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William Gorman

Stalinism Rewrites U.S. History

(31 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 13, 31 March 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Since the discovery that communism was really “twentieth century Americanism,” the Stalinists have delved into American history to find evidence that they are the inheritors of the American tradition. The fictional popularization of this view has been entrusted to Howard Fast. The American [1] the most recent product of his wanderings in this nation’s past.

The works of Howard Fast are distinguished neither for literary brilliance nor historical interpretation. On the contrary, the complexities and grandeur of history, individual character and literary style consistently evade him. If Fast has any importance, it is only because the widespread sales of his books result in certain political effects.

The hero of The American is John Peter Altgeld. This German-born farmer’s son became a man of wealth in the Chicago of the Eighteen Eighties. He became governor of Illinois with the support of the Farmer’s Grange movement. Though an undistinguished Democratic politician, he became nationally famous because of his pardon of the Haymarket martyrs, who were languishing in jail, and because of his protest against President Cleveland’s use of federal troops in the 1894 Pullman strike. The high point of his career came when he engineered the Democratic Party’s break with Cleveland and its espousal of free silver in the dramatic election of 1896. Were he not German-born, he could have easily won his party’s nomination as presidential candidate. Altgeld died some six years after the defeat of the Democrats by McKinley. The legend that he was a brave, single-handed fighter against rapacious capitalism has lingered on and has been recently given new life by Fast.

Book Contains Historical Distortions

The task of exposing Fast’s distortions of Altgeld’s role in the stormy class struggle of that period is made easier by the fact that Fast’s fictional biography follows closely the sequences of Harry Barnard’s authoritative biography, Eagle Forgotten. [2]

Fast avoids any mention of how Altgeld won the Illinois governorship, lest it upset his beatification of Altgeld as a working class hero and saint. Barnard tells us that the Democratic ward-heelers in search of a candidate reflected, “What better timber for a governorship could possibly exist than a candidate with a million dollars?” (page 152, Eagle Forgotten). In his campaign, Altgeld “shrewdly ... worded his speeches so carefully that while he appealed to labor and took advantage of the growing labor unrest, he appeared to say nothing that could be labeled ‘radical.’ For he dealt with the labor question in the most general terms.” The “Altgeld Labor Legion,” which by its intensive campaigning won him the election, operated on a slush fund of nearly one hundred thousand dollars – provided by Altgeld!

Altgeld’s pardon of the Haymarket martyrs is the most creditable achievement in the career of a very sagacious capitalist politician. The granting of clemency to the imprisoned anarchists would not have aroused the vicious epithets and accusations which the capitalists hurled at Altgeld. But a pardon, based on the fact that the original trial had been prejudiced against the defendants, was casting reflections on the capitalist courts. Fast pictures Altgeld as a man in search of truth rather than the real Altgeld – a capitalist politician who had garnered a great many workers’ votes. “He (Altgeld) heard Darrow relate that his liberal supporters and followers ‘were growing doubtful and restless and disappointed!’” (Eagle Forgotten) Altgeld gave them the pardon as a concession, only to discover, by the violent reaction of the bourgeoisie, how bitter and irreconcilable was the struggle between the classes.

Fast omits any mention of Altgeld’s role during the Pullman strike, since it would make his whole book seem foolish. The conflict between President Cleveland and Governor Altgeld over the use of federal troops in the Pullman strike, while filled with fiery verbiage, revealed no serious differences beyond whether the state or federal troops should “maintain order.”

How did Altgeld approach the great panic of 1893? “Amazingly enough, he succeeded in outlining a policy pleasing to reasonable men of both labor and capital.” But while the “reasonable men of capital” were enriched with the glut of speculative profits, labor faced unemployment, hunger and misery. Therefore, Altgeld counseled labor to “face its condition ‘squarely and bear it with that heroism and fortitude with which an American citizen should face and bear calamity’.”

Strike-Breaking Whitewashed

The capitalists were in no need of such stoical advice and received none. The militant workers who disregarded it were met by a hail of gunfire. Seven died at the hands of Altgeld’s State Militia! The dispute between Cleveland and Altgeld over the use of federal troops in the strike was essentially a question as to whether Altgeld with his liberal reputation could be relied upon to commit just such a massacre if the situation required it. Seven dead workers attest to the fact that President Cleveland’s fears were unfounded. “After it was all over even railroad owners privately admitted that ‘Governor Altgeld had done more to protect railroad and other property than any of his predecessors.’ ” (Eagle Forgotten) Fast knows this but none of it can be found in his book.

The shrieks and howls of the capitalist press at Altgeld’s objection to the use of federal troops were essentially a reflection of the fright and hys-teria with which the bourgeoise viewed the rising agrarian unrest, the unemployment marches on Washington and the militant strike actions of the workers. Altgeld, by verbally protesting against the extremeness of capitalist reaction, was able to ride the radical tide and appear as its champion.

Altgeld was later to protest the choice of William Jennings Bryan as Democratic Party candidate and particularly Bryan’s indifference to the pro-labor points of the party’s program in favor of a complete preoccupation with the “free silver” issue. Fast relates this so as to add to Altgeld’s stature. Actually there is a more scientific explanation. Altgeld came to the 1896 campaign with political opinions shaped by his experiences with the workers of Illinois. Bryan, the Senator from Nebraska, represented the debt-ridden farmers who were most vocal for an inflationary currency which would free them from their indebtedness. Thus the differences between Altgeld and Bryan really expressed the differences between the various class forces which had gathered under the Democratic Party banner.

A Trumped-Up Dialogue with Debs

What did Altgeld learn from the 1896 campaign? Fast, without saying so definitely, suggests that he gained a deeper understanding of the class struggle. There is no evidence of this. Indeed Altgeld used his political influence to swing the Democratic Party once more to Bryan and the moribund “free silver” issue in the presidential elections of 1900. Needless to say, this fact cannot be found in The American. Instead Fast presents a dialogue between Altgeld and Debs, with Debs appealing to the former Governor to turn socialist while Altgeld replies that he is a dying man. To this reviewer the historical authenticity of such a conversation is very doubtful but the hoariness of the scene is authentically Fast.

What motivates the writing of such a biography of Altgeld, filled as it is with exaggerations, distortions, half-truths and omissions? A thoughtful reading of the book will reveal that Fast is occupied with the Stalinist task of making a mythological figure out of a more recent “friend of labor” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Mythological heroes must have a lineage. Thus the portrait of Altgeld merges with that of Roosevelt at every point. Both were ill arid nearly infirm, both were members of the ruling class who expressed sympathy for the workers, both succeeded in tearing the Democratic Party out of the hands of the conservatives, both suffered the abuse and vilification of the press.

In the hands of a creature like Fast, the writing of history or of historical novels is considered neither as a task in accurate description nor in artistic integrity. Both are readily subverted by Fast in order to help the current “line” of Stalinism; it is for this reason that his book so vulgarly distorts history and is such a wretched novel. He is neither a historian nor an artist; he is a Stalinist hack doing a job.



1. The American, by Howard Fast, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946.

2. Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld, Bobbs-Merrill, 1938.

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