Communist Cultural Workers, 1919-1939

The Power of the Written Word

Published on political affairs pa, by John Pietaro, Sept 1, 2009.

The art of rebellion is a tradition as old as dissent itself. Radical writers, musicians, painters, actors, dancers and other creative activists have long used their artwork as a tool in the fight for social justice. If the very nature of expressive freedom lends itself toward a revolutionary voice, then it is arguable that the arts gave birth to radicalism, or in the least offered a vision toward its path.

One can easily look to the works and dreams of revolutionary artists of every stripe to see the connection with the Left in general – and the arts programs of the Communist Party USA in particular. The artists who have specifically focused their repertoire on progressive struggles, people’s stories and real-time issues, move into a specific realm, one which pulls them far from the art-for-art’s-sake idiom. These artist-activists extend the possibilities of the dissident’s pamphlet by leaps and bounds.  

They have the power to put melody to fiery speeches and add a universe of color to the black-and-white of dogma. They add the necessary ingredient of emotion to demonstrators’ placards and hold the history of revolutionary art within their hands. These artists are the cultural workers and on no other front did they fight as hard as that which was led by the Communist Party USA …

It has been well-documented that the Communist Party USA actually began life in 1919 as two different organizations. What has been rarely noted, however is that both of the original parties featured known cultural workers in prominent founding roles. The Communist Labor Party was led by Benjamin Gitlow and writer/activist John Reed, and the Communist Party of America by Charles Ruthenberg and writer/activist Louis Fraina. Even after the parties would unify in 1920, the groundwork laid by these two stalwart champions of radical arts would remain.

While the Party, during its history, has largely focused on wide issues of racial equality, militant labor unionism and establishing peace, via revolutionary socialism, it quickly came to establish a vital and proud history of cultural work, probably rooted in the dissident arts of Reed and Fraina. That both of these historic figures were writers was not lost in the milieu of Party cultural work. This influence was but one of several reasons that the CPUSA realized the prominence of literary arts in their cultural programming.

The proletarian novel, the radical drama, revolutionary poetry and the progressive screenplay all came of age in the hands of Communist Party authors – or at least those that were close fellow travelers. The other influencing factors included the place of esteem held by writers in the Soviet Union and Comintern, as well as the pre-exiting tradition of progressive literary figures in this nation, many of which had been developed by the Socialist Party and the IWW in the years and decades before 1919. Furthering this argument, most Party cultural workers who are musicians, painters, actors or dancers, have also offered poignant pieces of writing in the journals and other organs of the Party. Thus, the weight of Communist cultural work has most often been carried by revolutionary writers.

Presented here are some of the most well-known cultural workers affiliated with the Communist Party … (full long text).

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