U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lineages of the Cultural Worker

Immersed in dissertation revision and thus ensconced in a unique sort of solipsism, I would like to continue the valuable (to me, at least) work of writing in a more informal and off-the-cuff manner about my research.

My approach to this week’s post (and next week’s, I think): I am going to sort of map out my general argument as I would in a free-flowing conversation, without citations, and with permission granted to myself to generalize and paint with a broad brush and be a little cavalier. Although I am conceiving of this as a multi-part exercise, I welcome comments and will try not to do the sneaky “I was planning to address that next week!” move).

Cultural Workers and the American Century: Part One

I think that the proper place to begin this review is with the feminist theorist Kathi Weeks, who argues forcefully and convincingly that the sacralization of work in contemporary political economy is both a new development and, from many perspectives, a bad one. I might also invoke the fine research of Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, who reminds us of the many early twentieth century struggles for shorter hours, abandoned with the rise of productivity-pegged pattern bargaining within American industrial unions after World War II. And I might also refer to the excellent scholarship of John Hughes and Philip Goodchild about Christian critiques of capitalist work (perhaps even pulling up an apposite quote from R.H. Tawney).

The reason I would begin with these sorts of references is that I think it essential to denaturalize “work”; indeed, to deconstruct it. Humans have historically found many different activities around which to organize their energies and desires, and work is among the worst of them. Here, I might call on Morris Cohen’s classic essay “Property and Sovereignty,” which presents the clearest argument for skepticism regarding the alleged virtues of labor in societies that demand work in exchange for survival, and that also organize their economies around the expectation that not everyone will have a job.

With this critical light cast on the field, I might proceed with some discussion of work and Western philosophy. All theories of cultural work may be seen as responses to the classical philosophical distaste for the manual and the material, and with the naturalization of the servitude of the less intelligent in the writings of Aristotle. Thus, the question of hierarchies of human intelligence is built into the history of thinking about labor: it is its core, its secret heart. The philosophical question of why humans are different from animals reflects a transposition of this question into the realm of abstraction; but those who have offered solutions tend to return to the primal scene of agrarian labor, to visions of lower-class humans working alongside beasts of burden and thus inadequately differentiating themselves from the creatures over whom man ostensibly has dominion. In more modern versions of this inquiry, the human worker melds with the machines that surround him, failing to properly individuate himself from the gears and engines, justifying his treatment (by tort law, for example, or insurance adjusters) as a sort of technical object rather than a human being.

The various ideologies of the Romantic artist can only be properly understood when this historical context is remembered. Most famously Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and William Morris sought to redeem work from its desecration in capitalist industry.  It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact politics of Carlyle and Ruskin (both read like true conservatives in many places). Morris, famously, was immersed in the world of British socialism and fashioned himself a radical. He too, in his veneration of the Middle Ages and despair at the ugliness of modernity often sounds like a principled conservative nostalgic. Readers of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris, however, often came away with the notion that cultural work might plausibly replace the drudgery of factory work in a syndicalist or guild socialist future. A direct line can be traced from Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris to Sidney Webb’s crafting of the Labour Party’s Clause IV, which calls into being a working-class public that included workers “by hand or by brain.”

Marx, famously, was deeply influenced by this Romantic critique of capitalism. But Marx was engaged in two critical projects that made it difficult for him to embrace a straightforward allegiance with their point of view. Marx’s first commitment was to the critique of religion. His second commitment was to the critique of political economy. Marx was skeptical about hymns to the holiness of work, and insistent that critics not lose sight of the connection between sweated labor and capitalist profits. He thus attempted to retain from Smith and Ricardo a certain vision of productive––as opposed to unproductive––labor. Thus, in the Grundrisse, Marx infamously declared that while the piano-maker might be a productive worker, the piano player most certainly was not.

Like Marx, many American Leftists, after the Civil War, wished to deny the productivity of piano players (and all other cultural workers/mental laborers). Populism doubled down on Jeffersonian and Jacksonian critiques of non-manual-laborers as parasites and leeches. Religious antipathy towards popular culture, a nascent Comstockism, and a deeply ingrained anti-theatricalism converged in the Gilded Age to render most forms of cultural work “non-productive” in the popular imagination.

At the same time, the popular press expanded its operations, railroad networks accelerated the dissemination of mass-produced culture, and new technologies of informational retention and spectacularization proliferated. The Theatrical Syndicate established a national network of touring productions. Sheet music sales, coordinated with hit shows, became important sources of income for publishing firms. The learned professions began to aggressively professionalize, and new forms of management and engineering opened streams of white-collar employment to the children of America’s postbellum bourgeoisie. These developments pointed to the new plausibility of a growing cultural labor sector, previously unimaginable.

Antebellum thinkers had pondered the question of “mental labor”––but none of them had ever imagined that more than a few hundred gifted souls would every earn their livings through the exercise of intellectual faculties. By the turn of the twentieth century, it had become conceivable that thousands of Americans––perhaps, eventually, millions––would punch in and out every day at the facilities of (in C. Wright Mills’s phrase) “Brains, Inc.”

Let’s see if we can track the left, right, and center positions on this situation, and its evolution throughout the twentieth century.

The twentieth-century American Left position on cultural work derived from two overlapping sources: African American aesthetic politics, and post-1917 American radicalism. Harold Cruse famously argued that the two strains were, in fact, separate. The Communists, Cruse argued, had both opportunistically latched on to the achievements of African American cultural politics and racistly denied the existence of any autonomous African American culture of resistance. There is quite a lot of truth in Cruse’s analysis, but one must adopt a particularly harsh perspective on figures like Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Claude McKay in order to agree with the argument laid out in Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. But we do want to retain his vision of two separate strains of influence, and to highlight the fact that African American cultural workers preceded the Communist Party’s temporary peace-making with popular culture during the Popular Front period. (We would also want to stage a dialogue between Cruse and a more recent theorist of the politics of African American cultural work, Richard Iton).

Why did African Americans develop an autonomous tradition of cultural work in the late 19th century? In part, the answer must be traced back to the cultural self-organization of slaves before the Civil War, and in the ring shout, corn shucking contests, and the fiddle, banjo, and fife group music that would serve as the foundation for most forms of American vernacular music. As Clyde Woods emphasized, however, the particular conjunctural occasion of the blues must be located in the nadir of failed Reconstruction and incipient Jim Crow. David Roediger, Alexander Saxton, Bruce Nelson, and Robin D.G. Kelley remind us of just how  hostile the American house of labor was to African Americans in the post-Civil War era. It is thus surprising that any African American workers identified with the late-nineteenth century equation of “honest work” with “manliness” and “virtue” (which depended logically on the real and fantasmatic subordination of non-white workers).

Thus, if a typical white craft worker looked askance at cultural work as “non-productive,” many African American workers were less wedded to such a narrow conceptualization of “productivity.” Extremely useful, here, in fleshing out this argument, are the writings of James Weldon Johnson, which evocatively reveal the alienation of young African Americans at the turn of the century from the ethos of craft unionism. Avery Gordon’s theorization of “complex personhood” as a staple of radical African American thought (a theorization that dovetails in many places with Lewis Gordon’s interpretation of Frantz Fanon as existential phenomenologist) helps us understand the greatest mystery at the heart of Johnson’s reminiscences regarding his experiences as a young man within the milieu of African American entertainers: the constant negotiation with white entrepreneurs regarding the degree to which racist content would be allowed into songs, plays, stories, or revues. The answer was only rarely: “none.” Early African American cultural workers developed a variety of ethical practices to cope with the simultaneous truths that American capitalism seemed unwilling to fully temper its desire for hateful grotesques, and that survival requires earning a paycheck.

This development of pragmatic strategies within the formal constraints of a culture industry ideologically dedicated to serving the interest of the powerful constituted the most profound heritage that would be borrowed by white radical cultural workers in the 1930s, almost all of whom worked, in one way or another, for the “enemy”––whether that was a Luce publication or a Hollywood studio.

The Harlem Renaissance, then, was a consolidation of almost half a century of African American experimentation with the possibility of cultural work (and the rise of bebop music a decade later its crowning achievement). In the spaces opened up by independent radicals like V.F. Calverton in Baltimore and in the African American radical press, Du Bois, Johnson, and E. Franklin Frazier, along with many other theorists of African American cultural work, penned detailed essays on the political meaning of aesthetic expression as a resource of the Black radical tradition.

I think it may be fairly said that the white Left’s disregard for this legacy constituted a genuine tragedy. With some exceptions, white Leftists of the 1920s and 1930s were attracted to and perplexed by African American culture. While the worst insults were committed by self-appointed experts on Black consciousness, a thorough-going cluelessness marked most efforts to come to terms with African American cultural work. Thus, when white American Left intellectuals of the late 1920s and early 1930s began to imagine a positive political role for the cultural worker in the fight against fascism and the effort to overcome the crisis in capitalism by means of socialist reorganization of property relations, they tended to think of themselves as pioneers, guided only by the history of debates about proletarian art in the 1920s-era Soviet Union.

What must be emphasized is that, to a participant, all of the major figures in the 1930s Left in the US saw themselves as cultural workers and engaged in vigorous debates regarding the proper function of left-wing cultural work. The endlessly reviewed controversies surrounding “realism” versus “modernism” were in fact subordinate fights enveloped within the much broader consensus that in the 1930s, all artists and intellectuals should strive to self-fashion as cultural workers, and that the artistic and intellectual capacities of the working class ought to cultivated. The New Masses eagerly recruited unpublished proletarian writers, and the various Midwestern small radical magazines (most of which involved, in one way or another, the efforts of the great worker-writer Jack Conroy) sought to develop the talents of the rank and file.

At the heart of this explosion of interest and investment in the idea of cultural work was the new epistemological circumstance of the 1930s. As Alain Badiou argues, the 1930s witnessed the maturation of the twentieth century’s governing desire: what he calls the Passion for the Real. Readers versed in US history may be tempted, here, to think of the long-running historiography on ideas of “authenticity” in American culture: from Miles Orvell to William Stott to Henry May to Jackson Lears to Leo Marx. That is not exactly the wrong impulse, but making this connection too early can result in a short circuit. What Badiou wishes to argue by positing the Passion for the Real as the central and collectively shared value of virtually every participant in the events of the twentieth century has a lot to do with time and temporality (a dimension that is often missed when the relatively static question of “authenticity” is raised). The cultural workers of the 1930s genuinely believed The Internationale‘s claim that earth had arrived at its final battle. Reality itself had become newly plastic (as advertised by both Charlie Chaplin and the great hydroelectric dams), available for remolding by whichever party materialized possessing the greatest organizational unity and concentrated volition.

Unlike Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris, 1930s-era cultural workers believed that authentic existence lurked not in some Medieval past, but, on the contrary, in the near future: the time when the efforts of cultural and knowledge workers to reshape society would be retroacitvely affirmed. Thus, we should underline the fact that in the 1930s, “propaganda” was not a problem for most committed intellectuals: it was a positive goal. By the 1950s, the New York Intellectuals treated “propaganda” as, unambiguously, the worst sort of endeavor in which a thinking person might engage (though they continued to produce great quantities of what must be classified as “propaganda”). What had changed was the framework.

Institutional developments supported this rise of cultural work as a kind of spiritual community united by shared commitments to a Passion for the Real. First, the early  New Deal experiment of the National Recovery Administration, while desultory in the final analysis, encouraged the mobilization of cultural workers in Hollywood. The prospect of a new code of fair competition in the movie business energized writers like John Howard Lawson to organize his fellow scenarists. The Screen Writers Guild, while embroiled in jurisdictional disputes, bedeviled by the company union that was the Academy, and countered by the corrupt and mob-infiltrated craft unions, managed to establish itself as the de facto vanguard of white-collar cultural workers. With the emergence of the CIO after 1935 (an organization led by white-collar left intellectuals and that often sought to organize white-collar left intellectuals, a fact left out of many historical thumbnails), other cultural workers would follow the SWG’s lead, most notably the American Newspaper Guild, led by the famous columnist Heywood Broun. And older cultural workers unions, like the American Federation of Musicians, were able to seize the moment, transforming a largely unsuccessful neo-Luddite crusade against recording technology and the transition to sound cinema in the early 1930s into a vital battle against “technological unemployment.”

At the same time, the extraordinary policy revolution that was the Works Progress Administration (Jason Scott Smith’s work on the New Deal’s direct job creation efforts serves as our guide, here) offered new legitimacy to cultural work. The creation of “Federal One,” with its sponsorship of thousands of artists and intellectuals, probably did more to legitimize the idea of cultural work as work than any other single event. Hostile legislators never tired of mocking the guidebook writers and mural painters. By the end of the 1930s, however, millions of Americans who would have a decade earlier laughed at the idea of an “unemployed writer” (aren’t they all?) conceded that such workers might be productive members of capitalist society.

This larger unity of Left and fellow-traveler artists and intellectuals––a unity premised on identification as cultural workers––is the main story of the oppositional culture of the 1930s. Not debates about this “line” or that, nor the injuries and insults issued by young and hyperactive polemicists against one another, and not the question of “kitsch” versus “art.” Of course, the 1930s-era formulation of the ideology of cultural work encompassed many “lines,” and of course, it necessarily combined both “kitsch” and “art”: this was understood, at the time, as a logical consequence of a nascent national culture staffed by cultural workers at various levels of development. “Technique,” not “authenticity” was the byword of the 1930s: the workerly qualities of how one was to bring into being a given representation of or abstraction from reality. As specialists in “technique,” cultural workers were tough on one another in the way that most workers are tough on one another, from time to time. It may be speculated that those most prone to interpreting politics and culture as so many points racked up by this side or that were those least connected to the Popular Front vision of cultural work (Sidney Hook, for example, engaged in many of the most brutal verbal battles while living the life of the traditional American academic; similar considerations might be brought to bear on the examples of Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, and Clement Greenberg).

This Left vision of cultural work was remarkably successful. It was also, unquestionably, the victim of its own success. The coordination of the cultural worker apparatus with the American military in World War II was complete. While unions like the SWG and ANG won impressive victories in the immediate postwar period (organized screenwriters and journalists also produced sophisticated alternative periodicals for members, and Hollywood cultural workers developed a network of classes and seminars on popular culture and politics, open to the public), the tight integration of what C. Wright Mills would name the “cultural apparatus” (arguably, the term may be traced back to Trotsky and perhaps to Bolshevik debates more generally) and the US state created ideal conditions for anti-Communist zealots. The postwar Red Scare was many things: but for Martin Dies and Jack Tenney, and Robert Taft, it had an awful lot to do with checking the growing power of cultural workers. That story remains to be told, in full.

(Next week, we will pick up the thread in the 1940s…)

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Kurt: I have nothing substantive to offer to your post above. But I want to deliver a hearty THANK YOU for sharing. …I loved that line from Mills about “Brains, Inc.” I wish I could’ve used it in my Adler book to describe Britannica’s efforts in the 1950s and 1960s. – TL

    • Thanks Tim! At some point I am going to have to fly to Chicago and sequester you in a Starbucks and ask you 19000 questions about Robert M. Hutchins!

  2. This is a great piece. A few thoughts from someone mainly outside the field of intellectual history: 1) if you look at debates in the IWW you will find a strong critique of the idea that work, in and of itself, is good. Check Industrial Pioneer, which is all online now, or the columns of T-Bone Slim (who coined the phrase “Half a loaf with better than no loafing at all”). 2) in addition to “cultural workers” (i.e., writers, artists, musicians), there are an increasing number of professional organizers from the 1910s on, some of whom fancy themselves cultural workers and others would have rejected the idea. Conservatives within the labor movement liked to say that radicals were no longer “really workers” because they spent too much time reading and thinking about ideas (the idea was that the “natural labor philosophy” was that of the AFL). But those same conservatives were often widely published writers and speakers themselves (at least within the labor press). Likewise, someone like Conroy utilized the CP network to promote his work, but never fit very well into the CP apparatus, neither did he turn on the CP after the war.

    New York tends to get all the attention in intellectual histories, and for good reason. But many of the rank and file were situated in local or regional networks. Sometimes they were drawn up into the national/international, but often they kept working locally/regionally.

    Great work. Look forward to reading more.

    • Thanks so much for these comments. (Your work on worker self-education and the intellectual history of the working class is a big influence!) I am so humbled and heartened by this note.

      The IWW part of the cultural worker story really does need to be fleshed out in my narrative–it seems to me, now that you mention it, that the overlap between the Wobbly veneration of art and poetry and the Wobbly critique of the work ethic were part of the same conceptual and political enterprise; and there are no doubt all sorts of connections to be drawn between Joe Hill, E.G. Flynn, figures like Covington Hall, and the emergence of the fragile anti-racist/pro-cultural worker dissident Left position in the 1920s.

      And, it seems very true also, as you say, that Conroy et al’s negotiation of the CPUSA network while maintaining skepticism re: “coffeepot radicalism” is a fascinating complication of more binary approaches to the history of the Old Left.

      • Kurt: there was more crossover between what we normally think of as separate factions (IWW, CP, SP), esp. during the early 1920s–notwithstanding the efforts of all sides to declare their total separation.

        I look forward to reading more!

  3. I wonder whether the Veblenite hope for a “soviet of engineers,” so to speak, fits into this history of knowledge or intellectual labor.

    Of course, you are dealing with cultural production and not other forms of “brain work,” but the lineage of non-manual labor and its oppositional potential seems have a place for Veblen and his idea of the rationally planned society.

    • Yes, the Veblenite strain is very important in this narrative. I think that Engineers and the Price System is the key text (along with the early journal articles where he was working out his critique of JB Clark and preparing the Leisure Class materials). It is becoming more common to read Veblen alongside the once-forgotten and very fascinating Simon Patten, and one can even draw interesting links to wealthy socialist eccentrics like Charles Proteus Steinmetz and then to many of the Wobbly proto-accelerationists of the 20s (as Prof. Higbie points out). Veblen’s focus on the largely arbitrary forces behind the distribution of wealth is, without question, a key stimulant to a kind of creative reimagination of postindustrial political economy (in which a cultural worker would not be any more “parasitic” or “superfluous” than a tailor or a farmer).

      Thanks for this comment! And please let me know if I didn’t catch the intended drift (that’s a chronic problem of mine ;))

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