Still seeing Red

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.

After the war, American communists were granted a great gift when the legitimate cause of anti-Stalinism fell into the hands of imbeciles -- yahoo congressmen and corrupt right-wing crazies whose ignorance and hysteria simply overrode the nuanced arguments of the anti-communist leftists and liberals. Those arguments had been honed in close combat with the Reds in a thousand union meetings and other forums. Left sectarian infighting was surpassingly vicious and, contrary to the communist line, many who “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee did so not to save their careers but to get back at long-despised enemies.

But true liberals (like Elia Kazan, about whom I have written sympathetically) could no more stand with the McCarthyites than they could with the Stalinists, though their voices could barely be heard in the lunatic din of postwar American politics.

Eventually everyone -- the remnants of the communist left included -- took to ritualistically denouncing Soviet communism before joining whatever argument was going on later. But at the same time, those victimized by McCarthyism -- in particular the Hollywood Ten and the rest of the show-business blacklistees -- were elevated to heroic status. In the years that followed the 1947 HUAC hearings that led to their dismissal from the movie industry (for a 1st Amendment absolutist like me, a very bad idea), they have been celebrated in an endless series of books and tributes. As if by magic, the unapologetic defenders of a deadly doctrine have been transformed into martyrs to liberal belief -- which none of them embraced in their day.

This is a massive, apparently unresolvable disconnect -- and communism’s one lasting American triumph. Frankly, it makes the anti-communist left crazy. Mountains of new documents -- notably the Venona transcripts, records of the cable traffic between Soviet spies and Moscow -- prove beyond doubt the conspiratorial nature of American communism. But still its apologists stand beaming on the heroic heights, untouched by inconvenient scholarship, mere “dissidents” who paid an awful and unfair price for expressing their opinions.

One of these expressions of opinion was an obituary tribute to Stalin when he died in 1953, signed by 300 American communist intellectuals. It said, in part: “Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands.” I don’t really want to defend to the death anyone’s right to that kind of insanity. Maybe we can afford to leave poor old Pete Seeger in peace -- but not, I think, his co-religionists.

Richard Schickel is a film critic for and the author of many books, including “Elia Kazan: A Biography.”