Political correctness is sometimes treated as a phenomenon exclusive to the Twitter era. Yet speech codes, the lauding of Communist dictatorships, the fast and loose use of the term “fascist,” the judgment of a writer’s worth based on whether his or her politics were “correct,” all have roots in the cultural politics pioneered by the American Communist Party of the 1930s and 1940s. Epithets like “racists,” “imperialists,” “lapdogs of the capitalist class,” and that most dreaded term, “fascist,” were not just directed with religious zeal at political enemies like Leon Trotsky, and for a while, FDR; they were also hurled at party members who attempted to liberalize the totalitarian nature of a party that followed every zig and zag of Josef Stalin’s power-mad brain.
The sad story of Albert Maltz, who was born 98 years ago today—a talented fiction writer, he won the 1938 O. Henry Award for his short story The Happiest Man on Earth, and wrote Pride of the Marines—was an object lesson to those who dared to democratize the party from within. For many who believed the party was capable of reforming, the ugliness of how party members turned against Maltz made them abandon any real hope of liberalization, and some left the party’s ranks forever. Other stayed, including Maltz.
The story of the CPUSA can be divided into two parts: a relatively open period in which Communists discovered the beauties of American democracy (the term used was “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”); and the hard-line period that followed, in which the party insisted that America was turning fascist (the slogan was “Five Minutes to Midnight”). Inhabiting the mental universe of the Communist spring, Maltz became a casualty of the winter that followed.
In the early 1930s, the American Communist party played fast and loose with the term fascist. Although they use the term to denounce anti-Communists, their primary focus—as has often been the case in the internecine wars of the left—was on denouncing liberals. Hence, Leon Trotsky was a “fascist,” as was Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas and, closer to the center, FDR.
But then came a shift in the foreign-policy needs of Moscow. No longer wanting Hitler to triumph so he could clear the way for a Communist takeover by killing off their shared opposition (“After Hitler Our Turn”), Moscow accepted that Hitler was here to stay, and now ordered Communists to form a broad-based anti-fascist alliance. Former “fascists,” liberals, socialists, and even Republicans were welcomed into the fold. After a brief interlude in which the partnership between Hitler and Stalin necessitated a move away from anti-fascist alliances toward a policy of nonparticipation in this newly minted “imperialist war,” the party resumed its hyperpatriotism in 1941 without missing a beat. Since the once “fascist” FDR was now partnered with Stalin against the Axis, party members could praise the president and appear merely to be left-wing supporters of the New Deal—a position that attracted the support of many good liberals, some of whom joined the party.
Communist leader Earl Browder tried to put substance behind the paeans to Americanism and the Bill of Rights. In 1944, he moved the CPUSA from a splinter political party to an adjunct of the New Deal. Foreseeing the Grand Alliance extending permanently into the postwar period, Browder sounded a note as patriotic as any Republican candidate. He asserted that the “system of free enterprise … within the two-party tradition in this country” was the best guarantor of “world-wide social reforms.” Rather than the class-warfare rhetoric of the past, Browder saw peaceful co-existence between “capitalism and socialism.” He concluded with a call to members to defend the U.S. Constitution. From this, party writers understandably concluded that freedom of expression would be henceforth be allowed within the Party as laid out in the Bill of Rights.
Thus when Maltz sat down at his typewriter in October 1945 to compose an article for the New Masses, he believed the party was now in a “glasnost” phase. He felt free enough to criticize what Marxism had done to the quality of work produced in a 10-year period by himself and other party-affiliated writers. He concluded it was because they wrote as Marxists first, artists second. The way out of this creative paralysis was for party writers to “repudiate” and “abandon” using art as a political weapon. Instead, they should be artists first, activists second.
Maltz didn’t stop there. What would prove to be most heretical was his citation of the Trotskyite James T. Farrell as an example of an American Socialist writer who had produced enduring art.
The article would not be published until February 1946, and in that interval between composition and publication, a lot changed in the party. On orders from Moscow, Browder was out in early 1946 and was replaced by the hard-line class warrior William Z. Foster. A heresy hunt was waged against anyone smacking of “Browderism.”
At first, Maltz was the hero of those still in what was now a cultural lag. Despite being on the KGB payroll, writer Albert E. Kahn wrote Maltz of his “hearty agreement” with the essay. Millard Lampbell of the Almanac Singers praised Maltz for raising “issues that damn well needed to be raised.”
But those who scrambled to stay in the good graces of Moscow soon turned on Maltz. The head of the Hollywood Communist party, John Howard Lawson, led the charge. Lawson was the very type of writer Maltz criticized in the essay. Lawson had been working on a history of America throughout the 1930s, but had to keep revising it according to the dictates of the ever-changing party line. Fellow writers joined in the assault. Mike Gold of the Daily Worker accused Maltz of aiding and abetting fascism by championing such “vicious, voluble Trotskyites” as Farrell. Hollywood party member Alvah Bessie quickly disabused those of liberal persuasion in the party by favorably citing Lenin’s view of freedom of speech as a “bourgeois and anarchist phase.”
As bad as such criticism was, in the era before Facebook, it was nothing compared to what Maltz would face when a public meeting was held in Hollywood to discuss his heresies. When Maltz tried to defend himself, he was immediately attacked by his inquisitors. According to Leopold Atlas, who was present, Alvah Bessie spat “venom” at Maltz, followed by producer Herbert Biberman, whose accent dripped with “hatred.” Atlas witnessed how Maltz was subjected to “every verbal fang and claw at their command; every ax and bludgeon.”
Liberals saw the true totalitarian face of the party and left. But not Maltz, who in a meeting a week later recanted. Atlas was present and was disgusted as he watched Maltz “crawl” while Lawson smirked. Maltz admitted he was wrong to write that men with bad politics could be good writers. Hoping to rid himself of “Browderism,” Maltz wrote a rebuttal of his own article in the Daily Worker, asserting that the only good writers were Communist ones, whom he defined as those “who love the people.” To complete his recantation, Maltz publicly denounced himself onstage at a writer’s symposium chaired by party members. Now that he had satisfied even Foster, who praised his “political stature,” Maltz was welcomed back into the fold.
To his dying day, Maltz never regretted his grotesque recantation. In the late 1970s, he told Nation writer Victor Navasky that he repented so as not to “be expelled from the party.” Party membership for him was “an honor,” he said, and so he must be “wrong.”
Not only did Maltz behave according to party rules, he soon colluded in its hypocrisies. When he and the same party members who had denounced him a year before were summoned in 1947 before HUAC to admit any party affiliations, he joined with Lawson in testifying that they were defending “freedom of expression” against the “thought control” imposed on America by Congress, becoming a hero to generations of people who abhorred the “blacklist” and proclaimed their fidelity to civil liberties and the importance of free speech. As we struggle with a flood of impassioned ideologues using new technologies to castigate and denounce anyone who deviates from their own strictures about permitted speech and thoughts, in the name of social justice, the ironies of Maltz’s case are instructive.
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Ron Capshaw is a writer living in Midlothian, Va.