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Masses & Mainstream
April, 1957, pp 42-47


Herbert Aptheker

HOWARD FAST, eminent American novelist, felt it necessary to leave the Communist Party, and advisable to announce this decision in an exclusive interview with Harry Schwartz of the New York Times. At the request of the editors of Mainstream, Mr. Fast explained at length, in its pages, the reasons for his decision.
As one who is himself a member of the Communist Party and has come to his own decision - to remain a member - I propose to comment, briefly, since space limitations are severe, upon Howard Fast's article.
Essentially, his decision is posited upon a particular estimate of the world today. This estimate finds the government of the Soviet Union to be the main danger to the perpetuation and purification of socialism in one-third of the world; it finds this government to be a central source, also, of the war danger; it is, furthermore, according to Mr. Fast, the major obstacle to the realization of mankind's progressive and democratic aspirations. The obverse of this finding is also explicitly affirmed. The Government of the United States is chargeable, he finds, with "petty tyranny" and an undefined "assorted madness" in its foreign policy; but what one really has here is "that most splendid thing, American Democracy."
Hitherto, Howard Fast had believed "that the only truth about the Soviet Union was the picture presented by friends of the Soviet Union"; but now he knows this to have been false, and the Khrushchev revelations concerning the crimes and brutalities associated with a period of Stalin's rule, shows him that, believing as he did, he was "a victim of the most incredible swindle in modern times."
We have, in the U.S.S.R., Mr. Fast now believes, something monstrous, a "socialism without morality," and in the period since Khrushchev's report, we have been treated, in Hungary, to "a new kind of socialism - socialism by slaughter and terror." This new kind of socialism has a foreign policy befitting it: "From the crisis in Egypt we learned of the new brink-of-war tactics of Soviet foreign policy." All in all, while Howard Fast announced a retention of his own basically optimistic outlook for humanity, he persisted in this despite the Soviet Government: "Nor do I believe that mankind will be turned aside from socialist democracy and from the vision of the good world we will one day create. No power-clique of men of small soul and less humanity can long resist the tide of history."
When charges gush from an extraordinarily prolific pen with one major charge per sentence, another writer may well be appalled at the task of explaining his rejection of the charges, especially where not a line, but a book is required for each. Yet, within the limits of this brief note, we will hazard a few remarks.
In Hungary, the slaughter and terror were fundamentally the work of counter-revolutionary forces, internal and external, who took advantage of a popular bona-fide, peaceful effort - culminating a three-year-old process of change - at speeding up the very much delayed purification of socialism; these forces then turned this mass effort into a violent movement to destroy socialism and restore landlordism and capitalism.*.
In Egypt, there was not a "crisis"; there was an imperialist war of aggression and intimidation. When Howard Fast writes from a sense of outraged morality, let him beware of demagogy. Egypt was attacked by the air, sea and land forces of Israel, France, and Great Britain. One month, Premier Ben-Gurion said: "Preventive war would be madness"; and he promised: "We will never start a war. We do not believe that wars provide comprehensive solutions to historic problems." The next month, that Premier's army and bombers attacked Egypt in force. And within 24 hours of that assault Britain and France bombed the city of Cairo. The whole attack was coordinated by all three powers; it was a contemptible outrage, seeking, in ways reminiscent of the worst features of white-supremacist imperialism, to destroy the national liberation movements of North Africa. Even the London Manchester Guardian said it was "wrong in every count - moral, military and political", it said the attackers were "guilty of an atrocious act of war."
But Mr. Fast, in his moral dudgeon, calls it a "crisis," and can find nothing to criticize in it except his false version of Soviet reaction thereto. It is easy to be contemptuous of the Socialists in World War I days (and some in the days of World War II, like the Hungarian Socialists) who in the name of "patriotism" forgot their Socialism, and defended the Czar or the Kaiser or the Prime Minister, or the Premier, or the President (or Horthy); the test is what one does when he himself is faced with this choice. Mr. Fast ran to his own private tent, in this case; in doing this he is neither defending the cause of Israel, nor freedom, nor democracy nor peace, nor decent morality - let alone, Socialism.
The U.S.S.R. did not use "brinkof-war tactics" when Egypt was attacked. In that case, as so often in the past, the Soviet Union took a stand in defense of peace and against imperialist assault. In notes unprecedented for their firmness and directness, it demanded the immediate cessation of the use of force against Egypt. This stand, buttressed for the moment by U.S. support, stopped that colonial war and for the first time in history there followed the relatively quick withdrawal of imperialist aggressors with their aims not accomplished.
Those are the facts; it is these facts that Mr. Fast must square with his newly-discovered picture of a world where the Soviet Union is the source of the war danger, and the fountainhead of repression. Finally, we turn to the revelations of personal tyranny and of criminality in the leadership of the Soviet Union and of other Socialist countries for various periods of time.
We observe that in the list of teachers whom Howard Fast names as most influential in his own life there occur the names of fourteen individuals from Jefferson to Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair to Marx, Douglass to Engels, but there is no room for Lenin.
He is, I think, an important teacher, too; indeed, in my view, Lenin is the greatest figure in the whole galaxy of world revolutionary leaders. He is, certainly the greatest analyzer of and fighter against imperialism. I believe it is no accident that in the United States today, Howard Fast does not see American imperialism, but rather "that most splendid thing, American Democracy"; and that at the same moment, dazzled by the splendor, he forgets Lenin.
One can, I suppose, forget Lenin, but it is unwise to forget American imperialism if he wishes to understand the world today. The fact is that if one forgets the imperialism of American Big Business he omits a basic aspect of the reality of the American economic, political and social order; and he omits a fundamental component of the world today.
The ultimate source, but not the only one, of the difficulties, mistakes, aberrations, and crimes marking the transition from capitalism to socialism lies in imperialism. It lies, internally, in the vestiges of capitalist society; it lies, externally, in the hostility of the capitalist world. We do not here have reference simply to imperialist plots.
These conspiracies, and the internationally organized apparatus for counter-revolutionary subversion certainly exist, on a scale hitherto unprecedented in history, and their center is our own country. But this apparatus of counterrevolution, with its budget reaching into the billions each year, constitutes only one manifestation of the policy and strategy of imperialism - the destruction of socialism. It is in this sense that the system of imperialism - which encompasses its apparatus of reactionary terror and subversion - is at the root of many of the mistakes and worse than mistakes that have so far marred the building of socialism.
More important than the billion dollar annual budget of the American Central Intelligence Agency are the fifty billion dollars annually appropriated for arms, by the United States. More important than the saboteurs sent to East Europe, are the twenty-five additional air bases (nine of them capable of handling aircraft carrying atomic bombs) now being built in West Germany at a cost of $375,000,000 (N. Y. Times, Jan. 7, 1957). More important than the Western efforts to assassinate Communist leaders (which in the case of the leader of the Belgian Party succeeded, and in the case of Togliatti barely failed), is Secretary Dulles' calm announcement that "U.S. forces almost everywhere were equipped with atomic weapons" (A. P. dispatch from Canberra, March 13, 1957). More important than the filthy shenanigans of Allen Dulles and his partner, the Nazi chief saboteur, Reinhard Gehlen, is the announcement that General Hans Speidel ("scholarly soldier," the Times delightedly called him) formerly in charge of the Nazi occupation of France, is now Commander of Allied Land Forces in Central Europe, and that General Adolf Heusinger, formerly Operations Chief of Hitler's General Staff is now in charge of the Armed Forces Department of West Germany.
These are facts - and there are a thousand more like them. They show the policy of Western imperialism to be reactionary, aggressive and war-like. They are buttressed by acts, by deeds, from the policy of remilitarizing West Germany and Japan, to propping up Franco, from destroying democratic governments in British Guiana and Guatemala, to warring upon Egypt and Algeria. In terms of what one is dealing with and what kind of a world is the "free world" which is headed by the American imperialism that Howard Fast now forgets, one may glance at just one of the less publicized of its continuous acts of atrocity. For example, here is an item in the N. Y. Times of November 8, 1956, telling of "a strange war" which "the outside world ignores." It is the war of suppression waged by servitors of American imperialism now looting the nation of Colombia. Stuck away in this item is the President's remark to the Times newsman "that more than 100,000 civilians and soldiers have been killed since the civil war erupted in 1949." That is, over one hundred thousand dead in a nation whose total population comes to less than twelve millions. This is one of the "minor" illegalities (or shall we say, pieces of "petty tyranny") in a "forgotten war" in a side alley off Wall Street.
When it comes to "illegality" as a whole, one must bear in mind the essential character of law in a capitalist society - i.e., the maintenance of capitalism. There are differences among capitalist countries; in some there are democratic rights, most of them won from the bourgeoisie through mass struggle, and more or less implemented depending upon time and place and circumstance, but always and everywhere precious. Yet basically the great American journalist and crusader, Henry Demarest Lloyd, expressed the nature of bourgeois law, half a century ago, when he said, apropos of political prisoners: "The bird of freedom has always been a jail bird"; and of law enforcement in general: "Only the rich can get justice, only the poor cannot escape it.'
It is pressures from this kind of system which is the basic source of the difficulties experienced in building socialism. He who ignores or minimizes this - who does not estimate it in its full and overwhelming significance - does not comprehend the world today.
When Howard Fast speaks of "that most splendid thing, American Democracy," he opens up an area of judgment too vast for even the beginnings of comment herein. Here I want to say only this: sometimes "little" things are more revealing of the essence of a matter than bulky tomes. We had such a little thing recently. The United States Government sent Richard Nixon to the inauguration of the Prime Minister of Ghana; despite Nkrumah's personal request, it refused to allow Dr. Du Bois to be present at this ceremony. If that incident is weighed and probed, it will reveal more about "that most splendid thing," American imperialism, than ten thousand words.
It is the system which dominates the Government and compels the choice of Nixon over Du Bois which is the central foe of adherents of socialism and the source of basic contradictions in today's world. But this is not the sole source of the fearful blunders, errors, and crimes that mark the rise of socialism. These arise too from the fact that this leap into a new quality of social relationship must be made and can only be made by human beings evolved out of an exploitative social order. And in making this unprecedented social transformation, on a national and international level, there are limitations in personnel and profound psychological problems, hardly stated, much less solved as yet. In addition, there is the whole question of power per se, of its own logic, its own energy to distort, and to deceive, to corrupt. These and other questions - national feeling, religious belief, different levels of technique, for example - are new questions in large part, because socialism has operated nowhere more than forty
The effort to resolve these problems, and contradictions springing from them, is the work of Communist Parties, to begin with, assisted by all friends of a purified, fully democratized socialist life. The struggle comes basically from Communists, and is conducted in the first place within Communist parties. This does not prove a "swindle'; it proves that all life is a struggle. It proves that building and perfecting socialism - a new enterprise for mankind and the most difficult it has yet attempted - is not simple and does not proceed smoothly. It proves, too that socialism, within itself, generates the forces leading to its own purification, because unlike capitalism, inequality injustice and tyranny are alien to the system of socialism.
Howard Fast cited Frederick Douglass as one of his teachers. Let him remember that Douglass faced many moments of despair, but none was so bitter as those which came just before victory. Let him remember that it was Lincoln's Government which ordered its Army to return fugitive slaves to their masters; which refused for two years to permit Negroes to fight in its Army. It was in the North that Negroes were lynched by the scores during the Civil War. Douglass might well have despaired and quit - others did. What hope was there for a republican form of government? What hope was there for "government by the people," when racism had so corroded it that it preferred suicide to purification?
But Douglass fought on, within that country and within its institutional limits because he knew that the basic source of the poison was in the system of slavery, and he knew that the fundamental enemy of his people and of democratic advance, at that time, was in the Confederacy. He knew the difference between fundamental and peripheral contradiction; he threw his great genius against the main foe, while striving to purify that foe's opponent, the better to win the battle.
Howard Fast cited Thomas Jefferson as one of his teachers. Let Mr. Fast recall that Jefferson had the profound patience needed by all true revolutionaries; he had the maturity needed by all who seek to get at the roots of social change. Jefferson was in France during the great Revolution there. He wrote of its "difficulties and dangers," but he said one need "not expect to be transported from despotism to liberty in a feather bed." He knew that in France "many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent," and surely to none were the forms of trial more precious, nor the rights of the innocent more sacred, than to Thomas Jefferson. But did he, like many others - like Wordsworth, like Coleridge - abandon the struggle and denounce the Revolution? He did not. On the contrary, seven years after the Revolution had started, he wrote: "It is unfortunate that the efforts of mankind to recover the freedom of which they have been so long deprived will be accompanied by violence, with errors, and even with crimes. But while we weep over the means, we pray for the end."
Howard Fast did not cite Lenin as one of his teachers. Yet he will grant, surely, that Lenin knew something about workers and about revolution. In August, 1918, when the commercial press of the world was denouncing him, his Party, and the Revolution he was leading, Lenin wrote a Letter to American Workers. In it he said:
"Let the kept bourgeois press howl about each mistake made by our revolution. We are not afraid of our mistakes. Men have not become saints because the revolution has begun. The toiling classes, oppressed and downtrodden for centuries and forced into the clutches of poverty, savagery and ignorance, cannot be expected to bring about a revolution flawlessly. And the cadaver of bourgeois society... cannot be nailed in a casket and buried.... "For every hundred mistakes of ours... there are 10,000 great and heroic deeds, the greater and the more heroic for their simplicity.... But even if the contrary were true although I know this supposition to be incorrect - even if there were 10,000 mistakes for every 100 correct actions of ours even in that case our revolution would be great and invincible, and so it will be in the eyes of history, because for the first time, not the minority, not only the rich, not only the educated, but the real masses the vast majority of toilers are themselves building a new life, are deciding by their own experience the most difficult problems of Socialist organization."
We have now a better and sobering appreciation of the meaning of those words, "the most difficult problems of socialist organization." But they are soluble and we will master them. Mankind faces them now for the first time; but this is a case for elation, not despair. It is a cause for more intense devotion and fuller participation in the supreme end of human endeavor, the creation of a just, equal, abundant, creative, and peaceful world. In that effort, the Communists hitherto have been in the forefront, in the United States as everywhere else. We Communists will continue to stand in the front ranks of such fighters, for this is what it means to be a Communist. Nothing, neither imperialism's fury nor our own severe limitations, will prevent us from holding to this fundamental commitment.
Despite Howard Fast's disillusionment, the Soviet Union stands today, as she did when she saved the world from Hitlerism (Howard made no mention of this little fact, in recounting his decision) as the leading force in the struggle against imperialism, colonialism, racism, and war. It seems to me that it is the prime duty of an American citizen to help bring about a condition in his own country where it may be possible to say that in forwarding these supreme goals, the United States stands on a par with any other country in the world.
* The present writer has completed a 256-page book attempting to convey his understanding of the recent Hungarian events; it is scheduled for publication very soon.