The election of Donald Trump, the rise of the so-called alt-right and the summer’s white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville have many Americans asking: How do we combat the growth of what appears to be homegrown fascism? Politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum urge solutions grounded in classical liberal traditions. They call for the “rule of law,” quibble with the White House’s flouting of procedural norms and persistently point to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as the road map for an ideal form of governance.
Antifascists have made headlines for proposing more radical and confrontational solutions.
Antifa’s tactics have aroused intense debates over the past few months about the role of violence in confronting agents of hate and inequality. But the tensions between antifascists and those who favor a mainstream, constitutionalist approach have a longer history, one that captivated the nation and divided the entertainment industry over 70 years ago this fall with the dawn of the infamous Hollywood blacklist.
When conservative business leaders and politicians gained power in the post-WWII period, Hollywood activists offered two distinct responses: a liberal defense of the American social and legal status quo, and an anti-fascist call for social democratic reforms. The Hollywood blacklist arguably began when too many people opted for the former approach. The origin story of the blacklist suggests the latter might be the best course for us to take today.
After World War II, scores of movie workers from Bette Davis to Humphrey Bogart belonged to an organization called the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Sciences, Arts, and Professions (HICCASP). Formed to raise awareness and funds for various social-justice causes, HICCASP often framed its mission as a battle against domestic fascism, a toxic stew of racism, warmongering and disregard for economic inequality. HICCASP saw domestic fascism in the Republican Party’s zeal to start a war with the Soviet Union and its campaign to defeat Truman’s full employment bill and weaken the power of unions. They also found domestic fascism in Southern Democrats’ vehement opposition to laws that would outlaw lynching and protect minorities on the government job market.
HICCASP members supported progressive candidates, sent petitions to Congress and raised money for local organizations fighting against racism. They also took their message to the silver screen. The 1946 movie “Body and Soul,” for example, used the story of a working-class boxer as a critique of capitalism. That same year, “The Best Years of Our Lives” portrayed the frustrations of veterans returning home to a society that offered them few options in jobs, housing and satisfaction, because it was obsessed with capital growth at all other costs.
Powerful movie industry moguls, however, worried that such political activism would hurt them at the box office — especially after Republicans swept the midterm election in 1946. Joining this conservative surge, figures such as John Wayne and Cecil B. DeMille took advantage of the shifting political winds to intensify their critiques of HICCASP’s politics and its plans for the silver screen. Even Eric Johnson, the newly appointed president of the Motion Picture Association of America, urged the industry to make films that sold America’s merits, rather than critiquing its flaws.
The rightward shift reached its peak in October 1947 when the House of Representatives began its investigation into Hollywood’s possible infiltration by communists.
In response, HICCASP members and other liberals in the movie industry found themselves at a crossroads that divided the Hollywood left. They could continue to embrace the cause of antifascism, or they could attempt another strategy: to abandon the cause but fight for abstract principles instead. William Wyler, the director of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” teamed with John Huston to form a new group that took the second approach: the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA). The group’s third co-founder, Phillip Dunne, stated outright that “the CFA was in the business of supporting rights, not causes.”
The climax of Congress’s investigation occurred in the last week of October, when it called to the stand its 10 “unfriendly” witnesses. Contrary to popular memory, these witnesses made no great stands on behalf of the first amendment. They wanted to call attention to the threat of domestic fascism, not celebrate liberal values.
The committee, however, would have none of it. The communist writer John Howard Lawson attempted to read a prepared statement warning that Congress desired “to cut living standards, introduce an economy of poverty, wipe out labor’s rights, attack Negroes, Jews, and other minorities, [and] drive us into a disastrous and unnecessary war.” The committee would not allow it.
The CFA, by contrast, focused its protests around the language of rights, using the rhetoric of consensus and unity. Bogart, one of many CFA members who had left HICCASP, explained that he had no interest in radical politics but that he was an “outraged and angry citizen who [felt] that nobody in this country has any right to kick around the Constitution of the United States.”
As high-profile stars left HICCASP and joined the CFA, it gained publicity and money — and so too did the idea of rights rather than the reality of fighting for social change. In late October and early November, the CFA launched two national radio broadcasts titled “Hollywood Fights Back,” which featured statements from countless stars including Bogart, Anne Revere, Lauren Bacall, Groucho Marx and Gene Kelly. Their message: They were not “reds” — they were “nonpolitical.”
Although they defended films like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the CFA scrupulously avoided the language of antifascism. Notably absent was any reference to fighting for civil rights, anti-poverty programs and labor. Choosing its words carefully, the CFA positioned itself as fighting for “freedom of speech” and “conscience,” something all Americans could presumably agree with and unite behind.
While such messages were popular, they didn’t do much to advance actual freedom of speech. One month later, Eric Johnston and all of the major studio heads issued the “Waldorf Statement,” which declared that its signers would “eliminate all subversives” from the industry. Blacklists followed in subsequent years in the radio and television businesses, depriving both HICCASP and the CFA of a platform within the entertainment industry.
Today, history books and popular movies remember the Hollywood blacklist as an attempt to stifle common Americans’ civil liberties. In its retelling, popular forces dedicated to the rule of law and individualist values were silenced by opportunistic and “un-American” politicians.
This telling forgets the perspective of the antifascists who were blacklisted. From their perspective, the rule of law was subject to influence from the wealthy and the elite. It favored the interests and power of corporations — on both the left and the right. Hollywood’s antifascists wanted a new and better society, not simply a return to old principles and established institutions.
Their perspective remains important 70 years later, even as commentators from Cass Sunstein to David Brooks discount it. These pundits, like the CFA before them, use a language of consensus that is built around the allegedly common-sense idea that the laws and norms of liberal democracy are all the safeguards a society needs against the threat of fascism. But it fails to grapple with the root of social injustices.
Hollywood’s antifascists were abandoned by their peers and blacklisted by the industry because they named those social problems, both on-screen and off. Their story suggests that we too must have the courage to move beyond blind faith in old legal principles and norms. They may be necessary, but they’re not enough. To preserve democracy, Americans need to search for visions of a better society among new forms in politics as well as art.