Masses & Mainstream
April, 1957, pp 55-56
MORE COMMENTS ON HOWARD FAST
Louis Harap, Editor, Jewish Life
Deep and even ultimate questions are precipitated by Howard Fast's explanation for leaving the communist movement. Here I can only note a few personal thoughts on the matter.
Howard Fast gives as his first reason that this was the only "meaningful and purposeful" form that he could give to his "extreme protest" at the shocking revelations of past months. One can understand and sympathize with his shattering recoil from these events. Socialists will spend many years of searching thought and analysis to explain how such inhumanity and anti-socialist occurrences could take place in the first socialist country. And communists and friends of socialism will have to work for years to efface the legacy of these tragic events.
But was Howard Fast's the only or even the most effective mode of protest? Could he not be more effective through fraternal discussion and criticism from within the movement?
Howard Fast's indictment of Soviet ethics seems to me swayed by emotion to the point of distortion. There is far more to the question of Soviet ethics than the totally negative, oversimplified picture that he paints. This can be illustrated from his allusions to the Jewish question in the USSR.
It is apparent that the brutal, anti-socialist treatment of Soviet Yiddish culture and the execution of outstanding Jewish writers and leaders, as well as recent Soviet policy bearing on the Jews, played a large part in bringing Howard Fast to his decision. One can understand his reaction, even if one does not agree with the consequences he draws. For there can be no mitigation of the violations of socialist theory and morality with respect to the Jews, as well as other nationalities, which are by now established facts.
But for Howard Fast these constitute the whole picture, which it is not. There are equally indefeasible facts that must figure in any overall evaluation. There are few more radically democratic acts in history to compare with the Soviet policy toward formerly oppressed nations and nationalities, even if the picture is marred by the crimes of the Stalin regime. The first socialist country did institute equality for the Jews of the Soviet Union. From the classic land of oppression in old Russia, the Soviet Union became a place where Soviet Jews took their place in leading positions at every level and in every corner of Soviet life. The saving of hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Polish Jews from Hitler annihilation by evacuation to the Far East during the war was no small aspect of Soviet policy toward the Jews. One contemporary fact tells volumes: while Jews form about one and a half per cent of the total population, about ten per cent of all Soviet scientists are Jews (24,620 out of 223,893). There are about 260,000 Jews in the Communist Party apparatus, in government, in industry and the professions today.
But it would be no less a distortion of the true situation to limit oneself to such facts than to dwell wholly on the negative side of the picture, as Howard Fast does in his statement. It is true that a wave of discrimination that inspired fear among the Jews took place in the "black years" between 1948 and 1953. What seems to me a theory of "integration" that amounted in reality to forced assimilation prevailed during those years. Unfortunately, from evidence available to us, this false application of the theory of integration is still made by many Soviet leaders today. A number of measures for the revival of Yiddish culture have been taken since 1954. But it appears that the right of Jews to Jewish cultural expression in the freest and effective sense is still a subject of debate among policy-makers, since projects, such as a Soviet Yiddish theater, are still in the discussion stage.
Any total judgment of the situation is therefore complex. But Howard Fast's view as expressed in his statement is lopsided and, it seems to me, not calculated to be helpful toward a restoration of the socialist approach to the Jewish question that prevailed until the middle thirties. Communists outside the Soviet Union have the responsibility to engage in fraternal discussion with the Soviet party to make a genuinely socialist approach to the Jewish question once more operative.
Protest is not enough; efforts toward correction are the best form of protest. Can this not best be done from within the communist movement?
Howard Fast gives as his second reason for leaving the communist movement that he believes it to be "compromised" to the point of ineffectuality. I cannot share his certainty on this point. It is decidedly premature, it seems to me, to have such a definitive view. A great number of valuable advocates of socialism are organized in this movement. Many of them have shown that they grasp the need for radical reorientation to the problem of American socialist action. Who can say at this point that this new approach will not in time - not tomorrow, perhaps after a few years-bring the communists back into acceptance as a valid American force? Whether they will is not a question of theory nor is it a subject for speculation. The answer will be determined by how they actually work. The fact that they are the largest organized Marxist grouping in this country makes it highly important for the future of American socialism that the attempt to regain their place in American life should be made.