In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Proletarian Literature

  • Introduction
  • US Proletarian Writing
  • International Proletarian Writing
  • Soviet Proletarian Culture
  • Anthologies
  • Critical Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Archives
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines and Journals
  • Cultural Histories
  • Drama
  • Song Lyrics

American Literature Proletarian Literature
Bill Mullen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0130


Proletarian literature (from the Latin proletarius, belonging to the lowest class of Roman citizens) is literary writing by or about working-class people with anticapitalist or prosocialist themes. Proletarian literature emerged internationally on the Socialist and Communist Left after the Russian Revolution, greatly abetted by the Bolshevik commitment to “proletkult,” an acronym for “proletarian cultural-educational organizations” (proletarskie kul’turno-prosvetitel’nye organizatsii). 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. The Soviet Comintern (Communist International) supported the development of US Proletarian Writing by helping to establish International Publishers in New York City as a distributor of books on proletarian culture. 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 (all cited under Magazines and Journals) shaped cultural debates about the compatibility of proletarian literature to high modernism, the relationship of proletarian to “revolutionary” literature, and the capacity of culture to serve as what Soviet proletkult called “agitprop” against capitalist exploitation. US proletarian literature also gave considerable attention to the potential for an indigenous American proletarianism: Mike Gold’s 1921 essay “Towards Proletarian Art” is a touchstone here, as well as the “negro question”—the relationship of African American self-determination and racism to capitalism, and the “woman question”—how are women oppressed by capitalism, particularly in the arenas of domestic and wage labor. Proletarian literature as a movement waned when the Comintern removed its official support after 1934. Formally, proletarian literature induced innovation that is a subset of modernist experiment. The proletarian novel added to the bildungsroman pattern coming to class consciousness. Proletarian poets included observation of economic hardship to push lyric subjectivity toward expression of collective alienation and mass action. In drama, proletarian theater redrew the boundary between stage and audience to index the responsibility of art to society. This article defines proletarian literature and the proletarian movement by assembling representative primary and secondary texts primarily from two historical moments. The first is the original proletarian movement after 1917. The second is from scholarship in the post-1989 period inspired by the end of the Cold War to reconsider proletarian literature in relationship to Communism and anti-Communism in US history, canon reformation, and contemporary multiculturalism.

US Proletarian Writing

Scholarship on proletarian literature is unified by a class-conscious or Marxist approach to themes that have shaped American literature from 19th-century realism and naturalism forward to contemporary multiculturalism: the individual versus the collective, the impact of race, gender, and sexuality on identity, labor, and work conditions, and the problem of upward mobility. Rideout 1992 and Aaron 1992 first renewed interest in proletarian literature as a genre of US writing in the authors’ retrospective accounts of how Leftist writers like Mike Gold, Joseph Freeman, and Granville Hicks influenced literary production and literary criticism between 1929 and the end of the 1940s. Nelson 1989 and Murphy 1991 helped deepen a revisionist wave of scholarship by demonstrating the complexity of modernist and Marxist currents in proletarian poetry and criticism and argued for inclusion of proletarian literature during a period of vigorous debate about the American literary canon. Rabinowitz 1991 and Hapke 1995 used feminist historiography to continue the recovery of proletarian women writers like Tillie Olsen and Agnes Smedley and to demonstrate gender bias and exclusion in both proletarian writing and scholarship by Aaron and Rideout, who rarely discussed women writers. Foley 1993 accused liberal anti-Communist scholarly consensus of omitting the proletarian novel from serious consideration and defended the genre against accusations of agitprop or “vulgar” Marxism by demonstrating nuance and variety in the aesthetics and politics of the proletarian novel. Wald 2002 was the author’s first book in a trilogy providing a detailed genealogy of American Left writers operating within and beyond the somewhat narrow orbit of Communist Party influence described by Rideout and Aaron. Wald also gave significant attention to Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and other black proletarian writers as well as gay and lesbian writers previously neglected.

  • Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

    First comprehensive review of American proletarian literature. Privileged the novel as the most important genre of the movement and the Communist Party as the most important political influence. Established Gold, Freeman, Eastman, Hicks, and other white men of the Left as arbiters and definers of proletarian culture. First published in 1961.

  • Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941. Post-contemporary Interventions. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

    Sophisticated and sympathetic Marxist analysis of the form and content primarily of the proletarian novel, treating more than one hundred works of fiction. Challenges the canon established by earlier critics like Aaron to include women (Olsen) and writers of color (William Attaway). Also establishes a useful typology of the proletarian novel.

  • Hapke, Laura. Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

    Important feminist revision of the proletarian canon and its themes. Focuses on often-marginalized women writers (e.g., Agnes Smedley) and representations of women’s domestic and wage labor in proletarian writing. Sharp criticism of sexism in proletarian writing by men.

  • Murphy, James F. The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy over Leftism in Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

    Examines the international context for the development of proletarian aesthetics and politics. Part I explores cultural debate in Germany and within the American Communist Party; Part II concentrates on the journals International Literature and Partisan Review. Argues for variety and complexity in proletarian debate and against interpretations of “vulgar” Marxism.

  • Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910–1945. Wisconsin Project on American Writers. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

    Major revisionist study of poetry of the proletarian movement and argument for its inclusion in the canon of US literature. Nelson argues that Leftist poetry has been omitted from American modernism, owing to an interrelation of critical bias and historical amnesia. Important reclamation of Spanish Civil War poetry, among others.

  • Rabinowitz, Paula. Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. Gender and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

    Landmark feminist study of gendered themes in work by women writers during the proletarian era. Rabinowitz argues that maternity and female labor are central tropes for the production and understanding of 1930s proletarian writing much influenced by Left debates about the “woman question.”

  • Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

    Argues that the novel and Communist Party were central to the proletarian movement. Sees it as the culmination of a Leftward direction in US culture after 1900. Included proletarian works by James T. Farrell, Robert Cantwell, Josephine Herbst, and Henry Roth among ten best of the era. First published in 1956.

  • Wald, Alan. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

    Rich archival study of the proletarian movement concentrating on innovations and contradictions in application of proletarian aesthetic and Communist Party ideas to literature. Argues for a proletarian “avant-garde” and devotes considerable review to “negro question” and “woman question” debate on the Left and to African American Marxists.

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