by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith/ March 2005 issue of Socialist Action
Arthur Miller died Feb. 11. He is known as a playwright and novelist, the husband of screen idol Marilyn Monroe—and for standing up to HUAC in the 1950s.
Miller had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and ‘40s. When called up before HUAC, he refused to name names and was convicted for contempt of Congress, but the charges were later dropped.
In his 1987 autobiography, “Timebends,” Miller wrote that in his search for God, he found salvation in Marx. Miller also claimed that should he not have found Marx, he would not have been in Salem two decades later, studying the records of the eponymous witch trials of the year 1692, while writing “The Crucible.” This play served as an analogy to the McCarthy “witch-hunt” subversion trials of the early 1950s.
Miller had joined the Communist Party, he wrote, because the Great Depression, “was a moral catastrophe, a violent revelation of the hypocrisies behind the facade of American society.” Later, he concluded that the Stalinist line the CP advocated was not for him. But when he broke with Stalinism, he also turned away from what he (mistakenly) identified as Marxism.
In his memoir, for example, Miller criticizes the principle that he alleges lies “deep within Marxism” that power is forbidden to the individual and rightly belongs only to the collective. His plays remain within the tradition of American liberalism, flattening out class conflicts and prizing individual initiative far more than collective action.
In his play “After the Fall,” written in 1964, in which he deals with his and his friends’ past involvement with the Communist Party, parallels are evident between Nazi Germany and the United States today in respect to the war on terror and the killing and detaining of innocent people.
One line from that play is as apropos now as it was during the anti-communist witch hunt: “We must be careful not to adapt a new behavior just because there’s hysteria in the country.” This can apply as a warning today, as the government takes measures to tear down our civil liberties in the name of fighting “terrorism.”
In a 1966 Paris Review interview, Miller was asked if his political views had changed since the 1950s. He responded that he’s not ready to advocate a tightly organized planned economy and that he was “in deadly fear of people with too much power. … Now it’s a day-to-day fight to stop dreadful things from happening.”
Thirty-plus years later, dreadful things have happened and continue to happen; the fight goes on. In December 2001, at age 85, Miller gave an interview to the BBC World Service, voicing his concerns about the emergency measures the U.S. government put in place shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He explained that he had spoken out against the attacks, describing them as part of a “war against humanity.”
Additionally, he expressed his view on the plight of non-Americans accused of allegedly helping the country’s terrorist enemies, who were being tried outside the normal courts by military tribunals. He stated that he feared for our civil rights and that the U.S. government could be seen as “taking advantage of the situation and increasing its power over the individual.”