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The Hollywood Left Revealed By: Art Eckstein
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh, Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left (San Francisco, 2005: Encounter Books). Pp. 292. $29.95.

In August 1940, the actor Franchot Tone explained to the Dies Committee (forerunner of the House Committee on Un-American Activities) that to him as a liberal, the Communist Party of the United States as it operated in Hollywood was “just another political party.” If anything, that view is even more widely and strongly held today, 65 years later, by the artists of the film colony. The understanding in Hollywood is that the Hollywood Communists, including the famous Unfriendly Ten who refused to give testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947, were mere innocent left-wingers and non-comformists: they were eventually martyred—blacklisted or even sent briefly to jail—by “witch-hunters” on account of their political beliefs (which are left unspecified), and because of their unwillingess to “name names”, i.e., to be “stool-pigeons” against others. A ‘witch-hunter”, by definition, is an unrelenting inquisitor who is looking for something that is not there.

This is the gospel as received in Hollywood today--and woe betide anyone who objects to it. Naturally that gospel has found its way onto the big screen, in a stream of big-name movies such as The Way We Were (1973: starring Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand), The Front (1976: starring Woody Allen), Guilty by Suspicion (1991: starring Robert De Niro), The Majestic (2001, starring Jim Carrey), and One of the Hollywood Ten (2001: starring Jeff Goldblum). This is the greatest propaganda victory ever achieved by the CPUSA.

The deeply-researched and well-written new book by Ronald and Allis Radosh demonstrates why Tone and all those who have followed him have been so dreadfully mistaken.


Readers who are well-acquainted with the story of the Hollywood Ten and the subsequent blacklist of Hollywood Communists and leftists will find much that is familiar here--but also much that is new and important. The Communist Party as it operated in Hollywood was NOT just another political party. This was true for three profound reasons: (1) although it was a legal party operating in a democracy, its membership was secret; (2) its central function was to further the interests and policies of a foreign country and great power--namely the Soviet Union; and (3) it operated, as did all Communist Parties around the world, on the Soviet Union’s own totalitarian model, where all independent thought was forbidden in the name of revolutionary discipline. What is so striking and disturbing about this last point is that the Hollywood Party was made up solely of creative artists.


Let us turn first to the issue of secrecy. At its height there were about 300 Party-members in the film industry. Party-membership in Hollywood was secret, and the Party was essentially a revolutionary conspiracy. It was precisely this aspect of Party functioning that allowed secret Communist militants to take control of non-Party organizations, organizations which possessed innocent-sounding public names and involved hundreds of people who were not themselves Party-members but only liberals (or radicals) who thought they were working for good causes: peace, economic justice, anti-racism, civil rights. These are the famous “front groups;” and later, in the blacklist period, many Hollywood individuals who had innocently joined such front groups got into trouble with HUAC or the blacklist (the actor Edward G. Robinson is perhaps the best example).[1] But those victims of HUAC and the blacklist within broader Hollywood society (they were victims of the Party, too, of course) are not the Radoshes’ topic; the Radoshes focus sharply on the actual Party, and especially the hard-core Communist militants who made up the Hollywood Ten.


The secret Party-members gained control of these front organizations because (under Party orders) they worked the hardest for them, and so they got elected to the chairmanships and executive boards by people who did not know that they were voting Communist Party-members to positions of leadership and control. Through these “front groups” of mostly non-Party members the Party greatly multiplied its power, and came to exercize far more political power and influence in Hollywood than would have been the case if the Party had been a simple, open but small institution of 300 members.


The two most famous front groups were the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League of the 1930s (to which even John Ford belonged), and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions of the 1940s (to which even Ronald Reagan belonged). Such organizations funnelled great sums of money (mostly from innocent dupes) into causes the Party particularly favored (for instance, the Leftist side in the Spanish Civil War), while preventing any criticism of, say, the policies of the Soviet Union. Thus when Ronald Reagan, who thought he was merely associating with like-minded idealistic friends, sought in July 1946 to get some criticism of Soviet foreign policy as well as American foreign policy onto the agenda for HICCASP, he suddenly found himself in a ferocious shouting match with both John Howard Lawson (the secret head of the Party in Hollywood) and another secret Party-member, Dalton Trumbo. Reagan soon left the organization in disgust (pp. 115-116). Trumbo was the most talented and later the most famous of the Hollywood Ten.[2]


The other purpose of secrecy was, of course, to have secret influence over Hollywood films themselves. Both Lenin and Stalin had asserted the centrality of popular film as a weapon for “educating” the masses in proper thinking, This is precisely why the Hollywood section of the Party was so important ideologically and functionally that it was run directly from the New York headquarters of the CPUSA, and was never a subsidiary unit of the Los Angeles CP or even the California CP. To be sure, secret Party-members were rarely successful in getting their propaganda into the films being made by the studios for which they worked (though many Party screenwriters boasted of attempts). The problem was that studio moguls edited out any material they thought might offend any possible audience of viewers: after all, they were in the movie business to make money.


The Hollywood Party did have a single spectacular success in this regard, however: the film Mission to Moscow, made by Warner Bros. in 1943, at the height of the Second World War. The Radoshes devote a full chapter to this story. The film was in good part the product of the same creative crew that had just finished the masterpiece Casablanca: screenwriter Howard Koch and director Michael Curtiz. Its theme—astoundingly--was that the Moscow Purge Trials of the mid-1930s were justified, that all the accused (despite being elder statesmen of the Revolution of 1917 ) were guilty of treason with Nazi Germany and/or Japan, and that Stalin was a democrat. The Radoshes demonstrate conclusively what has long been denied, especially by apologists for the Party such as Victor Navasky: that Mission to Moscow was a Communist Party secret project. The film’s screenwriter Howard Koch was not “apolitical” (Navasky’s characterization) but a pro-Stalin intellectual, and his very influential “technical advisor” for the film, Jay Leyda, was a Communist operative. The Party never had another success like this; the film, however, did not do very well financially.[3]


And in the end Party-members paid dearly for belonging to a secret organization. The hard fact is that there would have been no “naming of names” if the Party had not been a secret organization in the first place. This was later ruefully admitted even by prominent Party-member Paul Jarrico--and this turns out to have been the private opinion of the famous blacklistee Dalton Trumbo as well. Trumbo’s bitter remarks on Party secrecy have not been known before, and the bringing to light of material that for 50 years has lain unnoticed or ignored in Trumbo’s private files is a major scholarly contribution from the Radoshes.


“The question of a secret Communist Party lies at the heart of the Hollywood blacklist,” Trumbo wrote in a 1958 memorandum which the Radoshes have now rescued from obscurity (pp. 219-222). Trumbo argued that there had been no need for the Party in the United States to maintain the rule of secrecy, since Party-members were not living under a despotic regime such as Czarist Russia, under the threat of torture and death, but were working for change in America’s open political market-place. Yet this was a distinction the Party refused to make. Party-members in the U.S., Trumbo said, “should have all been open Communists, or they should not have been members at all.” What happened instead was that secret membership ultimately “destroyed them”. The reason was that the moment of conscious choice whether to openly join an openly revolutionary party (with admitted risks to one’s career) was never permitted people; and when the illusion of secrecy collapsed and Party-members were then called before HUAC, “the quality of choice was radically changed for the worse. Instead of voluntary choice between party and career, they now faced compulsory choice between informing and the blacklist.” Thus “even the informers can be counted among the victims of a [Party] policy which gave them no realistic moment of choice.” (pp. 220-221; emphasis added). In a later letter, Trumbo also pointed out that no informer before HUAC “gave all the names he could have, had he wanted to” (p. 231); and so even in the 1950s Trumbo made a point of maintaining friendships with “friendly witnesses” such as Richard Collins (Ronald Reagan’s favorite ex-Communist)--much to the disgust of his comrades in the Ten (pp. 224, 231).


Trumbo’s 1958 memorandum is a remarkably subtle analysis of the dilemma which the secret Party people faced before HUAC,--both those who remained silent and those who talked--and he concludes that the ultimate cause of that dilemma lay in Communist Party policy, not in the “anti-democratic” nature of American society. It is the sort of modulated analysis which you will never see in a current Hollywood film about the blacklist period, where we find only “heroes” (those who kept the secret) and “villains” (informers--and, of course, the alleged anti-democratic nature of American society). It is no wonder that Trumbo’s essay met savage criticism and rejection by the Party when in 1958 he attempted to get it published in the Party journal Mainstream (p. 219). It would be unacceptable in Hollywood today as well.


A second crucial factor that made the CPUSA different from any other political party in Hollywood was its devotion to the interests of a foreign power, the Soviet Union. The Party-membership in Hollywood faithfully followed every twist in policy that came out of Moscow (which in turn was reacting to European conditions, not American ones), and proclaimed each policy of Stalin the epitome of virtue—for the Socialist Motherland could do no wrong. Looking back later, the Party-member and exiled director Jules Dassin (Never on Sunday) said that “The slogan was always ‘Defend the Soviet Union.’ It was not ‘Defend the Socialist Idea’ or ‘Defend a Fairer System.’ It was ‘Defend the Soviet Union.’ Impossible.” Looking back, too, Party-member Paul Jarrico’s negative opinion was the same--not that Jarrico ever deviated from the Party line at the time.[4]


The Radoshes devote an illuminating chapter to the most glaring example of this conduct: the Hollywood Party’s reaction to the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939. The staunch anti-Nazism of the CPUSA between 1933 and 1939 had been one of its major attractions to many people; but now the Hitler-Stalin Pact created friendship and de facto military alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The Pact was a moral disaster for the Party--both for those who became disillusioned and especially for those who did not. I will cite just one example. When in late August 1939 the Party leader Herbert Biberman, who was a screenwriter and director as well as one of the most rigid of all Hollywood Stalinists, heard rumors about the Pact, he publicly denounced them as hideous fascist slanders of the Soviet Union; the Soviet Union, he declared, would never cooperate with Nazism (pp. 64-65). That was the day before the Pact was signed. And after the Pact? Well, Biberman became chair of the Hollywood Peace Forum--an organization whose goal was to prevent American economic and military aid from going to those countries, such as Great Britain, which were now actually fighting Stalin’s friend Hitler (p. 78).[5]


The tight chain to the Soviet Union meant in turn that when the Cold War began, the Party would naturally and fervently back the USSR against the United States. It was the inevitable Party position, the position that destroyed the Party in America--and it destroyed the Hollywood faithful along with it. Once the Soviet Union was a clear enemy of the United States, it was perfectly natural to see the CPUSA as a potential fifth column (as even Paul Jarrico admitted at the end of his life)--and HUAC was therefore on the way. HUAC was a reprehensible and irresponsible instrument of state power (its chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, would soon be in jail himself for financial corruption), and the eventual blacklist in Hollywood was mostly the work of knaves and fools. Nevertheless, the very nature of the Communist Party itself, both its intense secretiveness and its extraordinary ties to a foreign enemy power, made it all too likely that something like this would occur.


Equally disturbing in terms of human behavior, however, is the third characteristic of the Hollywood Party which the Radoshes underline: the inner workings of Party intellectual discipline in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. Here were creative artists who either willingly or under enormous and savage psychological pressure submitted their talent to the complete control of a central committee. The preferred instrument whenever anyone sought intellectual or artistic independence from the current Party line was a “trial” in which the defendant was brutally criticized and mercilessly excoriated for hour after hour as “unrevolutionary” and “anti-working class” by people he had previously thought of as his friends. That these Stalinist “trials” often took place in sumptuous Beverly Hills mansions complete with swimming-pools only makes the situation more grotesque.


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Art Eckstein is a Professor of History at the University of Maryland at College Park.

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