The final piece in Vol IV, No. 1 is RIPOSTES… a chance for the journal to respond to the way its first issue has been been anticipated by the Communist Party’s own ‘premature’ critique, “Long before anything could be known  of its character or content.”

The pro-Stalinist periodicals that attacked PR  included the New Masses and the Daily Worker,  and these organs of the communist movement were quick to accuse the PR of betraying revolutionary principles.  One of the early PR editors and contributors who had also been for a while a literary editor at the New Masses, Fred Dupee, was rubbished by the Daily Worker “for having the gall to demand freedom of expression for attacks against the Soviet Union and against the Communist  movement.”

new-masses        cpusa     images-1

The Daily Worker headlined stories in October 1936, “A Literary Snake Sheds his Skin for Trotzky,” “Trotzkyist Schemers Exposed,”  and “No Quarter for Trotskyists — Literary or Otherwise.”   For the political accusation  underlying  the CP  criticism of PR’s line on literature was  “that the professed literary aims of Partisan Review are merely a smoke screen for its ‘real’ object, which is to spread Trotskyist propaganda.” ….

This may be a good place to add a bit more about the Moscow Trials and the case of Leon Trotsky. The ‘riposte’ to the Daily Worker, cites V.J. Jerome a chief spokesperson for the Communist Party’s line on ‘culture’:  “In the language of V.J. Jerome, one of the party’s deviation experts, we are ‘of the same ilk that murdered Kirov…’ What we, in our innocence, conceived of as a literary magazine has become the organ of the murderers of Kirov. Such is the result of refusing to accept the Party Line in literature.” [AJ: We will return to Trotsky many times — not least because he was critical of ‘Socialist Realism,’ and a modernist. His book, Literature and Revolution (1924) is a wonderful introduction to Marxist literary criticism, and can be accessed at:

Click to access leon-trotskii-literature-and-revolution-1923.pdf

Kirov was the leader of the Leningrad Communist Party, and he worked closely with Stalin and had the good will of much of the Party. In 1934, he was murdered on the street by a CP member, Leonid Nikolaev, and Stalin was moved to undertake an investigation into the murder by the central apparatus of the Party. Although many have argued that it was Stalin’s idea to assassinate Kirov, it is just as likely that Stalin used the occasion of Kirov’s murder to round up various ‘trouble makers’ in the Party, most important of whom was Trotsky, who had been exiled by Stalin 1929, and was now living in  Mexico.  Trotsky and ‘accomplices’ were accused of the Kirov murder, and found guilty of that and of conspiring to kill Stalin and members of the Soviet state’s chief leaders, and to overthrow the Soviet Union.moscow-trial                       kamenev Lev Kaminev
fichapolicialdezinoviev1936 Grigory Zinoviev

Although they had been part of the Revolution as Bolsheviks, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev were on the list of betrayers, and between August19 and 24, their cases and those of other ‘old Bolsheviks’ were heard as part of a Trotskyite-Zinoviev Conspiracy, their guilt decided,  and on the morning of August 25 Kamenev and Zinoview were executed.

Trotsky, at this time had moved to Mexico, where he attempted to stay in as close contact as possible with his supporters, though he made it clear that he did not want to start a rival organization. He was assassinated in 1940, on Stalin’s orders.

Among the Partisan Review editors and many of their contributors, the trial was patently without merit, and when the Communist Party published transcripts of the trial, many US Intellectuals were astonished that the CP could show such obviously faked evidence and forced confessions. Many rallied to the cause of vindicating Trotsky and his principled objections to the Stalinist regime: principally in the Committee to Defend Leon Trotsky, overseen by John Dewey, Sidney Hook’s mentor (you may recall from the last post) and distinguished philosopher of Pragmatism.

And you may also recall that it was when Mary McCarthy woke up one morning to discover that her name was on the letterhead of Dewey’s Committee that she decided to find out what the Trotsky business was all about, which then led her to life-long support of the American Left.

dwight-macdonald-mccarthy-et-al-pr  Mary McCarthy, back row.

next:  Vol. IV, Issue No.2

Hook and Burke


The Book Review section was a mixed zone:  it was where members of the Editorial staff  paced back and forth between the literary and the political, aiming to show the politics of a finely written novel,  and the literary value of a polemical one.  All through it, however, runs a strong argument about the desirability of the mutual influence and independence of literature and politics, while the motor  of the initial dynamic of Partisan Review was to present the betrayal of communist principles by Stalinism, and the betrayal of modern art by Socialist Realism. Among the most polemical, idea-dense, exciting and damning  examples in the first issue is Sidney Hook’s engagement with the work of Kenneth Burke, who was an erudite,  home-grown poet whose genius was often described as Blakean, and a literary theorist who invented an explanation of literature as ‘symbolic action.’

kenneth-burke Kenneth Burke (1897-1993)

While I was a graduate student at Stanford in the late 1970s, we all read Kenneth Burke and  considered his works more as literary texts in their own right than as guides to understanding other authors’ works.  In a complex schema that drew on periodising history as ‘ages,’ and ‘ages’ as producing points of view that had been shaped by the workings of the world and uttered in the dominant metaphors of experiencing that age’s world, Burke, like Blake, wove an interpretive fabric that was as much made of literary figures of speech as it was of argument.  After seminars, we would chat  about ‘terministic screens,’ wondering if Burke’s theory of interpretation was equivalent to the deterministic theories of ideology and identity production just then making their way into our intellectual atmosphere through, among others,  Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Throughout his life  Burke maintained a wide correspondence  with the modernist poets of his age and he had a strong influence on the generation of critics who were mentored by Harold Bloom.

But for Partisan Review’s reviewer, Sidney Hook, the chief interest of Burke’s literary theory lay in Burke’s  being a Communist Party fellow-traveller. Burke had given a speech at the inaugural meeting of the American Writers’ Union, a radical group organised by the John Reed Club of New York, on “Revolutionary Symbolism in America”; it was a harbinger of the CP’s “popular front” politics and the cause for criticism by many writers who were CP members.  He was, in other words, a “premature” popular frontist. Suggesting that the term “proletariat”, or “the workers” should be superseded by  the unifying term, ‘the people,’ Burke said that:

The symbol of “the people,” as distinct from the proletarian symbol, . . . has the tactical advantage of pointing more definitely in the direction of unity. . . . It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which the revolution would bring about–and for this reason seems richer as a symbol of allegiance.” [Henry Hart, ed., American Writers’ Congress (New York: International Publishers, 1935): 90].
Benedict Giamo, a Burke scholar, writes well about this suggestion by Burke:  “This [sic] quote proved prophetic, since four months later the Communist Party, in an attempt to broaden its base, shifted its rhetorical line to what would be known and virtually accepted by all members and sympathizers as the People’s Front (a.k.a. the United Front or Popular Front). But, although the process of increasing tolerance was underway during the years 1934-1935, this more encompassing outlook would not be officially mandated until August of 1935; in April of that year, and especially during the Congress proceedings, despite the factional disputes, the overwhelming sentiment was decidedly elsewhere. Burke would suffer the consequences of his premature vision, for the vagaries of the Party would ostracize him one day only to sloganize the essence of his speech at a later date. [ Benedict Giamo “The Means of Representation: Kenneth Burke and American Marxism,” Kenneth Burke Journal,  url:  http://www.kbjournal.org/spring2009]….

The reviewer, Sidney Hook, was also a committed communist fellow-traveller on the left in these years when tales of the Moscow Trials had not yet been proven true, and before the anti-Stalinism of the left became anti-Stalinism, tout court.sidney-hook  Hook had been a socialist  since his youth and he grew into a serious Marxist theorist and historian. He later  became a professor of Philosophy at NYU, and he was throughout his career an advocate of John Dewey’s philosophy of Pragmatism.   In his memoir of the Partisan Review, The Truants, William Barrett quotes Dwight Macdonald saying, sometime in the 1930s, “Look, there are a hundred and twenty million people in the United States, and Sidney Hook is America’s Number One Marxist. That’s good enough for me.”

So both Burke and Hook were thought of at this time as brilliant thinkers and intellectual activists.  Neither was a member of the Communist Party, but they actively participated in CP-sponsored event and periodicals.  But Hook was primarily a philosophical thinker and interpreter of Marx, while Burke was far more concerned with his literary work, albeit within his declared position: “I am not a joiner of societies, I am a literary man. I can only welcome Communism by converting it into my own vocabulary.”  

Hook starts his review of Burke’s Attitudes Towards History as  a plain speaking yeoman Pragmatist, “The greatest difficulty that confronts the reader of Burke is finding out what he means.”  The body of Hook’s exposition of Burke’s theoretical views depends on Hook’s  idea of ‘theory’ as a plotting out and abstracting of points that can then be confirmed by reference to certain ‘facts’ of the case.   But I would say that  Burke’s idea of a ‘theory’ is as a model whose elements  we use to make sense of the world through a set of concepts and metaphors whose connections, through interpretation, can map out a vision of the world.   Having reduced Burke from a productive thinker to a relativist,  he goes on to say that Burke doesn’t understand Hook’s own philosophical mentor, John Dewey, “having pillaged from him to the limits of his understanding,” and then opens the main movement of his critique by showing Burke as a defender of Stalin, based in that political and moral relativism.   He turns the criticism later made by Stalinists of  Burke’s ‘pre-mature Popular Frontism’ into Burke’s apology for Stalin’s  crimes in the USSR: “His own function consists  in being an apologist, not after the fact, but before the fact, of the latest piece of Stalinist brutality.”   Hooke is particularly incensed by Burke’s having conceded that there might be some “plausibility to the accusations laid against the ‘Old Bolsheviks’in the Moscow Trials.” Hook concludes that “despite his relativism and moral nihilism, Burke cannot offer a workable ideology to the political tendency of which he is a fellow-traveller.”

What you have to keep remembering, when reading the reviews, is that the influence of the CPUSA was immense in the 1930s and that the people writing for PR were part of a very small group who were willing to critically examine the materials of the Moscow Trials. Mary McCarthy found herself on the Committee to Defend Leon Trotsky, who had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1928, having been found guilty of trying to overthrow the Soviet State  in 1936 (in absentia) and who was murdered in 1940in Mexico.  Mary McCarthy writes in her Intellectual Memoirs about how strange it was from 1936 onwards to have become an outsider to the dominant left tendency in New York through her association with the Trotsky Defense group. McCarthy found herself shunned by the stalwart communists and fellow-travellers who had earlier hired her to write and review in various left wing journals. That environment, no doubt, was part of the initial intimate cohesion of the anti-Stalinist left in the later 1930s.

In the 2nd issue of Partisan Review, there is a bitter exchange between Burke and Hook, as Burke aims to justify himself and Hook replies with as harsh a voice as in the review I have been discussing in this post. But we will get to that.

trotsky-1    The young Leon Trotsky

Read the Review: Partisan Review, VOl. 4, Issue 1, pp. 58-64.





next: Ripostes.






Witty unto Cruel

The last 20 pages  of Vol.4, No.1  are more provocative  than the earlier essays and articles because they are written in the more argumentative style of the Editors and close members of the PR circle.  Here we find reviews of recent books,  and in the section called “Ripostes,”the polemical style prevails in the factional arguments within the Communist movement in the period of the Moscow Trials.

ben-hechtUnder the rubric, “Theatre Chronicle,” Mary McCarthy offers her first contribution as the journal’s theatre critic.  It was the occasion for McCarthy to give her knives an airing. Her witty, insightful, and cruel operation  on the Theater Guild’s production of Ben Hecht’s To Quito and Back displayMcCarthy’s sharply honed way with  words as she impales  progressive, non-commercial theater in the 1930s. The Theater Guild, which grew out of the Washington Square Players, was designed to have all functions of the Theatre, from administration through performance, organised by a Board of Directors. It had become famous with its productions of G.B.Shaw’s plays, and plays by Eugene O’Neill, and it ran productions from 1918 through the 1990s.


Mary McCarthy, then 24 years old, had recently divorced her actor husband, Harold Johnsrud. While at work for the publishing firm, Covici-Friede, who published Ben Hecht’s The Front Page, McCarthy had read Hecht’s To Quito and Back in manuscript, and with her links to the theatre world she was able, in her review, to puncture Hecht’s authority (he had already written the screenplays for The Front Page, Scarface, and The Twentieth Century by this time) and criticise  the Theater Guild. The production had gutted the play of all intellectual content by substituting for  it ‘stage business’:“The characters in the  midst of  what ever they were saying were bounding about the stage, jumping up and sitting down, climbing over furniture and pacing the floor. . . The Guild directors, between them, carved the play into a turkey.”

McCarthy is also irked by the Hamlet echoes Hecht uses to portray the irresolution of the hero.“It is not,as Mr. Hecht believes, the irresolution of a man who is able to see all sides of a question; it is the impotence of a man who is afraid of making a fool of himself.The play, indeed, is a small undignified monument of social and intellectual terror. The see-sawings of the hero are merely an objectification of the nervousness of the author.”

Her main charge is that Hecht is a timid, embarrassed radical:“Mr Hecht, it would appear, has been converted or frightened by intellectual fashion into giving lip-service to radicalism. Yet this radicalism he does not face squarely in the drawing rooms of New York or the studios of Hollywood. He must transport it and himself ( in a somewhat flattering disguise ) to a comic-opera Ecuador, where revolutionary generals are just-too-pricelessly-funny, Emperor Jones Negroes are commissars, the working class is represented by a sentimental servant girl who sympathizes with the communists but knows her place just the same.”

She ends by attacking Hecht as a man: a phony radical, “his agonised sincerity must be rated as the final, most vulgar sham.”



McCarthy had come to New York City after graduating from Vassar College, and she found work writing reviews for The Nation, and the New Republic,  and as she remind us in her Intellectual Memoirs,  1936 was the opening of the Popular Front — which involved an appeal to liberals to join with Communists against Fascism. She was not a member of the  Communist Party but she was now living within the New York literary milieu that  had to face up to the splits between Trotskyists and Stalinists, many of whom soon found themselves outside both the CPUSA and the liberal periodicals.  And new though she was to the New York scene of dissident Party members and fellow-travellers,  McCarthy agreed to be  on the Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky, drawing her closer to the anti-Stalinists at PR.

At the time she was Philip Rahv’s girlfriend, and some of her  friends have speculated that she was given the title of Theater Critic because theater was something that “the boys” of the Editorial Board didn’t care much about. In her introduction to a collection of her  theater reviews for PR, McCarthy recalled:


“All my habits of mind were bourgeois, my fellow editors used to tell me.
They were always afraid that I was going to do something, in real life or
in print, that would “disgrace Partisan Review”; this was a fear that
worried me even more than it did them. I used to come down to the office on
Saturdays (I worked for a publisher during the week) and listen to the men argue, in the inner room, beyond the partition, pounding the table and
waving their arms in the air. Once a month, late at night, after the dishes
were done, I would write my ‘Theatre Chronicle,’ hoping not to sound
bourgeois and give the Communists ammunition.”

Her first review must have surely shown those ‘boys’ in the ‘inner room’ her flair for incisive and polemical writing.

read the review — click on the link below.


“No Worst,There is None”*

‘No worst, there is none’*

So, the Nov 8 2016 US Presidential election has proven, once again, that reactionary, right-wing politics go hand in hand with anti-intellectualism, contempt for rational discourse, and disdain for creativity and critique. 

I hope this blog will remind readers that the intelligentsia, urban or not, has a lot to contribute to the conversations and polemics and stories and poems and paintings and sculpture and songs that initiate, preserve, and extend human rights and freedoms.

We are going to need a lot of all that discussion, advocacy, and analysis over the next four years.

*Gerard Manley Hopkins, a line from one of his ‘terrible’ sonnets.


Now…back to the Partisan Review…1937.



“Laugh and Lie Down”: Dwight MacDonald — Unmanageable Intellect

unknown   Macdonald looking into the abyss of mid cult.

Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) described himself  as a ‘literary journalist’ when he was interviewed by Diana Trilling in 1979, after many decades of writing about politics, literature, and the world at large for magazines and journals on the Left and occassionally on the Right.   He is one of the most engaging of the Partisaners, because he was, for the most part, unmanageable. He argued with most people he knew, quit PR to start his own journal of politics, Politics.  He was supportive and friendly to most people he also argued with, and he seems to me at times to be compounded, like Ezra Pound, of bombast, acute sensitivity, utopianism,  and generosity. There will be many articles and essays to read by Mcdonald from at least 30 years of PR. We will be able to see the intellectual range of his work and its importance to the Partisan Review and to ideas of American culture.

As a journalist, Macdonald’s beat was the world of what he called ‘the urban intelligentsia’– from his first NYC jobs, at Henry Luce’s Time and Fortune magazines, then as an Editor at Partisan Review, the Editor of Politics [his  breakaway journal from PR ], a staff writer for a decade at the New Yorker, and contributor to many other journals and magazines of mid-century thought, politics, literature, and the arts. As he moved  through the circles of high-end capitalism and revolutionary anarcho-anti-Stalinism, MacDonald wrote with brio, gusto, and passion. Always engaged in the Enlightenment hard work of critique, MacDonald was also able to contradict himself, change his opinions and arguments.

Born somewhere near the middle of the East Coast’s hierarchies of class, money, and power, MacDonald, like his father before him, went to an elite private boarding school, Philips Exeter, and then on to Yale. Its easy to surmise that James Agee learned about the freedoms of thinking and writing and arguing from MacDonald, who was a few years his senior at Exeter, and soon both a correspondent and a friend to Agee.

unknown   Macdonald looking into the revolutionary future.

His contribution to this first issue of the Rahv & Philips new style Partisan Review,  “Laugh and Lie Down”  is a clever and persuasive critique of the New Yorker’s complicity with  attempts to ‘de-odorising’ the difficulties of experience, which  would later  feed into his theories of mass culture, still influential today.

Macdonald’s thesis is that “The typical New Yorker writer has given up the struggle to make sense out of a world which daily grows more complicated. His stock of data is strictly limited to the inconsequential.”  He writes that the magazine, when it was first published in 1925, cultivated a kind of humour that was sharper than what was on hand by 1937. It had begun with a kind of wit which made fun of those beyond the Ohio River

not unlike Saul Sternberg’s 1976 steinberg-map-of-americamap of America, seen from 9th Avenue) ,  and also found itself that same year with a wonderful case of what would now be thought of as Tea-Party versus the acerbic urbanistas in the the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a high school teacher was fined for having taught Evolutionary theory to his students, contravening a state law which forbade it. “The Editors of the New Yorker sensed complete reader-support. They ran editorials, articles, eye witness accounts of the trial. For a time it almost seemed that the  New Yorker had been specially to report on the the Scopes affair.”

But that was an early high-point. Since then the magazine had begun to slide. And the Crash of 1929, while it did not turn the New Yorker away from its satirical writers, certainly vacuumed out much of its snobby hot air:

“The Transition from the self-confident, magisterial satire of the Scopes trial period to the gentle humour of a [James] Thurber, self-confessed ninny and know-nithing, simply reflects a similar change in the position of the ruling class. The present New Yorker formula for pathos and humor is an expression of a deep-rooted uncertainty about itself which this class has come to feel because of it impotence in the late economic crisis.”


What is wonderful about Macdonald’s critique is that it doesn’t impinge on his high-spirited and admiring judgement on Thurber’s cartoons. Thurber’s “is the much the most freely imaginative creation” of  the humorists at the magazine. His work “often transcends realistic observation to reach an absolute, personal fantasy. In my opinion, Thurber is the New Yorker’s most important writer…”

This brief introduction to one of  Macdonald’s array  of styles will, I hope take you to the article itself which you can access: part 2 of the piece is Macdonald’s soi-disant Freudian discussion of the symptoms of the New Yorker’s neuroses — staff and text!:


once there then go to 1937, Vol.4, pages 44-53

And I also hope you will google James Thurber Cartoons to be reminded of his mix of pathos and wit.

“laugh and lie down,’ by the way, is the name of a card game first described in 1655. Dave Parlet writes”

“The title refers to the fact that when you can no longer capture any table cards you must “lay down” by throwing your hand in, whereupon the other players are supposed to laugh at you. Strictly, therefore, it should be “Laugh and lay down”, but one who lays down is said to lie down, which somehow sounds better and in any case is generally preferred”    (dave parley. eu)