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At the Vanguard

Communist governments created totalitarian nightmares. But ironically, communist movements often helped advance a liberal agenda.

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Comrades! By Robert Service • Harvard University Press • 2007 • 582 pages • $35

Near the end of his short, tormented life, F. Scott Fitzgerald reflected that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” And though it’s a subject to which the great novelist apparently gave little or no thought, this might be a useful way to understand the history of communism.

One idea was widely accepted even before the end of the Cold War–and is now indisputable: From Beijing to Moscow to Prague, communists ran what were among the bloodiest, most repressive, and most undemocratic regimes in the modern world. Their regimes were intellectually sterile and habitually dishonest: states built on lies. Leninist leaders also failed to construct dynamic, prosperous economies, at least until the 1970s, when officials in a few nations, such as China and Hungary, cast off their dogma and allowed market incentives and private entrepreneurs to operate.

At the same time, millions of other communists spent all their lives in capitalist countries. Members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and its like-minded brethren around the West were badly deluded about the nature of the USSR and its copycat states. And yet many of these men and women worked with determination and skill to promote ends any modern-day American liberal would applaud: union recognition and higher wages, an end to discrimination by race and religion, protection of civil liberties, and access to good education and cultural resources for every citizen. It was an ironic fate: The only communists who furthered democratic ends were those who never succeeded in taking power.

In Comrades!, Robert Service presents a lively and detailed account of the damage that was done in the name of “building socialism.” A distinguished historian of modern Russia at Oxford, he lucidly explains how the Bolsheviks gradually imposed their will on an impoverished and often resentful populace. Lenin mixed terror with the promise of a modernized economy; Stalin added patriotic appeals and a vast, smothering bureaucracy subservient to his whims. And beginning in the summer of 1941, he had help as defense of the Motherland against Hitler’s legions kept most Soviet citizens loyal. Stalin’s polyglot disciples then spread the new order into Asia and Eastern Europe. At their zenith in the early 1970s, communists governed a third of humanity. And yet, as Service notes, “Despite all the diversity of the states committed to communism, there was an underlying similarity in purpose and practice.

Comrades! makes no original argument and contains only a smattering of new evidence. Still, it is valuable to have the whole grim, brutal record laid out in one thick volume covering everything from the downfall of Czarism to the oddball tyranny of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. To learn about the millions who starved after Mao Zedong decreed the rapid industrialization of rural China or about the 4,500 chandeliers that glittered in the palace of strongman Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania (a country where the masses lacked reliable electricity) should dispel any myths about the morality of communist rule. Service has written a textbook with a bad attitude, and his stance is fully justified by the facts.

Nevertheless, Service gives barely a glance to the demand side of communism–in particular, why it appealed to so many people who were fortunate not to live under its sway. In his recent autobiography, the historian Eric Hobsbawm recalls a fellow British communist badly wounded by a German bomb who, in what she thought were her last words, shouted, “Long live the Party, long live Stalin…” Even in Auschwitz, Hobsbawm reports, good communists kept up their party dues, “paid in the inconceivably precious currency of cigarettes.

What motivated such people? In part, they shared the élan of belonging to an international movement, one composed of comrades from every race and continent, with its headquarters in the largest nation in the world. Communists thrilled at the effectiveness of the Leninist method, which seemed to combine sharp debate with the discipline of a crusading army. Of course, they were also filled with a desire to banish the violence and misery that was the lot of most of humanity. By adhering to the Bolshevik way, one could become an engineer on the locomotive of history. To be sure, the voyage would be rough and dangerous; the train would rattle, careen, occasionally catch fire, and throw the weak and unseated onto the tracks. But the pace and direction of the trip were clear.

The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 shook this conviction for many radicals in the West–especially for the many Jews attracted to the universalist values communism seemed to enshrine. But most doubters revived their faith when Hitler invaded the USSR less than two years later. And even as the Cold War solidified the division between radical and moderate leftists, the sacrifices of communist fighters in wartime France and Italy yielded their parties millions of new voters and thousands of new members after the carnage ceased.

Few communist militants were troubled that their fealty to the Kremlin and its vassals had split the international left into warring camps. While Communist Party (CP) members lauded everything Lenin, Stalin, and then Khrushchev said or did, most of their opponents on the left drifted inevitably toward social democracy. After World War II, the latter built welfare states that remain models of how to achieve social equity within a market system, even if global competition has recently forced them to trim benefits and keep militant unions at arm’s length.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the barricades: Most communists in Western Europe, Japan, and the Americas gradually became cheerleaders for liberal ideals and social-democratic policies themselves. Party leaders realized that, even among the millions who voted for CP candidates, there were few who longed to repeat the Soviet “experiment” in the fields of Tuscany or the blue-collar suburbs of Paris or SA£o Paulo. By the 1960s, communists in the industrial West tended to speak about revolution the way Unitarians talk about God–as a source of one’s principles but not a factor in one’s future. The leaders of the French Communist Party even labeled the student radicals of 1968 foes of the working class and tried, unsuccessfully, to stop union members from engaging in their
own strike against the government. Notwithstanding the Cold War, meaningful distinctions between the domestic policies of socialists and communists had dissolved before the Soviet empire collapsed two decades later.

In the United States, communists never achieved the durability of their counterparts across the oceans; by the late 1950s, they had devolved into a tiny sect. The only congressperson they could count on was East Harlem’s Vito Marcantonio, elected on the American Labor Party ticket, who never joined the Communist Party. Service, understandably, devotes a mere 10 pages to the entire history of the CPUSA. But in their weakness, American communists became early exponents of the reformist turn later adopted by their more powerful comrades overseas. In the process, they became sparkplugs of several major social movements during the FDR years and had a remarkably broad influence on American culture. Indeed, there was a tragic irony to the CPUSA’s affair with liberalism, particularly at its most ardent, during the last half of the 1930s–the period of both the anti-fascist Popular Front and the Great Terror, when the Soviet state murdered millions of Russians for a variety of thought crimes. At the height of Stalin’s savagery, the Communist International encouraged its American cadres to work for an expansion of workplace democracy and social equality at home.

Communists achieved close to legitimate status in parts of the urban, liberal North and West by portraying themselves as uncompromising defenders of union organizers and civil freedoms. Hundreds of party members further proved their anti-fascist credentials by shedding their blood in the Spanish Civil War. It helped that, at the time, some influential Americans outside the party also believed in the myth of a Soviet Union that had conquered unemployment, racism, and other allegedly bourgeois evils, even if its methods were rather rough. “We hoped that their society would evolve and that ours too would become both more humane and more scientific,” recalled historian Matthew Josephson.

The great critic and social democrat Irving Howe once labeled the CPUSA’s tilt toward reformism during the Popular Front “a brilliant masquerade.” In the late 1930s, he was a Trotskyite and, along with the like-minded Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, at the time considered the communists to be nothing but devious schemers. Yet most rank-and-file American Leninists were comfortable, even glad, to put their visions of revolution aside as they devoted themselves to building the industrial unions of the CIO, defending blacks and Latinos arrested for asserting their constitutional rights, forming anti-fascist “front groups” like the League of American Writers and the American Student Union, and even boosting their ideas from within the Democratic parties of such states as New York, Minnesota, Washington, and California.

The Popular Front allowed rank-and-file Communists–most of whom were either immigrants or had grown up in ethnic or racial enclaves separate from the larger society–to embrace Americanism. The reformist party line gave CP members permission to follow their hearts as well as their minds–to identify and work with a variety of their fellow citizens in big battles for undeniably important and feasible ends. In 1937, the Young Communist League chided the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for neglecting to celebrate the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride. They marched up Broadway in New York City with a sign that read, “The DAR Forgets but the YCL remembers.” It didn’t seem absurd at the time.

Communists thus put grassroots muscle, and their tightly blinkered idealism, behind the goals of the New Deal and joined the coalition that kept it in power. “I don’t turn my organizers upside down to see what kind of literature they have in their pockets,” CIO leader John L. Lewis told critics who doubted the wisdom of allowing Leninists to spearhead union drives in auto factories and steel plants. In fact, that literature often promoted causes like interracial unions, progressive taxation, and national health insurance that many Democrats in Congress opposed. Radicals thus helped give the famously opportunistic Franklin Roosevelt reason to believe he might push beyond piecemeal measures and toward the full welfare state suggested in his landmark Four Freedoms speech of 1941.

Around this left-wing core grew a sentimental, vigorously democratic culture whose themes endured long after communists had been banished to the crumbling margins of American politics. American communists were hardly the initiators of this impulse in American life. Major aspects of what historians call “popular front culture” actually predated the Great Depression by decades: Walt Whitman and Mark Twain had celebrated the wisdom and art of working people; Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth had preached that “to understand, one must stand under”; and Horace Kallen and W.E.B. DuBois had argued that, to realize its promise, the United States had to celebrate its multi-ethnic character. But, as Yale historian Michael Denning shows in The Cultural Front, it was members of the CP in the 1930s who wrote “Ballad for Americans,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”; and authors who’d spent many evenings in radical circles
who wrote Native Son, “Citizen Kane,” “Death of a Salesman,” and Yertle the Turtle and who popularized the kind of “ghetto pastoral” in novels and films that led directly to the “Godfather.” Such liberal intellectuals as Lionel Trilling and James Baldwin later scorned many of these works as bathetic and simplistic, but they helped to re-infuse American culture with an anti-authoritarian, populist tone that rapidly became ubiquitous and still thrives today.

With the coming of the Cold War, liberals spurned their erstwhile allies on the communist left amid alarms about espionage, some of which have turned out to be true. But the zero-sum rivalry with the USSR and its ideological allies for the support of a decolonizing Third World also compelled liberals to take a step they had dithered about for decades: In the late 1940s, they finally became open supporters of racial equality. The Democratic Party, galvanized by the oratory of then–Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, endorsed a tough civil rights plank for the first time in its history; President Harry Truman desegregated the military; several Northern states and metropolises passed equal housing laws; and black men began playing Major League baseball, beginning with teams in the liberal bastions of New York and Cleveland.

These were milestones on the way to the national triumph of civil rights laws in the 1960s. But it’s no coincidence that they occurred as Henry Wallace, presidential candidate of a Progressive Party controlled by communists, was denouncing Jim Crow and insisting on speaking before integrated audiences–and just as millions of Asians and Africans were battling to free themselves from the rule of white Europeans. The Communist Party–in a campaign led by Lester Rodney, a sportswriter for the Daily Worker–was the only white-led political body of any significance that demanded the integration of professional baseball.

Liberals were certainly not wrong to sunder their tacit coalition with the disciples of Stalin. The Soviet empire may have been an indirect one, willingly staffed by local communists. But to “choose the West,” as Dwight MacDonald put it, was to take a stand for both democratic principle and human decency. Yet such powerful Democrats as Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson came to view politics too much through the prism of the Cold War; following the logic of global competition, they sought to manage social problems at home rather than solve them. This prevented them from giving an array of festering ills–segregation, pollution, urban decay, and poverty–the attention they deserved. In the mid-1960s, under the pressure of the civil rights movement, liberal Democrats like Johnson did address these problems and succeeded, at least, in destroying legal Jim Crow. But the Vietnam War and a conservative backlash tempered their zeal for economic justice. Except in campaign rhetoric, they have yet to regain it.

It is no easier today to hold conflicting truths about communism in one’s mind than it was at the height of the Cold War. In the United States, scholarly empathists who focus almost solely on the accomplishments of the Popular Front battle with “orthodox” critics, such as Ronald Radosh, who stress the hundreds of CP members who passed state secrets, large and small, to Soviet agents. The question of whether Alger Hiss was innocent or guilty of espionage can still stir passionate debate in the Nation and the National Review, 60 years after the congressional hearing that made the New Deal–era diplomat a national pariah.

One way to escape this bind would be to adopt the wisdom of pragmatic philosophy: Focus on the consequences of communism, and something useful may be retrieved from the dustbin of history. Communist rule was a cruel disaster for its subjects, but it did induce governments elsewhere to make necessary reforms out of fear of ideological competition. Communists who failed to take power were often duplicitous, self-serving, and able to convince themselves and others that Soviet despotism was the handmaiden of progress. But in the years before Pearl Harbor, they did more to build the movements for racial equality, union power, and against Nazism than did most liberals. There was no Red conspiracy behind the New Deal, as Joseph McCarthy charged. But neither can the communists be separated from achievements liberals would dearly like to emulate today.

Robert Service concludes his book with a warning. Leaders from Hitler to Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden may have hated communism and worked for its annihilation, he writes. “Yet they were influenced by communist precedents even while regarding it as a plague bacillus. Communism has proved to have metastasizing features. It will have a long afterlife even when the last communist state has disappeared.” But, for all his learning, Service’s grasp of history is both too short and too narrow. Thought-controlling tyrannies existed long before the consolidation of the October Revolution, and the persistence of the breed has little to do with the rise or fall of either the USSR or those regimes that survive in East Asia and Cuba who trace their origins to the Bolshevik example. Similarly, the egalitarian vision that once filled such people with a will to power and self-sacrifice predated communism as well. The eclipse of the ideology
described in Comrades! just initiated a new phase in an ancient, and agonizing, conflict. It neither extinguished the hope for a pure moral order nor the peril of allowing those who believe in such a dream to capture state power.

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