We’ve seen how novelist Howard Fast was supposedly disillusioned by Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” about the evil deeds of Fast’s longtime hero, Josef Stalin. In a 1957 essay for Saturday Review, Fast publicly declared that he’d left the Communist Party. (He wasn’t alone: a large majority of American Communists quit in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, also in 1956.)
That essay is a curious piece of work. On the one hand, he professed to be stunned by the reality of Stalin’s terror. On the other hand, he goes on to describe, with a novelist’s flair, the reality of life inside the Party, of which he had been a member for thirteen years. It is not a pretty picture. It is a grim portrait of a life made up of meetings with shifty, slimy, barely human characters – men and women who spouted dogma like robots, who feared original thinking “as the devil himself,” who bowed and scraped to their superiors, who systematically intimidate their inferiors, and who routinely listened for the slightest possible deviation from Party orthodoxy by their fellow members so that they could then set about denouncing them, humiliating them, and driving them from the fold.
The Party described by Fast was also populated by people utterly lacking in artistic taste or cultural sophistication – which was all to the good, from a Communist perspective, for art and culture, unless entirely devoted to promoting the Party, are anathema. It was also a fount of hypocrisy: Fast remembered a lunch meeting with the Romanian ambassador to the U.S., who was appalled when Fast and his colleagues from a Communist magazine, Mainstream, suggested that, in line with Communist doctrines of equality, the ambassador’s chauffeur be invited to join them at table. Moreover, the Party was a hive of envy: while Stalin and his henchmen in the Kremlin celebrated Fast, the local CPUSA hacks in New York saw him as an underling who was too big for his britches.
Fast maintained that he had never in his life experienced outside of the Party the kind of consistently repulsive behavior he had experienced and observed inside it. “Not even the warden of the Federal prison where I served a sentence as a political prisoner years later,” he wrote, “ever treated me or anyone else with such inhuman disdain and contempt.”
It’s all very interesting. But also deeply puzzling. For by the time the Times published Khrushchev’s speech, Fast had been a member of the Party for a full thirteen years. He had long since noticed all the unpleasant things about the Party that he would detail in his Saturday Review piece. How, then, could he have been surprised, as he claimed to be, by the revelations contained in Khrushchev’s speech? Since he already knew how far short the Party fell of what it professed to be, why did it take Khrushchev’s speech to make him leave? Wouldn’t it have made more sense, on the contrary, if Fast, aware as he was of the corruption and cynicism of the Party, had welcomed Khrushchev’s speech as a breath of fresh air and as a reason to hope that, with Nikita rather than Uncle Joe at the helm, the whole operation might actually reform itself into something that actually was dedicated to brotherhood and all that? And in that case, why didn’t the Khrushchev speech cause him to rededicate himself to the Party rather than to leave it?