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Trumbo and the communist-hunting in the United States

Under attack by the government of his own country, screenwriter and communist Dalton Trumbo won two Oscars using pseudonyms. Film screenshot.

Trumbo, released in 2015, is an American-produced film directed by Jay Roach, and a powerful Hollywood drama about the period of communist-hunting in this country right after the end of World War II.

In the story, a group of screenwriters, who would later become known as The Hollywood Ten, is accused of communism by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The film aims to show how the government's arbitrary persecution was, in fact, an attack on freedom of expression and free association, and therefore an attack on democracy itself.

The commission was just one of the parliamentary actions, supported by the Presidency, against leftist opponents in the United States from the late 1930s to the 1970s.

In the 1950s, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy accused hundreds of citizens of anti-nation conspiracies and destroyed countless lives. The phenomenon became known as McCarthyism.

HUAC, founded in 1938, was not far behind. In both examples, we can see the same action: the State persecuted individuals for their political positions, considered criminal and threatening to the country, and, therefore, subject to punishment. Many Americans were arrested, exiled, or died because of this arbitrariness.

Propaganda and the appeal to a national feeling were fundamental for the success of those policies. In this case, the Americans bought a pig in a poke: they authorized the bourgeois capitalist State to eliminate those who threatened order because they were fighting for social justice.

The action in the film begins in 1947 and is a biography centered on the figure of the writer and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), winner of two Oscars and an assumed communist. He is portrayed by Bryan Cranston, previously known for his role in Breaking Bad.

In the story, Trumbo is denounced by companions and is arrested. Upon leaving, the studios deny him work and he is forced to write underground, under a pseudonym. Family, children, and friends also suffer from the situation.

It is interesting to note the dates. HUAC was founded on the eve of the II World War when Hitler had been German chancellor for at least five years. His activities took place throughout the conflict. Persecution in Hollywood began just two years after the war ended.

At the beginning of the film, we learn that thousands of citizens and hundreds of film industry workers were affiliated with the Communist Party of the United States at the time. Those memberships were not only linked to the effort against the Nazis but also the political consciousness of Americans at a time of labor movements spread all over the world.

Nazism was a reaction to these movements: it destroyed a possible insurrection of the German workers and advanced against Soviet communism, despite Stalinism having already compromised it. Hitler's advance in Eastern Europe was a massacre, only defeated by the Red Army after millions of deaths (read our reviews of the films Come and See and Ordinary Fascism here).

We can infer that the reaction of the American State was in the same direction as that of the Third Reich. It was in this context that the American bourgeoisie claims to have fought the Nazis to this day. In its own country, the upper class, by manipulating public opinion, tried to eliminate in the bud any threat to the capitalist hegemonic order. Moreover, in the same period, it did not hesitate to drop two atomic bombs on the civilian population of Japan.

After the war, this bourgeoisie took on right-wing extremism in place of Germany, always concealed as a defense of freedom and democratic values. When the chase died down, the damage was already great. In the film, there is a scene that particularly interests us and that helps us understand the extent of this damage.

It's the 1960s, and at this point, Trumbo is starting to turn the tide among his peers in the film industry. At one point, his teenage daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) needs to take an important script to a studio but refuses.

Over the years, under pressure, the screenwriter treated his children and his wife as if they were his employees. Niki protests and shows her father that he is being the opposite of what he always preached: exploitative and authoritarian.

By putting the characters into action, Roach uses the scene to show generational political change. Niki doesn't want to make the delivery because she has a meeting with activists for civil rights, that is, for the rights of blacks and women, movements that marked the 1960s.

The staging, adherent to this change, shows Niki as a feminist. It establishes that the revolutionary class struggle, old-fashioned and associated with the father, was left behind, giving way to the reformist struggle for social inclusion in the “modern” figure of the female character.

It was there, however, that the moralistic and petty-bourgeois identity discourse that we witness today was born. In his text “Periodizing the 60s”, the American theorist Frederic Jameson explained the problem:

In this respect, the merger of the AFL and the CIO in 1955 can be seen as a fundamental "condition of possibility" for the unleashing of the new social and political dynamics of the 60s: the merger, a triumph of McCarthyism, secured the expulsion o the Communists from the American Labor movement, consolidates the new antipolitical 'social contract' between American business and the American Labor unions, and created a situation in which the privileges of a white male labor force take precedence over the demands of the black and women workers and other minorities. These last have therefore no place in the classical institutions of an older working-class politics. They will thus be "liberated" from social class, in the charged and ambivalent sense which Marxism gives to the word (in the context of enclosure, for instance): they are separated from the older institutions and thus "released" to find new modes of social and political expression.”

In the 1950s, political repression was so ruthless that it crushed the unions and ended the Communist Party. Jameson describes a situation of total capitulation: in the name of so-called "national values", something that Hitler used and abused, the largest workers' union and the largest employers' union came together. This is what happened in the United States.

In the film, patronizingly, this is portrayed as the empowered rebelliousness of a teenage feminist.

What is concrete is that we are almost 60 years from this fact, but the moralist identity discourse has not been able to solve any class contradictions. However, many still swear that everything is a matter of humanitarian policies of social inclusion.

It's been 60 years that this kind of social inclusion has not been able to include anyone. Worse, identity discourse, exported to the whole world as the only horizon of political struggle, is increasingly similar to its enemy: authoritarian and armed with the cancellation of opponents and artists, the correction of words and expressions, the rewriting of history, and preaching in favor of the limits of freedom of expression.

On the other hand, capitalism, which ultimately finances all of this, remains strong, leading all of us, without exception, into a bottomless hole.

Citation from:

JAMESON, Fredric. "Periodizing the 60s" In: Social Text. No. 9/10. The 60´s without apology (Spring-Summer, 1984), pp. 178-209, Duke University Press.


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