For a long time after the McCarthy period itself, most Left-oriented treatments of the domestic campaign against Communism—the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings, the Smith Act trials, the “Hollywood Probe,” the espionage cases, and all the rest—were characterized by a propensity to ignore entirely the actual issue of Communism. Just as some of those called to testify refused to discuss Communist party membership, or ties to the American Communist movement, so many chroniclers of the period—serious historians, journalists, and memoir writers alike—deliberately failed to address this issue.
The practice of representing Communists as anything but what in fact they were was not a product of any post-World War II climate of fear. It originated with the onset of the Popular Front in 1935, when Communist party members and fellow-travelers took pains to mask their single overriding allegiance, depicting themselves variously as “anti-fascists,” as “noninterventionists,” or, after 1945, as “radicals” and “progressives.” Well before the advent of HUAC, though certainly all the more so afterward, the term “Communist,” it was acknowledged by believers and sympathizers themselves, had strong negative connotations among Americans. “Communism” suggested covertness, devotion to alien interests, and doctrinaire adherence to a “party line” attended, inevitably, by crass intellectual dishonesty. Naturally, Communists and their supporters rejected such characterizations as slander, implanted in the mind of the public by powerful social and political forces hostile to the interests of the working classes. Nevertheless it is not surprising that the comrades and their allies should have reached out for more appealing, less tainted terminology to describe themselves.
In Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s Death House Letters, for example, the term “Communist” (as Robert Warshow pointed out at the time) never appears except in quotation marks. In these intimate exchanges, written with mass distribution in mind, the Rosenbergs refer to themselves as “progressives.” And thus were they described in the considerable literature produced by Rosenberg-case activists in the years following the couple’s execution. It was almost as though the “forces of reaction”—the government, the FBI, Richard Nixon, and HUAC—had conjured up, not only an “atomic hoax,” but the very notion of Communism itself.
This syndrome of refusing to acknowledge the reality of Communism and of Communist loyalties, or even to discuss the issue, persists in certain quarters, particularly among movement veterans who experienced the ravages of the McCarthy period. In a recent book, Inquisition in Hollywood by Larry Ceplair and Ken Englund,1 the authors describe a 1977 screening of Salt of the Earth, a product of the 1950’s Hollywood blacklist subculture. Five blacklistees instrumental in the making of the film, all party veterans according to the unmistakably sympathetic authors of this study, sat on stage, taking questions from a friendly, admiring audience. One young questioner, intending no harm but ignorant as to prevailing custom, innocently asked the film-makers: “What was the relation between the basic themes of the film . . . and the Communist party line?” It was as though a raw nerve had been touched—the film buff had unwittingly raised a taboo subject. The authors report: “The panel members were silent . . . finally, Michael Wilson, who wrote the script, once again angrily dodged the question. ‘We were all political—the film came out of our political beliefs.’”
Still, it must be said that absurdly contorted responses of this kind are no longer the norm. The passage of time, the impact of Vietnam, the discrediting of Nixon—a key symbol of’ the “witchhunt” era—and the general recasting of American foreign policy, have freed the terms “Communist” and “Communism” of their former stigma. Transparently disingenuous sidestepping, as illustrated in the almost pathetic episode described above, is largely a thing of the past. Indeed, some contemporary writers concerned with specific aspects of the period have even found it useful, in their efforts to identify misdeeds committed by the authorities, to emphasize the factor of Communism.
Regarding the Rosenberg case, for example, those acquainted with the long-established tradition among Rosenberg advocates of all but implying that the Communist party itself was an invention of J. Edgar Hoover, were probably surprised by the seeming openness on this subject displayed by the new leaders of the vindication crusade, Michael and Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ two sons, emerged from anonymity. That Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were party members can hardly be called a closely guarded secret. Despite the fact that each pleaded the privilege against self-incrimination when asked in court about membership, their attorney essentially conceded their party ties in his trial summation. But after years in which the Rosenbergs were invariably referred to by sympathizers as “progressives,” it may be taken as an indication that a change has come about when their children announce with great solemnity on page 353 of We Are Your Sons that, “Recent investigations have permitted us to conclude that our parents were probably members of the American Communist party.”
In this specific instance there is a logic behind the acknowledgment—it serves to buttress a new and more credible pro-Rosenberg interpretation of the case. Without retreating from the claim that the government’s case was a mixture of forgery and sheer invention, sympathizers can avail themselves of an ostensibly reasonable explanation as to how the FBI happened to arrive at the particular doorstep of this self-described “unoffending Jewish couple.” In the new reading, facilitated by openness on the question of party membership, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, along with Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, are portrayed as having, on previous occasions, lied about their party ties in a series of loyalty oaths and other security-related inquiries. The threat of a perjury indictment (and assorted other charges) then led Green-glass to do the bidding of the authorities and confess to spying, presumably having been promised more lenient treatment. The Rosenbergs, the argument runs, were meant to respond in like fashion—to provide the names of other comrades and keep the ball rolling. But, it is suggested, these two devoted party members heroically refused to collaborate in the effort to link Communism with treason; instead they proclaimed their innocence, thereby sealing their own doom.
That contemporary defenders of the Rosenbergs should find it effective to acknowledge what was for so long deliberately obfuscated is revealing. In 1952, to have suggested that the Rosenbergs were Communists who had in the past committed perjury in the course of responding to loyalty-oath inquiries could only have served to confirm, in the minds of non-Communists, the validity of the government’s espionage indictment. Today, when a charge of malfeasance by an agency of the American government scarcely requires documentation in order to gain public acceptance, the Rosenbergs’ initial vulnerability appears to endow the entire episode—arrest, trial, and execution—with a certain warped internal logic.
Thus, the replacement of the tactic of evasion by an ostensibly open approach to the issue of Communism has not in fact brought about a new honesty in treatments of the period. Despite ready reference to individuals as party members, and open discussion of the party itself, much of the recent literature on the cold-war domestic campaign against Communism is marked by a tendency toward distortion no less pronounced than in earlier works, albeit far more subtle. Indeed, a general revival of interest in the McCarthy era has afforded this recent’ literature an audience never even dreamed of by those who struggled to sidestep the issue of Communism in previous years. Contemporary treatments may be less obvious in their misrepresentations, but the distortions themselves are far more widely disseminated—in many cases they may be said to have taken on the aspect of received wisdom.
The most recent example of a major book on the period marked by fundamental misrepresentation is Victor S. Navasky’s Naming Names,2 a study of the Hollywood probe and the blacklist, focusing on the issue of “informing.” Navasky’s book is, in a sense, only the most sophisticated manifestation of the phenomenon; it should be considered in the context of other recent works. A general message of these works is that the Communist party was merely a loose association, joining people of like political dispositions and sensibilities (akin, perhaps, to a highly active Kiwanis Club). Membership, it is suggested, was often quite casual, with comrades sharing the same general concerns rather than a common ideology or a duty to twist and turn with the vicissitudes of a party line. The dominance of the fact of membership, or of faith in Communism, in the lives of the individuals concerned is ignored in these renditions, as is the all-important issue of party discipline. The result is that the party itself, and membership in or identification with it, are made to seem something very different from what they in fact were.3
A case in point is Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1976), with its representation of the Communist party and the Communist movement as a structurally relaxed and intellectually receptive enterprise. In his introduction to this slim volume, Garry Wills goes even further. Miss Hellman writes that she cannot believe men like Senator McCarthy and Whittaker Chambers were “sincere.” Wills interprets this response: “The ideologue’s mentality is so foreign to her that she must explain fanaticism as mere opportunism.” He goes on to explain that, while “cold-war liberals” were ideologues, and thus capable of finding common ground with reactionaries, “if only to do battle there, . . . radicals of the Hellman and [Dashiell] Hammett sort cannot even find that meeting place.”
The notion that the “radicals” in question, Hammett—a long-standing Communist party member and, by all accounts, a Stalinist of an ultra-doctrinaire variety—and Hellman—a belatedly self-acknowledged fellow-traveler and apologist for the Soviet Union during the period in question—should have been innocent of ideological “fanaticism” is transparently absurd. But Wills’s comments are only a suggestive prelude. In the actual text, Miss Hellman develops the theme:
Most of the Communists I had met seemed to me people who wanted to make a better world; many of them were silly people and a few of them were genuine nuts. . . . The greatest mistakes made by native Communists came from their imitation of Russians, a different breed of people with a totally different history. American Communists accepted Russian theory and practice with the enthusiasm of a lover whose mistress cannot complain because she speaks few words of his language. . . . Communist-haters, particularly among intellectuals, talked a good deal about the violence they could suffer at the hands of American Communists. . . . About foreign gunmen I know only what I have read, but the American radicals I met were not violent men.
This depiction of American Communists as otherworldly, absent-minded eccentrics is an extraordinary portrayal of a movement which exerted influence far out of proportion to its numerical strength—in labor unions, front organizations, other political parties, and single-issue campaigns—in large part because of the tenaciously practical, brass-tacks-oriented character of its highly disciplined cadres. Aside from her odd ruminations about “violent” men—people painstakingly laying the foundations for a mass revolutionary movement are not likely to seem violent; how violent did the Bolshevik exiles appear during their sojourn in Switzerland?—Miss Hellman evokes an image of American Communism contradicted by historical fact.4 Even if, as demonstrated in her discussion of the Hiss case and elsewhere in Scoundrel Time, accuracy is not her strong suit, substantive distortion of this kind indicates a deliberate effort to portray Communism, American-style, in a new and less forbidding light.
Recent efforts to exonerate Alger Hiss—two books, a spate of articles, and a documentary film, The Trials of Alger Hiss— also manifest a tendency toward deliberate misrepresentation of the nature of American Communism. Hiss partisans are, of necessity, more constrained with regard to this issue than those who examine the blacklist or, even, than would-be vindicators of the Rosenbergs. No Communist ties on Hiss’s part can be openly acknowledged by his defenders, lest their entire case—predicated on the notion of Hiss’s absolute veracity—begin to unravel. Like the Rosenberg episode, the Hiss case raises questions of espionage and treason. But the Rosenbergs did not (in court) deny that they were Communists; they merely denied having been spies. Hiss, on the other hand, denied all. Having long represented himself as a mainstream New Deal liberal, he could not confess to having been a Communist—even if continuing to deny the espionage charges—without calling his entire past into question.
Thus, apologists for Hiss are consigned to the hopeless task of explaining away the overwhelming evidence against him without resort to the tactic of depicting the former State Department official as a one-time leftist forced by a change in the political climate to strike a dishonest pose—a pose in which he wound up trapped. Still, though one avenue of argument has been closed off, Hiss’s latter-day defenders evidently find it useful to place him within the perspective of American Communism—of a thoroughly denatured kind.
A recent example is A Tissue of Lies: Nixon vs. Hiss.5 The authors, Morton and Michael Levitt, reflect on the politics of a number of Hiss’s New Deal friends and note, “Some were admitted Communists, such as Lee Pressman, an intellectual Hiss knew from the Law Review.” In order to clarify for the uninitiated how it was that Pressman and others like him became Communists, the Levitts offer a capsule portrait of the historical context:
When Pressman became counsel to the CIO, he often found the Communists’ alliance with labor helpful to the union’s cause. Also, before World War II, the Communists were—admittedly on an on-and-off basis—one group actually resisting Hitler. This was one of the party’s biggest attractions for many Jews, like Pressman, and other liberal thinkers.
The explanation is entirely unrelated to the actual facts. Pressman joined the Communist party, as he himself testified, well before going to work for the CIO. Communism, not organized labor, remained his first priority throughout; and, in 1948, when the CIO’s endorsement of Truman compelled a forthright declaration of allegiance, Pressman toed the party line, quitting the union for Henry Wallace and the Progressives. There were indeed labor leaders who, for tactical reasons, drew close to the party over the years. But Pressman, and the others mentioned by the Levitts—Nathan Witt and John Abt, for example—were Communists who, for tactical reasons, embraced the labor movement.
Equally disingenuous is the suggestion that Pressman and “other liberal thinkers” were drawn to the Communist party by their anti-fascist convictions. In the recent film, The Trials of Alger Hiss, one David Zablodowsky appears, a Communist who served as a courier for Whittaker Chambers during the 1930’s and was subsequently dismissed from a UN post. Refraining even from acknowledging his Communist ties, Zablodowsky describes his world view at the time as that of a Jewish “anti-fascist.” It need only be asked how such individuals responded to the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. Lee Pressman, for one, conducted himself entirely in accord with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov’s assertion that “fascism is a matter of taste”—Pressman became active in the Keep America Out of War movement, making common cause with Charles A. Lindbergh, the America Firsters, and other isolationists less than renowned for their anti-fascist convictions.
Certainly there were some party members and supporters for whom opposition to Hitler was the overriding priority. But these soon drifted away from the Communist movement, as, eventually, did union activists whose primary allegiance was to organized labor. Such individuals should be distinguished from hard-line Stalinist manipulators—like Lee Pressman. To depict the latter as animated by the same concerns as the former is, once more, to misrepresent the nature of American Communism. The same process of distortion is at work in the early frames of The Trials of Alger Hiss—party veterans, identified only by their government posts, narrate the history of the New Deal, contriving to depict that era in a manner supportive of the notion that Communists were simply “liberals in a hurry.”
Works like these may be said to have created the appropriate intellectual climate for Naming Names. The Hollywood blacklist has been a popular subject for some time. Two recent books, Robert Vaughn’s Only Victims and Stefan Ranter’s A Journal of the Plague Years, a documentary film, Hollywood On Trial, and Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) all deal with the movieland probe, as do Ceplair and Englund’s Inquisition in Hollywood and Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time. And these are only the latest in a long line of treatments sympathetic to those victimized by the blacklist.
Naming Names is different, however, in that it seeks to isolate and systematically examine one issue—“informing.” The meaning of the term in this context is probably familiar. In order to be classified as “friendly,” and thereby to avoid the blacklist, subpoenaed witnesses were required by HUAC not only to be candid about their own pasts but to provide the names of others “guilty” of political heresy. As Navasky demonstrates, willingness to name names was the HUAC litmus test. Names were not sought from witnesses for informational or intelligence-gathering purposes. The FBI, and by extension HUAC, already had nearly every remotely relevant name, and a number of totally irrelevant ones as well. The point of the requirements was to establish a defined public ritual whereby former comrades could prove the totality of their break with the party and the past. In effect, the process of naming names became a rite of passage—passage, among other things, from the realm of the unemployed and unemployable back to the world of opportunity and financial security. Confession had to follow the prescribed form if the sinner, no matter how ostensibly repentant, was to be granted absolution.
The requirement was not unique to the entertainment-industry inquiries. Elsewhere, indeed, the story was more complicated, in terms of potential penalties for witnesses who failed to secure a clean bill of health. But the sole focus of Naming Names is Hollywood, perhaps because the punishment for non-cooperation, set against the bountiful reward for those who named names, creates a clear and self-contained picture, or perhaps simply because movie people are more fun to write about than, say, union officials or schoolteachers. In any event, it should be noted that despite Navasky’s assertion to the contrary, Hollywood played no more than a minor supporting role in the mania of congressional inquiries.
In response to the rigid and unhappy conditions created by these inquiries, some of those summoned to testify cooperated with the committees and provided names. Others did not. Navasky’s study is an effort to explore why some people “informed” while others remained silent, usually invoking the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination.6 His initial premise is that naming names was inherently immoral, but he affects a willingness to be persuaded otherwise. Having located numerous veterans of the HUAC experience—both “friendly” witnesses and blacklistees—he is entirely scrupulous about permitting those who cooperated to explain their actions. But in the end, he dismisses the claims of those cooperative witnesses who profess to have been motivated by moral and political conviction, arguing that the mere fact these individuals waited until summoned before offering testimony undermines the credibility of such claims.
Navasky concludes that the cooperative witnesses’ conduct was morally indefensible—prompted by greed, cowardice, ambition, selfishness, and other all-too-familiar human frailties. In effect, he appropriates the HUAC test of character, but reverses the Committee’s standard of judgment. Willingness to name names remains the test, but in Navasky’s world, those who did so are marked as “guilty,” notwithstanding their special pleas and ex post facto ideological rationalizations. And in true Manichean fashion, the witnesses who refused to testify are cast in a heroic mold—steadfast, virtuous, and in general easily distinguishable from the weak and otherwise flawed.
Thus the compassion-for-all attitude which Navasky seems at pains to display is mere pretense. This is a highly judgmental book; indeed, the author describes his effort as a “moral detective story.” And he is by no means ambiguous about his “moral” conclusions. He pronounces, for example, that the uncooperative witnesses “have emerged in the culture as moral exemplars” who “taught us how to act.”
Many, of course, would disagree with Navasky’s premise that taking refuge behind the Fifth Amendment was more honorable than telling the truth. A debate on this question would turn, in large part, on differing assessments of the relative menace of the Soviet Union and domestic Communism as compared with the threat to civil liberties posed by the congressional inquiries. Some may also feel that efforts by congressional committees and other like groups to probe people’s political beliefs constitute a serious violation of the First Amendment, and realize that after the days of the Popular Front, it was, as James Ring Adams recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “personal experience, not national hysteria,” that led liberals and others to begin worrying about manipulation by some tight and invisible organization.
But these are issues apart. Navasky is entitled to his view that HUAC, not Stalinism, was the great evil of the day, and to his ostensible moral absolutism on the question of naming names—although he himself seems to wonder how rigid his position would be if the “informers” in quesiton were defectors from, say, the Ku Klux Klan rather than the Communist party.
The point here is that Naming Names seeks to examine, not how people behaved—the record presumably speaks for itself—but why they conducted themselves in certain ways. As indicated, Navasky would have it that in the division between the two basic courses of conduct, the ultimate determinant was personal character. But a far less subjective’ distinction seems salient, one that suggests an altogether different interpretation. The witnesses who remained silent were virtually all members of the Communist party (or fellow-travelers in the traditional sense of the term, i.e., strict followers of the party line) at the time of their testimony. Of those who cooperated, the exact opposite was true: nearly every friendly witness had broken with Communism well before having been summoned to appear.
Admittedly, there were isolated exceptions. The playwright Arthur Miller had evidently broken with the Communists long before he was subpoenaed; even so, Miller refused, as a matter of principle, to name names. And certainly it seems likely that there were, among the “friendly” witnesses, a few whose break with the party was occasioned not by a genuine change of heart but by the changed political climate, to which they perhaps awakened only when the subpoenas actually arrived. There were also those individuals who, though out of the party, initially refused to name names, only to succumb later, after experiencing the full force of the blacklist—director Edward Dmytryk, an original member of the Hollywood Ten, seems an illustration of this syndrome. And finally a distinction should be drawn between the totally uncooperative witnesses and those who, though willing to testify about their own past, refused to talk about anyone else. This tactic, sometimes referred to as the “diminished Fifth,” was never successfully invoked; nevertheless, it may be said that those who wished to take this position were guided by ethical rather than political considerations.
But for the most part these are not the people Navasky is writing about. If one wished, as Navasky evidently does, to draw general conclusions about the phenomenon of naming names, one might legitimately offer this observation: just about everyone summoned cooperated, save for those who, as Communists or party sympathizers, were, for the most part, operating under what amounted to an external political discipline. Navasky does not disguise the fact that most of those who refused to testify still identified with the party. And he acknowledges that ex-Communists predominated among those who cooperated. But at no point does he explain that the positions such people assumed when called before the Committee were a direct consequence of these facts.
The implication that the refusal to name names stemmed from privately held moral standards rather than political allegiance is supported by a fallacy of a dual nature. In the first place, most Communists did not decide on courses of action as individuals, guided by purely personal standards and sensibilities. Appropriate conduct was determined by the party, just as the party determined what members were permitted to read or write, and for whom they were to vote.
It is apparent, for example, from various accounts of the episode that among the original group of “unfriendly” Hollywood witnesses7 were some who favored taking a less hostile, more cooperative attitude when actually before the Committee. But the senior party figures within the group, and their Communist attorneys, were forceful in squelching this brief outbreak of deviationism. The larger purpose—to identify HUAC as a harbinger of American fascism—would not be served by a moderation of rhetoric.
At the root of the issue is the misrepresentation of the nature of the Communist party alluded to earlier. One does not have to believe that the party constituted a conspiracy in the legal sense, or that it represented a particular threat, to recognize that it was a highly disciplined organization which imposed ideological and tactical conformity on its members and adherents.
This is not to say that the party exerted control of this sort over each individual member. Some allied with the Communist movement were obviously able to abide by personal moral standards, regardless of the party line. But exceptions do not undermine the general rule. Navasky’s conclusion, that the great moral lesson offered by the uncooperative witnesses is “abide by one’s code,” is entirely hollow. These resisters, for the most part, were loyal not to a private moral code but to a political commitment—and it was not a commitment to constitutional rights and civil liberties.
The Smith Act, and for that matter the congressional inquiries, may well have represented an abrogation of fundamental constitutional rights. But—and this is the second element in the fallacy—it came with little grace, let alone sincerity, for Communists to justify their refusal to cooperate with the authorities on these grounds. Aside from having debased themselves over the years by defending every dark deed perpetrated in the name of the Soviet Union, the Communist party was on record as an enthusiastic supporter of the Smith Act—when the Act was used to prosecute Trotskyists in Minneapolis, or members of the German-American Bund. The unprincipled character of Communist outrage over HUAC and the Smith Act’s effect on the Bill of Rights is indicated by the fact that still in 1949, a full year after Communist party leaders were indicted under the Act, the party continued to oppose the granting of civil rights to the Act’s Trotskyist victims.8
According to the advance publicity for Naming Names, Navasky’s book “forces the reader to ask whether he agrees with E.M. Forster when he said ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’” Although Forster’s attempt at profundity—grounded, it may be noted, in a false apposition: one’s country consists, at least in part, of the collectivity of one’s friends—has of late attained considerable currency (thanks to the Anthony Blunt affair in England), Navasky might well have taken issue with this statement by his publisher. Forster’s assertion implies a dilemma: a choice of betrayal. Navasky’s version of the period, and his treatment of the immediate issue—naming names—allow for no such complication. In his view, the witnesses who remained silent were true both to their friends—by refusing to “inform”—and to their country—by refusing to countenance HUAC’s subversion of the Constitution, and by resisting a call for participation in a process alien to American values and principles. If betrayal of either country or friend is regarded as inevitable, the painstakingly constructed Manichean world of Naming Names is torn asunder.
Still, perhaps there is a role here for the Forsterian dilemma. It seems reasonable to assume that by “country” Forster referred not only to formal patriotism, but to all abstract, “higher” loyalties transcending the sphere of day-to-day personal relations. In the case of Communist party members, therefore, since national allegiance was never deemed a relevant issue, “country” may be translated as party or movement. (That is the way Sylvia Richards, a screenwriter cited by Navasky, saw matters.) The dichotomy, then, is between betrayal of “friends,” i.e., the real, flesh-and-blood people encountered in the course of daily living, and betrayal of party—violating the discipline of the movement and, thereby, abandoning the ideal. From this perspective, the witnesses who remained silent may be said to have chosen “country” over “friend.” Those who invoked the Fifth Amendment may of course have shielded certain of their friends, but the purpose of these “unfriendly” witnesses was other. If the result was that friends were protected, it was purely coincidence.
The quotation from Forster is valuable in that it points to the problem of relative loyalties. What all the efforts to distort or disguise American Communism discussed here have in common is a refusal to come to terms with this very issue. For writers like Navasky, Miss Hellman, Ceplair and Englund, the Levitts, and many others, to confront this question head-on would be unthinkable. Yet the fact is that American Communism had a primary claim on the loyalties of its adherents, and this single, overriding commitment accounted for the conduct of most individual Communists in most situations of consequence.
For all the new “openness” about the past, this truth is still being denied, or evaded, or explained away—as indeed it must be if certain cherished myths about the Left are to be retained. Thus, in explaining why veteran Communists still often refuse forthrightly to acknowledge their past affiliations, the authors of Inquisition in Hollywood argue that simple, honest answers might tend to mislead rather than clarify:
. . . the way in which the question is usually asked implies a reductionist understanding of the problem—“Oh, you were, were you? Well that explains everything”—which betrays the complexity, subtleties, and intangibilities of historical evidence. Membership in the Communist party meant many things to the screen people, and there were nearly as many kinds of Communists as there were individual Communists. . . . In sum, simply knowing that a man or woman was a “Communist” and knowing nothing else about him or her, is to know rather less than one imagines.
Hence the issue must either be sidestepped—the preferred approach of the old-timers—or placed in “proper context.” The false picture of American Communism drawn by authors like Navasky offers a glimpse of what some who treat this period still consider the “proper context.”
In Naming Names, Navasky quotes one Martin Popper, a prominent party attorney and key Hollywood Ten legal adviser, as asking, with apparent exasperation: “Is it not possible to be a Marxist, a Communist, and to be for the First Amendment?” With regard to Communists in general, the answer to Popper, and to Navasky, who would seem to share the attorney’s exasperation, is quite simple: No.
The constitutional violations of the period remain just as serious, the moral problem posed by the naming requirement just as complex, for the fact of Communist insincerity. But a failure to come to terms with the reality of what American Communism was about will inevitably render a study like Navasky’s distorted to the point of irrelevance. And as for the larger ideological purposes such a study is designed to serve, these are no less egregious for being unacknowledged, and no less insidious for being cloaked in hypocritical moral piety.
1 Doubleday, 336 pp., $17.50.
2 Viking, 482 pp., $15.95.
3 Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism (1978) and Jessica Mitford's A Fine Old Conflict (1977) both represent an effort to sentimentalize and “humanize” the Communist experience, but since neither of these apologies for Stalinism effectively masks the nature of the beast, they cannot be placed directly in the line leading to Naming Names.
4 It is of interest to consider that the party did terrorize defectors from its ranks, did organize hoodlum attacks on Trotskyists and others who sought to distribute literature at Communist meetings, and did resort to physical violence to disrupt events staged by its opponents—the storming of a 1934 Socialist party/trade-union-sponsored rally in Madison Square Garden provides a good example. Bert Cochran's observation in Labor and Communism seems on the mark: “The Communist party leaders did not transfer Stalin's police-state methods into the American movement, not because they did not have the propensity, but because they lacked the power.”
5 McGraw-Hill, 352 pp., $14.95.
6 The first set of “unfriendly” witnesses, the Hollywood Ten, stood on the First Amendment rather than the Fifth. Cited for contempt of Congress, they lost their battle in the courts and were sent to jail. Thereafter, the Fifth became the only viable option for witnesses seeking to avoid both cooperation and prison. It was an option made possible by the Smith Act, under which simply being a Communist might leave one open to criminal prosecution (although membership in the party was never actually against the law). For obvious reasons, invoking the Fifth remained unattractive to Communists since it cast them in the role of appearing to confirm HUAC's premise of criminality.
7 The Hollywood Ten came from an original subpoenaed group of nineteen.
8 So much, then, for the assertion in Inquisition in Hollywood that the Ten decided to stand on the First Amendment because “American radicals have a deep-seated faith in the political tradition from which this government and society stem” (emphasis added).