U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Communism Still the New Americanism?

this4thofjulyI mentioned in an earlier post that I am teaching a course on American cultural criticism and using Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front as a primary text.  After looking through other posts from the distant past of S-USIH, I noticed that Ben, Andrew, and Tim have all praised Denning for having redefined the discussion of the Popular Front and in the process given rise to countless seminar discussions and chapters in dissertations.  I am fully on that bandwagon, having just ended a succession of classes leading students through Denning’s more theoretical chapters.

So with Denning on my mind, I have been struck by the confluence recently of work that seems to make Denning’s conceptual rendering of political culture crashingly relevant.  The recent discussion of Denning in relation to Andrew Seal’s provocative post on Harold Ramis prompted Michael Kramer to wonder what we need to call our “cultural front.”  Corey Robin’s searing concern for the “adjunct intellectual” makes us consider whether we are witnessing the twilight of our generation’s cultural provocateurs who make us think critically about a system that is slowly devouring their ability to sustain a livelihood. And then there is Tom Sugrue, who I nearly idolize.  His published work—especially, The Origins of the Urban Crisis—and his talks about Detroit suggest a viable and even noble way to do socially relevant, methodologically sophisticated scholarship.  Now in the administration of the Social Science and Policy Forum at UPenn, Sugrue has opened a conduit for some of the most important scholarship being done on inequality in America, from promoting fellowships to study the topic, to recommending and sponsoring talks by some of the most significant scholars on it, such as Thomas Piketty and Khalil Muhammad.

All of this is enough to push a person to wonder if Communism is twenty-first century Americanism.  That was the question (h/t Earl Browder) I posed to my students recently, leaving them (unfortunately) a bit bewildered.  Their lack of Cold War anxiety about communism is refreshing; their lack of understanding that Denning wanted them to see both the irony and sincerity of that declaration is a bit disheartening.  So to challenge their ignorance and to give myself a chance to grade slightly better essays, I assigned them back issues of Jacobin to read while on spring break.  Yes, that’s right, I expect them to read over break, and with the hope, no less, that reading our moment’s version of the Popular Front will inspire them to reconsider the subversiveness of Woody Guthrie and Orson Welles (neither of whom inspires them) while recognizing the subversion hidden in culture they take for granted.

I admire the writers at Jacobin, n+1, and The New Inquiry, for the same reasons that I praise Tom Sugrue and the scholars he promotes–having been galvanized by yet another social and economic crisis, they offer a radical interpretation of what it means to be involved in a collective project called America.   Michael Denning captured the complexity of that project writing about the often maligned 1930s radicals of the Popular Front: “The figure of ‘America’ became a locus for ideological battles over the trajectory of US history, the meaning of race, ethnicity, and region in the United States, and the relation between ethnic nationalism, Americanism, and internationalism.  Indeed, the ubiquity of ‘America’ in the rhetoric of the period is less a sign of ‘deep reverence’ or ‘harmony’ than a sign of the crisis of Americanism, provoked by the crash of 1929 and the social conflicts of the depression, not least the violent suppression of the ‘Bonus Marchers,’ the World War I Veterans, in 1932.” (129)

Change the reference from 1929 to 2009 and from the suppression of World War I vets to teachers, students, and others who make up the much maligned Occupy Movement, and you get a pretty accurate summary our state of affairs.

To punctuate the assignment I gave to my students, I pointed to the recent groundbreaking work done by Picketty and his French colleagues and linked it to a bit of my own family’s history.  If you have not heard an abbreviated version of Picketty’s research, the upshot is this: American inequality hit its lowest level in those years just after the Great Depression and World War II (around 1945-1947).  That trend, of course, has reversed in our time, with inequality spiking to its greatest level since just before the crash of 1929.

As you probably know, different census years are available on-line, including the 1940 census, when my grandparents were young and had yet, at least on my dad’s side, to have married.  My dad’s father was 23 years old in 1940 and still lived with his parents in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.  He had a high school diploma—a distinction he shared only with his oldest brother John—and was working as an assistant manager at a diner in Manhattan.  He worked all 52 weeks of the year and had an annual income of $1404.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 4.07.48 PM

John, my grandfather’s oldest brother, went to university to become a dentist, and according to family lore was the recipient of a substantial part of his family’s financial investment.  His salary for the same period was $4000.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 4.09.47 PM

Their father, named Bartholomew, was, along with his wife, first generation immigrants from Poland, and he worked as a pipe fitter for Standard Oil making an annual salary of $1976.  He had a fourth grade education, according to the census. Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 4.11.01 PM

My grandmother, who was the same age as my grandfather, had the census record that she worked part-time as a waitress and made an annual income of $450.  She also worked in a factory in Brooklyn, and lived with her much older sister and her family.  She told me she use to take home the Daily Worker until her brother-in-law scolded her that communism was godless.  (This collision between the Popular Front and religion does seem a curious oversight in Denning’s book.)Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 4.15.23 PM

I pointed out to my students that the monetary difference between my relatives demonstrates the relative equality among Americans in a period that had responded to a severe crisis.  That trend remained stable through the 1970s, a period in which my parents grew to adulthood, had different education histories, and yet were making comparable annual salaries when they retired.

I emphasized to my students that the fact my grandfather made a little less than half of what his brother the dentist made was significant not because their monetary difference was so great—it wasn’t in terms relative to today—but because they could legitimately imagine (and in fact did believe) they were involved in a similar project called America.  Simply put, their lives were not defined by a grotesque separation in wealth.  My grandparents would probably not have embraced the label of communists, but as Americanists from the 1940s, they are closer to the communists today than to those who proclaim their fidelity to America and its forsaken sense of justice.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post. I am another Denning-ite, though my diss argues against The Cultural Front in a couple of ways. I really like the way you ask students to make connections between the 1930s and our current moment!

    • Thanks Kurt! Do we know how you critique Denning? Have you written about that here? If not, I would very much like to hear your arguments.

  2. This is ancient–but I probably still basically agree with myself! http://www.scribd.com/doc/37629/Reflections-on-Michael-Dennings-the-Cultural-Front-and-the-New-Popular-Front-History

    My specific intervention in my diss work is on the way that law organizes state regulation of the political economy of culture, through the doctrine of intellectual property and the figure of the “cultural worker.” So, I suppose it is more correct to say that I am trying to offer a different set of starting presuppositions which leads to a different set of central players and different periodization than those preferred by Denning.

    • Great! Let me mull this over (as others should as well) and respond a bit later.

  3. This is a fascinating, and intriguing post. I think one of the elements that makes all the new Left pubs so significant is that they recognize that we’re in a different time period, something that requires some new answers from the Left. The situation is analogous with the 1930s, except I think about the big difference: international affairs.

    In thinking about the Cultural Front and Popular Front, it’s always important to keep in mind that, in the 30s, the Fascist enemy never seemed far away. In fact I think it’s interesting that you wrote this post today considering Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself” won the Bancroft yesterday. His retelling of the 1930s through early 1950s as an age of fear–one punctuated in the USA by doubts about the future of democracy, coupled with fears in the South about racial egalitarianism winning the day down the road–speaks to the unique problems of that era.

    That’s not to say what you’ve written here is wrong; on the contrary I make similar comparisons between intellectuals in the 1930s and now. But I really think the lack of an overseas adversary for today’s “Popular Front”–and also the fact that most nations are, one way or another, trapped in the “aftermath” of the Great Recession–points to the unique challenges faced by the Left today. And, finally, there’s the question of how various Left movements around the world are addressing their own local problems, which are often the local symptoms of these global economic problems.

  4. Excellent points, Robert! And yes, I should be much more circumspect about my direct comparison between these eras–I caution my students about this as well!

    My interest in the comparison also has something to do with those ideas that seem to span periods, though certainly with changes and in new contexts. What interests me is the use of some form of language to describe “Americanism” as group of ideas (shifting, yes, but not beyond recognition) that would provide context for comparing the great swing in economic inequality beyond the numbers. Perhaps I should have addressed Denning’s use of Raymond Williams and his use of sensibilities to describe how disparate groups and, in my case, periods, can influence each other and speak to a common problem.

    • That “Americanism” concept is very, very fascinating, and I like that it’s the crux of your argument and of the class discussion.

      You could teach an entire American history survey course just using the arguments of who is and isn’t an American. In that same vein, what “Americanism” means would also be an interesting way to construct such a course. I think that, with today’s debates about “Real Americans” versus this version of Americanism, there’s plenty to play with.

      I can’t help but think of the anthology on WWII and race, “Fog of War”, which includes an essay by Jason Morgan Ward titled “A War for States Rights”, which presents a rather fascinating argument: Southern pols conducted their own “Double V” campaign to counter the African American version. For them, victory at home meant victory over big government, which they saw as the lesson of Fascism and Communism. Something that I started to think about with current and past debates on Americanism.

      And there’s this, of course!


      • Used that clip in class the other day…We took a while looking into the lyrics and comparing it with Strange Fruit (Holiday) and Tom Joad (Guthrie). Denning’s book is good for such sources!

  5. For what it’s worth, I’ve found that Marxist and Populist histories of the American Revolution have stimulated most student connections to their respective presents. Books like Linebaugh and Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra, but especially Terry Bouton’s Taming Democracy and Woody Holton’s Forced Founders.

  6. Ray: Thanks for the shout-out and the reflection on using Denning in class. Sadly, though a concern for class and labor made it into my book, beginning with NYC’s People’s Institute, Denning unfortunately did not. On a personal note, I should check out my own family’s appearances in the census records! – TL

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