Leaving the Party: Howard Fast

Portrait of American author Howard Fast (1914 - 2003), 1962. (Photo by Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Howard Fast

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.)

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Josef Stalin

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.

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A 1945 front page of the Daily Worker, edited at the time by Howard Fast

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.”

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Nikita Khrushchev

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?

A master propagandist

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Howard Fast

As we saw yesterday, joining the Communist Party was a great career move for the novelist Howard Fast. He became a superstar behind the Iron Curtain and acquired influential comrades in the highest cultural and intellectual circles in the West. He hobnobbed with other members of the Red elite – French Communist author Louis Aragon, Chilean Communist Pablo Neruda. When Soviet writers came to the U.S., he played host to them; when he visited Paris, he was granted an audience with fellow Party superstar Pablo Picasso, who “kissed him on the mouth and offered him any painting he chose.”

Meanwhile, Fast lent his talents to the cause. He wrote pamphlets at the Party’s direction. He edited the American Communist Party’s house organ, the Daily Worker, from 1952 to 1954. He ran for Congress in 1952 on the American Labor ticket.

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Pablo Picasso

But his main contribution to Communism was this. He was a historical novelist whose novels revised history – especially American history – by consistently viewing it through a red-tinted lens. To quote Gerald Mayer, he “refitted the genre of the historical novel to the requirements of Popular Front culture.” Which is another way of saying that he was a master propagandist, distorting events of the past to make it look as if they were all about class struggle. As historian Ron Capshaw has put it, Fast “inserted the class struggle into U.S. history by filtering Tom Paine, slavery, Reconstruction, and Indian reservations through a radical lens. He did the same for figures in Western history including Moses and, most famously, Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator and slave of the Romans.”

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Dashiell Hammett

In all these writings, according to Capshaw, Fast eagerly complied “with the directives of the Party to blue-pencil any ideologically incorrect sentiments (such as suggesting that a capitalist character could have any humane qualities).” Even Dashiell Hammett, whom Capshaw calls “one of the most obedient of Marxists,” despised Fast’s fiction, accusing him of “oversimplifying to death” his themes, more in the manner of a propagandist than of a literary artist. But the bottom line is that Fast’s fiction represented an invaluable service to the CPUSA, whose General Secretary, Earl Browder, believed that such efforts on the cultural front were vital if Communism hoped to win the hearts and minds of middle America.

Fast hit a bump after the war. Summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to talk about his Communist activities, he was imprisoned for three months for refusing to provide HUAC with the records of a Party front called the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. But according to Capshaw, Fast “ruined, with his self-serving egoism, any chance for fellow communists to admire his fortitude. His depiction of his time in prison was so Christ-like that Dashiell Hammett (who also went to prison for refusing to betray his comrades) accused him of trying to wear a ‘crown of thorns.’” In any event Fast’s prison term was only a blip in his success within the Party, which was capped by his winning of the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.

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Nikita Khrushchev

Two years later, however, everything changed. Stalin had died in 1953, and on June 5, 1956, the New York Times published the text of the so-called “secret speech” by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. In the speech, Khrushchev acknowledged Stalin’s reign of terror, described it in horrific detail, and condemned it utterly. A year later, in an article for the Saturday Review, Fast would recount what supposedly happened the next morning at the offices of the Daily Worker, where the question of the day was whether to print the speech or not. Fast and his colleagues, he maintained, were all shell-shocked. They had sacrificed “brilliant careers” to fight for “brotherhood and justice.” And yet now they knew they had hitched their wagons to an evil monster who, if given the opportunity, would likely have executed all of them.

A jewel in the Kremlin’s crown

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.

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Howard Fast

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.” 

fast-spartacusIt 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,  

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John Howard Lawson testifying before HUAC, 1947

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.

Hollywood’s “resident Communist”

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Ed Asner (top middle), with other stars of The Mary Tyler Moore Show

If you’re an American of a certain age, you certainly know who Ed Asner is, and you’re probably very fond of him. And you should be: he’s a terribly likeable guy and a terrific actor. For seven years back in the 1970s, he played the gruff-but-lovable boss Lou Grant on the hit CBS comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There followed several more years in his own spinoff series, Lou Grant. He’s since starred in innumerable TV movies and made guest appearances on a number of sitcoms. Now pushing ninety (he turns 87 tomorrow), Asner continues to keep busy as an actor.

During all these years, however, he’s also found time to involve himself in politics. From 1981 to 1985, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. In addition, he’s been active in a great many left-wing groups, campaigns, and causes, the list of which is at least as long as his list of acting credits on IMdB.com. So important a player has he been in far-left activism that his name figures in a 2000-word history of the American left at the website of the Democratic Socialists of America – a group he’s belonged to for years.

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On his own series, Lou Grant

Just a few items from that list. In the 1980s he joined groups that provided aid and comfort to Communist guerrilas in Central America. In 1984 he sponsored the annual banquet of the Labor Research Association, a Communist Party front organization that compiled statistics for use by unions and activists. In 2002 he signed a statement formulated by a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party that accused George W. Bush of repression and imperialism.

danielFrom time to time, Asner has managed to combine acting with activism. While playing Karl Marx in a 2010 Los Angeles stage production, he explained to a reporter that he’d been cast in the part because “I’m always thought of in Hollywood and surrounding environs as the resident communist.” (Imagine what it takes to be the “resident communist” in Hollywood!)

Years earlier, in 1983, Asner appeared in Sidney Lumet’s film Daniel, based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel about a young man whose parents – based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – were executed many years earlier for being Soviet atom spies. The movie, which was scripted by Doctorow, was widely, and properly, panned as a piece of clumsy propaganda: while celebrating the purported nobility and idealism of the radical 1930s activist milieu that shaped the Rosenbergs’ values, it delicately skirting the evil reality of Stalinism and the issue of treason.

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Asner’s belief in the film and its Soviet-friendly message, however, was demonstrated three years ago by his sponsorship of a screening of it that was co-presented by the Communist Party and held at a Party-operated venue in Los Angeles. At the screening, which was dedicated to the memory of the Rosenbergs, Asner gave a speech in which he accused the Rosenbergs’ prosecutors of anti-Semitism, drew a moral equivalency between the Rosenbergs’ trial and Stalin’s show trials, and criticized the “antipathy in this country for people of differing opinions.” As we’ll see tomorrow, however, Asner has shown great understanding for the brutal treatment of “people of different opinions” in another country – namely, Cuba.

Bryan Cranston: learn some history!

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Bryan Cranston

Yesterday we saw that actor Bryan Cranston, in the course of promoting his new movie Trumbo, has promoted it by claiming that Stalin wasn’t a Communist and that Dalton Trumbo, the real-life mid-century Communist screenwriter whom he plays in the picture, wasn’t really a Communist either – not in any negative sense, anyway.  

Hearing Cranston try to sell this line of hogwash the other day on the Howard Stern Show, we were hoping he was just misspeaking (perhaps owing to the early hour?). But the next day The Daily Beast ran an interview with him in which he made the very same claims, in – curiously – the exact same words: 

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Jay Roach

Stalin wasn’t a communist; he was a fascist dictator. But the name “communism” stuck to that. The American Communist Party at the time, which really grew out of the Depression where nobody had a job, was supposed to be like the political arm of labor unions so that more jobs for the working man could be created. But they had the title “Communist” in there. If they called themselves the American Worker Party, maybe things would’ve been different. But with the name “Communist,” people thought, oh, well the American Communist Party must want to take over the country, so we need to weed them out!

Sheer nonsense. The fact that he repeated the same nonsense in the very same words makes it clear that he was regurgitating a PR line furnished him by the film’s publicists. Or the director. Or somebody. Why are these people rewriting history in order to flack a movie? It’s despicable. It’s irresponsible. And it’s exactly the kind of bald-faced lying that Communist screenwriters of the 1930s and 40s practiced in their own pro-Soviet scripts. 

28 Oct 1947, Washington, DC, USA --- Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the "Hollywood Ten" targeted by the Un-American Activities Committee, leaves the witness stand shouting "This is the beginning of Amercan concentration camp." He is the second Hollywood personality in two days to defy investigators questions regarding Communist affiliation. He is accompanied by his defense lawyers Robert Kenny and Bartley Crum. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
The real Trumbo, at the 1947 HUAC hearings

As for Cranston, does he really not know that the American Communist Party was a fully owned and operated subsidiary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, that its members took vows promising to help bring Soviet-style Communism to the U.S., and that they took their orders directly from the Kremlin? 

Does he really not know that Trumbo, far from being a First Amendment champion, or a political naif who was undone by his concern about “jobs for the working man,” was a well-informed and devoutly committed Stalinist?

trumboDoes he really not know that Trumbo was a Stalinist before HUAC, that he remained a Stalinist throughout his years on the blacklist, and that he was still a Stalinist when it was all over?

Yes, it must’ve been tough for Trumbo to see a name other than his own on the movies he wrote during the blacklist years. It must’ve been tough to see his scripts win Oscars and not be able to show up at the ceremony to pick up his trophy and wave it around at parties afterwards. But his ordeal (if that’s the right word), when compared to the unspeakably monstrous punishments that were meted out by good old Uncle Joe in Moscow to millions of innocent Soviet subjects – acts that Trumbo, ever the devoted acolyte, fully supported and ardently defended – can hardly be depicted as the stuff of tragedy.