September, 1939. December, 2017.

swingstreet 52nd street NYC 1939

Dear Readers:

Its time for the winter break in our time, and we are coming near to the end of 1938 in our Journal’s time. I am going to take a break from posting next week, but will be back the following one: January 6, 2018.

Its been a terrible year for the world: not unlike it was in 1938.  The winds of poverty, homelessness, starvation, and the politics of the right-wing battering our lives with stupidity, crankiness, and cruelty.  1938 was a year of fear, defeat, fascism, and like today, it was hard to imagine a way out of the weariness.

This poem by W.H. Auden, written in the autumn of 1939 can, I think, be read as a retrospective introduction to the year ahead in Partisan Review.

September 1, 1939.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

See you back in 2018.    AJ

School for Dictators… Ignazio Silone.


Ignazio Silone

The next piece in Vol 6, No.1. Autumn 1938 is Ignazio Silone’s satirical and  quite brilliantly mordant excerpt from his forthcoming book, School for Dictators.  I think the best way to introduce the piece is to hand the introduction over to that also satirical, polemical, witty writer Dwight Macdonald, who reviewed Silone’s work in the April, 1939 issue of New International, VOl. V, no.4.:  This was the journal of the Fourth International, the Trotskyist Movement.

The School for Dictators
by Ignazio Silone
Harpers. $2.50

‘In this book Silone has written his masterpiece – a political satire that can be mentioned in the same breath with Aristophanes, Swift, and Voltaire. Nothing, indeed, is too much to be said for the book, except what the jacket blurb does say: “A master of prose attacks with bare fists the most absorbing single problem of our day. …” Silone uses almost every other weapon on fascism, from slapstick drollery to the most severely restrained irony, but his attack is effective precisely because it is not delivered with bare fists. His literary style is an admirable synthesis of the classic and conversational – dense but not heavy, closely wrought but always lucid. He is learned in political history and fertile of ideas, but he knows how to be easy and unpretentious about things, never parading his learning or insisting too much on his ideas. His book, in short, combines the virtues of good prose and good conversation.

Although the theme of The School for Dictators is modern politics, it will not do to seek from it any positive conclusions. Nor does his book tell us anything about politics we didn’t know already. In fact, it is often superficial and confused in its specifically political analysis. Its importance, like that of the earlier Bread and Wine, is that it applies a set of values – humane, honest, and intellectually sophisticated – to the political phenomena of today. To guard and cherish such a human norm, independent of political parties (though not of political tendencies), is a valuable function of the intellectual. I might add that the politicians of the left can gain from this book some excellent insights not only into the real nature of fascism but also into certain deficiencies of their own programs.

I have never been as much impressed by Silone’s novels as perhaps I should be. They have seemed to me to be episodic, even at times tainted with journalistic trickery – as in the abrupt “black-out” endings of certain chapters. The characters have often seemed one-dimensional and all too obviously designed to point the moral. In this book, however, these weaknesses become virtues. The stylization of the three principal persons in the dialogue is appropriate to the satirical intent, and the form is episodic as good conversation must be, one idea touching off another. I have been told, by the way, that Silone had planned to carry the dialogue much further, but was persuaded by his publishers to let this much appear now. If this is true, we may hope for another volume.

In another way, too, The School for Dictators seems to me an advance over the novels: in its subject matter. Fontamara had the qualities and the defects of a poster: it was an intellectual’s attempt to present, from above and outside, the most primitive sort of peasant life, simplifying its values towards a propagandist end. Bread and Wine opened up the focus, including the intellectual as well as the petty bourgeois and the peasant in its scope. Much the most interesting parts, to me, were the conversations between Don Benedetto and Don Paolo. These conversations have now expanded to become the body of the present book, a progression I find all for the best. Silone, after all, is an intellectual, a man of ideas, representing a high development of modern consciousness, and here he deals directly with the central themes of his intellectual experience. The easy play of his mind in this book is as natural as Fontamara, for all its effectiveness, was mannered. This raises the question why so few of the “creative” writers of today occupy themselves with politics as a theme. (Brecht’s novel, A Penny for the Poor, is another, though less successful, attempt to treat such subject matter.) There seems to be a blight on the novel and the short story today. I suggest this is partly because politics has come to occupy so much of our consciousness that what for so many generations has been called “creative” writing has come to seem tangential to the central issues. And I suggest that the political themes which preoccupied Dryden, Pope, Swift, Voltaire and the other great eighteenth century writers may once more regain their supremacy in this century, whose intellectual atmosphere is in many ways similar. The School for Dictators may prove to be a seminal work in this respect.”


AJ:  The piece itself is both stringently logical and very funny. The premise is that an American politician wishes to introduce Fascism to the United States (hum….relevant for the Trumpocracy.)  Mr. W, as the proto-fascist is known, has with him Professor Pickup, who has agreed to show Mr. W the ins and out of Fascist “mythologies its obscurities, its fetishes, and its idols, and on the modern technique of hypnotising and subduing the masses.” The counterweight is Thomas the Cynic, who is the voice of revolutionary politics, but always ends up in the cynicism of spirit within the revolutionary manque, the intellectual.

The plot opens with the speakers looking on the detritus of a scene of rape…hoping to understand what this means. Thomas the Cynic suggests it is the result of anthropological theorists, who argue for the ‘the psychology of atavistic inclinations,’ rather than the barbarism encouraged through fascist ideology. Again, rather than find other words for what Silone wrote, I suggest you click on the link below (in red font, go to image of issue on right, click to page 20) and read the piece for yourself. Its easy to see why Dwight McD. thought so much of it.

School for Dictators







More politics from “Our Quarter,” Vol. 6, No.1. 1938.

Others of the short pieces in “Our Quarter,” Vol.6, No.1, Fall, 1938 are about the Communist Party: those members who are supporting the ‘New Deal’ and the ‘Popular Front’,  and those who are repudiating Stalinism: Jeff Last of the Netherlands’s One Year in the Trenches of Madrid, and Nobel Prize winner, Romain Rolland, “in a sensational defection from the ranks of the Third International’s literary fellow-travellers, for years its most respectable and revered apologist in international cultural circles.” And of the most immediate interest to Partisan Review, “Reflections on a Non-Political Man.”

John Strachey

Communist Comedy: The first piece, “Communist Comedy” is about the State Department’s refusal to grant a visa to John Strachey, who had been a follower of Oswald Mosley, but then became a committed member of the British CP’s Popular Front position. In 1936, he became one of the founders of the Left Book Club. His pamphlet, Why You Should be a Socialist (1938), immediately sold 200,000 copies in Britain. Strachey was on his way to the USA to promote the positions of the CP and Popular Frontism.  The writer of this part of the ‘Our Quarter,’ who I think must have been Macdonald again, uses Henri Bergson’s essay on comedy as a point d’appui for his argument, pointing to Bergson’s well-known definition of the comic as “something mechanical [here the State Department] encrusted on the living.”   The joke, here, is that while the Communist Party “has been openly renouncing its revolutionary aims, openly supporting [FDR’s] New Deal and sabotaging radical movements against the New Deal,…the Party’s desperate efforts to make itself respectable have had practically no impression on bourgeois politicians, who continue to think of ‘Communists in terms of bombs and whiskers.” 

So Strachey, advocate of CP positions, which ‘Our Quarter’ calls “false and dangerous” for their non-revolutionary ideas, is prevented from coming to  “propagandize for the Popular Front and the New Deal by the New Deal’s State Department on the grounds that his political philosophy advocates the overthrow by force of… the New Deal.”


The final remark belongs to Bergson, “automatism is only reached in the official who performs his duty like a mere machine, or again in the unconsciousness that marks an administrative regulation with inexorable fatality and setting itself up for a law of nature.”

Reflections on a Non-Political Man:  As readers of this blog will know, Thomas Mann had already been the subject of three articles which aimed to clarify his political as well as his literary value by the autumn of 1938.  Apologetics begin: “It should hardly be necessary to state that we consider Thomas Mann one of the three or four great figures in modern letters….It is with some trepidation, therefore, that we make the comments that follow. But we feel it is our duty not to remain silent”.  I don’t think the writer of this squib can be William Troy, from what we know already of his praise of Mann; the voice here is clear and critical:

“During the past year [Mann] has been a traveling salesman for ‘democracy.’ We must agree with him when he says that the man of letters cannot keep aloof from politics today if he is to fulfill his function. But there is a hypocrisy in Mann’s treatment of politics.  He is constantly taking the most extreme and reckless political positions, lending his Olympian, above-the-battle prestige to political doctrines of the most dubious kind. …[In 1918, Mann wrote a book defending German Imperialism] He called the book, Reflections of a Non-Political Man.  If Thomas Mann is actually a non-political humanist, then we should like to ask how it happens that his political position at any given moment in history always happens to be that of any ‘liberal’ bourgeois, concerned, above all things, to defend his kind of capitalism.”

‘Our Quarter’ ends with another comic piece, called ‘The Henry Club,” which had been suggested by Eunice Clark  — a list of prominent men, all of whose names begin with Henry, who were upstanding members of the liberal bourgeois establishment of the USA. Some are educators, some art critics, etc: for example, “Henry Osborn Taylor, a pillar of the National Institute of Arts and Letters; Henry Dwight Sedgewick  of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Henry Sloane Coffin, of the Union Theological Seminary.” 

Armed with Partisan Review’s ‘line’ for 1938-39, the reader can then cast her eye over  to George Morris’s lithograph, Concretion, perhaps a reply to PR’s criticism of the 1938 Carnegie International Prize winner, Karl Hofer, though happily for the reader, he was one of Hitler’s ‘degenerate’ artists.   At the end of  ‘Our Quarter,’ we  find a poem by Louise Bogan, who provides a satire on the whole idea of institutional art prizes.

Several Voices Out of a Cloud

Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved!  Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit; to whom and whereever deserved.

Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,                                                         Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless. And it isn’t for you.

Louise Bogan. 1938


Next week: “The School for Dictators”, Ignazio Silone





Volume 6, No. 1, Fall, 1938– “Our Quarter”

The first issue of Volume 6, Fall, 1938 is rich with contributors, including regulars like William Troy and Dwight Macdonald, and important American and European critics and fiction writers of the time — Edmund Wilson, Silone, Kafka. There is also an anthology of poems assembled by that premature- eco-warrior, D.S. Savage, at whose poems we looked earlier, in the summer of 1938. This new volume, new issue also introduces a  5 part series of  edtorial essays, “Our Quarter” — with Rahv and Macdonald as chief writers — following the course of the situation in Europe as the war comes closer.

philip Rahv-16
Philip Rahv

The collection of remarks and positions in “Our Quarter,” begins with an announcement about art and literature, as if to remind us that in the onward march of fascism in Europe we would need artists and writers to fight fascism on the cultural front.

Dwight MacD
`Dwight Macdonald

In his discussion of Partisan Review, Terry A. Coomey tells us that in 1938, the journal was spending beyond its means. George Morris, who was an underwriter of PR told the editorial team that he would introduce changes to keep it afloat. This involved getting a cheaper printer, and turning PR into a quarterly rather than a monthly publication. And while making the journal a quarterly would allow for more pages and a greater number of contributions, the political focus, that was now so important as Hitler began melting Europe into a fascist morass, would be the first concern of each issue for the time being.

Andre Breton                                                               rivera_diego_2

IFIRA: “Andre Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, the painter of the  Mexican Revolution, are two artists who have long been active on the Left.  Some time ago they rejected the Third International (the Comintern, 1919-1943), politically as well as culturally. They now propose a new federation of artists and writers, Left-wing in tendency and free of all organizational dependence. [In this issue] we print their manifesto calling for the formation of the International Federation of Independent  Revolutionary Art. An increasing number of writers, artists, and intellectuals are coming to realize that socialism offers the only permanent escape from barbarism that is gaining ground so fast in capitalist society. We believe that these intellectual forces, hitherto scattered and isolated, should now draw together into some sort of organization for free discussion and for defense against their common enemies. We are, therefore, in complete sympathy with the general aim of the IFIRA, and we are ready to take part in the formation of an American section of the Federation. This, we think, should incorporate the international aims of the IFIRA in a program otherwise strictly adapted to American conditions. We invite all those interested in forming such a group in the United States to communicate with the editors of Partisan Review.”  

Munich and the Intellectuals: The second topic in the editorial is the Munich Pact, and the role of intellectuals in the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  The Munich Pact was, as you may know, the agreement among Germany, Britain, France and Italy that they would allow Hitler to annex portions of Czechoslavkia, if he would agree to stop using his military.  The term applied to this agreement  was ‘appeasement.’  The Editors take a hard line on this approach, and they are angered enough by the behaviour of  American writers and critics to produce a sardonic theory of the intellectual as a type: while Left intellectuals have analysed the reasons for the failures of the Great War, now that the Czech crisis has emerged, “they,who only a few years ago pictured themseves as the bitterest enemies of war, are now among its chief evangels. It would almost seem  that the peculiar function of intellectuals is  to idealise imperialist wars when they come and debunk them after they are over. This procedure is safe and respectable, It permits you to defend the established order when it needs defence most and to play the revolutionary when it is too late to make revolutions.”

The second point in this argument is that both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat know what they are fighting for, and know what makes them irreconcilable enemies. “The intellectuals, reflecting as they do material interests only at second hand, vibrate nervously  between the principal antagonists. Unable to make up their minds, they persuade themselves that this very inability is proof of their objectivity.” 

As a result the Left intellectuals are poised to support the imperialists at the same time that they support the war against fascism.  Then follows a list of those who supported revolution back in 1932, and who now “are supporting Roosevelt and the Democratic Party quite as ardently as they are preaching a holy imperialist against fascism.”

The final point is also mordant:  So now, after the Pact has been made, Leftists see the work of Chamberlain as that of ‘treachery’ and ‘betrayal.’  They attribute to Chamberlain betrayals of the communist movement and of democracy. “Chamberlain acted in the interests of his class, as any other bourgeois politician would do. Chamberlain is an obvious enemy, not a traitor.”

 “The Czech crisis will have accomplished something for us if it shatters the gospel of reformism and compels the labour movement  to return to a policy of class struggle. The Comintern in particular has suffered a defeat umatched in the long history of its disasters. It is left now without a program, its ultimate dissolution prefigured in the frantic improvisations and desperate guerilla shifts to which it has been reduced. While the crumbling of the Comintern represents the frustration of proletarian hopes, still it removes one of the causes of this frustration.  In the intellectual sphere it promises to put an end to the People’s Front regime of ambiguity and in politics and literature alike.  When the giant squid ceases to churn and roil the waters of controversy, it will no longer be so difficult to distinguish friends  from enemies. Once the interests of the mind are no longer confused with the interests of Soviet Bureaucrats, it may again be possible to define political differences without mystification and to revive the original meaning of the socialist doctrine.”  So Partisan Review made its Revolutionary Position Clear to Readers.

Next Week: More of “Our Quarter” — Thomas Mann