A Brief Historical Overview of Major Cultural Activism in the First Decades of the 20th Century:
A Speech Presented at a Panel Discussion, The Challenges of Creating a Culture of Culture in the US Left, at LEFT FORUM, March 19, 2011, NYC
By John Pietaro
The art of rebellion is a tradition as old as dissent itself. Radical writers, musicians, painters, actors, dancers and other creative activists have long used their artwork as a weapon in the fight for social justice, toward revolution. If the very nature of expressive freedom lends itself toward a revolutionary voice, then it is arguable that the arts gave birth to radicalism, or in the least offered a view toward its path. Cultural workers have the power to put melody to fiery speeches and add a rainbow of color to the black-and-white of dogma.
In the wake of Marx, Engels and Lenin, artists, drawing on their own heritage of radicalism, forged a central place for cultural workers within the Left. In the United States, three radical movements have demonstrated the strongest use of the arts as tools for activists. In their chronological order they are the Socialist Party USA (dating from 1901), the Industrial Workers of the World (1905) and the Communist Party USA (1919). My brief talk today will offer but a sketch of the cultural institutions these organizations created in the first decades of the twentieth century. This work can be a model for the battles which rage ahead of us.
Labor agitator and leader of the American Railway Union, Eugene V. Debs, forged the Socialist Party in 1901, but one year into the new century. The timing was far from coincidental for the Party called for the dawning of a new day for working people. Its focus was on a wide sort of social change --and its arts endeavors began shortly thereafter. Publisher Charles H. Kerr released the pioneering song book Socialist Songs With Music that same year. In the introduction, Kerr wrote that this book was the first attempt to publish a collection of Socialist songs intended for the use of Socialists within the United States specifically. He added, “We American Socialists are only beginning to sing”.
Initially, the SP’s arts endeavors were loosely organized, used primarily as outreach for Eugene V. Debs’ presidential campaigns. Cultural workers involved included the much celebrated novelist Jack London and groundbreaking poet and folk song collector Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), among other notable contributors including poet and organizer Vachel Lindsay(1879-1931).
As the Socialist Party’s arts activism grew, the Left was able to look toward another grouping to see the possibilities of cultural work come to fruition. Of all US radical organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World , founded in 1905, is perhaps that which has most fully embraced cultural workers. Many, many of its early organizers were writers, musicians or visual artists (often all three!) and successfully used the arts as a tool in organizing workers across the globe.
Joe Hill (Joel Emmanuel Haaglund, aka Joseph Hillstrom, 1878-1915) was—and remains--the IWW’s guiding force. A model for the fighting cultural worker, Hill wrote globally relevant, militant topical songs and biting parodies in support of the union cause and in the process, spawned a legend. Among his most famous pieces are “The Preacher and the Slave”, “Casey Jones, the Union Scab”, “There is Power in the Union”, amidst an stream of others. He became a mythic character in all Left factions when he was silenced by the state of Utah via his infamous unjust execution. Famously, his last written statement was “Don’t mourn for me---organize”.
But Hill was only the most prominent of cultural workers among the IWW. Predating him was Mac McClintock, composer of such well-known pieces as “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Halleluiah I’m a Bum” and the leader of the first Industrial Workers Band which shook the mountains of the industrial northwest. Another Wob who offered lasting revolutionary music and prose was Ralph Chaplin, who wrote labor’s anthem, “Solidarity Forever” in 1911. The magnificent force of the Wobblies was seen as a great threat by the powers that be; in this period, and into the next decade, they became the subject of vicious, violent raids which greatly hurt their numbers. While the embrace of the arts remained an IWW staple, the impact their cultural workers provided was curtailed by the constant throttle of a reactionary government hell-bent on destroying them. Another movement would need to pick up on this work if there was to be a real case of “Art as a Weapon” within the US left-wing.
John Reed (1887 – 1920) was a poet, journalist, revolutionary who may best be reflected upon as the artist of conscience who never sought out mythic status. Often reviled by the ruling class for his purposeful refuting of the prestige he was born into, Reed remains an anomaly on the Left. Most vexing is that his deeply relevant role as a revolutionary in the Communist movement he helped to found seems to be only acknowledged begrudgingly.
By 1919 he, along with activist Benjamin Gitlow, led a portion of the Socialist Party’s Left-wing into the formation of the Communist Labor Party, one of the two early communist organizations in this nation which would lead to the founding of the Communist Party of the USA. He also served as a contributing editor of its initial organ, the Revolutionary Age and then became editor of the Communist magazine and a noted public speaker for the cause of the workers’ uprising---this in a time of the Palmer Raids, mass arrests of radicals and the constant threat of the war-time Espionage Act hanging overhead.
Louis Fraina (1892-1953) was already a noted author and editor during his years of activism within the Socialist Party, IWW and, earlier, the Socialist Labor Party. His writings on modern dance and advocacy for free-verse poetry in this period indicate his strong vision of the power of the arts. Upon the SP Left-wing separation, Fraina and Charles Ruthenberg led the largely immigrant Communist Party of America before it joined forces with the Communist Labor Party in 1920, until both merged a year later. Hence, it needs to be stated that the Communist Party was founded by artists!
VJ Jerome—the party’s primary cultural leader who is as criticized for his hard-line Stalinist approach to the role of artists as party functionaries. But he is also praised for having the vision to pull together the strongest, most lasting program of revolutionary arts in the nation and one which had a global impact.
While the IWW struggled to rebuild itself in the face of constant right-wing assault, the Socialist Party began to build its own cultural program, the Rebel Arts Group, led by Samuel H. Friedman, a writer and SP leader. Based out of the Party’s Rand School of Socialist Science in the Greenwich Village section of New York City stands as the Party’s strongest opportunity for the development of arts-activism. Rebel Arts’ agenda was largely theatrical, offering a series of radical plays in various New York union halls. But the Group also focused on a wider array of programming. It sponsored a photography club, a chess club, a drama club, hosted a wide array of concerts in the hall of the Rand School and ran, for a time, its own radio station, WEVD, so named for Debs himself. But as the Popular Front came to a close, so followed Rebel Arts, which continued to present a smaller and smaller array of events through the 1940s, until finally abandoning the complete program by decade’s end.
However, even during the heyday of Rebel Arts, the Socialist Party’s cultural organizers raced to keep up with the then rival Communist Party. As the 1920s moved into the ‘30s, both Michael Gold and VJ Jerome helped to initiate countless cultural workers into their ranks. Further, the Party had legions of “fellow travelers” who were either unofficial members or interested sympathizers, particularly during the Popular Front period. Attempting to list all of the brilliant artists associated with the CP’s cultural projects, journals, organizations, events and front groups in this 20 year period alone would rate a full college course in and of itself. I risk sounding insulting by merely mentioning the names and not the extensive bios of these gifted, radical cultural workers, but I prefer to at least offer some acknowledgement; here goes:
Paul Robeson, John Reed, Michael Gold, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Meridel Le Seuer, Floyd Dell, Hazel Scott, Nelson Algren, Henry Cowell, Kenneth Burke, Lillian Hellman, Malcolm Cowley, Frank Marshall Davis, Upton Sinclair, Ella Mae Wiggins, Richard Wright, Dashiell Hammet, Tllie Olsen, Waldo Frank, Sam Ornitz, Erskine Caldwell, Louis Engdahl , James Baldwin, Aunt Mollie Jackson, John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson, Mary Heaton Vorse, Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, Howard Fast, John Garfield, Sarah Ogan, Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, EE Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, Will Geer, Josh White, Rose Pastor Stokes, Isidor Schneider, Granville Hicks, William Gropper, Walter Lowenfels, Jack Gilford, Theodore Dreiser, Rockwell Kent, Florence Reese, Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Albert Maltz, Marc Blitzstein, Dorothy Parker, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, Abraham Polonsky, Donald Ogden Stewart, John Dos Passos, Lincoln Steffens, Charlie Chaplin, Pete Seeger, Claude McKay, Edith Segal, Aaron Copland, Arturo Giovannitti, Dorothy Day, Louis Untermeyer, Hugo Gellert, Robert Minor, Elie Siegmeister, Ruth Crawford, Alfred Hayes, Leo Hurwitz, Art Young , the Composers Collective of New York, the Workers Theatre Laboratory, the John Reed Club, the Almanac Singers, the Golden Gate Quartet, the New Playwrights, the Group Theatre, the Theatre Union, the Red Dancers, the Film and Photo League, the Provincetown Players, the League of American Writers, the New Dance Group, the American Artists Congress
…………and a seemingly endless list beyond.