Conservationists of the Waste Lands

Here’s a talk from a few years ago that comprises another early approach to The Intellectuals Who Failed Better project.


The Great Purge and the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s are often cited as the decisive moments when Stalinism (and, depending on the political commitments of the commentator, Soviet Marxism itself) revealed its totalitarian essence. According to Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the purges and trials were typifying events analogous to the extermination and concentration camps of German National Socialism, her other chief example of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. For Arendt, both the Great Purge and the Holocaust were the mortifying results of the systematic eradication of social, legal, and political traditions wherever Stalinism and the Nazi movement came into power, such that the severe restrictions of freedom commonly associated since antiquity with despotic or tyrannical governments were replaced with something wholly new. This historical novelty, Arendt argues, derived from totalitarianism’s organizing principle of domination, which aimed at the destruction of freedom itself, at the total suppression of all human spontaneity and any sense of an abidingly pluralistic community. She goes on to note that, with this complete annihilation of freedom, the conditions of possibility for resistance or even consent were likewise obliterated: “Theoretically, the choice of opposition remains in totalitarian regimes too; but such freedom is almost invalidated if committing a voluntary act only assures a ‘punishment’ that everyone else may have to bear anyway.”[i]

While Arendt’s yoking together of Stalinism and German National Socialism as exemplary totalitarian cases has become somewhat unfashionable in recent years, even as committed a polemicist as Slavoj Žižek has to admit that what we have to do with here are two totalitarianisms, not one, meaning that Arendt’s “‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’—that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc.—is a priori false.”[ii] A choice has to be made: either German National Socialism was worse than Stalinism or it was in fact “the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat” (8). For Žižek the answer, of course, is obvious (Stalinism is the “better” totalitarianism), but his justifications for this judgment still have the power to startle. According to him, the Moscow Show Trials themselves are a reason to favor Stalinism over German National Socialism because in those trials he discerns a commendable continuity between Stalinism and “the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes” (8). On this basis, in his book, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (2001), Žižek cites T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935) as a means of elucidating the peculiar ethical substance of Stalinism, which he sees best expressed in the couplet, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”[iii] From this, Žižek is able to deduce the following paradoxical situation faced by any subject who lived under Stalinist totalitarianism: “I can be subjectively honest, but if I am not touched by the Grace (of insight into the necessity of Communism), all my ethical integrity will make me no more than an honest petty-bourgeois humanitarian opposed to the Communist Cause, and despite my subjective honesty, I will remain forever ‘objectively guilty’” (101). In other words, every Stalinist and Nazi subject was already guilty; however, according to Žižek, unlike the situation with German National Socialism, the choice left open to every subject under Stalin was that of actively participating in the confession of his or her guilt for the good of the Party. Precisely where Arendt sees the deaths-head of freedom, Žižek perversely glimpses an emancipatory Christian expression of faith in the extortion of sacrificial consent.

It goes without saying, however, that for intellectuals in the mid-to-late 1930s the differences between Stalinism and German National Socialism were not quite as sharply distinguishable as Žižek makes them out to be almost seventy years after the fact. At the very least, for the contemporaries of the Great Purge and the Moscow Show Trials, the decision to stand by Žižek’s “good” Stalinist totalitarianism was often arrived at through byways and detours that often were not reducible to mere self-sacrificial fidelity to a cause, just as the eventual lumping together of Stalinists with Nazis tended to be motivated by factors more complicated than those of liberalism’s cynical disenchantment. Often understood to be paradigmatic in this regard is the trajectory traced by the journal, the Partisan Review, as it evolved over time from a fellow-traveling publication in the mid 1930s to a dissident Communist forum that also influentially defended modernist and avant-garde art in the late 1930s and early 1940s, after which point it became more or less reconciled to a capitalist world order because U.S. hegemony increasingly appeared to be the lesser evil facing democracy in light of the totalitarian threats posed to it by real existing socialism. As Robert Booth Fowler later summed up the political reorientations among “the New York Intellectuals,” the figures connected with the Partisan Review became “believing skeptics” of Cold War-era U.S. imperialism.[iv] To be sure, the crude simplicity of this arc is complicated (but by no means belied) by the lives and careers of the writers, critics, and intellectuals associated with the early volumes of the Partisan Review. Thus, the road-to-Damascus-like conversions to conservatism and liberal anti-communism of Sydney Hook and Lionel Trilling, respectively, may stand out sharply against the more protracted and in some cases elusive adjustments in the political commitments of critics as diverse as Philip Rahv, Kenneth Burke, or Clement Greenberg, but even these differences still end up telling us the same old story, which is that of the rightward lurch of the heterodox Left from the late 1930s onward in this country.

What continues to make the Partisan Review especially instructive in this regard, however, is the manner in which it expressed its disaffection with the Communist Party following the inception of the Popular Front and the dissemination of the whole confessional apparatus surrounding the Moscow Show Trials, which included transcripts of the court proceedings against the just executed traitors serially published by the People’s Commissariat of Justice of the U.S.S.R.  Thus, within months of the August 1936 trial against the old Bolsheviks Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and others, you could purchase a copy of The Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre in any number of languages the world over. The same went for the other major show trials of the decade, indicating that the cover story here would have us believe that the Stalinist regime was not holding anything back from the world in its dealings with these supposed turncoats rooted out from among the ranks of the surviving Bolsheviks, whose deaths were being rapidly translated into  material for debate and discussion throughout the West as to the meaning of the Soviet Union itself. Moreover, though the tack taken by those magazines loosely affiliated with Leon Trotsky (like Max Shachtman’s New International) was often that of depicting the trials as so many frame-ups, even these expressions of dissent simply contributed to the sense that Stalinism could be accurately assessed in liberal public spheres once all sides of the story had been presented, something perhaps best indexed by the Dewey Commission’s publication in 1937 of The Case of Leon Trotsky, which sought to introduce some parity into all these anti-Trotskyite trials in the Soviet Union by allowing Trotsky himself to dispute categorically all the charges of conspiracy, murder, and economic sabotage then being levied against him.

Within two months of the first show trial, however, the Partisan Review was out of the publishing game altogether. Begun in 1934 as one of the many little magazines founded by John Reed Clubs around the country, the journal discontinued publication in October 1936 due to financial difficulties and run-ins with the Communist Party itself. After the John Reed Clubs had been officially disbanded at the American Artists’ Conference earlier that same year, the magazine’s editors (whittled down to just Philip Rahv, William Phillips, and Alan Calmer at that point) refused the Party’s offer to affiliate the Partisan Review with the League of American Writers, which effectively led to the breaking off of the magazine’s already loose Party ties and a rapprochement with the dissident, anti-Stalinist Left centered about Trotsky. When publication of the Partisan Review finally resumed in December 1937, Rahv, Phillips, and the other editors of the journal included a statement that insisted on their revolutionary credentials even as it disavowed any direct political affiliations from here on out: “Any magazine, we believe, that aspires to a place in the vanguard of literature today, will be revolutionary in tendency; but we are also convinced that any such magazine will be unequivocally independent. PARTISAN REVIEW is aware of its responsibility to the revolutionary movement in general, but we disclaim obligation to any of its organized political expressions.”[v] The allergic reaction evinced here with respect to all political organization (and not just Stalinist political organizations) is an explicit response to a traumatic encounter with the Great Purge and show trials, a point that the editors of the Partisan Review drive home later in their statement by linking their suspicion about political side-taking to the newly revealed totalitarian essence of Stalinism: “Our reappearance on an independent basis signifies our conviction that the totalitarian trend is inherent in [the Communist Party] and that it can no longer be combatted from within” (3). The “totalitarian trend” of Stalinism could not be “combatted” from within because as Rahv would note a few months later in his essay, “Trials of the Mind,” totalitarianism ruthlessly neutralized the very possibilities for opposition among its subjects: “But in the Soviet Union, for the first time in history, the individual has been deprived of every conceivable means of resistance. Authority is monolithic: property and politics are one.  Under such circumstances it becomes impossible to defy the organization, to set one’s will against it. One cannot escape it: not only does it absorb the whole of life but it also seeks to model the shapes of death.”[vi]

So far the rationale given by the Partisan Review and by Rahv in particular for its break with the Party anticipates and is consistent with the consummate account of totalitarianism given by Arendt more than a decade later: Stalinism comprises the total extirpation of subjective and political agency; consequently, there is no such thing as acceding to or resisting it, either in life or death, so long as one remains in its orbit; the only thing that keeps alive agency is a non-totalitarian world independent of that encompassed by totalitarian movements. Remarkably, however, what distinguishes the Partisan Review from Arendt’s later position is the degree to which the journal reliably poses this “totalitarian trend” in Stalinism as an artistic problem. According to Rahv’s “Trials of the Mind” essay, “the [Moscow Show] trials are also performances, plays, dramatic fictions. If literature reflects life, then their reality or unreality as literature ought to affect our judgment. It might be useful to examine them from the point of view of literary criticism. Are they tragedies or comedies?” (8). What the show trials required of dissident Leftists, Rahv argues, was not apostasy from one Communism and re-conversion to another; the answer, thus, was not the mere substitution of Trotsky for Stalin. Instead, what literary writers, critics, and intellectuals needed to bring to bear to the trauma of the trials and purges was a genre theory capable of making sense not only of the manner in which history was currently emplotting itself but also of the implications such emplotment had for the identities of Leftists as political actors and agents.

Remarkably, Rahv’s insistence on the need to identify the genre of the Moscow Show Trials is not as perverse or as peculiar as it might appear to be at first glance. If anything, most of the first responses among the American Left to the news of the trials involved an effort at some point to come to terms with their explicitly dramatic qualities. Following the publication of The Case of the Anti-Soviet “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites (1938), for instance, Shachtman’s New International pointedly criticized the artificiality of the Trial of the Twenty One by comparing much of the court transcript to a studiously rehearsed play, complete with promptly taken-up cues that nevertheless get missed by one or more of the “actors” from time to time.[vii] Conversely, in arguably the most notorious defense of the purges written by an American, Malcolm Cowley’s “The Record of a Trial” in an April 1937 issue of The New Republic overtly engaged these literary comparisons in order to discount them: “Judged as literature, ‘The Case of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Center’ is an extraordinary combination of true detective story and high Elizabethan tragedy with comic touches.  I could accept it as a fabricated performance only on the assumption that Marlowe and Webster had a hand in staging it.”[viii] More recently, Žižek himself has resumed genre discussions surrounding the show trials by insisting that “they harbor a genuine tragic dimension overlooked by standard liberal diatribes against ‘totalitarianism’” (101).

Surprisingly, Rahv’s genre assessments of the show trials anticipate those of Žižek, even as he twists them to different ends. Where Žižek sees the possibility for an authentic sacrificial gesture, Rahv sees only the lineaments of totalitarian suppression in the modern tragic experiences made possible by Stalinism. According to Rahv, following news of the trials and purges, “The historic process must be conceived on the plane of tragedy. To regard it as melodrama is to believe that it yields to accident, cunning, and heroics. On a provisional scale such yielding may occur; none the less within the final implacable summation the impurities are dissolved and the interventions repulsed. In acting, man takes liberties; but only in recognizing as he acts the tragic nature of the forces that involve him does he gain freedom. To endeavor to become the authors of the tragedy of history is utopian—all we can do is identify ourselves as its characters” (11). Not collective ameliorative change of the shared conditions of existence but the individualizing recognition of one’s own inconsequence was seemingly the only revolutionary act left Western fellow-travelers like Rahv, who felt able thereafter to harbor the illusion (at least for a time) that such a recognition itself was the only political freedom available for quite some time.

However, the matter should not be allowed to rest here because Rahv’s genre interpretation of the show trials resonates strongly with the defenses of modernist writing and art mounted by the Partisan Review from its inception. Especially suggestive in this regard are William Phillips’ many attempts to defend the poetry of T.S. Eliot against his critics on the Left. While conceding that Eliot’s politics and religious views certainly are reactionary, Philips contends in early essays on form and content relations and on the function of criticism itself that proletarian writers and poets have much to learn from Eliot’s poetic sensibility. The Waste Land (1922) ought to be considered as much a part of the emerging proletarian culture in the U.S. as Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited (1933) or Mike Gold’s “The Strange Funeral in Braddock” (1924). Following the journal’s break with the Communist Party, the interest in innovative modernist writing from the previous decade would persist even as the goal of cultivating a proletarian literature that was a synthesis of Marx, Tolstoy, Eliot, and Joyce fell by the wayside. Thus, the Partisan Review’s defense of modernist art ceased to be idiosyncratic and instead began to intimate the kind of political confusion and indeterminacy expressed by Rahv in “Trials of the Mind,” where the modern resurgence of tragic modes of experience made possible by Stalinism seem to be making objects out of history’s actors.

This is where the Partisan Review’s attempts to preserve poems like The Waste Land become unexpectedly evocative, for it must be noted that (much like what Žižek insists is the case with totalitarianism) there are actually two waste lands in the pages of that journal: on the one hand, there is Eliot’s poem and the traditions which it could made to emblematize from the point of view of the late modernist 1930s and 1940s; and on the other, there is the entire “‘waste land’ school of thought” attacked by Rahv in the 1934 article, “How the Waste Land Became a Flower Garden.” In this latter sense, “waste land” refers particularly to the ideological currents expressed in Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Modern Temper (1929), particularly in the chapter on “The Tragic Fallacy,” where Krutch links the absence of tragedy in modern experience to our inability to believe in the nobility of man. According to Krutch, such a belief is inextricably bound to religious devotion: “for the great ages tragedy is [. . .] a profession of faith, and a sort of religion; a way of looking at life by virtue of which it is robbed of its pain.”[ix]

Writing in 1934 (and thus before the first show trials), Rahv attempts to refute this definition of tragedy by insisting that “tragedy consists primarily in the signification of reality. [. . .] It can be produced by those creators who are able not merely to state the gigantic contradictions of life, but also to resolve them.”[x] Consequently, Rahv offers a mixed assessment of modernist critiques of capitalism because such innovative expressions are merely capable of stating, not resolving, urgent social contradictions.  Like Krutch’s The Modern Temper, modernism is little more than “the contemplation of negation” (37); it is a “negative art, replete with ideological moments of petty-bourgeois class vacillation, both retard[ing] and accelerat[ing] the radicalization of intellectuals” (41), though for Rahv at this point the impediments to radicalization posed by modernism predominate because writers like Joyce, Faulkner, Cummings, and Jeffers are said “to idealize the negations” they depict. What Rahv’s subsequent tragic assessments of the show trials indicate, then, is not that Stalinism was in the midst of ushering in a heroic period of suffering multitudes actively transforming the world, but that the boundaries between modernism and tragedy were becoming porous while an unexpected division of labor had popped up. Finding itself defending both modernism and tragedy in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Partisan Review made the painful discovery that there are tragic actors (who can only read the lines provided them) and then there are tragic playwrights (who are the real creators capable of stating and resolving contradictions). What the Partisan Review discovered, then, was neither the essential traits of totalitarianism later elucidated by Arendt nor the essential differences between distinct totalitarianisms discerned even later by Žižek, but the horrifying transformation of modernist and avant-garde art into life described by Boris Groys in The Total Art of Stalinism (1992). For what the Partisan Review’s responses to the Great Purge and Moscow Show Trials disclose is a disturbing intimation that modernist art and tragedy were in fact compatible so long as the supreme modernist artist was Stalin himself and the disposable world of men and women remained his medium: “To endeavor to become the authors of the tragedy of history is utopian—all we can do is identify ourselves as its characters.”

[i] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland: Meridan Books, 1962), 433.

[ii] Slavoj Žižek, “The Two Totalitarianisms,”The London Review of Books (March 17, 2005): 8, further references provided parenthetically.

[iii] Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion (London: Verso, 2002), 101, further references provided parenthetically.

[iv] Robert Booth Fowler, Believing Skeptics: American Political Intellectuals, 1945-64 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978).

[v] “Editorial Statement,” Partisan Review 4.1 (December 1937): 3-4, here 3, further references provided parenthetically.

[vi] Philip Rahv, “Trials of the Mind,” Partisan Review 4.5 (April 1938): 3-11, here 7, further references provided parenthetically.

[vii]Trial of the 21,” The New International 4.4 (April 1938).

[viii] Malcolm Cowley, “The Record of a Trial,” The New Republic (April 7, 1937): 267-70, here 267.

[ix] Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper: A Study and a Confession (New York: Harcourt, 1929), 126.

[x] Philip Rahv, “How the Waste Land Became a Flower Garden,” Partisan Review 1.4 (September-October 1934): 37-42, here 39, further references provided parenthetically.