Struggle editorial, vol. 17, #1, Summer 2001:

Proletarian Literature Past --
Harbinger of the Future Class Struggle


. Struggle is devoted to developing a proletarian trend in literature, but many readers wonder what this is. In our editorial this time we will give a sketch of the U.S. proletarian literature movement of the early 20th century. (Similar writing was being done in the USSR, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, India, China and elsewhere.) This sketch will show that a major trend of writing by and for the masses has existed. One indication of the importance of this trend is the broad scope of its subject matter -- it dealt with nearly every facet of society from the standpoint of the working class. Bourgeois literature has at times mentioned a strike or demonstration or two, but only proletarian literature has drawn a full picture of the causes of the class struggle, its participants and their aspirations.

. In the first half of the 20th century previously unknown writers -- workers and intellectuals committed to the workers' movement -- produced poems, songs, agit-prop skits, full-length plays, sketches, short stories and novels on a very wide range of subjects related to the class struggle and in a wide variety of styles. The artistic quality of these works varied greatly, from crude to powerful and sophisticated. The writers tried to approach their material from the angle of the working class and all oppressed people, and to fight such evils as racism, sexism and imperialist war, as well as the exploitation of the workers. All the various political trends in the workers' movement were reflected in these works. Many writings were openly Marxist and revolutionary, some implicitly so, others indicated their authors had illusions that the reformists and union bureaucrats offered solutions, and in some cases the works showed a reformist, non-revolutionary spirit. In its period of highest development, proletarian literature was a cauldron of controversy, reflecting the passionate beliefs of the masses. Far from being harmful to the movement, as many today believe, these controversies were a stimulant to literary development; the only shame is that they weren't fought out sufficiently. The proletarian authors came and went in the twists and turns of the movement, but their contributions live on and are beginning to get recognized once more, after decades of burial by the bourgeois critics.

. One of the first forms the working-class struggle always takes is the strike. U.S. proletarian novels and dramas frequently dealt with strikes. Several novels dealt with the pre-Depression strike movement of the late 1920's, when the then-still-militant Communist Party was sending courageous organizers into the most repressive situations. Four novels were written about the hard-fought, bi-racial Gastonia (North Carolina) textile strike, led by the CP: Gathering Storm by Myra Page, To Make My Bread by Grace Lumpkin, Strike! by Mary Heaton Vorse and A Stone Came Rolling by Fielding Burke. (Clearly women were in the forefront of proletarian writing.) A related novel was The Shadow Before by William Rollins, Jr., which set Gastonia-like events in New England. The powerful strike movement which broke out in the mid-1930's was characterized in Ruth McKenney's Industrial Valley, a fictionalized account of Akron rubber workers' daring sit-down strike to establish the union in the early 1930's. (This strike inspired the historic 1937 Flint sit-downs, which led to the unionization of mass industry, a goal of generations of workers.) Other strike novels included The Land of Plenty by Robert Cantwell, Marching! Marching! by Clara Weatherwax (both about the Northwest lumber industry) and S.S. Utah by Mike Pell (about maritime workers). In drama, Clifford Odets' play, Waiting for Lefty, depicted a cab drivers' strike, while Stevedore dealt with job action by black and white dock workers.

. Lenin points out that great economic and political crises (like World War I and the Depression) lead workers to think not only of strikes, but of poltics and revolution. The revolutionary thoughts of the workers often found expression in song and poetry. The songs of the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World -- see the I.W.W. Little Red Songbook or Joyce Kornbluh's collection, Rebel Voices), both humorous and inspirational, were widely sung throughout the whole period. The poetry of Sarah Cleghorn, Lola Ridge, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes (Good Morning, Revolution), David Wolff, Henry George Weiss, Genevieve Taggard and many others expressed the desire for workers' revolution. Myra Page's novel Moscow Yankee wrote of an American workers' experience in the Soviet Union, then thought by most proletarian writers to be socialist. Revolutions in countries oppressed by U.S. imperialism were written of in such novels as Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth (against colonialism in Asia), B. Traven's novels on the Mexican Revolution and Guy Endore's Babouk (which portrayed the Haitian Revolution).

. The communists were central to the workers' movement throughout the period of the 1920's to the 1940's, though in the latter half of the period revisionism corroded their line and took the revolutionary edge off their work. The attempt to build a proletarian party, a revolutionary organizing center for the workers' class struggle, was crucial for the wide extent of the struggle of the time -- and for its literary expressions. A number of novels depicted communist organizing among the workers. In addition to the strike novels already mentioned, there were Alexander Saxton's The Great Midland (about black and white communists among the railroad workers and the anti-eviction fights in Depression Chicago) and Burning Valley by Philip Bonosky (about the Pennsylvania coal fields). In Bonosky's later, lengthy The Magic Fern, a rich portrait of steel-worker activity was presented, and one sees the degeneration of the Communist Party, its capitulation to the union bureaucrats and its difficulties under McCarthyite Cold War repression. African-American communist heroism was magnificently portrayed in Wright's "Bright and Morning Star," the final story in his fine collection Uncle Tom's Children. The activity of black communists was treated at length in Lloyd L. Brown's Iron City and Scott Nearing's Free Born. Revolutionary organizing among Jewish workers in Poland was given delightful treatment in V.J. Jerome's A Lantern for Jeremy. But in Jake Home by Ruth McKenney we see favorably portrayed a CP leader who has become a disgusting, capitalist-flag-waving, revisionist bureaucrat.

. The struggle of oppressed nationalities, especially African-Americans, was the subject of a great deal of proletarian literature. The anti-racist organizing of the Communist Party among black and white workers placed the black freedom struggle at the center of the American class struggle. Wright's Black Boy and Native Son, the poetry of Hughes and others probed life and conditions of African-American working people. Not only the well-known names, but dozens of other minority workers and intellectuals, men and women, wrote vigorously of the anti-racist struggle from a working-class angle. Black themes and artistic techniques and forms became models for much proletarian literature.

. The conditions and aspirations of women workers were examined in such novels as Meridel LeSeuer's The Girl and Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio and in the work of a many woman poets. Many of these works have been collected in Paula Rabinowitz's Writing Red.

. Proletarian writers provided deep portraits of working-class life on the job and in the community. Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle described the desperate conditions facing immigrant workers in the Chicago stockyards at the turn of the century. Conveyor by James Steele portrayed the Detroit auto assembly line and community life in the 20's. McKenney's Akron novel described rubber workers' life and work, the Gastonia novels -- textile, The Land of Plenty -- lumber, Jack Conroy's The Disinherited -- a wandering worker in the Depression, Meyer Levin's Citizen and Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace -- steel, and there were many others. Jewish proletarian ghetto life was portrayed in Michael Gold's Jews Without Money and in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. Irish lower-middle-class life was chronicled in James T. Farrell's massive novels.

. Some proletarian works examined other political questions. Sinclair's Jimmie Higgins showed a naive activist worker buffeted in different directions by the capitalist propaganda justifying World War I. In Time of Peace by Thomas Boyd depicted a newspaperman examining and denouncing the pro-war lies, then turning to the communist workers' movement as the answer. Albert Maltz's The Underground Stream portrayed an ultra-right, fascist movement. The emergence of sell-out labor leaders was explored in Leroy Scott's The Walking Delegate. Prostitution was denounced in Reginald Wright Kaufman's The House of Bondage.

. A few proletarian works tried to depict the over-all direction of American society. Jack London's early novel The Iron Heel gave a conspiratorial version of revolution in the U.S., describing the forces of capitalist repression in terms that foreshadowed the rise of Nazi Germany. John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy used experimental devices to try to suggest the overall motion of American society in the 1920's and 30's. Josephine Herbst's trilogy beginning with Pity Is Not Enough traced the decline of the middle class and the rise of the proletariat in terms of one family's experience from the end of the Civil War to the workers' upsurge in the 1930's.

. The proletarian literature movement of the early 20th century wrote about the class struggle in virtually every corner of U.S. society. For its readers, it formed a vibrant picture of what they were fighting against and gave some hints of what they were fighting for. Artistic and political problems were seen in the literature, but this movement drew many working people into literary and political activism. It was one of the currents that showed that an alternative to capitalism was growing within the womb of capitalism and suggested that the working class was capable of bringing about a revolution and creating a new world.

By Tim Hall


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Last modified: October 15, 2001.