This speech proved to be more controversial than I had anticipated, for Howard Fast, my fellow panelist at the 1988 Harvard conference on anticommunism, bitterly attacked it and said I was the cleverest kind of hidden anticommunist.
Many radical writers have a favorite quote from Brecht they carry around with them. Mine is from a 1934 essay called “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.” It says, “Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.”
What kinds of truth is the novel particularly good at telling? The subjective experience of one or many individuals in its social context. This can be done in a variety of ways. One is the kind of detailed, multicharacter, historical novel that suits me. But there are many ways to write about the individual and society, depending on one's taste and the aesthetic of the times. The main thing is not the form of a narrative, but whether it tells the truth.
Here, for instance, are two passages about heroic communists. The first shows the Bolshevik as master spy, undermining civilization as we know it.
Bolshevist gold is pouring into our country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution. And there is a certain man, a man whose real name is unknown to us, who is working in the dark for his own ends. The Bolshevists are behind the labour unrest--but this man is behind the Bolshevists. Who is he? We do not know. He is always spoken of by the unassuming title of Mr. Brown. But one thing is certain, he is the master criminal of this age. He controls a marvelous organization. Most of the Peace propaganda during the War was originated and financed by him. His spies are everywhere.
That is from Agatha Christie's N or M, copyright 1922. The next passage is from a book of stories by Hu Wan Chung, called Man of a Special Cut. It was written during the period of the Great Leap Forward in China, that is, the late 1950s, and was widely distributed in the U.S. during the early 1970s, when cultural policy was controlled by Chiang Ching.
Resembling a work of sculpture, Wang Kang took his stand on top of a pile of ingots, his eyes gleaming and the rain dripping from his beard.
“Comrades, let the battle begin! To fulfill the quota of 10.7 million tons of steel, and for socialism, comrades, pitch in!” shouted Wang Kang, raising his shovel over his head as a fighter would raise a rifle.
“Comrades! We’ve got twenty-four hours in which to repair the tracks and roadbed. We won't pull out until victory is won. Comrades , can we do it?”
“Yes, we can! We are strong!” rang the thunderous voice of the crowd.
What are we to say about these passages? Can we call them literature? We have demonology on the one hand and the lives of the saints on the other. Does this ring true to anyone's experience, in any place, at any time? And aren't these two passages somehow oddly alike, if only in their flatness?
I am interested in the way people write about communists, partly because I do it myself. My new novel, Union Square, is partly about the historical experience of being in the New York Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s. It begins with the Palmer raids and ends with the Hitler-Stalin pact. Some people will think it monstrously unfair, even anticommunist. Others will think it is soft on communism because it treats communists as human beings, often flawed, changing over time , sometimes heroic, sometimes spineless, often caught in a web not of their making, but a web they can affect, if only by withdrawing from it. I did my best in this book to find out the truth and tell it.
A number of other novelists have done likewise and their books helped me understand. One is Doris Lessing, whose Golden Notebookis not only the first feminist novel I ever read, but also a book about the British Communist Party at the time of the Slansky trials, the death of Stalin , and the McCarthy period in the U.S. Here is a passage from it:
Three of Michael's friends hanged yesterday in Prague. He spent the evening talking to me--or rather to himself. He was explaining, first, why it was impossible that these men could be traitors to communism. Then he explained, with much political subtlety, why it was impossible that the Party should frame and hang innocent people; and that these three had perhaps got themselves, without meaning to, into “objectively” anti-revolutionary positions. He talked on and on and on until finally I said we should go to bed. All night he cried in his sleep.... He went off to work looking an old man, his face lined and grey, giving me an absent nod—he was so far away, locked in his miserable self-questioning. Meanwhile I help with a petition for the Rosenbergs. Impossible to get people to sign it, except party and near-party intellectuals.... I am asked, even by people in the Party, let alone the “respectable” intellectuals, why do I petition on behalf of the Rosenbergs but not on behalf of the people framed in Prague? I find it impossible to reply rationally, except that someone has to organize an appeal for the Rosenbergs.
Another ex-communist novelist who tells the truth about his experience is Jorge Semprun, whom Americans know mainly as the screenwriter for La Guerre Est Fini, Stavisky, andZ. He was also a clandestine member of the Spanish CP during most of the Franco period , part of the communist underground in Buchenwald, and a member of his party's Politburo for eight years. Together with his friend Fernando Claudin, he was expelled from the Spanish party in 1964 for suggesting that de-Stalinization might be appropriate in other Communist parties besides that of Russia—a sin later to be known as Eurocommunism, when it was put forward by one of the men who expelled him, Santiago Carillo.
Semprun's party name was Federico Sanchez. His wildly experimental novel, The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez, begins at the meeting where he is expelled and returns to it intermittently, meanwhile jumping back and forth from the 40s to the 60s, the 50s to the 70s. Much of the narrative is stream of consciousness, interspersed with long passages of speculative philosophy, memories, and even some poems, like this one:
Impossible to say,
yet it has been said.
Impossible to think
that a voice has been heard
Impossible to write it,
and yet it is written.
has ceased to beat
it beats no more."
His heart! The breath of our party!
Impossible to think that this is how it was,
that nothing can be done now, that it has happened,
that every life has been cast in shadow
by this death of Stalin,
I wrote this, it behooves me to remember.... It is not a bad moment to remember the poem that I wrote when Stalin died. I am not going to do what the others did, what almost all the other Communist leaders formed in the Stalin era did. I am not going to wall up my memory. I wrote this poem in March of 1953, a few hours after the official announcement of Stalin's death. I did not write it because I was ordered to. It was something that came spontaneously from the innermost depths of my alienated consciousness. The poem was read at the end of a memorial ceremony, before thousands of Spanish political refugees gathered together in the Salle Pleyel, in Paris.... Up there in the salon where we were gathered together, Santiago Carillo was claiming that the dossier of Stalinism should be closed one and for all. He was shouting, in a fury, that poking around in that past was simply proof of the masochism of petty-bourgeois intellectuals. So be it. I shall continue to poke around in that past in order to uncover its purulent wounds, in order to cauterize them with the red-hot iron of memory.
With the possible exception of Clancy Sigal's Going Away, I cannot think of a single American novel written about the party that has this complexity of voice. I am trying to understand why. Was it so much harder here than in Spain? Was it more difficult to exorcise the ghost of Joe McCarthy than the ghost of General Franco? Even the best-known work about the McCarthy period, Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, is an allegory, not written directly. The ordinary reader need never know it has anything to do with the persecution of communists. A post-Stalinist literature has developed all over Western Europe. It is developing now in China, and will, I am sure, do so even more strongly than before in Russia and Eastern Europe because of glasnost and perestroika, which give permission to open the books and speak bitterness. But it has not developed here.
I don't think one can attribute the lack of such a literature to the McCarthy period alone , or even to the fear of future persecution. I think it's the ghost of Joseph Stalin. A Stalinist way of thinking about literature still has a hold on many people's minds, so that they don't want to write about communists at all, or can show only their heroic face. It's fine to celebrate the achievements of the Communist Party, but real de-Stalinization has got to involve speaking the whole truth, the felt truth, about the past.
The most insidious form of censorship is self-censorship, the whisper in a writer's mind that says: I can't write this, it hurts too much, or, it will be bad for the left, or, I'll never get it published. There is no way to make Americans understand that communists are not demons unless we writers show them being human. Telling the truth is difficult, as Brecht says, but it is the job of writers. No past that deserves cherishing will be hurt by telling the truth.