Workers Vanguard No. 1069
29 May 2015
NYUs Left Front Art Show
Stalinists and Artists in the U.S. Red Decade
by Helen Cantor
New York University’s recent art show, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940,” which closed April 4, was a bittersweet experience. (An earlier version, based on Northwestern University’s collection, was shown in Chicago last year.) In the present period, with successful workers struggles few and far between, the pro-working-class images—photos, movies of mass May Day parades in New York City, pictures of Great Depression misery, protests, strikes, the fight against Jim Crow segregation—were, of course, moving. The show included over 100 works by artists in the U.S., many of which are lithographs and etchings, reproducible techniques designed to be accessible to workers.
But there was something wrong with this picture. It wasn’t the individual artworks themselves, but the sentimental, prettifying view of and narrow focus on the U.S. Communist Party (CP). The John Reed Clubs and their successor, the American Artists’ Congress, both Stalinist front groups from day one, were the admired centerpiece of the show, to the exclusion of what was a far more complex intersection of politics and art at the time.
The show’s co-curators, Jill Bugajski and John Paul Murphy, Northwestern PhD graduates, did make some observations regarding the American CP’s relations with Moscow. And, of course, an academic art show can’t be about everything; you do need some kind of focus. The problem is that the presentation blurred out the horrible effects of Stalinism’s censorship of intellectual efforts, including art. This censorship was an ideological counterpart to the consolidation of the Moscow bureaucracy headed by Stalin (which had usurped political power from the Soviet working class beginning in 1923-24) and its murderous betrayals of the struggle for proletarian revolution worldwide. The show presented an alternate reality: a provincial “social realism”-style tin-roofed shack on the all-American prairie, false shelter from the wild storms raging internationally.
The “Left Front” referred to 1929-40 as the “red decade,” a term coined by onetime Stalinist admirer turned anti-Communist author Eugene Lyons. The curators, who unlike Lyons were approving in this description, put up a big red 1937 Spanish Civil War poster by the anarcho-syndicalist CNT trade union. Okay, but what about the Stalinists’ murder of anarchists, POUM militants and others after the heroic Barcelona Days? What about Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, unfought by the German Communist Party? What about the 1936-1938 Moscow Trials of the Old Bolsheviks (party members before 1917) and the executions, exiles and mass labor camps for revolutionaries in the USSR? Ending the decade, what about the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico via a Stalinist killer’s ice axe? This decade runs red with the blood of our comrades, is what I thought.
I found myself wandering around the Village after seeing the show, muttering: “Not revolutionary art, propaganda! Stalinist hacks! But some pieces were sincere, good! But Esenin and Mayakovsky committed suicide!” And so on. So what follows is not an “art review,” except for one comment: There is nothing “revolutionary” or “radical” (terms the curators flung around) about this art as such, whether in terms of experimental technique or new concept. It’s propaganda and genre art, with a few exceptions, by artists who sympathized with the poor, the workers and even with the CP. The pedestrian aesthetic level was not entirely the Stalinists’ fault, since American art in general was pretty provincial until the explosion of abstract expressionism after World War II—the 1913 New York Armory Show that introduced Cubism to the U.S. knocked everybody for a loop. Rather, I want to discuss the politics the pictures don’t show, and the revolutionary Trotskyist alternative to the CP’s lies and crimes regarding culture, as so much else.
The Marxist program of world socialist revolution that animated the Bolsheviks of 1917 was flatly rejected with Stalin’s 1924 invention of “socialism in one country” (meaning “socialism” in only one country). This dogma and the Moscow bureaucracy’s later proclamation of “socialist realism” and ban on “modernist” art encouraged the production of some really dreary art by CP-influenced artists in the U.S. Such works are about what you could expect from a party whose big Popular Front slogan was “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.”
So why is this period popular again? Theodore Draper, in a 1986 “Afterword” to his classic book American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960), writes of a generation of academic social historians (Paul Buhle, Mark Naison, etc.) who were former New Leftists: “Radicals have usually preferred to behold their promised land in the future; these post-New Leftists have been impelled to find it in the past. They have invented a radicalism of nostalgia.”
This now third-hand nostalgia seems to have impelled the New York show. Co-curator John Paul Murphy’s essay “The Left Front: From Revolutionary to Popular” references the 2007 recession and protests like Occupy Wall Street, stating: “In this context, the bracing images by 1930s artist-activists become newly vivid.” The 1930s, that’s okay, but go no further—any earlier, any more vivid, and then they would have to deal with the Bolshevik-led October 1917 Russian Revolution, which actually overthrew the bourgeoisie. That far back these historians don’t want to go. Because then they would have to take a side. So that’s why they start with 1929. It’s not really about the Great Depression.
By 1929, the U.S. CP’s subservience to the conservative Moscow bureaucracy had been solidified. Earlier, when still a revolutionary force under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, the Communist International helped “Americanize” the CP by emphasizing that the fight for socialist revolution and the struggle for black liberation are inextricably linked, as a new book, The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929 (2014) by Jacob Zumoff, details. But that perspective was dumped by the Stalinized Comintern, which in 1928 ordered the CP to chop off its left wing—the Trotskyists around James P. Cannon—and then in 1929 its right wing, centered on the loathsome Jay Lovestone, who had bet on the Right Opposition of Nikolai Bukharin a little too long. What remained was a crippled, pliant CP, faithfully lurching after every turn of Stalinist policy.
In the U.S., the CP’s “Left Turn” of 1928-29 included policies like dual unionism (leaving the AFL unions to create “red” ones), the demand for self-determination of the so-called Black Belt in the South, and attacks on other leftists, mainly the Social Democracy, as “social fascists” worse than the Nazis. Though sounding very radical, all this allowed the Communists to evade the hard political struggle to crack through the obstacles to an American revolution, a goal the CP leadership had, in fact, abandoned. At the same time, the tremendous authority of the Bolshevik Revolution and some of the CP’s activities, which included leading strikes and fighting for black rights, such as its “Scottsboro Boys” defense work throughout the 1930s, gave the Communists credibility in the eyes of many. This is the period in which the John Reed Clubs were founded, in 1929.
Ultraleftism and “Proletarian Culture”
The “Left Front” displayed the 1932 “Draft Manifesto” of the New York John Reed Club, whose Moscow-inspired Proletkult (proletarian culture) theme was that art must be a class weapon. “This class struggle plays hell with your poetry,” said the actual John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), a founder of the American CP who died in 1920 and who knew firsthand more about revolution and poetry than anybody in the Stalinist clubs named after him. Then-Trotskyist sympathizer Max Eastman recalled Reed’s statement in Artists in Uniform (1934).
An essay commissioned for the show by University College London art history professor Andrew Hemingway points out that the John Reed Clubs, and especially the Communist writer Mike Gold, held to “the notion of Proletarian Art—the idea that the working class would organically produce a great artistic style, a form of heroic realism, out of the crucible of its own direct experience.” Trotsky’s classic Literature and Revolution (1924) refutes this simple-minded proposition in two ways. First, the proletariat needs to conquer political power because under capitalism it has no access to wealth and leisure and thus cannot possibly create its own culture. Second, and more profoundly, once successful proletarian revolutions begin to create a world socialist society, the proletariat will cease to exist as a class, along with all other classes (thus the withering away of the state), and the new culture will be a truly universal human culture for the first time.
Unless trivialized as genre painting or propaganda, “Proletarian Art” is a contradiction in terms. Trotsky wrote in “The Suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky” (1930):
“The current official ideology of ‘proletarian literature’ is based—we see the same thing in the artistic sphere as in the economic—on a total lack of understanding of the rhythms and periods of time necessary for cultural maturation. The struggle for ‘proletarian culture’—something on the order of the ‘total collectivization’ of all humanity’s gains within the span of a single five-year plan—had at the beginning of the October Revolution the character of utopian idealism, and it was precisely on this basis that it was rejected by Lenin and the author of these lines. In recent years it has become simply a system of bureaucratic command over art and a way of impoverishing it.”
The John Reed Clubs’ “Manifesto” also intoned that artists must “fight against fascism, whether open or concealed, like social-fascism.” The Stalinist view of social democracy (“social-fascism”) as worse than fascism proved catastrophic in Germany, where the CP refused to initiate a united front with the reformist Social Democratic Party to stop the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. Maybe this could have stopped the Holocaust. A few cartoons satirizing evil fascists hardly compensate for this betrayal.
The U.S. CP also regarded the “social fascists” as the main enemy. In NYC on 16 February 1934, Alan M. Wald recounts in his useful book, The New York Intellectuals (1987): “The Communist Party, carrying out its line against ‘social fascism,’ violently disrupted a Socialist Party rally at Madison Square Garden organized to protest the Austrian chancellor Dolfus’s [sic] armed attack on workers’ houses in Vienna, which were mainly occupied by Austrian Social Democrats.”
Organizing artists is like trying to herd cats—and without state power, the American CP had no real coercive force, unlike in the USSR. That’s why there are some good, even famous, artists in this show—like Rockwell Kent, Stuart Davis, Isabel Bishop, Reginald Marsh and the “Ashcan School” among others—who went their own way artistically. But the CP tried to crack down as much as it could.
In his essay, Hemingway remarks that some influential Party cadre “bemoaned the character of much of the membership as ‘uprooted bohemian elements’ and ‘hangers on of the art world,’ and complained of the difficulties they faced” [emphasis in original]. As a general rule, artists and bureaucrats of whatever stripe are oil and water. When artists in the Works Progress Administration art project held a 1937 sit-down strike against cuts in the relief program, its director, Holger Cahill, fumed: “These people are psychopaths, they are basically unemployable, and you can’t do anything with them.”
In our 1992 obituary of Fritz Brosius, a German Expressionist-inspired artist and longtime friend of the Spartacist League, we wrote: “In 1932, when the New York John Reed Clubs had been forced to admit their ‘grave error’ in asking the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera—a supporter of Leon Trotsky—to speak, Fritz [then a CP member] broke discipline by going to Rivera’s New York studio as an act of protest against the party’s campaign” (“Fritz Brosius: Artist and Friend,” WV No. 553, 12 June 1992). Later, in 1938, Fritz married a member of the Socialist Party and was “excommunicated” from the CP; he found out about it by reading the CP press.
Popular Front Abroad, “Socialist Realism” in USSR
In 1935, after the Seventh Congress of the Comintern proclaimed the “Popular Front,” the John Reed Clubs were summarily disbanded and replaced by the American Artists’ Congress, which was shorn of any “class struggle” rhetoric. Today’s “Left Front” co-curator John Paul Murphy writes: “But as the ‘Red Decade’ drew on, it became apparent that the far left could not ostracize itself entirely from mainstream liberalism if it were to have political impact. So new forms of solidarity emerged, coalescing into a ‘Popular Front’.” No, Stalin in Moscow ordered this line for all the CPs of the world, beginning in France in 1934, to further the aims of Soviet foreign policy. Namely, to enlist the imperialist “Western democracies” (formerly known as capitalist swine) in defending the USSR as Germany rearmed, and that meant no more anti-capitalist rhetoric.
George Orwell, just returned from fighting in a POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War, observed in 1937 of the Stalinist line in the British context, “The Popular Front boloney boils down to this: that when the war comes the Communists, labourites etc, instead of working to stop the war and overthrow the Government, will be on the side of the Government provided that the Government is on the ‘right’ side, i.e. against Germany” (“Letter to Geoffrey Gorer,” An Age Like This, 1920-1940 ). For the American CP, it boiled down to: vote Democrat and screw the working class (for example, the CP’s wartime no-strike pledge).
“Left Front” co-curator Jill Bugajski’s essay is more tart, and accurate so far as it goes, though she too skirts unpleasant realities. In “Red Paradise to Red Dilemma,” she mentions the hideous 1936-38 Moscow purge trials of Old Bolsheviks, but politely does not “name names.” In fact, leaders of the American Artists’ Congress put out a letter defending the show trials. This shameful statement was signed by its president, Stuart Davis (a modernist), as well as Raphael Soyer, William Gropper, Max Weber, Harry Gottlieb and other “Left Front” artists. Relentless repression of avowed communists, including the Trotskyists, was a complement to efforts to join hands with bourgeois forces.
Meanwhile, the USSR settled down into the stolid academic style of “socialist realism.” The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl writes of the American scene in his review of the show (“Left Turns,” 26 January): “The tendency most dramatically missing from the movement is Socialist Realism—utopian subjects, academic forms—which, in 1934, became by diktat the sole style allowed Soviet artists. In America, the nearest equivalents to that ideal were advanced by American Scene painters, such as Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, whose patriotic content—folk heroes, sturdy Midwestern farmers—irked leftists.” Yeah, because subject and style were uncomfortably close to what Hitler, with his ban on “degenerate art,” thought uplifting: the most banal, sentimental and somehow disturbing magazine illustrations of old farmstead “just plain folks.”
Many American artists also no doubt realized that giant Stalin figures overseeing the forced collectivization of the peasantry and the crazed breakneck industrialization in the USSR wouldn’t be too popular in the U.S. This was the period of Soviet boy-girl-tractor novels like Ilyin’s The Great Assembly-line, which Trotsky read in exile in 1935, commenting, “The grimmest aspect of the assembly-line romance is the absence of political rights and the lack of individuality on the part of the workers, especially the proletarian youth, who are taught only to obey.”
Disillusionment with Stalinist orders on art took its toll, but the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 and the USSR’s invasion of capitalist Finland and Poland set off a wave of hysterical anti-Communism that caused the American Artists’ Congress to lose almost all of its liberal fellow-traveler members. After World War II, the vicious McCarthyite witchhunting of the late 1940s and ’50s further crushed what was already an attenuated movement. The Trotskyists were the most consistent defenders of the USSR throughout its entire existence, upholding its socialized property forms while fighting for the Soviet proletariat to oust the bureaucratic caste that was a roadblock to world revolution. Sweeping away the global capitalist order is the only solution to the horrendous, and ultimately insoluble, problems of an isolated workers state.
Art and Revolution: So Much to Fight For
The censorship imposed in the USSR was an especially bitter blow to artists, because the October Revolution was associated with worldwide cultural upheavals that gave birth to modernism and abstract art. The Revolution offered artists the freedom and resources to explore their new visions. Vasily Kandinsky in 1919 was named Director of the Museum of Pictorial Culture in Russia and put in charge of 22 provincial museums. (At the invitation of the Bauhaus, he left in 1921.) Marc Chagall established a school where Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky spread new visual and graphic languages. Lenin, while cringing privately at the freewheeling enthusiasms of culture commissar Lunacharsky—notably the futurists in their bright yellow shirts and decorated faces, painting the trees in front of the Kremlin bright colors for May Day—never considered censorship. Freedom of expression for all, except active counterrevolutionaries, was a fiercely guarded principle during Lenin’s lifetime.
Trotsky in exile rallied still-revolutionary Communists in the fight for a new, Fourth International after the historic defeat in Germany in 1933—and the fact that no opposition had been voiced nor a balance sheet drawn within the Comintern. Trotskyism won significant forces in the U.S., both in the Minneapolis Teamsters 1934 organizing strikes and among the “New York Intellectuals” (see Alan Wald’s book). Trotsky’s continued interest in art and literature brought influential cultural figures to his side for a time.
Northwestern’s “Left Front” catalog printed, amid a mosaic of different takes on art, a shard that glitters with revolutionary truth, shining a critical light on the rest of the show. This was a small excerpt from the “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art” signed by French surrealist Andre Breton and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, two of the most universally recognized and innovative artists of the period. They had held lengthy discussions with Trotsky in Mexico, resulting in that very powerful statement, first printed in Partisan Review (1938). It observed:
“In the present period of the death agony of capitalism, democratic as well as fascist, the artist sees himself threatened with the loss of his right to live and continue working. He sees all avenues of communication choked with the debris of capitalist collapse. Only naturally, he turns to the Stalinist organizations which hold out the possibility of escaping from his isolation. But if he is to avoid complete demoralization, he cannot remain there, because of the impossibility of delivering his own message and the degrading servility which these organizations exact from him in exchange for certain material advantages. He must understand that his place is elsewhere, not among those who betray the cause of the revolution and mankind, but among those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to the revolution, among those who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to fruition, and along with it the ultimate free expression of all forms of human genius.”