Howard Fast, the son of a factory worker, was born in New York City on 11th November, 1914. Fast became a socialist after reading The Iron Heel, a novel written by Jack London. "The Iron Heel was my first real contact with socialism; the book... had a tremendous effect on me. London anticipated fascism as no other writer of the time did."
He dropped out of high school and at the age of 18 published his first novel Two Villages. Fast held strong left-wing views and a large number of his novels dealt with political themes. This included a series of three books on the American Revolutionary War period: Conceived in Liberty (1939), The Unvanquished (1942), and Citizen Tom Paine (1943).
In 1943 Fast joined the American Communist Party. As he later recalled: "In the party I found ambition, narrowness and hatred; I also found love and dedication and high courage and integrity and some of the noblest human beings I have ever known." His Marxist views were reflected in the novels that he wrote during this period. This included Freedom Road (1944), a novel that dealt with the Reconstruction era; The American (1946) and a fictionalized biography of the radical Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld.
On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, the general secretary and eleven other party leaders, including John Gates, William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, Robert G. Thompson, Gus Hall, Benjamin Davis, Henry M. Winston, and Gil Green were arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States "to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government".
The trial began on 17th January, 1949. As John Gates pointed out: "There were eleven defendants, the twelfth, Foster, having been severed from the case because of his serious, chronic heart ailment." After a nine month trial the leaders of the American Communist Party were found guilty of violating the Alien Registration Act and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Robert G. Thompson, because of his war record, received only three years. They appealed to the Supreme Court but on 4th June, 1951, the judges ruled, 6-2, that the conviction was legal.
In his autobiography, Being Red, Fast commented: "That the jury made a mockery of the months of evidence and came to its verdict of guilty almost instantly tells more about the nature of this trial than a hundred pages of legal evidence. What fell to us - and by us, I mean those of us in the arts - was the question of what we could do in the new conditions of anti-Communist propaganda created by the trial. It was not only the twelve defendants in Foley Square who were under attack; in every trade union where the Communist Party had any influence, Communists and suspected Communists were being attacked and driven from their leadership positions, from the union, and from their jobs. In this, the anti-Communists (many of them in their jobs because of the work and courage of the Communist organizers) in the AFL and the CIO turned and led the hunt against the Communists."
In 1950 Fast was ordered to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. because he had contributed to the support of a hospital for Popular Front forces in Toulouse during the Spanish Civil War. When he appeared before the HUAC he efused to name fellow members of American Communist Party, claiming that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The HUAC and the courts during appeals disagreed and he was sentenced to three months in prison.
In 1950 attempted to get his novel about, Spartacus, an account of the 71 B.C. slave revolt, published. Eight major publishers rejected it. Alfred Knopf sent the manuscript back unopened, saying he wouldn't even look at the work of a traitor. Fast now realised he was blacklisted and formed his own company, the Blue Heron Press, to publish Spartacus (1951). He continued write and publish books that reflected his left-wing views. This included Silas Timberman (1954), a novel about a victim of McCarthyism and The Story of Lola Gregg (1956), describing the FBI pursuit and capture of a communist trade unionist. Fast also worked as a staff writer for the Daily Worker.
According to John Gates, Fast was having serious doubts about communism. He suggested that Eugene Dennis should talk to Fast: "I told Dennis and other party leaders of Fast's deep personal crisis and implored them to talk to him, but outside of some of us on the Daily Worker, not a single party leader thought it important enough to talk to the one writer of national, even world-wide, reputation still in the party."
During the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Howard Fast explained how he reacted in The Daily Worker to the speech: "We accused the Soviets. We demanded explanations. For the first time in the life of the Communist Party of the United States, we challenged the Russians for the truth, we challenged the disgraceful executions that had taken place in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. We demanded explanations and openness. John Gates pulled no punches, printed the hundreds of letters that poured in from our readers, the bitterness of those who had given the best and most fruitful years of their lives to an organization that still clung to the tail of the Soviet Union."
Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.
John Gates, the editor of the Daily Worker, was highly critical of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev and stated that "for the first time in all my years in the Party I felt ashamed of the name Communist". He then went on to add that "there was more liberty under Franco's fascism than there is in any communist country." As a result he was accused of being "right-winger, Social-Democrat, reformist, Browderite, peoples' capitalist, Trotskyist, Titoite, Stracheyite, revisionist, anti-Leninist, anti-party element, liquidationist, white chauvinist, national Communist, American exceptionalist, Lovestoneite, Bernsteinist".
William Z. Foster was a loyal supporter of the leadership of the Soviet Union and refused to condemn the regime's record on human rights. Foster failed to criticize the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Large numbers left the party. At the end of the Second World War it had 75,000 members. By 1957 membership had dropped to 5,000. In 1957 Fast published The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party (1957).
On 22nd December, 1957, the American Communist Party Executive Committee decided to close down the Daily Worker. John Gates argued: "Throughout the 34 years of its existence, the Daily Worker has withstood the attacks of Big Business, the McCarthyites and other reactionaries. It has taken a drive from within the party - conceived in blind factionalism and dogmatism - to do what our foes have never been able to accomplish. The party leadership must once and for all repudiate the Foster thesis, defend the paper and its political line, and seek to unite the entire party behind the paper."
Howard Fast, who was a staff journalist on the Daily Worker added: "The Daily Worker published its last issue on January 13, 1958, precisely thirty-four years after its first issue had appeared. I doubt whether there was a day during those decades when the paper was not in debt. It was always understaffed, and its staff was always underpaid. It never compromised with the truth as it saw the truth; and while it was at times rigid and believing of whatever the Soviet Union put forth, it was so only because of its blind faith in the socialist cause. It is a part of the history of this country, and like the party that supported it, it preached love for its native land. It had once boasted a daily circulation of close to 100,000. Its final run was five thousand copies."
The Hollywood Blacklist was ended in 1960 when Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay for the film Spartacus based on Fast's novel of the same name. Fast himself moved to Hollywood where he wrote several screenplays. However, he continued to write political novels and had considerable commercial success with The Immigrants (1977), Second Generation (1978), The Establishment (1979), The Outsider (1984) and the Immigrant's Daughter (1985). His autobiography, Being Red, was published in 1990.
During his lifetime he published more than 40 novels under his own name and 20 as E.V. Cunningham. Fast also wrote a biography of Josip Tito. His books were translated into 82 different languages and his last novel, Greenwich, was published in 2000. As Alan Wald has pointed out: "In the 1940s, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, he achieved best-seller status with novels explicity promoting left-wing ideas."