Masses & Mainstream
April, 1957, pp 47-51
MORE COMMENTS ON HOWARD FAST
I read the galleys of Howard Fast's testimony that his god had failed under circumstances, let me confess it immediately, that were extremely unfavorable to it.
The first circumstance was that I was completing a long book in which Communists - American Communists - play an important role. To write this book I had to ponder a great deal over what American Communists have meant and do mean to this country of ours. In the three years or more that it took me to write the book, the world didn't stand still. In those years my thesis was subjected to a severe test, and I was forced to confront the question, in the middle of my book (since events like Hungary and the Khrushchev revelations very rudely interjected themselves) from an even more fundamental point of view than I had anticipated when I began. My conclusion had to pass, first of all, an artistic test. Do the Communists I have known, and the events I have experienced, lend themselves to artistic truth?
It s not for me to say whether I've been successful or not. All I can say is that I have not needed to overcome any subjective hurdles; I have not needed to lie to myself: my problem as an artist was to probe more deeply; and, frankly, in this sense, I am even grateful to the severe test that events have forced me to make.
What, then, is my conclusion after thinking as profoundly as I can, in the way an artist must, about Communists in America and their future?
My conclusion is that the Communists have written a proud and unique page in American history; and after they have digested and refashioned their own vision, under the blows both of persecution and historic events, they will find their way to the American people, and first of all to the most deeply oppressed, the workers and their allies.
This is and remains an epic theme which no artist can reject or fail to gauge correctly except at his own peril.
What is the second circumstance that made me even more unsympathetic to Howard Fast's account of his nine month's gerhsemane which produced yet another document to be added to that fairly long list of arid and unhopeful testimonies of despair, so much like the cry of the child who learns a human truth about a fearfully elevated and glorified mother or father?
The second circumstance was the suicide of my friend, Frank Balwood. By a rather grotesque coincidence I was reading Howard Fast s statement when I was informed of Frank Balwood's suicide by phone. Frank Balwood also left behind him a statement - a very short one; one in which he said he could no longer endure this life and would take "the easy way" out - hanging himself by his belt; and his total effects consisted of an unpaid laundry bill and a key to a subway locker. In his pocket a poem he had written: Day Dreams.
And who was Frank Balwood? He was a talented musician and composer who could not make it in this vile and merciless jungle that passes for civilization. He could not even wait until his book of compositions was published and for the banquet at which I was to speak a few words about him to take place. The day he hanged himself he spent most of the afternoon trying to muster up enough courage - or enough of it to kill his pride - to ask for a loan. He spent hours in his own private hell that day, and in the end he did not, could not, swallow his last remnant of pride to ask once more, yet again, to beg for that last loan which would have extinguished the final fragile wisp of his pride. Rather than give that up he preferred "taking the easy way out": hanging himself.
Frank Balwood was one of the millions of Americans who lead lives of "quiet desperation" here in America; sometimes they kill themselves and sometimes they simply dwindle away into human mummies of hopelessness and despair, fearing being young, desperately living through middle age, dreading the sentence of old age.
Nobody is going to save these people, except - I say this quite consciously - the Communists - that is, the working class which the Communists express, and the profound and selfless leadership which they can give, and alone can give, for that vision is theirs to give and is the most precious thing they can offer to suffering humanity. For theirs is the transcendent knowledge that this system of daily human murder, not only of bodies but of souls, which is capitalism, can be and will be replaced by a truly human system: socialism. And they also know that in the process they must go down into the depths, mix with filth, break bread with monsters, breathe in decay: and no guarantee in the world exists that they can wholly extricate themselves from pitch and decay without soiling themselves. Those who fall because they could not resist corruption are also fallen heroes, and must not be wholly scorned and despised. Knowing real life, and knowing that the essence of capitalism is barbarism and the defenders of barbarism are barbarians, no matter how they deck themselves out, the real fighters for socialism therefore know thee the struggle will never be easy, pretty nor guaranteed by words, noble sentiments, books, the qualified allegiance of self-appointed moralists, nor by anything else but their own struggle and sacrifice. They also know that "great men" alone, even if they truly were all that a Joseph Stalin seemed to be, will not guarantee anything for them that they themselves are unwilling to or cannot.
It should have been Howard Fast's private business that he became a Communist and that he chose no longer to be one. But neither the public nor Howard Fast himself considered that to be so. Howard Fast signaled his defection under two conditions, both of them very strange and very disturbing. The first was that he resigned before the convention of the Party that he belonged to, and whose rules he subscribed to, and whose policies he had every right to attempt to influence and change. He chose not to try to, and it becomes I think a legitimate thing to ask whether he resigned because he feared the convention would make no changes, or - and this is very important - because he feared it would?
The second was that news of his defection appeared first of all in the New York Times, which has steadily boycotted his books, and under the name of Harry Schwartz, a long-time anti-Communist, whose talent for making black look white and white black, whenever the facts related to the progressive movement both here and abroad, is notorious, and who, of course, correctly saw Howard Fast's action as another blow in the cold war, no matter what Howard Fast's subjective intentions might have been.
Under such circumstances I think all who have ever been in the workers' fight can do nothing other than to characterize this as desertion under fire. I am not impugning his personal courage in the sense that I had any doubts that he would deal with the Un-American committee as any decent person would. But in that most important struggle of all - in Blake's "mental fight," - he left the field at a most crucial moment.
I am not going to try to answer Mr. Fast's attacks on the Soviet Union. Nobody has qualified me to; in any case I hope spokesmen for the Soviet Union take this opportunity of answering Howard Fast; and I am sure Mainstream will be glad to publish any statement.
On the Soviet Union, my opinion remains the opinion of the person who first said that that country had reached such an epic stage in its historic development that to comment on it might reveal very little about the country, but would most certainly reveal a great deal about the commentator!
Howard Fast declares that, though he was no dupe, nevertheless he was the "victim of the most incredible swindle of modern times!"
In what way was he, and therefore myself, and a whole generation, "swindled"? Were we being swindled when the Soviet Union demanded of the League of Nations that sanctions be placed against Mussolini when he invaded Ethiopa in 1935? Were we, and the Spanish people, being swindled when the Soviet Union sent aid to Spain in its heroic fight for democracy, while the "democracies," and the "socialists," like the government of Leon Blum in France, stabbed that martyred nation in the back? Were we being swindled, when we were starving during the Depression, and the Soviet Union declared that unemployment was an unnecessary and historically outmoded element of society, and proved it by its own example? Were we being swindled when the Red Army destroyed Hitlerism single-handed, "helped" only in the end when the "allies" finally crossed the Channel not to destroy Hitler but to keep the Red Army from taking over all of Western Europe? Were the Jewish people being swindled when thousand upon thousands of them were snatched from the Hitlerite ovens, placed on trains commandeered for them, and sent east while Ukrainians and Russians died in their place? And when the Red Army moved into German and Polish territory and released the prisoners of the deathcamps, who was being swindled? How many Jews owe their lives to that? How can one forget so quickly, so easily, so petulantly what was only yesterday a heroism of historic proportions? And are the Jewish people being swindled in a country where 260,000 of them are in the state apparatus, the party, industry, science, literature and art, in fact from top to bottom of that country, far out of proportion, on a percentage basis, to their actual population? And in a country where anti-Semitism is a crime - and despite the cynicism and polemics around the question of its national role - remains a crime, is a crime, and which thereby advances the moral and ethical level of this question farther than it ever had been before?
Who is being swindled? The world - progressive humanity - by the historic deeds of the Soviet Union, or those who are being fed grotesqueries of "disillusionment" - a "disillusionment" which is merely an index to their own fantastic immaturity or lack of understanding of the most elementary laws of social growth and conflict?
No, let's have no more talk about having been swindled when the deeds in which millions of people participated - that were supposed to have swindled us - are writ big in history, for all humanity to see, while the deeds that took place behind closed doors and in secret letters and by the wiles of the enemies of socialism are being repudiated as quickly as they are brought to the light. And let us not match our injured senses with the true grief of those who not only suffered for those crimes but also, in a way we can never share, suffer even more profoundly a tragedy in having dealt so bitter a blow to the cause for which they have made such historic sacrifices! The tears that were shed by the members of the Twentieth Congress who listened to the account of Stalin's crimes are tears we have no right to belittle, or if the truth be spoken, parody with our complaints.
We have not earned that right yet.
So I end as I begin. I ponder over a book about Communists and over the suicide of my friend. And I look out of the window as I write this and before me stretches one of the greatest ghettoes in the world - Harlem; patrolled day and night by police on horseback like an occupied country, exploited mercilessly by landlords and store-keepers, and insulted and injured daily by a world which manufactures hypocrisy on a world-scale and spreads over its naked horror the sacred constitution and Bill of Rights like a cynical fig-leaf.
I hope that the socialist countries which published Howard Fast while he was boycotted here, and first of all by the New York Times, will continue to do so. For if Howard Fast has a future, it will be among those wonder-workers of the world and not among the deathdealers. Many men have been remembered for the good they did, while the bad they did has generously been forgotten.