Elia Kazan:
Snitch with an Oscar

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #999, March 21, 1999

On January 7, the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it was going to present Elia Kazan, director of On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata, and dozens of other films and stage plays, with an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievements. Kazan is infamous as the most prominent Hollywood figure to cooperate with the 1950's witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). When Kazan was called to testify in 1952 he provided the government with the names of people he knew to be associated with the Communist Party USA when he worked with them in The Group Theater during the 1930s.

When I heard about the award to Kazan, I was very angry. As Mao said, reversing correct verdicts goes against the will of the people. The McCarthy hearings and the Hollywood blacklist that resulted from these hearings was one of the ugliest campaigns of political repression against artists in modern history.

But as I began to talk with the new generation of artist resisters about the situation, I knew I had to find a way to bring home the significance of this award happening today. Sometimes you got to work hard to make the connections, sometimes the system--just working the way it does--<%2>lays it all out for you. In mid-January, Rage Against the Machine was viciously attacked in the media and by the authorities for organizing a concert in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And I think we have to see Kazan's Lifetime Achievement Oscar as a bridge--bringing together the witch hunts of the 1950s with the ongoing political harassment of artists and the culture wars of today.


Several times before, prestigious film organizations have tried to give Kazan an honorary achievement award and public outcry forced them to back down. And in the last few years other arts organizations have criticized their own role during the McCarthy years. Now the Academy is pressing ahead. Many survivors of the "blacklist"--the people who weren't allowed to work in Hollywood for decades because the government listed them as subversives--have spoken out against Kazan as an informant who turned on his friends. Some artists who stood strong against the witch hunts back then have eased up over the years and now talk about honoring Kazan for his good works while criticizing him for the bad things he has done. Still others try to justify the Oscar by arguing that we should separate Kazan's art from his politics.

So we need to be straight about what this award means today. And to do that we need to be clear on what happened in the 1950s. The HUAC hearings on the influence of communists in the film industry occurred in a world that was very different than today. Back then there was a socialist camp--the Soviet Union and China were socialist countries and their example was inspiring people all over the world to stand up against U.S. imperialism. In Korea and Indochina, people were waging armed struggle against colonialism. It was a time when the powers in America were very seriously thinking about launching a full-scale war against the socialist countries. And in this conflict, there is no question that the interests of humanity were in opposing the United States and standing with the people of the socialist countries. While the Communist Party USA was not a very revolutionary organization at the time, it was an organization that especially supported the Soviet Union and would have strongly opposed any American attack on them. At the same time, the CPUSA had fostered American patriotism and faith in bourgeois democracy in its ranks which made it hard for people to really stand up to the HUAC inquisitors.

As conflict deepened between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and China, there was no way that the U.S. rulers were going to allow communists and other progressive people to continue to work in places where they could shape public opinion against U.S. war plans. The HUAC hearings were full-scale political persecutions aimed against communists and all politically progressive people. Thousands of people were criminalized for their political beliefs, including many pacifists and anti-racists, as well as communists and die-hard liberals.

While the witch hunts in the arts are probably the most well known, similar inquisitions occurred in schools and universities, among doctors and lawyers, and in many federal agencies. Communists were driven out of the trade unions. It was a time when whispers and rumors could end careers, invite subpoenas, and bring on jail time. Reactionary companies and newsletters were created for the sole purpose of listing the people named as subversives. By the time it was over, more than 100,000 people from all walks of life were listed in raw information files kept in Congress. Artists who were named in testimony before the Committee or who refused to cooperate with the Committee were unable to work under their own names, in many cases for 10 and even 20 years. Artists like Paul Robeson were driven from concert stages. Some artists were never able to work in their field again. And some were completely broken--dying an early death from suicide or the ravages of alcohol.

The first round of hearings launched in the Spring of 1947 produced defiance as the Hollywood 10--a group of actors, writers and directors--refused to cooperate with HUAC and resisted. Some of the 10 were members or sympathizers of the Communist Party USA but they all refused to answer any questions about this and specifically refused to give up the names of other artists. By the end of 1950 the Hollywood 10 had been sent to jail and HUAC was pushing out full force. There were friendly witnesses who cooperated with HUAC and supplied a list of names of people to be persecuted for their political beliefs. But the government still needed a big name to put the stamp of legitimacy and integrity on their inquisition. This is when Elia Kazan, one of the most successful, respected and well-known progressive directors in the film industry, walked onto the stage. On April 10, 1952 Kazan, who was once a member of the Communist Party himself, performed for HUAC with gusto. He laid out everything he knew about the role of the Communist Party and communists in Hollywood. He gave up the names of old friends who had been in the CP with him when they worked with The Group Theater in the 1930s. And when Kazan finished testifying he took out an ad in the New York Times that justified his performance and called on others to follow his example.

In his autobiography Kazan details how he saw his testimony as helping to smash a worldwide communist conspiracy against the American Way and the system that had taken good care of him. And as the possibility of the U.S. going to war against the socialist countries increased along with the need for unquestioning loyalty, Elia Kazan's dedication to the imperialist system was just what the U.S. power structure needed. Kazan's performance during the HUAC hearings and afterwards helped unleash a number of other friendly witnesses and, even more importantly, was a major effort to create a favorable atmosphere for the system's witch hunt.


Elia Kazan chose to throw himself behind a vicious campaign of political persecutions. He chose to stand with the oppressors against the people of the world. And he has continued to take this stand and defend his actions for almost 50 years. While some have argued in favor of Kazan receiving his Lifetime Achievement Oscar on the basis of separating his politics from his art, Kazan never considered separating anyone's politics from their art when he was working with HUAC. In fact, Kazan stated more than once that communists should not be allowed to practice their art in the film industry solely because of their political beliefs. And his own work is peppered with political justifications for his actions and cynical explorations on the impossibility of revolutionary change.

The HUAC hearings, with the blacklist and the atmosphere of political terror, was an enormous and deep attack against the people. The changes that have occurred in the world--the fact that capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and in China after the death of Mao--should not be allowed to blur these dividing lines. Nor can we allow the very real shortcomings of the CPUSA to excuse Kazan's snitching. There is no justification for being a snitch for the U.S. power structure.

The impact of this political repression has been felt for decades. It was echoed in the attacks against the so-called radical chic in the 1960s--artists who stepped out in support of the Black Panther Party. HUAC left its fingerprints all over the FBI harassment of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein and the suicide of actress Jean Seberg for their association with the Panthers. And the repercussions of this attack continue to be felt today when artists are politically and professionally harassed for standing in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, for condemning U.S. wars of aggression or for taking a stand against police brutality.

This is the real legacy of Elia Kazan. And by honoring Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy can't escape the shameful reality that it is honoring "all that."

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