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 (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. 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.
The young Leon Trotsky
Read the Review: Partisan Review, VOl. 4, Issue 1, pp. 58-64.