Popular Front Counter-Memories

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

Sarah Ehlers

Anti-Imperialist Modernism:
Race and Transnational Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War
By Benjamin Balthaser
University of Michigan Press, 2016, 320 pages,
$80 hardcover, $64.95 e-book.

WRITING AGAINST THE grain of a good deal of progressive labor history, and providing a counter-memory to popular imaginations of the Depression-era United States, Benjamin Balthaser’s indispensible first book, Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War, offers an unprecedented history of anti-imperialist activism and cultural production during the interwar period.

Anti-Imperialist Modernism accounts for the complex relationships between movements for racial and ethnic self-determination and the internationalist, cross-racial activism of the Popular Front. It complements new scholarship in left literary studies that has turned concertedly to questions of Black liberation, intersectional feminism and anti-imperialist solidarity.
At the same time, the book demonstrates important relationships between scholarship on literary radicalism and work in fields such as African diaspora studies, Indigenous Studies, and borderlands studies.(1)

Like the Jacob Lawrence silk-screen print Toussaint at Ennery on its cover — a portrayal of the Haitian revolutionary hero in a cubist style — the book also convincingly demonstrates how integral modernist aesthetics are to the historical and conceptual imagining of cultural front anti-imperialism. Through a combination of rigorous historical, theoretical, and textual analysis, Anti-Imperialist Modernism also proves that modernism has “imperialism and its other, colonial liberation … in its DNA.” (6)

Across an introduction and six chapters, Anti-Imperialist Modernism considers a range of historical and geographic sites as well as a diverse array of cultural productions, including well-known authors’ radical writings about Cuba; Nez Perce intellectual Archie Phinney’s travels in Soviet Russia; Popular Front imaginations of the Haitian Revolution; radical farmworkers’ photographs of California’s Central Valley; and the historical memory of the legendary 19th-century Mexican bandit Joaquín Murrieta.

The final chapter, an examination of the original film script for The Salt of the Earth (1954), a drama of the 1951 strike against Empire Zinc in New Mexico, demonstrates how the anti-imperialist imaginary of the Popular Front was foreclosed within a nationalist frame during the Cold War.

Breaking the National Frame

Anti-Imperialist Modernism begins on a single block in Harlem in 1936. Across the street from the Federal Theatre Project’s production of Orson Welles’ “voodoo” Macbeth (an innovative interpretation of Shakespeare’s play featuring the first all-black Shakespeare cast) protesters marched in resistance to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

This particular confluence of events, Balthaser argues, articulates the Popular Front period of the 1930s and 1940s as “a far more complicated set of transnational relationships and practices than the usual domestic focus on labor unions and the New Deal” provides.

The book’s opening “snapshot” — which places in the “same frame” Welles’ modernist allegory of African-American uprising and an anti-imperialist march — is just one of the several convincing examples leveraged as proof that the “‘red decade’ of the Great Depression witnessed an upsurge of transnational solidarity based on a radical critique of the United States as an imperial power.” What’s more, the experimental nature of Welles’ play highlights the shaping influence of “a global language of modernism” that “brought the spatially dizzying and fragmented experience of imperialism back to the United States.” (2)

As Balthaser so convincingly demonstrates, artistic experiments such as Welles’s demand to be read in dialectical relationship to the historical ground pounded by marching feet.

Demonstrating how anti-imperialism was “constitutive of the Popular Front and modernist imaginary,” Anti-Imperialist Modernism expands the historical and conceptual terrain of earlier foundational studies of Popular Front culture tacitly bound to the study of left populist forms rooted in national traditions (a version of Antonio Gramsci’s “national-popular”). (4)(2)

The first chapter, for example, examines how Cuba occupied the imagination of four of the most influential writers of the period: Josephine Herbst, Clifford Odets, Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes. For all four (though to different ends), the experience of traveling in Cuba and engaging with U.S.-Cuba politics engendered crises of representation. In the political and literary realms, Cuba emerged as a site that destabilized racial and national forms of identity in ways that lead to formal innovation.

Central to Chapter One, then, is Balthaser’s analysis of social realism in relation to a Popular Front post-national imaginary that both contains a critique of the nation-state and proffers possibilities for transnational anti-imperialist solidarities. Questions of authenticity underwriting the social realist novel, Balthaser shows, are also questions about the terms of national belonging.

The book’s critique of the radical novel continues in Chapter Two, “Travels of an American Indian into the Hinterlands of Soviet Russia: Native American Modernity and the Popular Front,” which situates D’Arcy McNickle’s bildungsroman, The Surrounded (1936), in the context of theoretical writings by Nez Perce intellectual Archie Phinney.

Reading McNickle and Phinney together — and at the nexus of Native American politics of self-determination and the politics of the broader cultural left —Balthaser rearticulates the antiracist and anti-imperialist character of the Popular Front. Importantly, he resists reading Native American engagements with the Popular Front in terms of multicultural pluralism, discerning instead an ironic relationship to “cultures of unity” that suggest a more radical politics in line with the resistance to official anti-racisms that theorist Jodi Melamed terms “race radicalism.”(3)

In Chapter Three, “The Other Revolution: Haiti and the Aesthetics of Anti-Imperialist Modernism,” Balthaser shifts focus to representations of the Haitian Revolution and resistance to the U.S. military occupation of Haiti. The chapter demonstrates how Haitian history, politics, and culture were at the center of anti-fascist politics during the 1930s and 1940s, and shows how “Haiti” became “a kind of code word, a trope, to signify not only the potentialities of the antifascist coalition, but also the dangers should fighting fascism leave the colonial order in place.” (129)

The chapter considers a range of literary, visual, and journalistic representations of the Haitian Revolution, as well as the U.S. political movement to release Haitian communist writer Jacques Roumain from prison.

That chapter also examines C.L.R. James’s foundational The Black Jacobins (1938) in terms of anti-imperialist modernism, before turning to Welles’ unmade film project the Heart of Darkness, which, through its direct revision of a canonical modernist text, becomes “a perfect vehicle” for understanding anti-imperialist modernism as a political and aesthetic formation.

Anti-Imperialism and the West Coast Left

As part of its recovery of anti-imperialist activism and cultural production, Anti-Imperialist Modernism also significantly expands knowledge of the interwar West Coast and Southwest Lefts. The fourth and fifth chapters, on the transnational critique of New Deal photography and on the historical memory of the Mexican-American War, examine the unique position of California in Popular Front formations.

As Balthaser writes in Chapter Four: “the violence of the vigilante movement and the ‘red squads’ of Los Angeles, the mass deportations of Mexcian Americans, and the conditions of poverty in the Central Valley could not be explained or contained within the discourse of U.S. liberal democracy or the New Deal.” (153)

Balthaser’s attention to West Coast activism through research in California labor newspapers such as Western Worker, Spanish language periodicals such as Lucha Obrera, and literary journals such as The New Tide unearths a counter-archive of representations that resist the nationalist ideologies inherent in iconic Depression-era renderings of the American West such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936.

Indeed the fourth chapter, “The Strike and the Terror: The Transnational Critique of the New Deal in the California Popular Front,” begins by juxtaposing Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph with a photograph of a striking California worker lying in a pool of blood. The latter image, which circulated in a California Communist Party newspaper, literally and figuratively wounds predominant historical memories of the Depression U.S.

As Balthaser describes it: “Mexican American, male, wounded, part of a militant strike led by the Communist Party and involving mostly workers of Mexican and Filipino descent, this representation of labor violates nearly all the precepts that made the Lange image central to the ideological work of representing the Depression around notions of whiteness, paternalism, national identity, gender, and the deserving poor.” (150)

Whereas the first chapters of Anti-Imperialist Modernism focused largely on literary texts and the development of the modern novel, Chapter Four turns to visual artifacts to argue that “an anti-imperialist modernist language of violence and resistance” was constructed through “a sensational and often visual rhetoric of ‘terror.’”

This visual language of terror at once provides a counter-discourse to sentimental nationalism and creates an “international visual and rhetorical lexicon” that articulates how deportation, lynching, and anti-labor violence are connected to “the violence of imperial domination.” (179)

The ghost of famed 19th-century California bandit Joaquín Murrieta is the focus of Chapter Five, “An Inland Empire: Fascism, Farm Labor, and the Memory of 1848.” Asking why Murrieta occupied the imagination of 1930s cultural workers, Balthaser finds that Murrieta “became the perfect vehicle to express the many contradictions of the Popular Front discourse around the U.S. West and its imperial legacy.” (179)

Through extended readings of works by Carlos Bulosan, Carey McWilliams and Emma Tecayuna, the chapter demonstrates how the 1848 acquisition of part of Mexico was a lived reality for left activists and workers as they fought U.S. imperial dominance in the borderlands.

For example, Tenayuca’s 1939 The Com­munist essay “The Mexican Question in the Southwest” stands as an exemplary piece of thirties theoretical writing that combines socialist internationalism with the transnational politics of the U.S./Mexico borderlands, positioning “the Mexican American population as an internally colonized people,” and calling for cultural as well as political and economic recognition.”

In Balthaser’s framework, Tenayuca’s assertion of her status as both citizen and colonial subject “is not a contradiction, but rather a precise analysis of the liminal and transnational space of an empire within a nation.” (27)

Just as Tenayuca’s writing and activism demands acknowledgment of Texas (and the Southwest more broadly) as a site of brutal colonization, Anti-Imperialist Modernism makes clear that police and anti-labor violence within the United States cannot be disconnected from the violences of imperial domination; and historical sites of left labor struggle during the interwar period must be understood in the context of cross-border and anti-imperialist solidarities.

Modernism and Anti-Imperialism

Building on the work of theorists such as Fredric Jameson, Masao Miyoshi and Edward Said who demonstrate how imperialism was constitutive of modernism, Anti-Imperialist Modernism asserts that revolutionary anti-imperialism was also integral to the modernist literary movement.

Tracing the dialectical relationships between historical realities and formal innovation, Balthaser adeptly works against the easy dismissal of Popular Front writing as mere sentimental schlock or hack propaganda. Through his engagements with visual and popular cultural objects, in particular, he builds on the work of left modernist scholars such as Joseph Entin and Paula Rabinowtiz who have rethought Popular Front-era modernisms as sensational, popular, populist and pulpy.

While Anti-Imperialist Modernism largely frames its interventions in terms of left literary scholarship, it also marks a significant intervention in the “global turn” in modernist studies. Insofar as global modernism has witnessed what Aarthi Vadde has called a “definitional proliferation,” anti-imperialism has been conspicuously absent as a historical, theoretical, or aesthetic framework.

What’s more, within modernist studies, the internationalism of the modernist movement is all-too-often treated as a theme or trope rather than as part of the complex political matrices Balthaser sketches.

The absence of anti-imperialist histories and aesthetics from new work fitting under the rubrics of “transnational” or “global” modernism is perhaps unsurprising, suggesting an asymmetrical relationship between modernist studies and studies of the early-20th-century literary left. In many ways, pro-communist literature and culture continues to fit uncomfortably within modernism, even in the era of a “new modernist studies” that has replaced so-called “high modernism” with plural “modernisms” that account for a broader range of spatial and temporal locations, cultural productions, and aesthetic proclivities.

That said, as even the most staunch defenders of high modernism and of New Critical interpretive practices begin to retreat, the battle over what modernism means for the left — and for left literary studies — is no longer against conservative New Critical ideologies but a liberal logic of “expansionist” or “pluralist” modernism that covers over deep historical antagonisms. V.F. Calverton, in the 1931 inaugural issue of The Left: A Quarterly Review of Radical and Experimental Art (Spring 1931), put it this way: “Industry respects no traditions; bows to no customs; slowly but steadily it destroys differences and establishes resemblances. The similar becomes dominant, and diverse traditions very soon become one tradition.” (5)

Counter-memory Work

Anti-Imperialist Modernism is part of a tradition of radical scholarship committed to creating an emancipatory archive of American literary study. Framed as a “project of cultural recovery and “cultural memory,” Anti-Imperialist Modernism significantly alters the historical memory of the U.S. Depression by restoring to view anti-imperialist politics and aesthetics.

The book aptly closes with an examination of lines excised from the record. The final chapter, “Cold War Re-visions: Red Scare Nationalism and the Unmade Salt of the Earth,” examines the tensions between the final version of the film Salt of the Earth and the original film script. The changes made during the development of the film reveal how Cold War politics repressed and reshaped the transnational imaginary of the Popular Front.

Assembling the work of left intellectuals, artists and activists into a story about interwar anti-imperialist solidarity, Balthaser’s work asks us to pay attention not just to what has been redacted or re-envisioned — but also to ask after what has gone unsaid, unmade and undone. Reading the book, I kept remembering an image that emerged during the 2011 Occupy Movement, of a protestor in Tahrir Square holding a sign that read:

From Egypt to Wall Street
don’t [be] afraid
Go ahead

Tahrir Square is not Oakland or New York. But political uprisings against racial, gender, economic, and environmental injustice also remain connected across the globe. Anti-Imperialist Modernism reminds us why it is important to look back as we go ahead.


  1. Within left literary studies see, for example, Dayo Gore, Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War; Cheryl Higashida, Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945; Steven S. Lee, The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution; Nathaniel Mills, Ragged Revolutionaries: The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-era Literature; and Bill V. Mullen, Un-American: W.E.B. DuBois and the Century of World Revolution, among others.
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  2. See for example Michael Denning’s germinal The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996).
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  3. See Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (2011).
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Works Cited

Calverton, V.F. “The Need for Revolutionary Criticism.” The Left: A Quarterly Review of Radical and Experimental Art 1.1 (Spring 1931): 5.

Sessions, Roy. Telegram to Governor James V. Allred, dated 10 February 1938. Governor James V. Allred Papers, University of Houston Library Special Collections, Houston, Texas.

Vadde, Aarthi. “Scalability.” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 2.4. 2 January 2018. https://doi.org/10.26597/mod.0035.

May-June 2018, ATC 194