The Naked God is Howard Fast’s public repudiation of the Communist Party, of which he was a devoted member for thirteen years until reading about the full scope of atrocities committed by the Soviet Union under Stalin. The bestselling author of Spartacus and Citizen Tom Paine, Howard Fast lent his writing talents and celebrity to the communist cause as a steadfast advocate and public figure. However, he felt increasingly ill at ease with the superior manner Party leaders took with rank-and-file members and with rumors of Soviet anti-Semitism. In his first book after officially leaving the Party in 1956, Howard Fast explores the reasons he joined and his long inner struggle with a political movement in which he never felt he truly belonged. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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The Naked God
The Writer and the Communist Party
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1957 Frederick A. Praeger, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Where do I begin? Such stories have no ending until you, yourself, end—and even then the threads are picked up by others to be unraveled to a source that is somehow always over the horizon. As I go back in my memories, there is place after place—and yet always one returns to the innocent wisdom of Lewis Carroll, who said that all stories should begin at the beginning.
I had a god who walked naked, but nobody among those I loved said so; for even as the innocent wisdom of Hans Christian Andersen held that those who could not see the king's clothes were persons of small intellect and unfit for the positions they held, so in my world, it was the conviction of millions of good and wise folk that only those who had lost all honor, dignity, decency and courage would dare to point out that this god whom we worshiped for his noble raiment was indeed naked and ugly in his nakedness.
Who would be without honor, dignity, decency and courage?
In the little town where I live, there is a little store, unimportant and of no consequence, and out of this store an old man ekes a living. This is an old man who mourns a hurt which will not heal, the kind of a hurt many who read this will know intimately, for twenty years ago the young son of this man fell in Spain, fighting in the Lincoln Battalion for the Spanish Republic and the freedom of men. His son lies buried in the distant Spanish soil, and for twenty years the hurt in this old man was as if it had happened yesterday.
He had a little salve to rub on the terrible sore. This was the salve, that his son had died in the best of causes, the fight for the liberation of mankind. But in 1956, a man called Khrushchev delivered a certain "secret report"—telling a story of Russia and the Communist movement that I and my friends had heard before but had never believed before. Now Khrushchev made proof of twenty-five years of "slander," and we believed. And among those who believed because they had to believe was this old man whose son had laid down his life in Spain.
I came into his store one day in that month of June and he was weeping. He asked me,
"Why did my son die?"
For had I not held, all of my thinking life and in all that I wrote, that one son of man was all the sons of man? He then said to me, but not in words—for a broken heart does not make a gentle person cruel or vindictive—not in words but with the look in his eyes,
"That I, a plain man did not comprehend this is no wonder; but you, Howard Fast, spoke and wrote and pleaded this cause—and why? Can you tell me why?"
But I don't know if I can answer that. I want a beginning, a nodule point to make it plain and evident, and then I can go ahead to write down, to the best of my ability and understanding, an explanation of why, when the god was naked, we told ourselves and the whole world that he was quite otherwise.
But so complex, so troubled, so filled with passion, incident and outcry is my own past; and so much more complex the world's past in which my own tiny effort was made, that I find it almost impossible to place brick upon brick, as a good builder or writer should—making an orderly procession of thoughts, ideas and conclusions.
Nor have I been able, in the year or so that has gone by since the remnants of my long structure of belief crumbled into ashes, to create any theoretical apology. Of such apology I have read at least half a million words, from the simple and insolent idiocy of the men in the Kremlin who explain a river of blood and anguish by saying, "cult of the individual," to the finely wrought and beautifully written phrases of Hyman Levy, the British Marxist.
Such apology—all of it that I have read—has less intrinsic meaning for me than the picture of a single tear of an innocent man who is being tortured to confess to crimes he never committed or dreamed of. For twenty and more years of my life, I created for myself a world picture based on the theory of those who pleased to call themselves "Marxists." I came finally to understand the stern injunction of Karl Marx, when he declared, "I am no Marxist!"
Theory, where it is not worthless, is a part of science and the scientific method. But if we are to explain and understand a little of the godhood of communism, we must begin by understanding that we are not dealing with social science or any other kind of scientific movement and outlook; we are dealing with naked terror, awful brutality, and frightening ignorance.
We are also dealing with an epoch, with great movements and struggles of men and of nations; but movements of such size tend to become meaningless and impersonal. This does not entice me. I am neither impersonal nor objective; I write of what I have lived and been, and I cannot write without anger and shame and hatred. For it is not myself alone who has been degraded, but a whole generation of brave and eager youth—men and women who set out to scale the very ramparts of heaven, and then, reaching the top, look over and down into the ugliness of hell.
It can only be fully meaningful if one makes the same journey—and then sees what a single Communist saw. No theory, no historical objectivity can substitute for this.
Comrade Kedrov saw this. When he lived, breathed, dreamed, struggled and climbed those ramparts of heaven, I knew him not; nor can I find any material that will give him form, shape, age or character. I found his name only after he was dead, only after he lay prone on those ramparts, looking into the face of hell, and scratched out his last plea to the naked god. I learned about him when Khrushchev told his story to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Here, according to Khrushchev, is what Comrade Kedrov wrote as he lay dying in a Soviet prison:
"Everything, however, has its limits. My torture has reached the extreme. My health is broken, my strength and my energy are waning, the end is drawing near. To die in a Soviet prison, branded as a vile traitor to the Fatherland —what can be more monstrous for an honest man? And how monstrous all this is! Unsurpassed bitterness and pain grips my heart...."
Is this then, the beginning and the end? As man finally, in his own good time, puts aside all tyrannies, so will there be an end of the Communist movement as we know it. What then? Will the world comprehend Comrade Kedrov? Will a monument be raised to him? Will some Russian novelist, freed finally of his soul's enthrallment, write the whole story of Comrade Kedrov's torment? Or will he be forgotten?
But can he be forgotten? Has he not, in his few words, given me a whole text? He says what only a Communist can say, for only the Communist has paid the price for saying it:
"How monstrous all this is!"
He has lived and died in the paradox of our time, a part of one of the greatest, most violent and awful dramas in all the history of mankind. Yet the paradox itself is a part of the reality. Comrade Kedrov was not tricked, taken in by some unholy deception—any more than I and my own comrades were tricked or taken in by deception. Pledged to the pure light of reason, Comrade Kedrov was destroyed by unreason—but he played a part in the making of the unreason.
It can be said best in the language of literature, better than in the language of politics. Man had suffered too much, hungered too much—and the future was too distant. He agreed not to wait; he would carry his objective in a single, final storm—and the storm consumed him.
Yet such was his dedication to his brief vision of utopia that he lost sight of himself—and thereby of all mankind. So well was it put by John Donne—that "No man is an island, entire of itself"; and Sartre, who lived and grew in fire, spelled out a philosophy of the responsibility of man to himself. Always new, this is also very ancient, more ancient by far than Shakespeare's instruction, "To thine own self be true ..."
There was the evil in what we dreamed of as Communists; we took the noblest dreams and hopes of mankind as our credo; the evil we did was to accept the degradation of our own souls—and because we surrendered in ourselves, in our own Party existence, all the best and most precious gains and liberties of mankind—because we did this, we betrayed mankind, and the Communist Party became a thing of destruction.
Yet I wonder whether Comrade Kedrov understood this ever—even at that final moment when he was dragged from his prison cell to be put to death by the firing squad. At the very end, he wrote,
"Neither the Party, nor the Soviet government ... will permit this cruel, irreparable injustice."
How wrong he was! He had lost his most precious possession—the knowledge that his suffering was all suffering, and therefore he could not comprehend that it was the Party that tortured him—the Party that had reached the point of destruction.
There wase no Soviet government; there is none today. The people of the Soviet Union live and die as the Party dictates. The Comrade Kedrovs, in the uncounted tens of thousands, are dead.
Yet for Comrade Kedrov there will be a monument—even as there must be a memory and a monument for every human being struck down by a tyrant's blow. His story will be remembered here, in what follows—and it will also be remembered in the documents that thousands of other Communists will write—until the world learns, out of its own deep agony, that the dignity of one man, any man, is in a very true way, the dignity of all men.CHAPTER 2
I joined the Communist Party in 1943, but I came to it first as a part of my generation, in the 1930's. In 1932, I worked as a messenger in a Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library. It was one of a series of dismal and underpaid jobs that I had held since, at the age of eleven, pressed by the need of our utter poverty, I went to work as a newspaper delivery boy. The fact that thereby I gave up all the joy and laughter of childhood to embark upon long years of physical and mental weariness—the particular weariness of doomed children that Jack London has described so well—is important only in its very broad social sense.
If we are to seek for understanding, any sort of understanding, through this document, then the reader must not only recall the 1930's, but must comprehend the full meaning of the surrender of childhood, a situation that poverty still imposes on millions of children the world over. The fact that I earned twenty-five cents an hour at this job is of less moment, for my twenty-five cents was precious beyond belief, and when I bought apples from one or another of the thousands of much older men who had lost all the gain and security of a lifetime, I felt keenly my own fortune as against their total tragedy. I was lucky. I always found work and a few dollars, whether in a factory at forty cents an hour or shoveling snow or heaving rocks or doing errands.
I was large and strong, iron-muscled, youthfully indestructible, for I had already survived and made my peace with every bestiality and indignity that poverty exacts. I was the product of the gutter and the gang, the lousy, bedbugridden railroad tenement, the burning streets and the empty lots. I had carried brass knucks and used them, and in my animal world, I was beaten and I beat others. I had no mother to account to—she had died years before—and my father was an industrial worker, unemployed for months at a time, aging, his back broken with years as an ironworker, tinworker, cable-car conductor and garment worker.
My childhood friends are with me no more. A few survived in soul as well as body, but others found their fate in the electric chair, in the skid rows of alcoholism, in prison and in other bitter places. To this day, I cannot pass a begger, a broken man, a homeless wretch crouched on some sidewalk without saying to myself,
"There—but by the grace of God."
I do not try to account for my own fortune. At an age earlier than I can remember I found a passion and love that was to remain with me all my life; I entered the world of books. I read everything; and thereby perhaps, found my own salvation. I read, not with taste, discrimination or selectivity, but with simple and direct lust. A book was a book, and I passed no more judgment than a thirsty man would pass upon water.
Years later, during World War II, I sprawled on the floor of a C-46 that was flying from Casablanca to Bengasi. We had a bad motor, turbulent air and electric storm, and as the plane tossed and shook, our little group of army personnel lay quietly, caught in the fear of any group of Americans who faced coming down in the desert in those days. Only one man in the plane was unafraid, and that was because he was unaware; his soul had taken wings, and for him they were surer wings than our plane carried. It was nighttime, and the plane was in blackout darkness. Only one tiny blue light burned in the ceiling of the cargo hold where we lay. This man I speak of—he was a boy of eighteen—clung with one hand to the cargo rail that runs along the ceiling of a C-46; with the other hand, he held a book, one of those paper-covered armed-service editions, up to the tiny blue light. Only the story in the book existed for him, nothing else; and all through the flight, he hung there in that uncomfortable position, reading.
When we finally landed, I sought him out, to find out what book had so enthralled him. But the book—a light little thing called Lady into Fox—was not important in terms of its content, but only as a book. The boy came from a tiny village in Tennessee; he was literate yet illiterate, and not until he went into the army had he ever read a book. Then a world opened. The war ceased to exist; the army ceased to exist; he had entered the world of books. I tried to find out what kind of books he liked, but the question had no meaning for him. He loved books—all books.
So it was with me during those years when life was work, poverty and hunger. I read through the fiction shelves of the Public Library from A to Z. I read non-fiction, subject after subject, row upon row of books. Little enough of what I read was I able to comprehend or correlate, but I knew only that I bathed in the whole great, beautiful, complicated and glorious world that was hidden from my own limited eyes.
Long afterward, when Alexander Woollcott discovered my book, The Last Frontier, and had it accepted by the Reader's Club—he was one of the board of judges—I met that grand, irascible and acid-tongued man himself. He was bewailing the fact that no one in our whole land even knew, much less read, such worthy writers as Anthony Trollope, and when I demurred that I had, he bluntly called me a liar.
"What Trollope have you read?" he demanded. "And why?"
I could only remember The Warden and Barchester Towers, and as to why—well, I explained that Trollope was in the Ts. But so it was, and sometimes I ask myself, when was there a time in my conscious life that I did not want to be a writer?
In this library where I worked in 1932, there was a gentle and wise librarian who was willing to read stories I had written and to say something about them—in particular to wonder where, in my writing, was my own life and experience. I explained that I did not consider my life and experience fit subjects for anything but forgetfulness—which was why I preferred to try to write like Cabell or Robert Louis Stevenson. My own life was meaningless, senseless, hopeless, degraded and without direction. Who would write of such things?
Whereupon she showed me, for the first time, the writing of Communists—and then, when suddenly a vision of sanity and order and hope burst upon me, she gave me Shaw's wonderful book to read, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. I read it through in one night—and then Shaw was my idol and teacher forever afterward.
Now I do not hold that you or anyone else today will become a convert to socialism by reading this book of Shaw's; but today is not 1932—and you are not me; and you do not see now, as I saw then, as I drifted through America, the kids like myself clinging to the boxcars, journeying here and there, from nowhere to nowhere—in search of hope. But you must comprehend this if you are to comprehend anything of the strange paradox of communism and the Communist Party in our time.
Excerpted from The Naked God by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1957 Frederick A. Praeger, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- The Naked God
- A Biography of Howard Fast