Caught between Stalinism and anticommunism

American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War

IN 1944 Pioneer Press published Leon Trotsky’s Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It. The book compiled essays Trotsky wrote in the 1920s and 1930s criticizing Social Democrats and Stalinists for failing to interpret correctly the capitalist character of fascism and its imminent threat to the German working class. Trotsky argued for example that, “The genuine basis (for fascism) is the petty bourgeoisie” which would work directly to smash the organizations of the working class. The essays were also a response to Stalinist characterization of western social democratic ­countries as “social fascist” during the ultra-left third period—a policy that precluded the united fronts of working-class parties necessary to defeat fascism. Broadly, Trotsky argued that the failure to understand and fight fascism could cripple both working-class struggles and the capacity of Communist organizations to transform society. “If the Communist Party is the party of revolutionary hope, then fascism, as a mass movement, is the party of counterrevolutionary despair” Trotsky wrote. “In the meantime, the first characteristic of a really revolutionary party is—to be able to look reality in the face.”

The failures of the international Left to heed Trotsky’s warnings were written out on the millions who perished in World War II, the Stalinist distortions to Russia’s 1917 revolution, and the struggles of socialist revolutions since to gain a foothold in the world. But what were the costs to American writers who themselves held radical commitments and considered themselves revolutionaries?

Some important answers lay in Alan Wald’s now complete trilogy of books on the twentieth century US literary Left. Wald is the premier anti-Stalinist historian of American literature. His previous books include The New York Intellectuals, a study of the anti-Stalinist Left that created the literary and cultural journal Partisan Review, and two previous volumes in a trilogy he describes as a “collective biography” of Communist Party writers and fellow travelers. The first, Exiles from A Future Time, begins around 1911 with the appearance of the US Left literary magazine New Masses, and ends with the beginnings of the proletarian literary movement. The second, Trinity of Passion, examines the 1930s as the high point of leftist writing in the United States, fueled mainly by the Depression and Popular Front focus on culture as a vehicle for advancing working-class interests.

American Night, the third book in his trilogy, covers the years from 1946 to 1956, a period Wald subtitles “the era of the Cold War.”

Wald’s main argument in American Night is that the postwar period in American literature of the eft can best be characterized as one of “late antifascism.” The term is a somewhat slippery euphemism describing the degeneration of political understanding on the left of both the meaning of fascism on the one hand and of the centrality of working-class revolution to socialism’s project on the other. More specifically, “late antifascism” is Wald’s term for the distortions of communism as an emancipatory theory and practice by two dominant Cold War forces: Stalinism and anti-Communism. Wald’s clearest formulation of the idea of “late antifascism” is here:

Late antifascism. . .was for pro-Communists and Progressives a moral certainty, one that contradicted Marxism by transforming what it called “Marxism-Leninism” from an experimental method into a metaphysic. Moreover, Marxism was supposed to be superior to liberalism by being rooted in an ethics exceeding the agenda of any nation-state. The crowning irony is that Soviet Marxism, far from liberating people, was the ideology by which people were oppressed. As a consequence, the rhetoric of late antifascism itself became infected by the marks of that awful national time in the United States known as McCarythism, a decade of fanaticism, paranoia, corrupted demands for “unity,” and the demonization of difference. The Progressive culture of late antifascism was intrinsically the product of a literary movement that allowed too much to grow dim behind clichés and ungenerous perceptions.

At a general level, Wald argues that many postwar American writers on the left lost both their political and moral compasses as a result of three interrelated factors. First, a falling off of US working-class militancy, which Wald rightly attributes in part to the Popular Front turn after 1935. Second, the disaster of Stalinism, which compelled many American writers (and Left sympathizers) into a defense of the indefensible. Third, McCarthyism, which convinced many that American democracy was itself “fascist” and therefore helped them cling to an ossified and decaying version of radicalism—sometimes called socialism, sometimes Communism, sometimes “Progressive”—all the while lacking a mass struggle or even a cultural movement by which to clarify their own theory and practice.

The “American Night” of the title is this period of political and artistic “darkness,” or what Wald calls, applying Adorno’s conception of “negative dialectics,” the “specter of a lack” of a credible and useful revolutionary political culture. Many writers turned from political certainty to what he calls “contingency,” a deep, skeptical questioning of the potential of political change, much less revolution. Besieged by what he calls a new “consumer republic” of postwar commodity fetishism, leftist writers also found themselves even further on the margins of a hyper-capitalist boom that seemed, for veterans of the 1930s “people’s culture” or proletarian period, a cruel hoax. African American writers, meanwhile, many of them Communists or ex-Communists, struggled to adopt their politics to new anticolonial movements that had themselves been betrayed by Stalinism. Finally, writers who faced blacklisting for their past (or current) affiliations with the Communist Party often went underground or into exile, or turned instead to formal experiment, what Wald calls “socialist surrealism,” in order to capture a nightmarish Cold War mood.

Examples of Wald’s thesis include the poet Kenneth Fearing, a Communist sympathizer (he famously answered “not yet” when asked if he was a member of the party) mentored into socialism in the 1930s by Sender Garlin, an admirer of the economist Scott Nearing. Alienation from Stalinism and factionalism within the Communist Party found literary expression in his 1946 novel The Big Clock, a “noir nightmare” in which “the idea of social revolution is twisted into a cynical joke.” More symptomatic of the wavering political confidence of postwar writers was Alexander Saxton’s 1948 novel The Great Midland. Saxton, later an eminent US historian, was a member of the Communist Party for nearly two decades. His retrospective book about a Communist Spanish Civil War volunteer named Dave Spaas who returns to organize railway workers in 1930s Chicago pits his revolutionary confidence against the “existential doubt” of his progressive, intellectual wife Stephanie Kovniak. Wald sees Saxton’s “unconscious identification” with Stephanie as an example of a “new contingency” in the social realist novel’s confidence in “revolution as the locomotive of history.”

In dialectical fashion, Wald argues that out of this “American night” some American writers forged dynamic, adventurous, and often brilliant literary experiments that constitute a neglected branch of literary modernism. For example, he reads Richard Wright’s 1950 novel The Outsider as a sui generis treatment of the collapse of Communist “faith” transformed into an historical and existential treatise on race, identity, and the place of African Americans in the postwar, postcolonial world. Writers like Wright, Wald argues, were also trying to navigate a path for radical literature away from the constrained “Zhdanovists” like V. J. Jerome, chairman of the Communist Party Cultural Commission, who attempted to implement decrees by Soviet cultural spokesperson Andrei Zhdanov in 1946 and 1948 defining “art as a weapon” in the class struggle. Communist writers and fellow travelers were also constrained, he points out, by indefensible CP lines. He cites as the most egregious example the 1943 decision by the party to support use of the Smith Act to imprison Trotskyists in Minneapolis, and the 1939 Stalin-Hitler Pact. Events like these in combination with growing McCarthyite pressure from the state often clouded the political judgment of writers on the left—Wright himself dissembled about his “break” from Communism. As Wald aptly puts it, “a Communist identifying himself or herself as a Progressive was telling the truth and lying at the same time, a state of mind that could be habit-forming.”

Wald does an excellent job of putting women, African Americans, and gay and lesbian writers at the center of his study. He does so in part because they represent an emergent attention to identity symptomatic of the “contingency” of class struggle in the postwar years. In the case of gay and lesbian Communists, Wald notes that the Party’s purported hostility to both groups in the 1930s and 1940s as well as social pressures to stay in the closet “immensely complicate the already daunting uncertainties about identifying a writer as ‘Communist’ or ‘gay,’ let alone both.” Yet Wald confidently identifies a number of gay, bisexual, and lesbian authors who were party members: Marc Blitzstein, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Lorraine Hansberry, among them. Wald is especially good at excavating the careers of lesbian writers like Rebecca Pitts, who contributed a number of essays on women to New Masses in the 1930s, and at teasing out radical linkages among better known gay writers like James Baldwin. Baldwin associated with members of the Trotskyist Workers Party, contributed to the anti-Stalinist magazine New Leader in 1947, and published at least one poem in the New Masses in 1946.

Wald also does readers a great service by detailing the leftist sympathies of Ann Petry, a fantastically underrated American novelist. Petry is best known for her 1946 novel The Street, a masterpiece about a Black domestic worker and single mother trying to raise her son in Harlem during World War II. Wald makes a strong case that Petry’s novel The Narrows published in 1953 is a tour de force about the political disenchantment and racial anxiety of postwar African Americans. His chapter “Jews Without Judaism” looks at how the Holocaust and Stalin’s support for the state of Israel (reversing the Communist Party’s earlier support for a binational Arab-Jewish state) contributed to what Walter Benjamin called “Left melancholia” among Jewish Communist writers no longer certain of either the efficacy of socialism or their attachment to Judaism. Some readers may be interested to see Wald identify both the later neoconservative Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (The Natural) in his chronology of Left Jewish writers.

In the final closing pages of his majestic trilogy Wald invokes a personal “Note on Methodology” that bears reflection. He writes:

I came to social consciousness during the civil rights era in an ambience of radicalization utterly different from the one discussed in this trilogy, that of the post-1950s, when the writers and activists who shaped my own worldview were attempting to redefine internationalism on the basis of emerging social movements in opposition to racism, against colonialism, and in defiance of imposed conformity. Like other student “sixty-eighters,” I witnessed the lies about Vietnam and the hypocrisy of racial codes and the free market in the United States, alongside the cruelty of one-party systems in the Soviet Union, Easter Europe, and China. The juxtaposition made me acutely aware of the moral perils of misplaced trust in any state regime, and the matter became further clarified in the 1970s as I read the pages of New Left Review.

Two things come to mind about this passage. First, Wald is one of a number of American radicals he calls “sixty-eighters” who sought out and came to see the university as a haven where scholarship on radical social movements, women’s oppression, and racism seemed a logical extension of 1960s street battles. Those scholars have helped to remake the canon of American literature, shaped ethnic studies, women’s studies, and LGBT studies in the academy, and rewritten American history and culture while inspiring and training a new generation of scholars.

At the same time, these scholars have often been equivocal about advancing Marxist arguments and analysis. Trotsky’s pamphlet on fascism is a perceptible subtext to Wald’s analysis in American Night, but not a stated source of his interpretation. Acknowledging more explicitly historic political debates fundamental to the literary history he describes could have helped the book provide clearer explanations of important mistakes made by the mid-century Left, something a post-1968 generation of readers needs to understand in order to bring clarity to their own political analysis of the world.

In this regard, all of Alan Wald’s invaluable writings underscore the relationship between how to study the world and how to change it. American Night can be a valuable tool to help people do both.

Issue #71

May 2010

The education shock doctrine

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