- Red Modernism: American Poetry and the Spirit of Communism by Mark Steven
The revolutionary wave that swept across Europe after the end of the World War I left its mark far and wide. Its effects were political and economic first and foremost, but no aspect of interwar society was untouched. As the hundredth anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution recedes, we should pause not only to remember the less mythologized revolutions, near-revolutions, and insurrections that swelled alongside it—in Germany, Hungary, and Italy, not to mention Ireland, Egypt, and Mexico—but also the more diffuse social and aesthetic transformations whose effects were felt across the globe. Bred by if not born from the social breakdowns and liberated passions of World War I and its aftermath, modernism is the aesthetic sibling of the revolutionary wave of 1917–1923. The two phenomena display all the resemblance and affinity, difference and enmity, that we should expect from siblings.
It is much easier, however, to say that the linkage between modernism and interwar revolutionary communism exists than to specify the character of the linkage. As yet, we lack an account of the relationship that is both systematic and definitive. Some fifty years ago, Renato Poggioli, in his Theory of the Avant-Garde, made the helpful observation that in the nineteenth century "avant-garde" referred to projects that were cultural and political at once, with the separation between the two sorts of vanguard action occurring much later. But that genealogical linkage does not tell us much about the linkage circa 1920, nor does it necessarily bear on the question of modernism, which may or may not be synonymous with or a parent category for "the avantgarde." More recently, Martin Puchner, in Poetry of the Revolution, examined the grammatical and rhetorical character of the manifesto form, staple of both political and aesthetic revolutionaries, arguing that the declarative document which had become de rigeur for twentieth-century modernist (and avant-garde) groups depends on speech acts derived from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto. While compelling, Puchner's formalist account lacks historical specificity, failing to offer much in the way of periodization, and linking two textual archives without much attention to the mediating economic and social history. T. J. Clark, in his Farewell to an Idea, offers a more historical articulation, defining modernism as socialism's "shadow," part of a "struggle to imagine modernity otherwise" during a period in which, because of the unfinished character of modernization, such an otherwise still existed.1 The value of Clark's account, which I have come to accept as definitive, is that it allows you to say not only what modernism was, but when it ended and why. Modernism was over once modernization had been definitively accomplished, [End Page 442] bringing to a close the possibility of another modernity. Still, Farewell to an Idea is unsystematic and episodic by design and the book in which it appears has so many other aims that it is unlikely to settle the matter.
Any one of these accounts must confront the difficulty of saying something comprehensive, given the vast range of national traditions, genres, and historical periods that modernism comprises. One can easily make one's case for a deep linkage between communism and modernism with a reading of surrealism and Dada, suprematism and constructivism, but more challenging archives exist. The most difficult may be that of Anglo-American modernism, parts of which display a notoriously reactionary politics. In this regard, Joel Nickels's 2012 book Poetry of the Possible did crucial work, demonstrating that writers such as Laura Riding, Wyndham Lewis, and Wallace Stevens had a view of modernism's aesthetic possibility that crucially depended upon the social possibility explored by insurgent, self-organizing proletarians. Nickels's book offers perhaps the most rigorous account of the linkage, but was modest in its claims, not intending to offer an account of modernism as such.
Enter Mark Steven, whose Red Modernism follows Nickels into the same terrain and promises to "amplify...