Because she was both a poet/critic and a devoted Communist Party member, the life and work of Martha Millet is of particular interest to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a Communist artist during the tumultuous period that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War. With its emphasis on ideological conformity within American civil society, the McCarthyite period casts a long historical shadow over our understanding of Communist literary and social activity in American life, with the Communist themselves given only two roles to play: either foreign agents, actively undermining American society (the McCarthyite view) or unwitting stooges manipulated by the Kremlin. The papers of Martha Millet, however, tell a different story. Millet was certainly a committed Marxist; her work is deeply ideological, concerned with the struggle of the working classes and consciously anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, but it is not reducible to propaganda. Instead, it provides a compelling example of how the vision of international Marxism inspired working-class Communist artists to investigate and explore intersections between their own experiences and larger political struggles – even when the substance of these struggles conflicted with the official party line.
Based on an autobiography she produced for Colorado University in the 1980’s, (see above) Millet was born in 1918 in the Bronx to Russian immigrants. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was raised by her father, who she described as a “seasonally employed needle-trades worker” as well as “a founding member of the American Communist Party.” She herself joined the Youth Communist League “at the age of 15 or 16…”, and some of her first poetry, published when she was fifteen in a youth poetry compilation called “Saplings,” shows an early desire to illustrate the lives of working people. (pic.) “Somehow I cannot think of the angels /” she writes, “Saying, Yes Madame, two dollars and a half.” Clearly, even at this early age Millet found participation in the Communist movement an outgrowth of her nascent personal philosophy.
During the 1940s and 50s, Millet was a frequent contributor to several Marxist publications, part of the thriving left-wing cultural scene in New York City. Sometimes, as in this example from an issue of the magazine Mainstream (1947), her poetry presented a lyrical portrait of what the American working world looked like at the time, sandwiched between essays concerning post-war political matters and an excerpt from Alexander Saxton’s proletarian novel The Great Midland.
Millet also contributed literary criticism, as in her column “The Magazine Rack,” where she assessed the magazine culture of the day in sometimes withering terms. “Some of our most acclaimed writers seem to be suffering from literary softening of the brain,” she writes in a column from 1946. “… some writers are wrapping words around the most trite, meaningless and pseudo-supernatural themes, in an obvious concession to the slick magazines in which they occasionally appear.”
Work like “The Magazine Rack” shows that Millet’s political perspective caused her to impose high standards for literary representation that still resonate in our contemporary era. She notes, for example, the paucity of well-drawn minority characters in the stories she reads, and rails against stories she considers “degrading to women” by virtue of their pandering, sentimental view of femininity.
Taken together, Millet’s contributions to these periodicals are remarkably diverse in both form and content: evidence of the ways in which such magazines provided a platform for the developing political and social consciousness of their contributors. Using the archive, it’s possible to see Millet’s political beliefs come of age, from a focus on her own experience as a shop girl to her broader thoughts on the American cultural apparatus.
After coming to an understanding of Millet’s personal political and artistic perspectives, one can better appreciate her writing on international politics. Consider, for example, her response after attending the Helsinki Peace Conference in 1955, published in the Communist monthly New World Review. (see below) After outlining what she sees as positive steps toward international cooperation and peace – some of which, such as her claim concerning “the unreserved enthusiasm of Midwest American farmers toward the Soviet agricultural delegation; the dazzling reception of American farmers by Soviet citizens,” seem slightly overblown – Millet makes an internationalist’s case for the future age. “What took place at Helsinki proved a new stage has been reached in the fight for peace… Helsinki was an opening out both to greater efforts and more keenly realized possibilities… No stopping point, but a sweeping out from the Valley Forge of ten arduous years to the conclusive assertion of man’s will.”
This internationalist vision may appear naïve in hindsight, but it goes hand-in-hand with the rest of Millet’s body of work. The deal of international working-class cooperation balances the difficult lives of the workers in her poems, and the prospect of cross-cultural artistic production provides an antidote to the surface-obsessed culture industry she railed against in her literary criticism.
Of course, one could easily make the argument that Millet’s romantic view of international cooperation played into the hands of Soviet propagandists. After all, the Helsinki Peace Conference was operated from behind the scenes by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, with political designs towards fostering international criticism of the United States. In this light, Millet’s support for the conference (and writings about it) could easily be viewed as propaganda; indeed, a line like “the unreserved enthusiasm of Midwest American farmers toward the Soviet agricultural delegation” reads a bit like something out of the famous Soviet dissident journalist Sergei Dovlatov. Again, we might be tempted to place Millet into the second part of the Cold War binary: unwitting stooge.
But Millet was anything if unwitting. The extensive notes collected in her papers show just how deeply Marxism influenced her intellectual worldview. For much of her later life she collected poems from a wide range of literary traditions (including Chinese, Greek, and English) that reflected her sense of the injustice perpetrated in unequal class societies. Her sense of Marxist internationalism ran deep, and her correspondence with Yuan Ko-Chia, the Chinese translator of her Collected Poems, and the Preface she wrote for the edition, shows that her relationship with Chinese culture helped define her understanding of American character.
“The United States, with its short and feverish history, its multiplicity of peoples, is a country of fantastic contrasts…” she writes. “An ordinary American may be a swaggerer because he has deliberately been taught badly, in so far as other people are concerned, to make him seem [sic] only dimly, or in a distorted manner. But he is essentially a person who truly believes in honesty and decency, and fights for these things once he realizes they are at stake.” In addition to a desire for cross-cultural engagement, Millet’s eagerness to define America for a Chinese audience may have come from the fact that a Communist readership was more eager for her poems than an American one (helped, of course, by an entirely different cultural apparatus than the once active in the U.S.). Millet’s Collected Poems never appeared in U.S. publication, but two editions of her poems appeared in China. The same could be said about a Czech anthology of Radical American poets which included work, which appeared in 1959: the last of her major publications to appear, either in the U.S. or abroad. The international angle provided by the Communist Party was vital to Millet’s survival as a poet, once anti-Communist activity in the U.S. made it harder and harder for her work to gain traction at home.
It is also important to remember that Millet was far from an unquestioning supporter of the party line, no matter whether it came from the highest echelons of power or somewhere much closer to home. During the aftermath of the Emmett Till lynching, Millet published a poem in Masses and Mainstream condemning the lynching and the white Southerners who allowed a culture of murder to go on in their midst. “Mississipi /” she writes, “huddling in arrogance / with your tobacco-spiting words / that rot the air – “ Indeed, as we can see from Millet’s cultural criticism, segregation (and the treatment of Black Americans in general) had long been a source of concern for her.
The poem received a scathing response from Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, attacking Millet for ignoring larger social issues in Mississippi. Operating through a strong Marxist lens, Aptheker wrote: “The poem also ignores the fact that it is Big Business – and basically, Northern big business – which dominates the economy of Mississippi and which is the real force behind the terror now raking its inhabitants. This is why, fundamentally, the federal government keeps its hands off and why both parties keep their mouths shut in face of atrocities that have shocked the world.” Clearly Aptheker sought to re-orient the Till murder in such a way that would emphasize solidarity of the working classes and de-emphasize racial strife.
But Millet would have nothing of this essentialist Marxist analysis. In a draft of a letter responding to Aptheker (greatly expurgated by the editors) she wrote: “What then of the white allies in general, in Mississippi; of allies in the ranks of white organized labor, in Mississippi? They are there, one can be sure, but I cannot discover where decent white southerners, liberals, or plain democrats showed fight alongside the Negroes of Mississippi, then and there. Perhaps Aptheker can… the best I saw was scattered statements by white southern liberals telling (and sincerely) how horrible the Till affair was to them; but there was always the qualifying note that: ‘we know how horrible things are, but we must be left to ourselves to do the cleaning up…” In addition, Millet reached beyond Aptheker’s platitudes to present an account of white labor organizers who “would not listen to any explanation or defense of national leadership and policy on racial issues… [one member] was hooted down when he reminded them that a Negro local had been the first to give financial help when they went on strike…”
When the editors sought to slash her response to Aptheker, and to allow the Marxist historian the last word in their editorial pages, Millet responded with a letter directly to the editor that states her concept of political truth quite plainly. “For more than 20 years as an active worker in the progressive movement, a working woman from the working class… it seems to me that at this late date I must consume much of my energy in battling my way into the pages of our M&M, on a public matter on which I have been attacked on the pages, and not been given the elementary courtesy of being invited to answer such an attack.”
“I submit that the day of divine revelation is over and that the common man may have his say in the pages of M&M as elsewhere,” Millet concludes, with the same idealism she brought to all her cultural work – showing that, in moments of disagreement, she was never willing to accept the Marxist line being forwarded by the Party’s cultural apparatus, if she found details on the ground which seemed to contradict it.
It is this highly personal – and sometimes iconoclastic – distillation of the political, social, and cultural trends of the day that makes Millet’s papers so fascinating. Reading them helps us move beyond tired clichés about the artistic activities of American Communists, and shows the ways in which the international vision of Marxism was interpreted, reconfigured, and also questioned in this volatile period by those who nonetheless saw the movement as the best opportunity to build a world that would appreciate their aesthetic perspective and help them uphold their personal ideals.