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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof.

Lichtenstein

Critical Reflections on Michael Denning’s 1930s, on the Occasion of The Tenth Anniversary of
The Cultural Front

It is probably safe to say that Michael Denning’s revisionist interpretation of the Popular

Front period has been the most influential treatment of the New Deal-era left of the last ten

years.1 However, as Michael Rogin suggests in an otherwise laudatory review of Denning’s The

Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, there are some

worrisome oversights and elisions embedded in Denning’s interpretation of the historical

formation he calls the “cultural front.” Rogin notes that politics are often absent from Denning’s

analysis of the “cultural front” as social movement.2 Denning’s treatment of politics is

symptomatic of wider trends. A recent article by Eric Arnesen, a historian critical of the CP’s role

in the American labor and civil rights movements, identifies a common embrace of “history with

the politics left out” among revisionist historians: “In revisionists’ hands, the politics of

communism takes a distinct backseat to dedication, militancy, and even good-heartedness.”3

If Denning is correct in stating that the previous historiography of the Popular Front was

weakened by the reliance on a “core-periphery” model, with CP leaders at the core and “fellow

travelers” at the periphery, his interpretation tends to downplay the conflicts between the

participants in this broad coalition (however conceived) and their anti-Stalinist antagonists.4

Denning is not alone in rejecting internecine conflict as the main theme of the American left. On

the contrary, a shared objection to the emphasis on factional squabbling by early historians of

1
Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London:
Verso, 1997).
2
Michael Rogin. Review of The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century by
Michael Denning. Journal of American History, September 1997, Vol. 84, No. 2, 712.
3
Eric Arnesen, “No ‘Graver Danger’: Black Anticommunism, the Communist Party, and the Race Question,”
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006, 38.
4
Denning, The Cultural Front, xviii.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein

American communism unites revisionists as much as the desire to correct the reductionist

depiction of the CP as a puppet of Moscow.

The Popular Front, especially, serves as a symbol of consensus among left-wing groups, a

slice of “usable past” that can help inspire contemporary progressives frustrated by factionalism

and particularism. For example, Robert Cohen’s When the Old Left Was Young sees the main

accomplishment of the era in the formation of a united front against fascism. As a result, Cohen’s

sympathies are with those political actors able to overcome narrow factionalism and work as part

of a broad-based left-liberal movement. Activists reluctant to compromise with other members of

the Popular Front coalition are, not surprisingly, depicted as the main obstacles to political

progress. Focusing his discussion of the Popular Front on the problem of isolationism, Cohen

depicts the formation of the American Student Union as a triumph over internecine conflicts

characteristic of the storied alcoves of City College of New York. He writes that “the one part of

the Popular Front that did have an immediate and wide appeal within the student movement was

its stress on the need to unite activists from all sides of the political spectrum in opposing

fascism.” Cohen praises the efficacy of this “general anti-fascist ethos” in promoting “solidarity

among student activists that initially outweighed any disagreement over which specific foreign

policies were best suited to thwarting war and fascism.”5

This despite the fact that many antiwar students were motivated by entirely honorable

commitments: for example, lingering attachments to the “Oxford Pledge” pacifist movement,

and reaction to the release of the Nye Commission report that recognized the role of armament

manufactures and war profiteers in America’s involvement in World War I. Most intellectually

5
Robert Cohen, When The Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement
1929-1941 (New York: Oxford, 1993), 135.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein

coherent of all were the antiwar Trotskyites, the main antagonists of Popular Front leftists, who

regarded “anti-interventionism as a means of curbing United States imperialism.”6 Yet these

Trotskyites must necessarily be seen by Cohen (as they were by contemporary Communists) as

villainous anti-unity agitators, if consensus and cooperation are elevated to supreme virtues in

left historiography.

At the heart of this reading is a powerful idée fixe: that a healthy left is a unified left, and

that internal conflict is always a sign of spiritual disease within a progressive bloc. Close analysis

of the premises upon which this interpretation rests, however, reveals deep contradictions, and a

few patent absurdities. This paper will attempt to unearth the most significant of these, while

pursuing a detailed critique of Denning’s reading of the 1930s left. Denning’s recuperation of the

contributions of CP and fellow-travelers to the political struggles and cultural accomplishments

of the 1930s left is not at issue here—in fact, this aspect of his project is most welcome, and

should be extended and elaborated upon by other scholars. Rather, it is his aversion to conflict

and valorization of a version of “cultural democratic centralism” that is unappealing. The reader

of The Cultural Front is left with a number of nagging, unanswered questions. Why can’t

factionalism be seen as a healthy and productive force in American progressive politics and

culture? Isn’t the most obvious conclusion that efforts at unification, rather than factional in-

fighting, most weakened the left in the World War II era? 7

A recent exchange between Eric Arnesen and a number of scholars more sympathetic to

the contributions of American communists demonstrates that much of the disagreement between

the two camps hinges on the significance of conflict versus consensus on the left. Arnesen

6
Cohen, 135-37.
7
See Richard Flacks’ argument that the American left has always been least successful when it has sought unity in
European-style mass parties. Richard Flacks, Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (New
York: Columbia, 1988), 190.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein

focuses on the experiences of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader, civil rights activist,

and lifelong socialist A. Philip Randolph in the National Negro Congress. For Arnesen, a

dramatic scene that unfolded in April 1940 at an NNC conference in Washington, DC serves as

an example of the sort of historical conflict with which revisionist historians of American

communism have a hard time coming to terms. Randolph, then NNC president, denounced the

domination of the organization by the CP, and especially the sudden reversals of NNC policy

following changed in the party line after the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed in 1939. Arnesen

asserts that revisionists “have sidestepped key aspects of the anticommunist scholars’ charges

and the voices of contemporary African American opponents of the party, such as Randolph.” 8

Drawing on an impressively thorough survey of the historiographical literature, Arnesen presents

a compelling case for the illegitimacy of revisionists’ reluctance to engage in questions of great

moment: the significance of Stalinism, the degree to which campaigns for civil rights were

subordinated during the World War II era (especially non-CP efforts, like Randolph’s March On

Washington Movement), and the intellectual poverty of “vulgar Marxism.”

One curiosity of the bitter polemics that seem omnipresent in scholarly debates on the

history of the CP and the American left is the fact that “revisionists” do not revise so much as re-

focus. “Revisionist” scholars typically celebrate periods of unity and focus attention away from

the key periods of conflict. Robin D.G. Kelley devotes only two short chapters and an epilogue

to the period after 1937, providing the reader with very few caveats to his misleading (because of

its implication of a reformist trend unaffected by intraparty politics) claim that: “By the close of

the New Deal decade, Southern liberals had emerged from the closet as if in unison, assuming a

stronger stance against poverty, racism, and civil liberty violations.”9 Similarly, Martha Biondi
8
Arnesen, “No ‘Graver Danger,’” 19.
9
Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 176.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein

avoids a serious confrontation with the turbulence of the years 1939-1943 by focusing on the left

after the end of World War II, a period after which many of the key conflicts of the era had

already been played out (and, it must be said, many communists and anti-Stalinists had already

defected or disappeared).10

In her response to Arnesen in the journal Labor, Biondi provides a clear articulation of

the factionalism-phobia and rhetorical legerdemain characteristic of revisionists. Beginning by

considering the case of Randolph, Biondi points out that “sectarianism… riled sections of the

black radical movement” during the late 1930s.11 Biondi suggests that Arnesen commits a grave

scholarly error, although she does not specify its exact nature, by failing to acknowledge that

Randolph “was a bitter foe of the Communist orbit in the 1940s” and also attacked non-

communists (for example, Marcus Garvey).12 The implication is that Randolph’s fondness for

sectarian battle was somehow abnormal, and that principled objections to communist influence

ought to have been sublimated by period activists. Biondi does not acknowledge that the

National Negro Congress, of which Randolph was president, was the site of intense conflicts

between party loyalists and anti-Stalinists; the United Negro Improvement Association was not

actively trying to shape policy in the very organization over which Randolph presided.

It is worthwhile to look at the rhetorical techniques used by Biondi in her reply to

Arnesen. Like Denning, Biondi begins by situating the debate sociologically, as an “us-against-

them” struggle between reactionary traditionalist historians like Theodore Draper, and the

revisionists who have emerged since the 1980s. This maneuver dismisses the legitimacy of any

10
Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge: Harvard,
2006).
11
Martha Biondi, “Response to Eric Arnesen.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Volume 3,
Issue 4, 2006, 59-60.
12
Ibid.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein

historian critical of the CP, and misses the point of Arnesen’s invocation of Randolph, which is

that we should be sensitive to the criticisms of contemporary opponents of the CP, such as A.

Philip Randolph (and by extension Trotskyites and other anti-Stalinists). The reader expects a

discussion of the thorny questions of Party influence in the Popular Front and after, but is instead

diverted from them.

Biondi asserts that she and her colleagues “are less interested in Moscow machinations

than in how African Americans… took advantage of the resources of the Left.”13 By claiming to

be “uninterested” in “Moscow machinations,” Biondi skirts the issue of whether Moscow did in

fact meddle in American politics, and leaves the reader uncertain of whether she finds these

hypothetical machinations important but sufficiently worked-over in the historical literature, or

on the contrary, irrelevant. Are we to understand by Biondi’s peculiar phrasing (African

American leftists “making use” of the resources of the CP, which seems to echo the language of

Levi-Strauss and James Scott vis-à-vis “bricolage” and “weapons of the weak” ) that this should

be seen as a resistant strategy to overcome some odious quality inherent in the CP? The clear

implication seems to be that we should: 1) acknowledge that the CP was unpleasant; 2) avoid

paying attention to the unpleasant nature of the CP in order to avoid giving succor to

conservatives; 3) focus instead on the uses made of the CP’s resources by civil rights activists;

and, 4) ignore objections to this opportunism by contemporary activists for the same reasons

undergirding point (2). Biondi’s program is both untenable and slightly demagogic, and is not

likely to withstand serious scrutiny as the debate over these issues proceeds over the coming

years.

13
Ibid.

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Kurt Newman Final Paper History 201AM W 2007 Prof. Lichtenstein

Like Biondi, Denning’s analysis employs a variety of rhetorical techniques that minimize

the salience of conflicts within the left wing movements of the 1930s. For instance, when

discussing the work of several 1930s-era New York intellectuals, Denning writes that

“memoirists and historians alike have been distracted by the details of sectarian quarrels” and

thus miss the significance of writers V.F. Calverton and Lewis Corey. Denning then proceeds to

assert that “the group of radicals around Corey and Calverton pioneered the major themes of the

Popular Front social movement before the Communist Party itself adopted them.”14 It is not at

all clear why attention to sectarian debates and struggles should be “distracting” rather than

fundamental to historical understanding.

Furthermore, the fact that Calverton and Corey “pioneered” certain themes does not

negate their complex place within the 1930s left-liberal coalition of intellectuals, nor does it

establish that these thinkers were influential, only that they were original. Denning seems to

suggest that intellectual historians can (or in this case, should) opt to selectively ignore

significant changes in position and analytic orientation on the part of the writers they study. But

it is precisely the questions of why these intellectuals changed in the way that they did, and how

material, social, and political pressures shaped their work, that ought to animate critical

intellectual history, differentiating it from mere antiquarianism. Especially because The Cultural

Front makes strong arguments regarding the viability of the cultural front as a political

movement and the role played by state repression in crushing it, these lacunae seem especially

glaring.

Another example of Denning’s limitations in this regard can be found in his discussion of

Kenneth Burke’s speech to the 1935 American Writers’ Congress. Denning laments that the

14
Denning, 102.

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“controversy surrounding Burke’s speech at the American Writers’ Congress has usually

overshadowed its substance, as critics have interpreted the quarrel as a morality play in which

Burke is shouted down by philistine Communist ‘functionaries.’”15 It is unclear why a work that

seeks to underline the political significance of intellectuals like Burke (and in Denning’s case to

rescue them from premature obsolescence) should avoid direct engagement with these scenes of

battle. Rather than perceiving these moments merely as embarrassing instances of adolescent

sectarianism, we might read them as scenes of heightened intensity in intellectual debate, a

situation which many activist intellectuals would prefer to the marginalization and obscurity

which is typically their fate in capitalist societies.

Rogin’s critique of The Cultural Front zeroes in out two more specific problems in

Denning’s work. First, Denning’s presentation of the history of the 1930s glosses over the

dynamics of deradicalization inherent in the Communist Party’s embrace of coalition with

erstwhile enemies and work within mainstream political channels. The most powerful example

of this deradicalization was the CP’s endorsement of union no-strike pledges during World War

II, a source of important conflicts within the left that Denning overlooks.16 In fact, as Peter

Drucker demonstrates, the more general issue of American entry into World War II produced

heated conflict between CP loyalists and anti-Stalinists, with the communists taking a decidedly

reactionary stand in favor of war mobilization, sometimes explicitly advocating that concerns for

civil liberties be set aside for the duration of the war.17 This clearly worked against the cultivation

of any sense of political or intellectual integrity among communists, and surely encouraged the

15
Ibid.
16
See Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War At Home: The CIO in World War II (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
2003 [1982]).
17
Peter Drucker Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Amherst,
NY: Humanity Books, 1994).

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disillusionment of many party members and fellow travelers, weakening Denning’s argument

that the Popular Front was viable beyond the late 1930s.

Denning gives comparatively short shrift to anti-Popular Front thinkers who offered

powerful critiques of the extreme jingoism of CP hawks. For example, anti-Stalinist intellectuals

like Max Shachtman offered cogent and prophetic warnings of the cost to progressives and labor

activists of American entry into the war, but receive little mention as critics of militarism in The

Cultural Front. Rather, Denning focuses on the Trotskyites and anti-Stalinists primarily as critics

of Popular Front culture, which they saw as “more pernicious than even the ordinary products of

the culture industry”18 For Denning, such a perspective evokes the outdated stance of the “avant-

garde” or “vanguard” intellectual, a critique which is, in my view, entirely accurate, although it is

telling that Denning rarely subjects CP intellectuals to similar scrutiny, even when, as in the case

of Mike Gold, they are probably equally if not more deserving.19

Debates on the left were not confined, in reality or in the minds of contemporary

participants, to some imaginary discrete realm of human action called “politics.” If Denning’s

interpretation of the Popular Front zeitgeist is correct, the 1930s was a moment in which ordinary

Americans understood the interconnection of politics, economics, and culture to a much greater

degree than would ever be true in the post-World War II United States. Conflicts, struggles, and

factional battles mattered greatly in regard to the reception of cultural texts. Additionally,

attention to conflicts between communists and anti-Stalinists is crucial to gaining an

understanding of ways that the valences of, for example, pro-war or anti-war films or literature

changed from one week to the next. If we are to take seriously the experience of rank and file

18
Denning, 110.
19
Denning, 109.

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communists in the 1930s and early 1940s, we cannot ignore the impact of changes in the party

line, which the preponderance of the evidence suggests communists took seriously.

Howe and Coser provide a number of powerful examples of the ways that changes in

party line affected culture—such as the serialization of Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel Johnny

Got His Gun in The Daily Worker in 1939, which abruptly stopped once the CP adopted a pro-

war stance in June, 1941. If Howe and Coser’s analysis seems overly caustic fifty years after its

publication, the thrust of their argument remains unimpeachable, even after the efforts of The

Cultural Front to complicate our understanding of the period—“It was noteworthy that emotions

about ‘mangled scraps of flesh’ or soldiers with their faces shattered had not troubled the

Communists for some years before August 24, 1939, and were certainly not to trouble them for

some years after June 22, 1941.”20

One reason why Denning avoids consideration of examples such as these is that he

provides little discussion of the debate over the nature of the Soviet Union under Stalin or, as

contemporaries called it, the “Russian question.”21 Nelson Lichtenstein argues more convincingly

that the significance of the Soviet Union as a lodestar for American communists cannot be

overemphasized. Lichtenstein notes that the sense that American CP was “part of a worldwide

movement that took guidance from the successful revolutionaries (later antifascists) in Russia

provided the emotive, cohesive glue which made the American Communists something other

than another reform organization.” This connection to the Soviet Union and to an international

20
Irving Howe and Lewis Coser The American Communist Party: A Critical History (New York: Praeger, 1957),
390-91.
21
Rogin, 713.

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movement “gave even the most independent-operating Communists a collective élan shared by

comrades both in nearby shops and old world cities”22

This insistence on the significance of the “Russian Question” is not meant to affirm the

“gotcha” tendencies of post-Cold War historians of American communism. Rather, it stems from

what would seem to be a clear obligation on the part of social historians to honor the experience

of activists of the 1930s by recognizing the centrality of the Soviet experiment in their shared

political imagination. It is impossible, for instance, to understand the stakes of the debates

between Cannonites, Shachtmanites, and Communists without acknowledging that all parties

were agonizing over the degree of allegiance they owed to the Soviet Union, and how “socialism

in one country” ought to be characterized. This is something different than a social-democratic

national left, as Denning wishes to convince us, or a civil rights movement, as Biondi would

have us believe.

Finally, the discussion of the fate of the “cultural front” in the decades after World War

II is uncharacteristically pessimistic. Pegging his analysis to a reductionistic narrative of state

repression and the “southernization” of American politics and culture, Denning fails to recognize

important survivals of the Popular Front era in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.23 One major source

of confusion is Denning’s splicing of Gramscian foundations and Frankfurt School conclusions.

The great strength of Denning’s re-formulation of the history of the American left is its

productive implementation of the framework pioneered by Antonio Gramsci, and refined in

important ways by Birmingham Cultural Studies scholars such as Raymond Williams and Stuart

Hall. Had Denning followed Raymond Williams in his consideration of the postwar left, rather

22
Nelson Lichtenstein. Review of Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions by Judith Stepan-Norris and
Maurice Zeitlin. New Politics, Winter 2004, 158.d
23
Denning, 35.

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than Walter Benjamin, he might have found greater continuity and a less monolithic conservative

triumph.

Williams, following Antonio Gramsci, argued that challenges to the culture of capitalism

from the left should be seen within a historically contingent and continuously unfolding process

of struggles for hegemony between residual, dominant, and emergent cultural forces.24 Benjamin,

on the other hand, (and some of his American followers like Fredric Jameson), argued instead for

a quasi-messianic reading of the history of the left through the lens of a “weak utopianism” of

partially recuperated failures, in which defeat becomes a kind of success in the dialectical long

run.25 Denning, following this latter tradition, concludes that the Popular Front was “defeated in

the shakedown of 1947-48,” with the repression and expulsion of the Communists and fellow

travelers, the descent underground of iconic figures like Paul Robeson, and the incorporation of

the social-democratic intellectuals into the Cold War mainstream.

A more accurate reading of the legacies of the Popular Front, following Williams, might

look to the incorporation of residual elements of American folk culture and leftist hermeneutics

into the postwar hegemonic mainstream, providing ballast for a wide variety of cultural

initiatives, including Hollywood films, television, popular music, and works of history. In many

ways, the postwar story is that of the triumph of the “cultural front,” not its defeat. While

communists were treated to horrific repression in the age of McCarthy, the culture of the Popular

Front enjoyed remarkable continuity. The legacy of the dissident, conflict-driven, and

passionately anti-orthodox anti-Stalinist left, denigrated by most revisionist historians in ways

both overt and subtle, became the main resource for Americans dissatisfied with consensus
24
Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” New Left Review, Vol. 82, December
1973, 3-16.
25
Denning, 464.

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culture in the 1950s and early 1960s. Despite the rightward turn of most of the anti-Stalinist

leftist, they continued to speak to important frustrations felt by many postwar Americans,

whether in the form of a critique of work unthinkable within the CP intellectual universe,

engagement with artistic modernism and early postmodernism, or continued elaboration of

historical materialism and dialogue with dissident forces within western Marxism. These strains

would become vital to the hegemonic struggles by anti-capitalist and working-class activists of

the 1960s and 1970s, arguably much more so than the thoroughly domesticated and gentrified

tropes of the “cultural front.” Paying greater attention to them might help steer us away from

unreflective nostalgia regarding the golden age of left-liberal consensus.

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Works Cited

Arnesen, Eric. “No ‘Graver Danger’: Black Anticommunism, the Communist Party, and the Race
Question,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006.

Biondi, Martha. To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City.
Cambridge: Harvard, 2006.

“Response to Eric Arnesen.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas,


Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006.

Cohen, Robert. When The Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass
Student Movement 1929-1941. New York: Oxford, 1993.

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

Drucker, Peter. Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American
Century” (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1994).

Flacks, Richard. Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. New York:
Columbia, 1988.

Howe, Irving and Lewis Coser. The American Communist Party: A Critical History. New York:
Praeger, 1957.

Kelley, Robin D.G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor’s War At Home: The CIO in World War II. Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 2003 (1982).

Review of Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions by Judith Stepan-Norris and
Maurice Zeitlin. New Politics, Winter 2004.

Rogin. Michael. Review of The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the
Twentieth Century by Michael Denning. Journal of American History, September 1997, Vol. 84,
No. 2.

Wald, Alan. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left. Chapel
Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” New Left Review,
Vol. 82, December 1973.

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