F.W. Dupee “The English Literary Left”

While Partisan Review published poems and stories that belong to the 1930s poetic archive as modernist explorations and ones that aimed to present ‘proletarianised’ poetics of everyday lives of oppression, the most searching and lyrically polemical texts were written by the Auden circle in England.   These poems, however were not particularly  ‘proletarian,’  not entirely Modernist, and only a few of its circle were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The group was comprised of Louis McNiece (1907-1963), C. Day Lewis(1904- 1972)  Steven Spender(1905-1999), and, as Fred Dupee writes in his evaluation of the ‘English Literary Left,’ (Partisan Review, Vol. V, No.3, August-September, 1938), “In the centre of the Auden circle, looking both ways, is W.H. Auden(1907-1973) himself.” 

Auden 1939



Stephen Spender 1933
Louis MacNeice, 1930s
C. Day Lewis.



They were all men who had been educated at Oxford and they were all linked one way or another, to the Communist Party, some through friendships made at University, some as fellow-travelers; they floated in a literary community of poetry, politics, and cultural privilege. McNeice, for example, had a long friendship with Anthony Blunt, one of the “Cambridge Spies” who had long been Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

This was no clique of CCNY or Columbia Jewish students.

But then, our essayist, F.W. Dupee wasn’t either Jewish or working class — born in Chicago, both he and his father had been graduates of Yale, where he became friends with Dwight Macdonald, and then found his way as a bohemian,  writing, travelling in Mexico, and arriving in New York, to re-start his literary life with Macdonald,  where they had founded a short-lived magazine, The Miscellany. Along the way, he grew closer to the left, as so many did in 1930s New York, London, San Franscisco….and he joined the CPUSA in the mid-1930s, becoming an organiser for the Longshoreman’s Union. He began writing for The New Masses, but when the Moscow Trials started in 1937,  Dupee moved to the Trotskyist Left and soon became an Editor of Partisan Review.

SO what does Dupee do with the “Literary Left” in his essay on the Auden Circle? Well, his argument is dialectical, or maybe its simply divided — the Auden people are very good poets — and they have the distinction or the curse of emerging from an underlying literary tradition “that was aristocratic; it was, moreover, still comparatively  vigorous. And the young English poets glanced back towards that tradition as often as they looked ahead towards any other.”

There is certainly a lot of that in Auden, and his nativism is marked as well. But when you look at poems where Auden borrows most from native tradition — in particular, the ballad stanza — he uses its phatic functions of repetition and rhyme to make them appear distorted because they are concrete and particular;  it’s impossible to avoid the poem’s contemporary redesign as a new architecture: here is an example from “As I walked out one evening…..”


……‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

Dupee is proud that American left-wing literature is cleaner and more honest that that of the Auden circle, more ‘proletarianised’: “Politically [the Auden circle] falls short of the specifications for a leftwing group, and in a literary sense they tend to exceed [the Americans]. In fact, the CPUSA, Dupee claims, had a clear field ahead for planting an American proletarian literature, because “it was working in a cultural vacuum.” 

There wasn’t a significant Modernist movement in England, Dupee argues, though there were certainly plenty of fascist enthusiasms in the world of art and literature. It was Left-wing Modernism that England didn’t have to hand; and that meant the 1930s was only partially fuelled by exploratory modernism. So, he writes,

“With its shifting points of view  and its incredible contradictions, the world of the New Poetry seems a veritable fantasia of modern art and ideology. In addition to the task of erecting on English soil the technical machinery of modernist literature, it has had the mission of enlightening  benighted Britain on sex.”

Really?  I’m not convinced that that task has succeeded and its 2017 now, though Freudian mythic method still operates here. Bloomsbury’s affair with Freud has long been blended on the Left with Marxism, and Dupee argues that:

“In England, the belated reformers were faced, not only with a neurotic family life, but with a prostrated society.  Hence they could not be satisfied to derive from the new psychology not merely a literary program and a bohemian ethic. The Freudian perspective was raised to a social gospel, sometimes competing with the historical perspective of Marxism, but more often simply melting into it.”  

This was true again in the 1970s and 1980s, when British intellectuals thought the problem facing Marxism was how to negotiate between psychoanalysis and historical materialism. Here in the 21st century, the problem is vestigial, and is left mostly to literary critics, while Leftists have recovered the position that the problem facing Marxism is how to get rid of capitalism.

Dupee’s analysis of Stephen Spender’s CP poetics makes him a bourgeois liberal linked to Fabian socialism: “The social democracy on which the older Fabians had leaned was now discredited; the new Fabians discovered the  Comintern. And at the same time, of course, the Comintern began to seek out the Fabians [AJ: the program of popular frontism, etc.] English reformism thus acquired what it had badly needed; the tradition of a successful revolution; and Stalinism possessed itself of a respectable facade for its adventures in class collaboration.  For Spender the emergency manoeuvres of the Soviet foreign office became the norms of socialist action; the People’s Front of Spain and France he accepted as full-fledged socialist governments; and the injustices, the tyrannies, the crimes of the Soviet regime were put down as misdemeanours which the new ‘democratic constitution’  would correct.”  

So Spender is a Stalinist, and next to go will be Auden: Dupee characterises his contemporary Auden as a man who has retreated into the psychologism of his fellow-poets, into individualism, and who responds by making a new image — the Healer — which Dupee tells us was a symbol given to him by two German psychiatrists. ” In any case, the Healer is a kind of psychiatric saint or redeemer.”

“It is hardly necessary to point out that the militant period of Auden and Spender corresponded to the years of hope and struggle in the revolutionary movement itself. But as the movement deteriorated, sowing reformist manoeuvres and reaping disasters, so there emerged once more that vast vague Atlantis of idealist illusion on which, so long as it is visible, the intelligentsia will set their hopes.”

As I keep saying, its that summer of 1938…and things are going to get worse.







Trotsky on Art and Politics: A Letter to the Editors of Partisan Review, June 18, 1938

You have been kind enough to invite me to express my views on the state of present-day arts and letters. I do this not without some hesitation. Since my book Literature and Revolution (1923), I have not once returned to the problem of artistic creation and only occasionally have I been able to follow the latest developments in this sphere. I am far from pretending to offer an exhaustive reply. The task of this letter is to correctly pose the question.”


523b45b6f00a8501ca913a84d603ba9e Dwight McDonald

Imagine the buzz around PR.  Trotsky’s letter was written in Coyoacan on June 18, 1938,  then published  in Partisan Review’s August-September issue, Vol.V, No.3. Macdonald had been moving towards Trotskyism since the beginning of the Moscow Trials, and once he had joined Rahv and Phillips on the editorial board of PR, his enthusiasm brought them into  Trotskyist orbit.   Trotsky was living in exile at the estate of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, when Macdonald ask him to write for the journal.   But Macdonald’s enthusiasm wasn’t quite matched by Trotsky’s. In Louis  Menand’s  wry and intelligent sketch in The New Yorker he re-tells the story of Trotsky’s opinion of Dwight:

“Every man has a right to be stupid,” Trotsky is supposed to have said, “but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” It is unclear whether Trotsky ever expressed just this thought in just this way (though it is certainly the kind of thing that Trotsky was accustomed to saying about his antagonists: “stupid” had specific dialectical force in Marxist polemic). But Macdonald treated it as a wound honorably incurred in intellectual combat, and he repeated the remark against himself throughout his life.” ( “BrowBeaten,” Louis Menand, The New Yorker, September 5, 2011).

Nonetheless Trotsky wrote a wonderfully clear and insightful essay on the fortunes of texts in the new regime of Stalinism… instead of commenting on it, I have pasted the letter in this post, courtesy of the Trotsky Internet Library.

The only thing I want to say is that Trotsky’s first sentence, about posing the question correctly was still a common convention in the1970s. With a proliferation of small groups on the left, and the hairsplitting of arguments,I learned that if someone from another group, say the SwP made a point that someone from the IMG didn’t agree with, the strategy was to announce that the way the question was posed was the problem— not the point being made. Then you could make a counter argument that was your point, opening with a question posed that would yield the ‘correct’ way of thinking about it. Many a time was I ambushed by that strategy.

But in this case, Trotsky was right . Here we go


You have been kind enough to invite me to express my views on the state of present-day arts and letters. I do this not without some hesitation. Since my book Literature and Revolution (1923), I have not once returned to the problem of artistic creation and only occasionally have I been able to follow the latest developments in this sphere. I am far from pretending to offer an exhaustive reply. The task of this letter is to correctly pose the question.

Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for an harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion. Bourgeois society showed its strength throughout long periods of history in the fact that, combining repression, and encouragement, boycott and flattery, it was able to control and assimilate every “rebel” movement in art and raise it to the level of official “recognition.” But each time this “recognition” betokened, when all is said and done, the approach of trouble. It was then that from the left wing of the academic school or below it – i.e. from the ranks of new generation of bohemian artists – a fresher revolt would surge up to attain in its turn, after a decent interval, the steps of the academy. Through these stages passed classicism, romanticism, realism, naturalism, symbolism, impressionism, cubism, futurism … Nevertheless, the union of art and the bourgeoisie remained stable, even if not happy, only so long as the bourgeoisie itself took the initiative and was capable of maintaining a regime both politically and morally “democratic.” This was a question of not only giving free rein to artists and playing up to them in every possible way, but also of granting special privileges to the top layer of the working class, and of mastering and subduing the bureaucracy of the unions and workers’ parties. All these phenomena exist in the same historical plane.

Decay of Capitalist Society

The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. It fears superstitiously every new word, for it is no longer a matter of corrections and reforms for capitalism but of life and death. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base. Hence new tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the last few decades – cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism – follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.

To find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all culture, beginning at its economic base and ending in the highest spheres of ideology. Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably – as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture founded on slavery – unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. This task is essentially revolutionary in character. For these reasons the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution.

But precisely in this path history has set a formidable snare for the artist. A whole generation of “leftist” intelligentsia has turned its eyes for the last ten or fifteen years to the East and has bound its lot, in varying degrees, to a victorious revolution, if not to a revolutionary proletariat. Now, this is by no means one and the same thing. In the victorious revolution there is not only the revolution, but there is also the new privileged class which raises itself on the shoulders of the revolution. In reality, the “leftist” intelligentsia has tried to change masters. What has it gained?

The October revolution gave a magnificent impetus to all types of Soviet art. The bureaucratic reaction, on the contrary, has stifled artistic creation with a totalitarian hand. Nothing surprising here! Art is basically a function of the nerves and demands complete sincerity. Even the art of the court of absolute monarchies was based on idealization but not on falsification. The official art of the Soviet Union – and there is no other over there – resembles totalitarian justice, that is to say, it is based on lies and deceit. The goal of justice, as of art, is to exalt the “leader,” to fabricate an heroic myth. Human history has never seen anything to equal this in scope and impudence. A few examples will not be superfluous.

The well known Soviet writer, Vsevolod Ivanov, recently broke his silence to proclaim eagerly his solidarity with the justice of Vyshinsky. The general extermination of the old Bolsheviks, “those putrid emanations of capitalism,” stimulates in the artists a “creative hatred” in Ivanov’s words. Romantic, cautious by nature, lyrical, none too outspoken, Ivanov recalls Gorki, in many ways, but in miniature. Not a prostitute by nature, he preferred to remain quiet as long as possible but the time came when silence meant civil and perhaps physical annihilation. It is not a “creative hatred” that guides the pen of these writers but paralyzing fear.

Alexis Tolstoy, who has finally permitted the courtesan to master the artist, has written a novel expressly to glorify the military exploits of Stalin and Voroshilov at Tsaritsin. In reality, as impartial documents bear witness, the army of Tsaritsin – one of the two dozen armies of the revolution – played a rather sorry role. The two “heroes” were lieved of their posts. [1] If the honest and simple Chapayev, one of the real heroes of the civil war is glorified in a Soviet film, it is only because he did not live until the “epoch of Stalin” which would have shot him as a Fascist agent. The same Alexis Tolstoy is now writing a drama on the theme of the year 1919: The Campaign of the Fourteen Powers. The principal heroes of this piece, according to the words of the author, are “Lenin, Stalin and Voroshilov. Their images [of Stalin and Voroshilov!] haloed in glory and heroism, will pervade the whole drama.” Thus, a talented writer who bears the name of the greatest and most truthful Russian realist, has become a manufacturer of “myths” to order!

Very recently, the 27th of April of this year, the official government paper Izvestia, printed a reproduction of a new painting representing Stalin as the organizer of the Tiflis strike in March 1902. However, it appears from documents long known to the public, that Stalin was in prison at that time and besides not in Tiflis but in Batum. This time the lie was too glaring! Izvestia was forced to excuse itself the next day for its deplorable blunder. No one knows what happened to the unfortunate picture, which was paid for from State funds.

Dozens, hundreds, thousands of books, films, canvases, sculptures immortalize and glorify such historic “episodes.” Thus the numerous pictures devoted to the October revolution do not fail to represent a revolutionary “Center,” with Stalin at its head, which never existed. It is necessary to say a few words concerning the gradual preparation of this falsification. Leonid Serebriakov, shot after the Piatakov-Radek trial, drew my attention in 1924 to the publication in Pravda, without explanation, of extracts from the minutes of the Central Committee of the latter part of 1917. An old secretary of the Central Committee, Serebriakov had numerous contacts behind the scenes with the party apparatus, and he knew enough the object of this unexpected publication: it was the first step, still a cautious one, towards the principal Stalinist myth, which now occupies so great a place in Soviet art.

The Mythical “Center”

From an historical distance the October insurrection seem much more planned and monolithic than what it proved to be in reality. In fact, there were lacking neither vacillations, search for solutions, nor impulsive beginnings which led nowhere. Thus, at the meeting of the Central Committee on the 16th of October, improvised in one night, in the presence of the most active leaders of the Petrograd Soviets, it was decided to round out the general-staff of the insurrection with an auxiliary “Center” created by the party and composed of Sverdlov, Stalin, Bubnov, Uritzky and Djerjinsky. At the very same time at the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, a Revolutionary Military Committee was formed which from the moment of its appearance did so much work towards the preparation of the insurrection that the “Center,” appointed the night before, was forgotten by everybody, even by its own members. There were more than a few of such improvisations in the whirlwind of this period. [2] Stalin never belonged to the Military Revolutionary Committee, did not appear at Smolny, staff headuarters of the revolution, had nothing to do with the practical preparation of the insurrection, but was to be found editing Pravda and writing drab articles, which were very little read. During the following years nobody once mentioned the “Practical Center.” In memoirs of participants in the insurrection – and there is no shortage of these – the name of Stalin is not once mentioned. Stalin himself, in an article on the anniversary of the October insuriection, in the Pravda of November 7, 1918, describing all the groups and individuals who took part in the insurrection, does not say a word about the “Practical Center.” Nevertheless, the old minutes, discovered by chance in 1924 and falsely interpreted, have served as a base for the bureaucratic legend. In every compilation, bibliographical guide, even in recently edited school books, the revolutionary “Center” has a prominent place with Stalin, at its head. Furthermore, no one has tried, not even out of a sense of decency, to explain where and how this “Center” established its headquarters, to whom it gave orders and what they were, and whether minutes were taken where they are. We have here all the features of the Moscow trials. [3]

With the docility which distinguishes it, Soviet art so-called, has made this bureaucratic myth into one of its favorite subjects for artistic creation. Sverdlov, Djerjinsky, Uritsky and Bubnov are represented in oils or in tempera, seated or standing around Stalin and following his words with rapt attention. The building where the “Center” has headquarters, is intentionally depicted in a vague fashion, in order to avoid the embarrassing question of the address. What can one hope for or demand of artists who are forced to follow with their brushes the crude lines of what they themselves realize is an historical falsification?

The style of present-day official Soviet painting is called “socialist realism.” The name itself has evidently been invented by some high functionary in the department of the arts. This “realism” consists in the imitation of provincial daguerreotypes of the third quarter of the last century; the “socialist” character apparently consists in representing, in the manner of pretentious photography, events which never took place. It is impossible to read Soviet verse and prose without physical disgust, mixed with horror, or to look at reproductions of paintings and sculpture in which functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers, glorify the “great” and “brilliant” leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.

This state of things is not confined, however, within the frontiers of the USSR. Under the guise of a belated recognition of the October revolution, the “left” wing of the western intelligentsia has fallen on its knees before the Soviet bureaucracy. As a rule, those artists with some character and talent have kept aloof. But the appearance in the first ranks, of the failures, careerists and nobodys is all the more unfortunate. A rash of Centers and Committees of all sorts has broken out, of secretaries of both sexes, inevitable letters from Romain Rolland, subsidized editions, banquets and congresses, in which it is difficult to trace the line of demarcation between art and the GPU. Despite this vast spread of activity, this militarized movement has not produced one single work that was able to outlive its author or its inspirers of the Kremlin.

Rivera and October

In the field of painting, the October revolution has found her greatest interpreter not in the USSR but in faraway Mexico, not among the official “friends,” but in the person of a so-called “enemy of the people” whom the Fourth International is proud to number in its ranks. Nurtured in the artistic cultures of all peoples, all epochs, Diego Rivera has remained Mexican in the most profound fibres of his genius. But that which inspired him in these magnificent frescoes, which lifted him up above the artistic tradition, above contemporary art in a certain sense, above himself, is the mighty blast of the proletarian revolution. Without October, his power of creative penetration into the epic of work, oppression and insurrection, would never have attained such breadth and profundity. Do you wish to see with your own eyes the hidden springs of the social revolution? Look at the frescoes of Rivera. Do you wish to know what revolutionary art is like? Look at the frescoes of Rivera.

Come a little closer and you will see clearly enough, gashes and spots made by vandals: Catholics and other reactionaries, including of course, Stalinists. These cuts and gashes give even greater life to the frescoes. You have before you, not simply a “painting,” an object of passive esthetic contemplation, but a living part of the class struggle. And it is at the same time a masterpiece!

Only the historical youth of a country which has not yet emerged from the stage of struggle for national independence, has allowed Rivera’s revolutionary brush to be used on the walls of the public buildings of Mexico. In the United States it was more difficult. Just as the monks in the Middle Ages, through ignorance, it is true, erased antique literary productions from parchments to cover them with their scholastic ravings, just so Rockefeller’s lackeys, but this time maliciously, covered the frescoes of the talented Mexican with their decorative banalities. This recent palimpsest will conclusively show future generations the fate of art degraded in a decaying bourgeois society.

The situation is no better, however, in the country of the October revolution. Incredible as it seemed at first sight, there was no place for the art of Diego Rivera, either in Moscow, or in Leningrad, or in any other section of the USSR where the bureaucracy born of the revolution was erecting grandiose palaces and monuments to itself. And how could the Kremlin clique tolerate in its kingdom an artist who paints neither icons representing the “leader” nor life-size portraits of Voroshilov’s horse? The closing of the Soviet doors to Rivera will brand forever with an ineffaceable shame the totalitarian dictatorship.

Will it go on much longer – this stifling, this trampling under foot and muddying of everything on which the future of humanity depends? Reliable indications say no. The shameful and pitiable collapse of the cowardly and reactionary politics of the Popular Fronts in Spain and France, on the one hand, and the judicial frame-ups of Moscow, on the other, portend the approach of a major turning point not only in the political sphere, but also in the broader sphere of revolutionary ideology. Even the unfortunate “friends” – but evidently not the intellectual and moral shallows of The New Republic and Nation– are beginning to tire of the yoke and whip. Art, culture, politics need a new perspective. Without it humanity will not develop. But never before has the prospect been as menacing and catastrophic as now. That is the reason why panic is the dominant state of mind of the bewildered intelligentsia. Those who oppose an irresponsible skepticism to the yoke of Moscow do not weight heavy in the balance of history. Skepticism is only another form, and not the best, of demoralization. Behind the act, so popular now, of impartially keeping aloof from the Stalinist bureaucracy as well as its revolutionary adversaries, is hidden nine times out of ten a wretched prostration before the difficulties and dangers of history. Nevertheless, verbal subterfuges and petty maneuvers will be of no use. No one will be granted either pardon or respite. In the face of the era of wars and revolutions which is drawing near, everyone will have to give an answer: philosophers, poets, painters as well as simple mortals.

In the June issue of your magazine I found a curious letter from an editor of a Chicago magazine, unknown to me. Expressing (by mistake, I hope) his sympathy for your publication, he writes: “I can see no hope however [?] from the Trotskyites or other anemic splinters which have no mass base.” These arrogant words tell more about the author than he perhaps wanted to say. They show above all that the laws of development of society have remained a seven times sealed book for him. Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses – if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as “splinters” of older movements. In the beginning, Christianity was only a “splinter” of Judaism; Protestantism a “splinter” of Catholicism, that is to say decayed Christianity. The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a “splinter” of the Hegelian Left. The Communist International germinated during the war from the “splinters” of the Social Democratic International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These “splinters” did not suffer from anemia; on the contrary, they carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.

“Splinters” and Pioneers

In very much the same way, to repeat, a progressive movement occurs in art. When an artistic tendency has exhausted its creative resources, creative “splinters” separate from it, which are able to look at the world with new eyes. The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative “mass base,” the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or “anemic splinters‚” But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong – and life passes them by.

The Thermidorian bureaucracy, to whom one cannot deny either a certain animal sense of danger or a strong instinct of self-preservation, is not at all inclined to estimate its revolutionary adversaries with such whole-hearted disdain, a disdain which is often coupled with lightness and inconsistency. In the Moscow trials, Stalin, who is not a venturesome player by nature, staked on the struggle against “Trotskyism,” the fate of the Kremlin oligarchy as well as his own personal destiny. How can one explain this fact? The furious international campaign against “Trotskyism,” for which a parallel in history will be difficult to find, would be absolutely inexplicable if the “splinters” were not endowed with an enormous vitality. He who does not see this today will see it better tomorrow.

As if to complete his self-portrait with one brilliant stroke, your Chicago correspondent vows – what bravery! – to meet you in a future concentration camp either fascist or “communist.” A fine program! To tremble at the thought of the concentration camp is certainly not admirable. But is it much better to foredoom oneself and one’s ideas to this grim hospitality? With the Bolshevik “amoralism” which is characteristic of us, we are ready to suggest that gentlemen – by no means anemic – who capitulate before the fight and without a fight really deserve nothing better than the concentration camp.

It would be a different matter if your correspondent simply said: in the sphere of literature and art we wish no supervision on the part of “Trotskyists” any more than from the Stalinists. This protest would be, in essence, absolutely just. One can only retort that to aim it at those who are termed “Trotskyists” would be to batter in an open door. The ideological base of the conflict between the Fourth and Third Internationals is the profound disagreement not only on the tasks of the party but in general on the entire material and spiritual life of mankind.

The real crisis of civilization is above all the crisis of revolutionary leadership. Stalinism is the greatest element of reaction in this crisis. Without a new flag and a new program it is impossible to create a revolutionary mass base; consequently it is impossible to rescue society from its dilemma. But a truly revolutionary party is neither able nor willing to take upon itself the task of “leading” and even less of commanding art, either before or after the conquest of power. Such a pretension could only enter the head of a bureaucracy – ignorant and impudent, intoxicated with its totalitarian power – which has become the antithesis of the proletarian revolution. Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them,. Artistic creation has its laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians will themselves find their own approach and methods, if the struggle for freedom of oppressed classes and peoples scatters the clouds of skepticism and of pessimism which cover the horizon of mankind. The first condition of this regeneration is the overthrow of the domination of the Kremlin bureaucracy.

May your magazine take its place in the victorious army of socialism and not in a concentration camp!

Leon Trotsky
Coyoacan, D.F.
June 18, 1938

What are we to do with Thomas Mann?

In the May and the June issues of 1938, the question of what to do with Thomas Mann’s novels was a lively one for the Partisan Review  writers.   What increased their interest in Mann’s work in that year was not only the crashing of Europe into Fascism,  but the journal’s stance that while the rout of bourgeois society was to be the utopian end of capitalism’s crises,  its aesthetic achievements seemed, according to Rhav’s classicism, and others, liable to mastery by revolutionary politics and through re-appropriation by revolutionary Modernists.

You may remember William Phillips’s discussion essay, “Thomas Mann: Humanism in Exile,”  which was the lead political essay in Partisan Review,

Volume IV, No.6, May, 1938. Thomas Mann, 1914 (b/w photo) Thomas Mann

My complaint with that was the way Phillips used the slogan of ‘science’ as a cure for the romanticism — in Mann’s case —  of his focus on the role of the Artist as exemplary figure of decay.   With hindsight I can see how Phillips has already understood the position that Troy is going take, and as a response Phillips squeezes his an alysis into a contest  between  marxist science against artistic self-annihilation.  Thomas Mann had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and now, 9 years later, critics wondered what would happen to him and to his work.  He fled to the USA in 1939, and became a United States citizen in 1944.

In “Thomas Mann:  Myth and Reason,”  the next article in the June 1938 issue William Troy places Mann in the line of the mittel-european ‘masters,’ Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Wagner.  But, he acknowledges, contemporary writers and thinkers don’t like this reading of Mann because it suggests that it sounds too much like the idealizing myth-making of fascism. Troy aims to indemnify him from that charge by surrounding Mann’s work up through Magic Mountain  with Freud’s analytical and Jung’s more controversial ideas about myths and the psyche.   Troy tells us :“We live in an age whose atmosphere has become so charged with the sulphurous fumes of conflicting mythologies that reason has less and less air in which to respire.” However, and this is the theme that Troy pursues throughout Mann’s published work to date (1938). “that rather than being inconsistent with his long devotion to the cause of reason, Mann ‘s turning to the myth(why does he call it ‘the’ myth – it scares me.)in his new work represents a synthesis between reason and experience that is full of the highest possibilities for our time.”   And “we are confronted with two orders of meaning – the logical and the symbolic, as if the dialectic interplay between the two constitutes his work as a whole.”

It is pretty hard here in 2017 to stay interested in Troy’s often,(albeit acute), remarks about the structure of Mann’s heroes, anti-heroes, and plots when we are living now in Lucretian times, when the classical sublime has not only relinquished its claims to beauty and to truths, but also,  instead of aspiring to what now look like insipid concepts of wholeness entirely unimaginable to our contemporary and alert persons,  has become the world of action and ideas without outcomes, and usually with de-creation as an intellectual desideratum. 

So Troy walks us through a life history that is a romantic myth cycle: in which the hero: “Is that lonely and neglected figure, that “marked man,” that black-sheep of modern bourgeois society to which he has referred as the ‘artist-type.’  The early stories of Mann are also marked by symbolic disfigurations that manifest the anti-ness of the artist-hero.  Troy gives these carbuncled and maimed characters the status of being the excrescences of Mann’s own immature imagination, “writing at the level of the abyss,” and kin to the sadism and masochism explored by Mario Praz, in The Romantic Agony.  Les jeux sont faits.   In Buddenbrooks Mann cuts off symbolic deformity from the surfaces of the body, and sinks it into the psychic pathology, within the agent, and within the family, and within bourgeois society as a whole.  The generalisation of disease and corruption that Mann undertakes is returned to the reader as an aesthetic deviation as well: this is the world of Death in Venice: Here Troy introduces what James Burnham will call an ‘anthropological approach’ and sees Aschenbach as engaged in a delayed adolescent initiation rite. So it is that the route to wholeness is mapped out,  and Troy makes Mann  one who belongs to the formalism of mythic completion.  Now that the artist  belongs to a formalism of completion, things begin develop and conclude, unlike life and literature as we know it now.

“At once it becomes obvious that he could never have forsworn the abyss because he has never known it, or he would not be so shocked and disgusted by his observations on the way. Aschenbach becomes the victim of an infantile regression: the mind’s own tendency to project images of its unappeasable love of perfection.”

Troy is on to something here. The door opens to continual depletions, into a world distorted and always partially wrong. “As the object of desire, however, Tadzio  can only be frustrating, absurd, impossible, the mere dream of him as such leading his worshipper straight into the depths of the abyss.”

When Troy gives to Mann the certainty of a transcendent conclusion, a cleansing of the corruption, it falls flat in our century.  Troy has Mann fit his cycle with a dream of transcendence, but offers nothing more substantial to either sustain or demonstrate the claim of wholeness.  But really what survived of wholeness in 1938?  Not a lot.

To read the second part of Troy’s discussion go to:


Dwight Macdonald on Soviet Cinema, 1930-1938

In the autumn of 1985 I did three important things: first, I fell into ridiculous love with a Swiss Anthropologist. The Swiss Anthropologist didn’t love me, but he did call me his “little punk girl,” which flattered me at the time; second – I gave up smoking; third – I saw Potemkin about thirty five times while preparing a course on Film and Literature in the 20th Century. I was a new Assistant Professor at Brandeis, and had recently  joined

Socialist Professors’ group. I felt perfectly

content as a post- San Franciscan,  and as a waveringly post-Trot girl by the presence in the Socialist Prof group of the elegant, clever and kind Ralph Miliband— longtime editor of Socialist Register — and who I later hallucinated as a ghost crossing the pedestrian bridge at Chalk Farm a few years after his death in 1994. This was long before his two disgraceful sons blighted the political landscape in Britain.Unknown-10  The wonderful Ralph Miliband.

Now to the real thing, Potemkin: I certainly wish that I had read Dwight Macdonald’s  two-parter, begun in the July, 1938 volume of Partisan Review, right after Rahv’s piece on Dostoyevsky —  moving from the presentness of a classic to the invention of the aesthetics of film.  At the time I was having my binge-watch of Potemkin, American film studies had learned from the likes of Britain’s Screen  and French structuralism, to think of film in semiotic terms, and the textbook written by Bordwell and Thompson gave thousands of college students a vocabulary of terms and concepts to see film art as an aesthetic available to techno-theoretical descriptions.

But back here in the summer of 1938, Dwight Macdonald was still alive with the enormous inventions of Soviet Cinema at the beginning of the decade and the Stalinist campaign against Modernist cinema. What Macdonald gives us in the first part of the essay is the historico-political grounding for what I was teaching 40 years later.

Macdonald, experienced in addressing a readership with clarity and wit in Fortune and The New Yorker, opens with the scene of youthful exhilaration of the Revolution and the desire by Soviet film makers to invent and define an ‘art’ of film composition, and to give film the status of  ‘science.’ Eisenstein’s Potemkin is film as an art object, and aims to present time as space through montage: cross cutting sections of film to generate juxtapositions of concepts, sounds, images, that turn temporal sequences  into visual collages.

Macdonald writes”When …Potemkin was released in 1925, it made an international sensation. Even Hollywood was impressed by its power and originality; Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. de Mille, and other American movie celebrities made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union. In more intellectual circles, it was recognised at once that the cinema had at last spoken in its own language, The building up of a rhythmic structure in the cutting room (“montage”), the use of real settings and non-professional  actors, the use of pictorial symbols corresponding to Wagner’s  ‘themes’, the abandonment of the old literary-theatrical unilinear narrative in favour of a many -threaded episodic development (‘the compound plot’), the emphasis on the mass rather  than the individual protagonist – these radical innovations freed the cinema from its bondage to the threatre and gave it for the first time its own aesthetic… In the next few years the Soviet produced one film after another to which the adjective “great” could be scrupulously applied.”

Early history:

The Soviet Union had not had much of a film industry prior to the Revolution, but had relied on films from France and other European countries.  But in 1919, the government nationalised cinema, and attached it to the Commissariat of Education.  Trotsky saw that it was a valuable opportunity for the promotion of the Arts in the Soviet Union. Apparently Trotsky had campaigned to turn the Soviet chain of Vodka shops into cinemas. He hoped it was help draw people from religion to buiding the new nation. By 1924, Soviet film-making was about to blossom.  Macdonald makes the point that since Meyerhold and Stanislavsky had been changing theatrical method before the Revolution, many films were recorded versions of stage productions under the direction of Anatole Lunacharsky.

By 1924 the underlying conditions for an esthetic upsurge had been created. (Political: Sovinko, State film council; social:formation of workers’ film groups; economic: the liquidation of ‘War Communism,’ (which allowed decent film stock and other supplies to be available .) Macdonald outlines the inventiveness of the work of 1924:

    1. The Factory of the Eccentric Actor, “They base their technique on the grotesque but exact eccentrics of the circus, on the balance of acrobats.”
    2. The Documentary Focus, in the work of Dziga Vertov, “fanatic of the ‘documentary film, whose programme was “Only documentary facts! No illusions! Down with the Actor and  Scenery! Long live the film of actuality!”  images-12Unknown-13Unknown-12

3.Montage, Years before anyone else, Vertov proclaimed the theory and acted on it, that the arranging of individual shots in the cutting room is the basic creative process in cinema  . . .Less fanatical, and with broader talent, L. Kuleshov to first show the unlimited possibilities of film.   

But for Macdonald, the greatest expression of this experimental film was through the work of Segei Eistenstein: “From the Eccentric Actor group, he took stylization and symbols, from Vertov a preference for non-professional actors and an aversion to studio sets, from Kuleshov the principle of montage.            

From 1925-1929,the heyday of Soviet film, the  NEP was still in power, and by 1929, Stalin had cleared the hierarchy of most of the Left Opposition, and the Five-Year Plan was in action. While industry and agriculture were developed through forced collectivization,  “the movies were speedily harnessed to the wheels of the plan. In 1930, a plan was announced for theatre, cinema, sculpture and painting. By the end of 1933, the annual production of feature films was to be increased to 350, which is more than all the studios of Hollywood combined produce in an average year. “

The focus of the plan on production meant, not surprisingly, that issues of aesthetics were downplayed. The quotas for Directors meant that “By now, Dovzhenko is eleven films behind his ‘norm,;’ Pudovkin thirteen, and Eisenstein fifteen.”

Macdonald then turns to the issues that faced Soviet film directors from 1928-1938: “One is technical — the use of sound. The other is how to treat a new theme: the everyday life of the Soviet Union. These are difficult problems and, to the observer of 1930-1932,” it wasn’t clear how to move forward.

Eisenstein believed that montage was the necessary form for filming, but with the appearance in 1927 of The Jazz Singer, the Modernist soviet directors were caught by surprise, Eisenstein and Pudovkin writing a manifesto in 1929, wrote “Only the use of sound as counterpoint  against visual cutting opens up new possibilities and will further perfect the art of editing. The first experiments in sound must be directed towards its pronounced non-coincidence with the visual image.” Well, he was swimming the wrong way, it appears.

The only really successful Soviet film in 1931 was Nicolai Ekk’s Road to Life, a life about bringing a gang of ‘wild boys’  into modern soviet life.

Unknown-14images-13 Nikolai Ekkimages-14   Road to Life.

But Macdonald’s central point about this period is that what set Soviet Cinema back was the “forcible proletarianisation” of arts and letters which was carried on by a set of ultra-leftist sectarians, theologians, and bureaucrats. The most notorious case was the dictatorship exercised over literature, with Stalin’s blessing, by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers , whose slogan was, “Art is a Class Weapon.”

Dziga Vertov had control over much of the industry in 1930, and was against producing anything other than documentary films.  And a campaign against  petit bourgeois and bourgeois elements in the films of Eisenstein and more overtly, Dovzhenko’s Earth, began. “Istvestia had a three-column  article denouncing the film as ‘counter-revolutionary,’ ‘defeatist’ and ‘too realistic.’ images-15 Unknown-159b02eb6247be8340671f82655726902ca7750d92

Dovzhenko directing Earth. (1930)

  1. to read full text, click:DwightMacdonald on Soviet Cinema
  2. The second half of Macdonald’s article will be discussed later on this blog.

next: William Troy on Thomas Mann