instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

REDISCOVERING (OR INVENTING) LEFTISM IN THE 1930S: “THE LEFT FRONT” AT THE GREY GALLERY

Alexander Stavenitz, Unemployed, 1930. Aquatint and carborundum, 15 1/2 x 10 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1993.14
As most of my readers know , I'm interested in politics & write about them occasionally, but mostly, I like to keep them & my esthetics in separate postings (among other reasons, because not all readers who share my esthetic orientation also share my political one). Occasionally, however, I feel the need to comment on an exhibition whose presentation of political "history" doesn't square with my own experience of the history in question (readers who don't share my political orientation are advised to skip this posting).

The show under discussion is “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1040,” at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (through April 4). I got the press release for this show, glanced at it and put it toward the tail end of my priorities, but then a friend called to my attention a rave review of it by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker and I decided I had to go to it sooner rather than later. After I’d seen it, I also noticed that Holland Cotter had sandwiched a brief but flattering reference to it into his January 31 NY Times review of "Respond," the Smack Mellon show.

Both Schjeldahl and Cotter created the impression that the show at the Grey Art Gallery was all about the left in politics in America in the 1930s. That made it sound very interesting, as the left in politics in America in the 1930s embraced a vast spectrum of opinion, at least half & maybe more like two-thirds of the people actively involved in politics during that decade.

As a child and adolescent, I’d been a modest little part of that left-wing environment—not, of course, taking any active role but very much mopping up its atmosphere subjectively—as well as learning about its developments and achievements in the progressive grade schools I attended—and even in my more traditional college.

As an art historian, this show seemed of additional interest to me because I’d dealt with “socialist realism” in the 1940s as part of my dissertation, been given to understand that this left-wing movement in art really peaked in the 1930s, and was eager to see what the movement had looked like at its peak.

WHAT WAS “THE RED DECADE” REALLY LIKE?

On the furthest left, as I’d learned over the years, were the anarchists and the Marxists. The anarchists believed that all government was bad--as opposed to the Marxists, who believed that some government would be necessary after they triumphed over the capitalists, but that this government would eventually wither away.

Not all Marxists were Communists, though, not at least in the sense of belonging to the Communist Party of the United States of America, which owed its allegiance to Josef Stalin and toed his party line. There were also the Trotskyists, who favored Leon Trotsky instead of Stalin, and beyond them both were the Socialists.

Many of my readers may have heard about Trotsky because his esthetic position was close to that of Partisan Review, and because Clement Greenberg considered himself a Trotskyist in his youth. I suspect, though, that they’ve heard little or nothing about the other activities of Trotskyist Marxists in the U.S. in the 1930s, but, like the Marxists of the CPUSA, they were instrumental in organizing workers into labor unions, and led them into strikes to win recognition and higher wages.

I would imagine these readers have heard even less about the American brand of socialism. Like the Marxists, socialists mostly believed that the market economy should be abolished, and the means of production should be owned by the state instead of private individuals. Such state ownership, both Marxists and socialists believed, was the only way that the profits of industry could be shared equally among all the workers.

However, the socialists believed that these reforms should be achieved by electing politicians who favored them, while the Marxists believed that this goal was so worthy that it justified any means of gaining power (this debate of "ends versus means" was to take on a whole new life among young Americans in the radical 1960s).

In the early years of the 20th century, the socialist party in America had been led by Eugene V. Debs, was genuinely a working-class party, and elected many local officials. By the later 1920s, leadership of the party had been ceded to Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister, and it had become much more of an upper-class, intellectual affair. Still, Thomas ran for President on a Socialist Party ticket six times, starting in 1928.

Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party of the 1930s – in economic terms, anyway -- were far to the left of any Democratic party or candidate before or since. Marx’s fundamental ambition, according to a well-known slogan that he popularized (but was actually invented by a French socialist, Louis Blanc) was: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

During the Great Depression, unemployment affected between roughly a quarter or a third of the U.S. work force (depending on how the work force was defined--with or without the agricultural workers, with or without those in the military, and so on). At any rate, these rates were more than two and three times as high as the highest unemployment rate reached in the U.S. since World War II. In other words, things were really, really bad.

Goaded on by the desperate need of these millions of unemployed in the grip of the Depression, Congress and the President between them enacted a great deal of legislation which furthered Louis Blanc's and Marx's noble ambition – not realizing it in its entirety, of course, but moving it in a beneficial direction (in my opinion, anyway, though the Tea Party and Libertarians masquerading as Republicans would like to see most or even all of it undone).

Roosevelt has gotten lots of attention for his leadership of the New Deal, but a Congress dominated by Democrats deserves much credit, too. Some of the literature surrounding the Grey Gallery show, apparently in an attempt to make the show appear more “timely,” implies that Congress in the 1930s was as “dysfunctional” as our current and recent Congresses, but that was not the case—with one major exception, that being civil rights.

The Congresses of the 1930s were dominated by Democrats, but some of them represented states in the South and even parts of the Middle West where Jim Crow was still the law of the land--segregated schools, segregated lunch counters, segregated buses, segregated hotels, even segregated drinking fountains.

Poll taxes and other legislative dodges kept African-Americans in those states from voting, so Jim Crow stayed in place, and the senators representing those states in Washington were all white. Most were as racist as their white constituencies. They could and would filibuster to death any civil rights legislation proposed by more liberal Democrats from the North and West.

(It was not until decades later, when some of the more liberal Republicans could be persuaded to join with the northern and western Democrats in voting closure to the filibusters that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the
Voting Rights Act of 1965 could become law.)

Some of the literature surrounding the Grey Gallery show, in a further attempt to make it seem more timely, imply that race relations in the 21st century--as indicated by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown & Eric Garner, -- represent no advance over the way things were in the 1930s. This is the kind of comment that leads me to think, how soon they forget.

(I’m not saying that these three deaths weren't outrageous, or that their perpetrators shouldn't have been punished. Nor I am saying that much more couldn’t and shouldn’t be done to eradicate the blight of racial prejudice. I’m just saying that however bad things are now, they were much worse in the 1930s.

(I myself am reminded of Crane Brinton (1898-1968), a historian whom I learned about in college, and who propounded the notion of "the revolution of rising expectations." After analyzing the revolutions in America, France and Russia, he concluded that revolutions as a whole were more likely to take place when things were getting better, rather than when they were getting worse. And, with an African-American in the White House, racial relations today have reached a stage unimaginable in the 1930s.)

On the economic front, the Congresses of the 1930s were so activist that the conservative Supreme Court threw out much of their legislation. But what stayed in place (after Roosevelt threatened to expand membership of the court by adding more liberal justices) changed the face of government – and the country as a whole ---dramatically.

Among the measures enacted – and, for the most part, still with us – were programs and agencies like Social Security, unemployment insurance, the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the rural electrification program, the TVA, the WPA, and the SEC. These were all radical in their day and maybe more radical in retrospect (given the current regressive political trend).

Even Roosevelt wasn’t enthusiastic about the National Labor Relations Act, as it gave so many new rights to labor unions. He signed it into law largely through the influence of Senator Robert F. Wagner, his fellow New Yorker. Wagner had drafted & sponsored the bill, so it’s commonly known as “the Wagner Act.”

Such measures helped to narrow the gap between rich and poor--though possibly the most potent equalizer of incomes was the extreme graduations in personal income taxes. These tax rates (with a top bracket of 94 percent) had been enacted by a Democratically-controlled Congress elected in 1930, before Roosevelt became President but after the stock market crashed.

However, they didn’t begin to seriously equalize incomes until the incomes themselves began to escalate during World War II.

A central belief among all leftists – from the Communists to the Congress -- was the importance of the working class, and organized labor was big news in the 1930s. Taking full advantage of the new rights given to it by the Wagner Act, the unions made great gains in membership – from 7.4 percent of the labor force in 1930 to 15.9 percent in 1940 (though in terms of decades, it didn’t peak until 1970, at 27.8 percent).

In addition to the Wagner Act, union membership grew particularly because of the advent of “industrial unions” (which organized all the workers within a single company or industry) as opposed to the older “craft unions” (which organized only those workers with a common skill).

There were many strikes, and much resistance on the part of employers (or “the bosses,” to use a word in much greater currency then than now). But there was little talk of union corruption and little or no foreign competition for the major industries, so the public was more likely than they are today to sympathize with these movements -- often led by dynamic leaders, like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Philip Murray of the United Steelworkers, and John L. Lewis, of the United Mine Workers.

Many of the people active in organizing unions were Marxists (Communists or Trotskyists), but far from all of them were, and few of those who became nationally known.

Reuther’s prime political association in the 1930s was with the Socialist Party, though he may have paid dues to the Communist Party for a couple of years during this period (like thousands of other left-wing Americans who joined the Communist Party briefly and then dropped out – it was so authoritarian that it had serious problems in retaining members).

Murray was a supporter of Roosevelt, while Lewis was so far to the right that he endorsed Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for President, in 1940.

Working-class heroes & heroines populated books like “U.S.A” by John Dos Passos and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. They starred in movies, from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “Our Daily Bread.”

LEFTISM IN ART IN THE 1930s

Needless to say, such left-wing sentiment found its expression in the visual arts as well. What was known as the “Fourteenth Street School” portrayed working-class types in apolitical situations, as did corn-fed Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton, but far more activist were those artists belonging to the school of art known as “Social Realism.”

The three big “social realists” were Ben Shahn (1898-1969), William Gropper (1897-1977) and Philip Evergood (1901-1973)—though there were many other social realist painters, too.

Shahn had gained fame with his suite of 23 gouaches, “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,” exhibited in 1932, and concerning two Italian-born immigrants charged with anarchist activities whose trial and execution in Massachusetts had aroused world-wide anger.

Gropper was best known for his pungent satires on the government in Washington; his colorful oil on canvas, “The Senate” (1935) is owned by MoMA.

Evergood grew more fanciful as he grew older, but in the 1930s, he could devote himself more seriously to colorful scenes of labor strife, as in “American Tragedy” (1937) or studies of working-class types, as in “Street Corner” (1936).

I hadn’t been exposed to any of these artists in depth until the 1980s, when I started working on my dissertation on painting in New York in the 1940s, but, when I did start, I realized that I knew where they were coming from -- because I was what we used to call in the 1960s a “red-diaper baby.”

SOME PERSONAL BACKGROUND

My mother never joined political parties, but she was always very sympathetic to the Soviet Union. So were some of her friends. I met a number of them when I was an adolescent, as she used to include me in her dinner parties.

I was a disgustingly intelligent child who soaked up information like a sponge, and I got along better with my elders than I did with my contemporaries – both at home and at school.

For these reasons, if no others, my impressions of the historical events of the 1930s – even though I wasn’t old enough to comprehend them when they were happening – are probably more vivid than those of my contemporaries – and almost certainly more vivid than most of my juniors.

When I was 15 and about to enter 11th grade, a couple of actors from Hollywood, Karen Morley & Lloyd Gough, arrived in New York on the lam from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. My mother put them up in the apartment next to ours (it belonged to her boyfriend, who was traveling at the time).

Though I didn’t know it at the time, Lloyd had already testified before the Committee, and taken the Fifth Amendment about his membership in the Party. Karen hadn’t wanted to testify, but eventually did – and took the Fifth, too.

While they were in residence next door to us, The Daily Worker took up residence on our coffee table, and there were a number of pleasant evenings when the two of them came over to our apartment for dinner, and stayed on to sing union songs, folk songs and “message” songs.

I read the Daily Worker, a tabloid ostensibly directed at “the masses.” From it, I got the party line—finding no difference between the opinions it expressed and those of Karen & Lloyd. As people, I liked them. They were both cute and funny & I respected them for their support of the working classes, women and minorities.

I also admired them for their willingness to sacrifice their careers for their beliefs. However, I eventually decided they were fanatical about those beliefs, and, as I didn’t want fanatics running my government, I also decided I didn’t want to become a Communist myself.

Karen had starred in “Our Daily Bread,” so this personal experience of her was all part of a broader picture of the 1930s that has been fortified by what I’ve since read about the period and heard about from elders outside my personal family circle—not least, at the three progressive schools to which I was sent from fourth through twelfth grade.

At the first (North Country School), my favorite teacher had narrowly missed joining the Party when he was an undergraduate at City College (his wife later told me). We weren’t taught to be little Communists, but in 8th grade Social Studies class, he did draw on the blackboard a diagram of the semi-circular arrangement of the meeting places of both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives, and explained that the Democrats, who sat on the left in these places were more likely to favor the workers and the Republicans, who sat on the right, were more likely to favor their employers.

At the second progressive school I went to (Putney), the teachers formed a union when I was in 10th grade and went out on strike. The headmistress of the school – although said to be very “progressive” – hired a lawyer from United States Steel to represent her (Big Steel being one of the most reactionary employers in the country). Between them, they got most of the members of the union so demoralized that a lot of them left the school, and the power of the union was broken.

I was so upset by all of this that I started flunking out, so my mother took me out of that school, and sent me to my third progressive school (Dalton). Here in 11th grade I did a big research project on the history of US unions (in retrospect, I think that I must have chosen this topic to get to the bottom of the mess at Putney).

Then in 12th grade year I did another big research project on how the USSR had dealt with the atom bomb in the UN (to find out, I say again in retrospect, whether that country was as “peace-loving” as Karen and Lloyd had said it was).

Turned out that the USSR had been gung-ho to ban the bomb as long as they didn’t have one—then suddenly shut up about the whole issue as soon as they became a nuclear power themselves.

My introduction to anarchism took place in college, where I used a course in the English and Continental forms of government to do a term paper on Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th century Russian anarchist, and what Lenin might have learned from him instead of from Marx. (In retrospect, I’d call this another attempt to get my experiences of Karen and Lloyd into perspective. I was happy when the college literary magazine published it.)

Moreover, when in the 1990s I started work on my book, “A Memoir of Creativity,” I revisited these (and related) experiences from my childhood & adolescence, among other ways, by re-reading The Daily Worker on microfilm. What I wrote about it all, though, in the book’s earlier drafts got drastically streamlined in later ones.

The point I have been rather long-windedly trying to make is that when I went to see “The Left Front,” I was approaching it, I like to think, with a greater degree of familiarity with the topic suggested by its title than maybe Messrs. Schjeldahl and Cotter have.

True, all of these experiences from my youth mostly lodge at the back of my everyday mind -- and, to a considerable degree, have been balanced off in my mature judgment by an introductory college course in economics (taught by a professor who became chairman of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors) and four years of covering business news and economics from the Republican perspective of Time magazine.

Still, there is something to be said for knowing something about the historical setting of what you’re viewing – particularly when the exhibition on view purports to be telling the viewer something about history as well as about art.

As far as the art was concerned, I may also have known a bit more about “social realism” than my fellow critics (though this is only speculation). As I indicated earlier, I had dealt with the subject in my dissertation. And I had been rather disappointed by the response of Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington, when he was kind enough to read what I’d written about “social realism” in that dissertation (most of the dissertation was written in Washington DC, where I had a fellowship from the Smithsonian).

Lerner had worked at the ACA gallery in New York before he became Joseph Hirshhorn’s private curator (and before the Hirshhorn collection moved to its present home in Washington). The ACA gallery had exhibited a number of the social realists, so Lerner was familiar with the whole school.

He insisted that they no longer deserved the name of “social realists” in the 1940s, that they’d lost the edge that they had in the 1930s, so—after Cotter & Schjeldahl had praised “The Left Front” -- I was looking forward to seeing it. I figured that I’d be able to see some colorful peak-form works by artists whose later careers I’d written about in my dissertation, plus a wide range of other fine artworks.

Boy, what a letdown!

THE ARTISTIC PROBLEM:
FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUS


To be fair, I don’t think my disappointment was altogether due to the curators, John Murphy & Jill Bugajski, two recent PhD's in art history who originally put together this show for the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art of Northwestern University in Illinois

Nor do I wish to hold responsible those good people who expanded the Grey Art Gallery’s presentation of this show with documentary material from NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

The problem remains that this show seems to have been put together on a very tight budget. Although there are 135 items on its checklist, only three of them are oils on canvas, only five of them are watercolors, and maybe another eight or nine are other colored works (color lithograph, color silkscreen, poster, color film, etc.).

A number of the books & magazines in the vitrines also have colored covers or jackets, but for the most part what one sees upon entering is a sea of black-and-white—and often rather shrill black-and-white, at that.

Predominantly these black-and-white images are prints of various kinds, including posters, though a few drawings are mixed in. But color is at a minimum – so rare that the few colored works stand out like boils on a bare white back.,

To be sure, the organizers make a case for this, maintaining that because these artists were so eager to reach the masses, they used mass media techniques. But if so, why include any “elite” art at all?

Why not dispense altogether with the few oils and the few watercolors and admit straightforwardly that this is a show of works on paper, rather than get up everybody’s hopes by pretending that it offers a more complete range of art?

There is no Ben Shahn in this show (though his wife, a distinctly lesser artist, is included), no Philip Evergood, and only a small, glum lithograph from William Gropper, “Uprooted” (c. 1935).

Another strong candidate for inclusion who wasn’t on view either was Jack Levine (1915-2010), who entered the canon of MoMA in 1937 with the loan of “The Feast of Pure Reason,” a killing satire on Boston politicos.

True, there is also work by a number of artists who are (or were) equally well-known--- but not for social activism.

The 14th Street School is well represented, with 1) a pleasing – but not brilliant – etching of women shoppers by Isabel Bishop, “On the Street (Fourteenth Street)” (1931); 2) a small watercolor of street fronts by Reginald Marsh, “Chicago” (1930), which though static is cute & quite poetic; and 3) a very appealing lithograph by Raphael Soyer, showing poverty-stricken men drinking coffee at “The Mission” (c. 1935).

John Sloan, father of the Ash Can School from the early years of the century, is represented by a simply terrible etching called “Crouched Nude and Press” (1931). In his old age, Sloan became obsessed with painting these nudes.

Although in the 1940s, he was revered as a senior figure in the American art world, nobody then anyway could work up any enthusiasm for the nudes (Time likened the cross-hatching on some of them to “partially-grated carrots”).

The two contributions by Stuart Davis – vaguely abstract -- are also mediocre, and, although the two Precisionist lithographs by Louis Lozowick are okay, I’ve seen other works by this skilled printmaker and painter that I liked better.

A little lithograph portraying a “Miner and Wife” (1937) is by Riva Helfond. It’s sweetly moving, but the same time difficult to contemplate without thinking of “American Gothic” (1930), the iconic portrait of a farmer and his wife by Grant Wood.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, has a muscular lithograph titled “Workman” (1936), and showing a noble worker.

It is far, far better than “Terror” (1935), a nearby etching and aquatint by Harry Sternberg with twisted, clichéd figures, and an even sillier lithograph by Mabel Dwight.

Entitled “Danse Macabre” (c. 1934), the Dwight incorporates the same kind of rubbery, cartoony figures that made Thomas Hart Benton’s war paintings so ridiculous.

Another eyesore is “Company Violence” (1934), an oil painting by Morris Topchevsky (1899-1947), one of the sizable Chicago contingent in this show. It portrays company goons in gas masks gassing striking workers, and, while the subject is genuinely horrifying, the execution is smeary. Too much emotion going into a painting can ruin it as effectively as too little.

My candidate for the silliest works in this show, though, are four Art Deco fantasy lithographs by Rockwell Kent that originally ran in Life. This well-known organ of capitalism commissioned Kent in 1937 to illustrate an article on scientific theories about how the world could end.

His campy sci-fi illustrations have nothing whatsoever to do with workers, politics or society, but the organizers of this show were so eager to include them that they’ve dreamed up a whole feeble category for them with a wall text headed “Social Mysticism.” Besides the four Kent cuties, it includes a handful of heavy-handed symbolic efforts.

I’m afraid that’s too often the trouble with group shows that are assembled on the basis of subject matter, as opposed to style. From a stylistic point of view, there may be some works deserving our attention, but too often there are too many that are not.

I’m not saying this show is a total loss. Although most of those 135 entries on the checklist didn’t do much for me, I liked a few others, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned.

Included in that (short) list were four more works from the Chicago contingent, including one other oil by Morris Topchevsky, “Unemployed” (n.d.). It shows two down-and-out men, squatting on a pavement and unexpectedly sympathetic.

Another goodie is “The Yes Machine” (ca. 1934), a sparkling satirical lithograph by Carl Hoeckner (1883-1972). It presents bloated toadies surrounding a bloated capitalist, and stylistically anticipates another, later Chicago artist, Ivan Albright.

Todros Geller (1889-1949) is seen to good advantage here in an untitled watercolor from ca. 1930, depicting a factory in clear, sensible colors and no visible “message.”

The fourth Chicago artist who piqued my interest was Henry Simon (1901-1995) with “Untitled (Industrial Frankenstein II)” (1932), an entertaining graphite on board of a Klee-like toy figure, strangely anticipating the Tin Woodsman in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Finally, I was impressed by “Unemployed” (1930), the stark black-and-white aquatint of a single standing male, seen in profile, by Alexander Stavenitz (1901-1960), a Russian-born and apparently New York-based painter and graphic artist.

A SECOND COMPLAINT: THE HISTORICAL

Even in terms of the “history” that it claims to present, this show promises a lot more than it delivers.

By its title -- “The Left Front” – one is led to believe that the full range of left-wing sentiment and artistic activities during the 30s would be presented – and it ain’t.

Instead, it’s only about the Communist Party slice of the art world, as expressed through the John Reed clubs and their successor, the American Artists Congress.

It creates the impression that the CPUSA was the ONLY vehicle of left-wing sentiment and activity in the 1930s. That’s like missing almost all of what was really going on. Quite aside from the anarchists, Trotskyists and socialists, Franklin Roosevelt carried 46 out of 48 states when he was re-elected on the Democratic Party ticket in 1936.

Social Security, unemployment compensation and the Wagner Act had already been voted into law, so 62 percent of the electorate voted for him, nearly 28 million people. That’s like 28 times the maximum membership the CPUSA ever had. But you’d never get a clue of that from this show.

And (while I seem to remember token references to short-lived federal subsidies to artists during the 1930s) there’s no mention of all that trail-blazing legislation of the New Deal which has survived to the present day (and has cushioned the effects of all postwar downturns in the economy), no mention of FDR, and no mention of the growth in union membership.

Not even a mention of Senator Wagner, beyond those labels identifying some material in the show as coming from NYU's labor archives named in his honor.

Instead, it’s an unrelieved picture of depression AND oppression—the CPUSA party line, all over again.

You don’t get a clue of the way that so many people, even ordinary workers, really believed – or at least hoped -- that things were getting better.

You don't get a clue that one of the big things that was making for these positive sentiments was the feeling that Congress & president were actively working toward that goal.

I don't know what the cartoons depicting Roosevelt in the Daily Worker during the 1930s looked like, but it might have been interesting to see them in this show.

Judging from the way that Truman was being dealt with by the Worker in the early 50s, they might have furnished an illuminating contrast with the fact that many working class families posted idealized photographs of Roosevelt in their homes, just as more religious families posted pictures of Jesus.

There are photographs showing people clustered around their radios to hear FDR's "Fireside Chats." Sure, I know this all sounds incredibly corny and sentimental, but it's part of the flavor of left-wing America in the 1930s that this show just doesn't get.

We may say in retrospect that the adulation & hope so blatantly ignored in "The Left Front" was appallingly naïve, and that the only thing which really yanked the U.S. out of the Great Depression was World War II, with its tragic necessities for full employment (in the factories & at the battlefronts).

Still, those feelings of the 30s were real – and I’m not saying this on the basis of my own experience. I was only a tiny tot in the 1930s, carefully protected from politics of all kinds, nor did my mother post pix of FDR or listen to Fireside Chats. But while researching “A Memoir of Creativity” in the libraries of Columbia, I did come across at least one book, written by somebody much my junior who (rather regretfully) came to these conclusions about hopefulness (wish I could remember his name).

Maybe this picture of unrelieved gloom in the U.S. during the 1930s is what they teach in universities nowadays. I first became aware of how T.J. Clark, a Neo-Marxist, was distorting history back in the 1970s.

And, for a long time, I thought this situation was specific to art history--that is, until I began to revise my first draft of "A Memoir of Creativity" around 2000 and bring it up to date.

At that point, I began consulting more general history books in the library up at Columbia, and discovered that it wasn't just art history, but history as a whole had been rewritten since the 1970s by a generation of younger historians who had been profoundly marked by the tumultuous events of the 1960s.

In my memoir, I called it "the shift in the mindsets," and specifically I was able to locate it in the way that FDR had been treated before and after this watershed--by comparing & contrasting two entries on him in two different encyclopedias.

The one written by a scholar who had attained his intellectual majority before 1960 portrayed FDR as I'd known him, and made clear why he had been so beloved.

The one written by a scholar who had still been in college in the 1960s (and at a school riven by antiwar protests) inserted some negative things about FDR, and omitted some positive ones.

The picture which emerged was far less flattering--and was based on debunking books which had all similarly been published during & since the 1960s, books for example accusing him of ignoring the plight of the Jews during World War II--and ignoring the fact that U.S. public opinion was more anti-Semitic than FDR had ever been.

I felt (and continue to feel) that such latter-day smear jobs had at least in part (and maybe entirely) gained traction because so many younger Americans (and especially in academia) had begun to see FDR through the filter of Lyndon Johnson.

They'd become very bitter about LBJ and the institution of the Presidency as a whole because of its continued pursuit of the war in Vietnam, and this bitterness conduced to the condemnation of FDR.

Here anyway is one explanation for the narrowness of this exhibition's definition of "the Left Front" in the 1930s, and its emphasis on Communism to the exclusion of all else.

But the misconceptions being promulgated here must be welcomed by the Tea Party and Libertarian Republicans, groups who want voters to forget that it was ever the Nearly All-American Way to enact legislation favoring the less fortunate members of society.

A PURELY POLITICAL DIGRESSION

I will say one thing, which is that – while the Communist Party of the United States of America never amounted to much in US politics in the 1930s – Communism in the Soviet Union posed a definite threat.

I don’t mean that anybody expected them to attack the US, but the example they appeared to be setting, with unemployment officially ended and the economy expanding, had a lot of conservatives and even moderates seriously scared that IT MIGHT HAPPEN HERE (though they rarely admitted it out loud)..

If you ask me, this is why they were willing to tolerate Roosevelt and the New Deal, and why all of this 1930s legislation that did so much to improve the lot of the working classes was allowed to go on the books.

Communism in the Soviet Union was like a big, heavy weight on the balance between the Left and the Right, pulling the entire scales in a leftward direction.

Although it may have been evil for the citizens of the Soviet Union, the idea that everybody should have a job, free medical care and access to a university education looked so good from the outside that it did a lot of good for citizens of those countries whose capitalists were worried about Communism spreading.

Now, what have we got? Just the opposite in Russia: the next thing to a fascist regime pulling the balance in precisely the opposite direction. We hear a lot about the new millionaires and billionaires in Russia, but a lot less about how the average citizen is doing.

The only two things I’ve heard is that Moscow is said to be very expensive for tourists, and that life expectancy is down – neither of which strike me as good advertisements for capitalism.

Moreover, however nastily the leaders of the Soviet Union pursued victory in the Cold War, they were maybe pussycats by comparison with the current management – and its supporters.

The last time I was in my doctor’s office, I picked up a copy of the December 10 issue of Time, my sometime alma mater. In it was a big article by the improbably-named Simon Shuster on Vladimir Putin, president of Russia.

It turns out that he was one of the candidates for Time’s “Person of the Year” last year, for his role in invading Ukraine and seizing the Crimea for Russia (the “person of the year” award never having been given upon the basis of how much the magazine liked that individual, solely upon the basis of how much he or she had done to make history the previous year—Adolf Hitler having been made Man of the Year in 1939, and Josef Stalin having achieved the title twice, in 1940 and 1943).

True, in Time’s intramural contest, Putin lost out to the Ebola fighter as Person of the Year, but as Shuster’s article makes clear, the invasion of Ukraine did wonders for his standings in Russian public opinion polls.

In October, his approval rating stood at 88 percent, and people were buying Putin T-shirts. Not since 2008, when he sent Russian tanks into neighboring Georgia, has he done anything like this well.

Apparently, a lot of Russians were deeply disturbed when, with the ending of the Cold War, all those other Soviet “Republics” decided they wanted to become independent countries, and their own republic sank in consequence to the level of a second-rate power.

Those Russians want to win their empire back. They want to be a world power again, and don’t forget, they are still a nuclear power. Scary, no?

What makes it worse it that an awful lot of people in the U.S. are aggressive, too. Russia has no hammerlock on aggression.

Don’t we currently have wars going on in at least three Middle Eastern countries? Don’t we have a public being trained to revere the military through those recruitment ads on TV portraying warfare as the ultimate team sport?

Don’t we have John McCain, who is a hawk and not a dove, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee – and (most disturbing to me of all) don’t we have military movies like “The Hurt Locker” winning an Oscar and “American Sniper” simultaneously breaking box office records and skyrocketing to the head of the best-seller lists?

Moreover, according to Shuster, “Russia now seeks to position itself as an alternative to the Western model of liberal democracy—and it’s had some success. Right-wing politicians in France and the U.K., not to mention Central and Eastern Europe, are not shy about declaring their admiration for Putin. The ultraconservative government of Hungary, a member of NATO and the European Union, has announced its intention to develop as an ‘illiberal state’ modeled on Russia, cracking down harshly on civil society.”

I find this news about Hungary more than ordinarily distressing, being half-Hungarian myself—and distantly related to a Hungarian movie director and his art-historian wife who grew to maturity in Budapest when Hungary was still Communist, and have emigrated since the Fall of the Wall.

They now live in Los Angeles, because -- as the wife explained it to me, “Before, nobody had a lot, but everybody had a little. Now, a few people have a lot—and a lot of people have nothing.” She also said to me that anti-Semitism (historically a serious problem in Hungary) was on the rise.

I’m not saying I’d want a Communist state in the U.S. But I do worry about this world-wide shift in a right-wing direction – even if this digression into politics may offend those of my readers who vote Republican—and who probably wonder why in the world I should have bothered to review “The Left Front” at all.

Be the first to comment