Alvin Bessie, Stalinist soldier

Dalton Trumbo and wife

We’re talking this week about the Hollywood Ten – a group of Hollywood scriptwriters who enjoyed ample rewards for their talents in capitalist America even as they espoused a political system under which the very jobs they thrived at didn’t exist and in which their own stubborn contrarianism would likely have landed them in front of a firing squad. We’ve already devoted a good deal of attention to the most famous of the Ten – Dalton Trumbo, the colorful hero of a 2015 movie starring Bryan Cranston. But the other members of the group, all of whom refused either to answer questions about their political history or, in the phrase of the day, to “name names,” are no less interesting in their own right.

Alvah Bessie

Take Alvah Bessie (1904-85). The son of a successful New York businessman, he attended Columbia University, spent four years as a member of Eugene O’Neill’s acting troupe, the Provincetown Players, then, in 1928, went to Paris to become an expatriate writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Returning to the U.S. the next year, he contributed stories and essays to most of the best American magazines of the day.

He did something else, too. He began moving in Communist circles, and in 1936 joined the Party. Two years later, like many other American Communists, he went off to Spain to fight against Franco and for the Republic. At the time, much of the left-wing media in the U.S. and elsewhere presented the struggle as a straightforward clash between fascism and freedom, but as George Orwell famously recorded in his classic Homage to Catalonia, the Republican side was strongly under Kremlin influence and was subjected to a great deal of pressure to toe the Stalinist line and to crush any hint of non-Communist dissent. In Orwell’s view, indeed, the Soviets in Spain oversaw a “reign of terror.”

George Orwell

Like Orwell, Bessie wrote his own account of the Spanish Civil War. His book, entitled Men in Battle, was published in 1939. In it, as the title suggests, he recounts everyday life at the front, in the heat of warfare. Unlike Orwell, however, he doesn’t complain about the Soviets. He was, as they say, a “good soldier.” He belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was one of the International Brigades that, as Allan H. Ryskind records in his 2015 history Hollywood Traitors, were “a Stalinist creation.” Just to make sure there’s no doubt about the matter, Ryskind spells it out: Bessie “was fighting for the Stalinist wing in the civil war.”

It was during World War II – specifically, in 1943 – that Bessie began writing movies for Warner Brothers, notably Objective, Burma! , for which he received an Oscar nomination. As a big Hollywood name he had access to people at the top of the American Communist Party, including its president, Earl Browder. Ryskind reports a conversation that suggests that Bessie was even a more hard-line Communist than the head of the Party himself. Browder’s – and the Party’s – official position was that the U.S. should undergo a peaceful transition from capitalism to Communism. Bessie rejected this notion: he believed in nothing less than a violent overthrow of the U.S. system.

Albert Maltz

If Bessie was more of a Communist than Browder, he was also more of a Communist than at least one of his fellow Hollywood Ten members, Albert Maltz (1908-85). In 1946, Maltz, a veteran of  the New York theater, a Communist since 1935, and an Oscar nominee for Pride of the Marines (1945), published an article in the Party’s weekly New Masses complaining that the Party was too strict in policing writers, expecting them to cleave strictly to the party line and produce crude propaganda. Among those who savaged Maltz for his dissent was Bessie, who at a Party meeting, according to one witness, “denounced” his fellow screenwriter “with bitter vituperation and venom.” After HUAC and prison, Maltz moved to Mexico, where he resumed writing films, including the Cinemascope spectacle The Robe (1953).

As for Bessie, he didn’t last long at Warners. Two years after going to work for the studio, he was fired. The anodyne account of his career in the Hollywood Reporter says that he was dismissed for supporting striking studio workers – which, of course, makes Bessie sound virtuous and the studio bosses pretty rotten. In fact, there was a struggle underway at the time between two unions, one Kremlin-controlled and one anti-Communist, that sought to represent Hollywood workers, and Bessie was squarely on the side of the Stalinists. Called before HUAC in 1950 and subsequently imprisoned and blacklisted, he quit the Party in the 1950s and wrote about his Blacklist experience in a 1957 novel, The Un-Americans, and a 1965 memoir, Inquisition in Eden.

“Pitcairn’s” propaganda

Yesterday we began looking at the late Claud Cockburn, a paid Stalinist hack whose lies about the Spanish Civil War moved George Orwell to write Homage to Catalonia, a forthright, meticulously observed account of that war – and of the bloody war-within-a-war that the Cockburn and his fellow Kremlin functionaries waged against their supposed Republican allies.

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Claud Cockburn

In his book, Orwell catalogued the systematic “discrepancies” and “fabrications” that ran “all through the accounts in the Communist press” of events in the Spanish war. Citing a report, for example, in which “Pitcairn” (Cockburn’s pen name) described the POUM as possessing much more in the way of weaponry than it really had, Orwell stated that: 

…these tales about tanks, field-guns, and so forth have only been invented because otherwise it is difficult to reconcile the scale of the Barcelona fighting with the P.O.U.M.’s small numbers. It was necessary to claim that the P.O.U.M. was wholly responsible for the fighting; it was also necessary to claim that it was an insignificant party with no following…The only hope of making both statements credible was to pretend that the P.O.U.M. had all the weapons of a modern mechanized army.

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George Orwell

All in all, Orwell pronounced it “impossible to read through the reports” about the Spanish Civil War that appeared in the Communist press “without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice.” Thus Cockburn’s statement that the Trotskyites fighting on the Republican side had been suppressed by the Popular Army (that is, the Spanish Republican Army, the main Republican faction):

The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the “Trotskyists.” But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. Or again, the juggling in the Communist Press with the figures for killed and wounded, with the object of exaggerating the scale of the disorders.

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Hendrik Hertzberg

This, then, was Claud Cockburn – a bought-and-paid-for propagandist for Josef Stalin. A Kremlin mouthpiece who, like America’s own Walter Duranty, disguised himself as an objective reporter.

And yet, as we’ve said, Cockburn enjoyed immense respectability among the media establishment on both sides of the pond. Remembering him four years ago, the New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg managed to make Claud’s appalling politics sound like merely one of several equally important, and equally colorful, personal attributes. Claud, wrote Hertzberg,

was a wit, a Communist, and a talented journalist — quite a combination. [Imagine writing, with obvious admiration, that someone “was a wit, a Nazi, and a talented journalist — quite a combination.”] Claud was versatile enough to report for both the Times (of London) and the Daily Worker (also of London). [Imagine writing, again with obvious admiration, that someone “was versatile enough to report for both the Times and Der Stürmer.”] In the nineteen-thirties, he started a scabrous, funny, influential, and badly printed paper called The Week, edited by him and discreetly financed by the Comintern. [Imagine…oh, never mind, you get the idea.] The Kremlin, alas, got its money’s worth; but on matters to which Moscow was indifferent (or which happened to serve its interests), The Week broke news that was true and important.

Note that “discreetly”; note that “alas.” The overall effect is to make propagandizing for (and accepting money from) Stalin look not like a reprehensible activity but like a sign of, as Hertzberg puts it, admirable professional versatility.