Edmund Wilson on “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic” Vol. 6, No.1


WIlson McCarthyIf you have been reading here for a while, you know that the marriage of Edmund Wilson to Mary McCarthy in 1938 lasted long enough, was complex enough, and tempestuous enough to keep people talking about it over the decades. And they were writing about it as, in the later 1980s, when the great stream of narrative books about the people and politics of Partisan became a summer reading holiday for those who still had cottages in Amagansett, or who were students at Columbia and were readying themselves for their futures. Not least, young women trying to find out if it was going to be Sontag or McCarthy who would be a decent model for an intellectual life.

James Atlas offered a list of these books in 1985, in an article in the New York Times:“The surest sign of any group’s demise is the appearance of memoirs, and the New York intellectuals have been busy writing theirs: Lionel Abel’s ”The Intellectual Follies,” William Phillips’s ”A Partisan View,” Irving Howe’s ”A Margin of Hope” and William Barrett’s ”The Truants” have appeared in the last three years( 1982-1985)”. Atlas quotes Morris Dickstein: ”The definition of a New York intellectual is to think he’s the last one,” and I would think that Atlas thinks that of himself, with his recent history of himself,  along with others of my generation, including Louis Menand (though not in NY — though NY is, we know, a state of mind) — anyway, the marriage of McCarthy and Wilson is one of the central social events among the NYI, or as we called them at home, the JIs — Jewish intellectuals, though neither Wilson or McCarthy was jewish, ‘either by birth or osmosis’ as Irving Howe had defined a characteristic of the New York Intellectual.

Which is to say that the Wilson-McCarthy marriage brought high literary, high cultural, and high art criteria in to the PR office on 17th street.  Which isn’t to say that Wilson, educated at the Hill School and then at Princeton, friend and patron of F.Scott Fitzgerald, wasn’t  part of the 1930s interest in the Soviet Union, Socialism, Communism, and as a critic reader, Marx and Engels.  Though he was older than Rahv and McDonald and the rest, they welcomed him to their office, and asked him to write for the PR, while Mary McCarthy, as Frances Kiernan writes, ‘[for] this occasion Mary McCarthy wore her best black dress and carried a silver fox stole— a costume “more suited to a wedding reception,” she would later recall. As it happens a drunken dinner with Wilson and a few others, and what should have been a casual affair, became McCarthy’s awkward agreement to marry him.  She also later said that she thought that if she slept with him, she had to marry him.“So finally I agreed to marry Wilson as my punishment for having gone to bed with him— this was certainly part of the truth. As a modern girl, I might not have called that a “sin”; I thought in logical rather than religious terms. The logic of having slept with Wilson compelled the sequence of marriage if that was what he wanted. Otherwise my action would have no consistency; in other words, no meaning. I could not accept the fact that I had slept with this fat, puffing man for no reason, simply because I was drunk. No, it had to make sense. Marrying him, though against my inclinations, made it make sense.”

You might recall as well, that she was deeply involved with the man who she later wrote was the only one who she truly loved, Philip Rahv.


Now, Wilson was very interested in Marx and Freud and if you look back , you can read his wonderful essay on “Flaubert’s Politics,” which featured in the first issue of PR. The essay here, “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic,” is a chapter from Wilson’s highly regarded history of ideas of socialism and communism, To the Finland Station, which would be published in 1940. William Philips writes a response to it, which immediately follows in this issue of PR, and he takes a rather severe approach to Wilson’s argument. {I have to say that I find William Philips’s writing to be hard-going and at times gratingly insistent}.  But Wilson’s galaxy was close to but not the same as that of PR, and there is little evidence that his growing reputation as a literary critic and intellectual was tarnished by his discussion.

Wilson begins by looking at the history of the idea of a dialectic in philosophy, principly the Hegelian dialectic, in which a thesis is a stated position, its antithesis is ‘a process of splitting of from the thesis, and negating it; the third is a new unification, which reconciles the antithesis with the thesis and is known as the synthesis.. . the synthesis is always an advance over the thesis, for it combines in a ‘higher’ unification the best features of both the thesis and the antithesis’. Hegel makes the argument through a discussion of the changes inherent in the movement from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

This is what Marx and Engels take into thinking about the future, rather than an analysis of the past: they have the thesis as   bourgeois society, the antithesis as the proletariat, and as synthesis, the Communist society. So, as Marx argued, what he and Engels did was to take Hegel’s categories and turn them ‘right-side up,’ that is, to understand ideas as the product of human making, “ALL IDEAS WERE HUMAN,” and every ‘idea was bound up with some specific social situation, which had been produced in the first instance, in turn, by man’s relation to specific material conditions.”

Wilson’s criticism of the ‘dialectic’ is that for Marx, no less than for Hegel, this dialectic is itself idealist. But only insofar as the ideas that humans make are themselves generated by material life.  Wilson’s targets are what today we call “reductionists”, collapsing the dialectical framework to the more structural one of base/superstructure, in which all those things which are not part of the basic apparatus of economic life are reduced to being offshoots of that base. Wilson argues that Marx and Engels didn’t ever really get round to discussing seriously those elements of superstructure: religions, ideologies, psychic life, etc. because they had enough to do right at hand.

But a problem for Marx and Engels was the status of their analysis as ‘science’. Was ‘science’ an element of the superstructure or was it an objective discourse? In the 21st century ‘science’ is more awkwardly theorised that it was at the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.  Wilson writes: “Natural science then, is not to be numbered among the ideological outgrowths of the super­stucture, but has a precision of which they are incapable; and this precision social science may share.”   Can the ‘dialectic’ of marxism really be admitted as a ‘science?’  Some of the attempts in the 20th century to hold on to that argument have had to resort to re-making it as a structure instead, linked to psychoanalysis, another theory in trouble. Or simply holding on to the ‘science’ part of ‘social science,’ without much of an audience or a rationale. Wilson thinks that if they had only stayed away from trying to ‘scientise’ the dialectic, they would have avoided what ends up looking like a form of ‘mysticism’ or “a religious myth, disencumbered of divine personality and tied up with the history of mankind.”


copy and paste to read full text of “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic”pp 66-81

next week: William Philips replies to Wilson.

Blumfeld: An Elderly Bachelor, Franz Kafka.


In the first issue of Partisan Review is a review by F.W. Dupee, of Kafka’s The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, and published  by the prestigious New York firm of  Alfred A. Knopf in 1937.  From then on, Kafka became something of a presiding spirit over the imaginary persona of the Partisan Review. Starting with Dupee’s  review, between 1937 and 1944 , PR published an essay on Kafka in 1938 by Max Brod, his biographer; between 1939 and 1942, three Kafka short stories; in 1944, “Kafka: A Re-evaluation,” by Hannah Arendt; and in 1946, a section from Kafka’s diaries.   And there were many more discussions about Kafka through the next four decades of Partisan Review. Arendt looks for what makes Kafka so modern:

All his admirers …are struck  by something new in his art of story-telling, a quality of modernity which appears nowhere else with the same  intensity and unequivocalness. … ” And she goes on to make a case for his simple style as a form of modernism:‘Without in any way changing the German Language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence.”

 It was also the case that the  NY Intellectuals wanted their journal to show not only America on the verge of great change, but also a connection to and  yearning for their European connections and origins.  Franz Kafka was Jewish, troubled, and a ‘problem’ to his father. He died in 1924 at 41 of tuberculosis, with a fairly small oeuvre and a voice that moves between the ‘fabulous and the familiar,’ as Dupee described it, creating a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity common to both German Expressionism and Modernism.   (for more of this, turn to post of 21 July, 2017, which begins with the three paragraphs above…..)

In this issue, Vol 6,.No 1. and No.2, we have a story by Kafka, Blumfeld: an Elderly Bachelor.  It was written around 1915, and it has a feeling of DADA about it, and even though it is funny, it has none of the joy of DADA.  It was left unfinished when Kafka diedKafka, and we don’t know much about what he had planned for its continuation either as a longer story, or as part of a novel.  What became clear to me as I have roamed the internet picking up comments about the story, is that very few readers care that it isn’t finished: they treat it as complete because it belongs to the genre that Hannah Arendt called ‘the analysis of bureaucracy,’ and that we can assume it will go on, if it does, in the same vein as The Trial and The Castle, and as it has already been going. 

What also struck me as I read the story was how much like Melville’s Bartleby our ‘hero’ was in his behaviour — except inside out.  While Bartleby ‘prefers not to’  Blumfeld ‘prefers to.” Bartleby’s is the power of silence and passive resistance, while Blumfeld’s is the power of  low-key insistence. Both are in struggle with the conventions of their oppression, but Blumfeld has internalised them so thoroughly that they become his now impotent being. He is the next step in Arendt’s discussion of Kafka’s work as the analysis of bureaucracy.

‘Blumfeld’ is ‘ a man hounded by bouncing balls’. He comes home to his sixth-floor apartment, musing (and amusing) on the pros and cons of having a dog to keep him company, when he hears a rattling sound from within. He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light. He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the wooden floor; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play.

What makes the story itself powerful is the way the narrator keeps it comic, with a continual juxtaposition of Blumfeld’s internal dialogue about the pros and cons of owning a dog, which never is resolved because Blumfeld’s is a mind that is always ready with an ambivalent response to his own query. Here is the link for you to copy and paste to read the story:first part:   http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283915.  pages 55-64; second part: Vol 6, No.2, pages 96-103.

Hannah Arendt’s   “Kafka. A Revaluation” was published in Partisan Review, Vol 11, No.4, pages 412-422,  cut and paste: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283952      Or you can wait till we get there!  1944…jeez



Next week: Edmund Wilson on Marxist Dialectics




Andre Breton & Trotsky and Diego Rivera: Manifesto.

You may remember that the ‘Our Quarter’ editorial for Volume 6, No. 1 began with a discussion of a new activist group:the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art: here is that paragraph again.

 “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.”

The Manifesto signed by Breton and Rivera was an attempt to create a leftist, anti-Stalinist, association of Artists that would be Marxist, but stand outside the artistic aims of socialist realism and and prolit cult. It was 1938, and it was clear that Stalin’s trials had betrayed the Revolution of 1917.  Scholars have argued that it was when Breton went to visit Trotsky, then living in exile in Mexico, that the two men drew up this ‘Manifesto,’ which was then signed by Rivera instead of Trotsky.

The Manifesto is part of a European network of socialist ideas that attracted anti-conventional, anti-conformist, and anti-war artists. It’s first and explosive appearance is with the group of Swiss artists who called themselves DADA. The Cafe Voltaire in Zurich was founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings in the middle of the First World War, and advanced an art of irrationality, anti-authoritarianism, allied with comic and satirical events — ancestors of 20th century Performance Art —  Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and others, including Andre Breton, joined them.

Andre Breton was an intellectual adventurer and after WWI, he announced the beginning of a new movement, which combined the attributes of DADA with those of Freudian analysis: He defined SURREALISM as  “pure psychic automatism by which one proposes to express, either verbally or in writing or otherwise, the actual functioning of the thought.”

Andre Breton by Man Ray
Andre Breton, by Man Ray

It was through Breton that SURREALISM attached itself to the idea of proletarian revolution and to the overthrow of bourgeois society.  Breton joined the Communist Party in 1924 and left in 1937 because of the Stalinist programme and the Moscow Trials.  This is the link to the Manifesto we are looking at today.  Trotsky was expelled from the Party in 1929,  and with the formation of the Fourth International, and Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico, Breton became a closer ally and went to visit him where he was living with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

During his exile, Breton had the opportunity to meet Léon Trotsky. Together, they composed the manifesto for an independent revolutionary art.  Surrealism as a movement died in the 1950s. It was, as we shall learn more of, the attack on SURREALISM by Jean-Paul Sartre, who, through his entire career,  argued against  surrealism.

So, back to the Manifesto itself.

It begins with an assault on the geo-politics of 1938, and the force of its style is both politically radical and  anti-Stalinist: you will know from earlier posts that Trotsky was an advocate of freedom in artistic creation: “True Art,” the Manifesto repeats, “is unable not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society…We recognise that only the social revolution can sweep clear the path for a new culture.”   From there it is a small step to a denunciation of Stalin: “If we reject solidarity with the Soviet Union, it is because  it represents not Communism, but its most treacherous and dangerous enemy.”

So, because art is what conceives of the radical reconstruction of society, “The opposition of writers and artists is one of the forces that can usefully contribute to the discrediting and overthrow of regimes which are destroying, along with the right of the proletariat to aspire to a better world, every sentiment of nobility and even of human dignity.”

Trotsky and Breton both carry the romantic gene of creativity as central to their quite different positions on authority, struggle, and really, the functions of the imagination, but in this manifesto, the importance of the artistic spirit is critical to the political point. Much like our own days here in 2018 — its the death of imaginative  freedom that will thwart the Revolution.

The paragraph below is flung against the shadow of Stalinist ‘aesthetics’ and asserts the humanism that is marching both with anti-fascist Liberalism and against Stalinism:

“The free choice of themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of [their] explorations – these are possessions of which the artist has the right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must, under no pretext, allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who would urge us, whether for today or tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal, and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula: complete freedom for art.”

To enable this, the authors of the manifesto suggest that even if we need centralised control over the building of the material conditions for improved production,  “an anarchist regime of individual liberty should first be established.”    

What an amazing demand!  I love it.

“In the present period of the death agony of capitalism, democratic as well as fascist, the artist sees himself threatened with the loss of his right to live. Only naturally, he turns to the Stalinist organizations, which hold out the possibility of escaping his isolation….He must understand that his place lies elsewhere, not among those who betray the cause of revolution, but among those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to this revolution, among those who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to its fruition.”

So, what happened to the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art?  In 1997, Frank Brenner of the [still active, if not very….active] 4th International, wrote about the fate of the IFIRA:

“It is instructive to note the fate of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (IFIRA) called into being by the 1938 manifesto. Breton was able to rally fellow Surrealists such as poet Benjamin Péret, painters Yves Tanguy and André Masson; Victor Serge, Marcel Martinet, Ignazio Silone, Herbert Read [who, in turn, solicited the support of George Orwell] and others. Despite this the French section ceased operations after the publication of two issues of its journal Clé (Key) in January and February 1939.

Internal differences played a part in the IFIRA’s failure to take root, but the greatest problem was the extremely difficult political environment: the influence within the intelligentsia of the Stalinist apparatus and the demoralized condition of many of those not under the latter’s thumb, as well, of course, as the outbreak of war in Europe. In his last letter to Trotsky in June 1939, Breton wrote: “Perhaps I am not very talented as an organizer, but at the same time it seems to me that I have run up against enormous obstacles. (The tragic element in this should not be lost on the reader.)

The tragic element is going to unfold even more dismally over the following months of 1938 and 1939.

Next Week: “Blumfeld, an elderly Bachelor”, by  Franz Kafka

Clark Mills “The Beggars: Place Edmond Rostand”

Welcome to 2018 — and to Partisan Review as the year turns from 1938-1939.  In both years we see war on the horizon, fear running through the veins of just about everyone, and a difficult but brave attempt by some to explain how this came to be.

Today’s post is about a poet, Clark Mills, who I only learned of when I turned the page from Silone’s “School of Dictators,” to “The Beggars”, of  Vol. 6,No 1, Fall, 1938.

Clark Mills’s contribution to the issue is a poem from and about Paris; about the state of poverty and dismay and exhaustion and malaise of the moment, and the moment’s personae: the beggars foraging around the ‘Place Edmond Rostand.’ Here: read it.


The spring awakening of the beggars who had retreated into their cold bodies during the winter is not as easily won as we might have expected. One, “lost in great sculptural folds of rotten cloth/ one sang, sang out with the crazy abandon of a bird of summer’s topmost branch — while all the others/ mistrust the season’s golden promise”. The natural release of Spring overhangs a darker crazed tension. Spring can’t be disengaged from those wintry horizons which ‘outstretched past and future.’

So, who was Clark Mills?  Its hard to find an image of him on the internet — here is the best I found — Clark Millsand there hasn’t been much written about him to my knowledge, but if you know different, please let me know.

Born  Clark Mills McBurney in 1913, he became friends with Tennessee Williams, when Williams, then Tom, and a group of fairly like-minded young writers became a group hanging around The Old Courthouse near Washington University in St. Louis, and much of what I learned about him comes from books that are about Tennessee Williams.

Alleati Hale, in Tom Williams, Proletarian Playwright, writes:”The Old Courthouse was also a weekly meeting place for a group of unconventional students from Washington University who had joined the St. Louis Union of Artists and Writers. Among them, Clark Mills was revered as a published poet, active in the university’s chapter of the national College Poetry Society. Williams had belonged to the chapter at Missouri University and, hungry for contacts outside the factory, sought out the poets at Washington. Although shy, he went to a literary meeting where Clark Mills was pointed out as that student who writes “crazy modern verse nobody understands but God and himself!” Williams who had just had his own verse published in four literary magazines, was instantly attracted. Mills would become a prime influence for his next few years, introducing him to the poetry of Rilke, Rimbaud, and Hart Crane, who became Williams’ idol. Until then, his model had been the St. Louis poet, Sara Teasdale, or the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Clark Mills, surnamed McBurney, French scholar, poet and intellectual, had another side. His father was a freight agent for the Union Pacific Railroad and one sister, Adeline, was a social welfare worker.Through them he was aware of the youths, hoboes, and homeless now riding the rails through America, of the strikes going on in St. Louis and of such events as the parade of two thousand local unemployed that ended in a riot. Clark may have been one of those students who heard Jack Conroy [AJ: A prominent CP ‘proletarian writer’]speak at the University and was inspired by his revolutionary fervor to help form the local Artists and Writers Union. Although not an actual labor union, it was loosely affiliated with the national John Reed Clubs organized by Conroy [Remember that Partisan Review emerged from the CP John Reed Club — and by the by so did my dad, Henry who was in the Paterson New Jersey John Reed Club, and also graduated to reading Partisan Review]

SO readers, here we are ready, to think about the past and the dreadful now and the possible futures along with the Paris beggars in 1938.

Next week we’ll look at the ‘Manifesto’ by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera that opened the “This Quarter”  section of this issue.