BEING RED, HOWARD FAST, M.E. SHAPE, NEW YORK, 1994
I have always been intrigued by the American Communist Party’s ability up until the period of the “red scare” of the late 1940’s and the 1950’s to draw to itself and recruit a relatively large number of free-lance intellectuals and cultural workers. Whether the party could keep them once recruited and how effective they were are separate questions. Nevertheless, if one draws up a Who’s Who of those members of the American intelligentsia who passed through the party’s orbit during the first half of the 20th century one would find numbers far greater than would be indicated by the party’s actual influence in American politics. The novelist Howard Fast in his memoir of his decade long membership in the American Communist Party is highly representative of that trend. Or, at least of the those in that trend who could rationally explain their experience in the Party without either foaming at the mouth or running to the nearest government law enforcement agency.
The tale Mr. Fast has to tell about his trek to the party is informative and, except for the utterly extreme poverty of his childhood and the early loss of his mother, not atypical of the urban children of immigrants in general and New York Jewish youth in particular who came of age between World War I and II and joined the party. The key events that drove many into the party’s orbit were the Depression, the rise of Nazism in Europe and the hope that Soviet Union could provide a model for a socialist future. Those events also drove many youth into the Social Democratic and Trotskyist movements during this period as well.
What is interesting to me about Mr. Fast’s story is that he joined the party at the tail end of the Communist Party’s Popular Front period (excepts a short hiatus for the support of Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939-41, oops). That period was exemplified by Party Chairman Earl Browder’s declaration that “Communism is 20th century Americanism” and Mr. Fast and those recruited during the period really believed that this was the road to socialism. In short, the belief that some form of parliamentary road to socialism was possible. Unfortunately for them, Browder and those recruits including Mr. Fast got caught between the hammer of the American ruling class’s Cold War strategy and the Soviet’s “left” turn to seeming anti-capitalist militancy in the immediate post-World War II period that for a long time effectively ended the harmonious relationships provided during the Popular Front period.
Mr. Fast is somewhat exceptional in that rather than quietly leaving the party, selling out to the government or selling out his friends to the government as many did during the “red scare” he dug in his heels, stuck it out and did his duty. That is to his credit. The curious thing about this honorable position is that from what this reviewer was able to read between the lines of his book Mr. Fast seems instinctively much closer to a Social Democratic or pacifist view of the world than a Communist view of the world during this period. But such are the vagaries of the human personality.
As Mr. Fast unfolds his story he has many reminiscences to relate concerning the background to events such as the confusion in the party during the last part of World War II about the nature of the post-war period, the “red scare” as seen down at the local level by those who lacked adequate resources to defend themselves, the ominous beginnings of the Cold War, the start of the Korean War, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as "atomic spies". Some of the information presented here I knew previously but much is new and interesting. One should be glad that an old ex-Stalinist decided to write about his experiences. Maybe future generations can learn from those mistakes made by the American Stalinists but at the same time also take courage from the courage of such political opponents as Mr. Fast who stood up to government repression while others, too many others, ducked. Read on.