Soviet-American Cultural Politics 1927–1937

The decade 1927–1937 marks the most aggressively internationalist phase of the Soviet cultural establishment. During those years, which also experienced the onset of the Great Depression in the West and the rise of Fascism in Germany, proletarian literary organizations supported by Soviet party and state bureaucracies and the Comintern sought contacts and organizational ties with writers abroad, especially in Germany, France, and the United States. Working through the International Union of Proletarian Writers, the Soviets succeeded in attracting the support not only of foreign proletarian literary groups, but also of a considerable number of “fellow travelers” and other intellectuals for their United Front and Popular Front foreign policies. The most widely publicized forum in which this sympathy was expressed was a series of congresses, from the 1927 First Congress of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers in Moscow through the 1937 Second International Congress of Antifascist Writers in Spain.

My research, which is part of a larger collaborative project examining all of these initiatives, considers Soviet influence on the American scene, particularly with regard to the John Reed Clubs and the organization of the First Congress of American Writers in New York in 1935. Newly accessible Soviet archival materials strongly suggest that that influence was neither as direct nor as effectively wielded as has commonly been assumed. The relationship between the Soviet political and cultural apparatus, on the one hand, and American proletarian organizations, the CPUSA, and non-Party intellectuals, on the other, was complex and at some points seems to have suffered from a less than clear-cut chain of command and authority. In some cases, in fact, the Soviets offered less guidance than their American sympathizers were willing to accept.