Robert Mayhew
Ayn Rand and Song of Russia
Scarecrow Press, 2005
ISBN 0-8108-5276-4
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2005 by Gary McGath

Admirers of Ayn Rand have been aware that in 1947, she voluntarily testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Given the reputation which the Committee has in history, especially from its later activities spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, there have been questions about the legitimacy of her participation. Ayn Rand and Song of Russia provides detailed information about her role, including a transcript of her remarks. It is clear from this information that Rand did not engage in or abet the violation of anyone's rights or the assassination of anyone's character. Her testimony was exclusively concerned with one movie, the 1944 Song of Russia from MGM.

I have not seen the movie Song of Russia; Mayhew says it is not available on videotape or DVD, and the Harvard library system doesn't have it. So I cannot say from firsthand knowledge whether or not Rand's criticisms of the movie are accurate, though they are convincing in the light of Mayhew's synopsis. The movie, as Mayhew describes it, is not overt propaganda for Communism, but is propaganda in the sense that (in Rand's words) it "gives a good impression of communism as a way of life." Set in Russia in 1942, shortly after war had started with Germany, it shows Russians as unrealistically prosperous, happy, and free.

Mayhew notes that Rand did not come to Washington specifically to speak on Song of Russia, which she called a "bad-plot movie ... of no importance." She was not very impressed with the HUAC itself, which she said "go[es] through a great many motions and publicity and very little action comes out of it... they certainly have all the information they need without public witnesses reciting pieces." But she thought that speaking before the HUAC would give her a useful public forum on pro-Soviet propaganda in movies. She did not expect that she would have a chance to speak only on a movie which she regarded as relatively unimportant.

The issue of blacklisting is often brought up in connection with the HUAC investigations of this period. It is widely believed that innocent people, and not just Communists, were blacklisted on the grounds of false accusations or rumors. Mayhew does not think that this is so. This issue is not the focus of the book, and I can't offer an informed judgment myself. But Rand is quoted as saying that a number of the "friendly witnesses" before the HUAC -- those who spoke against Communism -- were excluded from work in Hollywood because of their views. The full picture is probably quite complex.

There is one point on which I must disagree with Rand. She wrote shortly after her HUAC testimony:

The whole conception of civil rights (of free speech, free assembly, free political organization) applies to and belongs in the realm of ideas -- that is, a realm which precludes the use of physical violence. These rights are based on and pertain to the peaceful activity of spreading or preaching ideas, of dealing with men by intellectual persuasion. Therefore, one cannot invoke these rights to protect an organization such as the Communist Party, which not merely preaches, but actually engages in acts of violence, murder, sabotage, and spying in the interests of a foreign government.

When members of the Communist Party, or of any party, engage in such activities, they should of course be prosecuted. But that is not the same as making membership in the Communists as such a crime. Rand wrote:

Joining it involves more than a matter of ideas. It involves an agreement to take orders to commit actions -- criminal and treasonable actions.

If this is literally the case, then Rand was correct. Entering into an agreement to commit crimes is itself the crime of conspiracy. But I find it unlikely that the Communist Party (or the KKK, or even the Mafia) ever did anything so overt as have applicants for membership take a pledge to commit crimes. The Communist Party of Canada, for instance, requires members to pledge to "work unceasingly for the establishment of a socialist society," but leaves the means unspecified.

It is legitimate for law enforcement to keep an eye on an organization whose stated aims are inimical to our freedom and which has clear ties to a hostile government, so long as it does so by proper means. But Rand appears to be saying that simple membership constitutes criminal conspiracy. I don't think she would have expressed herself in this way in the period of her fully formed philosophy, after the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

Readers who are interested in Rand's life in detail, or in the activities of the HUAC in this period, will find Ayn Rand and Song of Russia very informative, whatever conclusions they may draw.

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