Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture

By Chris RobÉ | Go to book overview

Conclusion
FRAGMENTS OF THE FUTURE

By the late 1930s, the U.S. Popular Front had begun to splinter. The 1936 Moscow Trials opened a rift in the historical Left between Trotskyites and Stalinists. Although the trials were later shown to have been horrifying frame-ups that led to the executions of many participants in the Russian Revolution, U.S. Left writers at the time were unclear about their exact meaning. In 1937, John Dewey headed a commission that traveled to Mexico, where Trotsky was in political asylum, to investigate treasonous allegations Stalin had leveled against Trotsky. The commission found Trotsky innocent.1

The Trotskyite and Stalinist division served as a major impetus behind the creation of the anti-Stalinist Left, which adhered to some Marxist principles but rejected its more radical tenets. Philip Rahv, Williams Phillips, Clement Greenberg, and Dwight Macdonald were some of its key figures. Together they relaunched the Partisan Review in 1937 as its flagship journal. In its pages, anti-Stalinists recast the 1930s U.S. Left as nothing more than an assembly of vulgar and reactionary Marxists. In an effort to distance themselves from their previous radical politics, the antiStalinist Left derided the organizations they once belonged to and the beliefs that they had once held dear. As the Cold War heated up, the myths they conjured up about the 1930s U.S. Left ossified into the dry husks of unsubstantiated fact, bearing little resemblance to the rich complexities of the actual cultural moment.2

A perfect example of how the anti-Stalinist Left refashioned older Left concepts into a conservative framework can be seen in their attitude toward kitsch. Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) offers a dramatic contrast to Hanns Sachs’s 1932 Close Up essay on the same subject, which is discussed in Chapter One. Although Greenberg’s essay has been canonized as a theoretical breakthrough that established the boundaries between a high-art, avant-garde tradition and the supposed dreck of mass art facilitated by modernization, the context of its emergence has often been effaced.

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