When Communism Was Cool

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The homage that Western intellectuals once paid to the Soviet Union is difficult to fathom. They had no praise for Hitler and Nazism, but Lenin and communism ensnared them.

Emma Goldman, the anarchist portrayed by Maureen Stapleton in the movie “Reds” (1981), had to go to Russia to see it clearly, and she was the only lefty in that gushing movie who did see it. Russian-born journalist Eugene Lyons, who wrote “Assignment in Utopia” (1937), didn’t shake off his admiration for the communist system until he had been stationed in Moscow for several years. Most of the Left ignored Stalin’s collectivization and the resultant famine of the early 1930s. A few awakened at the show trials of 1936-1938, and many left when Stalin became an ally of Hitler in 1939. Others went on believing until they were hammered into awareness by anticommunist books.

John Fleming’s “The AntiCommunist Manifestos” is about four of those books: Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” (1940), Jan Valtin’s “Out of the Night” (1941), Victor Kravchenko’s “I Chose Freedom” (1945), and Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness” (1952). Each book is by a former communist. Each raised a stink, and each helped change the mind of some segment of the public.

Fleming, who for 40 years taught literature at Princeton University, was an expert on Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” before he started this project. “Darkness at Noon,” he writes, is “a book with definite political consequences, of which there are but a few in any generation.”

Like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” “Darkness at Noon” is an anticommunist novel written by a socialist. Orwell had turned against the communists after seeing their self-aggrandizing, treacherous, and lying behavior in the Spanish Civil War. So had Koestler. He had also been jailed by the Spanish Nationalists, under a sentence of death, an experience he used in writing “Darkness at Noon.”

The book is about the last days of Nicholas Rubashov, a character modeled on the Bolshevik “rightist” Nikolai Bukharin. Rubashov helped give birth to the Soviet state, but now it wants to eat him. He was loyal to it; indeed, he surrendered his morality and judgment to it. Now it demands that he confess to “crimes” he didn’t commit. And so he does.

Why did the victims of Stalin’s show trials confess, often to stories that were easily proven untrue? Because they were tortured? Partly. But there was more. Fleming writes: “Koestler’s suggestion, which was brilliantly original at the time he advanced it in ‘Darkness at Noon,’ was to look for an internal compulsion within the psychology of Bolshevism itself.”

Communism wasn’t like capitalism – a system created without central intention, whose theoreticians came after its birth, and were strictly self appointed. As Fleming observes, “There is … no Capitalist International. Very few capitalists have read so much as a word of Adam Smith, Hayek, or Milton Friedman. In fact, quite a few have never heard of them. . . . Capitalism itself has neither a central headquarters nor theoretical texts commanding wide obeisance.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, communism did. It was not just an existing political and social system, or mainly that. It was an ideal.

“Socialism was the baby, the Soviet Union the rather gray and scummy bathwater,” Fleming says. “The greater the fear of losing the baby, the greater the tolerance of the dirty bathwater. Socialism was being ‘built’ in the Soviet Union. We were witnessing the difficult transition period toward real Communism.” Stalin, the Great Helmsman, was only halfway there – so lighten up! The omelet is going to taste really, really good.

It’s not that pro-Communist intellectuals were insincere, writes Fleming. “Instead, they were infected by a theory.”

“Darkness at Noon” was published in Britain in 1940, and America in ,March 1941, during the two-year period when Stalin was allied with Hitler. This period of demoralization for Western communists was a window of opportunity to publish anticommunist books, without the strident objections of communists inside and outside government. “Darkness at Noon” didn’t make waves then, but another book did: Jan Valtin’s “Out of the Night.”

Fleming’s discovery of that book started the project that is the subject of this review. Fleming is a hobby bookbinder; he buys used books for their boards. “Out of the Night” is still dirt cheap on the used-book market; it was a bestseller in 1941, which means there are a lot of copies, but nobody reads it any more. One day Fleming picked up a copy, intending to rip off its cover. He began reading it instead.

It was not a book for intellectuals. There was no theory in it, but there was plenty of exciting practice. It was the autobiography of a communist agent, a man whom Fleming finds “selfish, sinister and cynical,” “not very easy to like,'” but who was fascinating for Americans to read about. The author describes how he committed mayhem, attempted murder, espionage, smuggling, illegal border crossing, free sex, and other indiscretions, all as part of the daily, shady life of a professional Red.

“Jan Valtin” is a false name, and some of the details of the story have been shown to be false. The book, Fleming writes, is “a strange celluloid suspension, in which little blobs of fact are captured in a viscous medium of fiction, or perhaps vice versa.” It is, he says, “morally true.” I And it was an “anti-Communist blockbuster.”

There is a story behind that story. In 1939 “Valtin” published an article, “Communist Agent/” in The American Mercury, then edited by Eugene Lyons. “Valtin,” whose real name was Richard Krebs, was talked into making a book out of it by two of his Connecticut neighbors – the anticommunist Isaac Don Levine (whom Fleming calls “one of the most successful literary agents, entrepreneurs and productive busybodies in American history”), and Levine’s good friend, the libertarian writer Rose Wilder Lane.

The book was a popular success. But its time of political shelter was short. The book came out in April 1941. On June 22, the German army rolled into Russia, and suddenly the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was one of the good guys fighting Hitler. Forget its former pact with Hitler, its invasion of Finland and seizure of one-third of Poland and all of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Carpathian Ruthenia, and what is now Moldova. Forget, too, that America was still officially neutral for the next six months. Culturally, America was at war, and the Soviet Union was an ally. “After ‘Out of the Night,’ ” writes Fleming, “there would not be another popular anti-Soviet’ book published in America until 1945.”

“Out of the Night” was going to be made into a movie. After June 22, 1941, however, it was untouchable. Americans would be seeing such proCommunist movies as “Mission to Moscow” (1943) and “North Star” (1943), but not any anticommunist movies. Fleming quotes screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, bragging that as a result of the influence of his fellow Communists, no movie of “Out of the Night” was ever made. Still, hundreds of thousands of people read it.

Four years after publication of “Out of the Night,” the war ended, and the story of “Darkness at Noon” resumed. Called “Le Zero et l’infini,” it was published in France, and the French intellectuals went ballistic. “It is no easy thing to reconstruct the mental world of the early Cold War,” Fleming writes. “To appreciate the nature of the French debate about Koestler’s novel requires the reconstruction of some modes of thought nearly vanished from the earth.” The French Left believed deeply that Russia had done the hard work of fighting Hitler and that Britain and the United States had rolled in when the going was easy (an exaggeration of a valid point about the Russians); that the communist underground in France had put up the best fight against the Nazis of any of the underground groups; that “the USSR was a shining beacon”; and that “the Western democracies were rotten to the core.” The Soviet Union had its blemishes, but these were excusable. There had been a terrible war. At its end Jean-Paul Sartre could declare, “Every anti-Communist is a dog.” But Koestler’s book was set before the war. Its message was that communism was rotten in 1937, rotten at the core, because it denied the individual’s moral judgment and worth. All the rot that followed flowed from that.

In 1946 Koestler’s book was joined by an ally, “I Chose Freedom.” Its author, the Ukranian Victor Kravchenko, was a Red Army officer sent to America to order lend-lease supplies. He defected in 1944 and began writing a book to explain why he had done it. Fleming says that even in Russian Kravchenko “could not write his way out of a wet paper bag.” The book was cowritten by Eugene Lyons, who spoke Russian. It portrayed life in the Soviet Union as one “of nearly universal social fear,” including the fear of arrest, prison, and forced-labor camps.

By 1946 most Americans were ready to believe this, but the French Left was not. When a communist smear artist writing under the pseudonym of “Sim Thomas” charged in Les Lettres Françaises that the book had been concocted by American intelligence agencies, and that Kravchenko was a lying alcoholic, Kravchenko sued the publisher. He put up his own money, which he had earned from the American edition, to fight the communists. The result was a public trial of Soviet Russia. Kravchenko won the case.

Sixty years later, the amazing thing is that the defenders of the Socialist Homeland thought they were right. They were not going to let “I Chose Freedom” pass. They believed. For them, as Fleming says, “All the minor [1] tyrannies of which they disapproved – suppression of the freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, of religious practice, and so on – could be forgiven or at least tolerated on account of the huge economic tyranny of which they approved.”

The one thing they would not admit was the concentration camps and the attendant forced labor. Those were icons of Nazism. They were not to be associated with a workers’ state. If Kravchenko could hang them around the neck of Soviet Russia, the Soviet Russia was guilty.

He did. And it was.

The last part of Fleming’s book is about Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness.” Chambers, an American, had been a Soviet spy in the 1930s, had broken with the Party, and gone to a high official in 1940 with a list of Soviet agents in the U.S. government. The official had taken the message to President Roosevelt, who dismissed it. But after Roosevelt died and the war ended, Chambers made his accusations again. One of the men he named, former State Department official Alger Hiss, sued. The result was an epic battle over who was lying, and, more important, about whether the Roosevelt administration had been riddled with Soviet spies. We now know that it was. But at the time, Americans were divided, with the Left siding with Hiss.

“Witness” was the book that Chambers wrote after Hiss had been sent to prison. It is one of the classic American autobiographies, a gloomy, brooding book written on a loftier intellectual plane than “Out of the Night” or “I Chose Freedom.”

All this has been forgotten by

American popular culture. What remains is the left-liberals’ story of “McCarthyism” and the “witch hunt” against suspected communists, which Arthur Miller -compared to the Salem witch trials in his play “The Crucible” (1953). Fleming’s chapter on “Witness” gives him the chance to point out that in spite of the indecencies of Sen. McCarthy, it is incorrect to call what happened a “witch hunt.” “The problem is this,” writes Fleming; “there never were any witches, but there were some Communists.”

Fleming has sound moral judgment, but he leavens it with humor. Of French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, he writes that she “had a habit of reading and liking books, only later to discover that she was supposed not to like them.” Fleming is also a specialist on medieval history, and makes reference to it unexpectedly, starting with an allusion to Dante on the second page of the text. He is also fond, perhaps over-fond, of references to classics of all descriptions. Here is a sample in a paragraph about Victor Kravchenko and a woman he met:

“The Communist and the capitalist heiress exchanged admiring glances. They then took refuge from the storm in a hotel, very much in the spirit and in the end with very similar results as in the fourth book of the Aeneid when Dido and Aeneas take refuge from the rainstorm in a cave.”

From this you can see that “The Anti Communist Manifestos” is not tightly organized. The author is attracted by stories that are interesting to tell, and he feels free to pursue them, wherever. But the book is a delight to read, and it does reconstruct “some modes of thought nearly vanished from the earth.”


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