For many years Howard Fast the Communist obscured our view of Howard Fast the writer. Flaunting contempt at Congress, issuing tracts against "bourgeois, decadent" authors, rallying sympathy for the Soviet Union, he stood between us and his books and kept us from a special insight into the intellect of an American Communist. Fast, who has left the party, may have represented, in some ways, the essence of America's own brand of communism. The clues to understanding him as a Communist lie in understanding him as a writer.
Fast's novels had tremendous circulation in the Communist world after World War II and, in fact, enjoyed much popularity here until the press advertised his link with the Communist Party in the late 1940s. His Soviet popularity ended when he left the party in 1957. Although his resignation helped reopen doors to American publishers and movie producers, most of the fiction of his Communist period has remained unread here. We have slipped Fast into our stereotype of the ex-Communist and perfunctorily welcomed him as one more defector who finally has seen the light.
The stereotype of the ex-Communist intellectual was fixed in that notable book, The God That Failed, which in 1949 presented the impressions of six men who broke from the party after years of membership or association. Editor Richard Crossman described this pattern for the group: Disgusted with their own societies and seeking an antidote for fascism, they saw communism as a vision of the kingdom of God on earth. "Devotion to pure utopia, and revolt against a polluted society," wrote Arthur Koestler, one of the six, "are. . . the two poles which provide the tension of all militant creeds." When the utopian vision clashed with the reality of the Soviet Union, Koestler and the others left the party.
Fast, in recent attempts at self-analysis, tends to use the characteristics of the Crossman group in describing himself. "My own generation of youth, bitter, robbed of any other hope, accepted that canonization [of the October Revolution and its aftermath], and many of us dedicated our lives to a struggle that used us up and left us, in our middle age, soulsick and angry with the shattering of the Soviet illusion," he wrote in a recent article in Midstream. Yet there are differences. No matter how robbed and bitter Fast's youth became during the depression, he never had the sense of a polluted society that Koestler had when he joined the party in the waning moments of the Weimar Republic. When life seemed most bitter, Fast remained on the periphery of the party. He became a member only after the democracies began to show their greatest strength as battlers against fascism.
Fast even differed from such American Communists as John Gates, the party leader who quit several months after Fast did. Gates, who led an unsuccessful revolt against the rest of the leadership, wanted the party to adapt itself to American traditions. Fast also wanted to base his communism on American traditions but his approach was different. Gates wanted the party to move closer to American life, because he considered that necessary if communism intended to grow in the United States. Fast, on the other hand, viewed communism as the natural development of American democracy and history. This naïve, distorted political perception, this confusion of democracy with communism, is a trait of Fast that we can uncover in even the briefest survey of his fiction.
The vision of a utopian future guided Fast through fiction and communism. He expressed it early and completely. "It would be a people's government for the people," he wrote in Citizen Tom Paine (1943), "a government to see that no man starved and no man wanted, to see that hate and misery and crime disappeared through education and enlightenment. . . . There would be an end of war, an end of kings and despots. Christ would come to earth in the simple goodness of all men. . . ."
Fast never has been clear about how to attain this utopia. At first, he assumed that the example of early America would lead the world there, and he set out to glorify the American Revolution in a series of novels. Misunderstanding much of its character, he viewed the Revolution solely as the beginning of a world struggle for liberty. Later, dissatisfied with the state of political freedom in twentieth-century America, he also grew dissatisfied with his interpretation of her early history. He started to look elsewhere for examples to inspire more struggles for liberty.
Significantly, he never used the Soviet Union as an example. He turned instead to the slaves of Rome and the ancient Jews. But his description of their struggles for freedom did not clear up his vagueness about how to achieve his goal. Through suffering and struggle, he said, freedom can be won, at least for awhile. He never was more concrete than that. Even since his break with communism, Fast has kept his utopian goal and his confusion about how to get there.
Fast's early books about the American Revolution reveal his dream of America: a land of freedom, fighting slavery throughout the world. In essence, his description begins as a simple ode to freedom, with no complications, no questions asked. A Jewish soldier, talking to his comrades at Valley Forge in Conceived in Liberty (1939), comes closest to defining Fast's early view of what America could be: ". . . the land for the dream of God in man."
By choice of hero, Fast amplified the universal aspects of the American Revolution in Citizen Tom Paine (1943). The emphasis in this book lies almost wholly on the world significance of the colonies' struggle. Mankind, according to Fast, received two things from the Revolution: an example and a promise. The example was the "awkward, stumbling, self-conscious first citizen army the world had ever known." The promise was, as Paine tells the Philadelphia militia, "We are the beginning, and we are making a new world."
When we consider that Fast joined the Communist party in 1943, the same year Citizen Tom Paine was published, the difference between a Communist like Arthur Koestler and one like Fast becomes apparent. Koestler, after rebelling against a polluted society, sought a utopia. Fast reversed the emphasis and sought the utopia first. While his society may have dissatisfied him, he did not view it as polluted and, in fact, found the vision of his utopia in the folklore of the society itself. The Communist Party became, for Fast, an American way of achieving an American end.
Not until he joined the party did Fast seriously start to criticize America. His first attempts to describe pollution in American society came with Freedom Road (1944) and The American (1946).
Although Freedom Road ends with a tribute to the unconquerable memory of Gideon Jackson, a former slave who becomes a congressman and then dies at the hand of the Klan, it is Fast's most despairing book. The Klan wipes out all, nothing remains of the democratic achievement of a few white and Negro farmers working and learning together in Reconstruction. The destruction was so great, Fast claimed, that "powerful forces" have kept the history of such successful experiments from the American people. His picture of Reconstruction was as all black as his picture of the Revolution had been all white.
The American, a biographical novel about John Peter Altgeld, reveals a more subtle and significant disillusion with American society. Altgeld, the governor of Illinois who pardoned the Haymarket martyrs in 1893, fights corruption and plutocracy in American politics with complete faith in the system that bred these evils. "He was not a Debs, a Parsons," Fast told us. "He was a democratic politician, and, as some said, the best America had ever produced." Altgeld refuses to look outside the system for weapons but uses his political power and own money in the battle, only to lose because his opponents have more of both. Fast, now became certain that they always would have more of both, felt that Altgeld failed because the possibility for decency in American democracy had ended. Altgeld refuses the plea of Eugene V. Debs to look toward socialism and so, in Fast's view, rejects the only true weapon.
This failure signaled the cracking of Fast's first dream. Somehow he had equated a Communist utopia with his vision of America, but now he decided American society, past as well as present, was too polluted to sustain it. The industrialization of the nineteenth century, with the accompanying concentration of power and wealth, had stopped the movement of America toward Fast's utopia. He no longer felt that American democracy and communism had the same goal.
In the years between The American and Khrushchev's speech on Stalin in 1956, Fast followed two paths. He wrote a series of novels carping at contemporary life in the United States, and he wrote two novels exploring ancient battles for freedom in Rome and Israel. Clarkton (1947), Silas Timberman (1954) and The Story of Lola Gregg (1956) read like Communist analogues to the cheap bestseller or the roaring Western. They are characterized mainly by a ludicrous struggle between the bad guys (either strikebreakers or FBI agents) and the good guys (either Communists or fellow travelers) and by a complete lack of understanding of the American judicial system. These novels were weak as political statements because Fast had no clear notion of what his Communist utopia should be or how it should be attained. He did not look toward the Soviet Union as an example nor, any longer, toward the goals of early America, but contented himself with trying to pick faults in the society around him. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1953), a departure from Fast's main paths during this period, expressed his Communist dream most clearly, and it is a very vague expression.
In this novel, perhaps Fast's finest during the boycott years, a professor, who has worked in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, and a Communist discuss the meaning of the execution. "For you, when Sacco and Vanzetti die," the Communist tells the professor, "there will die with them all the hopes and dreams of justice and reason." Fast explained that the professor will weep but the Communist will join the dry-eyed. The dry-eyed "pledged themselves to a long memory and an absolute identification. They made notations in their own hearths and they drew up a balance sheet that extended as far back as the memory of mankind and the first whiplash on the first bent back. These dry-eyed ones said to themselves, 'There is a better way than weeping and a better way than tears.'" This discussion is our only clue to the role of communism in bringing about Fast's fuzzy dream of utopia.
The novels of ancient history tell us even less about communism, although we can find unsubtle allusion, like "Slaves of the world, we will cry out, 'Rise up and cast off your chains!'" in Spartacus (1951). This novel and My Glorious Brothers (1948) follow in many ways the thinking of the earlier novels about the American Revolution. Instead of having 1775 open a great battle for world freedom, Fast now assigns this role to the unsuccessful slave revolt against Rome and the Jewish uprising led by the Maccabees against Greek tyrants. These struggles, however, seem to be more important as precursors than as first steps. They change the world little, but give Fast an opportunity to pay tribute to what he considered the first outbursts against tyranny.
Although Fast did not leave the party until after Khrushchev's 1956 speech, a reading of the later novels makes it clear that that event was more a catalyst than a cause. The aimless generalizations in the novels of the late 1940s and the early 1950s indicate that communism without any special American character could not hold him. We can assume that Fast, never close to the leadership of the party, represented some attitudes of the emotional, intellectual, non-professional, rank-and-file member. From examination of Fast's work we can fit together a picture of this kind of American Communist.
Such members saw communism as firmly rooted in American traditions of freedom and, more important, could not believe in communism of convinced that it did not have these roots. For many, doubts about the absence of these roots came early. Fast, for example, had difficulties in the early fifties because his fervor for communism was destroying his fervor for America. And the more communism separated him from American traditions, the more Fast became separated from communism. His later novels, carping about modern America and extolling ancient struggles, gave Fast only a sense of aimlessness. He could not borrow fervor from foreign sources.
It would be hazardous to generalize from Fast about the difference between the American Communist Party and other Communist parties in the world. The strong nationalistic feeling that pervaded the party in the United States is certainly not unique. Moscow has its differences with Poland, Yugoslavia, China and, of course, Hungary, and the French and Italian parties are thoroughly involved in the political life and traditions of their countries. But, insofar as Fast's attitudes are typical, we may note at least this difference: other Communists attempt to improve their nations by applying what they consider an international or even a foreign technique; many American Communists, perhaps we should say many of those who have since left the party, attempted to improve their nation by guiding it up what they considered a natural next step for American democracy. American Communists, deluded into thinking of themselves as super patriots, may have been less conscious of the international aspects of communism than Communists elsewhere. At least, Fast was less so.
Since his break with the party, the 44-year-old Fast has published a book about his Communist experiences and a novel. The Naked God, his confession, is extremely disappointing, failing to explain adequately either his reasons for remaining in the party so long or the inner turmoil that led to his disillusion. Much of the book sounds like the musings of a patient as he wanders over his confused past for an analyst. Perhaps the book came too soon after the event. Moses, Prince of Egypt (1958), has some characteristics of his other explorations into ancient struggles for freedom, although, since it treats of the young Moses, there is no struggle, but only the knowledge that it will come.
This novel is perhaps evidence that Fast, the ex-Communist, will continue to study freedom, again seeing it as no more than an exciting, bitter struggle containing the seeds of some vague, utopian peace. It may also be evidence that Fast is fashioning a new dream in which the Jewish people lead the world, as he once thought America and communism did. His recent articles discussing himself as a Jew and the echoes of My Glorious Brothers add to the evidence.
But, whether or not he rushes on a new path to utopia, his older writings must not be ignored. They document a unique political record, a depressing American waste. They describe a man who distorted his vision of America to fit a vision of communism, and then lost both.
STANLEY MEISLER is a Washington newspaper man and occasional contributor to critical and political journals.