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During the Cold War, the libraries of America’s public school system were stocked with books explaining the history and dogma of Communism to young readers, as inoculation against the subtle wiles and baleful influence of our enemy. It has been 30 years and more since I read them. Even during the Carter years they seemed a bit dated; they paid no attention to detente, and some of the authors were clearly suspicious that the Sino-Soviet conflict might be a ruse. But one odd element of these anti-Communist manuals has proved strangely durable–even somewhat useful in thinking about the Cold War itself–and that is the account they gave of something called dialectics.
This was surely the most arcane part of Communist theory. You learned Karl Marx had derived dialectics from a German philosopher named G.W.F. Hegel, who maintained that the world kept moving through a three-phase process. First there was something called a “thesis,” which in due course was confronted by something called its “antithesis.” They fought it out until there emerged a “synthesis,” combining aspects of both. Eventually the synthesis turned into a thesis, whereupon the whole thing started over again. It all seemed very abstract, and the authors of primers themselves often seemed unclear as to why it was important, except that it was supposed to be the key to Red strategy. Evidently troublemaking Communists were running around trying to provoke antithesis, and if they prevailed the Soviet army would be in your neighborhood, forcing everyone to march in a May Day parade.
Whatever its merits as a philosophy of history, this notion actually has scant roots in the work of Marx–and none at all in Hegel, who mentioned thesis/antithesis/synthesis just once, with sarcasm. A few American right-wingers remain fascinated with its explanatory power. (To judge by talk radio and certain Internet forums, Obama-lectics is the basis for health-care reform.) Otherwise the dialectical triad might seem a rather dubious fossil of Cold War culture. And yet its three stages actually provide a pretty good description of how the Cold War itself has been understood over the years, at least on this side of the Iron Curtain.
The original thesis, so to speak, was that the Cold War was a conflict in which democratic societies faced an expansive, totalitarian system where ideological passion fueled military aggression. It was a defensive combat, with the West protecting itself from the East, freedom resisting tyranny. This was something liberals and conservatives could agree on, and we might even call it the consensus interpretation.
A body of revisionist historiography–most of it appearing in the antithesis-minded 1960s and ‘70s–challenged this perspective by stressing the economic interests and sheer military power of the United States and its allies. A certain amount of Soviet behavior could be put down to historically justified paranoia; and after all, the Free World was somewhat selective in its outrage at violations of democracy and human rights. Cold War revisionism tended to treat the conflict as a fairly deliberate campaign by rich countries to squelch the drive of underdeveloped countries to attain national independence and economic sovereignty.
Thesis, in other words, and antithesis. Then, around 1990, the cunning of history worked its strange magic; a chapter closed, and the archives opened, or at least some of them did. Revisionism itself had to be revised. A global showdown that had dragged on for decades started to look less like a matter of world-historical forces than a series of battles in which each side tended to misunderstand the motives and rationales of the other–thereby reinforcing the tendency toward conflict, since the fog of war clouded the distinction between aggressive and defensive maneuvers.
After the Cold War, formulating a grand narrative about it became more complicated but also less polemically urgent. Indeed, much of the scholarship on the Cold War over the past two decades reflects the “cultural turn” in historiography in general. It is not just that cultural artifacts (books, films, broadcasts, etc.) are analyzed along with diplomatic feints, shooting wars, and so on. Now the very concepts that governed the thinking of participants in the conflict–”containment,” “totalitarianism,” “imperialism,” “anti-imperialism” and so on–are subject to cultural questioning. They are no longer explanations for what happened. They require analysis themselves as elements of the culture of the period. The old conflicts, the clashes of thesis and antithesis, come together in a synthesis–one in which the Cold War itself grows cold, and reflection on it “paints gray on gray,” to borrow a phrase from Hegel himself.
And so John Fleming’s The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War is an anomaly in a number of ways–not least of which is the way it unearths and repeats the anti-Communist triumphalism of the Cold War era, an easy tendency that too often blocked any absorption of the real lessons of the Cold War (the dangers of ideology, the limits of hard power) by the American public. The author is a professor emeritus of literature at Princeton University who has specialized in medieval and Renaissance literature. Having wandered so far beyond his usual neighborhood, he feels at liberty to ignore certain local nuance, and even to treat the Cold War as if it is still underway.
The experience of undertaking a book “so different in its subject from any I had written before,” he says in the introduction,
encouraged me also to write in a different manner. The Anti-Communist Manifestos seeks a general educated audience rather than a guild of professional scholars or specialists. I have accordingly suppressed the apparatus of note citations and bibliographies required in specialized monographs, though I from time to time cite a few particularly helpful or even indispensable sources.
Here, the generally educated audience sighs in relief and quiet satisfaction. Readers will expect a condensed but authoritative account of the Cold War, in which all of the intra-professional haggling by experts will be adjudicated, hitting just the high points.
The Cold War was, as Fleming puts it, a “‘battle of the books’ between Communists and anti-Communists.” Presumably that makes pamphlets a form of light artillery, while a journal like Partisan Review was, well, a magazine. This analogy, however belabored, proves useful, for The Anti-Communist Manifestos is closer in spirit to popular military history than to literary or political analysis of Cold War conflicts. It is engaging, at times even entertaining, like a well-choreographed battle re-enactment, but the contribution to critical historical consciousness is somewhat unclear.
Even a non-specialist reader may be puzzled by the range of titles Fleming has selected for discussion, beginning with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) and concluding with Whitaker Chambers’s Witness (1952). Along the way it passes through the less well-remembered I Chose Freedom (1946), by Victor Kravchenko, after taking a look at Out of the Night (1941), the pulp-fictionish memoirs of one “Jan Valtin,” also known as Richard Krebs. Each book reached a large audience in the United States, and in the case of the works by Koestler and Kravchenko also in France, but it is never made clear why these four volumes (none of them, incidentally, a manifesto) belong alongside one another while other works of equal or greater influence are ignored or barely noticed.
Even judged as a work of cultural history for the general reader, this book is strangely indifferent to the array of ideas and arguments that shaped opinion during the years it purports to cover. The works of James Burnham and Friedrich Hayek (true generals in the battle of ideas) go unnoticed. Victor Serge is silent. Orwell is AWOL. Ante Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma (1940), now largely forgotten, once played a crucial role in challenging left-wing assessments of Stalinism; but Fleming ignores it. He does give a passing nod to The God That Failed (1949) since Arthur Koestler contributed an essay to it. But so did Andre Gide, Ignazio Silone, and Richard Wright, among others, and that anthology deserves more than a couple of passing references.
Omissions so large and so obvious imply some very definite challenge to the canon of Cold War cultural references. A first guess is that Fleming must want to clear the ground of the old monuments, making room for new ones–perhaps in a spirit of postmodernist irony, since one of his titles, Out of the Night, is a rather dubious account of Comintern espionage and skullduggery on the waterfront (featuring hot and easy Red babes). But the author announces no such intention, nor does The Anti-Communist Manifestos reveal one. Evidently he happened to find these four titles interesting, and so decided to write about them. The selection is literally coincidental: In the case of Out of the Night, Fleming discovered it as an amateur bookbinder–he was about to dismember a hardback copy for its well-preserved covers when, by chance, he decided to read it first.
Fleming’s method is to reconstruct how each book came to be written and to narrate the drama of its reception; it seems that the outrage of Stalinophile book reviewers often helped boost sales. A certain amount of political history is woven into the narrative–but not systematically, and with enough repetition to prove distracting.
At times there are astonishing omissions. The activity of the Central Intelligence Agency in shaping Cold War culture has been studied in some depth over the past 20 years, and not just by people critical of its role–an account of the origins of the Congress for Cultural Freedom can be found on the CIA’s own website, for example. Fleming manages not to discuss the Congress, even though Koestler was part of its international network. This is somewhat akin to narrating the career of Michelangelo without ever mentioning the papacy.
The pre-publication copy sent to reviewers shows that Fleming originally described his subject as “Four Books That Caused the Cold War.” The more modest claim now–that the books “shaped” the global dispute–is evidence of better judgment prevailing, but the original subtitle was arguably closer to the spirit of the book. The thumbnail histories of Communism in my junior-high library tended to treat it as a direct result of Marx and Engels writing their Manifesto. Likewise here with the works Fleming identifies as “anti-Communist manifestos.” In both cases, the relationship between book and history is understood to be one of cause and effect, rather than that of text and context.
Fleming is at his best in discussing the two works that are of interest as literary artifacts as well as ideological combat: Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Chambers’s Witness. Both men were hardened political operatives (Koestler being “a connoisseur of the jails of Europe,” as Fleming neatly puts it) but also possessed of some talent as writers. Their defections from the Communist movement involved a complex process of doubt and reconciliation, followed by renewed and deepening estrangement.
In the figure of Rubashov–the old Bolshevik who faces a show trial and willingly confesses to fabricated charges of his crimes against the revolution–Koestler tries to evoke the inner twistings and turnings of the Stalinized psyche, ready to sacrifice itself for the greater good of History. Chambers’s memoir is, in effect, a sequel to Koestler’s novel, for he was essentially a Rubashov who changed sides without changing his nature as an ideologue.
Fleming is alert to Chambers’s gifts as an author and to the preponderance of evidence that he had in fact been involved in precisely the espionage activity he claimed. (Objections from Alger Hiss defenders are rare and peep-like these days.) But he is indifferent to what Hannah Arendt detected when Witness first appeared–a quality of mind she identified as peculiar to the professional ex-Communists of the day:
Like the Communists, the ex-Communists see the whole texture of our time in terms of one great dichotomy ending in a final battle. There is no plurality of forces in the world; there are only two. These two are not the opposition of freedom against tyranny (or however one may want to formulate it in traditional terms), but of one faith against another.…American liberalism, to take the outstanding example, has for decades been denounced by Communism as an inconsistent, inconsequential attitude in the service of the bourgeoisie (or capitalism or whatnot) and is now denounced by ex-Communists as the inconsistent, inconsequential ally of Communism. Anti-liberalism as attitude and chief idiosyncrasy has remained the same.
We recognize here an ideological perspective that survived the Berlin Wall. Our political and media landscape still has its share of this sort of character, albeit without Chambers’s literary talent. His example has been a template for a generation or two of neoconservatives who spent a semester flirting with the left before declaring war on even the most anodyne reformism.
Surely any assessment of the books or its influence ought to consider that legacy. Instead, Fleming just celebrates Witness as an act of self-sacrifice, a text consisting of nothing less than the “self-destruction” of Chambers himself. This was, he writes, “a rhetorical gesture so extravagant and self-indulgent that it can be justified by one thing alone: the truth.” But plenty of other figures told the truth about Stalin’s system (the example of Victor Serge comes to mind) without portraying themselves as the central figures in a cosmic melodrama.
If any of the works discussed in The Anti-Communist Manifestos may be said to have had its effect primarily through the force of truthful revelation, it is Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom. Its author–an engineer and captain in the Red Army who had walked away from his post in the Soviet delegation in Washington–was not the first émigré to describe the realities behind the propaganda about the triumphs of the latest Five Year Plan. But his book appeared at just the moment–1946–when wartime self-censorship about the Soviet Union was ending. Fleming’s account of the international repercussions (including a trial in France in which Kravchenko sued a Communist literary magazine that slandered him, and won) is the high point of The Anti-Communist Manifestos.
The chapter on Out of the Night is another matter. This pseudonymous page-turner from 1941 was denounced by the Communists as the work of a crypto-Nazi, a hoodlum, and a liar. The slander campaign may have had the boomerang of making the book seem more creditable in some quarters, but the charges were not wholly without merit. The author had done prison time for assault and robbery at a jewelry store; he tries to pass this off in the book as something ordered by Comintern superiors. And his claim to have been a double agent in Europe (one who pretended to let the Germans turn him against his Red comrades) surely deserved a wary response.
Fleming calls Out of the Night “a strange colloid suspension, in which little blobs of fact are captured in a viscous medium of fiction, or perhaps vice versa.” This raises certain problems for a theme running throughout The Anti-Communist Manifestos: the perspective that bold truth-telling was a decisive, catalytic force that “caused” or “shaped” the Cold War. In a long digression, Fleming shifts his attention from Night to the more recent cases of James Frey and Rigoberta Menchu:
The particular problem posed by autobiography seems on first glance to be quite clear-cut. Autobiography is, or ought to be, “true” by definition. On the other hand, autobiography is a form of literary art, and all literary art requires artifice. When truth meets art, the results can be confusing…[Judgment must be made] with regard to a large and very complex “context” of place and time, “social factors,” “intellectual climate,” and other somewhat vague abstractions frequently encountered in history books. The question of the truthfulness of the “autobiography” in Out of the Night [has] to be adjudicated in no other way, which is to say in a political way.
Similar thoughts on the precise ratio of empirical truth to creative writing recur in the chapter on Witness, where they lead Fleming to discuss the medieval rules concerning the stages of confession and repentance.
In short, any tendency toward self-dramatizing fabulation needs to be considered as incidental. The emphasis should fall instead on the whole process as a ritual of contrition–one in which Communist sins are paid for and the process of Cold War atonement begun. How creditable an interpretation of cultural and political history this seems may depend on a reader’s attitude toward understanding ideological and geopolitical struggle as holy war.
Regarded on its own terms, as a work of popular history writing, The Anti-Communist Manifestos is a decidedly mixed performance. It is weak on establishing historical context–or even the grounds for its own particular emphases on particular texts–yet vivid enough never to be dull. Doubtless some members of the “general educated audience” to which the book addresses itself will be left wishing it did have a bibliography. A “non-specialist” interest is not necessarily a superficial one.
Unfortunately, what it gives that public is something already only too readily available: yet another dose of Cold War triumphalism, in which the conflict is shown as the moral crusade of a few heroic (if not quite saintly) anti-Communist writers. This is simplistic even by the standards of those “anti-Communism for kids” treatises of yesteryear. Fleming has just recycled the old “consensus” thesis about the origins and dynamics of the Cold War.
The atrocities, deceptions, and bad faith of the Communist system are not exactly wanting for publicity. Far less well or widely assessed is the issue of what it cost to go on war footing against that system–and to remain in that condition for several decades.
This is not, strictly speaking, a question about the past. Habits of thought and action that have been built up over a long period tend to sustain their momentum. Cold War tropes still mobilize themselves in political discussion in a swift and catastrophic fashion–with radical Islam being figured as either an equivalent of the Communist menace or as old-school “anti-imperialism” under a new banner, for example. Defining health care as a social good rather than a commodity falls under suspicion as a paving stone on the road to neo-Stalinist serfdom. The decision by even moderate Republicans to label Barack Obama a socialist shows how little we’ve advanced intellectually, long after history has moved on.
Thinking seriously about the Cold War now must bring us, sooner or later, to the problem of how deep such tendencies run–and whether we can learn to think beyond them. The attitude toward the past manifested in The Anti-Communist Manifestos, on the other hand, is that while scholars might haggle over the details of the Cold War, the important thing for everyone else is that we won, and that we won because truth was on our side. Such triumphalism feels good, but it also masks deeper lessons of postwar history. Whatever else there is to say about this perspective, it does not exactly respect the seriousness of the public, let alone honor the intelligence of the citizen.