Some American intellectuals joined the Communist Party after the stock market crash of 1929, when many people, convinced that democracy was dying and that they faced a choice between the rising powers of fascism and Communism, decided that the latter was the only hope for a better future. A number of these people, who saw the USSR as a principled bulwark against the Nazis, had their illusions crushed by the Kremlin-engineered famine in the Ukraine of 1932-3, or by the Moscow show trials of 1936-8, or by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939.
Howard Fast, the author of Spartacus and other bestsellers, was different. He joined the Party in 1943 – at the height of war, when the Soviet Union was America’s ally and, as the Guardian put it after his death in 2003, when the “wartime love affair with the Soviet Union and the Red army was at its peak.”
It was also the year in which Fast, who was born in 1914, had his first genuine success, with the biographical novel Citizen Tom Paine. He later claimed that although he joined the Party late, he had been drawn to it much earlier, rendered susceptible to its appeal by his “poverty and hunger and despair in the early 1930s,” when he a working-class boy in New York City; if he came to it at such a late date, it was “because I could no longer see any future as a writer unless I was able to wed my principles to action.” Joining the Party, claimed Fast, he “felt that I had now become part of an edifice dedicated singularly and irrevocably to the ending of all war, injustice, hunger, and human suffering – and to the goal of the brotherhood of man.” But it’s hard to believe that an intelligent, independent-minded author who’d followed the news about the Soviet Union since its founding in 1922 could be sucked in by wartime propaganda that dropped all of Stalin’s atrocities down the memory hole – hard to believe that in 1943, a man like Fast could sincerely think that the USSR was “dedicated…irrevocably” to “brotherhood.”
Why did he join the Party, then? “Even among sympathetic biographers such as anti-anti-communist Gerald Sorin,” historian Ron Capshaw has written,
Fast’s joining the CPUSA is presented not as an authentic expression of Marxism, but as an act of careerism….Fast was quite an operator, seeking not only fame but the adulation of wealthy Marxists he admired. What clinched the case for signing up with the CPUSA was a trip to Hollywood, where he met Stalinist screenwriters who lived in enviable luxury. He saw that the leader of the Hollywood branch of the Party, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, owned a 50-acre ranch. Then, too, there was the opportunity to romance starlets.
One thing we do know is that by signing up with the Party, Fast became a jewel in the Kremlin’s crown. As Gerald Mayer has written, “the CPUSA and indeed the world Communist movement lionized Fast…the Party enshrined him, along with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, on the highest pedestal in its pantheon of intellectuals.” In the Soviet Union, where it was a crime to even own most contemporary Western books, his novels were issued in translated by government-owned publishers and were widely read. As a result, in a country whose citizens were denied access to the work of far better American writers, Howard Fast became a household name.