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Charlie Van Gelderen


‘It’s Poetry I Still Love Best’

(January 1984)

From International, Vol. 9 No. 1, January–February 1984, p. 36.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Alan Wald
The Revolutionary Imagination: the Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan
Chapel Hill, 288p., $28.00

The international revolutionary movement has been enriched throughout its history by the adherence of talented literary figures to its ranks. The years following the victory of the October Revolution in Russia were particularly fruitful in this respect. In Europe, major literary figures like Henri Barbusse, André Malraux, Bertold Brecht. Auden and Spender were among those who were drawn into the Communist movement, and in the United States this influx heralded by people like Max Eastman. John Reed and others.

As the revolutionary wave ebbed and fascism reared its ugly head many of those intellectuals saw the Soviet Union as the shining beacon in the sea or darkness. But Stalinism sought to implant its image on art as on any other forms of human activity. This had a stultifying effect on the emergence of new art forms and the creativity of artists. John Wheelwright, one of the two poets who form the subject of this meticulous study by Alan Wald, recognised this even before he joined the organised socialist movement in 1932. About the American Communist Party, he wrote: ‘they grind out the dialectic, just as a papal court grinds out its dialectic’. Under Stalinism, the artist had to conform to the twists and changes of party policy, veering from the ultra-leftism of the ‘Third Period’ to the reformism of the popular front. This was completely foreign to the conception of the role of art in the years immediately following October.

Trotsky, in his classic Literature and Revolution, written In 1924, wrote:

‘... Art must make its own way and by its own means. The Marxian methods are not the same as the artistic The Party leads the proletariat but not the historic process of history. There are domains in which the Party leads, directly and imperatively. There are domains in which it only orientates itself. The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command ... The Party cannot and will not take the position of a literary circle which is struggling and merely competing with other literary circles …’

Under Stalin and Zhdanov, all this changed. The Patty did constitute itself the supreme arbiter in all things, including the arts. Thus, in the late ’20s and ’30s the so-called proletarian novel became a cult only to be abandoned in 1935 when the political line changed.

To independent minds like Wheelwright and Mangan, the conformity which Stalinism demanded from the poet was repugnant. Developing in the same literary traditions as T.S. Eliot and with the same class background, unlike Eliot who moved to the right, they became acutely aware of the decadence of capitalist society They were formed and transformed, as the author writes: ‘by consecutive immersions in two movements of thought that allured the most advanced of the inter-war generation of writers. First as Harvard poets and periodic y Stalinism with its sterile theory and repressive attitude to the arts. John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan turned to the repository of revolutionary Marxism – Trotskyism. They joined the Socialist Workers Party (USA) in the 1930s. When, as a result of the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939, the intellectuals began to leave the cause of revolution in droves, Wheelwright and Mangan remained firm in their political commitment. They saw no contradiction between their literary activities and their politics. They had a great admiration for Leon Trotsky, who they considered the foremost political figure of that day. Trotsky’s definition of art as ‘an expression of man’s needs for a harmonious and complete life ... his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him ...’ completely fitted in with their own conception of their role as artists and revolutionary socialists.

As Wald writes, ‘they came to personify Trotyky’s conception of the bond between the dissident artist and the political heretic’. Unlike many of the contemporaries who confined their contribution to the revolution to their literary work, Wheelwright and Mangan realised that art alone was an inadequate instrument for the transformation of society and allied themselves with the working-class movement. In these successive stages of artistic and political rebellion, they remained pledged to a higher order of values than they believed existed in the society around them.’ Not for them the comparatively passive role of ‘fellow-travellers’. Once he had decided to throw off the shackles of his Boston upper-class background, Wheelwright threw himself enthusiastically into the living socialist movement. He took part in demonstrations, spoke from soapboxes and ran for office as a revolutionary socialist candidate.

Wheelwright’s poetry has been rescued from obscurity by the publication in 1972 of the Collected Works of John Wheelwright (Alvin H. Rosenfeld (ed.), New Directions, 278pp., $10) and Alan Wald’s book has added a new dimension to the appreciation of his life and work both as poet and revolutionary. He remained an active member of the Socialist Workers Party (USA) till his tragic death in 1940.

When Sherry Mangan became radicalised in the 1930s, he wax already regarded as a young man of great literary promise. But for Sherry the revolution now became the prime motive for his existence. While working as foreign correspondent for Time and Fortune magazines in London and Paris, he was secretly working for the Fourth International as journalist and translator, and as a member on the International Secretariat. He sacrificed his life of comfort and literary creativity for the cause in which he believed with all his heart. When a boyhood friend asked him what socialism had done ‘for’ him as well as what it had done ‘to’ him, Sherry replied:

For me it has given a guidance and a purpose far beyond any personal one that I might have conceived, save poetry itself. To me, yes ... it has made me pay and pay dear. But I won’t change one opinion, one iota because of it.”

Under the name of Terence Phelan, he became the European correspondent of Socialist Appeal, then the organ of the SWP. When his articles arrived m New York. Max Shachtman, then editor of Socialist Appeal, read parts of them aloud to the editorial board as exemplary Marxist journalism. During the German occupation of Paris and before America entered the war, he contrived to keep in touch with the Trotskyist underground. In 1943, back in London, he set to work trying to unite the disparate Trotskyist groups. After the war, he played a leading part in re-establishing international contacts and setting up the International Secretariat in Paris. He was also active as a member of the Central Committee of the French section.

As a revolutionary journalist, Sherry was, as Max Shachtman said, exemplary. His article, The End of French Democracy, which appeared in the Fourth International in the spring of 1941, was a brilliant Marxist analysis of the historical reasons why France had fallen so easily to the Nazis. Just how much Sherry gave up by his devoted work for the revolution is perhaps best summed up by the letter he wrote shortly before his death in Bolivia in 1960: ‘Even though revolutionary politics are an honourable occupation, it’s poetry I still love best.’

Everyone interested in the left-wing literary tradition who wants to learn how intellectuals can find a place in the revolutionary movement should he grateful to Alan Wald for this authoritative research into the lives of these two people for whom the revolution completely synchronised with the future of humanity, and who gave their all to its cause.

CHARLIE VAN GELDEREN is a Trotskyist of 50 years standing.

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