Revising the History of Cold War Liberals

Julius Jacobson

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 28, Winter 2000]



THERE ARE TWO DISPARATE SCHOOLS OF HISTORICAL REVISIONISM which plague those committed to the revival of a socialist movement. The older revisionist school, of primary concern to the Left, focuses on the history of American Communism. No historian in this revisionist school is rhapsodical about the history of the American Communist Party. On the other hand, there is rarely more than a glimmer of understanding of the extent to which Stalinism internationally and the Comintern's subservient national parties, the American Party not excepted, have discredited the very idea of socialism. Instead, there is the pretense of presenting an allegedly balanced, historically objective history of American Stalinism (or Communism) noting its admitted shortcomings as well as paying tribute to its alleged contributions to social emancipation. To achieve what is a theoretically impossible task, history is falsified, torn out of context, leaving us with an apologia for a movement slavishly devoted to a totalitarian state.

Given their illusions, these historians are incapable of grasping the full dimension of the tragedy implicit in a Party which created such widespread psychological havoc and political disorientation among tens of thousands attracted to it only to learn through bitter experience its anti-democratic nature. It is something that evades those revisionist historians who fantasize about a Communist Party that never was.

A recent and most egregious example of this school is Ellen Schrecker's Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America.* Her analysis of Communism and anti-Communism, of the American Communist Party and those who opposed it, is simplistic, inconsistent and contradictory, at odds with reality, drawing conclusions that are politically libelous. In her worldview an anti-Communist is an anti-Communist is an anti-Communist. She does admit to differences between the anti-Communism of the socialist Left and the anti-Communism of the more conventional Right in the McCarthy era but, for her, anti-Communism is the bottom line, the common denominator which places the anti-Stalinist Left and the McCarthyite Right as component elements of the "anti-Communist network."(xii) Thus there were "many McCarthyisms" including not merely the "ultraconservative version" but also the "left-wing [McCarthyist] version composed of anti-Stalinist radicals who attacked Communists as traitors to the socialist ideal." In her considered view, "[T]he Socialist and other left-wing anti-Communists functioned as a kind of intelligence service for the rest of the [anti-Communist] network."(75-6) And there were no exceptions. "These left-wing anti-Communists came in many varieties. There were Socialists, Trotskyists, Lovestoneites, Musteites, and a wide array of unaffiliated radical intellectuals and activists " (76) Again, "these sects -- the Trotskyists, Musteites, Lovestoneites, and all the other Leagues, Unions, Parties and factions that they spawned -- were just as influential in the formation of the anticommunist network." There's a scholar and fine historian!

Had Schrecker not only been collecting footnotes but actually reading the sources, the reader might have been spared the absurdities found throughout this meretricious volume. Just one example:

The term "Stalinist," which became a common epithet in left-wing anticommunist circles, expresses that particular understanding of the nature of American Communism. At the same time, the New York intellectuals developed a new interpretation of Soviet Communism. Again a single word, "totalitarian," encapsulates that understanding. It underscored the New York intellectuals' moral revulsion against Moscow by making few distinctions between Stalin's crimes and Hitler's and stressing the similarities rather than the differences between Communism and fascism.(81)
Had Ellen Schrecker actually read the literature of the left-wing anti-Communist circles, she might have avoided this howler. The fact is that the single word "totalitarian" had a different meaning for different elements of the anti-Stalinist Left; and in few cases, if any, did they fail to stress the differences between Communism and fascism. Leon Trotsky, for example, described Stalinist Russia as a "totalitarian abomination." He did draw parallels between Stalinist and fascist terror (does Schrecker believe none existed?) but far from being guilty of making few distinctions, had Schrecker bothered to read Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed she might have learned that he believed that Russia, despite being a totalitarian society was, in his opinion (not mine), a form of a workers state which had to be unconditionally defended in the event of a war. And had she bothered to read the fascinating literature on the "Russian Question" produced by one of the sects - the Workers Party-Independent Socialist League of which she is so ignorantly scornful-- she might have learned that this most theoretical of the anti-Stalinist groups developed the bureaucratic collectivist theory of the nature of the Soviet Union in which similarities were indeed noted between Stalinism and fascism but which placed far greater emphasis on the differences between the two incompatible systems.

What makes all this so bizarre is that immediately following this rebuke to the anti- Stalinist Left she writes, "Many of the charges that the New York intellectuals made about both Soviet and American Communism were true. In fact, what was happening in Russia was even more horrible than these people made it out to be." It is difficult for this writer who was part of that anti-Stalinist Left in the 40s and 50s to believe that Schrecker believes that Russia was "even more horrible" than I and my colleagues did. But if she believes Russia was even more horrible than any of us imagined, why does she object to our use of that single word, "totalitarian"? How would she describe this most horrible society? The fact is that in all 550 pages of her book there is not a single paragraph one could reasonably describe as an analytical discussion of the social nature of Communism or the Communist Party or of the "even more horrible" Soviet Union.

MUCH COULD AND SHOULD BE WRITTEN ABOUT THE CONTENTS AND significance of Shrecker's tendentious tract but not at this point. What mainly concerns me here is the other, more recent school of historical revisionism which presumes to have discovered evidence that calls for a change in the popular negative view of McCarthy and McCarthyism. It is a school of thought, if one can call it that, far more ominous than the revisionist school discussed above. The revisionist history of the American Communist movement. as we have already noted, is of primary concern to the Left and has only long-range political implications. On the other hand, resuscitating McCarthyism could have imminent and dire political consequences, encouraging conservative and reactionary political currents in American life, promoting the politics and strength of neo-Conservatism, the Christian Right and more generally pushing the country as a whole further to the right.

This revisionism exists on many levels. There are those who openly rationalize, even justify McCarthyism largely on the basis of new documentation which falsely seeks to establish the American Communist Party as little more than a recruiting center for Soviet spies during the Cold War. But there are other and more subtle reevaluations or historical revisions, actually historical falsifications, which minimize the extent to which McCarthyism had taken hold in American life in the late 40s and 50s or make apologias for those Cold War liberals who so disgraced themselves during those dark decades. This brings us to a review by Theodore Draper of Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom which appeared in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books that falsified the role of the leading Cold War philosopher, Sidney Hook, an apologist for McCarthyism, and denied the McCarthyist aspects of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom.

I sent a letter to the New York Review of Books responding to Draper's article. That letter which was neither printed nor acknowledged is printed below.

To the Editors:

Theodore Draper's frequent and vigorous reviews in NYR of books by revisionist academic historians who romanticize and mythicize the American Communist past have been notable for their scholarship and acumen, and his critical analysis made all the more effective for the absence of illiberal rancor or conservative bias. That is, until his flawed review of Eric Foner's The Story of American Freedom (NYR, September 23). I agree with Draper's characterization of Foner's discussion of the American Communist Party as "bizarre" and a "peculiarly truncated history" given Foner's ahistorical efforts to judge the American Communist Party on the basis of a glamorized account of the CP during the four years of the Popular Front when Communism was touted as Twentieth Century Americanism, and the same FDR denounced as a fascist in 1934 was transformed by the Party into a national folk hero. Of course, with the Nazi-Soviet Pact which triggered World War II, the same FDR was once again the fascistic tool of Wall Street reaction and Hitler's Germany portrayed as the victim of British imperialism. As Draper properly points out, Foner takes little note of what immediately preceded and followed the Popular Front period, and what these extraordinary somersaults revealed about the nature of the American Communist Party.

However, Draper's review is marred on several counts. First of all, while Draper justifiably rebukes Foner for his erroneous suggestion that such social critics as Mills, Schlesinger, Riesman and others believed the U.S. was becoming "perilously close" to totalitarianism, there is, nevertheless, something unfair in his criticisms of Foner's alleged over-emphasis on all that he finds negative in the story of American freedom. Draper would prefer to accent the positive.

Why did so many ordinary Americans think they were peculiarly blessed with freedom, while so many others lacked many of its attributes? This question never arises in Foner's book because he largely ignores ordinary Americans -- manual workers, clerks, teachers, farmers, owners of small businesses among them and concerns himself primarily with the extremely oppressed, the underdogs, the dissatisfied.
The false assumption here is that manual workers and those who are extremely oppressed and dissatisfied are mutually exclusive categories. This contradicts the historic record, which includes the Great Depression, and present realities of those tens of millions of oppressed and alienated underdogs who were and are indeed manual workers. The miner felled by black lung disease, the auto worker stressed by assembly line speed-up are all assuredly dissatisfied but were they not also "ordinary Americans" ? Then there are the millions living on the edge, deprived of health insurance, the elderly who must choose between buying food or life-saving drugs, workers obliged to work at two or three jobs to make ends meet, the countless number of computer and clerical workers suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury. They too are "ordinary Americans" who are dissatisfied.

Draper implies that Foner gives too much weight to the condition of marginal elements in society. Yet, in his next sentence, he notes that Foner's "story is largely one of disillusionment with efforts to ameliorate the condition of African-Americans and women." Now, if one totals the areas of Foner's story and concerns -- the most oppressed, the underdogs, the dissatisfied, African-Americans, and women -- it turns out that the scope of Foner's account embraces the vast majority of the American population, including those Draper calls "ordinary Americans."

Draper's review is most vulnerable when he takes umbrage at Foner's complaint that Sidney Hook and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF) sought, as Foner says, "to mobilize American intellectuals as foot soldiers in the Cold War" and that Hook and the ACCF leadership "made its peace with McCarthyism."

Foner's characterizations are historically unassailable and Draper's rejoinder falsifies the historic record and minimizes the depth of the McCarthyite witch-hunt and the extent of the betrayal by American intellectuals.

Draper's brief for Hook consists largely of a quote from Hook himself in his self-serving autobiography, Out of Step, written thirty years after McCarthy had been retired. It is significant that Draper's defense does not draw upon the controversial book Hook wrote in 1953, Heresy YES - Conspiracy NO. But even the quotation Draper uses from Hook's 1987 memoir is damaging to his strained effort to establish Hook's democratic credentials. On the all- important question of the right of Communists to teach. Hook is quoted as follows:

Faculty committees on professional ethics should not undertake any investigations except in the face of evidence of Communist Party cell activities such as anonymous publications of the cell, flyers, and other forms of activity for which the Communist Party took responsibility, that had an adverse bearing on the freedom to teach or learn. Someone identified as a member of the Communist Party should be confronted with the evidence of Communist activity, including the instructions referred to above, and given the opportunity to repudiate them or convince the faculty committee that his research and teaching did not conform to Communist Party directives.

The notion that Communist Party propaganda on or off campus could have an adverse bearing on the freedom to teach and learn is preposterous on its face. Where is the tangible evidence? Neither Hook nor anyone else to my knowledge has even come close to proving that Communist faculty, through their publications, have abridged the right to teach or learn. What did have an adverse affect on the freedom to teach or learn was the activity of McCarthy and those Cold War liberals who sought to limit, sometimes deny Communists, in and out of academe, the right to disseminate their views.

What is so telling and disturbing about Draper's quotation from Hook is that he omits the sentences immediately following his quote, in which Hook proposes a trial procedure for Communist teachers -- all Communist teachers, make no mistake about that -- that could have been inspired by the Stalinist mockery of jurisprudence. In Hook's proposed inquisition,"[T]he burden of proof would rest with the indicted Communist teacher," i.e., the accused would have to prove his/her innocence as in a Soviet trial or a Kafka novel. Hook continues, "Regardless of the legal technicalities of the Fifth Amendment, no faculty member has a moral right to refuse to answer the questions of the committee of his peers..." The problem is that his peers are not in cap and gown but in inquisitorial robes.

The above is damning enough but for a more exact measure of Hook's violations of the basic principles of academic freedom on behalf of his chosen camp in the Cold War, we need only turn to his Heresy YES Conspiracy NO.

This book is filled with contradictions. At one point, for example, he acknowledges that the number of Communist teachers is minute and represents no national threat. On the other hand, and what predominates, as a basic theme, is the portrayal of the Communist Party as a subversive network of conspirators. According to Hook, "More than two [Communists] on any campus will constitute themselves into a conspiratorial group in accordance with Party instructions."

What is more, "As a teacher," a Communist "cannot engage in the honest presentation and reasoned investigation of all relevant alternatives to the theories he is considering." Therefore, a Communist is not qualified to teach and membership in the Party becomes prima facie evidence for dismissal. But if a failure to present "all relevant alternatives to theories" is a basis for dismissal faculties in U.S. colleges would be thinned to the vanishing point. Even Hook and many of his colleagues could not have met these standards.

According to Hook, the potential and actual damage wrought by Communist teachers are staggering. In New York City alone, he writes, "even if each [Communist] teacher, on a conservatives estimate, taught only 100 students in the course of a year this would mean that every year 100,000 students in New York City alone would be subject to educationally pernicious indoctrination. Of these it would be sage to say that, directly and indirectly, scores and in some years, hundreds would have been influenced by their teachers to join the Communist youth organizations..."

Simple arithmetic reveals that in just a decade one million students were subjected to pernicious indoctrination by Communist conspirators. And just in New York City! Add the students corrupted by Communist teachers throughout the country and we have tens of millions of susceptible young people subjected to Communist brainwashing. How is it possible then that at the time Hook presented this frightening scenario, in 1954, the Communist youth organization was virtually non-existent?

If in principle indoctrination is just cause for dismissal why limit the purge to Communist teachers. What about devout Catholic teachers? According to the Five Encyclicals of the infallible Pope Pius XI:

Again it is the inalienable right as well as the indispensable duty of the Church to watch over the entire education of Her children in all institutions, public or private, not merely in regards to the religious instruction they're given but in regards to every other branch of learning and every regulation in so far as religion and morality are concerned. Nor should the exercise of this right be considered undue interference, but rather maternal care on the part of the Church in protecting her children from the grave danger of all kinds of doctrinal and moral evil.

In an article published under the Imprimatur of the Archbishop of Baltimore-Washington in 1946 a teacher

...must not speak in such wise as to give the impression that all forms of religious belief possess a natural right to exist and propagate. Only the true religion possesses such a natural right.

Why fire Communist teachers for alleged indoctrination and not devout Catholics? Hook tries to cope with this contradiction but fails miserably. He admits it is virtually impossible to find concrete evidence of Communist violations of teaching ethics. His only evidence is that it is the Party line which he seeks to establish with a quotation from William Z. Foster in a 1938 issue of the Party journal, The Communist. But the evidence of a Communist article that was 17 years old at the time that Hook wrote his controversial volume is less impressive than commandments laid down by an infallible Pope and an American Archbishop. The contradiction in Hook's position is easy to explain. The Communist Party represented a threat to American interests in the Cold War, the Catholic Church supported those interests and so did Sidney Hook and his colleagues in the American Committee for Cultural Freedom.

Hook's paranoia about the Communist threat, exacerbated by his Cold War loyalties, was not confined to his hallucinations about the Communist threat to American education. The conspiracy was everywhere. Thus, whether on campus or not,

Whatever may have been the case in the past, a man does not today somnambulistically stumble into the Communist Party. If he remains a member, this is prima facie evidence that he is a hardened conspirator and that he accepts his orders and directives.

According to Hook, then, America was threatened by roughly 30,000 hardened conspirators at the time of this paranoid delusion. And if this was true in 1953, does this mean that a decade earlier when the Party was approaching its peak strength during the war that the U.S. was menaced by 100,000 hardened Communist conspirators? After all, in 1943, despite the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, the American Communist Party was not one whit less slavishly loyal and obedient to the dictates of the Kremlin totalitarians.

Moreover, in Hook's view, the physical threat of violence by these hardened conspirators was not only clear and present; it was permanent. Given the Communist Party's "organic tie to the Soviet state apparatus with all its engines of war, espionage and terror" its becomes clear to Hook that

It is not the speech of members of the Communist Party which makes them dangerous but their organizational ties,[to the Soviet Union] for this in effect makes them a para- military fifth column of a powerful state, ready to strike whenever their masters give the word.

Since the Communist threat was of national scope, the assault on civil liberties by Hook and similar authoritarian liberals assumed broad national dimensions. Even the 1940 Smith Act which made it illegal for an individual to advocate or "conspire" to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence was rationalized by Hook and most of his ACCF colleagues. In theory, Hook was critical of the Smith Act but repudiated efforts to repeal this gross manifestation of pre-McCarthy McCarthyism. In his words "although the wisdom of enacting the Smith Law was doubtful the wisdom of repealing it is even more doubtful" since that would create "the illusion that the Communist Party is like any other party on the American scene, and therefore entitled to the same political rights and privileges as all other American political parties." (Of course, the first victims of this pernicious law were not Communists but 25 anti- Stalinist Trotskyists who were tried, convicted and jailed on trumped-up charges of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government.)

Draper's denial notwithstanding, Hook did "make peace" as Foner charges, with McCarthyism. The fact that Hook called for a movement to retire McCarthy from public life does not contradict Foner's accusation. Hook was urbane, sophisticated, not a demagogue but an ideologue who really believed what he said and therefore was wary of the Wisconsin Senator who was vulgar and crude, clearly an unprincipled demagogue with an unstable personality and therefore should be removed from power. Sidney Hook's assault on civil liberties and academic freedom represented a force for McCarthyism , freed of the liabilities of McCarthy. As with his glamorized sketch of Sidney Hook, Draper's characterizations in defense of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom are misleading, as when he writes that "[S]ome members were more aggressively anti-McCarthyite than others... ." Not so. The ACCF as a whole, along with most of its leading personalities were apologists for McCarthyism, some promoting it more aggressively than others.

I assume that Draper read the book he refers to, McCarthyism and the Communists by James Rorty and Moshe Decter sponsored by the ACCF in 1954. Apparently he does not remember its contents too well, otherwise he would not have assessed it as a book attacking McCarthy. There are criticisms of McCarthy but there is also praise as when the authors note that "in spite of the exaggerations on both sides McCarthy's central point was a valid one: the State Department's security program had been lax and frequently ineffective." At another point, they pay tribute to McCarthy, "In calling public attention to these and similar derelictions, Senator McCarthy and others performed a public service. The subsequent acceleration of the State Department's security processes were certainly the result, at least in part, of the public pressures stimulated by the Senator's activities."

For the sake of the truth, and to understand the McCarthy period it is necessary to acknowledge the culpability of such authoritarian liberals as Sidney Hook and those in the ACCF who provided a rationale for the terrible assault on civil liberties and democratic rights during the Cold War.

The Communist Party was a reactionary social force manipulated by a totalitarian state. But it was not a Party of conspirators. It was a voluntary organization that appealed to and recruited hundreds of thousands who freely joined it in the belief that they would be fighting for democracy and social justice but were blind to the brutal reality of Stalinist totalitarianism. The notion of a mass conspiratorial Party misses the tragic dimensions of the experience of those who idealistically joined and later left the Party totally disillusioned, embittered and disoriented by their experience, not as conspirators but as rank and file Communists who wanted to build a better world. Those who continue to propagate the simple-minded view of a Communist conspiracy and deny the extent to which Cold War liberals aided and abetted McCarthyism serve to bolster romantic illusions about the nature of the Communist Party.


Julius Jacobson


Brown & Company, 1998. return

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