Michael Denning's "The Cultural Front"

After I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I soon learned that "Stalinism" was a many-headed monster. Not only did it betray revolutions, it was responsible for the sort of awful kitschy popular art that Trotskyist intellectuals of the 1930s had blasted away at in journals like the Partisan Review. The Trotskyist aesthetic was very much bound up with the modernism of T.S. Eliot and at a certain point in the Cold War, the left politics was dropped altogether. Hostility to the proletarian novel soon transformed itself into hostility toward the proletariat itself.

In recent years there has been an effort to rethink the political legacy of the 1930s. New Left historians like Mark Naison have attempted to understand how the Communist Party at the grass-roots level managed to provide leadership to working class struggles no matter the ineptness of the party tops.

As the political legacy is being rethought, so is the cultural legacy. An important new book titled "The Cultural Front" by Yale professor Michael Denning is an attempt to reconsider the popular art of the 1930s and 40s as something much broader and deeper than merely the production of Communist Party hacks. He argues that the "Cultural Front" included the CP but that the majority consisted of independents like Orson Welles. While the tendency of cold war historians has been to write off such figures as "fellow travelers", Denning believes that the inspiration for left-wing film, popular music and literature was the labor movement itself and not directives from Communist Party headquarters.

Key to his analysis is the debunking of what some have derisively called Communist Party "front groups". Was Popular front culture a "front" for the machinations of Moscow, or what ex-Trotskyist Irving Howe once called a "brilliant masquerade"? Were artists duped into lending their name for various "Peace with the Soviet People" groups without knowing what they were getting into? Denning makes the case that such formations were not facades at all. Groups such as the "American Friends of Spanish Democracy" or the "Hollywood Anti-Nazi League" were instead part of a social movement that should be understood in terms of Gramsci's concept of the "cultural front":

"One can say that not only does the philosophy of praxis not exclude ethico-political history but that, indeed, in its most recent stage of development, it consists precisely in asserting the moment of hegemony as essential to its conception of the state and to the 'accrediting' of the cultural fact, of cultural activity, of a cultural front as necessary alongside the merely economic and political ones."

In other words, the vast production of left-wing popular art of the 1930s and 40s was an attempt to create a "counter-hegemonic" culture. The Great Depression and the rise of fascism created a crisis of traditional American culture as well as politics. The optimism of the Lincoln era had to give way to something new. This new culture was imminently successful since it did manage to touch the lives of millions of ordinary working people and begin to create an alternative vision of society.

With this perspective in mind, Denning amasses an encyclopedic wealth of information about the period that entertains as well as educates. There is a chapter on John Dos Passos, whose reputation has suffered in recent decades. This is a shame since Dos Passos writes brilliantly about "big money", the "great imperial steam-roller of American finance," a fact of existence that is still with us. The bread-lines of John Steinbeck may have disappeared, but there is something still very contemporary about the venality of the typical Dos Passos character who is seduced by the "big money". If you want to understand the 1980s and the soul of characters like Jerry Rubin or Donald Trump, Dos Passos is the place to go.

My favorite chapter is "Cabaret Blues", which contains a perceptive analysis of the jazz world's connections to the left, including Billie Holiday's. She sang at Café Society, a Greenwich village nightspot started by the leftist Barney Josephson who wanted to bring white and black folks together for entertainment and political inspiration. It was a hangout for wealthy left-liberals from Park Avenue, Jewish trade unionists and black celebrities like boxer Joe Louis. She first sang "Strange Fruit" there, a song that helped her find herself as an artist in 1941, as she reported to pianist Teddy Wilson. Denning reports that Duke Ellington and Count Basie used to do benefits to raise money for medical aid for the Spanish Republic and that as late as 1951, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and J.J. Johnson were performing at a Labor Youth League dance.

In the final section of the book, Denning raises a number of interesting questions about the relationship between popular culture and socialist politics. In the course of this discussion, he refers to the journal "Modern Quarterly" that was initiated by left-wing intellectuals including the editor V.F. Calverton and Sidney Hook. In its heyday, from 1927 to 1931, this journal attempted to address the need for an Americanized Marxism. Later on, in 1933 and 1934, a successor journal titled "Modern Monthly" addressed the same themes.

In 1933, several of the intellectuals who had been associated with these journals, including Calverton and Hook, joined with left-wing labor leader A.J. Muste and his Conference for Progressive Labor Action in founding a new party called the American Workers Party (AWP). This formation led an important CIO labor struggle in Toledo in 1934 which triggered a general strike in the city. The "Modern Monthly" became the unofficial organ of the AWP and Max Eastman and Edmund Wilson joined its editorial board. In late 1934, the AWP fused with the Trotskyist movement and A.J. Muste and most of the AWP intellectuals went their own way.

This information is of tremendous value to those of us who are trying to construct a revolutionary socialist movement that is free of the distortions associated with "Cominternism", that is to say the tendency to superimpose schemas from afar upon the class struggle of a given society. This tendency has existed in the 3rd and 4th Internationals, both of which took for granted the legitimacy of Zinoviev's organizational and political model. This model served Stalin as he attempted to convert Communist Parties into pawns of his foreign policy. It unfortunately has tended to cause Trotskyist parties to suffer from sectarianism and dogmatism as "international secretariats" of one stripe or another dictate strategy and tactics to national sections. Trotsky himself, serving as Comintern deputy before his downfall, sent letters to the French Communist Party, telling it what was appropriate to print on the front page of L'Humanite.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has thrown Stalinism and Trotskyism into a crisis since the paradigm that tended to lock them into a deadly embrace has disappeared. This affords nonsectarian and nondogmatic Marxists an opportunity to take up the task that has always existed: to construct a Marxist movement based on the living reality of the country you live in. This does not mean that one should not be an internationalist. It simply means that internationalism can only be fostered by solid, authentic revolutionary parties rooted in their local class struggle. This is the sort of internationalism that Subcommandante Marcos represents, who speaks the political and cultural language of the Chiapas peasantry while communicating online with the radical movement internationally.

The "thread" of an indigenous Marxism has always existed in the United States. It existed in the V.F. Calverton journals and Muste's American Workers Party. It might have been crowded out by the mass acceptance of the Communist Party, but resurfaced again in the late 1940s with the emergence of Monthly Review, a journal that Denning considers in the spirit of Calverton's. The 1960s radicalization gave a last burst of life to "Comintern" type thought and politics, not least of which was the re-energized Trotskyist movement.

A new radicalization will have an opportunity to reject these centralizing models and draw from the alternative represented by the national Marxisms of Gramsci or Peru's Mariategui. It might even consider the Trotskyism of CLR James, who while remaining deferential to the idea of the Fourth International, showed in his writings how important it was to be rooted in the class struggle of one's own society.

Gramsci, Mariategui and James all understood the need to be engaged with popular culture. They were all fascinated by the movies, daily newspapers and popular fiction. The reason popular culture is important is that it is an important way to reach working people. The record of the "cultural front", which is the subject of Denning's investigation, is exemplary. This leftist popular art was so pervasive and so deeply rooted that it took a campaign of exceptional violence, both physical and juridical, to stamp it out. McCarthyism was nothing more nor less than attempt to lobotomize an American population that had grown to accept the legitimacy of left-wing politics and art.

By contrast, the politics and art of the 1960s and 1970s was much more ephemeral. The manifestos of innumerable Trotskyist or Maoist "new internationals" appear as dated as a Jefferson Airplane album or Peter Max poster. In the next radicalization, we need to develop a Marxism that is much more deeply rooted in our native soil. This is the only way to withstand 1950s style repression or the petty-bourgeois infantile ultraleftism that was the undoing of our most recent foray into oppositional politics and for which we have nobody but ourselves to blame.

Louis Proyect