Benjamin Balthaser. Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. 320 pp.
Review by Wendy Kozol
In this postelection moment of radical despair, it is good to be reminded of the long history of US leftist alliances and the efforts to maintain solidarity in the face of statist repression. Anti-Imperialist Modernism by Benjamin Balthaser provides such insights in this beautifully written analysis of the literary and cultural histories of the pre-WWII Popular Front. Reconsidering the contributions of radical thinkers in light of their transnational, antiracist, and anti-imperialist politics, he argues that Popular Front intellectuals conceptualized alternative modernisms by connecting oppressions within the US with exploitative conditions resulting from western imperialism outside its borders.
Anti-Imperialist Modernism makes several significant contributions to American literary and cultural studies. First, the book provides the first history of anti-imperialist intellectual activism during the Depression, which Balthaser reconstructs from published writings, movement newspapers, and pamphlets and other archival evidence. Anti-imperialism serves as a connecting node between transnational labor activism, black liberation struggles, working class feminism, antifascism and certain strands of Native American self-determination movements. Balthaser links these diverse cultural and political movements without reductively containing them or pigeonholing radical intellectuals like C. L. R. James, D’Arcy Nickel, Josephine Herbst, and Clifford Odets. Second, Balthaser explores how writers used literary formats to envision radical modernisms as alternatives to, rather than outside of, hegemonic modernism. For instance, a chapter on Native American writers D’Arcy McNickle and Archie Phinney demonstrates that these intellectuals’ claims for Native American sovereignty utilized Marxist and anti-imperialist perspectives to fabricate a modernist sensibility operating within the constraining framework of contemporary society, not as some kind of idealized or nostalgic outsider position.
In connecting these various strands, Anti-Imperial Modernism significantly expands our understanding of Popular Front radicalism beyond the US national scene. Likewise moving the focus away from European radicalism, Balthaser shows that leftist intellectuals, especially intellectuals of color, developed an anti-imperialist critique in dialogue with radicals from the
Global South and the Soviet Union. For instance, Balthaser’s powerful critique of documentary photography contrasts the sentimental nationalism of John Steinbeck and the Farm Security Administration’s photography project with radical newspapers’ deployments of visual and literary texts, which connected US racial violence and labor intimidation to parallel situations in other colonial sites. Elsewhere, Balthaser incisively analyzes US intellectuals’ writings on Cuba and Haiti to consider how political desires and multiethnic solidarities outside of US borders reconceptualized subaltern experiences. In the process, he effectively challenges a generation of theorists like Kenneth Burke who narrowly framed the Popular Front through a lens of national belonging.
Deeply informed by Marxist and critical race and gender perspectives, Anti-Imperialist Modernity advances historical insights about mid-twentieth century radicalism through its methodological attention to the transnational gazes and anti-imperialist critiques of a wide range of intellectuals and activists of the period. Anti-Imperialist Modernism also expands our understanding of how these varied legacies reach forward into contemporary radical projects, such as the anti-DAPL and Black Lives Matter, indicating possibilities for generating alternative modernisms today through which to challenge structures of privilege and oppression.