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.

Harry Belafonte, “unreconstructed Stalinist”

harry-belafonte1Harry Belafonte, now aged 88, is one of those maddening souls for whom the noble cause of civil rights is inextricable from its ignoble opposite – the enthusiasm for unfree societies and totalitarian ideologies.

Belafonte was a protégé of the great singer Paul Robeson – who, similarly, saw no contradiction between his activism on behalf of racial equality in the U.S. and his devotion to Stalinist tyranny in the USSR.

For a long time Belafonte seemed to many a reasonable, admirable figure. He was active in the U.S. civil-rights movement and spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington. But as the years went by, he became increasingly outspoken in his support for tyrants. During the Cold War, he allowed himself to be used as a tool by the East German government. He’s also been a key player in the Africa-aid racket, raising billions in the West – supposedly to feed the poor – that have ended up in the pockets of dictators.

Historian Ronald Radosh has rightly called Belafonte an “unreconstructed Stalinist.” Last year Mona Charen called him “a die-hard communist” who “never met a communist government he didn’t like, including the genocidal regime of Mengistu in Ethiopia.” Indeed, when Belafonte had a twenty-minute conversation with Mengistu in 1985, they talked mostly about human-rights violations in South Africa – which, horrendous though they were, could not hold a candle to Mengistu’s atrocities. 

Left to right: Fidel Castro with Harry Belafonte
Belafonte with Fidel Castro

He’s also frequently praised the Castro regime, saying in one 2002 interview that “there’s much about the Cuban government, the Cuban people and what they have achieved that many of us here are still trying to achieve.” At one Havana appearance, he condemned American “censorship.” And he’s raised money for a fund, named for the Soviet atom spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, that claims to provide “for the educational and emotional needs of children of targeted progressive activists, and youth who are targeted activists themselves.” Addressing a 2000 rally in Cuba honoring the Rosenbergs, he praised the Castro regime as exemplary of “the principles the Rosenbergs fought and died for.”

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Belafonte with Hugo Chávez

He loves the current Venezuelan government, too. During a 2006 visit to Venezuela, he called George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” and told Hugo Chávez on a national broadcast that “[n]ot hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution.”

Not long after President Obama’s re-election, Belafonte told Al Sharpton on MSNBC that Obama should behave “like a Third World dictator” and put his opponents “in jail.” All this, and still he’s routinely fêted as a humanitarian and social activist; indeed, the older he gets, the more honors he accumulates, and the more the media are inclined to treat him as a pillar of wisdom and virtue.