The Chronicle Review

Lillian Hellman's Convictions

Bernard Gotfryd

The playwright and activist, in the 1970s
April 22, 2012

The distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to what has come to be known as the short 20th century, from 1914 to 1991, as the history of the relationship of the West with communism. As it took power in the Soviet Union and then spun out to influence all aspects of personal and political life, the idea of communism and the reality of Soviet influence penetrated every corner of the world. The way we write history, particularly in the United States, ranks among the least visible and yet most unfortunate consequences of the conflict. I discovered that as I struggled to write about the American playwright, activist, and, yes, one-time Communist, Lillian Hellman.

It is no secret that Hellman, like many intellectuals and artists of her generation, briefly lent her name and her good offices to American communism. Affiliation with the Communist Party USA and allegiance to the idea of communism constituted meaningful, and perhaps for a short time even central, parts of her life. But for historians of the 20th century, questions of communist affiliation in thought or deed have become much more than a brief encounter. Rather, such questions, and the mirror issue of anticommunism, have become ways of seeing, indispensable lenses.

Particularly in 20th-century American biography, they are often the canvas on which a life plays out, no matter how inconsequential the association. Like hidden incest, or a concealed lie, communism often became the shadow player (the secret sharer) in the story, the scab that had to be scratched. Considerations of affiliation and loyalty (within the CPUSA, to one faction or another, or to none at all) anchored the life. Assessments of timing and contrition measured the worth and value of the human being, inevitably coloring him or her pink or red or an innocent white.

My intent when I set out to write about Hellman was different. I was drawn to her because I thought she embodied some of the major contradictions of the 20th century. I was fascinated by the woman who became a famous playwright at a time when writing serious plays was not considered a womanly act; by the Jew who practiced no religion yet resisted the label of a "non-Jewish Jew"; by the Southerner who never stopped campaigning for racial equality and civil liberties; by the shy young girl who turned into a self-aggrandizing and abrasive woman; by the serious artist who earned her living by her pen and became a Hollywood celebrity. As a writer, Hellman once ranked with Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, yet later her plays were tagged as minor melodramas. She drew on themes of truth and honesty, and she spent her final days defending herself against accusations of lying about her politics and her beliefs. I thought we could learn something from Hellman about how those contradictions engaged some of the major 20th-century issues of identity, sexuality, celebrity, politics, and authenticity.

As I explored them, I discovered that not only could I not separate those issues from Hellman's political persona, but also that to get at them, I would need to sweep away a curtain of suspicion and doubt. The common view of Hellman as a communist colored everything she touched. Though her friends described her as warm, generous, funny, always up for a laugh, her enemies called her an "ugly" woman. Her public character, which, granted, could be nasty, rude, and abrasive, was often captured in a single expletive. She was, I was told time and again, a "Stalinist." That word, and everything it conveyed, constituted sufficient explanation for her life, cloaking significant achievements in negative judgments without so much as a second look.

Willy-nilly, I found myself asking the questions that others had posed before me. Did she deserve the epithet? Was she or wasn't she a member of the CPUSA? How active was she? Did she follow the party line? When did she quit? Did she, in the end, come clean? Did she repudiate her former connections, turn in known Communists? And, finally, the litmus test for morality and ethics: Did she, when she learned about the evils of Stalin and Stalinism, distance herself from the CP, join the anticommunist crusade? Like everyone else, I wanted an answer to the key question: What did she know, and when did she know it?

Halfway through this process, I caught myself. The cold war was over, I told myself. I did not need to act, as E.H Carr, put it, as a "hanging judge," prepared to condemn or celebrate the virtues of my subject. Rather it was time to ask, So what?

I'm not arguing that an individual's relationship to socialism or communism is unimportant. Quite the contrary. I am arguing that it is time for historians to place communism in the context of a dynamic, many-faceted, rapidly changing century; to separate the history we write from our own fears or hopes; to recognize how communism, writ small or large, has shaped our efforts to interpret a difficult century.

At bottom, that is a question of how knowledge is constructed and history written, a recognition that if the cold war once demanded that historians and biographers situate themselves on the left or the right, as sympathizers or as apologists, that time is now past. The end of the cold war provides the opportunity to move outside old debates, to re-evaluate our perspectives, and to start seeing the 20th century with fresh eyes.

More than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps we can ask what we lose when we limit our inquiries into Hellman's politics to searching out whether she was or was not a communist. What, I wonder, can somebody as robust as Hellman tell us about the meaning of political commitment? What do we learn when we focus on some of the issues that the long and bitter confrontation between the communist and noncommunist worlds obscured or decentered?

Lillian Hellman provides a useful vehicle, for her life contains plenty to deplore as well as to admire. She became involved with socialist ideas and communist activity in the 1930s. She applauded Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War and accepted the Stalinist rationale for the Moscow show trials of those years, staged to purge the enemies of a paranoid leader. She did not denounce the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. She probably was, for about two years, between 1939 and 1941, a member of the Communist Party USA. She continued for many years after that to be a fellow traveler in the sense that she remained sympathetic to the broad goals of social justice for which she believed an abstract communism stood, and she courageously advocated peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union when many people believed that position to be close to treason. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, she refused to name names—and claimed in a carefully worded letter made public at her hearing that she could never comfortably belong to any political group. Her famous line, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," reflected a life-long commitment to the right of individuals to believe as they wished. Later she was tarred for expressing no public remorse or guilt for her communist sympathies even after the corruption and slaughter endemic in the Soviet Union had become public knowledge.

By most standards, Hellman's political involvements occupy a relatively narrow canvas. She was, after all, a bit player, influential neither in party circles nor in the larger world of political thought. Ironically, perhaps, she attracted most attention as a communist when in her 1976 book, the third volume of her memoirs, Scoundrel Time, she accused liberals of behaving in a cowardly fashion during the McCarthy years and thus brought to the surface barely shrouded tensions.

We could stop the story here. Aha! we might say, she was a member of the Communist Party, and all her life she lied about it. From that point, the spin on her life would be easy and the hypocrisy apparent. She posed as a moral arbiter and got her comeuppance when the author Mary McCarthy told a national television audience in 1979 that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

But if we push our questions one step further, we might learn something more about the complicated dimensions of the 20th century's tussle between capitalism and socialism. Three possibilities come to mind.

First, Hellman's life illuminates something of what economists call the moral dilemma of capitalism as it plays out in the real lives of real people faced with difficult choices. Simply put, the dilemma pits capitalism's need to make profits that enrich the few against its need to legitimize itself by doing good for the many. The Depression decade of the 1930s, when Hellman came into full adulthood, provides a case in point, a moment that challenged the credibility of capitalism and fostered widespread demands to restrain its worst abuses. For many, including Hellman and her circle of friends, some form of socialism seemed the only viable alternative to a system that had broken down.

As a writer, Hellman repeatedly and directly exposed the corrupting power of unconstrained capitalism. The Little Foxes (1939), her most famous play, depicts an intrafamilial struggle in which siblings compete not only to acquire a foothold in the capitalist world, but also, each of them, to derive a larger share than the other. The cost of victory, she tells us, is the loss of humane values and the alienation of the next generation. Is it merely irony that her success as a playwright produced financial rewards and celebrity that provided Hellman with both a comfortable lifestyle and access to powerful voices?

We watch her then—a product of capitalism's open door, a woman who could have walked away from the economic crisis—grapple with the moral dilemma posed by the opportunities open to her. We observe her, and admire her in the mid-30s, as she becomes active in the Dramatists Guild of America and then organizes for the Screen Writers Guild. Perhaps, we imagine, she is already a member of the Communist Party, whose instructions she is following. Why should she, already a success, otherwise promote unionization? But her letters reveal a principled concern. She wants union success in order to ensure that writers get at least a modicum of control over their work, and, not incidentally, better financial rewards for their talent. Years later, her beloved SWG ousted its communist leadership. Hellman remained a dues-paying member of the guild.

There is, some would argue, something of the hypocrite in Hellman. While fiercely condemning the corrupting power of money, she cultivated those with wealth and fame and enjoyed the benefits of living well. To some she seemed little more than a celebrity hound. And yet the tenor of her behavior suggests something of the conflict identified by the British philosopher G.A. Cohen, who asks provocatively in the title of his 2000 book, If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? (Harvard University Press). No life lived under capitalism, Cohen argues, can be a pure life, because such a life involves seeking a moral goal in a contradictory environment. Watching how Hellman lived her life, warts and all, teaches us about the choices faced by individuals who pursue a left agenda under the most difficult circumstances.

Second, Hellman teaches us about the complexity of the American left and left-wing politics in the 20th century. Her political choices reflected the difficulty of thinking strategically in a sharply divided and deeply factionalized world, where choices mattered in ways not always visible at the time. The most obvious example of reprehensible behavior is her 1938 defense of Stalin and the Soviet Union in the face of

murderous purges that she either knew or should have known about. She also signed petitions that declared her support for the show trials and condemned the committees that sided with Leon Trotsky, who challenged Stalin's commitment to building socialism first in the Soviet Union. Despite her hatred of anti-Semitic and warmongering fascism, Hellman even supported the Nazi-­Soviet pact of 1939. She compounded her sins by never publicly apologizing for those mistakes.

But even reprehensible politics produce lessons. An unapologetic communism signals profound frustration with democracy gone astray, a loss of faith in a political system seemingly controlled by the wealthy; it evokes the continuing hope for a "better life" that lies at the core of American radicalism. It pushes us to ask about the power of ideologies, left and right, to blind intelligent people to existing circumstances. If we suspend our own moral judgments—deny ourselves the satisfactions of the hanging judge—we might see in Hellman's acts the political turmoil of the 30s, the desperate but unavailing search for alternatives that roiled the intelligentsia of her time. In Hellman's mind, like those of many others, the good that the Soviet state might achieve, once its economy and social policies took shape, outweighed the condemnation of naysayers. She and the many others could not have found their choices easy, but those choices may well have been expressions of hope as much as indications of folly.

Hellman might have been wrong during that bleak period, but neither then nor later was she a tool of the Soviet Union. Nor was she a dupe in any respect. That, too, is a lesson that we might learn in the post-cold-war period. However misguided her actions, she took them on the basis of a series of complicated motives rooted in loyalty to friends (including her longtime companion and lover, Dashiell Hammett, who remained a believer in communism all his life) and an abiding commitment to democracy and civil liberties. Even as she seemed to "follow the party line" in some respects, she remained her own woman. She joined the CPUSA in the late 30s and, unaccountably, stayed in it after Stalin's pact with Hitler. Perversely, she chose that moment to write Watch on the Rhine, a powerful antifascist play. She quit the party just after the Soviet Union became a wartime ally of the United States, when it would have been easier to remain in the fold. She wrote later that she had no taste for party discipline, but that she couldn't hit a man (or a cause) when it was down.

I puzzled for a long time over Hellman's penchant for left-wing social organizations (many with ties to the CP) now known colloquially as the Popular Front. She continued with them well into the late 1940s. I came to believe that it simply didn't matter to her whether communists were involved in causes she cared about. The two that moved her most deeply during the war years were antifascism and racial equality, both of which she participated in with abandon. Her engagement serves as evidence that we cannot dismiss the Popular Front as merely a communist ploy. Rather, Hellman's experience points to the desire of millions of Americans for a more inclusive democracy committed to social justice. She encourages us to view the Popular Front as a radical insurgency emanating from a widespread and deeply felt loss of faith in unregulated capitalism.

Hellman maintained her insistence on the freedom of belief to the end of her days. She would not reveal the names of alleged Communists to HUAC in 1952 because she thought everyone had the right to believe whatever they wanted. Of the House committee's targets, she wrote in Scoundrel Time, "They never did any harm." Her consistency (some would call it rigidity) may have been naïve. Yet her claim that the cry of communism was merely a red herring echoes now in the age of terrorism. Hellman argued forcefully that those who played the anticommunist game were as responsible for the emergence of the 20th-century surveillance state as the conservatives who constructed it. In the last decade of her life, and in the face of President Richard Nixon's efforts to curtail the protest movements of the late 60s, she drew on her celebrity to organize friends of every political persuasion into a group called the Committee for Public Justice. Through the 70s, it led the country in resisting abuses of secrecy and the spread of surveillance.

Third, Hellman's life urges us to rethink the attribution of Stalinism as a "meta-category" within which other definitions are contained, a label that trumps all others. Playing the Stalinist card has for too long permitted historians to overlook multiple and changing perceptions of self and others, to oversimplify the complex realities of American identity. Hellman, like most Americans, had several identities that shaped her worldview, each of them layered and complex. She thought of herself as a racially egalitarian Southerner, an American Jew, a serious playwright, and a self-made woman. Her politics consistently represented that complicated sense of self.

Born of secular, Southern, Jewish parents, Hellman never practiced any religion. And though she attributed her long opposition to fascism to an early experience of watching the humiliation of Jews in pre-Hitler Germany, she consistently understood fascism as an attack against not only Jews but all non-Aryans. For her, antifascism and antiracism were of a piece. Before and during the Second World War, she created, joined, and supported antifascist committees to aid Spanish Civil War refugees as well as European Jewry. During World War II, she campaigned with the black singer and activist Paul Robeson against Jim Crow rules in the Army and raised money for Jewish refugees with equal vigor. After the war, when racial egalitarianism and a refusal to support a Jewish state took on the aura of communism, Hellman's positions branded her as a fellow traveler. Perhaps. But to see them as that alone obscures the eclecticism that marked the efforts of many American Jews to achieve a more egalitarian society.

The unrelenting fury of the Stalinist label descended on Hellman after the publication of Scoundrel Time. It lasted to the end of her life and continues well beyond it. What purpose, we might now ask, did that designation serve? Whom did it unify? To whom did the language of Stalinism give comfort and perhaps even a modicum of power? Those questions take on added significance in light of the recently reclaimed reputation of a cultural icon as large as Woody Guthrie. His communist past now acknowledged, his Oklahoma birthplace willingly accords him the tribute it long withheld.

In the 1980s, in and around the time of Hellman's death, the label acted as a political cudgel. It could foster a common purpose, bringing together former antagonists of the left and right and creating among them a thread of political identity and unity. Deploying the word suggested (and continues to suggest) the comparative rationality of those who wielded it. Historians who fail to distance themselves from those old debates continue to encourage a political dispute that belongs in the archives of history.

How, then, do we get it right? We can continue to flog Lillian Hellman for her sins, for she does, after all, emerge from the archives as a self-aggrandizing and often frightened individual who compensated for her fear with an abrasive moralism that many found offensive. She was briefly a Communist, and like many others, she lied about her membership in the party.

Or we can begin to explore the meaning of Hellman's politics in her generation, to ask questions about the goals of those who saw their American world in unconventional ways, to explain the cultural and political tensions that drove a democratic society to marginalize some of its most critical members. If we do that, we might learn something from Lillian Hellman: We might begin to understand the deeper meaning of the politics and society in which she was engaged.

Alice Kessler-Harris is a professor of history at Columbia University and departing president of the Organization of American Historians. Her book A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman is being published this month by Bloomsbury Press.