U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Denning’s Cultural Front

Greetings. This is my first post. I am very excited about our newly formed project on U.S. intellectual history. One thing that I hope we can do on this blog is discuss some of the most important past works of U.S. intellectual history, such as Michael Denning’s massive tome, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1997). A discussion of this book might also allow us to think about how cultural history is now often the most common venue for serious intellectual history.

The Cultural Front certainly refutes any simplistic notion that the Popular Front was an intellectual disaster. Denning counters two influential Popular Front narratives: that of the New York intellectuals, such as Dwight MacDonald; and the later New Left narrative, which was best framed by cultural historian Warren Susman.

The New York intellectuals had an ideology of the “intellectual.” According to them, the intellectual must take a stand against middlebrow capitulations to the mass cultural industry, or the “cultural apparatus,” as termed by C. Wright Mills. Denning points out that the New York intellectuals who criticized the cultural front were in fact a vital part of the cultural front, and that the historical bloc of the Popular Front – referred to by Denning as “the age of the CIO” – made their intellectual prominence possible. C. Wright Mills himself, who Denning describes as being either the last of the Old Left, or the first of the New Left, understood the contradiction posed by the New York intellectual critique of the cultural front. Mills understood that the modern intellectual that the New York intellectuals were defending was gone, and had been replaced by “cultural workers,” who were part of the larger apparatus and part of a post-modern world. If the intellectual was ever independent from mass society, if ever there was a time before mass society, that time was gone.

The New Left criticism of the cultural front was different: Susman and some of the other New Left scholars, including Christopher Lasch, objected to what they described as a sentimental nationalism, embodied by the “Ballad of the Americans,” sung by Paul Robeson. The New Left critics built upon a caricaturization of the Popular Front culture, and never failed to mention that the “Ballad of the Americans” was also the theme song at the 1940 Republican National Convention. When I read Susman a few years ago, I was thoroughly convinced by his argument (especially in his chapter on the thirties in Culture as History). Being skeptical of any form of nationalism to begin with, I was sold on his analysis: a song that seemingly tried to transcend ethnicity and race could only be a part of a larger effort to appeal to an organic America composed of “the people” – the same ”people” who Ma Joad celebrated. And this seemed conservative because there has never been an American “people” worth celebrating. But Denning argues that what makes the Popular Front culture radical is not its celebration of “the people” but rather the way it “mediates on the absence of the people: on the martyrs, the losses, the betrayals, the disinherited” (136). The cultural front was imagined, in the words of Richard Wright, as “the glory and the horror.”

Denning continues his polite reversal of Susman: “his interpretation of the conservative, middle-class nature of the age of the CIO is fundamentally mistaken” (152). Denning sees cultural transformation operating in a dialectic fashion. Here he takes his cue from Fredric Jameson, who reminds us that “history progresses by failure rather by success” (118). Denning thus argues that despite the fact that social democracy in America was destroyed by the anticommunist crusade of the early cold war, the cultural front had already irrevocably altered American culture and society. He writes of the dialectical process by which American mass culture adopted the styles and accents of the plebeians from the ghettos – the second-generation ethnic workers who joined the CIO and the IWO. Yes, these styles were whitened in order to conform to a middle-class audience, but Denning argues that “this Americanization cuts both ways” (153). The styles of the cultural front, such as the ghetto pastoral, became the styles of America, as made evident by mainstream ghetto pastorals such as The Godfather.

The driving force of Denning’s argument is his desire to recuperate the Popular Front as a broadly conceived social movement – a movement that improved U.S. society, a movement unparalleled in U.S. history not only for what it achieved, but for its promise. The promise of the cultural front was represented by its political forms: a social-democratic electoral politics; a politics of anti-fascist and anti-imperialist solidarity; and a civil liberties campaign against lynching and labor repression. Since the anticommunist crusade, these political forms have been in retreat. Denning it seems wants to revive such leftist political forms in America. However, the Popular Front historical bloc – the age of the CIO – was destroyed. And if Denning is correct in assuming that the age of the CIO straddled the fence between modernism and postmodernism, between Fordism and flexible accumulation, then a return to a social democratic historical bloc must take a different form.