The Great Deception

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We, too, the intellectual workers, are of the oppressed, and until we shake off the servile habit of that oppression, we shall build blindly and badly. … Practically everything that is orderly and sane and useful in America was made by two classes of Americans: our class, the class of brain workers, and the “lower classes,” the muscle workers. Very well, we strike hands with our comrades. … We have aligned ourselves with the frankly revolutionary Communist party.

Just as the Depression increasingly inclined many men of sensibility and intelligence leftward, so the election of Franklin Roosevelt helped eradicate the isolation of the radicals and left-liberals. Hitherto, they had had small hope of access to governmental power. F.D.R.’s election changed all that. It signaled the intellectuals’ gradual achievement of influence at the very time when the federal government had suddenly become the focus of national hope and promise. Obviously, the vast majority did not go to work for the government, though the great eastern universities did become recruiting grounds for many bright young idealists who followed their teachers to Washington or found an outlet there for their noble impulses.

Everybody at least knew somebody who was close to the White House, or was on the staff of some congressional committee investigating monopolies or munitions, or found a spot in the expanding bureaucracy of the Cabinet or the old-line departments or the newfangled alphabet-soup agencies (WPA, PWA, SEC, RFC, TVA). Artists, actors, writers began to fill the rosters of the federal arts projects, which in their turn became the objects of Communist attention.

Militancy was in the air. It was not long before an atmosphere was generated in Washington, where political power was centered, and in New York, where political ideas were molded and disseminated—an atmosphere that was hospitable and congenial to all sorts of radicalism. Leftward-leaning liberals could begin to feel that they were all part of the same spectrum as the most militant of radicals, the Communists—the difference being only a matter of degree.

Roosevelt’s recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 added a significant, subtle dimension to this upsurge. Many otherwise uninvolved people in this country had felt concerned about the western democracies’ treatment of Bolshevik Russia, from the time of the Revolution onward. The U.S.S.R. was, after all, an experimental society (like New Deal U.S.A.), moving toward socialism. But almost immediately the capitalist democracies had indulged in military intervention. (Vague feelings of guilt about it are apparently still widespread, for Premier Khrushchev and the whole Communist propaganda apparatus never lose an opportunity, at home or abroad, to use it as a stick to beat us with. We have George F. Kennan to thank for a meticulous analysis of just how halfhearted, disorganized, and ineffectual that intervention actually was.)

Intervention was followed by nonrecognition, cessation or limitation of trade, suspicion, and isolation. (The other side of the coin—that this suspicion and isolation was largely the reaction to the open, explicit, and incessantly reiterated Bolshevik declaration of revolutionary war against the bourgeois world—was curiously but invariably ignored by America’s liberals.)

The recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States at once removed the burden of guilt and enhanced the prestige not only of the U.S.S.R. itself, but of the domestic political movement associated with it. To be an American Communist, or a fellow traveler, or a sympathizer, or even a friendly critic, could become a matter of some pride (certainly not shame) in an atmosphere generated by a New Deal whose domestic policies—bold incursions on the evils of laissez-faire capitalism, and courageous support of the explosively burgeoning labor movement—accompanied increasing friendliness toward the Soviet Union.

For Moscow, recognition by the United States represented a significant diplomatic and political breakthrough, at the very time when the Kremlin and the Comintern were just beginning to think of drastically shifting their political line in the light of a new constellation of world forces. Not the Depression, nor the election of Roosevelt, nor the New Deal program, nor the recognition of the U.S.S.R. would alone have sufficed to forge the link between the left-liberals and the Communists. What gave a real lift to the Popular Front mentality of the middle and late thirties was the growing threat of fascism. Successful fascism affected everyone; a fight against it was a fight for survival.

In this battle, liberals and radicals alike could commit themselves to such simple things as anti-fascism, peace, and democracy. It was then that Moscow, having contributed so cynically and significantly to Hitler’s rise, shifted gears. From 1929 to 1935, the policy of the Kremlin and its creature, the Comintern, was ultrarevolutionary. The theory was proclaimed that every member of the Socialist parties throughout the world and every trade union member was an active enemy of the proletariat. The Socialists were “social fascists.” Democracy and fascism were declared to be identical. He who fought democracy also fought fascism.