- Mickey Mouse and Chain Gangs, Hot Jazz and The CIO
The Cultural Front is an extraordinary book, not simply brilliant, groundbreaking and innovative, because it offers to turn upside-down our most dearly held understandings about how American culture has evolved. Rather than an exception or a dead end, Michael Denning argues that the Popular Front left of the 1930s and 1940s was the axis of cultural practice in this century, the moment when America sharply broadened what it meant to be American. If he is right, it opens the way to “a different road beyond modernism, a road not taken, a vanishing mediator” (27).
Denning’s radical displacement takes on twice-received wisdom to argue that political rigidities have deformed our understanding of America’s sole “national popular” left culture. In its original telling by the so-called New York intellectuals, the story was of craven fellow travelers and innocent mediocrities who towed the Party line by embracing a backward middlebrow realism. In the 1960s, this rich blend of Tory Trotskyism was augmented by New Left historians, who damned the Popular Front as dully populist and deliberately [End Page 931] deradicalized. The 1930s left was suckered by imagined Capra-esque tableaux in the same way that it succumbed to FDR’s charms.
Instead of this well-worn, if effective, indictment of left self-negation, Denning asserts that a mass social democratic movement, with its own cultural apparatus rooted in a mix of performance venues and labor unions, transcended all of the existing modernisms in our artistic and literary cultures, destroyed what remained of the genteel tradition, and ushered to center stage a new cast of protagonists “united by a common historical situation that was not a common ethnicity but a common ethnic formation: the restructuring of the American peoples by the labor migrations of the early twentieth century from southern and eastern Europe and the sharecropping South” (239). The Popular Front’s successes, in aesthetic terms and as a social movement (categories he refuses to separate), become no longer quixotic, archaic or pathetic, but truly central and decisive. Just as importantly, its failures cannot be explained by something called Stalinism, but by the tectonic changes that swept over U.S. society during and after World War II, disrupting the geographic and ethnic milieus in which the CIO left had flourished. Seen in this light, the furious half-century long assault on the Popular Front is really a counter-offensive by those who either have, or dearly wish to acquire, the patina of “Americanness” as it was once, but is no longer.
But why should we care about the Old Left’s culture if we still must acknowledge that, even at its best, it was an embryonic “movement culture” overlapping with much broader and more conservative structures of feeling in American life? Here’s why: the Popular Front was about beginnings, rather than endings. Denning reminds us that, however incomplete and unfulfilled, this was the one moment when an organized, self-conscious left began developing an effective mass cultural practice, one that came from, engaged with and was genuinely popular among millions of working-class people:
the peculiar combination of the corporate liberalism of the media corporations, the internal labor relations of the culture industries, and the working-class audience of the film, broadcasting, and music industries . . . resulted in a remarkable and contradictory politics of mass culture, producing the phenomena of left-wing “stars” and “socially conscious” nightclubs, radio broadcasts, and picture magazines.(83)
This popularity, this act of beginning, with the vulgarity and ambiguity [End Page 932] that inevitably accompanies popularity, has earned the Popular Front a deep antipathy among intellectuals whom presume that oppositionality is the stepping-off point for critique and creation of any kind. Just as important, though, the potential gap between “producers” and “audiences” in this formulation augured the fragility of Popular Front left-liberalism.
To make his claims about the strength and originality of left culture in the 1930s and 1940s and its organic relation...