Howard Fast on ‘Being Red,’ Part I
VTR Date: May 6, 1991
Guest: Fast, Howard
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Howard Fast
Title: “Howard Fast on ‘Being Red’”, Part I
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and often when I invite a guest to share his or her ideas with us, I think of that old saw: “Would that mine enemy had written a book”. Not that this is ever a hostile confrontation. That’s not my style (much to some viewers’ consternation, I’ll admit). But a book, or an article perhaps, may provide an intellectual peg or two to get things going here on THE OPEN MIND.
Well, not need to worry, then about today’s guest…for novelist, commentator, polemicist Howard Fast has written more than three score books over the years, and even now writes a weekly column for The Observer in New York.
Nor does he hide his light under a bushel…though he has changed its color.
And “Being Red”, his recent Houghton Mifflin memoir of a writing career filled with world-wide best sellers like “Citizen Tom Paine”, “Freedom Road” and “Spartacus”, tells of Howard Fast’s long membership in the Communist Party, then of his apostasy.
Presumably, his principles took him to jail in the 1950s for refusing to name names. Presumably, too, his principles took him out of the Communist Party.
So that it’s not inappropriate to ask the redoubtable Howard Fast just what are his first principles, and what sense of the nature of human nature has informed his extraordinarily creative intellectual odyssey. What is it? What’s the basis of “Fast thinking”?
Fast: I…that’s an enormous question to settle in one sentence. But if I had to I’d say to, to do no harm to other people and to cause no pain to other people. To try to live without ever causing pain to other human beings, which is a very difficult thing to do.
Heffner: Of course before we began the program you told me that years ago you and your wife had dreamed of a much more removed, simple life than you ended up enjoying. You would go your way, write your books, she would do her creative artistic work. And yet you are one of the most controversial persons in the 20th century.
Fast: Yes, well, when…oh, I suppose when I was 12 yeas old, around that time, I, I decided that I had to be a writer, that I had to tell stories, that this would be my life. And it was always my life. I wanted no more. I met a woman I fell madly in love with at age 20. She was 18. I married here when she was 22. Today, 50…55 years later I’m still married to her, and it was a good marriage…we had a little cottage we built in the country by saving our nickels and dimes after living for some years in a little one room apartment. We built this cottage for $7,000 with a set of plans we bought for $10. We immediately tried to start a family going. This…this to me was paradise…I had all the world could offer. We would live there. We would raise children, and I’d tell stories and thereby earn a living. I had found that every three, four weeks I could sell a fiction story at one of the national magazines, who would pay me $700, $800, $1,000…you could live a year on $1,000 then, live very comfortably on $1,000. And into this came World War II and after World War II, nothing was ever the same. The life we had dreamed of and planned and put together came to an end. A new life began and from…I would say from 1941 to 1958 I lived a life that was filled with danger, adventure, high hopes, dreams, assaults upon myself, the writing of books. I would say that this life that I put into that book called “Being Red”, when this life came to an end, I was the most beloved and the most hated writer in all of American history. I had had things done to me that were never done to any other writer in all the history of this country. I faced a situation where no publisher in the United States would publish “Spartacus”, where every major publisher in the United States turned it down. I came to a moment in my existence when J. Edgar Hoover, this dreadful, miserable little man who was then the, the terror-riding dictator of the United Stats, went a personal messenger to Little, Brown and company in Boston and told them that they must not, under the pain of sever reprisal, publish “Spartacus”…which went on to sell over 3 million copies here in this country, without shaking the country to its foundations, or even tipping it a bit, and became a very interesting motion picture. So anyway, this, this is a very brief summation…put more shortly was, I got myself into a lot of trouble.
Heffner: Okay, let’s talk about the trouble. Let’s talk about Howard Fast going to jail. Let’s talk about Howard Fast leaving the Communist Party that he had…I was going to say, “served so well”, but I think hat probably isn’t’ the case with you. It had served you, hadn’t it?
Fast: Well, you, you used the word before “apostasy”, that’s the wrong word…
Fast: The “apostasy” was on the part of the Communist Party…my beliefs never changed, my ideals never changed. These were the ideals that I held, that the people who were in the party with me held, and now, at last, the truth about the American Communist Party must come out. Now, for example, the lexicon of great names in publishing, in writing, in art, in music, who were members of the Communist Party in a cross-section of the very best in the United States during the 30s and the 40s. These were people of talent, of high principle, of great dreams and great ideals. These people were not apostates when they left the Party. The Party which had given them, or at lest pretended to give them a great dream of a brotherhood of man, became something else and what it became was illustrated on a worldwide scale in the Soviet Union. I think that if the Party here had come to power, they would not have done well. They would perhaps have done as badly as in the Soviet Union. The structure we flawed, it was terribly flawed. They, they put…they spread out on man’s old dream of the brotherhood of man, called socialism in the Industrial Age…they, they implanted on this a rigid, terrible structure, which they called the dictatorship of the proletariat. It’s not the dictatorship of the proletariat. It became the dictatorship of the handful of people who led the Party. And as with all dictatorships, it could not work. It brought only doom and destruction, and we see the last stages of this horror in the Soviet Union. So you must separate this history of the Communist Party in the United States once and for all from what happened in the Soviet Union…these are two separate movements…because, well…let me tell this story…I’ve told this story before on the air…no newspaper has ever picked it up…as a matter of fact, I told it twice…I told it on the CBS program, “Nightline”, which is supposed to have 10 million people listening to it. I told it again on CBS cable because one of the callers, people who called in, said, “Please, Mr. Fast, tell the story about Ronald Reagan and the Communist Party”. Well, in the 30s Ronald Reagan, who, I must say was a person of good will…there was not much there, and not enough inside, but the good will this man had. And in the 30s he saw all around him people he loved and respected, people whom he admired as the best in the Hollywood community, as members of the Communist Party. So he decided he wanted to join the Party. So this was passed on to the man who was then in a position to decide, as far as the Hollywood community was concerned, the playwright, John Howard Lawson, and Lawson was very uneasy with it. He said, “Look, this man is a flake. You, you never know what he’ll do tomorrow”. And he asked a very famous actor, who I will not name, still alive, to talk Reagan out of it. And this actor and his wife sat until the small hours of the morning and convinced Reagan that he could be more use to the Party as a non-member of the Party. Now, I don’t think this reduces Reagan. I think this, this helps Reagan. It helps the image of the…as a man of compassion, certainly at that time. But, it’s an angle on the Communist Party that we do not hear.
Heffner: Well, let me ask you about that. You say that Ronald Reagan saw all around him important, influential persons in Hollywood, creative people, people who he knew and who liked him and who he liked…members of the Party. What then was the influence of these people on American cultural patterns? What was their influence on the movies we saw? And on the way we behaved, because presumably we pay a lot of attention to what we see and the stories we hear…
Heffner: …on the screen.
Fast: If you’re asking me was it a good influence, a positive influence, I would say “yes”. (Laughter)
Heffner: What was it?
Fast: For example…let me be specific about some pictures. I, I mentioned John Howard Lawson. A very interesting, a very gifted playwright…he wrote, during the War, two pictures that expressed what we like to think of as the soul of the crusade, which to us at the time was World War II. One of them was “All Out on the road to Mermansk”, a picture with Humphrey Bogart…a wonderful description of the service the Merchant Marine performs. Nothing quite like it has ever been done about World War II. He also wrote a film called “Sahara”, which brought together the concept of different races participating in the struggle against Nazism. These were…I must admit, they were very tendentious pictures. But you fight a war like World War II, everything is tendentious. Let me go to “Spartacus”, which they’ve just re-issued. They’ve reconstructed the film, repaired the film. It’s a magnificent spectacle. It’s a film which, perhaps, can never be made again because it had well over 100,000 extras. You saw great armies moving in “Spartacus” that we couldn’t do today. We simply can’t spend that kind of money. It would cost better than a $100 million today. But what did “Spartacus” say? It said “These people who were slaves would not endure their slavery and they rose up against the Romans who enslaved them”. These people were a step in the long and ancient struggle fro freedom. Now this is a very positive thing. Now do you see the Washington Monthly, the magazine…
Fast: …in…it’s a very provocative magazine in Washington, edited by a man called Charles Peters, who’s simply wonderful…I never met him, but I have such respect for the man. It had an article in it about the movies. What does the movie say today? What do they say? Where are the dreams? We’re, we’re in this crazy, drug-ridden, greedy, besotted time. There are no dreams, there are no hopes. In that period we dreamed, we hoped, we, we tried to translate what we dreamed of into film. We weren’t corrupting America. We weren’t subversively infiltrating anything. We said “These…these were the things of America. These were the essence of America”. The “Ballad for Americans” played at a Republican Convention. This was a typical Communist effort to express what those of us who, we were kids then, what we felt about the United States. We loved the United States. We felt this is the highest achievement of mankind. And what do I see today? I see a President, George Bush, putting a nation to death 10,000 miles away, killing 150,000 people, who have never done us any harm, whom we don’t know, setting this horror with the Kurds into motion, this whole mad lunacy. We’re not doing it. This is not the work of dreamers. This is not the work of kids who dream of a better world. This is the work of Mr. Bush and Mr. Sununu and the rest of them down there. So I can argue a case.
Heffner: But tell me, when you’ve argued the case, how do we go back and explain that as late as World War II the dreamers, those who had this American ideal that you describe so deeply within themselves, still participated in a Party that many, many, many other people identified with what had happened in the Soviet Union long before you exited the Party?
Fast: You had a situation which existed…and to myself it’s not quite credible, but it existed, where the lies and pressures against the Soviet Union were so enormous that along with them we rejected the truth. We simply did not believe. We didn’t go there. We had no eyewitness to register. We didn’t believe. I didn’t believe. Everyone I knew didn’t believe. I did not believe that the accusations were conceivable. And may I say that during World War II a lot of other people didn’t believe in that time around then. A lot of people who were not Communists did not believe these accusations.
Heffner: Well let me ask…what divided…what was the dividing line between those who did believe, who saw, who got the reports of the trials, of the purges from the Soviet Union, and believe them. Why did people who stayed in the Party not believe them, as you say, and the others did? This was not really a generation on trial, because there were many in that generation who rejected the Party.
Fast: Those people who believed the worst of the Soviet Union…tremendous amount of it was true, no question about it…those people who believed it, were people who had to believe it because their bias against the Soviet Union and, along with that, against a great many of the people who were in the Communist Party, was such that they’re in a position to believe. We, we tend to believe what reinforces us, what reinforces our own beliefs. If we didn’t believe what reinforces our own beliefs how could this war that we’ve just seen have taken place? The American people who believe that we have a just and decent democracy had to believe that this war was just. How can they conceive that their President had manufactured this thing? Now people believe that way.
Heffner: Well, in believing that way I go back to in “Being Red” you, you tried to explain, you do explain, forgive me, I don’t mean that you try unsuccessfully…your own involvement in, let’s call it “radicalism”. You were talking about the poverty of your childhood. You say they were…talking about people who lived on Riverside Drive and Ft. Washington Avenue, “They were middle class people, but we had nothing, and to us they were wealthy and the only…was we knew wealth in those days of the 1920s…there was no safety net between…beneath the poor, no welfare, no churches handing out free dinners. Survival and poverty was your own affair. I have tried to explain this to people who expressed indignant wonder at the fact that I joined the Communist Party. The absence of unemployment insurance is educational in a way that nothing else is”. Does that mean that today you would not have been a believer in socialism which you saw in its really practical form as the Communist Party?
Fast: Well, you know, Socialism in America is far older than the Communist Party. The Communist Party came into being in 1921 if I’m not mistaken. Socialism, a socialist movement came into being at least 50 years before then. And it had very deep roots in the United States, so my belief in socialism is not entirely shaken…by no means…I have seen so much horror and so much misery produced by the profit system that I believe some day we must outgrow it. Some day we must find a different way to order the affairs of mankind.
Heffner: And yet you have also written that…let’s see if I find it…yeah, in one of your commentaries in The Observer, you say “I simply do not accept as any blueprint for socialism a system that does away with democracy, competition and any sort of viable market system”. Does that mean that the notion of competition and the market system has become so important for you that…
Fast: No. Competition…without competition we, we die I think. We become static.
Heffner: You’re not talking about competition of ideas only are you?
Fast: All kinds of competition. There is no reason why there should not be competition in a socialist system. It was the rigidity of the Soviet system that did away with competition because no rewards were offered for competition. Neither rewards in terms of dignity or honors or in terms of money. We must have competition, and we must have disagreement because unless two people like you and I can sit down and disagree publicly, in the eyes of millions, then the place where we live dies. It becomes static. It becomes a wasteland that is meaningless. So this democratic ideal must be at the basis of socialism. We must have competition, because without competition, as I said, things die. We must have a market system because unless you…unless you satisfy the market…so let me try to explain this in another way that perhaps people will get it more clearly: Years ago my wife and I were guests at the home of Dr. W. E. B. Dubois, the great Negro…I use the term “Negro” because that was the term used in his time, educator and encyclopedist. His wife was Shirley Graham, a Black writer, and that evening she had invited to the house her brother Bill Graham. Bill Graham was a very successful Black businessman, very bright. He had, at that time, the Coca Cola contract in Harlem. He had local contracts for some of the major beer companies. He was the most…probably the most prominent distributor of that kind in the various ghettoes of New York. He listened to us arguing these questions of Socialism and Communism the whole evening and finally he said, “Look, I’ve been listening to you. You’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong. I am going to do more to free my people than you can do”. “Well, how Bill? How? What are you going to do?” He said, “I have established a marketplace and my marketplace is so important that no company in the United States can fail…can, can afford to ignore my marketplace”. He said, “This is the most powerful force for freedom that you can imagine. Where people will consume products, they will be treated with respect”.
Heffner: Did you believe him?
Fast: At the time?
Fast: Yes. I believed him at the time because what he said was absolutely obvious. What brings the companies around in America? The Blacks are a great marketplace. So, at the same time the desires, the needs of the Black and other ethnic communities are satisfied. They were never satisfied in the Soviet Union because there was no concept of a marketplace.
Heffner: I’m getting the signal that we have 30 seconds left…and I want to talk about his notion with you and I want to see how consistent this is with what, traditionally, we think of as Socialist ideas. So, if I can ask you and you’ll say “yes”, we’ll end this program…if you sit still we’ll start another one right afterwards.
Heffner: Thanks, Howard Fast, for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s theme, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.