[Marxism] Alan Wald interview

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 26 07:36:59 MDT 2006


http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/view/3887/1/201/

The Legacy of the Cultural Front:
an Interview with Alan Wald
By Political Affairs

Editor's note: Alan Wald teaches at the University of Michigan and is
the author of seven books including, Writing from the Left and Exiles
from a Future Time. He is a member of the editorial boards of Science
& Society and Against the Current. He also edited The Radical Novel
Reconsidered series published by the University of Illinois Press,
which includes Burning Valley by Philip Bonosky.

PA: Can you talk about what proletarian and social realist literature
is?

AW: There are simple and complex definitions of both categories.
There has long existed a broad proletarian literature about the lives
and experience of working-class people, mostly written by those
sympathetic to socialist ideals. However, in the early 1930's, a more
specific proletarian literature movement was fostered by the
Communist Party. After the Popular Front began in 1935, the party
officially turned in a new direction. Yet writers continued to be
attracted to the Communist-led tradition; Philip Bonosky, who
published proletarian novels from a Communist perspective during the
cold war, is an example.

Social realism is also a term with multiple meanings. It was
originally applied to painting and generally referred to art with a
social and political content, and a technique that one might call
naturalist. In the 1930's, however, social realism sometimes became
linked to socialist realism, then the official Soviet doctrine. When
a painting or text is called social realist, one can not always tell
whether "social" is being used as a shorthand for the word socialist,
as one finds in the phrase "social democracy," or whether it means
simply "social" in the looser sense of socially conscious.

PA: So you make a distinction between the proletarian literature of
the early 1930's and that which came out of the Popular Front period?

AW: Yes, although perhaps more in theory than practice; one of the
contradictions to be found when a political party tries to lead a
cultural movement is that writers and artists create out of needs
beyond immediate policies. I would certainly say that there was more
latitude after 1935 on the Communist-led literary left toward popular
writing. The vocabulary changes to an advocacy of a people's
literature and a people's culture. The John Reed Clubs, which focused
on working-class writers, some of whom showed an affinity with
modernism in their poetry, were abolished. Other kinds of writers
become more prominent; for example, the Hollywood humorist Donald
Ogden Stewart was the new head of the League of American Writers. Yet
the broader trend of working-class literature persisted, and there
also continued to be writers who wanted to work in the more specific
proletarian school.

PA: Is the "proletarian literature movement" over? Is it a real
cultural force now?

AW: I really don't follow contemporary literature very closely; there
are still too many fascinating and forgotten works to be unearthed
from the 1930's-50's era. But I find that literature about working-
class life continues to be produced, as well as some fine radical
novels. The specific proletarian literature movement, the one
primarily connected with the centrality of the Communist Party in the
US left, is over. But I wouldn't want to see that experience lost
from memory or trivialized into a sound-byte. I think any new radical
movement is going to have to come to terms with the achievements and
weaknesses of Communism and the cultural work associated with it. At
the same time, the next radical cultural upsurge must find its own
way, and evolve only in a very loose association with organizations
and social movements.

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