Thursday, January 22, 2015

BECOMING A LEFTIST: LEARNING FROM THE LIFE AND WORK OF MIKE GOLD



Harry R. Targ

Mike Gold, was a literary critic, novelist, playwright, journalist, who learned his politics in the era of the construction of various radical movements-anarchist, socialist, syndicalist, and communist. His lifelong activism was shaped growing up in impoverished tenements in the Jewish sector of the Lower East Side in New York City. In his twenties he became a member of the Communist Party USA and served as editor of the New Masses and a columnist in the Daily Worker. During this period he developed and articulated a critical stance and an analysis of the relationship between politics and art. He is credited with initiating an artistic genre he called "proletarian literature."

Gold was born as Itzok Granich in 1893 in New York City. He attended school until the eighth grade, took one year of journalism courses at New York University and spent one year as a special student at Harvard University in 1914. He published in the political magazine edited by Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, The Masses, and in the newspaper, The New York Call between 1914 and 1920. Also he wrote three one-act plays that were performed by the Provincetown Players in 1916, 1917, and 1920.

He spent time in Mexico during World War One to avoid the draft and upon return and in the atmosphere of the Red Scare of the early 1920s changed his name to Mike Gold. In 1920 he became the editor of The Liberator after The Masses was closed down by the government. In 1926 he became editor of the successor of The Liberator, The New Masses (in the literary orbit of the Communist Party) which he edited for twenty years. In 1933 be began writing a column for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, and continued to contribute to it until his death in 1967. Perhaps, most significant in Mike Gold's left literary career was the publication of his partially fictionalized account of growing up in the poverty of the Jewish tenements at the dawn of the twentieth century, Jews Without Money.

Michael Folsom, editor of one of three anthologies of Gold’s essays and columns, wrote that Gold was a man who

"....spent his literary life, as a Communist and a revolutionary, working to build socialism in America. There were lots of people who did that, once upon a time. But Gold stuck it out. He died a little tired after the ravages of the McCarthy period, and a little cynical after many a disappointment, like the truth about Stalin, the ‘Moscow trials,’ the defection of so many old comrades. But he died still holding to the dream of his youth."[1]

On Proletarian Literature

When political partisans and analysts alike reflect on the Marxian idea of "class struggle," they work from mental images of militant contestation on the factory floor, or at the factory gates, or they construct images of armed workers storming the seats of political power. Most anti-Marxists read Marx in a reductionist way claiming that he and his followers were "economic determinists." They claim that Marx believed that ideas did not matter.  However, a careful reading of Marx clearly demonstrates that ideas were terribly important for understanding and changing the world. Marxists have argued that oppressed people have to reflect self-critically about their economic and political circumstance; they must know their history as a people, and they must develop the capacity to create images of their future, as well as their past, and present.
           
But as fashioning a commodity takes the right tools, fashioning consciousness takes the right intellectual tools. Gold believed that the great political battles in the United States before World War One and World War Two had to be fought over culture as well as who controls the factories and the state. While the products of culture flowed from the apex of economic, political, and theological institutions, they also were generated by people at the base of economic and political structures as well. Class struggle for Communists like Mike Gold involved the development and dissemination of a workers’ culture. Class struggle was just as much about what constitutes good art as good economic practice.

So Mike Gold spent a career in class struggle and in contestation about what was "good art." In 1921 Mike Gold published an essay in The Liberator called "Towards Proletarian Art." In 1930, Gold published a series of remarks in The New Masses elaborating on the themes of the earlier article. Folsom complied them as an article entitled "Proletarian Realism."

In the 1921 essay, Gold presents a world in turmoil, one in which the demise of capitalism seemed imminent. While this prediction in retrospect was wrong, Gold identified how pervasive the resistance to change was. "We have been bred in the old capitalist planet, and its stuff is in our very bones. Its ideals, mutilated and poor, were yet the precious stays of our lives. Its art, its science, its philosophy and metaphysics are deeper in us than logic or will....We cling to the old culture, and fight for it against ourselves." [2] Then, Gold offered a project for the artist, to produce works that help people see the possibilities of the new in the bedrock of the old. And he said that the old includes vivid renditions of the reality of human existence not some abstractions about "human nature," "good and evil," "the nature of beauty and love" or other images so common to artistic creation.

For Gold, himself, it was most significant that "I was born in a tenement....It was in a tenement that I first heard the sad music of humanity rise to the stars...There, in suffering youth, I feverishly sought God and found Man....I saw him, not as he has been pictured by the elder poets, groveling or sinful or romantic or falsely god-like, but one sunk in a welter of humble, realistic cares; responsible, instinctive, long-suffering and loyal; sad and beaten yet reaching out beautifully and irresistibly like a natural force for the mystic food and freedom that are Man's."

Gold claimed that all he knew came from the tenements. He saw the compassion of mothers and fathers for their young, the courage of the sick factory worker, the children finding pleasure in the playing of fanciful games in the dark tenement hallways. Gold wrote: "The tenement is in my blood. When I think it is the tenement thinking. When I hope it is the tenement hoping. I am not an individual; I am all that the tenement group poured into me during those early years of my spiritual travail."[3]

 Gold argued that artists born in tenements should not have to apologize for it or go beyond the experience and indeed should not forget it. For what is art but "...the tenement pouring out its soul through us, its most sensitive and articulate sons and daughters." Because life for us, he said, "...has been the tenement that bore and molded us through years of meaningful pain."[4]

He contended that the artist had assumed the egoistic, solitary, and even competitive individual stance that comports with capitalism. As individual artist, she or he, combated with God, then Reason, then logic, so that now he wrote, "they have turned to the life of the moods... Most critically intellectuals have become contemptuous of the people...The people live, love, work, fight, pray, laugh; they accept all, they accept themselves, and the immortal urgings of Life within them. They know bread is necessary to them: they know love and hate. What do the intellectuals know?"[5] For Gold, the artist must root herself/himself in the life of the people.

Central to social ferment, is human solidarity. "Man turns bitter as a competitive animal…From the solidarity learned in the family group, they have learned the solidarity of the universe, and have created creeds that fill every device of the universe with the family love and trust."

The revolutionary project for Gold was the creation of the unity of humans. Its secular manifestation might be in strikes, revolutionary agitation and many other forms of particular struggle. But its ultimate goal was human oneness. And what was the place of the artist in the drama, he asked? "If he records the humblest moment of that drama in poem, story or picture or symphony, he is realizing Life more profoundly than if he had concerned himself with some transient personal mood."[6]

After offering Walt Whitman as an example of a proletarian artist, Gold ended his essay by criticizing writers whose audience is the "leisured class" and whose vehicle is the little magazine.

No Gold says; "It is not in that hot-house air that the lusty great tree             will grow. Its roots must be in the fields, factories and workshops of America-in the American life. When there is singing and music rising in every American street, when in        every American factory there is a drama group of the workers,            when mechanics paint in their leisure, and farmers write sonnets, the greater art will grow and only then. Only a creative nation understands creation. Only an artist understands art. The method must be the revolutionary method-from the deepest depths upward."[7]

Folsom assembled a variety of Gold's 1930 musings about "Proletarian Realism" which the editor viewed as a continuation of the arguments presented in the 1921 essay. First, culture did not emerge in a social vacuum; indeed culture was a social product. Intellectuals would acknowledge the existence of "nationalist cultures" but never a working class culture. Despite the protestations of bourgeois intellectuals, proletarian art was spreading all across the face of the globe.

About the method of writing proletarian fiction Gold counseled writers to describe what workers do “with technical precision. “Deal with the real conflicts and dramas of workers lives, not the isolated dilemmas of artists and other intellectuals. Only write fiction that makes a point. Use as few words as possible. Have the courage to draw upon your personal experience and background. Develop plots that are clear, direct, and fast moving or use ‘cinema in words.’ Do not just portray the drabness and sordidness in workers lives but portray the hope in such lives as well. Write about humans in all their complexity, framed neither by superficial notions of human evil or good. Finally, draw upon the drama of life without inventing ‘supreme melodrama.’"[8]

(This is the first of three essays on Mike Gold to appear in Diary of a Heartland Radical.)


    [1]Michael Folsom ed., Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, International Publishers, 1972, 7-8.

    2.Folsom, 62
    [3]Folsom, 64-5.
    [4]Folsom 65.
    [5]Folsom, 66.
    [6]Folsom,67
    [7]Folsom, 70.
    [8]Folsom, 203-208.