The Liberal Reaction and The Popular Front

Capitalism and the laissez-faire economics of conservatives like Hoover were questioned by large segments of the population. (Donaldson, “I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity, p. 39.) “[America] was in the midst of an identity crisis as citizens struggled to adapt to the chain of disasters that accompanied the onset of the Depression.…Distressing levels of unemployment and underemployment challenged the old adage that America was the land of opportunity where hard work was the key to success.” (Id., p. 21.)

Because of the lack of government response to the economic crisis of the early 1930s, radical political movements reawakened. The turmoil of the Great Depression created a climate of considerable tolerance to left-wing thinking; although leftist politics were far from being actively promoted, they were neither strongly discouraged nor persecuted as they would be after WW II. (Mitchell, The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada,1945-1980, p. 54.) “Back [in the 1930s] it looked to us that the world was either going to be Socialist or it was going to be Fascist. We didn’t know that there would be an FDR who could help make the old system more tolerable at least for a while.” (Seeger/Reiser, quoting Myles Horton of the Highlander Folk School, p. 3.)

To many people, including academics and intellectuals, old progressive ideas, socialist concepts and even communism seemed like attractive alternatives to the laissez-faire capitalism that led to the economic collapse. Intellectuals and liberals were attracted to “…feelings of human solidarity, to the brotherhood of the dispossessed and the excluded, especially when the Great Depression had dramatized the twin failures of free enterprise and the ethos of individualism….” (Cantwell, When We were Good: The Folk Revival, p. 2, quoting Stephen Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War.) “From the perspective of the Thirties, the Communist system, for those who believed in its vision of social justice, was radically enlightened, democratic and modern, the historical consummation toward which capital naturally tended….” (Cantwell, p. 101; Donaldson, pp. 39-42.)

A common pattern for intellectuals, especially the young, was a brief flirtation with leftist organizations, including in some instances, communism as an alternative to an American system that appeared mired in exploitation, racial inequality, and human misery. (Denning, pp. 4-5.) Some writers of the era joined the Communist party believing it to be the best hope for social revolution. Negro writers, such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes, who were attracted by the Communist party’s militant opposition to lynching, job discrimination, and segregation, briefly joined the party or found their first supportive audiences there.

Although there was some left-wing influence, relatively few Americans became Communists in the 1930s. At its height, the Communist Party of the United States had perhaps 100,000 members, and many of these remained active for only a brief time. As explained by Maurice Isserman in his book, If I had a Hammer…The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left, the Communist Party in the United States (CPUSA) during the 1930s was little more than an organization beset with infighting among various factions from different points along the socialist continuum: “American Communists from 1936 to 1939 entertained a strange hybrid of democratic and anti-democratic ideas….The Popular Front, with its emphasis on the defense of existing democratic rights against fascism, restored a measure of democratic content to the Communist ideology….” (Isserman, p. 13.)

Although the Popular Front was often associated with communism and the CPUSA (Eyerman and Jamison, p. 64-65), that point of view has been criticized as overly simplistic. (Denning, pp. xvi-xix.) Many Popular Front supporters were never members of the Communist Party, but rather were “fellow travelers,” i.e. “generic communists, using the term with a small ‘c’ ” as with generic “socialists”, “feminists” or “radicals.” (Id., pp. 4-5.) The Popular Front was “the extraordinary flowering of arts, entertainment and thought based on [a] broad social movement…that emerged out of the [economic] crisis of 1929, and it remained the central popular democratic movement over the following three decades….” (Id.)

“As a social movement, the Popular Front expressed its collective identity not merely through political tracts, strikes and demonstrations, but also, and perhaps more significantly, through art music and ritual.” (Id.) Popular Front analysis, with its emphasis on class conflict and the failures of capitalism, had a wide influence on the era’s thought and writing.  Moreover, alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe, many otherwise uncommitted people followed the Popular Front because the Soviet Union was vigorously antifascist. (Denning, pp. 4-5.)

In light of the movement to the left, many historians argue that the New Deal programs helped preserve capitalism by providing an alternative to more radical measures. “It often seemed to me the possibility of some kind of a revolution was there, and these programs were politically significant as well as helpful to individuals and families. Fascist, ideas were circulating in America at the time, as well as socialist. We could have moved in a quite different direction, and I think those programs were helpful in preventing us from moving in a totalitarian direction of some sort.” (