A Profile of Philip Bonosky, Proletarian Novelist


3-30-06, 8:29 am

After he had an article published in Collier’s magazine, Philip Bonosky returned to Duquesne, Pennsylvania, the steel town where he had grown up. A fellow worker had shown his father the article, and few working class people in the town had ever had anything published. In a recent conversation, Bonosky told me that his mother, who spoke Lithuanian and had been cook and housekeeper, never talking much about anything, now came to him and sang him a song in Lithuanian – a song about the suffering of immigrants. He was a writer, she said, and she wanted him to write for her, for the immigrants for the people who could often neither write nor read.

The notion of the role of a writer that Bonosky’s mother conveyed was different than the ideal of 'modernist' subjectivist literature, writing for yourself, and impressing others with your imagination that even then was being championed by establishment literary critics. As the modern working class developed with the rise of industrial capitalism, first in Europe and North America in the 19th century, workers fought for literacy and education, traditionally the privileges of ruling classes and their servants. Capitalists needed a workforce with basic skills, but not workers that would think for themselves. As mass literacy developed, capitalist societies produced a popular media and literature. Both were commercial, formalist, escapist and either denied the existence of working-class life or portrayed it in the most sordid terms, as most movies and television programs continue to do today.

However, there were writers who sought to explore capitalist class relations and understand through fiction the lives of working people. Called realists, they included the 19th century French writers Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, the 20th century US writers Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and Jack London and many others.

After the Soviet Revolution, working class literature, there called socialist realist literature, became the center of art and culture in a country whose diverse peoples, particularly in the countryside, were largely illiterate. Just as the class struggle between the capitalist system and the socialist world movement reached a higher level with the establishment of the Soviet Union, the war over art and literature, over its exchange and use value, reached a higher level in the 1920s and 1930s.

'Proletarian literature' or 'social realist' literature flourished in the US and other developed countries not under fascist control in the 1930s and 1940s. Such literature was literally publicly burned by the Nazis when they took power in Germany in 1933. It came under relentless attack as 'inferior,' 'party line,' and 'agit-prop,' by elitist conservatives and various rivals of the Communist movement on the left. As one example, the Partisan Review, a magazine originally founded to promote working-class literature in the 1930s, soon shifted editorial views and advanced what one might call anti-realist writers and artists, those who took the 'arts for arts sake' philosophy of the conservatives and turned it into subjectivist expression, action without content, language and situations that shocked for the sake of shocking, became the darlings of the critics, right, left and center, who formed an 'anti-Social-Realist United Front' in the cold war era. By the Cold War period, Partisan Review was aligned with the US government-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom.

In the midst of this ferment, Philip Bonosky was a proletarian writer. Growing up in an immigrant steelworker family in Western Pennsylvania, he got himself a library card for the children’s division of the local Carnegie library at age five. (Andrew Carnegie fancied himself a benefactor of the workers his steel company exploited and endowed libraries to improve his image.)

Bonosky published a poem in his school newspaper at the age of ten, which led to his becoming 'joke editor' of the newspaper. He later recalled that an African American student whom he got his first joke from really was denied the position, an early introduction to the pervasive racism of the society.

Eventually he got his adult card at the Carnegie library and began to read journals like the Nation, the New Republic and the Bookman, liberal journals, which, at the time, constantly criticized Communist actions without explaining their positions. This made him interested in what Communists had to say. He became high school class poet, but there wasn’t much of a future for a working-class youth outside of the mines and the mills, and the coming of the depression took away even that future. Bonosky realized that there had to be a deeper answer to what was happening beyond denouncing Herbert Hoover and demanding help, which his family and most working people were doing.

Bonosky joined large numbers of unemployed youth to ride the rails in the early 1930s, and eventually found himself in Washington, DC, living in a warehouse for transients that the early Roosevelt administration had provided. He already a had strong interest in the left and Communist movements, in the steel town from which he came. No one would openly proclaim themselves to be Communists because of the likely results – firing and blacklisting at best, terroristic company violence at worst. In Washington he met Communists and others seeking to organize working class struggle.

Like a hero in a Charles Dickens novel, Bonosky then met a 'patron,' a progressive social worker named Ann Terry White. (Ironically, White was the wife of Harry Dexter White, a prominent New Dealer, vilified to this day as a Communist and Soviet agent, even though he was the chief US negotiator at the Bretton Woods Conference creating the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). White helped Bonosky first get into Wilson College in DC (a free college) and then into a small job with the New Deal’s resettlement administration.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Bonosky wanted to join the anti-fascist brigades, but his attempts to get a visa from the State Department failed. He formally joined the Communist Party USA in 1938, which had organzied the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and led most anti-fascist activities.

As a local leader of the Workers’ Alliance in Washington, D.C., which represented workers in the major New Deal relief program, Works Progress Administration (WPA), Bonosky, along with other local leaders, met with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House to discuss the administration’s cuts in WPA programs. He later participated in a public forum on the issue where Mrs. Roosevelt and he were on opposite sides. Subsequently, she gave him a check for $50s for the Workers’ Alliance and told him keep her gift a secret, itself a comment on the tenuous but productive center-left politics of the New Deal era. Bonosky never cashed the check because he did not have a bank account. Of course, few working-class people, not to mention Communists, ever, before or after, were invited to have tea with the First Lady in the White House.

Red-baiting was always a part of the world that Bonosky knew even in the best of times. Even before the Cold War, the State Department discriminated against anti-fascists, and right-wing vigilantes used the press and congressional committees to attack the left and purge New Deal agencies. The onset of the Cold War, however, gave it much more virulent form as 'new' Cold War liberal Democrats joined Southern segregationists and Republicans to support legislation that repress the CPUSA and intimidate all potential allies on the left.

By this time, Bonosky was an open Communist. But keeping one’s membership a secret was no guarantee of safety. He recalled that red-baiters particularly targeted both those who were not open members along with CPUSA leaders whom they sought to imprison.

During the Cold War, his writing and publications flourished. The Burning Valley, rediscovered today as a major proletarian novel, was published in 1953. Its story deals with workers’ struggles in the Pennsylvania coal fields. The Burning Valley was reprinted in 1998 as part of The Radical Novel Reconsidered Series, published by the University of Illinois Press. A number of novels authored by current and former members of the Communist Party were also re-published as part of this series. The Magic Fern, published in 1960, is a less appreciated and perhaps more significant work. It tells the story of steel workers’ organizing struggles in Pennsylvania. It openly talks about the role of Communist Party members in those struggles and responds to Cold War hysteria by showing how anti-Communism divides and weakens the workers’ movements. Unfortunately, this novel has yet to be reprinted. Bonosky also wrote a major non-fiction work, Brother Bill McKie, a biography of the remarkable Communist trade unionist and UAW founder.

Government agents stepped up their efforts to spy on Americans during the Cold war. Communist and left publications of all sorts lost large numbers of subscribers when it became known that federal, state and local police agencies stole or unscrupulously acquired subscriber lists. Just as workers in the pre-New Deal period had the 'right' to form unions and employers had the right to use blacklists and break those unions, so in the Cold War period the CPUSA remained 'legal' (though many of its leaders were imprisoned), and people had the 'right' to read Communist and left publications, even though subscribing or even being seen with those publications might led to police home visits, loss of jobs, and blacklisting.

After a decade of such actions, the official story in the US became that the Communist Party, left trade unionism and proletarian literature and the working class itself had 'ceased to exist' and US society had been transformed into a de-politicized suburban utopia, or dystopia, depending on how you look at it.

Bonosky refused to become a political turncoat or drop out into obscurity in the long period of political repression that followed World War II. Rather than a hindrance, his Communist Party commitment enabled him to continue to grow as a writer and an activist, to travel widely in the socialist countries, and reach an international audience. Still, most US critics treated him exactly the way they asserted the Communists treated all writers who didn’t toe the party line.

During the Cold War period particularly, both establishment and 'loyal left opposition' (found in journals like The Partisan Review, Dissent and Commentary) critics either celebrated repentant ex-Communist writers or looked favorably on those who gave up on politics or social content in their work. One should remember that the CIA’s first great moment as an impresario in the arts was the funding of the publication of a book titled The God That Failed, a collection of remembrances of former Communist writers, edited by the British laborite Richard Crossman. CIA sources funded its translation into many languages as well. Also, the CIA helped fund the creation of the World Congress for Cultural Freedom as well as various cultural journals of the 'democratic left' through the world to fight Communist and anti-imperialist writers, artists and organizations. George Orwell’s 1984, which gave the world such terms as 'unperson,' 'thought police,' and 'newspeak' were also disseminated globally by CIA connected sources at the same time that they used these 'Orwellian' methods on Communist and left writers who refused to toe the 'anti-party line' in the United States. At the height of domestic cold war repression, Bonosky joined with Charles Humboldt, Annette Rubenstein, Herbert Aptheker, Walter Lowenfels and others to publish Mainstream, a left journal of the arts which continued the people’s art and culture traditions of the New Masses. At this time, Bonsoky directed a Harlem writers workshop which included John Oliver Killens, Alice Childress, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry and Lonnie Elder III, along with other men and women who would become prominent in African American literature and theater in the postwar era. This was at a time when the publishing venues available for African American and women poets and writers were still severely restricted.

One of Mainstream’s important contributions was to nurture African American writers and artists along with educating readers about the cultural dimension of the global struggle against imperialism and for peace, which was the world’s 'mainstream' in the 1950s, however much US cold warriors may have denied it.

Unfortunately Mainstream has never really gotten the recognition it deserves for this still largely unwritten history. In research for this article, I found a tender tribute from Robin Washington in a Duluth newspaper. Washington’s father, an African American poet, had hoped to publish his poetry based on his experience in World War II with the help of a recommendation from Robert Frost. After a tangled series of events, the publication fell through and his father returned to business, never really getting the chance to write and publish the poetry that was his first love. Following his father’s death, Robin Washington accidentally threw out his father’s manuscript, and really was mortified. But, with the help of the Internet, he was able to find that some of the poetry that had been published in Mainstream in 1960. It also reconnected Washington with his father and gave his father’s poetry a place in history.

Bonosky continued to write widely about the fate of US literature and his work is still quoted and cited in scholarly studies of US literature, particularly his analysis of the general corrupting effects of the Cold War, commercialism and contemporary imperialism. In 1983 he published a book titled Afghanistan: Washinton’s Secret War, which was based on his time in Afghanistan as the Moscow correspondent for the People’s World, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA. It is an invaluable source for understanding the disasters that Reagan administration policy created first for the people of Afghanistan and then later for the people of the region and the US.

In the Afghanistan that Bonosky experienced in the 1980s, there were trade unions, schools for men and women and women without veils working in traditionally male-dominated jobs. The 'democracy' and attempts at 'modernization' that the Bush administration says it champions today were a reality. But Reagan and the first Bush administrations spent billions to arm and incite those who would become both the Taliban government and Al Qaeda in the service of overturning the Communist-led government there and to fight the Soviets that aided them.

Although Bonosky was born in 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President on the phony slogan, 'he kept us out of war,' he remains active and optimistic today. While he still sees the working class largely missing in official US literature and culture and is dismayed by what he sees as an imperialist arrogance that has trickled down in the society, that is, everyone else has to 'learn' from the United States, he continues to see in the working class and in its literary tradition, one that Bonosky and many of his contemporaries share with Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, a road to freedom and eventually to socialism.

Although bourgeois literary criticism has long sought to add insult to HUAC-McCarthyite injury by contending that Bonosky and other proletarian writers and artists ceased to function after the 1950s, I discovered in my research for this article an amusing sidelight. Today there are Internet 'term paper mills' which sell term papers on every conceivable topic to students who then turn them in as their own. I found that someone can access a paper on the work of Philip Bonosky for a literature class, a sort of left-handed compliment from a capitalist system that will seek to literally profit from the work of those it cannot effectively silence.

Although he first began to write on butcher paper when he was a child, Bonosky’s pen, typewriter and word processor remain dedicated to providing a voice for the working class from which he came and whose interests he has dedicated himself to. In his lack of dogmatism and deep sensitivity to the diversity and dignity of working people, Philip Bonosky continues to be a model working class intellectual and artist.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.