An Oscar that reminds us of a cowardly, shameful little episode

Ordinary communists were trying to make sense of a world of exploitation, segregation and injustice
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The Independent Culture
ONCE AGAIN the American media industry has congratulated a part of Britain - England this time - for actually having a history. Queens, ruffs and doublets are all the fashion. But, this time, the more recent and painful past of the United States itself, was also on view at the Oscars ceremony. Director Elia Kazan, in his 90th year, was given the lifetime achievements award, traditionally bestowed upon anyone famous and fabulously old, who has managed not to die in the preceding year. But outside there were demonstrations against Kazan, involving some people almost as ancient as he. Why?

Kazan won his first director's Oscar way back in 1948, for a classically liberal film - Gentleman's Agreement - which exposed anti-Semitism in post-war America. But two weeks after the movie's release the previous year, its writer, Ring Lardner jr, had been one of 10 Hollywood writers or directors hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was investigating communism in the movie industry. By the beginning of 1950 all 10 had been imprisoned for contempt. And all 10 - and hundreds of others - had been put on a blacklist.

Now let us run the spool forward to January 1952, when - with senator Joe McCarthy at the helm - HUAC came back for more. Elia Kazan, one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood, was summoned before the committee, and asked about a period in the mid 1930s when he ran a left wing theatre group. Would he name those around him at that time, who were members of the Communist party? At first Kazan said that he would not. But then, on 10 April, he relented, naming the writers Clifford Odets and Lillian Helman, among others. Those who mounted the demonstration last Sunday night were there because they could not forgive what they still saw as an act of betrayal.

In the wake of Vietnam and detente, the orthodoxy in intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic, was totally hostile to the McCarthy witch- hunt and those who collaborated with it. Several films of the 1970s and 1980s, including Woody Allen's The Front, dealt with the impact of the blacklist, the wedge it drove between friends, the suicides that resulted from it, and the huge creative cost it entailed. Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, is probably the best-known encapsulation of this sentiment.

But the award to Kazan reflects the fact that revisionism has been at work here, as elsewhere. The columnist Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post argued that Kazans' "cause was good, his method was bad. But now it is only the cause that seems to matter." The cause was anti-communism. And it's the fall of the Berlin wall that has rendered the cause more important than the method.

To take Miller's analogy, what the new thinking says is that there were indeed witches in Salem. Or, at least, there were bloody good reasons for supposing that some citizens were black magic enthusiasts. In the dark years of the early Cold War Stalin's Russia represented a real danger to democracy, and local Communists were Stalin's foot-soldiers. Furthermore, with an evil of such illiberal ubiquity, it would have been naive to expect it to be defeated by liberalism alone. This argument was heard in Britain after it was revealed, last year, that the liberal pin-up George Orwell, had passed on to MI5 contacts a list of 35 names of acquaintances who he considered to be Soviet fellow-travellers.

Orwell's little book of names is an uncomfortable read, not least to someone like me who has been converted to him so recently. It is hard to know what to make of his comment that Paul Robeson, the singer and campaigner for black rights was "anti-white". And the truth about the Hollywood Ten, as Kazan must surely have known, is that they represented no threat whatsoever to anyone's way of life. No more than did the New York lavatory attendant, dismissed from his job at around this time, because he was a communist.

It is hard for non-communists to accept, I know, but the main motivation behind those who were ordinary communists in the Cold war period, was not to do with Russia and Uncle Joe and world revolution. What they were trying to do was make ideological sense of a world in which they saw migrant workers exploited, union rights denied, segregation rampant, anti-colonial movements suppressed and injustice rife. And, often for very good reasons, they did not believe anything that their governments or newspapers told them. They knew the world they lived in was not as, say, The Times or the BBC described it. Why then should they believe that Russia was as bad as they were being told?

But it was. Even so, that, I think, isn't the reason that Kazan shopped his old comrades. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan reports a 1952 conversation with Arthur Miller, in which he had told Miller that, "Skouras [the head of Fox studios] implied that I couldn't work in pictures anymore if I didn't name the other lefties in the group. What the hell am I giving all this up for? To defend a secrecy I don't think right and to defend people who've already been named, or soon would be by someone else? I've hated the communists for many years and don't feel right about giving up my career to defend them."

It was an agonising decision, and most of us must hope that we never have to make one like it. Even so, in that instance (and Kazan had seen what had happened to Lardner and others), it was a cowardly choice, a choice to be on the side of the bully, and not the bullied. In 1952 the pitiful remnants of the American left were on one side, and the power of the press, the studios, the companies and the politicians was on the other.

Perhaps that's why Kazan also wrote this in his autobiography: "For years I declared myself an ardent liberal in politics, made all the popular declarations of faith, but the truth was - and is - that I am, like most of you, a bourgeois. When it comes to the crunch, I am revealed to be a person interested only in what most artists are interested in, himself." A month after Kazan's appearance before HUAC, it was Lillian Hellman's turn. "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she told the committee.

If the revisionist position is popular at the moment, Hellman's is increasingly a stance that - in these relativist times - intellectuals (not to mention stand-up comedians) have come to admire. Will Self's almost reverential interview with that totally uncompromising American feminist Andrea Dworkin, in the latest edition of the Independent on Sunday, shows how some now value anger and authenticity over respectability. I see this too. But the trick is somehow to embrace courage, without falling for the whole schtick.

It wasn't badness that made some good Americans support Stalin, but a desire to tie up loose ends. The solution is to leave 'em loose.