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Still seeing Red

Passions continue to flare over U.S. communists and their loyalty to Stalin, even though most of the players are dead.

September 16, 2007|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time.com and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

An exhibition at a New York museum celebrating the Abraham Lincoln Brigade -- a band of left-wing, largely communist American volunteers who fought against Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War about 70 years ago -- is criticized by anti-Stalinist historians for its hagiographic bias. That was in March.

An article co-written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer suggests that former State Department official Alger Hiss was not a Soviet spy in the 1930s after all. In it, another State Department functionary is posthumously identified as the spy -- although he is obviously innocent -- and the article is contemptuously (and justifiably) criticized for its reverse McCarthyism. That was in June.

Pete Seeger, the aged left-wing folk singer, writes a song criticizing Josef Stalin, which is, with a certain degree of irony, welcomed by one of Seeger's most severe critics, Ronald Radosh, a former leftist who once took lessons in banjo pickin' from Seeger but who is now an anti-Stalinist historian. Radosh thought it was about time Seeger, who he said had supported Soviet tyranny for years, finally broke with Stalin -- more than 50 years after the dictator's death. That was two weeks ago.

At one point, Seeger said of Radosh: "I'm sure there are more constructive things he could do with his life," and I imagine that many people would agree. Why, people wonder, should anyone in the age of "American Idol" care about the near-Talmudic historical disputes between the forces of Stalinism and anti-Stalinism? Why are historians and intellectuals still battling so fiercely over Hiss' innocence in 2007, or whether the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were heroes or dupes or worse? The arguments are ancient, the people who were directly affected have mostly died -- and yet the fights are carried on by second- and third-generation surrogates with what seems to be undiminished passion.

Last week, just as the Seeger story was fading, the New York Times had a new one: A new documentary about blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo -- making its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival -- might, according to the paper, "finally put to rest the hunt for good guys and bad." Somehow, I don't think so.

Why does the subject refuse to go away? The answer is, I think, quite simple: These forces are contending for command of American history. If you believe that the communist left of the 1930s and '40s was simply a somewhat more radical version of liberalism, that it was made up of a group of beleaguered but idealistic "dissidents" who were crushed by a vast conspiracy of reactionary forces, then the story of our immediate past (not only the history of the Cold War but the Vietnam War, the Nixon and Reagan years, and, yes, probably Iraq) becomes one of goodness and common decency betrayed. In this view, the movement's leaders (and not a few innocent bystanders) were unfairly jailed, silenced and rendered unemployable by McCarthyism.

If, on the other hand, you see Stalinism as a fundamentally totalitarian force, then you are bound to see the ideology of the American communists as a vicious parody of liberal belief. Anti-Stalinism holds that the views of American communists were completely dictated by and almost entirely financed by a Russian regime that eventually murdered 20 million of its own citizens, imprisoned millions more in its gulags and, in addition to its overt if generally clumsy propaganda activities, mounted a widespread espionage effort in the United States that was not so clumsy. American communists, in this view, were fools at best and supporters of terror, murder and totalitarian repression at worst.

As a lifelong liberal, I am quite naturally and obviously a lifelong anti-Stalinist; a liberal cannot support totalitarian ideologies no matter how persuasively they are presented. That's especially so when the true face of Soviet communism was so early and often visible. As early as 1931, there were public rallies protesting the Russian prison camps. The mass exterminations (through managed starvation) of Russian peasants were widely reported in the same era. Thereafter there were, in 1937, Stalin's parodistic show trials of old Bolsheviks, doomed by his paranoid need to eliminate all (imaginary) rivals for power, followed by the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact and the invasion of Finland in 1939. These were all moments when the "express train of history," as Soviet communism was sometimes referred to, came to a screeching halt and thousands of its passengers clambered off. Yes, the Soviet Union was our vital ally during World War II, but its essential nature did not change, and those who continued to support it cannot be excused. Sure, there were dupes and dolts among them, but domestic communism's leading spokesmen were neither.

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