By Ron Capshaw
A staple of the Old Left of the 1930s, 1940s and Cold War was to present to the world a united front, where any squabbles or doubts about each other or Stalin—especially Stalin—were kept under wraps. But the antics of one Popular Front devotee caused even the most committed to break ranks.
Howard Fast, who was born 100 years ago this month, was adept at promoting the Popular Front’s main p.r. message in America: that “Communism Is 20th Century Americanism.” A prolific novelist and television writer, he 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.
After the literary requisite of riding the rails around Depression-era America for material, Fast joined the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in 1943. This was at the height of the Red-mainstreaming effort: Under the leadership of Earl Browder, the Party was dissolved and recast as an interest group in support of the U.S. Constitution, the New Deal, and private enterprise.
Even among sympathetic biographers such as anti-anti-communist Gerald Sorin, Fast’s joining the CPUSA is presented not as an authentic expression of Marxism, but as an act of careerism. Certainly that was part of it. 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.
Several of Fast’s fictions were made into movies. He wanted to be the one to write the film adaptation of his 1951 book Spartacus. As Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh relate in Red Star Over Hollywood (1998), Kirk Douglas optioned the novel with his own money. Regarding the Fast screenplay they quote Douglas’s words: it was “a disaster, unusable. . . . It was just characters spouting ideas,” so Douglas turned to the skillful Dalton Trumbo—a communist as well, but not one to stick crude Red messages into movies—to come up with a script for the now classic 1960 film.
Fast’s writing bore the marks of dialectical materialism and also of his careerist tendencies. He said when he’d made enough money, he would leave the fiction-writing racket. His cynical attitude toward his work and Bobby-soxer mentality toward the Revolution were never more apparent than in his habit of eager compliance 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).
Not even Dashiell Hammett, surely one of the most obedient of Marxists, could stomach Fast’s work. Hammett slammed one of the historical novels for “oversimplifying to death” the themes.
In later years, after the Popular Front’s Cold War implosion, Fast would seek to rehabilitate his image. He stressed how well-intentioned his radical commitment had been, but the evidence is that he blew with the wind. Despite later excusing his attraction to the CPUSA as susceptibility to the red-white-and-blue rhetoric of Earl Browder, in real time, Browder’s 1946 sacking on orders from the Kremlin for dangerous revisionism prompted Fast to turn on him. Browder fell and, overnight, there was Fast bellowing against the sin of “Browderism” and in support of the rigid, paranoid, and defensive policies of the reinstated CPUSA chief William Z. Foster.
When Albert Maltz (discussed in my last Painting the Culture Red essay), acting in the Browderist spirit, declared in a February 1946 article that literary integrity was important even if it meant writing something politically incorrect, Fast pounced. Again he was the embodiment of orthodoxy. Those Party members who felt sorry for the way John Howard Lawson and the others brought out the heavy lumber against the rebel Maltz, recalled that Fast was one of the most vicious of Lawson’s minions. To establish his Stalinist bonafides, he attacked Maltz as favoring the “personal degradation” of Party writers.
Even when he went to prison for refusing to name names before Congress, he 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.”
Fast was equally loud when Khrushchev made his 1956 “Secret Speech,” in which the Soviet premier declared that Stalin did indeed rig the Moscow Trials to kill off his opposition. Fast played to the shell-shocked staff of the Daily Worker, telling them, in a typically hyperbolic statement:
I wonder if there is any comrade here who can say now, out of what we know and have seen, that if our own Party leaders had the power of execution he or she would be alive today?
He departed the CPUSA at that point and sought to cash in on the then-profitable genre of political confessions by ex-communists.
But his attempts to impress the Left never stopped. In later years, he tried to give them the ultimate weapon against anti-communism by claiming that Ronald Reagan had tried to join the Party in 1938 but was rejected for being “too stupid.” Such was Fast’s low reputation among Party members that they took this story to be nonsense.
Howard Fast, among the writers attracted to communism, emerges as the worst example for the CPUSA: simultaneously dupe and careerist, a propaganda merchant and a groupie. Had he not joined the Party he would have appeared as he really was: a greedy hack. ⌘
Historian Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.
Editor’s Note: If you quote from this November, 2014 essay, please cite Mr. Capshaw and mention paintingtheculturered.com.