How Mccarthy Gave Anti-Communism A Bad Name

From the '40s onward, after a brief period as a communist sympathizer, I was engaged as a writer in what is called "cultural politics," that area of the intellectual life in which issues of national policy, especially in foreign affairs, are most intimately associated with culture. Today we celebrate the collapse of Soviet communism as not only the victory for democracy which we hope it will be, but as if it were specifically an American victory, brought about by the unified will of the American people. But the fact is that this country has been much divided on the issue of communism. I know this because I was myself that villainous creature, an anticommunist. This was often an isolating experience.

One of the towering lies of history in this century has been the belief, largely promulgated by our best-educated classes-writers, university teachers, journalists-that within the former Soviet Union there was to be found a fairer distribution of the decencies of life and a corrective to our own faulty society. While the evidence mounted of Stalin's murderous regime, and of the cruelties and injustices of the more moderate dictatorships which followed upon it, the refusal to speak in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism and to the Soviet Union's betrayal of the socialist ideal continued to be viewed as a chief proof of political tolerance and enlightenment.

Although anti-communism was certainly not a popular position in the intellectual world of the '30s and '40s, it was not thought to be discreditable-it was still a permissible position. It was Joseph McCarthy who took anti-communism out of the realm of respectable discourse and created for people of liberal impulse an automatic association between any voiced opposition to communism and reaction. Before McCarthy, it was not assumed of anti-communism that it was necessarily the companion of political conservatism; it was still a liberal option. All avowed socialists were anti-communists. With few exceptions, all our anti-communist friends were liberals. Lionel [Trilling, Diana Trilling's husband, a Columbia professor and noted literary critic] and I would have been generally described as liberal anti-communists-the phrase had about it no hint of paradox.

Prior to McCarthy's appearance on the national scene, it was widely recognized among intellectuals that there were two kinds of liberals, anti-communist liberals and fellow-traveling liberals. Throughout the '40s I was fiction critic for The Nation. There was a sharp political division between the tenor of the editorial pages of that magazine, always favorable to the Soviet Union, and the "back of the book," as the literary and arts section was always referred to. While the back of the book was well known to be anti-communist, it was never accused of speaking for the Right. Compared with fellow-traveling liberals, anti-communist liberals were few in number and they certainly had far less power in the culture. But they did not exclude themselves, nor were they excluded, from the intellectual mainstream of the country.

All of this was changed by McCarthy. In the sphere of propaganda, he was a great gift to Stalin, indeed, the greatest gift our country could have made to the Soviet Union. He robbed anti-communism of its base in liberalism and brought upon it the opprobrium which properly attached to his own mode of operation. In the wake of McCarthy, all anti-communism, liberal no less than illiberal, became vulnerable to the demeaning charge of McCarthyism. I recall the surprise with which I heard the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a man of moderate political opinion, speak of George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, as a "Neanderthal man" because of his intransigence in dealing with communists in the trade unions. It was the '50s: McCarthy had not only deformed our political thinking, he had polluted our political rhetoric.

McCarthyism had a lasting effect in polarizing the intellectuals of this country and in entrenching anti-anti-communism as the position of choice among people of political good will. As recently as 1990, one of our popular novelists, a star of PEN, the international writer's organization, could declare that anti-communism was the worst evil of our century. He was not announcing a preference for communism as a system of government. What he was undoubtedly saying was that it was anti-communism that had drawn us into the war in Vietnam; too, that it was as a consequence of the cold war that America had spent on armaments money it might better have spent on social programs. Such charges are not to be lightly dismissed. But they fail to take into account the large question of what would have happened to our country and to this novelist himself had the Soviet Union triumphed in the West.

There has been a curious abstractness in the liberal condemnation of anti-communism, as if there were no connection between the reality of Soviet totalitarianism even during Stalin's regime and the opposition which it engendered among some of us. Even while liberalism declares its commitment to democracy, it treats anti-communism as an aberrancy, not unrelated to other manifestations of our national folly and misconduct. The persistence of this contradiction was underscored in the celebration of Vaclav Havel on his visit to America a few years ago. Ignoring the fact that Havel had spent long years in jail because of his "evil" occupation as an anti-communist, many anti-anti-communists joined in greeting him as the representative of a new and better dispensation in Czechoslovakia. Did they suppose that he had been jailed for selling dirty postcards?

I am reminded of a symposium which was held by Commentary magazine in the early '60s. The subject being debated was a slogan then much in vogue among people of the Left: "Better Red Than Dead." Arguing the affirmative, one of the speakers promised us that although he would surely surrender the United States to the Soviet Union rather than go to war against communism, he would not let the matter rest there. With schoolboy ardor, he assured us that were there to be a communist dictators in America, he and his friends would at once join a guerrilla band.

In the '50s I occasionally wrote a column for The New Leader. There and elsewhere, I described my double position on McCarthy. I was against both communism and McCarthyism. They were enemies of each other but I was the enemy of both. Why, I asked, did it appear to be so difficult to hold two opposing views in one's mind at the same time?

For the intellectuals I knew, the great terminating event of the '40s was the Hiss-Chambers case. Whittaker Chambers, a contemporary of Lionel's at Columbia and later an editor at Time, confessed to having spied for Russia and accused Alger Hiss of having been similarly engaged in Soviet espionage. Hiss was one of the architects of the United Nations and a former official in our State Department. For us as for most of our friends, the case produced a shock of recognition. We knew about espionage. We bandied such words as "drop," "control......microfilm." Most of us had learned about communism from having been fellow-travelers or sympathizers. Far from finding it hard to credit Chambers's accusation of Hiss, his charge reminded us that there but for the grace of God might go any one of us.

For years the Hiss case represented, in small, for this country what the Dreyfus case had represented for France. It dramatically divided our most politically conscious population and still divides it even now when non-communist Russia has officially announced that there are no records in Military Intelligence to indicate that either Hiss or Chambers was ever a spy. We can suppose that scholars of Soviet espionage will seek a more convincing case for the innocence of the two men than merely this limited statement.

It was in the spring of 1933, only a few days before Lionel and I made our permanent break with the radical movement, that Whittaker Chambers came to see me. He had come to ask me to help him with his spying operation. Although he and Lionel had known each other in college, it was I, not Lionel, whom he came to see. In fact, he had been watching for Lionel to leave the house and, he told me, instead of taking the elevator to our fifth-floor apartment, he had walked up the back stairs so as not to be seen. I suppose that anyone who seeks a communist Utopia is pursuing an illusion. Chambers carried the quest further than most of us. Everyone in our political vicinity "knew" that Chambers was a Soviet agent-years later, during the trials, a former colleague of his at Time would write of him that his espionage was the best advertised secret of the day.

He promptly stated his business to me: he wanted me to receive mail for him; I was to be his drop. As I look back on his visit today from the distance of more than half a century, a passage of time in which we have witnessed not only the apotheosis but also the dissolution of Soviet power, what most impresses me about Chambers's request is the emotion with which I received it. From the start of our conversation, I knew that I was not going to do what he asked of me. Yet I was enormously flattered that he thought me capable of his treasonable assignment and I was ashamed to refuse him. I had reason enough to think of myself as a preternaturally fearful person but here was this man of the world, this man of two worlds, who believed me to be enough courageous to assist him in his spying. I felt greatly complimented. Plainly, my pleasure had little to do with my politics. In the next days I stopped being the fellow-traveler I had been for the better part of a year. I had done with the adventure of communism.

As I now recollect this visit and the risk to which it invited me, I recall a perhaps even more dangerous risk which I narrowly skirted as a child. I was 11 or 12 years old and living with my family on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. On a spring evening when my parents supposed that I was visiting a friend next door, she and I and another girl our age had gone out on the Parkway to pick up boys. It was after dark and the Parkway was largely deserted. Several cars went by without noticing us until finally a car stopped and three men approached us. They were grown men, not boys, and they stood for a moment studying us before they offered to take one of us for a ride. "Which one?" my friend asked boldly. The speaker pointed at me. "The little one in the middle." It was a long block to my house but I was not conscious of running until, breathless and trembling, I was inside my front door. Then, too, I was flattered that of the three of us it was I whom the men had chosen. But the point is, of course, that I did not surrender to the flattery. My upbringing was stronger than the seduction.

The seductions of the former Soviet Union have been gravely entrapping of us in the democracies but we have paid a big price for conspiring in the lie that communism represented. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, our most-conscious social egalitarians steadily grow in self-confidence and even-shall I say it?-in moral smugness. It is as if anti-anti-communism has given them a permanent certification of moral rectitude. This is a measurable self-deception and like all refusals of truth, it is bound to impair our perception of political and social actuality.

How Mccarthy Gave Anti-Communism A Bad Name | News