April 11th, 2014

Elia Kazan, changer

Elia Kazan was a great director, especially according to many of the actors who worked with him and from whom he coaxed (or tricked, or bullied, or squeezed) their best performances. But he was an exceptionally polarizing figure in Hollywood because of his testimony for HUAC, when he named names and earned lifelong enmity from the left.

Why did he do it [emphasis mine]?:

When [Kazan] was in his mid 20s, during the Depression years 1934 to 1936, he had been a member of the American Communist Party in New York, for a year and a half.

In April 1952, the Committee called on Kazan, under oath, to identify Communists from that period 16 years earlier. Kazan initially refused to provide names, but eventually named eight former Group Theater members who he said had been Communists…All the persons named were already known to HUAC, however. The move cost Kazan many friends within the film industry, including playwright Arthur Miller…

In later interviews, Kazan explained some of the early events that made him decide to become a friendly witness, most notably in relation to the Group Theater, which he called his first “family,” and the “best thing professionally” that ever happened to him:

“The Group Theatre said that we shouldn’t be committed to any fixed political program set by other people outside the organisation. I was behaving treacherously to the Group when I met downtown at CP [Communist Party] headquarters, to decide among the Communists what we should do in the Group, and then come back and present a united front, pretending we had not been in caucus…

I was tried by the Party and that was one of the reasons I became so embittered later. The trial was on the issue of my refusal to follow instructions, that we should strike in the Group Theatre, and insist that the membership have control of its organisation. I said it was an artistic organisation, and I backed up Clurman and Strasberg who were not Communists… The trial left an indelible impression on me… Everybody else voted against me and they stigmatised me and condemned my acts and attitude. They were asking for confession and self-humbling. I went home that night and told my wife “I am resigning.” But for years after I resigned, I was still faithful to their way of thinking. I still believed in it. But not in the American Communists. I used to make a difference and think: “These people here are damned fools but in Russia they have got the real thing,” until I learned about the Hitler-Stalin pact, and gave up on the USSR.”

Mills notes that prior to becoming a “friendly witness,” Kazan discussed the issues with [Arthur] Miller:

“To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else… I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.”

Miller put his arm around Kazan and retorted, “don’t worry about what I’ll think. Whatever you do is okay with me, because I know that your heart is in the right place.”

Kazan had personal experience of what the Party was capable of when they read him the riot act for his lack of obedience, and demanded he say his mea culpas. When no one stood up for him he understood that loyalty among this group was only to the Party; people were expendable. Why should he risk himself for a group like that (not to mention what he learned about Stalinism later)?

Kazan’s conscience was at peace with his decision [emphasis mine]:

[Kazan's] controversial stand during his testimony in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952, became the low point in his career, although he remained convinced that he made the right decision to give the names of Communist Party members. He stated in an interview in 1976:

I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn’t betray it. I made a difficult decision.”

Of course the Left, in its usual Orwellian inversion, considered what he did a betrayal. But before he betrayed them, they—and Communism itself—had betrayed him. That version of the story goes, of course, against the usual leftist meme that Kazan had “betrayed old friends” versus “behaving with silent honor” by keeping his mouth shut.

In the Guardian piece I just linked, David Thomson writes that in Kazan’s autobiography (which I haven’t read) “you will feel his agony, you will hear of the old friends who never spoke to him again, and you realise how Kazan was haunted by the incident as long as he lived.” One implication is that he caved to pressure and that his conscience troubled him. He may have caved to pressure, but I don’t think it was his conscience that troubled him at all. It was the realization that his erstwhile friends would ostracize him, as many of them did—including Arthur Miller, who (despite his supposed promise otherwise) didn’t speak to him again for twelve years, and only reconciled due to the peacemaking efforts of Marilyn Monroe, who earlier in her life (before her marriage to Miller) had had affairs with both men.

The fact that Kazan was unrepentant about his HUAC testimony may have stung even more than the testimony itself. Just as his earlier “trial” at the hands of the Party had contained a prescription for his recantation and repentance, so did the later condemnation of Kazan for his HUAC testimony contain the need that he apologize. Far from doing so, he had actually taken out “a full-page ad in the NY Times justifying himself” after his testimony, and never retreated from that position.

Earlier, Kazan had betrayed himself and his friends at the Group Theater for the sake of the Party when he had first joined and reported to the Party secretly on the Group’s doings, and then gotten kicked in the teeth by the Party for his pains. He was not interested in betraying himself for the Party again, even if it meant telling the truth about the Communist affiliations of some friends.

[NOTE: All of the people Kazan named were not only already known to HUAC, but had also been members of the Group Theater and the Party at the same time he had been, back in the 30s. I assume it likely that they had been among those who had voted for his censure back in the 30s, as well as having joined him then in betraying the Group Theater by reporting secretly to the Party about its doings and supporting Party takeover of the Group. So his HUAC testimony may have been a form of payback as well.

If you're interested in the text of Kazan's post-HUAC-testimony NY Times ad, you can find it here. An excerpt:

I joined the Communist Party late in the summer of 1934. I got out a year and a half later.

I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies. Nor did I understand, at that time, any opposition between American and Russian national interest. It was not even clear to me in 1936, that the American Communist Party was abjectly taking its orders from the Kremlin.

What I learned was the minimum that anyone must learn who puts his head into the noose of party “discipline.” The Communists automatically violated the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. They attempted to control thought and to suppress personal opinion. They tried to dictate personal conduct. They habitually distorted and disregarded and violated the truth. All this was crudely opposite of their claims of “democracy” and “the scientific approach.”

To be a member of the Communist Party is to have a taste of the police state. It is a diluted taste but it is bitter and unforgettable. It is diluted because you can walk out.

I got out in the spring of 1936.

The question will be asked why I did not tell this story sooner. I was held back, primarily, by concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the party many years ago.

Firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control left me with an abiding hatred of these. It left me with an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always.

It also left me with the passionate conviction that we must never let the Communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries.

I can't seem to find any information on the subject, but my hunch is that Kazan remained a Democrat and liberal for the rest of his life.]

37 Responses to “Elia Kazan, changer”

  1. Tonawanda Says:

    Somewhat related: Darkness At Noon brilliantly captures the dynamics described in this post. It is a short novel and well worth reading.

  2. DNW Says:

    This “friends” business with some liberals, a kind of emotional investment in group solidarity detached from any real sense or integration with the concept of personal honor, completely mystifies me. [Kazan is of course excluded here in part because he at least stood up for himself]

    And I think I can more or less partially explain it – this solidarity addiction of theirs – to myself on the basis of informing ideas: it being from the leftist’s standard point of view, one of the few moral games available in town; especially from a liberal values relativist or values nihilist perspective. On that take, all there is in the universe for the comfort and consolation of man is a place in the center of some human scrum.

    But I am not sure that that explanation is comprehensive enough. There may be something in the psychological makeup of many liberals that seeks to emotionally invest in “friends” the way they seem to do.

    The natural family can certainly be a kind of oppression, but it seems to be a rather more intense view on the part of liberals than it is, than among conservatives. I mean, that seems clear enough if you take comments in the New York Times or numerous Hollywood ‘Family Holiday Disaster’ movies as indicative of what the screenwriters really think of, or have experienced in family relationships: i.e., a group of individually morally dysfunctional people tearing emotionally at each other over drinks.

    But why for example, would anyone value the friendship of Arthur Miller, especially? Is he a better shot, or hunter, ball player, or philanthropist than anyone else? Is he the only man on the east coast with a sailboat? More importantly did he have a monopoly on intellect, physical courage, generosity and moral virtue, or have them to an unparalleled degree?

    I don’t know … these questions are going nowhere so I’ll just drop them.

  3. Ann Says:

    Kazan’s Selected Letters will be published later this month. The promo material says they will contain material on “the upheavals of his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities”. It will be interesting to see how MSM reviewers treat them.

  4. soupcon Says:

    Friends don’t exist in any sort of totalitarian group.You have comrades, and the cause trumps all.The only loyalty is to the group, so it irks me to now end to see unrepentant commies angrily denouncing men like Kazan and Dymtryk( and John Garfield would have been in their sights too) for putting their country ahead of their group.Those Hollywood commies worked to Moscow and that was their greatest loyalty, even more so than to their families.Kazan was a patriot and a man of honor.

  5. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “When no one stood up for him he understood that loyalty among this group was only to the Party; people were expendable. …

    Of course the Left, in its usual Orwellian inversion, considered what he did a betrayal. But before he betrayed them, they—and Communism itself—had betrayed him.”

    That ideologues loyalty is only to the ideology and that everyone is expendable is the very essence of ideological fanaticism. Thus their outrage at Kazan was not that he’d betrayed them but that in identifying the ideology’s agents by which the ideology might be effected, Kazan had harmed the ideology…

    By their own rationale, those betrayed were in and of themselves nothing… they had no inherent dignity, only what the ideology temporarily conferred upon them. It’s literally satanic because it utterly denies individual self-worth.

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    Bella Dodd and that guy, were one of the only few commies that testified.

    Bloom may or may not think the Left came on the scene during his heyday. But during his day, it was already old news to the pros.

  7. Matthew Says:

    I imagine part of it is that the Left is incredibly conformist. They like to talk about how nonconformist they are, but what they don’t realize is that talking about being something isn’t the same as actually being something. Like how they talk about tolerance and are the most intolerant people around.

    For them it’s simply easier to go along to get along.

  8. Richard Saunders Says:

    A few years ago, Written By, the Writer’s Guild magazine, had a tribute to the Hollywood 10. Virtually all of them said they were in fact Communists, a number admitted to being underground Communists, and several joined the Party well after the Gulag, the purges, the Murdered Poets, the Doctor’s’ Plot and similar items were known in the West.

    Not one letter was printed (or presumably received) saying “Kazan was right and we were wrong.”

  9. Ymarsakar Says:

    People on the net are still talking about McCarthy the witch hunter and prosecutor. What they don’t realize is that in 50 years, people will be talking the same way… about them, the victims of the Left.

  10. Eric Says:

    Ymarsakar: “What they don’t realize is that in 50 years, people will be talking the same way… about them, the victims of the Left.”

    Only if Right activists wrest control of the historical narrative.

  11. blert Says:

    Thank you Neo for this informative post.

    I never had the gumption to get into the back story on Eli Kazan.

    I agree with your reasoning: Kazan simply HAD to be ratting out the finks that burned him in the thirties. The list had to be a short one. I’ll bet it was a 1:1 mapping.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    Firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control

    Notice that phrase “thought control”?

    Deconstruct the lineage of mind control and you’ll come up with something interesting. It’s a real one, both mystical and scientific.

  13. Eric Says:

    Neo: “Of course the Left, in its usual Orwellian inversion, considered what he did a betrayal.”

    What’s Orwellian about that? What Kazan did was a betrayal. A betrayal based on conscience, principle, ethics, honor, etc, is still a betrayal to those betrayed, who have a different perspective.

    There’s the ethic of self-interest and personal principle. Then there’s the ethic of a team in competition, and Communists are a competing team. To uphold the former, Kazan betrayed the latter.

    Whether Kazan was right or wrong on balance to betray his former comrades depends on your perspective.

  14. Matt_SE Says:

    Notice the similarity to the recent Brendan Eich defenestration?
    It wasn’t the transgression that was so important; the left excuses hypocrisy all the time. The important thing was that he recant his position.
    In that way the ideology, the movement is protected and validated.
    Conversely, the left never forgives apostasy.
    I knew that after reading Witness, but this has been a good reminder. And it should be a clue to the political right: don’t attack the actor, attack the ideology.

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    Eric:

    To say it more completely: they considered what Kazan had done a betrayal, even though he told the truth, and they had already betrayed him and their country. But he was considered the betrayer, not them.

    I’m not sure “Orwellian” is the right word for it. But it’s certainly ironic and backwards.

  16. neo-neocon Says:

    Matt_SE:

    Yes, I have noticed there is a theme running through virtually all of these leftist demands for recantation, including those demanded by the Soviets in their show trials.

  17. Tonawanda Says:

    As I have said before, I totally sympathize with Eric’s continuing point about creation of an activist non-Left.

    I just do not believe it is possible because of the different psychology and character of the Left v. non-Left.

    This thread reflects the fact that the understanding is out there. But the understanding is not only beyond the comprehension of most people, but also not something which will motivate people who do understand.

    The people who appeal to and prioritize the worst of human nature have (e.g., loyalty to the party above all) have a huge advantage over folks who consciously prioritize the best in human nature.

    Criminals, btw, regard themselves as more clever than others, as if the others do not realize that (for example) stealing gets you something for free. The others realize it is more complicated than that.

    Leftists do not realize it is more complicated than that. If you tell a lie often enough, it will get accepted as the truth. But the smartest of them are smarter than your average criminal, although on the same moral/psychological plane.

  18. Ann Says:

    Informing on/betraying a friend has been taboo in our culture for a long time, if not forever; “Et tu, Brute” comes to mind. Because of that, I’d be willing to bet that most of the folks who ostracized Kazan did it primarily for that reason, and not because they sympathized with Communists.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    Ann,

    Ah, but many of those who ostracized Kazan were Communists and/or Communist sympathizers. And the ones he named to HUAC were most likely (as my post indicates) to have been people who earlier had betrayed their own colleagues in the Group Theatre by trying to help the Party take over the organization unbeknownst to those colleagues.

    I don’t think many of them would have hesitated to rat on anyone to help the Cause.

  20. Ann Says:

    I agree, Neo. I was thinking more of the ones who ostracized him long after the 1950s, like all those who refused to applaud him at the Academy Awards when he received a special Oscar in 1999. Should have made that clear.

  21. neo-neocon Says:

    Ann:

    Oh, I doubt very much that most of them had any real idea what had happened and why. All they knew was that Joe McCarthy=bad and those who testified=bad, and everyone they named=good.

  22. Gringo Says:

    Ymarsakar
    Bella Dodd and that guy, were one of the only few commies that testified.
    School of Darkness, Bella Dodd’s memoir, is free for the downloading. Interesting that both she and Kazan had a similar reason for leaving the party: being hammered for expressing an independent thought. In Bella Dodd’s case, after World War 2 she supported Earl Browder, in contrast to the party line coming from Moscow that Earl Browder had to be replaced by William Foster.

  23. George Says:

    A classic example of Marxist recantation for the sake of the cause is that of Albert Maltz:

    “In February 1945, the New Masses carried an article by Maltz that was a demand for more intellectual freedom from the Party. Many filmmakers who were CPUSA members under Party discipline had chafed at the demands of orthodoxy from the Party, as policed by John Howard Lawson, the CPUSA’s chief arts apparatchik in California, himself destined to be a member of the Hollywood 10 in the near future. The CPUSA central committee ordered Lawson to call a meeting to address the article and to voice the Party’s displeasure with Maltz’s opinion. At the meeting, Maltz was viciously attacked by other Party members. When Maltz tried to explain his thoughts as expressed in the article, he was shouted down, as were the few supporters he had who were in attendance.

    Ironically, Maltz was denounced by his future Hollywood 10 defendants Alvah Bessie and Herbert J. Biberman, while Lawson oversaw the petty show trial. Faced with such vituperation and outright hatred, Maltz eventually recanted his position, in print.”

    http://voices.yahoo.com/albert-maltz-conscience-hollywood-10-600273.html

  24. Eric Says:

    Neo: “Yes, I have noticed there is a theme running through virtually all of these leftist demands for recantation, including those demanded by the Soviets in their show trials.”

    Ideological confessions by American POWs was SOP in Korea and Vietnam, too.

    These apologies, confessions, repentances, and recantations are not about the individual.

    They’re about tailoring the social fabric – culture and politics – norms and values – the collective consciousness – the general will – the zeitgeist. They’re about behavioral economics and sociology.

  25. Beverly Says:

    “The Hollywood Reporter” has reviewed the book of Kazan’s letters. They quoted at length from a letter he wrote to his wife about cheating on her with Marilyn Monroe (wow, who did that woman NOT sleep with?), and it showed a very bad side of his character: narcissistic and brutal.

    This was deliberate, I’m sure. And like sharks ravening after chum, the commenters are almost uniformly vicious in their denunciations of the late Kazan. It made me think of a mob digging up the corpse of a man they hate, so they can abuse the body and drag it through the streets, yelling like jackals.

    Leftism/Communism is a cancer of the soul.

  26. Beverly Says:

    I remember reading somewhere that Bogart, a lib. Dem., was really angry after he testified on behalf of some of the Reds in Congress, to find out that they actually WERE Communists. “You sons of bitches!” he said, furious that they had lied to him.

    Lauren Bacall is a hard-Left woman. There’s an interview she did with Charlie Rose where she talks about it. I doubt she was ticked off like Bogie was.

  27. Ymarsakar Says:

    The Leftist alliance seeks absolute obedience, what is expected out of serfs or slaves.

    They don’t want any back talk. They don’t consider you a human nor an equal. They don’t think and they aren’t allowed to think, about higher level things.

    So long as you obey, things will be good. And people call them “liberals”?

  28. NeoConScum Says:

    Well worth googling the ’99 Honorary Oscar presented to Kazan by Bobby Di Niro and Marty Scorsesse. Watch the Hollywood punks in the audience sit and heroically refuse to stand and applaud a man who’s shoes they didn’t come up to. Beatty got up and tearily and classily applauded. Little Stevie Spielberg, however, stayed in his seat and pressed his hands together 2 or 3 times.

    Patooey..!

  29. Zachriel Says:

    On the Waterfront is considered Kazan’s response to critics, a story of a dockworker who testifies against the murderous union thugs who control the waterfront.

    (Apparently, Kazan pictures himself as the dockworker, Terry Malloy. Except for standing up under the threat of violent retribution, and the admiration of his peers for his actions.)

    Ymarsakar: So long as you obey, things will be good. And people call them “liberals”?

    Communists are on the far left, and are antithetical to liberalism.

  30. Ymarsakar Says:

    And Zimmer puts himself on the side of liberalism, I see.

  31. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." Says:

    People on the net are still talking about McCarthy the witch hunter and prosecutor.

    OK, hard to believe that no one has commented on this yet, but…

    McCARTHY AND THE HUAC ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

    Not at ALL.

    These two get endlessly connected and somehow people never break free of this connection.

    I assign a task to anyone who reads this — take my word for it, or do your own investigations — but, once you have, CORRECT this FALSE connection everywhere you encounter it.

    1) The House Unamerican Activities Committee. Senator Joe McCarthy. As you should grasp already, the two were not related.

    2) McCarthy was singularly concerned with communists in KEY governmental positions. He had ample evidence of it. And, as Ann Coulter has pointed out in Treason, the since released “Venona Tapes” have revealed that he was utterly correct, there WERE a number of Soviet spies in positions of significance, and, in fact, this was by and large how the Soviets got the A-Bomb so quickly after the war. Anyone interested in this overall subject (Communist Alarmism in the 50s) should certainly have read this book.

    3) On the other hand, the HOUSE committee almost certainly was doing something at best morally questionable in terms of American values. It was indisputably an ideological witchhunt more worthy of a totalitarian state than the USA. I certainly understand the concern, which was far from trivial, that there were far too many communist sympathizers ALREADY, in the 50s, in the media, but that was not the proper way to go after them.

  32. Eric Says:

    Tonawanda: “As I have said before, I totally sympathize with Eric’s continuing point about creation of an activist non-Left.

    I just do not believe it is possible because of the different psychology and character of the Left v. non-Left.”

    Activism isn’t pleasant.

    If there were a more pleasant, viable alternative solution to activism, I would be for it. But there isn’t one. At this point, the activist game is the only social-political game there is.

    As such, whatever the “different psychology and character” of the people of the Right, they need to man up and do what’s needed.

    Instead of doing what’s needed, people of the Right limit themselves to wishing for a magical fantasy messianic savior GOP candidate to swoop in as a modern sequel of the Reagan myth to do all the heavy-lifting of full-spectrum social change.

    Even if such a magical Republican existed, he or she could engineer the needed social changes only with the partnership of a first, non-stop, and always, proselytizing and spreading, full-spectrum activist social movement.

  33. Sam L. Says:

    Apostates are always hated by the true believers, and those who want to be thought true believers.

  34. ErisGuy Says:

    I am always saddened by reading about how America failed in defending itself and its liberties against Communism.

  35. Ymarsakar Says:

    Wipe the Leftist alliance and all its members from the face of existence… then everything will be forgiven and all will be atoned for.

  36. Zachriel Says:

    Ymarsakar: Wipe the Leftist alliance and all its members from the face of existence…

    Nothing like the smell of genocide in the morning.

  37. Bilwick Says:

    Imagine that a Hollywood director had been in the Nazi Bund during the 1930s and ’40s.. If this director had identified fellow Bund members to a subcommittee investigating Americans who collaborated with the Third Reich, would we still be reading about the “infamy” of him “naming names”?

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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