Issue No.3, February 1938 reproduces the pattern of the first two numbers of Partisan Review: high lit crit by Edmund Wilson on High Lit– Henry James; poems by contemporaries, disclosing the Modernism of the moment; “Art” and “Theatre” Chronicles by Morris and by McCarthy, and much to my joy, a piece by Philip Rahv, who I cherish in my intellectual romanticism as the bear-hero of the group, and Mary McCarthy’s only true love (even if she forgot that fact for all the decades before his death in 1974).
Philip Rahv and Dwight McDonald (in glasses)leaning forward, next to each other. 1937
At Partisan Review, Rahv was the chief Thinker or perhaps, chief Humanist, and his passionate intellectual presence was quite different from the ad hoc and sparky brilliance of Dwight McDonald.
In “Two Years of Progress — from Waldo Frank to Donald Ogden Stewart– Rahv returns us to the Burke-Hook issue, the Moscow Trials, and Stalinism. (see below, Burke-Hook). Rahv discusses the Communist Party’s attempt to promote Stalinist politics through the encouragement of “revolutionary writing.”
“In organising gatherings of writers this party cleverly transforms its barracks ideology into the angelic diction of culture-yearning and humanist largesse. Its representatives are skilled in palming off administrative notions as principles of criticism and suppressing intellectual freedom in the name of the defence of culture.”
Rahv distinguishes the Conference of 1935 from that of 1937 by its call for the fight against fascism as part of the fight against capitalism, and recognising that “imperialist FASCIST wars [are different] from imperialist DEMOCRATIC wars.” Rahv goes on:”[the Stalinists] These people have never learned to distinguish between the living world and the mechanised dreams of their party-apparatus.” This is a small space in which Rahv allows the revolutionary dream to announce itself just as it is being mechanised into what Rahv calls ‘the mechanism of political seduction.’
Rahv goes on to tell the story of Kenneth Burke’s speech at the 1935 Conference, where he used the term ‘people’ rather than ‘workers,’ and was criticised for using a term that obfuscated the distinction between explicit classes — But in August that year the Comintern decided to make the switch from ‘workers’ to ‘people’ as a Party revision. “Within the space of two years the “revolutionaries” of 1935 had substituted the stars and stripes of New Deal Marxism for [what Louis Aragon had called in his letter of support to the 1935 Conference]“the red flag of the new materialism.”
One more point about the 1935 Conference. It was there that Waldo Frank became a CP ‘hero’ . He had been a radical youth, rebellious at school, and an eager convert to Communism, and then to the CPUSA. He was given the privileged task of making the opening saddress at the 1935 Conference, held at the MECCA TEMPLE on W. 55th Street, NYC: Frank gave a rousing speech, at the end of which “he concluded with the cry: “Everything remains to be done. Let us get to work! “‘ Frank was elected President of the League of American Writers, which he remained until the second Conference in 1937.
So it was then that the CP took on the campaign as the People’s Front, and with it the focus of the struggle turned to Spain. And there it was seen purely as the battle between fascism and democracy, and in the USA, to “defend our bountiful bourgeois democracy.” As the popular front became the password for the War, the elements of socialist revolutionary thought eroded, and at the Second Conference, Earl Browder “called for the denial of free speech and the democratic rights of public controversy to all political opinion to the left of the Communist Party.”
When Frank was replaced by Donald Ogden Stewart as President of the League of American Writers’, it was because Frank had met Trotsky in the 1937, and had encouraged Dewey to set up the International Tribune to investigate Stalin’s charges against Trotsky. Earl Browder condemned Frank’s position, and Frank left the Party in 1937.
Donald Ogden Stewart, on the other hand, was a Hollywood screen-writer, and a solid member of the CP. Stewart fits Rah’s definition of a ‘stooge’ :’a necessary lubricant’ in the CP practice of ‘political seduction.’ Stewart with his Oscar
Rahv draws his piece to a close by returning to the literary itself. In contrast to what CP writers say of the greatness of contemporary literature, “an imaginary crop of masterpieces was invoked to give the Congress its literary raison d’être. Actually, of course, literature in America has seldom been so stagnant as at present.”
But as a man interested in the truth, Rahv was ready to praise the early years of the CPUSA.“The Stalinists, despite their insane sectarianism played an advanced role in the early 1930s. They popularised some of the fundamental ideas of Marxism among American intellectuals, no matter how much they themselves misapplied these ideas in practice. Their literary policy was a reflection of a narrow and factional Party Line, but since the Party based itself on revolutionary principles, it was possible for them to release certain revolutionary forces. But the point about the Stalinists now is that they not only stand between the writer and Marxism but between him and the elementary kind of integrity. The tradition of individual judgement, of skepticism, of scientific verification is inherent in the very terms and conditions of knowledge. The collectivity of the Marxist movement aims to raise this tradition to a level of material consistency and conscious political direction.”
Appendix — personal note. Rahv was also very interested in James, and though he roasted my mother when she applied the principles of cultic piety to the Master, Rahv belongs in my Tintner-James karass (see Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle). He dismissed my sister and myself when my mother declared that her children were readers of James, but had little time for Proust. As if Rahv could care about what College Students thought?! Finally, Rahv was a member of the faculty at Brandeis University from 1957 until he died, which is where I had my necessary and exhilarating hazing as an Assistant Professor in the 1980s, and my education as a combatant against the anodyne with the help of Allen Grossman and Timo Gilmore.
NEXT: Ballet and Miro.