Budd Schulberg: Frustrating the Right and the Left


Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in many ways the epitome of liberal anticommunism, or as he liked to call it, “the Vital Center,” always greeted attacks by both the Right and the Left as proof he was correct. The same satisfaction could have been granted to Budd Schulberg, novelist, Academy-Award winning screenwriter, and for a time, a member of the Hollywood Communist Party.

Schulberg had the distinction of being a target of both right-wing studio heads and hard-line communists. Worse for the latter, who spent their energies bemoaning the blacklist, Schulberg shamed them by devoting his energies to helping the downtrodden rather than getting well-fed communists back on the studio payroll.

Schulberg’s privileged background made him the very image of a limousine leftist. His father was the head of Paramount Studios, and as such, Schulberg grew up in circumstances far removed from Depression-era America: “With a tennis court adjoining our house and with the Pacific for a swimming pool…ours was not exactly a proletarian background.”

Unlike other studio heads, Schulberg’s father, B.P. Schulberg, was literate and according to his son, “held literature in high regard.” The son’s shared view of literature as sacred, along with Schulberg’s determination to be a writer would prove fatal to his relationship with the CPUSA.

Schulberg’s dedication to his craft would be the reason he joined the CPUSA in the mid-thirties. While a college student he visited the Soviet Union in 1934, primarily to be present at the Soviet Writers’ Congress. Even then, however, Schulberg was not limited by leftist blinders. Of Moscow, he witnessed an economy that did not work, and was appalled by “the frightful housing, the near-starvation of many workers, their lack of shoes, the homeless children begging on the streets.”

But the clincher for joining the Communist Party was Schulberg’s view that, unlike the United States, the writer was considered a valued member of the Soviet community, and possessed absolute artistic freedom–a freedom not enjoyed in capitalist America (in actuality, Soviet policies toward writers was repressive, and many of the Soviet writers who spoke at the Congress would be liquidated by Stalin).
Bringing his new politics back home, Schulberg, who didn’t formally join the Hollywood branch of the CPUSA until 1937, was angrily confronted by studio heads, who assumed that as the son of B.P Schulberg, the writer would one day take over Paramount. Despite the fervor of their arguments against communism, the writer did not abandon his new-found faith.

But Schulberg, although an energetic recruiter for the Party, never shed his qualms about the CPUSA, mainly, but not exclusively, because of their opposition to artistic freedom. Not even a year into his membership, Schulberg was already being castigated because his short stories, published in national magazines, were according to the CPUSA “decadent,” and reflective of the writer not curing himself of “individualism”—which in the Party lexicon meant fascist tendencies. Schulberg’s response was to write as he pleased while supporting the Party. on political issues. This distinction, however, was not possible, and his first novel assured a collision between himself and literary commissars of the Party.

The novel was ‘What Makes Sammy Run?” (1941) a bitter attack on the studio system expressed by the example of the main character, Sammy Glick, a ruthless and amoral figure who, through back-stabbing methods, ascends to studio head. That studio chiefs hated it could have been predicted. MGM head was so enraged that he wanted the American-born Schulberg deported.

By the time the novel appeared, Schulberg was already disillusioned by Stalin’s 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler, which was defended tooth and nail by the CPUSA. But the response from Party members toward Sammy sealed the deal.

Schulberg, by now aware of how Stalin was murdering writers, fought back. Even before he completed Sammy, the notorious sectarian Hollywood Party head John Howard Lawson denounced the novel in progress as failing to show “the progressive forces in Hollywood,” and demanded an outline.

Believing his ambition was hampered by staying in the Party, Schulberg literally left the Hollywood Party and completed Sammy in Vermont.

With the novel in galleys, Schulberg, however still believed the Party could be reasoned with. When he met with the Party members and listed “fifteen reasons” he believed Stalin was wrong, members refused to engage in constructive criticism, and instead shouted him down. Schulberg, now thoroughly wised-up, saw the “real face of the Party,” and left the organization he once feverishly recruited for.

To their frustration, Schulberg defied their stereotype of a renegade lurching to the right. For the remainder of his life, Schulberg called himself a social democrat, denouncing the CPUSA as “reactionary, and even enlisting in the 1948 Third Party presidential campaign of the pro-Soviet Henry Wallace. Schulberg, bloodied by his own fights with the CPUSA, quickly realized that Wallace was being controlled by the Communists in his campaign (three were actual KGB agents). Schulberg sought to warn Wallace, who the writer didn’t believe was a communist, but to no avail.

Worse from the Party’s standpoint was Schulberg volunteering to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee who were able to send his former comrades to jail for Contempt of Congress. In his testimony, Schulberg denounced the Soviet Union for murdering its writers for failing to follow the Party line. A pariah on the Left for volunteering names to HUAC, Schulberg, unlike other “friendly witnesses,” never regretted his testimony. In a 1970s interview with anti-anti-communist Victory Navasky, Schulberg expressed guilt over creating an intellectual atmosphere that aided Stalin’s crimes:

“I testified because I felt guilty of having contributed unwittingly to intellectual and artistic as well as racial oppression….My guilt is what we did to the Czechs” not blacklisted writers.

Viciously attacked, Schulberg’s testimony nonetheless would later be lauded by one blacklisted writer. From the vantage point of the 1990s, blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein asserted that Schulberg’s example showed how it was possible to testify against communists without playing HUAC’s game.

The remainder of Schulberg’s life would prove frustrating to the blacklisted who tried to nail the writer into an ideological box. While the blacklisted bemoaned their fate and argued that with their departure, films plummeted to the right, Schulberg wrote the script for the anti-right wing A Face In The Crowd (1957). The film dealt with a white-trash version of conservative media, predating the rise of Rush Limbaugh by 30 years.

Even more of a rebuke, while the blacklisted were focused on lining their pockets by getting back on the studio payroll, Schulberg was teaching a writer’s workshop for the downtrodden in violence-turn Watts in 1965.

When Schulberg died in 1999, the mainstream media denounced him for naming names to HUAC. But by taking in the totality of the man, (something the mainstream media has yet to do) one can see how destructive Schulberg was to the stereotype peddled by Hollywood Communists. His testimony to HUAC was not a groveling attempt to stay wealthy, nor did he ever stop being a leftist.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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