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.


2 thoughts on “Philip Rahv’s “Trials of the Mind.”

  1. Great post. Especially liked how you took the time to explain the POUM’s complex politics. It’s often simply categorized as “Trotskyist,” which as you note isn’t entirely right. The split at PR in the early 1940s over the war is seminal in the history of the anti-Stalinist Left and the birth of Cold War liberalism. Looking forward to reading what you have to say about it.


    1. yeah, I guess I’ll have to figure that out when I get to it!… Thanks for the boost, though..its great having you as a regular reader. AJ


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