In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage
By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr
Encounter Books, 316 pp., $25.95.
Some of the fiercest American political debates during the second half of the twentieth century revolved around the activities and rights of domestic Communists. Although the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) never attracted many votes, its members and sympathizers achieved leading positions in labor unions, civil rights groups, and other liberal organizations. They wielded influence in intellectual and cultural life. The most outspoken anti-Communists regarded this presence as illegitimate. They argued that CPUSA members, through their devotion to a totalitarian dictatorship and their obedience to a top-down party, had disqualified themselves from any position of trust: Heresy, yes; conspiracy, no, as Sydney Hook put it. To others, including but not limited to those who sympathized with the cause, the Communists were entitled to their opinions and should not be subjected to opprobrium even if their ideas were wrong.
This dispute grew most heated over the relationship of American Communists to Soviet intelligence agencies. It was one thing to admire a foreign state or to enroll in a party that apotheosized it; it was quite another to work as a secret agent of that state, especially a state like the USSR that had become America’s adversary soon after World War Two.
The fames of controversy died down after the 1950s with the disintegration of the CPUSA under the twin onslaughts of American anti-Communism and Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “revelation” that Josif Stalin was indeed guilty of monstrous crimes, as anti-Communists had long alleged. But in rarefied circles–staunch anti- Communists on one side and those who looked back on CPUSA history with sympathy on the other–the embers continued to glow brightly. Then came the end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union itself. Washington and Moscow allowed long-secret government files to be opened, and these made it possible to resolve most of the old disputes–at least with regard to the facts. What the files showed is that, in every case, those who had been accused of Soviet or Communist loyalties were guilty. (I refer not to the accusations of Senator Joseph McCarthy and other demagogues, but to those leveled by defectors such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, whose testimony had been the subject of ongoing debate among intellectuals and academics.)
The most prodigious work in bringing these new files to light has been done by historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, initially in a series of volumes of annotated documents from Soviet files, then in a book on the CPUSA and Soviet espionage that drew extensively on the so-called Venona papers from U.S. intelligence. All these volumes were published by Yale University Press. In their new book, Haynes and Klehr turn their attention from the cases themselves to the derivative issue of how the participants in the debate have responded to this new and dispositive evidence.
The position that American Communists, or those accused of being such, were largely victims of anti-Red hysteria or even frame-ups was called “revisionism.” It was part of the broader school of Cold War revisionism that had arisen in the 1950s and reached maturity decades later as veterans of the 1960s student New Left made their mark in academia. In the debate about domestic Communism, revisionism became dominant, write Haynes and Klehr, citing as an example the Journal of American History. In the past 30-odd years, they report, that journal “has not published a single article that had a critical view of the CPUSA as a substantial theme. On the other hand, it has published no less than twenty-two articles portraying American communism and the CPUSA in a positive light or demonizing domestic anticommunism.” The record of the other major professional journal, the American Historical Review, shows the same stark imbalance, although in smaller numbers because it focuses less on twentieth-century America.
This astonishing one-sidedness implies that the editors or referees of these journals have been practicing a further type of revisionism, namely “engaged” scholarship rather than the pursuit of dispassionate research with a premium on historical accuracy. This impression is reinforced by the stories that Haynes and Klehr tell of the response of the revisionists to the new evidence. Many have engaged in outright denial or have attempted to make concessions to hard-to-escape facts while still somehow maintaining their earlier positions. Rare indeed are the epiphanies one might expect from a clash of old opinions with powerful new evidence.
Victor Navasky, the publisher of The Nation and a professor of journalism at Columbia University, says that when CPUSA members passed documents to their Soviet handlers, this should be seen as “exchanges of information among people of good will” (p. 213). Why employ such a pejorative term as “espionage”? Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, faces up to the term, but appeals for a benign interpretation of it. American Communists who collaborated with Soviet intelligence “thought they were ‘building . . . a better world for the masses,’ not betraying their country” she explains, in a passage quoted by Haynes and Klehr (p. 206). “Were these activities so awful?” she asks. Hilariously, Schrecker and American University professor Anna Kasten Nelson have even suggested that, with the Cold War now over, these subjects should no longer interest historians.
What these tergiversations add up too, say Haynes and Klehr with admirable bluntness, is “moral squalor” (p. 231). The Soviet regime, as Leszek Kolkowski has written, was based not only on systematic violence but on the centrality of “the lie.” This self-righteous mendacity carried over to the CPUSA’s activities abroad. Haynes and Klehr lay bare, for example, the falseness of the preening claims of American Communists that their enemies had branded them “premature anti-fascists.” In truth it was a label they made up for themselves to obscure the fact that they were the very opposite, namely belated anti-fascists who made apologies for fascism until Adolf Hitler betrayed his pact with Stalin. By contrast, most other American intellectuals had been volubly opposed to fascism all along. Some of this same disreputable spirit has seeped into the historiography of American Communism. Haynes and Klehr have blown the whistle on an intellectual scandal. The response to this scandal will tell much about the state of the discipline.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at AEI.