In a scene the Left loves to replay as one of its heroic and clarifying moments, witness Dashiell Hammett replied to interrogator Joe McCarthy’s question over the matter of whether banning communist authors from overseas military libraries would be an effective way to fight communism: “If I were fighting communism, I wouldn’t allow people to read at all.”
It’s easy to see why the Left drags this comment out in any retrospective remembrance of the witch hunt days. Implicit in Hammett’s comment is the notion that unpoliced reading leads inexorably to communist–read progressive–sympathies.
One wonders if Hammett was being autobiographical in his reply. Was one of those many afternoons, with wife and children in the park, of him poring over every available book in the Seattle public library what lead him to lifelong Stalinism? Or was it during strike-breaking days as a Pinkerton in employ of the bosses? Or undercover in a jail cell with fist-raisers? Or did the reading merely solidify what he learned on the job?
Fifty-five years after his death, after all the biographical speculation and cinematic use of Hammett as a figure of integrity in at least three films about the McCarthy era, one still searches for answers about Hammett’s political persona. The publication of his letters in 2002 confirmed what anti-communists long stated about him and leftists attempted to shroud—his Communist Party membership. Like his public stances, Hammett the letter-writer defended every twist and turn of Stalin’s policies. But the letters also reveal a rebel at odds with every form of stricture, a real-life Sam Spade who chafed at authority. How does one reconcile this with defending the ultimate in authoritarian rule?
The novels certainly do not provide a clue. It is true that Hammett, in novels ranging from Red Harvest to the Maltese Falcon, portrayed a society that was fodder for anti-capitalists. In each novel, every institution is corrupt and greedy and incapable of internal reform. But Hammett’s novels are more modernistic, and even post-modernistic more than they are Marxist. They merely portray the extent of the disease without providing a cure. Sam Spade tracks down his partner’s murder without benefit of a group strike or placard wavers, but through detection and extrapolating how a character probably behaved at the scene of a crime.
In public, Hammett was a one-dimensional Stalinist, advocating anti-fascist collective security until the socialist motherland allied with Hitler. Isolationism became inconvenient when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. During the Cold War, he defended Soviet behavior and, once again, discovered the value of civil liberties (he defended the U.S government’s use of the Smith Act, a 1940 congressional decree advocating the banning of groups who taught the overthrow of the United States government, against his bete noir, Troskyites in 1941) when Communists were under investigation.
In 1951, he went to jail rather than name the officers of a Bail Fund committee for fleeing communists (he admitted to Lillian Hellman that he merely permitted the committee to use his name on the masthead and didn’t know the officers’ names). Hammett’s daughter asserts that before his death, his loyalty to the Party waned, but a lack of enthusiasm is hard to chart in his letters. He could have been too preoccupied with his health in future events in the Cold War (such as Khrushchev’s Secret Speech outlining Stalin’s crimes, which sent many in the West out of the Party, but which Hammett, and Hellman, had no response to); waning enthusiasm could have been mistaken for waning health.
In private, always in private (Stalinists were obsessive compulsive about not providing ammunition to the “fascists”), Hammett was not always happy with the Party. His daughter reported seeing him once with his head in his hands in response to a duty the Party wanted him to perform. Both his daughter and Hellman (a corroborating source is necessary when using the dishonest and self-glamorizing Hellman) reported him saying that a great deal about Communism bothered him.
In one area, literature, he refused to toe the Party line. The order of the day was that communist writers, by virtue of content alone, were deemed better writers than others. But Clifford Odets and Howard Fast—both darlings of the Party—were dismissed by Hammett as “not amounting too much” and fond of “oversimplifying things to death.”
This rebellion, again a private one, may be linked to Hammett’s view of writers as a special elect who arrived in this exclusive club through individual struggle. “You’re one of us now,” Hammett’s comment to Hellman after a draft of her first play, The Children’s Hour, finally making it past his blue pencil may have been indicative of his own struggle back in those days of coughing up blood at the typewriter and coping with rejection slips. Hammett the writer made it to the top without benefit of a political party demanding that readers support his work.
Knowing Hammett had a private persona not always in lockstep with his public acceptance of Stalinism leaves readers with a nagging question: what motivated him to support a political movement that troubled him, both in unguarded moments and as a writer?
Obsessively private, horrified at the thought of biographers being written about him, Hammett nevertheless left clues that may provide an answer to this question. Precise with words, he was always quick to classify himself politically as a Marxist — as opposed to a Communist. Communism, he defined to questioners ranging from Lillian Hellman to interrogator Roy Cohn, which was a stage that did not require government to ensure human brotherhood and equality, had not been reached yet. But some societies–Loyalist Spain, for example, “not perfect but at least on the side of the workers,” and in front, the Soviet Union, “no equality of incomes yet”–were further toward that goal than others. “Always be on the side of the worker,” he once wrote to his daughter, “and you may not be brilliant, but at least you can hold your head up in the morning,” hints at a guilty past (at one time he held his head down?) as a motivator. But both the American Communist Party and the Soviet Union betrayed the worker. During World War II, in the name of unity, they advocated a “no-strike” pledge, a commitment not to agitate for a higher minimum wage, and were against a civil rights march on Washington. Even a self-policing selection of news could not keep Hammett from knowing that Stalin probably killed more communists than Hitler. What kept him committed then if he was on the side of the worker?
Hammett saw communism as a stage that would probably not be reached in his lifetime. Matters such as purges, imperialisms, no matter their betrayal of Marxism were merely “bumps” on the history train. Taking the long view of History ensured against disillusionment — and, when he had doubts, he would keep them to himself in order not to arm the “fascists.”