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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
The Popular Front of the 1930’s was paralleled by the triumph of Popular Science. Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were no longer, as they had been in the twenties, the monopoly of the professionals, the highbrow aesthetes, and the bohemians. They were now enthroned in the middlebrow Pantheon, embraced by the pundits of the genteel journals and the parvenu intellectual Chautauqua circuit that had replaced the collapsed tents of Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan. Freud and Einstein represented Science with a capital S. Into the temple of popularized Science now entered, with the same trailing whiff of incense, the last of this secular trinity, Karl Marx.
But whereas Freud represented the science of the intricate individual psyche, and Einstein the science of the remote cosmos, Marx was the discoverer and the prophet of the immediately relevant science of society. Marxism was the science that proposed to explain the past, provide answers for the present, and chart the course of the future. The whole dramatic panorama of History, it was alleged, unfolded in Marx’s doctrine, which laid down the iron laws that guaranteed the ultimate, necessary triumph of socialism and then communism.
Intimately associated with the cult of science was a cult of progress, and progress was a shrine with many different worshipers: Why, when so many problems cried out for solution, could not liberals and progressives travel the road to it in company with their fellows to the left, the Socialists and Communists? And indeed the road map provided by the Soviet Union and the Communist movement seemed to represent historical progress—no less, they assured themselves, than did American institutions. It became possible, in fact easy, for liberals to say that while we have political democracy (however imperfect), the Soviet Union has economic democracy (however imperfect). So they came to believe that both systems were equally progressive, even though one was somehow more equally progressive than the other. The Soviet system, after all, represented “scientific socialism,” and it was in power in the world’s hugest country, where the working class had triumphed.
The liberal intellectual, as has more than once been noted, is both fascinated and repelled by power. Generally unable to sully himself in the dirty quest for it in politics, too uncertain and torn by inner doubts to wield power effectively, intellectuals have nevertheless often displayed a fatal weakness for successful strongmen and mighty power systems. Maxim Gorky, the great Russian radical novelist, was appalled and dismayed by Lenin’s brutal seizure of power in 1917 and, later, by Stalin’s rapacious destruction of his peers. Yet in the end his resistance crumbled into acquiescence and co-operation with both. George Bernard Shaw was another pre-eminent example of the liberal (indeed socialist) literary intellectual who admired strong men, shifting his admiration in time from Mussolini to Stalin.
There were many lesser counterparts of these men in the West in the thirties, and they had a name: fellow travelers. The curious historical irony is that the term was invented in the early years of the Bolshevik regime by Stalin’s archenemy, Trotsky, as a rather contemptuous characterization of those literary and intellectual figures who, though they supported the Revolution, lacked the courage to go the full distance and join the Revolution’s vanguard—the party.
What made the fellow travelers contemptible for Trotsky—and later even more so for Stalin, who understood them well and knew how to exploit their weakness—applied also to many American liberals. They suffered from a triple guilt. They felt guilty about the iniquities and injustices of capitalism, which they saw revealed in America from 1929 onward. They felt guilty about their own relative comfort, security, and safety in the presence of the exploitation of workers at home and the excesses of fascism abroad—they were, after all, not workers or victims of fascism, but writers, teachers, artists. And they felt guilty because they could not muster the total commitment and involvement characteristic of the organized radicals—the Communists being the most militant of all and therefore the most admirable.
True, theirs was a largely unwarranted guilt—for sins they had not committed, evils they had not wrought, weaknesses which in part did them honor. But guiltless guilt is precisely the kind that is felt most keenly and lays one open most readily to cynical manipulation or cruel exploitation.
In the darkest days of the Depression, it was not uncommon for liberal intellectuals and artists to think of themselves, vaguely and in one degree or another, as Marxists, or as committed to the future of the working class, or to one or more socialist ideas and ideals. A striking illustration—in which Communists, fellow travelers, assorted radicals, unaffiliated dissenters, and disaffected liberals rubbed shoulders in a mishmash of abrasive revolutionary comradeship—was a manifesto issued by an ephemeral front called the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, in support of the Communist presidential ticket of 1932 (William Z. Foster for President and James Ford for Vice President). The manifesto, entitled “Culture and the Crisis,” declared in part: