September 24, 2008


Red Dusk: The Rosenberg bombshell (Martin Peretz, 10/08/08, The New Republic)

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. [...]

[T]hey 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. [...]

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.

...until he slips into the canard that has benefited the Progressives too--the inefficacy of witchcraft is not the absence of witches.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2008 7:34 AM
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