The anti-Stalinist left: some notes from the literature. Part II: The New York intellectuals

Part II in a short series of notes from the academic literature on the anti-Stalinist left.


In this edition, we focus on the American anti-Stalinists, especially the New York scene around James T Farrell, Dwight Macdonald and the Partisan Review.

Farrell and Trotskyism
Author(s): Alan Wald
Source: Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, James T. Farrell Issue (Feb., 1976), pp.
Published by: Hofstra University
Stable URL:
Accessed: 10/03/2010 10:02

In brief, here is the history of the intellectual current. Leon Trotsky achieved his first significant following among American radical intellectuals during the 1920s. When at the end of the decade Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union by Stalin’s triumphant faction, admirers such as Mike Gold and Joseph Freeman suppressed their former respect out of subserviance to the Communist Party line. But Max Eastman achieved international prominence, as well as ostracism from the American Communist Left, for his defense of Trotskyism and translation of Trotsky’s works.[…]

Concurrently during the late 1920s and early 1930s, there emerged a group of independent Marxist intellectuals who collaborated with the Communist Party in New York City. At first they thought they could influence the Communist Party by supporting it, but they came into increasing conflicts with Stalinist policy (especially as it was being applied in Germany). Most notable among this largely academic group was Sidney Hook, who had prodigious intellectual prestige in left-wing circles. His influence extended into a coterie of young Jewish writers who Elliot Cohen – the future editor of Commentary – had gathered around the Menorah Journal.

The break of these New York intellectuals from the Communist Party was announced publicly in February, 1934, in an open letter castigating the Party’s disruption of a Socialist mass meeting at Madison Square Garden.

Some of the Menorah Journal group joined the Trotskyist party (the Communist League of America) and others collaborated with them in the Non-Partisan Labor Defense Committee. Hook worked closely with the Trotskyists on several occasions, but he was more accurately part of a current including one of the founders of American Communism, Lewis Corey (pseudonym for Louis Fraina), Louis Hacker, James Rorty, V. F. Calverton, and Meyer Schapiro, whose main objective became constructing an active left-wing opposition to the Stalinists.

These were the elements of the already existing movement of anti-Stalinist intellectuals which James Farrell joined in 1936, and where he was followed a year later by the editors of Partisan Review. The high point of the group’s cohesiveness and political impact came during the campaign against the Moscow Trials (1936-38). Many were supporters of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. John Dewey-who was admired personally and philosophically by leaders of the group-played an important part as chairman of this body’s Preliminary Commission of Inquiry. But the bloc was short-lived; in the wake of the trials came the approaching war and the assassination of Leon Trotsky himself. Nearly all of the group revised their views before the next decade was half over.[p.91-2]

Toward a Theory of Rhetoric: Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Burke, and the Problem of Modernism
Author(s): Robert Genter
Source: Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer, 2002), pp. 191-214
Published by: Hofstra University
Stable URL:
Accessed: 10/03/2010 09:50

As reorganized by Phillips and Rahv, Partisan Review was to serve as a rallying point both for artists frustrated by proletarian literature and for intellectuals disenchanted with Stalinist policies.1 Inspired by the anti-Stalinist rhetoric of Leon Trotsky, who chided the Communist Party for supporting the privileged elite of Stalinist bureaucracy instead of the interests of the international working class, an increasingly large group of intellectuals and artists began to challenge the position of the Popular Front. The list included such figures as Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, Sidney Hook, and Delmore Schwartz.

Two important events precipitated this movement. First, disillusionment with Stalinist policies gradually increased with the news of the Moscow Trials and reached its climax with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. The pact effectively ended the Popular Front era.

Second, many artists and intellectuals were frustrated by the subordination of aesthetic practices to the imperatives of social revolution, which had reduced artistic forms such as modernism to bourgeois habit. Freed from the demands of party politics, the intellectual circles surrounding Partisan Review and its compatriots in journals such as Commentary and, later, The New York Review of Books, combined anticommunism with an admiration for cultural modernism.[p.192]

For most literary scholars and social critics, the position of Ralph Ellison in the modernist tradition no longer remains a point of contention. His work, the argument goes, coincides with the recuperation of modernism both as social theory and aesthetic practice in the anti-Stalinist Left in America, along with the deradicalization of postwar intellectuals who were more interested in their own salvation than in social reform.[p.193]

Marginality in the Margins: Robert Duncan’s Textual Politics

Author(s): Michael Davidson
Source: Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Special Issue: American Poetry of the 1980’s
(Summer, 1992), pp. 275-301
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 10/03/2010 09:29

[Robert Duncan] wrote self-consciously as an outsider to the literary establishment, a gay writer in a homophobic society, an anarchist within the anti-Stalinist Left, a bookish poet among bohemians, a bohemian among academics, a formalist among free versists, a field poet among closed formalists. [p.278]

“The Homosexual in Society” represents the complicated relationship of the pre-Stonewall gay writer to both the political and cultural Left. First published in 1944 in Dwight MacDonald‘s magazine Politics, the essay reflects the editor’s own nondoctrinaire socialism as well as the young poet’s close identification with the anti-Stalinist Left. As a result of its publication, John Crowe Ransom, editor of The Kenyon Review, rejected Duncan’s poem “An African Elegy” for what he saw as its “advertisement or … notice of overt homosexuality” (Faas 153; “Homosexual” 5). Since Ransom and his editors at The Kenyon Reviewhad already accepted the poem for publication, their post hoc reconsideration based on “The Homosexual in Society” essay can be seen as a significant contradiction to their New Critical attitudes toward disinterested reading. [p.277, n.2]

The Displaced Intellectual? Adorno’s American Years Revisited
Author(s): Peter U. Hohendahl
Source: New German Critique, No. 56, Special Issue on Theodor W. Adorno (Spring – Summer, 1992), pp. 76-100
Published by: New German Critique
Stable URL:
Accessed: 10/03/2010 09:36

[Dwight] MacDonald, together with the editors of Partisan Review, originally opposed the war; after the Hitler-Stalin Pact he joined the Socialist Workers Party and defended its prowar stance. MacDonald, however, continued to define himself as an anti-Stalinist revolutionary struggling for socialism within the United States. [p.80-81 n.9]

By and large, the editors of the liberal New Republic were rather pleased by developments in 1944 and 1945. The journal gave public support to FDR’s position in Yalta and Potsdam. The journal Common Sense, on the other hand, a journal with an anti-Stalinist agenda, was disappointed to see a development in Europe that did not encourage radical democracy.[p.81, n.12]

In this context it would be crucial to distinguish between an anti-Stalinist position and an anticommunist stance. While the former position does allow for a variety of approaches to the issue of Marxist theory tone could agree with Marx against Stalin or be critical of Stalinism as strand of Marxist orthodoxy), anticommunism is predicated on a rigid opposition of two belief systems. In this scheme Marxist theory as communism takes on the role of a negative religion that has to be eradicated by the democratic forces in the name of Christian or at least humanist values. While the Frankfurt School by and large was quite conscious of this distinction, its members did not always clarify their disagreement with vulgar forms of anticommunism. Yet with respect to postwar policies, the Frankfurt School, after its return to Germany, like the group around Partisan Review, could not sustain its belief in a third position. [p.99, n.37]

The radical anti-Stalinist faction, gathering around journals like Commentary and Partisan Review and disappointed in particular with Truman’s administration, had to struggle on two fronts: the critiques of capitalism, on the one hand, and the polemic against Stalinism on the other. As much as the contributors of Partisan Review attacked the former liberal supporters of the New Deal, their position on foreign politics after 1945 was primarily anticommunist. The former difference between anti-Stalinist and anticommunist or anti-Marxist, which defined the position of the radical left during the early 1940s, collapsed.[p.82]

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  1. […] (1880-1933): Der Tod eines Anar­chisten in der Domi­ni­ka­ni­schen Republik, Poumista zu den New York Intellectuals, auf Freedom ein Nachruf auf John Brailey (1934-2012) und im New Left Review blickt Mario Tronti […]

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