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Albert Gates

Can an Authority of “Tough Mugs” Bring Security
to America’s Writers?

James M. Cain Plan for Authors
a Totalitarian Inspired Scheme

(11 November 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 45, 11 November 1946, pp. 3 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Several weeks ago, James M. Cain, popular novelist and movie writer, proposed a plan to protect the writer, any writer, against unfair exploitation at the hands of book publishers, the movie and radio industries. Arguing correctly that the writers are annually cheated out of thousands of dollars by these enterprises, the Cain plan envisaged a new system of control over authors’ copyrights so that they might always retain control over their own creations. His plan, however, has produced a sharp struggle among writers and their various organizations. The cause for the dissension lies in the nature of the Cain plan, which is essentially bureaucratic and contains within it dangers that in some respects are as great as or greater than the present evils which confront the creative writer.

Cain proposed the establishment of an “American Authors’ Authority.” This Authority, according to the original plan, would be presided over by a committee of five “tough mugs.” The committee would have complete control over the copyrights of all writers. All writers would be forced by the job control of the Authority to join it and turn their copyrights over to the committee; the chief force of “compulsion” over writers would be the Screen Writers Guild in Hollywood. Once the Authority was organized and the Committee of Five established, the Authority itself would have no visible control over the activities of the “tough mugs.” The Committee of Five would operate with an “estimated one million dollars” to be raised by a tax on the licensing of copyrights and this fund would be completely at its disposal without the possibility of rank and file supervision.

What Is the Set-Up?

What will be the means of establishing the Authority and Committee? In exchange for “protection,” all writers would join the AAA and turn their copyrights over to the Committee. Each section of the Authors League of America (there are four of them) would select one member of the Authority Board and these four would choose the fifth member to act as chairman of the Committee. He would be the supreme boss. He would have the power to appoint representatives of the AAA, lawyers, publicity agents, and set salaries, determine expenses, etc.

In this way, claim the advocates of the AAA, the exploitation of writers by Hollywood, the radio industry and the book publishers would be ended; the writer would retain control of his writings through the Authority and remain in a position to earn money constantly from his or her creative work. Explaining the reason for his own interest in this problem, Cain cited the fact that Hollywood grossed $13,000,000 on three pictures based on his books which it bought for only $45,000. In this citation, Cain described a condition which is widespread and there is no question but that something must and can be done about protecting the writer from exploitation by the three main enterprises mentioned above.

Why, then, the severe objections from all quarters, the “right” and the “left”? And why are the staunchest supporters of the plan the Stalinist writers, the organizations under their control and their “action committees”? The answers to these questions lie in the essence of the plan itself which has already been altered several times since it became subject to criticism. Under the blows of many writers, the plan has been revised to eliminate both the element of force to be used against writers and the complete control of copyrights only by the Committee of Five. It now proposed to create a join trusteeship between the writers and the Committee of “tough mugs.” This “voluntary” change is an expression of at least two things: the Stalinist nature and backing of the proposal, and the thoughtlessness in the original conception of the plan.

The Plan’s Critics

The most trenchant criticism made of the plan comes from James T. Farrell, who is a writer most conscious of the inequities which exist in the writer-publisher relationship. Farrell has written extensively on the commercialization of writing in this country, the domination of the profit motive in book publishing and the exploitation of the writer. The basic criticism made by Farrell is that the plan proposed by Cain is anti-democratic, i.e., it is a bureaucratic plan which would deprive the writer of independence of action and thought in the defense of his rights. Behind this plan, he pointed out, stand the Stalinists, whose interests in it flow from their political aim of controlling the writers of this country. In the concrete circumstances, the Committee of Five would be controlled by the Stalinists, or at worst they would have a fifty-fifty relationship in it. Knowledge of what Stalinist control of thought and writing means indicates what great harm would be done to creative writing in this country.

Farrell, as well as other writers, points out that the Committee of “tough mugs” saturated with Stalinist ideology could manipulate writing in this country to the advantage of world and domestic Stalinism; it could initiate punitive measures against anti-Stalinists. The reverse would hold if reactionaries were in control. Worst of all, by control of the copyrights of authors, it would attempt to create a totalitarian mold for writers, thus sterilizing all creative talents. The attempt of Cain and his supporters to describe the struggle over the plans as a contest between progressives, i.e., the plan’s advocates, and reactionaries and fascists, the plan’s opponents, is an example of the mode of thinking of the sponsors of the plan.

But that is not all. The original plan was endorsed by the Screen Writers Guild, although it was “created” at the top or, more precisely, by Cain and the Guild lawyer, Morris Cohen, a former partner of Maury Maverick, Texas Democrat. Since then the plan has been changed in important respects. Were these changes endorsed by the Guild or discussed by it? Obviously not. The Radio Writers Guild of Chicago accepted the plan “in principle” although it did not see it or read it. It merely acted on a report of the plan. Its acceptance of the plan “in principle” also means that it accepts the changes made in it by Cain and his associates, also without seeing the plan.

The Stalinist writers in New York, through their “action committee,” have also adopted the unseen plan and its changes without participating in its drafting. At the New York meeting called by the “action committee” (a Stalinist body), Cain spoke in behalf of the plan in its revised form. He did not read the plan because he did not even have it with him. “They,” in Hollywood, were making changes in it. Yet he called upon the audience to accept a plan they did not have before them and to endorse all the changes made and those contemplated without their knowing anything about it!

In his letter to Elmer Rice, president of the Authors League, urging the rejection of the Cain plan, Farrell wrote:

“This plan has been sponsored by the screen writers and the radio writers. While they are the most highly rewarded writers in America, they are also the most unfree. While it is true that the screen writers and the radio writers have struggled to defend their economic interests, it is not also true that they have a good record in the defense of rights of free expression. They have very little free expression in their own work. The bureaucratic board of ‘tough guys’ which they want is to be one which, in the main, concern themselves with monetary questions. The most important money issues arising will be those involving the motion picture rights of books, and concerning the financial rewards from film and radio in general. These facts led me strongly to fear that Mr. Cain’s board of ‘mugs’ will be strongly influenced by attitudes and conditions prevailing in the motion picture and radio industries, and among the motion picture and radio writers. The conditions of their long servitude as hired writers causes me to feel alarmed lest this board would also be too much a Hollywood and radio board, and that it would absorb the ideas that prevail in these industries. Because of this possibility, I am strongly fearful that this board will not offer much hope and promise for poorer and more independent writers.

“In his article sponsoring this plan, Mr. Cain did not offer any valid reasons to show why this plan is the best possible one for defending the economic and artistic interests of the writer. He cited a list of economic grievances. One of these concerns the contracts which motion picture scenarists are required to sign. These contracts give to the studio the rights to all writings produced by a writer while he is under such a contract. Is the creation of a five-man board of ‘mugs’ the most effective way of changing the terms of such contracts? Would it not be better for the Screen Writers Guild to take up the question directly? ... Instead of going about their problems in this manner, however, the Screen Writers have concocted a plan which causes many writers to feel the most justifiable alarm.”

Why? Because the Screen Writers Guild is Stalinist-dominated and influenced.

It would be a mistake to approach the Cain plan from purely economic considerations. This is an important question but can be left for another time. Of primary importance today is the political problem involved. The fact that the plan is opposed by a Marxist like Farrell, a Democrat like Dorothy Thompson, who accurately described the Cain proposition as taken from one of Goebbels’ pages, and the extreme right among authors such as Rupert Hughes and Clarence B. Kelland, only illustrates the overall inacceptability of the plan.

There must be an end to the inequitable economic position of the writers, but certainly a far better plan than the one proposed by Cain can be developed. For example, in the case of the Hollywood writers, there is the Screen Writers Guild. It is difficult to understand what purpose there is in the Guild if it does not or cannot fight for improving the contractual and job conditions of the Hollywood writers. The same holds true for the Radio Writers Guild. It should be made clear that we are not so much concerned with the high paid writers, in which category most of the sponsors of the plan belong, but with the many underpaid writers in the movie and radio industries.

We are even more concerned with the creative writers who do not work for the industries. It is they who suffer most from economic inequities. Whatever plan is developed for defending their economic interests and of all writers, it must be one which in no way interferes with the free and unencumbered creative work of which they are capable. Any plan which contains within it bureaucratic totalitarian measures is a threat to the writer. The fact that it is sponsored by James M. Cain and not Joseph Goebbels, makes no difference. It would be just as bad under Stalinist domination as any other reactionary force. In this present circumstance, Cain serves as a perfect front man. The fact that he is “sore” because he feels gypped, and that he is not a Stalinist, makes him a perfect front man for the advocacy of a plan which could only redound to the benefit of Stalinism and against the best interests of the writer.

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