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  • Subversive Anti-Stalinism: Race and Sexuality in the Early Essays of James Baldwin
  • Geraldine Murphy

The value of James Baldwin’s stock in the literary critical market, like Ralph Ellison’s, rose with the political fortunes of racial integration in the postwar period. “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin’s well-known attack on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright, represents an African American contribution to the larger postwar effort to repress the cultural and political legacy of the Red Decade. Baldwin’s rejection of the protest tradition of American literature is consistent with the discourse of Cold War liberalism associated with the anti-Stalinist intellectuals of Partisan Review, yet as a gay African American—or, in postwar parlance, a Negro and a homosexual—Baldwin had little stake in the domestic arrangements of pax Americana. He thus employed end-of-ideology rhetoric to other ends besides the cultural erasure of Communism, namely, the extention of liberal subjectivity to blacks and gays. Through what seems today like a withdrawal from political engagement, Baldwin carried on the struggle for equal rights, not “by any means necessary” but by means that seemed most promising to him and other black writers during the early years of the Cold War.

In a recent reassessment of Wright, Houston Baker cites Baldwin’s essays on Native Son as “paradigm instances” of traditional bourgeois aesthetics in their dismissal of the “merely” social in favor of individuality and their celebration of a transcendent sphere of Art. 1 Baker is right about the liberal-humanist inscriptions of “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone,” but bourgeois aesthetics covers a wide territory; the specific Cold War context of Baldwin’s critique of Wright must be taken into account in order fully to understand Baldwin’s liberal aesthetics. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust as well as a series of betrayals by the Communist Party culminating in the “iron curtain” across Eastern Europe, liberal intellectuals “abandoned many traditional liberal tenets . . . replacing them with a chastened and, in their view, ‘realistic’ philosophy which stressed man’s sinfulness, the seeming inevitability of [End Page 1021] conflict among nations, and the dangers of democratic rule.” 2 The old left’s faith in progress was equated with a dangerous utopian innocence, and solidarity shaded into a dark surrender of individual consciousness to the totalitarian state.

Among those redefining liberalism in the postwar era were the disillusioned former leftists later known as the New York Intellectuals. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center (1949) and Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950) provide valuable guides to their rapprochement with the welfare state and their hostility to the political and cultural left. Published the same year as “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” The Vital Center describes a politics of consensus in which moderate liberals and conservatives join forces against the extremes of Communism on the left and fascism on the right. Schlesinger and company traded a Marxian model of society, where the bourgeoisie and proletariat were locked in decisive struggle, for a pluralist model, in which a complex web of tensions were continually being negotiated—pragmatically, non-ideologically—by responsible leaders in government, business, unions, and so forth. Although it bred “contradiction” and “strife,” conflict must be entertained rather than suppressed because it was “the guarantee of freedom.” 3 In effect, the one big dialectic was dropped in favor of a multitude of little dialectics. The New York Intellectuals never really conceded the vocabulary of the left, its embattled stance, or its moral high ground; throughout The Vital Center, in fact, Schlesinger keeps referring to the “new radicalism,” not the new liberalism. The pluralist model, however, with its intricate network of conflicts dispersing power and providing a “natural” system of checks and balances, ultimately insured stability rather than revolution. It permitted former leftists, in an age of nuclear stalemate, to fetishize struggle and agonize over the burdens of “freedom” without any messy social consequences.

Trilling’s contribution to the discourse of anti-Stalinist liberalism was to shift the pluralist drama of multiple dialectics to the individual psyche. Throughout the forties and fifties, Trilling would refer to Keats’s “negative capability” and Montaigne’s approbative “ondoyant...

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