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Reflections on Ellen Schrecker and Maurice Isserman's essay, "The Right's Cold War Revision"

by John Earl Haynes

Ellen Schrecker and Maurice Isserman's essay, "The Right's Cold War Revision" (The Nation, 24/32 July 2000) deserves a serious response. In regard to the history of American communism the essay demonstrates a significant shift by two major left historians; but in regard to the history of American anticommunism, however, little has changed. The two issues are inextricably mixed and as welcome as movement on the first matter is, the immobility on the second shows the still yawning gap between their perspective and mine.

Isserman and Schrecker are leading figures of the revisionist view of American communism that has dominated academic history from the 1970s to the late 1990s. (`Revisionist' as opposed to the `traditionalist' interpretation of the late 1950s and 1960s most prominently identified with Theodore Draper.) In the revisionist perspective the ties between the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) and the USSR were minimized and treated as largely irrelevant to its chief activities. To the extent the issue was even addressed, and often it was not, the CPUSA as an institution was judged as not involved in Soviet espionage and, at most, only a few individual Communists cooperated with Soviet intelligence. Revisionists treated most of those accused in the late 1940s and 1950s of participation in Soviet espionage as innocents maligned by wicked perjurers egged on by American security agencies eager to frame Communists for crimes they did not commit. Schrecker and Isserman recognize that the evidence that has emerged since the collapse of the USSR has rendered this view untenable. This is to their credit in as much as too many historians, including leading figures in the profession and its chief journals, corrupted by a combination of ideological myopia and partisanship along with a measure of incompetence, have averted their eyes and pretended that the new evidence changes nothing.

In this essay Isserman and Schrecker state that the CPUSA had a dual nature, that it was "a rigid, secretive and undemocratic sect whose leaders followed the Soviet line and recruited for the KGB ... [that] was also -- and at the same time -- the most dynamic organization on the American left... For better and worse-- it was the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of Americans sought to create a more democratic and egalitarian society." They also write "it is now abundantly clear that most of those who were identified as Soviet agents in the forties and fifties really were -- and that most of them belonged to the Communist Party" and "as Venona and the Moscow sources reveal, the party recruited dozens, perhaps hundreds, of its members to spy for the Soviet Union."

While not fully coinciding, their dual view of the CPUSA has parallels with Harvey Klehr and my statement in our 1995 The Secret World of American Communism that "there were many worlds of American Communism," including a public one where the party "devoted its energies to organizing workers into trade unions, opposing segregation,... and pursuing a myriad other causes and crusades. Most party members lived in that public world of American communism. They had no connection with, or even knowledge of, another world." But there was also a secret world where the party "was also a conspiracy financed by a hostile foreign power that recruited members for clandestine work, developed an elaborate underground apparatus, and used that apparatus to collaborate with espionage services of that power." In our 1998 The Soviet World of American Communism we commented that "to say that the American Communist party was `nothing but' an appendage of a Soviet-dominated Communist International would be an exaggeration. From the party's inception, several hundred thousand Americans have joined out of a deeply felt belief in the necessity of overturning America's economic and political order and establishing a new society based on Marxism-Leninism. But the CPUSA has always also been a satellite, first of the Comintern and later of the Soviet Communist party." And in our 1999 Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America we commented that despite the evidence of the CPUSA's deep involvement in Soviet espionage "to say that the CPUSA was nothing but a Soviet fifth column in the Cold war would be an exaggeration; it still remains true that the CPUSA's chief task was the promotion of communism and the interests of the Soviet Union through political means."

Schrecker and Isserman wish not to note the partial overlap of their new position with ours. (In her 1998 Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America Schrecker presented a more detailed version of this dual analysis of the CPUSA.) They insist that we "reduce the entire history of ... [the Communist] movement to a criminal conspiracy." In the eyes of Isserman and Schrecker we likely put too little emphasis on what they regard as the CPUSA's positive side, but their characterization of our views is a caricature.

That aside, Isserman and Schrecker's new position is a major advance over the "uncritical filiopietism," to use their own term, that too often permeated the revisionist version of the history of American communism. There still remain, however, issues both of fact and interpretation regarding the history of American communism that Schrecker and Isserman avoid confronting.

The factual issues that need to be directly addressed are several, of which only a partial listing includes the following. The CPUSA's abandonment of hundreds (probably more than a thousand) of former members who had emigrated to the USSR in the 1920s and early 1930s and who fell victim to Stalin's terror in the mid-30s, either secretly executed or imprisoned in the Gulag. This abandonment was more than the passive act of pretending it didn't happen but actively justifying the purges and seeking to discredit those who tried to tell the truth. The party's practice of sending infiltrators into rival organizations of both the left and right in order to manipulate or disrupt their activities. The CPUSA's direct complicity in the murder of Leon Trotsky and the unsuccessful attempt to break his murderer from prison. The party's use of its members who were college faculty and students to harass faculty who actively supported Trotsky, and its use of its influence in liberal advocacy groups to deny forums and lecture venues to those did not accept the party's views on Trotsky. The party's use of its adherents in trade unions to support the party's political tactics and adjusting collective bargaining goals to conform to party political strategy.

Confronting these facts also requires an assessment of what it says about the nature of the Communist party and of Communists themselves. What does it tell about the mentality of American Communists that when family member of the emigrant Communist Finnish-Americans who had been imprisoned and murdered in the hundreds by Stalin's political police were, when they returned to the U.S., warned by the party and fellow Communists that if they talked in public about what had happened to their relatives they would be ostracized and discredited by the party? What does it say about the mentality of American Communists when the Young Communist League's journal cheered on the execution of Trotskyists in the USSR and puts in capital letters the statement "DEATH! THIS SHOULD BE THE MESSAGE OF EVERY YOUNG WORKER TO OUR ENEMY CLASS, THE BOSSES OF THE WORLD" (Young Worker, 27 Nov. 1930) or when a leading Communist poet writes in the party's literary journal of the need for Communists to develop a literary language with "the power to hate" (New Masses April 1929), or when the Communist historian Herbert Aptheker writes that America society is "so putrid .. that it no longer dares permit the people to live at all" (History and Reality, 1955)? What does it say of the willingness of Communists union activists to substitute the CPUSA's priorities for those of union members that the Minnesota CIO, then Communist-led and in obedience to the CPUSA support of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, denounced President Roosevelt in 1940 as one of the "enemies of the People," called for a third-party to offer an alternative to FDR, and called on workers to cast black ballots in the presidential election rather than vote for FDR?

These matters of fact and what they say of the nature of the American Communist movement and of American Communists are serious matters. But there is also a basic matter of ethical perspective that still separates Schrecker and Isserman's views from mine. They write in all seriousness of Communists working to "create a more democratic and egalitarian society." What they and I mean by a "democratic" society differ not in minor but in major ways. Democracy is a concept with varied meanings but at bottom it is a term for popular self-government and the procedures that allow a people to ensure that rulers are answerable to the ruled. Democracy recognizes the only legitimate government as one that receives the freely given consent of the governed. This nation was founded as a democratic republic and much of our history revolves around the expansion of the democratic polity and democratic liberties to include excluded groups. Most Americans regard the basic requirements of democracy, free elections, free press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion and conscience, as essential American characteristics. America's creation and sustaining of a far from perfect but nonetheless working political democracy on a national scale is its greatest achievement and a triumph of human history. Communists in theory (Marxism-Leninism) and in practice (advocating Stalin's Russia as the model of the good society) rejected the fundamental requirements of a democratic society. Such a profoundly antidemocratic movement was not a vehicle for making American more democratic but for making it less, indeed, for making it a tyranny.

I have held a variety of views on politics, from the social democratic left to the conservative right, but always regarding democracy as a fundamental value that was beyond current policy disagreements and partisanship. When on the left I felt more political kinship with right-wing democrats than with any left tyranny, and when on the right more solidarity with left democrats than any right-wing dictatorship. In America at large this is not a lonely position: most Americans reject tyranny of either the right or the left. There is, of course, a minority that does not take this view. Recently a regular opinion columnist in the influential Washington Post dismissed the lack of democracy in Cuba because Castro "has educated Cuba's children and given its people universal health care" (Judy Mann, "Still Crazy About Cuba," 12 July 2000). And in the world of academic scholars who deal with 20th century history, the dominant view is similar: that a left-wing tyranny is preferable to a right-wing democracy, that an anticapitalist dictatorship is morally worthier than a capitalist democracy.

This is the basic divide. This is also the ideological divide that separated anti-Communist liberals of the ADA and Truman's Cold War Democrats from Popular Front liberals and Henry Wallace progressives. In May 1946, The New Republic carried a long letter-to-the-editor from James Loeb, head of the Union for Democratic Action, that in retrospect was the first shot in a nationwide civil war over the direction of liberalism. Loeb wrote that liberalism's problem in the postwar period was ideological rather than organizational. Loeb argued that an alliance between liberals and Communists betrayed liberalism bedrock democratic values and in view of the Communist party's totalitarian ideology, liberals could not associate with it without compromising their moral integrity. Further, he argued that revival of the New Deal coalition depended on severing the link developing in the public's mind between liberals and Soviet tyranny forged by liberals who defended or ignored Stalin's conduct. In January 1947 the UDA reorganized itself into the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Opposing the ADA was the Progressive Citizens of America, later to become the Progressive Party, that quietly welcome Communists into the organization, regarded them as an essential part of the New Deal coalition, and whose leadership vigorously discouraged criticism of either communism or the Soviet Union. Anti-Communist liberals won that struggle, of course, with the election of Truman and Wallace's dismal showing in 1948. The victory was then consolidated with the expulsion of Communists from the CIO in 1949 and 1950.

The success of anti-Communist liberalism in the 1940s is a central concern of Isserman and Schrecker's essay, which is subtitled "Current Espionage Fears Have Given New Life to Liberal Anticommunism." They complain of speakers at a recent scholarly conference who delivered "some variant of the standard wisdom of cold war liberalism" and of a New York Times Magazine article that praised anti-Communist liberals of that era for being "the one group that basically got Communism right." Schrecker and Isserman vigorously assert that "cold war liberalism did not, in fact, `get it right.'"

But who did `get it right'? At one point Isserman and Schrecker seem to say that nobody got it all right or all wrong, writing that it "would be a simpler world to understand if the devils and the angels would all line up neatly on one side or the other of contested terrain..... crystal-clear vistas, in which all the actors knew then what we know now -- about Stalin, about the Soviet Union..."

The first point that ought to be noted is that back in the 1930s and 1940s some people did know about Stalin and the USSR and historians ought to ask why others did not. Why did and what does it say of the mental world of American Communists and their Popular Front allies that they so thoroughly misunderstood Stalin and his regime?

The second point is whether Schrecker and Isserman really mean that we should recognize that there were devils and angels on both sides. They allow that most traditionalist historians have seen the anti-Communist side as having both angels and devils, the latter personified as Joseph McCarthy. They are ready to admit, as many revisionists in the past would not, that the Communist side had some devils. But they also want "Radosh, Klehr and Haynes" to recognize some angels on the Communist side by fitting "Scottsboro, Flint and Jarama into the story." And we should, indeed we already have, although not with the vigor that they wish. In my first book, Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota's DFL Party (1984) I discussed the initiatives taken by Hubert Humphrey to attack entrenched anti-black racism in Minneapolis when he was elected mayor in 1945. I also noted that "during the late 1930s and early 1940s Communists prepared the way for Humphrey's effort by bringing the plight of the Minneapolis black community to the attention of liberals" who had earlier ignored the issue. I also discussed at some length the key role Communist union militants played in the early organization of the CIO Steelworkers union in Northern Minnesota and the electrical workers in the Twin Cities. Klehr in his 1984 The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade discussed the strengths and successes of the CPUSA as well as its failings and shortcoming.

Schrecker and Isserman call for judging American Communists in "context" and with "nuance," and so they should be. But anti-Communists should also be judged in context and with nuance, and Schrecker and Isserman do not even try. In their view the anti-Communist side consists only of demons without an angel in sight. In their essay anti-Communist liberalism, anti-Communist conservatism, and their spokesman are criticized and condemned, and neither commendable intent nor accomplishment is even hinted at. While they now agree that Communists didn't get it all right, they still believe anti-Communists got it all wrong. The essay, of course, is short, but Schrecker in her lengthy Many Are the Crimes devotes hundreds of pages to demonizing opposition to communism in any form. Fervid opposition to communism, Schrecker explained, "tap[ped] into something dark and nasty in the human soul," and she held that it contributed to most of the ills of American society since 1945. Many are the Crimes indicted anticommunism for destroying the civil rights movement's ties to the "anti-imperialist left" and, deprived of its Communist element, "most civil rights groups in the 1950s were conservative, respectable, and small -- and posed little challenge to the entrenched Southern way of life." Schrecker states, "the anticommunist crusade bears much of the responsibility" for ills of the labor movement "for it diverted the mainstream unions from organizing the unorganized." Anti-Communists also bore responsibility for the failure of national health insurance, increased inefficiency in government, the slow development of feminism, elimination of talented musicians from orchestras, dull television programming, Hollywood's "unthinking patriotism of the war movies, the global triumphalism of the bible epics, and the constricted sexuality of the romantic comedies," "marginalizing entire schools of representation and severing the connection between art and social responsibility," retarding the progress of science, crippling higher education, and Richard Nixon's abuse of presidential powers. Finally, Schrecker stated "only now, under the impact of a globalized, yet atomized, capitalist system, political repression may have become so diffuse that we do not recognize it when it occurs." This is not a mixed message with a contextualized, nuanced historical assessment. It is a simple world in which anti-Communists of all types are devils.

The Schrecker-Isserman essay is also an indication that the ground for the debate between revisionists and traditionalists is shifting from the history of communism to anticommunism. Schrecker in the introduction to her Many Are the Crimes noted, too sweepingly but with considerable accuracy in regard to the academic world, that "there is a near-universal consensus that much of what happened during the late 1940s and 1950s was misguided or worse." This consensus, however, takes as a premise the revisionist view that the CPUSA was a normal, albeit radical, political movement, more rooted in American traditions than subordinate to Moscow, and had no significant involvement with Soviet espionage. But as Schrecker and Isserman allow in their essay, this premise cannot stand in the face of the new evidence. And with that premise crumbling, the "near-universal consensus" on anticommunism is giving way, and, to the alarm of Isserman and Schrecker, there is "new life to liberal anticommunism." Their essay is in part an attempt to shore up the consensus and state a new line, a willingness to rethink American communism but not anticommunism. This is intellectually a hopeless task. Anticommunism was a stance rather than a movement. There was no anti-Communist party around which the movement was built nor a core anti-Communist ideology. Anti-Communists were defined by what they were against rather than what they were for. Rather than a single anticommunism, there was a multitude, with different objections to communism. The various anticommunisms did not follow a common agenda aside from their shared opposition to Communist or even approve of each other. Consequently, any historical treatment of anticommunism is keyed to the historical treatment of communism. When a historian changes his or her perception of communism an accommodating change in the perception of anticommunism logically follows.

"The Right's Cold War Revision" also raises some other points that deserve attention. Schrecker and Isserman write, "Hubert Humphrey..., along with Schlesinger and Niebuhr set up the American for Democratic Action to protect the Democrats from the waning forces of the far left." The ADA was established in 1947 and was only a fraction of the size of the Progressive Citizens of America, the voice of Popular Front liberalism. Far from "waning," the forces of the far left were mounting their most ambitious assault on mainstream politics. The background for a political realignment appeared to exist. The formidable New Deal coalition seemed to be falling apart. Truman's presidency was in deep political trouble and he looked like a loser in 1948. The Democrats, having lost both houses of Congress in the 1946, feared that a Truman defeat in 1948 would solidify the Republican congressional majority. Communists and their Popular Front allies aggressively attempted to move out from their subordinate position on the left wing of Democratic party by creating the Progressive party as a mainstream political player which would displace the Democrats as the political vehicle for liberal and labor forces. This bold gamble failed disastrously in the 1948 election. After that, indeed, the far left was waning. But the "waning" was in part brought about because of the formation and the subsequent work of the ADA. Schrecker and Isserman's sentence puts the cart before the horse in order to claim that no horse was needed.

Similarly the essay confuses chronology and cites the success of anticommunism directed at Soviet espionage as evidence that the anticommunism was not needed. They cite evidence showing that by the early 1950s the once extensive KGB networks in the U.S. no longer existed and suggest that the search for spies was unneeded. Those networks had ceased to exist because the combination of the civic anti-Communist political campaigns and the government's internal security programs had made the continued use of the CPUSA, the chief recruiting pool earlier used by the KGB for its sources and espionage helpers, insecure and impractical. To stick to our equine clichés, at some point in the 1950s government security programs and public anticommunism had so thoroughly destroyed the once formidable Soviet intelligence network in the U.S. that it became a matter of flogging a dead horse, but Schrecker and Isserman want to say that there never was a horse and no flogging was ever needed, but they are incorrect on both counts.

Schrecker and Isserman also have some curious comments about espionage. At one point they say, "throughout US history, citizens have forged their own ties -- sometimes openly, sometimes secretly -- with foreign governments with which they sympathized.  In judging those contacts, context counts." At one level this is a historical truism. Of course context counts. Not all or even most sympathetic contacts with foreign governments constitute betrayal of the United States or espionage against it. And while there are some occasional `gray area' cases, in general any competent historian can sort out espionage and betrayal from benign or just unobjectionable activity. It is difficult to see what the point of this remark is except as an attempt to lessen the sting of American Communists spying for Moscow by normalizing espionage. They then move to the bizarre by calling for some "enterprising historian" to find the "British `mole' in Washington" as well as the spies placed there by France and China. They then ask if we found these British, French and Chinese moles would we "excoriate them as mush as we do the folks who leaked information to our other wartime ally in the Kremlin." Probably this is only rhetorical fluff, but if seriously intended, it suggests they have a distorted understanding of how Britain, France, and China dealt with the United States in World War II. And their question contradicts their own admonition that "context counts." Spying for Churchill and De Gaulle is not the same as spying for Stalin. Illegal, certainly, morally reprehensible, to be sure, deserving of punishment, of course, as a threat to American interests, American democracy, and American security, however, just not in the same league as spying for Moscow.

Also, Schrecker and Isserman state, "it is hard to retain a sense of proportion about espionage. Merely to evoke it risks killing off any attempt at intellectual fine shading." In fact, historians have had no such difficulties in retaining a sense of proportion when dealing with German and Japanese espionage against the U.S. in World War II, German espionage against the U.S. in World War I, spying by both sides in our own Civil War, and the extensive espionage of our war of independence with its confused allegiances of loyalists and patriots. The one area of historical consideration of espionage that evokes wildly disproportionate reaction is Communist espionage. If some enterprising historian does find a British mole in WWII Washington, it will be of considerable historical interest and the research will be scrutinized because it would be both new and unexpected. But there would not be the sort of campaign of vilification waged both inside the historical profession and outside against Allen Weinstein for his study of Alger Hiss's espionage or against Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton for their study of the Rosenberg case. It is the strong contingent of hard left historians in the profession who have blocked proportionality about Communist-linked espionage by greeting attempts to study it with enraged cries of `how dare you!' (Isserman was not among these: he publicly defended Radosh's study of the on the Rosenberg case when it first appeared.)

Since the 1970s hard left historians, with the acquiescence of the bulk of the profession, have largely consigned scholars who write critical histories of American communism, critical histories of Soviet espionage, or sympathetic histories of American domestic anticommunism to the margins of the profession. Those historians who write on American communism and anticommunism in a traditionalist fashion have, depending on whom and how many you wish to identify, written scores of scholarly books, some of them path breaking original research, published by a variety of respected university presses. Yet these same scholars are excluded from publishing essays in the profession's most prestigious journals, the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review. Lowell Dyson's 1972 "The Red Peasant International in America" was the last time any of these traditionalists had an essay on domestic communism, anticommunism, or Soviet espionage published in the Journal of American History. The American Historical Review has a similar record of excluding traditionalists. On the other hand, over these past thirty-seven years these two journals have published dozens of essays by revisionist scholars on one or another aspect of American communism (positive) and anticommunism (harshly negative). I suppose that the editors of these journals, smugly seconded by revisionists, will deny that any school of historical interpretation is denied access if its writings meet the exacting scholarly standards of their journals and its just unfortunate that traditionalists just aren't up the mark. But the latter is balderdash, and the former doesn't stand the smell test. Twenty-seven years and not a single traditionalist essay makes the grade? As they used to say in the party, `Comrades, it is no accident.'

Annoyingly, Schrecker and Isserman's essay also throws in some of the conceits and pettiness too common among hard left academics. They disparage historians who write in a traditionalist mode as hired guns of the vast right-wing conspiracy (the Olin and Bradley foundations) and insist that even "the more serious anti-Communist historians" are infected with an "anti-sixties animus" and they not-too-slyly associate these historians with "the assaults on affirmative action, the welfare state and all the other legacies, real and imagined, of the sixties" and "a broader campaign to delegitimize the academy, long targeted by contemporary conservatives as the last stronghold of the sixties radicals." "One need not be a conspiracy theorist" to believe this, they insist, but actually you do. Their portrait of traditionalists as mercenary conspirators is part leftist fantasy and part a distasteful resort to ad hominem tactics.


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