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A Short History of the MLG

This brief history of the Marxist Literary Group was initially researched for a book on the work of Fredric Jameson.

This brief history of the Marxist Literary Group was initially researched for a book I am writing on the work of Fredric Jameson [1] and not as a study in its own right. Consequently, there are certain limitations to my narrative which I would like to draw attention to at the outset. The account that follows clearly reflects my primary interest in the work of Jameson. I focus upon the role and influence of Jameson within the MLG to a much greater extent than that of other significant figures. It should be acknowledged, therefore, that a much fuller history of the Marxist Literary Group needs to be written, a history that takes into account the contribution and commitment of many people, a few of whom will be mentioned here but many of whom will not, who have played an equally important role in the work of the MLG. My initial concern was to situate Jameson and his early theoretical work, firstly, in relation to the Marxist Literary Group, and secondly, in realtion to the development of Marxist Cultural theory in the US academy. What follows is a first step in that direction.

The Marxist Literary Group was formed by Jameson and a number of his graduate students, including James Kavanagh, Bill Langen, Gene Holland, June Howard and John Beverley, at the University of California, San Diego in 1969-70. According to Jameson himself, the Group emerged out of the 1968 New York conference of the MLA along with the Radical Caucus, a group associated with figures such as Louis Kampf, Florence Howe, Paul Lauter, Susan O'Malley and Ket Ellis. [2] The Caucus itself was formed prior to the New York conference, developing out of the New University Conference and RESIST, and, according to Dan Latimer, the MLG was originally a part of the Radical Caucus. [3] Latimer goes on to say that the two groups "split, with great noise and pain, along the fault line of theory and praxis, with on the one hand the Jameson group, constituted by a number of more patient, tenured members of high profile departments, addicted to the higher lucubrations of theory; and on the other the Radical Caucus remnant constituted by more imperilled inner city, community college activists, demanding more overtly disruptive tactics and abjuring the long-term as just another form of cooption". [4] My own correspondence with members of both the MLG and the Radical Caucus, however, suggests that the split between the two was neither that profound nor personal. There was certainly a degree of tension between the MLG and the Causus in the early years but this gradually petered out, and contrary to the view of factional infighting the two groups were affiliated and worked closely together on many issues. It is also somewhat misleading to characterise the split between the two groups along the lines of theory and practice, the former being based in high profile departments and the latter in community colleges. The development of "theory" and specifically Marxist theory was indeed central, if not the central aim, of the Marxist Literary Group, as Jameson's programmatic statement in the preface to Marxism and Form makes clear:

within the United States itself, there is no tactical or political question which is not first and foremost theoretical, no form of action which is not inextricably entangled in the sticky cobwebs of the false and unreal culture itself, with its ideological mystification on every level. [5]

 

However, a commitment to theory does not, as I shall point out below, preclude a concern with issues of proctice, while the MLG itself represented an important intervention in the academy with significant practical as well as theoretical consequences. Furthermore, as Jameson's statement also makes clear, the question of praxis in contemporary US society was itself perceived to be a theoretical problem. To quote Jameson again, the issue is not "whether the street fighter or urban guerilla can win against the weapons and technology of the modern state, but rather precisely where the street is in the superstate, and, indeed, whether the old-fashioned street as such still exists in the first place in that seamless web of marketing and automated production which makes up the new state". [6] With regard to the Radical Caucus, it is again true to say that it emphasised social activism rather than theoretical concerns. It also adopted a more broad based radicalism than the specifically Marxist perspective of the MLG, but it was not restricted to community colleges in the inner city and had many members in "prestigious" or high- profile institutions. These few remarks should be kept in mind in the light of my comments below where I will emphasise the distinctions between the Caucus and the MLG rather than their shared concerns.

It is perhaps, therefore, more accurate to speak of a difference of emphasis and focus in the respective programs of the Radical Caucus and the MLG rather than of a deep ideological rift. The activities of the Radical Caucus focused upon pedagogical and professional issues. The Caucus put out the journal, Radical Teacher, which, as its title indicates, was concerned with issues of teaching, language and composition. In short, the Caucus was primarily interested in questions of the canon, of recovering Women's and other literatures, along with the nature of the profession itself. The Marxist Literary Group, on the other hand, was concerned with the development of theory, and specifically of Marxist theory. In the late 1960's and early 70's Jameson, along with others on the Marxist Left, saw the lack of a firm theoretical foundation as one of the inherent weaknesses of the emergent New Left. In his book Marxism In the United States, Paul Buhle identifies the two most pressing dilemmas then faced by the New Left, firstly, as a need for a "reformulation of the concept of historical agency" [7] and, secondly, as the need to develop "a politics and theory equal to the ambition of naming, and overcoming, a system for which the available analyses had fallen short". [8] Specifically in relation to the academy Jameson pointed to the almost total "absence of any genuine Marxist culture in academic circles". [9] When North American students thought of Marxism, argued Jameson, they only had recourse to the struggles and polemics of the 1930's which bore little relation to their contemporary needs and aspirations. What the situation called for was a form of Marxism that could "deal theoretically with the unique questions raised by monopoly capitalism in the West". [10] In his 1982 Diacritics [11] interview Jameson enlarged on this need for a Marxist Cultural presence, arguing that any real systematic change in American society required as a minimal first step the creation of a social democratic movement. This, in turn, entailed two preconditions: the creation of a Marxist intelligentsia and of a Marxist culture, or intellectual presence. Marxism and Form was to be a key text in establishing that marxist cultural presence, and as Terry Eagleton has described it, the Ur-text of the renaissance of Marxist criticism in the 1970's, "establishing the lgitimacy of Marxist aesthetic theory among broad sections of the literary critical profession". [12] Another key component in this transformation, I would suggest, was the presence and activities of the Marxist Literary Group itself.

The MLG has maintained three core functions since the mid 70's: its initial function of organising sessions at the MLA national and various regional conferences, the organisation of its own summer Institute on Culture and Society and the publication of its newsletter, now the journal, Mediations. The internet discussion forum could now be added to this list of core functions. In the early 1970's the MLG was the largest affiliated organization to the MLA, running 14 sessions at the 1975 conference. This number declined, however, in the late 70's and early 80's. There are perhaps two reasons to account for this apparent decline in the Group's presence at MLA conferences around this time. The first is structural: the MLA governing body took the decision in the late 70's to limit the number of sessions affiliated organizations could stage at its conferences, initially to three per organization and then in the early 80's to two. The perceived decline in the presence of the MLG then was more a result of external factors and constraints than a decline of interest in Marxist theory per se. The second reason is that, in some senses, the MLG became a victim of its own success. The MLG initially provided a space within the MLA and the wider academy in which Marxist ideas could be seriously discussed and propagated; but, as Maxist cultural discourse became more widely disseminated, the need for such a space declined. As many of the early members of the MLG themselves gained University positions, Marxist cultural criticism was no longer a marginal concern but a serious component, or option, on many course curriculae. Paradoxically, then, as Marxist criticism increasingly gained a foothold in the academy, the MLG lost some of its raison d'etre. These remarks should not be taken to imply that the MLG has gradually but irreversibly declined since the heydays of the early 70's but that, as I shall point out in relation to the summer Institute, its function has significantly changed in the recent past as it has come to address a new, more theoretically and politically aware, audience.

Jameson's move to Yale in 1977 may also be read as symbolic of this transformation of the status of Marxist criticism in the US academy in the late 70's. Jameson's residence at Yale placed him at the very heart of contemporary theoretical debates along with what were then loosely termed the Yaled Deconstructionists: Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller and Harold Bloom. If Marxism and Form could be seen, as I have suggested, as a foundational text, introducing a whole new generation of students to a particular tradition of Western Marxist theory, the The Political Unconscious, published in 1981, signified Marxism's coming of age in the academy. Unlike Marxism and From, with its exogesis of an older tradition of dialectical thinking, The Political Unconscious directly engaged in contemporary Marxist and theoretical debates. After The Political Unconscious, with its breathtaking first chapter, Marxist cultural theory could no longer be ignored and dismissed in the academy as a crudely reductionist or outdated theory.

The MLG functions as a nationally constituted body, organising around the MLA conference and its own summer Institutes. However, a number of MLG groups exist, or have existed, on individual campuses. There were, for example, groups centered around Jameson at both San Diego and Yale during his respective residencies, a group was set up at Cornell in 1982 and there was also a MLG reading group at Duke in the late 80's. While individual MLG "groups" may have formed on campuses, the overriding aim of the MLG was to bring together people on a national basis and, particularly in its early years, to facilitate the coming together of many leftist and marxist academics and students who found themselves isolated on their campuses. The summer Institute was to be a key element in providing this arena for education and solidarity, along with the circulation of the newsletter. The journal, Mediations, formally the MLG newsletter of the same name, operates as a forum for MLG members and for the wider dissemination of the Institute presentations. The Newsletter was initially set up in the early 1970's and turned into its new format as a journal by members of the present editorial board, in particular Ron Strickland and Chris Newfield, around 1990-91. I am not familiar with the early copies of the newsletter, so I can say little about its content and the specific issues with which it was concerned. My attention was drawn, however, by a previous editor, to the question of its form. The early newsletters were, unlike many of the hand-printed newsletters that one comes across, in the sense that they were rather densely written and very theoretical. In other words, one was expected to "read" the newsletter rather than just flip through it.

Perhaps the most successful and well known of the MLG's activities has been its summer Institute on Culture and Society. The Institute was initially held at St. Cloud, Minnesota, organized by Bill Langen, the first institute taking place, I believe, in the summer of 1976. Speakers at these early conferences included many well-known, and less well-known, figures in US and British literary and cultural studies, such as: Fredric Jameson, Stanley Aronowitz, Terry Eagleton, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Michael Ryan. James Kavanagh, Gene Holland, June Howard, and John Beverley. The early Institutes were very much centered on Marxist theory, with seminars on Althusser, for example, but there was also an attempt to link theory to practice through regular evening discussions between people of different political affiliations. These sessions were dropped as a regular feature of the Institute's schedule sometime in the 80's, but a glance through the recent programmes of the Institute shows that the question of activism and the need to relate theory to practice is clearly back on the agenda. One consequence of this attempt to link theory and practice was the short-lived political offshot of the MLG, the Marxist Union. At the St. Cloud conferences in the late 70's, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, John Beverley, Stanley Aronowitz and others argued for the creation of an organization of Marxist Intelligentsia, the Marxist Union was subsequently formed and held a number of Conferences in New York before dissolving.

A sense of the breadth and diversity of these institutes can be gathered from the book that emerged from the 1983 conference at the University of Illinois, organized in conjunction with the Unit for Criticism and Interpretative Theory, University of Illinois, and published as Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. [13] Bruce Boone, who participated in the early conferences at St. Cloud, has also published a short novel on these early summer Institutes, Century of Clouds. Further reports and reviews of these early conferences can be found in the pages of the Minnesota Review. The summer Institute tends to be held at different Institutions each year. It has been held, for instance, at Amherst, Oregon, Delaware, Hartford, and Havana, Cuba in the last decade or so. Since the mid 80's the Institute has been held mainly at Pittsburgh, this has largely been due to the fact that Paul Smith, the MLG president since 1988 and current organizer of the summer Institute, has been based there, as well as to the financial contribution made by Carnegie Mellon.

The Institute originally ran for two to three weeks and continues today on the slightly reduced scale of nine to ten days, the Illinois conference of 1983 being probably the largest of the old-style Institutes. As I mentioned above, the MLG and the Institute have evolved and changed over the last few years. In particular there has been a shift of emphasis from a specific concern with Marxist cultural theory to a more wide-ranging engagement between Marxism and the fields of: cultural studies, postmodernism, post- structuralism, and post-Marxism. Recent Institutes, for example, have been concerned with psychoanalysis and Marxism, post-colonial discourse, political strategies in the age of Reagan, feminism and left politics, the Institutionalisation of cultural theory, cultural activism and the culture and politics of excess. There has also been a significant increase in the participation of US minorities and "Third World" scholars, with papers on issues of: "Deconstruction and Race," "Cast, Class and Gender in India," "The Rhetoric of Postcolonial Feminism," along with lesbian and gay theory. This diversity of seminars and themes continues to co-exist alongside the more traditional papers on Althusser, Marxist theory and reading groups on Capital. So, while the Institute can be said to have been scaled down in terms of duration, it has significantly developed and expanded in other areas as it engages with a continually shifting political and theoretical terrain.

I will conclude this brief account of the Marxist Literary Group with a few remarks on Jameson's more recent involvement with the group. Jameson's direct participation in the organization and running of the MLG lessened in the 1980's. He continues to be an active supporter and frequently speaks at the summer Institute, although on a less regular basis than before. However, Jameson's continuing intellectual influence and active presence within the MLG is testified to in a recent MLA session devotted to "The Jameson Legacy," [14] which Jameson himself addressed. Within cultural studies in Britain over the last few years Marxist criticism has suffered many setbacks, Jameson's text have provided us with one resource to combat this, the recent plans to establish a UK-affiliated Marxist Literary Group will provide us with another.

(This short history of the Marxist Literary Group was compiled with the assistance of members of the MLG netlist. I would particularly like to thank Fredric Jameson, Walter Cohen, Douglas Kellner, Peter Fitting, Paul Smith, John Beverley, Tom Moyland, Tim Dayton, and Melani McAlister for taking the time to respond to my postings on the list. I hope that I have not misrepresented any of the views expressed therein. I would be happy to receive corrections and updates via email at <S.I.Homer@Sheffield.ac.uk.)

Notes

[1] Polity Press, Autumn 1996.

[2] An account of the political upheavals of this conference and the subsequent election of Louis Kampf as second vice-president of the MLA has been given in Richard Ohmann, "MLA: Professors of Literature in a Group," in English in America: A Radical View of the Profession (New York: Oxford UP, 1976).

[3] Dan Latimer, "Jameson and Postmodernism" in New Left Review, no. 129 (1981), pp. 116-28.

[4] Ibid., p. 117.

[5] Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971), p. xviii.

[6] Ibid., p. xviii.

[7] Paul Buhle, Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left (London: Verso, 1991), p. 230.

[8] Ibid, p. 233.

[9] Jameson, Marxism and Form, p. x.

[10] Ibid., p. xviii.

[11] "Interview," in Diacritics, vol. 12, no. 3 (1982), pp. 72-91.

[12] Terry Eagleton. "The Idealism of American Criticism," in Against the Grain: Selected Essays 1975-1985 (London: Verso, 1986).

[13] Nelson, G. and Grossberg, L. eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

[14] Address to the Marxist Literary Group session, "The Jameson Legacy," of the Modern Language Association, Toronto: 27-30 December, 1993.