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James T. Farrell

On the “Cain Plan” for Writers

(3 October 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 49, 9 December 1946, p. 5.
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.


(Continued from last week)

One of the major grievances of James M. Cain concerns taxation. Now it is true that there is a certain inequity involved here. The author must pay an income tax, and thus, he receives different treatment than does the corporation. And in the long run, he is also at a disadvantage if he is contrasted with the person who pays an income tax on what he gets from stocks and bonds. But this is an inequity which concerns all professional people, and not solely the writer. He is not a special victim of the government. In addition to which, this inequity mainly concerns the more successful authors, those who have to pay taxes according to surtax rates. It would be better if the successful writer did not have to pay such high taxes. But at the same time, this grievance involves complicated questions of taxation, and it likewise involves important principles.

Given the economic system we live under, the best principle of taxation is that which is based on ability to pay. Most certainly, the question of taxes here should not be a sound argument for the appointment of a board such as the one proposed.

And let me remind you, further, that after citing the grievances of the writer, including this concerning taxation, Mr. Cain speaks of the plight of desperation to which writers have been reduced. Think of it – Mr. Cain, and Hollywood writers earning a thousand dollars a week and two thousand dollars a week, are reduced to desperation, and they are, presumably, among the major victims of social and governmental injustice in these United States. For remember, the economic complaints on which this plan is based are the complaints of rich or well-to-do writers more than they are of the poor and the independent ones.

And despite such facts, there are many who dare to call all opponents of this plan fascists, reactionaries, illiberal. These features of the plan, also, should stress what I wrote in my previous letter. This plan is in the interest of the hired writer, rather than of the free writer. It has been concocted from the standpoint of Hollywood writers. Their trade mark is on it. I offered my cooperation in any struggles they make to better their lot. However, I again wish to point out that all writers must not be herded and bureaucratized as the means which will help them get a better deal. Their problems are not always precisely the same as the problems of the independent writer.

The very economic relationships of the independent writer are different from those of the employed writer. The relationships of the former are more those which are like the relationships of a craftsman to a merchant capitalist: the relationships of the hired writer more resemble those which prevail in the case of a factory owner and a worker. However, the scale of pay of the screen writer is much different from that of the factory worker. In the light of these facts, I wish to urge that the most complete and careful study be made of the different types of economic relationships which prevail in the business world of writing. Such a study will, I predict, confirm my criticisms: it will also reveal that this plan was worked out before it had been properly thought through to the end.

Bureaucratic Control of Copyrights

You were quoted in the press as stating your opposition to any plan which would require that authors sacrifice their copyrights. However, even if this pernicious proposal be eliminated from the Cain plan, I would still most strongly urge its total rejection. The creation of this appointed authority would give such a board an entrenched position, and from this entrenched position, it could well be able gradually to expand its power and influence. It could well work toward the acquisition of power over copyrights in the future. It could set up the basis for clique and group control among American writers.

At the present time, it is not a secret that many prominent American writers are either non-members of the Authors League, or else, they have stopped paying their dues and have lost interest in the organization. It is dubious as to the real significance of the League, and as to how many writers it really speaks for. The League has no provisions – to my knowledge – for the admission of poor young writers who cannot afford to pay their dues. By and large, the League consists of successful writers.

The fact that it has not attained a greater membership places a greater responsibility on its shoulders when it considers this plan. For even without the copyright provision, the League and the Board could be turned into a powerful group that could be controlled by cliques. The one organized group of writers in America could become an instrument of pressure on other writers. This pressure would possibly be in line with the ideas of pressure proposed by Cain and the other proponents of his plan. Without this copyright provision, the AAA will still be bureaucratic. Likewise, the claims that the AAA will not have any authority over what is printed are inadequate to defend the plan. For the AAA will have too much power. There will be no democratic control over it. In indirect ways, it can easily influence what is written when it wants to.

The fact that I am a member of the League should testify to my acceptance of the idea of the organization of writers. But different principles and plans of organization are possible. The Cain plan is not the only solution to the problems of the organization of writers. It is not the only alternative. Many of the concrete proposals for the economic betterment of writers, envisaged in this plan, can be accomplished without it.

“Tough Muggs” and Licensing

For instance, it is not necessary to appoint this AAA of “tough muggs” in order to establish the practice of licensing the motion picture rights of books instead of selling them outright. A large number of those whose books are likely to be sold are already members of the League. I am sure that it will not be hard to convince them that they ought to license their work to studios rather than sell them outright. This plan does not stand or fall on the licensing proposal. However, this proposal has already been advanced in such a way as to fool many members of the public; They seem to think that all opponents are against licensing, and that, thus, opponents are against the economic interests of writers. This false impression is then amalgamated with the false notions that all opponents of the plan are reactionary, and that its sponsors and defenders are progressive.

The press quoted you as stating that this issue is a trade union issue. This is also a misconception. It is not a clear cut trade union question. It centers in the matter of the property rights of authors. And further, even if it were an out-and-out trade union question it would not follow that Cain’s proposal is a good one. I think that I have established this point in my two letters to you, and I hope that the Committee will carefully consider them. Also, I would add that if you persist in treating this question as a pure trade union one, and as one of merely formal unity, then you, yourself, will contribute greatly toward the creation of what you will call “fractional issues.” For you will then be laying the basis for the misrepresentation of all opponents of the plan according to the amalgam which is now being publicly created, the amalgam which presents all writers opposed to the Cain plan as fascists.

Unity in terms of the Cain plan can only be a most dangerous unity. In fact, I predict that if the Committee recommends this plan, and if the League adopts it, both will have created conditions for the biggest “disunity,” for the greatest “fractional” fight In the history of modern American writing. For I am confident that American writers as a whole, and in particular the best and the most independent ones, do not want to be herded about by Jim Caln’s “tough muggs” and pie-card artists.

In conclusion, then, let me formally propose that the Committee rejects this plan in toto.


Sincerely yours,
James T. Farrell

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