Mike Gold, the Writer Who Believed Workers Could Speak for Themselves

Cold War hysteria meant that Communist writer Mike Gold has been universally denounced in life and death. But Gold’s pioneering work created a working-class literature written for, by, and about working-class people — and it should be celebrated today.

American Jewish novelist Mike Gold speaks to a crowd on May Day in the 1930s. (Wikimedia Commons)

One can often learn as much about the world by who we are instructed to hate as who we are invited to love. Few writers were subjected to as much Cold War public derision as Mike Gold, once the darling of 1930s red left.

Even in the introductions to books and in public retrospectives, ostensibly convened to honor him, writers brim with contempt. Alfred Kazin’s 1996 preface to Gold’s sole novel Jews Without Money refers to Gold as “primitive,” an “injured soul,” and “not that bright.” A “political propagandist,” Kazin continues, Gold could not think beyond “simple words” and “uncomplicated feelings.” In 1983, Paul Berman felt compelled to remind us Gold “was no genius.”

Gold was aware of such characterizations, writing in his unpublished memoir how “sick” he was of his representation as a “beetle-brow gangster commissar” taking over American literature “by every manner of brutal means.” Before reading a page of Gold, somehow, as a young person, I knew already that he was didactic, boorish, a promoter of formulaic orthodoxy and cartoonish masculinist militancy. “Gold is Schmaltz,” Kazin warns. For a while, I’m embarrassed to say, I believed him.

Gold is having something of a recent resurgence, however. The thawing of the Cold War has made it permissible to talk about 1930s literature again after decades of critics and anthologies simply ignoring the period. Alan Wald’s recent trilogy on literary anti-fascism centered Gold as a key figure in the making of an anti-the fascist and anti-racist literary left, while Patrick Chura’s new biography Michael Gold: The People’s Writer reminds us of how his weekly columns in the Daily Worker and monthly columns in the New Masses were a major literary undertaking, as central as H. L. Mencken’s a generation earlier, for setting the tone and literary tastes of an era.

As the ruling classes and their taste makers seem incapable of meeting the imaginative challenges of our ecological, biopolitical, economic, and democratic crises, there may be growing acceptance that literature as Gold framed it, is less a graduate seminar and more of a class war.

“We are living in another day,” he wrote of the 1930s,” dominated by “hard, successful, ignorant” men — we will need a new literature to meet it. Gold’s literary voice, unafraid of conflict, partisanship, and class consciousness, feels less a relic of a bygone era than a contemporary intervention against a brutal economic and political system.

Tenement Thinking

To understand why Gold was so hated by a generation of liberal writers such as Kazin and Berman, it helps to understand who Gold was, beyond the author of a single novel set in the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side in the 1910s. Gold, born in 1893 Itzok “Irwin” Granitch, was the child of working-class Romanian-Jewish immigrants, and grew up in the dense mesh of Lower East Side Jewish tenements of turn-of-the-century New York. While Gold became many things — writer, editor, music promoter, political spokesperson for the Communist Party and the Jewish Left — he could perhaps best be described as the chief architect and progenitor of proletarian literature in the United States.

His 1930 novel Jews without Money catapulted him to fame and was almost immediately translated into over a dozen languages and witnessed two dozen printings in the next decade. It was seen at the time as the ur-text of US proletarian fiction, and Gold used his sudden fame as editor of the influential Marxist journal the New Masses to shape what working-class writing would look, smell, taste, and sound like for the next two decades.

The proletarian literary movement, or Proletcult, a portmanteau deriving from the Russian for proletarian culture, lived a brief state-sanctioned life as the official literary movement of the Soviet avant-garde from 1917–21. Far from what one might imagine as the Soviet orthodoxy of social realism, the proletarian literary movement was a literary and visual modernism that sought to break out of bourgeois narrative norms and give expression to shocks, violence, collectivity, and disjunctures of proletarian life.

While the formal movement ended in the Soviet Union by the 1920s, it was merely one wing of what one critic referred to as a “novelists’ international,” an international working-class literary movement marked by its rejection of nineteenth-century norms of narrative, its frank and often even grotesque representations of working-class life, its radical anti-capitalist politics, its surreal montages that speak more to the aesthetics of Nelson Algren’s heroin addicts in Polish Chicago, sex-workers in Alfred Dölblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the barrack yards of C. L. R. James’s Trinidad, than Soviet posters of robust, round-cheeked peasants grinning with bushels of wheat.

What made the proletarian literary movement unique was not only that it spoke of the working class. Writing by and about working people in the United States extends as far back as slave narratives published by abolitionists, as well as the rise of the realist novel during the nineteenth century’s gilded age. But most if not nearly all working-class literature from the nineteenth century was literature about working-class people, seldom by them and even more rarely, from their perspective.

Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills is instructive here: the narrator is an omniscient middle-class observer who leads the reader from a well-established home and into the lives of mill workers. The novella is as much about the workers as it is about middle-class apprehensions about workers — their morality, their liminal racial status, and above all, the disorienting and symbolic proximity to the narrator’s home.

Like Jacob Riis’s lantern shows of the urban working classes he published as How the Other Half Lives, nineteenth-century literature about class often provided a kind of surveillance over the poor, benevolent at times, and reactionary at others. Its function was to act as a layer of mediation between the poor and the ruling elite. The realist novel was imagined as a sort of literary Central Park, a well-mannered site at which all classes can converge and, it is hoped, form a lawful democratic polity.

William Dean Howells 1890 novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes, constructs this vision as a literal dinner party, at which an upper-middle-class writer hosts a dinner for the owner of his magazine, as well as the working-class immigrant translator. One gets the sense that for Howells, had the dinner been successful, democracy might have been achieved.

The proletarian arts movement intellectually and politically broke with these forms of representation of the past. Unlike working-class representation of the previous century, the movement was concerned not only with working-class authorship and working-class control over the arts, but with producing a new working-class subjectivity. In his New Masses call for proletarian literature in the United States, Gold demands that writers “spend the next few years in and out of. . . industry. . . so when he writes of it he will write like an insider, not like a bourgeois intellectual observer.”

Gold celebrated the working-class backgrounds of new writers he promoted, proclaiming their working-class authenticity as central to the validity of their work: “Ed Falkowski” who “has been a miner since childhood, born of miner parents,” and “Martin Russak has the same background in the textile industry” and “T. H. Lewish is a farmer, close to the problems of the dirt farmers of the middle west.”

As Gold wrote in his own 1921 manifesto, “Toward a Proletarian Art,” he did not view art and artists as Romantics did: iconoclastic individuals, “lonely as a cloud,” seeking freedom from an oppressive and conformist social order. Gold rather felt himself to be a conduit for a collective: “When I think it is the tenement thinking. When I hope it is the tenement hoping. . . . What is Art? Art is the tenement pouring its soul through us.”

As proletarian writer Meridel Le Sueur framed in an attack on the ideal of the writer as outsider, “I do not care for the bourgeois ‘individual’ that I am.” When speaking of a working-class social movement, “…you do not join such a group, you simply belong.”

Even in Gold’s more controversial statements, in which he denounces Marcel Proust as the “master masturbator of the bourgeoisie,” or states that a novel is no more mystic in its origin than “a ham sandwich,” he is deliberately attacking the bourgeois assumptions of literature: that it is something removed from the class position that produced it and that it represents. That Kazin and Berman deride Gold as “not that bright” only means that according to their standard of literary taste — in which proving one’s “brilliance” is the goal of the writer — Gold has failed at the very category he was attempting to undermine from the beginning.

Gold’s 1929 call in the New Masses to “Go Left, Young Writers” also served as a manifesto for the locus of proletarian writing during the Great Depression: the John Reed Clubs. Named after the famous US journalist of the Mexican and Bolshevik Revolutions, they served as meeting places, writing workshops, organizing centers, and perhaps most importantly for the writers who belonged to them, as venues to publish and promote their work.

Gold’s call for writers with a “knowledge of working-class life. . . gained from first-hand contacts” was not just a call for individuals who work for a living to take up the pen, but rather the formation of an entirely new collective approach to literary production. It was, as Edmund Wilson described it, a “literary class war” in which writers would, en masse, take up the call for Communism. “Art is a weapon of class struggle” was their motto, and as such, it was no longer an endeavor of lone iconoclasts but an entire social movement.

While the Reed Clubs were formally dissolved into the American Writers Congress in 1936 as part of the Communist Party’s shift from working-class militancy to anti-fascism, in the seven years of their existence, they supported and produced writers such as Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Meridel Le Sueur, John Howard Lawson, Grace Lumpkin, Jack Conroy, Tillie Olsen, Josephine Herbst, Eugene Gordon, Langston Hughes, and many others.

While some of these writers already had careers such as Hughes and Herbst, for many others, it is likely that the Reed Clubs not only shaped but discovered them. The clubs were comprised of the “young, unemployed, and unpublished,” in the words of Michael Denning, and were often working-class writers’ only connection to the wider world of literary culture.

“Communism gave me a mind,” Gold said of his joining the party. Richard Wright, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, wrote in American Hunger, that the clubs were his first contact with “the modern world.”

The Reed Clubs not only gave us some of the most powerful voices of the 1930s, like Algren, Olsen, and Wright; they gave us the first confident working-class voices in American letters. Absent the “literary class war” and organizations like the Reed Clubs today, it is impossible to know how many Wrights, Algrens, and Olsens have not been heard and we will never hear from — writers who, guardians of the bourgeois literary world like Kazin assume, are “not that bright.”

The Race of Class

Mike Gold’s single novel, Jews Without Money, was understood at its publication — auspiciously coinciding with the Great Depression’s crisis of capitalism in 1930 — as a major achievement for the proletarian arts movement. As Denning observed, it immediately went through a dozen printings in less than a year, and inaugurated an entire cycle of novels about a racialized US working class, from Richard Wright’s Lawd Today! about a black Chicago postal worker, to Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete about an Italian immigrant construction workers to H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands about laundry workers of Chinese descent in New York City. As critic Paula Rabinowitz framed it, Jews was taken to be “a road marker to guide the proletarian literature that followed.”

Yet for a working-class manifesto, Jews is an odd book. Though Gold calls for literature on the “strike, boycott, mass-meeting, imprisonment, sacrifice, agitation, martyrdom, organization,” his novel has none of these things — its call for revolution seems almost an afterthought.

Cover of Jews Without Money, 1935 edition.

Added to final paragraphs of the novel, its call “O workers Revolution. . . the true Messiah” can seem so superfluous, one conservative publisher in the 1960s simply chopped off the final two pages. While this edit was committed for political reasons, that one could cut the explicitly revolutionary politics from the novel by simply eliminating the narrator’s final revelation suggests a great deal about how the surface politics appear merely hitched onto the text’s rear bumper.

Jews is rather an episodic novel about the young narrator’s working-class housepainter father and pious but fiercely class-conscious mother, as he survives scrapes with his gang of toughs and mourns his father’s slide into illness and penury. The novel appears to have no plot, other than the changing seasons, and his father’s worsening health, and toward the end, his sister’s unexpected and violent death.

Jews is sometimes referred to as “poetic” and “autobiographical” as means to account for its unstructured nature. Yet unlike Jewish novels that preceded it such as Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, Gold’s narrator rejects the lure of upward mobility and assimilation earlier novels depict, even in satire.

If the novel lacks a well-laid plot, it most certainly has an arc: Jews is explicitly downwardly mobile. Between the dreams of uplift held by his father and the earnest dreams of his mother for his studies, the young Mikey chooses the streets.

The hero of the novel is not Mikey, who converts to socialism in the final two paragraphs, but rather the narrator’s best friend, the black-haired, swarthy, broad-nosed, impoverished Jewish adolescent, described as a “gypsy” and nicknamed the “N word” in derision by the community. Yet Mikey’s dark friend was far from an outcast for Gold: “He was ready to die for justice,” Mikey says of his adolescent friend, proudly boasting that he “hit a teacher “on the nose” after the teacher called Mikey a “little Kike.”

Mikey’s dark-skinned friend defied the racist and antisemitic authority against which Mikey and his friends fought, both on the street against rival Irish and Italian, “Christian” gangs, as well as the official authority of the state manifested in the school system and the police. A hustler, drop out, and brawler, Mikey describes “N—” as “built like a tugboat for power,” and delights as “N—” defiantly waits on rooftops to drop bricks on a corrupt policeman’s head.

Jews Without Money is the first prominent Jewish novel published in the United States to not only resist Jewish assimilation entirely, but to also embrace Jews’ liminal racial status as a positive class marker of resistance. Gold came to the conclusion that it was self-destructive for Jews to adopt the course of other European immigrant groups who learned to be white by differentiating and segregating themselves from black people.

In an historical moment in which racial categories were understood to be self-evident and immutable, “N–” undermines racial binaries, identifying with African Americans at a moment in which Jews were internally and externally pressured to assimilate. Unlike films such as 1927’s The Jazz Singer, in which Jewish class ascension and assimilation to whiteness is explicitly embraced through blackface performance, Mikey takes on a number of working-class jobs and side hustles with “N—” before finally converting to communism. One could say Jews replaces what is assumed to be an inevitable trajectory of Ashkenazi Jewish assimilation with an alternative path, a multiracial political revolution.

To place Gold’s racial metaphors in context, during the years of his radicalization in the 1920s, anti-immigrant sentiment saw a dramatic upsurge. Responding to the heyday of the twentieth-century racism exemplified by the reemergence of the northern Ku Klux Klan, the 1924 passage of the Johnson-Reed Act enacted “national origin” quotas that were intended to reduce immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to almost zero.

Dividing the globe into East and West, European immigrants were differentiated by their assumed geographical proximity to Asia and Africa, with Jews in particular singled out as “abnormally twisted” and “unassimilable,” according to immigration scholar Mae Ngai, linking them phenotypically with African Americans and Asians. Immigrant Jews were not only unassimilable, they were bearers of dangerous, Asiatic communism.

The 1924 act was an attempt to eugenically engineer the nation to an explicitly Anglo-Saxon, pre-Jewish country. Gold’s celebration of revolution — based on Jewish-black identification — does not reject the association of Jews with blackness, but rather embraces it. It is through Gold’s identification with a racially marked Jewishness that he comes to his political awakening.

An Anti-Racist Avant Garde

Jews was not Gold’s only foray into exploring the aesthetics and politics of race. He early understood that the problem of the twentieth century would be, as W. E. B. Du Bois framed it, the problem of the color line.

Gold was an early champion of the Communist Party’s turn to both anti-racist work and revolutionary black nationalism. His first published book was a biography of John Brown, and his nom de guerre, Mike Gold, was adopted from a Jewish Civil War veteran and abolitionist who was a friend of Gold’s father.

Gold’s first full-length play, Hoboken Blues, was a surreal, expressionist exploration of both black radical politics, and a satirical rejection of racist minstrelsy. Focusing on a migrant to Harlem who flees the South after his brother is lynched, the play’s hero, Sam Pickens, ultimately travels to Hoboken and in a dreamlike sequence becomes “president” of the city. Yet Pickens eventually wakes up to discover it had all been a dream; he is still unemployed in Harlem, and unsure whether or not Hoboken even exists.

Like a racialized version of Looking Backward, the black narrator dreams of a city “where no one is hungry, where no one is lynched, where dere’s no money or bosses, and men are brudders” and yet can do more than imagine it. Most innovative was Gold’s direction that there were to be no white actors in the play — and that white people would be played by black actors in white face masks. Reversing the vogue for blackface performance in the 1920s memorialized in Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer, it is black people who command and satirize the representation of whites.

The radicalism of Jews is not only in its political alignments. While even the novel’s detractors such as Kazin note the book’s punchy, poetic sentences and the sharp, chaotic montages, Gold’s critics are often so fixated on his naivety that they assume no purpose to the text’s radical style. As Marshall Berman notes, modernity is more than an accretion of technology, it is also a particular way of seeing, a modality of being, a style.

Like Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectical image that offers two radically contradictory ideas in the same frame, Jews evokes a constant push and pull of the city, an urban maelstrom that it is at once barbaric and utopian, and its barbarism and utopian impulses are contained in a series of cross-cut, jagged images and juxtapositions. The city is as much a character in Jews as “N—” or his parents: the Lower East Side “was an immense excitement . . . it roared like the sea. It exploded like fireworks.”

The Lower East Side was a “gauntlet of whores meaty legs” in the street, a “saloon goat . . . on the sidewalk” that “dreamily consumed a Police Gazette,” a single white butterfly a playmate caught and then crushed in his hat; a boy killed by a passing delivery wagon whose head was only found hours later attached the axle; warm and sticky summer rain that splattered on roofs “like a gangster’s blood”; a pious rabbi from Poland who bilks his congregants as soon as he can make it to the suburbs; chromos of Buffalo Bill that loom comically and also menacingly over the “savages” of Mikey’s “little gang of Yids.”

Like the way “N—’s” racial liminality confounds and upsets assumptions about identity, so these strange, lurid, grotesque, and sometimes funny juxtapositions astonish and fragment bourgeois notions of order and rationality the city is supposed to provide. Capitalism in Jews is neither rational nor just. It is both the expressway that cuts through the neighborhood and displaces Mikey’s neighbors, years before urban renewal, and it is Mikey’s father vomiting from lead poisoning in his capacity as a housepainter beneath it.

An Immigrant Literature

Little attention has also been paid to the particularly Eastern European and Levantine Jewish elements of story-telling in the text. Gold spends a great deal of time explaining that the father in the novel is a storyteller, and his stories extend sometimes over days, defy reason, leap with fancy, and are part of an oral Yiddish tradition that spanned from Romania to Turkey to Russia. And while Jews is a realist text in one sense, it does not conform to the narrative guidelines of realist drama.

As Patrick Chura, Gold’s biographer, notes, Gold was an enthusiast like his father of Yiddish drama, noting the “the tight, ‘well-made’ problem play” was not to audience’s “liking. . . . They demanded life in full abundance.” Like Yiddish theater, Jews is above anything else abundant, nonlinear, with one story line blending into another, some dropped entirely, and an end that comes down abruptly and with no warning. For an Anglo ear, Jews has no logic; for a Yiddish inflected audience, reading Jews is like listening in on a dozen conversations among the temple alter kakers.

Gold’s Yiddishkeit ear extends to Jews’ politics on Zionism as well. While Gold displays a kind of grand Whitmanesque sympathy for all he surveys on his beloved Chrystie Street — the sex workers, the gangsters, the hustlers, the ultraorthodox, the small-time miserly shop keepers — he shows only unsparing contempt for Baruch Goldfarb: “A Zionist leader and the owner of a big dry goods store.”

Goldfarb and his associate, Zechariah Cohen, run a fraternal lodge that engages in vote-rigging, labor spying, and shady real estate schemes to gentrify the then-outer boroughs of Kensington and Borough Park. Mikey’s father Herman, taken in by Cohen, ultimately falls to his near-death at Cohen’s unsafe worksite and is rendered disabled, despairing, and poor for the rest of his days. The implication is clear: for Gold’s “broken Jewish nation” who “learned to revere its writers and men of thought,” Zionism was nothing but a bourgeois scam for Herman and working-class Jews like him.

That Jews is an important novel should go without saying. But its importance is not just that it is a novel that helped launch the most significant revolutionary literary movement of the twentieth century, or a novel that attempted to redefine Jewishness at a pivotal moment in its racial and class trajectory toward a progressive, democratic direction. It is also a novel of immigrants, as Gold himself says in the opening chapters.

“America is so rich and fat,” he writes of his neighborhood, “because it has eaten the tragedy of millions of immigrants.”

While the five or so million of the United States’ Ashkenazi Jews are, for the most part, no longer the racialized migrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the decision the novel poses is one recent immigrants face: to align with the whiteness associated with upward class mobility, or align with the multiethnic working class for a democratic, even socialist future. Jews is in some ways a chaotic and open text precisely because such trajectories are fluid, identities are in flux, all part of the great making and unmaking class and race in the United States.

Not everything about Gold is savory. There are aspects of Gold’s career that rightly strike contemporary audiences as difficult to embrace. He was openly homophobic in the 1930s (a position for which he later expressed a great deal of regret), and he followed the zigzags of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy in most cases, except perhaps its most catastrophic: it is doubtful that Gold followed the Soviet Union’s pro-Zionist line in the late 1940s. But Gold’s legacy is far greater than the sum of his failures or political insights.

Gold is important to recover only because he is one of dozens, hundreds of writers whose legacy and output was silenced by the Red Scare and Cold War. Gold’s project was to create a working-class literature written for, by, and about working-class people, and Gold understood that a working-class literature would also have to be a radical literature, and a racial literature.

And he understood that such a project required conflict with a literary establishment. It would mean a literary class war. It would mean Hemingway leaving a note in Gold’s office, “Hemingway tells Mike Gold to go Fuck himself” as Gold dragged him one too many times as a bourgeois writer; it would more seriously mean the loss of his career and income during the McCarthy years.

Yet in a contemporary world of MFA programs, Guggenheim fellowships, and NPR booklists, Partisan Review editor Joseph Freeman’s comment about Gold seems the highest compliment: he cared more for socialism than his career. We could use more writers of such temperament.