The man who was America’s “most dangerous Communist”

Herbert Aptheker

Very few members of the general public remember him now, but in his time Herbert Aptheker (1915 – 2003) was a very big deal indeed, and to this day he is a revered figure in the academy. He is considered a pioneer in the historical study of slavery in America – more broadly, in the general history of black Americans, and, more narrowly, in the history of slave revolts.

But he was not just a scholar. He was a devout Communist. David Horowitz called him “the Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual.” J. Edgar Hoover once said that the FBI considered Aptheker “the most dangerous Communist in the United States.” In 2015, Harvey Klehr, the historian of American Communism and of Soviet spying in the US, described him as “an ideological fanatic who squandered his talents as a historian, gave slavish devotion to a monstrous regime, and lacked the intellectual courage to say publicly what he wrote privately.”

Harvey Klehr

Indeed, as Klehr noted, Aptheker “joined the American Communist party (CPUSA) in August 1939, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, just as thousands of other disillusioned Jewish Communists were leaving.” And good Stalinist that he was, he parroted Uncle Joe’s calls for peace with Germany and, when the Nazis violated the pact in 1941 by invading the USSR, immediately reversed his position, calling for the US to fight shoulder to shoulder with the USSR and UK.

Aptheker’s whole adult life revolved around the CPUSA. As a student he was active in CPUSA front organizations, taught at the CPUSA’s New York Workers School, and was a regular reader of the CPUSA’s Daily Worker and New Masses and a contributor to other CPUSA rags. After the war, in which he fought on the European front, Aptheker settled in the American South, becoming an “education worker” (which is something like a “community organizer”) and working for yet another CPUSA front. From 1948 to 1953 he was a staffer at the CPUSA’s literary journal, Masses and Mainstream; from 1953 to 1963 he edited the CPUSA’s ideological monthly, Political Affairs; and from 1957 to 1991, he was a member of the CPUSA’s national committee, on which he was considered was the party’s leading “theoretician.”

Aptheker, Hayden, and other Hanoi travel companions

While the USSR lasted, nothing shook his devotion to it. He was always prepared to defend Stalin’s atrocities, and when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, he wrote a book justifying the invasion. He also penned a defense of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. If the Kremlin was incapable of doing anything of which Aptheker would not approve, the U.S., in his view, could do no right. For him, the Marshall Plan amounted to “renazification.” And of course the Vietnam War was, in his eyes, a pure act of imperialist aggression. In 1966 he and Tom Hayden – the California radical who was then Jane Fonda’s husband – made “solidarity” trips to Hanoi and Beijing.

Eldridge Cleaver

In 1966, while remaining a CPUSA stalwart, Aptheker ran for Congress as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, whose candidate for president of the U.S., two years later, was Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader and convicted rapist who would later become involved in a shootout with Oakland police and flee the country to escape a murder rap.

Eugene Genovese

Under the pro-Marxist dispensation on post-Vietnam American campuses, Aptheker’s academic career thrived: he taught at Bryn Mawr, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, at CUNY, at Yale, at Berkeley, and at Humboldt University in Berlin. Yet he should never have been considered a serious historian: he consistently twisted or suppressed or invented facts to suit his ideological purposes. (Recall that a habit of focusing on the worst of America, including its history of slavery, was a key CPUSA activity.) Klehr acknowledges that “Aptheker deserves credit as a pioneer in the field of African-American studies,” but notes that “his work later came under sustained attack by far more accomplished historians who argued that he had overemphasized the significance of slave revolts and misjudged the militancy of most slaves. Even his fellow Marxist, Eugene Genovese, who praised Aptheker and sought to integrate him into the historical profession, offered a devastating critique of his thesis.”

Bettina Aptheker

Aptheker did not quit the CPUSA until after the Soviet Union had fallen, leaving him without a lodestar. To be sure, once the USSR was dead, and exposed to the world as, indeed, an Evil Empire, he felt obliged to cough up a few public recriminations, admitting, for example, that the CPUSA (contrary to his decades-long claims) had always been controlled and funded by the Kremlin. “In short,” wrote Klehr, “he confirmed much of what the ‘right-wing reactionaries’ had said about the CPUSA and the Soviet Union for decades.”

There was more. After his death, in 2003, it emerged that this man who had spent most of his life celebrating a monstrous tyranny had himself, in his private life, been a monster: his daughter, Bettina, in a memoir, revealed that he had sexually abused her from the time she was a three-year-old toddler until she was thirteen years old.

Evil takes a variety of forms.

Just what New York needed – another socialist!

She’s accused Israel of committing massacres of Palestinians. She’s called for the abolition of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), charging that it’s on its way to becoming a “paramilitary” organization. She’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and a former organizer of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run.

The candidate and her supporters at the moment of victory

Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she’s 28 years old, and on June 26, in America’s biggest electoral upset since the 2016 presidential election itself, she won the Democratic primary in the race for New York State’s 14th Congressional district, defeating ten-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, who is head of the House Democratic Caucus, who had not faced a primary challenge since 2004, who was widely expected to replace Nancy Pelosi next year as Minority Leader, and whose seat pretty much everybody thought was safe. Since the district is heavily Democratic, it’s expected that she will sail to victory in the general election in November, becoming the youngest woman ever to sit in Congress.

Nixon’s the one!

Calling her victory “stunning” – she won by 15 points, after having been 36 points behind in the polls only three weeks earlier – the editors of New York Post suggested that it might signal that “the Democratic Party in New York is moving hard left.” The editors noted that Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City actress who is mounting a radical-left primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, has supported Ocasio-Cortez and “plans to use every opportunity to link their campaigns in the public eye.”

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

As for Ocasio-Cortez herself, she instantly became, in the words of John Cassidy in The New Yorker, “a national political sensation.” Never mind her radical views. Never mind that she’s in bed with the far-left group Move On and the deep-pink Working Families Party (which in turn is cozy with the Communist Party USA) and that she wants to impeach Trump. Never mind that during the campaign she sold herself as a working-class girl from the Bronx when, in fact, although born in that borough, she is the daughter of an architect and actually grew up, from age five onward, in the affluent Westchester community of Yorktown Heights.

Joe Crowley

No, in today’s mainstream American culture, far-left – and even borderline Communist – views have become normalized, while opinions (such as a belief in strong borders) that only a decade or two ago were taken for granted as reasonable on both sides of the aisle are now widely smeared as inhuman.

So it was that two days after her victory Ocasio-Cortez turned up on Stephen Colbert’s show, where the host – who, of course, makes a career of mocking everything the President says and does – slathered her with praise. Even before Colbert explained that she identifies as a “Democratic Socialist,” the audience responded to her account of her victory with several bouts of fervent, mindless applause, it appearently being enough for them, in these days when identity labels trump all else, that she was young, female, and Latina. (And pretty.)

But then, as noted, Colbert mentioned the “Democratic Socialist” label, and asked her what those words mean to her. She proceeded to answer the question with a Sanders-like laundry list of free stuff that everybody should get from the government, and with each new item, the audience rewarded her with yet another round of eager applause and cheers. Colbert told her that her list was a worthy one, and then proceeded to wax sarcastic – not about Ocasio-Cortez herself, heaven forbid, but about – who else? – President Trump, whose tweet about Crowley’s loss he read aloud. Trump’s take was that Crowley should have “been more respectful to his president.” Do you, Colbert asked Ocasio-Cortez, plan to be respectful to Trump? Her reply: “I don’t think he knows how to deal with a girl from the Bronx.” Lusty cheers all around. Welcome to 2018 America, where an ever-growing percentage of the population thinks socialism is just plain peachy keen.

The Communist Party isn’t radical enough for Johnny E. Williams

During the last two days we’ve been looking at sociology professor Johnny EricTrin Williams, who, in June, over two decades after earning his Ph.D., finally did something to attract notice beyond the Hartford, Connecticut, campus of Trinity College, where he teaches: he wrote a couple of tweets in which he basically called for race war.

Johnny Eric Willams

One thing that’s interesting about working on this website is how you keep running into the same people. Googling away for clues to Williams’s past, we found very little – let’s just say he’s not exactly ambitious or prolific – but one thing we did run across was a document that linked Williams to a couple of our old pals on this site, namely world-class race hustler Cornel West, who is currently on the Harvard faculty, and Bob Avakian, head of the Communist Party USA. The document was a statement by an organization calling itself “Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia, of course, is a former Black Panther and cop-killer who was sentenced to death in 1982, whereupon bien pensant types around the world rallied to his support, presenting his conviction as a symbol of American injustice and racism and campaigning to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. That effort eventually bore fruit in 2001; Mumia is now serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison.

Bob Avakian

But on to the statement by the “Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal,” or EMAJ for short. The statement was critical of a November 15, 2014, event at New York’s Riverside Church, where Avakian and West discussed “Revolution and Religion: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion.” EMAJ, which noted that it had “supported the event beforehand,” was nonetheless unhappy with the discussion because of its “singular focus on one predominating voice, of its disrespect for black radical leadership and all leaders of color, and of its failure to uphold the radical democratic values needed in revolutionary movements.”

Cornel West

In other words, West and Avakian, the latter of whom, at least, is an advocate of violent, murderous totalitarian revolution in the United States, were not radical enough for the members of EMAJ. The EMAJ statement went on to quote an essay by Mumia and Angela Davis, who, as we’ve seen on this site, was an accessory to murder. The essay envisioned “a socialist future” that would involve “the abolition of institutions that advance the dominance of any one group over any other”; in writing their essay, they drew on “Black, indigenous and other traditions.”

Avakian and West at the Riverside event

This, complained the EMAJ, was something that West and Avakian, but mainly Avakian, had failed to do at the Riverside event. In the view of EMAJ, Avakian, who is white, had taken up too much time, which “was disrespectful of Dr. West,” who is black. To EMAJ, this amounted to “an implicit racism” and a sense of “white privilege and white supremacy.” EMAJ condemned “what we witnessed at Riverside: one white revolutionary lecturing for more than two hours while a Black revolutionary sat on the stage. This is not what revolution looks like in the U.S.”

The EMAJ statement was signed by fifteen individuals, most of whose listed affiliations with academic institutions – among them Evergreen State College, Columbia University, and Union and Princeton theological seminaries. Williams was one of them. This, then, is the kind of nonsense in which he has been involved in recent years when he might have been engaged in serious sociological research.

Matthew Hughey

Oh, well. The good news is that on June 26, the president of Trinity College put Williams on a leave of absence for his racist Facebook and Twitter posts. The bad news: the American Association of University Professors criticized Trinity for violating Williams’s “academic freedom” we suspect he’ll be back soon enough. Colleagues, too, rallied around Williams. From Inside HigherEd: “Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and friend of Williams’s, said he ‘was merely the latest target of a campaign by the right-wing white supremacist outrage machine with the goal of silencing academics’ working to eliminate oppression.” (We’ve previously discussed Hughey on this site, by the way.) Our guess: Williams will be back in the classroom soon enough, likely doubling down on his hatred and infecting heaven knows how many students with it.

The Gray Lady – or the Lady in Red?

The headline could hardly have been more repulsive: “When Communism Inspired Americans.” It appeared in the New York Times on April 29. The article, by Vivian Gornick, was an unashamed exercise in nostalgia for the good old days of American Stalinism.

Vivian Gornick

The piece was reprehensible, but it should not have been surprising. After all, the Times, which is often referred to as the Gray Lady, has often, over the decades, seemed to deserve, rather, the nickname “The Lady in Red.” Recall, for example, that it was the home base of none other than Stalin-era Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, this website’s own mascot, who, as we wrote in our mission statement, “did more than any of his contemporaries to spread Soviet propaganda under the guise of news – and to discredit colleagues who dared to tell the truth about the brutality of Stalin’s regime.”

Walter Duranty

Duranty, as we pointed out, “defended the Gulag (in which millions died), the forced collectivization of peasants (ditto), and the 1938 show trials (used by Stalin to wipe out potential opponents). He also vigorously denied the reality of the Holmodor, the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, which was deliberately engineered by Stalin and which also resulted in millions of deaths.” Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a Moscow correspondent at the same time, later maintained that the Times had published Duranty’s pro-Stalin propaganda even though it was “so evidently nonsensically untrue” not “because the Times was deceived” but because “it wanted to be so deceived.”

And Duranty was just the beginning. As Frances Martel noted at Breitbart, Duranty’s “style of fabrication” about Communism “continued well into the 1960s when writer Herbert Matthews leveraged his newspaper’s influence to promote the Cuban Revolution.” Throughout Castro’s reign, Martel observed, the Times “regaled Castro – who sent thousands, including Christians, LGBT Cubans, writers, and dissidents generally, to labor camps and killed thousands of others using firing squads – as a ‘victorious guerrilla commander in 1959’ and lauded the alleged ‘medical advances’ and ‘racial equality’ of communist Cuba in November when the Cuban government claimed Castro had finally died.”

Josef Stalin

The Times‘s publication of Gornick’s April 29 piece reminds us that the paper hasn’t changed its stripes. Nor has Gornick. The author of a 1978 book called The Romance of Communism, what she offered in her Times piece, all these decades later, was basically a thumbnail version of that book. She didn’t exactly defend or deny any of Stalin’s atrocities – she just swept them under the rug. Or, rather, she acted as if she and her family and their intimate circle of Communist Party members in New York had been totally unaware of all these well-publicized crimes against humanity until Khrushchev gave his so-called “secret speech” in February 1956. Yet despite those crimes, she sought, just as in her 1978 book, to depict mid-century American Communists not as totalitarians or world-class dupes but as moral exemplars – indeed, as the very noblest of souls.

Communism is every bit as vile an ideology as Nazism. Stalin took more even lives than Hitler. But while no self-respecting American newspaper would publish an old Nazi’s affectionate memoir of the Third Reich, the Times has always treated Communism differently. If Gornick’s piece wasn’t a good enough reminder of the Times‘s double standards on the Berlin and Moscow versions of totalitarianism, the newspaper actually published yet another such piece only a couple of weeks later. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

A thumbs-up for Communism in California

Josef Stalin

It may seem like a minor matter – an attempt to repeal an old state law in California barring members of the Communist Party from holding a government position. Indeed, the law itself, which dates back to the early days of the Cold War, may seem unfair and antiquated. Why should political association cause anyone to be denied a state job?

The issue is debatable. But one thing that isn’t debatable is that membership in the Communist Party is treated in mainstream America today far differently than membership in the Nazi Party. You may feel obliged in principle to defend the rights of a Nazi to be a Nazi, but you would not find any pleasure in it. A Communist, on the other hand….

Rob Bonta

The measure to repeal the anti-Communist law was introduced by Rob Bonta, a Democrat who represents Oakland in the California Assembly. Bonta described the old law as “archaic.” At least a couple of members of the Assembly opposed Bonta’s bill. Travis Allen, a Republican who represents Westminster, a suburb of Los Angeles, noted that many of his constituents are Vietnamese-Americans who escaped to the U.S. from Communism. “This bill is blatantly offensive to all Californians,” said Allen. “Communism stands for everything that the United States stands against.”

Travis Allen

In addition to lifting the ban on employing Communists, Bonta’s measure would remove language from California law that identifies Communism as “a world-wide revolutionary movement to establish a totalitarian dictatorship based upon force and violence rather than upon law”; that describes it as having inspired the establishment of “totalitarian dictatorships” around the world that have been characterized by “treachery, deceit, teaching of false doctrines, teaching untruth”; that refers to the existence within the U.S. of “active disciplined communist organizations presently functioning for the primary purpose of advancing the objectives of the world communism movement”; and that notes this movement’s determination “to place its members in state and local government positions and in state supported educational institutions” where they can disseminate Communist dogma.

Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party

There is, of course, nothing “archaic” about any of this. On this site, we have frequently examined groups such as the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose ideology is straight out of Marx and Lenin, whose rhetoric is fanatical, and whose leaders have made clear that, if they attained political power, the heads would start to roll. No, the reality of revolutionary Communism in the U.S. is not “archaic.” To people like Assemblyman Bonta, however, criticizing Communism and placing it on a par with Nazism is what’s “archaic.”

The measure, AB22, passed the Assembly on May 8. It’s now in the hands of a committee of the state Senate.

Pete Seeger, Stalinist toady

Pete Seeger

Born in 1919, the folk singer Pete Seeger was son of two high-profile figures in classical music – his father a composer and musicologist, his mother a violinist and teacher at Juilliard – and his siblings, like Pete himself, went on to be successful (one of them was a radio astronomer, the other a teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School). Seeger became a radical early on, apparently under the influence of his father: at age 17, he joined the Young Communist League; six years later, he joined the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie

In the 1940s, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie and a number of other well-known folk singers. He also helped found a folk group called The Almanacs that was ideology under the Kremlin thumb. Songs for John Doe, an Almanacs album on which Seeger played and sang, faithfully reflected the anti-FDR and anti-war (and, indeed, Hitler-friendly) Soviet line of the period following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. When, shortly thereafter, Hitler violated the pact by invading the USSR, Moscow instantly reversed its position and ordered its American lackeys to do the same.

Accordingly, Seeger and his pals removed Songs for John Doe from the market and destroyed all the copies they could get their hands on. They then put out an album entitled Dear Mr. President, which was essentially a love letter to FDR and an enthusiastic call for all-out war to defeat the Nazis. It was right out of Orwell: we have always been allies with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia. Such was the mentality to which Seeger subscribed – this man long celebrated as a hero of the people, of liberty, and of free expression.

Henry A. Wallace

Yes, Seeger & co. expressed some admirable sentiments: they sang about racism and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the time it was an integral part of the Moscow line to emphasize America’s unequal treatment of blacks and Jews. If the Kremlin had suddenly, for whatever reason, ordered American Communists to reverse their line on racism and anti-Semitism, what would Seeger have done? Given his immediate, unquestioning turnaround on FDR, it’s a fair question.

When the U.S. entered the war, Seeger joined the U.S. Army and spent the duration entertaining troops in the Pacific. In the 1948 election he supported third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who was famously soft on Communism (if not, in fact, an all-out closet Communist). It was Wallace who said in a 1946 speech that the U.S. had no more in common with Britain than with the Soviet Union and whose refusal to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party USA alienated even Norman Thomas, the country’s most prominent socialist. But his views didn’t alienate Seeger.

More Hollywood Commies

Lester Cole

Today, three more members of the Hollywood Ten.

Lester Cole, born Cohn, was the son of a Marxist garment-union organizer in New York. After gaining some success as a Broadway playwright, he was summoned to Hollywood in 1932. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he churned out dozens of scripts, including Charlie Chan mysteries and B-movie thrillers, first for Paramount and later for MGM.

When he wasn’t writing motion pictures, he was playing a major role in Hollywood politics.With John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz, both of whom would also be members of the Hollywood Ten (and whom we looked at yesterday), he co-founded the first Tinseltown union, the Screen Writers Guild. Over the years, he would expend a lot of energy seeking to heighten the Guild’s political profile, urging its members, as Allan Ryskind puts it in Hollywood Traitors, “to back Soviet foreign policy, support domestic Red causes, promote Communist penetration of unions, hire radical lawyers, subsidize left-wing groups, and engage in massive protests to stir up strife rather than to resolve labor problems.”

In 1934, Cole joined the Communist Party, which he would never leave. He was also a leader of the Civil Rights Congress and a member of the executive board of the League of American Writers – both of them Soviet front groups. In 1945, when the CSU – a Soviet-backed Hollywood workers union that was engaged in a struggle with the IA, an anti-Communist union – went on strike against the Warner Brothers studio, a range of Soviet front groups supported the CSU, as did the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. Cole, for his part, met with the board of the Screen Writers Guild, urging that it condemn Warners and that it warn that striking workers would not return to work at the studio until a satisfactory settlement had been reached. Then came the Blacklist, after which Cole spent some years in the cold; eventually he wrote the successful 1966 film Born Free, and later taught film writing in San Francisco.

Edward Dmytryk

On to Edward Dmytryk, the Canadian-born son of working-class Ukrainian immigrants who moved to Los Angeles when he was young. He began his Hollywood career in his teens, as a studio messenger boy; by age 31 he was a full-fledged film director. He went on to make some of the great films noirs of the Forties. In 1944, the same year that RKO released Murder, My Sweet, a thriller based on a Raymond Chandler novel, Dmytryk joined the Communist Party. Yet he was never as much of a fanatic as some of the other Hollywood Ten. For instance, he removed pro-Communist agitprop from his 1945 movie Cornered, arguing that the screenwriter, John Wexley, had written “long speeches, propaganda” that “went to extremes in following the party line on the nose.” Dmytryk knew that such dialogue simply didn’t work on any level – it ruined the effectiveness of the drama and it didn’t convince anybody of anything – but as a result of his action he was subjected to vicious criticism at several Communist meetings. Leading the charge against him was Lawson, who would soon be a fellow member of the Hollywood Ten; siding with Dmytryk was Albert Maltz, who, as we’ve seen, had had his own run-ins with Party purists.

Robert Adrian Scott

As a result of the conflict over the script of Cornered, Dmytryk began (as he put it) to “drift away” from Communism. Then came the House Un-American Activities Committee, and jail. While behind bars, he came to feel that he’d been used by his Party comrades, and in 1950 officially broke with Communism – the only member of the Hollywood Ten ever to do so. The next year he again appeared before HUAC, this time providing the names of no fewer than 26 fellow Party members. His career restored to him, Dmytryk went on to write and direct a number of major films, including The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Robert Adrian Scott (1911–1972), perhaps the least-known of the Hollywood Ten, can be mentioned here as a sort of footnote to Dmytryk: a middle-class kid from New Jersey, his main accomplishment in Hollywood was producing several films (including Murder My Sweet and Crossfire) directed by Dmytryk, who told HUAC that Scott had pressured him to put Communist propaganda in his movies. After the Blacklist, he worked in TV, dying in 1973.  

Three rich boys turned Hollywood Stalinists

Ring Lardner, Jr.

Some of the Hollywood Ten were from humble backgrounds. Not Ring Lardner Jr. (1915–2000), who, himself the son of a famous writer, went to Andover and Princeton. He was also an earlier convert to socialism than several of his fellow traitors. At Princeton he was active in both the Socialist Club and the Anglo-American Institute of the University of Moscow, a Kremlin propaganda organization based both in the U.S. and the U.K. By 1937, he had become a writer in Hollywood and a member of Communist Party. Soon he was also active in various Soviet front groups, among them the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization Against the War. In 1943 he won an Oscar for co-writing the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn hit Woman of the Year. Four years later, 20th Century Fox made him one of Hollywood’s best-paid writers – and HUAC called him to testify. A prison term ensued. His long post-Blacklist rehabilitation climaxed with a 1970 Oscar for writing the film M*A*S*H.

John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson (1894–1977), too, came from New York money. After Williams College, he drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I. Later he simultaneous wrote agitprop Broadway plays and Hollywood scripts. Although not as important a screenwriter as some of the other Hollywood Ten members (his major efforts included the Charles Boyer vehicle Algiers, a Bogart drama called Sahara, and a Susan Hayward weepie, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman), he was the central figure in the group, co-founding the Screen Writers Guild, serving as its first president, and acting, according to one source, as “the Communist Party’s de facto cultural commissar in Hollywood, particularly as it affected writers.” Among his duties was the enforcement of Party ideology and discipline among his sometimes recalcitrant fellow scribes. After his appearance before HUAC, he decamped to Mexico, wrote scripts under pseudonyms, and ended up as a university lecturer.  

Samuel Ornitz

Samuel Ornitz (1890–1957) was also the scion of a wealthy New York family. He was an active socialist by age 12, giving speeches on street corners. Working briefly as a social worker, he soon became a successful Manhattan playwright and novelist. He went to Hollywood in 1928, where he spent the next two decades writing mediocre pictures for RKO and Republic (perhaps the most prominent item on his CV is a shared four-way writing credit on a John Wayne flick, Three Faces West) and telling everyone who would listen just how wonderful Stalin was. The Hollywood Reporter claims that he was “one of the most outspoken political figures in Hollywood”; another source says that his “doctrinaire, party-line communism alienated many of his liberal colleagues and friends, such as his dogged insistence that there was no anti-Semitism in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.” After his encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee, he quit scriptwriting and resumed writing novels, including a now-forgotten 1951 bestseller, Bride of the Sabbath. 

So there we have it: three men, born with silver spoons in their mouths, who enjoyed their richesse even as they embraced an ideology dedicated to the coldblooded murder of people with bank accounts just like theirs. 

We’ll finish up with this crew tomorrow.

The Red Mitford

mitford-family
The Mitford family

In the last couple of days, we’ve examined the lives of Unity and Diana Mosley, the celebrated British sisters who became friends and fans of Adolf Hitler. Today we’ll look at their sister Jessica (1917-96), whose love of totalitarianism, unlike theirs, had a crimson tinge. In 1937, Jessica – known to intimates as “Decca” or “Dec” – eloped to Spain with her “wastrel” cousin Esmond Romilly, who had decided to join the International Brigade and fight for the Soviet-supported Republican side. Two years later Jessica and Esmond moved to America, indifferent to the looming war until Germany invaded their beloved Soviet Union, an act that inspired Romilly to join the Canadian Air Force. He was killed in action in 1941, after which Jessica found a government job in Washington and married her second husband, a “’Red’ labor lawyer” (to quote Christopher Hitchens) named Robert Treuhaft.

treuhaft5
Jessica with her second husband, Robert Treuhaft

Like Jessica, Treuhaft was a Communist. She became a U.S. citizen not because she loved America but so that she could join the Party and work towards America’s destruction. She and Treuhaft moved to Oakland, California, where they took part regularly in Party activities. They remained active CPUSA members for fifteen years, staying within the fold even after 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev spelled out the horrific crimes against humanity that his predecessor, Josef Stalin, had committed in the name of the Revolution. Jessica (who defended the brutal Soviet incursion into Hungary as a means of preserving the “socialist system” against a “fascist coup”) had two children, but later admitted to a friend that she was so “preoccupied with CP politics when they were growing up” that “while I was v. fond of them, I didn’t pay too much attention to them when they were little.” 

stalin1
Josef Stalin

When she left the Party in 1958, it wasn’t because she’d recognized its ideology as evil, but because she felt it had become “rather drab and useless.” Her issue with the Party, then, wasn’t philosophical or moral, but aethetic and practical. (Perhaps the real problem was that Stalin had died in 1953, and, after giving Khrushchev a few years, she finally decided that he just didn’t provide her with the same delicious frisson.) Though she would later say that she could scarcely imagine “living in America in those days and not being a Party member,” she was far happier in America than she’d been in England, which she considered unbearably bleak. (One can only imagine how bleak she might’ve found the Soviet Union, if she’d been forced to actually live there under the system she served.)

jessica
Jessica Mitford in her later years

Her grisly 1963 exposé of stateside funerary practices, The American Way of Death, made Jessica even more famous in America than she’d been as a glittering young thing back in Blighty. She went on to write many other well-received books. When the USSR collapsed, she expressed neither joy nor regret. As with her Nazi sisters Unity and Diana, her politics didn’t keep her from making famous friends – including, in her case, Maya Angelou (herself a longtime fellow traveler) and Washington Post publishers Philip and Katherine Graham.

Nor have her politics kept writers and journalists from treating her with more respect and admiration than some might think she deserves. We’ll conclude this survey of the Mitfords tomorrow with a brief look at this very subject – namely, the tendency of some biographers, memoirists, reviewers, and sundry scribblers to treat the Mitfords’ love of totalitarianism less as a moral outrage than as a curious personality quirk.  

One woman’s conscience

She’s been called “the most famous American female playwright of the 20th century” and “the first woman to be admitted into the previously all-male club of American ‘dramatic literature.’” She was also a diehard Stalinist.

hellman12
Lillian Hellman

Born in New Orleans in 1905 and raised there and in New York, Lillian Hellman attended Columbia and NYU, then worked briefly at a Manhattan publishing house before marrying a young PR guy and heading out to Hollywood with him. Finding a job as a reader at MGM, she lost no time in organizing her colleagues into a union. When she met the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, a fellow Stalinist, she left her husband for him. It was Hammett who urged her to start writing plays, and who helped her to write them.

During the 1930s and 40s she wrote a series of plays, among them The Little Foxes (1939) and Watch on the Rhine (1941). At the time most of them were Broadway hits – and several of them were made into successful movies – but their mixture of over-the-top family melodrama and heavyhanded political moralizing hasn’t worn well. They were masterpieces, however, alongside The North Star (1943), a crude piece of work that is described on its Wikipedia page as “an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film.” 

Meanwhile Hellman was an active member of the Communist Party. As The Economist has noted, “she joined the party after the worst of Moscow’s purges and show trials.” She later claimed not to have been aware of the trials, in which political rivals of Stalin were falsely convicted of treason (most of them were ultimately executed); but in fact she signed two statements, published in the Party newspaper The Daily Worker in 1937 and 1938, that defended the second and third Moscow show trials as having been entirely fair.

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Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film version of Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour

Indeed, her defense of Stalin’s reign was absolute and unwavering: she called Stalinist Russia “the ideal democratic state”; visiting Moscow in 1944, according to The Spectator, she “seems wilfully to have ignored evidence that artists and writers were being killed off. Years later she stood by the Russian government’s cover stories and even made up some of her own. She was given rare access to the front lines when the Russian army was camped outside Warsaw, and never described what she saw there.”

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Paul Johnson

As historian Paul Johnson puts it in his 1988 book Intellectuals, “she did everything in her power, quite apart from her plays and scripts, to assist the CP’s penetration of American intellectul life and to forward the aims of Soviet policy.” She was active in CP front groups, attended at least one CP national conventional, helped fund a “pro-CP propaganda film,” berated a New York Times correspondent who refused to toe the Moscow line about Spain, and supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, saying, “I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” (In fact, Hellman almost certainly never went to Finland.) After Stalin died and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave his famous speech condemning Stalin’s brutality, Hellman actually upbraided Khrushchev for his disloyalty.

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Bette Davis in the 1941 film version of Hellman’s play The Little Foxes

Called in 1952 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she published a letter in the New York Times saying she was willing to discuss her own political views and activities but refusing to turn in other Stalinists.I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she famously wrote. Other high-profile American Communists had taken the Fifth, too, and become anathematized; by spinning her own silence in this way, Hellman managed to turn herself into an international symbol of conscience.

unfinishedwomanShe liked that. And in later years, when the victims of the Hollywood blacklist became heroes, Hellman wrote a series of memoirs – An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976) – from which she emerged as the most toweringly courageous of them all, a stirring moral heroine who, it turned out, had not only written anti-fascist plays but also put her life on the line in the life-or-death struggle against Hitler. Even if you deplored her Stalinism, you had to admire her valor. John Hersey, reviewing Scoundrel Time in the New Republic, called her “a moral force, almost an institution of conscience.”

There was only one little problem: virtually everything of consequence that she wrote in her memoirs was a lie.

More tomorrow.