For Your Leisure Time
Howard Fast is an American novelist whose works are now published in London by the Bodley Head. He takes as his themes events in history, mainly American history, and introduces a few fictional characters amongst the real characters who were involved in the events. He sees the class struggle in the periods about which he writes.
The novels by this author already published in this country are as follows: “The Unvanquished,” “The Last Frontier,” “The American,” “Citizen Tom Paine” and “Freedom Road.” There is also available a book of selected works of Tom Paine.
“Freedom Road” is the most significant of these books. It deals with the period immediately following the American civil war when thousands of Negro slaves found themselves freed from their slavery on the cotton plantations in the southern states. It tells, through the story of a fictional negro character, Gideon Jackson, how these freed slaves, illiterate, cowed, ill-clothed and bewildered, clung desperately to their new found freedom against the brutality and terrorist measures of their class enemies, the ex-plantation owners. It shows how they strove to learn to read and write and understand the bewildering world into which they had been turned loose; how, in the brief period when they were allowed to do so, they carved out a democratic constitution for such states as South Carolina and Georgia. It proves that the interests of the negroes and the poor whites were identical, a class interest against a system of slavery, both chattel and wage. The author tells how the slave owners and the northern industrialists soon realised that they had a common interest in keeping in subjugation all workers, black and white, even though they set about the task under the cry of anti-negroism. The book deals with the origin of the Ku Klux Klan and its bestial, foul and brutal terror carried out whilst a so-called anti-slave government shut a blind eye. The latter chapters of the book are not to be read by those who are at all squeamish. They show the mutilations and death agonies of black and white men, women and children in this class war.
“Citizen Tom Paine” is the story of the life of that revolutionary pamphleteer. Tom Paine wrote in popular form and expressed the aspirations of the rising industrialist class in America and France in its struggle against the dominant land owning class of its day. Paine, according to Howard Fast’s portrayal of him, was a most unlovely character, he was ugly, deformed, drunken and dirty to the point of filthiness, but he had terrific courage. Starting life as a stay maker he went to America under the patronage of Benjamin Franklin, and obtained employment as editor of a newly founded magazine. His rebellious writings soon got him into trouble and he was swept up in the American War of Independence.
This war was a struggle between the forerunners of the modern American capitalists against the British land owners supported by the British Government. The American land owning element lined up with their British colleagues, whilst the revolutionary tenant farmers and industrialists relied, as always, on the support of poor farmers and the workers. Tom Paine’s role in this struggle was that of a “rabble rouser.” When the struggle of the American revolutionaries was at a low ebb and fresh enthusiasm had to be whipped up, it was Paine to whom men like Washington turned for a pamphlet or a speech to re-arouse the enthusiasm of the workers and small farmers. After the American war, Paine left for England where he was immediately marked as a prospective menace to the Government and he had to flee the country to France. He arrived there when the French revolution was in process and was at once elected to the Convention. Lining up with the Girondins, Paine was finally marked for the guillotine and imprisoned. He appealed to his erstwhile compatriots in America to save him, but they had achieved victory in their struggle and did not need the services of their “rabble rouser” any more. They wanted their workers to be passive, docile and obedient now that they held the helm and a man like Paine was likely to be a menace. So they left him to his fate. He escaped the guillotine and returned to America where he spent his old age being sneered and jeered at by everyone as an atheist. Paine wrote fluently about democracy and the ‘rights of man’ but he had a horror of ‘mob rule’ as he considered the aspirations of the workers to be. He was the spokesman of the early capitalists, not of the workers whom he appealed to and exhorted to fight.
“The Last Frontier” is a splendid story of the struggle of a small tribe of Red Indians to return to the green pastures of their old hunting grounds from the Indian reservations on an arid, dusty desert in Oklahoma. Hunted and hounded by American troops they were nearly all exterminated, only a few eventually winning through. The one fictional character in this story is an American army officer who is troubled that the newly adopted constitution of his country lays down that all men are born free and equal whilst he sees suppression, exploitation inequality all around and must himself play a part in enforcing such conditions. Can a thing that is right in principle be wrong in practice, is the theme of this splendid story.
“The Unvanquished” is a tale of the first few days of the American War of Independence telling of the sufferings of the farmers and workers who fought on the American side, their determination and endurance, but the story has less significance for Socialists than the others mentioned. “The American” is the life story of Judge Pete Altgeld, the Chicago judge who gravitated from a tame radical position to one of extreme working class sympathy. It deals mainly with the American political racket and the anti-working class attitude of the American governments of the latter end of the last century and beginning of this one.
Howard Fast may not be a Socialist but he sees history through the eyes of the oppressed classes. His writing is good and his stories are exciting whilst being at the same time instructive. We commend him to readers of the Socialist Standard for their leisure time reading.