OCTOBER 8, 2008
As both doctrine and praxis, to borrow from the old vernacular, communism may have been the most vicious phenomenon of the twentieth century. Part of the viciousness was its canny competence in purporting to be the chalice of hope for mankind. Nazism was also cruel, very cruel and industrially proficient in the mechanics of mass death. But it had no pretensions to universal humanitarianism. It was a master race ideology. Given this undisguised basic principle, its enemies and victims were evident at the near-start and they were by definition counted in the multitudes. Perhaps that is one reason why Hitler's demented regime lasted a bare dozen years.
But the world is not quite done with the epigones of Leninism, some still governing in a few benighted, if enormous jurisdictions and others still fighting, poor deluded folk, in the mountains. How much longer can a lie like this last?
In all, communism has slaughtered well over 100 million, and still counting. How many souls its rule also ruined is harder to know. A new book, The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis, the existence of which I first noticed in a review by the myth-breaking American historian Ronald Radosh in National Review, unveils a wholly new topic: the deadly fate of the thousands of American communists and sympathizers who went to the Soviet Union to build socialism. For many, this was another form of aliyah, except not to the Jewish homeland that turned out to be a success, but to the fatherland of labor that ended in political, ideological, economic, demographic, and ethical ruin, not to mention the gulag.
In America and in other Western societies, however, there still remain coteries of intellectuals and other high-minded people who have trouble absorbing the simplest historic truths, truths which ordinary workers in highly ideological Labour England, say, have had absolutely no difficulties absorbing. Even more so among unionized workers in the United States. The blindness of these meta-minds does not quite absolve Stalin of his crimes--but it willfully looks away from those of Castro or Che, who still hold a special place in the hearts of people calling themselves progressives. The West never quite focused on the enormities of the Mao regime, so, to many of these revolutionaries, the worst atrocity of twentieth-century China was the Japanese rape of Nanking. Mao is merely a cultural icon created by Andy Warhol and sanitized by the Chairman's presence over fireplaces in the houses of many magnates.
Tzouliadis and Radosh etch the indifference of the biens pensants scrupulously. In any case, they no longer deny Stalin's crimes. They compare them to the crimes of others ... favorably. The exemplary master of this distorted moral relativism is George Steiner, thought of otherwise, if anyone still thinks of him at all, as a prophet of moral absolutism. You know the type: a person who cannot tolerate an Israeli lifting a gun. But, for his own sentimental purposes, Steiner does make comparisons: "[T]o infer," he writes in criticism of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, "that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism is not only a brutal simplification but a moral indecency."
Last week, a bunker-buster hit the carefully preserved world of the postfellow-traveling fellow-traveler. No longer advertising the kindnesses of Stalin, as Lillian Hellman used to do, this strange but numerous social type had clung to the innocence and idealism of Stalin's sympathizers. They still think Alger Hiss innocent, Dalton Trumbo honest, Hellman a heroine, Elia Kazan a rat. In this world, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to their deaths pure as the driven snow, their only sin being belief in ... well, in what did they actually believe? In Marx, in Lenin, in Stalin, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, devout, deluded, and disloyal to the country in which they lived.
There is a whole culture in America that has believed the innocence of the Rosenbergs as doctrine and dogma. The texts of this culture are not scrupulous histories because such histories would undermine its beliefs. They are, instead, one novel and one play, fiction being more amenable to false history, both these cases being tales of the Rosenbergs' innocence. The narrative is E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, a best-selling book of the 1970s. The drama is Tony Kushner's phantasmagoric Angels in America, which won the Pulitzer Prize and features Ethel haunting the last days of Roy Cohn, who had been on the legal team prosecuting the Rosenbergs and boasted in his autobiography of convincing the judge to sentence them to death, an ugly boast about an ugly deed by an ugly man. The position of these literary works tells you something about the culture in which they still shine.
So what is the bunker-buster? It is Sam Roberts's September 11 New York Times interview with Morton Sobell, a co-defendant of the Rosenbergs who had also been found guilty and served more than 18 years in Alcatraz. In the nearly six decades since the beginning of the case, Sobell had maintained his innocence. Suddenly, he admits the great lie of his life. He is guilty, he concedes. And so was Julius. There are still doubts about what exactly Ethel did or did not do. Richard Nixon apparently told a confidante in 1983 that this was, in fact, the case and that, had President Eisenhower known about the vagaries in her situation, he would have commuted the sentence on the grounds of "tainted evidence." But the evidence of a widely netted Soviet atomic spy ring with Julius at its apex is incontrovertible. So incontrovertible that now even Julius's longcrusading sons concede the ugly truth about their father.
I wonder what the folks around The Nation were feeling when their underlying sense of postwar America essentially collapsed last week. And what Victor Navasky, its pater familias, is feeling, too. He has been the cheerleader of the "everybody was innocent" school in American sentimental thought about communism and its fellow-travelers. Hiss was innocent. The Rosenbergs were innocent. It was all a search for witches, as Arthur Miller tried to tell us in The Crucible. Except that there were no witches in seventeenth-century New England, not even in Salem. But there were communists who were disloyal to their country and communist spies who acted against their country.
Ronald Radosh has been doing his unpleasant truth-telling in these pages for more than two decades. It was here that he (and Sol Stern) published their first work on the guilt of the Rosenbergs, with proper doubts about the extent of Ethel's culpability. It was here that Allen Weinstein published his first conclusions about Alger Hiss. Both pieces of work are now considered conclusive. But Victor Navasky dissented. He couldn't see the facts when they were put before his very eyes--"fragments," "ephemera," and "ambiguous intercepts," he judged the evidence. He had a gig on the American left, and, for its own psychological reasons, the left needed to have its illusions sustained. Charming Victor, he could still be counted on to preserve the old lies--and his role wasn't without consequences. He ensnared suckers into believing the lies, he lent the lies a sheen of scholarly credibility.
Do Catholic universities still employ professors who believe that Galileo was in error? I doubt it. Navasky is the George T. Delacorte Professor of Journalism at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Isn't it time for him to start worrying about when dogma becomes lie? The innocence of the Rosenbergs is now exposed as false. Will the Delacorte Professor still say it isn't so?
Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic.
By Martin Peretz