Published Fall/Winter 2007
Albert Maltz, Philip Stevenson, and "Art Is A Weapon"
by Larry Ceplair | ns 69
The slogan "art is a weapon" is usually attributed to V. I. Lenin's pamphlet, Party Organization and Party Literature (1905). But Lenin did not use that phrase. Rather, he asserted that all "Social-Democratic literature must become Party literature" (Lenin 105). It was Friedrich Wolf, a German Communist playwright, who, in 1928, first proclaimed: Kunst ist Waffe! (art is a weapon) (Jehser 57-58). Four years later, this proclamation was used by the League of Workers' Theatres in New York City. Though it never became an official slogan of the Communist Party of the United States (CP) nor an aesthetic criterion of Communist critics, it pervaded the working atmosphere of Communist or fellow-traveling writers in the United States. Party leader Earl Browder told the second American Writers Congress in June 1937 that the Party did not want to regiment writers, but in the next breath said ''they would find it necessary to adjust their own work to the higher discipline of the whole struggle for democracy" (qtd. in Hart 49). When the Party's class-struggle emphasis was shelved during World War II, so too was the art-as-a-weapon slogan. But with the demotion and expulsion of Browder in 1945-46, the slogan was resurrected as part of William Z. Foster's campaign to refashion the CP. Two Hollywood Party members (and close friends), screenwriters Albert Maltz and Philip Stevenson, were, at different times and for different reasons, targeted by Party cultural watchdogs for disregarding this slogan.
Albert Maltz (1908-1985) was the youngest son of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants to the United States. He majored in philosophy at Columbia University (BA, 1930), where he began reading the works of Marx and Engels. Shaken by the effects of the depression, he decided to become a writer and dramatize the economic and social injustices he saw all around him. At the Yale School of Drama he met George Sklar, and they co-authored Merry Go Round, a play about political corruption. Following its production in New York City in 1932, they helped form the Theatre Union and wrote its first production, Peace on Earth, an antiwar drama. The group later produced Maltz's Black Pit, about an informer in a coal miners' union. Increasingly dissatisfied with longer drama, Maltz attempted two one-act plays and wrote over one dozen short stories, depicting the ways in which working-class people dealt with the depression.
During the years of the Theatre Union, 1933-37, Maltz married Margaret Larkin, worked for the Dramatists Guild, joined the Communist Party, served on the Executive Board of the League of American Writers, and co-founded and co-edited Equality, an anti-anti-Semitic magazine. When the Theatre Union folded, in 1937, Maltz taught playwriting at the School of Adult Education, New York University. He also wrote his first novel, The Underground Stream: An Historical Novel of a Moment in the American Winter (Little, Brown, 1940).
In the spring of 1941, unable to support his family on what he was earning in New York, Maltz decided to move to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. But he planned to work in the studios only as needed, to subsidize his novel writing. During the six years before he was blacklisted, he wrote five screenplays: This Gun for Hire, an espionage thriller (Paramount, 1941); Destination Tokyo, a submarine movie (Warner Brothers, 1944); Pride of the Marines, a returning-veteran drama (Warner Brothers, 1945); Cloak and Dagger, a spy movie (Warner Brothers, 1946); and The Naked City, a police procedural (Universal Pictures, 1947). In addition, he wrote the English-language narration for the United States version of a Soviet documentary, Moscow Strikes Back (1942), as well as the script for The House I Live In (RKO, 1945), a short film on racial and ethnic tolerance. He received Academy Awards for each of the latter two, and an Academy Award nomination for Pride of the Marines. (He also wrote his second novel, The Cross and the Arrow [Little, Brown, 1944].)
Maltz considered himself a "citizen writer," one who possessed "the particular gift of reaching beyond himself into the hearts and minds of many others" (Maltz, "Citizen" 9). As a consequence, Maltz believed that he was responsible "to his fellow man." When he attempted to delineate the particular responsibility of a Communist writer, however, he became embroiled in what he later described as "the most unsettling experience of my life, infinitely worse than going to prison" (qtd. in Ceplair 260). What later came to be called the "Maltz controversy" began innocently in October 1945, when Isidor Schneider, the literary editor of New Masses, urged the magazine's readers to contribute articles expressing their views about where left-wing writers should look for authoritative guidelines.
Though Schneider's article coincided with a sharp criticism of Browder's leadership from Moscow, and Maltz's response (the only response) to Schneider's invitation coincided with Browder's expulsion from the Party, neither Schneider nor Maltz realized that their literary ideas had suddenly become "anti-Party." Maltz argued that left-wing critics, by vulgarizing the theory that "art is a weapon," had imposed a stifling creative atmosphere on left-wing writers, one in which works of art were judged according to how well they "fit the correct political tactics of the time" (Maltz, "What" 19). Maltz used the example of James T. Farrell to illustrate that "the writer qua citizen, making an election speech, and the writer qua artist, writing a novel, is performing two very different acts." Though Farrell, a follower of Leon Trotsky, was politically suspect, he had written the superb Studs Lonigan trilogy. Finally, Maltz asserted that the writer must present "all characters from their own point of view, allowing them their own full, human justification for their behavior and attitudes." The writer who has "a narrow political axe to grind" will inevitably manipulate or angle his characters in an artificial manner, blackening some and gilding others (Maltz, "What" 22).
An immediate avalanche of criticism from the Party's most prominent cultural critics and writers crashed down on Maltz. Samuel Sillen accused Maltz of using "a non-Marxist approach" to arrive at "false and dangerous conclusions" and of advocating a position that "would lead to the complete dissolution of the working-class and progressive literary movement" (Sillen 6). Michael Gold wrote that Maltz, by engaging in "artistic moralizing," was preparing the way for "a retreat into the stale old Ivory Tower of art-for-art-sakers" (Gold 6). Eugene Dennis, one of the members of the Party's ruling triumvirate, wrote a report condemning the indulgence of the editors of New Masses toward what he called a "bourgeois-intellectual and semi-Trotskyist article" (qtd. in Bernstein 139). Only two public voices praised Maltz: Schneider cautioned left-wing reviewers to "avoid the mistakes so clearly shown by Maltz" (Schneider "Background" 58); and Sanora Babb argued that Maltz had expressed "some very real criticism," which needed to be explored, not merely "answered" (Babb 10).
Soon thereafter, representatives from Party headquarters arrived in Hollywood, where they convened two general meetings of Communist writers. Leopold Atlas remembered that Maltz tried to explain his thoughts on the article, but "almost instantly all sorts of howls went up in protest" (Investigation 946). Only a handful of writers attempted to defend Maltz. In one New York Cultural Section, discussion of Maltz's article was curtailed by a reading of Dennis' report (Bernstein 197).
Maltz believed very strongly in what he had written, but, he later said, he had not foreseen the collision between his remarks and the Party's anti-Browderism. The Party leadership told Maltz that unless he publicly recanted, he would be expelled. Because he believed that the Party was playing a significant role in opposing the Cold War, Maltz decided to retract what he had written about art as a weapon and to alter his comments on Farrell. However, he left unchanged what he had written about characterization, because it had not been attacked. It is clear that he had received some instructions from those who had criticized him. For example, he confessed that his article had been "a one-sided, non-dialectical treatment of complex issues," which would "result in the dissolution of the left-wing cultural movement." He concluded that his article had been "a specific example of revisionist thinking in the cultural field" and an expression of "distorted Marxism" ("Moving"). Maltz told me that writing that article was the hardest task he had ever faced, and that he had always regretted doing so (Interview).
One month later, the Party convened a symposium on "Art as a Weapon," co-sponsored by the Daily Worker and New Masses, and co-chaired by Sillen and Joseph North. Over three thousand people attended. National Chairman William Z. Foster, who was the main speaker, read an article he had prepared for the next issue of New Masses explicitly stating "that 'art is a weapon' in the class struggle" (Foster 6). North and Sillen paid tribute to Maltz "for having the courage and integrity to admit his mistake," and messages were read aloud from Lawson, Bessie, and Maltz (Daily Worker, 19 April 1746, 7, 12).
One year later, Maltz was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was subsequently cited for contempt of Congress, tried, and found guilty. He was sentenced to one year in prison. He was also blacklisted by the motion picture industry. After his release from prison, he lived in Mexico for several years and ended his membership in the CP.
Philip Edward Stevenson (1896-1965), known as Ted to his close friends, was born in New York City. His father was a lawyer, the descendant of upper-class New England and New York families. Stevenson attended the Pomfret School in Connecticut and Harvard University. Strong feelings of patriotism motivated him to leave Harvard in 1917 and enlist in the Navy. Though it was later discovered that he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, he was not discharged.
He returned to Harvard in September 1919 to complete his bachelor's degree. He took a job teaching at a boys' school in New England and began to write short stories. In 1921, his tuberculosis became acute, and following a year's stay in a sanatorium in Saranac, New York, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived for eleven years. During his years in Santa Fe, he wrote over one dozen short stories, two novels, and two plays. His Santa Fe writing displayed no clear indication of a sharpened political or social consciousness. His stories were mainly impressionistic vignettes (slices of life). His novels, Edge of the Nest (Coward, McCann, 1929) and The Gospel According to St. Luke's (Longmans, Green, 1931), were conventional coming-of-age tales. They received generally good reviews (all in the form of short notices).
Motivated by the effects of the war and the depression, he began to study the writings of Marx. He was, however, unimpressed by American Marxists, who are, "with few exceptions, bunglers and blockheads..., whose attitude toward the doctrine so closely resembles that of the Tennessee Fundamentalists toward the teaching of Jesus" (Stevenson Letter). Dorothy Healey, a leader of the Communist Party in southern California, and who knew Stevenson well, told me that he was "the most theoretically developed of the screen Communists. He had really read the texts and thought about them. He constantly questioned and tried to expand the parameters of a Marxist approach to literature" (Healey Interview).
In the spring of 1933, Stevenson decided to move back to New York City and write plays for the left theater groups there. Shortly after his arrival, Margaret Larkin, a friend of his from Santa Fe, introduced him to Maltz and to the Theatre Union. He wrote several social-based dramas for the Theatre Union (and for other left theater groups), although his successes were limited. Since he received almost no remuneration from his plays, Stevenson supported himself by working as a publicist for other, more successful plays, most notably the road show of Life With Father.
In New York, Stevenson joined the Communist Party, helped edit New Masses, and worked for the International Labor Defense (ILD), a Party-front group that defended the rights of minorities and political prisoners, such as the Scottsboro Boys. In 1934, the ILD and Stevenson became involved in the fallout from a miners' strike in Gallup, New Mexico. Following a bitter strike, the company had laid off all the union leaders, evicted them from their homes, and blacklisted them. Three resisted and were arrested. On the day of their trial, April 4, 1935, a fight broke out between a group of miners and sheriff's deputies. The sheriff and one miner were killed, and two deputies and four miners were wounded. A massive dragnet ensued: Over 100 homes were raided, 800 people were jailed, and 100 others were placed in custody, pending a deportation hearing. Charges eventually were brought against ten of the miners.
The CP, ILD, and American Civil Liberties Union dispatched lawyers and organizers to New Mexico. Robert Minor was sent by the CP to establish the Gallup Defense Committee (GDC). Stevenson, a member of the GDC national board, traveled to Gallup to help gather evidence for the three defense attorneys and to help the miners and their families organize fundraising and consciousness-raising campaigns. In early May, three hooded men, armed with revolvers, seized, beat, and blindfolded Stevenson and Minor, then drove them into the desert, dumped them there, and warned them to leave New Mexico. A Navajo sheepherder found them and guided them back to Gallup. State and local officials refused to believe they had been beaten and kidnapped, and an assistant district attorney called their story a "hoax" and a "typical Communist trick" (Stevenson, "Gallup's" 4).1
When Stevenson returned to New York, he continued to write for and edit New Masses. In 1940, at the Surrey Theater (a summer theater in Maine), Stevenson met and married Janet Marshall. They began writing plays together. They adapted two of their plays, Counter-Attack and Secret Weapon, from Soviet sources (Ilya Vershinin and Mikhail Ruderman's Pobyeda [Victory] and Konstantin Finn's Ruza Forest, respectively). At the end of 1943, the Stevensons moved to Hollywood, where Stevenson thought he would be able to earn much more money writing screenplays. Soon after his arrival, he and several other writers were employed by Lester Cowan, an independent movie producer, to revise a script based on war correspondent Ernie Pyle's newspaper columns about ordinary soldiers. When the movie, The Story of G. I. Joe, was completed, screen credit was awarded to Stevenson, Guy Endore, and Leopold Atlas—all of whom would later be blacklisted. Though the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, Stevenson's screenwriting career did not flourish. He earned only two other screen credits, for co-adapting the story of The Girl in White (MGM, 1952) and for co-writing the screenplay for Man from Cairo (Michaeldavid-Lippert, 1953).
The House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Stevenson to appear before it on September 19, 1951. He responded to most of the Committee's questions by invoking the Fifth Amendment and stating that he was not doing so in order to hide anything, but to protect himself from "heresy hunting in the Government" (Communist 1615). Following the hearing and his blacklisting, Stevenson did some work on the script black market, but with little luck. The production of one script, based on his adaptation of Maltz's novel, The Cross and the Arrow, was abandoned when the company ran out of money. And the movie based on his co-adaptation of B. Traven's novel, La Rosa Blanca, a muckrakingaccount of foreign oil producers in Mexico, was not released until after his death.2
Stevenson devoted most of his energy to his literary work. As part of his effort to combat the domestic Cold War, he co-founded and co-edited California Quarterly, which dedicated itself to printing the "good writing" that would otherwise be suppressed by "censorship and obscurantism" (as its front cover proclaimed). California Quarterly published stories and poems by Aimé Césaire, B. Traven, Pablo Neruda, Louis Aragon, Ray Bradbury, and Nelson Algren. The summer 1953 issue was devoted to Salt of the Earth. And, using the pseudonym Lars Lawrence, he commenced writing The Seed, a five-part novel dramatizing the events he had witnessed in Gallup. Four volumes were published (Morning, Noon and Night; Out of the Dust; Old Father Antic; The Hoax); the final volume, The Sowing, was not. Stevenson depicted the main character, a Communist organizer he named Ham Turner, as a courageous man, who finds himself swept along by events over which he has little control. Turner is very self-critical, regularly berating himself for his personal and political weaknesses.
Phillip Bonosky, in his review of the first volume for Masses & Mainstream, challenged Stevenson's mode and method of characterization. With the Party in such dire straits, with many of its leaders in prison or in hiding, and with membership sharply reduced, Bonosky apparently decided someone had to bolster the literary image of Communists. Though Bonosky did not say so, the tenor of his criticism was clearly influenced by the directive of Party cultural commissar, V. J. Jerome, that Party writers must "grasp the weapon of culture." Besides, Bonosky had his own political and aesthetic axe to grind. He had previously depicted, in a biography and a novel, Communist organizers very different from the one created by Stevenson.3 Though he applauded Stevenson's literary motivation to show how Communists really think and function, Bonosky argued that Stevenson had failed the Party by not creating a Communist Party leader "capable of giving guidance to this or any struggle." The literary techniques of "naturalism" and "interior monologue" employed by Stevenson, though fine for "negative characters," "complicated characters," or "simple people," were not appropriate literary methods to depict Communist characters. Bonosky acknowledged that Stevenson showed the reader that Communists have their share of faults, but in doing so he had undermined the belief that they were "people anybody ought to listen to in a pinch, let alone lead them anywhere" (Bonosky 51-55).
Bonosky's review elicited several critical responses, three from blacklisted Hollywood writers who had become disgusted with the Party's resistance to reforming its political and cultural doctrines. Albert Maltz described the review as "astonishing and confusing," not least for Bonosky's seeming assertion that Communists are without complications or a flow of inner consciousness. In his reply, Bonosky simply repeated his original criticism, that Stevenson had failed "to convey the essential truth of Communist character." Alvah Bessie upbraided Bonosky for his failure to recognize interior monologue as a device that writers loyal to the working class could use. Stevenson, himself, accused Bonosky of "an idealistic, all-or-nothing, scholastic approach to criticism" ("Two," "More").
Two years later, in an article for Political Affairs (the CP theoretical journal), Stevenson indicted Party leaders for ignoring cultural issues and falling into the "habit of concentrating on the transient political content of art—its conformity to the technical 'line' of the moment—while failing to accord it adequate artistic analysis." As a result of what Stevenson labeled its "rigid or mechanical approach to culture," the Party has had "a most appalling effect upon all engaged in cultural work, particularly upon cultural leaders" (Stevenson [as Arndt] 24). No Party cultural critic responded in print.
Stevenson left the Party in 1957, completed The Seed in 1965, and traveled to the Soviet Union later that year. He died in Alma Ata, on September 22, 1965. Maltz, his literary executor, arranged for a translation of The Seed to be published by a firm in the German Democratic Republic, where it enjoyed greater sales than it had in the United States.
These two episodes demonstrated the peculiar nature of the relationship between left-inclined writers and the Communist Party. Writers pretended that CP leaders were politically savvy, and CP leaders pretended that the literary output of left-inclined writers was valuable to the Party. They also validated the main point of Maltz's article, that the current political line always outweighed, in the minds of Party leaders, the literary views of left-inclined writers. Between 1934 and 1945, the Browder-led Party had made every effort to attract writers to it, for their name-value as opponents of fascism rather than for the content of what they wrote. After Foster replaced Browder, writers were only considered valuable insofar as they uncritically followed the new Party line. During both periods writers acquiesced, because they believed in the acuity of Party leaders. But when those leaders failed to develop an effective program to preserve the Party from the attacks of its cold-war opponents, writers like Maltz and Stevenson ceased to pay public obeisance to the Party's cultural pronouncements. And the Party, in turn, with writers streaming out of it, stopped pretending that it had to pay public obeisance to literature.
1. The case went to trial in October; three miners were convicted and given harsh sentences by the judge. They served several years in prison before their sentences were overturned on appeal.
2. La Rosa Blanca is still a clandestine movie, surreptitiously exhibited in obscure locations.
3. For Bonosky's life and career, see Norman Markowitz, "Written in Red: Phillip Bonosky's Contribution to American Letters," Political Affairs 85 (Dec. 2006), 32-34. Bonosky had joined the Communist Party in 1928, and became an editor and literary critic for Masses & Mainstream in the early 1950s. The Communist organizers in his novel, Burning Valley (Masses and Mainstream,1953) and his biography, Brother Bill McKie: Building the Union at Ford (International Publishers, 1953), were courageous, self-assured, and unhesitant. Several years later, Bonosky asked himself: "Do the Communists I have known, and the events I have experienced, lend themselves to artistic truth?" And he concluded that their heroic actions remained "an epic theme which no artist can reject or fail to gauge correctly except at his own peril." ("More Comments on Howard Fast," Masses & Mainstream [April 1957]: 47.)
Babb, Sanora. "Another Viewpoint." New Masses 58 (12 Feb. 1946): 10.
Bernstein, Walter. Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Bonosky, Phillip. "Mining Town." New Masses 7 (Dec. 1954): 51-55.
Ceplair, Larry. "Albert Maltz." The Political Companion to Film. Ed. Gary Crowdus. Chicago: Lakeview P, 1994.
Communist Infiltration of Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. Testimony of Philip Stevenson. 19 Sept. 1951.
Foster, William Z. "Elements of a People's Culture." New Masses 59 (23 April 1946): 6-9.
Gold, Michael. "The Road to Retreat." Daily Worker 11 Feb. 1946: 6.
Hart, Henry, ed. The Writer in a Changing World. New York: Equinox Cooperative Press, 1937.
Healey, Dorothy. Interview with Larry Ceplair. 15 September 1979.
Investigation of Communist Activities in the Los Angeles Area—Part 5. Testimony of Leopold Atlas. 12 March 1953.
Jehser, Werner. Friedrich Wolf: Leben und Werk. Berlin: Verlag des Europäischen Buch, 1982.
Jerome, V. J. Grasp the Weapon of Culture!. New York: New Century Publishers, 1951.
Lenin, V. I. "Party Organization and Party Literature." Lenin on Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1967.
Maltz, Albert. "The Citizen Writer." 1943. The Citizen Writer: Essays in Defense of American Culture. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
---. Interview with Larry Ceplair. Oct. 1976.
---. "Moving Forward." New Masses 59 (9 March 1946): 8-22.
---. "What Shall We Ask of Writers?" New Masses 58 (12 Feb. 1946): 19-22.
"More on Morning, Noon, and Night." Masses & Mainstream 8 (July 1955): 58-64.
Schneider, Isidor. "Background to Error." New Masses 58 (12 Feb. 1946): 23-25.
---. "Probing Writers' Problems." New Masses 57 (23 Oct. 1945): 22-25.
Sillen, Samuel. "Which Way Left-Wing Literature?" Daily Worker 11 Feb. 1946: 6.
Stevenson, Philip. "For a New Approach to Culture." (As Henry Arndt.) Political Affairs 36 (May 1957): 24-33.
---. "Gallup's Last Roundup." Labor Defender (October 1935).
---. Letter to Kyle Crichton. 16 March 1933. Stevenson Papers Box 2. Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
"Two Opinions on a Novel." Masses & Mainstream 8 (May 1955): 62-64.