“We Rented to the Lenins,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring 1939

Krupskaja_1890  Krupskya


“We Rented to the Lenins,” is a sort of ‘human interest’ anecdote by a Swiss cobbler and his wife who rented space in their house in Zurich to Lenin and his wife, Krupskya,  in 1917.  As the editors note, this unusual piece for PR contains ‘naive and shrewd comments’ about the Lenins’ domestic life in exile.  It also gives us a portrait of Lenin’s wife, Krupskya, who was his colleague, carer, and a serious writer-revolutionary herself.




For those of you who are reading on a Saturday morning, here is something that also sheds some light on Krupskya, written after her death by Leon Trotsky:

Leon Trotsky

Krupskaya’s Death

(March 1939)

Written: 4 March 1939.
Source: New International [New York], Vol. V No. 4, April 1939, p. 117.

“IN ADDITION TO being Lenin’s wife which – by the way, was not accidental – Krupskaya was an outstanding personality in her devotion to the cause, her energy and her purity of character. She was unquestionably a woman of intelligence. It is not astonishing, however, that while remaining side by side with Lenin, her political thinking did not receive an independent development. On far too many occasions, she had had the opportunity to convince herself of his correctness, and she became accustomed to trust her great companion and leader. After Lenin’s death Krupskaya’s life took an extremely tragic turn. It was as if she were paying for the happiness that had fallen to her lot.

Lenin’s illness and death – and this again was not accidental – coincided with the breaking point of the revolution, and the beginning of Thermidor. Krupskaya became confused. Her revolutionary instinct came into conflict with her spirit of discipline. She made an attempt to oppose the Stalinist clique, and in 1926 found herself for a brief interval in the ranks of the Opposition. Frightened by the prospect of split, she broke away. Having lost confidence in herself, she completely lost her bearings, and the ruling clique did everything in their power to break her morally. On the surface she was treated with respect, or rather with semi-honors. But with the apparatus itself she was systematically discredited, blackened and subjected to indignities, while in the ranks of the YCL the most absurd and gross scandal was being spread about her.

Stalin always lived in fear of a protest on her part. She knew far too much. She knew the history of the party. She knew the place that Stalin occupied in this history. All of the latter day historiography which assigned to Stalin a place alongside of Lenin could not but appear revolting and insulting to her. Stalin feared Krupskaya just as he feared Gorky. Krupskaya was surrounded by an iron ring of the GPU Her old friends disappeared one by one; those who delayed in dying were murdered either openly or secretly. Every step she took was supervised. Her articles appeared in the press only after interminable, insufferable and degrading negotiations between the censors and the author. She was forced to adopt emendations in her text, either to exalt Stalin or to rehabilitate the GPU. It is obvious that a whole number of vilest insertions of this type was made against Krupskaya’s will, and even without her knowledge. What recourse was there for the unfortunate crushed woman? Completely isolated, a heavy stone weighing upon her heart, uncertain what to do, in the toils of sickness, she dragged on her burdensome existence.

To all appearances, Stalin has lost the inclination to stage sensational trials which have already succeeded in exposing him before the whole world as the dirtiest, the most criminal and most repulsive figure in history. Nevertheless, it is by no means excluded that some sort of new trial will be staged, wherein new defendants will relate how Kremlin physicians under the leadership of Yagoda and Beria took measures to expedite Krupskaya’s demise.

But with or without the aid of physicians, the regime that Stalin had created for her undoubtedly cut short her life.

Nothing can be further from our mind than to blame Nadezhda Konstantinovna for not having been resolute enough to break openly with the bureaucracy. Political minds, far more independent than hers, vacillated, tried to play hide and seek with history – and perished. Krupskaya was to the highest degree endowed with a feeling of responsibility. Personally she was courageous enough. What she lacked was mental courage. With profound sorrow we bid farewell to the loyal companion of Lenin, to an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history.”

March 4, 1939

Next Week:”The Anatomy of the Popular Front,” by Sidney Hook





“Life on a Battleship,” Wallace Stevens

The second poem of Stevens in the Spring, 1939 issue of Partisan Review, “Life on a Battleship,” was one of the few that he left out of his Collected Poems of 1954, as he had left it out of Parts of a World, the volume he next published in 1942.   There have been  recent attempts to admire it, or at least, to prove Stevens’s engagement the topics of politics and art, politics and literature, Stalinism and Trotskyism that the Partisan Review had been addressing from 1937 through WWII.  Since the 1960s there has been even more urgent and complex arguments to grant to lyric poets the credentials of political activism and political understanding. You won’t have missed it, I am certain.  And its just as true that poets aiming to address political topics have flourished over the last 70 years, keeping up with the human and natural crises that require elegiac as well as sharp-edged lyricism.

Wallace Stevens met and admired Philip Rahv and the two poems in the Spring 1939 issue of PR,  must be counted among those of a lyric poet who aims at contemporaneity.  But where “I knew a Woman who had more Babies than That,” makes a ironises and makes “wild” as Harold Bloom said of the poem, the political external world, “Life on the Battleship” begins in the now but abstracts from it not ideas of reality but of a false comedy of the arrogant captain.

Here it is: see what you think of it. Let me know.


I. The rape of the bourgeoisie accomplished, the men
Returned on board the “Masculine”. That night,
The captain said,
“The war between classes is
A preliminary, provincial phase,
Of the war between individuals. In time,
When earth has become a paradise, it will be
A paradise full of assassins. Suppose I seize
The ship, make it my own and, bit by bit,
Seize yards and docks, machinery and men,
As others have, and then, unlike the others,
Instead of building ships, in numbers, build
A single ship, a cloud on the sea, the largest
Possible machine, a divinity of steel,
Of which I am captain. Given what I intend,
The ship would become the centre of the world.
My cabin as the centre of the ship and I
As the centre of the cabin, the centre of
The divinity, the divinity’s mind, the mind
Of the world would have only to ring and ft!
It would be done. If, only to please myself,
I said that men should wear stone masks and, to make
The word respected, fired ten thousand guns
In mid-Atlantic, bellowing, to command,
It would be done. And once the thing was done,
Once the assassins wore stone masks and did
As I wished, once they fell backward when my breath
Blew against them or bowed from the hips, when I turned
My head, the sorrow of the world, except
As man is natural, would be at an end.”

II. So posed, the captain crafted rules of the world,
Regulae mundi, as apprentice of
First. The grand simplifications reduce
Themselves to one.
Of this the captain said,
“It is a lesser law than the one itself,
Unless it is the one itself, or unless
‘the Masculine’, much magnified, that cloud
On the sea, is both law and evidence in one,
As the final simplification is meant to be.
It is clear that it is not a moral law.
It appears to be what there is of life compressed
Into its own illustration, a divinity
Like any other, rex by right of the crown,
The jewels in his beard, the mystic wand,
And imperator because of death to oppose
The illustrious arms, the symbolic horns, the red
For battle, the purple for victory: But if
It is the absolute why must it be
This immemorial grandiose, why not
A cockle-shell, a trivial emblem great
With its final force, a thing invincible
In more than phrase? There’s the true masculine,
The spirit’s ring and seal, the naked heart.
It was a rabbi’s question. Let the rabbis reply.
It implies a flaw in the battleship, a defeat
As of a make-believe.

III. Second. The part
Is the equal of the whole.
The captain said,
“The ephebi say that there is only the whole,
The race, the nation, the state. But society
Is a phase. We approach a society
Without a society, the politicians
Gone, as in Calypso’s isle or in Citare,
Where I or one or the part is the equal of
The whole. The sound of a dozen orchestras
May rush to extinguish the theme, the basses thump
And the fiddles smack, the horns yahoo, the flutes
Strike fire, but the part is the equal of the whole,
Unless society is a mystical mass.
This is a thing to twang a philosopher’s sleep,
A vacuum for the dozen orchestras
To fill, the grindstone of antiquest time,
Breakfast in Paris, music and madness and mud,
The perspective squirming as it tries to take
A shape, the vista twisted and burning, a thing
Kicked through the roof, caressed by the river-side.
On “the Masculine” one asserts and fires the guns.
But one lives to think of this growing, the pushing life,
The vine, at the roots, this vine of Key West, splurging,
Covered one morning with blue, one morning with white,
Coming from the East, forcing itself to the West,
The jungle of tropical part and tropical whole.”


The first and second rules are reconciled                                                                                                  In a Third: The Whole cannot exist without/The parts(part IV continues on this photo)


Next Week: “We Rented to the Lenins”

Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.3

Our next stop in the Winter, 1939 issue of PR is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” one of two that make up the set of Stevens’s contribution to this issue.   It is mid-summer here in London, 35 degrees, and its too hot to do much in the way of research or anything else, and the pavements are burning, but its a perfect day to think about thirst, water and the sea…and about Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, and W.B. Yeats, and the poetic consideration of Nature’s barriers.

An acrobat on the border of the sea
Observed the waves, the rising and the swell
And the first line spreading up the beach; again,
The rising and the swell, the preparation
And the first line foaming over the sand; again,
The rising and the swell, the first line’s glitter,
Like a dancer’s skirt, flung round and settling down.
This was repeated day by day. The waves
Were mechanical, muscular. They never changed,
They never stopped, a repetition repeated
Continually—There is a woman has had
More babies than that. The merely revolving wheel
Returns and returns, along the dry, salt shore.
There is a mother whose children need more than that.
She is not the mother of landscapes but of those
That question the repetition on the shore,
Listening to the whole sea for a sound
Of more or less, ascetically sated
By amical tones.
The acrobat observed
The universal machine. There he perceived
The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.

Many of you will hear in the first verse paragraph of what Harold Bloom calls Stevens’s  “wild poem”  murmurings of what had become “The Idea of Order at Key West” in his 1936 volume, Ideas of Order. That force of the ocean’s tides is a machine not an organic form, or rather, it has an organic infrastructure of a machinic repetitive activity.  It might also make you think of William Carlos Williams’s repeated cry against Nature in Paterson IV, “Thalassa, Thalassa, the Sea is not our home.” Both Stevens and Williams are in struggle against the claims of Nature’s authority and  instead seek the articulations of speech. For Williams, invention wins:  making rather than growing, on and off rather than more or less, these days, digital rather than analogue.  This argument between the natural organic and the humanly made poetic belongs to William Blake’s tradition as well.  “Where Man is Not, Nature is Barren.”

So we begin this poem with its evocation of the romantic waters, ‘the rising and the swell’ of the waves, at first evoking its beauty and in the pun of ‘the first line’ of both the border etched by the retreating water, and the first line of poetic invention, but soon separating out into an antinomy between flow and articulation.  ‘The woman who has had more babies than that,’ repeats the machinic and regular movements of the water, and which is grating and wearing away the fullness of the oceanic roar in itself.

But she becomes humanised, a mother,  not blind, not machinic,  who knows that her ‘children need more than that’. She protects those who question the repetition on the shore. Like the poet-acrobat, she  listens ‘to the whole sea for a sound’; and the poet-acrobat perceives/The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.’

You may have read, studied, memorised ‘The Idea of Order at Key West,’ and if you read it again now you can hear the movement, the motive to utterance of that more polished poem being formed in this one published in 1939.

Berceuse, transatlantic. The children are men, old men,
Who, when they think and speak of the central man,
Of the humming of the central man, the whole sound
Of the sea, the central humming of the sea,
Are old men breathed on by a maternal voice,
Children and old men and philosophers,
Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears.
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds
And of sounds so far forgotten, like her voice,
That they return unrecognized.
The old men, the philosophers, are haunted by that
Maternal voice, the explanation at night.
They are more than parts of the universal machine.
Their need in solitude: that is the need,
The desire, for the fiery lullaby.

Now, to the sound of the ‘Transatlantic lullaby (Berceuse)’ Stevens walks on the land, among the ‘central men,’  Emerson’s ‘man of good will and speech and morality, who performs the work of authorising the human as an articulating transformation of natural repetitions in their barrenness into aesthetic form.  And, here, the question which Stevens answers, has been written earlier, by  Yeats, in his 1933, “Among School Children”.

“What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?”

Yeats’s youthful mothers are first in the grip of the pains and tidal movements of birth, but Stevens brings the old men, ‘breathed on by a maternal voice, Children and old men and philosophers,/ Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears,’ to the continuity and transformation of the maternal sound into its voice, ‘The self
Detects the sound of a voice that doubles its own,
In the images of desire, the forms that speak,
The ideas that come to it with a sense of speech’.

And the old men speak with the voice the ideas that come to them.

If her head
Stood on a plain of marble, high and cold;
If her eyes were chinks in which the sparrows built;
If she was deaf with falling grass in her ears—
But there is more than a marble, massive head.
They find her in the crackling summer night,
In the Duft of town, beside a window, beside
A lamp, in a day of the week, the time before spring,
A manner of walking, yellow fruit, a house,
A street. She has a supernatural head.
On her lips familiar words become the words
Of an elevation, and elixir of the whole.

We can see here how Stevens attributes the power of speech to the nurturing mother, but reserves its transformative ‘thesis’ for the articulations of the Emersonian “Central Man,” and there are some who have complained about that… , but for today, a hot sunny one, in which I am wearing my complacencies in the boudoir, I say,  ‘That was in another era, and besides, the poet’s dead.’

Next Week:  Wallace Stevens, ‘Life on a Battleship’





This Quarter, Dwight Macdonald…end

images-7 Macdonald turns now to the failure of the New Deal to solve the problems of American Capitalism – unemployment, not enough social welfare, etc.—resulting in Roosevelt’s Administration turning to the European conflict:

“It is true, says the President with his famous smile, ten million of you are unemployed and we have had to cut relief payments, but just think what social progress we’ll make once we have rid ourselves of those monsters in black or brown shirts three thousand miles across the Atlantic!”

“Whatever side wins will impose it’s Versailles on the loser, and the Third World War will begin to grow before the ink is dry on the treaty. Imperialist aims are still of major importance but modern warfare must also be regarded as the chief instrument whereby the obsolete bourgeoisie maintain their death-grip on the social order.”

“ ‘The real error of nearly all studies of war,’ writes Simone Weill in a remarkable article published in International Review last year, ‘ an error into which all socialists have fallen, has been to consider war as an episode in foreign politics, when it is really an act of interior politics, and the most atrocious act of all.’ Her development of this idea seems to me to open novel perspectives on the war question. ‘Marx has shown forcefully’, she writes, ‘that the modern method of production consists essentially of the subordination of the workers to the instruments of labor, which are disposed of by those who do not work. He has shown competition, knowing no other weapon than the exploitation of the workers, is transformed into a struggle of each employer against his own workmen and, in the last analysis, of the entire class of employers against their employees’.”

“‘In the same way, war in our days is distinguished by the subordination of the combatants to the instruments of combat, and the armaments, the true heroes of modern warfare, as well as the men dedicated to their service, are directed by those who do not fight. And since this directing influence has no other way of fighting the enemy than by sending their own soldiers, under compulsion, to their death—the war of one state against another state resolves itself into a war of the state and the military apparatus against its own army.’

‘War, in the last analysis, appears as a struggle led by all the state apparatuses and their general staffs, against all men old enough and able to bear arms.’”

SImone Weil

At the end of Macdonald’s presentation of Weill’s Marxist analysis of  how wars  serve the ‘interior state,’ he turns back to the issue of why contemporary  intellectuals have backed away from Marxism:  “Why should a Marxist analysis [like Weill’s] be so alien to the way of thinking of our intellectuals?”

“Their moral indignation is turned against a scapegoat fascism across the ocean, to defeat which they are making common cause with the class and the economic system which in this country right under their very noses is preparing the next world slaughter. The explanation is to be found in the peculiar relationship of the intelligentsia to the class struggle. They conceive of their own thinking as being disinterested, free from class loyalties, taking as its referent ‘society in general.’ In a sense this is true. They have not the direct economic interest in one side or the other of class war which the proletariat and the big bourgeoisie have. But in a deeper sense they deceive themselves.  Like the petty bourgeoisie which produces most of them, the intellectuals shift back and forth between the two polar antagonists, attaching themselves to which ever at the moment seems to be the stronger. But since the bourgeoisie is usually very much in the ascendant, the intellectuals generally think in its terms. So today, they follow along after the bourgeoisie towards war.”

Macdonald’s pessimistic warning to the intellectuals concludes his essay: “The American intellectuals are off again on another moral spree. They will come to their senses in the cold grey dawn of a war-torn world, and they will experience again what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1916:

“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands, not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics, but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilence devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”


Next Week: Wallace Stevens, “The Woman who had more babies than that”


“This Quarter,” cont’d. Dwight Macdonald

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Frankline Delano Roosevelt
    Part II: Words, Words, Words. 

After Macdonald discusses more fully the  steps leading to entry of America into the Europe of WWI, including  the floating of “vast loans in the country, for the Allies, and that our industrial boom was based on the huge Allied purchases of goods and munitions,”  he returns to the present approach of another war in 1939:

“Today, as in 1917, the intellectuals have one set of war aims, and the Administration they support, another. The intellectuals would rescue Western Civilisation from Fascism and restore it to the ways of progress and democracy.  Their government however as a serious capitalist enterprise, of necessity takes a less romantic view of the affair. Its aims are the destruction of a threatening competitor in world markets and the defence of a status quo, both international and domestic, which is greatly to the advantage of the ruling bourgeoisie. The intellectuals in a word, want to crush fascism, the State Department thinks rather of Germany.

“The intellectuals are very articulate about their war aims, which are idealistic and inspiring. When the State Department, for that very reason, publicly echoes these aims,  the intellectuals conclude that they are leading the world  towards the light… For if the intellectuals provide their government with fine sentiments, the process also works the other way around. One might think that a group whose chief occupation is writing would offer resistance to the wiles of language.  It has not been so. As the savage hopefully calls the dreaded volcano, ‘the blessed source of all good things,’ so the intellectual bathes in the power of the verbal formulae to sweeten the ghastliest realities. … Now once more, we have in the White House a statesman who knows well how to use the rhetoric of heart-warming abstractions and moral earnestness which attracts the intellectuals. The President speaks their language.

The great objection to the program of the intellectuals is not so much that it will get us into a war — the bourgeoise will decide that question for themselves… but that it is diverting us from the main task: to work with the masses for socialism; which alone can save our civilization.  And so in all the current discussions nothing is ever said about the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, and its product, war. Social  revolution is no longer thought about. The Lady has Vanished. 

“It is hard to realise how our thinking has changed. How distant they seem, those early  years of the depression, when the bourgeoisie was demoralised and discredited, when the Soviet Union and socialism were in the forefront of every intellectual’s consciousness? There has been a change in the weather. The success of fascist foreign policy, the unsuspected depths of decay and corruption in the Soviet Union, the failure of the New Deal’s reformist program and its replacement with business ‘appeasement’ and armaments, and above all, the right-wing reaction that is still gaining ground throughout the nation — all this has struck dismay into the hearts of the intellectuals. In the hot blast of such world events, the tender shoots of socialism have withered. As those who suffer some great psychic shock sometimes develop amnesia, so the intellectuals, retreating to the solid base of bourgeois democracy, have forgotten the very idea of socialism.

Macdonald’s essay now asks what would the defense of the Soviet Union mean in the event of this  new World War?

“As a means of lining up the left intelligentsia, the Communist Party has manipulated the left with its usual skill. But are we to defend the present regime in the Soviet Union? Or the October Revolution, to the extent that it is still symbolised by the Soviet Union? It seems to me that the corrupt dictatorship that has arisen under Stalin is proof the correctness of Lenin and Trotsky that the holy spread of the October Revolution to more advanced countries could preserve its gains inside Russia….The problem of social revolution is an international one.

‘The major force that is pulling the intellectuals into the orbit of war, however, is not their sympathy for the Soviet Union, but their fear and hatred of fascism. For the next war, as for the last, Lenin’s: the only possible slogan for all who pretend to be o the side of the masses: “Turn the imperialist war into civil war!”  This war is a purely defensive action.  Far from being a crusade for a new world order, the coming war is at best an effort to turn the clock back and restore that fine old world order which the last war was fought to abolish.

Next Week: Final part of Dwight Macdonald’s discussion of the approach to a new war.




“This Quarter,” Dwight Macdonald on the past and current political situations: Partisan Review, Vol. 4, No.3, Spring, 1939

The third issue of Partisan Review for 1939 opens with Dwight Macdonald’s editorial survey of the role of intellectuals at the start of America’s entry into World War I, in 1917 and the current positions of the intellectual community on the  brink of World War II, in  the spring and summer of 1939. Its a depressing read, the mistakes of 1917 are being repeated in 1939, and the values of intellectual life, except for a very few circles of writers and political activists, have been shredded and compromised.

1: War and the Intellectuals: ACT TWO

Macdonald begins by recalling an article written by Randolph Bourne in 1917, a year before his death, and at the time of the Russian Revolution. Bourne, along with Waldo Frank, and James Opphenheim, founded an important American literary journal called The Seven Arts, which, under Opphenheim’s editorial lead, took an anti-war position to American entry into WW I. Waldo Frank was a political activist and though he had supported the Communist Party in its early days, broke with it in 1937 when he met with Leon Trotsky, who was at that time living in exile in Mexico.Bourne Randolph Bourne

Portrait_of_Waldo_Frank Waldo Frank.


Macdonald begins by showing how Bourne castigates American intellectuals for their support for, and pride over the US’s entry into WWI: “Twenty-two years ago, 1917, The Seven Arts printed Randolph Bourne’s article, “The War and the Intellectuals.” Bourne wrote: “A war made deliberately by intellectuals!… A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalise the world!… Whence is our miraculous intuition of our moral spotlessness? …Whence our confidence that history will not unravel huge economic and imperialist forces upon which our rationalisations float like bubbles? …Numbers of intelligent people who have never been stirred by the horrors of capitalistic peace at home were shaken out of their slumbers by the horrors of the war in Belgium… Never having felt responsibility for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they had a large fund of idle emotional capital to invest in the oppressed nationalities and ravaged villages of Europe.”

Macdonald uses the Bourne quotation to match the present moment: “If ‘Belgium’ be changed to ‘Czechoslovakia’, these sentences apply as closely to American intellectuals in the spring of 1939 as they ever did in the spring of 1917.”   The American intellectuals are supporting the New Deal, the Communist Party (and its Popular Front organisations) offer space for ‘leftish’ intellectuals to promote a war.

“And Van Wyck Brooks [also an editor of The Seven Arts] proposes in a letter to Time that our reply to Hitler’s book burnings should be a series of public bonfires of things Made In Germany.”

2.The Road to Hell:

Macdonald returns to the present:

“Let us grant the good intentions of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the laws of motion of monopoly capitalism work themselves out, with brutal disregard for intentions, much the same under a Roosevelt as under a Coolidge. How can an Administration act in important matters contrary to those class interests of the dominant bourgeoisie  which have shaped the American state, the American law and constitution?  Their enormous mass throws its inertia against following new paths, impelling the republic along the historical path destined for it. The good intentions of Roosevelt simply make him the more dangerous, since he is the unwitting prisoner, along with his intellectual following, of capitalist necessity.,

“The contradiction between the concept of a war for democracy and what is actually taking place under that slogan has already begun to appear. The closer the second great crusade for democracy draws near,  the feebler grows the forces of democracy inside the country; the more battleships, the lower the relief standards; the bolder the President’s utterances against Hitler, the more conciliatory his attitude towards our own business rulers. The intellectuals will open their eyes some day, but not until it is too late. ….  The liberal weeklies, which once devoted their main energies to exposing and protesting social injustice at home have become more interested in demonstrating how much inferior fascist capitalism is to democratic capitalism. Left intellectuals are rallying to the defense of the British Empire, on the grounds that India is better off under British than it would be under German rule. But why shouldn’t the Indians rule India? The intellectuals take such positions, it is true, with all sorts of mental reservations. Once the fascist menace is destroyed, then they will take up the old fight again.  In politics, however, the mask holds the face. You become what you do and say; you don’t become what your reservations are.

Next week: More of  Macdonald’s “This Quarter”



Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 1939. Cover design: Theodore Roszak


1939 Spring cover

The front cover of Partisan Review, designed by Theodore Roszak ( 1907 –1981) was an invitation to the themes and style of the journal as a whole. Roszak, who I mentioned before {in this blog’s first post}, was a friend of my parents, and they collected quite a number of his paintings as well as a small sculpture that scared me, with its twisted shapes of not quite human ruins of reptilian contours, and sea creature bodies with varied lumps and declivities that made it very difficult to avoid finding in these masses and shards the very lineaments of ungratified desire.

What I mean is that I tried, but couldn’t avoid the way Ted Roszak’s drawings and sculptures of demon appearances made me feel frightened of what might come to be in my life.  48.6.vw1

As a little girl, I wasn’t as frightened of Theodore Roszak himself as I was of his sculpture,
While his work was openly disturbing and hostile, he was very kind to me as a small child, and later when I was going through some of the horrors of teenage self-doubt and embarrassment, he told me, that while I might be a mess at 15, I was certain to be ‘quite something’ when I reached my thirties — that kept me going for a couple of decades.

Roszak was born in Poland in 1907 and was brought to the USA by his parents a few years later. He was excited by and worked within the strategies of constructivism in his early works throughout the 1930s, including this “Self Portrait with Tower Construction’


Roszak worked in the sculptural arts of Modernism for two decades, beginning with his post-WWII metal constructions of severe and futuristic versions of buildings and birds, the kind of tortured shapes I found scary as a child.


Roszak’s textured surface for the MIT Bell Tower and Spire, whose architect was  Eero Saarinen, was one photo we had on the wall which intrigued me as a child, and which I just found again while looking for Roszak’s works online:

Bell   IMG_0296  img_0294.jpg

That MIT Bell Tower was done in 1955-1956; and again in 1960, architect Eero Saarinen commissioned Roszak to create an Eagle for the US Embassy building in London. Saarinen and Roszak were close friends and collaborated on many architecture-sculpture projects together. The Economist magazine defended the modernist style of the building in 2009, when the US Embassy announced it would move from Grosvenor Square  to a ‘more secure’ site,  south of the Thames: “Though [Roszak’s Eagle] sculpture was much derided at the time for its warlike or imperial connotations—Roszak depicts the bird poised on the edge of the building ready for flight, as if to hunt—it is an angular, jagged take on the national emblem.”


In 2018, Roszak’s Eagle  with its terrifying wing span and lowered beak seems a fitting emblem for America’s hallucinatory dream of world domination and control. The violence in many of Roszak’s pieces are distilled in the sculpture.

In the later 1960s and 1970s, Roszak’s softer and vaguer drawings and paintings remain both alluring and rebarbative. Ted gave my father a large drawing of a flaccid penis draped across a reclining woman’s belly, the erotic and mythic elements are very much part of his last shift in representation, moving out from the reality of the “Unknown Political Prisoner” of 1952 to a fantasised mythic nowhere.

The Unknown Political Prisoner (Defiant and Triumphant) 1952 by Theodore Roszak 1907-1981
“The Unknown Political Prisoner” 1952



So now you know something about the man who designed the style for Partisan Review.

Next week: Dwight Macdonald on “This Quarter.”



Volume 6, No.2 Letter from Leon Trotsky to André Breton.

Trotsky by Diego Rivera

Trotsky as a youth Prophetic — Leon Trotsky

I had thought to give readers the entirety of Leon Trotsky’s letter of support to the FIARI, but reading it I find that the greater part of it is to focus on the betrayal of André Malraux, which I have written about in this blog earlier in the year; I am instead using some passages from it to clarify Trotsky’s position on the relationship between politics and art, particularly in this last statement of Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.2, Winter 1939.

Trotsky, Rivera, Breton
Rivera, Trotsky, Breton

Opening with a comradely greeting to Rivera and Breton (remember that Trotsky wrote a good part of the manifesto of the FIARI, though he didn’t sign it — Rivera did): “With all my heart I congratulate Diego Rivera and yourself on the creation of the FIARI — a federation of truly revolutionary and truly independent artists.”   even as the government of France tries to ‘ape’ the heroes of fascism.

“The duller and more ignorant the dictator, the more he feels called upon to prescribe the development of science, philosophy, and art. The sheep-like servility of the intelligentsia is, in turn a not unimportant sign of the rottenness of contemporary society.” 

“The unhappy Soviet press evidently on orders from above, complains bitterly in these latter days of the ‘impoverishment’ of scientific and artistic production in the USSR, and reproaches Soviet artists and writers with lack of sincerity, courage and vitality.”

One can’t believe one’s eyes: the boa constrictor delivers to the rabbit a homily on independence and personal  dignity. Hideous and ignoble picture, but how worthy of our time!

The end of the letter is the affirmation of values that preceded this period and will continue to describe the  work of the artist: 

The struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth, not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. WITHOUT THIS, THERE IS NO ART. “YOU SHALL NOT LIE! THAT IS THE  FORMULA OF ALL SALVATION.”

Trotsky doesn’t melt politics into the work of art; it was the failures of the Soviet Union, with both its programmatic positions about art, and its bad investment in Popular Frontism, that has led to a state of deterioration of the Communist movement, and its art.

So Trotsky turns back to this new organisation — the FIARI —  he opens the last part of the letter by suggesting that, “Properly understood, the FIARI is not an aesthetic or political school and cannot become one.  But FIARI can oxidise the atmosphere in which artists breathe and create.”  It will be the works of art that will change EVERYTHING.

In our epoch of convulsive reaction, of cultural decline and return to savagery, truly independent creation cannot but be revolutionary by its very nature, for it cannot but seek an outlet from intolerable social suffocation.  But art as a whole, and each artist in particular, seeks this outlet in ways proper to himself — not relying upon orders from outside, but rejecting such orders and heaping scorn upon all who submit to them. To encourage such attitudes among the best circles of artists — this is the task of the FIARI, I firmly believe that its name will enter history.”

For many who have been reading and writing about politics and art over the past 25 years, Trotsky’s position may seem old-fashioned, pious, and tangled in the web of over- determinations, constructions, ideological mistakes and traps….the suffocating fabric of Deconstructive and Foucauldian arguments for how it has all come to be as it is. (Baudrillard, I’d say makes the better case,  for the spectacularisation that substitutes for reality).  But Trotsky’s sense that there is an urge toward freedom, above all, that makes art revolutionary and that revolutionises art, is one that can still be recognised as inspiration, as the call to create, as the voice of a Muse, as the search for Truth, and as newly born over and over from our desire for freedom:


Ruaschenberg Inspired — Robert Rauschenberg


Next Week: Dwight Macdonald– “Our Quarter” Vol.6.NO.3

Paris Letter: Sean Niall, Vol. 6, No. 2, Partisan Review, Winter, 1939.

Part II: The ways forward.

Now Niall turns to the case of IFARI — You may remember from the discussion posted about the IFARI earlier this year — which I reprint here to state the  basics of this organisation founded by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera and also attributed to Leon Trotsky:

“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.” — editors, 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.

Naill introduces the first issue of Cle, IFIRA’s  journal as  a recalibration of the Leftist support of surrealism as a revolutionary weapon:

“The purely politically minded might cavil somewhat at a violence of language, a personality of invective, that smacks a trifle of literary ultra-leftism; but those who have been nauseated by the dead-level Stalinization of French liberals, the careerist degeneration of such once brilliant writers as Aragon, and the general sickliness of the whole politico-artistic situation in France, will understand and sympathize with the desire of Cle’s directors to have its opening blast utterly unequivocal and violently purifactive.”

Niall is very hard on Paul Nizan, novelist and member of the Communist Party in France, who he describes as one of the ‘literary stooges’ of the party, whose recently published novel, La Conspiration, “gives the ‘ Communist’ quotation of the season: “Revolution is all. very well, but its just pure romanticism.”

In fact, Nizan was in conflict with the Popular Front position, and Nizan was a friend ad early exponent of Sartre’s Existentialism, exploring modern alienation, conflicts that faced petits-bourgeois radicals caught between contending class forces.  When the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the non-aggression pact in 1939, Nizan left the Communist Party, though he didn’t become a revolutionary or a member of IFIRA.

The last parts of Niall’s “Letter from Paris” are harsh and in places vaguely anti-semitic — the German Jewish refugee musicians are satirised for turning the concert halls into Temples, where they sigh and breathe heavily into their hands and handkerchiefs. He also criticises Cocteau for being morbid and perverse in his new work. Niall details his complaints of decadence, but participates in them as well. He ends by proposing a bottle of bad Champagne with his ‘pals’ as the best antidote to what’s going wrong in Paris.

And so the War begins.


Next Week: Letter from Leon Trotsky to Andre Breton.