THE "secret" Khrushchev speech, admitting and detailing to the Soviets' Twentieth Party Congress the terrors of Stalin's rule, was published in The New York Times on June 5, 1956.
The next day the staff of the Daily Worker met. We had all read the speech. The somber terror of it was in our eyes and on our faces, and now the discussion was whether or not to print it in the Worker. In the course of that discussion, something happened that will remain with me until I die. It could only have happened then, at that time, for the truth we saw was brutal, cold, and terrible beyond description. Few of us were any longer young. Most of our adult lives had been given to this movement. All of us had made great sacrifices. Here were brilliant careers given up, success and wealth bypassed by some, respect and honor abandoned by others, all of us together in a tiny minority group that had been hounded and persecuted for a decade, all of us driven by and wedded to the splendid dream of brotherhood and justice, all of us knowing each other so well and so long. And in this group, compelled by an idea and realization that had fastened upon me, I rose in the course of the discussion and said,
"I wonder if there is any comrade here who can say now, out of what we know and have seen, that if our own Party leaders had the power of execution he or she would be alive today?"
They all looked at me, but no one broke the silence. We had come to the end of a road. and we knew by what grace we were alive. We knew it - and oh, what a terrible knowledge that was. Each one according to his talent and ability had given his life to the cause of mankind, the brotherhood of man - and we knew that for this the reward was death.
* * *
I joined the Communist Party in 1943, but I came to it first as a part of my generation, in the 1930s. In 1932, I worked as a messenger in a Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library. It was one of a series of dismal and underpaid jobs that I had held since, at the age of eleven, pressed by the need of our utter poverty, I went work as a newspaper delivery boy.
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If we are to seek for understanding, any sort of understanding, then the reader must not only recall the 1930s, but must comprehend the full meaning of the surrender of childhood, a situation that poverty still imposes on millions of children the world over. The fact that 1 earned twenty-five cents an hour at this job is of less moment, for my twenty-five cents was precious beyond belief, and when I bought apples from one or another of the thousands of much older men who had lost all the gain and security of a lifetime I felt keenly my own fortune as against their total tragedy. I was lucky.
IT MAY be said that Marxism - and the Communist Party, in its claim that it and it alone can carry Marxist theory into practice - appeals to two sections of modern society as a necessity. The worker embraces Marxism in terms of his own intimate struggles and needs as a worker; the intellectual embraces Marxism in his need to find avenues to understand reality and the truth of reality, without which understanding he is frustrated and truncated. Here I am not arguing the validity of Marxism; I am trying to explain it as a force. Businessmen, lawyers, physicians may or may not become Marxists; with them it does not loom as a necessity in terms of their work and life. With students, artists, and writers it very often does.
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It is not simply the rebellion of youth. That can take many forms - crime, drugs, insane driving in hopped-up cars, senseless defiance of adults, premature drinking and smoking, and so forth and so on. The youth that turns to Marxism, however, engages in a specific rebellion against a society that obscures instead of clarifying, against ignorance, dogma, superstition, and apparent senselessness in the relationships of masses of people. The fact that the Communist Party develops and demands a dogma of its own does not alter the facts stated above, nor does it explain why so many restless, alert, and inquiring intellects are to be found in its ranks.
I came to the left-wing movement out of my own poverty and hunger and despair in the early 1930s, and I came to it out of a working-class background, but I joined the Communist Party in 1943 because I could no longer see any future as a writer unless I was able to wed my principles to action. At that point I did not feel that I was moving away from the traditions that had shaped my thinking but rather in the direct line of them. Where I had been alone - or at best a partner in a confusion that equaled mine, a frustration as great - I felt that I had now become part of an edifice dedicated singularly and irrevocably to the ending of all war, injustice, hunger, and human suffering - and to the goal of the brotherhood of man.
Discipline in the Communist Party is voluntary, but in the silent background is the sword of excommunication. Without the power and religiosity of expulsion, the Communist Party could not exist as it is. Before the moment of the Khrushchev secret speech, expulsion from the Communist Party was akin to eternal damnation, the body alive but the soul already dead for eternity; and so powerful had this conviction of the membership become, and so widely and sincerely had they promulgated it, that millions of non-Communists considered anyone who bore the label of expulsion from the Party as a lost and damned soul, a corrupt and dangerous human being who no longer owned the right of admission to the society of men of good will.
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To a sincere and devoted Communist, expulsion was almost as bad as death - and sometimes worse. It is almost impossible to convey to many people what the total implication of expulsion meant. For almost a generation, several million Americans of good will accepted the fact that a man was expelled from the Communist Party either for being a police spy or for utter venality and degeneration of character. Such an expelled person became outcast, not only among Party members but among a circle of progressives a dozen times larger than the Party itself. This was a concept deliberately nurtured and put forward by every Communist Party on earth; for it was basic to Party discipline.
Without this ritual of expulsion and its accompanying mythology, the Communist Party would be something else indeed. The expelled Communist thus became the leper-heretic of today, living on under an interdiction unique since medieval times. Needless to say, a very great many of those expelled were guiltless of anything more culpable than the effects of reason or independent thought. So we begin to see the bottom process whereby the vertical pillar of thought and agreement operated.
IT IS worthwhile and interesting to put together a composite of the Party leader, for he is the inevitable product of the Party in any land where the Party is a Stalinist structure - and it is he who dirties the page of' history and blackens all the colors of man's dreams. I have seen many hundreds of him in many lands. I have watched him operate in a hundred different situations, among workers, housewives, intellectuals, professionals, farmers, and youth. I have seen him in a broad variety of situations - and I have observed him with some care.
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He is not a very impressive man, for you are given to understand that in the Party men are not judged by bourgeois standards. He has a cold and aloof quality; none of the warm handshake and open heart. He is a careful man; he chews his words before he lets them out. On occasion, usually as the result of a considered decision, he will smile a bit and go out of his way to say a few words of chit-chat to a special personality; but he uneasy in this kind of social intercourse.
When asked his opinion on any subject, providing the question comes from an important source, he assumes an attitude and, talking not to you but through and beyond you, declaims the proper one of some few dozen opinions he is always officially provided with. When this opinion deals with anything but the Party line, it is an equivocation. Within the Party line, it is dogma couched in the priestly gobbledygook that is his substitute for the normal language of his native land.
At a meeting, he is careful to be the last speaker - unless there is present a leader higher in the ladder of command. In that case, he will bow to authority and be the next to last speaker; although, if he is on the power-make, he will use every trick to jockey for finish position. Since fully three-quarters of his life is passed sitting at meetings, the tactic of final position assumes very considerable importance.
His carefulness is exhibited whenever he speaks or writes. He eschews original opinions as the devil himself; he restricts himself to areas of proven safety, where Marx or, and preferably, Lenin can be quoted to back up his position. At infighting, he watches the people on his side build an attack, and then he uses all points presented to devastate. He always builds bridges, for he is not one to go it alone. "As Comrade So-and-So pointed out," he is fond of beginning - for Comrade So-and-So will remember and return the favor when needed. His high moment comes when he feels it is safe to be "sharp" with an opponent; and then he lives. Such a moment comes when his opponent in discussion or policy meeting is either witless enough or honest enough to persist against the majority. The leader does not become "sharp" unless he is absolutely certain that his opponent is sunk, outclassed, and isolated. Now no holds are barred, and the man of ice and reserve allows passion to take over. He is withering in his scorn, contemptuous in his sarcasm, and terrifying in his condemnation. In a land where he is the power, he reads a prelude to prison or death, literally swelling with righteous wrath and purity; in a capitalist country, he is limited to moral destruction - and as he conceives the needs of this objective he proceeds to humiliate his opponent, or unseat him, or make him an outcast, or require penitence and a plea for forgiveness, or lay the groundwork for expulsion.
He learns a bag of tricks which he uses with tiresome regularity. When be must listen to a discussion totally beyond him and on which he can have no safe opinion - and this is often the case - he puffs his pipe knowingly and never says a word. When the chairman of the meeting inquires deferentially whether the leader would not like to make a contribution or sum up, he shakes his head tolerantly. This conveys the impression that, in his wisdom he has decided that it will benefit the others to work this out for themselves. It also establishes his reputation as a democratic fellow.
Another tactic is to note that the hour is late - and to say that he will present his views at the next session. This not only gives him a few days to sound out the situation, but also establishes his reputation as a man of calm and patience.
Still another method is to listen like a hawk until he can fix one phrase or statement that represents a possible deviation. When he has latched onto this, he throws it in as something so heinous that it overshadows all ideas. He now becomes the single-minded defender of the purity of the Party line. There is no better reputation to build in leadership than a dedicated defense of the Party line.
In matters of art and profession he faces the greatest difficulty, for he is without taste, standards of judgment, background, or any of that sensitivity so necessary to literary or artistic criticism.
In 1945, after a 15,000-mile trip to India, I attempted to see Eugene Dennis, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States, to tell him of the last phase of the awful Bengal famine and something of the unique discussions I had had with many top men in the Indian Party. Although I wanted to see Dennis the first day of my return, it was weeks before I could get in; he was always too busy. When at last I was ushered into his lordly office, nothing of what I had to say interested him. He had no questions to ask me. He had never seen me before, yet even a simple inquiry as to my health was not forthcoming. He merely dismissed me with. an impatient wave of his hand, as he would brush dirt aside.
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This sounds like a small matter, even an unimportant matter, and indeed there were a hundred other moments of equal shame and worse indignity; but never in all my life have I experienced anything like it outside of the Communist Party. Not even the warden of the Federal prison where I served a sentence as a political prisoner years later ever treated me or anyone else with such inhuman disdain and contempt, indeed, the warden I refer to was a man of heart and compassion, and only in the Communist Party from Communist leadership have I experienced myself and seen directed toward so many others such an attitude toward people.
I REMEMBER the time the then Rumanian Ambassador invited half a dozen of us who were on the board of the Communist cultural magazine, Mainstream, to have lunch with him. He called for us at our dingy office with a great black diplomatic limousine and drove us in style to the restaurant where we would share an enormous repast. But when we got there and he started to lead us in, his driver remained sitting in the car. We were stupid Americans and unlearned in the higher niceties of Communist practice. Those who were there with me will recall how we quickly whispered together, and then were compelled to ask where the driver would eat.
* * *
The Rumanian Ambassador informed us that he, the chauffeur, was a disciplined Communist, and would just sit there until we came out. Feeling that the driver was also a human being, we suggested that he should come into the restaurant and eat with us. After all, we were of a "working class" movement and not yet adept at distinguishing between Communists and human beings. But the Rumanian Ambassador was horrified and aghast at our suggestion. How in heaven's name could we think of sitting a chauffeur at lunch between a diplomat and intellectuals, even if the intellectuals were a little seedy and even if the chauffeur was a Communist?
A little thing - but it bit deep into us, and I remember how we wrestled with it, trying to down our own anger, for was this man not the trusted ambassador of a socialist nation?
IN MY thirteen years of Communist Party membership, none of the national leaders of the Party ever discussed my writing except when I was brought before them on charges of violating the Party line. When I received the Stalin Peace Prize, Betty Gannett, then a member of the secretariat, cried out with anger, "Now he will be more difficult to control than ever!" No national leader of the Party, as a matter of fact, ever approached me except in terms of punishment or to ask me to attempt some task to his benefit. When Albert Maltz, in 1946, sent to the New Masses an article that contained a rather mild criticism of the narrow and sectarian Communist attitude toward literature, he was treated as if he had committed a major crime. I include myself among those who blew up his criticism all out of proportion to its intent - a matter for which I have never forgiven myself, even though Maltz found it so easy to forgive and forget. Meetings were held. Mike Gold denounced Maltz with passion and language that a civilized person would reserve for pathological criminals. The fact that Albert Maltz was a writer of talent and unshakable integrity meant absolutely nothing.
* * *
I think in July 1956 a Communist Party member came to me with the proposal that we frame a document, as an open letter to the Soviet leadership demanding some explanation of the anti-Semitic atrocities in Russia (still unexplained at this writing, I may observe).
* * *
I framed this document, to be signed by prominent American Communists, and it was presented at a special meeting called for the purpose. John Gates was there, the only one of the Party leadership, and Morris Schappes, the Jewish historian, also attended. In the course of the discussion, Schappes told of a series of articles in the Manchester Guardian by a British reporter who covered the trial of a number - twenty, I believe - of elderly Jews in Moscow. These Jews were accused of the possession of " Zionist" literature, and for this fiendish crime they were sentenced to three to ten years each.
As Schappes spoke, he noticed the growing expression of horror on the face of Gates, himself recently released from prison, and then Gates asked. "Under what law?"
Schappes mentioned the particular article in the Soviet criminal code, and added. "A law, Johnny, ten times worse than the Smith Act."
When some years ago, during the progress of the writer's panel of a conference in New York, Alexander Fadeyev, the famed Soviet writer, was asked directly by Mary McCarthy and some of her friends to explain what had happened to a number of Soviet writers whom they carefully named, he not only gave his solemn word as a Soviet citizen that all of the named writers were alive and well, but he brilliantly ticked off the titles and description of the work that each particular writer was engaged upon. He told where they lived, when he had seen them, and even repeated details of their merry reaction to the "capitalist slander" that they were being persecuted. So smooth and ready was his rejoinder, so rich was the substance of his quickly supplied background, that one might well credit him with more creative imagination than he had ever shown in his own books. As chairman of the panel, I was quite naturally provoked that Miss McCarthy and her friends should so embarrass this fine and distinguished guest. His conviction and meticulous sincerity were above suspicion, and I think, if I remember correctly, that not only myself but Miss McCarthy and her friends were at least in some measure convinced that he spoke the truth. Like myself, how could they possibly have believed that a man would create such a monstrous and detailed lie and expect it to hold water?
* * *
Yet that is precisely what it was, as I learned through the testimony of Polish and Russian Communist sources eight years later; and all of the men Fadeyev had spoken of so casually and lightly and intimately were, at the time he spoke, either dead from the torture chambers of the secret police or by firing squads, or lying in prison being tortured and beaten.
In the United States, I was crippled in my function as a writer by my membership in a very unpopular political party. At great cost and financial loss, I had to publish my own books. From comparative wealth and success, I was reduced to a struggle for literary existence; and gradually my continuing work became less and less known.
But beyond deprivation, these facts are important:
I spell them out like that because of the savage and unjustifiable experience of that time. I opposed the policies of my government and minced no words about it. I asked no quarter and gave no quarter; yet one, two, and three, as specified above, were maintained.
- I continued to write
- I continued to live.
- I continued to fight for my inalienable privilege of writing as I pleased.
My colleague in the Soviet Union, however, did far less than I in terms of his own government. He did not oppose it. He did not challenge it. At most, he dared to challenge within his craft. And concerning him, these facts are important:
As the Communist Party now exists, every writer, no matter how dedicated and loyal he may appear, is potentially the enemy and destroyer of the Party, moved by enormous forces which he can resist only to the destruction of himself as a writer of any worth at all.
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- He did not continue to write; he was silenced.
- He did not continue to live; he was cruelly tortured and he was put to death.
- He did not continue to fight for his "inalienable privilege of writing as he pleased." The privilege was alien to him; "as he pleased" was philosophically unknown to him, and when he tried to discover and embrace this unknown, his rulers rewarded him with death for the misfortune of plying his trade.
A good while before the Twentieth Congress of the Bolshevik Party the rumor came to us that Itzik Feffer, the beloved Jewish poet, was dead, and that he had died strangely. We didn't know. I asked and others asked:
* * *
"Where is Itzik Feffer and how did he die?"
A hundred times that question was asked and left unanswered, and we who asked it were looked at as fools because we could not understand the political subtleties of the murder of poets. I asked it of a Pravda correspondent only a few days before I finally broke with the Party - but I was an unwelcome guest now in the beautiful building on Park Avenue, for I had already spoken my first angry criticism in the pages of the Daily Worker and the Communist cultural magazine, Mainstream. As the diplomatic reception eddied around us, this man from Pravda, talking with the voice of "socialism" and "brotherhood. said to me angrily, in English, which he spoke very well,
"Howard, why do you make so much of the Jews? Jews? Jews? That is all we hear from you! Do you think Stalin murdered no one but Jews?"
Within twenty-four hours after The New York Times had published the full text of the "secret" speech, we on the Daily Worker had made our decision to print it - incidentally, so far as I know, the only Communist paper in the whole world to do so. But I wish to note that from the first reports of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party, early in March 1956, until the appearance of the Khrushchev secret report in The New York Times on June 5, there was a virtual abdication of the national leadership of the Communist Party of the United States - with the single exception of John Gates who, as editor of the Daily Worker and in conjunction with the other editors and leading staff members, became for all actual purposes the national leader of the Party during that brief period. Now, in retrospect, I can say that if a Party convention had been held then, in June 1956, the Party would have been liquidated. By every stratagem and trick at their disposal, the leadership postponed the convention until the inevitable resignation of people of conscience assured them of victory - in the sense of business as usual. In my opinion, the Communist Party of the United States has thus lost whatever claim it had to honor and integrity; and if this small essay convinces those who support it, or even a few of them, that the Party has lost step with history, then it will be worthwhile. I do not believe that a Communist Party can be destroyed by force. A Communist Party is an idea - and ideas cannot be dealt with in terms of force. It is time we learned this. An idea must be bent over the anvil of truth to see if it can survive some strong blows. I do not believe that this particular idea can so survive.
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If one denies the nobility of some Communists, one can make no sense or reason out of the ignoble horror that the Communist structure begets. Life is just not that simple. The American boy from the slums of New York or Chicago who joined the Communist Party, volunteered to fight in Spain against the darkness of Fascism, and walked with his still-to-be-fired Springfield into the hell of Jarama Valley - where, as it was said. he learned to die before he learned to fight - was no monster; he was one of the bravest and truest human products of our time.
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Though Communist writers, inside and outside of the Soviet Union, may deride and "explain" my words as the words of one they are now dutybound to characterize with every foul name in their lexicon, they also know, very truly, very deeply, that I have found freedom, and they have not. Not because the United States of America is a perfect democracy - its history of imperfection has filled many a book and will continue to do so - but because it is a land where the individual, in his work and in his rights, is recognized and defended. Sometimes better, sometimes worse - but always defended.
Whatever the Communist Party once was, today it is a prison for man's best and boldest dreams. Tomorrow belongs to those who break down the prison walls that enclose the minds of men, not to those who support such walls. For mankind, the promise of tomorrow always has been and always will be the widening of intellect and horizon - in ever greater vistas of individual freedom.
HOWARD FAST, born in New York City in 1914, for over twelve years made one of the showpieces of the American Communist Party. One of the best-selling authors alive (translations of novels like "Freedom Road" and "Citizen Tom Paine" ran into millions of copies), in his work Fast has always expressed a powerful faith in the sense and aspirations of the Common Man; that this successful artist should have chosen Communism was certainly a feather in its cap. But now all that is history.