[Marxism] Malcolm Cowley

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 2 09:17:21 MST 2014

How politically naive was Malcolm Cowley in those years? Naive enough to 
tell Kenneth Burke that “in running a book department, I’ve noticed that 
even unintelligent reviewers can write firm reviews, hard, organized, 
effective reviews, if they have a Marxian slant.” Naive enough to preach 
to R. P. Blackmur “that the conception of the class struggle is one that 
renders the world intelligible and tragic, makes it a world possible to 
write about once more in the grand manner.” Naive enough to write to 
Edmund Wilson in 1937, by which point most intelligent people had come 
to their senses about Comrade Stalin, of the Moscow show trials that “I 
think that their confessions can be explained only on the hypothesis 
that most of them were guilty almost exactly as charged.”

Putting such convictions into action in thought, critical word, and 
editorial deed, Cowley richly earned the enmity of the Trotskyite critic 
who called him “a cop patrolling his beat in the book review section of 
The New Republic with readymade memoranda drawn up for him by his 
Stalinist master.” Well, not exactly, but the charge stuck. As the ’30s 
come to a close, we see him drawing into a defensive crouch, as he 
justifies himself to such friends as Wilson, Allen Tate, Hamilton Basso, 
and John Dewey against just such charges. With the world increasingly 
under the threat of fascism, he cannot bring himself to openly break 
with a position of Popular Front solidarity. As late as 1938 he can 
write to Wilson, “I think that Russia is still the great hope for 
socialism.” As late as 1939, after the Russian-German nonaggression 
pact, he can write to Newton Arvin that “Stalin’s course has been 
admirably calculated” and refer in a letter to Van Wyck Brooks to “the 
immense moral prestige that communism—and through communism, Russia—has 
enjoyed in the western countries.” Finally, in a long and heartsick 
letter to Wilson in February 1940, Cowley reckons with the failure of 
his radical dreams and confesses, “These quarrels leave me with a sense 
of having touched something unclean.” Indeed, the taint of such embraces 
of Soviet-style Marxism would haunt him, and American intellectual life, 
for decades to come.

full: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/020_04/12465

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