On the Proletarian Novel as Myth

PLThe daily propensity for revolution which screams from our subconscious pangs onto an effectively-placating social media feed got me thinking about a class I took at the beginning of the year that grappled with the genre of Proletarian Literature during the 1930s. To refresh myself, I took a look at some old issues of Partisan Review online and found one issue, “What is a Proletarian Novel?” of particular interest. In the opening essay, author and PR editor Edwin Seaver does not concern himself with detailing the immense difficulty that goes into understanding and classifying literature (he leaves that messy job for his critics), but rather jumps faithfully and somewhat refreshingly right to the point. Let’s get down to it, Seaver says. Let’s just call it what it is. Unfortunately, despite the charming confidence, his opening definition leads with the negative: “It is not necessarily a novel written by a worker, about workers or for workers.” While straightforward enough, this naming-by-not-naming technique sets the stage for the rest of the essay and effectively clues us in to a terminal problem that plagued the genre through—and contributed to—its decline, death, and rebirth as shitty factoid: intellectual allegiance to complexity and nuance (leading to the snubbing of reductionism) while insisting the proletarian genre is simply that, a genre (a form of classification and its implementation an act of reductionism) for the smarmy goal of planting itself within the public consciousness and gaining political sway the same way TolstoySteinbeck, or Paranormal Teen Romance did. Of course, this obviously did not work out so well.

But let’s follow Seaver’s point. If they’re not simply workers, how can we properly define the party? He has the good sense to offer his readers a wider definition in service to the narrower prospect at hand: “the property-less class, the exploited; we mean literally those who have nothing to lose but their chains.” A little poetical, but okay. He goes on:

It seems plain, however, that it is not the class origin of the novelist that matters but his present class alignment, not the period of history in which he sets his story, or the kind of characters he writes about, but his ideological approach to his story and characters, which approach is entirely conditioned by his acceptance of the Marxian interpretation of history. And not only his acceptance, but the use of this interpretation as a compelling factor in his work.

The proletarian novel’s main concern, Seaver seems to be arguing, is that Marxian interpretation of the plot and characters be not only possible but compelling, encouraged over other, lesser forms of interpretation. This is the difference, for example, between a Freudian reading of Oedipus (in which we identify with Oedipus and accept that we have parental baggage) and a Marxian reading of Oedipus (in which we identify with the nameless shepherd that saved Oedipus’s life as a baby and accept that we have incredible significance to the plot’s momentum despite our minimal screen time and that all the other major characters suffer from an unwillingness to become fully class-conscious and embrace the masses as equals and labor as the superior means of value)…I suppose we can safely keep Oedipus and his rich people drama in the narrative clutches of the bourgeois. Taking Seaver’s extrapolation to heart, however, we can understand that the “worker” is, then, not necessarily the same as the proletariat. And a story which involves members of different classes does not guarantee it is proletarian. We can at least assume, though, that the proletarian novelist is, well, a proletariat, right?

Edwin Burgum, a writer tasked with discussing Seaver’s piece, surprisingly disagrees. “The proletarian novel is usually not read by the proletarian,” Burgum writes, “and it is seldom written by a proletarian.” He goes on to assert that the novel is chiefly a “bourgeois contribution to literary forms,” and reflects on the fragmentary nature of the genre when written by proletarian party members, granting it to be “commendably true to experience” but criticizing its lack of a “selective ordering of experience under the control of a dominating social point of view.” You know, that thing that makes novels so novely.

In their most effective and evocative forms, Burgum argues, proletarian literature is “reportage, the diary, the sketch.” Less artifice, he concedes, but more truth. 

Communist VOA newspaper

While the proletarian-novelist-not-necessarily-being-proletarian concept might boggle our reductionist minds, the idea that their audience might extend beyond their own party readership should come as no surprise if we understand the proletarian novel to be primarily intended as propaganda. As Seaver himself concludes, the aim of the proletarian novelist is “not merely to understand the world and not merely to explain it, but to change it.” This goes hand in hand with the idea that pamphlets, reports, diaries, and sketches comprise quality proletarian literature written by proletariats. So why must there be this question of the novelDoes literary classification have any place in the realm of defining a political movement? Wallace Phelps and Philip Rahv, who take the critical side of the argument, work to break down the usefulness of art as a political weapon:

Literature is assumed to be capable of presenting as explicit a program of political action as, for example, newspaper articles or pamphlets. Some literary forms may approach this type of directness, but if this were to become a criterion of revolutionary literature, it would result in quantitative standards (in the sense that books would be judged by the number of readers who respond to them), and a consequent pressure upon literature to shed its specific artistic qualities. It is obvious that quantitative standards ultimately lead to pulp writing. Now the desire on the part of many Marxists to avoid pulp proletarian literature as well as to retain quantitative standards leads to a contradiction, vitiating any hope for consistent evaluations. If it is assumed that a poem should invariably have as direct an agitational effect on as wide a mass of readers as possible, the poet will tend to use his poetry as a vehicle for expressing a meaning nowise different from the logical meaning of straight political writing. What happens further is that the poet necessarily eschews large areas of experience that have but an indirect relation to the political ideas he is illustrating, and fails to develop a mode of individual perception.

Phelps and Rahv essentially point out the inherent “pulp” of literary works that so consciously intend on swaying their audience politically, creating work that, while under the label ‘propaganda’ might be considered appropriate, recognized as ‘art,’ lose out on that essential, mysterious and inward quality that creative expression requires (both of its creators and audience), thus becoming literally uninspired and evocatively falling flat. Art is moving to us because it transcends direct communication (flying over our heads or bubbling within our stomachs). This does not negate the need for direct communication, nor the need for political movement. However, political terms have an ephemeral character, and these necessarily transitory qualities should abolish them from art identification. Art is timeless. Attempting to place a piece of literary work behind a topical label suffocates its total power. Historical context is one thing, political allegiance is another altogether.

Seaver even gets this point, to an extent, when he describes the meaningful interchangeability of political terms like bourgeois literature and proletarian literature: “If we were to look back to the time of the French revolution we should find critics using consciously and belligerently the term Bourgeois Literature, in contradistinction to the expiring feudalistic literature, just as now we use the term Proletarian Literature in contradistinction to the literature of the dying bourgeoisie.” He refers to these labels as “beginning and end terms,” which is right on the money, but, caught up in the enticing pursuit of achieving literary status for his party’s work, Seaver fails to take the obvious next step: could not Proletarian Literature one day become the next oppositional label, just as Bourgeois once opposed feudalism and then became its counterpart? Thankfully, this was not the fate of the proletarian movement. But the logical responsibility stands, and Seaver sidesteps this problem with a swift change in analogy, comparing American Proletarian Literature with Soviet Proletarian Literature, discussing the two movements as if on a similar timeline of progress, with America pre-revolution, the U.S.S.R. post-revolution, and the ultimate status of proletarian literature to simply integrate itself into the foundation of one’s becoming utopia:

Concerning beginning and end terms, we should not expect Soviet novelists to be talking very much any more about proletarian literature. And this is true. They talk today about Soviet Literature, about literature of the socialist fatherhead, about the problems of socialist realism and the like. Proletarian literature is not something they are working toward; it is something which exists, and they do not have to talk about it precisely because they have it.

Ironically, the two movements did have, in a way, a similar fate.

“Art, like every other form of communicative activity, is a social instrument and hence an instrument in class struggle,” say Phelps and Rahv. I would disagree, not just with the conclusion, but with the very premise itself. Is art a communicative activity? If we look at art from the perspective of its audiences, it requires reflection, it requires personal, individual confrontation. It offers psychological exploration and begets freedom from oneself. There is a communion happening here, but that dialogue is very private and inward, and totally unsocial (even the surrealist’s exquisite corpse game, while designed to be a social activity, concludes its profundity primarily in some incommunicable way, in the heart, offering for each participant an examination of their group’s consciousness but still being diagnosed and processed in solitude). To call art a “social instrument” is not even to reduce its mobility, but to transform it into some topical, rhetorical device that, at its essence, it cannot inherit. It is this confusing of art and political directness that has muddled so many of our mediums together. Where has the political pamphlet gone off to? Where is the unconscious novelist? The comedian’s stage? Where, oh, god, where, is that damned, forsaken diary?

My intention has not been to mock the writings of the highly intelligent, remarkably passionate proletariat, whose work exists to me now like a ghost of some hotly contentious past still eerily relevant and yet irrevocably alienated from our language today. I simply wish to point out the problem of attempting to exercise political exclusivity over the artistic medium. Beyond its disrespect to creativity and the imagination, there is an intellectual cost of revolution we must be conscientious of. In looking at those allies both assenting and dissenting Seaver’s premise, I found countless contradictions among them, from the origins and use of genre and literature to the very definitions of proletarian and revolution themselves. In attempting to legitimize the party’s status among its cultural elite, the force of the movement staggers, a philosophical disarray breaks out, and every intellectual seems to get caught up in nitpickiness over terminology and interpretations of history which solely aim to defend against something impossibly abstract. The overall result is one of disjointed, hyper-intellectual condescension and self-cannibalism.

One critic snubs of his fellow writers: “…so many Marxian essays and reviews are given over to empirical observations, inverted estheticism, vulgar applications of political ideas to literature, and a host of obvious truths that are defended with great gusto.”

Another: “[Marxian critics] seem to treat this complex network of relationships as if it were a simple algebraic equation with a proper and easily mastered formula for its solution.”

“…a kind of revolutionary scholasticism that can only breed sterility.”

“…a self indulgence that is often merely a gratuitous exercise of their typewriters and their minds.”

In what might be considered a paralyzing self-consciousness over not being taken seriously by the rest of the world, these proletarian writers seem to sweep the work of their fellow members under the intellectual rug. The result is sometimes blatantly exhaustive:

They neglect, in these exercises, a simple if tautologous factor. That books make the categories. That books make literature and that to establish literary theories, and deal in literary criticism, one must understand books, understand the process whereby literary traditions develop, and make an effort to apprehend the relationship between literary developments and the social backgrounds and historical traditions out of which they develop.

If you are wondering whether or not this writer clarified all or any of the ambiguous phrases he used to criticize his obviously foolish, obviously nonexistent colleagues, I’ll reassure you: he did not. I will not shy away from pointing out the obvious tonal similarities voices like these share with that of the hyper-self-conscious, hyper-self-righteous criticism abundant on our own social media channels today. This similarity in itself provokes intrigue. Presuming a cause-and-effect relationship would grossly outstretch the point—after all, it is far more likely the proletariat and the blogger simply share a common, unexamined psychological condition than that the former somehow caused the latter’s nauseating habit.

We are in the midst of our own crisis. The power of art is a tempting rhetorical outlet for persuading our political opposites. We are furiously painting, furiously writing, furiously stylizing…but can artists truly harness their work in such objective, quantifiable ways as to cultivate an ideology, like the proletarian intended?

I say no. But there is an alternative: write more pamphlets.

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