Robert C. Hodges

"The Blacklisting of Salt of the Earth: A Study in the Political Culture of the Cold War"

October 23, 1998

by Anthony A. McIntire
   

 

Robert C. Hodges of Middle Tennessee State University addressed the Cold War Group on October 23, presenting his paper "The Blacklisting of Salt of the Earth: A Study in the Political Culture of the Cold War. Dr. Hodges received his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in 1997 after having studied Cold War films under the direction of Professor Mark W. Summers.

Dr. Hodges believes "Salt of the Earth" serves as a window on the political culture of the cold war that sheds light on what he calls the Radical Movement Culture of American Communism and its relationship to the institutional Communist Party USA. "Salt," and its makers – the Communist controlled Independent Productions Company – represented the only serious cultural challenge to the Second Red Scare. Moreover, Dr. Hodges maintains that the "Salt" story reveals as well the nature of the anti-communist efforts of the 1950s. Various agencies, both public and private, cooperated in a campaign of coercion and indimidation to suppress the movie and destroy the IPC.

"Salt" has frequently been believed to be a documentary about the 18 month Empire Zink strike in Bayard, New Mexico in the early 1950s. It is not, Dr. Hodges explained. Rather, it is a feature motion picture that is based in reality and was made with the assistance and active participation of the labor union that was involved in the actual strike, Mine-Mill Local 890. The film is extremely accurate in a higher sense, he said, but does this by compressing decades worth of experience on the part of the latino/a members of Local 890 into the strike period. In most of the details, however, screenwriter Michael Wilson was careful to the point of obsession to get the facts down correctly. Today the film hardly seems radical, advocating as it does gender and racial equality, but in the context of the 1950s its ideas were heresy, even revolutionary.

Ironically, the film was made because of the blacklist, he said. The Hollywood blacklist forced CP members out of the studio system, and made available a ready pool of unemployed talent. Because of the blacklist, several CP members decided to form their own company and make pictures their own way – unfettered by the studios.

Also ironically, the Communist Party did not contribute to their efforts; in fact, it hindered them in several important ways. Moreover, the Soviet Union, when it had a chance to buy the rights to the picture for distribution in the USSR, drove a very hard bargain with the financially strapped IPC and in the end simply pirated the picture.

The agents of the blacklist – studios, the technical workers union, the FBI, the American Legion, and other groups – worked diligently first to prevent the film from being made, and failing that to prevent its distribution. Ultimately they succeeded, but only because they were able to whittle away at IPC's meager resources. Each step of production and distribution cost far more than it should have, and yielded results far poorer than normal as a result of the blacklisters efforts. Finally IPC simply collapsed under the pressure.

But the film did show to some audiences, and their reaction is revealing. Dr. Hodges contends that the story of the making and unmaking of "Salt" demonstrates in a tentative fashion that no "consensus" society existed. Large numbers of people were open to the broad based popular front radicalism that "Salt" advanced. Dissent was present on a whole range of issues, including race, labor, economics, and gender, but there was little medium for expression of it. Also of crucial importance, is that there was no real leadership on these issues of the type that the CP had provided on progressive issues in its popular front days of the 1930s, because the CP had adopted a hard-core sectarian approach that drove away all but the most die-hard of radicals. In a way, "Salt" was an attempt to resurect the old popular front approach and build a broad-based coalition in support of progressive values. For this reason IPC was a threat, and the anti-communists went to great lengths to suppress it.

Dr. Hodges also maintains that the story of "Salt" shows the values of a wide range of individual communists from varied backgrounds when left to their own devices. The movie shows that the revolution dreamt of in their radical culture was one that resonates strongly today. Equality for women, equality for latino/a citizens, minimum basic living standards, and workplace safety are the substance of the radicalism in "Salt." This point has important implications related to the historiography of American Communism which has long debated whether the CP was simply the instrument of Moscow dutifully carrying out Stalin's orders, or whether it was a grass-roots organization peopled with idealists. Both are true to an extent, said Dr. Hodges. The CP as an institution was a fairly nefarious thing, and its members did march to Moscow's drum. But it also provided an environment wherein a radical movement culture could develop among the rank and file, and this culture is what "communism" meant to most of these people. It impelled them far beyond what Moscow ordered, and drove them with an almost missionary zeal in doomed projects such as IPC.

 

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