THE HOLLYWOOD blacklist of the 1950s is hardly a neglected subject. After John Cogley's pioneering Report on Blacklisting and Murray Kempton's provocative Part of Our Time came Eric Bentley's massive compilation of congressional hearings, Thirty Years of Treason -- which in turn generated his internationally successful dramatization, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? Nor was that the end of it. In addition to Robert Vaughn's passionately indignant Only Victims and Stefan Kanfer's more urbane A Journal of the Plague Years, polemical essays have poured from the pens of the more articulate victims of the purge, most notably Dalton Trumbo's sardonic Time of the Toad and Lillian Hellman's bitterly self-righteous memoir, Scoundrel Time.

Now Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, has added another long study to the pile. Navasky travels toward the core of his subject by a chain of familiar halts: Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz and the other professional anticommunist witnesses whose "evidence" sent Alger Hiss, the Communist Party leaders and many civil servants to prison or professional ruin. Every author (and editor), I suppose, has to assume a proportion of readers completely unfamiliar with the landscape. There are brief summaries of the principal intellectual battle formations adopted by such warring bodies as the Americans for Democratic Action, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. Navasky then introduces us to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, vigilante pressure groups like Aware, Inc., and such powerful czars of the clearance racket as the union boss, Roy Brewer.

Only after page 100 do Navasky's own diligent investigations begin to boost the narrative with new, often fascinating, material. His intellectual judgment is faultless as he plunges us into the sweating, squalid, sick and -- if one may accurately employ an over-used term -- Kafkaesque underworld of the purge. Navasky is not the kind of writer to stand back and pick his punches; he bores in relentlessly, works hard and scores by sheer perserverance and sharpness of mind.

The shape of his narrative becomes clearer when he embarks on a series of short studies of individual reactions to the blacklist: Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller (again, hardly a neglected subject), the scriptwriters Richard Collins and Budd Schulberg (the latter an unrepentant informer), the director Edward Dmytryk (self-justifying), the composer David Raksin (abjectly repentant), Roy Huggins (melodramatizing the pressures he had faced -- my family or the concentration camp), and the actor Lee J. Cobb ("The human animal is not noble").

Navasky's approach to the most traumatic and destructive episode in Hollywood's history is that of a compassionate but unflinching moralist: Like Sartre before him he wishes to discover why a person under stress may be said to have acted honorably -- or not. This is a good question and a big one. What worries me is his choice of subject. The recurrent obsession with the film and television industries seriously threatens to distort our understanding of the great purge which took place under Truman and Eisenhower. The glamor, fame and talent of the artists involved are certainly seductive; so also is the pervasive narcissism of America's "dream factory," its uncritical love affair with its own mythology. When Woody Allen makes a film about the purge, the fictional characters are, inevitably, actors and actresses, directors and scriptwriters. The workers who lost their jobs in Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and New England are evidently not good box office.

Navasky partly justifies his project by asking why HUAC could not keep its hands off Hollywood. "For every witness from the worlds of labor, science, the armed forces or education, there were a dozen from the wonderful world of show biz." Even if we take the HUAC in strict isolation this is incorrect -- indeed it held no public heariangs on the motion-picture industry from 1948 to March 1951. And if one takes into consideration the equally ferocious witch hunts pursued by rival Senate and House committees, one must inevitably conclude that the Hollywood inquisition was no more than a publicity-seeking sideshow. The real thrust of the purge was directed against leftists in the federal civil service, defense-related industries and the teaching profession. About 250 film people were blacklisted and a further 100 "graylisted"; yet in New York City alone some 380 school and college teachers lost their jobs for political reasons. In the Defense Department under Eisenhower there were 1,311 "security" -related dismissals plus 1,877 "resignations."

Enough said, then, of the books that the radical editor of The Nation might have written. What of his central existential probe into the moral vibrations of naming names as opposed to resorting to the First Amendment (like the Hollywood Ten) or the Fifth (like the majority of resistant witnesses who followed)? Navasky appreciates that in certain circumstances we regard the act of informing as morally obligatory. An American Nazi who spills the beans to a Congressional committee excites no cries of "stool pigeon!" from the left. Racketeers are held to have done well when they come clean -- except by their fellow racketeers. And we know that certain American victims of the post-war purge believed that it was a good Soviet citizen's duty to inform the Party about Trotskyite wreckers and agents of imperialism.

Navasky is right to stress that the Communist Party of the United States posed no real threat to American democracy after World War II. He is equally right to conclude that many film people who named names under pressure fully appreciated that the hysteria had been artificially fanned. But the '50s was not a time of scoundrels (Hellman) or toads (Trumbo). Under the Nazi occupation a lot of Frenchmen collaborated, actively or passively -- in most historical situations of acute stress or force majeure heroic resistance is confined to a small minority. The behavior of individuals during the McCarthy era must be understood in the context of a general collapse of liberal principles within institutions which in turn reflected not only the pressures of the Cold War but the underlying insecurity of a nation of immigrants. The identity crisis rapidly eroded cherished liberal values -- hence the stampede to conform, to prove one's "Americanism."

Navasky understands this but finds an individual easier to interview than an institution. I find him at his most trenchant when describing the earthquake-style panic that overwhelmed the studios, the agents, the lawyers, the unions and such ethnically based pressure groups as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League (to whom, incidentally, he is too generous -- it savaged Jews who stayed outside the pale of political respectability). Among the best passages in Naming Names are those devoted to the Hollywood clearance lawyer Martin Gang and the legendary, but hitherto anonymous, Phil Cohen, part psychologist, part cop. Navasky captures the ambiance perfectly.

Today the tide has so turned that to have been blacklisted in Hollywood is a badge of honor (although many working-class victims still live under pseudonyms, far from the scene of their crucifixion). As in postwar Germany, Navasky finds that everybody passes the buck: Responsibility is always fixed one step down the line. Navasky points out that if some victims acquitted themselves with dignity and honor, often at the cost of their careers, others cannot be acquitted of personal culpability for shamefully betraying friends and colleagues. Yet throughout those "plague years" the opinion polls showed that the vast majority of Americans believed that a communist or sympathizer should not be allowed to teach, speak on the radio or run for elective office. The pressures of the Zeitgeist overwhelming. Only those who made hay out of the purge, only the mendacious and venomous -- and there are many -- should now stand indicted in the court of history.