1961. Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American
Literary Communism. (1961; rpt. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1992, p. 311, 286-90).
References to Howard Fast:
This was especially true, in all likelihood, for the majority of fellow-traveling liberals whose rejection of bourgeois society and capitalism was less thoroughgoing than they had imagined and who, perhaps unconsciously, yearned to be reabsorbed into the America they had denounced. Never having broken with their class, they could slip back into their old ways and their old thoughts, without having to make any serious readjustment; but to a Joseph Freeman, a Granville Hicks, a Richard Wright, if not to a Howard Fast,* the retreat from Communism was not so deftly managed.
* Critics of Howard Fast have not questioned the sincerity of his public and unabashed anguish (see The Naked God, N.Y., 1957), but his switch from Stalin Prize winner to Hollywood scenarist, the "now-it-can-be-told" air in which he relates his round trip into and out of the Communist pit, his calculated vagueness when writing of his own thoughts and practices between 1943 and 1956, and the moral complacency and egotism that shine steadily throughout his revelations (Faust is saved at last) are irritating components of a sometimes interesting book. The novelist or romancer constantly stands in the way of the autobiographer. As a result, The Naked God conceals more than it reveals. It is Fast's "White Paper," not a Koestlerian self-exploration; it is a forged propusk granting the author permission to re-enter the capitalist world. See the exchange between Fast and Eugene Lyons, The New Leader, Vol. XXXIX (July 9, 1956), pp. 6-8; (July 30, 1956), pp. 16-20, and R. G. Davis's perceptive review of The Naked God, ibid., Vol. XLI (Feb. 3, 1958), pp. 22-24.
...It was "good riddance to bad rubbish" so far as they were concerned, and they predicted the emergence of a new and more dedicated group of "proletarian writers." In the meantime, the party relied on Howard Fast and the Hollywood contingent of screen writers and novelists to carry on the revolutionary literary tradition: Dalton Trumbo, whose anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1939) was serialized in the Daily Worker in "The Yanks Are Not Coming" period; John Howard Lawson, now a resolute Marxist, who in 1934 had deprecated his failure "to serve the revolutionary working class either in my writing or my practical activity";24 and Albert Maltz, who suffered a serious ideological collapse but was nursed back to regularity by solicitous comrades.
Maltz's controversial answer to the question "What Shall We Ask of Writers?" had been prompted by a thoughtful and almost wistful article written by Isidor Schneider some months before. Throughout the summer of 1943, editors and friends of The New Masses had been discussing the work of the magazine, and reluctantly, according to Schneider, had agreed on the following points: 1) "no formulated Marxist criticism" existed comparable to Capital or State and Revolution; 2) "the social criticism of the Left" during the middle thirties, "its most influential Period," did not come directly from Marxist sources, but from bourgeois critics like Taine, Brandes, and Parrington; 3) in their social criticism, overenthusiastic "critics of the Left" resorted to moral epithets like "escapist," "ivory tower," and "decadent," thereby diverting Left criticism "from its main direction into culturally reactionary by-paths." These clichés prevented them from appreciating "the brilliant work of Kenneth Burke" as well as the "vast contributions of James Joyce."
Schneider did not say in so many words that writers should be writers first, not labor organizers or newspaper propagandists. The writer, he said, who withdrew completely from the labor movement injured himself as grievously as the one who obliterated "his literary self in the role of organizer"; the work of Reed, Myakovsky, and Ehrenburg proved that reporting could reach "classic stature." But writers weakened their novels or poems or plays when they sacrificed reality to political expediencies. "No writer," he declared, "need worry about being politically correct if his work is faithful to reality."25
Maltz welcomed this "frank and earnest article" (which after all merely repeated what Freeman, Gold, and Kunitz had been saying off and on for years) and then somewhat guardedly but with unmistakable feeling proceeded to illustrate his own notions of leftist shallowness produced "by the intellectual atmosphere of the left wing."
For example, the slogan "art is a weapon" had been vulgarized to the point where its original meaning--art reflects or attacks social values--had been lost. In practice, it had come to mean "that unless art is a weapon like a leaflet, serving immediate political ends, necessities, and programs, it is worthless or escapist or vicious." Why, he asked, was Lillian Hellman's play Watch on the Rhine attacked in The New Masses in 1940 and praised as a film in 1942? Because, he answered, events had occurred during the interval "calling for a different political program." Citing Engels as his source, Maltz criticized the practice of making the "canons of immediate utility... the primary values of judgment." Even politically unreliable writers like Steinbeck or Farrell had made significant contributions to the Left movement. He saw no reason why they should be judged by the committees they belonged to. "There is not always a commanding relationship between the way an artist votes and any particular work he writes." Nor did a writer's political retrogression, Maltz went on to say, automatically signify a degeneration of his talent. He concluded with a contemptuous dismissal of the writer who would misuse his art and betray the "great humanistic tradition of culture" by serving "an immediate political purpose."26
Maltz's article bristled with heresies. Had he written it during the united-front days of 1935-39 or in the war years of Soviet-American co-operation, when everybody from Monsignor Fulton Sheen to Captain Eddie Rickenbacker had kind words for the Stalin regime,27 it might have slipped by without commercial censure. It appeared, however, well after the famous Jacques Duclos letter of May 1945 presaged the end of peaceful collaboration between the United States and the Soviet Union and the bankruptcy of "Browderism." William Z. Foster now headed a reorganized Communist Party, which Browder had dissolved in May 1944 and had reconstituted as the Communist Political Association. A week before the publication of Maltz's article, Browder, once hailed as "the beloved leader of our movement," was expelled from the party as a "social imperialist." Maltz, in his innocence, had expressed his scorn for a historian he knew of who after reading the Duclos letter felt obliged "to revise completely the book he was engaged upon." But Howard Fast did not agree with him, nor did Joseph North, Alvah Bessie, Mike Gold, John Howard Lawson, Samuel Sillen, or William Z. Foster, each of whom sharply reprimanded Maltz for his dangerous "revisionism."
Maltz's article, it seemed, was "liquidationist," "anti-progressive," and "reactionary." In effect, he argued for a split between the citizen and the writer in saying that art and politics don't mix. Were this true, the Communist Party, the most political of movements, would be the most detrimental to the writer. In fact his description of the Duclos letter as another "headline," and his plea that writers place human experience above politics, simply invited the writer to dispense with the party altogether. Most reprehensible to his critics was Maltz's conception of the self-contained writer, who irrespective of his social views might produce a work of true literary value.28
These counterarguments were advanced firmly and sometimes harshly be fellow writers, but no one was more anti-Maltzian than Maltz himself when he acknowledged his errors a few months later in the party press.
His "one-sided, non-dialectical approach," he confessed, had been revisionist in the worst sense. "For what is revisionism?" he asked. "It is distorted Marxism, turning half-truths into total untruths, splitting ideology from its class base, denying the existence of the class struggle in society, converting Marxism from a science of society and struggle in apologetics for monopoly exploitation." Because of his mistaken zeal, the enemies of the Left had once more been able to raise the cry of "artists in uniform." Clearly his "fundamental errors" indicated a "failure to break deeply old habits of thought." He had "severed the organic connection between art and ideology." He should have explained, as the histories of Céline, Farrell, and Dos Passos did so well, how "a poisoned ideology and an increasingly sick soul can sap the talent and wreck the living fibre of a man's work." Although he thought his article better suited to the slanderous social-democratic New Leader than to The New Masses, he saw at least one merit in its publication: the intense answers it provoked marked a return to sound Marxist principles, which under the misleadership of Browder had been abandoned. Unable to attend a New Masses symposium on the subject of "Art As a Weapon," at which his mistaken ideas were once again dissected, he sent a message of congratulation from California.29
Foster, who spoke at the symposium, had already pronounced the last words on the Maltz case in The New Masses. The evil genius, he said, was really Browder. Just as his "imperialist theories" set the party "to tailing after the capitalists in the field of politics," so Maltz accepted the "bourgeois propaganda to the effect that art is 'free' and has nothing to do with the class struggle." His views, said Foster, "happily being corrected by Maltz himself," would "make the artist merely an appendage and servant of the decadent capitalist system and its sterile art." Of course the party did not want to "regiment the artists," but Maltz's incorrect assumptions "had to be discussed with all the sharpness necessary to achieve theoretical clarity."30
If Foster's tone was benevolent, his words indicated plainly enough what the party expected from its artists. Isidor Schneider notwithstanding, political correctness was more important than being "faithful to reality." The novelist and Spanish Civil War veteran Alvah Bessie expressed Foster's mind faithfully when he told Maltz: "We need writers who will joyfully impose upon themselves the discipline of understanding and acting upon working-class-theory." Fosterism in 1946 doomed any hopes that Schneider and other New Masses editors may have entertained about the liberating of Left culture. "Political tactics" were elevated "into political principles," and the "emergency mindedness and crude political determinism of the past," deprecated by Schneider, once again pervaded Left criticism.31
Between the ouster of Browder and the Khrushchev "revelations" in 1956, the party rode herd on its dwindling corps of writers, as Howard Fast luridly described it in The Naked God, but Communism as a cultural movement continued to slacken.
Mainstream, a literary quarterly giving its "allegiance to the Marxist science of history, culture, and human progress,"32 began bravely in the winter of 1947 and suspended publication after four issues. The New Masses, which had changed its format and refurbished its staff in 1946, folded in January 1948. The successor to both, Masses & Mainstream, came out in March 1948 as a monthly. It is still in existence, but its writers are virtually unnoticed, its circulation under 6,000. Only its readers know of the Left Wing books it reviews, books published by obscure firms and unjustly ignored by the bourgeois press.
Many were asking with Howard Fast in 1949: "Where are the great ones of the 'thirties, the whole school of talented progressive writers who arose out of the unemployed struggles led by the Communist Party...?33 Most of them were still alive, but they were dead to the movement.
footnote, p. 425
...Howard Fast was an expert practitioner of the decay-and-disease school of Communist polemic. He could write of Ezra Pound's Bollingen Award: "Like a foul fistula, overloaded with pus, this corruption exploded in the presentation of the Bollingen-Library of Congress award to the fascist poet, Ezra Pound." Literature and Reality (N.Y., 1950) p. 18.