Delmore’s joyous wit,
His bright good sense and irony
Recounting the folly of worldliness
And the blind ways of ambition and success.

He who was restless without company
Has died in naked loneliness,
Convulsed in a dark corridor outside his door
Where crumpled papers crowd the floor.

He knew himself as fated to despair
And traced from birth a black destiny.
His name, his people, his sad time
Composed the burden of his poetry.

It has the beauty of his honest thought,
Of gravest musings on the human state,
On thwarted dreams and forced deformities
And ever-resurgent hopes of light”.

It was those  ‘ever-resurgent hopes of light’ that provided Delmore’s readers with reasons to love him, and to love his ideas about poetry.  Like Trilling, Schapiro was grounded in his life as an academic and is still thought of as one of the most brilliant scholars in Art History. It makes sense to me that Meyer may have been thinking of “The Statues” when he wrote this elegy, because the poetic-story is a proto-magical realist evocation of how the imagination can turn whatever it perceives into harbingers of an altered world of light.

The story takes place on a December day in New York City, as the ‘Faber’ –maker- Gottschalk the dentist is walking to work, work he hates because of the intimacy it requires with the insides of a patient’s mouth. he inoculates himself each morning with  a whiskey and soda — he is a nebish of New York. Jewish, sad, becoming leaden in his life. A sudden and random thick snowstorm overnight has created a sublime — frightening and beautiful at once — landscape in which the flakes, like Lucretius’s concilia of atoms, fall into shapes that lend themselves to the eye as “curious and unmistakable designs.”

The narrator, “a reporter on one of the Metropolitan newspapers,” is told to go out and create comic human interest stories among the astounded pedestrians.”Very soon, however, I found there was nothing whimsical or comical about the attitudes of the populace, but that they were, on the contrary, seriously moved. And that was by going about and interviewing people in this way that I met Faber Gottschalk.

The whole city is touched and moved by this fantasy world of snow shapes, and when the Mayor says he will immediately call for the snow to be removed, this promise…”provided the first instance of the unanimity and intensity of feeling of the whole city toward the statues”.    They protest, but “Faber Gottschalk went further; he attempted to visit the Mayor at City Hall, astonished at himself, unable to understand his passionate concern about the snow’s statues, but determined to do nothing all day but walk about and regard them, cancelling all his appointments in order to do so.”

Gottshalk goes home and listens to the radio, still amazed by his feelings for these snow statues. He thinks back over his life and recalls how he really wanted to be a major league baseball player.  It had been his uncle who had “pointed out to him that as a dentist he would have a modest income and would be able to attend the various sports which absorbed his attention throughout the year. His uncle had been right.  . . . Faber Gottschalk was not able to explain to himself by this examination of his past life the reason for his emotion about the statues.”

The next week the population is oddly changed by the statues; police stop harassing picket lines; people become more focussed and precise; but everyone pauses and looks at the shapes. Not that they were all beautiful.  But in places, “The shapes had the plumpness and rotundity of great white clouds, the solidity and stillness of fine buildings, or indeed of a snow crystal.”

Read the rest of the story — there are some twists in it —  but its deep Lucretian grounding is unmistakeable, as the Mathematician suggests, as you will read.

Paste link below into your browser to get the feeling-meanings of this fable. I am surprised it hasn’t been reprinted more often.

Throughout Delmore’s work, the possibilities of light and some kind of pure cold — not the austere sublime of mountains but the welcoming one of snowflakes, keep appearing… the “heavy bear” is answered by the “Ease, warm, light, the utter showing,/When in the white bed all things are made,”  Here is another one:










Silly Season in 1938

The Silly Season in 1938.

It is a season of tragedy here in London, what with the Grenfell Tower human-made disaster and the Brexit idiocy and like shock waves from outer space, the Trumphypocracy.   And it was close to one in havering New York in 1938 as well, as you will know from the pages of Partisan Review, but silly seasons there must be, and since this is my post before taking next weekend off from the internetted world, I am turning here to Herbert Solow’s Riposte at the end of Vol.4, issue 5, 1938.

Solow, who was a serious diner at the top table as a Jewish intellectual, was also amusing and was one of the Luce Empire’s employees, along with Dwight Macdonald. This piece, “Substitution, at Left tackle: Hemingway for Dos Passos,” shares the Riposte pages with Macdonald’s “Time’s Fifteenth,” – while Macdonald’s peppery discussion of Time magazine’s fifteenth anniversary is also a pretty incisive analysis of its politics,  Solow’s is an attack more focussed on Communist Party literary criticism, in which ‘play by play’ excerpts from the New Masses show the fall and rise of Dos Passos and Hemingway according to the fortunes of Stalinism and its campaign against Trotsky.

Solow was a Columbia boy (class of 1924) , and Luce writer, and before he became a Trotskyist and part of the Partisan Review circle, he had been drawn to a journal, that also came from Columbia, the Menorah Journal. It was edited by Elliot Cohen, who fostered a non-parochial approach to Jewish studies, and Solow was recruited to its ranks.  Solow,  who was known to his fellow students as a troubled, brilliant, and un-clubbable intellectual was not without his charm.  He was graduated with a cum laude degree and he stayed on for a B.Litt.,joking that it came with a   “cum grano salis.”  (Alan Wald writes). In my own opinion, he is up there with Philip Rahv as one of the best minds of their generation. (apologies to Allen Ginsberg).

As a developing Marxist and thinking about it in relation to questions of Judaism, Solow became an anti-Zionist, which he wrote about with rigor and which created a  large pothole on  the road of the Menorah Journal.  Solow had stood up for Sidney Hook’s questioning of how the Zionists proposed to deal with the human rights of the Palestinian Arabs.  Alan Wald, again, writes “Solow then and later defended Hook, for whom the episode marked Solow’s beginning as a “member of the permanent opposition.”Menorah JOurnal

When the Moscow Trials  and the exile and persecution of Trotsky got underway, Solow and Dwight Macdonald were involved in the Committee to Defend Leon Trotsky. After the War, Solow stayed on with Fortune Magazine, left Marxist and Trotskyist politics behind, and died in 1964.

I didn’t know much about Solow before reading about him in Alan Wald’s book on the New York Intellectuals, I am surprised that I had heard never heard about him when I was growing up, though by that time he had distanced himself  from the PR  and Trotskyist world.

SO…in his RIPOSTE,  Solow shows us the way the CPUSA  has gone from adoring DosPassos to hating him and how Hemingway has travelled, in the minds of the Stalinists from a bourgeois ‘type’ to a “writer of uncommon merit”.  Here it is: its amusing and scarily true: (you can make the picture larger with your  view menu, I believe.)

page 62
page 63




SO dear comrades. I am having a bit of time off….and will be back with you on 8 July, unless I can’t stay away from Delmore Schwartz’s “The Statues.”





Dwight Macdonald takes Time

Time’s Fifteenth —


Dwight Macdonald, film negative by Walker Evans, sometime between 1934-1941


Having hammered the New Yorker in  PR, vol. IV, no.1, December 1937 with “Laugh and Lie Down,” and contributed to PR, Vol IV, No. 3, February, 1938, a strange and original discussion of  politics through the monuments – both human and of stone – in Washington, D.C., Macdonald claims the first of the editorial columns in  the endpapers, “Ripostes,” for PR, April 1938 with “Time’s Fifteenth.”

Sort of a book-end piece to “Laugh and Lie Down,” “Time’s Fifteenth” is the kind of sardonic critique often best-written by someone who has earlier been in the business themselves.  He didn’t go on to be a Staff Writer at the New Yorker until the 1950s, but back in 1938, he had already been at the birth of the Luce magazine empire. Macdonald was hired in 1929 first as a writer for Time,  and then moved on to Fortune, where Macdonald stayed until 1936, just as he was becoming increasingly politicised in the atmosphere of the Depression.

You have to bear in mind that Macdonald was one of the non-jews of the PR crowd, and he had been educated at elite East Coast schools: Philips Exeter for high school, Yale for his degree. Though he was ground down by the day-to-day tedium of being a jobbing writer at Time and Fortune, he wasn’t riven by the contradictions and confusions of those first-generation born working class New Yorkers who made up the world of the “JIs” – the term for the subset of urban intelligentsia that my parents, their friends, their children, and their friends happily threw at each other around  the argumentative dinner table – when I was young.

At Yale, Macdonald became friends with Fred Dupee (among the first of the PR editors)  and George L.K. Morris (who wrote the “Art Chronicle” in Partisan Review) – neither of whom were Jews and both of whom became frequent contributors to the journal.  And Macdonald had to read and talk himself out of the anti-semitism he had shared with many of his own and his friends’ milieux.  These were the public and private institutions and norms of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Establishment. But the twist in elite education was that many of the rebellious sons and daughters of WASP culture had been educated into the kind of critical analysis that gave them to tools to argue against that establishment and fight against its social norms.

So Macdonald’s remarks on the 15th anniversary of the “Time Community,” are believable because he worked there, amusing because he pushed against Time’s pomposity, self-importance, and its desire to recruit its readers to a “way of thinking” invented by the weekly magazine for the man “who has little time” to find out about whats important for him to know.

Macdonald begins his column with a letter sent to all of Time’s potential subscribers, inviting them all to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the news weekly by learning more about the ‘community’ to which they could all belong. The letter takes on its readers as intimates, and the tone of its persuasion is in “a chatty, intimate vein… from the “able, shrewd, potent publisher of Time: baldish, bumbling Ralph  McAllister Ingersoll,close relative of the late great Ward McAllister, of “Four Hundred.” With that phrase, Macdonald refers to the  Ward McAllister who invented the epithet and meant it to refer to the  most important people in New York’s elite social circles.”If you go outside that number,” McAllister warned, “you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.”  That number was also rumoured to be the right capacity for Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.  The hypocrisy of inviting thousands of Americans to be part of a tiny elite community which had always already refused them admission was Macdonald’s first satiric target in his piece, but he also made a more incisive political point.

Macdonald doesn’t only make fun of the Luce magazines, he produces an analytic argument about why they take the stance they do.  He writes:

Time has a ticklish editorial task: to give the news an upper-class angle without appearing to violate the creed of “objectivity” which that class holds so dear. The well-fed well-heeled members of the Time Community insist that their spokesmen fight for their class interests by denying the existence of the class struggle. No one is more adept at this delicate manoeuvre than kinetic, bis-browed, twice-wed Henry Robinson Luce.”    

In the 1930s, Macdonald used to refer to Luce as “Il Luce”, on the pattern of “Il Duce!”

In his Riposte, Macdonald goes on to link the corrupt elitism of the Luce magazines to that of the US Government, in particular the scandals which put the The White House in disarray during the Warren Harding Presidency, and prosecuted after his death in 1923– the year that Time was first published.

Having made his attack witty and riveting,  Macdonald turns to the way Time makes sense of contemporary literature; he was lucky that 1923 was soon after Joyce published Ulysses  and Eliot published The Waste Land.

Macdonald says that the first issue of Time aimed to “Settle the hash of two literary pranksters (James Joyce and T.S. Eliot) in an article headlined: “Has the Reader Any Rights Before the Bar of  Literature?” and he gives us a few paragraphs of the article:

“There is a new kind of literature abroad in the land, who only obvious fault is that no one can understand it. Last year there appeared a gigantic volume entitled Ulysses by James Joyce. To the uninitiated, it appeared that Mr. Joyce had taken some half million assorted words — many such as are not ordinarily heard in reputable circles — shaken them up in a colossal hat, laid them end, laid them end to end…” 

“The Dial has  awarded its $2000 prize for the best poem of 1922 to an opus entitled The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot….It is rumoured that The Waste Land was written as a hoax.”

So, Dwight Macdonald concludes that this is the classic editorial note of the Luce publications:  and “thus have they held it in the thousands of inter-office  memoranda (disguised as magazines called, Time, Life, Fortune) which for fifteen years they have been distributing  among the high-priced, high-powered executive who make up the Time Community. And thus they will continue to hold it, full and true, as long as the Community itself holds together.”  They still do, as far as I can tell. 

Note:I have posted twice so far about Dwight Macdonald: Nov. 5, 2016“Laugh and Lie Down”: Dwight Macdonald — Unmanageable Intellect; and 11 March 2017. Mr. MacDonald goes to Washington. You might want to look at those posts to hear more about the master maverick (is that an oxymoron?!) of the New York Intellectuals…


NEXT:  More on Herbert Solow. — also a fellow of Riposting.









Jean Hélion: Abstract Painter

click to read Morris’s interview with Helion: Jean Helion: Abstract Painter. Volume 4, issue 5, April 1938 — pages 33-42.

Jean Hélion (1904-1987)

FOLLOWING on from Trilling’s critique and vindication of Dos Passos’s American Epic–USA– we return to the Modernism of ABSTRACT ART with George L.K. Morris’s portfolio of pieces by Jean Hélion, who was in 1938 a young and enthusiastic member of the French Abstract painting movement.  Hélion had been an architecture student, then started painting,  and in 1925 turned to abstraction after meeting Otto Freundlich, a German abstractionist.

At the time of his written interview with Morris, Hélion was married and living in the USA,  spending time in both NYC and Virginia with his first wife, Jean Blair. Looking at the work Hélion had created by 1938, and its  distance from the 21st century, it is easy to see the influence of Mondrian and Leger.

Jean Hélion — Abstract Painter Hélion 1930s
Mondrian 1930s
Mondrian 1930s
Helion 1935
Hélion 1930s
Hélion 1930s
Léger 1930s

He was an enthusiastic participant in the description and new philosophy of abstraction, joining in with the group Art Concert and writing for Cahiers d’Arts. He expressed an affinity for Baudelaire’s Modernism.  In his replies to Morris’s questions, Hélion talks most directly about the processes of making art; but he also shows himself willing to think and talk about Soviet art and politics.

For  Hélion, abstract art was firmly attached to the politics of the 1920s and 1930s.  But by 1938, I think it must have been, he had started to begin his turn away from abstraction and toward a return to figurative painting.   For Hélion his change of purpose was tied to the Moscow Trials of 1938-8: “It was in 1936, during the famous trials that saw the disappearance of at least ten of my friends, the very ones who had guided me towards Communism…like Mandelstam…that my Communist faith disintegrated…it was when I stopped being Communist that I stopped being abstract.” (Jean Helion, Memoire de la Chambre Jaune, 1994.  )

Morris asks: When you visited the Soviet Union, did you find indications that a strong plastic expression might emerge from its system of society?

“If all I saw of propaganda was poor, it is probably because the best painters declined to do it [in the Soviet Union, which JH had visited in 1931]. For the immediate future, I cannot see why we should hope that the public would turn suddenly toward us, even in Russia, when our attitude is so dry, when the way toward non-representative painting proves so hard to find.”  Two years on from the start of the Trials,  Hélion is not willing to be optimistic about the future: as for the Abstract painters, “If foreign art should be shown, some people will quickly find their way to it. It will be a minority, gifted, free-minded, among the very best, disregarding origin and profession. But what the power of those amateurs will be is something that cannot be foreseen securely. Let us not dream. A form of art as highly concentrated as that which we are trying to make everywhere, appeals to the smaller part of the  public. Better hopes concern only a future too far to consider.”

Hélion returned to France in 1940 and joined the armed forces, and in 1939, he created a  figurative work, Au Cyclist,Unknown-6 which set him on new paths of painting.

In 1943, after the War, Hélion  met and married Pegeen Guggenheim, the daughter of another proponent of Modernism, Peggy Guggenheim.  Peggy Guggenheim had shown work by Hélion, which is how Pegeen met him. They married secretly in 1944, had three children and divorced in 1956.  Pegeen had an unstable and unhappy life as Peggy’s daughter, but she was a buoyant painter:

Pegeen Guggenheim n.d.

helion1940s  Jean Hélion in the 1940s.

Jean Hélion

” Pegeen in her Atelier.”

In his later years,  Hélion became something of a hero to a new generation of painters in France,who emulated his ‘revolutionary’ art, while eschewing propaganda. And among American painters, Roy Lichtenstein cited Hélion as an influence.


Jean Hélion in his later years.

Here we have another element of Partisan Review’s interest in European Modernism. Hélion  was, indeed, a critical figure in the growth of Abstraction, and in 1938, a growing critic of Stalinism. What the PR intellectuals thought of Hélion’s  rejection of abstraction as inextricable fromhis rejection of Stalinism, I have still to find out.

If you go to the Guggenheim Museum in NYC — there are many Hélion paintings to see. click to see more:  Jean Helion










Protecting the Left Flank: Lionel Trilling on DosPassos’s USA

Lionel Trilling
Trilling and Freud
Lionel Trilling was one of the contributors to Partisan Review who maintained his reputation as a brilliant critic and teacher throughout his life.  But he was also often suspected of being too stylish, elegant, and at ease in the world to be a true radical. And he wasn’t a radical in the sense of a poet maudit and writer like Delmore Schwartz or a maverick polemicist like Dwight McDonald.  He was cautious and somewhat aloof from the more tendentious positions and persons of the PR group.

And he was a life-time Columbia academic.  Many of his colleagues and friends were Columbia graduates, and some had shorter term academic jobs at a number of prestigious universities, but Trilling was the model of a Modernist New York Intellectual Professor.  He was always an anti-Stalinist, and continued as Liberal Leftist during the Cold War, and afterwards, when his very influential book, The Liberal Imagination was taken as a medicine to help the dilemma of middle-class liberal indecision about the Cold War itself.

As our examination of PR  moves into the 1950s and 1960s, we will learn more about the changes and nuances of Trilling’s literary and political positions, but here in VOL 4, No. 5, April, 1938, he addresses John Dos Passos’s trilogy, USA, which is, on the one hand, a version of ‘proletarian literature,’ with its topics and issues of 1930s working class life, and on the other, an avant-garde  almost abstract, collage of real headlines, advertisements and the detritus of everyday life. (See my post, “The Migratory Worker,” Dec.17, 206, for more about Dos Passos.)  The three volumes of USA and photo of DosPassos:

trilogy       Dos Passos

Trilling starts out by saying that USA is a good read, in fact, “It stands as the most important American novel of the decade,” though “it is startlingly normal; at the risk of seeking paradoxical, one might say that it is exciting because of its quality of cliche.”  He starts, that is, with a mobius strip of meaning.  The judgement of the trilogy’s importance becomes the argument that its normality and cliched sentiments is the foundation of its importance.

DosPassos isn’t a great writer, Trilling continues, and he is no model for writers, as are “Stendahl or Henry James or even E.M. Foster,” (what does that ‘even’ suggest about Foster?) — its not that Trilling is sitting on the fence,  but he is jumping back  and forth over it. Dos Passos is a writer who “not only represents a great national scene but he embodies…the cultural tradition of the intellectual Left.” 

SO, Trilling argues that the lack of particular heroes and heroines in the novel conforms to the intellectual Left’s focus on the collectivity: in its political character: “that the social forces now dominant are evil; that there is a conflict between the dominant social forces and other, better, rising forces; that it is certain or very likely that the rising forces will overcome the now dominant one.”   The foundation for this is the assumption that collective aspects are more important than the individual.   DosPassos, however, does focus on individual moral crises in place of generalised classes– and although the events and situations of the novel may turn on class issues, “he does not write of a class struggle.” Trilling argues that the characters who we meet aren’t at the top or the bottom of class structure; they are struggling individuals. Their movement from class to class, if you will, makes for the uncertainty of their moral codes, their confusion, their indecision. Almost more that the people of a fixed class, they are at the mercy of the social stream because their interests cannot be clear to them.

Critics have complained that there is no uplift in the novel; that it ends for most characters of moral worth with despair. But Trilling writes, “Despair with its wits about it is very different from despair that is stupid.”   Trilling is certain that sitting with despair is also a dialectical movement into re-thinking.  When Harold Rosenberg was quick to tell Philip Rahv that Trilling was only upholding ‘bourgeois values,’ Delmore Schwartz came up with a better argument; namely, that Trilling wrote for Partisan Review to “protect his left flank,” another cautionary criticism of sitting on the fence.

click for the whole essay: Trilling on Dos Passos


Sidney Hook’s uses of Logical Positivism


Well, not exactly, but after our rest with pastoral and industrial poems by D.S. Savage, we go immediately to Sidney Hook’s “Some Social Uses and Abuses of Semantics,” Vol.4., No.5. April, 1938.

hook youngsidney-hookGUggenheim Hook 1922

In 1973, when I was a student at Reed College in Portland Oregon, and trying to discover what Hegelian Marxism was all about, and also wanting to hang around with a group of students whom I had judged to be very cool, I joined a Hegel Reading Group. We started with the “Preface” to the Phenomenology of Spirit, and as I was used to doing, I went looking for help on getting a view… A friend cautioned me that as far he could tell, “Annie, you only understand one ‘moment’ of the Preface.”  So on his advice I went off and read Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, which was reckoned around the Reed College Coffee Shop to be a great guide to the motions of first, Hegel’s and then Marx’s mind. That was the same year that ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ was added to the Coffee Shop jukebox.  It was my soundtrack to Hegel.  I read the Marcuse and felt that I was now starting to get the hang of dialectical process and also finding a rationality to it that I hadn’t understood before.  When I said to my friend, “Yeah, great, I loved it and I can understand much better what Hegel is on about.” My friend, who is now a lawyer in southern California, said, “Yeah, but  Annie, you only get one ‘moment’ of Marcuse”.  That’s what it like then and there.  Going farther afield, I picked up from the Library a copy of Sidney Hook’s 1936, From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx.  There, in a casual discussion with someone in the stacks, I learned that Hook, like many others from the PR circle, had become right-wing after the War and moved from being  a Trot to a  Cold Warrior. So cowardly I slipped the book back into its slot on the library shelf and fled.

That is why it is rather heartening to read a piece in which Sidney Hook, as the young student of Dewey takes on the discipline of early 20th century language theory and logical positivism as a foil to argue for a Marxist theory that will produce BETTER philosophy than what comes out of language theory’s success. So with a not-quite-willling suspension of disbelief, here we go: Click here Some social uses and abuses of semantics if you want to read his essay before you read this post.

Charles Sanders Peirce William James John DeweyRussell Ludwig Wittgensteinjpeg

“The recent philosophy has been increasingly concerned with the nature of words, meaning and communication. The work of Peirce, James and Dewey in America, of Russell and Wittgenstein in England , and of logical empiricists everywhere , has resulted in a kind of minor intellectual revolution.”   Hook is happy enough to leave the specialised scholarship aside, and talk to the reader from the ‘popularised versions’ of a theory of meaning which disallows meta-physics altogether, and turns on a set of criteria for the verifiability of statements. I took a course on this stuff about a thousand years ago, and hardly remember it at all, and if you have any similar memory or ignorance issue on this question, click here for an articulate precis of the main types of  Logical Positivism.

Hook’s argument takes on the ‘extravagant claims’ of popularisers about what can result from ‘the failure to distinguish between words and things, abstractions and concreta, definitions and laws.’  Hook creates an extreme version of the ‘verification principle’ — ‘a test for whether something had meaning or was merely nonsense or tautologous. All meaningful statements had to be either tautologous or directly verifiable in experience’.

He adds that one of the wrong turns taken by the populariser of analytic language theory is “the assumption that, where analysis has revealed that two conflicting doctrine are dealing with uninterpreted terms or are committed to statements that are beyond any possibility of empirical verification, therefore no genuine conflict of any kind if involved.

Hook insists that even if there are occasions on which two opposed sides may be fighting with empty platitudes and rhetorical metaphysics, there are social and political contexts which in fact do provide definitions and hence, verifiability.  And here the argument begins to draw on Hook’s Marxism. In fact, Hook had won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 which he was to use, according to the Foundation’s Report for 1928: “to make a study from a new point of view of the Post Hegelian philosophy in Germany (1831–1850); an interpretation of the break-up of the Hegelian school in terms of the political, social and cultural movements current during the time; and prepare a philosophic history of the period from Hegel to Marx, with emphasis on the social and political forces which controlled the evolution of ideas…..” I guess that was the book I hid back in the stack in 1973.  So the engagement between his work in pragmatic philosophy under Dewey and his research into Hegel and Marx made him a excellent analyst of the work that words do in the world.“Pure metaphysics may be nonsense but I know of no important conflict in the history of its expression, whether it be between realism and nominalism, idealism and materialism, which cannot be significantly associated with conflicts of a more concrete social and historical kind.”   And with this, the argument has broken the bounds of linguistic analysis and introduced historical process and concepts as well as statements of history.

Hook then  takes what he commends in logical positivism and applies it to the situation of 1938; and in particular to Stalinism. He draws the scientised disinfected discipline into the realm of historical reality, while proving its demystifying capability:

“Let us begin with a proposition of Marx in the Manifesto”. “The modern state power is nothing more than a committee for administering the common affairs of the bourgeoisie as a whole.” Now let us look at the proposition enunciated by Marxists who have generalised Marx’s original proposition:“The state in class societies is an instrument of the ruling class.” If by ‘ruling class’ is meant ‘politically ruling’ class, the statement is a tautology, By ‘ruling class’ here must be meant ‘the economically dominant’ class. To assert,however, that the state its an instrument in the hands of the economically dominant always, i.e., at any given time, is obviously false.”

Hook’s examples show how Lenin’s theory of a ‘worker’s state’ is tied directly to historical concepts, which are not subject to the criticism of being either tautological or or meaningless, but rather contextually meaningful.  He goes on to show that words as apparently empirically based as ‘workers’ are fluid with respect to the definitions which may apply to them at any given time. SO, “Under capitalism, the objective referent of ‘workers’ are formally free individuals who sell their labour-power to other individuals to other individuals who own the instruments of production and who operate them in an ever continued quest for profit. Under  socialism and during the transitional period, ‘the workers are those who perform useful labour; they do not sell their labour-power to themselves and their is no other economic class to whom they can sell it.”

Now, as the argument rises to its conclusion, Hook presents the PR critique of Stalinism through his adroit use of elements of Logical Positivist theory:

“Let us examine the position of those who say that by  a workers state, they mean a society in which the workers own the instruments of production.  Very well, what does it mean to say that the Russian workers own the instruments of production? The meaning, on our approach, is determined by the methods used to verify it  and evidence used to substantiate it.  Now so far as I can see, the usual evidence presented as proof of the statement that the workers own the instruments of production are other statements to be found on the statute books.  We observe the social behaviour of men in their relations to each other in order to discover both what is meant and whether what is meant is actually so. is there any other evidence that the workers own the instruments of production in Russia aside from decrees? What can we observe  in practice which will be sufficient evidence one way or the other?

The only clue to that to look for is to be found in other situations where we meaningfully use the term ownership. When we say that a man owns land, buildings or machines, we mean that he has the right (i.e., a claim enforced or forcible by the power of law) to exclude others from its use or enjoyment. No matter what claim a man may make to a thing, if the law will not exclude others from taking or using it, he does not own it. Now if we soberly look at the situation in Russia, we find that the workers do not own the instruments of production, but that a group of men in political posts, who control the armed forces, have the right to exclude any worker or group of workers  from access to the instruments of production. On paper, everyone is guaranteed the right to work; in practice, only those have the right to work who have not opposed the bureaucracy. If we judge the truth of a proposition by observations of human behaviour, we cannot escape the conclusion  that, in the ordinary sense of the term ownership, Stalin and the CP-GPU apparatus own the Russian instruments of production. …

AJ: quod erat demonstrandum that the Stalinists are lying bastards… and demonstrandum that logical positivism has its uses, e.g.,  to expose Stalinism.

Savage Pacifist : Pastoral and Ballad


VOLUME 4,   ISSUE 5,    APRIL 1938

An afterword on the final words of  Philip Rhav’s “Trials of the Mind.”

If you were to look across from page 11 and read Rahv’s final line, which is a tidied up quotation from W.H. Auden’s ‘Spain’: ‘History / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon,’ you would find there two poems by a “young poet,”  D.S. Savage,  “Pastoral”  and “A Ballad.”  The full phrase that Auden had written was  ‘History’ to the defeated,/ May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.’  Though Rahv along with most of the other editors of Partisan Review did advocate  the political position of ‘revolutionary defeatism,’ and though it would have been fairly easy for him to have left the quotation as written, perhaps Rahv hadn’t the sureness and boldness to assert the likelihood of defeat in those months of the Civil War in Spain and the German Anschluss.

“Revolutionary Defeatism”had been Lenin’s position about WWI. The war in Europe he said was an inter-imperialist one, and revolutionaries should aim to defeat their bourgeois governments and military forces, to better undertake the struggle for the consolidation and expansion of International Socialism.

revolutionary defeatism 1917

Not long after WWII had begun in earnest, Rahv and others on the journal modified or entirely changed their positions.  That Rahv more or less ‘repressed’ the phrase which imagines the actual defeat of the Allied Forces,  does wipe off some of the shine from the essay, “Trials of the Mind.”

The two poems by D.S. Savage are also Auden-inflected. “A Ballad” is in the Auden ballad measure, with that characteristic  shock of  blunt reality interrupting more traditional ballad topics:

After a day of working hard

On a canvas-stitching machine

I meet my love in the cinema

On an aluminium screen.

There was a time when I was young

A young man courted me,

He was a mechanic at Ponders End

In a bicycle factory.

[you can enlarge the screen with your fingers to more easilyread the rest of the poem]
22567B68-A9BA-49D4-8B4E-36214D8D1CE3 if you are already familiar with Auden’s ballad forms, you may find it hard to do more than recognise the influence of  Auden on the young poet. I haven’t got much to say about myself.

The other poem, “Pastoral” is more interesting to me.  But when a brilliant poem falls into my world, it remind me how un-lustrous the jobbing work of poem-writing can be…. and “Pastoral” isn’t exactly a stunner.  5F276026-2F5D-4094-A333-42DFEBA053A6

It pre-reminds me(?is that possible?) of what Roethke will do in Root-Cellar, which is less a mood poem than a sensuous phenomenology of rank and decaying nature, and its intransigent refusal to ever be decayed.

Root Cellar                                          Theodore Roethke
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
Savage’s poem is overloaded with stuff as well, and the emptiness at “the beginning of the cold season/the air drowsy with the languorous fulfilment…” is companionable with Keats’s autumn as well.

So why are these poems here and 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 spoke 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 lazy 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 in between Rahv’s essay  and Sidney Hook’s, the next piece in Vol. 5, issue 5, April 1938. —

Philip Rahv’s “Trials of the Mind.”

Philip Rahv, “Trials of the Mind,”:  to read the entire essay, clickhere:


Poum        Anschluss-5       The POUM, the Anschluss,  and  Bukarin’s  TrialRykov, Bukharin, Rakovsky

1937-1938 was a critical time for the communist movement and for the Partisan Review: the Moscow Trials, the Spanish Civil War, and European Fascism together made a bitter poison of crises.

For many of the Partisani, the Moscow Trials were the death throes of the Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of Trotskyist groups new founded in the American and European revolutionary landscape.  Philip Rahv was expelled from the CPUSA, and he, along with Dwight Macdonald and other PR contributors joined in the campaign to protect and exonerate Trotsky.

In Spain, the POUM – “The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification” – was a group formed of disaffected Stalinists, independent communists, and the Trotskyist Communist Left of Spain.   The POUM, though it was quite large in its early days  – came under attack from the Spanish Communist party.  Spanish Trotskyists may have been in the POUM, but Trotsky himself was not a supporter of the TCL, which complicated the issue of Trotskyism altogether, and Trotsky publically disavowed his connection to the group. The POUM attracted a lot of supporters, but the Communist Party of Spain(CPE) was more powerful, and the communists got their arms from the Soviet Union and which gave them both military power and political influence. They attacked the POUM in 1937, and after that, the POUM was driven underground by a combination of Government troops and the CPE.

The Anschluss of March, 1938 annexed Austria to Germany, cutting across one of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, namely, that Germany and Austria could not be united. German Fascism became WWII in September, 1939.

Partisan Review, Volume 4, no.5, April, 1938 opens with the political realities of Fascism and Stalinism in focus.  Rahv’s  “Trials of the Mind,”  a sustained interpretation of   ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness,’ the epigraph from T.S. Eliot, that hovers over the essay.

Our days are ceasing to be. We are beginning to live from hour to hour, awaiting the change of headlines. History has seized time in a brutal embrace. We dread the Apocalypse.

The newspapers recite their tidings: AUSTRIANS KNEEL BEFORE HITLER; NAZIS FLOG LABORERS INTO LINE. And in Moscow the State continues to massacre the firstborn of October. What an inexhaustible repertoire of shame and catastrophe…”.

Rahv’s polemic is fiery, passionate, and even today it persuades us what it felt  like to be in intellectual and political chaos:  “Ninety years have passed since the most subversive document of all times, The Communist Manifesto, injected its directive images into the nascent consciousness of the proletariat. We were not prepared for defeat. The future had our confidence, which we granted freely, sustained by the tradition of Marxism. In that tradition we saw the marriage of science and humanism. But now, amidst all these ferocious surprises, who has the strength to re-affirm his beliefs, to transcend the feeling that he had been duped. One is afraid of one’s fear. Will it soon become so precise as to exclude hope?

The first issue is the Moscow Trials.  While many have become disgusted with Stalin’s manufactured crimes, “Many still cling to their faith — perhaps out of desperate need for some kind of certainty.”  “The monstrosity of my crime is immeasurable!” cried Bukharin. If he told the truth then all that remains for us to do is to bow our heads and listen meekly as capitalism– once again, secure in its ethics — makes haste to preach its sermon over the grave of the revolution.”  

Rahv knew the ideological power of  Russian Christian Orthodoxy, not entirely destroyed in the twenty-one years after the Bolshevik Revolution.  He had been born a Jew in Galicia and ‘no social analysis can explain such diabolic crimes: every attempted explanation  exhausts the resources of the rational. .. Hence, it is not really political criminals who are being tried, but sinners, evildoers, perhaps sorcerers.`’

And he also, as an autodidact and intellectual, knew the shifting allegiances of intellectuals in times of crisis, “the moral collapse of the intellectuals.”  “Among them  smugness has become the pseudonym of panic, and the more rapidly  they abandon the values of culture the more sonorous their speeches in its defence…. If to be a “friend of culture,’ means something more than merely being a friend of books, it is by subjecting  the behaviour of the intellectuals to these supreme tests that we can judge them not only by their politics, but by their morality, — in fact, their culture itself.”

Rahv takes his contemporaries to task: the argument that intellectuals are making now in 1938, he writes, is that culture can survive only if guaranteed by “democratic imperialist powers “in the coming struggle. In other words, they will fight to save culture from being put to a violent death at the hands of fascism, but they are perfectly willing to let it expire peacefully in the bed of bourgeois democracy.” 

And the Moscow Trials have also become excuses for Comintern Intellectuals. He says that some have become “outright defenders of the official versions; others are silent, not ashamed to be spiritually terrorised; only a small minority, mostly of the older generation of intellectuals, dared to speak.”  And in Europe and America, the liberal journals are sitting on the fence, preferring “to view them sub species aeternitis. Perhaps in a hundred years we shall know the truth.”

As the possibility of WWII became closer to reality, Sidney Hook, still a major voice in the NY Intellectual community promoted the position of supporting the US and its Allies in the fight against Fascism — Rahv paid little attention to it, while resolutely declaring the bourgeois imperialist war as counter-revolutionary. Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, just then growing closer to the Partisan Review group, also rejected Hook’s position, and Macdonald became a Trotskyist.  In a later post, we will see how Rahv responded in 1941 to the Macdonald-Greenberg polemic about developing a “Third Camp” outside the anti-Fascist-Bourgeois war, to prepare for a subsequent socialist revolution, after WWII finished.

But here in this fraught essay is as vivid a demonstration of Rahv as a Revolutionary Leftist as one can find of him. And his voice is assured, European in its reach, and it seems invincible. His ideas would change over the next two years.

To read Rahv’s essay in its entirety, click here.