nostalgia for McCarthyism?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Nov 28 11:56:42 MST 1999

>From NY Times Magazine, 11/28, "Cold War Without End"

With the opening of long-secret files and a spate of new books, the battle
over moles and spies and Redbaiting rages on -- even without Communism. For
those naming names and crying smear, the political is all bitterly personal.


If Communism was heterogeneous and creative, anti-Communism was, in
Schrecker's view, purely malignant. She argues that there was no good kind
of anti-Communism -- including that espoused in the 1950's by varieties of
socialists and by liberals. All contributed, she writes, to an unwarranted
effort to quash dissent. Left-wing anti-Stalinists like the intellectuals
associated with the journal Partisan Review helped "legitimize"
anti-Communism, she maintains. "It was the very diversity of the
anti-Communist network that made it so powerful," she writes.

Where Arthur Herman argues that the word "McCarthyism" shouldn't be used
because it no longer has any real meaning, Schrecker and others want to
keep it alive as a cudgel for the left to employ against the right. To
Schrecker and her political allies, McCarthyism, not Communism, was the
great political evil of America's postwar period. Where the right argues
that there is an innate strain of dishonesty and disloyalty on the left,
the left contends that the smear tactics of Joe McCarthy will always be a
hallmark of the right. To them, Kenneth Starr is simply a modern-day

Schrecker and her allies acknowledge that they are losing ground in the
historical argument. Their explanation for this is basically a Marxist one:
only historians on the right can find financing for their research.
Schrecker says the National Endowment for the Humanities won't touch her,
and Navasky claims there is no financing from think tanks for scholars who
want to challenge the views of writers like Radosh, Haynes and Klehr.

When I brought this up with Radosh, he exploded: "Give me a break! Look at
the MacArthur awards!"

I was having dinner with Radosh and Haynes in Washington, and the
accusation of victory infuriated both of them. The anti-Communist
historians view themselves as the real victims of discrimination, indeed of
a kind of left-wing McCarthyism within the academy. Radosh has never had a
job at a top university despite having published the most important book on
the Rosenbergs. A couple of years ago, the president of George Washington
University tried to hire him. After the history faculty refused to accept
money from the conservative John M. Olin Foundation to pay Radosh's salary,
he worked out an affiliation with another think tank connected to the
university. Tenure eludes him.

Haynes, too, sees the academic work on American Communism as heavily skewed
to the left. Haynes has also made his career outside of mainstream
academia, where he says you simply can't address the subject of Soviet
espionage in a scholarly way. Over dinner, he elaborated the point.
"There's been a tendency to freeze consideration," he said. "For example,
let's take a look at Elizabeth Bentley." Bentley, a spy who turned herself
in to the F.B.I. in 1945, was probably the government's most valuable
defector from the American Communist Party.

"This was a major incident," Haynes continues. "Do you know how many
doctoral dissertations there are on Bentley? None. Because it's one of
those, We shouldn't look at this -- this is dangerous. You're not going to
be able to get a job if you write a dissertation about Elizabeth Bentley.
If this was a field in which things were normal, there would be half a
dozen Elizabeth Bentleys stretched over the last 20 or 30 years. But this
is a field where young historians soon get the message: don't look at that
area; it's dangerous."

Interestingly, both sides in the ongoing cold war are attached to a view of
themselves as underdogs. At the moment, the left's claim that it is losing
the history war appears more persuasive, thanks to the loss of Isserman,
who was probably the best historian of Communism its side had. Four years
ago, Isserman could still argue in The Nation that spying was, as Harry
Truman once said, a red herring. "That espionage has suddenly emerged as
the key issue in the debate over American Communism," Isserman wrote,
"probably has as much to do with marketing strategy as with any reasoned
historical analysis."

But when I spoke with him recently, he said: "My opinions on the question
have changed dramatically. Twenty years ago I would have said that there
weren't a significant number of American Communists who spied. It's no
longer possible to hold that view." Indeed, the belief that Hiss and the
Rosenbergs weren't spies is fast becoming the left's creation science. It's
getting harder and harder to find someone not related to them who will
argue they weren't guilty.

If the revisionist view of Communism is losing scholarly support, Haynes
and Radosh do have a point when they assert that it is still strong in the
popular culture. Conservatives have made few inroads against the notion
that McCarthyism did far more harm to America than Communism. The
perspective that most often reaches the public, in programs like a recent
A&E drama about Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, is still a species of
Schrecker and Navasky's view -- that while Communists may have been wrong
in their views, McCarthyism was the greater evil.

This debate recurred earlier this year during the furor over whether Elia
Kazan ought to have received an honorary Oscar for "lifetime achievement."
Kazan, the film director, was called before HUAC in 1952 and asked for
names of Communists he knew in Hollywood. After initially declining to
answer the question, Kazan turned over the names of a dozen fellow alumni
of a Communist cell within the Group Theater from the 1930's. It was a
classic ritual of humiliation: the committee already knew the names.

Others who named names did so under protest, or later flagellated
themselves for doing so. Kazan's unforgivable sin, from the point of view
of the left, was to embrace his inquisitors in an ad he took out in The New
York Times after testifying before HUAC. "I believe that any American who
is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known,
either to the public or to the appropriate government agency," he wrote.
Kazan made his case more eloquently in the 1954 film "On the Waterfront,"
in which Marlon Brando plays a longshoreman faced with a choice about
whether to rat on the murderous and corrupt leadership of his union. In the
film, the decision to testify is portrayed as an act of courage, not

Many at the time, and again this year, thought Kazan's behavior
disqualified him for any kind of honored status in the entertainment
industry. Richard Dreyfuss wrote in The Los Angeles Times, "I cannot agree
to those cheers if it means supporting his reprehensible act of naming
names." At the awards ceremony, Kazan received a standing ovation, but many
members of the audience, including the actors Nick Nolte and Ed Harris, sat
silently. In other words, the predominant view in the movie business was
that it was the 89-year-old Kazan, not the surviving supporters of Stalin,
who still owed some kind of apology. In the opinion of contemporary
Hollywood, Communists in the 1930's and 40's were naive romantics, not
traitors. McCarthyism, on the other hand, damaged both their industry and
the nation.

This view doesn't take in the complexity of the Kazan case. The celebrities
who declined to clap for Kazan did so on the mistaken assumption that he
had expressed no regrets about what he did. In fact, Kazan had described
his own actions as "disgusting" and evinced great anguish about the
terrible choice that was imposed upon him. He also grasped, at a deeper
level than either his allies or critics, the ethnic drama at the root of
his behavior. For an ambitious immigrant from Anatolia, Turkey, trying to
make it in America, denouncing Communism was a way of proving his loyalty
to an adopted country.

Kazan's intense reflection over the episode makes a powerful case for
forgiveness. Yet in a more general sense, the Hollywood attitude is
defensible. Communism, however genocidal abroad, was not murderous or
meaningful in America. The Hollywood 10 never put any left-wing propaganda
into the movies. Communism never abridged the freedom of Americans in
America. McCarthyism did.

(full article at

Louis Proyect
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