NOTE:  For reasons I haven’t discovered yet, the BU online Partisan Review is not working .  I think the Schapiro article is very interesting, and will be of interest to those interested in Mumford, in Schapiro, and in issues of reform and revolution. Since I can’t make a link to the text, I give you here the info for finding it in the NYPL or the BL, or university libraries:

Meyer Schapiro, “Looking forward to looking backward” Partisan Review,  vol.5, No.2 July, 1938, pp 12-25.

Meyer Shapiro (by Alice Neel)

In 1938, Meyer Schapiro, the art historian we have met before (see post in this blog: 28 January, 2017) was 34 years old and teaching at Columbia. His contribution to the June, 1938 issue of  Partisan Review was a detailed exegesis of Lewis Mumford’s important book, The Culture of Cities (1938).  Mumford, who later went to to win the National Book Award in 1962, was tat this time, 43, not quite ten years older than Schapiro, and had already won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932. His book was given a front page review in the NY Times Book Review, where it was enthusiastically reviewed by R.L. Duffus, who had a strong reputation at The New York Times from 1937 through 1962.

Unknown-9 Lewis Mumford  $_57 April 17, 1938

The two culture and art critics — Mumford and Schapiro–   were well matched for intellectual engagement. Schapiro’s essay, wryly titled “Looking Forward to Looking Back” reminds  us that exposition is 70% of intepretation;  Schapiro’s sharp criticism of Mumford’s ‘reformism’ arises from his very clear exposition of Mumford’s argument. This provides the evidence with which to judge  Mumford’s study in relation to Schapiro’s intellectual world, which at this time was the Trotskyism and community (well lets call it the gang) around Partisan Review. 

(I have lifted the next paragraph from my earlier blog post on Schapiro: )Meyer Schapiro grew up in  Brooklyn.  Born in Lithuania in 1904, he came with his mother to New York in 1907, to join his father, who taught Hebrew in the city.  Schapiro was interested in art and in politics from an early age, and his work as an art historian was marked by his concern for  the social and cultural influences on art, and as experienced by the artist. He wrote for the Nation, Partisan Review, and the New Masses.  Although he worked on ancient art and sculpture, he was fascinated by and wrote much about contemporary art as well. My sense is that his academic credentials were so strong that many on the Left left him out of the set of those who were pilloried for not being activists.  But it is also the case that most of the Partisan Review considered him to be the creator of a new kind of art history — that was as engaged with the issues of class struggle as with those of technique.  If you want to read some great articles he wrote, I recommend you go to rosswolfe’s The Charnel House blog on WordPress, where you will find a number of Schapiro’s most interesting papers, including his 1950 critique of Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Its a very satisfying read.

If you don’t already know the vocabulary of left politics in  1938, Trotskyists, who had been expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, held on quite adamantly to the distinction between  reform and revolution. Reformism wasn’t simply a call for the reformation of the state, but a prospect of  a slowish but posited inevitable replacement of capitalism by socialism. That is, proponents  drew on Marxist principles while eschewing the practice of revolutionary violence, and did not feel they had compromised the goal of socialism or communism.  Everyone else felt the opposite; namely, that reformism was counter-revolutionary and a betrayal of Communism.  Now that we are well into the issues of 1938, the Stalinist Show trials, the German invasion of Austria, and the creation of a Trotskyist movement in exile, you can see how pusillanimous  the reformists seemed to Revolutionary activists.1907-or-1908-maybe-rosa-luxemburg-rls

The distinction between the two was articulated by Rosa Luxemburg  in a pamphlet she wrote in 1899.  She argued that the political groups of trade unions, and social democrats, while important to the proletariat’s development of class consciousness  cannot create a socialist society.

Schapiro’s criticism of Mumford is born from Luxemburg’s and Trotsky’s politics, but has the added authority of Schapiro’s reputation as an art historian. The dove-tailing  of his academic authority  with his political orientation grounds his argument  that Mumford is inaccurate in questions of art history, over-generalised in his models of historical change, and Reformist in his model of socialist change.

What Schapiro calls Mumford’s “thesis” is a reformist programme of what would constitute “the possibilities of a good city in the future.” Having noted that Mumford’s work is “a work of public education, and full of informative matter, often curious and delightful, touching on many more aspects of history than are ordinarily treated in books on architecture and planning,”  He goes on to eat away, like a friendly but insistent mouse at Mumford’s assumptions, attitudes, and positions. The shape of history that Mumford presents is one in which the securities of medieval life were wrecked by the “the rise of machine technology, despotism, militarism, and capitalism , that the city began to assume its present and hypertrophied.” 

For example, Schapiro argues that Mumford has substituted style for a more complex social and political and cultural network of influences. In Mumford’s writing, style dissolves its specific  meaning into something much less accurate and less useful: “Thus Mumford gives a paramount importance to the concept of ‘baroque,’ by which he designates practically the whole of post-medieval society from the 15th century to the 19th.”  Mumford has, Schapiro writes, seen a turn around from this deterioration in the work of urban planning since the later decades of the 19th century. Now he embraces the “newer ideals of regionalism, conservation, and the garden city, all related to the “biotechnic economy” patterned on the organism.”   You can guess that this is going to end in something unlike revolutionary socialism.   It does.   The Garden City Movement, begun by Ebeneezer Howard after the publication in 1889 of  Edward Bellemy’s, “Looking Backward”, a utopian novel of socialism triumphant, was a version of what Mumford encouraged, and helps explains Schapiro’s essay’s title “Looking forward to lookin back.”


Schapiro moves from Mumford’s inaccuracy about style to his reduction of elements of pictorial art to the determinations of history, through a technique of analogical thinking: for Mumford, “The forms seem to arise from a field. beyond the canvas (politics)….But no historian of art will take the comparison seriously …. ” and goes on to list a number of technical aspects of art form that Mumford misunderstands in his discussion of the organic.

Shapiro wins in the disciplined logic of his critique of Mumford, and makes something of a fool of him. But then, Schapiro has an organised field of Marxist analysis to guide him.

When I read Schapiro’s post-war work of the 60s and 70s  I find something of Mumford’s spirit of adventure in his own arguments, even though Mumford had the ‘wrong line’ –Reformism!