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The Great Deception
AMERICA & RUSSIA, PART XI The Communist party in America was so small, so faction-ridden, so isolated. How could it enlist so much popular support? How could illiberalism take in so many liberals?
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
Pure communism has been tried a few times in America by various Utopian communities, all of which eventually failed. Pure Marxism later attracted, relatively speaking, only a modest body of adherents. And the American Communist party, which was neither purely communist in the old sense nor true to the Marxist ideology, would seem—by the surface statistics, at least—to have been of no great importance either. At no time in its history, for example, did it have more than 80,000 members; it was an apparently ragged and hopeless cause, sometimes harassed but generally tolerated by the generosity of American law. That this was only the visible part of the iceberg many intelligent people long realized, but thousands, indeed millions, did not. How this “party,” in effect an arm of Soviet absolutism, deluded so many liberal-minded people, how it penetrated so deeply and dangerously into the political and intellectual life of the United States, is the burden of the article which begins on the next page, and which concludes, on a most important note, our series on America and Russia.
In any discussion of this angry subject, the credentials and outlook of the author ought, perhaps, to be stated. Few writers not former Communists themselves are qualified to discuss the inner workings of the Communist movement. Moshe Decter is an exception. He was seventeen, he writes, when the Hitler-Stalin Pact focused his attention on the subject on which he has since made himself an expert. He was a combat infantryman in World War II, and has been a political writer and editor since. He has worked for the Voice of America, analyzing the party’s line and activities, and in 1954 published McCarthy and the Communists, a book which, he says, “managed to be both anti-McCarthy and anti-Communist.” He was managing editor, from 1958 to 1960, of the liberal, anti-Communist journal, The New Leader, and is at present writing another book on Communism and its effect upon the mass communications media in the United States.—THE EDITORS
How could it have happened?
In March, 1937, eighty-eight writers, artists, teachers, and clergymen, many of them famous and successful, issued an “Open Letter to American Liberals,” defending the “good name” of the Soviet government and denouncing Professor John Dewey’s investigation of Joseph Stalin’s charges against Leon Trotsky.
In April, 1938, a committee of five self-styled “liberals and progressives” circulated a statement—soon to be signed by 123 well-known artists, writers, actors, and musicians—expressing staunch support for Stalin’s bloody purge trials.
In August, 1939, just nine days before the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, some four hundred leading American intellectuals of the arts, sciences, and professions published a long “Open Letter” branding as fascists and reactionaries all those who expressed the “fantastic falsehood that the U.S.S.R. and totalitarian states are fundamentally alike” in their suppression of cultural freedom, civil liberties, and free trade-union activity. It is unnecessary, even if space were available, to print the names of all these signers, and to reopen old sores. The problem is not one of individuals, for we are dealing with a widespread phenomenon.
What made it possible—at the height of the most ferocious butchery ever perpetrated in Soviet Russia, in the face of the GPU terror in Spain and the daily political murders by Stalinists in France (all demonstrable and demonstrated at the time)—for scores, even hundreds of distinguished American literary, academic, artistic, and intellectual figures to come forward and deny these outrages, defend the purge trials, support the U.S.S.R. politically, and attack those who sought to bring out the facts? What was the state of mind of these people when they closed their eyes to Stalin’s crimes? What made it possible for the miniscule American Communist party to score so devastating a triumph?
Here was a party that at any one time had no more than 80,000 members (although hundreds of thousands doubtless passed through its ranks over the years), and which for the first decade and a half of its existence was almost wholly isolated from the American working class—the very locomotive of history to whose destinies it had ideologically committed itself. Yet almost overnight this tiny, ineffectual sect transformed itself into an apparatus that could boast significant penetration of major U.S. government offices, complete or partial control of a score of powerful new industrial unions, the exploitation of the decent instincts and noble impulses of hundreds of thousands of upstanding citizens (the total membership of all the organizations affiliated with the most successful of all the fronts, the American League for Peace and Democracy, numbered about seven million at its height in 1939).