“Don’t Work” and Other Lessons From the Marxist Feminism of Meridel Le Sueur

The radical fiction of this Depression-era writer is painfully relevant to the present.

Benjamin Balthaser

ILLUSTRATION BY BEE JOHNSON

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If you feel tired, for God’s sake, stop … Don’t work,” a woman says to her friend in the short story Biography of My Daughter,” written by Midwestern radical writer and activist Meridel Le Sueur. The two had just watched their childhood friend die in a sanitorium — she had put herself through college by washing and cleaning in private houses without rest and often without food, causing the burnout that eventually killed her. Two weeks after graduation, the friend, who the narrator calls her daughter” (despite no blood ties), dies of starvation. 

Oh, she worked so hard,” the narrator’s living daughter says. What for? She wanted above everything to be a success.”

This story by Le Sueur is one I have been returning to over the past two years, as working in offices, classrooms and factories has come to mean not only the usual long hours and low pay, but a question of life and death. Since the pandemic began, healthcare workers and schoolteachers have quit their jobs in droves because of safety concerns and overwork. This moment is especially disorienting without any clear messages about or universal standards for safety; instead, we must simply listen to our bodies and scan for risk like an antelope scenting the air, then make a private decision that will seem overcautious (or, conversely, dangerous) to many. Stop, don’t work,” might be one’s last best hope. 

A Marxist-feminist writer, Le Sueur rooted her stories in working-class women’s bodies, labor struggles and sexuality. They have circulated quietly since their recovery in the 1970s by feminist publishers and later in the 1990s by Marxist scholars writing about the Depression-era literary Left. Born in 1900 to progressive parents (her stepfather was the socialist mayor of Minot, N.D., in the early 20th century), Le Sueur later lived in a New York City commune (along with Emma Goldman) and worked as a stuntwoman in Hollywood before moving back to the Midwest and joining the Communist Party in 1924.

Le Sueur’s work (including her essays, short stories and one novel) explores alienation experienced under capitalism, featuring, for example, men who want to force their partners to have abortions, women who can’t acknowledge their own sensual desires, middle-class intellectuals who separate ideas from practice, and factory workers who experience a rare glimpse into another life when they are injured at work and allowed time to dream while they heal and wander. The alienating world of capitalist social relations — associated with well-kept automobiles, paperthin bodies, sterile intellectualizations and automated and isolating work — is contrasted with images and expressions of sensuality, fertility and frank sexual desire. Le Sueur’s binary world — of middle-class men and working-class women, of capitalists and proletarians — is rendered without apology and with an overspilling and raw particularity. These clear divisions feel lived and struggled through, rather than imposed upon the reader.

Unlike her many contemporaries, Le Sueur refused to settle down in New York, London or Moscow, and lived in the blue-collar Midwest most of her life. Even New Masses editor Mike Gold — a leader of the proletarian arts movement who famously pushed working-class writers in the 1930s to write in hot jets of feeling” after their shifts in the lumber yards and factories — made a living writing in one of the few U.S. literary metropolises, like many leftist intellectuals. For Le Sueur, belonging to the working class had to be lived in the body, through daily experience. If you come from the middle class,” Le Sueur wrote, words are likely to mean more than an event.” For Le Sueur, there is no knowledge that can be had other than by experience; stories about the dark chaotic passional” world of the proletariat must be born not only of direct observation, but from communal participation.”

In short, one cannot choose to join the working class, Le Sueur wrote in a 1935 essay in New Masses. One must simply belong.”

In her essay Women Know a Lot of Things,” Le Sueur details the profound insight working-class women have into exploitation and social change. Le Sueur opens with a portrait of a Polish woman in Minneapolis who works in the stockyards and who knows, despite not reading the newspaper, what suffering is.” For example, she empathizes with the Woman’s Brigade that smashed the windows of a General Motors factory during the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Mich. Working-class women, according to Le Sueur, pick it up at the source, in the human body.” She goes on: How much blood and toil goes into the making of even a poor body” because in that body under your hands every day there resides the economy of that world.” Such women know everything that happens on the stock exchange … the terrible misuse and destruction of land and crops and human life plowed under… . You have the news at its terrible source.” Working-class women, unlike most men (then as now), touch and feel the whole of the global economy.

Illustration by Bee Johnson

Whether touching a baby or rolling steel, one gains a direct knowledge of the sources of life and labor. For Le Sueur, this knowledge is not a cause of women’s imprisonment, but a site from which women can call for revolution — for an end to all forms of gender inequality, including the rights to vote, fight, serve in revolutionary armies, build unions and join the ranks of the Communist Party.

Le Sueur’s focus on the category woman” may strike many readers as outdated or reactionary, as she ties sex and gender together. Especially at that time (and to a great extent today), however, woman’s work” was the devalued name associated with care work and attending to living human bodies. As a materialist, this spot is where Le Sueur wants to begin. In doing so, she transforms the meaning of woman” and its relationship to work and to men”(and the system that produces such categories). In her satirical story A Hungry Intellectual,” for example, an unemployed but pretentious radical believes social change comes without violence, that it must be intellectual.” The narrator replies, while powdering her infant, When you have a baby, birth is violent.” For Le Sueur, revolution is violent the way birthing is violent. Motherhood was not reactionary; rather, through the violent” act of birth, a new world” could be seen.

In response to alienation, poverty, depression and gendered violence, Le Sueur’s working-class narrators celebrate sex, birthing, revolutionary militancy, food and laughter. In Annunciation,” a story from her most famous collection, Salute to Spring (1940), the narrator decides to keep her baby, even though her husband wants to be rid of it.” The story ends with an image of a pear tree outside the narrator’s window: Far inside the vertical stem there must be a movement, a river of sap rising from below and radiating outward … the leaves are the lips … the fruit … in full tongue on the tree, hanging in ripe body.” The child and tree shot up like a rocket,” an image that connects to all living things.The story also offers an intimate portrait of a working-class writer, carrying slips of paper around with me” even as she has no room of her own and no stable source of income or even food, representing a different kind of working-class workplace.

The final story in Salute to Spring, I Was Marching,” combines Le Sueur’s insights about the organic nature of unalienated labor with her politics of working-class revolution. Set during the 1934 Teamsters general strike in Minneapolis, the story centers on a middle-class narrator who says she was afraid” of mixing” and losing myself” in the crowd of lean, dark young faces” of striking workers. The narrator wants to remain a spectator, fearing that all I had been trained to excel in would go unnoticed.” Then, she sees a strange powerful trance of movement together” that was compelling and desperately frightening and alien. What happens to an individual when they lose their individuality but are not part of any political or social organization? The story portrays the fear of many middle-class writers and professional workers for whom their entire lives have been defined, as the narrator says, by competing” — translating their own desires, needs and wants into a reified self ” that can wield prestige and social capital. Like the dying woman in Biography of My Daughter” who wants to be a success,” Le Sueur’s world is full of a painful and self-defeating individualism, marked by a refusal to live in the sensuous, communal world of people.

I am one of them, yet I don’t feel myself at all,” the narrator says. It is curious, I feel most alive and yet for the first time in my life I do not feel myself as separate.” Rather than imagine the individual as separate from, or in rebellion against, a collective, the narrator imagines a collective as an organic, unalienated living organism in which the individual is brought forth and enlarged by their presence in a working-class rebellion.

Rather than imagine political revolution only as a means to live a materially comfortable life, Le Sueur’s fiction and prose wants to imagine a different relationship among people, land and the self — a relationship that would make poverty (of any kind) spiritually impossible to imagine. In this world, it would make no more sense to ignore the aches of one’s body while working on the clock than it would to ignore the pangs of hunger. For Le Sueur, the process of what Marxists refer to as reification” — how relationships among people become relationships among commodities — is built into the fabric of our lives: We work for money, allow profits to dictate how things are used, use human beings as expedient tools to achieve ends and imagine that sexuality (and sensuality) follow from status, respectability and social stability.

What happens to an individual when they lose their individuality but are not part of any political or social organization?

Because of this understanding, Le Sueur would be appalled but not at all surprised to learn how employers and governments have willingly subjected people to Covid-19, hoarded life-saving vaccines, privileged profits over public health and hardly batted an eye when more than 800,000 people in the United States died of a disease that could have been substantially contained. Le Sueur would also be delighted, if not surprised, to see millions of workers walk off their jobs (whether individually or in mass strikes, such as those at John Deere and Kaiser Permanente), rejecting a culture of death and demanding what bodies need to live.

As Le Sueur asks in the short story Corn Village,” why is it we have only money dreams, power dreams,” and not rich imaginaries of social collectivity and thriving? In the last lines of I Was Marching,” she tells of that strange shuffle of thousands of bodies moving with direction, thousands of feet, and my own breath with the gigantic breath … marching.” It is an image of revolution, social action and our strange, embodied human breathing that, together, make revolution meaningful.

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Benjamin Balthaser is associate professor of multi-ethnic U.S. literature at Indiana University, South Bend. His book, Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture, was published from University of Michigan Press in December, 2015. His critical and creative writing has also appeared in American Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review Criticism and elsewhere. His forthcoming book Citizens of the Whole World is on contract with Verso Books. He is an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago.

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