March 24, 2009


About-Face: Whittaker Chambers, Lionel Trilling and the anti-Communist turn (Adam Kirsch, 3/23/09, Nextbook)

In The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, the historian Michael Kimmage offers a rich and detailed account of one of the great intellectual dramas in 20th-century American history: the left’s romance with Soviet Communism, and its painful disillusionment. It is a story that took place long ago, in the Depression Thirties and the war-torn Forties, and it may seem like ancient history to a generation that has grown up after the fall of the USSR. Yet you only have to look at the ideological debates of the last few years to see how central that history remains to American politics, and especially to American Jewish politics.

When Bush administration figures like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle urged America to fight Islamic fundamentalism and build democracy in Iraq, and when Jewish liberals, in turn, denounced those figures as neoconservatives, they were reenacting some of the same battles the New York intellectuals fought seventy years ago, when the combatants were called anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists. Indeed, as Kimmage notes, the label “neoconservative”—which in the last decade has become almost a kind of anti-Semitic code word—was coined in 1943 by Dwight Macdonald, a charter member of the New York intellectuals, to describe former leftists who had abandoned their radical aspirations. [...]

[I]n the mid-1930s, both Trilling and Chambers underwent a crisis of conscience about Communism. Like many radicals, they were troubled by the show trials in which Stalin eliminated many of his fellow Bolsheviks. It was becoming increasingly hard for anyone paying attention to deny that Stalin, like Hitler, was a totalitarian dictator. Yet in the late 1930s, the so-called Popular Front, which united liberals and Communists in a common crusade against fascism, had blinded many American leftists to the true nature of the Stalin regime. For Trilling and Chambers, it now became imperative to repent of their former error, and to convince those who still believed in the USSR to do the same. Even more than the Soviet Union itself, their target was the Popular Front mentality so common among literary and intellectual people—the belief that Communism was just an advanced form of liberalism, rather than liberalism’s greatest enemy. [...]

Kimmage recounts the well known story of how Hiss—a member of Chambers’s old spy network, who had risen to become a leading member of the New Deal establishment—was denounced by Chambers as a Communist and a traitor. The ensuing trials, in which the disreputable, unattractive Chambers testified against the well-connected, personable Hiss, polarized the country. To the anti-Communists, Hiss was a perfect example of the way liberalism, fellow travelling, and active support of the USSR all bled into one another. To most liberals, by contrast, Hiss was the innocent victim of Chambers’s ideologically motivated denunciations. Even after Hiss was convicted, the left remained convinced of his innocence. Not until the end of the Cold War and the opening of the Soviet archives was it established beyond a doubt that Hiss was indeed a spy.

In the aftermath of the trial, Chambers became a hate-figure to the left and a hero to the right. The spectacle of the liberal elite rallying around Hiss helped to galvanize the nascent conservative movement; to this day, Kimmage shows, when a gutter polemicist like Ann Coulter writes that liberals are traitors, she is drawing on tropes from the Hiss case.

Whahappen? Mr. Kirsch has just finished describing the precise way in which the mainstream Left with its enduring loyalty to Communism and the USSR was traitorous to even their own beliefs, nevermind to their country and the innocent victims of Communism in foreign countries.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 24, 2009 10:30 AM
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