Proletarian literature is literary writing by or about working-class people with anticapitalistic or pro-socialist themes. It emerged internationally on the Socialist and Communist Left after the Russian Revolution. In the United States, a proletarian literary movement—spurred by immigration by European radicals, working-class resistance to World War I, the African American migration, suffragette-era feminism, the formation of the US Communist Party, and the economic collapse of the Depression—evolved after 1917. Literary journals like Literature of the World Revolution, established by the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, the US Communist Party’s New Masses, and the anti-Stalinist Partisan Review.
In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, many New York writers used novels and poems as tools to address the working class, or “proletariat.” Using the written word to advance their political agenda, these writers espoused their views on class, communism, and global affairs. This movement “does not believe in literature for its own sake,” explained writer and editor Mike Gold, “but in literature that is useful, has a social function.”
“The proletarian literary movement was part of a broader cultural wing of the Popular Front, a broad anti-fascist political alliance initiated by the Communist International, in which artists used literature, music, theater, photography, and film to advocate for global leftist politics. World War II, and specifically disillusionment with the foreign and domestic policies of the Soviet Union, altered the course of the movement. The Popular Front alliance shattered in 1939 when the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. Increased internal factionalism and a changing geopolitical landscape led groups such as the League of American Writers to disband in 1943. Proletarian literary voices continued after the war, but the focus of New York’s intellectuals shifted from economics to a critique of culture.”
Understandably, there is doubt about whether the term is still valid in 21st Century America. One way of thinking about the ethics of writing proletarian literature is to question its existence. Is it literature written specifically for the proletariat, and read by them?
At least one authority thinks that’s too narrow an answer. “No, it obviously not. . . But you can see by the existence of publications like New Writing, or the Unity Theatre, for instance, that the term has a sort of meaning, though unfortunately there are several different ideas mixed up in it. What people mean by it, roughly speaking, is literature in which the viewpoint of the working class, which is supposed to be completely different from that of the richer classes, gets a hearing. And that, of course, has got mixed up with Socialist propaganda. I don’t think the people who throw this expression about mean literature written by proletarians. W. H. Davies was a proletarian, but he would not be called a proletarian writer. Paul Potts would be called a proletarian writer, but he is not a proletarian. The reason why I am doubtful of the whole conception is that I don’t believe the proletariat can create independent literature while they are not the dominant class. I believe that their literature is and must be bourgeois literature with a slightly different slant. After all, so much that is supposed to be new is simply the old standing on its head. The poems that were written about the Spanish Civil War, for instance, were simply a deflated version of the stuff that Rupert Brooke and Co. wrote in 1914.”
As recently as December 2022, Goodreads identifies 265 proletarian literature titles on its shelves. As near back as 2017 another authority said, “Proletarian literature is best understood as strongly anti-capitalist literature by or about working-class people. As a cultural form, proletarian literature is an expression of the experiences of working-class people under capitalism, an index to the social relationships created in and against capitalism.
Modernism and the Practice of Proletarian Literature, by Simon Cooper was released in 2019. “This book tests critical reassessments of US radical writing of the 1930s against recent developments in theories of modernism and the avant-garde. Multidisciplinary in approach, it considers poetry, fiction, classical music, commercial art, jazz, and popular contests, such as dance marathons and bingo. Relating close readings to social and economic contexts over the period 1856–1952, it centers in on a key author or text in each chapter, providing an unfolding, chronological narrative, while at the same time offering nuanced updates on existing debates. Part One focuses on the roots of the 1930s proletarian movement in poetry and music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part Two analyzes the output of proletarian novelists, considered alongside contemporaneous works by established modernist authors as well as more mainstream, popular titles.”
The term proletarian social novel denotes a multiple-protagonist work of fiction using traditionally realistic techniques of representation. “The characters are generally drawn from a range of social classes; through their juxtaposition and interaction they delineate significant patterns and forces in the class struggle. There may be relatively few important characters, or a dozen or more; all, however, are correlated with one another through a plot indicating their interconnectedness, and all are subjected to a controlling narratorial point of view. Although it contains a bildungsroman component, characters learn and change. Readers of social novels are moved toward revolutionary sympathies not so much from being educated along with the protagonist as from identifying with characters who have already chosen sides. Politics are frequently asserted in the proletarian social novel, but partisanship is largely assumed.”
Perhaps the most recent writer to delve into proletarian literature is Amanda Arnold. She released her book on May 1, 2017, titled “The Forgotten History of American Working-Class Literature—And the Recent Movement to Restore its Place in the Canon.” Amazon’s review defines this book. “A History of American Working-Class Literature sheds light not only on the lived experience of class but the enormously varied creativity of working-class people throughout the history of what is now the United States. By charting a chronology of working-class experience, as the conditions of work have changed over time, this volume shows how the practice of organizing, economic competition, place, and time shape opportunity and desire. The subjects range from transportation narratives and slave songs to the literature of deindustrialization and globalization. Among the literary forms discussed are memoir, journalism, film, drama, poetry, speeches, fiction, and song. Essays focus on plantation, prison, factory, and farm, as well as on labor unions, workers’ theaters, and innovative publishing ventures. Chapters spotlight the intersections of class with race, gender, and place. The variety, depth, and many provocations of this History are certain to enrich the study and teaching of American literature.”
So, what are the ethical imperatives of writing proletarian literature? Each title mentioned above suggests the following. Honest narratives. Political sensitivity. Gender and class recognition. Racial and ethnic recognition and acceptance. Careful limitation to audience and tone. Limited interest in financial or sales expectations.
 Cooper, S. (2019). Modernism and the Practice of Proletarian Literature. Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/3494600/modernism-and-the-practice-of-proletarian-literature-pdf
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