Howard Fast

Howard Fast on ‘Being Red,’ Part II

VTR Date: May 6, 1991

Guest: Fast, Howard


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Howard Fast
Title: “Howard Fast on ‘Being Red’”, Part II
VTR: 5/6/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And last time, when I introduced the first program with my guest today, I was sorely tempted to read the opening sentence of his intriguing recent memoir, Houghton Mifflin’s “Being Red”: In it he wrote, “There is no way to tell the story of the curious life that happened to me without dealing with the fact that I was for many years what that old brute Senator Joseph McCarthy delighted in calling ‘a card-carrying member of the Communist Party’”.

Instead, I noted that novelist, commentator, polemicist Howard Fast has written more than three score books, including such world-wide best sellers as “Citizen Tom Paine”, “Freedom Road”, and “Spartacus”, and even now writes a column for The Observer in New York.

Mr. Fast was sent to jail in the 1950s for refusing to name names – and, later, when he refused to remain in the Communist Party was assigned to Purgatory by his former Comrades. Well, last time we talked about what sense of himself and of the world informed those profound personal choices and Mr. Fast, I want to go back to that initial question: What your sense is of the nature of human nature that has taken you along the path that you have followed in lo these many decades.

Fast: Well, this…this is not a question that can be easily answered. Human nature, which I have watched with amazement for 77 years, is a very…a very…I’m trying to find the word for it…and it’s very hard for me to do so…a very malleable thing…let’s use that. Human nature is not definable. The human being is a construct, a product, a creation that responds to his environment in a new way, different from any other animal. The…all other animals accept, accept their environment and they live simply to deal with that environment. The human being changes his environment and in this process of changing his environment, he created civilization, as we call it. So…and you can only say that the human being is a creature who can manipulate his environment and in so doing produce an extraordinary number of situations.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting to me that at the end of our first program together, we talked about competitiveness, about competition, and I read a selection from what you had written in the past in which you emphasized the importance of competition and the free market. So you’re talking about the nature of human nature there, that you can’t posit, I gather your feeling is, you can’t posit good will, you have to posit the notion that out of conflict, out of competition, arises what is best, or at least most successful in us.

Fast: I , I would also…then I’d also have to continue the definition of human nature. Human beings are creatures of love. The human being is a tribal creature and this tribal unit, this very ancient family unit is bound together, not only for its own preservation, but with bindings of love. The human being responds to love. The child who is loved and held tightly throughout his childhood, this becomes a healthy and a fine human being. The child who is not loved, who is mistreated, who is maltreated during his childhood, this is the source of what we call evil. This is the source of the killers, the criminals, the degenerate forms of mankind. We are creatures of love, and God help us when you take that love away. We are also creatures who cannot exist alone. When we try to exist alone we are malformed. We need each other. We actually…it’s, it’s my belief, but this is a sort of a metaphysical belief, but a very deep belief of mine, that all human beings are bound together, that we are a single organism, and it’s the shattering of this organism that brings most of the terrible ills of mankind. If we could empathize, and this, again, of course, I speak as a total pacifist, a confirmed pacifist…absolutely I believe that any arming of human beings to kill is sinful, immoral, unforgivable. Now if we could empathize with these poor peasants in Iraq, whom we destroyed so ruthlessly with our bombing, we would have said to ourselves, “why are we killing ourselves?” Because these people are ourselves. So you ask a question about human nature. You know, we could talk for the rest of the program.

Heffner: Well, you know, I was…I began that way because I was interested in seemingly the shift in the “Fast” philosophy…

Fast: Alright, now wait a minute…you spoke of competition before…

Heffner: Right.

Fast: …alright, what…what essentially is competition? There are a whole variety, a thousand steps of competition. We’re competing now…you realize that, of course.

Heffner: I don’t feel that way at all.

Fast: Oh, of course you do…

Heffner: Tell me how.

Fast: …of course you do.

Heffner: How?

Fast: Well…

Heffner: Because we’re exchanging…

Fast: Oh, but we’re not simply exchanging, we’re, we’re receiving a notion and we’re trying to clarify that notion and you throw it back at me and you want me to clarify it. And then I say, “Well, what about the notion, what does it…”, so in a very gentlemanly and friendly way we’re competing.

Heffner: But you see I…alright, let me tell you the level of competition for me. I rather thought that the younger Fast had put his emphasis totally upon cooperation. That part of humanity that you described so tenderly just before.

Fast: That has nothing to do with competition.

Heffner: No that’s what I’m saying, and that today Fast writes more about competitiveness and I wonder whether this is the difference between the old Socialist and the new Fast?

Fast: No.

Heffner: Tell me.

Fast: No, other differences, many other differences. You didn’t mention that I have written in my lifetime 16 plays. One of them was just played in the Emiline Theatre in Mamaroneck. It played there for the past 10 days. It closed yesterday…it’s a play about Jane Austen. I loved the theater and I write plays whenever I can and I’ve never gotten one into town, but they’re produced all over the country so that satisfies me. But when we talk about the theater…what is the theater? If you were to have drama…drama is competition. If there’s no competition, there’s no drama. If there’s no stress, there is no drama. Now, the thought that we could live without competition…this…this is probably one of the things that wreaked disaster in the Soviet Union. We, we must compete; we must try to make things better. And you don’t make a thing better in and of itself. I make it better than you do, you make it better than I do. Otherwise, how would we make it better?

Heffner: But you don‘t think that there are…I’m not going to talk about “the children of light” and “the children of darkness”, but that there is a basic, psychological, philosophical, personal difference between those who emphasize competition and those who emphasize cooperation? And that it seems to me that in one…at one time of your life you emphasized the cooperativeness, the cooperation, the warmer, softer, gentler, as your friend George Bush…

Fast: I…I…

Heffner: …would say.

Fast: …I won’t argue that. (Laughter)

Heffner: Is it true?

Fast: Very…very likely it’s true. But…

Heffner: What changed your mind?

Fast: Oh, I don’t think I changed my mind. Good heavens, well, we…I don’t want us to get bogged down on the meaning of words because that becomes too complex and you never really finish it once you start it. I’ll grant you the point. Possibly I have more respect for competition today.

Heffner: You see, and it’s not to win, to make or to win a point, it’s because I think I have so much to learn from you. Not that I’m that much younger, but so much to learn, and I, I had this sense that as you look around you…you, for some reason, and I’m trying to identify why, not in the sense of “for some unknown reason”, I mean “my God, I can’t understand it”…some reason I’d like to understand. You know find the forces of the market, competition more…more of a plus than of the minus I think you once felt it was.

Fast: You know, if you want…let me tell…it’s personal, my own…

Heffner: Sure.

Fast: …and nobody’s talked about it…this is why I think the Soviet Union failed. It’s a strange reason. I think they failed because Stalin and the men around him in their iron-minded stupidity and rigidity destroyed the independent farmer. Because if they had not destroyed the independent farmer, there would be enough food in Russia today, and they would work out other problems. If people are well-fed and well-clothed they will not, they will not rebel in terms of change. They’ll seek for other means of change. The competition between farmers is very important. I don’t see how the United States could have developed this incredible farming system it has without competition. I remember something that was…piece that was on television, on Channel 13 many years ago. A farmer, I believe in Iowa, was talking and he said, “I farm, I’d say 1,000 acres. Government says you gotta leave 200 acres fallow, so now I have 800 acres. I produce more from the 800 than I did from the 1,000. Government comes back and says, ‘you’re down to 600’. Okay. I produce more from the 600 than I produced from the 1,000”. Now this is competition. This is the need of this man to produce more food.

Heffner: Well, invention is the mother of necessity…then why do we go back to your concern…how can we go back to your concern…about the 1920s…there was no safety net beneath the…

Fast: Ahhh…

Heffner: …poor, no welfare, no churches handing out free dinners. But at…

Fast: Now you…now you speak of cruelty. Now you speak of a total lack of compassion. I don’t like that. This, this is for the fascist countries. Mr. Buckley once challenged me with that. He said, “If there was no welfare…if we forced the Blacks to either work or die, that would be better for them. Wouldn’t it? That would strengthen them. That would get rid of the weak and the strong would come to the fore and survive. That’s the way it was with our parents, grandparents, great grandparents”. Oh, no, no. Not so. Not so. Because when you create a mechanism that will do that, that will feed people, that will let people die instead of feeding them and taking care of them, they you have to undo the whole thing because you have a mechanism which is driven by brutes, exercised by brutes. This is what Adolf Hitler did. You know, there are many terrible things in the Holocaust, but there’s one thing about the Holocaust that is not enough mentioned. Hitler decided in part to murder 6 million Jews so that he wouldn’t have to feed them. This was a part of the solution. Germany was at war. Look at the food we save. So, there, there’s a difference between compassion and…

Heffner: I just wanted to make sure that Howard Fast hadn’t gone 180 degrees…

Fast: (Laughter)

Heffner: …in his political odyssey. Gone 360 instead?

Fast: I am, I am in the position of Mencken, who said in the famous quote of his…I think I can get it almost right…Mencken said, “In all my life I’ve lived under a government with whom I have always disagreed, which I have always disliked, which I could not praise for any action…” and so forth and so on. I haven’t changed. I think what goes on in Washington is deplorable. I think these dreadful wars that are ticked off for the vanity of people…just…Reagan with his little vain war and now Bush with his vanity war that killed thousands of people…these, these are monstrous, deplorable things. I agree with Charles Peters of Washington magazine who said, “To have a victory parade after this war is like the parades Mussolini held when his troops came back from slaughtering the Ethiopians, who fought against their machine guns with spears and bows and arrows. And it’s like the parades that Hitler held when he wiped out the Polish resistance with his superior air power”. Well, these, these things…I haven’t changed in my attitude toward these things. I could not live with myself if I said “Hurray, we’ve won a great war”.

Heffner: Okay. Now Mr. Fast…we have 10 minutes left…to this second program. Forgive me, I want to go back to something from our first program together. I think you avoided the thrust of my question…I won’t say “evaded”. I asked you about…when you told the story of Ronald Reagan…a little known story of Ronald Reagan who you suggested wanted to find out what this thing was, the CP that, that so many of his friends and the people he admired, the creative people, many of the creative people in Hollywood were involved with. I’m…still want to know whether it was totally unfair to say that these people had an influence upon the making of motion pictures and that that influence in turn was felt, experienced by the American public.

Fast: Oh, absolutely.

Heffner: What did they do? I mean not in the realm of documentaries…you spoke about that…

Fast: They…

Heffner: …I mean in the entertainment.

Fast: …they made tendentious pictures. In other words, they used film educationally and if you will, propagandistically. I mentioned two of the films that are classically tendentious films of World War II, “Action in the North Atlantic” in which…I then called it “All Out on the Road to Mermansk”, that was another film. I meant “Action in the North Atlantic”, which was written by John Howard Lawson, in which Humphrey Bogart played the lead, and the other one, “Sahara”. Now, this…these people in Hollywood who were either Communists or Left Wingers, they felt that films had to teach and films had to move people toward what they felt were more democratic…

Heffner: Was…

Fast: …outlooks and positions.

Heffner: If that’s the case, was Martin Dyes, a name that was hateful to me as a young man, and of course, to you, was Dyes and were the others who tried to find un-Americanism in film, were they so truly wrong in saying that the writers…

Fast: Totally wrong.

Heffner: Well, in what way?

Fast: Totally wrong.

Heffner: Tell me.

Fast: Because if Americanism is decency, then today the film business is loaded with anti-American…”Die Hard”, kill this, killer this…is this Americanism? Is this…to hold themselves up to the entire world as a nation of lunatic slaughterers, people like “Rambo” who run around with rapid fire weapons, killing everything in sight? Is this Americanism? Or…

Heffner: Or…

Fast: …is decency and democracy Americanism?

Heffner: So then what you’re saying and in our last program you mentioned “Ballad for Americans”, and when you go back and read the lyrics carefully of “Ballad for Americans”, one realizes that Paul Robeson, and the others who did sing it, too, were talking about the great American tradition.

Fast: That’s true.

Heffner: And that it had been stolen by those who would do the things that you opposed, that the great American tradition, one of cooperation, had been undermined.

Fast: If a Dyes Committee were to fight the studios that make such garbage and “Die Hard” and “Rambo” and the rest of them, I would oppose them to my last bit of strength, because we must allow it. This must be open. We must endure the garbage for whatever good we can produce at the same time. And now and then we produce a beautiful picture that says something. It may be that “Dances with Wolves” is a fairytale as so many people say, but it’s a beautiful fairytale, and I want…well, I can’t say “my kids” because my kids are middle-aged, but I want my grandchildren to see “Dances with Wolves” and in this way they will get a deeper and a better understanding of what this country is. I don’t want them to see the “Rambo” stuff and the rest of that garbage. So what is American and what is un-American, the people and only the people can decide and they must decide it by either buying tickets or not buying tickets. There’s no Martin Dyes, no un-American Committee, none of those people…in the first place, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. We have in Washington a compodium of such boobs as never existed before in one city. So, God knows they must not make any judgments…how do they dare, how do they dare make judgments about what is art? They wouldn’t know “art” if they met it face to face every day of their lives.

Heffner: You sound as though you were talking about your former colleagues in the Communist Party.

Fast: Ah, maybe in a sense I was. Maybe in a sense I was. Because certainly, certainly they often took attitudes which were the same…censorious attitudes…you can’t do that.

Heffner: Politically correct is an expression that’s being used these days. As I read “Being Red” and read a good deal more than you had written, I couldn’t help but think that there is a great parallel between thrust toward being politically correct today and the political correctness of the Party back in the 30s and the 40s.

Fast: There’s no political correctness. There’s nothing that’s politically correct. My God, did you ever see a child say “I want to grow up and be a politician? I mean the very word is a symbol for corruption in our country. The thought of this pack of people in Washington being “politically correct”, it’s unthinkable.

Heffner: Couple minutes left. Once a critic wrote of you, “Fast’s article”, referring to an article you had written “reveals him as unchanged. In the past his praise of the Soviet Union, as was the case with many Communists often went to extremes. Today while the American Party has moved to a more independent position, Fast continues to be Soviet oriented, but in reverse. What was formerly beacon has become bug-a-boo. What was previously the source of all good is now the major source of evil, certainly of evil in the Socialist world, and the Communist movement, then of much of the evil elsewhere”.

Fast: He’s got it all wrong. I have…I believe the Soviet Union is one of the important concepts, political concepts on the face of the earth. It’s there. And either it becomes something promising and good, or else terrible, terrible things will happen. No, I’m not an enemy of the Soviet Union. He is ridiculous. I, I feel that Communism is ridden with faults, and that these faults brought a great project to its destruction. But to be an enemy…I’ve never, never written anything about the Soviet Union to back up whatever, whoever that man is, to back up what he’s written there. No. I, I have a lot of hope, very high hopes that the Soviet Union will emerge from this as a democratic state.

Heffner: As a democratic state?

Fast: Yes, a democratic, socialist state because I believe that may happen.

Heffner: Do you think it will happen to us?

Fast: In the United States?

Heffner: A democratic, Socialist state?

Fast: I don’t know. There’s no way to know. No way to predict. I don’t know what form it will take here. Something will have to be done. Greed won’t keep the country running. Something has to be done here. We have too many increasing poor and too many very rich and somehow this must be straightened out.

Heffner: That’s what you felt when you were a very young man, right?

Fast: Exactly.

Heffner: And you took action. You took political action.

Fast: Yes.

Heffner: What would you do now?

Fast: Oh, I write. I write it in The Observer every week. I let go, I write whatever comes to mind, and I write it with no restraints.

Heffner: Are you as convinced now as you were in the 20s that we can’t move on as we have been moving?

Fast: That we can’t move on? You know we, we are a great…

Heffner: In one minute.

Fast: …wonderful structure, all the Bushes in the world cannot destroy us. Sununu cannot destroy us. All the boobs in Washington cannot destroy us. This is a great country. It is filled with good, compassionate people and we will work these things out. Now don’t ask me how. I have no crystal ball. But I have great faith in America. We have taught the world that ethnics of ten different, of a hundred different races can live together in peace. And that’s the great lesson of America and it goes on.

Heffner: Howard Fast, that’s probably the best and the most optimistic note to end on and I do want to thank you for joining me today and during the last program.

Fast: It’s been a pleasure.

Heffner: 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 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.