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R. Fahan

Opposition of Radical Writers Seen Most Effective

Stalinist “Peace” Conference Flops

(4 April 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 14, 4 April 1949, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Seldom has the American press devoted so much space to a “cultural event” as the Stalinist-sponsored “Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace.” If there was very little about “culture” in the press reports, there was hardly any more in the conference itself. For the truth is that both the conference and the press reaction were political events, part of the chilly war between the U.S. and Russia. Only in terms of that simple fact can the conference be understood.

After having sat through two days of turgid Stalinist, semi-Stalinist and neo-Stalinist oratory (I shall later distinguish among these various kinds), I think it reasonable to conclude that, from the Stalinist point of view, the conference was a failure. The conference lacked the “quality folk” names from the literary and scientific worlds which previous CP-staged conferences had had in America; it did not run smoothly; it met with serious opposition from among its delegates; and it had to witness the humiliating and shameful spectacle of seeing a Russian Stalinist bureaucrat attacked from the floor and not be able to send his critics to corrective labor in Siberia! This last was the most stunning blow of all.

Opening Beset by Difficulties

The conference opened with a dinner at $10 a plate at which some of its more important intellectuals from the U.S. and abroad spoke. Here it ran into its first snag. Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, had previously been invited to speak at this dinner and had refused. I have it on good authority that emissaries, probably unofficial, of the State Department urged Cousins to attend the dinner and attack the conference. He did. But Cousins, be it remembered, is both a muddle-head politically and a middle-brow intellectually. Consequently, his attack was ineffectual; he confined himself to noting that the American CP was disliked by most Americans (hear! hear!) but said nothing about the role or nature of Russian Stalinism.

For his remarks he was roundly and semi-hysterically rebuked by Lillian Hellman, the cat-sharp party-liner, who told him that it was not polite to insult one’s hosts. (By that line of reasoning, it was impolite of the Russian delegates to attack the U.S. government, which had allowed them to enter this country.)

At the dinner a great to-do was made about the refusal of the State Department to permit the delegates from England and France to attend the conference. This proved to be one of the sustaining feelings of those who participated and showed how stupid and reactionary was the State Department’s refusal of visas. Its argument had been that the Stalinists from Eastern Europe represented state regimes while those from Western Europe represented no one but themselves – as if the fact that a Stalinist has state power makes him more attractive than when he has not! By refusing visas to the English and French delegates, the State Department not only violated democratic standards but played into the hands of the Stalinist spbnsors of the conference.

When the conference itself opened on Saturday morning, March 26, at Carnegie Hall, hundreds of Catholic War Veterans and various nationalist Ukrainian organizations picketed in the streets. They carried some signs that were rather clever: “Shostakovitch, Jump Out of the Window” and “Shostakovitch, We Understand.” But most of their signs were distinctly reactionary in political character.

Simultaneously, another opposition group was working in the hotel. The “Americans for Intellectual Freedom,” headed by Sidney Hook and George S. Counts, opposed the conference from a liberal democratic point of view. The propaganda of this group varied in quality. Some of it, pro-U.S. government, was pretty dubious – as for example its questioning of a scientist speaker on the grounds of “loyalty.” Some of its propaganda, such as its attack on the denial of visas to the French and English delegates and its exposure of the Russian delegation, was quite effective.

At the opening session, it was possible to make several important observations. First, the Stalinists have run out of genuinely impressive intellectual figures. At past conferences they were able to parade such important men as John Dos Passos; now at their opening session all they had was a broken-down retired bishop from Utah who rambled on endlessly about religion and “values”; Ted Thackrey, publisher of the New York Post, who is hardly a man of intellectual preeminence; and O. John Rogge, a lawyer.

The political line which they, and the conference chairman, the distinguished astronomer Harlow Shapley, adopted was also important. They indulged in no mere unqualified encomiums of Russia. Whether through guile or cynicism, the speakers at the opening session all used the following approach: they would begin by noting that they were in favor of peace, were not Communists and saw faults in both sides. Then would come a quickly muttered paragraph attacking Russia, a totalitarian country, as many of them said. After which (the audience meanwhile nervously quiet), they would launch into a detailed attack on U.S. policy from a Stalinist slant. Then the audience would respond with great enthusiasm.

I have said before that in addition to Stalinists there were semi- and neo-Stalinists at the conference. In point of fact, these latter probably predominated among the “prominent sponsors.” Their fear of war had led them to favor the crudest appeasement of Stalinism. Unable to think of social forces other than the Russian or the U.S. governments, they identified themselves with BOTH simultaneously. For while criticizing Russia, they spoke of “we,” that is, the American social system. And while criticizing the U.S., they slid into the Stalinist line. This curious and all too characteristic shuttling between identification with both Stalinism and capitalism was the major political characteristic of the conference.

Sponsors Confounded at Writers’ Panel

After the first plenary session came panel sessions. The only one worth reporting in detail is the writers’ panel. Here again it was possible to see how much the Stalinists have lost in the intellectual world. The only distinguished figure from “highbrow” literary circles present was F.O. Matthiessen, the Harvard professor and critic. Otherwise, there were such CP-line hacks as Albert Kahn, Howard Fast, Richard Boyer and Agnes Smedley.

At this panel session a number of anti-Stalinists, most of them not connected with the Hook opposition committee, took the floor to attack the Stalinist sponsors. A highly tense and dramatic situation developed. The first speaker was Matthiessen, who made a platitudinous talk about “the American tradition” and the “democratic heritage” of Thoreau, Melville and Whitman. Then came Boyer, who spoke openly as a Stalinist and gave a strictly party-line talk. When questions and remarks were permitted from the floor (for two minutes each), Dwight Macdonald, editor of Politics, addressed several extremely pointed questions to Alexander Fadayev, head of the Russian delegation:

  1. Where are such Russian writers as Pasternak, Babel, Zostchenko, Ahkmetova, Katayev and Pilnyak? “Are they alive or dead? Are they in concentration camps or free?”
  2. Is it true that, because of criticism in Pravda, Fadayev had agreed to rewrite his novel, Young Guard, after it had been a public success?

When Macdonald finished, there was a hurried consultation among the Russians on the podium. Surprisingly, Fadayev agreed to reply. Of the six writers mentioned by Macdonald he referred only to two. Zostchenko, he said, had published a novel in 1947 – which was hardly to the point, since the attack on Zostchenko came after 1947. And Pasternak, he said, was translating Shakespeare – which was again irrelevant, since reports from Russia had it that Pasternak was translating Shakespeare because he felt unable to write freely himself. As for himself, said Fadayev, it was true he had agreed to add some chapters to his novel but he had not yet had time to do so. In the meantime, his novel was still being circulated in Russia. When, at one point, Macdonald interrupted Fadayev from the floor, the Russian turned toward him with a look of the most brutal hatred – and one could not but wonder if he was thinking about what he would do to Macdonald if he could only get hold of him in Russia.

From then on the polemic became still fiercer. Mary McCarthy asked Matthiessen if he approved of Fadayev’s answer to Macdonald, and the Harvard professor debased himself sufficiently to say that he did. McCarthy further asked him if he thought his hero, Thoreau, would have a chance to preach civil disobedience in Russia today as he had in America during the 19th century. Matthiessen lamely answered that Thoreau would be no more tolerated in Russia than would Lenin in America.

Jean Malaquais, the French novelist, took the floor to remark that the kind of reasoning Matthiessen used was quite irrelevant, since Russia claimed to be a socialist and democratic country while most of those present at the conference condemned America as a capitalist country. He further pointed to the treatment André Gide had received from the French Stalinists after criticizing Russia as evidence of the totalitarian outlook of the people running the conference.

Robert Lowell, a brilliant young American poet, took the floor and declared that he was both a Catholic and a conscientious objector who had been in a CO camp during the war. He asked one Russian, Pavlenko, what were the laws about conscientious objection in Russia. Pavlenko replied that he did not know but that HE was willing to fight for his country!

Lowell also asked Shostakovitch a question: How has the criticism of the Russian government helped his music? Shostakovitch had been sitting nervously and, one would guess, unhappily on the podium and when asked to reply, uttered a one-sentence answer: Russian criticism “helps my music go forward.” He did not say “forward” to what. Then he sat down. One felt deeply sorry for this poor man, who is apparently uninterested in politics and would wish nothing better than to be left alone to compose his music.

Mailer Break Shocks Stalinists

Then came perhaps the most surprising and exciting event of the panel. Norman Mailer, author of The Naked and the Dead, arose to speak. The Stalinists cheered madly, but Mailer’s first sentence turned them cold. He had come, he said, as “a Trojan horse.” He did not approve of such conferences. “I am afraid,” he continued, “that both the United States and the Soviet Union are moving toward state capitalism. There is no future in that. The two systems approach each other more clearly. All a writer can do is tell the truth as he sees it.”

The Stalinists were shocked. They arose from the floor to make “more in sorrow than anger” remarks about Mailer, urging him not to be a “pessimist.” Mailer then took the floor again to say that he believed the only solution to the world’s problems was through socialist revolution and that he did not note any revolutionary spirit at the conference. From then on the references in the Stalinist speeches to Mailer were harsh. Mailer’s speech was an honest, if halting, effort to grapple with the truth. Under the circumstances, and in view of the fact that he had been playing ball with the Stalinists, his remarks were particularly courageous.

It was interesting to observe that the Stalinists had few competent people at hand to answer the opposition. Their speakers from the floor included such distinguished intellectuals as a representative from the Wallace publicity committee and a delegate from the office workers union. All they could do was to reiterate endlessly “peace” – as if the mere incantation of the word would bring peace closer.

The second day of the conference proved less important than the first. Apparently dissatisfied with Shostakovich’s cryptic reply to Lowell’s question, the Russian delegation may be assumed to have pressured him into speaking up at greater length. He came to the panel on “fine arts” with a long speech full of the usual idiocies about how the Russian criticism of his music had helped him divest himself of his “formalism.” It was strictly Pravda style and one may doubt very much if Shostakovich himself wrote it.

Middle Class, And Middle Brow

Several conclusions can be drawn from the conference:

  1. The Stalinists are no longer in a position to run such affairs blatantly. For a time at least, they must permit such neo-Stalinists as Rogge and Frederick Schuman (who spoke on the second day) to take the forefront. Such people are ready to make the most hair-raising admissions about Russian society, but favor a top-level rapprochement with it on a completely reactionary basis.
  2. Mailer’s remark about the absence of revolutionary spirit was, to put it mildly, accurate. None of the American speakers even presumed to be speaking from the standpoint of socialism. Their constant line of attack was to point out how advantageous it would be to American capitalism to make a deal with the Russians.
  3. The Stalinist movement in the U.S. is by now a predominantly middle-class affair. It has suffered serious defeats among the workers and the serious intellectuals. Its present major base of strength is among the middle brow professionals – thus, one of its stronger representations to the conference was from Broadway. These people, largely ignorant of the elementary facts of politics, cannot be appealed to from the reactionary standpoint of the Catholic pickets. But one cannot doubt that the radical approaches of Malaquais, Macdonald and Mailer, whatever inadequacies one may note in them, did succeed in making a dent in at least some minds. Had there been a more strongly organized radical anti-Stalinist opposition at the conference, the Stalinists might have been completely routed.

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