Wednesday, December 1, 2010

COMMUNIST CULTURAL WORKERS: A Brief Overview of the Power of the Written Word, 1919-1939


A Brief Overview of the Power of the Written Word, 1919-1939

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. 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 vision toward its path. One can easily look to the works and dreams of revolutionary artists of every stripe to see the connection with the Left in general--- and the arts programs of the Communist Party USA in particular. The artists who have specifically focused their repertoire on progressive struggles, people’s stories and real-time issues, move into a specific realm, one which pulls them far from the art-for-art’s-sake idiom. These artist-activists extend the possibilities of the dissident’s pamphlet by leaps and bounds. They have the power to put melody to fiery speeches and add a universe of color to the black-and-white of dogma. They add the necessary ingredient of emotion to demonstrators’ placards and hold the history of revolutionary art within their hands. These artists are the Cultural Workers and on no other front did they fight as hard as that which was led by the Communist Party USA. .

It has been well-documented that the Communist Party USA actually began life in 1919 as two different organizations. What has been rarely noted, however is that both of the original parties featured known cultural workers in prominent founding roles. The Communist Labor Party was led by Benjamin Gitlow and writer/activist John Reed, and the Communist Party of America by Charles Ruthenberg and writer/activist Louis Fraina. Even after the parties would unify in 1920, the groundwork laid by these two stalwart champions of radical arts would remain. While the Party, during its history, has largely focused on wide issues of racial equality, militant labor unionism and establishing peace, via revolutionary socialism, it quickly came to establish a vital and proud history of cultural work, probably rooted in the dissident arts of Reed and Fraina. That both of these historic figures were writers was not lost in the milieu of Party cultural work. This influence was but one of at several reasons that the CPUSA realized the prominence of literary arts in their cultural programming. The proletarian novel, the radical drama, revolutionary poetry and the progressive screenplay all came of age in the hands of Communist Party authors--or at least those that were close fellow travelers. The other influencing factors included the place of esteem held by writers in the Soviet Union and Comintern, as well as the pre-exiting tradition of progressive literary figures in this nation, many of which had been developed by the Socialist Party and the IWW in the years and decades before 1919. Furthering this argument, most Party cultural workers who are musicians, painters, actors or dancers, have also offered poignant pieces of writing in the journals and other organs of the Party. Thus, the weight of Communist cultural work has most often been carried by revolutionary writers.

John Reed (1887-1920) began his radical literary career on the staff of the Masses magazine and aided in several industrial organizing campaigns of the IWW in the 1910s. Reed prominently traveled to Russia during the latter stages of the 1917 Revolution and wrote extensive notes which were the basis of his renowned book Ten Days That Shook the World. His writings were already established when he and Gitlow, led a portion of the Socialist Party’s Left-wing into the formation of the Communist Labor Party. Reed would become designated as a cultural emissary by the Comintern and travel to Russia during the tumultuous post-war period in which the fledgling Soviet Union came under attack by the western European nations and the United States, all attempting to defeat the world’s first Communist government. Reed was called on to not only write brilliant speeches but to deliver them in person to various areas under siege, brimming with revolutionary tremors. Reed would not survive to see this period end, dying from typhoid during international travels and becoming the first American to be buried at the Kremlin wall. His story was eloquently told in the Warren Beatty film Reds, including his relationship with the writer (and his wife) Louise Bryant (1885-1936, see below), famed anarchist Emma Goldman, and the fledgling Left-wing Provincetown Players theatre troupe, which he helped to found with Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953, who would go on to become an acclaimed American playwright), Masses editor Max Eastman (1883-1969), writer Floyd Dell (1887 1969), Bryant and other notables.

Louise Bryant vividly represents the integral role women played in the building of the Communist movement, but also an unfortunate example of how the time in which she lived placed far too much emphasis on the men, often refusing to fully credit the women in their midst. Though a gifted writer, primarily a journalist like many of her male counter-parts, her work was largely overlooked by not only the media but her comrades, particularly in light of Reed’s celebrity. It is easily forgotten that Bryant traveled to Russia concurrent to (but independent of) Reed’s visit and also chronicled the revolution in real time. The publication of her series of articles actually preceded Reed’s and she also wrote a book on the revolution, Six Months in Russia, which received critical praise. After its publication, she traveled the United States on a book tour, receiving great responses all around. Bryant’s time in Russia, of course, exceeded Reeds (she was with him as he lay on his death bed) and her reportage was read and seen globally, as she wrote for King Features and the International News Service. In her time she was acknowledged as one of the first western journalists to travel to many points in the far reaches of Russia. Throughout the remainder of her life, Bryant continued to travel internationally and chronicle global events. (Gardner, Virginia. The Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas. Chi: St James Press, 1990, Page 114)

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, a vision unmarred by a fear of the Modern, of the avant garde. Upon the SP Left-wing separation, Fraina and Ruthenberg led the largely immigrant Communist Party of America before it joined forces with the Communist Labor Party in 1920. He maintained his position as both a high-level organizer for the CPUSA and one of its primary writers and organ editors until inner-Party tensions saw the partnership end. In 1921, he theorized on the place of the arts in the class struggle and wrote that the barriers of work and culture must be broken down to allow workers and artists to freely exchange roles. This, he believed, will allow for, “a vital culture, an art that lives and a life that has art” (Fraina, Louis, “Social Climbing Intellectuals and Proletarian Literature, Forum, 1921; source: Buhle, Paul, A Dreamer’s Paradise Lost: Louis C. Fraina/Lewis Corey and the Decline of Radicalism in the United States. NJ: Humanities Press, 1995, page 97)

Sadly, Fraina’s extensive work has been erased from most Communist Party and other Left history following strong accusations that he embezzled Party funds while on an organizing mission in Mexico; this led to his permanent expulsion. Fraina eventually made a serious study of economics, though maintaining many of his Marxist views, and under the name Lewis Corey became something of a celebrated economics scholar in the 1930s and ‘40s. Fraina’s legend was somewhat resurrected by his depiction by actor Paul Sorvino in the film Reds. On the Left, however, Fraina is best remembered today for authoring the 1918 book Revolutionary Socialism.

Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933) was a founding member of the Communist Party, following serious activism with the Socialist Party, radical industrial unionism and the great influence of the poetry of Morris Rosenfeld, legendary poet and sweatshop worker of the latter nineteenth century. Hailing from Poland, raised in London and living in Ohio by age eleven, Rose Pastor would grow into a prime force in the fight for women’s and workers’ rights. She began writing as a young woman and relocated, on assignment with the Jewish Gazette, to New York City, where she authored journalistic articles as well as poetry. After interviewing wealthy settlement worker J G Phelps Stokes, the two became a couple and then married in 1905 (thus the tabloids would label her “Cinderella of the Sweatshops”). One year later the Pastor Stokes publicly joined the Socialist Party and Rose Pastor Stokes immediately became popular as a lecturer and writer for SP organs. She took prominent roles in notable strikes in the 1910s and also the movement for birth control; in 1916 she was arrested for passing out birth control leaflets at Carnegie Hall.

Rose Pastor Stokes engaged in anti-war activism as the First World War erupted, ultimately breaking away from the SP due to its uncertain stand on the war. More so, she left her husband by 1917 due to his insistent support of the government and the war itself. In 1918 she was arrested on charges of espionage due to her article exposing war profiteering, but by 1921 won this case on appeal. Stokes was active in the 1919 founding of the Communist Party and became an early member of its Central Commission. She also became an important part of the Party’s Negro Commission and in 1922 was part of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. In 1927, she married VJ Jerome (see below) and remained an active part of CP functions as well as a writer for its press. In 1929, Stokes was seriously injured at a demonstration against the landing of US forces into Haiti. Attempting to stop a policeman from hitting a boy with his night-stick, Stokes suffered the blows. Her health became an issue after this point and as the decade came to an end, Pastor Stokes became afflicted with breast cancer, to which she would succumb in 1933. In her lifetime she was championed by figures no less than Eugene V. Debs who spoke out on her behalf in 1918, not long before his own imprisonment for “espionage”. Stokes traveled in a great circle and counted Upton Sinclair, Max Eastman, Florence Kelly, Jack London and Clarence Darrow, as well as Debs, among her friends. (Buhle, Mari Jo. The Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas. Chicago: St James Press, 1990, Page750-751; also- Spartacus School UK -

Beyond the groundwork of these early Communist cultural workers, the Party’s arts programming was led by both Michael Gold and V.J. Jerome for many decades. Where Jerome held the title of chair of the Party’s Cultural Commission, Gold—who began his political life with strong anarcho-syndicalist roots--remained something of a gadfly who struggled against deadlines but held great command over CP literary efforts, due more to sheer tenacity and talent than any political connections.

Michael Gold (1893 – 1967) was a radical author—a journalist, playwright and poet—as well as a social activist who chronicled the Great Depression and the plight of immigrant workers, residing as he did in working class New York City. Though best known for his book Jews Without Money (1930), Gold began writing for progressive periodicals as early as 1914, when one of his pieces was published in the Masses. In 1916 he became a member of the IWW and spent some time living in anarchist communes in the Boston area. He also began contributing articles for the New York Call, the Socialist Party newspaper. By 1917, he became affiliated with the Provincetown Players and had officially joined the Socialist Party, but quickly declared his sympathies for the Bolshevik Revolution, then moved for a time to Mexico to evade conscription for the First World War.

Gold joined the Communist Party in 1922, braving the governmental raids of A. Mitchell Palmer’s Bureau of Investigation, and authored a long-standing arts column for Party organ the Daily Worker. In this period, Gold traveled on behalf of the Party, residing first in San Francisco and then moving on to Europe. This stint included stays in London, Paris, Berlin and ultimately the Soviet Union where he came to first study the German theatrical director Meyerhold’s conception of Constructivist Theatre. This genre melded standard theatre productions with techniques such as pantomime, acrobatics and formalized scenery in an attempt to focus on non-verbal communication with the audience. Gold was greatly influenced by this daring brand of drama and though he focused his efforts on journalism once back in New York, he would resume writing for theatre over the years and published some of his dramatic sketches in Communist Party periodicals including his “Strike!” of 1926, which he called a “mass recitation”. One year later, he established the New Playwrights Theatre with the likes of John Howard Lawson (1894-1977) and John Dos Passos (1896-1970) Gold also completed a Futurist play called “Hoboken Blues” this same year, that which saw him arrested for protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pg. 52).

Gold was a conflicted man, an undisciplined writer who could be very oppositional to expected CP discipline, yet a Communist Party stalwart with an almost undying faith in not only Party leadership but that of the Comintern and CPSU. Through it all, Gold stood as editor of the Party’s magazines the Liberator and the New Masses. He also became the Party’s most profound cultural critic, at points to a fault—Gold denounced the works of progressive novelists, dramatists and screenplay writers whenever they softened or strayed from Party doctrine.

Perhaps Gold’s most important credit is that he established the model for the urban novel. His was a literary version of the Ashcan school of painting. Realism, yes, but with a hyper sense about it---Gold described the lives of workers the way most authors would write about the exploits of the rich and famous, captains of industry or the Royal family. Gold wrote in social realism; it was often dark, but then his writing was also a celebration of the people. His words were laid out in an orderly manner which felt conversational yet were anything but. Mike Gold told the most important stories of all because they were the stories of us: the pride, the sadness, the smiles, the struggles. He brought this all to life and is doing so helped to forge the American proletarian novel. According to historian Alan M. Wald in his study of Leftist writers,

Simply put, no single individual contributed more to forging the tradition of proletarian literature as a genre in the United States after the 1920s. All who came after Gold would stand on the shoulders of his legacy. Part of the explanation for Gold’s impact was his colorful semi-autonomy from the Party officials such as Jerome on the Party headquarters “Ninth Floor”. The dazzling blend of proletarianism, bohemianism, romanticism, and even a strain of modernism that comprised the early 1930s mix of Left poetry was quite evident in Gold’s own personality and career. (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pp 39-40).

By the later 1930s, Gold's Daily Worker column included praise for the early folksong revival, then largely ignored by most American Leftist leaders, and he offered insight into the need for, "a Communist Joe Hill", referring to the legendary songwriter-organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World. Gold's words did not go unheeded, for they alerted the CPUSA to the importance of US home-grown music as a voice of the people; by 1939, the Party had discovered Woody Guthrie, whose ballads would be celebrated internationally and whose song "This Land is Your Land" would be called an alternative national anthem by many. Mike Gold was a tireless fighter for unions and other movements of social justice, and he spoke out fiercely against the rise of fascism in Europe, easily bridging the gap between the arts and social activism. Gold set the standard for the proletarian novel in the early 1930s, maintaining his position as a Communist Party elder and cultural worker till his death.

Historian Alan Wald wrote that Gold desperately struggled with obscurity during most of his life. Largely, critics ignored his work; when it received any press at all the notices were negative, often brutally so. Old age would find Gold living in poverty and stifled by dysphoria and physical ailments. The irony was that his peers, even during critical lambasting, held the writer in very high regard:

Gold, too, had been among the cultural luminaries of his generation; a friend and associate not only of Leftists such as Eastman, Dell, Reed, McKay, Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Sinclair, Gold was also championed at different intervals by Eugene ONeill, Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, and even Ezra Pound. (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pg. 55).

Perhaps the best description of the radical literary figures Mike Gold walked with in his time is supplied by Gold himself from an article written in 1946, perhaps in light of the Red Scare, then preparing to evolve from the embers of V.E. Day:

Marxism flourished…during the first half of the 1930s…New writers wrote “proletarian novels”, plays and poems and became a main stream in our national culture, that formed the finest literary epoch our country has known since the Golden Age of Whitman, Emerson and Melville. It was a fighting art, a Marxist art, and frankly a weapon in the class struggle then raging so openly…We must find our way back to the main highway…We must rebuild the Marxist cultural front, with its literary magazines, theatres, music and art. (Gold, Mike, Daily Worker, March 1946; source-Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pg. 57).

V.J. Jerome (1896 – 1965) was on staff of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union prior to joining the Communist Party in 1924—the same year that he married Rose Pastor Stokes. By the mid-1930s Jerome rose to the level of the Party’s Cultural Director (some say ‘Cultural Commissar’ due to his stern, doctrinaire rigidity) and became editor of Party magazine the Communist (later—and today-- known as Political Affairs). He also collaborated with other Party cultural workers including composer Lan Odomian (1905-1979) for their powerful work, “A Negro Mother to Her Child”, which explored the anxiety of the vulnerable and oppressed in a vernacular style which was highly unique in its day. He also collaborated with noted German composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962)for the anthemic “The Comintern Song” which announced, “red banners unfurled, advance proletarians, conquer the world” (Eisler, of course, was Bertolt Brecht’s collaborator on the celebrated playwright’s most profoundly Left-wing dramas and also a powerful activist with the German Communist Party and music director for the Comintern’s arts organizations; his years living in America saw a strong comradeship with US cultural workers including Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Woody Guthrie and countless others).

Jerome was a prolific writer within Party literary organs and also authored several books. He became most prolific in the thirty-year span between the mid-1930s and mid-‘60s, though most of this work would not become published until the latter part of his life. In addition to the novels, plays and articles, Jerome also authored theoretical books and pamphlets about the place of the arts within the struggle for social justice. 1940’s The Intellectuals and the War offered insight into the place of the Left and its artists in the fight against fascism even before the US’ foray into battle, while his The Negro in Hollywood Films of a decade later exposed the racism inherent in Hollywood and clarified the African-American contribution to film. Most importantly, he wrote Culture in a Changing World in 1948, the dawn of the Cold War, which boldly spoke of the power of the arts as a tool in the class struggle and this was followed by his pamphlet “Grasp the Weapon of Culture” which would later be cited by US prosecutors as “proof” of his attempt to overthrow the government by force. During his trial he focused the long, stressful hours on his autobiographical novel, A Lantern for Jeremy (1952).

Jerome was also the leading force behind Party cultural initiatives in both New York and Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s and remained active through and beyond the period of his Smith Act imprisonment (1954-57) along with other officers of the Party. His final years were spent traveling through parts of Europe and working in Moscow before returning to the US. Like Gold, Jerome maintained his position as a cultural leader with the CP throughout his life.

Both men helped to initiate many literary cultural workers into the Communist Party. Over its history, the CPUSA’s ranks included numerous writers, some of which who would go on to help form such important independent organizations as the Screenwriters Guild (now the Writers’ Guild) and an assortment of issue-specific cultural groups. Further, the Party had legions of “fellow travelers” who were either unofficial members or interested sympathizers, particularly during the Popular Front years of 1935-39.

Gold and Jerome saw the power in the arts and established a full cultural program—music, theatre, film, visual art, dance, photography and of course literature-- within the Communist Party’s ranks, though it is arguable that not all of the Party’s top leadership, accustomed to a more didactic engagement, was as enthusiastic. However, cultural workers of many genres were included in meetings, rallies and actions, usually adding the necessary ingredients to an event that may otherwise have been exclusively dedicated to talk.

By 1929, the Party’s cultural arm had organized the John Reed Clubs as part of the CP’s push for a proletarian literary drive. This series of national clubs included both well-known and up-and-coming writers, Communists all, who were interested in creating literary works of social revolution. The John Reed Clubs devised a mission statement (in 1930) which identified core values, including the support of labor and the fight against imperialism, white chauvinism, fascism, oppression of immigrants, and something unique to cultural workers: the Clubs pledged to “Fight against the influence of middle-class ideas in the work of revolutionary writers and artists” and to “Fight against the imprisonment of revolutionary writers and artists”. The Clubs principal goal was “forging a new art that shall be a weapon in the battle for a new and superior world” (Draft Manifesto, John Reed Clubs, 1932).

The period just after 1929 saw the development of the most important and original period in the literary Left. The experimental, Modernist 1920s forcefully melded with the political and social anxieties of the Great Depression, producing writings of a startlingly new kind. Alan Wald wrote:

“Poets wrangled in meetings and in the pages of journals about their responsibilities regarding anti-racist, pro-union, and anti-fascist struggles. Another conspicuous feature was the way in which the literary eruption of the Depression years engaged such a broad range of poets beyond the traditional elite poetry circles” (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. 2002, NC: University of North Carolina, page 16)

Unique to most groupings of intellectuals in this period, Party writers came from all walks of life, represented assorted races and nationalities, and both genders. While retaining their particular artistic focus, all saw their place as, “partisans in the international proletariat”.

A member of the Reed Club, Meridel Le Suer (1900-1996) stands out as a gifted and skilled author who was also an early champion of women’s rights and the rights of workers. Le Suer, from the mid-west, was the product of a suffragette mother (Marian Wharton) and Socialist politician father. She soon found herself in New York City, engaging in social justice campaigns, seeking work as an actress and residing in an anarchist commune which also included Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. She relocated to Hollywood, briefly finding work as a stuntwoman before becoming jailed for protest against the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Her writing was initially influenced by DH Lawrence, but with the coming of the Great Depression,

Le Suer emerged as a major proletarian writer in the 1930s. She embraced a creative and political role as “voice, messenger and awakener” of the oppressed, particularly women. (Miller, Prarie. The Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas. Chi: St James Press, 1990, page 421)

Le Suer wrote for the New Masses, and the Daily Worker and served as an organizer for the Communist Party. During this same period she was employed by the government as a teacher for the National Writers Project, part of the WPA’s Arts Project, and also held an important place in the American Writers Congress (see below). Though she’d published a well-received collection in 1940 and other books in that period, with the coming of the Cold War Le Suer found herself—along with many others--blacklisted from mainstream publishing. Simultaneously she was investigated by the FBI, braving home searches, wire-taps and being shadowed by agents wherever she went, yet she continued to write for the Left’s underground press.

During this time she also wrote children’s books, some of which included Native Americans in relevant roles. Still, during this time she engaged on a new wave of activism, fighting for land rights for Native Americans throughout the nation. It was not until the late 1960s that Le Suer became acknowledged as a groundbreaking feminist-activist and her writings were praised by a new generation. She continued to write literature of a progressive nature until her death at age 96. (Marxists Internet Archive:

Another early giant of both Left literature and the struggle for women’s rights was Tillie Olsen (1913-2007), who hailed from Nebraska and joined the Young Communist League in 1929. Olsen (nee Lerner) was assigned to travel to Kansas City where she aided in a local strike. Her first-hand accounts in this experience begat her first novel (never completed), Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Following a bout with tuberculosis, she moved to San Francisco where she engaged in, and was jailed for her part in, the historic General Strike. From lock-up, Olsen wrote of the workers’ struggle and the harsh treatment of the authorities. She published articles through the mid 1930s for Partisan Review and National Review, among others, but refrained from any writing during the twenty-year period she raised her children, maintained her home and worked a full-time job.

Ironically, Olsen re-emerged in 1955, as the effects of the Red Scare crushed the hopes and careers of many cohorts, with a creative writing fellowship to Stanford University. Her first published work in this period (1956) was the poem, “I Stand Here Ironing”. This began a fruitful career as a fiction writer who consistently explored the issues women experienced in society and Olsen was honored with grants from the Guggenheim and Ford foundations. Her place in the realm of women’s studies was secured by the early 1970s, during which time she became very vocal in the Women‘s Liberation movement but also engaged in countless benefit projects for other progressive causes. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, she continued to be active and offered a series of educational/experiential books dedicated to the important relationship between mothers and daughter. (Staub, Michael. The Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas. Chicago: St James Press, 1990, page 546; also Bosman, Julie. Obituary of Yille Olsen, The New York Times, January 3, 2007).

In the early 1930s, many writers in the budding film industry, experiencing significant workplace repression and management’s powerful resistance to unionization, took on a most radical role. A large group of them, in the company of other writers and intellectuals, attended a John Reed Club-sponsored National Cultural Conference in June 1931, New York City, which explored the place of the arts in activism.

“Communism became, for a large and influential minority of screen artists, both the principal symbol of social idealism and the primary means of living out those ideals…the best means of defending democratic values” (Ceplair, Larry and Englund, Stephan. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960, NY: Anchor, 1980, pp 53-55)

Many writers, particularly playwrights, who’d already become entrenched in cultural work on behalf of social change, were among this group. As the community of screenplay writers grew, names such as Dalton Trumbo, Robert Rossin, Ring Lardner Jr, Sam Ornitz, John Howard Lawson and many more became known to Communist circles. Some were involved members, others briefly within the ranks and still others associated as fellow travelers. By 1947, many were desperately trying to deny their involvement with Party-led Popular Front collectives, trying to resurrect disabled careers, but others were brave the blacklist and harassment that ensued. But back in the height of the Depression, the mission was overwhelmingly in the view and no one considered later fallout.

By 1932 there was formed The League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, a collective of poets and other writers, as well as scholars bonded together to support the Communist ticket of William Z. Foster for president and James Ford for vice-president, in their race against the Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The League included such stalwart intellectuals as the acclaimed poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987), Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936), Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) and the fore-mentioned Dos Passos, many of whom were not actually CP members but were close associates or fellow travelers. The League released a strong pamphlet entitled Culture and the Crisis which advocated for “an American Soviet Government”. Their Manifesto went on to proclaim:

As responsible intellectual workers we have aligned ourselves with the frankly revolutionary Communist Party, the party of the workers…The Communist Party stands for socialism of deeds, not just words…Why vote Communist? Because it offers the only practical solution to the crisis—a workers’ and farmers’ government. (Culture and the Crisis, League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, NY: Workers Library, 1932)

Though the work of the John Reed Clubs was extensive, the Party, in 1935 had begun to move into a new phase, one of the Popular Front, which, at the behest of the Comintern, reached out to all Left and liberal organizations in solidarity during the fascist threat. The Reed Clubs were replaced with a less revolutionary and more immediately friendly American Writers Congress which included many of the CP writers, but more importantly the sympathizers and fellow travelers who’d been kept out of the Reed Clubs.

According to historian Alan Wald, the Left literary circle began to coalesce shortly after the Party came out from underground and began operating openly, initially under the “legal” name the Workers Party; this was 1922. Poets associated with the Liberator magazine, that which developed out of the ashes of the Masses, became Communist Party members and soon after affiliated their journal with the Party. Their ranks included Joseph Freeman (1897-1965), Max Eastman (1883-1969), Claude McKay (1890-1948) and of course Gold. (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. 2002, NC: University of North Carolina, page 16)

Joseph Freeman stands out as a highly important figure as he was another Party cultural icon, a professional journalist who came to the offices of The New Masses magazine at the urging of CP leadership, though the relationship with his peers was stormy for many years. But his contribution was great and he can be counted amongst the Party’s most important writers and editors.

Party literary figures, in an attempt to catalog the work being done by Left writers, published a 1935 book entitled Proletarian Literature in the United States. Joseph Freeman composed its powerful introduction which stated:

The workers and their middle-class allies, in the struggles against capitalist exploitation, against fascism, against the menace of a new world war, furnish the themes of the new literature; they also furnish the audience of the revolutionary theatre and magazine…Abstract debates as to whether or not the revolutionary movement of the proletariat could inspire a genuine art have given way to the applause for the type of drama, fiction, poetry, and reportage included in this anthology. (Proletarian Literature in the United States, Hicks, Granville and North Joseph, editors. NY: International Publishers, 1935, Introduction; source: Lieberman, Robbie, My Song is My Weapon: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, pp26-7)

And with regards to the Writers Congress, Freeman wrote:

A literary congress was possible in this country only when the dichotomy between poetry and politics had vanished, and art and life were fused. (Proletarian Literature in the United States, Hicks, Granville and North Joseph, editors. NY: International Publishers, 1935, pp 22-23; source: Lieberman, Robbie, My Song is My Weapon: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, page 172)

The Writers Congress begat the League of American Writers which included luminaries such as Dos Passos, Dreiser , Hughes, Steffens as well as Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), Guy Endore (1900-1970), and most importantly, John Howard Lawson (1894-1977), who would stand out as a leader before, during and after the damaging period of the Red Scare of the 30s and that which was to come. This organization also included hundreds of other concerned authors, poets, playwrights, critics and wordsmiths. By the Second American Writers Congress, one year later, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), now returned from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, was an important addition, as was Richard Wright (1908-1960), James T. Farrell (1904-1979), Upton Sinclair (1878-1968; celebrated author of The Jungle), Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), and others. The League was instrumental in changing the Party’s focus from “the working class” to “the People”, which offered a wider view for activist inclusion and brought the CP into the heart of the Popular Front. (American Writers Congress, ed. By Henry Hart. NY: International Publishers, 1935; source: Fried, Alfred: Communism in America—A History in Documents. NY: Columbia University Press, 1997, pp 276-289)

The strength of the Communist Party’s cultural outreach in this period, in particular the breadth of its literary circle, is explained by historian Lawrence Schwartz:

The twenty-fifth anniversary issue of the New Masses (December 15, 1936) illustrates the cultural popular front at its unified and tranquil best. Appearing in that issue were the leading Party spokesmen on culture—Joseph Freeman, Mike Gold, Granville Hicks, and Isidor Schneider—and with them a variety of contributors both in and out of the Party: Earl Browder, John Strachey, Rex Stout, Agnes Smedley, John Dos Passos, George Seldes, Scott Nearing, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Vincent Sheean, Albert Halper, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Maxwell Bodenheim, Alfred Kreymborg, Genevieve Taggard, Richard Wright, Sarah Cleghorn, Louis Untermeyer, Langston Hughes, Willam Gropper and Others. (New Masses 21, no. 12; source: Schwartz, Lawrence H, Marxism and Culture: The CPUSA and Aesthetics in the 1930s. NE: Authors Choice Press, 2000, page 51)

Richard Wright (1908-1960) came to Harlem in 1937, experiencing the rush of creativity firsthand and rapidly becoming involved in Communist Party cultural programs and periodicals. Standing with such luminaries as Langston Hughes, Wright became part of the fabric of the Harlem Renaissance. Hailing initially from the South, Wright’s grandparents had been former slaves. He moved to Chicago in 1927, taking a Post Office position, and Wright, who’d first been published at age fifteen, became a more serious writer, particularly by 1931, after seeing and then experiencing the ravages of the Depression. Now jobless, he came upon the literary activism of the John Reed Club and his works regularly saw publication in the pages of the New Masses. Wright officially joined the CP in 1933 and acted as editor for another Party organ, Left Front. By 1936, Wright became estranged from the Chicago district of the Communist Party, during the tumultuous period in which American Trotskyists split from the main CP body, and he was drawn to local Black Nationalist leaders.

Soon after Wright relocated to New York City, he became affiliated with the New York district of the CPUSA and was hired as Harlem Editor of the Daily Worker; soon thereafter he was put onto the editorial board of the New Masses. Achieving national prominence for his writing, Wright published Native Son, his most famous work, in 1940. However the news of the Stalin purges was for him, like many others, a breach of trust in the Communists and he became separated from the Party shortly thereafter. (source: The Mississippi Writers Page

The late 1930s was a trying period for the Party as news of the Stalin trials and purges moved out of the realm of hushed disbelief and into the reality of global news broadcasts. Many cultural workers who were integral parts of Party-led Popular Front groups such as the League of American Writers, the American People’s Chorus, the New Dance Group and the Film and Photo League, became disenchanted and rapidly departed. Other s remained entrenched in Party-based activities but then with the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the CP lost an overwhelming amount of its Popular Front clout and with that, many alliances. Cultural workers in the ranks, like other members, tried to find rationale for these acts which seem, with hindsight, despotic and in opposition to Marxist ideals. But somehow 1939 also brought with it an infusion into the voice of the proletariat by way of Woody Guthrie, folk musician and People’s World columnist. Perhaps it was only when stripped to the core that Communist cultural workers were able to find a new wave of revolutionary arts within the most common among us.

* * * *

The lineage of Communist writers during the period between the earliest 1920 and the late 1930s was extensive, perhaps exhaustive. Most of the major authors of the period were associated, on one level or another with Communist cultural circles and carried the full weight of the Party’s widespread influence with them everywhere. Cultural workers of the Communist Party extended well beyond those specializing in the written word. The numbers of musicians, visual artists, actors, director and dancers who engaged in CP cultural activities were vast and extend well beyond the boundaries of this article. If the Communist Party was able to develop a powerful, well-rounded voice during its first generation, it was due to the noble struggle for social justice and socialism, brought to the masses via its Marxist organizers, orators---and cultural workers. It is a testament to what can be achieved in the coming years with this all-encompassing model of outreach and organizing.

-John Pietaro ( is a cultural worker and cultural organizer from New York. He is a contributing writer to Political Affairs and other Left periodicals and is currently working on a concise historical volume on cultural workers in the 20th century USA.


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