Notes on Kenneth Burke’s “Revolutionary Symbolism in America” (1935)

Kenneth Burke, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” American Writers’ Congress, ed. Henry Hart (New York: International Publishers, 1935), 87-94.

Bibliographical Notes

Below are the Foreword, Contents, and Introduction from American Writer’s Congress. Notice that Henry Hart’s Introduction mentions nothing of the scandal caused by Burke’s paper.


THIS VOLUME is a record of the first Congress of American Writers. We were drawn together by the threat, implicit in the present social system, to our culture and to our very lives as creative men and women. We are held together by common devotion to the need of building a new world from which the evils endangering mankind will have been uprooted, and in which the foundations will live for the creating of a universal human culture. We represent many phases of thought, many varieties of temperament and of art. But these differences have served to strengthen the texture of our gathering; to enrich the fiber of our discussions; to bring to our deliberations during forty-eight crowded hours the substance and quality of life.

Traits of the Congress were heartiness, intellectual solidity and, above all, youth. Its principal achievement was, perhaps, to integrate elements and forces of American cultural life which, heretofore, have been anarchic, into the beginning of a literary movement, both broad and deep, which springs from an alliance of writers and artists with the working classes.

The articulate record of the Congress is in the papers, discussions and resolutions here collected. The first child of the Congress is the League of American Writers. The real fruit of this gathering of creative American forces will live, invisibly yet fatefully, in the works of hundreds of American writers and, through them, in the, living experience of the American people.

Chairman, League of American Writers


FOREWORD, by Waldo Frank 5
INTRODUCTION, by Henry Hart 9
IN THE NAME OF SOME HEROES, by Friedrich Wolf 19
FASCISM AND WRITERS, by Edward Dahlberg 26
FROM DADA TO RED FRONT, by Louis Aragon 33
THE WORKER AS WRITER, by Jack Conroy 83
THE SHORT STORY, by James T. Farrell 103
PROLETARIAN POETRY, by Isidor Schneider 114
REPORTAGE, by Joseph North 120
TECHNIQUE AND THE DRAMA, by John Howard Lawson 123
SOCIAL TRENDS IN THE MODERN DRAMA, by Michael Blankfort and Nathaniel Buchwald 128
TO NEGRO WRITERS, by Langston Hughes 139


ECONOMIC DECAY, affecting the whole world, has splintered all those human relationships which the educated classes of the West, for generations, have assumed to be normal and eternal.

The crisis began in colonial areas like Asia and South America; then broke upon Europe. For a brief period of wishful thinking, Americans hoped (therefore believed) they would escape the collapse of the old culture and the accompanying disintegration of material and spiritual life.

Reality awakened us from such self-satisfied fantasies, and, as an integral part of that section of the world which continues to endure the private ownership of the means of production and distribution, we shared the general fate.

Many of us began to see, amid the violences of rapid social change, the true nature of the society in which we live. Two cultures were struggling in mortal combat. Partisans and beneficiaries of the old order desperately strove to maintain it, with blood and iron, at the expense of the vast majority of men in all countries, and at the expense of all that is best in human civilization. Poverty' unemployment, fascism, the preparation for war-all revealed the real purpose beneath the vicious reaction of Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, Hearst in America.

From 1930 on, more and more American writers-like their fellow craftsmen in other countries-began to take sides in the world struggle between barbarism (deliberately cultivated by a handful of property owners) and the living interests of the mass of mankind. Within the last five years, those whose function is to describe and interpret human life in novel, story, poem, essay, play-have been increasingly sure that their interests and the interests of the propertyless and oppressed, are inseparable.

American letters have begun to depict the aspirations, struggles and sufferings of the mass of Americans. Even those writers who continue to cling to the old aesthetic attitudes begin to be aware that, if culture is to survive, all men and women who create it, absorb it and cherish it, must unite with those social forces which can save the world from reaction and darkness. In various fields, in various ways, American writers had been aligning themselves with the forces of progress against the prevailing dangers of war,

fascism and the extinction of culture. It soon became clear that the writer, like other members of the American community, must organize in his own defense. In January, 1935, a group of writers Issued the following call:

"The capitalist system crumbles so rapidly before our eyes that, whereas ten years ago scarcely more than a handful of writers were sufficiently far-sighted and courageous to take a stand for proletarian revolution, to day hundreds of poets, novelists, dramatists, critics and short story writers recognize the necessity of personally helping to accelerate the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a workers' government.

"We are faced by two kinds of problems. First, the problems of effective political action. The dangers of war and fascism are everywhere apparent; we all can see the steady march of the nations towards war and the transformation of sporadic violence into organized fascist terror.

"The question is: how can we function most successfully against these twin menaces?

"In the second place, there are the problems peculiar to us as writers, the problems of presenting in our work the fresh understanding of the American scene that has come from our enrollment in the revolutionary cause. A new renaissance is upon the world; for each writer there is the opportunity to proclaim both the new way of life and the revolutionary way to attain it. Indeed, in the historical perspective, it will be seen that only these two things matter. The revolutionary spirit is penetrating the ranks of the creative writers.

"Many revolutionary writers live virtually in isolation, lacking opportunities to discuss vital problems with their fellows. Others are so absorbed in the revolutionary cause that they have few opportunities for thorough examination and analysis. Never have the writers of the nation come together for fundamental discussion. "We propose, therefore, that a Congress of American revolutionary writers be held in New York City on April 26, 27 and 28, 1935; that to this Congress shall be invited all writers who have achieved some standing in their respective fields; who have clearly indicated their sympathy with the revolutionary cause; who do not need to be convinced of the decay of capitalism, of the inevitability of revolution. Subsequently, we will seek to influence and win to our side those writers not yet so convinced.

"This Congress will be devoted to exposition of all phases of a

writer's participation in the struggle against war, the preservation of civil liberties and the destruction of fascist tendencies everywhere. It will develop the possibilities for wider distribution of revolutionary books and the improvement of the revolutionary press, as well as the relations between revolutionary writers and bourgeois publishers and editors. It will provide technical discussion of the literary applications of Marxist philosophy and of the relations between critic and creator. It will solidify our ranks.

"We believe such a Congress should create the League of American Writers, affiliated with the International Union of Revolutionary Writers. In European countries, the I.U.R.W. is in the vanguard of literature and political action. In France, for example, led by such men as Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Andre' Malraux, André Gide and Louis Aragon, it has been in the forefront of the magnificent fight of the united militant working class against fascism.

"The program for the League of American Writers would be evolved at the Congress, basing itself on the following: fight against imperialist war and fascism; defend the Soviet Union against capitalist aggression; for the development and strengthening of the revolutionary labor movement; against white chauvinism (against all forms of Negro discrimination or persecution) and against the persecution of minority groups and of the foreign-born; solidarity with colonial people in the struggles for freedom; against the influence of reactionary ideas in American literature; against the imprisonment of revolutionary writers and artists, as well as other class-war prisoners throughout the world.

"By its very nature our organization would not occupy the time and energy of its members in administrative tasks; instead, it will reveal, through collective discussion, the most effective ways in which writers, as writers, can function in the rapidly developing crisis."

The call was signed by the following: Nelson Algren, Arnold B. Armstrong, Nathan Asch, Maxwell Bodenheim, Thomas Boyd, Earl Browder, Bob Brown, Fielding Burke, Kenneth Burke, Robert Coates, Erskine Caldwell, Alan Calmer, Robert Cantwell, Lester Cohen, Jack Conroy, Malcolm Cowley, Theodore Dreiser, Edward Dahlberg, Guy Endore, James T. Farrell, Kenneth Fearing, Ben Field, Waldo Frank, Joseph Freeman, Michael Gold, Eugene Gordon, Horace Gregory, Henry Hart, Clarence Hathaway, Josephine Herbst, Robert Herrick, Granville Hicks, Langston Hughes, Orrick

Johns, Arthur Kallet, Lincoln Kirstein, Herbert Kline, Joshua Kunitz, John Howard Lawson, Tillie Lerner, Meridel Le Sueur, Melvin Levy, Robert Morss Lovett, Louis Lozowick, Grace Lumpkin, Lewis Mumford, Edward Newhouse, Joseph North, Moissaye J. Olgin, Samuel Ornitz, Myra Page, John Dos Passos, Paul Peters, Allen Porter, Harold Preece, William Rollins Jr., Paul Romaine, Isidor Schneider, Edwin-Seaver, Claire Siiton, Paul Sifton, George Sklar, John L. Spivak, Lincoln Steffens, Philip Stevenson, Genevieve Taggard, Alexander Trachtenberg, Nathaniel West, Ella Winter, and Richard Wright.

This call was unique in American letters. It was sent by writers of considerable achievement and standing, to all American writers, regardless of their aesthetic or political views, who were willing to unite on a general program for the defense of culture against the threat of fascism and war. The response resulted in the first congress of writers ever held in American history.

When the congress opened in Mecca Temple, New York City, on the night of April 26, 1935, there were present as delegates 216 writers from twenty-six States, and 150 writers who attended as guests, including fraternal delegates from Mexico, Cuba, Germany and Japan. The hall was crowded with 4000 spectators-intellectuals, professionals and workers who came to greet this unprecedented event in American literature.

The fact that the struggle for the defense of culture against the threats of reaction is world-wide, was indicated by the honorary presiding committee for the congress chosen by the American writers:

Louis Aragon, Henri Barbusse, Andre' Gide, André Malraux and Romain Rolland, of France.

Johannes Becher, Heinrich Mann, Theodore Plivier, Ludwig Renn and Anna Seghers, of Germany.

Giovanni Germanetto, of Italy.

Martin Andersen-Nëxo, of Denmark.

Rafael Alberti, of Spain.

Juan Marinello and Rejino Pedroso, of Cuba.

Juan de la Cabada and Jose' Mancisidor, of Mexico.

Jacques Rournain, of Haiti.

Hu Lan Chi, Hwa Han, Liu Pen-Shu and Li Sing, of China.

Kirohata Kurahara, of Japan.

Sergei Dinamov, Maxim Gorky, Feodor Gladkov, Mikhail Sholokhov and Sergei Tretiakov, of the Soviet Union.

Messages and greetings were received from all parts of the world. Romain Rolland wrote: "We of Europe and you of America must coördinate our efforts. I am looking forward to a movement which shall not only participate in the necessary social action for the reconstruction of the world upon broader and more just foundations, but also for the renovation of the human spirit and an ensuing renaissance of art."

The German Writers' League (Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller), the headquarters of which is in Paris, and whose executive committee includes Johannes R. Becher, Lion Feuchtwanger, Bruno Frank, Rudolf Leonhard, Heinrich Mann, Anna Seghers and other leading German writers- cabled: "We feel sure that the American writers, who have convened this congress, will-with the earnest sense of responsibility which the hour demands-devote all their energies to the preservation of the great cultural treasures of humanity from the assaults of barbarism."

The great Soviet writer, Maxim Gorky, said in a cable: "My brotherly greetings to the congress of American writers organized for intellectual struggle against fascism and a new bloody war. We are with you, dear friends. With joy and approval we see how the forces of honest people who courageously oppose class exploitation and racial oppression are growing throughout the world."

The International Union of Revolutionary Writers wrote: "Separated by oceans, seas and thousands of miles of land, the revolutionary writers are connected by the common struggle for a new world. Now, when the shadow of fascism is over the earth, when the drums of war are being heard, the revolutionary writers, with increasing clarity, must realize there is but one force able to suppress fascism and abolish war-the force of the revolutionary proletariat. To-day the flower of humanity has rejected the old world and hails the revolution. We must see our aims clearly and understand the great, historical purposes of the fighting masses of workers. In this hour the writer's weapon is his creative work. To conquer, the weapon must be sharp and strong. Sharpen your weapon! Develop the art of revolution! Strengthen the courage and heroism of the masses and their will to victory! May your congress be the impetus to a wide front of struggle against fascism, against imperialist wars, and for the defense of the Soviet Union, the fatherland of the toilers of the world. Ardent revolutionary greetings to the first American congress of revolutionary writers."

Letters, telegrams and cablegrams were also received from

Andersen Nëxo, the Danish novelist; Agnes Smedley, from China; Johannes Becher and Anna Seghers, both in exile in Paris; Boris Pilnyak, Sergei Tretiakov, Fcodor Gladkov, Dinamov, Apletin and others from the Soviet Union; the editors of International Literature; the China League of Left Writers; the Union of Soviet Writers; and from many organizations in the United States. Henri Barbusse sent a cablegram, the last sentence of which urged intellectuals to "follow the mass of workers as well as teach them." And from Madame Sun Yat-Sen in China, the Congress received a long letter, which included the following:

"We in China are among the latest sufferers from the reaction that is destroying culture and scientific progress. Innumerable cultural and scientific institutions, which took us centuries to build, have been wiped out in a few hours by the Japanese imperialists. Darkest reaction reigns in China and, while the Japanese militarists plunder and pillage our country, the Nanking traitors become Japanese henchmen in order to prolong their power. Now, almost daily, there are wholesale arrests and torture of workers, professors, writers and students who have joined our Association."

Some of these messages were read at the first meeting of the
Congress‹the only one open to the public-by the man who presided. This was Granville Hicks, who, a month later, was discharged from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he had been teaching English, because of his participation in just such activities at the Congress typified.

Some of the papers which compose this volume were delivered that night those by Waldo Frank, Friedrich Wolf (the first speech of the Congress), Earl Browder, Langston Hughes and Moishe Nadir. Malcolm Cowley was among the speakers, but the ideas he presented that night were more extensively treated in the paper which is part of this book and which he delivered at a subsequent session of the Congress. Josephine Herbst spoke of "the stirring movement" she has witnessed in such disparate places as Iowa and Cuba, where she has lately been, and in Pennsylvania, where she lives, among workers and farmers.

"The talk is the same," she said, "though the language, inflection and rhythm vary. These men and women are becoming aware of the economic realities behind their troubles and they are beginning to fight. What has this to do with writing? So far as I am concerned, it has everything. It is impossible for me to stop myself from writing about anything so real. It is a subject matter that

inspires. It would be a very dark world to-day were it not for the hope reposing in the working class. This is a marvelous time in which to be alive. It is immeasurably better than 1890, when literature was devoted to trivia. To-day we have everything but triviality to write about."

The same thought was expressed in another way, and from another point of view, by Hays Jones, the editor of Marine Workers' Voice, whose blunt, sincere vitality elicited abundant applause. Mr. Jones said:

"First I want to dispel any ideas of my acceptance of the tide of writer. I may be a propagandist after a fashion, but a writer, no. I want, however, in the name of the workers of New York, and especially of the marine workers, to issue an invitation and an ultimatum.

"These writers arc all professionals. They make their living by writing, and I am just wondering whether they want to starve today or not. Because if they don't want to starve, they have got to do certain things, and that is to come down to the place where they have a market. You have heard that story about the poet who starves to death writing beautiful poems in a garret. There just is nothing to it. As professionals they ought to aspire to white tile bathrooms and things of that kind, and I don't blame them because we workers also aspire to those things. I rather imagine these writers arc also losing hope of finding them in capitalism unless they go in for some decidedly unpleasant things.

"For a long time it has been regarded that in the working class there is no life, no interest, just a dead, sodden mass that the writer has no need to look to as a source of material. But I say that to-day the only thing that's alive in capitalist society is the working class. The day in the life of a man who spends nine hours in front of a punch press or on a ship has more reality, more beauty and more harmony than you will find in all of Park Avenue with its boredom, its waste of time and its quest for joy that doesn't exist. Therefore we want to issue an invitation to these writers assembled to-night, to come down among the workers to find that life and to create a synthesis for it with their tools as writers. Well, that is a big job. Some of us are a little skeptical about it. If the writers accept our invitation, we will furnish the market for their works and that is what they are looking for.

"On the other hand, if they don't take the invitation, we'll give them an ultimatum. They can go on writing about the dead until

finally we have to shove them into the grave and cover them up with the dirt."

The last speaker, Michael Gold, was introduced as "the best loved American revolutionary writer"; he spoke on "The Workers as an Audience for Writers." He alluded to the huge audiences which the Theater Union and the Group Theater have commanded; to the huge editions of non-fiction pamphlets and books published by International Publishers; to the huge editions of novels, plays and poems published in the Soviet Union.

"Our writers must learn that the working class," he said, "which has created a great civilization in the Soviet Union, is capable of creating a similar civilization in this country. It has heroism, intelligence, courage. We must never forget that a class which has such depths of creative power deserves only the best literature we can give.

"The charge has been made that writers who ally themselves with the workers arc artists in uniform. This charge is made by intellectuals who believe they do not wear a uniform-the uniform of the bourgeoisie. Well, we are proud of our role. This great meeting to-night, attended by more than four thousand people, many of whom are workers, could not have been convoked by any bourgeois audience or any group of bourgeois writers. This meeting, and the Congress which it opens, is a demonstration of the creative depths that are in the working masses.

"May this Congress be the beginning of a great new literature which will reflect, truthfully, the struggles of the workers, the soul of the workers, the soul of the basic American human being. May this Congress be another of the landmarks in American history by which our happier descendants will discern the steps in our progress toward a richer and more social life and a more intelligent America."

There were six sessions of the Congress-the public one on Friday evening, morning and afternoon sessions on Saturday and Sunday for the delegates and guests, and a group of small craft meetings on Saturday night. I have prepared a running account of these sessions which will be found in an appendix, entitled "Discussion and Proceedings."

The arrangement of the papers which compose this volume does not follow the sequence of their delivery before the Congress. An attempt has been made to place them in an order which will make it easier for the reader to discern the general purpose and scope of

the Congress-the position of the writer in the contemporary world, the dangers which assail him and make his alliance with the 0 one revolutionary class imperative; the fruits of such alliance in the lary Soviet Union; the craft and general problems of the revolutionary writer, and their solution. Several papers arrived too late to be read before and to be discussed by the Congress‹notably Louis Aragon's and John Dos Passos'.

Editing the proceedings of this first American Writers' Congress has not been easy, for it entailed some more or less arbitrary decisions uncongenial to a temperament such as my own. The labor of bringing so much material into publishable form was considerable, and I would like to thank Joseph Freeman, who wrote some of the sentences at the opening of this introduction and who reduced much of the discussion (retrieved from stenographic notes taken during the Congress sessions) to usable proportions; also Kenneth Burke and Edwin Seaver, who edited many of the papers in order that their individual length might not exceed the exigencies of space.