This article reexamines the “Albert Maltz affair” in light of debates about art and literature in the journal New Masses (1926–48), as well as in international Marxist aesthetics. I argue for a reexamination of the “para-Marxist” theory of art he developed to clarify the role of leftist criticism and the “citizen writer.” The controversy stirred by the publication of Maltz's “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” (New Masses, 12 February 1946) is only fully appreciated through the aesthetic implications that many historians of the Hollywood Ten have overlooked. The immediate attacks on Maltz by critics like Mike Gold were motivated primarily by the view that a properly Marxist aesthetics must follow the Leninist–Zhdanovite theory of “art as a weapon.” More importantly, the support that Maltz and like-minded authors earned from New Masses readers for expressing the “Engelian” thesis that left-wing critics should evaluate art for dialectical tensions of form (and not solely for proletarian messages) suggests that this episode might be read as a beacon of salutary developments in international Marxist aesthetics rather than as an omen of American communist repression caused by the HUAC trials.
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