Owain's Reviews > Trumbo

Trumbo by Bruce Cook
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it was amazing
bookshelves: politics, history

I received this book free from the publishers which, to be honest, was slightly annoying considering how I'd bought the damn thing a few weeks beforehand. Nevertheless it's a great book. This is the best biography I've read to-date. It's particularly interesting to me because it deals with an incredibly successful writer, a screenwriter who even in later life still seems fixated on becoming a successful novelist despite having several novels published and critically acclaimed. A writer who managed to make his work so valuable that he could overcome a United States government blacklist not by working around it but by continuing to working through it. Just what they didn't want him to do.

Trumbo's life has almost been completely defined by the Hollywood blacklist and by his leading role in being victimised by it and in fighting back against it. As time goes on and his films become less relevant I'm sure he'll become much more associated with the blacklist story. I think the fact that the book is being republished along side a new major film about Trumbo represents a further thawing in the western cultural hegemony's attitude towards Communism. Politically Communism isn't so much of an immediate threat to western Capitalist society as it was in Trumbo's time. There are other enemies for it to fight.

Evidently enough time has passed for Trumbo and the CPUSA to present no perceived threat to the political establishment. Therefore the story has become available for certain investors to risk investing in the process of creating the film and publishing the book so they can profit from marketing Trumbo's story- A reinforcing of the story's message that free speech is not tolerated if it presents a threat to the status quo, with the exception that it will be tolerated so long as the threat of the promise of political change is not so imminent as to threaten short-term profit making. i.e. just as the Capitalists tolerated Trumbo working through the blacklist despite the govt. trying to ban him for presenting a threat to Capitalism the Capitalists themselves were willing to risk their existence as Capitalists to generate immediate profit from exploiting the very labour presenting the threat. -That's like sticking your hand into a crocodile's mouth because there's as fiver on its tongue. Here the inherent contradiction in Capitalism is brought to the fore; Capitalism must rely on the force that presents the greatest threat to its existence: labour. Investors are willing to sell an anti-Capitalist message that ultimately presents a threat to their continued existence as Capitalists and yet they are willing to do that because they can make some money in the meantime. That is Capital investing in its own demise. Is that the sound of Karl Marx laughing from beyond the grave I hear?

Further irony occurs when we look at how both the blacklisted labourers (the screenwriters) and their capitalist employers were united in their opposition to the US government in order to overturn the blacklist. Not just the labourers ability to work had been removed but the Capitalists' right to exploit labour had been removed which is why the government's blacklist-although enacted with the best interests of Capitalism's survival at heart ultimately couldn't blacklist the Communist labourers because it couldn’t go against the law of Capital exploiting labour showing how inherent those contradictions really are.

Now about the book itself:

Trumbo was the son of poor working class parents from the mid-west of the US. The family emigrated west during the troubled times surrounding the great depression. This part of the story instantly made me think of the Grapes of Wrath. Although the Trumbos weren't in such a bad fix as the Joads, they found work and a new life in Los Angeles.

The move to Los Angeles is critical as this eventually steered Dalton Trumbo's aspirations to be a writer towards Hollywood and writing scripts for films. He managed to get a foot in the door of a big Hollywood film studios and eventually began a lifelong career in screenwriting that not even the blacklist could stop gathering many awards along the way.

Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party, although Cook's biography doesn't delve too deeply into Trumbo's politics the author's personal opinion weirdly suggests Trumbo was a liberal. Trumbo himself never in his life denied being a communist although he twice joined the CPUSA and twice let his membership of the Party lapse. That merely records his level of dedication and activity within the Party. What we can say is that he wasn't willing to break his links with Communism and was willing to go to prison rather than deny his membership of the Party. Doesn't sound like the actions of a non-Communist to me. Here's his own words on the subject,

To me it [Party membership] was an essential part of being alive and part of the time at a very significant period in history

It comes down to this, if Lenin was right, then Browder was wrong-and vice versa. I prefer to believe Lenin was right.
-Trumbo speaking about revisionist ex-leader of the CPUSA, Earl Browder who steered the Party towards a liberalist stance.

Trumbo sacrificed quite a lot in going to prison, in getting blacklisted and the subsequent employment problems it gave him. People have tried to accuse him of being a 'Swimming Pool Communist', i.e. a rich person flirting with a dangerous ideology. However, I would tend to agree with the author of the biography who is of the opinion that becoming rich from the wages of his own labour and being willing to lose it all and go to prison after a legal stand-off with pretty much the world's largest anti-Communist organisation made Trumbo an incredibly principled person.
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Reading Progress

February 16, 2016 – Shelved
February 16, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
February 26, 2016 – Started Reading
March 1, 2016 –
page 62
March 2, 2016 –
page 119
March 5, 2016 –
page 171
March 6, 2016 –
page 284
March 9, 2016 –
page 362
March 11, 2016 – Shelved as: marxism
March 11, 2016 – Shelved as: politics
March 11, 2016 – Finished Reading
March 26, 2017 – Shelved as: history

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