Mike Gold delivering a speech in the 1930s.
The great 20th century journalist, Art Shields, once wrote a short article for a Bay Area paper about an unnamed unemployed woman in Oakland. His assignment was not concerned with her struggles for survival, a topic reserved for proletarian novels and leftist papers, but instead, her death. It was the method of her untimely passing that is of interest to the reader, as she was found dead with her head placed tragically inside her oven. Perhaps uncanny to a contemporary audience, it was more common, even standard, in the age of mass unemployment and gas ovens to commit suicide by turning on the oven, blowing out the flame, and waiting for the gas to kill you — it was Sylvia Plath’s way out and what Dorothy Parker avoided. (She once wrote a poem that ended, “Gas smells awful; You might as well live.”)
Had the whole story been published, there would be little reason, other than the inherent tragedy of the event, for Art Shields to recall it years later in his memoir. But the story was not published in its entirety. In fact, there was something rather important missing. He was surprised to find that the paper omitted the most essential part of the story: the gas oven. “She merely died suddenly, the story said.” There was no mention of the cause of death, no reference to ovens or gas. The copy desk told Shields that the reason for the omission was economic. “The gas company,” they said, “raises too much hell.” And so it was therefore necessary to censor the article, to alter the facts, to distort the experience of the U.S.’s laboring class so as to fall in line with corporate interests. She merely died suddenly.
This form of systemic corporate censorship was and is common in mainstream media. With their financial interests and political insecurities, publications and their editors tend to fall in line with a certain ideology, facing the threat of financial and reputational ruin. But the censorship of capitalist media is not limited to individual editors and the copy desks of individual publications. The radical writer Mike Gold argued that writers themselves are “corrupted by all the money floating around everywhere.” He argued that in his time, “It is unfashionable to believe in human progress any longer,” that writers had surrendered to cynicism and liberalism. “It is unfashionable to work for a better world,” he wrote.
There are few canonical names that go against this grain — Art Shields, Mike Gold, John Reed, Anna Louise Strong, Meridel Le Sueur, Lorraine Hansberry. They wrote from the perspective of the working-class for the working-class. John Reed, for example, rallied striking silk workers in Paterson, N.J., he led chants of college fight songs, provided counter-narratives against corporate propaganda, and fought for the Russian Revolution, both with his writing and with his life. Reed, and other proletarian writers, were expectedly ostracized for their politics. Gold, once a leading voice in U.S. culture and proletarian literature, was blacklisted, stripped of his work, condemned to poverty, and confined to odd jobs like handing out towels at a summer camp. Gold and other blacklisted writers exposed the price that is paid for exercising the right to meaningful free speech.
The progressive writer Edmund Wilson defended those like Mike Gold, arguing that “nine-tenths of our writers would be much better off writing propaganda for Communism than doing what they are at present: that is, writing propaganda for capitalism under the impression that they are liberals or disinterested minds.” Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck — many liberals joined the ranks of proletarian writers in the 1930s and 1940s to create anti-fascist and pro-working-class novels, exposing the pitfalls of our economic system. All were continuing the tradition of those great writers who believed in human progress — Whitman, Tolstoy, Dickens. “Art is not a plaything,” Gold wrote, “it is [as] necessary as bread.”
It was natural, then, for some of those like-minded radicals to band together. The managing editor of New Masses in 1929, Walt Carmon, became fed up with a group of young radical writers hanging around the office, getting in his way. One day he finally kicked them out, telling them to “go out and form a club,” adding, “I’ve even got a name for you — call it the John Reed club.” And so the John Reed Club was born. Their manifesto called for writers to take up work in the industries they were writing about, to write as “an insider, not like a bourgeois intellectual observer.” They sought out and encouraged writers to stop writing propaganda for capitalism, and instead write from their own perspective, that is, of the class that has nothing to sell but their labor.
With today’s new wave of strikes and union efforts in the U.S., a new battle is raging in the media: a struggle of ideas, a fight to control the narrative of the working-class. Nonfiction books analyze capitalism, climate change, and labor endlessly with timid conclusions and no solutions. Editors today, continuing their historic legacy, often blindly trust corporate press statements and police press releases while reinforcing bourgeois narratives. They cite billionaire-funded think tanks, the U.S. State Department, and U.S.-backed media outlets abroad, labeling any media that paints their enemies favorably as “propaganda” or “state-sponsored media.”
It’s past time to provide a counter-narrative to these stories. Like those before us, workers and writers must band together to “go out and form a club.” There is a heightened need for workers to tell their own stories, to challenge liberal cynicism, to believe in human progress. This is under way in states like Michigan and Ohio where writers’ collectives are being born, where workers say that, like gas ovens, “Mainstream media smells awful, we might as well fight against it.” We, as writers and story-tellers, should follow the timeless advice of Mike Gold: “Do not be passive. Write. … Persist. Struggle.”
This article is the introduction for an upcoming writing pamphlet from the Mike Gold Collective and was published on cpusa.org.