‘The John Reed Clubs Meet’ by Orrick Johns from The New Masses. Vol. 13 No. 5. October 30, 1934.
YOUNG writers from the industrial Lake region, the northern wheat belt and Missouri valley where farmers are starving and battling, from New York and the Eastern Textile strike fields spoke to an overflowing audience of Chicago intellectuals last month. They brought something new, vital, revolutionary. They crystallized the struggles of their territories. They were carriers of a fresh culture, young but bursting for outlets. And here they had an outlet; here they fraternized with others who shared their assurance of a proletarian world coming to birth. The audience, half standing, listened to the end. Some of the questions they too had been asking were being answered. This was the great significance of the Second National Conference of the John Reed Clubs; that it represented a high level of revolutionary consciousness; that it was made up of new writers and artists just beginning to be heard; and these writers and artists had created since the last conference–their own periodicals and mediums through which they· could be heard. The conference was important in quality. In numbers, we cannot say it was adequate, that the forty-odd delegates from a membership of some I ,200 really represent the widespread and vital ferment of our times. The old-timers, the pioneers of revolutionary literature and art, the personalities made known by THE MASSES during the ‘twenties -these missed the opportunity to meet the talented younger crowd. Where were these people? we asked. Again, where were the new novelists and playwrights who have been swept into the current of proletarian literature in the years of the crisis, produced work that has confounded the bourgeois critics, and bombed both the public and the popular writers out of their complacency. Some were there, but these gaps and weak links in the national unity we must record. We must also record that the obstacles to drawing in broader forces can be and are being removed by normal expansion, and by raising our whole program to a higher level.
One of the “old NEW MASSES writers” who did appear was A. B. Magil, now of the Detroit club. Magil said he remembered “back in 1927,” when there was no revolutionary cultural movement in America. He reported a conversation he had with Ludwig Renn, the famous German author (who is today in one of Hitler’s dungeons, if he is still alive). It was at the Kharkov writers’ congress in 1930. When Magil expressed his discouragement at the slow growth of revolutionary literature in America, Renn cheered him by saying, “Three years ago in Germany we had nearly nothing of the sort. Wait three years. You will see in that time a real awakening of revolutionary art and literature in America.” Magil pointed to evidence that this prophecy was being fulfilled.
But Magil went on to say that “writers and artists tend inevitably to fall behind the main stream of the revolutionary struggle. We fall back into sectarianism, leftism, rightism, “the last bourgeois hangovers.” The members of the various commissions of delegates had for two days been wrestling with just these problems, and they knew that this diagnosis was correct. Magil brought up another point which, in the opinion of many, indicates a weakness in the fiction content of the leftwing publications. He said, “The worker-writers are the buried treasure hidden away by centuries of capitalism. To reach them, to help them find themselves is our task. We must organize on a broader scale. We must make cultural ideas accessible to millions. In the Soviet Union and in Germany these ideas were made accessible to millions.”
When we come to analyze the shortcomings disclosed by the conference, we are forced to the conclusions that these shortcomings are the result of rapid and spontaneous growth. They are an indication of the stepping-up of the movement; but they also show that we must adopt bolder measures to accomplish two definite ends: First, to keep pace with the radicalization of all classes of intellectuals and creative workers; second, to help the normal development of all the crafts into their own channels. The specific problems are: narrowness, leftism; lack of clarity on the role of the John Reed Clubs; the presence in them of heterogeneous elements; the neglect of the economic demands of cultural w9rkers on the one hand, and on the other the complete absorption of creative workers in Artists’ Unions, Artists’ Equities and trade union work; the degeneration of meetings into business meetings and factional arguments; the lack of broad national leadership. Steps were taken by the conference to clarify these problems, and to meet them, not by rigid methods, but by opening new outlets for expansion.
What concrete accomplishments did the 1934 conference present? First of all, the appearance of sturdy and promising publications. These are Left Front, Left Review, Leftward of Boston, the Cauldron of Grand Rapids, Blast, Dynamo, the Anvil, Partisan Review, organ of the John Reed Club of New York, the Partisan, of Hollywood, temporarily suspended during the terror. The small club of Hartford, Conn., under the editorship of Miriam Clark and Ethel Lauler, is putting out an excellent mimeograph monthly, The Hammer. All of these publications are less than two years old. Most of them have sprung up during the past year. Wallace Phelps, one of the editors of Partisan Review, ably analyzed the leftwing periodicals of the conference. He pointed out that the capitalist magazines were attempting to enter their field and imitate them for purposes of popular distortion.
The most vital contributions to the discussion came from the Middle West. In this respect the conference showed that the John Reed Club had gained vigorous new personalities, men and women who were writing, painting, drawing, and reporting the labor war, who were not afraid of downrightness in criticism. Meridel Le Sueur of Minneapolis looked the equal of her strike story, I Was Marching (published in THE NEW MASSES, Sept. 18). She perfectly represented the young generation of a line of pioneers. But this generation is conscious of the illusions, of the lost dream of its marching ancestors. It goes forward to new ground-breaking achievements, in which the workers will lead. Meridel Le Sueur spoke of the spiritual death, the cultural anaesthesia which gripped the western middle class under the raids of the robber barons and the frenzy for profits. She made a moving plea for sensitiveness, feeling, living characters in the literature of the movement. Jack Conroy, of Moberly, Missouri, editor of The Anvil, gave a critical discussion of recent proletarian novels. Here was the new man, the agrarian-industrial Ulysses of brutalized roadlife in America, the worker who learned Latin and mathematics by himself to enter the university, who wrote and wrote for years in obscurity, who corresponds with everybody and reads everything. It is no wonder that he was fearless, that he smashed through the polite timidities and said his say. Joe Jones, son of a one-armed house painter of St. Louis, himself member of a house painters’ local, big, rangy, swift and swift-thinking, who almost alone of the P.W.A.P. in St. Louis challenged the opportunist trickery of the Museum-boss administrators, and who carries on an unemployed art class, in a room of the old Courthouse wrested from the authorities. Jack Balch, once a welter-weight kid, at $10 a knockout, with memories of Limehouse and Constantinople in his wandering life, still a kid but publishing powerful and individual stories in many small publications – whose peppery but humorous talk brightened the conference. There was Dick Wright, Negro poet, impressive for his quiet gravity, a day-today worker for the John Reed Club of Chicago, who nevertheless finds time to write and to serve as an editor on Left Front. His poems have appeared in THE NEW MASSES.
Paul Romaine, of Milwaukee, representing the emigrant stock of the north, reserved, forceful, clear-headed, a writer at home in the proletarian field. There was Alfred Hayes, dark, Dantean, witty, conscious to imperiousness that he personifies a new sort of “young generation.” the lyric poet of the New York working class, of the strike front, the writer of sketches that bite into the memory. And others, many others, whose solidarity on basic questions put to rout the idea that writers and artists must be temperamental porcupines and can’t live in organization.
And among the artists there was Gilbert Rocke, who, like Jones, conducted a struggle against the P.W.A.P. in Chicago, and organized an effective penetration in the Artists’ Equity. Boris Gorelik described the growth of the Artists’ Union of New York to 650 members, an organization that commands the recognition of the art-powers in the East. And Maurice Merlin, of Chicago, on fire with the necessity for better printing, better layout in workers’ publications.
The Chicago artists’ section prepared for the conference a portfolio of graphic art by fourteen of its members. The idea was taken up by other clubs, and these portfolios will be supplied to mass organizations, workers’ homes, workers’ centers and art-students at nominal cost. The artists represented were M. Topchevsky, Groth, Rocke, Pillin, R. Newton, Eve Teitel, Jastrohoff, A. Topchevsky, Merlin, Siporin, Eleanor Swimmer, Cheslcin, L. Weiner, and Jan Wittenber.
We had reports from members of the clubs who had been victims of fascist terror. Notably Jan Wittenber told the story of the Hillsboro imprisonments for criminal syndicalism, and outlined the struggle against criminal syndicalist laws. Joe North brought greetings from THE NEW MASSES’ staff, and reported on the progress of the weekly NEW MASSES.
Alexander Trachtenberg greeted the conference in the name of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and summarized the discussion with bolshevist incisiveness and humor. His talk heartened and stirred the delegates. He reminded his hearers that they were engaged in a world revolutionary movement. He said that a small but disciplined conference took on more importance today, because the period is more important, “a period of larger strikes and more intensified class battles.” He repeated what Karl Radek had said at the Soviet Writers Congress: In the period of the Great War the famous writers covered up the real imperialist purposes of the war; in the period of the October Revolution the established writers lied about the Revolution, they said it was a mere riot, or hadn’t taken place at all I In the period of Fascism the bourgeois writers are attempting to interpret Fascism as a heroic national movement. But the workers had swept away these lies; they saw that the Soviet Union was a living fact; they unmasked the misrepresentations. Today they were fighting Fascism and Imperialist War. Trachtenberg pointed out that it was the opportunity of revolutionary writers and artists to give the lie to the false fronts of the bourgeois propagandists for capitalism.
He made it clear that there could be no opposition between the intellectuals of our movement and the party organizers. Members of the John Reed Clubs must be able to define the role of the club and to raise these questions in discussion with party leaders if confusion arises. The purpose of the John Reed Clubs is to win writers and artists to the revolution. The duty of political leaders is to help them carry out this purpose. The party in no way wishes to interfere with the free exercise of talents, or to absorb talented people in other work, and any cultural organization which fails to observe this is taking the wrong line. Let the writers and artists co-operate with us, said Comrade Trachtenberg, by doing their best work. We also want great books, great painting, great originality in the cause of revolution.
The conference initiated a primary task which aroused widespread enthusiasm. It was proposed by Trachtenberg, and unanimously endorsed by the conference, that the John Reed Clubs should bend every effort to hold a National Writers’ Congress at some time within the next eight months. The newly elected National Committee was instructed to take ample time, and to prepare in the broadest possible way for such a Congress of antifascist writers throughout the country. In the light of a gathering of this magnitude, sectarian tendencies will vanish, and a basis will be formed for a higher type of writers’ organization, to be followed by a similar action uniting American artists. Such a mobilization will strike a blow at the growing fascist enemy, the rapidly developing White Guard and fascist criticism, and the Roosevelt- fostered national-chauvinist art, and will organize American revolutionary culture against the imperialist war plans.
The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1934/v13n05-oct-30-1934-NM.pdf