Phil Brett tells the story of when Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Sixty five years ago, on March 26th 1953, Dashiell Hammett, the famous novelist who was responsible for popularising the hard-boiled private eye novel, faced Senator Joseph McCarthy. For a brief moment in the confrontation, there took place an exchange concerning the possibility of communism in the United States. What led to that frankly surreal moment shows both what the American state will do to protect its rule, and the power which it fears.
By 1953, Hammett was internationally known for his novels such as The Maltese Falcon, which had set the template of the cynical hard-drinking detective (See Murder, Mavericks and Marxism for my socialist look at the growth of crime fiction). His writing inspired legions of others, including such luminaries as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Many of his stories had been made into Hollywood movies. The 1941 film of the Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, usually appears in best movie lists, and the book figures in literary equivalents. But it wasn't because McCarthy disliked film noir that Hammett was having to defend himself. To find the reason, we perhaps should travel back to the start of the twentieth century.
By then, the United States had grown to a position where it could rival Britain and Germany. Huge corporations were now creating huge wealth, but only for those at the top. With the ever greater demands of profit, came ever greater exploitation. Workers fought back and unionisation grew, but the American federation of trade unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was ill-equipped to lead it, being virtually all male, all white and all skilled. Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States writes that "Racism was practical for the AFL. The exclusion of women and foreigners was also practical." Theirs was a business unionism, set up to help big business whilst earning fantastic salaries for the officials; divide and rule worked for them. But not for the movement. Mass strikes, such as the 1907 general strike of over ten thousand black and white workers on the New Orleans levees, terrified the bosses. Socialists and anarchists found their ideas gaining an audience. A new union, The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies) was created to cross racial, gender and sectional lines. It grew massively. The ruling class responded as they always had, and would continue to do, by unleashing terrible violence. Strikers were regularly fired on, such as in 1916 Everett, Washington, when two hundred armed thugs opened fire, leaving five Wobblies dead. It was far from being a one off.
A year later, IWW organiser Frank Little, was kidnapped by vigilantes, tortured and hanged. Strong evidence suggests that the vigilantes were in fact members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. A member of the Pinkertons at the time was one Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Lillian Hellman, playwright and writer, comrade and partner of his for thirty years, later claimed that Hammett himself had been personally approached to be part of the gang. Her claim has been questioned, but whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt that Little's murder appalled him, and as a Pinkerton he would have witnessed the strike-breaking, infiltration, blackmail and murder which, despite their name, was pretty much the main work of the agency. Seeing at first hand how the state would subcontract out terror made Hammett begin to question the values which he had been brought up with.
By the twenties, the IWW had been destroyed, with many activists dead or in prison, and the Socialist Party was falling apart. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan had grown to 4.5 million. It looked as if the American ruling class had won, and reaction was on the march. Racism and terror had long been popular mechanisms of oppression, but now there was something new in their tool box of terror - anti-communism. The first Red Scare was launched as a reaction of to the 1917 Russian Revolution, with the state mobilising against the threat. The press joined in, howling against anyone who even vaguely threatened the 'American way of life'. President Woodrow Wilson forced Congress to pass the 1918 Sedition Act, primarily aimed against anarchists. Similar to what we see today, with Donald Trump calling anyone he perceives to be an opponent a snow flake, back then, there was little concern to differentiate between communists, socialists, anarchists, liberals or merely decent human beings. They all were 'reds'.
However, the struggle continued, with mass strikes. Marcus Garvey's message of black pride reached large audiences and the NAACP bravely battled for justice. In 1919, the American Communist Party (CP) was formed. The 1930s depression saw times get even harder, with more workers growing disillusioned with capitalism. The CP had grown to 55,000 by the end of the decade.
Hammett might have left the Pinkertons, but he was using the experience of detection in his writing. His first story was published in the magazine The Smart Set in 1929. The first of his five novels was Red Harvest (1929), which was followed by The Dain Curse (1929), the Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931) and the Thin Man (1934). They brought fame and wealth. However, the effect wasn't to draw him towards capitalism, but quite the opposite.
The 1930s saw him involved in civil rights and anti-fascist activity, joining the American Labor Party and in 1937, the Communist Party. In the main, his support was financial, and lending his name to campaigns. Not that his politics can especially be seen in his writing - there is a constant theme of a corrupt society in them, with many of the cops on the take, but little more than that.
But neither the lack of overt literary socialism, nor the fact that he had served in both world wars, was going to save him from the watchful eye of the red scaremongers. Over time, legislation had been steadily passed against the left. In March 1947 president Truman signed Executive Order 9835 to check the "Americanism" of public employees. It was the legislation which the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) would use. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, says, ""The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." And the crook was certainly cheap here, with Senator McCarthy achieving his moment in history, by conducting several HUAC investigations.
Again, as with today's resident of the White House and purveyor of gaudy Twitter patter, stars in the movie industry were useful targets (see also Peter Frost's article I am Spartacus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo). This was partly because there was anxiety that any liberalism in the arts might help raise awkward questions about society (see my If We Stop Fighting The World Will Die for an example of how political messages appear in the most mainstream of films). But it was also because the stars' fame could be used to spread the fear - if the state was willing and able to go for the great and good, then the local activist was an easy target. In wielding such power, the ruling class showed their fear, by trying to instil it in others.
Some fought back, including in 1947, a high profile, (and in the history of lobbying, possibly the best-dressed ever) delegation, led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the same year, Hammett was elected the president of the Civil Rights Congress (CVC) whose role was to fund defences for those arrested for political offences.
Four years later, he was brought before the United Sates attorney for the southern district of New York to disclose who had been aided. Hammett refused. As a result, he was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt. The magazine Hollywood Life caught the OTT hysteria, calling Hammett, "one of the most dangerous (if not THE) influential communists in America".
Then in 1953, he was dragged in front of the HUAC. This time it was to face the charge that 'pro-communist' books had made their way into overseas libraries run by the State Department. Three hundred copies of his books had been found on the shelves of seventy three of its libraries. Fearing that American capital would collapse from Sam Spade's sardonic wit, Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joe McCarthy.
For most of the hearing, Hammett, like so many others who appeared before the HUAC, pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions in case they might incriminate him. There is a tradition of socialists using political trials as a platform to argue their cause. Why Hammett and others didn't do this is not clear. Perhaps, the reason is hinted at when one of the Committee questions him as to why he is appearing "before the bar of public opinion". He replies that it was not the 'bar of public opinion' which had sent him to prison for six months - the implication being that it was the state, doing so for political reasons. By the fifties, the left had suffered a series of defeats and confidence was low: taking the Fifth was seen as the only viable tactic. Certainly, Hammett didn't lack moral courage. He'd shown that in the 1947 trial and the fact that he had publicly supported campaigns associated with the CP throughout the Red Scare.
But then McCarthy asked, "Do you believe that the communist system is better than the system in use in this country?" Hammett didn't this time take the Fifth but instead answered, "Well, regardless of what I thought of communism in Russia today, it is doubtful if, you know, any one sort of thing - one is better for one country, and one is better for the other country."
McCarthy, then asked, "You seem to distinguish between Russian communism and American communism. While I cannot see any distinction, I will assume there is for the purpose of the questioning. Would you think that American communism would be a good system to adopt in this country?" Hammett took the Fifth, but then to perhaps McCarthy's surprise, he added that it was a question which could not be answered by a yes or no. McCarthy asked why. "You see," Hammett answered, "I don't understand. Theoretical communism is no form of government. You know, there is no government. And I actually don't know, and I couldn't without - even in the end, I doubt it if I can give a definite answer."
Sensing a chance to trap him, the senator asked if he favoured the adoption of communism in the United States. Hammett didn't take the Fifth but answered no. It wasn't the answer that McCarthy had expected. Hammett explained, "For one thing, it would seem to me impractical, if most people didn't want it."
Maybe McCarthy should have read some of the books he was so intent on banning. If he had, then he might have understood that to achieve communism, Marxists believe that a transitional socialist state is required, you did not jump straight to a communist state. So Hammett was, strictly speaking, not denying his politics. McCarthy just simply did not understand them. In any case, the agent of change was the mass of the working class. The masses in 1953 USA were not in a pre-revolutionary state, so Hammett was being practical. Hammett's testimony couldn't be said to have been a stirring defence of socialism, but he hadn't implicated anybody else, nor fundamentally denied his politics.
The session ended with McCarthy returning to the ostensible reason for his appearance, the stocking of 'communist literature' in state libraries. He asked the author, "If you were in charge of that programme to fight communism, would you purchase the works of some 75 communist authors?" Hammett, replied with a putdown which Sam Spade would have been proud of, "If I were fighting communism, I don't think I would do it by giving people any books at all."
Despite his careful replies, he had done enough to provoke further action against him. He was blacklisted and the FBI spent a lot of time and effort in trying to charge him for tax fraud. Perhaps nothing more was done because Hammett was a sick man, who would not publish anything major again. He become a virtual recluse, living with Hellman until his death in 1961. Even then, he had beaten McCarthy, outliving the senator by four years.
There is no doubt that the American ruling class faced a serious threat to its power in the first half of the twentieth century. It defended itself with brutal violence, intimidation and blacklisting - nothing less than state-sponsored terrorism. The left was smashed. Sixty five years later, with Trump as president, it could be easy to think that McCarthy had won. However, within a decade, the sixties would see a re-emergence of radicalism, with women's, black, gay and anti-Vietnam movements changing American society forever. Even today, with the Uncut, Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns, not to mention campaigns against Trump, people still fight for radical ideas in the States. McCarthy would have been apoplectic at the sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans flocking to support Bernie Sanders, a politician proud to call himself a socialist.
The root of Senator Joe McCarthy's fear is still here. And let us also remember that McCarthy's name is now despised, synonymous with witch hunts, whilst Hammett is famous for the creation of a literary genre. Perhaps the words of Sam Spade, his most famous creation, also spoke for him: "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble."
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher, who has written two novels (Comrades Come Rally and Gone Underground) set in a revolutionary Britain of the near future. In between planning lessons and marking, he is writing the third.