August 3, 2005


Agnes Smedley, an Example to Whose Cause? (RUTH PRICE, 7/29/05, Chronicle Review)

Agnes Smedley was one of the most significant American women of the 20th century, a flamboyant journalist, feminist, and political activist who made historic contributions to letters and politics on three continents and had a celebrated roster of friends including Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Mao Zedong, and Langston Hughes. Her enemies ranged from J. Edgar Hoover to Chiang Kai-shek, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and Robert Lowell. But nowadays she is largely forgotten.

If Smedley is remembered at all, she is recalled by a circle of conservative scholars and journalists who passionately declaim that during her years in China in the 1930s, she was active in the Moscow-based Comintern, which provided leadership for the world revolution that she and many of her colleagues on the left believed would occur in their lifetime. Her conservative critics maintain that she also worked for Soviet military intelligence. With equal fervor, some leftists argue that Smedley, like other figures accused of Soviet espionage over the past 50 years, was a tragic victim of a McCarthyite smear.

In China, where Smedley's ashes are buried in the People's Cemetery for Revolutionary Martyrs, she has received little attention in recent years. When there was political hay to be made with Smedley in the 1980s, she was resurrected as a symbol of Sino-U.S. friendship. Now however, with relations between the two countries strained, there seems little to be gained by raising her name. Unless I am mistaken, nothing much is being said in Moscow, either. Although I have come to acknowledge that this extraordinary woman provided exemplary service to both the Comintern and Soviet military intelligence in China, the Russians, like the Chinese, have yet to admit her covert work for them.

It was not my plan to expose Smedley's clandestine career when I began my research, in the mid-80s. Her writings, which include an autobiographical novel, three books of China reportage, a biography, a memoir, and hundreds of articles; her personality; and her colorful life were my intended focus. Several years into the writing of her biography, however, I still sought to vindicate her reputation from what I believed to be unjust accusations of Soviet espionage, for I was a good progressive, and the taboo against the left's "naming names" had survived the cold war intact. My initial Smedley was an uncompromising rebel who operated independent of Stalin's machinations and party strictures. But the documents do not lie.

Two kinds of people were accused of being communists: those for whom we have such definitive proof that even the Left has given up defending them; and those for whom the proof can't sway the Left.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2005 9:29 PM

Agnes Smedley . . . had a celebrated roster of friends including Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Mao Zedong, and Langston Hughes.

Kinda tells you everything you need to know about her.

Posted by: Mike Morley at August 3, 2005 9:33 PM

mostly forgotten and one of the most signifigant. do these leftists squeeze their essays out of a dog's rear end or do they really write this nonsense. she was scum.

Posted by: cjm at August 3, 2005 10:08 PM

This stuff is perfect lonbud bait.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 3, 2005 10:50 PM

Who exactly has the left given up defending?

Posted by: b at August 3, 2005 11:01 PM

The very idea that committing freelance evil is better than formally joining the firm betrays the typical lefty romance with evil so long as it can be portrayed as rebellion.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 3, 2005 11:04 PM

Don't show off your ignorance. HUAC's John Rankin accused the people who crucified Christ of being Communists. As a for instance. Unless you think Pontius Pilat was working for the Comintern: shut up.

I hate Stalinists. Alger Hiss was guilty. But the net cast by the people with power to ruin lives extended far wider than Harry Dexter White.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at August 3, 2005 11:48 PM


Rehabilitating Christ-killers seems a bit much, but go for it.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2005 11:51 PM

How about Shakespeare? At one HUAC hearing Joseph Papp was asked if he was a Communist.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at August 3, 2005 11:55 PM

Well, y'all claim he was gay...

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Admit a mistake. It's good for the soul. Unless, I don't know, you think...Eisenhower was a Communist? The entire civil rights movement? (Hmmmmm. You were in the civil rights movmement, werne't you, OJ?)

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at August 4, 2005 12:07 AM

I don't personally think Shakespeare was a commie, but there were undeniably communists in the civil rights movement.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 12:12 AM

i want lonbud back, at least he provided entertainment value to go with the dogma and nonsense.

Posted by: cjm at August 4, 2005 12:16 AM

I dogmatically and nonsensically believe that there were some responsible Cold Warriors and some irresponsible ones. Lacking, perhaps, in entertainment value.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at August 4, 2005 1:24 AM


Yes, the quality of the warriors varied, but the accused were uniformly communists. The willingness of the Left to cover for treason often gave power to the worst among the warriors.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 1:28 AM

Well, well, well. So the Chicoms have their own version of the Yakusuni shrine of the martyrs, eh? Just like the Nip murderers, only the reds murdered many times more.

Quite frankly, I do not know anything about this Smedley person, other than what I have just read. Was she the marrying kind? So many traitors who have sought refuge with their Communist masters over the years were not.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 4, 2005 3:06 AM

Rick: Everyone here already knew you were dogmatic and nonsensical.

Posted by: jd watson at August 4, 2005 5:17 AM


There is an important distinction to be made between people in America who wanted government to control the means of production, distribution and exchange and people who wanted Soviet hegemony. The former are idiots, harmless for the most part, the latter were traitors.

Most Americans who lived through the Depression, particularly in urban America, went through some period in their lives where they believed in the former. Damn few bought into the latter.

Whether Joseph Papp or Burt Lancaster was a Communist may be an interesting piece of trivia, whether they were traitors, though what national security matters either had access to is beyond me, might have some small significance. But to devote Congressional hearings to this tripe is a complete waste of time.

But anyone familiar with the career of Rankin knows why he fixated on Hollywood.

As for Smedley, she's just another irrelevant upper-middle-class WASP nutbar, perhaps Warren Beatty can make a movie about her.

Posted by: bart at August 4, 2005 7:47 AM


No, there isn't. Some wanted to have the Soviets some wanted to be the Soviets. Both opposed America.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 8:31 AM

Both opposed a system prevalent in America that could reasonably be seen at the time as having failed. I hardly call Jim Crow and 35% unemployment indicia of success, do you?

They believed that they could establish a workers' paradise in the US, free of the kind of nonsense that characterized Soviet Communism, which they saw as a natural outgrowth of historic Russian barbarism.

It's simply a matter of disagreement over economic and political systems, not a matter of loyalty to country. And you would be hard-pressed to find significant examples of Communists in America, other than those who were working for the Soviets like Hiss or the Rosenbergs and who deserved to be hanged, working to overthrow our system by means other than the ballot box. Their hope was to convince Americans of the rightness of their cause, not to sneak into power by subterfuge.

Posted by: bart at August 4, 2005 8:44 AM


The Republic is a political system. Opposing it is treason. I agree there weren't many communists which is why it would have been fairly easy to deal with them had Democrats not covered for them.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 8:50 AM

Opposing the nation is treason. Opposing its government is a political choice. Saying that our current system is a steaming pile of monkey crap and wanting to replace it by some other system is hardly treasonous, especially if your mode of expressing your opposition to the current system is to work through it. Saying that we should be ruled from Moscow certainly is treason, as would the use of violent means to subvert the American government.

Would an American Monarchist Party be treasonous that ran people for office be treasonous? I hardly think so.

David Duke and Pat Buchanan are Nazis. They are not treasonous.

Posted by: bart at August 4, 2005 8:59 AM

I don't understand Rick's first comment. Is he saying that Rankin accused Jews of the 1950s or Jews of 1 BCE of being commies?

Joseph Papp was accused of being communist in the fifties? That sure ruined his life didn't it?

If you were a communist in 1950 or refused to id other commies, you were a traitor. Period.

Posted by: Bob at August 4, 2005 9:31 AM

You bcan't work through the constitutional republic to replace it with a dictatorship, which is why the communists hid their membership and lied about it. You don't take the 5th if you did nothing wrong.

David Duke is a Nazi and is in prison. Pat's a democrat.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 9:32 AM

Americans don't have to debate what treason is and is not, it's spelled out for them:

Section. 3.

Clause 1: Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

I remember being taught, though I do not remember where, that the threshold for this is attempting to overthrow the government by force, or advocating same. I'm also wondering if this is not a dead letter now. Anybody know who the last person convicted of treason was? Was it the Rosenbergs, or was it some Confederate?

Posted by: joe shropshire at August 4, 2005 11:00 AM

working to change the party in power is ok.

working to ammend the current system of government is ok.

working to replace the system of of government is an act of war/treason, as defined by the current system of government.

it gets interesting when the majority of people no longer support the current system of government.

Posted by: cjm at August 4, 2005 12:32 PM


Yes, they tend to adopt one like ours.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 2:30 PM


Sure you can work through a democratic process in a constitutional republic to get a dictatorship formed. It worked for Hitler, Chavez, Mussolini, and, I believe, Peron. They get elected and change the Constitution. It's just that simple.

Duke had identical ends and worked for them through identical means, which is why he's in prison, but never mind...I'm making even less sense than usual.

Posted by: bart at August 4, 2005 2:44 PM


I take your point that American Communists were no better than Hitler.

Posted by: oj at August 4, 2005 3:03 PM

On the narrow issue of treason, it is fair to say that neither Hitler nor the run-of-the-mill American Communist was guilty of it. That is not a value judgement about anything else they may or may not have believed or done.

As an aside, one of my friends from competitive chess in my high school years had grandparents who were active Communists. (Yes, OJ, they were ethnically Jewish) I remember when I saw Ruth Gordon in Rosemary's Baby, she reminded me exactly of Dave's grandmother, it was hilarious.

Posted by: bart at August 4, 2005 4:15 PM

Narrowly, opposition to the political regime of the nation is treason.

Posted by: OJ at August 4, 2005 6:43 PM