A Reversal of Fortune: Culture and the Crisis, Yesterday and Today

Graham Barnfield


This essay contends that the accumulated characterisations of 1930s literature have been shaped through the use of the past as present-day resource.  As Richard Pells suggests, "any effort to re-examine the conflicts and passions of the 1930s becomes, inevitably, a commentary on contemporary problems as well" (xi).  Yet the 1930s presents particular difficulties due to the crisis, beginning then and continuing into the present, in both economic and leadership terms, afflicting Western societies.  For one author, the inter-war period constitutes the source of a "moral impasse", the "other Sixties" that establishment commentators would sooner avoid discussing (Furedi 88-126).  Thus there is more at stake in the historiography than just an assessment of what happened; rationales of progress, growth and development are also subject to contestation. This essay traces the history of the representation of the thirties in the USA and the impacts of these representations on political culture.

At least part of the difficulty of the 1930s as the object of historical study is the methodological problem contained in the premise that a decade is self-contained and easily characterisable.  Even cursory study, whether of social and political trends or individual biography, will reveal tendencies present in the decade prior to the one under scrutiny and continuing long afterwards.  For instance, the shift towards government intervention under the Roosevelt administration actually commenced in a more limited form during Herbert Hoover's term of office (Romasco 321).  Likewise, while literary histories of the 1930s invite us to consider the leftward movement of writers as producing a significant if not dominant literary form, such writing was frequently rooted in the 1920s or practised by those who would find their creative maturity (or at least their most lucrative employment) in the post-war years.  Chronological devices for apprehending past realities are convenient, but they can lead to confusion and oversimplification.

Despite these inherent problems, the appeal of 'decade-ology' remains substantial.  Reducing key characteristics of an era to the notion of a 'decade' – be it Roaring Twenties or Greedy Eighties – is an attractive form of shorthand for summarising events.  The pervasiveness of this approach to historical narrative can be made apparent by simply listing some relevant book titles appearing after 1939: The Red Decade (1941), The Fervent Years (1945), The Angry Decade (1947), The Aspirin Age (1963), The Anxious Years (1963), The Years of Protest (1967), Dark Valley (2002) and the Age of Extremes (1994), in which the 1930s constitutes one half of the 'Age of Catastrophe' (Hobsbawm 21-222).  Whatever their content, such volumes indicate the ascendancy of particular themes in cultural history.

One way to surmount some of these problems is to distinguish between the actual decade in question and the tropes which dominate subsequent attempts at representation.  As a typographic indicator of this process, this essay uses 'the 1930s' and 'the Thirties' on the page, in order to indicate history and historiographical concept – and perhaps 'reality' and 'myth'– respectively.  Discussions of this interaction allow us to distinguish both between historical developments in the years 1930 to 1939 and the received image of the 1930.  This second type of 'period' denotes not merely the passage of ten years, but a selection of a number of trends and events, reconstructing history according to particular interpretations. 1 In this process, 'the Thirties'– a decade itself often presented as marking a distinct break from any previous influences – can be characterised in terms that, taken collectively, further solidify an extant 'master narrative'.  As the titles cited above suggest, such construction has tended to involve the privileging of particular themes.

'The Thirties' narrative places radicalism and protest at its forefront.  Yet other accounts suggest that this is an exaggeration.  In Warren Susman's influential essays the 1930s was an essentially conservative decade, characterised by individual survival strategies and a reluctance to break with political convention (150-183).  Perhaps in keeping with the theme of the past as a present-day resource, "The Culture of the Thirties" involved Susman's own generational differentiation from his Old Left predecessors.  Yet the essay also captured some of the intellectual trends unfolding in the 1930s but not easily identified through their presence in manifestos and movements (for instance, by indicating the way that self-help books outsold proletarian novels).  By emphasising anthropological methods rather than intellectual or literary history, Susman arrived at a very different picture to the normative view of the 1930s discussed below.  Such findings are an important exception to the usual literary-critical views of the decade, however.

Susman's attempts to rework 1930s historiography as disclosing an essentially conservative or even consumerist character is insufficient to dislodge 'the Thirties' as a dominant narrative.  Nevertheless, we see a number of attempts to rewrite the usual accounts. Even before it was clear that economic conditions were improving at the end of the thirties historiographical dogfights were well under way on both sides of the Atlantic.  Conservative participants wanted a version of 1930s without the slump, in which what W. H. Auden called "a low, dishonest decade" was precipitated by critics of the system.  The same concerns led US journalist Eugene Lyons to publish The Red Decade in 1941, in which liberal and left-leaning intellectuals were the villains of the moment.

Political allegiances formed in the Depression era shaped the intelligentsia for decades to come: witness the row over Elia Kazan's Academy Award (Conrad passim).  Post-war apologists for the market system seemed more comfortable blaming the permissive society for social problems, perhaps because it allowed them to evade a discussion of their own youthful antics.  A decade as controversial as the 1930s was likely to generate considerable conflicts over interpretation.  Before the present essay can note some trends in the recent period, it is worth exploring the established if no longer wholly dominant interpretive framework.

An appropriate place to start is The Red Decade (1941), a polemical tract stressing communist infiltration of American institutions, with a number of chapters devoted to the arts.  Drawing in part on Max Eastman's essay "Artists in Uniform" (1933) – an account of Soviet suppression of artistic freedom –  author Eugene Lyons presented the US Communist Party (CPUSA) as almost omnipotent, with the power to dictate cultural trends, generate careers for the mediocre and control US foreign policy, all in accordance with the interests of the Soviet Union.  As a former enthusiast of the 'Russian experiment', Lyons vented his growing disillusionment in his Assignment in Utopia (1937).  His arguments often included a critique of Stalin's Russia from the left – alleging it had betrayed its promises and potential – even while Lyons himself was shifting to the right of the political spectrum. This earned him the enmity of the CPUSA and of broader left-liberal opinion which viewed Russia as a beacon of hope and prosperity amid the Depression.

The political orientation of The Red Decade expressed a political process similar to that sketched in Assignment in Utopia, but in an accelerated form.  Some of Lyons' criticisms of the CPUSA were drawn from the anti-Stalinist left, attacking the Stalinists for their backsliding and compromise.  Hence the book depicts the political summersaults undertaken after the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  Other chapters articulate a more general cynicism about social change or a gossipy disdain for liberal foibles.  It fared badly in terms of sales and reviews; Lyons exaggerated its unpopularity, alleging a conspiracy against the book (Kutulas 201-203).  However, whatever its immediate effect, it certainly had a longer term impact.  Some years after publication, with the onset of the Cold War and McCarthyism, its title gained currency as a shorthand description of the 1930s as a whole. In an atmosphere of hostility towards 'fellow travellers' and critics of the free market, such caricatures of the 1930s acquired plausibility.  In conservative circles, The Red Decade was valued for its capacity to dent the moral authority of the Soviet Union, at a time when more traditional conservative arguments were largely discredited (Nash 86-88).

Obviously Lyons' tome gave central emphasis to the CPUSA in its rendering of 'the Thirties'.  It is an early example of an author substituting the experiences of a section of the intelligentsia for those of society as a whole.  Moreover, the peculiar features highlighted by Lyons allowed for a discussion of the 1930s with minimal reference made to economic slump.  Sidestepping economics in favour of intellectual and literary life gave prominence to 1930s literature, particularly that described as proletarian or revolutionary.  Retrospectively, this reads like a 'Thirties' without economics, a Depression era without the Depression.  From the vantage point of 1941, however, to those in the intellectual community at whom it was aimed, The Red Decade was an unhelpful affront to the war effort and US-Soviet co-operation.

Making sense of The Red Decade requires stepping back to the conditions which so agitated its author, also posing the question as to why the CPUSA has such a high profile in accounts of the inter-war years.  One place to start is with Culture and the Crisis, the manifesto launched by he League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford.  The League consisted of prominent American intellectuals, a number of whom had campaigned against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, supporting the Communist Party's slate in the 1932 presidential election.  The launch of Culture and the Crisis was an event significant not in its own terms, but indicative of a broader shift in consciousness that decade. The backing of America's best and brightest for the Communist slate symbolised a profound uncertainty within the US elite. The manifesto's effects at the polls were negligible, yet in its own way, Culture and the Crisis highlights the 'zeitgeist' of the inter-war period.  The significance of the League of Professionioal Groups lay not in its actual activities, but in its subsequent impact on intellectual life.  That fifty-three prominent intellectuals, whom Edmund Wilson among others saw as vastly superior writers (Cantor 134), signed a manifesto supporting the Communist Presidential slate in the 1932 election embodied the sense of the crisis unfolding around them.  In hyperbolic prose, Culture and the Crisis argued that capitalism was incapable of defending even its limited gains, comparing the system to a decaying house which no other party was willing to fix.  The positing of Stalin's Russia as an alternative model of society, backed up by a network of intellectuals, was the feature which most galled Lyons, yet left more traditional conservatives struggling to reply.  Even in later years, when manifesto signatories such as John Dos Passos presented the initiative as a youthful protest vote (Caute 228), such events retained their power to shock.  Indeed, a representative sample of those backing Foster and Ford also turned into some of the most prominent pundits and supporters of the Cold War.

Taken together, the League of Professional Groups and Culture and the Crisis presented humanity's choices as either Soviet-style socialism or barbarism.  By linking the fate of culture so closely to the slump, they anticipated subsequent narratives of the Depression era.  However, in contrast to the campaigning of 1932, accounts starting with that of Lyons tended to detach the broader culture of the left from the economic conditions which gave it new impetus.  In numerous memoirs of the 1930s written during the Cold War the slump becomes a mere background detail whilst Communism and 'commitment' become central.  In turn, such issues were played out in the literary arena and then popularised through a range of loosely 'middlebrow' sources.  This process is explored below, not least because of its impact on perceptions of 'the Thirties' now.

The development of a homologous package of anti-Soviet ideas servicing political life in the mid to late-1940s can be located, in part, in the previous decade's literary debates.  Most notable are the various formulations which emerged on the question of the relationship between the committed writer and organised politics.  Significant here are Eastman's "Artists in Uniform" (1933), a depiction of the stultifying life of Soviet Writers, published in the Modern Quarterly and expanded to a book-length essay the following year, and Philip Rahv's article "Proletarian Literature: A Political Autopsy" (1939), which appeared in the Southern Review.  Prior to Aaron's Writers on the Left (1961), these pieces were often taken as the last word on literary and critical matters surrounding US political fiction and poetry in the 1930s.  Strikingly, Eastman's essay rarely touches on the American literary scene, but its polemical tone, title and reputation fuelled perceptions that the radical novel was a matter of Communist policy, an idea codified in Rahv's essay.  A series of stereotypes emerged, suggesting that US 'Proletarian Literature' was an attempt to impose Kremlin aesthetics upon indigenous literature culture and that modernism was denigrated, favouring dreary reportage, strike novels, and poetry eulogising Lenin.  It became commonplace to claim that, William Faulkner aside, the 1930s novel was hijacked for propaganda purposes (Barnfield 1999).  This narrative then suggests that, in response, a brave and isolated minority broke with official Communism over this issue and faced subsequent persecution from the Popular Front via book reviewers, mainstream publishing houses and even GPU assassins.

Subsequent years saw the often embittered claims of the participants in this early 'culture war' incorporated and modified into a wide range of accounts.  Their insight has varied enormously; some were scholarly, others written according to a disingenuous, a priori anti-communist formula.  Paradoxically, whereas those directly involved in these struggles – like Rahv and Lyons – tended to make Communism central to cultural questions, traditional histories of US Communism made the coverage of cultural affairs largely perfunctory. Thus, in the main, Harvey Klehr's The Heyday of American Communism (1984) farms off the discussion of culture to a footnote citing Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left.  The centrality given to culture among fellow-travelling intellectuals, which formed a key theme in the post-war construction of 'the Thirties', is largely absent from traditionalist specialist studies of the CPUSA.

Even as the cultural history of the 1930s ('the Thirties') took shape around stereotypes of literary radicalism, the 1950s saw the emergence of an open minded approach.  Two major works challenged the depiction of proletarian literature as a form of patronage, with Party functionaries commissioning novels, of dubious artistic merit, on purely ideological grounds.  Among the first to confront what had become a conventional view was Walter Rideout, in a comprehensive work entitled The Radical Novel in the United States (1956).  In a manner that suggested revulsion with the 'literary' approach of both Lyons and Senator McCarthy, he prefaced his work with a warning:

If the general reader has picked up this volume in the hopes of finding the sort of thing which should be entitled The Novel on the Barricades or, conversely, I Read Red Fiction, he had better put it down at once. (vii)
Rideout's remarks reflected a perception that the preoccupations of the Cold War were distorting the study of literature.  His assumptions were consolidated with the appearance of Aaron's Writers on the Left in 1961, which explicitly took issue with Lyons's characterisation of the 1930s as the Red Decade, calling it 'a polemic written without charity or understanding . . . reflect[ing] the acrimonious spirit and attitudes of the decade he deplores' (231n).  The thrust of both works was to separate radical cultural production from the Communist organisation – real or imagined – that was exciting US-wide hostility.  While the assessment of Communist politics was unsympathetic, the literary production associated with the movement could be disentangled, allowing a more objective assessment.  The contribution of Aaron 2 and Rideout was the creation of a vantage point from which to examine 1930s literature without acquiescing to McCarthyism.  Neither account was definitive, since they tended to abstract culture from some of the broader social conflicts played out in the 1930s (and beyond). As Josephine Herbst complained of Writers on the Left, much of the discussion tended to revolve around New York literary critics (cited in Madden xxi).  Nevertheless, Rideout and Aaron's foundational role was such that they paved the way for future scholarly research, by providing an alternative reference point to that established by past partisans and professional anticommunists like Lyons.

This enabled a wide range of publications in which the Red legacy of the 1930s could be re-examined and some of the more specific myths dispensed with.  So extensive is the scholarship that as early as 1971 an historian complained disingenuously that "a spate of recent publications' have 'merely compiled a series of lengthy footnotes to Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left" (Singer 73).  Later examples of the post-Aaron approach are manifold.  Thus Eric Homberger points out the disparities between Soviet literary politics – including the abolition of the Proletcult group and its doctrine – and the proletarian editorial stance of the New Masses magazine, allegedly the source of "the Party line in literature" (119-140). In the process he reveals Max Eastman's deliberate mistranslation of Soviet Writers Congress documents in Artists in Uniform. James F. Murphy and Lawrence Schwartz indicate the thematic and aesthetic overlap of proletarian literature in America with such movements as German Workers Theatre (Proletbuhne) and, unusually for the 1980s, use the Daily Worker as a key primary resource.  Like Homberger, Douglas Wixson sought to locate US worker-writers (especially Jack Conroy and the Anvil/Rebel Poets milieu) in an indigenous tradition of literary radicalism.  Both Murphy and Wixson re-present Partisan Review's Philip Rahv as a sectarian advocate of proletarian literature during the early 1930s, at odds with his subsequent self-styled critical heroism.  Barbara Foley has interrogated current scholarship and, importantly, original proletarian texts, in order to demonstrate the fine balance of political manoeuvring and aesthetic incoherence that shaped perceptions of a 'party line in literature'.  Bill Mullen reinterpreted black Chicago as a literary centre.  Alan Wald (2002) has provided an extensive group biography that goes some way to shattering other key myths of 'the Thirties', partly by arguing for a study of literary radicalism in the 'non-canonical decades' after 1939.  Taken collectively, these revisionist accounts provide a compelling challenge to the idea that this significant current in 1930s writing was the unmediated result of 'party patronage'.

Throughout the 1990s, these revisionist literary histories were emboldened by the emergence of a broad historical school known as the 'new histories of American communism'.  Unlike Theodore Draper and Harvey Klehr, who depict the Communist movement as a monolith organised from the top down with Soviet Russia at the centre of its firmament, the revisionists emphasise the local activities of the Communist movement and its supporters.  Symptomatic of this is "an unprecedented outburst of academic interest in American Communism . . . produc[ing] more doctoral dissertations, books, and articles on the subject during the past five years than in all the previous sixty years of American Communist history" (Draper 44).  Seldom claiming to be part of a coherent 'school' in this field, such authors stress rank and file initiative as a key factor.  In the study of literature and culture (and, bridging the gap, of oral history), this approach has proliferated in recent years.

'New histories' can provide a useful corrective to the conservative construction of 'the Thirties' in the US as stemming entirely from Moscow, but they also risk perpetuating a false dichotomy between 'micro' and 'macro' readings of 1930s culture.  Regardless of what was happening 'on the ground', is there a 'big picture' that can account for these disparate activities?  Despite a proliferation of new scholarly studies, until recently it seemed that the mainstream mythology of a literary and cultural Red Decade would live on in memoirs, obituaries and textbooks. For instance, the construction of 'the Thirties' within the teaching of literature has not kept pace with the historical research.  On one hand, there are canonical works of criticism written while the proletarian controversy was still fresh.  Alfred Kazin's On Native Grounds, for instance, is largely a measured consideration of the development of modern American letters.  On the question of 'the Thirties', however, it is markedly partisan.  Discussing 'the more fashionable kind of hard-boiled writing', Kazin claims that "the left-wing naturalist surrendered his craft to what seemed ultimate considerations beyond literature.  Literature, in the Communist jargon, was a 'front' and each militant writer a guerrilla fighting in his own way for a common purpose" (387).

Kazin is both an erudite scholar and a principled liberal who avoided the red-baiting approach adopted by many of his contemporaries.  However, his formulaic synopsis of radical writing forms a barrier to understanding it.  The book both demands deference as a major literary work (even warranting special fortieth anniversary editions) but goes largely unread on undergraduate courses, further compounding the difficulty of identifying its precise role in constructing 'the Thirties' on the faultline of literary radicalism.  Nevertheless, because it insists that a 'party line in literature' was a characteristic 1930s influence, On Native Grounds introduces the general reader to proletarian literature whilst embedding the predominant stereotypical tropes.  Kazin creates the impression, never empirically demonstrated, that the CP was a powerful direct cultural patron.

This problem is often also reproduced in chronologically-arranged introductory literary histories.  It reflects a generic standard that was firmly established in the 1950s.  This pattern has persisted to this day, albeit in a more liberal form.  Unlike Kazin, Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury are sympathetic to individual radical authors like Michael Gold and Henry Roth.  However, they bracket them with the left-wing critics with whom they disagree.  Writing of V. F. Calverton and Granville Hicks, Ruland and Bradbury locate "the sterility of their approach" in a 'limited conception of what is real', before making an imaginative leap unsupported by evidence, with the claim that "the Marxist world of the 1930s, was a world preoccupied solely with the play of economic forces; the only place for literature in such a world was as a weapon in class warfare". (361)  Likewise, Bradbury quotes Gold as urging writers to "go left", become workers identified with the workers, experience and record and radicalise the proletarian world which provided a writer with "all the primitive material he needs" (125).  Aside from a synopsis of the novel Jews Without Money (1930), there is little to balance this one-dimensional portrait, conflating Gold as agitator with Gold as critic and cultural practitioner. In both examples a part is substituted for the whole, hence the inflation of Calverton and Hicks into "the Marxist world of the 1930s".  Given the role that both of Bradbury's texts play as introductory guides for a general readership, it is clear that a one-sided view of the writing of the inter-war period can persist despite revisionist scholarship.

As mentioned previously, similar trends become apparent in such 'middlebrow' forums as the literary memoir or autobiography.  Thus, Kazin further enhanced his depiction of 1930s literary life in Starting Out in the Thirties (1962).  Perhaps by way of disclaimer, he establishes his own position as a sharp contrast to that of his contemporaries among the Depression-era literati:

I was sick of Communists.  I had the deepest contempt for those middle-class and doctrinaire radicals who, after graduating from Harvard or Yale in the Twenties, had made it a matter of personal honour to become Marxists, and who now worried in the New Masses whether Proust should be read after the Revolution and why there seemed to be no simple proletarians in the novels of Andre Malraux. (4-5)

A variation on this theme appears in Making It, where Norman Podhoretz presents Partisan Review as "refusing to accept the Stalinist dogma that experimental poets of a politically conservative bent were to be attacked as decadent while tenth rate proletarian novelists like Jack Conroy were to be promoted as great" (86).  Appearing within a year of each other in the late 1960s, both memoirs employ a stereotype that conflates the Communist Party with its literary sympathisers and their cultural activities.  The general and imprecise formulations of a Kazin or Podhoretz were circulated in texts intended for a largely non-academic audience, thus allowing the stereotype to acquire a purchase as ‘common sense’ to an extent disproportionate to its accuracy.  On this basis 'the Thirties' was constructed through a constant preoccupation with the literary left, often presented as a two-dimensional clash of good and evil.  In other words, despite the available scholarship to refute the claims made for ‘the Thirties’, the key stereotypes persevere at a 'common sense' level.

So if there was, in real terms, no 'Red Decade', why all the fuss?  Estimates of CPUSA membership vary, reaching 28,849 in December 1933 (Levine 115); yet, despite these limited numbers, the party remains one of the most scrutinised aspects of the period.  Likewise, whilst the struggles recounted by those constructing 'the Thirties' are narrated as epic tales of persecution and high principle, they tended to be far removed from the actual events.  The CPUSA pursued its political objectives among writers in relation to the Moscow Trials (Kutulas 106-113) in a way that was often despicable, but the experiences described in Partisan Review as 'trials of the mind' were in no way comparable to their alleged Soviet equivalent.  Intellectuals repelled by the left reworked their encounters in 1930s literary politics into a narrative of liberal anticommunism. Thomas Hill Schaub provides a useful summary of this process:

How closely intertwined with each other both writer and intellectual were in the paralysing logic of this era.  Both writer and intellectual shared the conviction of a thwarted socialism and what seemed to have been a naïve liberalism.  The critic and intellectual essayist could capitalise on this enervated socialism and did: their group therapy occupies volumes of Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent and Kenyon Review during the forties and fifties. (74)
Correspondingly, the social protest novel declined (Hilfer 14-15) and organisational commitments beyond the Congress of Cultural Freedom were usually avoided.  Yet this 'group therapy' acquired a wider social function: even as it announced the end of ideology, it forged an ideological account of the moral collapse of hegemonic ideas in the 1930s.  Avoiding discussing that collapse in terms of global slump and warfare, it hinged instead upon a 1930s haunted by Communist inspired 'ideological' literature.

What are we to make of all this? Why would a representation of events in terms of 'Culture and the Crisis' become reworked in wholly cultural terms? One explanation is that crises are themselves divisible into different levels, unfolding on economic, institutional and ideological planes (Habermas; Mattick).  Although too quick to discard the former categories, one author uses the idea of crisis as discourse to suggest how a crisis of ideas can take shape:  "Crises do not exist in the world.  They exist in discourse.  Crises are not real events, but they are evaluations of the significance of what is happening. . . . We can say that crises are specific codes of significance. . . . News media can therefore be said discursively to produce crises" (Bruck 108)While maintaining that crises can have a worldly existence, I would contend that the distinction between the 1930s and 'the Thirties' is precisely a product of the discursive production of crisis.  By replacing the "the news media" of Bruck's formulation with "Cold War pundits and commentators" this argument can be extended.

In the actual 1930s, conditions were such that Soviet Russia appeared axiomatically, to some, to be a beacon of progress and prosperity.  Prominent and up-and-coming intellectuals alike campaigned under the assumption that humanity faced a fundamental choice between socialism or barbarism, thereby constituting crisis discursively.  Their actions were symptomatic of what Habermas terms legitimation crisis.  Conversely, when many of same individuals developed the '1930s without slump' narrative described above, they were, in effect, developing a counter-crisis strategy in discourse.  This critical consensus was reducible to a formulation found in Rahv's widely quoted "Political Autopsy" essay: proletarian literature was "the literature of a party disguised as the literature of a class" (625).  Subsequently, this phrase became incorporated into numerous hostile accounts of a significant literary tendency of the Depression years.  'Proletarian literature' came to serve as a cipher for assumptions that owed little to a direct engagement with cultural production.  Instead the term signified that Depression era literature was a matter of policy, connoting a totalitarian link between social commentary in fiction and, via the CPUSA, Stalin’s Kremlin.  Such claims also ensured that communists loomed large in the story of 'the Thirties'.

Even with the end of Cold War, the allegation that writers worked according to the diktat of an authoritarian party has maintained its purchase. During the 1990s similar characterisations continued to circulate.  Hence the Modern Language Association convention was attacked by Roger Kimball (author of Tenured Radicals) who claimed that "one might have been forgiven for believing that the year was 1969 – if not, indeed, 1935" (75).  Not insignificantly, the focus of Kimball's attack is Barbara Foley, herself a major authority on – and defender of – the proletarian novel.  In bracketing 1990s 'Political Correctness' with an earlier cultural milieu influenced by Stalinism, Kimball can rely upon unstated assumptions to undermine a strand of 1930s writing and to help him engage in present-day polemics.  Once again the past is used selectively in launching a critique of the present.

In a conservative tour de force, Edward Walter uncritically resurrects the notion of the 'Red Decade' to praise Eugene Lyons and damn the likes of Edmund Wilson, George Soule and Corliss Lamont. Despite conceding the existence of the Great Depression and the injustice of President Hoover's assault on the Bonus Army, his real venom is reserved for the radical Group Theater and its successors, among whom he numbers Oliver Stone for his movie JFK.  Walter's polemic is orchestrated around the complaint that Soviet sympathisers in the "American intellectual Hall of Fame . . . have not been removed" (24-25).  If this strand of the discussion appears anachronistic and bound up with the Cold War, does this mean that constructing 'the Thirties' along conventional lines is no longer an option?

Certainly perceptions of the 1930s are in constant flux.  Shaped and reshaped to fit the priorities of the present, a decade's images and experiences are a potential treasure trove for those using history as a contemporary resource.  Not all such discursive strategies are successful; few now recall comparisons between President Clinton's short-lived 'New Covenant' and the New Deal of FDR.  Yet the box office success of Gary Ross's Seabiscuit (2003), based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 non-fiction bestseller, suggested the scope to find present-day role models from the Depression (Denby, 2003), without the need to confront awkward issues of legitimation and past defeats.  More broadly, this new interest invites an unlocking of the 1930s, opening up the decade to a less cagey and more open mainstream discussion.

Indeed, recent treatment of the decade is striking for its return to economic categories.  As we saw above, in the post-war period an ad hoc narrative centred on cultural responses to the slump, and the role of the CPUSA therein, came to the fore.  The issue of crisis was thereby positioned as cultural rather than economic.  Conversely, today's pundits show an increasing willingness to compare present day conditions directly to those which emerged from the stock market crash of 1929.  Contemporary anxieties about the global economy invite dramatic comparison with the slump of the 1930s.  Predicting a possible "return to the harsh world of John Steinbeck", Professor John Gray (1999) thinks "we could begin the new century struggling to adjust ourselves to an older American model" (5). The model he has in mind is Herbert Hoover’s America, all breadlines and hobos.  Grim stuff indeed, if such doom-mongering reflects the reality of the world economy today.

Before the events of 11 September 2001 provided a touchstone for discussions of economic downturn, 1930s comparisons featured in numerous explanations of contemporary conditions.  Such characterisations flowed thick and fast.  Thus for Larry Elliott, those "who want to know what the Great Depression was like for America in the 1930s need look no further than Argentina in 2002. . . . And unlike Americans in the early 30s, Argentina has no Roosevelt to tell them that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself." (2-4). Such analogies are not confined to discussions of countries outside of the G7.  Since the dot.com bust of 1999, economic correspondents have repeatedly drawn parallels with the Great Depression when speculating on future trends.  Whereas during the Cold War a combination of rising unemployment and failing construction work was likely to be explained in terms of the business cycle, today previously off-limits comparisons with the 1930s appear casually (for example, Doward).  "Seventy years on, for the 'new era' read the 'new economy'" is how the chair of the Financial Services Authority begins a comparative article, in which he also notes Alan Greenspan borrowing the phrase 'irrational exuberance' from those reflecting on pre-1929 speculation in order to grasp 21st Century trends (Davies 29).  Thus, even before September 11 there was a widespread perception – a discursive crisis if you will – that the US economy was destined for recession.  "The attacks pushed its head under water" claimed John Llewellyn of analysts Lehman Brothers; terrorism is simply the last straw in an already gloomy prognostication.

Furthermore, such articles are almost invariably illustrated with iconic photography from the Depression.  (Seabiscuit plays its part in this resurgence of such imagery, with recurring documentary inserts to help set the scene.)  In all probability, responsibility for this trend rests with art editors rather than with journalists, but a distinctive 'visual culture', representing the crash of 1929 yet building a bridge to the present, is symptomatic of a shift both in popular perceptions and elite discourse.  Faced with this contemporary catastrophism, it is worth reminding ourselves of the evolution of 'the Thirties' as an historical and discursive construct.  Whereas Cold War cultural histories have tended to emphasise the CPUSA instead of economic trends, this legacy of carefully argued apologetics is being swiftly discarded today.

It is striking just many mainstream commentators are embracing the rhetoric of catastrophe.  The world economy has its problems, but these still pale in comparison to the Great Depression, when one in four US citizens was unemployed and much of the financial and banking sector was wiped out.  So hard hit was the USA that – despite the massive state intervention of Roosevelt's New Deal – it took the Second World War to get the economy working again.  These current comparisons seem excessive, but they are gaining ground.  In a mindset once monopolised by orthodox Trotskyists, writers like John Gray now perpetually live on the edge of an economic abyss.  Continually sounding the alarm, they may eventually be proven correct, but only in the way a stopped clock is right twice a day.

This repeated harking back to Depression era economics is unprecedented, as establishment commentators have been almost invariably reluctant to discuss the inter-war period, as it graphically exposed the flaws of both the market system and the political elite.  Widespread business failure and mass unemployment defied traditional explanations, in which idle workers were to blame.  Government subsidies, nationalisation and state control seemed to offer a way out, violating entrepreneurial principles: the phrase 'we're all Keynesians now' allowed free marketers to express their embittered acquiescence in the new ways of working.  Needless to say, those who had sought fascistic solutions emerged even more embarrassed.

Today the Great Depression is a key image for spreading a message of economic gloom.  Although capitalism is not collapsing at the moment, the suggestion that a 1930s-style slump is just around the corner is widespread.  By comparing the present and the 1930s, contemporary Cassandras acquire an aura of history.  They scare the pants off their audiences and readers with their outlandish claims yet are spared the effort of looking at what’s actually happening to the economy today.

Works Cited

Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism.1961. New York: Columbia UP Morningside Books Edition, 1992.

Barnfield, Graham. "Cultural Depression", http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000006DFB4.htm, posted November 2003.

Barnfield, Graham. "The Novel as Propaganda: Revisiting the Debate". Propaganda: Political Rhetoric and Identity 1300-2000. Ed. Taithe, Bertrand and Tim Thornton. Stroud: Sutton, 1999. 285-304.

Brendan, Piers. Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s.  New York: Knopf, 2002.

Bruck, Peter. "Crisis as Spectacle: Tabloid News and the Politics of Outrage". Media, Crisis and Democracy. Ed. Raboy, Marc and Bernard Dagenais. London: Sage, 1992.

Cantor, Milton. The Divided Left: American Radicalism, 1900-1975. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Caute, David. The Fellow Travellers: Intellectual Friends of Communism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: the Story of the Group Theater and the Thirties. 1945. New York: Hill & Wang, 1957.

Conrad, Peter. "Hollywood’s most hated hero", Observer Review. 21 February 1999. 5.

Davies, Howard. "When Wall Street was paved with fool's gold", Times Higher Education Supplement. 28 June 2002. http://www.thes.co.uk/search/story.aspx?story_id=85076

Denby, David. "Horse Power". The New Yorker. 4 August 2003. 84-85.

Doward, Jamie. "USA Inc braced for more pain". Observer Business. 23 September 2001. 1.

Draper, Theodore. "The Popular Front Revisited". New York Review of Books. 30 May 1985.

Elliot, Larry. "Do cry for us". Guardian G2, 7 June 2002. 2-4.

Filler, Louis. The Anxious Years: America in the 1930's, a Collection of Writings. New York: Capricorn, 1963.

Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in US Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Furedi, Frank. Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age. London: Pluto, 1992.

Gray, John. "Bursting bubbles". Guardian. 26 January 1999. Posted at http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,321253,00.html

Gurko, Leo. The Angry Decade. New York: Dodd, 1947.

Habermas, Jürgen. Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Hilfer, Tony. American Fiction Since 1940. London: Longman, 1992.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991. London: Michael Joseph, 1994.

Homberger, Eric. American Writers and Radical Politics, 1900-1939: Equivocal Commitments. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Islam, Faisal. "US jobs slump set to deepen global gloom". Observer, 28 October 2001. Business 1.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942.

Kazin, Alfred. Starting Out in the Thirties. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1962.

Kimball, Roger. "The Periphery V. the Center: The MLA in Chicago". Debating PC: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses. Ed. Paul Berman. New York: Dell, 1992.

Klehr, Harvey. The Heyday of American Communism: the Depression Decade. New York: Basic, 1984.

Kutulas, Judy. The Long War: The Intellectual People's Front and Anti-Stalinism, 1930-1940. Durham NC: Duke UP, 1995.

League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford. Culture and the Crisis. New York: League of Professional Groups, 1932.

Leighton, Isobel. The Aspirin Age: 1919-1941.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.

Levine, Rhonda F. Class Struggle and the New Deal:  Industrial Capital, Industrial Labor and the State. Lawrence, KS: UP of Kansas, 1988.

Lyons, Eugene. The Red Decade:  The Stalinist Penetration of America. Indianapolis:  Bobbs-Merrill, 1941.

Madden, David.Introduction. Proletarian Writers of the Thirties. Ed. Madden. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1968.

Mattick, Paul. Economics, Politics, and the Age of Inflation. London: Merlin, 1978.

Mullen, Bill V. Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46. Urbana & Chicago: U Illinois P, 1999.

Murphy, James F. The Proletarian Moment:  The Controversy Over "Leftism" in Literature. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1991.           

Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

Podhoretz, Norman. Making It. New York: Bantam, 1967.

Pells, Richard. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years New York: Harper and Row, 1973.           

Rahv, Philip. "Proletarian Literature: A Political Autopsy", Southern Review 4, Winter 1939. Repr. in Literature in America.1957. Ed. Phillip Rahv. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973

Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1956.

Romasco, Albert U. The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

Ruland, Richard and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Salzman, Jack. ed. with Barry Wallerstein. The Years of Protest: A Collection of American Writing of the 1930s. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Singer, David. "Ludwig Lewisohn: The making of an anticommunist". American Quarterly, December 1971.

Schaub, Thomas Hill. American Fiction and the Cold War. Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1991.

Schwartz, Lawrence. Marxism and Culture: The CPUSA and Aesthetics in the 1930s. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1980.

Susman, Warren I. Culture as History. 1973.Washington and London: Smithsonian Press, 2003.

Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Walter, Edward. The Rise and Fall of Leftist Radicalism in America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.

Warren, Frank A. Liberals and Communism: The 'Red Decade' Revisited. 1966. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.  

Wixson, Douglas. Worker Writer in America:  Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1994. 



Special thanks are due to John Baxendale, Mark Beachill, James Heartfield, Chris Pawling and Alan Wald for their continuing dialogue with me regarding the ideas in this essay. Needless to say, I take full responsibility for the finished product.

End Notes

1. A parallel process precipitated 'the Sixties', a construct symbolising political turmoil in the years 1968-1974.  See Fredric Jameson, "Periodising the 60s", The Ideologies of Theory - Essays 1971-1986, Volume 2: The Syntax of History (London: Routledge, 1988) 207.  Frank Furedi presents antagonism towards the period as a distraction from a serious discussion of the inter-war years;  the ‘other Sixties ’ was a period in which key assumptions about the nature of social order were undermined. Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age (London: Pluto, 1992)152-161.

2. For an assessment of the influence of Writers on the Left, see Alan Wald's introduction to the 1992 edition (New York: Columbia University Press).  Another important, contemporaneous work to that of Aaron was Frank A. Warren's Liberals and Communism: The 'Red Decade' Revisited (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), which owed much to Hannah Arendt and sought to overcome the partisan divisions in scholarship accounting for 1930s intellectual politics.  Warren placed liberals on a continuum: 'progressive', fellow traveller and anticommunist, by assessing their responses to concrete political issues.