The best among the Communist novelists, or at any rate the most energetic, the one with the largest reputation, was Howard Fast. Turning out a book virtually every year, he did not seem to be aware that Marxism had collapsed in the forties. It was a productivity made possible first by a consistent adherence to the assumptions and method of dialectical materialism, so that he had no need to grope about for his pattern or his ideas; and, second, by his indifference to language, which permitted him to rush from book to book without concern for the bathos of his unrestrained expression or the inaccuracy of his ear. He was aided also by what I might call the typology of communism: all the characters fit into pre-established master categories, so that each character in a book is no more than the fulfilment of a typical figure whose lineaments have been set in a mold. It is a question, of course, whether the dialectical tension of the class struggle, when incorporated into fiction, can yield a satisfying conception of human nature. The demands of the dialectic easily induce the writer to give in to the blandishments of the stereotype. Fast does not put up much of a fight in this respect. He is like other Communist writers, furthermore, in exploiting the class war in economic terms, armed conflict in revolutionary terms, and the struggle of the oppressed for freedom in social terms. But he does make one special contribution. Using the Marxist interpretation of history, he undertakes the rewriting of the American story in events or episodes stretching from the Revolution to the end of the nineteenth century. He tries, not systematically but persistently, to capture the long heritage of American radicalism, as one critic has said of him, and to make American Communists as distinctly American as French Communists are French.
This is a hazardous enterprise. Not the least of its difficulties is the application of an inflexible dogma to a democratic culture that has produced an open society dependent for its health on the possibility of variety and choice. But Fast is not one to ponder his difficulties. If Americans believe in freedom he is ready to apotheosize the struggle for freedom, especially as it is made by traditionally oppressed groups in America -- the ethnic minorities. Indeed, he employs a special kind of selective vision in his rewriting of American history, for he sees only those groups or those incidents which conveniently illustrate the points he wants to make. In The Last Frontier (1941), for example, the minority group he chooses is the Indian. The event is the flight of a band of Cheyennes from an Oklahoma reservation where they had been arbitrarily placed by the federal government; they want to go back to their home in the Black Hills. This is a flight to freedom, and those who oppose it become the victims of moral disintegration as the price of their ethnic antagonisms. Oppression of a minority group replaces the class struggle in this novel, but in Freedom Road (1944) Fast is able to include, in his technique of selective vision, oppression of a minority group and the class struggle. This story tells of the growth of free Negro communities in the Reconstruction South. These communities are wrecked, ultimately, by the old southern aristocrats who wish to re-establish their power. Thus we get in one package white supremacy over the Negro and aristocrat versus working man.
And the fight for freedom is a constant, in many instances a real fight in which men have recourse to arms. For Fast believes in the glorification of revolution as a part of the American heritage. In Freedom Road he justifies revolutionary activity on the constitutional grounds that men are permitted, as a part of the citizen militia, to bear arms. He seems to me chiefly interested in the implications of this constitutional provision for a people's uprising. He would encourage the notion that in America men can and should fight for their rights. This revolutionary theme is most prominent in Citizen Tom Paine (1943). Fast conceives Paine as the first professional revolutionary the world has ever known. In this novel he treats the American Revolution as a war on two fronts: the fight against the British, and the civil war at home between the people and an aristocracy of money and family which seeks to make a counter-revolution. If Fast had been able to work into this novel an economic interpretation of the Revolution to go with his theories of class war and counter-revolution, he would have had a total Marxist explanation to set before us. It might be noted in passing that the historical record presents a considerable body of evidence to sustain the view that the professional, mercantile, planting aristocracy made the Revolution and supported it, having a great stake in it, and that the common people had a propensity for the role of summer soldier.
Fast's concern with revolutionary activity is not an abstract matter, not the disinterested play of the intellect over the American historical scene. He is always drawing the implicit parallel between the historic struggle for freedom and the same struggle in our time. He never forgets that in the Marxist view literature is a weapon. Perhaps The Unvanquished (1942) illustrates these points more directly than any other of his novels. It is a dull, unvarnished effort at hero worship as it draws a portrait of Washington developing into a confident military leader. It makes the point--the same point that Fast made before and continues to make--that an indomitable spirit moves men to fight for freedom. Could this novel, with its naive picture of the father of our country who inspires respect and love, have any relation to the party slogan, Communism is good Americanism? When the 1939 pact was signed, the party hindered the American war effort in every way possible. After June 22, 1941, the date Hitler marched into Russia, the Communists in America, according to Daniel Bell, became the exemplars of patriotism. It is not farfetched, in my opinion, to regard The Unvanquished as a specific act of patriotic piety in the new Communist campaign to identify the party with the national tradition and the contemporary war aims of the nation.
The argument that this novel was especially timely gains some credence from the fact that Washington, the fox-hunting aristocrat, is not the typical Fast hero. Paine and John Peter Altgeld, men of the people, are more useful to Fast's pattern. Because it is the people who are good--the working man, the dirt farmer, the labor leader--and all others who are bad. This is the simplistic conception of man and life that a propagandistic purpose forces upon the Communist novelist. It entails the sentimentalization and idealization of minority groups or oppressed workers, of whoever it is that is struggling upward toward freedom. It involves the distortion of American history, which must be seen without depth and nuance, as character is seen. If it serves Fast's purpose, as it does in one novel, then Thaddeus Stevens must be put forward as a gold-plated hero, with no questions asked about the motives and nature of his Reconstruction policy. It argues that the good society will produce the good man, and is content that it has made a total explanation of human nature and society both. In short, Fast reveals the failure of the American Communist party novel. One must grant him his generous feeling for the underdog and the crude energy he sometimes shows in handling bald narrative. But the inadequacies of Marxism in accounting for the vagaries, for the significance, of human experience as revealed in history or in individual lives are all too apparent in his work.pp 90-93, Chapter Four: Fiction and the Liberal Reassessment