The Means of Representation: Kenneth Burke and American Marxism

Benedict Giamo, University of Notre Dame


Kenneth Burke’s engagement with American Marxism advanced the primacy of language, rhetoric and interpretation in constructing reality and communicating its attendant motives. Although Burke added a discerning voice to the communist movement, often anticipating post-Marxist theory and cultural studies, his social criticism eventually redirected itself from Marxism per se to the probes inherent in technology and empire. The article review this development chronologically and mainly through the Burke books published in the thirties and his writings that appeared in the influential periodicals of the period.

WILLIAM PHILLIPS, LONG-STANDING EDITOR OF THE PARTISAN REVIEW, recalled marching in a May Day parade in New York City during the thirties with Kenneth Burke at his side. According to Phillips, Burke joined in the shout: “We write for the working class.”1 Perhaps Burke had subordinated his own literary ego to that encompassing solidarity of the group, for it is hard to imagine that, speaking for himself, he was being true to the situation. Anyone who has delved seriously into “boikswoiks” knows that, although tremendously rewarding, they are dense, idiosyncratic, and metacritically challenging.

So, in adding his voice to the slogan, what was Burke saying? Rather than viewing it as a disingenuous statement, Michael Denning, in The Cultural Front, interprets Burke’s consent to join in that collective shout as a declaration of his political allegiance. His heart was in the right place, even if his writing hand abstracted away from the mundane, concrete concerns of the oppressed masses. To draw on Burke’s own definition of identity, he was most likely exercising one of the “‘corporate we’s’” that constituted his sense of self and selfhood. Although Burke was never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the United States, for a time he was a fellow-traveler, sympathetic to the general orientation of the movement, for which he had “plumped grandly,” albeit in his own inimitable way. Whether or not Burke’s contributions made him, as Denning advertises, one of the “leading American Marxists of the 1930s,” and “the most important communist cultural theorist in the United States” at the time,2 is debatable. Perhaps it is a form of wishful thinking, a kind of “occupational psychosis,” to apply a phrase from Burke who borrowed it from John Dewey. In Burke’s own words to me, he described his relationship to communism in the turbulent thirties as “working round the edges.”3 Since Burke was in his mid-eighties when he made that remark, perhaps this too was a selective manner of perceiving his involvement with Marxian critical thought and praxis as he looked back from such a great distance.

Whether “leading American Marxist,” or “the most important communist cultural theorist,” or simply “working round the edges,” one thing is certain: Burke and Marx shared a common heritage, for they were both born on May 5th. Many critics of systematic Marxism would hold that this is the only glue, celestial no less, that binds these two figures together. As a pragmatic proponent of American Marxism, Burke was anything but doctrinaire. In fact, his original approach to literary and social criticism, and his more theoretical enterprise in general (beginning in communication and ending in the philosophy of language as symbolic action), made Burke very independent-minded. He may have been a fellow-traveler in the thirties, but he was not a fellow-follower. His Marx collided with his Frost, for although he wanted to be “part of an overall partnership,” his Emersonian inheritance of self-reliance insisted that he take the road less traveled. In 1932, Burke clarified his position in a letter to Malcolm Cowley:

“I am not a joiner of societies, I am a literary man. I can only welcome Communism by converting it into my own vocabulary. I am, in the deepest sense, a translator. I go on translating, even if I must but translate English into English. My book [Permanence and Change] will have the communist objectives, and the communist tenor, but the approach will be the approach that seems significant to me.”4

As Paul Jay rightly observed, Burke’s translation of Marxism “veered away from the more conventional concerns of Marxist critics toward the elaboration of a form of cultural criticism based on an examination of what we now call representation, discourse, and the problem of the subject.”5 In short, Burke’s approach–an ethically focused rationality–was mainly metacritical and holistic. His engagement with Marx was often integrated with other theorists, such as Bentham, Freud, and Veblen, to advance a form of inquiry that centered on the primacy of language, rhetoric, and interpretation in constructing a given reality and communicating its attendant motives. Even before it was codified as such, Burke’s critical project in the thirties rested on the premise that language is a form of symbolic action. Therefore, communication itself is a kind of rhetorical praxis that aims to both inform and persuade. (Frank Lentricchia offered another, more “radical” translation of this notion when, in revising Marx to fit the leisure of the theory class, he stated: “The point is not only to interpret texts, but in so interpreting them, change society.”)6

Unlike Lentricchia, Burke would never conflate text and world, nor would he assume that the symbolic acts of communication and interpretation in and of themselves command authority, power, and social change. Indeed, as Burke wrote in his 1953 Prologue to the second edition of Permanence and Change: “Political, military, and industrial powers are much more likely to ‘set the tone,’ so far as the ‘implementing’ of perspectives is concerned.”7 As a critic, Burke understood his role during the thirties as combining “technical criticism with social criticism . . . by taking the allegiance to the symbol of authority as [his] subject.” According to Burke, “We take this as our starting point, and ‘radiate’ from it. Since the symbols of authority are radically linked with property relationships, this point of departure automatically involves us in socio-economic criticism.”8

In many ways, Burke was a product of his times—an intellectual and literary man moving away from the modernist Anglo-American sense of art as a self-contained and autonomous object to a more socialized outlook. For Burke, and as early as Counter-Statement, this meant comprehending language (and literary art) as symbolic action embedded in social situations. The belief in literature as a kind of moral aestheticism, Burke’s modernist sensibility, altered around 1930. Although he would always adhere to the ethical notion that literature constitutes a moral and civic force, Burke discovered a much more encompassing medium when he redefined art as a form of communication. This opened the doors of perception in terms of rhetoric, literary and social criticism, the philosophy of language, and his growing concern about the unintended consequences of technology and the built environment. From this perspective, Burke was not a typical fellow traveler—one of a multiple.

The development of Burke’s thought in relation to American Marxism is significant because it anticipates post-Marxist theory and cultural studies, especially regarding the critique of the architectural metaphor (base/superstructure).9 Burke’s increasingly more sophisticated treatment of economic determinism and dialectical materialism can be viewed as a kind of anti-foundational argument, making ample room for an analysis of cultural processes and ideologies. Also, he perceives Marxism as an ethical system—a social drama—rather than a strictly scientist enterprise. Finally, Burke is ahead of the curve by anticipating the linguistic turn and the trouble with technology. The latter interest subsumes the battle of the Isms, and leads him into the notion of World Empire—a forerunner of globalization and its discontents. (He had been sounding this warning since the mid-1950s.) Burke’s unflagging skeptical orientation, in part a result of his allegiance to the tradition of American progressivism, and his wide-ranging intellect, made him an easy mark for revisionist accusations by both American Trotskyites and Stalinists during the thirties. Burke harbored no cloak-and-dagger conspiracy, but merely displayed the mark of his own critical adventurousness.

Working round the edges of Marxism in America was, after all, a strategic way for Burke to size up a complex and socially charged situation without getting sucked into the vortex of an absolutist political program and mode of thought. Yet Burke’s contributions toward the radicalism of the Depression years should not be minimized simply because of his swerving critical orientations. As always, he added a discerning and discriminating voice to the communist movement, a distinctive shout, one that would eventually redirect itself from Marxism per se, and Burke’s comic yet critical appraisal of industrial concentration under a system of capitalistic production, to the transcendent fix of Big Technology. For the most part, we shall review this development in chronological order and mainly through Burke’s books published in the thirties and his writings that appeared in the influential journals and little magazines of the period.

As one of the key New York City modernists of the twenties, Burke stumbled into the thirties with a spirit of rebellion rather than revolution. An overriding sense of bohemian revolt, inherited from both Thomas Mann (Burke was the first to translate Death in Venice into English) and from the cultivated aestheticism of literary fellowship at The Dial and in and around Greenwich Village, inspired Burke’s critical perspective on American culture and society. At this stage (his entry into the thirties), the tone of his writings is often playful, taking good-natured stabs at capitalism, captains of industry, and radical adaptations to American conditions. The bohemian revolt, with its characteristic ingredients of experiment and mockery, provided Burke with a period of radical incubation along with a decentering perspective from which he could pivot stridently. His slogan for this initial phase might very well read: “give vent, give vent, by dint of verbal dent.”10 For example, the following poem, written around the time of the Crash of ‘29, reveals Burke’s adept use of bohemian irony. The poem, “Industrialist’s Prayer,” should be read with the night-time image of a CEO kneeling at his bedside:

Lord, make all men feel that they are suffering from the lack

of my commodity. Let them not really need it, since

I would be uncharitable in asking that. Let them

just think they need it----and let them think so, very

very hard. And let them get the money somehow to

buy it.

Not from the government, since that would increase my

taxes. Not from higher wages, since that would

increase my costs of production. And not as manna

from Heaven, since that would cause inflation.

All that I ask of Thee----Lord----is just one more miracle, that

good business shall not perish from the earth.11

The sense of revolt at this time was given a certain Marxist emphasis gleaned mainly from Marx’s critique of capitalism and its inclination toward accumulation and concentration of wealth, technological progress, increased productivity, commodity fetishism, and exploitation of the working class. But the revolt also owes as much to Thorstein Veblen and his notion of “conspicuous consumption.” In “Waste----The Future of Prosperity,” composed before the Great Crash and published afterward in The New Republic, Burke offers a burlesque treatment of the contradictions of capitalism. Along the way, he carefully explicates his “Theory of the Economic Value of Waste,” which rests upon the principle of planned obsolescence. By virtue of a reductio ad absurdum, we come spiraling down to the following formulaic regression:

It is now an exploded belief. We realize now that culture resides in prosperity, that prosperity is the outgrowth of production, that production can only follow consumption, that the maximum consumption is made possible by the maximum possible waste, and therefore that culture depends upon a maximum of waste.12

To illustrate the absurdity of this causal relationship, Burke draws on examples from the automobile industry, architecture, a public utility, and advertising. Before long, the cumulative effect builds and we come to see that good business, with its insatiable appetite, not only stimulates but demands the fabrication of need, the temporary exhaustion of want, and the stockpiling of consumer refuse to both expedite and purify the vicious cycle. For Burke, the principle of obsolescence is the goad of a capitalistic economy geared toward prosperity (and entrapment) at all costs, embedding its producers and consumers into a materialism run amok. In this scheme of things, the very stuff of culture depends upon the interlocking motivation to work, produce, consume, and toss.

In “Boring from Within,” which appeared in the same periodical about six months later, in February 1931, Burke extends his rebellious tone to a critique of Edmund Wilson’s “Appeal to Progressives.” With his tongue-in-cheek style, Burke renounces Wilson’s plan for the nationalization of industry and its overt association with socialism. Playing off the stigma of communism in America, Burke advocates a more subtle and covert subterfuge which keeps Wilson’s ends in mind. This amounts to a gradualist measure, a single tax on large incomes which, in the by and by, would transform ownership of the means of production. In other words, we must play the game by the standard of American liberalism and inject a change of rules in the process. By all means, avoid waving banners for they evoke an absolute distrust. The approach of “boring from within” satirically displays a quintessentially American habit of attempting to reform government (and society) incrementally from the inside out. According to Burke, in order to hollow out the old and usher in the new, the following method must be employed:

We must all become Republicans and Democrats . . . shaking hands with the worst of them, frequenting their speakeasies, gambling in their dens, attending their churches, patronizing their brothels. We must join Rotary Clubs; we must play checkers at the Y.M.C.A. We must demand unceasingly the expulsion of the Reds. We must be conformity itself. And occasionally, over drinks and a cigar, we must say lightly to our boon companions . . . “Why don’t the big fellows have to part with a little more of their incomes in times like these?”13

In his concluding comments, Burke signals an attitude of skepticism when contemplating the changing of the guards, thus promoting a reflexive bohemian position of unmitigated individualism. “Flags may still be needed to combat flags,” he writes, “but the triumph of the last flag should coincide with the triumph of flaglessness. If there is ever a millennium, it will be the reign of doubt.”14 The primacy of doubt works to discount Burke’s radical leanings and puts into question the nature of any allegiance to the symbols of authority. In springing this bohemian opposition, Burke’s approach seems to rest upon disorder, distrust, and a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Both capitalism and communism thus dissolve as political and socio-economic forms of control in favor of a prescriptive yet undermining aesthetic featuring renunciation.

This bohemian antithesis was further developed in Counter-Statement, Burke’s first book of mostly formalist literary criticism, published in the same year as “Boring from Within.” In his essay entitled “Program,” Burke contrasts the practical qualities of the capitalistic ethos with the aesthetic virtues of resistance in order to heighten the dramatic bourgeois–bohemian opposition necessary to his subversive method (i.e., statement/counter-statement). Here we witness the epitome of anarchic revolt, which functions as nemesis to the prevailing socio-economic order. “On the side of the practical [bourgeois]: efficiency, prosperity, material acquisition, increased consumption, ‘new needs,’ expansion, higher standards of living, progressive rather than regressive evolution, in short, ubiquitous optimism.” Such sanguine effects result from Burke’s naive equation: business= industry. The opposing side, that of the aesthetic or bohemian, is advanced as a corrective to the practical. This other side seems to be idling away on the street corner, sketch pad in hand, thumbing its long, aquiline nose at the buoyant philistines passing by, whistling blithely on their way to offices and factories. These bohemian qualities include: “inefficiency, indolence, dissipation, vacillation, mockery, distrust, ‘hypochondria,’ non-conformity, bad sportsmanship, in short, negativism.” Going to the end of the line, Burke succinctly overstates the case–for “the practical: patriotism–the aesthetic: treason.”15

For Burke, the dehumanizing geography of the practical borders on bureaucratic hyper- rationality, which resembles the fascist integration of politics and production. The danger here is that such integration may motivate a culture to seek the perfectibility of its practical bourgeois virtues, enforcing the repression of humankind’s most precious pastime: idle curiosity. If indolence should become “pandemic,” Burke suggests we look to change the faulty and restrictive environment that conditions such attitudes and behavior, for what appears by conventional standards to be a vice might very well be a virtue waiting to blossom under the proper conditions. (John Dewey’s progressive experiments with curricular revision and experiential learning would be a case in point.)

Burke comically exaggerates the penchant for resistance when he states: “When in Rome, do as the Greeks. . . . Let us reaffirm democracy (government by interference, by distrust) over against Fascism (regulation by a ‘benevolent’ central authority).” The split between the practical bourgeoisie and the bohemian aesthete leads Burke into a division between modern and pre-modern modes of existence. As he views the difference, modernity is aligned with progress–the machine, industrialization, and the frantic pace of urban life. In such a state, where people run the danger of becoming “rotten with perfection,” the aesthetically-minded bohemian can only shrug his shoulders and respond in a manner that adjusts the coordinates of a mechanized order, thus eroding enthusiasm and wearing away the laugh lines of optimism:

When a system becomes so complex that it requires a high degree of perfection for its survival, when it can’t provide a civilized living by shoddy, unintelligent, lethargic methods, then mankind had better change the system for a system which can provide a civilized living by shoddy, unintelligent, lethargic methods. . . . “Efficiency” was required to develop the machine. “Inefficiency” is required as the counter-principle to prevent the machine from becoming too imperious and forcing us into social complexities which require exceptional delicacy of adjustment.16

Though keeping to his strident criticism of laissez-faire capitalism and its discontents, Burke’s comic moral radicalism underwent a profound change by 1933 when his article, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” appeared in The Nation. The piece marks a transitional point in which bohemian rebelliousness begins to give way to a growing pro-socialist position. It is significant not only for its alignment with the general direction of the movement, but also for its clarification of the relationship between business and industry, a reconceptualization vital to the development of Burke’s thinking.

Burke argues that under a system of capitalism there is an inherent breach between ethical values and the nature of work. To be ethical, work must aim toward the “application of . . . competitive equipment to cooperative ends.” Under capitalism, this “combative–cooperative” fusion is preempted by the valorization of social ambition and competitive business practices which are elicited and reinforced by the unfettered free market. In following Veblen’s crucial separation given in his Theory of Business Enterprise, Burke now distinguishes business from industry: “We must worry ourselves as to ‘what is good for business,’ rather than ask the more fundamental question, ‘What is business good for?’”17 Of course, the answer is that the role of business is to serve the more cooperative ends of industry and thereby reinstate the ethical integration of work and society. Burke claims that such a synthesis can even lead to the abolition of all wars, since the manifestation of the “cooperative spirit” would be fully expressed in a civilization at peace rather than one rent by competition and frustrated by strife, thus seeking embodiments in conflict and bellicosity. (Burke reiterated this claim, albeit more explicitly–i.e., “Communism . . . eliminates the hegemony of business,” in “My Approach to Communism,” which appeared in the New Masses one year later, stating the following: “The Communistic orientation is the only one which successfully produces the combative-cooperative fusion under conditions of peace, hence the only one upon which a permanent social structure can be founded. It does not eliminate the competitive genius, since that is ineradicable, being rooted in the very nature of man. But it does permit of its maximum harnessing to the ends of social cohesion.”)18

Burke’s binary distinction between business and industry enabled him to jettison the stark and vulnerable opposition between bourgeois and bohemian modes of social being. Since one can be industrious (active, skilled, diligent, assiduous, inventive, and so on) without necessarily adhering to the capitalistic business enterprise of the practical bourgeoisie, there is no longer any need for dissent based upon anarchic irresponsibility. One can be industriously opposed to the prevailing order and at the same time committed to a renewed program of action stressing pro-socialist, cooperative citizenship. This timely teasing apart of business and industry coincided with Burke’s public initiation into the radical ferment of the thirties; in many respects, it was his conceptual way in to a more encompassing dialectic.

The article concludes by advocating a “corrective or propaganda element in art” in order to balance “‘pure’” art, which tends toward the acquiescent. Burke was too steeped in aesthetic modernism to ever promote abolishing pure art, or art for art’s sake. Rather, he diplomatically makes the case for extending literature into the realm of the hortatory. However, Burke argues that even when this rhetorical or suasive function is adopted, the “moral breach” is far from mended. Burke came down on the corrective proletarian literature then on the market for being too “harsh,” thus failing as both propaganda and pure art: “Too often . . . it serves as a mere device whereby the neuroses of the decaying bourgeois structure are simply transferred to the symbols of workingmen.” And, once again, the discount: “Perhaps more of Dickens is needed, even at the risk of excessive tearfulness.”19 Although Burke had found his path into the movement, his own critical industriousness often ushered him back to its very threshold.

Between 1933 and 1935, Burke made his way back through the gate, laying out his argument that–in comparison to capitalism and fascism, and for rational, ethical, historical, and esthetic reasons, communism was the only viable choice for a just society. This clarification (“My Approach to Communism”) sets the stage for his participation in the first American Writers’ Congress in 1935, which was organized by members of the John Reed Club of New York. The Congress assembled over 200 of the most politically radical writers in the United States, and 150 writers from foreign countries who came as guests, including such socially-engaged literary figures as Robert Cantwell, Malcolm Cowley, Emilio Enricos, Waldo Frank, Andre Gide, Mike Gold, Josephine Herbst, Granville Hicks, Andre Malraux, and Richard Wright. (Langston Hughes could not make the event, but his paper was read in absentia.)20 The Congress opened in Mecca Temple, New York City, to an audience of 4,000 people. On the second day of the Congress, April 27th, Burke presented his paper–“Revolutionary Symbolism in America”–in the auditorium of the New School For Social Research. By taking up the topic of symbolism, Burke signaled to the audience the importance of communication and rhetoric in broadening the appeal of communism among the American public. By pragmatically altering the means of representation, he advocated adapting the key rallying image of the proletariat to American conditions, that is, to the social structure that developed differently in the U.S. compared historically to the more rigid stratification of classes in Europe. The tone of the paper-presentation was sincere (even rather humble in places); its message seemingly innocuous. In his paper, Burke argued the following:

The symbol of “the people,” as distinct from the proletarian symbol, . . . has the tactical advantage of pointing more definitely in the direction of unity. . . . 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.21

This quote proved prophetic, since four months later the Communist Party, in an attempt to broaden its base, shifted its rhetorical line to what would be known and virtually accepted by all members and sympathizers as the People’s Front (a.k.a. the United Front or Popular Front). But, although the process of increasing tolerance was underway during the years 1934-1935, this more encompassing outlook would not be officially mandated until August of 1935; in April of that year, and especially during the Congress proceedings, despite the factional disputes, the overwhelming sentiment was decidedly elsewhere. Burke would suffer the consequences of his premature vision, for the vagaries of the Party would ostracize him one day only to sloganize the essence of his speech at a later date.

In his presentation, Burke went on to criticize “antithetical moralities” that polarize representative groups in the social system, such as proletarian vs. bourgeois. (Evidently, Burke had learned a penetrating lesson from his own previous modernist dichotomy.) In rectifying this situation, Burke may have been perceived as being excessive in leaning toward the other direction, that of appeasement:

The emphasis upon the antithetical tends to incapacitate a writer for his task as a spreader of doctrine by leading him too soon into antagonistic modes of thought and expression. . . . As a propagandizer, it is not his work to convince the convinced, but to plead with the unconvinced, which requires him to use their vocabulary, their values, their symbols, insofar as this is possible.22

Overall, Burke’s rhetorical notion of “propaganda by inclusion” appears quite compelling, particularly in light of the poor quality of proletarian literature guided by the doctrine of “propaganda by exclusion.”

The second crucial aspect of Burke’s paper entailed the role of the creative writer. Burke urged the writer “to propagandize his cause by surrounding it with as full a cultural context as he can manage, thus thinking of propaganda . . . as a process of broadly and generally associating his political alignment with cultural awareness in the large.”23 Although Burke’s second major point would naturally seem to follow from incorporating the first suggestion, he does not insist that the audience make acceptance of one conditional upon the other. And, although Burke promotes the symbol of “the people,” he never makes the case for abolishing the proletarian image from the revolutionary program. Both can co-exist in order to reveal capitalistic exploitation and socialist solidarity. Yet the symbol of “the people” does emerge as significant for Burke and the reasons for this are openly disclosed in his conclusion:

Since the symbol of “the people” contains connotations both of oppression and unity, it seems better than the exclusively proletarian one as a psychological bridge for linking the two conflicting aspects of a transitional, revolutionary era, which is Janus-faced, looking both forwards and back. I recognize that my suggestion bears the telltale stamp of my class, the petty bourgeoisie. And I should not dare to make it, except for a belief that it is vitally important to enlist the allegiance of this class.24

An orthodox Marxist, of which there were many assembled in the Congress auditorium that day, would object to Burke’s proposal, since it severely compromises the dictates of the historical prophecy, particularly the second stage, or the polarization of two classes–a dwindling bourgeoisie and a growing and consolidated proletariat. Accordingly, all other class segments would disappear or seek alliance with one of the above. Even the petit bourgeois, historically in between the ruling and exploited classes, would be absorbed eventually by the latter social category, and not as a result of pleas rising from below, but by virtue of an inevitable step prescribed by the dogma of historicism. The petit bourgeois, Marx wrote in the Manifesto, “are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition, and, as modern industry develops, they even see the moment approaching when they will completely disappear as an independent section of modern society.”25 From this perspective, Burke’s pleading for unity could very well be criticized as a diffusion of class-conflict and the necessary tensions and actions resulting from it. For Marx’s historical prophecy would not have its propagandizers wasting their time by convincing the historically convinced (my italics). Such a measure would be seen not only as redundant but as an unnecessary attempt at reconciliation. As with utopian projects, it would only work “to deaden the class struggle” and displace vital energy to social groups doomed to fall into the ranks of the working class anyway.

But in defense of Burke’s suggestions, we can read into it an implicit critique of Marx’s faith in his historical prophecy and the crude oversimplification that resulted in terms of class polarization. As Burke stated in his response to “What is Americanism?” (a symposium on Marxism and the American tradition), published one year later in Partisan Review and Anvil, “There is only danger in the naive attempts of some to make a build-up for Marx as the omniscient and unerring wizard of prophecy. It will be resisted by ‘Americans’ because it would be resisted by any people. Marx is a forerunner, and must be presented as such (as he is presented in the Russian Marx-Lenin combine).” Obviously, Burke had the benefit of hindsight on his side. The social spectrum was more intractable than Marx had imagined it; the gray would not fade into black or white. With these conditions to contend with, Burke opted for a strategic symbolic activism centered on the folkways of American realities. It might assimilate “their” ethos and world view, but it would do so in the service of the movement–a unity of the people achieved on native ground. Again, with reference to the question raised in the above symposium, Burke expressed his pragmatic, progressive position as an American Marxist when he responded in the following manner: “The Marxist critique of capitalism is basic to an understanding of the whole matter. The use of such critique can be as ‘American’ as anything. . . . It is ‘American’ to use anything one feels might be of value in remedying one’s situation. Be it an old piece of tin, or be it an old piece of philosophy----its relevance to an American situation depends not upon its origin but upon its application.”26

In any case, the audience at Burke’s session was not concerned with the fine points of such a discussion. The members of the Congress were in search of a victim, and one had just lowered his head in offering. Ironically, what ensued when Burke finished his presentation, and after the polite applause, was a vivid example of his own subsequent theory of the scapegoat, that of “congregation by segregation.” Only this time, he was the one being set apart–the goat–rejected on behalf of the Congress’s own momentary sense of order and unification. Although the gaffe was dramatized by Burke thirty years later in The American Scholar, and recast more recently by Lentricchia in his Criticism and Social Change, the incident is worth repeating, especially given Burke’s definition of form–“an arousing and fulfillment of desires,” as given in Counter-Statement. If nothing else, it is an illuminating case study of what happens when the unexpected occurs, that is, when the audience, though plenty aroused, does not go along with you, voicing frustration rather than fulfillment. Though perhaps overacting, Burke relates with dramatic verve the result of his breach of conventional Marxian form:

Then the boys got going. Oof!. . . . Joe Freeman gets up, throbbing like a locomotive, and shouts, “We have a snob among us!” I was a snob in conceding that I was a petit bourgeois and would have to speak like one. Then Mike Gold followed, and put the steamroller on me. Then a German emigre, Friedrich Wolf, attacked my proposal to address the “people” rather than the “workers.” He pointed out the similarity between this usage and Hitler’s harangues to the Volk. And so on, and so on–until I was slain, slaughtered. . . . I felt wretched. I remember, when leaving the hall, I was walking behind two girls. One said to the other, as though discussing a criminal, “Yet he seemed so honest!”

I was tired out. I went home and tried to get some sleep. . . . I lay down and began to doze off. But of a sudden, just as I was about to fall asleep, I’d hear “Burke!”–and I’d awake with a start. Then I’d doze off again, and suddenly again: “Burke!” My name had become a kind of charge against me–a dirty word. After this jolt had happened several times, another symptom took over. Of a sudden I experienced a fantasy, a feeling that excrement was dripping from my tongue.27

Fortunately for Burke, the shift from rejection to acceptance was swift. The following day, Burke ran into Freeman and all was forgiven: “Joe came up and smiled and shook hands with me, and said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, old man.’ It was all over!” Soon afterward, and casting doubt on any real sense of marginalization, Burke was elected Council member of the League of American Writers, an organ that replaced the John Reed Clubs and advanced the spirit of relative inclusion engendered by the First American Writers’ Congress. To make sense of such an abrupt change of fortune, Burke tells the following tale:

Some friends of mine had an aquarium, with a frog in it. He was a big frog, but there was a cover on it so that he couldn’t get out. Then somebody gave them a little frog, and they put the little frog in the same aquarium. And the two frogs would sit there side-by-side. One day my friends looked in–and by God they couldn’t find the little frog. The top was on, but where was the little frog? They looked all around, no little frog. All of a sudden they spotted him. There were his feet sticking out of the big frog’s mouth. So they pulled him out; and since he hadn’t started to get digested yet, he was all right. All they could do with him was put him down in the aquarium again. And they did. The next time they looked in, these two fellows were sitting side-by-side. All was forgiven. I often think of that story when I think about politicians.28

Perhaps Burke’s own proximity to the heart (or belly) of the Marxian revolutionary spirit in America came at the very instant in which he was about to be devoured. For the time being, Burke was reconciled to sitting side-by-side the Communist Party in the U.S. One month after the Congress, Burke wrote a very favorable review of its events in The Nation, generally commending the structural role played by the CP in orchestrating a gathering of writers committed to the fusion of aesthetics and radical politics on so grand a scale. Near the close of his review, and with a flair for good sportsmanship, Burke reiterates his relationship to the movement:

As one who is not a member of the Communist Party, and indeed whose theories of propaganda, expressed at one session, even called down upon him the wrath of the party’s most demonic orators, I can state with some claim to “impartiality” my belief that no other organization in the country could have assembled and carried through a congress of this sort. The results justify the assertion that those who approach the issues of today from the standpoint of cultural survival must have sympathy at least with communism as a historical direction.29

Burke’s own sympathy with communism as an historical movement is clearly evidenced in the first edition of his Permanence and Change, published in 1935, just prior to his participation in the Congress. The book, originally given the working title–“Treatise on Communication,” is mainly concerned with “poetico-political speculations” regarding the notion of the human as “communicant.” In his Prologue to the second edition, Burke, reflecting on the general hardship of the Great Depression, puts himself in parenthesis, while revealing his own strong interest in the primacy of language: “Though he [the author] had an almost magical fear of destitution, he never passed up a single meal for lack of funds. . . . So, all told, concerned with words above all, when things got toughest he thought hardest about communication.”30 Although Burke “plumped grandly” for communism in the first edition, his approach throughout remained primarily cultural (both interpretive and philosophical), treating forms of the superstructure (in particular, the system of communication) as integral and constitutive acts rather than as epiphenomena of material conditions prevailing at a certain time.

Concerned with the transformation of a communicative medium from its orientation to disorientation–“perspective by incongruity”–and reorientation (read: demise of capitalism and rise of communism), Burke actually engages Freud, behavioral psychologists, Bentham, Veblen, and Nietzsche far more than he does Marx. Since his focus is on the interrelationship among orientation (and its vicissitudes), motive, communication, and social reality, this naturally leads him to the importance of interpretation itself, which, in mediating reality, keeps it in flux by virtue of our fundamental attitudes and symbolic acts. In Part I of the first edition, Burke asserts that “motives are distinctly linguistic products. . . . Our minds, as linguistic products, are composed of concepts (verbally molded) which select certain relationships as meaningful. . . . These relationships are not realities, they are interpretations of reality----hence different frameworks of interpretation will lead to different conclusions as to what reality is.”31

Just as Marx turned Hegel on his head, Burke performs a similar maneuver with Marx. For rather than viewing consciousness as the conditioned response to a determinant Marxian infrastructure (economic base or substratum of material conditions), Burke sees the mind as “largely a linguistic product.” But rather than turning Marx upside down, for that would lead us back to Hegel, Burke’s prescient act is this: to enable the means of production and the means of representation to stand side-by-side in true dialectical fashion. For Burke, this leveling of the interaction between cultural and economic realms (and, in a more individuated sense, mind-body) completes the circumference of human purpose and social change. As Jack Selzer documents, Burke wrote to Matthew Josephson on 11 September 1935 that “Marxism does provide some necessary admonitions as to our faulty institutions, but as I understand it, it is exactly 180 degrees short of being a completely rounded philosophy of human motivation.”32

At this time, Burke’s antifoundational approach to communism rested on the conviction that a reasonable civilization was dependent upon both a viable system of communication and cooperative enterprises. Communism as a historical objective was compelling to him because of its humanistic qualities, which spoke idealistically to the economic as well as spiritual nature of humankind. “So far as I can see,” Burke writes, “the only coherent and organized movement making for the subjection of the technological genius to humane ends is that of Communism, by whatever name it may finally prevail.”33 In addition, he was drawn to the integrating function of communism as a “unifying ‘master-purpose,’” one that would promote a “philosophy of being” in which the competitive struggle, premised upon conquest and degradation, would yield to peaceful civic participation and harmony. But, above all, he thought hardest about communication:

A sound communicative medium arises out of cooperative enterprises. And the mind, so largely a linguistic product, is constructed of the combined cooperative and communicative materials. Let the system of cooperation become impaired, and the communicative equipment is correspondingly impaired, while this impairment of the communicative medium in turn threatens the structure of rationality itself.34

As an American Marxist, Burke’s encompassing pragmatic and cultural approach to communism in the thirties demonstrates his willingness to both employ and critique Marx. For instance, his criticism of dialectical materialism had been brewing for a while. His refutation of economic determinism first appears in “The Status of Art,” the fourth chapter of Counter-Statement. In this chapter, Burke maintains that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. To hold that economic and political forces are primary and aesthetic acts secondary is a specious form of logic, one that begins with the broad social context and ends with a “hierarchy of causes whereby economic manifestations could be called causally ‘prior’ to aesthetic manifestations.” Clearly, the privileging of economic forces as “prime movers” reveals an ideological bias, for, as Burke notes, “it is not very sound dialectic to assume that, because two things change concomitantly, one can be called exclusively a cause of the other.”35 This raises the question: Is the dialectic in dialectical materialism a mere modifier? If correlation is tantamount to causation, then one can easily reverse the direction of causality to feature ideas and attitudes as a kind of immovable mover. As an example, Burke cites the feminist movement of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries and its great impact upon society.

Burke continues his critique of the Marxian perspective in Part III, Chapter Five of Permanence and Change, in the section entitled “The Basis of Reference.” In challenging Marx’s materialistic determinism, Burke advances the precedence of psycho-biological factors as constituting a new, more fundamental basis of reference underlying the primal impulse for liberty. This interest in tracing freedom of thought and action (whether speculative, artistic, or applied) to ahistoric and non-material conditions is given impetus by Burke’s understanding of the significant, formative role of our “organic genius.” Once again, in building a more complex case for “an endless chain of ‘dialectically’ interacting material and spiritual factors,” Burke clarifies his position: “Materials may determine the forms our enterprise takes, but they can hardly explain the origin of enterprise.”36 To empirically establish this origin, Burke rests his case on behavioral and neurological experiments which give substantial weight to the psycho-biological claim that the basic need for human mobility (which underwrites freedom and the “‘cult of liberty’”) is grounded in the organism itself. Accordingly, Burke argues, one may very well begin the initial movement of the dialectic on this basis of reference. However, it is more complicated than that. Given the evidence, along with a “somewhat Spinozistic conception of substance,” a more complete form of integration is required:

By the biological point of reference, disputes between materialists and idealists would seem to be dialectically dissolved. . . . Whether you call the fundamental substance matter or idea seems of no great moment when you talk of mind and body with a hyphen, as mind-body. Once the implications of this hyphen are carried through the entire texture of one’s thoughts, [one’s] starting point in an interacting cycle is seen to be justified only as a convenience of discourse. . . . In this respect, materialism, idealism, and dialectical materialism merge into a kind of 'dialectical biologism,' framed in keeping with the hyphenated usage, mind-body. . . . But [they] may all be alike in this one notable respect: all four systems of verbalization may stress, in accord with science, the need of manipulating objective material factors as an essential ingredient to spiritual welfare.37

In Attitudes Toward History, originally published in 1937, Burke reiterates his point that, technically, in order to be true to the nature of interaction, dialectical materialism cannot base itself on materialism as the fundamental substance, or starting point, of the interplay between material and spiritual factors. “Thus, it would be literally nonsense to say “‘This is both A and B, but it is only A.’ Formally, it means: ‘dualistic monism,’ which can’t be.” However, discounting the theoretical problematic inscribed in the Marxian formula, Burke is now willing to view the privileging of material forces in historical context as a way for Marx to begin anew, especially since the church had previously cornered the market on the spiritual basis of reference: “The choice of materialism is not ‘logical,’ but ‘sociological.’ The word is a slogan, a comprehensive bit of shorthand.”38

Although Attitudes clarifies Burke’s position as “pro-socialist, anti-capitalist,” it is more concerned with cultural processes and the symbolic analysis of poetic categories that convey attitudes toward social reality framed around “acceptance” and “rejection” (Schopenhauer’s Bejahung und Verneinung) than with Marxism per se. In addition, there is a part devoted to historical progress, from Christian Evangelism to Emergent Collectivism, a chapter on ritual, and a “Dictionary of Pivotal Terms,” which discusses some of Burke’s seminal concepts and terminologies, including “bureaucratization of the imaginative,” the central metaphor of the book. This metaphor, which links unforeseen consequences to idealistic conceptions when the latter get translated into concrete embodiments, signals Burke’s own curve of development from idealism (the cooperative/communicative ethic) to realism (the conflict inherent in human association).

A scathing review of the book by Sidney Hook led to a nasty public squabble between Burke and Hook in the pages of the Partisan Review. In “An Exchange,” Burke responded, “Is Mr. Hook A Socialist?” In his defense, Burke attempted to correct “the falsities of emphasis” in Hook’s review, which turned Burke into a sinister apologist for totalitarian communism, by quoting a long passage from the book. Burke follows the quote with the following statement: “Hook makes my whole book appear like a mere off-shoot of the Stalin-Trotsky controversy. . . . I freely state, in this sentence, my sympathy with the momentous tasks confronting the U.S.S.R., and my admiration for the magnitude of its attainments. But by far my major interest is with the analysis of cultural processes as revealed by any and all kinds of historical and personal situations.”39 In his rejoinder, Hook inquires, “Is Mr. Burke Serious?” Rather than backing away, Hook digs his claws in even deeper, particularly exercised by Burke’s organizing metaphor. For political reasons that extend well beyond the covers of the book (and the scope of this paper), Hook unfairly suggests that Burke’s metaphor is intended to justify Stalin’s brutal regime:

If every venture of the human spirit can be regarded as a bureaucratized compromise . . . any specific bureaucratic outrage is part of the natural order of things. Criticism can be dismissed as Utopianism. This is a cunning but none the less fallacious linguistic device to attach the emotional associations of authoritative symbols . . . to a specific form of political despotism.40

Perhaps such demeaning sectarian squabbles, and Burke’s own hesitation to overtly denounce Stalin after the first round of the Moscow Trials, led to his relative withdrawal from radical politics in subsequent decades. (After the “Phartisan” Review incident, Burke referred to his nemesis both in conversation and correspondence as “Shitney” Hook.) But such a withdrawal should also be seen in the context of Burke’s own metacritical orientation as well as his re-engagement with the new framework of conflict generated by World War II (the techniques and hierarchies of cold war society), which we will turn to shortly.

In The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) and A Grammar of Motives (1945), Burke clearly charts his own orbit as a socially-engaged literary critic and philosopher of language and symbolic action. Although clearly apparent in the first part of the Philosophy, it is really in the Grammar that Burke reveals the results of his own protean development as man thinking. His eclectic, shifting, and wide-ranging intellectual capacity is evidenced throughout the book, particularly when he introduces and applies his method of Dramatism (the Pentad: Act–Scene–Agent–Agency– Purpose, and their various permutations) to both individual texts and branches of philosophy. Burke employed Dramatism “to consider the matter of motives in a perspective that, being developed from the analysis of drama, treats language and thought primarily as modes of action.”41 It probably comes as no surprise that one of those modes of action treated in the book was the Marxian dialectic. In the Grammar, Burke maintained his critical interest in Marx, but by this point in his writing career he had integrated Marx entirely into his own heuristic methodology.

In his reconstituted critique of historical materialism, Burke applies two components of his Dramatistic Pentad, that of scene and agent, to correct for Marx’s glaring neglect of ideational empowerment. A scene-agent ratio perceives thought and action determined solely by situational factors (the causal priority of historical conditions and ownership of the means of production). Obviously, this direction of the ratio is in alignment with the Marxian critical “sociologic.” But then, swiveling from his director’s stool, Burke reverses the arrangement of the ratio to read agent-scene, thus reclaiming ideas as causally equivalent. Burke refers to the Communist Manifesto itself to illustrate the persuasive power of ideas (formulated into propaganda) as a particular enactment: “Implicit in such an act there is certainly the assumption that ideas contained in it are social forces, and that the course of human action, hence the course of human destiny, will be in some degree altered by the diffusion of these ideas. Thus, in the Manifesto’s closing challenge [“overthrow of all existing social conditions”], we see what ‘views and aims’ may do, not simply as reflecting conditions, but as guides for the changing of conditions.”42

Burke’s other major point of contention is with the scientist motive behind Marxist philosophy which dismisses, by virtue of ratiocination, the ritualistic properties and ultimate eschatological design implicit in its vision. Perhaps also thinking back on his own experience as fellow traveler, Burke observes, “The patterns of communion, sacrifice, and transcendence involved in party loyalty give Marxism, on the symbolic level, the great value of a profound social drama”:

From the standpoint of our Grammar, the whole philosophy is essentially ethical rather than scientist, in that its entire logic is centered about an act, a social or political act, the act of revolution, an act so critical and momentous as to produce a “rupture” of cultural traditions.43
As Burke’s critical enterprise advances into the post-war era, we see less and less of an ideological concern with capitalism vs. communism. The battle of the Isms is transcended by means of two superseding conditions–that of the “hierarchal psychosis” and technology (or what Burke would come to call “Counter-Nature”). According to Burke, both are defining aspects of the human: we are separated from nature by instruments of our own making, and goaded by the spirit of hierarchy. With respect to the latter, in his 1953 Appendix to the second edition of Permanence and Change, Burke delineates the social process inherent in social order and its penchant for hierarchy in complex social organizations–whether capitalistic or communistic. “We take it for granted,” Burke states, “that the pyramidal magic is inevitable in social relations.” By treating property as an elastic concept, including both material and social accumulations (i.e., the “attributes of one’s office”), Burke explicates a dynamic that begins with the division of labor/property and distribution of authority, moves through the social mystery that arises from such divisions and distributions (i.e., the dissociation related to social stratification), and ends in guilt (or at the very least embarrassment), which is “cured” by the practice of victimage. Burke likens the process to the two great phases of Christian “spirituality”–categorical guilt and its cancellation. Given all this, Burke inquires, “Is it possible that rituals of victimage are the ‘natural’ means for affirming the principle of social cohesion above the principle of social division?”44

In posing the question, Burke is not registering approval; rather, he is simply interrogating the “hierarchal psychosis” as both a universal condition and a historical pattern. In keeping with this investigation, which is framed to supplant the cold war binary politics of Ism, Burke argues that such processes and results are “inevitable to social order.” Burke clarifies the difficulty in resorting to either mystification or demystification in solving the endemic social problem: “In the short run, ‘mystification’ may seem to be the best way of promoting social cohesion. But it has been so often misused in history by the defenders of special sinister interests, we clearly see its limitations, as regards the long run. Similarly, in a world wholly ‘unmasked,’ no social cohesion would be possible.” We are left in the cleft between a rock and a hard place.45

On the technological front, Burke’s notion of “Counter-Nature” refers to the cumulative effect of technological developments, that is, the conquest of nature and its transformation into the built environment. This environment both serves humankind and, following Emerson’s notion–“things are in the saddle and ride mankind”–turns us into bewildered, at times anxious servants of our instruments and their by-products (for instance, nuclear weapons and pollution). For Burke, technology is the genius and ultimate direction of humans. However, since Burke distinguishes the human as the “symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal,” our instrumentality has potential for creativity as well as destruction. In the aftermath of Attitudes Toward History, Burke “began to view the counter-natural innovations of Technology in the aggregate as a vast . . . destabilizing clutter, a bureaucratization of ingenious imaginings that takes on truly eschatological dimensions, powerful, pervasive, wasteful, pollutant, and challenging its human inventors to somehow round out the technical developments by developing a political bureaucratization competent to control them.”46

The technological dilemma is taken up by Burke in “Progress: Promise and Problems” (The Nation, 1957) and addressed extensively in “Motion, Action, Words” (Teachers College Record, 1960). In the former article, Burke cautions that “every addition to the positive powers of applied science will be an addition to the realm of human conflict."47 (Burke claims this to be the case even given the utopia of Marx’s classless society.)48 Burke’s message is simply put. He merely asks the reader to consider not only the promises of scientific application, but also its undesirable and often unpredictable consequences. Such considerations are necessary to remedy the excessively optimistic position that science, and not an intervening ethical code, will solve its own problems.

In “Motion, Action, Words,” Burke re-emphasizes the dual nature of technology, both its benevolent and malevolent properties, and exhorts readers to reconstitute their terms for disorder:

Technology . . . presents us, above all, with the problems of World Empire. . . . Big Technology has its own peculiar logic, and maybe Isms left over from previous eras obscure our understanding of its particular conditions.
I do not mean to imply that there are not real issues here, real grounds of conflict. . . . I am merely asking that we confront them in terms wholly relevant to the present state of technological development, and not in terms of some dramatic conflicts that that highly dramatistic thinker, Karl Marx, set up more than a century ago, for dealing with controversies germane to the state of technology in his times.49

Burke’s preeminent concern with technology is connected to modes of acquiring knowledge. He distinguishes between the physical sciences, setting the pace for technological production and deployment, the social sciences, whose emphasis is geared toward regulation, and the humanities, which provide the symbols to put this vicious cycle into perspective. “Insofar as all three disciplines . . . are all guided by the nature of terminology, might they not all, to this extent, be similarly goaded?” This question, which is at the very center of logology (words about words), reflects two central tenets of Burke’s quasi-linguistic determinism that influence the course of human conduct. First, the goad, or the “implicative nature of terminology,” suggests further developments to be sought out in a compellingly logical manner. Secondly, when this combines with the entelechial principle (the motive of perfectibility implicit in symbol systems) such previously mentioned guides may very well turn into a compulsion to track down the implications of a term, process, situation, or relationship to its utmost limit, thus driving us on and, under certain conditions, menacingly forward:

Such a responsiveness to implications seems to be at the bottom of all our human enterprises, based as they are on our nature as word-using, symbol-using animals. We are inherently endowed with terminologies that imply many sorts of potentialities and thus goad us to plan for their actualization.50
These motivational tenets of logology, or symbolic action, naturally transfer to technology which, “far from being ‘inhuman,’ is the very burlesque of a human being working and thinking.” In the face of weapons of mass destruction, indiscriminate pollution, and global warming, such implicative mechanisms accent our possible extinction rather than continued survival. The appropriate poetic category for his state of affairs, our “global destiny,” appears to be classical tragedy. As such, Burke can thus exploit the attendant Orwellian paradoxes inherent in the form’s dramatic irony: “Our security becomes our danger; our boast becomes our destruction; our self-satisfaction becomes our stupidity. Our pride goes before our fall.”51 Rather than inheriting the battle lines of Isms, we find ourselves, wherever we happen to be, in the epicenter of a “technologically goaded World Empire,” the total effect of technology itself, “[hu]mankind’s burdensome ‘fulfillment,’” and, perhaps, true eschatology.


*Benedict Giamo is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His research areas encompass homelessness, literary and cultural studies, and creative nonfiction. His most recent book—Kerouac, the Word and the Way, examines the prose art of Jack Kerouac as an expression of his ever shifting spiritual quest. His other books include The Homeless of Ironweed, a study of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel and Albany Cycle; Beyond Homelessness: Frames of Reference (with Jeffrey Grunberg) and On the Bowery: Confronting Homelessness in American Society. His recently completed a work of nonfiction that examines the murder of a homeless advocate in Topeka, Kansas. Kenneth Burke’s writings on language, literature, and society have been of keen interest to him for the past three decades.

  1. Quoted from the symposium, “Thirty Year Later: Memories of the First American Writers’ Congress,” The American Scholar 35.2 (Summer 1966): 501. A discussion with Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, William Phillips; Daniel Aaron, moderator.
  2. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London and New York City: Verso, 1996): 55-6 and 434-45; quoted from 444 and 436, respectively.
  3. Personal communication from Kenneth Burke, Emory University, February 1983.
  4. Letter from Burke to Malcolm Cowley (4 June 1932), in Paul Jay, ed., The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988): 202.
  5. Paul Jay, “Kenneth Burke and the Motives of Rhetoric,” American Literary History 1.3 (Fall 1989): 552 (n. 9).
  6. Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983): 10.
  7. See Burke’s Prologue to the second, revised edition of Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (Los Altos, CA: Hermes Publications, 1954; first edition, New York: New Republic, Inc., 1935): xxii-xxiii. It is important to note that, for reasons relating to intellectual development as well as political climate (not to mention being true to one’s title), Burke excised a total of about four pages of explicit references to communism from the first edition. The most significant references and passages that were removed can be found on the following pages of the original 1935 publication: 91, 93-94, 213, 345, and 347-8. For a complete accounting, see Edward Schiappa and Mary F. Keehner, “The ‘Lost’ Passages of Kenneth Burke’s Permanence and Change,” Communication Studies 42.3 (Fall 1991): 191-8.
  8. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, third edition (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984; first edition, two vols., New York: New Republic, Inc. 1937): 331. For the relationship of symbols of authority to the link between psychology and Marxism, see Burke’s “Twelve Propositions on the Relation Between Economics and Psychology,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form, third edition (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, l973): 305-13. (This piece was originally published in the Spring 1938 issue of Science & Society.)
  9. Karl Popper defines Marx’s extreme materialist emphasis in the following way: “From the scientific or causal point of view, thoughts and ideas must be treated as ‘ideological superstructures on the basis of economic conditions.’ Marx, in opposition to Hegel, contended that the clue to history, even to the history of ideas, is to be found in the development of the relations between man and his natural environment, the material world; that is to say, in his economic life, and not in his spiritual life. This is the why we may describe Marx’s brand of historicism as economism, as opposed to Hegel’s idealism or to Mill’s psychologism.” See Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962): 104.
  10. Quoted from Burke, “An Epistolation,” personal copy of an unpublished poem, Emory University, Spring 1983. The poem, addressed to Harold Bloom, begins in this fashion: “Before Life / the Pure Definitions of us / thee Heraldic Bloomer / and my Sickly Burpian Selph.” Several pages later, Burke ushers in the conclusion as follows: “And do Epistolate, lad in his Eighties, to your heart’s content / give vent, give vent, by dint of verbal dent.”
  11. Burke, “Industrialist’s Prayer,” from Collected Poems, 1915-1967 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968): 51.
  12. Burke, “Waste----The Future of Prosperity,” The New Republic, LXIII (16 July 1930): 229.
  13. Burke, “Boring from Within,” The New Republic, LXV (4 February 1931): 328.
  14. Ibid., 329.
  15. Burke, Counter-Statement (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968; first ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1931): 111-12.
  16. Ibid., 119-21.
  17. Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Nation 137 (13 December 1933); 676.
  18. Burke, “My Approach to Communism,” New Masses X (March 1934): 18-19.
  19. Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” 677.
  20. See Henry Hart, ed., American Writers’ Congress (New York: International Publishers, 1935): 9-17. Also, for related detail and a very informative account of the political and social background setting the stage for the reception of Burke’s Congress paper, see Jack Selzer, “What Happened at the First American Writers’ Congress? Kenneth Burke’s ‘Revolutionary Symbolism in America.’”---- Selzer views Burke’s presentation within the broader context of an ongoing, intense debate within the left at the time. In this sense, Selzer’s understanding of the event is similar to Denning’s, who states: “The story of Burke at the American Writers’ Congress is not one of Burke against the left, but one of a controversy within the left.” See The Cultural Front, 444.
  21. Burke, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” in Henry Hart, ed., American Writers’ Congress: 90.
  22. Ibid., 92.
  23. Ibid., 93.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978): 493.
  26. Burke, “What is Americanism?” (a symposium on Marxism and the American tradition), Partisan Review and Anvil, III (April 1936): 10.
  27. Burke, “Thirty Years later,” 506-507.
  28. Ibid., 508.
  29. Burke, “The Writers’ Congress,” The Nation, CXL (15 May 1935): 571.
  30. See Burke’s Prologue to the second edition of Permanence and Change: xiv.
  31. Burke, Permanence and Change, first edition (New York: New Republic, Inc., 1935): 52.
  32. Selzer, “What Happened?” 6.
  33. Burke, Permanence and Change, first edition, 93.
  34. Ibid., 213.
  35. Burke, Counter-Statement, 80-81.
  36. Burke, Permanence and Change, first edition, 288.
  37. Ibid., 293-94.
  38. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, third edition, 245.
  39. Burke, “An Exchange,” Partisan Review IV (January 1938): 42. For a full account of the controversy between Burke and Hook, see Jack Selzer and Ann George, Kenneth Burke in the 1930s: Negotiating the Left (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press), forthcoming.
  40. Sidney Hook, “An Exchange,” 45. Forty-five years after this “Exchange,” Burke returned to the heart of the matter in his new Afterword–“In Retrospective Prospect”–to the third edition of Attitudes Toward History: “Actually when the book was first published, the term ‘bureaucracy’ was a red-hot rhetorical weapon, as used by the Trotskyites in their attacks against the Stalinists, through application of the term ‘bureaucracy’ exclusively to the Stalinist dictatorship. And one stalwart word-warrior [Hook] had at me on the grounds that my widened use of the term ‘bureaucratization’ was designed purely to weaken Trotsky’s charge against the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy,’ whereas I took it for granted that not only was every government a mode of bureaucratization, but every business, church, conference, ball game, picnic, and ordered set of words on a page” (400-401).
  41. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, Introduction to first edition (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945): xvi.
  42. Ibid., 207.
  43. Ibid., 209.
  44. Burke, Permanence and Change, new Appendix to second edition (“On Human Behavior Considered Dramatistically”): 286.
  45. Ibid., 294.
  46. Burke, Attitudes Toward History, Afterword to third edition (“In Retrospective Prospect”): 401.
  47. Burke, “Progress: Promise and Problems,” The Nation, 184 (13 April 1957): 324.
  48. Burke also acknowledges that “the ever-mounting purely instrumental problems intrinsic to the realm of Counter-Nature” cannot be avoided. See Attitudes Toward History, Afterword to third edition (“In Retrospective Prospect”): 424.
  49. Burke, “Motion, Action, Words,” Teachers College Record 62.3 (December 1960): 247.
  50. Ibid., 246.
  51. Ibid., 249. Some years later, in a shift of tone from tragic irony to satire, Burke explored another more absurd version of this “Apocalyptic Vision of Division.” It entails an imaginary real estate project–Helhaven–“a scientifically designed culture-bubble on the moon, . . . involving a high degree of technological organization. In short, and following a hyper-rational strategy, technology on earth is exploited to the hilt without cause for reactionary measures or regulatory controls. The planet is wasted (the ills of technology remaining behind) and a new and more virtuous technology arises, like a phoenix out of the ashes. It is displaced to our nearest celestial neighbor so that a highly selective society can promulgate itself under ideal conditions on our moon. Burke advertises the mythic dimension of such an enterprise: “HELHAVEN, the expertly planned and guided enterprise of Lunar Paradisiacs, Incorporated. A womb-heaven, thus in the most basic sense Edenic, yet made possible only by the highest flights of technologic progress–hence, Eden and the Tower in one. A true eschatology, bringing first and last things together–the union of Alpha and Omega” (316). See Burke’s upending scheme in its entirety, “Why Satire, With A Plan For Writing One,” Michigan Quarterly, XIII (Fall 1974): 307-37.


Aaron, Daniel; Burke, Kenneth; Cowley, Malcolm; Hicks, Granville; and Phillips, William. “Thirty Years Later: Memories of the First American Writers’ Congress.” The American Scholar, 35.3 (Summer 1966), 495-516.

Burke, Kenneth. “Waste----The Future of Prosperity.” The New Republic, LXIII (16 July 1930), 228-31.

__________. “Boring from Within.” The New Republic, LXV (4 February 1931), 326-29.

__________. Counter-Statement. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968 (first edition, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931).

__________. “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism.” The Nation 137 (13 December 1933), 675-77.

__________. “My Approach to Communism.” New Masses X (March 1934), 16 and 18-20.

__________. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. New York: New Republic, Inc., 1935 (second revised edition, Los Altos, Calif.: Hermes Publications, 1954).

__________. “Revolutionary Symbolism in America.” In Hart, Henry, ed., American Writers’ Congress. New York: International Publishers, 1935, 87-94.

__________. “The Writers’ Congress.” The Nation CXL (15 May 1935), 571.

__________. “What is Americanism?” (a symposium on Marxism and the American tradition). Partisan Review and Anvil III (April 1936), 9-11.

__________. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961 (first edition, two vols., New York: New Republic, Inc., 1937; second revised edition, Los Altos, Calif.: Hermes Publications, 1959).

Burke, Kenneth, and Hook, Sidney. “An Exchange.” Partisan Review IV (January 1938), 40-47.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Third edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1973.

__________. A Grammar of Motives. First Edition. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

__________. “Progress: Promise and Problems.” The Nation 184 (13 April 1957), 322-24.

__________. “Motion, Action, Words.” Teachers College Record 62.3 (December 1960), 244-49.

__________. Collected Poems, 1915-1967. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968.

__________. “Why Satire, With A Plan For Writing One.” Michigan Quarterly XIII (Fall 1974), 307-37.

__________. “An Epistolation.” Personal copy of an unpublished poem, Emory University, Spring 1983.

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