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Masses & Mainstream
April, 1957, pp 51-54


Joseph Starobin

Listening to Howard Past's outcry of "mental anguish and turmoil" in the March issue of Mainstream, the normal instinct urges respectful silence. A man has been hurt in broad daylight, his guts spilling blood in the streets, and he screams in pain. "Something broke inside of me, and finished," he cries. "A lifelong structure of belief lies chartered around me." He feels himself "the victim of the most incredible swindle of modern times."
These are terrible words, and no doubt this is how he feels. It is the moment of unspeakable misery which is captured so often by the photographers, the ones who win the prizes: it is the photo of the mother, losing her grip on the child as the boat goes down, the moment when the automobile mounts the curb and crashes into peaceful bystanders. What shall we say? It is the visage of agony, of horror, "the moment of truth," as the followers of the bullfights say.
Truth about what? About whom?
Some will say that Howard Fast is talking about crimes in the Soviet Union, of Jewish writers murdered in their prime, about Hungary. Very well. But about the tragedy of himself, he tells us little, and little has been said. Yet, until we talk about this, we do not know for whom to weep and we do not understand our own share in the guilt.
The real crime took place to a talented young man who became a myth, and was compelled to live up to the obligations of a world myth beyond his own power to do so. What was done to Howard Fast by his own religious prostration before what should have been a rational, scientific cause is just as much the commentary on the Soviet leaders and on the American Communist Party as those great crimes which he now indicts with anguish.
Here was a young writer, one of the many writers and artists of talent who came to be influenced by Communist thought and activity over this quarter of a century. He came with a fine gift for story-telling, and a sense of the great themes of his country's history; with great activity he wove these into books that were remarkable for their narrative skill and emotional quality; these were the promises of an important novelist. Such a man needed the work and the self-restraints without which the artist cannot grow; he needed to beware glibness, and he needed the warmth of comradely criticism; he needed humility and the suffering of human experience.
Instead Howard Fast had a reckless romance with the bitch-goddess of success, that traducer against whom William James had warned Americans. In the Communist Party, Howard Fast found adulation; and if I may use the harsh word-exploitation. But he did not find or could never accept the criticism to shape him, the standards to become better as a man and writer. And he reveled in what he should have resisted.
When he tells us now that he has just discovered in the American Communist Party "a destroying rigidity and unbendingness, a narrowing of approach and purpose that made it impossible for many good people to remain within it" so many of us shake our heads. What a strange man! For even now, in this moment of truth, how little does he recognize it.
For Howard became in the Communist Party the oracle on every issue from Negro rights to socialist realism; he ran for office on tickets that weren't his own, and headed every conceivable committee, took the floor each time without saying too much, refused the pleas of his best editors to revise his first drafts, published the best novel of the year every year. A man of energy, and yes, of courage; he took his turn in prison when persecution stalked the land and cut the tongues of a generation.
But throughout it all he neither grew as a writer nor gained wisdom as a man. He exhibited such a destroying rigidity and unbendingness, such a narrowing of approach and purpose that so many good people - shall I name their names? - found it impossible to contribute of their gifts and skills in a Left which had lost all sense of proportion about Howard Fast. He was a spokesman for us, and when he spoke we were too often ashamed, but said nothing. Many leaders of the American Communist Party knew this was as destructive of him as it was of everyone else. They did nothing to stop it.
For what intervened and aggravated the matter was the world audience, and those who molded it. The Soviet leaders needed a mythological Howard Fast and they invented him even at the cost of damaging the real one. They needed a certain portrait of American life; for a whole era they had kept their own hard-working folk from understanding contemporary America, its good and its bad, through Faulkner and Hemingway and Richard Wright, Eudora Welty and others. A no-man's land existed because the truth was not being told. It had to be filled. Whether he was the American intellectual in fact was a less important question to the Russians than the fact that he was on their side. It can be argued that the fault was not their own; they were borrowing an emerging image created over here. Yet I feel it was blind and reckless of them. It was something less than opportunism on their part if the mentors of Soviet culture knew no better. But Ehrenburg and Fadeyev and Simonov knew better.
Howard Fast thus became the vehicle for a deception of which he was also the first victim. Instead of asking himself whether it was wholesome that a world audience increased while his own people found each successive book less important, he rode the gap. He won the prizes, was photographed with the happy children of beaming - and temporary - consular officials at the UN cocktail parties, and accepted the invitations to write on every conceivable subject for distant magazines whose editors cabled him as though he were a world power. Benjamin Franklin, in his beaver hat at Passy, would have found it all amusing. Howard was not amused. He was in dead earnest.
There are those who will now derive a certain satisfaction that it should be Howard Fast who now denounces the Soviet leaders and their works. The irony is obvious. I have no sympathy for the way the Soviet leaders have behaved: their society should never have been taken as the model for what we wish to build, and it is not that today. But Howard's indictment is as extravagant and oversimplified as his passion used to be. The deep sickness of contemporary Socialism, of which the Stalin era was a symptom, lies not only in what was terrible and wrong over there; it lies in what was done to Howard Fast.
American radicalism now faces a redefinition of first principles. American Socialists face new beginnings, and the reasons long antedate the Soviet 20th Congress. Despite the nostalgic hopes of Mainstream's editors, I doubt very much whether the things that have to be done will be done by the American Communist Party, however much its present or past members may contribute.
In the re-doing of an American radical movement, all sorts of men will be needed, men and women of a certain evangelism. However, we shall not be able to do our thinking with our hearts, but with our heads. There will have to be a sense of proportion, a sense of the tragic in life and a lot of hard work. The bright lights, the hoopla will yield us little.
Writers and artists will be joining to refashion an American Left, for the ivory-tower is no answer. But they will be themselves, and become better writers and artists, and they will leave it to history to judge which of them are world-personalities. It will do little good to edify minions of peasants of other countries in the process of becoming workers unless American workers find something meaningful and durable in such writers and artists.
All of us need each other's help. The tragedy is everyone's. We all let it happen. But how is a man to be helped who is not listening, and who is not listening because he hasn't stopped talking? For example, when Howard concludes his outcry in Mainstream with a ringing testimonial to "that most splendid thing, American Democracy...." I feel like shouting: "Hold it, fellers, here we go again."
Yes, a vital thing, this democratic tradition which is the fruit of so much suffering, so different from what other peoples have had to start with, so much the terrain for great battles to come. But let us talk about it with a small "d." We do not need anything in capital letters any more. The capitalizers have caused us all - and themselves - too much damage. This will never lead us out of capitalism.