Reconstruction 8.1 (2008)

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Introducing "Class, Culture, and Public Intellectuals": a Special Issue of Reconstruction / Graham Barnfield, Victor Cohen, and Joseph G. Ramsey


<1> Editing this issue of Reconstruction has become an illustration of the very processes that we set out to discuss and document.

<2> Calling for papers commenced a well-defined project, with all the parameters in place for producing a routine academic work. We knew the Reconstruction editorial collective was keen to do an issue on themes of class. We were also aware of two publication anniversaries in our academic field of U.S. literary radicalism: The New York Intellectuals by Alan Wald in 1987, and The Cultural Front by Michael Denning, about a decade later. Combining a 20th anniversary with a 10th anniversary – it would be what journalists call a "calendar story." (As it happened, when we brought the idea up with the illustrator of the issue's home page, he thought it academic in that more widely used sense of the word, as a synonym for "pointless." Fortunately, he came around to our way of thinking, and you probably saw the excellent results on your way to reading this editorial.) The work included here, we think, in many ways, transcends the ("merely") academic.

<3> Indeed, that "academic" often resonates in these opposed ways (scholarly/pointless) suggests one of the topics that this issue of Reconstruction seeks to address - namely, how to theorize, engage, and overcome the growing gap in the United States separating intellectuals - especially intellectuals on the left - from the broader "public" at large. To put it in a question: how can and how ought radical intellectuals in the United States to address themselves and their work to this "gap"?

<4> We can come at this question in a concrete way by looking at who has recently put pressure on this gap. In the U.S. and British higher education settings employing the three co-editors, politicians, pundits, and university administrators have insisted that academic intellectuals ought to find - or be forced to accept - new ways of being held accountable to "the public." In the U.S.A., a growing call for the implementation of Outcomes Assessment (OA) – a trend recently endorsed even by Modern Language Association President Gerald Graff - proposes that intellectuals in the academy prove their value to the society - and often to state budget-makers or trustees - through the acceptance of centrally administered testing protocols (what some have likened to "No Child Left Behind for Higher Education"). Responding to concerns about OA from those on the left, Graff has argued, essentially, that in the current American political context, we need to bite the bureaucratic bullet on our own terms before others force us to do so. This pragmatic strategy for survival tacitly endorses the idea that academic work can best be "valued" though a kind of educational taylorization. Given the history of Taylorism, we can say with confidence that the implementation of such a project will certainly foster an enlarged ("scientific") managerial apparatus. Whether OA will forward the interests of "democracy" by helping to bridge the public/intellectual gap with which Graff is justifiably concerned, or work instead to further marginalize and repress radical ideas and (actually-existing) democratic pedagogies, remains another question altogether. Likewise, few British-based scholars will have escaped the impact of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and similar quantitative ventures in so-called quality assurance. That this is occurring now, a moment in which U.S. foreign policy demands outspoken criticism and protest, raises the stakes of the debate still further.

<5> In a manner of speaking, a similar public-intellectual "gap" was the focus of a recent special of the journal Symploke, which was organized around the theme of "Discouragement," or "Intellectuals in Dark Times." In that issue, contributor David Shumway interrogated the possibility of a "Marxism without Revolution." He argued that Marxism's faith in the imminence of revolution has had an overall detrimental impact on radical intellectual activity, foreclosing the development of a Left social theory and practice adequate to understanding and changing the world, and in particular the contemporary United States, in positive ways.

<6> While making a compelling critique of left cultural theory in the U.S., Shumway introduces a series of claims that serve as a proper stepping-off point for the present special issue of Reconstruction. As he writes: "the history of United States - presumably the leading instance of capitalism - in the twentieth century does not give us grounds for thinking that a successful revolution of the sort Marxism has imagined might have occurred ... [N]ot that capitalism lacks the contradictions and attendant crises that might have brought down the state, but ... there is no reason to believe that a genuinely socialist, much less a communist society could have been built in its place" (32).

<7> This is both an acute observation, as well as a pressing challenge for those who study U.S. radicalism, literary and otherwise. In our view, the culture and politics of the interwar period, and especially the years surrounding the 1930s, provide a uniquely productive space to revisit questions of building socialism in the U.S. Looking back, we are faced with capitalism's shakiest moments in recent memory, as well as socialism's high-water mark in the U.S. As Michael Denning notes, a 1942 poll by Fortune magazine found that 25% of Americans were "in favour of" socialism, while another 35% had "an open mind" about it (Denning 4) [1]. The conditions - and indeed the opportunities (missed as well as seized) - suggested by this figure, in our view, are yet to be adequately accounted for within contemporary U.S. cultural and literary studies. (Perhaps Shumway – and others similarly "discouraged" – have spoken too soon?)

<8> As our contributors demonstrate, for those people interested in mapping out alliances with the broader public to transform society, the decades around the 1930s provide a rich territory to revisit. The period in question was one informed by an ongoing debate about the role of the public intellectual, as expressed in manifestos such as Culture and the Crisis (1932) and the attempts of intellectuals to give shape to clear definitions as a guide to practice. [2] Rather than having to ask "where have all the intellectuals gone?"(Furedi, 2004), the likes of Granville Hicks and Michael Gold assumed they knew the answer and issued a call to fight. In later years, the same concerns became reference points in Cold War political debates and, more recently, in the realignment of erstwhile radical intellectuals over the "war on terror". Here we find a narrative of commitment, betrayal and careerism being used to make sense of the latest developments, often referencing Wald's 1987 volume in the process. [3]

<9> Whether past or present, it is worth approaching the question of public intellectuals with the following questions in mind. How did prior generations of radical intellectuals engage and link up with the broader public? How did the rising (and falling) organization and activism of the "public" itself impact the possibilities for intellectual engagement? Which legacies of public intellectual activity in the U.S. can be related to our contemporary situation, and how? The essays gathered below help us think through these and other pressing questions.

<10> This issue of Reconstruction also functions as a follow-up to another publication worth commemorating alongside Denning's and Wald's - Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture. Published in 1996, this collection provided one of the first coherent visions of the 1930s as a field of study. While earlier volumes of essays hint at how a group of scholars can work together to unpack the profound relationships between the public and the proletarian - notably David Madden's 1969 two-volume study of "tough guy" and proletarian fiction - Radical Revisions is arguably the first collection to project 1930s cultural leftism as a field of study unto itself. With the publication of this volume, we hope to continue that work by bringing to light new perspectives and approaches to studying the mid-20th century U.S. Left. (Indeed, in several places the present issue seeks to bridge the gap between "old" Left and "new.")


<11> Clearly, any discussion of public intellectuals worthy of the name is one that engages with the public itself. This is the starting point for Brian Thill's opening essay, which re-evaluates the discussion of public intellectuals, including Wald's 1987 volume, by paying close attention to contexts for the dissemination of ideas. "Who is the audience, and how do we engage with them?" is the substance of what Thill asks, along with, "Why is it that such questions about public dissemination of ideas are so often marginalized, even on much of the so-called academic left?"

<12> Many articles included in this special issue on "Class, Culture, and Public Intellectuals" are concerned with questions of intellectual dissemination, as well as with those social forces, state interventions, and ideological currents that have sought to contain, co-opt, or convict left thought and practice throughout the twentieth century - in contexts ranging from the Palmer Raids, to COINTELRPRO, to the USA PATRIOT Act. In this sense, the articles here can be read as archaeologies of the present, revisiting the political repression that now (often unconsciously) structures our 21st century intellectual situation. Other articles confront us with models of engaged intellectual activity which are worthy of reconsideration, and in some cases, of resuscitation.

<13> William Maxwell's contribution, a first instalment from his new book-length project, F.B. Eyes: How Hoovers' Ghost Readers Framed African American Literature, recounts the Federal Bureau's long-ignored, yet formative, fascination with American, and in particular African-American, literary radicalism. This fixation, which Maxwell traces all the way back to J. Edgar Hoover, expressed itself in a panoptic surveillance of the African American Left, the bureau's accumulation of "one of the world's great [and tax-payer funded] libraries of radical writing," as well as a lurid trafficking in "gothic tales" of radicalism penned by literary G-Men to help demonize the interwar Left.

<14> Tracing out cultural and political affiliations that persisted despite the effort of the repressive state apparatus, James Smethurst, in "SNYC, Freedomways, and the Influence of the Popular Front in the South on the Black Arts Movement" examines the oft-neglected organizational and cultural connections between the Old Left and the New. As he argues, "the work that Popular Front artists and activists did in the South ... prefigured the notions of how artists should relate to the community that marked Black Arts literature and visual arts."

<15> And yet, despite important local exceptions, the post-war period was characterized by the repression of the U.S. Left generally, and the disarticulation of African American cultural and political work from the communist movement, in particular. How did this occur? To what extent were the causes of this Left-collapse internal to the communist movement, and to what extent external? And how did these various internal and external causes reflect and react upon one another? To what extent was the demise of the Old Left a product of "objective conditions" versus of "subjective" political struggles? Such questions Paul Heideman takes up in his essay, "'Drowning the Past with A Thunderous Shout': Black Culture Workers and McCarthyism," as he maps the presence and the repression of different strains of the African American Left between the world wars and the Cold War. Surveying a wide array of important moments and figures, Heideman raises pressing questions about historical and theoretical models, including Michael Denning's, that, in Heideman's view, understate the role of anti-Communism and McCarthyism in precipitating the post-war defeat and marginalization of the Left.

<16> Together, these three essays suggest how far the study of U.S. left and African American literature and culture has gone beyond the view of (white) Communists duping and exploiting African Americans, a belief often bolstered by a simplistic reading of the anti-Communist writings of ex-Communist figures such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Maxwell and Smethurst further hint at the exciting work being done to connect the so-called "Red Decade" of the 1930s to earlier and later moments of African American culture.

<17> With near forensic detail, Grover Furr's article, "Anatomy of an Anticommunist Fabrication: The Death of Oliver Law," exposes as fiction a set of widely disseminated, disparaging stories concerning Law, a Spanish Civil War martyr and the first African American ever to command white American soldiers in battle. Furr connects this study to his broader and ongoing project of challenging unsupported anticommunist assumptions that often frame and distort accounts of the Communist movement - even on the Left.

<18> Some of our contributors return to well-known and near-canonical figures. Alice Béja, in her essay "Radically American: John Dos Passos, Culture and Politics" explores the "independent" radicalism of John Dos Passos, focusing in particular on his often neglected non-fiction writings. Meanwhile, in productive tension with Béja's assessment of Dos Passos' American radicalism, Rich Hancuff's article examines the competing visions of literary radicalism inside the early New Masses of Mike Gold and John Dos Passos. In particular Hancuff draws out the struggles within the Left regarding the place of national and intellectual identity within an avowedly international proletarian movement.

<19> Other contributors extend considerations of left politics and public intellectual labor into unexpected zones. Paula Rabinowitz, whose Labor and Desire has become a key analysis of 1930s radical literature, makes a case for visual artists as progressive public intellectuals in her essay "L'America: Woman, Artist, Landscape: Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe and Emily Carr: Painters as Theorists of the National Imaginary."

<20> Rolling the assembly line back to the Depression decade, John Marsh's "United Auto Writers" provides a recovery and analysis of the union poetry of insurgent United Auto workers penned shortly after the historic sit-down strikes of 1937. Marsh reintroduces us to the often-suppressed tradition of U.S. literature, examining a set of union poems as critical and creative responses to Taylorism, layoffs, and business-dominated mass culture. Turning our attention towards the surprisingly persistent "left presence" within business-culture itself, Robert Vanderlan's "Telling the Truth in the Headquarters of Lying: Intellectuals Writing for Fortune Magazine in the 1930s" examines the work of liberal and left intellectuals Archibald MacLeish, Dwight Macdonald, and James Agee inside Henry Luce's influential business magazine. In the process, Vanderlan offers a nuanced reassessment of Fortune's legacy, as well as a rebuttal to "the idea that [left] intellectual and political commitments are not reconcilable with mass cultural employment."

<21> In the spirit of dialogue on the Left, at the heart of this collaborative special issue sit five interviews with long-established scholars on, and of, the radical left, including the duo whose works started our left "calendar story."

<22> Ellen Schrecker, in her interview with Victor Cohen, gives a long view of the history of American political repression. Though most well-known for her histories of McCarthyism and anti-communist politics, Schrecker takes us back to the founding of the U.S. to trace out its unique form of political coercion, predicated on a public-private collaboration between businesses, universities, and the government.

<23> Michael Denning, also in interview with Victor Cohen, discusses the larger themes and trajectories that have animated his political and academic work, from his early studies on the popular novel through to his latest collection of essays, Culture in the Age of Three Worlds. Denning looks back to his own training in British cultural studies and American studies, and talks about how those experiences prepared him to take up the project that became The Cultural Front and practice left politics within the academy.

<24> Alan Wald, in interview with Joseph Ramsey, outlines the thrust of his ambitious and nearly completed project of writing the "collective biography" of the mid-twentieth century U.S. literary left. Wald reflects on methodology, as well as his recent findings, including surprises as well as the lessons–political, literary, and scholarly - drawn from decades of research on U.S. cultural radicalism. He further discusses the trajectory of his own intellectual and political development since penning The New York Intellectuals, while surveying the work that remains to be done in the field.

<25> Also in conversation with Ramsey, Barbara Foley discusses her recent - and forthcoming - work on Ralph Ellison and his connections to American Communism. "Reading forward" to Invisible Man through the unpublished drafts of the novel, Foley examines the "political unconscious" of Ellison's text to document the agonizing Cold War processes that shaped it into what she calls "Exhibit A in the [fallacious] case . . . that Communists have historically exploited and abused African Americans." Foley further offers her views on "What is to be done?" in the present political conjuncture in the U.S. academy.

<26> In our fifth interview, radical philosopher Bill Martin, in response to Ramsey, offers a wide-ranging, political, and at times personal meditation on the terms of the question, "What should left public intellectuals in the United States being doing today?" Bringing forward thoughts on seemingly disparate figures such as Derrida, Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Sartre, Martin interrogates the current status of such notions as the "public" and "intellectual" in society which he characterizes as "postmodern imperialism," and whose dominant cultural currency is "bullshit."

<27> Our "Into the Cold War" section continues this issue's engagement with post-war politics and culture. Chris Craig's article, "The New Yorker's "Hiroshima": Tiffany Diamonds Caribbean Cruises, and the Atomic Bomb" explores the limitations of John Hersey's influential account of the effects of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. Craig foregrounds the consumerist iconography of New Yorker advertisements, which ran alongside "Hiroshima" in August 1946, as a symbol of the contradictions of post-war liberalism. Craig further suggests that Hersey's journalistic ethic and aesthetic of "immediacy" runs up against a dominant discourse that always already frames even socially critical sentiment as but one more commodity.

<28> Further exploring the history of post-WWII American political repression, Marv Gettleman's essay, "Defending Red Pedagogy: U.S. Communist Schools Fight Back Against the SACB … and Lose (1953-1957)," recounts the courageous but unsuccessful struggle to defend Communist Party schools - once the most extensive system of adult education in the United States - from government repression during the early years of the Cold War.

<29> Coming from a different, and dissenting angle, in "Canons of Dissent: Anarchy, the "Cold War" Canon, and the Anti-Statist Left in the United States," James Patrick Brown challenges the tendency on the part of New Americanists and 1930s scholars to write off the American literary Cold War canon as bereft of a genuine radicalism. He does this by tracing out its submerged anarchism and anti-statist themes, as well as accounting for the ways in which current scholarship on the Cold War has focused on its Communism and anti-Communism at the expense of alternate political tendencies in the literature, as well as its scholars.

<30> In "Morris Ernst's Troubled Legacy", Brett Gary examines the contradictory life of this important legal activist.  Famous in his own time for his efforts to successfully defend the right to acquire birth control through the U.S. Post, as well as the right to purchase modernist literature, Ernst (as Gary shows) can rightfully be considered one of the most significant public intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s. Gary juxtaposes this with Ernst's post-WWII anti-communism, a politics that led this crusader of free speech and civil liberties to develop into an informer for the F.B.I.  

<31> Opening our section on "Reconsiderations and Appreciations," Charles Cunningham's "Dialectics of Hope" engages Michael Denning's The Cultural Front, as well as the state of radical literature study more generally, outlining both the "promise and the problems" with Denning's influential study from a Marxist perspective. Cunningham contends that while opening up considerable space for productive work to be done on the 1930s, The Cultural Front tends to simultaneously "domesticate" and overstate the "radicalism" of various works and artists of that decade, chiefly by marginalizing crucial notions such as "mode of production" and "class consciousness" in favour of the problematic notion of an "authentic American working-class culture."

<32> Graham Barnfield's essay, "Shadowy Aesthetics: The Cultural Front, Literary Judgments, and Perceptions of Mass Entertainment," extends the appreciation and elaboration of Denning's work. Barnfield traces the ways in which the binary opposition between "political-proletarian" literature and "escapist, mass culture" does not adequately describe either the creative or the critical work of Popular Front writers. As he writes, "What is seldom acknowledged is that hostility toward popular culture's escapist elements was often compatible with an aesthetic project that overlapped with elements of mass culture itself."

<33> Amy Gentry's article "Style, Subjectivity, and Critical Reception of Meridel LeSueur's The Girl" investigates the textual source of the vexed reception of this proto-feminist proletarian novel. Gentry's reading of the text's near-compulsive deployment of metaphors of hunger, in particular, sheds new light on this classic, yet often neglected radical work.

<34> Robert Niemi's article, "Dirty Industrial Dawn," offers an analysis of the representation of workers' alienation in Harvey Swados' classic novel of life in and around an automobile manufacturing plant, On The Line. Niemi illustrates the crucial work proletarian fiction continued to do well after the "red decade" of the 1930s, and further demonstrates the analytical value of concepts from early Marx. Confronting us with Swados' deeply pessimistic 1957 account of an industrial world where "work sucks," Niemi unpacks the ways Swados' novel forecloses collective opposition to the ruling order.

<35> In keeping with this year's 100th anniversary of Richard Wright's birth, Bill Mullen's article, "Space and Capital in Richard Wright's Native Son and Twelve Million Black Voices," articulates Wright's work on Chicago to the field of Marxist historical-geographical-materialism led by theorists such as David Harvey. Through close readings of Wright's Chicago texts, Mullen traces a "dialectical ambivalence" about the dangers and opportunities presented to the modern proletariat faced with urban space radically restructured by capitalism.

<36> Closing out our "Reconsiderations," Anthony Dawahare honours and remembers Tillie Lerner Olsen, who died last January 2007 (1912-2007). Olsen was a noted Communist, author, and poet; her most famous novel, Yonondio: From the Thirties, is recognized as one of the most powerful accounts of U.S working-class life under the Great Depression. Foregrounding Tillie's activism and her attention to immanent social contradiction - against those who would domesticate her Marxism by way of the pluralistic trinity of "race-gender-class" - Dawahare traces Olsen's concern with "the not yet in the now." He foregrounds her commitment to drawing forward the human potentialities, which, though emerging within the oppressive present social system, are incapable of fully flourishing until capitalism itself is transcended, and yet which themselves constitute the basis for such transcendence.

<37> Closing out our Special Issue, we return to several articles explicitly engaging the question of "intellectuals" relationship to the U.S. "public." In his article "Intellectual Influences on the American New Left: C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse," James Panton explores the commonalities between these two publicly influential radical academics, despite their seemingly fundamental differences (for instance in terms of their attitudes towards Marxism and "Big Theory" more generally). Panton traces Mills and Marcuse's parallel theoretical engagements with the linked questions of post-war political agency and the impact of U.S. mass media, while also mapping some of the limitations of their "New Left" philosophies and politics. In particular he elucidates each thinker's problematic tendency to locate potential "freedom" more and more narrowly in a "private" sphere, opposed to a – seemingly monolithic and non-contradictory – "public" sphere.

<38> In an essay delivered in the feature-writing style he seeks to explore, Andrew Calcutt charts the specific strategy of using magazines as a forum from which to rejuvenate the public sphere. Contrasting the writerly norms established through the Paris Review with his own participation in the Modern Review, Calcutt interrogates the way that changing social conditions both prompted and curtailed an approach to intellectual life rooted in print media.

<39> Finally, Manuel Yang rounds off the issue with a kind of rejoinder, suggesting that for too long now the very notion of a public intellectual relies on a missionary model, of going out to the masses with a view to enlightening them. Let us abolish this approach altogether, he seems to be suggesting through his close readings of the experiences of the New York Intellectuals and the Forest-Johnson Tendency. Let us organically immerse ourselves in the everyday struggles of ordinary people.


<40> In closing, some words of thanks are due to all the contributors. According to Wald, scholars "in the field of the U.S. cultural Left comprise a generous community, always available to share ideas and information." [4] This statement encapsulates our experience of working with sections of this community in putting together this collection. Despite political, geographical, continental, occupational, and temporal differences, all concerned have worked together on this project in an exemplary and comradely spirit, and we hope that the scholarship presented here gets the wide and engaged readership it deserves. Likewise, the regular editorial staff of Reconstruction - especially Marc Ouellette and Justin Scott-Coe - have been supportive of the project since its inception, culminating in intense labor parallelling that of many of the special issue's protagonists.

<41> Finally, in the interactive and community-building spirit that animates both our special issue, and the journal Reconstruction in general, we would like to welcome further interested participants and respondents to contact the editors about a forthcoming supplement to the current - already sizeable - special issue. This year's Richard Wright centenary gives us the "calendar story", while contemporary events make the public intellectual into an issue of pressing concern. Responses to "Class, Culture, and Public Intellectuals", and new essays extending the argument will be warmly welcomed for publication in a special section of Reconstruction 8.4, appearing at the end of 2008. We would warmly welcome hearing from you with questions, comments, and proposals.


Works Cited

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1997).

Furedi, Frank. Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone ?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism (London: Continuum, 2004).

Mullen, Bill V. and Sherry Lee Linkon (eds.) Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

Shumway, David. "Marxism without Revolution: Towards a History of Discouragement", Symplokē Vol, 14, Nos.1-2.

Wald, Alan. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930's to the 1980's (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).



[1] Denning is citing "The Fortune Survey," Fortune 26.1, July 1942, p. 12. [^]

[2] Granville Hicks offers one such definition in I Like America (New York: Modern Age, 1938), p.13. [^]

[3] The most detailed academic overview of this discussion so far is William F. King, "Neoconservatives and 'Trotskyism'", American Communist History, Volume 3, Issue 2, 2004, pp. 247–266 <
>. Wald himself, no doubt growing weary of sensationalistic op-ed writing, replied with "Are Trotskyites Running the Pentagon?" on History News Network, 23 June 2003 ( For a snapshot of the "new thinking" occasioned by the "war on terror" yet mediated through historical references, see Oliver Kamm, Anti-totalitarianism: The Left Wing Case for a Neo-Conservative Foreign Policy (London: Social Affairs Unit, 2005). [^]

[4] Alan M. Wald, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), p.305. [^]


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