Hollywood honors Elia Kazan

Filmmaker and informer

Part 3 in a series of articles by David Walsh

This is the final installment of a three-part series on the honoring of director Elia Kazan by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its implications.

Conclusion: Some behavior is inexcusable

"Each knew what the other was thinking. Höfgen thought of Ihrig and Ihrig of Höfgen: Yes, yes, my friend, you're just as great a bastard as I am." -- Mephisto, Klaus Mann

The citations at the beginning of each section of this piece come from Mephisto, the remarkable novel written in 1936 by Klaus Mann, German novelist Thomas Mann's son. The book's central character is Hendrik Höfgen, in whose figure, a recent English-language edition explains, the author painted a "thinly veiled portrait of his former brother-in-law, the actor Gustaf Gründgens. Gründgens who had been married to [Klaus] Mann's favorite sister, Erika, and had once been a flamboyant champion of Communism, had a magnificent career in Nazi Germany under the auspices of Field Marshal Hermann Göring." Höfgen found himself unable to resist careerism, self-delusion and opportunism. Nor was he the only artist or intellectual to heed the siren song of National Socialism. The choice Kazan faced in the early 1950s--opposition or acquiescence to reaction--was posed in the sharpest fashion in the artists' experience with German fascism.

Reviewing Kazan's fate, a number of questions pose themselves, none of which can be answered exhaustively here: From the point of view of the ruling class, why was McCarthyism necessary? Why did this very reactionary trend meet so relatively little resistance? And, more generally, why is it so difficult to take a principled stand in America?

Contrary to the superficial notions of bourgeois historians of the liberal or conservative persuasion, the American population is not by nature hostile to radical change or even social revolution. The US came far closer to social revolution in the 1930s than the experts would care to admit. Significant layers of the population came into contact with left-wing ideas for the first time and found them appealing. The entire experience was frightening and chastening for the bourgeoisie. The argument that McCarthyism was simply an eruption of paranoia that bore no relation to the actual strength of the radical movement is not substantiated by the facts. The Communist Party, the Trotskyist movement, the social democratic parties may have been relatively small numerically, but the commitment of the population, emerging from a war with fascism, to what it perceived to be progressive and democratic social change was genuine.

After all, the history of the United States has left a peculiar ideological patrimony. For the purposes of bamboozling the population, the political establishment finds it helpful to refer to past struggles for "freedom," "equality" and "democracy," and falsely claim their heritage. The difficulty, of course, is that struggles over those principles did take place, great sacrifices were made, and there is always the danger that people will take them seriously and, moreover, want to continue and deepen them.

In no country in the world is there a greater discrepancy between the promise, on the one hand, and the social and political reality, on the other. Given an opportunity to examine the problem, masses of people would have no difficulty working out that the overthrow of capitalism follows logically upon the great eighteenth and nineteenth century battles against monarchy, colonialism and slavery. Indeed, one could argue that the powers that be make unrelenting war on socialism, given the highly proletarianized population and advanced economic conditions of the US, precisely because, all things being equal, it is such a rational and attractive proposition.

Social development, of course, does not take place in this manner, through formally logical sequences, but through living struggles in which the consciousness, preparedness and self-confidence of the various contending parties play crucial roles. To explain why the McCarthyites had such a relatively easy time of it, despite the strong democratic traditions of the American population and its potential sympathy for socialism, certain social and cultural questions have to be considered.

It should be kept in mind that while the witch-hunt was a sustained and zealously pursued campaign, it was not for the most part accompanied by physical repression. There was, of course, the horrifying example of the Rosenbergs. Some Communist Party members went to jail; many left-wingers lost their livelihoods. But large numbers of people, like Kazan, capitulated without fear of any particular reprisals. Many commentators note that Kazan could have pursued a career in the theater or in Europe. This makes his behavior all the more revealing.

Why did so few, particularly in the liberal and artistic intelligentsia, play honorable roles? One cannot simply cite personal weakness, singly or collectively, by way of answer.

An irony is surely at work here. The US is famously the land of individualism, yet perhaps nowhere else is there such an intense, unrelenting pressure to conform. Kazan is probably telling the truth when he says he did not inform "for the money." It is more likely that he testified from fear of social ostracism and the loss of recognition.

In the final analysis, the immense rewards for conforming and the high price of resisting have been bound up with the condition of US capitalism. The American bourgeoisie launched its ideological scorched-earth policy in the late 1940s in part because it could. It emerged from the war the most powerful ruling class in the world, with nearly unchallenged economic hegemony and enormous financial resources. Its state had the credibility of having played a major role in defeating Nazi Germany, a credibility reinforced by the US Communist Party with its dreadful super-patriotic line ("Communism is 20th century Americanism.") The ruling class in the US was in a unique position to combine bribery, flattery and intimidation to neutralize real or potential opposition.

The ideological weaknesses of the population came into play as well. Their lack of strong socialist traditions, relatively low level of class consciousness and difficulty in drawing generalized political conclusions from experiences rendered large numbers of people vulnerable to anticommunist propaganda, particularly under conditions of generally rising living standards and economic prosperity. Within the intelligentsia specifically, the absence of traditions of opposition along clearly defined social and class lines played a damaging role. Stalinism had contributed significantly to this problem, with its cynical promotion among intellectuals and artists in the late 1930s of "friendship for the Soviet Union" (i.e., "friendship" for the bureaucracy and silence about Stalin's crimes) instead of socialist politics.

Figures like Kazan went along with an anti-capitalist social wave at the height of the Depression. Everything these individuals lacked, however, everything that was unthought out and uncritical, proved their undoing when the current dramatically shifted. Now (by the late 1940s) prosperous or on the road to being prosperous, recognized, even feted by the entertainment industry, Kazan and others were not inclined to remember responsibilities to the working class or the social cause in which they had once believed. Having tasted of celebrity, the thought of isolation was most terrifying. In America, after all, if you are not an immense success, a star, you are nothing, a human zero. To take a stand against official society means, above all, leading a life out of the limelight.

In asking, why is it so hard to take a principled stand in the US, one is also hinting at a related question: why is it so hard to be a great artist in the US? Because great art requires extraordinary mental independence and rigor, immense powers of resistance to external pressures and unyielding commitment to the truth of one's inner self. Where these qualities are in short supply artistic work will not rise to the highest levels.

Kazan, Budd Schulberg and the rest of the informers acted like scoundrels and cowards to save their careers. Sterling Hayden in his autobiography had the elementary honesty to acknowledge this. "I think of Larry Parks," he wrote, "[who] consigned himself to oblivion. Well, I hadn't made that mistake. Not by a goddamned sight. I was a real daddy longlegs of a worm when it came to crawling.... I [then] swung like a goon from role to role.... They were all made back to back in an effort to cash in fast on my new status as a sanitary culture hero." Kazan saved his skin and made another 11 films after his informing. But what was left of him?

I may be accused of concerning myself excessively about the fate of someone who acted in such a disgraceful manner, but a concern for art and the artist obliges me to make some kind of accounting. Acts committed against one's better self, like Kazan's, set off a process, lengthy or otherwise depending upon the moral state of the individual, of inner annihilation. Marlon Brando, perhaps the greatest performer with whom he worked, underestimates the damage the filmmaker did, but there is something at least profoundly humane in his observation that Kazan "has done great injury to others, but mostly to himself."

"Kazan" and "informer" became forever inseparably linked. From the point of view of Kazan's own intellectual and artistic development, the most terrible thing about his deed was that it ineluctably condemned him to a life that would be largely devoted from then on to self-justification. He would never again have the luxury of being able to devote himself single-mindedly to any other problem. He effectively destroyed his own freedom of artistic movement.

No doubt Kazan simply wished to rid himself of a past toward which he no longer felt any attachment or sympathy and which threatened to disrupt his promising career. No one is obliged to hang on to ideas he or she rejects. Going over to the side of the most deadly enemies of social progress is another matter. Kazan thought he could play games with history and escape unscathed. But if there is one lesson that might be drawn from the debacle of his life and career, it is that such actions have consequences.

A perusal of Kazan's autobiography leaves a peculiarly unpleasant taste in one's mouth. It contains a number of relatively acute observations about this or that individual, this or that artistic effort, as well as a good deal of name-dropping and a good many stories about women he's slept with. At its heart, however, the book is an exercise in self-pity, self-absorption and self-justification. "Everyone has his reasons," he writes. This phrase, popularized by Jean Renoir, in Kazan's hands has sinister implications. What he means is: Everyone has his reasons to be a swine.

A Life is written along somewhat provocative lines. It's a style of artistic confessional that has become fashionable in the past few decades. The author recounts all the vile things he's done, and, more or less, taunts the reader: Yes, I'm a bastard, what are you going to make of it? The implication always being that swinishness is intrinsic to the artistic personality, and indeed that the greater the artistic genius, the greater the swinishness. Kazan would have us believe, and perhaps he believes it himself, that informing on his former comrades was no more dishonorable than manipulating an actor on a film set or cheating on his wife.

In any event, talent or even genius does not excuse everything. Marxists emphasize the need to make an objective assessment of artistic achievement. This inevitably requires making a certain distinction between the artist and his or her art. We do not go searching through garbage cans for all the ways in which the writer, painter or composer falls short. But the distinction is a relative, not an absolute one. Humanity has the right to expect that the artists have its concerns, in the most general sense, at heart. Here we are not speaking of official society with its empty and philistine moralizing, but suffering and for the most part inarticulate humanity. Compassion, a democratic spirit, even a kind of nobility--these do not seem too much to ask.

Naturally, imperfect human beings produce art, along with everything else. They inevitably sin against others and against themselves. But why make a virtue out of those inevitable errors and misdeeds, much less a program? History teaches us that class society occasionally mutilates very gifted people beyond recognition, so that artistic genius and personal vileness coexist within a single human being. Why not simply recognize this as an unfortunate fact of that society, another sign of its incompatibility with the demands of human happiness, and not as a proof that genius feeds on vileness?

Art counts for a good deal, but not everything. We listen to Richard Wagner's music (or some of it) with enjoyment, but that does not dissipate the stench of his anti-Semitism and generally filthy ideas. He is remembered, frankly, for both his music and his ideas. Doesn't it mean something that humanity is more likely to cherish in its collective memory a Mozart and not a Wagner, a Van Gogh and not a Degas, a Döblin and not a Céline, a Breton and not an Eliot?

As for Kazan, somewhere around page 600 in his autobiography he sums things up fairly well: "For years I declared myself an ardent liberal in politics, made all the popular declarations of faith, but the truth was--and is--that I am, like most of you, a bourgeois. I go along disarming people, but when it gets to a crunch, I am revealed to be a person interested only in what most artists are interested in, himself."

A remarkable comment. Kazan thinks he is being very clever here, that he is revealing an essential, if unpalatable, universal truth. In reality, he only displays his extraordinary philistinism. What is the logic of his comment? Life is, first and foremost, about taking care of oneself; art presumably serves a function insofar as it enables one to do that. The individual who considers art as a means, as something extraneous to the purpose of his or her existence, is not a serious figure. The great artist, one might say the truly ambitious artist, is one who understands that the fate of his art is of far greater consequence than his personal destiny.

Marx, writing in 1844, understood this: "In no sense does the writer regard his works as a means. They are ends in themselves; so little are they means for him and others that, when necessary, he sacrifices his existence to theirs, and like the preacher of religion, though in another way, he takes as his principle: 'God is to be obeyed before men'."

Kazan's comment is a libel against art and an attempt to minimize his own sins by suggesting that anyone might be capable of committing them. Not anyone, a certain type. To the extent that the current cultural landscape is over-populated with artists who think only of themselves, it is in part due to the example and legacy of Elia Kazan and those like him. The media praise Kazan because he fits their idea of the artist: a man or woman capable of sophisticated work--but nothing overly disturbing; prepared to stand on political principle--as long as it does not create problems with the authorities; dedicated to art--unless it demands too much.

The honoring of Kazan is part of a trend, the general rehabilitation of anticommunism and McCarthyism. It was fashionable for a time in some circles to be on the "left." Now one senses a deep hunger, an irrepressible impulse on the part of some erstwhile liberals and radicals to ingratiate themselves, after the fact, with the witch-hunters, to be, at last, on the "winning side." This is a prelude to and a justification in advance for a new and serious assault on democratic rights.

In applauding Kazan the members of the Academy are applauding themselves. What are they saying? "In similar circumstances, we would behave in precisely the same way." The film industry establishment is setting up the artist-informer as a model for the present and the future. Nothing good can come from such a celebration. We condemn the decision of the Academy. Beware of those who reward cowardice and lack of principle! As James P. Cannon, a genuine anti-Stalinist, observed two months after Kazan's HUAC testimony, in regard to another specimen of the McCarthy days, Whittaker Chambers: "American capitalism, turning rotten before it got fully ripe, acclaims the stool pigeons and informers, who squeal and enrich themselves, as the embodiments of the highest good they know. By their heroes ye shall know them."