Literary critics when dealing with the thorny issue of Ernest Hemingway’s politics have focused on a statement he made during the Spanish Civil War—a war that pitted, on one side, the Loyalists, backed by the Soviet Union, and a military rebellion, led by General Francisco Franco, and backed by Adolf Hitler.
A Loyalist supporter whose leadership was controlled by the Spanish Communist Party and thus, the Soviets, Hemingway said while covering the conflict as a war correspondent, that “We’re all communists.”
Literary historians and Hemingway’s contemporaries have scrambled to distance Hemingway from any communist sympathies. Instead, they have regarded Hemingway’s statement to have been made when he was carried away by enthusiasm for the Loyalist cause; hence, it was temporary.
Denis Brian, who did not believe Hemingway was a communist or even a fellow-traveler, said the declaration was the equivalent of a “non-Irishman” saying on St. Patrick’s Day, “”We’re all Irish.” Biographer Jeffery Meyers, equally insistent that Hemingway was anticommunist contextualized the statement to be “like saying, ‘We all support the Spaniards in the Civil War.”’
His contemporaries who were either Party members, or fellow travelers, or even, in the case of Michael Straight, Soviet spies, said any sympathies Hemingway had with communists was brief. Straight said that his reasons, apparent in the character of Loyalist dynamiter Robert Jordan, the protagonist in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, was simply a case of looking at the big picture, which was winning the conflict:
“Jordan is of course, a Communist Party member so he’s sympathetic with it under those circumstances.”
When asked in an interview about Hemingway’s possible communism, Malcolm Cowley, a friend of Hemingway, and a defender of Stalin’s Purge Trials, said “No.”
Anti-Stalinist literary critic Edmund Wilson said one could chart when Hemingway was a supporter of the communist line and when he shed it by the trajectory of his novels. In the thrall of Stalinists during the Civil War, he produced, according to Wilson, one of his worst works, The Fifth Column (1938). The story dealt with an American Communist in Spain tasked with catching fascist spies. In this character, Wilson saw little more than a comic book portrayal of heroism, (“the hero of a book of adventure for boys”). Worse, Hemingway said nothing about how spy-catchers in Spain, on orders from Moscow, “has been executing its opponents of the left as well as Fascists spies (Hemingway could not plead ignorance on this matter: he parroted the Communist Party line with regard to the execution of John Dos Passos’ friend, Jose Robles by asserting that the Party’s explanation that Robles was a fascist spy was correct).
But with the publication of For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940), Wilson saw the writer shedding his Stalinism and returning to artistic independence; “Hemingway the artist is with us again; and it is like having an old friend back,” Wilson wrote. No longer were “Hemingway’s judgments…made to fit into the categories of a political line.” As evidence of this new independence, Wilson pointed to Hemingway’s negative portrayal of Russians safely situated from the front, who bathe in luxury –a circumstance that Hemingway particularly hated (before the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway denounced Communists who did not engage in violent revolutionary activities as “chicken-shits”)—and are cynical. The Russian general ensconced at a hotel where Party members satisfy their creature comforts is little more than a drone repeating “for the sake of conformity the venomous gibbering of Pravda.” Wilson also applauded Hemingway’s attack on the real-life communist Andre Marty, who Hemingway exampled as “obsessed with the idea of shooting heretics.”
But this thesis, that Hemingway’s turn toward communism was brief, and his support of the Russians was solely because they were the only group capable of winning the war, is false. For Hemingway’s support of communism, with some exceptions, was evident before, during and after his supposed brief flirtation with it.
Ironically, the FBI, who put Hemingway under surveillance in 1940, which lasted until his death in 1961 (some have argued that Hemingway’s awareness of this surveillance is what pushed him to suicide), was closer to the mark regarding the writer’s nearly life-long communist sympathies. The opening of Hemingway’s file may have been the characteristic pettiness of J. Edgar Hoover because Hemingway labeled the Bureau as an “American Gestapo.”
But the FBI didn’t go back far enough. Sixteen years before his supposed turn toward communism, Hemingway, then a journalist, lauded the Italian Communist Party. In 1933, he supported Cuban communists and their attempts to overthrow a right-wing dictatorship. A year later, he financed a benefit show for the Communist revolutionary Luis Quintanilla. In 1935, he wrote an article for the communist organ, The New Masses.
Nor was For Whom The Bell Tolls Hemingway’s declaration of impendence from Stalinism as critics have argued. His protagonist Jordan eventually turns out to be very much a Party-liner, despite efforts to shape his character in a way that puts him above the corrupting influence of the cynics and war-tourists sheltering at Gaylord’s. Despite asserting that the Communist Party could not “own his mind,” he very much surrenders it to that entity. As with any good Stalinist, Jordan says he can “turn off” his thinking, and pledges to follow communist discipline because of its soundness. He needs that discipline in the heat of battle. Any doubts he has are pushed aside for what he terms political necessities.
Whenever he experiences qualms, Jordan wanders back to communist orthodoxy to steady himself. Echoing the poet W.H. Auden, a Loyalist supporter who wrote an infamous poem praising the “necessary murders” of this conflict, Jordan sees “a necessity” in these casualties and thus “didn’t mind” them. Hemingway himself accepted these murders as necessary. The real-life murder of José Robles, the friend of Hemingway’s colleague John Dos Passos, did not perturb Hemingway, who assured a stricken Dos Passos that rumors about Robles being a fascist spy must be true.
A year after his supposed “abandonment “with the novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Hemingway, according to a declassified Soviet file, “repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to help” Russian intelligence. He was recruited by the NKVD in 1941—codename “Argo”– and was in contact with him until the late 1940s, when the Soviets severed ties with him because he was a poor agent.
It is true that there was a yin and yang quality to his support of communism. He supported the view that State Department Official Alger Hiss was a communist spy; when his Spanish Civil War comrades were being called up to testify about their communist ties to Congress, he rebuffed their pleas for help as whining.
But toward the end of his life, he became as fervent a cheerleader for Fidel Castro as he did for the Communist secret police in Spain. Although Castro did not announce that he was a Marxist-Leninist until six months after Hemingway’s death in 1961, there were clear signals that the Cuban dictator had ties to the Soviet Union. It is true that on such matters as Castro’s ties to the KGB, beginning in 1956, three years before he took power, were unknown to Hemingway. But, as a student of revolution, Hemingway undoubtedly was aware that the Soviet Union was supplying arms to Castro’s rebellion in 1956. Upon taking power, Castro revealed his Stalinist characteristics by seizing private property (a threat to Hemingway, as he had a house in Cuba), criminalized free speech, and betrayed his followers by imprisoning them.
All of this begs the question, why did a writer, as independent-minded as Hemingway, support an ideology whose tenet was thought-control?
The answer may reside in the writer’s notorious machismo and love of violence. The former was evidenced by his view of communists as manly soldiers. Before the Spanish Civil War, he praised those “who fought on the barricades,” and called those who protested Communist executions of leftists in Spain whiners.
Hemingway also had murderous impulses. He once told a companion that, “I know it’s probably bad but I love to kill.” With Hitler off limits for admiration given Hemingway’s anti-fascism, who better than Stalin for Hemingway to admire? One could even say he consistently created heroes with Stalinist characteristics. It is not a leap from Harry Morgan coolly sipping a drink after snapping a Chinaman’s neck, to Stalin repairing to his personal theater to watch a Tarzan movie after signing one more death warrant.