Art & Politics

Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America.
by James Gilbert.
John Wiley & Sons. 303 pp. $6.95.

In 1962, William Phillips analyzed his experience as an editor of Partisan Review (the essay, “What Happened in the 30's,” which originally appeared in COMMENTARY, is included in Phillips's recent collection, A Sense of the Present):

It now looks as though a radical literature and a radical politics must be kept apart. For radical politics of the modern variety has really served as an antidote to literature. The moral hygiene, the puritanism, the benevolence, the rationalism—all the virtues that sprout on the Left work like a cure for the perverse and morbid idealism of the modern writer. If writing is to be thought of as radical it must be in a deeper sense, in the sense, not simply of cutting across the grain of contemporary life but also of reaching for the connections between the real and the forbidden and the fantastic.

In thus stating his disillusioned conclusions, Phillips summarized the experience of an entire generation. For as an editor of Partisan Review along with Philip Rahv (there were, of course, many others who shared in the direction of the magazine over the years, but Phillips and Rahv were central), he had led a brilliant struggle against the vulgar Marxism of the 30's. Yet he and many of his co-thinkers were eventually forced to give up their original hope that, after those who subordinated aesthetics to the party line of the moment had been routed, there would still be some viable relationship between the artistic and political vanguards.

I do not think that the antagonism between literature and radicalism which Phillips describes is as absolute as he makes it out to be; and in a sense he underrates his own achievement as well as that of his friends. But there is a substantial truth in what he says, and—more to the point—to have recognized that truth in the midst of the fierce factional battles of both the Left and the avant-garde was, and remains, an enduring accomplishment. That is why Writers and Partisans by James Gilbert is worthy of note. In chronicling and analyzing Partisan Review from its inception in the 30's to the years just after World War II, this book deals with one of the most significant, and catalytic, forces in American cultural life of the period.


Gilbert's approach is scholarly and probably too detailed and footnoted for the general reader. Yet Writers and Partisans contains a wealth of material which touches upon themes and arguments that are quite relevant today: the meaning of Bohemia; the autonomy of art; the social value of alienated, and even anti-social, spirits. It is in terms of these issues of the present and the future that I propose to deal with this account of Partisan Review's role in the past.

Perhaps the most important point which Gilbert makes is that the American Bohemia was not one thing but at least three. The divisions were not so apparent before World War I, but they began to assert themselves in the 20's and provided an important basis for the fight between Phillips, Rahv, and company, and the Marxists in the 30's.

There were, first of all, the literary expatriates of the 20's who turned their backs on the Babbitry of their native land. Some of them made culture into an aristocratic realm which was far more important than politics and, in some cases, to be defended by force against the presumptuous masses. This attitude had, of course, a stunning European precedent in the post-1848 dandyism of Baudelaire with its frankly anti-democratic bias, but this trend had not, for a variety of reasons, been fully recognized in America. Secondly, there were those, like Van Wyck Brooks, who focused on America and its traditions, seeking a viable cultural heritage on this side of the Atlantic. And finally, there were those who sought to continue the traditions of the prewar Bohemia, uniting politics and literature.


One might quarrel with Gilbert's subdivisions and add, or refine, a category or two, yet the main point is compelling. The American Bohemia of the early 30's—which is where Partisan Review began—contained several tendencies with hostile potentials. I would add only one notion to this central idea. The fact that this diversity did not become obvious in the first part of the century was due to a historical peculiarity of the period before World War I. In those days, Debsian socialism and progressivism were the dynamic forces on the political Left—and naturalism was the leading edge of artistic modernity. The writings of London, Dreiser, and Sinclair, the paintings of the Ash-can school, the revolutionary journalism of John Reed, sexual emancipation and socialist revolution, joined in a Bohemian united front. It seemed natural and inevitable that literature and radicalism would forever make common cause.

By the 20's, the prewar harmonies were already strained and cracking. In the 30's, there came intellectual civil war. Partisan's role in this war was remarkable. The magazine started out with a sophisticated version of the social aesthetic and, in the course of bitter disputes with the official, and incredibly vulgar, Marxists of the Communist party, asserted the autonomy of art and the value of work created by conservatives and reactionaries. The magazine, Phillips said in his 1962 essay, was “for purity in politics and impurity in literature.”

As early as 1937, Gilbert writes, “Both editors felt that it was wrong to make literature the vehicle for ideas that were politically expedient at the moment. Rather, literature should reflect what was permanent and new in proletarian culture. It should not merely promote the class struggle. Second, they argued that literary history must be preserved, even if it was largely the history of middle-class authors writing for middle-class audiences.” This break from the partinost conception of art advocated by the Stalinists was of fundamental political importance. But in terms of critical theory, the defense of the value of literary history, even when it was dominated by the middle class, was of even greater significance. For that suggested a separation, if not yet an opposition, of art and politics. And it pointed toward the subversive proposition that political impurity might even have certain artistic advantages.

For the editors of Partisan, Gilbert comments, “The estrangement of the artist from society, his special psychological problems, the difficulty of living two lives, citizen and artist, became their chief concerns. . . . Practical politics and art were entirely divorced, but literature and politics in a philosophic sense, as a moral stance toward the social context, remained intimate.” And as a result of this view, “Trotsky, isolated in Mexico but astoundingly aware and perceptive of problems in the Soviet Union, a brilliant social commentator, was a man to be admired, to be emulated, but perhaps not to be followed.”


In shorthand, these Marxists had discovered the value of Baudelaire; the theorists who had begun with naturalist premises (they would have said proletarian) had learned to value the creativity of their alienated, sometimes anti-social, enemies. In so doing, they manifested remarkable perceptiveness and a generosity of spirit. But their doctrinaire opponents, whether they were advocating proletarian literature in the early 30's or a vaguer, more sentimental democratic literature in the days of the Popular Front, also had roots in the American Bohemian past.

“The accepted view of the 30's,” William Phillips notes, “is that Marxist—or Communist—doctrine was grafted onto native radicalism. But what is usually overlooked is that American radicalism was of a very special kind. It was essentially populist, insular, anti-intellectual. . . . In effect, then, the radical movement in the 30's, particularly in the arts, got its accent from the more primitive, egalitarian, plain-speaking strains in American culture.” In agreeing with this, I do not for a minute want to overlook the very special Communist contribution of introducing a murderous, fratricidal attitude into the Left (in Russia of the period, it was not an attitude but a purge). Yet the fact remains that there was an American Bohemian tradition which the literary commissars could use for their own purposes.

So the fight over the autonomy of art was not simply a function of politics in the tumultuous era of the Depression but had roots in the American past. And Partisan, to use a metaphor which it popularized, employed a “redskin” methodology to appreciate “paleface” genius. Yet there is a further irony in this history. Gilbert rightly comments that most of those around Partisan Review admired, but did not follow, Trotsky. But he does not add that, had Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (which dated back to 1924 and contained essays written by the author when he was a Soviet leader) been widely available, it would have provided a brilliantly argued Marxist case for many, if not all, of the propositions which Phillips and Rahv defended.

“Marxism,” Trotsky wrote, “does not at all ‘incriminate’ a poet with the thoughts and feelings which he expresses, but raises questions of a much more profound significance, namely, to which order of feelings does a given artistic work correspond in all its peculiarities?” And later, “Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital.” And most bluntly, “It is very true that one cannot always go to the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to reject or to accept a work of art. A work of art should in the first place be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art.”

Here, as in so many areas, Trotsky, that Marxist Renaissance man, had profound insights. Yet perhaps it was just as well that the editors of Partisan Review made their own way without the tutelage of the exiled genius in Mexico. For if their conclusions often paralleled Trotsky's, they evolved out of personal search and struggle, and they were defined in American terms.

Finally, a contemporary point. In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse, certainly an influential thinker these days, takes a position contradicting one of Partisan's central ideas. Previously, Marcuse argues, first-rank art contained a “Great Refusal” and this was basic to its humanity and its greatness. This corresponds to the idea of Phillips, Rahv, and others, that alienation can provoke aesthetic accomplishment (for that matter, Marx preferred Balzac, the Catholic monarchist, to Zola, the socialist fellow traveler). But now, Marcuse says, the omni-manipulative society has coopted even its marginal geniuses and lonely Bohemians. And therefore that profound social function which the Partisan writers accorded to art even as they denied its role as a political instrument is no more.

I disagree with Marcuse and, paradoxically, think that the essential Tightness of the Partisan editors on this point shows that there still is a relationship—however dialectial and beyond the comprehension of political apparats—between radical art and politics. Marcuse is, of course, correct in saying that oppositionists are regularly commercialized, e.g., Bob Dylan and perhaps . . . Herbert Marcuse. But I think he underestimates the degree to which, in recent times, aesthetic revolt has been the precursor, not the tool, of political change. For it is precisely to the extent that society has made some democratic forums “one dimensional” and fraudulent that revolt, opposition, and refusal have manifested themselves in life-styles, literature, films, the plastic arts, etc. To that extent, Partisan Review's tense, complex view of the social function of a non-party art, created in part by alienation and even by reactionary individuals, is of great present moment.

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