- It’s Not Easy Being Red:The Rise and Fall of the Literary Left
In 1949, the mandarins of the Hollywood Communist Party summoned the film director and fellow traveler Robert Rossen to the writer Albert Maltz’s house. There, Rossen was to be subjected to one of the ritual shamings that culture workers on the Left periodically visited upon each other during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Rossen had offended the Communist Party grandees with his film All the King’s Men (1949), which had taken aim at Louisiana’s authoritarian governor Huey Long but which (in their paranoid way) the Hollywood Communists read as a critique of Stalin. Even if it was not, the film—and its maker—had strayed in countless ways from socialist realism, the official aesthetic of revolutionary anticapitalism.
Appropriately enough, Albert Maltz, at whose house Rossen’s reeducation was to begin, had a few years earlier endured the ritual humiliation Rossen now faced. Maltz’s crime was to suggest in an essay that writers and artists should not necessarily approach art as a weapon in the class struggle, as Soviet theory dictated, but that art had and could achieve other politically defensible effects. Shouted down and chastened by Party cultural arbiters, Maltz confessed his error, dutifully abased himself, and was welcomed back.
Rossen, however, would not roll over. Edward Dmytryk, another film director and Hollywood Communist eminence who was at Maltz’s house for Rossen’s castigation, recalled that “[f]or the better part of the evening, [Rossen] was pilloried. . . . Bob did his best to fight back, but he was outnumbered, and there was no meeting ground. Eventually, he had more than enough. ‘Stick the whole Party up your ass!’ he said and walked out of the house. And out of the Party” (qtd. in Casty 130). [End Page 603]
This otherwise forgettable moment in the history of artists, writers, and the Communist Party matters, I think, for two, related reasons. To start, it seems impossible that anyone, let alone a houseful of influential people, could still consider themselves Communists in 1949. To do so, one would have had to survive the efforts of the US, which, even before Joseph McCarthy entered stage right, was already doing its best to drive Americans out of the Party. But one also would have had to outlast the efforts of the Soviet Union, which, through show trials, the short-lived pact with Nazi Germany, and the persecution of Jewish writers was doing its best to drive right-thinking people everywhere out of the Party. For folks like Maltz and Rossen to last until 1949, they must have been true.
More surprising still is how much Rossen put up with. As Dmytryk remembered it, Rossen “did his best to fight back.” At some level, Rossen must have cared deeply about what his fellow Party members thought about his film. We do not know what he fought back against, but either he believed that the Party and those sympathetic to it should be criticizing demagogues like Long and, if the shoe fit, dictators like Joseph Stalin, or he believed the Party should not tie its hands aesthetically with so rigid a doctrine like socialist realism. Either way, for artists like Rossen, the Party still mattered. As late as 1949, they believed that it was not on the wrong side of history and social justice, but very much on the right side of them, or could be, anyway. To put it another way, as late as 1949, for folks like Maltz and even, for a while, like Rossen, communism and the Communist...