Almost without exception, the obituaries of Elia Kazan -- while praising his enormous talent as a director -- are critical of his testimony against Hollywood Communists. According to some, Kazan, a former member of the Communist Party, should never be forgiven for naming names of fellow party-members before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But Kazan deserves to be honored, not despite his testimony, but because of it. He is worthy of respect and admiration not because we should separate his politics from his art, but because his politics helped preserve artistic freedom for everyone in America. Kazan was the one defending freedom--while it was the Hollywood Communists who were betraying their fellow man.
The search for Hollywood Communists was not a hysterical witch-hunt. There were real Communists in Hollywood (as numerous reports, such as Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley's recent book, Hollywood Party, have shown). Thus, the injustice of which Kazan is accused is not that he made false accusations -- but that he was an anti-Communist.
Yet there is nothing unjust about exposing the supporters of dictatorship. The Communist Party was not merely a political organization like the Democratic or Republican Party. It was a totalitarian network. Its goal was not to win an electoral majority but to eliminate free elections and institute a one-party dictatorship. The Party's charter called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, and its officials took orders from Soviet despots.
With brazen effrontery, however, the Hollywood Communists painted themselves as martyrs for freedom. In an attempt to conceal their dirty secrets, they claimed that their political rights -- the very rights that had been systematically exterminated in the slave state they admired and worked for -- were being violated by the House investigations and the Hollywood "blacklist." And, amazingly enough, history has believed them.
It is perfectly legitimate for Congress to investigate any organization that declares its active intent to overthrow a free society on behalf of a foreign dictatorship. It was not the Communists' ideas which were the inquiry's target, but their actions, or threatened actions.
As to the "blacklist," why shouldn't private employers, such as the Hollywood studios, refuse to give platforms to people whose views they find repugnant? The Communists claimed the right to free association in order to shield themselves from the disapproval of others. Didn't the studio-owners have the same right not to associate with advocates of totalitarianism?
The morality of congressional investigations and private blacklists would not be challenged if the targets were, say, the militia movement or some neo-Nazi group. Such entities would be clearly recognized as threats to individual freedom. The Left would surely support an anti-Nazi blacklist but somehow regards an anti-Communist blacklist as unpardonable.
Further, "whistleblowers" are hailed today as protectors of our rights when they disclose that corporations are circumventing minimum wage laws or Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations. Yet a man who blew the whistle on a genuine evil -- on a movement bent on establishing an omnipotent state -- is condemned for "selling out."
What can explain such perversity, except the belief that Communism is not an evil, but anti-Communism is?
Kazan's own defense of his testimony provides the most revealing analogy. His 1954 film, On the Waterfront, portrays a young hood who becomes disillusioned with the gangsters who control the local longshoreman's union. The rule on the docks, enforced by terror, is that union members are supposed to be "deaf and dumb" -- to pretend they don't know anything about the gang and refuse to speak to the police. The hero of the film is the one man who has the courage to break this code of silence and testify against the gang. Kazan intended the film as a metaphor for his decision to testify against his former comrades in the Party.
Almost fifty years later, the sympathizers of leftist dictatorships still want to cover up the fact that the real defenders of freedom were not the "martyred" Hollywood Reds but the courageous men who acted to expose them.