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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).
During the first fifteen years of its existence, from 1919 to 1934, the influence of the American Communist party was indeed insubstantial. Though it did manage to inject itself, in the mid-twenties, into a variety of trade-union conflicts, the results were nowhere near as impressive as the party had hoped. It gained control of the Furriers’ Union; conducted a protracted strike of textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey; and captured Cloakmakers Local 22, the largest local of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, leading it in a six-month strike. But instead of winning, the union had to settle for terms initially rejected by the Communists, who far from strengthening their hold ended by being driven from practically all the influential union offices. Instead of gaining control of the ILGWU, they virtually succeeded in wrecking it—a bitter experience that was enormously significant in American labor history, for it produced in the ILGWU a schooled, skillful, and sophisticated anticommunist leadership to guide other unions (if with only partial success) during their infighting with the Communists in the thirties and forties.
Factionalism and frenetic polemics had characterized the Communist movement from the start. Its roots lay in the Socialist party, which had itself passed through a number of important structural changes, ideological splits, and other vicissitudes since its foundation in 1890. For a number of years the Socialists had been led by old stalwarts like Eugene V. Debs, Victor Berger, and Morris Hillquit. Originally very much a native movement, with close ties to both mid-western radicalism and urban intellectual rebels, the Socialist party had come by 1919 to be dominated by foreign-born, particularly East European Jewish, immigrant groups, located in the great northeastern centers, chiefly New York. It included an unusually high proportion of well-educated, cultivated people who had already become deeply involved in various revolutionary and socialist organizations.
The overthrow of the Czar, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the feverish revolutionary activities in Germany, Hungary, and other European countries served as an extraordinary stimulus to the American Socialists. Even before the Revolution, there had arisen left-wing elements within the Socialist party that were critical of the old leadership’s “class-collaborationist” policies, some of them centering around the Russian exiles living in New York, such as Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. By April, 1919, the Third or Communist International (the “Comintern”) had been created, revolutions had broken out in half a dozen European countries, and revolutionary regimes had been established in Munich and in Hungary. In America these seemingly millennial events, together with the personality and leadership of Lenin, swept the Socialist left-wingers—especially those in the party’s various foreign-language subsidiaries or “federations”—off their feet. The following month the Socialist party—still under the old prewar, prerevolutionary leadership of Hillquit and Berger—called a referendum to elect party officials. Such an election had not been held since April, 1917, in part as a precautionary move to forestall government harassment, but already the leaders had become anxious about the incursion of the left-wingers—not so much because of doctrinal differences as because of a deep resentment of these unknown and untried young upstarts who threatened to take over the movement to which older men had devoted their lives. The May election confirmed their worst fears. The left wing captured twelve of the fifteen seats on the party’s executive committee, and two of the newcomers—Kate O’Hare and John Reed—decisively defeated Hillquit and Berger for the vital positions of international representative and international secretary respectively.
Hillquit and Berger chose to ignore the referendum, claiming election frauds; they appointed an inspection commission and proceeded to expel, one after another, the left-wing foreign-language groups and various state organizations from the Socialist party. A convention was called to meet in Chicago in August, 1919, where-upon the left-wing forces called their own convention in New York in June, with the express purpose of organizing an attempt to capture the Chicago meeting. Factions erupted within factions, and an impatient minority within the left wing—giving up hope of taking over the Socialists—called for the creation of an American Communist party. A convention for this purpose was summoned to Chicago in September, a few days after the Socialist meeting, which itself broke apart into dissident groups. Thus was the American Communist party born, amid the wreckage of the American radical movement.
The Socialist party, which had begun the year with about 105,000 members, was decimated and left with something over 26,000. The Communist movement itself was split in three: the Communist party proper, dominated by the Russian Federation from the Socialists; the Communist Labor party, consisting of the English-speaking left wing of the Socialist party; and the Socialists’ Michigan state organization, which soon renamed itself the Proletarian party of America. The left-wing movement had started the year with roughly 70,000 members, of whom some six or seven thousand had been English-speaking foreigners or native American members of the Socialist party. The splits at Chicago left the movement with only a fraction of its original strength.
For the following decade, schisms—and schisms within schisms—characterized the Communist movement. During the three years between 1919 and 1922, the major conflicts raged around the various Communist parties and sects, each maintaining that it represented ideological purity and the closest kinship with Moscow and the Comintern. By the beginning of 1923, the Comintern had succeeded, after repeated efforts, in inducing a kind of unity among the major warring parties, but these wars were only succeeded by bitter disputes and battles that raged for six years within the united Communist movement.
A certain amount of personal antagonism and struggle between various sets of leaders is a normal feature of the life of every political party, but it is, with the Communist party, almost unavoidable. The first determinant of the fierce antagonisms which every Communist party harbors within its own ranks is constant failure to achieve its own aims. This was especially true during the twenties and thirties, when no Communist party outside the U.S.S.R. had the means of attaining power.
Leninist Communism believed in the effectiveness of small Communist parties, provided they were truly revolutionary. There seemed to be an assumption, never openly asserted, but always implicit in practical decisions, that the masses would surely follow the party, provided only that it was the right sort of Communist party. The inevitable result was that leaders and leading groups were made responsible for events which they were, in fact, quite unable to avoid.
The double Utopianism which believes that everything can be achieved in the nick of time, and that success or failure depends on the quality of the “vanguard,” naturally claims scapegoats with periodic regularity. But in time it becomes increasingly difficult to find scapegoats. Every defeat and delusion naturally tends to drive one set of leaders outside the party, or at least outside the leadership, until every possible opposition is excluded. What then remains? Since nobody any longer dissents, and nobody therefore can be charged with any responsibility, there remains nothing but to invent scapegoats where there are none.
In this atmosphere it is not of primary importance whether the scapegoat is sentenced on personal or on political grounds. The antagonisms within Communist parties frequently defy any attempt at a political interpretation. In the Communist party there is almost invariably first the struggle, and sometimes a split, and the reasons come afterward. More than once, desperate attempts were made to formulate the content of this or that disagreement which had or was about to split a Communist party; both sides were unable to say what really divided them. The one thing that was possible to say was that party affairs had gone wrong. And as the very suggestion that basic elements of Communist policy itself might be unrealistic constituted the crime of treason, nothing remained but to find an explanation either in the individual wickedness or in minor tactical mistakes of certain leaders.
Therefore, the factional fights within a Communist party have always and invariably been more cruel and ruthless than similar fights in other, less Utopian movements. A man who, working within the party, is personally responsible for the revolution’s failure to come is, in fact, worse than an open enemy; against him every weapon is admissible, even obligatory. He is a “traitor”; for, in the Communist mentality, every failure—not objective failure, but the failure of the reality to conform to the Utopia—supposes a traitor. It is naturally not certain in advance who the traitor is. First there is the betrayal, permanent and overt through the fact of failure itself; later it will be decided who has betrayed. This means that the apparent tactical reasons for a split are never quite so real as they appear from the outside.
The basic law of a Communist party is therefore to proceed through a series of “purges” of “traitors”; this, in the end, helped first Moscow, later Stalin, to establish absolute domination over the Comintern and its sections. But it was only partly due to Moscow or even to Stalin; it was implicit in the “ideology” of the movement. Lenin himself had started with the idea of an organization of professional revolutionaries, with iron discipline, militance, rationality, dedication, absolute centralization, and monolithic unity of policy and action. He stood for a very narrow party, a party to consist only of professional revolutionaries, who would not be accepted into the party simply by their own will. They would be selected by the party from volunteers, and they would be directed in all their activities by the central committee.
Lenin saw this narrow inner party of professional revolutionaries with self-imposed restrictions as a guarantee against “opportunism.” He argued that the ordinary worker, by the experience of his daily life, develops, not a full revolutionary class-consciousness, but only the “consciousness of the trade-unionist.” Only those who have theoretically assimilated Marxism and devoted all their lives to the revolutionary fight are reliable. As Lenin saw it, the poison of opportunism had been allowed to grow unchecked within the Socialist parties of the West. There must therefore be, in the international socialist movement, ideological control from an orthodox center over the whole party, and it must be subjected to rigid discipline. This is the idea of the Communist International in a nutshell.
Virtually from its inception, the Communist party of the United States was a Leninist party in character, structure, aims, strategy, and tactics—with all that this implied: its acutely Russian nature; its early dependence upon and speedy and inexorable subservience to the Comintern; and its inevitable and total subjection to Stalin.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin had begun to consolidate his position as ruler of the Russian Communist party and consequently of the Comintern and all its sections, now eliminating this competitor, now the other. First he had used Zinoviev and Kamenev to undermine Trotsky. Then he collaborated with the moderates—Bukharin, Tomski, and Rykov—in destroying Zinoviev and Kamenev. At the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 he was already preparing to administer the coup de grâce to Bukharin, meanwhile using him to finish off the absent Trotsky by charging the latter with “left sectarianism,” a disease to which Stalin himself evidently succumbed within a few short months. Having completely eliminated the Trotskyist forces, Stalin could next turn to the completely isolated Bukharin, destroying him in 1929 with charges of “right-wing deviationism”—namely, opposition to Stalin’s extreme agricultural and industrial measures—and the new era of extremism was inaugurated in all Communist parties.
The beginning of this period coincided with the total Stalinization of the party in the United States as well. This was effected simply enough by an American counterpart of the Russian purge, when the plenary meeting of the executive committee of the Comintern expelled the leadership of the American party—Jay Lovestone, Benjamin Gitlow, Bertram D. Wolfe—and their followers for insubordination and for hewing to the Bukharin line. That same year, 1929, the party emerged with a new and fatefully symbolic name: the Communist party of the United States of America, Section of the Communist International.
How, then, could this tiny, isolated, ineffectual sect, completely controlled from Moscow, become the effective manipulator of the ideals and passions of large numbers of non-Communist Americans? The answers are to be found in a strange confluence of historical, political, and psychological factors that began to emerge clearly at the end of the 1920’s. It was not the Communist party that changed its nature and so transformed the objective situation. It was the accidental historical conjunction of the right circumstances and the right intellectual climate among the American intelligentsia which the party, unchanged in nature and objectives, was able to adjust to and so exploit.
The circumstances: They began with the Great Depression; then the rise of aggressive Nazism abroad and native fascism (Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Fritz Kuhn) at home; the New Deal; the Spanish Civil War; the emergence of the Soviet Union as the ostensible champion of collective security. The intellectual climate can be summed up in one phrase—the cult of Russia.
By and large, the liberals and radicals of the 1920’s were rebels rather than revolutionaries. Their rebellion had taken many forms—expatriation and exile (the world of This Side of Paradise ); experimentation in life and art (the Greenwich Village period); disgruntlement and disillusion with the empty slogans and the slaughter of World War I (the era of The Sun Also Rises and Manhattan Transfer ); nausea over the philistinism and crass materialism of the Harding regime (remember Babbitt and “Gamalielese”?). In the early years of the decade relatively few had become political radicals, though their number was slightly increased by the reaction to the Sacco-Vanzetti case.
Like any historical generalization, these more or less arbitrary categories obviously fail to do justice to the kaleidoscopic flux and variety of the period—to the fact, for instance, that these and similar rebellious impulses frequently enough merged with one another. (Witness that remarkable phenomenon, Max Eastman, who before, during, and after the war was at once rebel, radical, and revolutionist.) But it is safe to say that the intellectuals who put their mark on this era and gave it its tone were essentially apolitical—rebels without a cause or a home. As for the politicals—the older progressives who had come out of one or another offshoot of Populism and the Bull Moose movement, the newer post-Wilsonian liberals, and the tiny handful of organized radicals—they were rare, isolated, lonely, and ineffectual.
By the end of the twenties and the early thirties, most of the alienated intellectuals had returned from either literal or spiritual exile. They found a turbulent country in misery and ferment; and when they rebelled once more—this time against the injustices and horrors of the Great Depression—they at last did find a cause, allies, and a home.
It is from this point that what can be called the cult of Russia begins to take shape. Properly speaking, that cult—which first became a significant factor during the Depression and reached its height during the Popular Front and again during the wartime alliance with Russia—should be considered not as one but as three separate cults: the cults of science, of progress, and of power.
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:
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.
This disastrous policy actually led the Communists of Germany, at Moscow’s behest, to collaborate with the Nazis, not only in physical assaults on the Socialists, but in attempting to destroy the Weimar Republic itself. It clearly implied that the overthrow of democracy represented progress, that a Nazi regime was preferable to a democratic regime: it would itself be transformed shortly, by actual revolution, into a Communist one.
But with the complete triumph of the Nazis, the utter destruction of the German Communist party, the rise of clerical fascism in Austria in 1934, the nearly successful rightist coup in France in 1934, Moscow came to see both the threat to itself and the means by which it could turn the threat to its own advantage. A new chapter of Communist history was opened. With amazing speed, all the principles of “left extremism” were thrown overboard. Russia sought allies, joined the League of Nations, which it had hitherto vilified, and gained U.S. recognition. The Popular Front arrived officially with the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, and the new doctrine was soon to unfold in its manifold glory all over the democratic world. Defense of the Soviet Union and support of Soviet foreign policy became an openly admitted, paramount aim of world Communism.
Since fascism had come to power chiefly on the fear of Communism, Moscow was quickly able to establish itself as the main enemy of fascism, and so the chief friend of democracy. Thus the greatest Communist triumph of the period was Moscow’s seizure of a monopoly of anti-fascism, its ability to organize the anti-fascist sympathies and impulses of large numbers of idealists who had hitherto been only partly—and in stages—prepared for such an alliance.
One issue, above all, dramatized and rendered virtually unassailable the Communist role of leadership in the anti-fascist struggle—the Spanish Civil War. Spain represented a triangular tragedy: the violent assault on a weak, ineffectual but democratic republic by Spanish fascists, aided and abetted by Italy and Germany; the prissy, inept, and shortsighted reaction of Britain and France (for whom the Spanish republic was no less expendable in 1936 than the Czechoslovak republic at Munich in 1938), in effect sanctioned by the neutralism of distant, aloof America; the emergence of Russia and the Spanish Communists as the supposedly glorious protagonists of Loyalist Spain.
Moscow’s military aid was in reality both minimal in quantity and limited in duration. It was just enough to turn Spain into a Soviet satellite, but not enough to win the war. The Kremlin’s policies in Spain were part of Stalin’s intricate plan to achieve an understanding with Hitler. In Spain, as everywhere else, the party dropped its program of social revolution; at the same time, Soviet force was to be used there to show Hitler strength—but not so much as to frighten him into strengthening his Anti-Comintern Pact. In Moscow, meanwhile, the old revolutionists were being decimated in the purges, as another sign to Hitler that he had nothing to fear from Soviet Communism (though this, of course, was not the only reason for the purge). And all the while that Stalin was wooing the western democracies with his anti-fascism and his new social moderation, negotiations between Berlin and Moscow were going on behind the scenes.
Small as Moscow’s aid to Spain was, it was still the only help given by an outside power. But an awful price was exacted; Spain paid dearly for it, in money and in blood. The republic’s treasury of gold bullion, worth half a billion dollars, was spirited away to Moscow. The aid was the whiplash by which the Spanish Communists, theretofore the smallest and feeblest of the Spanish radical parties, bludgeoned and blackmailed their way, within less than a year after the outbreak of the war in July, 1936, into control of every major institution of Republican Spain—the trade-union movement, the youth movement, the Army (especially its political commissariats), the Foreign Office. Prostrate, bleeding Spain served Stalin, no less than Hitler and Mussolini, as a proving ground for his military forces and his political commissars. At the front and behind it, the party physically liquidated thousands of non-Communist Spanish and foreign radicals and intimidated thousands more into silence.
Little or none of this was reported in the international press at the time. There were even some prominent American journalists in Spain who deliberately suppressed what they knew “for the sake of the Loyalist cause,” or in order not to embarrass Russia. And when some few non-Communist radical voices were raised to protest, the Communist propaganda machine unleashed a vicious campaign of abuse—labeling them as fascist agents. Much of the liberal press in this country meekly, gladly, took the cue.
Thus the biggest price of all was exacted in terms of liberal opinion, which exalted the Soviet Union and the Communist movement as the leading, if not the only, champion of Spanish democracy and of collective security against the fascists. The North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy was the main front behind which these sympathies were mobilized; the Soviet stranglehold on Spain gave it the sympathy and support of men of good will throughout the western world. Victims of this psychology, people who fulminated against the crimes of Hitler and Mussolini, chose silence in the face of Soviet butchery in Spain, swallowed the fantastic lies spun out by Stalin and Vishinsky against Old Bolsheviks Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Radek, et al., and heaped scorn on those American liberals and radicals who sought the truth.
In such an atmosphere, it was not difficult for the Communists to mobilize the emotions of liberal Americans on a great range of problems. The anti-fascist fight could be conducted on a wide array of issues—against brutality, horror, and ugliness abroad, and against injustice at home. It is impossible to overestimate the crucial importance of anti-fascist, anti-Nazi sentiment in building the barricades on the far-flung periphery of the Communist movement: manifestos, mass meetings, picket lines, petitions—everything from Negro rights to the Okies, from Spain to China.
The Communists were well equipped to distill and siphon off these emotions into a huge cauldron of subsidiary organizations which they either created or took over—popular fronts, united fronts, etc. They had behind them fifteen years of tough organizational experience—and the cult of Russia.
This did not mean that every sympathetic liberal or fellow traveler fully accepted Communist leadership without question on every issue. It was the very nature of the “symp,” as the comrades cynically and contemptuously called him, to stay outside the party, to be hesitant or mildly critical about one or another facet of the “socialist state” and its policies. But the key factor was the “symp’s” inability or refusal to recognize the Soviet Union as a totalitarian tyranny, in this respect no different from Nazi Germany. Given this refusal, the Popular Front psychology ranged free, and organized association, co-operation, and friendship with the Communists became acceptable and desirable. It was not until the fellow travelers were disabused of their illusions about the nature and objectives of the U.S.S.R. that they were able to discern that they had been had, that their anti-fascist and democratic emotions had been manipulated and exploited.
For most of them it was the Hitler-Stalin Pact that provided this novel illumination. But for many it did not last—for as soon as the Nazis attacked Russia in June, 1941 (and the war, in the Kremlin’s lexicon, was transformed from an “imperialist” war into a “people’s” war), many of the old fellow travelers and a whole new generation of innocents came into the fold. During the wartime alliance, the party pushed such superpatriotic moves as the signing of no-strike pledges, the opening of a second front, and the prosecution of the Trotskyists as subversive of the American democratic order. And they succeeded in popularizing a whole new set of front organizations, the Russian War Relief, the Council of Soviet-American Friendship, the Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions, into which a new generation of dupes (and some from the older generation) was inveigled. In 1943, Stalin, as an empty gesture of friendship to President Roosevelt, dissolved the Comintern; people were encouraged to greet this as a convincing token of Stalin’s desire for friendship with America and his retreat from the old-fashioned goals of Communist world dominion. The following year, Earl Browder, carried away by his doctrine that Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism and by Communist collaboration with the liberal wing of the Democratic party (and obviously not discouraged by his master in Moscow), secured the dissolution of the Communist party and its transformation into the “purely educational” Communist Political Association.
Browder’s experiment in collaboration with the capitalists was short-lived, however. In April, 1945, Jacques Duclos, the leader of the French Communist party and an authoritative Kremlin spokesman, published an article sharply attacking the “revisionist” and “opportunistic” wartime line of the American Communists, presaging the expulsion of Earl Browder from the party and the initiation by the Soviets of the cold war. It was not until several years later that the impact of the new line was fully appreciated by the American people. Thus, as late as 1947 the Soviet Union and its satellites were officially invited to join the Marshall Plan, and 1948 saw the last flicker of Communist political activity when it managed to corral Henry Wallace and a few other liberal “names” into the Progressive party campaign (the nationwide Progressive vote was just over one million—admittedly miniscule, but more than the Socialist party had ever received, and sufficient to lose New York State for Mr. Truman).
Many who were not in the least taken in by the “socialism” of Hitler’s National Socialist party were wholly enamored of the “socialism” of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many who would have been appalled at doing business with Hitler in the thirties were all for doing business and making political deals with Stalin during and after the war. Many who denounced the book-burnings in Nazi Germany were entirely indifferent to the making of “unpersons” in the U.S.S.R. Many who denounced Hitler’s maniacal aggressions against Czechoslovakia and Poland found every conceivable justification for Stalin’s aggressions against the same countries in the name of “security.”
When in 1946 Winston Churchill growled out his ominous warnings at Fulton, Missouri, that a fateful Iron Curtain was descending upon the middle of Europe, the chorus of his left-liberal detractors included a galaxy of innocents who clung to their ardent faith that the wartime alliance with Stalin presaged the postwar birth of One World, in a peace guaranteed by the United Nations. This willful blind faith precluded a straightforward look at the grim events in eastern Europe—when, with the aid of Soviet troops and secret police, local Communists used all the refined instruments of intimidation and violence perfected by Stalin to foist Communist regimes on one hundred million unwilling victims, and so created Two Worlds. It was not until February, 1948, with the shock of the Communist coup in Prague, that many American eyes began to open to the consistent objectives and means of Soviet imperialism. Exactly one decade after Munich—and prostrated, democratic Czechoslovakia once more symbolized the folly of trusting a tyrant.
Even so, as late as the spring of 1949, a year after the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, the apparatus of the Communist propaganda transmission belt was able to corral hundreds of sponsors and scores of participants for the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
The phenomenon of liberal fellow traveling has lent itself to varied interpretations, ranging all the way from those who see it as a willful conspiracy to undermine our institutions to those who regard it as an attempt to cope with realities of political life in an idealistic way. The tragic polarization which characterized American life in the late forties and early fifties was in no small measure the product of the burden of guilt and confusion borne by a left-liberal community that had been duped and compromised—and by its lack of the honest courage to seek for the roots of its past blunders. As a result, the task of such an open, intelligent, responsible inquiry was abdicated, and left to those who had frequently neither the capacity nor the will to conduct such an inquiry properly.
At a time when virtually the entire American people was legitimately aroused by the incursions of Stalin’s agents in Europe and of Communist infiltration and espionage at home, an important part of the liberal community thus cut itself off and isolated itself from its proper roots in the larger community. For the basic sense of the American people on the Communist danger was sound, when the intellectuals’ was not.
So was created a wide and tragic chasm—one that yet remains to be bridged by understanding the true nature of the more novel, more subtle, more dangerous issues of the new decade. This regrettable, unhappy sequence of events contains a lesson for all Americans, liberal and conservative alike, who wish to interpret intelligently their own past so as to avoid being condemned to repeat it, at even greater cost. Today Americans and free men everywhere face a profound challenge from those exuberant, buoyant, single-willed True Believers who preach to us that our grandchildren will live under Communism, and who act on that faith with cynicism, flexibility, and perseverance. If the history of the past quarter-century can at all serve us, it can guide us to understand that they mean not peace but a sword, that they really mean to “bury” us; to understand further that the only way to cope with such a faith is to oppose to it a truer faith, more deeply and more gladly held because held by free men.