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Ray Bradbury and Russell KirkOnly a week or so before Henry Regnery published Russell Kirk’s first masterpiece, The Conservative Mind, Mr. Ray Bradbury, science fiction novelist, screenplay writer, and all-around wit, wrote and published a fascinating and insightful article, “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Whether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department will be old hat by this time next week, I dare not predict. When the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.” [Bradbury, “The Day After Tomorrow,” The Nation (May 2, 1953)].

More than any other genre, the essayist claimed, science fiction allowed and encouraged the exploration of humanity, the individual, and the relations to community. Every idea could be explored in science fiction, no matter how far-fetched it might seem today. Tomorrow, after all, might very well see that idea as a reality. The genre allows the writer to confront “dozens of paths that move among the thousand mirror eyes of a carnival maze, seeing his society imaged and re-imaged and distorted by the light being thrown back at home.”

Imagination alone allows the writer to discern the possible paths, to see through the fog of the present, ephemeral concerns.  After all, Bradbury asked, what if we get to Mars and find our stories of creation as well as our stories of evolution both absurd? What if the Methodist and the Darwinian are wrong?

With no small amount of irony, Bradbury argued, the very genre of science fiction might be required to bring our understanding of man back to man, necessary for a revival of the liberal arts. In 1953, in all of world society, he claimed, echoing every conservative thinker from Romano Guardini to Wilhelm Roepke to Thomas Merton to Kirk himself, “Bigness in all its forms towers above us—bigness in religion, bigness in the fields of communication, labor, corporative enterprise, and government.” Science fiction might very well force us to ask what it means, once again, to be man in our struggle against all that is colossal and inhumane in size, scope, and intent.

Later that same year, 1953, in October, Bradbury published one of his masterpieces, Fahrenheit 451, a dystopia in which societies pay firemen to burn classic literature. After all, the argument ran, so many viewpoints from Socrates to Freud only confused populations. At least, this was the justification for the holocaust of the written word. The grand climax of the story sees the totalitarian powers incinerate each other in nuclear fire while a number of survivors memorize the great books of philosophy, theology, and culture from the inspiring span of western civilization.

And when the war’s over, someday, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing. [Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 153].

For any one paying attention, a certain alignment of stars must have seemed to have occurred. Less than two years separated the birth of two very determined men, Ray Douglas Bradbury and Russell Amos Kirk. One came from Illinois, the other from Michigan. Each distrusted conformity and authority, each shunned modern technology, Joseph McCarthy, and, especially, the automobile, a modern Jacobin. Each wrote horror and fantastic stories, each commented on the events of the day and feared the growth of fanatic ideologies, right and left, and each treated All Hallow’s Eve with something approaching an awesome piety.

Each also thought imagination the highest form of knowing and privileged poetry above all else. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk wrote:

Man is drawn forward by a power outside himself, which works through Ideas. An Idea is an immutable spiritual truth communicated to man through the faculty of intuition: the dogmas of religious faith, the principles of morals, the rules of mathematics, and the laws of pure science are apprehended through the intuition (varying in its strength from one man to another), and by no other means can this knowledge be obtained.  Ideas are beyond the grasp of mere Understanding.  And Ideas, well or badly apprehended, rule the world. [Kirk, The Conservative Mind, first ed.]

As all readers of The Imaginative Conservative know, Kirk explored the meaning of imagination over and over again in his career.

ray bradbury and russell kirkBradbury did as well. In his Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, Bradbury had imagined another dystopian future in which all imaginative works had been destroyed, much as they would be in Fahrenheit 451.

Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air! So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 2006; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose—oh, what a wailing!—and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More! And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; they filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists’ Ball! The Beanstalk died in a bramble of red tape! Sleeping Beauty awoke at the kiss of a scientist and expired at the fatal puncture of his syringe. And they made Alice drink something from a bottle which reduced her to a size where she could no longer cry ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ and they gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow to smash it and every Red King and Oyster away!” [Bradbury, “Usher II,” Martian Chronicles].

Perhaps, the Martian Chronicles, a critique of all forms of imperialism, really is the child of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust.”

Bradbury’s talents interested the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Demonstrating a level of buffoonery perhaps unprecedented in its history, the FBI opened an ongoing investigation of Bradbury, fearing his literature as subversive and possibly communist.

An informant told the bureau that Bradbury “was probably sympathetic with certain pro-Communist elements.” The evidence? At a meeting of Screen Writers, some members asked openly whether or not to ostracize members of the Communist Party as well as those who embraced the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from their discussion. In a not atypical fit of passion, Bradbury stood and shouted at his fellow members, claiming them to be a lot of “Cowards and McCarthyites.”

Further, the FBI informant claimed, that Communists had embraced “the field of science fiction” as it was a “lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies.” Bradbury, in particular, FBI documents state, wrote stories “slanted against the United States and its capitalistic form of Government.”

One must wonder who these communist science fiction writers were, ready to pollute the minds of thousands of smart nerds: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Walter Miller?

It becomes rather clear in the FBI’s own investigation that “communist” did not mean Marxist or Leninist or Stalinist or Maoist. Rather, it meant anyone who did not support 1950’s conformist culture of corporate capitalism and what Eisenhower would call the “Military Industrial Complex.” It also, strangely enough, meant those who actually believed in the Bill of Rights.

By this standard, Bradbury was a “communist.” Perhaps a serious one. In the Martian Chronicles, he had the audacity to criticize the robber barons of American history.

We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose. And Egypt is a small part of Earth. But here [Mars], this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We’ll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountain King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont Sea, and there’ll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won’t ever be right, when there are the proper names for these places. [Bradbury, Martian Chronicles]

By this standard, Russell Kirk was also a “communist.” In a 1950 article, he had written:

Avarice, rather, is desiring more wealth than one’s soul can support properly. Avarice sometimes produces present poverty: the miser, proverbially, is ragged and lean. And I am afraid that when our politicians and planners and sociologists talk of output and distribution and real wages, they are not so much intent upon relieving genuine poverty as upon satisfying the dreams of avarice. They are not thinking so much of a just and contented America as of a shimmering and strident America. They are not really interested in patching the tarpaper shanty in Mecosta County; they would prefer to rip down the shack, pack its inhabitants off to Detroit or Flint, put them into state-subsidized housing, find them a television set to keep them out of mischief and vagrant fancies, and set them to work upon industrial production. Who will miss the second-growth spruces and the little lake in the barrens once he gets his new Ford? This, in essence, is the future which ‘capitalists’ and socialists and ‘communists’ all are arranging for us.  It may be an efficient program. It is not a human program. It does not try to plumb intangible longings; it endeavors to satisfy the dreams of avarice. But avarice is insatiable. [Kirk, “Beyond the Dreams of Avarice,” Measure, 21]

Not surprisingly, Kirk did wonder in the 1970s if the FBI had a file on him or his doings at Mecosta. Unless those documents have yet to be classified, no such file existed. Though, Kirk’s name appears quite frequently in FBI records, but mostly through his associations with such men as Malcolm X.

Well, as it turned out, neither Ray nor Russell was a communist. But, it is interesting to note: they will be remembered long after the FBI disintegrates into whatever fire awaits us in the future. Each will also long surpass those informants who sold not just information, but their very humanity, in fits of unimagination.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. This is a very important and insightful essay. The central insight, the question of what makes a person a “Communist” is not merely of historical or theoretical importance, it is very relevant now.

    The United States is now allied with several people who were members of the Communist party aparatus of the several Eastern European nation-states during the Cold War – and not merely party members up until 1968 or 57, when they had some sort of “awakening moment”, but party members all the way through the 1980s, who then smoothely transformed themselves into “Western Democrats” when it turned out more profitable.

    I am actually coming more and more to the conclusion that in politics, you really do always have two parties – Good and Evil; but the Evil is not defined by this or that idea, but rather by a lack of ideas or an ideology. The Party of No Ideas and Ideology is on one side, and the Party of Imperfect Ideals and Honest Hopes is on the other.

    May good people can sincerely hold a different set of political opinions and theories as valid during their life time, but always be striving for the common goood.

    Most “Communists” – by which I mean Communist Party members in the old Soviet system, were actually not Communists at all; ideologically or in principle. They were simply self-interested human beings trying to gain favor and advantage under the given system. They would have fit right into any number of corrupt Corporations had they been born in the West; but given that they were born in the East, they fit into the Party apparatus just fine – and stayed there far far past the time when any “sensible” or “moral” person would have left. Many of them are now in top spots in NATO and the EU.

    Meanwhile, other people who might have been members of the Communist Party under the Soviet System acted out of completely different motives – perhaps they truly believed in Communism, or perhaps their view of Communism was quite diferent from what we, who grew up in the West, are capable of imagining. Personally, I believe Mr. Putin to be such a person. He is, it seems, and was from the beginning, far more interested in Russia than in International Communism. People who keep repeating that he was in the KGB and thus acts accordingly seem to forget that many former spies, and in some cases entire bureaus of former KGB spies are now quite comfortably working within the NATO structure. The old Cold War paradigm, as this essay shows, did not even work very well during the Cold War – let alone now.

    I am also very happy that a running theme here at the Imaginative Conservative is to take Science Fiction seriously as political philosophy.

  2. As Mister Reith mentions, a great many “communists” were simply people trying to work within the system which ruled over them. And, I believe, they are blood cousins with those who did the same in the USA during the same time.
    The FBI under the rather execrable J. Edgar was not interested in protecting the US against enemies foreign and domestic, but in enforcing Hoover’s miserable vision of life. And science fiction, as well as a principled conservatism were both a threat to that vision. The one appealed to the future, wherein Hoover had no control, and the other to the permanent things, which also he could not control. He and Lavrentiy Beria had much in common. If Hoover had enjoyed Beria’s power, God help the USA.
    In actual fact, the percentage of ‘conservative” science-fiction writers is far greater than the “leftist” writers. Probably because when one ventures into realms unknown, you have to take something with you as a reference point against which to measure what happens. ( I say this as a person who has been into science-fiction from age six, thanks to William Lundigan’s TV show, “Men in Space”.)

  3. Commies were very active in the country and in the Roosevelt Administration back during McCarthy, and I think old ‘tail gunner Joe’ was doing God’s work.
    As for Ray, I never read one of his stories that did not entertain. Many were profound.
    As for Russel, I never read any of his work that did not educate, both intellectually and spiritually.

  4. I recall there was a Hollywood informant that turned in a dozen or so actual Communists. The Committee did not catch them, but the FBI did because of a guy with the code name T 10. Of course that was the head os the screen actors guild at the time. And to this day Hollywood is filled with progressives that want to reshape America into their utopian fantasy where the State rules and individual rights, liberties or choices are illegal.

  5. I’m pretty sure the Venona files revealed the deep penetration by Soviet spies and moles. Many Americans should have been hanged for treason during that treasonous period; sadly none were. The tradition of submission before radical leftist ideology continues today in many of our institutions, including academia and the church. Happily there is a resistance among the population.

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