Tag Archives: Radicalism

“Talk don’t turn no wheel.” (calicult)

Some facts about the Great Depression in California

300,000 agricultural workers migrated to California during the Great Depression.

By 1934 there were 142 agricultural workers for every 100 jobs.

In 1928 Mexican-American workers earned 75 cents an hour for picking cantaloupes. By 1933 wages had dropped to 15 cents an hour.

Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) led many strikes in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere. Membership included Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Slav and Sikh workers.

The Cotton Strike of 1933 brought out 10,000 strikers across 500 miles of farmland. 

Over the course of the decade the paranoid style of American politics asserted itself, leading to the use of Red Scare tactics by local authorities, the prosecution of activists under the Criminal Syndicalism Act of California, the deputization of landowners (a clear conflict of interest) and the rise of violent vigilanteism on the part of groups such as the American Legion.

California Criminal Syndicalism Act


An act defining criminal syndicalism and sabotage, proscribing certain acts and methods in connection therewith and in pursuance thereof and providing penalties and punishments therefor.

[Approved, April 30, I9l9.]

The people of the State of California do enact as follows:

SECTION 1. The term “criminal syndicalism” as used in this act is hereby defined as any doctrine or precept advocating, teaching or aiding and abetting the commission of crime, sabotage (which word is hereby defined as meaning willful and malicious physical damage or injury to physical property), or unlawful acts of force and violence or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change.

SECTION 2. Any person who:

1. By spoken or written words or personal conduct advocates, teaches or aids and abets criminal syndicalism or the duty, necessity or propriety of committing crime, sabotage, … violence or any unlawful method of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change; or

2. Willfully and deliberately by spoken or written words justifies or attempts to justify criminal syndicalism or the commission or attempt to commit crime, sabotage, violence or unlawful methods of terrorism with intent to approve, advocate or further the doctrine of criminal syndicalism; or

3. Prints, publishes, edits, issues or circulates or publicly displays any book, paper, pamphlet, document, poster or written or printed matter in any other form, containing or carrying written or printed advocacy, teaching, or aid and abetment of, or advising, criminal syndicalism; or

4. Organizes or assists in organizing, or is or knowingly becomes a member of, any organization, society, group or assemblage of persons organized or assembled to advocate, teach or aid and abet criminal syndicalism; or

5. Willfully by personal act or conduct, practices or commits any act advised, advocated, taught or aided and abetted by the doctrine or precept of criminal syndicalism, with intent to accomplish a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change; is guilty of a felony and punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not less than one nor more than fourteen years…

In Dubious Battle (calicult)


Notes on Realism

As we discuss In Dubious Battle we’ll necessarily come up against the notion (the aesthetic ideology) of Realism. The diegesis of Steinbeck’s novel is one that we can immediately recognize as ‘real’ in terms of its characters and locales. IDB represents the world in a way that seems to be transparent and intelligible, an “obvious” “reflection” of reality as we know it. This response on our part, of course, is the product of lifelong conditioning which encourages us to confuse causes and their effects. What do these markings on paper have to do with the world we think we know? To what extent is our sense of the novel’s “truth”, its veracity, a product of prior knowledge of the Great Depression? 

Those are deeper questions that bear some scrutiny and we will have to confront them in some form as we attempt to master the novel’s content. In other words, our conversations about this work will address both the “what-said” and the “how-said”– those two dimensions of signification that are impossible to separate. 

Realism presents itself as an uncomplicated and straightforward method of description, a series of pictures of a familiar world– not unlike photographs. As such it effaces its own textuality, the linguistic materials that go into Steinbeck’s production of an orchard workers’ strike in California. Perhaps it’s easiest to grasp this double gesture of revelation and concealment if we think about documentary film as a model. The documentary film seems to show us the world without mediation, as directly accessible to our experience. Yet the apparatus of film-making, in terms of both physical tools and discursive methods, intercedes between the text and the audience. The camera, sound equipment, editing, framing, etc.– all of the artistry and artifice of making a movie go into the representation of a subject that to the unsophisticated viewer seems merely, naturally given.

Realism of the sort practiced by Steinbeck in In Dubious Battle might also go by the name of Naturalism. The difference between these two genres is somewhat narrow: Naturalism tends to treat life in its grittier aspects; its characters are generally working class or underclass; human existence is often portrayed as overdetermined by social and natural forces which are ultimately beyond any control. So, for instance, another great novel of California, McTeague, written by Frank Norris at the turn into the 20th century, takes as its subject the bestial Mac, an uncredentialed, sadistic dentist whose inner tendencies toward cruelty and brutishness are inexorably fulfilled. Norris’s novel suggests the fundamental inalterabilty of human nature, a situation in which destiny is enmeshed in biology, one where the social environment degrades those consigned to it and every existential trajectory is charted in advance. 

Not so in In Dubious Battle. Though the novel displays some traits of Naturalism its title connotes the possibility at least of struggle against fate. By now, of course, we all know where that title comes from: Milton’s Paradise Lost, the story of how the Devil rebelled against God and was 

Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire

Satan, as a literary character, has long been portrayed as a symbol of insurgency, and Paradise Lost was in a sense as much about the right of English subjects to depose the King during the Revolution of 1644 as it was an effort to write a Christian myth in the Greek epic manner. Here, then, is a contradiction: the revolt against the master is viewed with sympathy, but the facts of that uprising– its execution, its inversion of a divine order– risked terrifying consequences.

Here is Satan’s first soliliquy in Paradise Lost, from which the title of Steinbeck’s book is taken:

“If thou beest he—but Oh how fallen! how changed

From him!—who, in the happy realms of light,

Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine

Myriads, though bright—if he whom mutual league,

United thoughts and counsels, equal hope

And hazard in the glorious enterprise,

Joined with me once, now misery hath joined

In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest

From what highth fallen: so much the stronger proved

He with his thunder: and till then who knew

The force of those dire arms? Yet not for those,

Nor what the potent Victor in his rage

Can else inflict, do I repent, or change,

Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind,

And high disdain from sense of injured merit,

That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,

And to the fierce contention brought along

Innumerable force of Spirits armed,

That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,

His utmost power with adverse power opposed

In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven,

And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?

All is not lost—the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome.

That glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power

Who, from the terror of this arm, so late

Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;

That were an ignominy and shame beneath

This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,

And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;

Since, through experience of this great event,

In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,

We may with more successful hope resolve

To wage by force or guile eternal war,

Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,

Who now triumphs’, and in the excess of joy

Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.”