paper presented at the 1996 NASA
Conference, June 5-7, 1996 "Writing Lives: American Biography and
Autobiography, Roosevelt Study Center, Middelburg, the Netherlands
(announced as "The Crisis of Autobiography in Howard Fast"). University of
Liverpool (to be published with conference papers, 1997).
Howard Fast and the Shape of the Political Memoir
by David Seed
In the late 1940s and through the 1950s there appeared a special form of autobiography in the USA: narratives of individuals' recantation from Communism. The paradigm of religious conversion had been freely drawn on in accounts like "How I became a Socialist", whether by William Morris or Jack London. Now the paradigm shifted and turned the notion of conversion on its head. Now the story was "How I stopped being a Communist". These memoirs were accounts of deconversion. Characteristically the subject would register an unfocused but nagging social concern with poverty in America and then find a higher collective purpose in his/her commitment to the Communist Party. But conversion figured not as a culmination, more as a preliminary step to a niggling rise in doubts about the activities of the party. These doubts would reach a particular critical point where the individual would renounce this false faith and make an alternative commitment. Broadly speaking, these memoirs fall into two categories: there are the narratives of figures like Elizabeth Bentley (the so-called "red spy queen"), Louis Budenz, or Whittaker Chambers who all figure their deconversion as a return to a lost national collectivity and who then made a career as ex-Communists by "naming names" in a whole series of hearings and court cases1. Then there were the more intellectual writers like those gathered in Richard Crossman's 1949 collection The God That Failed (Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, and others) or Howard Fast, who recorded their process of disillusionment without participating in the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. Indeed for his pains Fast was imprisoned for refusing to give names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Howard Fast was a special case in being the most widely known author in the American Communist Party. He joined in 1943, a very late date, coming after the Moscow trials and Soviet-Nazi pact which had both played their parts in disillusioning members. Then, always with a shrewd eye on historical timing, Fast announced his departure from the party in 1957 soon after Krushchev's secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress where he revealed the extent of Stalin's monstrosities. Fast produced two memoirs of this period. The Naked God (1957) was a product of anger as Fast has subsequently explained: "I was furious with what I considered a betrayal of good will by a large part of the leadership of the
Communist Party2". This work then was an immediate response within the Cold War context. His more recent memoir Being Red (1990) represents a quieter more reflective account after those particular political circumstances had passed.
Fast categorizes The Naked God as an "essay" but strictly speaking it combines two genres: the political memoir and the satirical essay. It was also written, odd as it may sound, to reassert his own existence, because as soon as Fast announced his departure the Soviet authorities tried to airbrush him out of history: "I ceased to exist and began never to have been in one-sixth of the earth's surface3". Fast structures his account around a number of tropes from the period where like Louis Budenz, he compared Communist membership to temporary imprisonment, or where like Whittaker Chambers, he figures recantation as awaking from a nightmare. The dominant trope he uses, however, figured again and again in the period: Communism-as-religion. This had been established in The God That Failed where Richard Crossman pointed out that "the Communist novice, subjecting his soul to the canon law of the Kremlin, felt something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom4". Fast shifts the analogy slightly by positing a more predatory god and by representing Communism as a demonic force consuming the individual's autonomy. The manifestation of party authority is focused indignantly on the commissar who functions as Big Brother and whose "role, in the deepest sense is to replace the responsibility of conscience5". Fast satirizes Communism as a mystical and mystifying cult with its own magical practices, throwing back in its teeth the party's claims of modern scientific analysis, and describing his period within its membership as a prolonged trial.
Although he insisted on his continuing commitment to socialism, Fast was entering a discourse promoted particularly by the political right. His avowed enemy J. Edgar Hoover had characterized Communism as a "secular religion with its own crusade against an alien creed6". The political analyst Hannah Arendt rather unfairly accused the ex-Communist of unconsciously reflecting Communists in seeing the "whole texture of our time in terms of one great dichotomy ending in a final battle" but so far as we know, Hoover did not fit into either of her categories7. Rather Hoover and Fast were articulating their political positions within the dualistic terms of the Cold War mindset which lines up stark opposites like freedom and servitude.
Fast situates his own memoir explicitly within the tradition of the Judaic/Protestant creed that "the individual's responsibility [is] to his own soul and to his own conscience8".
Here he had a precedent in the novelist Richard Wright whose doubts about the Communist Party were brought to crisis point when he witnessed the trial of a member called Ross. Wright had made various unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the party's cultural organizations but always suffered rebuffs. The trial brought home to him with a vengeance how estranged the party authorities had become from their own members. In a paragraph not included in The God That Failed Wright generalizes his perception of the total mismatch between party professed aims and means: "The heritage of free thought, -which no man could escape if he read at all,- the spirit of the Protestant ethic which one suckled, figuratively, with one's mother's milk, the self-generating energy that made a man feel, whether he realized it or not, that he had to work and redeem himself through his own acts, all this was forbidden, taboo9." This totalizing statement assembles a series of identifications between literacy, cultural consciousness, and the drive to salvation then erased as it were by fiat.
Fast too sees his temporary commitment to Communism in negative terms as a Faustian pact with the devil where the convert sells his soul in return for the promise of collective redemption. It is only when he can detach himself from that political collectivity that he can begin his own personal struggle for salvation. But it is easy to exaggerate the personal dimension to this memoir. The Naked God is a tract for the times warning of a kind of experience. Fast presents himself as a kind of autobiographical exemplum at every point. He joins the party like so many members of his generation; he tries to harness his writing to political ends like so many other writers; and he places his own memoir within a master narrative. Summing up he declares: "while my own brief story may seem such a small part of the whole, it has a reason for being and a deep meaning too. The endless slights, hurts, indignities and broken hopes that a person like myself endures in the Communist Party are of small moment. What is important is the brief history of how the priest-commissars functioned to destroy me as a writer" (emphasis added)10. Fast suppresses personal detail throughout his memoir so as not to compromise his self-appointed status as a typical instance. And his friend and former section leader John Gates similarly entitled his own 1958 memoir The Story of an American Communist. Both writers contextualize their own stories within an ongoing democratic revolution, but with considerable doubts about whether that process would ever be completed.
If Fast describes the Communist Party as an organization devoted to erasing individuality then for him the writer represents a uniquely heightened form of that individuality. "The writer is a singular and lonely person", he declares; and he combines Protestantism and existentialism to depict the writer as struggling with inner visions and as a figure condemned to freedom bound to his/her own historical circumstances to bear witness11. If the Communist Party is committed to enforcing literary orthodoxy - and Fast cites examples of attempted censorship of his own works as well as those of his fellow novelists Albert Maltz and Early Conrad - and if it represents a threat to individuality, then by implication the very publication of The Naked God represents for Fast a triumph over these attempted suppressions. More than a narrative of political experience then, the memoir theorizes its own enactment as a kind of testimony. And this self-reflexive dimension is developed into a major organizing principle in Being Red.
Here when Fast describes the "life that happened to me" (as if the experiencing self were passive) and oscillates between using the pronoun "I" and referring to Fast as a third person, he is designating the objectification of his own experience. It is logical for him to foreground the process of reading throughout because he insists that his primary ambition was to become a writer. Before he becomes a successful writer, though, he is a reader, responding positively to Jack London's prediction of fascistic tyranny in The Iron Heel. Fast might have enjoyed it, but a woman who has not read it warns him that it is a "bolshevik" book. Fast ingenuously glosses the Russian meaning of the term ("majority") but also recognizes that its usage in America makes it tantamount to evil. The point is not that the woman misunderstands London but rather that by reading and writing Fast is entering into a network of cultural processes, a cycle of textual consumption and reporting within which Being Red tacitly situates itself. Throughout his memoir Fast wavers between a Jamesian notion of the writer as a sensitive recipient of data (a "delicate sheet of foil on which the world prints its impressions") and an activist within the arena of public political debate, a "citizen artist" like Albert Maltz12. His entry into the Communist Party coincides with the runaway success of his novel about the post-Civil war South, Freedom Road (1944), which W.E.B. DuBois promoted as a counter to the "distortion of history"13. Basing his claim partly on Soviet bibliographical statistics, Fast describes his novel as the "most widely printed and read book of the twentieth century14".
This high point in Fast's professional fortunes marks a period against which we can measure the pressures of the Cold War. There is no clear starting point for these pressures, only a tiny sign in the reviews of his works where the term "tendentious" begins to appear. Now Fast's own texts are produced in evidence in official hearings like his pamphlet The Incredible Tito in the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of the Anti-Fascist Refugee Fund. Fast's pun in the title of his memoir yokes together two opposites in his narrative. As the public image of "Fast the red" takes shape, official pressure builds up to destroy his existing books and block their publication. Fast's research assistant for his memoir secured a copy of his FBI file and Fast looks back on his earlier life as a text which can function as a "testament" (his own choice of term) to posterity. But at the time Hoover and his agents blocked Columbia from making a film from his novel The Last Frontier, coerced the Jewish Book Council into removing Fast's name from the list of awards, and warned leading publishers not to handle his books. The novel Spartacus made a test case. When Fast had completed the manuscript the reader's report declared: "I haven't the slightest doubt but that if this novel had any other name on it than that of Howard Fast, it would become a best seller15". And a best seller it became, but only after Fast published it himself. In other words authorship served to block publication, not promote it, and Fast by his own account found himself at the centre of an FBI orchestrated hate campaign waged through the media. J. Edgar Hoover therefore fills the gap left by Stalin in The Naked God as the source of hostile directives never given as text and therefore unavailable to be read. If Being Red is a memoir about the reading process and FBI attempts to control it, there is every consistency to Fast quoting a key episode from his report on the 1949 Paul Robeson concert held at Peekskill in the Hudson Valley. This event was broken up by members of the American Legion bawling "kill a Commie for Christ" and at one point they seize Fast's books and set fire to them. In this "they reenacted the Nuremberg book burning, which had become a world symbol of fascism. Standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again"16. Fast inserts a long passage from his Peekskill report in his memoir claiming to have made "small changes and deletions" but in fact there are large portions of the text published in the Soviet Union which are cut out, especially those which diagnose a wholesale corruption of the American people or the gloss on the book-burning which reads it as apocalyptic theatre. The legionnaires dance round the fire "so symbolic of the death of civilization"17. The historical contextualization of the whole episode as a stage in the transformation of the USA towards fascism and World War III is completely missing from the quoted excerpt, slightly sanitizing the narrative; and also Fast retrospectively counters the conspiracy of silence which prevented any substantial mention of these events in the press.
A purpose running through Fast's account is to reduce the public perception of Communist activity in the postwar period, not through factual documentation but by foregrounding the term itself. So he writes: "A Communist did not exist in the flesh; he was a symbol, a semantic image, an idea, a trigger word"18. Noone played a more prominent role in the demonization of the term than Hoover who in Masters of Deceit (1958) warned the public that "the Communist Party, USA, works day and night to further the communist plot in America. Virtually invisible to the non-communist eye, unhampered by time, distance, and legality, this bolshevik transmission is in progress"19. Hoover hints at a hidden organization, scarcely visible and therefore apparently all-powerful. And in a tribal appeal to his readers he lines up a powerful set of identifications between Communism, aggression and the alien. Fast counters this by minimizing the acts of Communists in his memoir, stressing the native tradition of American socialism, and transposing the term "alien" on to Truman's executive order for the loyalty oaths as a divergence from the main current of American history. And when he describes the boring routine of party meetings the reader's presumption of malign conspiracy is written into the text as a querulous voice: "Is this the red menace that has been hammered into our minds for two generations, the enemy of all that is good and decent in our society? Alas, it is. But these are dupes. These are not the real commies. Alas, no; these are the real commies. If it were a trade union branch, they would have been discussing their role in a strike..."20 The best way to remove an image of demonic threat is to present the party as simply ordinary, or naive. Fast repositions himself within the trope of party-as-church which he uses for satirical affect throughout The Naked God. Now the true believers form a collectivity including himself: "we were romantics; like or priesthood, we were dedicated to the brotherhood of man"21.
Being Red then is designed as a revisionist memoir, softening his earlier rejection of Communism and the public image of the party. For that reason Fast exploits at least three paradigms in his memoir which begins by describing his service in the Office of War Information when the Voice of America was being established. This was a brief period (1942-4) when "the whole face and image of the United States had been handed to me"22. This was the time when he was being heard since he drew on the latest military and naval intelligence to compose news reports to occupied countries. In other words it marked a unique time of national centrality for Fast. Though it begins the text, it actually marked an ending or culmination of the immigrant rags-to-riches story as Fast inched his way from poor origins on the Lower East Side to eventual prosperity. The second, and for him equally important, sequence paralleling these material developments was the life of the mind. From an early age Fast was an omnivorous reader and this reading fed his ambition to write. So at the end of the twenties, he declares, "I began to think" and this sequence too had culminated by the 1940s in professional success and political maturity. The stage is set then for the third paradigm to begin. The pattern followed by most ex-Communist memoirs is to highlight the exhilaration of joining the party and to depict leaving it as a point of agonizing uncertainty. Although Fast describes his experiences in the party from 1943 to 1957 he depresses the significance of the points of entry ("simply an act of assent") and departure. Both acts emerge as historically inevitable, but then Fast's sense of history in Being Red is contradictory and ambiguous.
First of all he disingenuously exaggerates his own lack of education: "never having had enough education to become a proper intellectual, I have spent my life dealing with facts and events... I have tried to write these events as I experienced them, with no broader perspective than I had at the time..."23 The image of the halting Fast naively recalling his youth simply does not hold water, nor does his suggestion that a "fact" and "event" can be described without some mediating coloration of context. Fast is constantly moving to and fro in his account, stressing his ignorance retrospectively, contextualizing his experiences within larger political situations, and using vividly rendered local episodes sometimes to challenge official history. An example of the latter comes when he meets the physicist Joliot-Curie in 1946. Their dialogue is given verbatim, Fast evidently being gifted with total recall just for a moment. The physicist tells him that the Russians already possess the atomic bomb, but then Truman announces this fact to the public three years later as if new then. Fast has recently confirmed that history was always an abiding interest for him: "It has been a passion of my life to try to dig out the truth about the American past"24. But he concludes his memoir by acknowledging the fugitive nature of history: ..."when one writes of a fluid situation, changed already in the memory of those who lived through it and fated to endless change in the future as each generation rewrites history"25. Fast's practice is rather less radical than this proposition suggests. Although he depicts vivid local episodes other than an explicit continuous narrative, he never quite loses sight of a master narrative where, for example, the New Deal comes to a final end or where the superpowers are taking their respective postures for the Cold War. The so-called fluidity of history conveniently supplies him with a rationalization for not closing off his own memoir narrative.
1 For discussion of the historical context v. Victor S. Navasky, Naming Names (London: John Calder, 1982).
2 Alan Wald and Alan Filreis, "A Conversation with Howard Fast, March 23, 1994", Prospects 20 (1995): 511.
3 Howard Fast, The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party (London: Bodley Head, 1958), 8.
4 Richard Crossman, ed., The God That Failed: Six Studies in Communism (London: Right Book Club, 1949), 12.
5 Fast, Naked God, 130.
6 J. Edgar Hoover, Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America (London: Dent, 1958), 323.
7 Hannah Arendt, "The Ex-Communists", Commonweal, 20 March 1953, 596.
8 Fast, Naked God, 129.
9 Richard Wright, American Hunger (London: Victor Gollancz, 1978), 120; originally written in 1940s.
10 Fast, Naked God, 131.
11 Ibid., 85, 135. Fast quotes from Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism ("man is condemned to be free").
12 Fast, Being Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 7.
13 W.E.B. DuBois, "Foreword", Freedom Road (London: Severn House, 1980), vi.
14 Fast, Being Red, 85.
15 Ibid., 287.
16 Ibid., 234.
17 Peekskill: USA (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954), 46.
18 Fast, Being Red, 208.
19 Hoover, Masters, 81.
20 Fast, Being Red, 90.
21 Ibid., 138.
22 Ibid., 10.
23 Ibid., 61.
24 Wald, "A Conversation", 520.
25 Fast, Being Red, 355.