“Am I a communist?” So asks the daughter of legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the 2015 film, Trumbo. The film is concerned with the events of the 1940s-50s surrounding the Hollywood blacklist. During this controversial period, artists, filmmakers, and screenwriters suspected of having communist affiliations were brought before anti-communist committees. Many were barred from working in their respective industries for having previous ties to the Communist Party. Filmmakers went to other countries to make their movies, and screenwriters went undercover in order to keep writing.
The whole event, headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, was based on fear that communists would infiltrate the media, and eventually the country, with Marxist ideology. The event has long been surrounded by controversy. While communism was a legitimate fear, some merely saw it as another political party in the United States. Trumbo definitely considered himself a communist, but he didn’t think that he should be hired or fired based on that fact. You can see some of his testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee here.
The film Trumbo attempts to tell Dalton Trumbo’s story. And it does so with varying degrees of success. While it presents the events that happened fairly accurately, it does so with an ax to grind. In this clip, Trumbo oversimplifies what it means to be a communist.
Click here to watch the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ve8XMJCyEw
Trumbo uses a straw man argument.¹ If you’re not willing to share with others, you’re a selfish capitalist. If you share with your fellow man, then you’re a communist. This is a gross mischaracterization of the terms communist and capitalist. Unfortunately for the viewer, this scene is more propaganda than fact. We can, perhaps, sympathize with Trumbo trying to explain complex Marxist ideology in simple terms that his daughter can understand. What we cannot sympathize with is the straw man that he uses to do so.
According to Marxist ideology, capitalism is evil, based on greed and callousness toward fellow men. The chief enemies are those members of the bourgeoisie (upper class). Marxism, we are told, advocates for the working class man. Marxism may include in its ideology that we should share and share alike, but it does not follow that sharing with others makes you a communist, any more than forgiving your neighbor makes you a Christian.
The film is a good example of how a historical background and a sympathetic situation can be used to slip in a bad argument. Because we can sympathize with the unjust situation that was foisted on the blacklisted writers, we are easily baited into believing that all that is said about communism in the film is true—but it is not.
The controversy surrounding the Hollywood blacklist period is still buzzing. Was it a miscarriage of justice or was communism a legitimate concern? We probably have to say that it isn’t all one way. Whichever side we take in that debate, we will have to concede that Marxist ideology has been one of the most destructive ideas in the twentieth century.
No economic system is perfect; each has its potential pitfalls and failures. One crucial failure of communism is that it rejects the way people really are—broken by sin. Because they trace all of our problems back to class struggle, communists are under the delusion that we can create our own utopia here on earth. This can only be achieved, they contend, by unseating the upper class and forcing everyone to share. But this is not a realistic vision of our life here. So long as people are people there will be problems, inequality, greed, and injustice. This doesn’t mean we should give up, but we must be realistic about how we go about trying to make the world better.
In the end, if we are to have good conversations and reach understanding with others on the issue of Marxism, we will have to be careful not to make straw men out of our opponents. It is false that every communist is a revolutionary bent on upsetting the established order. It is equally false that all capitalists are greedy monsters. It’s never that simple.
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