By Barbra Foley
For many twenty-first century readers, the term “proletarian literature” conjures up the 1930s, when magazines like the New Masses and the various organs of the John Reed Clubs supported the creation of a working-class literature that would underpin the leftist project of preparing the proletariat for its world-historical task of abolishing capitalism and creating an egalitarian society. Even if revolution was not on the horizon, the task of the proletarian writer was, as Tillie Olsen poignantly put it, to depict “the not-yet in the now.”
In the wake of the failure—or, let us say, the long-term deferral—of that project, proletarian literature might be supposed to have fallen by the historical wayside. Yet the impulse to create literary works embodying a class-conscious critique of the existing world and positing, by implication or declaration, that a better world is both possible and necessary has not died out—even if it has been relegated to the sidelines of literary production. I direct attention here to a small cluster of texts that—while hardly constituting the only significant leftist writing of our time—ably articulate this abiding impulse.
The hub of these texts is Struggle: A Magazine of Proletarian Revolutionary Literature, which has since 1985 appeared sporadically (and in recent years quite regularly) under the editorship of the poet Tim Hall. (The magazine is available online for past issues and via hard-copy purchase or subscription for current issues.) The Editorial Policy is straightforward: “Struggle is an anti-establishment, revolutionary literary journal oriented to the working-class struggle. We seek to reach ‘disgruntled’ workers, dissatisfied youth and all the oppressed and abused and inspire them to fight the rich capitalist rulers of the U.S. and the planet.” The titles of issues appearing in the past half-decade suggest the magazine’s thrust: “Wall Street: Capitalism Shaking” (Fall-Winter 2007-8); “Survival of the Richest” (Winter-Spring 2005-6—focused on Hurricane Katrina); “Full Rights for Immigrants” (Spring-Summer 2006). Publishing poets and fiction writers possessing varying degrees of technical expertise—a few are sentimental and clichéd, though most are witty and imaginative—the magazine recalls Mike Gold’s editorial practice in the New Masses of the early 1930s, which pledged to involve worker-writers in the creation of a “proletarian realism” that would document the “mud-puddle” of working-class life with “revolutionary élan” rather than despair (“Notes of the Month,” NM September 1930).
Where Gold’s project entailed a degree of blue-collar white male workerism, however, Struggle acknowledges the crucial shifts in both the composition and location of the working class over the past several decades. In the Summer-Fall 2009 issue titled “Worker Anger Grows,” a number of poems and stories—Dawnell Harrison’s “The Coal Miner,” Joe LeBreck’s “Sweat Jobs”—remind the reader that numbing physical labor remains the lot of many workers. But the casualization of the labor force is an insistent theme, as in Judith L. Lundin’s near-haiku “(Story not published in company’s quarterly newsletter),” which simply reads, “Faithful employees / chewed up and spit out / without reason or warning.” The equal lengths of the poems’ title and text point to the utter dispensability of the work force. Downward mobility is stressed in Dennis James’s “Camilla and the Troll,” which describes the experience of a 26-year-old holder of a Ph.D. who—having been impregnated and abandoned by her faculty mentor, then subjected to the loss of her daughter—finds another life as an on-the-job activist among custodial workers. Several prison poems stress the systemic racism and dehumanization of the (in)justice system. Christian Weaver’s “Rehabilitation,” for instance, contrasts the inmate’s struggle for “stability amidst madness” and “self-sacrificing love” with the institution that would render him “Crushed. Shackled. Maimed.” “Mexican American Wall,” by Awilda I. Casto Suarez, limns the situation of a migrant couple who have picked mushrooms and mixed cement, only to lose their son in Iraq and be denied the “whole sacred greencard.” The situation of GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan—subject to high rates of PTSD and suicidal impulses—is treated in James Brubaker’s “Cluster Bomb” and Gregory Liffick’s “Whirlwind.” While this issue of Struggle, like others, ends with poems that issue a revolutionary call (R. Nat Turner’s “March, March, March”; Charles H. Renning’s “Taking Sides”), this call both echoes earlier summonses and resonates with conditions distinctive to the twenty-first century.
To note Struggle’s broadened conception of the working class and the dilemmas it faces is not to assert that the magazine has adopted a politics of “intersectionality”—in which gender, race, class, sexuality, nationality, etc., all signify comparable identity-based subject positions—or that it has dissolved the proletariat into the “multitude.” On the contrary: the awareness of fundamental class contradiction shapes the magazine’s contents, supplying not merely a class-based existential standpoint but the formative ground of critical consciousness. Where Struggle’s writers differ significantly from their Depression-era forebears is not so much in their proletarian-ness, or even their inclusion of more varied voices, as in their estimate of the possibilities for historical agency. The mass culture of video games and Walmart dissipates class consciousness. Imperialists wage wars against “enemies” whose ranks contain no genuinely oppositional heroes. Irony hangs heavy over the pages of Struggle; proletarian realism nowadays contains more of the mud-puddle than of revolutionary élan.
Much of the “struggle” of contemporary proletarian literature, indeed, is to get beyond irony without losing the satiric edge required when one contemplates the workings of power and ideology in our times. The works of Gregory Alan Norton constitute a serious—and largely successful attempt—to express this contradiction. A contributor to both Struggle and various less overtly political magazines, Norton has authored a 1999 novel about a South Chicago wildcat strike, titled There Ain’t No Justice, Just Us (a chapter of which is posted at the Struggle web site), as well as, more recently, a short story cycle titled An Infinity of Days in the Psychotic Atomik Empire. Featuring middle-aged, white male protagonists who are somewhat jaded veterans of what appears to have been an especially sectarian brand of 1960s radicalism, both books play at the boundary of self-reflexive despair. Yet both display traditional themes of proletarian literature—proletarian solidarity overcoming divisions of nation, race, and gender, the criminality of a system producing criminal individuals—with considerable persuasiveness. Notably, each text closes with a situation of worker-boss confrontation that lays bare contradictions unsolvable under the current division of labor. There are no confident forecasts of ultimate working-class victory, such as occur in 1930s strike novels like Robert Cantwell’s The Land of Plenty or Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread; the bought-off union is more likely to betray us, it seems, than to make us strong. But neither is there a retreat to a separate peace. Norton manages to invest incremental victories with a hesitant lyricism, leaving his protagonist savoring newfound solidarity with his fellow-workers and an expanded sense of his own humanity as he “walk[s] into the factory for another shift in an infinity of factory shifts in the Psychotic Atomik Empire”(193).
I have found that An Infinity of Days works well in the classroom. A number of the stories are linked by the characters’ commonly working at a call center named Pumping Sunshine, Inc. or a factory producing Imperial Dog Food—both of which are owned by a financial conglomerate named Blue Sky; the capitalist totality is at once cartoonish and menacing. A first-person authorial alter-ego, Peter MacNaughton, appears in most of the stories, loosely linking them without imposing narrative teleology. While my students find Norton’s treatment of African American characters a good deal less compelling than his representation of white and Latino/a rebels against the status quo, they respond readily to Norton’s humorous acknowledgement of the combination of paranoia, fragmentation, and depthlessness that—as the book’s title suggests—constitutes late capitalist everyday life. Yet Norton’s refusal to descend into the discursive abyss—he even titles one story “A Metafictional Mystery: or, The Bullshit Story”—points up the limits to fashionable postmodernist irony. His world is, after all, not really “post-”; steel mills may have shut down, but workers are exploited at work sites that are hardly post- the expropriation of surplus value. Various species of 1960s radicalism may have bit the dust, but the class struggle continues, and the need for revolutionary social transformation remains as urgent as ever. Particularly when juxtaposed with a proletarian text by Olsen or Gold, Norton’s short story cycle has much to teach our students about the enduring presence of classes and class struggles.
The short stories of Paris Smith capture the contradictions of lived experience; where Norton’s books take on the extensive totality of present-day social relations, Smith’s tales limn individual characters in situations that gesture toward the intensive totality of the structures that generate oppression. The author of a volume of short stories documenting African American urban life, Subterranean Tales (2000) as well as a Marxist thriller set in 1979 with an Ethiopian protagonist who works for the KGB, Shafi Doldi (2006)—which sports a hammer and sickle on its cover—Smith is no stranger to Marxist analysis of the deep structure of capitalist society. The short stories featured on the Struggle web site typify his approach of inviting the reader to infer the larger patterns of causality producing the protagonists’ dilemmas. “Hysteria” offers a deft blending of Marx and Freud; set in the Deep South in 1930, the tale recalls the raw violence of Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children or Black Boy. The protagonist, a pubescent black youth named Wesley Sledge, has witnessed his father’s descent into impotent rage under the pressures of living Jim Crow. Terrified when he inadvertently catches a glimpse of the private parts of his white female employer, Wesley is traumatized into a hysterical blindness which dissipates only when his mother induces him to talk about what he saw. Freud’s “Dora” is resituated in the Jim Crow South; the repressed sexual fears that deprived an upper-class Viennese girl of the use of her limbs are rewritten as a Depression-era young black male’s uncontrollable terror of interracial sexuality and lynching. But “Hysteria” does not simply recycle mid-twentieth-century black radicalism or posit the equivalence of raced and gendered subject positions. It portrays the historical specificity of psychosexual trauma, even as it suggests the ability of working-class African Americans to enact their own talking cures.
“Ghost of Yesterday,” a tale set in present-day Chicago, features Earl, an aging jazz saxophonist on the downturn. He is broke and alcoholic; his trendy young girlfriend, Lisa, is leaving him; a white-dominated rock sound is driving out what is left of bebop and swing. Earl peers at women’s behinds and legs and fancies himself a ladies’ man, but he is patently fragile. Nor has he any real understanding of the music marketplace beyond its destructive effect upon him. He directs his alienation toward the “mechanized” world at large and the social “herd,” subscribing to the individualist doctrine that “every man was traveling on his own course, bound only by his own destiny.” Yet despite his entrapment within multiple modes of false consciousness (this unfashionable conception of ideology remains alive and well in this tale), Earl possesses the power to create, with his solo saxophone, “a collage of phrases strung together with bits and pieces from all the old songs he knew.” The musical invocation of the “ghost of yesterday” that pours out of his window connects him with the people immediately around him, producing a knock on his door by a middle-aged woman more appropriate for his age and status than the fetishized Lisa. While the story testifies to the power of music to heal distressed souls, it offers a statement more about the need for collective consciousness than about the power of the aesthetic. As in “Hysteria,” oppressed people are shown to have within themselves the resources for a better world, waiting to be acknowledged and tapped.
Tim Hall, the presiding presence in Struggle, has over the years published his own work only infrequently in the magazine’s pages (although each issue contains an editorial commenting on current politics from a revolutionary standpoint). But a significant cluster of his poems is now posted on the Struggle web site. Hall’s poetry contains multitudes in its absorption and reworking of radical poetic traditions extending back some 200 years. Shelley’s defiant “Men of England” (1811) is echoed in “Working people, why still slave / For men who ride you to the grave? / Why still toil, drip sweat, shed blood, / For lords who tramp you in the mud?” Wobbly songs are invoked in “The Cabby’s Lament,” which plays upon the refrain, “O cabbies, cabbies, how can you stand / Being robbed by the cab boss-man?” Black freedom songs sound in the background of Hall’s searing account of his work with other SNCC organizers in “Yalobusha County”: “We have walked through the shadow of death / We have walked all by ourself / You’re your eyes o-on that prize / Ho-old on! Hold on!” “July 1967 Detroit Rebellion Blues”—which was performed over public radio on the twentieth anniversary of the Detroit uprising—articulates the ironic assessment of reality that gives rise to the blues. Its last stanza reads, “Today we got a ‘Detroit Renaissance’, / but workin folk are even more poor! / Today we got black cops and a mayor, / but black kids are at death’s door! / There’s a new Detroit Rebellion / a-knockin at the door!” Since conditions in Motor City have if anything declined since 1987—the “Renaissance” seems to have come and gone—the poem’s prophetic force remains, even if its predicted rebellion has not (yet) occurred.
Hall has been a leftist activist throughout his adult life, and many of his poems emerge from the crucible of specific political struggles, both domestic and global. At times they are bounded by their topicality. In “The Ice Cracks,” readers—especially younger readers—unfamiliar with Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca (“master of the lay-off, / Simon Degree of the speed-up”) will miss the force of Hall’s invective. “Persian Gulf War Curse”—which begins “Damn you liars / Damn every last one of you”—contains a portrait of George H.W. Bush that will be familiar to many (“collie-faced in cardigan sweater preppie pig / Eastern aristocrat”); but memories of Norman Schwartzkopf (“German for shithead”) have—perhaps unfortunately—faded. Most of Hall’s passionate denunciations remain remarkably fresh, however—not just because of their rhetorical force, but also because their targets abide. “Poem for China (On the Occasion of the Massacre at Tienanmen Square)” names three particular victims of the state violence enacted in 1989, but its condemnation of the “fake communists / who have betrayed the road of Marx and Engels” has if anything gained in historical relevance. “The Taliban Waltz,” written in 2001, is as germane now as it was a decade ago, even if some of the major roles have been assumed by other players: “Scion of Texas oil / Scion of Saudi construction / Throw airplanes / Bearing apocalyptic explosions / At each other / But only hit proles / Each explosion / Helps the other.”
Hall, Norton, and Smith would have had many a literary comrade had they lived in the “proletarian” 1930s and been members of the John Reed Clubs or the League of American Writers. It is greatly to their credit that they have kept alive the tradition of class-conscious cultural resistance. If I may indulge in an expression that runs the risk of leftist cliché: they are bearers of a precious flame, one that will sooner or later flare into a bonfire. I urge readers of this issue of Reconstruction, focused as it is on activism, to purchase these writers’ works, visit the Struggle web site, and—whether they are formally teachers or not—share what they learn, about both aesthetics and politics, with the people about whom they care.
Review appeared at
(The link to Reconstruction, the academic journal, is no longer good. However, those who want to acquaint themselves with Barbara Foley’s work can find recent books at Marxist Literary Criticism Today or Radical Representations: Politics and Form in US Proletarian Fiction.)