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.

Every word a lie

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Lillian Hellman

Yesterday we began looking at Lillian Hellman, the Stalinist playwright who was widely lionized for standing up in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee and who, a couple of decades later, made herself even more of a heroine with a series of extraordinarily self-regarding memoirs. The third, Scoundrel Time (1976), was, as the critic Hilton Kramer later noted, “a malicious and mendacious book” that was “written to even old scores with her anti-Stalinist ‘friends.’” In it, Hellman charged members of the anti-Stalinist left with having done too little to defend their Stalinist colleagues who’d been summoned to testify before House and Senate committees.

hellmanbkAmong those at whom she aimed her wrath was Partisan Review editor William Phillips, who had a good answer to her accusations – or, rather, several good answers. First, he wasn’t interested in standing up for Communists’ “right to lie” about being Communists. Second, he didn’t believe that Communists had “a divine right to a job in the government or in Hollywood—any more than I felt I had a right to a high-salaried job in an institution I believed to be an instrument of capitalist power and exploitation.” Third, he “could not take seriously those Communists and fellow-traveling celebrities who were playing with revolution, for it did not seem to occur to them that being for a revolution might have consequences.” Fourth, Hellman and her fellow American Stalinists had been brutal in the 1930s to the non-Stalinist liberals from whom they now, a decade or two later, expected support. (As Phillips wrote, they’d “branded us as the enemy.”)

Finally, Hellman and her fellow Stalinists were “apologists for the arrest and torture of countless dissident writers in the Soviet Union and in other Communist countries….just as she asks how we could not come to the defense of McCarthy’s victims, one could ask her how she could not come to the defense of all those who had been killed or defamed by the Communists? How could she still be silent about the persecution of writers in Russia?”

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Dick Cavett

Phillips’s riposte was only the beginning – the beginning of the end, that is, of Hellman’s reputation as a heroine of truth and justice. The next big step came on an evening in January 1980 when writer Mary McCarthy, another one of the anti-Communist liberals whom Hellman had targeted, appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and was asked which modern writers she considered overrated. She mentioned several names, among them that of Hellman, whom she calledtremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer.” When asked by Cavett to elaborate, McCarthy said that every word Hellman wrote was “a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

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Mary McCarthy

Hellman sued. People close to the matter said it was obvious she was out to ruin McCarthy, who was far less well-off than she was. Those familiar with the ways of Stalinism weren’t surprised. As one of her many biographers, Carl Rollyson, has observed, Hellman’s writing of Scoundrel Time and her lawsuit aginst McCarthy were typical of high Stalinism, which is all about “not merely punishing your enemies but trying to annihilate them as you claim the high moral ground.”

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Norman Mailer

The lawsuit dragged on for years, with the judge dismissing claims that McCarthy’s comments amounted to literary criticism protected by the First Amendment and that Hellman was a public figure and therefore a fair target. In a New York Times article, Norman Mailer tried to patch things up, like Sinatra reuniting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Meanwhile McCarthy, seeking material to support her defense, went through Hellman’s memoirs looking for lies. One person who helped her was Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who’d been Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. In one of her memoirs, as it happened, Hellman had told a story about her sojourn in Spain with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Gellhorn, who’d been there at the time, was uniquely qualified to see just how far Hellman’s account strayed from the facts. More on that tomorrow.

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.

Trumbo crosses the pond

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Bryan Cranston as Trumbo

Last week, we examined reviews of the new movie Trumbo, which purports to tell the story of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of films like Spartacus and Roman Holiday. Critic after critic, we noted, failed to challenge Trumbo‘s benign view of what it means to be a Communist.

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John Goodman in Trumbo

Perhaps the most egregrious offender was veteran showbiz scribe Rex Reed, who despite having lived through Stalinism apparently believes that Communism is somehow not incompatible with democracy. On Friday we focused on a couple of prominent reviewers who actually got it right – Godfrey Cheshire, for example, who points out that Communists like Trumbo “were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy.”

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Helen Mirren in Trumbo

As it happens, a postscript is in order. Trumbo, which opened in the U.S. on November 25, didn’t open in the U.K. and Ireland until this past Friday. And several of the notices in major publications on the British isles, gratifyingly, have proven to be far better informed than the reviews in places like Time and the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Writing in the Mirror, David Edwards mocked a scene in which Trumbo explains his politics to his young daughter by telling her “that Communism is the same thing as sharing her packed lunch with a classmate who has nothing to eat.” This scene, Edwards charged,

suggests that we, the viewers, are as naive and uncomprehending as a six year old. And in its attempt to make Trumbo a misunderstood hero, any mention of his support for Joseph Stalin and other murderous dictators is deliberately but jarringly avoided. Instead we’re given a portrait of a man of unimpeachable integrity whose biggest fault is boozing in the bathtub and ignoring his family.

Donald Clarke, in the Irish Times, makes the same point. The film, he complains, doesn’t give us “any convincing investigation of Trumbo’s politics,” instead portraying him “as as a democratic socialist in the mode of Bernie Sanders.” All this, says Clarke, reflects a “gutlessness…that suggests the mainstream is still not quite comfortable with the red meat of radical politics.”

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Diane Lane and Cranston in Trumbo

The Economist‘s anonymous critic noted that despite the film’s overblown rhetoric “about the blacklist years being ‘a time of fear’ and ‘evil,’” there’s barely a glimpse of any of this in the picture itself:

Even after being blacklisted, the hero’s main complaint is that he is in such great demand that he is too busy to celebrate his daughter’s birthday….At his lowest ebb, he pockets $12,000 for three days’ script-doctoring, most of which he does in the bath while sipping Scotch. Not much of a martyr. Then comes the farcical moment when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger bump into each other on his front porch as they beg him to work on Spartacus and Exodus. Trumbo is less an indictment of Hollywood’s cowardice than a jobbing screenwriter’s wildest fantasy.

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Goodman, Mirren, and Cranston at Trumbo premiere

Even Peter Bradshaw of the left-wing Guardian called the film on its Communist apologetics. While Bradshaw felt that Trumbo‘s story “needed to be told,” he still criticized it for failing “to challenge Trumbo’s unrepentant communism, a culpable naivety in the light of the gulags.” (Bradshaw also suggested, interestingly, that a biopic about actor Edward G. Robinson or director Elia Kazan, both of whom “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, would have been more of a challenging choice.)

The readiness of many stateside reviewers of Trumbo to buy into its whitewashing of Communism remains depressing. But it’s heartening to know that at least some film critics know better.

Trumbo: two (count ’em, two) rational voices

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Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

In all the reviews we’ve examined of Trumbo, the Bryan Cranston film that shamelessly whitewashes Stalinism and one of its loyal servants in mid-century America, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, there are only a couple that don’t seem to be utterly befogged by dangerous delusions about the nature of Stalinism. One is by Alissa Wilkinson of Christianity Today, who writes in part:

Anyone attempting to understand how a person could reasonably claim to love America and also be committed to Communist ideals will not be helped here; the movie suggests that being a Communist is basically like being a little to the left of a liberal Democrat. The explanation is as caricatured as the opposition. In fact, the principles of Communism are literally reduced to an illustration Trumbo gives his young daughter, whilst she sits astride a horse, involving sharing a sandwich with a hungry schoolmate.

The film also gives us no reasonable or rational detractors on the other side; they’re all kind of the worst, which is more ironic given Trumbo’s early pleas to his friends to not demonize people they haven’t met.

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Cranston as Trumbo, with Kirk Douglas, played by Dean O’Gorman

Well done, Ms. Wilkinson. But you’re almost too kind to Trumbo; the guy who really takes off the gloves is Godfrey Cheshire, who, writing at the Roger Ebert site, calls it “another of those simplistic, made-to-order films about the Hollywood blacklist in which the blacklisted movie folks are all innocent, in every conceivable way.” Noting that the DVD jacket copy on a recent documentary about Trumbo described the screenwriter as having been “blacklisted by the House Un-American Committee,” Cheshire points out that “HUAC never blacklisted anyone”; it was the Hollywood studios (who now, in their movies, prefer to shift the guilt to Washington, D.C.) who blacklisted writers and others. Cheshire also notes that Trumbo omits

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Cranston promoting the film

any sense of the utter contempt that Trumbo and his communist cohorts felt for liberals, who, in fact, they often regarded with more enmity than they did right-wingers. But that makes sense, of course. The communists were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy. A takeover by fascists would only hasten that result, they thought; successful liberalism could only impede it.

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Director Jay Roach promoting the film

Of all these reviewers, in short, only a couple seem to grasp that you can’t make a First Amendment hero out a man who championed a dictatorship that executed people for expressing the wrong opinions. And you can’t teach a “vital lesson in democracy” (to quote Joe Neumaier’s blinkered Time review of Trumbo) by making a hero out of a man who was one of democracy’s sworn enemies.