A Review of Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War by Benjamin Balthaser
Františka Zezuláková Schormová
Department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, Charles University, Prague
The text is a review of Benjamin Balthaser’s Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War (University of Michigan Press, 2016).
Benjamin Balthaser – anti-imperialist modernism – transnationalism – Popular Front – 1930s
Benjamin Balthaser, (2016) Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
In his poetry collection entitled Dedication, Benjamin Balthaser writes about American Communists’ experience in the 1950s of burying incriminating books. The cultural artefacts of the Popular Front that he discusses in his book Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War did not literally have to be buried, but nevertheless they were suppressed and refashioned and their original message was forgotten in what Alan Filreis calls the ‘ruthless campaign to deradicalize modernism’. Filreis, one of the pioneers of the reconsideration of the period, suggests that this campaign still resonates in criticism. Balthaser’s book adds new perspectives to this thesis and enriches the field by exploring the international allegiances of the Popular Front, challenging the Cold War version of the movement.
There have been several reconsiderations of 1930s culture and its image since the end of the Cold War, most notably by Barbara Foley, Alan Wald, Alan Filreis, Cary Nelson, and others (Balthaser also frequently refers to the cultural historian Michael Denning and the literary scholar Laura Doyle). Balthaser broadens his critique by drawing attention to transnational allegiances of the time. Cuba, Haiti, the Soviet Union and Mexico do not only serve as destinations, they actively participate in creating anti-imperialist modernism.
The first chapter, ‘This Land Is My Land: Cuba and the Anti-Imperialist Critique of a National-Popular Culture in the United States’, deals with the journeys of Clifford Odets, Langston Hughes, Josephine Herbst and Ernest Hemingway to Cuba. Balthaser analyses different ways in which they represent the island in their writings, and how they, through Cuba, perceive the interconnections between empire, race and class. According to Balthaser, the cultural memory of the Popular Front is dominated by its nationalist wing: these text and stories provide a counter-narrative.
In the second chapter, ‘Travels of an American Indian into the Hinterlands of Soviet Russia: Native American Modernity and the Popular Front’, Balthaser introduces yet another aspect omitted from the usual narrative of the 1930s. Here, it is transnational socialism and the internationalist vision of Native American identity. He focuses on the journey of a Nez Percé anthropologist Archie Phinney to the Soviet Union, in order to underline the Native community’s involvement with the far left and its transnational allegiances. This journey is discussed in relation to Native American fiction, especially D’Arcy McNickle’s novel The Surrounded (1936). The literary modes of Native American self-determination and self-expression do not, in Balthaser’s view, clash with modernism: on the contrary, they become an expression of it.
Modernist aesthetics and its reorientation is the topic of the third chapter, ‘The Other Revolution: Haiti and the Aesthetics of Anti-Imperialist Modernism’. Two examples of this reorientation are Orson Welles’s screenplay for an adaptation of Heart of Darkness (1939) and C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938). Both use Haiti as the site from which to reconsider modernism. According to Balthaser, both Welles’s script and James’s book locate modernism not outside of, but rather at the very heart of the colonial project. Furthermore, the chapter links these works to the Hands-Off Haiti campaign, illuminating the complex relationship of anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, a topic that recurs throughout the book.
After Cuba, Haiti and the Soviet Union, Balthaser turns his attention to California. In the fourth chapter, ‘The Strike and the Terror: The Transnational Critique of the New Deal in the California Popular Front’, he introduces representations of New-Deal California that are vastly different from the representations familiar from John Steinbeck’s novels or Dorothea Lange’s Farm Security Administration photographs. These present, he argues, a patriarchal, conservative and racially bounded narrative. He provides a counter-narrative of the US working-class left by exploring contemporaneous labour journals. The journals (often written in Spanish) link violence against workers in the US to US imperial violence abroad. Here, Balthaser also focuses on visual representation, examining photographs of bodies of workers: the wounded, broken bodies of colour are juxtaposed with Lange’s white families.
In the next chapter, ‘An Inland Empire: Fascism, Farm Labor, and the Memory of 1848’, attention is drawn to the way in which Emma Tenayuca, Carey McWilliams and Carlos Bulosan used the memory of the contestation of Mexico to address the present crisis in their writing. Balthaser reads them together with Mexican-American and Filipino journals in order to demonstrate how the memory of 1848 served as a link between the discourse of anti-fascism and the critique of imperialism. By showing that the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist campaigns had a common vocabulary and agenda, he presents another counter-discourse to the memory of the Popular Front as legitimising imperialist nations in its anti-fascist efforts.
‘Cold War Re-Visions: Red Scare Nationalism and the Unmade Salt of the Earth’ is the title of the final chapter. Here, Balthaser provides background to one of the main claims that underlie the book: that our vision of the Popular Front and its place in cultural memory was significantly shaped by the Cold War. This is explored through his discussion of the 1954 motion picture Salt of the Earth, which depicts the Mine-Mill Local 890 strike. Balthaser compares the original script, which was the result of collaboration between the Old Hollywood Left and the Mine-Mill labour union, with the final motion picture. While the unpublished original script drew connections between the systematised violence against women, people of colour, and the workers in the US and US foreign policy, in the actual motion picture, the internationalist critique was suppressed. The tension between the original script and the motion picture reveals new perspectives on contemporaneous cultural production, its aims and limits: the internationalist vision of the labour and Civil Rights movement, inherited from the prewar years, was no longer held to be practicable.
The story of Salt of the Earth, the last gasp of Popular Front modernism, closes the narrative of the book. The Popular Front is traditionally associated with anti-avant-garde cultural production aimed at a wide audience: through his critical attention to Popular Front modernism, Balthaser joins Nelson, Filreis and others who explored the range of relations between radical engagement and modernist literature. Balthaser locates modernism in the Global South, in the former colonies, in bodies of colour, in popular stories. He does not attempt to construct an alternative canon of modernism. He argues that modernism was the first global art form, and that anti-imperialism runs in its blood. The changing social and cultural imagery challenged the notion of empire, national identity, race, class, and also gender.
In Anti-Imperialist Modernism, the Popular Front is seen as a movement with international allegiances and an international cultural conscience, a movement that was able to link the violent domestic politics of the US and its imperialism abroad in a new way, and in the process accommodate various forms, genres, and sites of resistance. However, Balthaser does not deny the deep ambiguities of the period of this alliance between radicals, socialists and liberal Democrats. His aim is not only to recuperate forgotten texts but also to ‘restore an entire web of connections’. By presenting authors, texts and cultural artefacts that draw from these connection, Balthaser challenges the simplistic narrative of a notionally cosmopolitan 1920s and nationalistic 1930s. In his attempts to stress the continuous history of the American left, Balthaser’s project ties in with that of the main chronicler of the US ‘Literary Left’, Alan M. Wald. Often, Balthaser challenges Wald’s understanding of the Popular Front. Wald has dealt with the subject repeatedly, exploring the forms of the Popular Front’s patriotism and also its cultural production. As he writes in one of his early essays, ‘radicalism’s traditional ties with the avant-garde were definitely broken during the Popular Front’. Wald explored the exclusions made in the name of the anti-fascist mission in the second book of his American Literary Left trilogy, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade: ‘The Popular Front strategy would leave unaffected the homegrown racists, fascists, and other reactionary forces, who would make no comparable sacrifice of their own.’ Despite his more critical attitude towards both the cultural production and the politics of the Popular Front, Wald has always attempted to challenge the homogenised version of the past. Balthaser’s project therefore does not appear as contradictory to, but rather a logical continuation of this process. Balthaser’s thesis also complements current reconsideration of the 1950s. The Cold War influenced not only the cultural production of its time, but also how New Deal culture was seen: the result was, as Filreis puts it, ‘the version of the “thirties” constructed in the “fifties”’. Cary Nelson shows how this version was universally accepted: academia, himself included, was ‘trapped within that ideology and that impoverished memory for more than thirty years. But we ceased to see it as an ideology and instead lived it as one, as a self-evident fact of nature.’ Political decisions determined by historical situations and framed as purely aesthetic became an integral part of later narratives concerning the 1930s. Here, Balthaser harmonises with Nelson, who claims that the depoliticised canon of modernism is the ‘discipline’s testimony before HUAC’.
Among other things, an international perspective was lost in this testimony. As Balthaser stresses in the last chapter, the Popular Front was gradually forced to defend its Americanness, and prewar allegiances were forgotten. The fighters for Civil Rights had to give up their international perspective in order to push through domestic changes: in this respect Balthaser’s text resonates with reconsiderations of the Civil Rights movement, as triggered by Mary L. Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights (2000).
In order to complicate a ‘sanitized, nationalist 1930s nostalgia’, Balthaser combines literary and discursive analysis with meticulous archival research. The scope of his materials is admirable: pamphlets, newspapers, novels, poetry, scripts, motion pictures, photographs. The scope further strengthens his view of modernism as a broad movement that did not limit itself only to apocalyptic poems and experimental prose. He applies various theoretical approaches without stating one dominant method or theory: in his analysis, he relies on Transnationalism, Foucauldian power analysis, postcolonial theory (most significantly, there is an unacknowledged debt to Edward Said’s 1993 book Culture and Imperialism), and others. Also, the bilingual scope of the chapters on California is noteworthy: in presenting Spanish-language materials, he implicitly detracts from the notion of anti-imperialist modernism as an exclusively anglophone project.
The range and scope of the materials is sometimes overwhelming. However, Balthaser organises them well, and his line of argument remains clear. One the other hand, the chapters often read like separate articles (two chapters, the second and the sixth, had been published previously). The book suffers somewhat from the lack of a Conclusion: the final chapter, which deals with Cold War revisionism, does not draw together the issues discussed throughout the text. Occasionally, one can spot errors, such as Franz Werfel’s unfortunate loss of a syllable when he is described as ‘Austrian-Jewish [author] Franz Werf’!
The book is dedicated to Balthaser’s grandfather, Hyman Mozenter, ‘who as a union organizer, victim of the Cold War blacklist, and unrepentant revolutionary set an example for the entire family and is the reason I write what I write.’ The ways past leftist engagement can contribute to the present are stressed in the book: Balthaser often links the prewar movements to more-recent events, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement or the opposition to the Iraq War (the Black Lives Matter movement is not mentioned, but its complicated relationship to the US leftist scene also ties in with Balthaser’s argument). He claims that the leftist movements of today could profit from the forgotten transnational perspectives of the 1930s: in his view, latent anticommunism from the 1950s onwards is the reason why social movements lost not only these perspectives, but also international solidarity. As he writes, ‘rather than looking at the Popular Front for seeds of its own failure, activists and intellectuals today can learn much from the multiple entry points this movement has left available to us.’ Or, as Wald puts it in his article ‘Marxism in Noir’,
The way we remember our past governs our own dreams for the future. […] Sooner or later, we look to the past for shared, or at least recognizable, political experiences that might be retrofitted and rebooted; tactics and strategies that have succeeded or failed; causes and explanations for economic and social trends that have persisted or morphed; and even role models, candidly reported, for how to live our chosen lives as Marxists. Marxism doesn’t embalm history; it seeks to join a living past to present changes.
Anti-Imperialist Modernism is an important contribution in the struggle to revive the legacy of the 1930s left. It recovers the cultural production of a whole generation and draws attention to the anti-imperialist modernist vision of these creators. In doing so, it forces us to reconsider modernism, to reconstruct forgotten transnational allegiances, and to see the Popular Front anew. Because of the range of sources it relies on, it is not only useful for historians and scholars of literature, but also brings new perspectives to studies of race and ethnicity, Indigenous Studies, Working Class Studies, Film and Media Studies, and others, and should be read by activists and the general public interested in social change.
Balthaser, Benjamin 2016, Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Filreis, Alan 2008, Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945–1960, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Nelson, Cary 2003, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, London: Routledge.
Wald, Alan M. 1992, The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Wald, Alan M. 2007, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Antifascist Crusade, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Wald, Alan M. 2016, ‘Marxism in Noir’, International Socialist Review, 101, available at: <https://isreview.org/issue/101/marxism-noir>, accessed 26 November 2017.
 Filreis 2008, p. 20.
 Balthaser 2016, p. 31.
 Wald 1992, p. 93.
 Wald 2007, p. 49.
 Filreis 2008, p. xi.
 Nelson 2003, p. 68.
 Balthaser 2016, p. 36.
 Balthaser 2016, p. 204.
 Balthaser 2016, p. vii.
 Balthaser 2016, p. 223.
 Wald 2016.