'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy
Thursday, 21 June 2018 04:14

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy

Published in Fiction

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.

 PB 2 Maltese Falcon                      

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.

   PB 3 IWW                               

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.

 PB 4 newspaper on IWW                                

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.

    PB 5 HB and LB              

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."

Hollywood Ten

Come in number 45, your time is up
Thursday, 21 June 2018 04:14

Come in number 45, your time is up

Published in Poetry

In Which No. 45 Once Again Seeks Validation To Dispel
The Existential Fear That Gnaws At His Very Soul

 by Steve Pottinger

Thursday, 4am. The president wakes
Reaches, half-conscious, for his phone
Unwilling, untutored, unable to fight.
Must! Have! Attention! Now!
Punches the keypad over and over

In a desperate, infantile frenzy. Then:
Send.

America! The best! My big red button!

Falls back against the pillow, spent,
Useless, lost. Needing some kind of
Consolation, he mutters that he’s bigly
King, in his own mind at least. But
We see the emperor naked, unmanned,
Impeachment barrelling relentless down the line.
The end will be fast.

A Disillusionment
Thursday, 21 June 2018 04:14

A Disillusionment

Published in Poetry

A Disillusionment

by Chris Norris

 It sounds counter-intuitive. How can the ‘Jewish State’ or the Zionist movement be anti-Semitic? But several of US President Donald Trump’s appointments have made it clearer than ever. He leads the most pro-Israel US administration in history, even while appointing key figures with anti-Semitic ties as his most important advisers.

- Asa Winstanley, Memo: Middle-East Monitor

The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devalue words and reasons . . . . How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew [cf. Palestinian] appear to him . . . . If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse.

But some will object: what if he is like that only with regard to the Jews [cf. Palestinians]? What if he otherwise conducts himself with good sense? I reply that that is impossible . . . . A man who finds it entirely natural to denounce other men cannot have our conception of humanity; he does not see even those whom he aids in the same light as we do. His generosity, his kindness, are not like our kindness, our generosity. You cannot confine passion to one sphere.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’

 (Note: ‘Bibi’ is the nickname, affectionate or otherwise, of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel.)

My parents spoke of Israel
As of a Promised Land,
A place on which our dreams might dwell,
Though not (we'd understand)
A dwelling-place since its far spell
Could not be known first-hand
And some folk there had been through hell
En route for Haifa’s strand.

Still it remained my soul's ideal,
My youthful hope and dream,
That magic place-name that would steal
Upon me as the theme
Of reverie, though a country real
Enough for it to seem,
In bad times, the one name to heal
My wounded self-esteem.

For that, to me, was what it meant,
Aside from all the fuss
(As then I thought) about those sent
Away to clear for us,
Or ours, more Lebensraum that lent
A God-sent chance to bus
Or fly folk in and circumvent
Land-claims we'd not discuss.

But then the doubts began to crowd
Back in and wake a sense
Of what injustices allowed
My joy at their expense,
Those Palestinians, once a proud
And free-born people; whence
Their courage to endure unbowed
In rightful self-defence.

These five decades, since Israel fought
Its war for 'living-space',
I've watched the dream go sour and thought
Their talk of 'by God's grace'
The sort of thing routinely taught
When people make a case 
For causes desperately short
Of any moral base.

And now we've evidence, if more
Was needed, in the way
That Bibi's happy to ignore
The bulging dossier
With Trump's additions to the store
Of handy ways to play
The fascist card and give his core
Supporters a field-day.

For now I have to count the name
Of 'Israel' one we lump,
To its and my eternal shame,
With that of Donald Trump,
An anti-semite who would blame
'The Jews' as soon as plump
For Moslems or whoever came
In next for the high jump.

And then I think: was Sartre right
To say that what we mean
By 'Jew', or ought to mean in light
Of history, is seen
Most clearly in the victim-plight
Of everyone who's been
Killed, dispossessed, or put to flight
By hatred's lie-machine.

So 'anti-semite' would extend
Beyond its usual scope
To take in haters who depend
On 'Jews' to let them cope
With categories of foe and friend
So stark that they must grope
Around for scapegoats fit to lend
Their hate-crusade new hope.

For who, I ask you, wants or dares
To come straight out and state
The chosen-people case: that there's
Some type-specific trait,
Of grace or shame, that no-one shares
Who's not a candidate
For marking down as one of theirs
Or one they're bound to hate?

So I’m among the dispossessed,
An inner exile, though
I've only lost the dream that blessed
My early years, and so
Am now resolved to do my best
For those who undergo
Such pains as only the oppressed
In soul and body know.

Why then should I, deprived of all
I once believed in, keep
Faith with a state whose actions call
For me to take the leap
And say I’ve now crossed Bibi’s wall
With soul-wounds that go deep
Because such late-life Paul-to-Saul
Conversions don't come cheap.

Yes, I'm still 'Jewish', but the word
Now signifies, for me,
Whatever voices can't be heard,
Whoever lives unfree,
And those whose minds and hearts are stirred
By acts we daily see
When history’s victims, undeterred
By force, seek liberty.

So when they couple 'Zionist'
With (what seems quite insane)
'Anti-semitic' I insist
That first we ascertain
Just what they mean in case we've missed
Their point and it's the strain
Induced by that mind-wrenching twist
Of thought that's most germane.

All praise to those Israelis brave
Enough to stay around,
Confront the threats, and fight to save
The name in which they found,
Like me, a source of pride that gave
Fresh hope yet runs aground
More jarringly with each new wave
Of war-planes Gaza-bound.

For now the hate-name 'Arab' rings,
On every settler's tongue,
With a harsh resonance that brings
Back memories fresh sprung,
Like 'Jew', said brusquely, which still stings
Me now as once it stung
Years back, and other hurtful things
They'd say when I was young.

And, worse, we have to quell our rage
When Trump and Bibi use
Our history of victimage
As a means to excuse
Their choice of some new war to wage,
Which makes it seem us Jews
Are cast forever as front-page
And soul-destroying news.

Yet most of all it's this that drives
Me nearly to despair:
The thought that Palestinian lives
Should be the ones that bear
The lethal cost of what arrives
Like karma when we dare
To reenact a scene that thrives
On sufferings elsewhere.

Yet that's the hideous double-bind
They'd wish on us, those two
Gut-populists who’ve now combined
Their forces with a view
To ‘common interests’ redefined
So as to let them do
Whatever gets the mob behind
Their demagogic coup.

So if we’re so keen to appease
Our ‘ally' Trump, then how
Come he and his own allies seize
Each chance to re-avow
Those sentiments that show that he's,
Like them, one who'd allow
A pogrom-blitz if that would please
His followers right now.

So – pray forgive me if I rub
The lesson in too hard – 
What price our entry to the club
Of players with Trump card
If, from now on, we have to grub
Around for such ill-starred
Alliances as earn a snub
Even in our backyard?

Why then rebuke me when I stake
My faith on it that we've
A duty now, as Jews, to take
Our conscientious leave
Of any creed that, for the sake
Of striving to achieve
The New Jerusalem, would make
Us prone to self-deceive.

For there's no telling just how far
This grim charade might run
Before it hits a credence-bar
When we'll at last have done
With any rule that says we are
Required to honour none
But tales of faith that may now jar
No matter how they're spun.

You find me now, I must confess,
A man of darker mood
And one perhaps too keen to stress
These things on which I brood
Incessantly, though hoping less
For some new certitude
Than for some way to dispossess
Myself of hopes renewed.

It's when I think again of that
Embrace so warmly shared
Between the fascist plutocrat
And Bibi, aptly paired
As they may be, that I feel flat-
Out thankful to be spared
All last pretence of aiming at
The moral circle squared.

For who could make-believe the dream
Lives on now Israel's made
Its Faustian pact with Trump's regime
And bolstered the parade
Of those whose latest master-scheme,
Once all the plans are laid,
Leaves no place on the winning team
For their back-up brigade?

The Trouble with Monsters
Thursday, 21 June 2018 04:14

The Trouble with Monsters

Published in Poetry

The Trouble with Monsters

by Chris Norris

Quick way with monsters: send a hero out
For mortal combat: sometimes he'll prevail
And kill the beast, while other times he'll fail
And it will be his death that ends the bout.

The point is, those old poets had it right,
Those Greeks, and Romans, and the guy (or guys)
Of Anglo-Saxon stock whose epic vies
With theirs as Beowulf goes forth to fight

First Grendel, then his mother, she whose sheer
Brute strength and monstrous bulk he hacks to death
But only to yield up his dying breath
In the last act of his renowned career.

cn beowulf

We have our modern monsters, but they tend
More often to emerge from some bad place
Within our home-domain, not some wild space
Beyond it where all codes and kinships end.

From every source these modern monsters spring:
From corporate culture, from the daily trade
In weapons of mass-murder, from the made-
To-measure ranks of lying hacks who bring

Our daily news, from the assorted fools
And rogues lined up for a safe Tory seat
Post-Oxbridge, or from teachers keen to beat
The kids just like in their old public schools.

CN bj 20145 Boris Johnson wins seat MP

But now we have new monsters of a kind
Unknown in earlier times because their lair
Is deep within a psychic space they share
With fifty million others of a mind

To have their worldview, politics, and sense
Of right and wrong conditioned daily by
The sorts of TV show that amplify
Bad vibes long quelled in reason's self-defence.

It's monstrous emanations such as these,
Rough beasts that slouch from all our TV screens,
Whose aspect takes us closest to those scenes
Of epic strife and somehow holds the keys

To all our deep-commingled dreads and fears,
As well as savage impulses that drive
The moguls and press-barons to connive
At each assault on decency's frontiers.

CN adolf hitler reichskanzler 1933

Our last real monster turned up nine decades
Back and did all the usual monster-stuff -
Killed millions out of some long-rankling huff,
Laid countries waste, recruited his brigades

Of street-thugs early on from folk bereft
Of money, life-hopes, pride, or self-respect,
And so, like Grendel, carried on unchecked
Till desperate remedies alone were left.

Now we've another monster on the loose,
One just as bad in many ways and worse
In some, since we've now further cause to curse
The advent of a president obtuse

And infantile enough to blow us all
To kingdom come if goaded by some stray
Remark, or say 'Just weather!’ come what may
Of hurricanes by way of wake-up call.

CN dt

We think 'if only', and routinely hold
Them in the highest honour, those who tried
But failed to stem the rising fascist tide
By monster-slaying, some of them extolled,

Like Bonhoeffer, as heroes with a claim
To sainthood while so many others, known
Or unknown to us, left their safety-zone
To venture on a last and lethal game.

Our current monster preys on all the ills
Of ignorance, stupidity, and greed
That fed his viewing-figures and his need
To see that every whim directly spills

Into the Twitter-sphere no matter if
It's sub-moronic, apt to spark a war,
Designed to show a hapless aide the door,
Or his last shot in some crass ‘fake news’ tiff.

Yet it's a case borne out by monsters down
From Roman times that they're no less a threat
To humankind for being apt to get
Their kicks in imbecilic ways, or clown

It up at just those times when all depends,
If not on their appearing wise or shrewd,
Then on their not indulging some wild mood-
Swing prone to make new enemies of old friends.

That Mark One monster might have been dispatched
At any time from nineteen-thirty-three
To forty-four, a fine thing – you'll agree –
Since who’d blame plotters for a game-plan hatched

To rid the world of one who, as things went
In brutal truth, survived to leave his mark,
As will this monster if left to embark
On half the crimes that seem his fixed intent?

That's why they got it right, those epic bards,
About what's best to do when monsters strike
And why perhaps, in special cases like
The present, it's the role of bodyguards,

Not some resurgent Beowulf, to show
The highest civic virtue and the sort
Of courage that inspired those long-ago
Folk-heroes to cut monster-stories short.

CN Karl Theodor von Piloty Murder of Caesar 1865

 

Sure
Thursday, 21 June 2018 04:14

Sure

Published in Poetry

Sure

by Fred Voss


It is the morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and I
am at my machine and I grip my machine’s handle
with my palm
the steel handle is still solid and hard
against my soft flesh
a racist hate-filled egomaniac dictatorial sexual predator swindler infant elected to lead
310 million people
and I turn the handle to my machine and my machine table moves exactly 100 thousandths
of an inch
I want to believe that a thousandth of an inch is still a thousandth of an inch
rivers flow downhill
a dinosaur bone
is 65 million years old he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword but Donald Trump
will soon have his finger on the nuclear trigger and Nero fiddled
while Rome burned and I put on my leather gloves and grab
a 50-pound block of 4130 steel and drop it
into my vise bolted to my milling machine table and send the carbide teeth of a shell mill
plowing through the raw steel
I want to believe when ice melts it still turns into water
Lady Macbeth
still can’t wash those drops of blood off her hand
I want to believe Christ and Buddha
knew something
Beethoven’s
Moonlight Sonata is still beautiful roses
still open train wheels
still can’t roll without the hands of men like me
who make them
I plant my feet on this concrete machine shop floor
surely the mockingbird has not forgotten how to sing
surely a human being still knows
right from wrong surely
the sun still rises steel is still hard and men like Trump fall
in the end
sure as my hammerhead ringing out when I strike it
against steel
sure as Victor Hugo’s statue
Nelson Mandela’s heart
the cat sitting in the sun on your windowsill
the sweat on the back of every workingman on earth
and the stars still there shining
in the sky.

Fred Voss's latest collection, The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand, is published by Culture Matters and is available from http://manifestopress.org.uk/