Marxism, Language, and the Laureate Who Wasn't

Editor's Note: Earlier this month author Doris Lessing, most well-known for her novel The Golden Notebook, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her honor, the New York Times saw fit to reprint an essay by Lessing originally published in the Times in 1992 titled 'Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer' and, in a nutshell, its central argument was 'that Communism debased language.'

Below we publish an interview with a contemporary of Lessing's, Phillip Bonosky. Bonosky is a contributing editor of Political Affairs. He is the author of two novels, Burning Valley and The Magic Fern, several short story collections, and a number of non-fiction books such as Afghanistan –Washington's Secret War. Bonosky is currently working on a novel set during the Spanish-American War and a biography of progressive artist Alice Neel.

PA: As a writer and as a Communist, your career flourished at a time when left-wing writers saw art and commitment as two sides of the same coin. What do you think Doris Lessing is trying to say now? What does she mean, when she talks about “debasing language”?

Phillip Bonosky: I have opinions, God knows, on language. This statement of Lessing’s is ridiculous. What Marxism did was to liberate language for millions of workers the whole world over, and still does to this day. Even those famous words, “Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains, but you have a world to win” – those words have been seared into the memories of millions since they were first uttered years ago, decades ago.

Then who can ever forget the liberating effect of Marx’s famous statement about the American situation, when he said “labor in white skin shall not be free while labor in black skin is branded.” That was the most farsighted, evocative understanding of the situation in the United States, even before the Civil War, that anybody had ever made. No American was ever had that depth of vision better into the situation of the working class and democracy in general in this country.

Marxism tried to put history and sociology on a scientific basis. After Marx, history, instead of being about the actions of powerful men, kings and whatnot, or even simply the product of happenstance, now involved ascertainable laws, which Marx was able to isolate and point out. If social events and social behavior could be put on a scientific basis, it meant that all the features involved in historical situations had to be defined very precisely, and words were needed that would fit these scientific needs. Very precise language was needed.

However, it did not mean that if you were a creative writer you were required in your poetry or fiction to climb on a soapbox and just declaim slogans. That was a characteristic of a certain kind of Marxism that Lessing is disparaging in her sophisticated way, and she is being rewarded for it. It so irritates me, and I have had to deal with this kind of thing for so long and in so many different ways that I just get worn out having to pick it up again. You want to sort of shrug it off and let events take their own course, which they certainly will.

Of course, you have to ask why she was given this award. It doesn’t seem to fit her, assuming that the Noble Prize follows any sort of standards at all, and that itself is very dubious. If you remember, some decades ago the Noble Prize was awarded to Boris Pasternak. What a commotion arose about that – so much so that the whole procedure of how prizes were awarded by the Nobel Committee was then exposed, and it was proved at the time that the book that was nominated, which was really the only book of Pasternak’s for which the Nobel Prize was awarded, Dr. Zhivago, was not even available to most members of the Nobel Committee to read. It turned out they had already made the decision to give him the prize for literature, before there was a version of the book in any language outside of Russian other than Italian. There was not even an English version at the time. It was so obviously a political action, that the commotion that arose affected the members of the committee to such an extent that they felt compelled a few years later to award the prize to Mikhail Sholokov, who was head and shoulders above anything above Pasternak, and certainly head and shoulders above the current winner of the Nobel Prize.

Everything is cloaked in irony these days. You know, Alfred Nobel made his fortune by inventing dynamite. So everybody who is award the Nobel Prize is the recipient of money from the invention of dynamite. They have to thank the makers of dynamite, which, of course, is used not only in a positive way, but also has long been an essential ingredient in killing people, too.

PA: Lessing also seems to be saying in this article that the Communist movement imposed its will on writers. What is your experience with that?

PB: Please excuse me if I become personal, but my first novel, which was published by the left, Burning Valley, completely violated those accusations. It was about the church, the Catholic Church. It was the story of a boy who was from the working class and an ardent Catholic; as a matter of fact he was an altar boy and a real believer in religion. Nevertheless, because of the circumstances he was in, he found himself at odds with some of the teachings of the church. Particularly, he found himself involved in a struggle between two priests who had two different points of view on what the church should be doing in the situation they were in. They were in a community of working-class, poor people. One of the priests had one idea about what the church should do, and the other had an upper-class view. They were class positions, both of them were. One was closer to the working class, and the other was completely aristocratic and from, in his terms, a superior point of view.

Nobody told me to write the book like that. As a matter of fact, from a formal point of view, that should have been impossible to do. What! A communist writes about this? The church was not attacked; it wasn’t condemned. I didn’t get on a soapbox. I let the events tell their own story, and that’s what I think the truth of the situation was. Let the truth speak for itself. But without Marxism, I couldn’t have seen it myself. I couldn’t have seen the struggle there and where it was going.

Doris Lessing, of course, would say that she had never read my book. Burning Valley was never reviewed in the press here or in England. None of my 10 published books have ever been reviewed in the press here. You could say, well it doesn’t exist, and of course it doesn’t exist as far as she and others are concerned, because she they have never heard of any of my works, although Burning Valley was translated widely in the socialist world.

For instance, in Russia there was an edition of 100,000. People here were astonished when I told them that. That would be a runaway bestseller here. When I raised that issue with the Russians, they said, no, it’s a rather common number with us. There was also an edition in Lithuania where my parents came from. There was also an edition in China, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, and an edition in the GDR. I remember when I was traveling in the GDR and I was passing through customs, the officers there looked at my passport and said, “Bonosky, didn’t you write Burning Valley?” He had already read it in German, and there was a big discussion in the German press about it. So there was a literary life that existed for me, but not here in America. I am still unknown here.

PA: In other words, your book not only didn’t conform to some sort of rigid communist ideology, but because it didn’t conform to bourgeois thinking in the United States, it was completely ignored.

PB: Right, exactly.

PA: One might say that the opposite of what Doris Lessing is talking about happened to you, because it was capitalism in a sense that debased your words.

PB: She was also proclaiming that writers had to follow her formula or not be published at all. Do you remember the phrase they used to use, when they accused communists of putting artists in uniform? Aside from the fact that there came a time when, in reality, the artists were in uniform during the war, literally in uniform, I had no objection to that. I never had any objection to the phrase, “Art is a weapon.” And there are many books that are directly polemical, for instance, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Harriet Beecher Stowe met Lincoln – the book came out before the Civil War – Lincoln is supposed to have said to her, “So you’re the little lady that started this war?” It was very polemical. Another example is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which directly attacked a social phenomenon, and by implication at least it implied what the solution should be. So I am very much on the side of books that move in a certain direction and support a cause. All I was and am against was doing it crudely, doing it badly, and forgetting that art is art and polemics are polemics, and that you need to keep them separate. Unless art can present life in all its contradictions, then you’re not talking about reality.

When I was in China some years ago, I got the title for my book about that country, Dragon Pink on Old White. It was taken from a phrase that they were using then at that time. They were modifying the white in their history and literature with a little pink. I said what does that mean? That’s when I learned that in the Orient white is a negative color and pink and red are positive colors. At that time, the Chines felt that they needed to review all of their past literature and modify the white, that is the slanders against the working class and the poor, with a little pink, with some Marxist understanding. This is what Marxism in the case of left-wing writers like myself did to. We went through the past and tried to correct what was wrong about it. For instance, we corrected white chauvinism, and literature was rife with slanders of Blacks. As a matter of fact, Blacks never won any kind of status in literature until the Marxists came on the scene.

There is another thing too. The working class didn’t seem to exist. I was a big reader and read everything and loved the things I read, but there was a day that came when I suddenly stopped and thought – I’ve been reading all these books and I like them, but you know what, there’s something wrong here. There’s something missing. And I answered my own question about what was missing? I was missing. By that I mean not me personally, but that my class was missing. I came from the working class, directly from the working class, and all my friends were from the working class. Everybody in the town of Duquesne, Pennsylvania was working class. We had one industry, steel, and we were all working class, but there was no working class in the literature. There were the poor, but their aim was to get out of poverty or get out of the working class into the middle class. I wanted to show that there were people who not only came from the working class, but also didn’t want to get out of the working class, because they had found, in the working class, all that they needed as an inspiration to live. That is where I found my own heroes, not in their struggle to get into the middle class but to make the working class better, to help the struggle, to win battles for the working class, not in order to be rewarded by becoming rich and becoming accepted.

If you watch CNN at 6 o’clock, there’s this fellow Dobbs. He has an hour, and all he talks about is the middle class – that’s all there is. What happened to the working class? Did it disappear? You know, in America the struggle still goes on. Not only do they want to eliminate the working class in reality, they already have eliminated it in their thinking. There is no working class. There are the poor but there is no working class. You know, in Europe they casually accept the working class as a fact, but here they won’t accept the working class that exists, because if they accepted the working class as a reality, implications would flow from that, which they are not ready to accept, of course.