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Fourth International, May 1949


Paul Schapiro

Dos Passos Deserts a Grand Design


From Fourth International, Vol.10 No.5, May 1948, pp.158-149.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Grand Design
by John Dos Passos
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949, 440 pp., $3.50.

The Grand Design, the new novel by the ex-radical John Dos Passos, has been praised by the reactionaries and damned by the liberals. His publishers have played up this difference between the bourgeois right and the bourgeois left in their advertisements, adding fuel to the fire to keep the literary teakettles boiling. In the midst of the hissing, the whistling, the piping and the purring, Dos Passos has been giving interviews in which he has been plaintively complaining that he has been misunderstood: he isn’t really a reactionary; people just think he is.

It must be admitted that to a limited extent – and only to a limited extent – his complaint is justified. The liberals, stung by his unflattering portrayal of the New Deal reformers, have misrepresented his book outrageously. The New Republic reviewer, Malcolm Cowley, for instance, stated that Dos Passos portrays the New Dealers as “a conspiratorial army of commies, long-hairs, do-gooders, international Jews (yes, they appear in the novel) and rattle-brained crusaders, all working together for their ‘Grand Design,’ which was really to set up a Soviet dictatorship in America.”

In reality, however, Dos Passos’ novel is far different from the warmed-up rehash of Father Coughlin’s talks that Cowley implies it to be. The “Grand Design” of the title is not a sinister conspiracy but the dream of a re-made America of the reformists in the Roosevelt administration which ironically turned out quite otherwise. At the end of the book Paul Graves, a sincere liberal in the secondary ranks of the administration, resigns when he hears his chiefs talking about the war from “the level of the leaders” instead of from the close-up view of the ordinary people, who can only see such immediate, personal things as the hours and wages of their employment. These were the same men who had talked glibly about solving social problems over sumptuous dinners in their homes, as they were waited on by their Negro butlers.

But while the complacency, the self-deception and the growing softness in office of Dos Passos’ thinly fictionalized versions of Ben Cohen, Tommy Corcoran, Felix Frankfurter and others ring authentic, the political philosophy lying behind his critique of their reformism has reactionary implications. His hero, Paul Graves, is intent on restoring the family-sized farm. This, he thinks, would reverse the trend to the cities and make the American once more the master of his own destiny. He comes to have stronger and stronger doubts, however, whether this can be accomplished through the government, for he begins to think that government action can only mean that men are more pushed about and made more dependent on big organizations outside of themselves.

This program – or lack of program – of his hero was advanced more formally by Dos Passos himself. In a long article in the January 19, 1948 issue of Life, in which he announced his newly found belief in capitalism, he presents the customary hash of contemporary renegacy: that the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union “demonstrates” that socialism must lead to servitude and that only under a capitalism where the state plays a limited role is it possible for man to be free. In the final sentence, which Luce must have willingly allowed Dos Passos in return for the attack upon Marxism in the rest of the article, he added that this “pure” capitalism requires an economy of small enterprises. How the petty bourgeoisie was to achieve this happy state of affairs after having failed to do so during the entire evolution of industrial capitalism into finance capitalism, he failed to say.

Just as Luce was quite willing to overlook Dos Passos’ final sentence, so the Chicago Tribune is quite willing to overlook the social conscience of Paul Graves in return for Dos Passos’ attack upon reformism from the point of view of saving capitalism. When Graves muses, “For some reason it humiliates people to be helped by a government agency,” he is dreaming of a utopia of small farmers, sturdy in their independence from the government and Big business. But the Chicago Tribune reviewer, accommodating his ideas to those of Colonel McCormick, finds in this statement an excuse for doing away with all governmental concessions to the exploited masses.

In addition to the praise of McCormick, there is a not unexpected defense of Dos Passes in the pages of the social democratic New Leader. John Chamberlin finds the new Dos Passos for more to his liking than the author of U.S.A. and other American writers who, he complains in Fortune, were “unfair” to businessmen.

Dos Passos’ defective political vision not only leads him to a position which furnishes a cover for reaction; it obscures his understanding of reformism, in spite of his seemingly accurate knowledge of how reformists talk and act at their cocktail parties and dinners, Thus he implies that the “brain-trusters” had a greater freedom of action than they did. In reality, they were in the last analysis only carrying out the policies of the light-goods industrialists and the merchants, the chief financiers of the Democratic Party in the New Deal period. Their aim was to restore the retail market and to escape the ruinous deflation whieh was pushing them under the domination of the banks by concessions to the masses, mostly at the expense of the finance capital-heavy industry alliance.

Dos Passos could have very instructively included in his novel a few episodes illustrating what occurred when the “brain-trusters” of the Department of Agriculture, where his hero worked, happened to .clash with the financial backers of Roosevelt.

For instance, there was the time when the “brain-trusters” thought that, since the giant food-processing corporations had agreed not to take unfair advantage of the consumers if the anti-trust laws were suspended, they should open their books to the government to show whether they had complied with the agreement. The corporations thought otherwise. The books were not epened. Or Dos Passos might have told the story of how the owners of the great cotton plantations disregarded the clause in their AAA contracts which stated that they would not evict share-croppers from the land which they were being paid to withdraw from production. When some members of the Agriculture Department made an investigation of the situation, Senator Joe Robinson of Arkansas, the Democratic floor leader, did some talking, and Secretary of Agriculture Wallace “interpreted” the clause out of existence.

Similarly: Dos Passos shows the collapse of reformism, as Mack McConnell (Tommy Corcoran) leaves the government to become a wealthy corporation lawyer, oil, tycoon Jerry Evans (Jesse Jones) becomes coordinator of the War Procurement Board and Walker Watson (Hopkins-Wallace) talks of sacrifice in wartime. But he does not show the underlying reasons for this collapse: the imperialist rivalry with Germany and Japan and the inability to, solve the problem of unemployment – both aspects of the general crisis of capitalism – which made Roosevelt turn to a war policy and to heavy industry.

Dos Passos’ depiction of the wartime collaboration of the Stalinists and the Roosevelt administration also suffers from his political near-sightedness and is only further distorted by the spectacles of Stalinophobia through which he peers. He portrays the Stalinists as subtle, scheming Machiavellians, taking cruel advantage of the innocence and gullibility of liberals – and so, no doubt, the Stalinists liked to think of themselves. The result of their super-Machiavellianism, however, has been that, after having done the dirty work of American imperialism, selling the wartime speed-up in the trade unions, exacting no-strike pledges, putting the finger on militants, they are being rewarded for their lackeyism by being ground under its boot as part of the preparations for a war against the Soviet Union.

It is, of course, Dos Passos’ Stalinophobia which has blinded him politically. The monstrous degeneration of the Russian Revolution together with the series df defeats suffered by the world proletariat, into which it has been led by the degenerated Stalinist bureaucracy, has made him lose his belief in socialism. In this Dos Passos is like many of the radical literary intellectuals of his generation who were attracted by the revolutionary current, among whom he was perhaps the most talented. His U.S.A., which has an important place in American literature, is an epic representation of a sinking American capitalism that sucks into its dizzying whirlpool everything and everyone. There is in it, however, little sense of the inner social contradictions generating creative as well as destructive forces, for Dos Passos was never a Marxist. The class struggle is only a minor, dimly heard theme in a symphony of disintegration. Deprived of his belief in socialism by his inability to perceive the revolutionary forces constantly renewing themselves in spite of defeat and destruction, Dos Passos could not sustain his terrible vision of society and looked beyond it longingly at a dream-world of happy farmers.

The loss of this vision, incidentally, has, to conclude our political analysis with a literary comment, weakened his power as a novelist immeasurably. The Grand Design not only lacks in dramatic intensity, but it does not have either the concentratedness of effect or the great panoramic sweep of U.S.A. How can it, when its author is unable to look at life in America steadily and see it whole?

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