Marxism in Noir

The culture and politics of race and class struggle in the 1940s

No one knows better than socialist activists of the twenty-first century that each generation must face its own “crisis” of Marxism. But we don’t face this challenge to our theory and social movements just as we please. The way we remember our past governs our own dreams for the future. Above all, at a moment like today, when thousands of newly radicalizing young people know pretty much what they are fighting against, but are unclear about what they are fighting for, there is no point in simply pummeling the gates of history with one’s fists. Sooner or later, we look to the past for shared, or at least recognizable, political experiences that might be retrofitted and rebooted; tactics and strategies that have succeeded or failed; causes and explanations for economic and social trends that have persisted or morphed; and even role models, candidly reported, for how to live our chosen lives as Marxists. Marxism doesn’t embalm history; it seeks to join a living past to present changes.

Then again, what if that past has been subject to the literary, cultural, and political equivalent of an “ethnic cleansing” of the far left? What if there had been an expulsion by force of Marxists from the trade unions, the mass culture industry, the educational system, and elsewhere, by the methods of political purges of those who would not sign loyalty oaths; blacklisting from employment of those suspected of subversion; imprisonment by the state of US refuseniks who wouldn’t name names; forced exile (to Mexico, Ghana, and Western Europe) of those who wanted to continue their professions; and the adoption of a “converso” kind of existence, like the Marranos of the Spanish Inquisition, living semi-underground, for all the rest?

What if, accompanying the depopulation of these militants from the US public sphere—to homogenize what had once been a mixed politico-cultural general community—there ensued decades of the eradication of information about the “cleansed” from scholarly history, popular history, and collective memory itself? An annihilation carried out relentlessly by generation after generation of biddable scholars with anodyne books who routinely smoothed over the terrain of memory like a huge bulldozer propelled by intellectual compliance. As a result, we revolutionary socialists of the twenty-first century would have inherited a deep chasm between reality and representation.

Well, we have. And the origins of this chasm produced by political cleansing go back to the post-World War II era. Principally, the late 1940s, which produced the culture we now call “noir”—doomed, malevolent, and dark. And noir is identified with such an atmosphere of sinister currents, swirling under the surface of life, for good reason.

Noir’s smoky filter

“Noir” (the French word meaning “black” or “dark”) is an elusive US film genre that crystallized in the mid-1940s (think Out of the Past, 1947; Force of Evil, 1948); but the term is also applied to select detective/pulp fiction (think Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes) and to a broader culture of a certain fashion (think “noirish” and “neonoir”). To be sure, the noir cultural nebula is far from homogeneous; there are a plurality of streams that feed into its mid-1940s moment and that linger on as Cold War residua, and then are resurrected under new conditions. The French coinage of the term “noir” was actually just before the end of the war, and, in the United States, the word “noir” was not widely used until the 1980s.

Peering through noir’s smoky filter, one can debate as to whether we are talking about an authentic genre, a tradition, a school, a point of view, a vision, or just a style—one that to some of us seems more radically modern than ever. This could be because its configurations of plot and visual staging, its disobedient women and cynical men, convey the failure of earlier social traditions, the instability of formerly stable political frontiers. Even when limited to film, noir is an amorphous entity, but, as was memorably said of pornography, we seem to know it when we see it. A visual definition of noir might be that it’s a low-budget B-movie (that is, one made to fill out a double feature), shadowy, seedy, about crime, and often set at night.

In writing, the language of noir is hardboiled and the sentences are plain and declarative à la Hemingway, a terse manner that tells the facts. It’s not the refinement but the force and fascination of the narrative that pulls the reader in. Usually this is to an existential nightmare about entrapped people, economically adrift, trying to escape punishment for crimes they know nothing about, but law breaking that is often the upshot of decadent corruption on the part of the upper classes. It’s fair to say that noir was a crystallization of the anxieties of the age that came right in the middle of what African-American Marxist writer Richard Wright deemed, “the most fateful of centuries.” To revisit noir as the cultural symptom of the decline of New Deal liberalism at odds with the rise of Cold War redbaiting is to promote the insurrection of subjugated knowledge as a divining rod for subterranean memories. This should also include, soon, I hope, a painstaking reexamination of the political strategies advanced at that time by far left organizations, such as the US Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party.

One model for treating the cultural dimension might be that of Frankfurt School film theorist Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966). He used ostensibly apolitical expressionist cinema as a way of understanding the social mindset of the German people in evolvement from Weimar to the Nazis. This leads us to ask what social developments caused the US 1940s anxieties behind noir, and why the culture through which they were articulated speaks to us today? In noir culture we watch and we read scene after scene of life on the streets in the 1940s, legal lawlessness, and justified antiauthoritarianism but with no way out; why does this seem so familiar after such a long spell of seventy years? Why does it seem as if we ourselves are thinking and acting at a moment of political and cultural crisis that bears a sharp resemblance to this earlier episode of political and cultural crisis?

Let me point to five analogous elements between past and present:

  • The advent, unpredicted, of a poorly-understood and not-fully-appreciated new phase in the march of capitalist exploitation across the world (then, it was economic boom and postwar imperialism; now, neoliberal globalization and ecological crisis);
  • A major interruption in the progress of the organized working class (then, the turn away from social unionism toward the consolidation of bureaucratized business unionism; now, the catastrophic decline in union membership and influence);
  • A dangerous polarization in world politics in which rightward-moving liberal intellectuals are needed to give legitimacy to US imperialism’s ideological mask (then, the construction of “totalitarianism;” now, the manufacture of the Islamic threat and the war on terror);
  • A domestic counterpart of foreign policy to produce a liberalism of fear and scapegoating (then, the suspicion of one’s neighbor, teacher, or civil rights activist as a subversive Communist; now, the wariness of “foreign-looking” persons and immigrants as potential terrorists).
  • A persistence of sickening racial violence even after apparent political progress (then, the Fair Employment Practices Committee and the “To Secure these Rights” report; now, the election of a Black president and appointment of a Black attorney general).

Beyond these five, we can surely add that, despite the post-World War II “boom,” and today’s uncertain but mostly stable markets, there was the existence in both eras of extraordinary social inequality. This consigned large sections of the population to a life of simply struggling for economic survival. Then, as now, many of us live in dread that at any time—due to a family illness or layoff—the bottom could fall out from our life. The consequence might well be the pushing of one into outlaw status—petty crime, the informal economy, escape through drugs, or some desperate act. Noir, old and new, tells that emotional story.

Emerging patterns

Luckily, in the course of the past twenty years or more, there has arisen a swelling quantity of outstanding scholarship on aspects of the affective sphere of the 1940s. For example, there is much feminist writing about the omnipresence of the “femme fatale” character in noir as a condensation of masculine fears about the new status gained by independent women in the World War II years. There is also abundant scholarship on the film industry blacklisting of celebrated individuals, especially the “Hollywood Ten,” although three would be a more accurate number of those purged. Finally, there is now coming out new research exploring the consolidation of the alliance of big business and big religion with the political Right, beyond simply the broad swagger of “McCarthyism.” Originally, this coalition aimed to undermine the New Deal before and after the war, but later it served as the heart of the Reagan Revolution. (Check out Kim Phillips-Fein’s 2010 Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal.) Such investigation certainly helps us to align the structures of feeling, and some of the economic underpinning, that produced noir.*

Much is missing, however, for those who wish to look back on the landscape of the left and see any emerging patterns. The map from what happened in the 1940s to where we are today is not yet redrawn. What we really need—and now, perhaps, are beginning to attain—is our own version of what is called “the historical turn” in French culture. The reference here is to the effort to dispel the Gaullist myths about the World War II “Resistance” and to expose the true extent of French collaboration with their occupiers. In French cinema of the 1960s–70s the term was “la mode retro,” and was reflected in fiction as well. For example, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize, Patrick Mondiano, wrote the script of a classic “la mode retro,” Lacombe, Lucien (1974), and Mondiano explicitly uses noir in his novels, such as Missing Persons (1978). If we are to truly breathe life into the lost dimensions of the culture of the US 1940s, especially the class-inflected existential nightmares of noir, to grasp its origins and its import for today, we, too, need to address “collaboration.”

A collaboration of liberals occurred not only in the state-organized assault on the left that went into the making of noir, which was a time when radical writers and directors were investigating in their art the true face of “capitalist democracy.” There was collusion by liberals also in the attempted “memoricide” that ensued in the 1940s depopulation and decontamination of the public sphere; the aftereffect was the disappearance of those leftist writers, directors, and others. I am speaking of the collaboration of Cold War and post-Cold War academic and journalistic work that covered up the crime scene, and tried to erase it from memory. This demonization of what had been eradicated was a bipartisan team effort: the obvious activities of the right and the more subtle work of liberals and mainstream social democrats. In their respective genres they jointly constructed the ideological rationale for the purge, recycling wartime hatred of the Nazis toward abhorrence of Communism, and soon after resorted to trivialization, evasion, and euphemism of what had occurred in order to secure the silence of the far left tradition.

That collaborationist impulse, reinventing “totalitarianism” and “the liberalism of fear,” to fit needs of the 1950s, persists today. For the liberal version, we see it in the so-called “Decent Left,” the quasi-Eustonites, “anti-Chomsky Left,” and those many others who, after 9/11, are trying to establish a new political language game. They promote their definitions of totalitarianism, terrorism, islamofascism, moral equivalency, the delegitimization of states, and then demand that the rest of us play it. Several of the “decent” ones have even written books that fantasize about rerunning the Cold War liberal tape, albeit one that has been digitally remastered and unburdened of all those embarrassing redbaiting and soft imperialist scratches. However, this time Marxist historians need to be more on the alert; we should be able to see that, in the postwar era, some fundamental antiradical chord was struck that has sounded its endless modulations down through the succeeding decades. And like any chord, the power and clarity are most evident at the beginning. That is why we need to return to the 1940s, with our trowels and shovels sharp and polished for an archeological dig to help excavate a more accurate version of what may illuminate the causes of the confusion of today.

Past and present

As my own starting point, I want to set dualisms of past and present in motion through the optic of historical materialism. As Marx famously wrote to his left-Hegelian collaborator Arnold Ruge in 1843:

Our programme must be: the reform of consciousness not through dogmas but by analyzing mystical consciousness obscure to itself…. It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality. It will then become plain that our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past. Lastly, it will becomes plain that mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work.

A short version of the above is that, for us, the unfinished “old work” actually goes back to the 1930s. At that time, following the shock of the 1929 stock market crash, there was a national political shift. It was away from the market capitalism of the 1920s, and toward New Deal state intervention, along with a collectivist reigning in and regulating of these markets. During the 1930s and World War II years, the political Left was at the peak of its institutional influence in government agencies, the unions, and the arts. The majority of the public seemed to favor a moral economy over laissez-faire capitalism, and liberals and the Left were at one in seeing fascism as the paramount enemy. After the war, all this broke down, although elements of the New Deal’s social safety net survived for decades. It’s really not until the 1970s that neoliberalism rears its head. Forty years later we find ourselves in a political crisis that may at first seem new: social and political movements must be rebuilt; the global working class has been transformed; there is a growing transnational white supremacist movement; deradicalizing intellectuals are attacking us as being indecently soft on the terrorist enemies of the United States; our own forces are tiny, lacking reliable leadership and organization, which are not going to be “tweeted” into existence. But is this categorically all so new as it appears?

In phrases that might be applied to today, the superstructural ambience of 1945–49 was habitually labeled the “Age of Anxiety,” the “Age of Doubt,” the “Postwar Blues,” and “Triumphalist Despair.” This correspondence with the contemporaneous indicates that we must first understand how this postwar noir atmosphere grew out of the general subsoil of emotion that was generated by a sequence in the social reality of those years. Such an analysis may convey something about the meaning of the constancies of the present as well.

The high drama of the opening installment of the new temper came with the postwar strike wave. From the spring of 1945 until the spring of 1947,there were two years of continual strikes in almost every industry, including Hollywood. In several cities, these escalated into general strikes, so that Art Preis, in his classic Labor’s Giant Step (1964), designated this as the greatest strike period in US history. What was happening, after the stifling years of World War II when the US government exerted control through the “No Strike Pledge” and wage controls, was that US workers were again directly emerging as a class for itself, one aware of its own interests and conscious of the significance of its struggle. Nonetheless, this extraordinary upsurge only served as a prelude for further spectacular events that came swiftly—and with the clunking force of a blunt instrument slammed into the skull. The government, and its business allies, frightened already by the victory of Labour in Britain in 1945, and seeking to domestically exploit the new Cold War threat, first instituted the Taft-Harley “slave labor” act in 1947. Then, as the tectonic conservative shift got under way, the government collaborated with business to operate through its House Committee on Un-American Activities, ridding the unions of their left militants. The culmination was the Smith Act conviction of Communist Party leaders in 1948 and the CIO purge of alleged Communist-led unions in 1949.

Unionists, leftists, and others who shared their outlook became criminalized through these events. As always, however, we have an earlier backstory of actions that assisted the process. Poor, working-class people had always been criminalized to some extent, as they are today. Furthermore, during World War II, radicals who defied the no strike pledge were not only deemed criminal but traitorous, with the Smith Act being used first in 1941 against Teamsters and US Trotskyists in the Minneapolis sedition trial.

If these memories were not enough, the Dionysian revels we associate with VJ Day (Victory Over Japan, August 15, 1945) were soon forgotten by a heaviness hanging in the air due to a sense of dread—anxiety about the implications of the A-bomb and emerging details about the holocaust, not to mention fifty-five million killed in Europe and the Far East. Thus, as the strike wave was met by state repression using the legal system as its weapon, and militants were dubbed disloyal Communist poodles of Stalin, radical labor activists and cultural workers began to feel that they were outside the law. They came to see themselves as fugitives and criminals who had crossed some line, leaving them hunted, isolated, and sinking into the quicksand of history. Thus it is not surprising that leftist—pro-Communist, antfascist—film writers and directors began to introduce narratives that used sympathetic protagonists who had fallen into a fugitive/outlaw state of affairs. These new types were quite dissimilar from the 1930s film gangsters who went down with a sort of tragic grandeur, paying the penalty of their transgressions. A study by Long Island University film scholar James Broe, Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood (2009), makes an evidence-based critique possible.

Broe identifies 441 crime films, released between 1945 and 1950, with 200 representing a dominant formation that featured a fugitive outsider for whom the viewer feels compassion and empathy. Taking this a bit further, one might say that, emerging especially from those two years of continuous strikes (including Hollywood), a structure of feeling was created in film and fiction. This communicated a war between an impulse for change and the repression of that impulse; and it was expressed in noir through sympathetic protagonists outside the law.

The presence of the left

To be sure, one shouldn’t exaggerate the Left or Communist role in creating all instances of this pattern, and no one should argue that this genre (or any other) is inherently political. Some critics have referred to noir as “socialism in one genre.”

That’s overdoing it, especially since the politics had to be muted or indirectly expressed because the film industry was a classic example of what Freud would call a “compromise formation;” in this context, the conservative owners pushed in one direction, and the radical artist-producers in the other. Nevertheless, a physical presence of the left in noir was substantial, and it came from identifiable sources.

Many authors of the scripts and of the novels on which such scripts were sometimes based came from the Communist left—think Albert Maltz, A. I. Bezzerides, Daniel Mainwaring, Dashiell Hammett. Directors of films were often either US pro-Communists from the New York radical theater, or European refugees who identified with the European anti-fascist left—think Abraham Polonsky, Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin, Otto Preminger, Michael Curtiz, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey. Actors and actresses were also from Communist or at least Popular Front backgrounds—think John Garfield, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, James Cagney, Sterling Hayden, Edward G. Robinson, Shelley Winter. All of these, and hundreds in Hollywood like them, were strong partisans of the unions, feared government action to single out and persecute leftists, and were resistant to the rapidly growing belligerent mood against the USSR, our recent ally against fascism. Despite wariness by studio owners about creating films with positive radical characters and explicit radical sentiments, marketing pressures forced the Hollywood moguls to allow stories that exhibited noir anxieties because customers demanded these films. That was because the dramatization of ordinary people being hunted and pursued by the law echoed in a profound manner the US consciousness from 1945–50. Such was the foundation of noir film sensibility, but it intersected with at least two other grand narratives of the time; that of racist colonialism, and that of liberal complicity in the reigning anti-totalitarian ideology used as a political cudgel to isolate far left alternatives. At first the genre of noir may appear to be a white male version of history if there ever was one. A nearer look disputes that perception. The “whiteness” was due to the belief of the studio owners that the paying film audience was white and would only tolerate white actors, especially for sales in the southern region.

In fact, the era of noir in Hollywood was also the moment of the social problem film, which dealt mainly with race like Pinky and Intruder in the Dust. Moreover, the leftist commitment to both meant a considerable overlap in their producers and writers—in these cases the pro-Communists—Elia Kazan and Ben Maddow—a presence that inflected themes on many levels. The result was a pattern of crucial scenes and episodes in noir films occurring in geographical locations associated with people of color, such as interracial boxing rings and gyms, jazz clubs, Chinatown, and Mexico. Moreover, the darkness of noir settings made the outlaw characters appear dark-skinned, even Black, and incidents of frameups, poverty that induces law-breaking, and police brutality, drew upon Black experience. What is central, is that the US racial nightmare haunted the imaginations of left-wing writers and directors, many of whom had a long record of support for the Scottsboro Nine, the Hollywood Anti-Fascist League, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, the organizing of Filipino cannery workers, and more. Of course, during the war itself, the Communist Party and liberals had tolerated racial segregation in the army and supported Japanese-American internment, and the Comintern policy of the subordination of colonies to imperial masters. But the postwar moment of noir demanded, like today, domestic racial justice in tandem with internationalist anti-imperialism.

Internationalist antiracism

At that time, the chief marker of the hypocrisy of the anti-fascist World War II effort, as it had also been for World War I’s “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy,” was what was called, in Frank Capra’s 1944 patriotic documentary, The Negro Soldier. Those of the African diaspora from the United States were called upon to defend a country that denied them equal rights, and they were joined by the millions of what some now term “conscripts of modernity”—soldiers of color taken from Western colonies (2.5 million from India alone) into the heart of darkness of the Europeans’ theaters of war to die on its battlefields. In the context of the 1940s, challenges of domestic and colonial racism are also vital for exposing the construction of the new version of “totalitarianism.” This was the great unifying and mobilizing concept of Western capitalism, that exploited and extrapolated horrific features of Stalin’s rule to justify the preparation of a third world war.

As the liberals assisted in tweaking the totalitarianism theory, it came to mean the transfer of Nazism to the Communist bloc—especially attributing an aggressive drive for world domination (although Soviet foreign policy was mainly aimed at maintaining secure borders). In this new bifurcation of the Western “Free World” versus the Eastern “Iron Curtain,” Western colonialism and domestic racism were not considered the forms of totalitarianism for people of color that they surely were. Yet portions of the left knew differently: As noir was coming into its own there recommenced the now-infamous colonial massacres—starting with the one in Setif, on the day Nazi Germany surrendered (May 8, 1945). The French Army, comprised of many African troops, killed as many as 45,000 Muslim Algerians. As Franz Fanon pointed out, this and similar news might have remained hidden from the Western public had not the Communist bloc brought it to world attention. What we can see now is that the exclusion of colonialist racism from the new bipartisan category of totalitarianism is consistent with the manner that bourgeois democratic regimes always conceal their own racist violence through the tacit devaluation of colonial lives—Black lives.

A recognition of the racist structures of the West as totalitarian also returns us to the riddle of World War II—the question of whether fascism is the monstrous “other” of liberal capitalism, or whether it might spring from contradictions of liberal capitalism in its imperialist phase. Are Nazi genocide and Stalinist crimes together the representatives of a singular “rupture” with Western civilization? Or do the links between the holocaust, colonialism, slavery, and the war against decolonization, suggest that totalitarian tendencies might be at the very heart of what is misnamed “liberal democracy”? What if Nazism was not the negation of Weimar but its continuation in extremis?

The Far Left raised such matters in the 1930s and 1940s, just as influential theorists such as Giorgio Agamben are raising them for the present generation in critical books such as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995). A new understanding of the past still needs to be blasted out of the continuum of the Western narrative, its eternal division of the world into categories like “slave” and “free.” We are always said to be in a war between the “Enlightenment West” and the evil empires of Nazism, Communism, and Islam. The logic of such Cold War bifurcation always comes in the same “campist” form as in World War II. At that time it was said that Nazi totalitarianism was such an apocalyptic threat that it superseded other issues such as racial desegregation and an end to the West’s colonialism. After the war, we were told that fighting Soviet totalitarianism assumed that paramount role. Today, of course it’s the threat of Islamic totalitarianism that takes priority.

Whenever there is polarization, the Left is given two main sides from which to choose, and the independent revolutionary stance that looks to socialism from the bottom up is disparaged by any means necessary. To be sure, postwar concessions of the ruling elite were made in an effort to enlist African Americans and other people of color as assets to the western side. There were international tours of Black jazz musicians, the prominence accorded Ralph Bunche, the desegregation of the imperialist army to fight the Korean war, and greater media visibility. In the 1950s the United States tried to distance itself from being a secret sharer in colonialism by taking a critical distance apropos Algeria and Suez. But certain prescient Black radicals insisted that segregation and colonialism were a form of totalitarianism, too. The best known of them were political figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, and Paul Robeson. They thought that embracing the USSR would put them in a stronger position to insist that Communist parties and states remained accountable to professed anticolonial commitments. Yet there was also the Trotskyist C. L. R. James, and a group of Black novelists of the noir disposition who had moved away from Stalinism in the 1940s—Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, William Gardner Smith, and Willard Motley. To reinvestigate their work is part of the project of reclaiming the legacy of Black Marxism in the postwar world. This is a subject critical to socialists. We learn again and again how African American literary culture so effectively reframes pivotal events, nationally and internationally, against the grain of obfuscating official representations.

The visionary insurrectionist

One too-often overlooked Black writer achieved a Marxist noir presence in both fiction and film, Willard Francis Motley, who lived a short life after his birth in Chicago, in 1909, and died an obscure death exiled in Mexico, in 1965, during the Cold War. Willard was a middle-class African American who grew up in an all-white neighborhood, and debuted as a rising literary star in 1947 with the publication of Knock on Any Door. Drawn to the city’s Maxwell Street slum area in 1939, as part of a personal rebellion against his family, Motley decided to write an art novel about the making of juvenile delinquents by coercive social institutions. In 1943, after intimate friendships with several aspiring novelists around the nearby Hull House (established by social reformer Jane Addams) and the Federal Writers Project (where he befriended pro-Communist writers Jack Conroy and Nelson Algren), Motley completed a first draft of nearly 2,000 pages called “Leave Without Illusions.” Over the next four years the manuscript was drastically cut, retitled, and expurgated by prospective publishers. The end result was a crime thriller and courtroom drama called Knock on Any Door. It features Nick Romano, a young, beautiful, and charismatic Italian gangster, and ostensibly heterosexual hustler of gay men, who provided American culture with the iconic phrase, “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.”

In 1949, the book’s best-selling status was boosted by former Communist Nicholas Ray’s popular if domesticated noir film version featuring Humphrey Bogart as Andrew Morton, Nick’s idealistic defense attorney. Even after all the editing and censoring, the presence of several homosexual characters and themes as well as far left political ideas are apparent in the novel to anyone who makes the effort to look; but these elements went almost entirely unremarked in reviews at the time and even in early scholarship. Motley did not intend to fully closet his gay or radical identities but to implant suggestions about them in a multilayered metanarrative. Knock on Any Door involves both autobiographical and fictional episodes, and events ripped from the headlines as well as fully imagined.

What followed publication was a widespread misreading of his gender and politics, partly stemming from Motley’s attempt to manipulate his public face. He dramatized his unwillingness to be labeled a “Negro author” by refusing to have his photograph printed anywhere on his first book. The subsequent publicity naturally backfired and ended up focusing chiefly on his color. Motley was a radical considerably immersed in Black culture and history, partly due to his uncle Archibald Motley, a painter much influenced by the Harlem Renaissance; but at this point he became associated with a “nonracial” racial stance that mistakenly seemed to place him closer to liberalism than the Far Left.

Motley did come to socialism a bit late, after the Great Depression, and in his own way, through the conscientious objector status he obtained after the war began. Then, stirred to embrace Marxism by his novelist friend Alexander Saxton (1919–2012, a Communist Party member from 1941 to 1959, and later a well-known historian), his enthusiasm for social revolution escalated to a high pitch in the early 1940s and lasted throughout the decade. During this time Motley repudiated pacifism, liberalism, and capitalism to openly ally with Communists and then Trotskyists by taking classes at the Communist-led Workers School and becoming a prominent local spokesperson for the Progressive Party, endorsing the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace and the National Non-Partisan Committee to Defend the Rights of the Twelve Communist Party Leaders Indicted Under the Smith Act. A one-man united front, he also joined the Socialist Workers Party-led defense efforts on behalf of James Hickman and James Kutcher. (Motley’s work with Hickman is treated in the excellent Haymarket book by Joe Allen, People Wasn’t Made to Burn.) I view Motley as more of a visionary insurrectionist than a hardline ideologue, a nonconforming left-wing outsider, a radical artist who wrote to awaken the world from its dream about itself.

Noir fiction comes in that ill-defined interregnum between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black arts movement; African American authors of the 1940s–50s are mainly known for introducing to literature Black characters of remarkably new and psychological depth—think The Outsider, The Lonely Crusade, The Narrows. Their protagonists, of course, are always doomed, about as star-crossed from the get-go as you could get, usually assisted by their own, very human weaknesses and poor choices. A reader is immediately struck by the searing honesty of these writer’s sentences, but the reality is that political and sexual censorship in fiction as well as film often meant that left writers were covertly writing about one subject while pretending to write about another. In the furtive architecture of Motley’s own four volumes of fiction, many passages begin in autobiographical episodes; but secrets are kept mostly about his communism, illegitimacy, and homosexuality.

Motley’s literary style was not typical of hardboiled noir’s pared-down narratives resonating understatement, but his themes were archetypal. Along with Wright, Himes, and Petry, Motley depicts sympatico protagonists outside the law. In fact, Knock on Any Door is a paradigm of Marxist noir. It is essentially about the parallel lives of two reform school inmates, Nick and Tommy, bonded in what is ostensibly a bromance.

They become by turns a petty criminal and a wildcat striker. Both are fugitives from the injustice of the capitalist system. The novel closes with Nick going to the electric chair and Tommy being beaten brutally by strike-breakers. Motley’s subsequent 1952 work, We Fished All Night, a behemoth of a novel with a cryptic title, continues his transformation of noir into a new form of committed literature. In this book with a mission, Motley takes the far left interpretation of “the Negro Soldier” leitmotif and applies it to all working-class veterans of World War II. His three white protagonists fight to preserve the very society that crushes them at home while exploiting them as canon fodder abroad.

Motley’s work, in which a Marxist imagination brings to us the form of things unknown, is a reminder that, sometimes in the midst of cultural chaos and confusion, a resourceful artist can brilliantly address the unfinished business of history. I certainly think that one can learn from studying political programs of the past, but our returning to this subjugated knowledge of the work of marginalized cultural workers, decades later, can be like encountering an insurrectionary spirit, come back from the dead to redress injustice.

Broken promises

At this moment, there is a definite 1940s feeling to what is happening in many locations. Here is my take, following a section of Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge: “Our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past.” After World War II came the strike wave along with the defeat of fascism. It seemed as if the promise of completing the old work of the past, the 1930s rise of internationalist class solidarity, would be honored. But that promise was broken, and there ensued a decade of very hard times before something unpredicted appeared—a bus boycott and then lunch-counter sit-ins in, of all places, the Deep South!

Similarly, in the era of “the long 1960s” ushered in by such events, the task “to complete the thought of the past” was resumed, but mainly in new forms, such as halting the imperialist Vietnam War in progress, Black Power, and the Stonewall Rebellion. In the following decades, with the rise of revolutionary movements in Latin America (Nicarguan Revolution, 1979), collapse of the rotten Soviet system (1989), and the end of apartheid in South Africa (1994), our hopes remained high. But, again, the promise of finishing that old work of the past was broken. Instead, following the end of the Vietnam syndrome with the first Gulf War, we entered a new period of undeclared international war accompanied by the bipartisan construction of a polarizing ideology after 9/11.

Once again, as in the late 1940s, we were told that an unseen unknowable menace can strike at any moment so that we must acquiescence in the limited options allowed us; sure, the left liberals tell us, the United States is imperfect and Hillary has weaknesses, but in the November 2017 election we will have no choice but to choose the best of the worst—again!

This culture of foreboding apprehension—which the Old Left captured memorably for us in noir—works wonderfully for those in power, becoming a discursive field ripe for manipulation. Marx wrote to Ruge that, “The world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality.” That dream, that unfinished promise, is actually at the core of the endeavor of noir—even though utopia appears obliquely through imagery, as in the Kentucky farm to which Dix and Doll flee in the film The Asphalt Jungle, or those magnificent scenes of young working-class men of all ethnicities dancing in the streets of the slums in Knock on Any Door. Our deep longings for social transformation and restoration are constant.

What attracts me to noir above all, and the reason why I used this talk to make what Walter Benjamin called a “tiger’s leap into the past,” is its two-fold character.

Two-fold for the reason that history changes our relationship to art. Today, we can view, read, and study noir as an informative chronicle of repressed national memory realized through artistic techniques that vacuumed up so much of the psychological detritus swirling in the postwar air. This reveals how the stage was set for the Korean “police action,” the destruction of the New Deal legacy, the establishment of a consumer’s republic, and more.

At the time, however, for Marxists working in the 1940s culture industry, noir was the means by which they carried out their duty to engage in the ruthless criticism of the existing order—noir was their way of showing the world, through their imaginative recreations, the elemental experience of living in capitalist democracy. In their art they were telling us why we are struggling and must continue to struggle even when certain promises are broken, then and now. In films that many of these cultural workers produced just a few years later, they also showed us what was coming in the 1960s—things that the Marxist political gurus of the day failed to notice!

Nicholas Ray outlined the burgeoning youth and gay rebellion in Rebel Without a Cause (1955); Michael Wilson, the rising of Third World women in Salt of the Earth (1954); Abraham Polonsky, the new expression of Black Power in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)—last of the classic noirs.

The thrust of this creative work, and the texture of the lives of these outlaw cultural workers, speak directly to what cultural sociologist Lucien Goldman (1913–70) has called the “wager” of Marxists, then and now. We do not and cannot know that our battle for a new society will ever be triumphant. We don’t even know for sure whether the breakdown of working-class mobilization then or now is rooted in some fundamental incapacity that we Marxists are refusing to acknowledge, or, instead, in objective conditions that were and may still be insurmountable. Or is the cause of the failure due to the Left’s inability to come up with some correct policy that would have saved—and still could save—the day? Be that as it may, while we tussle with such questions, we continually discover good reasons to continue our wager—in Occupy, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter—and by working for the best possible outcome in experimental electoral formations such as Syriza, Podemos, and the Green Party. The unremitting appearance of such resistance shows that it is possible to keep the future from closing down, and our actions can be critical to increasing the odds.

Seventy years ago, the Marxist practitioners of noir, too, saw that their own world, postwar, was being remade, and they responded with heroic labors to galvanize the public sphere of their generation into consciousness. That effort was what we might call a “good failure;” even today, the classic moment of noir (1945–47) continues to stand for resistance to a broken promise. That’s why a version of noir has accompanied every decade since the 1940s like a shadow, and why Marxists can look to noir in the new millennium to assist the process of repopulating our lost history, to learn more about who we are and from where we came.

* “Structure of feeling”—the term used by the late Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams for a cultural form or pattern of thought and emotion of a subaltern group in a precise historical context.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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