Kenneth Burke and the Construction of Political Identities

Ekaterina V. Haskins

Presented at the National Communication Association Convention in
New York City, November 1998

For many Burke scholars, KB's appearance at the First Writers' Congress in 1935 is in itself symbolic of a union between theorizing and political action--a union which makes quite a few contemporary critical/radical theorists nostalgic. The significance of Burke's address, however, goes beyond the issue of labeling KB as a Marxist, a Marxoid, or a non-Marxist literary maverick. It is not my purpose here to expose or criticize the academic establishment's softening of Burke's radicalism or Burke's own political trajectory after the 1930s. Instead, I would like to discuss how Burke's address to the leftist intellectuals of the Popular Front era is still instructive for today's post-Marxist discursive theory and politics.

KB at the American Writers' Congress

The First American Writers' Congress, an organizational meeting for the League of American Writers, gathered under the sign of the "fight against the prevailing dangers of war, fascism and the extinction of culture" (Congress 10). The event marked a transition from the militant communist rhetoric of the so-called "Third Period" to a more inclusive tactic of the Popular Front, aimed at forging a broad coalition of progressive forces under the aegis of the Communist Party.

Contrary to the more "popular" tone of the Congress, however, its organizers did not alter their orthodox Party line regarding the historical role of the proletariat in revolutionary transformation. Most speeches affirmed, directly or implicitly, that the workers have a distinct understanding of their identity as a revolutionary class and that leftist writers' task is to reflect the rise of revolutionary consciousness. Literary intellectuals were thus urged to take the position of the proletariat if they wished to contribute to the united front's effort. Since most left-leaning writers came from "bourgeois" backgrounds, the "proletarian" quality of their work was to emerge from identification of the author with the world view of the working class. "The man with the revolutionary mind and approach can write a revolutionary book," announced Michael Gold (Congress 166). Earl Browder reassured those who had misgivings about the Party control over literature: "Within the camp of the working class, in struggle against the camp of capitalism, we find our best atmosphere of free give and take of a writers' and critics' democracy, which is controlled only by its audience, the masses of readers, who constitute the final authority" (Congress 68-69).

Despite its ostensibly broad meaning, "the masses" carried a connotation of ideological unity, not heterogeneity, of the readers. A portrait of such an audience was presented in an address to the Congress by Hay Jones, the editor of Marine Workers' Voice. Speaking "in the name of the marine workers," Jones invited professional writers to "come down" and discover the material for their art among workers:

Today the only thing that's alive in capitalist society is the working class. The day in the life of a man who spends nine hours in front of a punch press or on a ship has more reality, more beauty and more harmony than you will find in all Park Avenue with its boredom, its waste of time and its quest for joy that doesn't exist. (15)

This invitation from the working-class audience was amazingly similar to the appearances of "the mass reader" at the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. In his coverage of the Congress, Moissaye Olgin related to his American colleagues how the Soviet Writers were shown that "they are part of life, that their word is anxiously absorbed by millions:" "those joyful sessions . . . were continually invaded by delegations from workers, Red-Army men, students, aviators, scientists, collective farmers, Young Pioneers expressing their collective recognition of the achievements of the writers and demanding better and truer literature" (Congress 49).[1] Both the "invitation" from the Marine Workers and the "joyful" encouragement from the representatives of the Soviet readership suggest that the proletarian identity was taken for granted. In sum, revolutionary identity was assumed to be an inevitable condition which only needed recognition and faithful reflection in literature.

Burke addressed the Congress on the topic of "Revolutionary Symbolism in America"--a title that must have sounded heretical to an audience of materialists and internationalists (Lentricchia 22). Admitting his "bourgeois" bias, Burke however did not lament the loss of artistic individuality under Communism as Max Eastman had done earlier in his Artists in Uniform. Burke's assessment of American letters centered on the issue of the identity of the mass reader and addressed the respective rhetorical value of the terms "the worker" and "the people." In what is perhaps one of his most lucid passages, Burke urged his literary colleagues to imagine the political and aesthetic effect of substituting the strictly proletarian symbol by a more inclusive term "the people."

Because the goal of a revolutionary writer is to appeal to the unconvinced, Burke reasoned, this goal would be better suited by pointing out the shared and the desirable in the image of a revolutionary world view: "The symbol of the people . . . has a tactical advantage of pointing more definitely in the direction of unity (which in itself is a sound psychological tendency, for all that is now misused by nationalists to mask the conditions of disunity). It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which the revolution would bring about--and for this reason seems richer as a symbol of allegiance" (Congress 90).

According to Burke, "the people" is aesthetically more powerful than "the worker" since the latter is capable of only inducing our sympathies while the former embodies a desirable ideal: "there are few people who really want to work, let us say, as a human cog in a automobile factory, or as gatherers of vegetables on a big truck farm. Such rigorous ways of life enlist our sympathies, but not our ambitions. Our ideal is as far as possible to eliminate such kinds of work, or to reduce its strenuousness to a minimum" (89). Though indirectly, Burke pointed out that in America, the type of proletarian literature promoted by the likes of Michael Gold was working against the radical project by allowing the dominant ideology to seduce the masses. He urged his fellow critics and writers to recognize the subtlety of symbolic inducement displayed by Hollywood and the culture industry:

Hollywood knows all too well that the people engaged in such kinds of effort are vitalized mainly by some vague hope that they may some day escape it. "Adult education" in capitalist America to-day is centered in the efforts of our economic mercenaries (our advertising men and sales organizations) to create a maximum desire for commodities consumed under expensive conditions-and Hollywood appeals to the worker mainly by picturing the qualities of life in which this commercially stimulated desire is satisfied. (89)

Burke's insight is directed at cultural and linguistic problems associated with the use of the "proletarian" symbol. Not only it is alien to "our folkways," and hence fails to organize diverse cultural elements under its aegis; it also promotes a split between the symbolic world of the working class and the rest of the populace, thus ceding to the political right the suasory power of "nationalistic conditioning" lodged in the term "the people."

Burke's appeal to take symbols seriously met with unanimous resistance.[2] Ironically, Burke was accused of thinking like Hitler, because "Hitler knew enough to use this ideological device [das Volk] as a supplement to his blackjacks and machine guns" (Congress 168). Joseph Freeman, who "alone seemed to catch the drift of Burke's remarks" (Aaron 291), opposed the symbol of "the people" on the grounds that it had become "a reactionary slogan" and that it would obscure the "reality" of class struggle. For many in Burke's immediate audience, "the people" appeared not as a politically productive symbol that was up for grabs but as a term permanently marked by its affiliation with bourgeois false consciousness.

Many of Burke's radical contemporaries, at the time so confident in the ultimate victory of the working class, did not suspect that this very confidence could eventually result in the growing isolation of the American left. Nonetheless, the story of the uncompromising construction of the class-conscious subject has a few things to teach those intellectuals who desire to revitalize the practice of social criticism. To these lessons, we now turn.

Reflections on the Construction of Political Identities: Then and Now

From a rhetorical standpoint, the basic weakness in the CPUSA's analysis of its readership resided in the idea that there is a direct, transparent--albeit often obscured by bourgeois myths--relationship between one's material conditions and political identity. The American Communists during the early Depression years and the less militant Popular Front used the following logic: oppression makes the proletarian see the reality of class antagonism beneath the bourgeois myth of classless society conveyed by the symbol of "the people." The greater economic oppression of the masses, the higher is their revolutionary level. That is why the dispossessed lower middle-class, whose identity may still be influenced by the bourgeois myth of classless society, must follow the revolutionary proletariat. Hence, the symbol of the worker, as an accurate reflection of the reality of class struggle, should be used in building the reader's identity. We Communists "are not interested in myth," Joseph Freeman declared in response to Burke's suggestion, "we are interested in revealing the reality" (Congress 168-69).

In Burke's opinion, by their refusal to defend the symbol of "the people" as inclusive of "the worker," the Communist rhetors were committing not just a rhetorical mistake; they were allowing their ideological enemies to win the discursive war by pitting the two terms against each other (Congress 171). Furthermore, the Party put itself in the position of constantly proving that its audience was, indeed, class-conscious. To that end, the Communist press engaged in the construction of a persona of the class-conscious subject, while the Party-supervised organizations engaged their members in perusing Marxist literature. The vinegar of orthodox Marxist theory was believed to possess a sobering effect on the former consumers of the capitalistic honey.

In 1935 Burke alone, it seems, perceived the importance of boring from within the discursive territory of the dominant class. To reach a wider audience, radical writers needed to be attuned to the rhetoricity of their radical ideas as well as to their audience's cultural conditioning. In his analysis of the "proletarian" symbol and his admonition to "encompass as many desirable features of our cultural heritage as possible," Burke anticipated a number of issues of abiding significance for contemporary theories of ideology criticism.

To begin with, Burke's insight suggests that critical rhetoricians--of academic or artistic variety--should not be looking in the mirror, but should attend to heterogeneous cultural elements within their audience. As McKerrow's "Critical Rhetoric" essay put it, "the acceptance of a critical rhetoric is premised on the reversal of the phrase 'public address'-we need to reconceptualize the endeavor to focus attention on that symbolism which addresses the publics" (101). In other words, the emphasis on the rhetor-agent is replaced by the tension between the rhetor's critical performance and the audience. However, as we have seen, there is a danger of indulging in shaping an artificial audience to justify one's political purpose, even if the practice of social criticism is carried out for the benefit of that audience. The audience's political identity, furthermore, should be posed as a problem rather than a self-evident a priori fact.

Political identity, contrary to the Commintern's position, is not a mirror-image of one's conditions of material existence. Rather, as Burke suggested, political identity belongs to "a secondary order of reality," the reality of discourse. As such it does not spontaneously arise from economic structure--it is constituted rhetorically. It is important to emphasize that Burke does not deny the existence of "material reality;" he is rather pointing out that the way one perceives lived experience--of work, leisure, pain, or pleasure--must be symbolically framed to be meaningful. As "the verbal parallel to a pattern of experience," the symbol "provides a terminology of thoughts, actions, emotions, attitudes, for codifying a pattern of experience" (Counter-statement 152, 154). Symbolic constructions, therefore, do not displace material conditions but make them intelligible.

By assigning symbols and myths a privileged status among the tools of leftist dissemination, Burke created a turmoil among his colleagues. His implicit criticism of the orthodox base-superstructure model was received then as heretical and downright reactionary. Sixty years later, one would think, his critique would hardly raise an eyebrow. Yet there are quite a few critical theorists, suspicious of symbols and discursivity, who would benefit from revisiting Burke's assessment of the leftist rhetoric in the thirties. Tired of the discursive turn's obsession with textuality, some scholars are groping for something more solid upon which to produce a critique of the dominant order. "Today when reduction of politics to language and spectacle is an article of faith on the left, it is more crucial than ever to insist upon the existence of material needs," demands Aune in his recent book Marxism and Rhetoric (145). Dana Cloud, in an attempt to steer the project of ideology critique in the direction of "material reality," berates her colleagues for "idealism" and "relativism" which supposedly underlie much poststructuralist critical oevre: "A politics of discourse, even where the project is grounded in the critic's commitments, assumes that those who are oppressed or exploited need discursive redefinition of their identities, rather than a transformation of their material conditions as a primary task" (157). Cloud proposes that by attending to "the voices and realities of people who are, in some real way, oppressed" the critical rhetorician partakes in the de-mystification of "prevailing constructions of 'reality'" (157).

Although assault on the cult of textuality in contemporary academe is justifiable, it also tends to oversimplify and trivialize the construction of political identities. For instance, Cloud's call to privilege the experiences of the oppressed as a starting point of ideology critique postulates an unproblematic relationship between one's material conditions of oppression and the political consciousness of this oppression. The identity of subject is thus a material, pre-discursive effect. Further, only those who are oppressed in "some real way" can count as true agents of social change. Voices of the oppressed, in this view, are authentic and transparent; they only need amplification in order to become powerful enough to displace the false discourse of the dominant ideology. If only we could make these authentic voices stronger than the ideological fabrications of the powers that be, Cloud seems to suggest, a transformation of the material conditions will follow. The spreading of areas of allegiance, to use Burke's phrasing, would thus consist in seeking out and making widely available "counter-ideological information and perspectives" (Cloud 157). Should the radical project fail in transforming material conditions, its shortcomings could be explained by the organized resistance of the structures of power through censorship and other forms of oppression.

There is no denying that mechanisms of censorship and repressive institutional power do exist. However, radical political action aimed at satisfying material needs of the oppressed depends on more than quantitative prevalence--if such prevalence is indeed plausible--of counter-ideological voices. What Cloud and other critics of the discursive turn in postmarxism leave out is the need to forge symbolic allegiance among "the oppressed" in order to make widespread resistance and social change possible and effective. For the purpose of building a broad coalition which will bind those who are oppressed "in some real way" as well as those whose grievances are "symbolic," a unifying, not divisive, vision is required. Herein lies the import of Burke's insistence on the realistic work of "myths," their "very real and necessary social function in organizing of the mind" (Congress 88).

Burke rejected the dichotomy of true and false consciousness--the split which informed the leftist cultural politics in the 1930s and, as we observed, still lurks behind some criticisms of discursivity. In shifting his focus to the rhetoricity of identity, Burke called attention to exploiting "bourgeois" symbols of allegiance in the interests of the oppressed. Quite apart from our physical and economic conditions, we form our self-conception as members of a collectivity through an ongoing discursive process of identification with enduring symbols of authority: "We spontaneously identify ourselves with family, nation, political or cultural cause" (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 301). We give allegiance to symbols of authority not because they adequately reflect our material existence, but because giving allegiance is, in Burke's words, a "wholesome" tendency (Congress 88). How, then, do we distinguish among various symbols of allegiance in the absence of a clear-cut difference between "true" and "false" discourse?

Is there a particular rationale in our spontaneous and non-rational identification with certain symbols over and against others? Poststructuralist social theorists, employing the insights of psychoanalysis, explain the impulse to identify as a fundamental social desire to escape the lack of meaning, to close the abyss of nothingness. As Laclau and Zac put it, "the acceptance of the Law--that is, the principle of organization as opposed to 'nothingness'--is the acceptance of the Law because it is Law, not because it is rational" (15). Similarly, in Burke's account at the Congress, "the people" is conducive to our identification with it because it tends towards universalization, towards totality, even if its "mythical" totality is veiling the partiality of the rhetor's cause. Burke usefully complicates the discussion of identification by addressing the rhetorical effects of sympathy and ambition produced by the strictly proletarian symbol "the worker" and the Janus-faced term "the people." Implicit in these terms are not only subject positions, but historical attitudes.

As I have mentioned at the beginning of my talk, Burke's objection to "the worker" as the symbol of authority resided not in the term's inadequacy in reflecting material conditions of the Depression era, but in its historically particularistic orientation towards negation. "The people," on the other hand, contains "the ideal, the ultimate classless feature that the revolution would bring about" (Congress 99). In Attitudes Towards History, published two years after the American Writers' Congress, Burke further specified attitudes of "acceptance" and "rejection." Importantly, he pointed out that "acceptance" does not involve "passivity": since strategies of acceptance "name both friendly and unfriendly forces, they fix attitudes that prepare for combat. They draw the lines of battle--and they appear 'passive' only to one whose frame would persuade him to draw the line of battle differently" (Attitudes 20). Strategies that emphasize rejection--as in oppositional identity conjured by the proletarian symbol--tend to "lack the well-rounded quality of a complete here-and-now philosophy" (Attitudes 35). Even classic Marxist texts, Burke explained further, display the features of acceptance; while the authors of the Communist Manifesto were "stressing the no more strongly than the yes," Marx later compensated his rejection of here-and-now order by laying "the foundations for a vast public enterprise out of which a new frame of acceptance could be constructed" (Attitudes 26-27, 29). Discursive politics, if it is to have an effect on material conditions of existence, should therefore emphasize the desirable, the yes rather than the no, in its invocation of radical political identities. The emphasis on the desirable nonetheless does not entail falling back on the well-worn and quite problematic ideal of free individual agency.

Because we are socialized through the "affirmative" symbols of individualism, freedom, and choice, it is not a simple task to reshape them into the terms standing for radical, counter-ideological identity. The question arises: how shall a radical political identity be constituted if the dominant ideology is constantly seducing us with "the American dream," "freedom," "equality," and "justice"? Burke, I think, is likely to suggest that the rhetoric of identity should be able to fuse a particular political alignment with "broader cultural elements" embedded in these symbols, especially if the "kinds of cooperation" they had been promoting have lost their vitality. Indeed, one only needs to glance at the contemporary American cultural landscape to notice how many are abandoning "individualism" and "freedom" in favor of the prospect of symbolic brotherhood of one sort or another. In 1935 as well, we may recall, there were plenty of those who, though oppressed in no lesser way than most working Americans, rallied not behind the Communists, but behind Huey Long and Father Coughlin.

Yet these symbols of authority are politically productive precisely due to their ambiguity. Capitalism may still be using "the people" to "mask" the relationships of inequality, but it by no means owns the term. Nor does anyone, for that matter. Ideological discourse--though the mechanisms of its dissemination may belong to the ruling class--strives to appear as everybody's land. Hence it is in the power of a radical critic to intervene into the construction of political identities by "extracting" the symbols of allegiance from their traditional setting and rearticulating them on a different terrain. According to Frank Lentricchia, "a radical rhetoric of revolution, instead of attempting to transcend the historical terrain of repression, should--I appeal to etymology here--work at the radical, within the history it would remake 'at the root.' The way out, if there is a way out, can only be a way through" (33).

A recent example of a successful exercise of discursive political strategy is the triumph of Britain's Labor Party whose symbol--"radical center"--is in itself an ingenious perspective by incongruity. Articulated by Anthony Giddens, a veteran of English social thought, "radical center" became a term signifying a broad coalition of the New Left socialists of the 1960s and the young progressives disenchanted with Thatcherism. How profound a change in social conditions this radical coalition will effect remains to be seen, yet the significance of this victory of social thought as politics should not be overlooked.

* * * *

We have taken an excursion into the 1930's to find out how literary intellectuals affiliated with the Communist Party imagined and constructed the identity of their readers. We witnessed a great deal of confidence placed into the ideal of the proletarian reader: the times seemed propitious for the revolutionary overthrow of decaying capitalism. It turned out that many artists on the Left were too optimistic or too short-sighted. But it would be passé to castigate them for their zeal: I did not intend this discussion as another obituary for American communism. The major lesson, as it comes to us through Burke and others who carefully read him, is as follows: the calling into being of a radical political identity is accomplished on the shifting--and hence rhetorically malleable--terrain of the dominant ideology.

Works Cited

Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. New York: Harcourt, 1961.

American Writers' Congress. New York: International Publishers, 1935.

Aune, James Arnt. Rhetoric and Marxism. Boulder: Westview, 1994.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Vol. I. New York: The New Republic, 1937.

_____. Counter-statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.

_____. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.

Carleton, Greg. "The Figure of the Mass Reader in Early Soviet Literature: Artificial Interpretive Communities and Critical Practice." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995): 1-22.

Cloud, Dana L. "The Materiality of Discourse as Oxymoron: A Challenge to Critical Rhetoric." Western Journal of Communication 58 (1994): 141-63.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Lilian Zac. "Minding the Gap: The Subject of Politics." in The Making of Political Identities. Ed. Ernesto Laclau. London: Verso, 1994.

Lentricchia, Frank. Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

McKerrow, Raymie E. "Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis." Communication Monographs 56 (1989): 91-111.

Wander, Philip C. "At the Ideological Front." Communication Studies 42 (1991): 199-218.


[1]As Carleton points out, the appearances of the "readers" at the First Writers' Congress in Moscow "were by no means simple speeches but were conducted in full regalia befitting each position. Thus, for example, as the representatives of the military, a delegation of soldiers from the Moscow garrison marched onstage in close ranks accompanied by music (likewise, railroad workers appeared to the sounds of the train whistle, and so forth). After a choral shout of welcome, one of them spoke closing with an exhortation to writers to describe the everyday soldier. They then marched off as one, singing and throwing flowers" (8).

[2]At the Congress, as Wander suggests, Burke did not face a unified audience: to speak of "the Party" as one solid mass of like-minded individuals would be historically incorrect. While I agree with Wander's analysis of the differentiation within the Party during the 1930s, I insist on the leading role of the "Third Period" intellectuals prior to and during the formation of the League of American Writers. On the composition of the Congress, see Aaron (283).