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.

Hellman’s charmed afterlife

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Lillian Hellman

If she had supported Hitler, she’d have had no career whatsoever once the war was over, and would have been remembered posthumously as a reprehensible aider and abetter of murderous totalitarianism. But since the murderous totalitarian favored by playwright Lillian Hellman was Josef Stalin, her death in 1984 occasioned rhapsodies throughout the major media.

And in the years that followed, the praise kept flowing. There were several biographies, a couple of which treated her poisonous politics and perpetual prevarication seriously but most of which sought to find excuses for her and even to demonize her critics. There were plays about her, and a TV movie – described by one critic as “fawning” – about her relationship with mystery writer and fellow Stalinist Dashiell Hammett.

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The TV movie, with Judy Davis as Hellman and Sam Shepard as Hammett

In 2001, the PBS series American Masters celebrated Hellman as “a woman who stood against an unjust government and was able to maintain her dignity and artistic vision.” How did PBS handle her lie-ridden memoirs? Like this (emphasis ours): “Though criticized for inaccuracies, these books were influential not only for their depiction of an exceptional and exciting artistic time, but for their tone, which many associated with the beginnings of the feminist movement.”

Not only was she a pioneering feminist, she was a serious political player: “her political involvement was integral in the fight against fascism at home and abroad.” Really?

In sum, PBS’s Lillian Hellman was “a woman who could overcome the hurdles of her time and succeed on her own terms.” Maureen Corrigan seconded the claim for Hellman as a feminist, calling her “an icon for women of my generation, coming to feminist consciousness in the 1970s,” and praising her for remaining “a bold creature of the 1920s long after Betty Boop became domesticated into June Cleaver.”

Better, apparently, to be a “bold” Stalinist than just another Fifties housewife.

pentimentoAnd so it went. Lesley McDowell, writing in The Independent in 2010, excused her lying with the argument that all writers “make myths out of people’s lives, especially their own.” In 2011, Sarah Churchwell spun Hellman’s chronic mendacity by saying that her memoirs “helped to usher in the era of postmodern autobiography that…reflects on memory, truth, authenticity and fact: instead of confident assertions of mastery over her own experience, Hellman’s autobiographies are unstable, shifting, questioning.”

In other words, to view her lies as lies is so old-fashioned; rather, we should see her as exploring “the tricks that memory and consciousness play.”

In a 2012 tribute entitled “Profile in Courage,” The Economist focused not on her Stalinism and prevarication but on her crucial function as “a role model to feminists in the 1970s” and her noble belief that “it was the duty of engaged citizens to fight racism, alleviate poverty and protect civil liberties.” Here’s how The Economist dealt with the Stalinism and lying: “She made some foolish choices [our emphasis], but Lillian Hellman was often on the right side of history.”

hellman9Balderdash. This is a woman who spent the first part of her adult life promoting one of the most bloodthirsty monsters in human history and who spent the second part of her adult life rewriting the story of the first part.

Let it never be forgotten, moreover, that the Stalinism and the deception were of a piece: elaborate misrepresentation (such as the establishment of fake “peace organizations” and the holding of fake “peace conferences”) and the systematic rewriting of history are fundamental elements of Stalinism. So is the habit of viewing one’s political opponents as enemies and of seeking not just to defeat them in elections but to bring about their utter ruin. To quote Carl Rollyson: “She presented herself as an independent woman, but what independence is there in a political position that amounts to fealty to the party of a foreign power?”

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.

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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.