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James T. Farrell

On the “Cain Plan” for Writers

(3 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 48, 2 December 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On November 11, 1946, Labor Action featured an article by Albert Gates which dealt with the James M. Cain plan for the. establishment of an American Authors Authority. The plan, envisaging the control of authors’ copyrights by destroying the power of book publishers, Hollywood and the radio chains, was subjected to criticism because of its totalitarian, bureaucratic and Stalinist character. Once the plan was made public, followed by a campaign to force its acceptance by all the Author’s organizations, a struggle broke out among these bodies and their individual adherents. One of the most active opponents of the plan is James T. Farrell, noted novelist, literary critic, and socialist. Farrell’s letter to Elmer Rice, who subsequently also came to oppose the Cain plan, is printed because of its intrinsic importance in the fight against Stalinist totalitarianism which is the most powerful force at work in favor of the Cain plan. It subjects the Cain plan to devastating analysis and criticism.


Oct. 3, 1946, N.Y. City.

Mr. Elmer Rice, President
The Authors League of America
Authors Guild
6 East 33rd Street
New York City

Dear Mr. Rice:

Inasmuch as a committee is now presumably studying the James M. Cain proposal for the creation of an A.A.A. I take the liberty of addressing a second letter to you. I have again read the Cain proposal, and the arguments favoring it in The Screen Writer for July, and I have tested my views by discussing them with a number of persons, with writers and non-writers. I wish again most urgently to propose that this plan be rejected both in its original form, and in any modified version of it which may be suggested.

I have learned that many confusions concerning this plan exist in the public mind. A considerable number of persons have been fooled into thinking that the issue involved in this proposal is one in which the forces of progress are lined up against the forces of reaction. The plan is considered to be a liberal plan advanced by pro-Roosevelt writers, and opposed by anti-Roosevelt writers. The most gross version of this false view is to be found in the pages of The Daily Worker and New Masses. In these organs, all opponents of the plan are lumped together as, in effect, fascists, members of a fascist literary front. Also, the impression has been created that I am a member of the American Writers Association, both in the pages of these organs and elsewhere. Thus, for purposes of information, I stress the fact that my opposition to this plan is independent, and that I am a member of The Authors League in good standing.

After I sent my letter of September 14th to you, you sent me a telegram in reply in which you assured me that the Council of the Authors League would never permit the passage of any measure “that would prejudice” the freedom of writers. However, I cannot accept your assurance. For in the same telegram, you also stated to me:

“The unfortunate injection of political and fractional issues into the discussion has merely played into the hands of the powerful groups who would like nothing better than to see dissension within the ranks of the Authors League.”

“Fractionalism”: False Issue

Your statement here is, in itself, political; from it, one could only imply that I am one of those who have been “guilty” of what you would call “fractionalism.” Your statement further makes it clear that you see some of the issues involved as one demanding unity among authors. This is false. The question of dissension is not at all significant in this matter. And the fact that you made such a statement has left me with anything but assurance concerning what will happen in the study which the committee is now presumably making.

I have learned that many persons have been fooled and misled into seeing the Cain proposal falsely as one which concerns liberal and reactionary politics. The reason for this, of course, does not lie with you, nor with the Authors League. However, the statement of yours which I have quoted causes me to fear that you, also, may have allowed yourself to be fooled. I hope that my suspicion is unwarranted. But then, it is based on your own words.

In my letter, I have charged that this proposal is bureaucratic. Others have made a similar charge. I have learned that some members of the public dismiss this charge, and that they argue that the word “bureaucratic” is one used by reactionary newspapers, in their attacks on the New Deal and so on. It is unfortunate that such shoddy views should be current among literate people. I do hope that no members of the committee also sponsor such a view. I, personally, am highly fearful that this plan: would permit the literary Stalinists to gain powerful influence over American writers. The attacks of the Stalinist press on all opposition to this plan only strengthens my fear. However, I think that on its own merits, the plan is most dangerous, and the essence of this danger lies in the fact that it is a bureaucratic one.

Plan Has Bureaucratic Traits

The distinctive trait of a mind bureaucratically disposed is that of a lack of faith in ideas. In line with this lack of faith in ideas, there is a lack of confidence in democratic action. In my letter to you of September 14, I pointed out to you that the Cain proposal was based on the premise that authors are suckers. In the course of re-studying and reconsidering this document, I even found it more shocking than I had originally thought. James M. Cain spoke vaguely and generally of the rights of authors, but he was not at all clear as to what these rights are. Only in passing, did he speak of the right of free speech, and, in general, it is impossible to know what he really means by rights. The word is used most ambiguously in his document. But the document appeals to writers; to accept an AAA on the ground that their rights will be defended, and that they will make a lot of money. This defense of their rights will be carried on by “tough muggs.” And the proposal also tells us that these “tough muggs” will use all means in defending the rights of authors.

This strongly suggests that the plan was drawn up without any complete conviction in the justice of the authors’ case, without any conviction in the capacity of writers to learn and to defend themselves. Cain’s, faith, lies solely in. organization qua organization, and in the hard-boiled competence and aggressive spirit of these “tough muggs” who will use all means to attain Cain’s end. This proves most clearly that the plan comes from bureaucratically minded persons.

Also, please let me stress for the benefit of the committee, that the plan itself is bureaucratic. It proposes that each section of the Authors League will appoint one member of the board. These four appointed members will then appoint a chairman of the board, who, will, in turn, be the fifth board member. He will have the power to appoint a number of persons, representatives, lawyers and others. Also, the plan provides that a tax be imposed on all licensings of copyrights, and that this tax serve as the means of supporting the board.

In this way, Cain said that a “million dollar kitty” will be raised, and that this can be used by the board in advancing and defending the interests of authors. This board will be appointed. Its head will in turn be appointed by the four appointed board members. They will receive very good salaries, and presumably, they will get traveling expenses, etc. And they will have at their disposal, if the plan works out successfully, a sum of something like a million dollars. And they are instructed in the plan to use all means to advance the interests of authors. This is shocking. And it shows that one can state that in two ways the plan is bureaucratic. The arguments in its defense are bureaucratically minded arguments: structurally, the plan is bureaucratic. It ought to be clear that this plan will be best for those who want to become literary pie card artists.

Control of Copyrights

It is also pertinent to speak once again of the proposal that the board be put in control of all copyrights. This plan envisages only the copyrights of unhired writers. Copyrights belonging to business organizations which hire writers will not be placed under the control of this board. Thus, the plan would permit large organizations to hire writers, and to have them work for salary or wages, and thereby, they could escape the necessity of having to deal with the board. And we can be sure that if this plan is adopted, such a practice will become more widespread than it is now. Between the board and employment for large cultural enterprises, the independent writer will have no place to go. In my previous letter, I stated that this plan does not promise to help the poorer and more independent writers. And this possibility strongly suggests the validity of my argument. I might state that the fact that this provision was put into the plan shows how carelessly worked out it is.

One of Mr. Cain’s proposals – the one which plans to have the board legally defend the author – seems to impress him very much. And yet, it is also dangerous. In any legal proceedings involving copyrights, the board as the owner of these copyrights will come into court as a defendant. Mr. Cain thinks that this would be better than the present practice whereby the Authors League comes into court in an amicus curiae. I strongly doubt that Cain’s claim here is legally sound. However, there is a more important point to be mentioned in this context. This plan would deprive the author of any say in his own defense. He would have no choice concerning his own lawyers, and he would be likely to have no voice in the defense of his own case. And let us not forget that this is a board which is, also, to be instructed to use all means to defend the rights of authors, and that it is to be intentionally composed of “tough muggs.”

I know that I personally would consider it most onerous if I had to leave any legal offense of my rights in the hands of such a board, without any choice in the selection of lawyers, and without any real voice in the way that I was to be defended. This provision is particularly ominous for radical writers who maintain any independence of position.

Abetting of Stalinist Influence

It is a public fact that there are strong Stalinist influences in the Authors League. The Stalinists are now sufficiently powerful so as to have all important voice in the appointment of the board members. And these board members will have complete power of decision in the legal defense of all authors. Any writer who has opposed Stalinism can well be alarmed at this possibility. And even if such a possibility were not real, this feature of the proposal is most alarming on its merits. For let me repeat – it deprives the writer of the power of decisions in his own defense.

Furthermore, this feature of the plan exposes the bureaucratic minds that are behind the plan. We will both agree that actually or. potentially, the writer exerts a powerful influence in society. He often becomes an important voice. But what is the American public going to think of writers who are (on the one hand) important voices, and who are (on the other hand) considered so unintelligent, so incompetent, so pronounced a group of suckers that they cannot even trust themselves to select their own lawyers, and to make responsible decisions concerning their own fate.

I am surprised: that many members of the public have not as yet seen the proposal in this light. We have writers who are constantly speaking on every crucial problem of the day: we have the Hollywood screen -writers who are, day in and day out, agitating so that they may be held; in higher public respect because of their craft. And we have at the same time this proposal, with this feature central in it. And it plainly tells the public that these writers who are such voices, who speak on so many issues, who should be held in such high regard – these writers are not competent to defend themselves, not competent:to have a voice in their own defense.

Alongside of these allegedly important advantages which will accrue to the author if this plan is adopted, Cain offers the writer other and trivial ones. For instance, one of the functions of this board will be that of keeping records, and it will have the power and the funds with which to hire people who will keep such records. This will save the writer the trouble of keeping his own records, a not too complicated procedure. He will not have to worry lest he lose his contracts.

When I reread what Cain and the plan has to say of this advantage, I paused and wondered how it was that the newspapers failed to pick it up, and to treat it with the loud and raucous laughter which it deserves. Had this plan been carefully read by newspaper editors, they would have made the authors of America a laughing stock. And if the authors of America are as incompetent as Cain seems to think, they only deserve ridicule. Think of it. If we have five tough muggs to speak for us, Mr. Rice, we don’t have to worry about losing our contracts. We have no need to concern ourselves with the business details of writing. We don’t need to say yes or no on anything of consequence concerning our profession. It will all be done for us.

(To be continued next week)

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