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Proletarian literature

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Proletarian literature

Proletarian literature refers to the literature created by working-class writers mainly for the class-conscious proletariat, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica states, that because it "is essentially an intended device of revolution", is therefore often published by the Communist party or left wing sympathizers.[1] But the proletarian novel has also been categorized without any emphasis on revolution, as a novel "about the working classes and working-class life; perhaps with the intention of making propaganda",[2] and this may reflect a difference between Russian, American and other traditions of working-class writing, with that of Britain. The British tradition was not solely inspired by the Communist party, as it also involved socialists and anarchists. Furthermore, writing about the British working class writers, H Gustav Klaus, in The Socialist Novel: Towards the Recovery of a Tradition, as long ago as 1982, suggested that "the once current [term] 'proletarian' is, internationally, on the retreat, while the competing concepts of 'working class' and 'socialist' continue to command about equal adherence".[3] The word proletarian is also sometimes used to describe works about the working class by actual working class authors, to distinguish them from works by middle class authors, like Charles Dickens's Hard Times and Henry Green's Living.[4]

The poet as graphic artist: "proletarian art" in a civil war era poster by the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, published by Narkompros. Mayakovsky makes use of stencil, simple agitational poetry, and primitive workerist graphics to create an almost folk art effect.

The avantgardist Proletkult of the first years of the Russian Revolution, was different from the later, traditional and realist Proletarian novel of the Stalin years. It flourished in Russia, in an effort to encourage literacy.

Proletarian novel

The proletariat are citizens of the lowest class, usually the working class; a member of such a class is proletarian. The proletarian novel is a sub genre of the novel, written by workers mainly for other workers. It overlaps and sometimes is synonymous with: the working class novel,[5] socialist novel,[6] social problem novel (also problem novel or sociological novel or social novel),[7] propaganda or thesis novel,[8] socialist realism novel. The adjective proletarian is not normally used to describe works about the working class by middle class authors, like Charles Dickens's Hard Times and Henry Green's Living.[4]

The proletarian novel is frequently seen as an instrument to promote social reform or political revolution among the working classes. Proletarian literature is the mainstay of writings created especially by communist, socialist and anarchist authors. It is about the lives of poor, working class individuals, and the period 1930 to 1945 in particular produced many such novels, in various parts of the world, about the lives of the working-class. However, there were works before and after these dates. In Britain the term working class literature, novel etc. is more generally used. The intention of the writers of proletarian literature is to lift the workers from the ghetto, by inspiring them to embrace the possibilities of social change or a political revolution.

Based on the political and literary ideas of Gorki (whom the Russians claim to have written the first proletarian novel), also inspired by the novels of the anarchists of the decade of the 1920s (Wobblies or Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and later promoted by Joseph Stalin as an important part of the movement called socialist realism, the proletarian novel had its greatest period of success between 1930 and the early 1940s. The thirties were the years of the Great Depression and the writers with a Marxist inclination hoped to inspire and begin the social revolution that Marx and other thinkers had prophesied.

Proletarian or working class novels were written in Germany, England, France, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and numerous other countries, as well as in the United States.

The most important American writers gathered in the First American Writers Congress of 1935 (see Hart's volume), which was supported by Stalin. See the Jorge Icaza of Ecuador, and numerous others.

Robert Tressell banner

United States

In the United States, Mike Gold was the first to promote proletarian literature, in Max Eastman's magazine The Liberator and later in The New Masses. The party newspaper, The Daily Worker also published literature, as did numerous other magazines like The Anvil, edited by Jack Conroy, Blast, and Partisan Review.

American examples of the proletarian novels include Mike Gold's own Jews Without Money (1930) and Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth (1929), and Robert Cantwell's Land of Plenty (1934). James T. Farrell, Howard Fast, The Last Frontier (1941), Albert Halper, Josephine Herbst, Albert Maltz, Tillie Olsen, and Meridel Le Sueur were other well-known proletarian writers.


The proletarian literature movement in Japan emerged from a trend in the latter half of the 1910s of literature about working conditions by authors who had experienced them, later called Taisho workers literature. Representative works from this period include Sukeo Miyajima's Miners (坑夫) and Karoku Miyachi's Tomizō the Vagrant (放浪者富蔵), as well as works dealing with military experiences which were also associated with the Taishō democracy, the emergence of which allowed for the development of proletarian literature in Japan. In 1921, Ōmi Komaki and Hirofumi Kaneko founded the literary magazine The Sowers (種蒔く人), which aimed to reform both the current literary scene and society. The Sowers attracted attention for recording tragedies that occurred in the wake of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.

In 1924, Literary Front (文芸戦線) magazine was launched by Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi and Suekichi Aono, becoming the main magazine of the Japanese proletarian literature movement. New writing such as Yoshiki Hayama's The Prostitute (淫売婦) and Denji Kuroshima's A Herd of Pigs (豚群) also began to appear in the magazine.

In 1928, the Japanese Proletarian Arts Federation (全日本無産者芸術連盟, Nippona Artista Proleta Federacio, known as NAPF) was founded, bringing together the Japan Proletarian Artists Union (日本プロレタリア芸術連盟), the Labor-Farmers Artists Union (労農芸術家連盟), and the Vanguard Artists Union (前衛芸術家同盟). NAPF was largely the responsibility of two up-and-coming writers called The Crab Cannery Ship (蟹工船) and March 15, 1928 (一九二八年三月十五日) and Tokunaga's A Street Without Sun (太陽のない街). Another important magazine was Reconstruction (改造) which published writings from Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Yuriko Miyamoto, who had just returned from the Soviet Union.

Author Korehito Kurehara traveled secretly to the Soviet Union in 1930 for the Profintern conference, and upon his return in 1931, he started agitating for the democratization of literary organizations. This sparked the drive to organize literary circles in factories and rural areas, creating a new source of readers and writers there.

In 1931, the NAPF became the Union of Japanese Proletarian Cultural Organizations (日本プロレタリア文化連盟, Federacio de Proletaj Kultur Organizoj Japanaj, also known as KOPF), incorporating other cultural organizations, such as musicians and filmmakers. KOPF produced various magazines including Working Woman (働く婦人)

The Japanese government cracked down harshly on proletarian authors, as the Japanese Communist Party had been outlawed since its founding in 1922. Though not all authors were associated with the party, the KOPF was, leading to mass arrests such as the March 15 incident. Some authors, such as Takiji Kobayashi were tortured to death by police, while others were forced to renounce their socialist beliefs.

In 2008, Takiji Kobayashi's The Crab Cannery Ship (蟹工船) became a bestseller in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.


An early British proletarian or working class writer was the poet John Clare (1793-1864). Clare was the son of a farm labourer, and came to be known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation of its disruption.[9] His poetry underwent a major re-evaluation in the late 20th century and he is now considered to be among the most important 19th-century poets.[10] His biographer Jonathan Bate states that Clare was "the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self".[11]

Working class life in Victorian Wetherby, West Yorkshire, UK.

Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole (1933) has been described as an "excellent example" of an English proletarian novel[12] It was written during the early 1930s as a response to the crisis of unemployment, which was being felt locally, nationally, and internationally. It is set in Hanky Park, an industrial slum in Salford, where Greenwood was born and brought up. The novel begins around the time of the General Strike of 1926, but its main action takes place in 1931.

The following are some other important working class novelists and novels from Britain, who were writing in the 20th century: Robert Tressell The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (1914); James C. Welsh The Underworld (1920); Rhys Davies The Withered Root (1927); Jack Jones Rhondda Roundabout (1934); James Hanley The Furys (1935); Lewis Jones Cwmardy (1937); Harold Heslop The Earth Beneath (1946); John Braine Room at the Top (1957); Alan Sillitoe Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958); Stan Barstow A Kind of Loving (1960); Sid Chaplin The Day of The Sardine (1961).[13]


  • The American Writer's Congress edited by Henry Hart. International Publishers, New York 1935.
  • Proletarian Literature in the United States: an Anthology edited by Granville Hicks, Joseph North, Paul Peters, Isidor Schneider and Alan Calmer; with a critical introduction by Joseph Freeman. International Publishers, New York 1935.[14]
  • Aaron, Daniel: Writers on the Left. Harcourt, New York 1961.
  • Brown, Edward James. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. London: Collier Books, 1965.
  • Denning, Michael: The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. Verso, 1996.
  • Empson, William. "Proletarian Literature," in Some Versions of Pastoral, pp. 3–23. New York: New Directions Paperbacks, 1965.
  • Ferrero, Mario. Nicomedes Guzmán y la Generación del 38. Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Mar Afuera, 1982.
  • Foley, Barbara: Radical Representations. Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Freeman, Joseph. Introduction to Proletarian Literature in the United States. Granville Hicks, et al., eds. New York: International Publishers, 1935.
  • Hart, Henry, ed. The American Writer's Congress. New York: International Publishers, 1935.
  • Haywood, Ian, Working-Class Fiction: from Chartism to "Trainspotting". Plymouth: Nortcote House, 1997.
  • Klaus, H. Gustav, The Literature of Labour: Two Hundred Years of Working-Class Writing. Brighton: Harvester, 1985. ISBN 0710806310
  • Klaus, H. Gustav and Stephen Knight, eds. British Industrial Fictions. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000. ISBN 0708315968
  • Lucaks, Georg. Studies in European Realism. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.
  • Murphy, James F.: The Proletarian Moment. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill 1991.
  • Nelson, Cary: Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. Routledge, 2001.
  • Pearson, Lon. Nicomedes Guzmán: Proletarian author in Chile's literary generation of 1938. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1964.
  • Promis [Ojeda], José. La novela chilena del último siglo. Santiago: La Noria, 1993. See "".
  • Rabinowitz, Paula: Labor and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1991.
  • Rideout, Walter B.: The Radical Novel in the United States: 1900-1954. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1956.
  • [Siniavskii, Andrei Donatevich] or Andrei Sinyavsky; also wrote as Tertz, Abram. On Socialist Realism. Introduction by Czeslaw Milosz. Trans. by George Dennis. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
  • Steinberg, Mark.: Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910-1925. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. (On proletarian literature in late-imperial and early Soviet Russia)
  • Wald, Alan M.: Writing from the Left. Verso, 1984.
  • Wald, Alan M.: Exiles from a Future Time. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Eric Homberger, "Proletarian Literature and the John Reed Clubs, 1929-1935," Journal of American Studies, vol. 13, no. 2 (Aug. 1979), pp. 221–244. In JSTOR.
  • Victor Serge and Anna Aschenbach, "Is Proletarian Literature Possible?" Yale French Studies, No. 39 (1967), pp. 137–145. In JSTOR.
  • R.W. Steadman, "A Critique of Proletarian Literature," North American Review, vol. 247, no. 1 (Spring 1939), pp. 142–152. In JSTOR.

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2013..
  2. ^ J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Criticism. (London: Penguin Books, 1999p. 703.
  3. ^ Brighton: Harvest Press, 1982 ,p.1.
  4. ^ a b John Fordham, "'A Strange Field’: Region and Class in the Novels of Harold Heslop" in Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain, ed. Kristin Bluemel. Published 2009 :Edinburgh University Press, note no.1, p.71.
  5. ^ H. Gustav Klaus, The Socialist Novel in Britain: Towards the Recovery of a Tradition. ( Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982:, p.1.
  6. ^ H. Gustav Klaus.
  7. ^ A Handbook to Literature 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), p.487; "social problem novel." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. [1]
  8. ^ J. A. Cuddon (revised C. E. Preston), The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. (London: Penguin, 1999) pp.704, 913
  9. ^ Geoffrey Summerfield, in introduction to John Clare: Selected Poems, Penguin Books 1990, pp 13–22. ISBN 0-14-043724-X
  10. ^ Sales, Roger (2002) John Clare: A Literary Life; Palgrave Macmillian ISBN 0-333-65270-3
  11. ^ Bate, Jonathan (2003) John Clare: A biography; Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  12. ^ J. A Cuddon, p. 703.
  13. ^ Ian Haywood, Working-Class Fiction: from Chartism to "Trainspotting". (Plymouth: Nortcote House, 1997), pp170-2.
  14. ^ International Publishers, New York 1935Proletarian Literature in the United States, to Granville Hicks and others (editors): IntroductionJoseph Freeman: .

External links

  • List of Working Class Literature,
  • Ruth Barraclough talks about Factory Girl Literature in Korea at University of Minnesota, October, 2012
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