The Liberals, I — Bruce Bliven


Here at Painting the Culture Red, a major part of our mission is to explore what liberals thought of the Soviet Union. Opinion on the Left was not monolithic. (Future posts will make this clear.) But let’s start with liberals who viewed that nation and its leader as democracy’s best hope.

The New Republic has given us a leg up on this. The February 3 issue retrieves an item “From the Stacks” by Bruce Bliven (1889-1977), one of the magazine’s longest serving editors.

Bliven led the flagship publication of Progressivism from 1930 to 1945. According to the current New Republic editors, Bliven’s “most egregious misstep” was “his sympathy for the Soviet Union.” That Stalin had set about publicly disgracing and killing his rivals was known to the world. The bloody purges “should have been a cue to renounce the USSR,” they write, “but much of the American left was not ready to assimilate that horrific reality.”

Here was somebody ready, at any rate, to complain to the dictator personally. In an open letter to Stalin, Bliven “scrounged for any scrap of logic that might excuse his hero, and endeavored to give the great comrade some heartfelt advice.”

Bliven to Stalin, March 1938:

The cables from Moscow tell us that fresh purges and additional trials are contemplated. I take it for granted that your heart sinks at this prospect, as do those of millions of other persons throughout the world. . . . What I now urge upon you is a revision of your policy . . .

In his 1970 memoir, Bliven said that he and the New Republic’s resident economist, George Soule, “were unforgivably slow to realize what was happening.”

The Drama of Galileo — and of Losey, Eisler, and Brecht


“I believe in the gentle force of reason; in the long run, no one can resist it. Nobody can watch me drop a pebble and say it doesn’t fall. Nobody can do that. The seduction of truth is too strong.”

So says Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. The staged biography by the famed East German poet and dramatist pitted science (truth) against religion (rigorously enforced falsehood) and placed intellectuals on the side of the former.

Brecht’s work went through several versions beginning in the late 1930s, all of them featuring incidental music by the German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. In America, it played on Broadway in 1947 in a production directed by Joseph Losey. Losey’s conception of the play is still with us, in the form of the Losey-directed movie from 1974 that has the Israeli actor Topol in the lead role.

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Topol expressed admiration for the director but said that he was a man preoccupied “22 out of 24 hours of the day” with his own persecution by the U.S. government. Losey had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. After being blacklisted, he exiled himself to Europe (where he made Galileo, among other pictures).

If the theme of the creative mind under pressure from the Inquisition was relevant for Losey, it was more so for his longtime friend, Eisler, and his role model, Brecht. Both had run-ins with HUAC. Much more dedicated Reds than Losey (the American’s membership in the Party had been brief), they got deported as the communist controversy in America neared its height.

After deportation came the attempt to live in East Germany, “the land of real and existing socialism.” It was dicey; the truth was superintended by the scientific and cultural commissars of the Soviet bloc.

Hanns Eisler’s most ambitious project, an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, was condemned by East German academicians. They were enforcing the policy of Andrei Zhdanov, the Russian tasked with patrolling music and the arts behind the Iron Curtain and stopping any imperialist influences from creeping in. Eisler was denied authorization for his interpretation of Goethe and gave up writing the opera in 1952.

As Staatsdichter (state poet) of the German Democratic Republic, Bertolt Brecht fared better. He minded his p’s and q’s and was given the use of the grand Schiffbauerdamm theater for productions by his Berliner Ensemble, which became East Germany’s most distinguished institution. Aware that the theater could be taken away from his ensemble if he stepped out of line, he paid lip service to the theories of the Russian dramatist Stanislavsky and the socialist realism demanded by Zhdanov.

Brecht also doffed his hat to Trofim Lysenko, the truth-arbiter in the field of biology. “Lysenkoism” held that Mendelian genetics were a capitalist hoax; agronomists and horticulturalists in Russia and its satellite nations were to eschew Mendel and build upon Soviet theories exclusively.

He may be one of the few who, while being subjected to Zhdanovism, also dabbled in Lysenkoism. Die Erziehung der Hirse, a children’s ballad that Brecht wrote in 1950, about how to grow millet, highlights the wonders emanating from “Lysenko’s greenhouse in distant Moscow.” Stalin, “the Soviet peoples’ great harvest leader,” appears in a cameo role.

Brecht won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.

This Day in (Protest-Song) History


“Matron Felled by Cane in ‘Old Plantation’ Setting” ran a 1963 headline in the Baltimore Afro-American. The report was about the murder of 51-year-old Hattie Carroll at the hands of 24-year-old William Zantzinger, who struck Mrs. Carroll at a costume ball in downtown Baltimore. Zantzinger, white son of Maryland’s tobacco farming elite, drunkenly lashed out at her and another black woman on the hotel staff that night, yet he received barely any punishment for his crimes.

The song Bob Dylan wrote about the case, appearing on the album The Times They Are a-Changin’ , was released 50 years ago today. Your editor’s local radio station, WYPR, ran a commemorative piece about it.

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is an early Dylan song. It’s from his period experimenting with the Woody Guthrie method of editorializing musically about the news. Guthrie’s fellow Oklahoman transplants and fellow Red folkies, Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, made it their business to encourage Dylan, along with Janis Ian, Phil Ochs, and other young musicians, to expose America’s ills in their music. The husband and wife team called it “social realism in topical-song writing.”

The couple were dismayed when Dylan, a role model to his peers, pivoted away from protest songs. It was a shattering development, they said in their joint memoir, Red Dust and Broadsides (1999):

“It caused scores of young song writers to abandon their original direction . . . (ballads, political commentaries, etc.) in order to try and become new Bob Dylans. They began writing involved, personal, introspective poetry and then attempting to set the result to guitar music with mouth harp interludes.”

This was no way to promote “the inherent goodness of the working class.”

He’s Been Streep-Slapped


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For reasons having to do with the eccentricity and/or passive-aggressiveness of actress Meryl Streep, people have grown interested in whether Walt Disney harbored nasty views. Disney is portrayed in a new movie costarring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.

Here is the impression that Walt Disney made on Maurice Rapf. Rapf (1914-2003), who grew up in Hollywood as the son of a prominent MGM executive, worked for many studios as a screenwriter including Disney’s. (He is credited for Song of the South from 1946 and So Dear to My Heart from 1948.)

“Was he at all a Fascist sympathizer or anti-Semite?” Rapf is asked in an oral history.

Rapf answers:

“I never felt he was. He knew I was Jewish, too. But I don’t think he was an anti-Semite. I think he was a decent enough guy who was very conservative, and it got worse as time went on and as he got richer. When I worked for him, the Disney studio was not very [financially] solid. . . . Then, of course, the strike hurt him a lot, and that made him more reactionary because he felt the strike was Communist-inspired. He did believe that. His brother [Roy] must have convinced him, and he had a lawyer, Gunther Lessing, who was a leading anti-Communist ‘authority.’ So he was being fed all this stuff by his brother and his lawyer. On the other hand, he knew I was a Red, and he liked me and other Reds.”

More Moe


Note the preceding photo. That envelope was sent to Moe Asch’s recording studio in Manhattan by Woody Guthrie. Moses “Moe” Asch (the original Mel Novikoff from Inside Llewyn Davis, see December posts) began putting Guthrie’s singing and playing on acetate master discs in 1944. The producer was “impressed with the man’s ability to make the radical past come alive,” according to Joe Klein in Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980). The Guthrie album called Struggle, featuring “some of his heavier material,” was an Asch release from 1946.

Asch assigned Guthrie a project that was to have been the pièce de résistance: a set of original songs about Sacco and Vanzetti, who had been celebrated as martyrs by the Communist Party for decades. The songs didn’t turn out well. Guthrie’s work “was becoming rather ponderous and self-righteous,” writes Klein.