This week, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This event is not without interest for intellectual historians of the United States.
Here, I set myself the task of reflecting upon one important dimension of Dylan’s contribution. A caveat: I will proceed without consulting any sources, and will rely on my own memories, faulty as they necessarily are.
My focus is on cultural politics, or aesthetic ideology. I would like to think about Bob Dylan as the final American artist to win the Nobel Prize who might plausibly be seen as connected to the politico-aesthetic formation called the Popular Front.
What was the Popular Front?
On one level, the Popular Front was simply a policy change, announced by the Comintern in 1934, which sought to redirect the energies of international Communism from a stance of uncompromising agitation––against capitalist states and all other political formations, including socialist and social democratic parties––and toward the promotion of proletarian culture (in the United States, primarily through organizations like the foreign language leagues and the John Reed Clubs, destined, ironically, to fall victim to the Popular Front’s “Americanizing” thrust).
How long did the Popular Front last?
Opinions on this vary. Its heyday, stateside, was certainly the period of the Second New Deal, which saw the rise of the CIO, the radicalization of political and economic thought, and the emergence of a broadly populist, plebeian, demotic, and secular culture industry.
The animating spirit of the Popular Front, as Daniel Geary has argued, was that of anti-fascism. It is important to identify why this spirit of anti-fascism mattered: after all, most political movements identify some enemy that threatens freedom and autonomy. What was specific about Popular Front-era anti-fascism was the manner in which it served to dissolve––if temporarily––certain calcified attitudes regarding the ethics of politically engaged artistic and intellectual work.
For as long as anyone can remember, artists and intellectuals have worried––and often with good reason––about the dangers of mixing expression and political agitation. This dilemma was particularly acute for scholars and cultural workers (such as journalists, scientific researchers, and schoolteachers) in professions the very recent professionalization of which had demanded prostration before the god of “objectivity.” What the new spirit of anti-fascism introduced, if temporarily, was a suspension of the rules: Hitlerism abroad (and Jim Crow at home) were serious enough threats to humanity that anything but diligent engagement constituted treason.
The threats posed by continuing global depression and the imminent replay of World War I (recently having been decisively proven to have been a propaganda-driven slaughter driven by the greed of great powers) ramified this sense of emergency. We can see continuities between this Popular Front spirit and that which presided over the aesthetic ideologies of the World War II period (even if the trauma of 1939, with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, the rapid and bizarre mutation of the “lines” to which Communists were expected to hew, and lingering bitterness over the outcome of the Spanish Civil War, meant that the turn of the decade represented a real rupture).
Whether and in what ways the Popular Front spirit survived the transition from World War II to Cold War remains a very live question. The Trotskyist intellectuals who came to dominate left-liberal thought and culture in the 1940s and 1950s had always hated the Popular Front; their newfound supremacy allowed them to disseminate piercing critiques of Red kitsch and Party-inspired groupthink. The new enemy was to become “totalitarianism.” By organizing against “totalitarianism,” left-liberals painted both fascism and Stalinism as annihilationist political theologies (their ethical evaluation, here, was correct; they overstated, however, the degree to which fascism and Stalinism were, in fact, structurally homologous; and they often ignored the very real annihilationist tendencies of the United States and the West). Ironically, this “anti-totalitarianism” came to function in very much the same manner as the organizing logic of the Popular Front: enabling forms of “commitment”––most infamously, collaboration with the American foreign policy and spy apparatus––that left-liberals ostensibly considered to constitute the greatest danger to intellectual and artistic independence and autonomy.
More broadly, the spirit of the Popular Front may be seen as the animating force in much of the popular culture of the United States through the 1960s and 1970s. The New Left, launched by young adults who had grown up in the milieu of the Communist Party and Yiddish-speaking New York, and guided by a founding statement drafted at a United Auto Workers retreat center in Port Huron, Michigan, sought in large part to recover a usable Popular Front past. Its orientation towards folk song, towards reclaiming a democratic American heritage, and towards a universalistic anti-racism––as well as its drive to take over key centers of American thought and culture, including the universities, the media, the labor unions, and the Democratic Party––were straight out of the Popular Front playbook.
(One might object to the narrative I have drafted here: what of the many Trotskyist survivals that powered important dimensions of New Leftism? I recall a professor of mine, active in the Berkeley New Left, laughing as he recalled that an interview for a socialist writing project in the early 1970s began with a question [posed with deadly seriousness]: “What do you think of the Popular Front?” [The correct answer, of course: “I hate it”]. Even in the breach, then, the New Left honored the Popular Front).
Somewhere, C.L.R. James observes that it was still impossible, in the late 1940s, to imagine a Hollywood film that asked its viewers to accept a capitalist businessman, conducting his business, as a hero. This is the reality to which George Lipsitz called attention in his exquisite study of the post-WWII moment, Rainbow at Midnight. And this has remained true, until comparatively recently. Something began to change, decisively, in the 1970s. The arrival of neoliberalism in the United States coincided with an epochal shift: away from the plebeian and towards “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” away from inner-city baseball parks to suburban arenas, away from proletarian country in the vein of Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn and towards John Denver and Urban Cowboy, away from the Fordist Hollywood studio system and towards tent-pole blockbusters, away from neighborhood movie theaters and towards cable television and the VCR.
We live, today, in a world separate from that of the Popular Front. If there is to be a new politico-aesthetic project articulating the program of the Left, it will likely not be a lineal descendant of the Popular Front. It will be something new. This, I think, explains why the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders had so powerful an impact on so many of us. Sanders is a lineal descendant of the Popular Front: raised in Popular Front Brooklyn, speaking in a cadence that is unmistakably that of the Yiddishist trade unionist, cut with a certain Debsian eloquence, and rooted in The Internationale’s ethic of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Thus, Trump’s adumbration of the Roy Cohn tactics he planned to unleash vis-à-vis Sanders: “he says he is a Socialist, I think he might be something more…” was not untrue. The point remains: whoever the next “Bernie Sanders” is, he or she will not be a child of the Popular Front landscape that gave rise to the literary genre memorably christened by Michael Denning as the “Ghetto Pastoral.”
As with Sanders, so with Bob Dylan. He is the last singer of the Popular Front period, a period in which people loved to sing. It would be relatively easy to complete this essay by situating Dylan as not only the quintessential late Popular Front artist, but also as the quintessential last or final Popular Front artist. After all, the story of Dylan’s apostasy bursts with allegorical potential: his decision to go electric in the mid-1960s, angering crowds at the Newport Folk Festival; the young folk music loyalist in Manchester, England in 1966 yelling: “Judas!” as his hero refuses to maintain fidelity to the agenda of earnest folksong protest and reportage; Dylan’s sly retort: “I don’t believe you… You’re a liar…” Benjamin Filene has expertly documented the ways in which Dylan’s turn to the electric guitar and pop song form represented a short-circuiting of an elaborate Popular Front-era apparatus organized around the value of authenticity.
What I want to argue, however, is that Dylan’s “apostasy” was not an exit from Popular Front aesthetics. On the contrary: it was entirely faithful to the values of the Popular Front. Exploring this paradoxical fidelity not only helps us to understand the scope of Dylan’s accomplishment, but also to reencounter the Popular Front itself, and perhaps to come to a deeper appreciation of its power and force.
My reading of the Popular Front is informed by French left theory, and, in particular, the writing of Alain Badiou. In response to the writing of certain popular French revisionist historians of the French Revolution, who prioritize “passion” (with negative connotations) as the connective tissue linking the evils of Jacobinism to the terrors of Stalinism, Badiou suggests that “passion” is a generic category of political life.
What matters, for political philosophy, is the particular inflection of “passions.” Turning to the twentieth century, Badiou argues that a certain passion––what he calls the Passion for the Real––serves as the common basis for virtually every aspect of politics and thought, across the ideological spectrum. The crucial point, however, is to distinguish between the communist and non-communist variants of the Passion for the Real. Fascism sought a return to origins, a Passion for that Real that could only be accomplished by restoring the true harmony that Jews, Communists, and decadent artists and intellectuals had polluted. The left-wing Passion for the Real, in contrast, believed that the Real was in fact a utopian destination to be achieved by collective efforts towards the universal emancipation of all. This was a project to be carried out, at once, on two levels: that of ideology, and that of practical politics. Each step towards the Real accomplished on one level was to inflect the parallel movement on the other.
Let’s return to the famous scene of Dylan being called “Judas” and his response: “I don’t believe you… You’re a liar…”
What is happening here is a moment of crisis, generated by a perceived breach of contract. The left-wing singer (in the Popular Front tradition) is expected to probe beneath the surface of reality, to uncover the truth of things. That truth might be communicated as an aesthetic value (thus, the rasp of a voice, attesting to a corporeal reality covered over by the bel canto tradition) or as the revelation of facts. Dylan, early in his career, honored this contract. Of his early songs, consider the guitar playing and vocal delivery on his stunning cover of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”
Or listen to the drive to know, the Passion for the Real, that drives “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” and “Who Killed Davie Moore?”
The Popular Front-era Passion for the Real, however, was not merely a cult of the documentary impulse, nor was it simply a hermeneutic of suspicion in regard to conventionalized narratives (it was, of course, both of these things).
It was, additionally, at least three other things: 1) a cult of “technique”; 2) a pragmatist epistemology; and 3) an ethic of ruthless self-scrutiny. Some readers may find these premises surprising. I am not reaching here, however—if you consult the journals and conferences in which the Popular Front aesthetic agenda was worked out, you will find abundant evidence of the centrality of these themes. Working through them in order: inspired by both the power of new technologies (cinema, radio, phonography) and by the rapid industrialization of Soviet agriculture and industry, left intellectuals in the 1930s became obsessed with “technique.”
The Passion for the Real became a passion for the correct “technique.” We scoff at this at our peril. If we believe, today, that climate change is real, we are, in fact, arguing, that environmental scientists have discovered the correct techniques for measuring the effects of human activity on the earth’s ecosystems. If we believe that an MRI is better than phrenology at helping doctors discover what is going on in our brains—well, that too is a certain conjugation of the Passion for the Real and the belief that getting at the truth involves finding the correct techniques. And if we believe that fighting the new fascist threats emanating from the Far Right in rich countries is an urgent task, we must decide whether documentary films, humorous cartoons, long-form symphonies, or youtube clips are the most efficient media with which to provoke change. This, too, is a question of technique.
Within the Popular Front paradigm, “technique” did have a special connection to the media of mass reproducibility—and, here, the preeminent thinker is likely Sergei Tretyakov, theorist of Operative Writing, upon whose work Walter Benjamin drew in the latter’s famous essay “The Author as Producer.” What Tretyakov and others took as their focus was the question of how the vast array of new aesthetic effects made possible by the electrification of industry and the revolutions in technologies of memory might be marshaled to the benefit of proletarian art. Where I am leading, here, is likely inelegantly obvious: Dylan’s turn to the rock form, his adoption of the electric guitar, and his experiments with studio multi-tracking (pursued most strikingly in the hermetic session later released as “The Basement Tapes”) was entirely consistent with the Popular Front Passion for the Real. How—following the British Invasion––could musical “realness” continue to be linked to acousticity and liveness? Towards what marginality were folkies careening with their renunciation of new techniques?
This brings us to the second point: the Popular Front Passion for the Real was a pragmatist epistemology. One of the surprises of reading memoirs by Popular Front writers (my favorite is Joseph Freeman’s An American Testament) is the constant discussion of the necessity for continuous revision. Truth itself was being reshaped by the Soviet experiment, quantity changing into quality, the earth rising on new foundations. Under such circumstances, what was true yesterday was not likely to be true today. And it was the ethical responsibility of true comrades to correct one another (if we don’t know this, we are likely to overestimate the viciousness of 1930s-era critique). The premise, here, was not: “there is no truth.” Nor was it: “truth flows from the barrel of the gun.” It was, rather: truth (or the Real) is the correctness toward which human intelligence bends; and truth is dialectically intertwined with technological progress.
I think we can see Dylan as a Popular Front figure with respect to this principle, too. “You’re a liar” does not imply: “I know the truth.” It does not merely deny the charge of heresy. It affirms that the condition of truth-seeking is collective experimentation. “I Don’t Believe You” says: the foundations are not to be trusted. The truth lurks in the future. If this scene’s final utterance (“play it fucking loud!”) was not retroactively imagined (the tape is unclear), this reading would gain strength.
And this leads us, finally, to the third leg of the Popular Front/Passion for the Real stool to which we wish to draw attention: the ethic of relentless self-scrutiny.
Every scholar of Bob Dylan agrees that Dylan is obsessed with masks and personae; that a certain narcissism propels Dylan’s reinventions of self, a narcissism that we would be mistaken to read as an ethical failing (this, I believe, is the point, of Todd Haynes’s 2007 Dylan film I’m Not There). Nothing is easier than to assimilate this tendency to some ancient impulse in American literature; any talented high school senior could write an essay situating Dylan alongside Walt Whitman’s cosmic strivers, Melville’s restless men or Fitzgerald’s pretenders or Don Draper. But I think it is possible to recognize a specifically left-wing, specifically Popular Front articulation of this theme: one that derives not from desperation nor from the escape of tragic origins, but rather from the process of a new communist maieutics, a positioning of oneself within a coherent sociological imagination, in order to live an ethical life as best as one can. This, I think, provides the spine to Dylan’s long and eccentric career: it is what makes it so difficult to sum up his contribution when an event such as the awarding to him of a Nobel Prize prompts us to undertake that exercise.
Badiou is clear that the twentieth century Passion for the Real is no longer with us. It has been replaced by something else. We don’t have any choice, I think, but to accept this diagnosis and move on with things. That will mean that figures like Bob Dylan will––very quickly––begin to strike us as sages from a previous time. Dylan anticipated this, and gave us permission to move on: an act of genuine generosity: “Strap yourself to a tree with roots: you ain’t going nowhere.”
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