The memoirs of ex-Communists – from the embittered fulminations of Benjamin Gitlow (an early defector from the Left) to the tale of espionage and angst told by Whittaker Chambers in his famous book, Witness – constitute a literary subgenre, one that, with the implosion of Communism, has just about played itself out. It is a genre of which I am an insatiable addict, I suppose because, as a lifelong man of the Right, I like to see my enemies demolished – in their own minds. So naturally I snatched up Ronald Radosh's Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left just as soon as it came out. And I was not disappointed. . . .
Like any form of genre literature, the ex-Commie confessional consists of a single formula endlessly repeated in all its variations and levels of quality: a young ideologue devotes himself to the zealotry of his youth with single-minded passion, until some catalytic event opens his eyes, and, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, he suddenly sees the anti-Communist light. Not that there isn't plenty of foreshadowing, at least in the best of them: a series of clashes with the Party leadership that underscore the dogmatic rigidity of a totalitarian cult and the author's own growing doubts. Although these authors exhibit varying degrees of repentance, and offer a wide range of reasons why they served a master they now see as evil, the ending, in any case, is usually pretty unambiguous: his rejection of Marxism leads to the hero's redemption, and a new beginning as an ideologue of the Right – but not always.
The best of these God That Failed books display at least some ambiguity, not in their abhorrence of Communism but in what comes to take its place. Some merely transfer the fanaticism and knee-jerk reactions to their new loyalties, and become an inverted version of their former selves. (David Horowitz, author of Radical Son, and now a right-wing activist, comes to mind.) Others, like Arthur Koestler, more chastened by their disillusionment, and less willing to be seduced by ideology, maintain a stance that is chiefly critical, rather than affirmative: their future development remains a question mark, and their politics take on the tentative quality of a work-in-progress. The former tend to be insufferably self-righteous, hectoring their former comrades while revealing their secrets, and making themselves look good – or as good as possible, under the circumstances. On the other hand, the Koestlers and Chambers', the stars of this subgenre, are not only unsparing when it comes to themselves, but they are also invariably better writers, who often succeed in transcending the formulaic character of their by-now-familiar narratives. I am relieved and pleased to report that Radosh's volume falls into the second category.
One common characteristic of these ex-Commie confessionals is that the protagonist seems almost destined to play the role of the disillusioned idealist, the acolyte whose God turned out to be a demon. In most cases, the author is simply born into a left-wing milieu, and this was the case with Radosh. Both his parents were among a wave of Central European and Russian immigrants who came to the United States in the decade before World War I and whose baggage contained a commitment to socialism and, it seems, little in the way of material possessions. It was they who inculcated him in the doctrines of the Left, who sent him to Commie summer camps, and they who embarrassed him to no end with their (and the other parents') seemingly endless confrontations with the Irish Catholic teachers of PS 173: over "Negro History Week," over the playing of a Paul Robeson record, over an award given to the school by the politically incorrect Daughters of the American Revolution. His portrait of them is loving, but there is an undercurrent of resentment – annoyance, really – that runs throughout Radosh's early chapters, as he details the effect this kind of upbringing had on his life.
This is not bitterness, however, or condemnation, but an ability to see through the illusions of youth with the pitiless clarity of a fully-matured and slightly bemused adult. And there is that essential ingredient, humor – largely missing from this generally grim literature – albeit of an ironic, even puckish sort. Writing about life at Commie summer camp, Radosh comes up with this insightful and funny anecdote that captures the sense that Communists were (and are) aliens in their own land:
"At Woodland, the competitive teams were divided into different nations. Of course, everyone vied for the honor of being with either the USSR or the People's Republic of China (never called Red China in our camp). The losers who were given the USA team could only sulk over their bad luck."
What a strange, upside-down sort of world to have been born into!
Radosh's smooth narrative flow takes us easily from Commie kindergarten through summer camp and the "little Red schoolhouse" of the Elisabeth Irwin School in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. EI, as he calls it, was the only school where teachers could be hired without an extensive background check and without having to take the "loyalty oath" required by New York's Feinberg Law. It was only natural that our young Red – who had by this time been lured into the youth section of the Communist Party, the Labor Youth League (LYL) – should enter this milieu. His tenure there – 1949-55 – defined the darkest days of the Cold War, and we get a sense of that here, as Radosh relates the decision to rescind an invitation to W. E. B. Du Bois to speak at his graduation. Unlike some other ex-Commies, who write approvingly of the political repression of those years, Radosh never endorses repressive measures, but merely notes them, quoting from his FBI file and informing us that he was targeted for indefinite detention in case of a "crisis" involving the Soviet Union.
We get a sense, also, of the importance of music to the Communist-"progressive" milieu in those days; the songs that were sung at Commie camp (Radosh retains enough of his objectivity to describe one Chinese Communist anthem as "wonderful") were an important aspect of the left-wing movement, and this was especially true of folk music. Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, was one of his classmates, and he recalls hanging around the Village and going to gatherings where Pete Seeger strummed his guitar for the enjoyment of the assembled comrades. Seeger, described by Communist Party hack writer Mike Gold as "the Karl Marx of the teenagers," was, for the youthful Radosh, a hero. Disdainfully citing a Washington Post piece describing Seeger as "America's best-loved Commie," he notes that his youthful hero received a Kennedy Center Honors award in 1995, as well as a Medal of Honor in the Arts from Bill Clinton. He goes on to bitterly remark:
"But somehow, the award makers forgot to tell everyone about Seeger's most famous record . . . Songs for John Doe. Released during the week in June 1941 when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR, the antiwar album was filled with hard-hitting songs that called for no intervention in European battles on behalf of British imperialism, and condemned Roosevelt as a warmongering fascist who worked for J. P. Morgan. "I hate war,' went a rollicking verse to the tune of 'Jesse James.' Another, written to the melody of an old country tune, 'Cripple Creek,' proclaimed 'Franklin D., Franklin D., you ain't gonna send us 'cross the sea.'"
"It was," he concludes, "pure party-line propaganda" – but then again that depends on which party you belong to. For those lyrics get my toes a-tappin', as they would any right-wing America Firster then or now. The story Radosh tells of the fate of Songs for John Doe really underscores the utter hypocrisy and cynicism of the pro-Soviet Left, in this country and around the world. For when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the party line changed instantly and suddenly "The Yanks Are Not Coming" was transformed, on their picket signs, to "We're On Our Way – the sooner the better!" Radosh relates how the now politically incorrect album was recalled, and "all pressings were destroyed, leaving only a few for posterity."
Ah, but due to the miracle of the Internet, this song is not lost to posterity: the lyrics are available right here, and it makes me want to sing out loud:
Franklin D., listen to me,
You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea,
'Cross the sea, 'cross the sea,
You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea.
say it's for defense,
But that kinda talk that I'm against.
I'm against, I'm against,
That kinda talk ain't got no sense.
we are here,
we're gonna stay right over here...
Marcantonio is the best,
but I wouldn't give a nickel
for all the rest...
Morgan's big and plump,
eighty-four inches around the rump...
Wilkie and Franklin D.,
seems to me they both agree,
Both agreed, both agreed,
Both agree on killin' me.
Why, that kind of music has a whole new kind of market: the legions of people, many of them on the Right side of the political spectrum, who don't hold FDR up as some sort of saint, have come to question the mythology of the "good war," and consider themselves latter-day descendants of the old America Firsters. This is a tradition of which Radosh is perfectly well aware: he is, after all, the author of Prophets on the Right: Conservative Critics of American Globalism (1976), in which he recalls the America First movement, recounts the story of such Old Right "isolationist" heroes as John T. Flynn, and includes even a sympathetic sketch of the much-maligned Lawrence Dennis. Yet nowhere is the existence of this book acknowledged in the present work, not even in the short list of his works on the flyleaf. This is a bit strange, if only because the wisdom contained in that book seems to hold the answer to so many of the political points raised by Radosh in his present incarnation as a (sort of) neo-conservative.
I say "sort of" because, unlike the rest of that rather warlike species, whose shrike-like cries can always be heard above the din of any international crisis, shrieking for war, Radosh regrets his role in the antiwar movement without really coming out for the Vietnam war. He recounts his youthful reaction to Norman Thomas, who made a speech against the war in which he declared that he had not come to burn the American flag but to cleanse it: "But for radicals like myself, that proved he was a sellout," since the US was inherently evil and the terrorism of the Vietcong inherently "virtuous." In retrospect, the older-and-wiser Radosh can view his younger self's anti-Americanism with the disdain it deserves, but how Radosh views the issue of the war from his new vantage point remains somewhat mysterious.
The beginning of Radosh's disillusionment with the socialist faith was clearly his visit to Cuba, in which several disturbing aspects of Cuban society became readily apparent. This is vividly dramatized, in the book, when Radosh and his Commie friends visit a Cuban mental hospital. One of their group remarks to a doctor that the patients seem unusually well-behaved, even serene. Have they, perhaps, been heavily tranquilized? The doctor declares that this serenity is due to a great medical innovation made possible by integrating the science of mental health with the science of Marxism-Leninism: lobotomies! "We are proud," proclaimed the Cuban Dr. Mengele, "that in our institution, we have a larger proportion of hospital inmates who have been lobotomized than any other mental hospital in the world"! Afterward, the American comrades got into a heated discussion, with one horrified American therapist noting "It's exactly what we're working against at home!" Castro loyalist Suzanne Ross – then with the Indochina Peace Campaign, who later went on the found the Committee in Solidarity with the Peoples of El Salvador (CISPES) – glared at the dissenters, and said: "We have to understand that there are differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies."
Radosh failed to see any difference, and went home to write an article in which his doubts and dissent were expressed: what seems to have struck him with force equal to the "socialist lobotomies" conundrum was the viciousness and bile of the attacks that followed the publication of his piece in Liberation. "There is some good in everything," went a typical letter to Liberation. "The blockade of Cuba kept the intellectual paws of Professor Ronald Radosh off the Cuban people for fifteen years." The other members of his delegation published a reply in the following issue, "Some of Us Had a Different Trip," filled with nothing but praise for "the first Free Territory of America." Cuba, they averred, is more democratic than the US. Radosh was shocked by this mindless apologia, but not enough to make his break, at least not yet. . . .
After the Vietnam war ended, the Left was in a quandary: what now? What next? Radosh and his friends on the Left seemed to drift: the short-lived "New American Movement," which he and his less dogmatic friends in the former New Left organized, went nowhere. Eventually, Radosh joined the group led by Michael Harrington, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), when the two groups merged, and this was a big step: for a self-styled radical to make the leap into the Social Democracy was a kind of coming of age, a stopover for many on their journey from Left to Right. Some lingered there for many years, never giving up the appellation "socialist" – although their militant "anti-Stalinism" had by this time become a commitment to an aggressive foreign policy of "rolling back" the Soviet Union in cooperation with the US State Department and its intelligence apparatus. (Thus the phrase "State Department socialist.") But Radosh, it seems, did not tarry long.
Radosh's revisionist book on the celebrated case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, The Rosenberg File, forever exiled him from the world of his youth – the world of the Left, where the Rosenbergs were innocent, the victims of anti-Communist hysteria and anti-Semitism, martyrs who deserved to be honored. In his youth he had believed this myth, and he still believed it when he undertook to write a lengthy piece for the New York Times Magazine on the case. The occasion was the release of the FBI's Rosenberg files, documents which led Radosh to one inescapable conclusion, one that has been verified by the opening of the Soviet archives: the Rosenbergs were guilty as hell.
Radosh, committed to truth over ideology, compiled the facts, wrote the story, got it approved by the editors and the editorial board – only to see it quashed by A. M. Rosenthal, the Times' editor-in-chief. Since Radosh criticized the death sentence handed down in that case, Rosenthal was afraid that this would enrage Judge Irving R. Kaufman – who had handed down that decision – who just happened to be the Court of Appeals judge who usually heard press cases. "The Hidden Rosenberg Case: How the FBI Framed Ethel to Break Julius" appeared in the June 23, 1979 issue of The New Republic, and, again, it was the reaction of the Left that left its lasting impression on the author. One of the people mentioned in the article sued Radosh and his co-author, along with TNR, for defamation. The case was thrown out of court, but the sheer viciousness of the response must have been shocking. His old friends on the Left turned against him almost to a man and woman: and when the article was expanded into a book, the response was even more frenzied. An element affiliated with the Communist Party accused him of "apologizing" for anti-Semitism, and his social democratic friends were likewise none too pleased with The Rosenberg File. DSOC was supposedly anti-Communist, but when approached for support none of them would have anything to do with promoting or endorsing the book. Irving Howe declined all appeals for support. So did Michael Harrington, who explained "I always knew they were guilty, but we're trying to get former Communists who have left the Party but are still pro-Soviet into our organization, and I can't do anything to alienate them." Yes, but he could and did alienate Radosh – whose membership in DSOC lapsed, if it wasn't terminated.
Radosh had come a long way since his days as a college organizer for the Labor Youth League: from the New Left to a vague anti-Stalinism that owed more to Isaac Deutscher than Leon Trotsky, to an idiosyncratic social democratic sensibility that defied easy categorization. His last fling with the Left was the "solidarity" movement that sprung up in response to US intervention in Central America in the 1980s, not only in El Salvador but also in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas were lionized on the Left, much as Fidel Castro and his ragged guerrilla army were upheld as the new symbols of a revolutionary generation in the heyday of the radicalized 1960s. The repression against domestic dissidents, Miskito Indians and trade unionists, was ignored by the Left or else rationalized as "revolutionary." Radosh writes that he wanted the Sandinistas to succeed, and hoped that a "welfare state" would grow out of their movement, and not a replica of Stalinist Cuba. But the Rosenberg case had taught him, he says, to be skeptical of the Left: they had been wrong about the Rosenbergs – why not about the Sandinistas, too? He traveled to Nicaragua with representatives of the Puebla Institute, and on his return his press conference at which Sandinista human rights violations were documented and exposed, was completely blacked out. Acerbically noting that the Sandinistas were engaging in "the same kind of resettlement policy that the Left had accused the United States of using in Vietnam," Radosh notes that the big difference this time was that "the Left was completely silent."
It is one thing to oppose whitewashing the crimes of the Sandinistas, and quite another to advocate aiding the so-called contras – the US-supported-and-subsidized armed force that was engaged in overthrowing them. Radosh explains his transition from a principled noninterventionist to an advocate of contra aid as follows:
"As a result of what I observed on the trip, I eventually became a firm supporter of contra aid. While congressional liberals were waging a campaign to cut off all such military aid, I had come to understand that it was only the threat of a fully capable contra army that made the Sandinista leaders even contemplate any internal loosening up."
As to why such an army could not arise indigenously, and overthrow the Sandinistas without being turned into the sock puppet of the Americans, is a question that contra aid supporters could not answer then, and will not address today. For the answer is that there was, indeed, such an army, one led by Commandante Eden Pastora, the leader of the original army that overthrew the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Pastora was a popular hero who sought to use his political weight to organize a third force, one committed to political pluralism that would be independent of both the US and Moscow. For his trouble he was targeted by the CIA and marked for assassination, barely escaping with his life to Costa Rica, where, today, he is a fisherman. But for Radosh, it was and is a black-and-white issue, the contras versus the Sandinistas, with no room for a third force.
Radosh, by this time, was looking at the world through a Cold War lens. He writes that "Indeed, not only hard leftists but also Democratic liberals favored [the Sandinista] regime on the ground that it was immoral to intervene in Nicaragua's internal affairs." Only the Republicans, he muses, were sympathetic to the cause of human rights in Nicaragua. So Radosh returned to the US and wrote another article, this time openly supporting contra aid. The Sandinistas had declared that even if they lost an election they would never give up power: this, says Radosh, was the final straw, and his stand was now clear: contra aid was a "precondition" for peace in the region.
What Radosh leaves out, however, is that the Sandinistas did not keep their promise: they did lose an election, and they did give up power. So, was contra aid still justified? Radosh does not bother to answer such an obvious question, but instead goes on to write that the Sandinistas fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda: they thought they could win an election because the people supported them. Of course, the election was held, say interventionists, only because of military pressure, and that pressure could only have come from the United States, but this must remain an article of faith, and an especially tenuous one at that, considering that the US did its best to squelch anti-Sandinista elements it could not control, such as Pastora.
Radosh has been the recipient of admiring reviews from nearly everyone on the Right, with only one jarring note, and that from National Review. Roger Clegg, general counsel of something called the "Center for Equal Opportunity" (sounds like a neocon outfit to me!) wrote in an otherwise admiring review:
"Laughing at one's foibles and youthful mistakes is fine, but it's hard to expect others to laugh along with too much enthusiasm when the foibles were treason and the mistakes nearly ruined the country and the world. I don't think Radosh would disagree with my assertion of his perfidy or the high stakes: His reaction at the time to the collapse of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was, "We had won in Vietnam!," and he later concludes that "the only accomplishments [of the Left] were famine, gulags and mass death. Suppose a Nazi wrote a light-hearted memoir about the amusing hijinks within the Third Reich, but how he ultimately became disillusioned with mass murder. That's harsh, I know, and Radosh is no mass murderer. But he did take the side of the mass murderers. And, as Stephen Schwartz writes in his review of Radosh's book in a recent print issue of National Review, Radosh 'evinces something close to nostalgia for the enthused innocence with which he once embraced the Leninist cause.' It was springtime, for Stalin, in America."
Rubbish! Anyone who has read Radosh's book knows perfectly well that his Stalinism did not survive his student days, and that his instincts were always anti-authoritarian. But aside from that, the idea that he should have supported the Vietnam war, instead of protesting, does not follow, either from his memoir or from the facts. For the Vietnam war was lost on the battlefield, not on American university campuses, and this myth of the stab in back at home preventing a glorious victory in the field is just that – a myth, and a particularly pernicious one. It fuels the interventionist impulse that draws us to such faraway theaters of conflict as Colombia and Kosovo, and pays the Marxist Left in this country a (backhanded) compliment it has not earned and does not deserve. Quite apart from all that, one does not have to support the North Vietnamese government to see that a land war in Asia was a losing proposition from the very beginning: one that could, in the end, only aid the Communists. Seen from this perspective – seen, that is, as a trap – the Vietnam war and those who supported it could, in the same crude manner unconvincingly employed by Clegg, be defined as "treasonous."
get into any of this, however: his rather reasonable, and even agreeable
answer is here
– but I think he is much too easy on Clegg. The problem with the ex-Commies
who have gravitated toward the Right – and they are legion – has not
been that they are not repentant enough of their views, or that they
were engaged in "treason." The problem is that they have carried the methods
and attitudes of their former Leninism over into the conservative movement.
They have learned nothing but a new set of slogans, and, not at all humbled
by the magnitude of their previous errors, they are full of advice to
their newfound comrades, whom they hector continually. Radosh, however,
seems relatively innocent of such unpleasant habits, and I don't mean
to include him in this category: David Horowitz and Irving Kristol, take
Filled with telling anecdotes, and permeated by the gently ironic and perceptive humor of its author, Commies is fascinating chronicle of the Left in our time and is well worth reading. But, for this reader at least, the ending is far from satisfactory: the author, we are told, has "come home to America," and left the America-hating Left. This raises more questions than it answers: what kind of America does the author want to come home to? He critiques the left mercilessly, but is he still a socialist? A social democrat? He speaks, briefly, about his recent trip to China, and writes of "large and enthusiastic audiences" for his speeches, "all of them friendly to the United States." He notes with relief that, in foreign policy, the stakes aren't as high, now that the Cold War is ended. But what about the anti-Chinese warmongering that is so much a part of the conservative movement these days? Indeed, Radosh writes a column for Frontpagemag.com, the website of the Center for Popular Culture, which regularly runs scare pieces demonizing China and raising the possibility of war. What kind of foreign policy does the author of Commies envision, now that the Cold War is over? Has he completely abandoned the non-interventionism that characterized his previous stance?
Back in 1972, Radosh co-edited a volume of essays with Murray N. Rothbard, the libertarian theorist, A New History of Leviathan, in which Radosh's contribution was an essay attacking Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal as an example of liberal corporatism. The New Deal, he wrote, was no socialist revolution, but an attempt by conservative corporate interests to rationalize and preserve their rule by cartelizing the economy. In the jointly-written introduction, signed by Radosh and Rothbard, they ask:
"How is it that an archexponent of laissez-faire capitalism can coedit a collection on the Leviathan Corporate State with a firm believer in socialist revolution? The answer is that each, because of his critique of liberal ideology and concepts, has been able in his own work to transcend the ideological myths that enable the large corporations to mask their hegemony over American society."
Radosh's critique of liberalism has evolved much farther since then, as we have seen: how far is a question not answered in his present memoir. While pointing out their differences – Rothbard's adherence to laissez-faire, and Radosh's commitment to "a decentralized socialist economy" – the Introduction to the 1972 book goes on to say that "political differences may be submerged when it comes to using basic analytical techniques, when it comes, in short, to challenging the preeminent liberal ideology of mainstream corporate American and its academic and intellectual servants." Aside from a devotion to truth and an abiding humanism, this is the one thread of continuity that runs throughout Radosh's career, a constant theme of his journey from Left to Right: a method that has taken him this far, and may yet take him – who knows? – to embrace the position of his old friend and co-editor, Murray Rothbard, a non-interventionist of the Right. That he fully understands that position is evinced, as I have said, in his 1976 book, Prophets on the Right: that he is moving toward it, now that the Cold War is over, is hinted at nowhere in this memoir. But one can always hope.
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