HOME     by HF:   Anthologies   Articles   Films   Intros   Juvenile   Mystery   Non-fiction   Novels   Pamphlets   Plays   Poetry   Stories  
  site:   About HF   Texts   Reviews   Chrono Checklist   Bookstore   Bulletin Board   Site Search   Author Index   Title Index  
Blue Heron Press   Citizen Tom Paine   Freedom Road   Last Frontier   My Glorious Brothers   Spartacus   The Children   Peekskill   Unvanquished   Masuto   EVC's Women  

The New Republic
December 16, 1957 p. 18

A Captive Not Yet Freed

by Irving Howe

The Naked God
by Howard Fast
Praeger; $3.50

The first though not least important thing to be said about The Naked God is that simply as a piece of writing it is extremely shabby: incoherent in structure, florid in diction, inflated and hysterical in tone. Since books of this kind are generally treated as "documents," they seldom meet with such criticism; but I am enough of a literary man to believe that Fast's ineptitude is a significant fact in estimating the political meaning and value of his book.
It is true of course that other people, including many who were never Communists, also write badly; but the particular kind of badness found in Fast's book is not that of an amateur or novice: it is a learned badness, the heritage of that corrupt Popular Front rhetoric which makes precise thought impossible and emotional candor unlikely. Even when Fast was most deeply involved with Stalinist politics, his literary inclinations were toward those middle-brow values which, being pervasive to our time, are not the monopoly of any political movement. And the middle-brow in Fast may yet survive the Old Stalinist, bringing him success of a kind parallel to that which he enjoyed during the past two decades. Popular tales about American heroes can be tailored to any bias; mass culture undercuts all opinions.

Nevertheless, The Naked God does contribute a few items to the documentation of the psychopathology of Stalinism. There is the Pravda correspondent whom Fast quotes as saying angrily: "Howard, why do you make so much of the Jews? Jew? Jews? That is all we hear from you! Do you think Stalin murdered no one but Jews?" There is Joseph Clark, then foreign editor of The Daily Worker, telling Fast: If you and Paul Robeson had raised your voices in 1949, Itzik Feffer [a Yiddish poet murdered by the Stalin regime] would be alive today." There is Boris Polovoy, head of the Union of Soviet Writers, reassuring Fast that another Yiddish writer, Kvitko, was well and alive ("at present living in the same apartment as he, Polovoy"), though as it turned out, Kvitko "had been dead for years." And, most pitiful of all, there is Fast himself, being ordered by "a petty Party functionary . . . in terms of savage vindictiveness . . . to change the third act" of a play he had written. "I made the changes."
Beyond such bits of information, and a few shrewd observations about life inside the Communist party, such as a description of the sadistic glee with which the leader prepares to be "sharp" in treating a dissident within the ranks, there is little to recommend in The Naked God. My objection, I should stress, is not that Fast hesitates to condemn his allegiance of yesterday: no one could charge that against a man who writes that to join the CP is to "sell one's soul" or who says that he found Eugene Dennis less humane in his treatment of Communists than the warden of the prison in which he, Fast, was unjustly confined during the McCarthyite hysteria. But on the level of analysis, and still more important, of self-confrontation, the book is a failure.
Fast never explores the crucial question: what was it that held him, and others like him, for so long a time in a condition of intellectual bondage? The question matters not because it may reveal something about his personal psychology or because it comes as a thrust from hostile critics like myself, but because it helps us get at a major political and intellectual problem. At one point Fast does sidle up to it:

. . . the simpletons say, "But we have always known the truth about the Party. Why did it take you so long?" What truth? Even in this brief book, I have put down a picture that few people outside actually understood . . . [emphasis added.]

One finds it hard to suppose that this is anything but disingenuous. Fast's picture of the Communist movement, far from being something that a few outsiders understood, is essentially the same that hundreds of writers have drawn for the past few decades. "What truth?" cries Fast as if he were Pilate himself. Very simply the truth that Communist Russia is a brutal dictatorship, that the Stalin regime murdered millions of innocent persons and that the Communist parties are dupes of this regime. The truth which Fast so violently refused to credit when it was told by honest men like André Gide or John Dewey or Sidney Hook, he finally did believe when he heard it from Khrushchev, a self-confessed participant in mass murder. Had Khrushchev not spoken, Fast would probably still be a loyal Stalinist. Now surely this presents an interesting political and moral problem that a person in Fast's position ought to consider and perhaps even find a bit troubling. And it to suggest this makes one a simpleton, well - call me a simpleton.

Fast's book is written with a high and exalted moral tone, almost as if he were the first - instead of the most recent - to be discovering what is by now the common property of decent men. When Trotsky or Victor Serge used this tone in writing about Russia 25 years ago, they had earned it, for they were battling against widespread illusions among "progressive" intellectuals in the West. But while Fast, like any other human being, has earned his right to sorrow and pain, he might have taken a more modest tone had he kept asking himself the question which he neither can nor should wish to avoid: why so late?
For it is a question that brings us to the heart of a major distinction in the analysis of Communism and its relationship to intellectuals. A few decades ago the average Communist or fellow-travelling intellectual suffered from ignorance and illusions. He generally believed that Russian society conformed to his vaguely libertarian and socialist desires; he felt himself to be identified with a movement that was weak and a country that was besieged; he thought he was casting his lot with the oppressed and powerless of the world. Once he was forced to compare the reality of Stalinism with the ideals he confusedly held, he could often be broken from the party.

During the last ten or fifteen years, however, men like Fast were identifying themselves not with a besieged outpost of revolution, but with one of the two most powerful nations on earth. Communism was persecuted in America, but on a world scale it had become enormously strong. Loyalty to Russia now rested not primarily (though, in some cases still partly) on humanitarian illusions, but upon a corruption of values: Communism, inhumane as it might be, came to be regarded as the wave of the future. By now the Communist intellectuals could hardly help knowing at least some of the truth about Russia - for them to deny this would be as credible as the claim of the Germans that they did not know what was happening in Buchenwald. Those who remained faithful to the party learned to look the other way, they became masters at the art of deadening their sensibilities.
Between, say 1932 and 1948 the whole nature of Communist politics and psychology changed significantly, and among American intellectuals Fast was one of the few who stuck it out through the climax of Stalinist horror. The question, "why so long," therefore becomes more than a personal reproach; it is a request for an analysis of political morality which men like Fast cannot avoid if they are to finish the painful task of earning their freedom.
As it is, Fast has broken loose from Communist belief but not from the style of thought behind it. Let me cite one example, apparently trivial yet very revealing. The writer in America, says Fast, faces "the Communist party on his left, the fleshpots of well-paid mediocrity on his right; but I make no judgments. . . . Ours is an old and honorable craft, and perhaps someday it will be that again."
Now, by its tacit elimination of a large number of choices other than the CP and the fleshpots, is this not the kind of offensive nonsense that characterizes the style of Communist thought? There are no doubt plenty of writers in America who have sold their souls, but there are also many who, whatever intellectual disagreements one may have with them, remain honest and free. These are writers who find no difficulty in foregoing both the Communist party and the fleshpots, and who pursue their craft as honorable men. Being fallible and human, they are open to many criticisms, but I doubt that Fast is the one to make them. Besides, does he really suppose that writing for The New Republic or any number of similar journals is exactly equivalent to dipping into a fleshpot?
The Naked God, like many bad books before it, may prove to be a useful book. For if politics requires men to refight battles that a disinterested intellect considers to have been settled long ago, then the need remains for hammering away at the deceit of Communism. If Fast's book is widely circulated in France and India, it may do some good. If it is read by those sections of crypto-Communist opinion in America which, though horrified by the Khrushchev report, still think that some sort of "progress" or even "socialism" can be found in Russia, it may do some good. For we had better recognize that pro-Russian sentiment is far more significant than the present collapse of the Communist party would indicate: those for whom Dnieperstroy was an adequate reply to the slave camps in Siberia will now find Sputnik a brilliant reply to what happened in Hungary.


RETURN