The New York Times
November 4, 1990, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
By Maurice Isserman;
Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton
College. His latest book is "Dorothy Healey
Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party."
By Howard Fast.
Illustrated. 370 pp. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company. $22.95.
It Seemed a Good Idea at the Time
IN 1949 Howard Fast traveled to Paris as a delegate to a Communist-organized international peace conference. He was, by then, the most prominent writer associated with the American Communist Party. In the 1930's the party and its literary auxiliaries had attracted the support of a glittering array of novelists, screenwriters, critics and artists, but by 1949 few remained other than Mr. Fast. The prolific author of such best-selling historical novels as "Citizen Tom Paine" (1943) and "Freedom Road" (1944), he had joined the party only five years earlier, at the height of American-Soviet wartime cooperation. His first political task as a Communist could not have been less onerous: he helped organize receptions for the Communist-influenced Committee of the Arts and Sciences for the Re-election of Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, where he rubbed elbows with such luminaries as soon-to-be-Vice President Harry
S. Truman. By 1949 Truman and Mr. Fast were no longer attending the same receptions.
The onset of the cold war brought Mr. Fast a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee (and in 1950 a three-month prison sentence for contempt of Congress). It also brought him, by way of compensation, the adulation of the international Communist movement. At a time when no mainstream American publisher would touch his manuscripts, his books sold in translation in the millions in the Soviet Union. Pablo Neruda dedicated a poem to him and the Russians awarded him a Stalin Peace Prize. When Mr. Fast arrived in Paris, Pablo Picasso embraced him and offered him his choice of paintings. It was a heady experience, he reports in "Being Red," his memoir of his years in the Communist movement. He felt "transported into another world, a world where Communists were honored.... [I was] not the political outcast I was in America but a man admired for every step he had taken." In retrospect, he has decided that "my persecution in America was senseless and stupid and my elevation to heroic stature in France was equally unfounded in any kind of reality."
As a historical consideration of American Communism, "Being Red" has serious problems, but there is also much that can be learned from it about the appeal the movement once held for writers and intellectuals. Born in 1914, Mr. Fast, who grew up in Dickensian poverty in New York City, the child of hapless Jewish immigrant parents, makes it clear that he was neither "seduced" into nor "suicidal" or "stupid" in joining the Communist Party when he did. The Communists he met, in the John Reed Club in the 1930's and in the United States Government's Office of War Information in the 1940's, were "young and bright and sincere." The misgivings he reports having felt in the 1930's about the Moscow trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact seemed in 1944 "a part of the past." In his eyes, "the plain fact of the matter was that Soviet troops, at a cost almost beyond measure, had destroyed Hitlerism and restored hope to mankind."
Inside the party he found comradeship, acceptance and a sense of mission that were very gratifying. He also found arrogance, authoritarianism and a mystifying ritual incantation of ideological cliches that deadened his own notions of political reality, and led him to turn friends into enemies. "In some profound manner," he writes, "the organization I had been willing to pledge my life to was wrong. It was not a secret society, but neither was it an open society. It was not simply that the Communist Party was isolated; its very structure had doomed it to this isolation, [which] led to the beginning of our destruction."
Having sketched out this sensible and balanced explanation of both the appeals and defects of the Communist movement, "Being Red" then veers off in strange directions. Mr. Fast claims that shortly before he left for Paris in 1949 he was approached by an important Jewish leader of the party who informed him that American Communist leaders "had decided to issue a charge of anti-Semitic practices against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union." Mr. Fast supposedly relayed this message to the head of the Soviet delegation at the Paris conference. But the notion that the American Communist Party, which had never before publicly or privately criticized Soviet shortcomings, and which in 1949 was ruled by the most rigidly dogmatic set of leaders it had known in its long and unfortunate history of rigid dogmatism, was capable of offering this kind of challenge is preposterous. There is not a shred of historical evidence (including the memories of several former party leaders I consulted who were in a position to have known about such matters in 1949) to support Mr. Fast's claim. A charitable explanation is that he simply has misremembered some long-ago conversation, which was then embroidered over the years by wishful thinking and, perhaps, some measure of personal guilt for his own silence when Yiddish cultural figures like Itzik Feffer were being murdered in the Soviet Union.
Mr. Fast compounds his error by his repeated insistence that the American Communist Party, for all its devoted attachment to the Soviet cause, "had no connection with the Russians; we asked nothing from them and received nothing from them." Received nothing? Maybe not the fabled Moscow gold, but the party did receive a constant stream of Soviet political directives that it implemented without question. An argument can be made that, despite the link with the Soviet Union, there were tensions within the American Communist Party between its authoritarian and democratic tendencies, tensions that would rip the party apart in the de-Stalinization crisis of 1956 when three-quarters of its membership, Mr. Fast included, finally chose to leave. But to deny that the connections existed at all is evidence either of extreme naivete or crude apologetics. And Mr. Fast does not seem that naive.
In his novels, Mr. Fast's protagonists often rise from humble origins to the possession of an improbable political sophistication. The fictional former slave and Reconstruction-era Congressman Gideon Jackson, the protagonist of "Freedom Road," often comes off sounding like he had just returned from a meeting of the Committee of the Arts and Sciences for the Re-election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as when he explained to President Ulysses S. Grant that the "plantation slave system [was] a feudal thing, abhorrent to the nature of this country." In "Being Red," Mr. Fast offers a portrait of yet another protagonist rising from humble origins, but this time to an equally improbable political innocence.