A review of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, by Ronald Radosh and A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left, by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner and Red Scared!: The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture, by Michael Barson and Steven Heller
Commies should have appeared long ago but proves well worth the wait. Like Sidney Hook's Out of Step, it is the personal odyssey of an honest mind coping with left-wing illusions and it provides, to boot, a useful directory of key players on the Left.
A one-time member of the Communist Party USA, Ron Radosh was familiar with many of the Old Left stalwarts, and went to school with a veritable who's-who of the Left: Victor Navasky of The Nation; CPUSA vice-presidential candidate Angela Davis, punctiliously referred to in the media as a "social activist"; Weatherman Kathy Boudin; and the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Radosh is a veteran of Camp Woodland for Children, which he dubs "commie camp." Singer Paul Robeson, a leading apologist for Stalin, performed there. So did Pete Seeger, the banjo Bolshevik himself, later honored by President Bill Clinton. In few other books will one find a recollection of the left-wing anti-comic campaign of the 1950s, or of Birobidzhan, Stalin's bogus homeland for the Jews. Radosh helpfully includes Seeger's lyrics in praise of Birobidzhan.
Seeger, in fact, was one of the Communist Party's "artists in uniform," who believed that "songs are weapons." Seeger was a hero to Radosh, but that does not stop him from recalling Seeger's slavish defense of Stalin. Radosh reminds us that Seeger's Songs for John Doe, an album he made with the Almanac Singers during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, was swiftly recalled when the Party line changed from "peace" to outright jingoism.
Radosh learned his boyhood lessons well. He became part of the left-wing vanguard at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a movement whose veterans are still making trouble. They include Tom Hayden, who proclaimed that anti-Communism was "the moral equivalent of rape," and Los Angeles Times columnist Bob Scheer, who breathlessly told Radosh in a radio interview that utopia had been realized in North Korea. Bob Cohen, another of Radosh's comrades, candidly confessed that "we don't want peace in Korea, we want the North Koreans to win." In similar style, television producer Danny Schechter wore a tee-shirt proclaiming, "We won in Vietnam and Cambodia."
Radosh's withdrawal from these ranks began with one of the defining events of his life, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953. It was an article of faith on the Left that the Rosenbergs were innocent victims of a reactionary, xenophobic, anti-Semitic America. Nearly two decades later, Radosh set out to make the definitive case in the Rosenberg's favor, but wound up convinced of their guilt. The Rosenberg File, written with Joyce Milton, proves beyond doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a Stalinist spy and that Ethel was his accomplice.
The Left quickly denounced Radosh as a heretic. Leading the charge was Marxist historian Eric Foner of Columbia University. But the response of Michael Harrington, America's leading socialist, also proved revealing. "I always knew they were guilty," he said, "but we're trying to get former Communists who have left the party but are still pro-Soviet into our organization, and I can't do anything to alienate them." The same kind of doublethink prompted Communist Party executive Dorothy Healey to tell Radosh how the Soviet Union generously funded the CPUSA — "How do you think the CP bought its building on West 23rd Street?" — and then threaten to sue when he repeated the exchange in a review of her book.
Exposing the Rosenberg's guilt was not politically correct, and the Left never forgave Radosh, who was willing to follow the truth wherever it led. "The reaction to The Rosenberg File, made me finally move on to consider the ultimate heresy: perhaps the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg case, but about most everything else." The present book, which contains some funny vignettes about Bob Dylan and Bianca Jagger, confirms that the Left has always been a kind of hate group. "Today's Left has no Soviet Union as a beacon," Radosh notes, "but its reflexive hatred of the American system is intact."
Radosh mentions paul buhle, co-author with Dave Wagner of A Very Dangerous Citizen. In previous works, Buhle glorified the activity of Communist students at the University of Wisconsin and, says Radosh, "read me out of its history entirely, in typical Soviet fashion." At a meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Buhle told Radosh, "You really are a running dog of imperialism, aren't you?"
So it should come as no surprise that Buhle and his current collaborator write in fidelity to the Old Left dogma that Marxists were not only politically correct, but superior artists and writers. The studios' refusal to hire Stalinists and fellow travelers during the 1950s, therefore, meant an incalculable loss to American cinema, which cranked out only mindless fluff and anti-Communist potboilers instead of the "socially conscious" material the Communist scribes could have provided.
The hero of Buhle's tale is the late Abe Polonksy, a journeyman screenwriter and director whose "Body and Soul" (1947)and "Force of Evil" (1948), say Buhle and Wagner, "quite simply embody the highest achievement of the American Left in cinema before the onset of oppression." A major element of this hagiographical work is the testimonials from Hollywood leftists who say that Polonsky was a brilliant guy. But readers outside of that circle are not likely to be persuaded. The effort is rather like a revisionist biography of, say, Bucky Dent, lamenting his absence from the Hall of Fame as a sign of Major League Baseball's corruption.
Polonsky wrote the original script for "Guilty by Suspicion," which the authors call "blacklist boilerplate." That is also the genre of A Very Dangerous Citizen, part of the Left's literature of lost causes. From comments they make about the Pumpkin Papers, it is evident that Buhle and Wagner still believe Alger Hiss was innocent. Readers are even told that Khrushchev in 1956 revealed "Stalin's massive wrongdoings," rather than his mass atrocities.
Blacklist boilerplate is a kind of western featuring evil politicians, anti-Communist desperados, and venal studio bosses riding herd on noble Communist artists and writers, who, we are told, "believed in defeating fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism." Actually, during the Nazi-Soviet Pact they were effectively pro-fascist and against the Allies. They also kept silent in the face of Stalinist anti-Semitism. The authors do mention Stalin's show trials, "which Polonsky, like many Communists, privately considered catastrophic but did not publicly protest."
I've been on panels with Abe Polonsky and agree that he was a genial and witty man. But he should be remembered not as a misunderstood genius but as one who chose to remain shrink-wrapped in the illusions of the Left while others, such as Yves Montand and Elia Kazan, courageously spoke out.
In Red Scared, Michael Barson and Steven Heller want to trivialize the "commie menace," but give the game away early on: "While Red Scared is not an apology for the real Soviet menace which (with the cooperation of the U.S., it must be admitted) did threaten the world with atomic conflagration." Anti-Communist propaganda was so effective, they say, "that Americans shamefully relinquished basic rights and liberties so that the government could persecute its opponents. Talk about un-American!" Communist front groups abounded in America, but the authors pooh-pooh them as "so-called Communist front organizations."
Readers learn that Stalin killed thousands, not millions. Red Scared also deploys the fevered vocabulary of blacklist boilerplate — "virulent" anti-Communism, "red-baiting," and, of course, "witch hunting." But the authors' premise prevents them from providing much valuable analysis.
Red Scared's collection of movie posters and magazine and book covers, particularly those featuring Stalin, confirm that there was indeed much to be concerned about. This gives Red Scared some value as a reference book, though it will likely wind up on coffee tables. Its list of Cold War movies includes "Escape From East Berlin" but omits Disney's "Night Crossing," about a family that flies to the West in a hot-air balloon, and in which actor John Hurt calls East German Communists "pigs," a cinema first. Barson and Heller also skip "The Confession," by Costa Gavras, about the anti-Semitic show trials in Czechoslovakia (the ones Abe Polonsky remained silent about) and "Eleni," in which John Malkovich hunts down the Communists who murdered his mother. On the other hand, the authors refer to Eugene Lyons's The Red Decade, and Robert Conquest's Stalin: Breaker of Nations, which everyone ought to read before picking up Red Scared or A Very Dangerous Citizen.