The Poverty of Anti-Communism

The Poverty of Anti-Communism

Mini Teaser: American anti-Communists distorted and corrupted the domestic political scene with exaggerations of a threat that was never as strong--or worrisome--as they pretended it to be.

by Author(s): John Lukacs

The penetration of the American governmental services by members or
agents (conscious or otherwise) of the American Communist Party in
the 1930s was not a figment of the imagination. It really existed:
and it assumed proportions which, while never overwhelming, were also
not trivial.

There is no need to rehearse the history of the CPUSA during the
crucial second quarter of the twentieth century. There exists a
sufficiency of serious studies about the topic, including the
sociology--more precisely, the sociography--of immigrant and native
American Communists. But, again, there is a written passage (ignored
by the authors of the aforementioned studies) that I find especially
telling. It is germane to the history of the 1930s, when some
American Communists and Communist sympathizers succeeded in advancing
themselves to certain governmental and bureaucratic positions in
which they were no longer mere members of a revolutionary and largely
uninfluential fringe group. The author of this passage is Edmund
Wilson, who, like many other American intellectuals, had not been at
all intelligent, or even perceptive, about what Communism meant. (In
1935, after a journey to Russia in the midst of Stalin's purges, he
wrote that while there he had been "at the moral top of the world.")
But in 1953, in his new foreword to the paperback edition of his 1929
novel, I Thought of Daisy, he wrote:

Some time in the late thirties, at the time when . . . [the Soviets
were] coming to seem respectable and Communism a passport to power in
an impending international bureaucracy, I thought of doing a brief
sequel to Daisy, in which some Washington official would be giving
himself a sense of importance and enjoying a good deal of excitement
through an underground connection with the Communists. . . . [Their]
set would go on drinking, playing bridge and making passes at one
another's girls with the conviction that these activities had been
given a new dignity by being used to cover up operations which would
eventually prove world-shaking and land them somehow at the top of
the heap.

I consider this passage to be the best, and most perceptive,
description of a certain kind of American Communist agent--to wit,
the Alger Hiss type. In certain positions, and in certain
circumstances, their influences, as Kennan put it, were "never
overwhelming" but "also not trivial." They were able to do harm.
Still, marked by their fateful immaturity, most of these people were
playing at spying--not unlike most of the "revolutionaries" of the
1960s, who were only playing at being revolutionaries.

This should also reduce--or at least qualify--the importance of the
recent "revelatory" documents from Moscow. In the first place, an
agent must make work for himself, to prove that he is doing his job
well. This was particularly true of members of the Soviet secret
services when they reported that they had succeeded in recruiting X
or Y, and when they listed others as "agents"--which, in many cases,
was a vast exaggeration. (In the same way, many of the victims of the
internal Soviet purges in the 1930s were the victims of overzealous
secret policemen.) In the second place, at least in the 1930s, the
materials their American collaborators provided to their Soviet
contacts were not always valuable, for example the few pieces that
Alger Hiss seems to have typed and given to his Soviet "drop" in
1938. I never doubted that Hiss was one of these sorry birds; but
looking at some of these "documents" with the eye of a diplomatic
historian, I found them of little or no value whatsoever. But then
consider what every experienced historian knows (or at least ought to
know), which is that documents do not make history, but rather it is
history that makes documents: who wrote them and when and why and
how? intended for what and for whom?

However, as I have said, a fair amount of harm was done: perhaps less
by the passing of American state or nuclear secrets to the Soviets
than by the protracted influence of Communist sympathizers in
American publishing, as well as other academic and opinion-forming
activities in the 1940s. While on the one hand we have the new
revelations of Moscow documents (sometimes of questionable value), we
also have the special pleading of nostalgic reminiscences about
American Communists under siege in the climate around 1950--as for
example in Philip Roth's recent novel, I Married a Communist, or the
protracted attempts at a rehabilitation of the Rosenbergs. I have no
sympathy for such views and arguments, for the simple reason that, at
the latest by 1945, those American Communists and their sympathizers
ought to have known better. By that time there was enough evidence
about the brutalities of Stalin and of Communists, not only in Russia
but in many other places of the world. Factual accounts of such
conditions, acts and events were available in a great variety of
books and articles, there for anyone who could read. Yet many
thousands of Communists and their sympathizers refused to give them a
thought. And here we meet with what seems to be the most essential
weakness of the human mind, leading straight to a corruption of
character, something that has nothing to do with Intelligence
Quotients or with functions of the brain: for it involves, not an
inability to think about certain matters, but an unwillingness to do

In June 1848, less than a year after Marx had written his Communist
Manifesto, Alexis de Tocqueville walked across a Paris in the throes
of the first "Red" revolution in history. Here and there he talked
with the troops of General Cavaignac, gathering before the
barricades. The Russian émigré Alexander Herzen (hero of many
liberals ever since, including Isaiah Berlin) wrote that he despised
Tocqueville for that. Yet it was the same Tocqueville who soon saw
that the new danger for France and freedom was the popularity of
anti-Communism, leading to the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon. "The
insane fear of socialism", Tocqueville wrote in 1852, "throws the
bourgeois headlong into the arms of despotism. . . . But now that the
weakness of the Red party has been proved, people will regret the
price at which their enemy has been put down."

"In this sense", I wrote in 1959, "I do not hesitate to say that
Tocqueville was an anti-anti-Communist." And so am I. Allow me to sum
this up as briefly as I can. There are variations of
anti-anti-Communism. There are those anti-anti-Communists who
convince themselves that all enemies of freedom are to be found on
their Right and not on the Left: their colors are, plainly, pink. And
there is another kind of anti-anti-Communist who has no sympathy for
Communism but who is appalled by the errors and dishonesties of
anti-Communist ideology and of its propagation. (Such a posture does
not necessarily imply moderation; "moderation in everything,
including moderation.") Mathematically thinking, of course, an
anti-anti-Communist is a pro-Communist. But we neither speak nor
think mathematically. "Numbers", said Kierkegaard, "are a negation of

There are variations of anti-Communism too. Again, as with many
documents, they depend on the when and the where and the how. I have
nothing but admiration for the slightest evidences of courageous
anti-Communist acts or words in Stalinist Russia; or under whatever
Communist regime; or even within Communist parties or pro-Communist
conventicles anywhere in the world. But I have hardly more than
contempt for those who think it best to adopt anti-Communism as an
ideology when that is not only safe, but popular and even profitable
for themselves.

Of course, this tendency is apparent not merely among intellectuals
but among statesmen. Churchill and Hitler were both anti-Communists,
even as both of them recognized that the dominant impulse of the
century was nationalism, not Communism. Both knew that Stalin was
much more of a Russian nationalist than an international Communist.
But Churchill would, on occasion, publicly say so, while Hitler never
would. What Hitler recognized was the popular respectability of
anti-Communism--among "conservatives" but also among the working
classes. (The wish for respectability among the masses was one of the
many things that Marx had completely failed to recognize.) It was the
respectability of Hitler's anti-Communism--not the respectability of
his anti-Semitism--that brought him to power in Germany. In November
1932 he said to President Hindenburg, "The Bolshevization of the
masses proceeds rapidly." He knew that this was not true; but he also
knew that this kind of argument would impress Hindenburg and the
German conservatives. Less than three months later they installed him
in power.

Another eight months on he said, "The Red revolt could have spread
across Germany like wildfire. . . . We have been waging a heroic
struggle against the Communist threat." This at a time when the
Communists in Germany had been annihilated, with their leaders in
prison or in exile. To Germany's Catholic bishops he said, "The
defense of Europe against Bolshevism is our task for the next two or
three hundred years." That was the argument that inclined many
(though not all) European, British and American conservatives not to
oppose Hilter. In 1941 Archbishop (later Cardinal) von Galen spoke
out openly from the pulpit of his church against the Nazi policy of
euthanasia, a rare and perhaps unique public statement of opposition
during the entire history of Hitler's Reich. Hitler thought it best
not to move against or to restrain Galen, for in the same speech
Galen had welcomed the German invasion of Russia, that crusade
against atheistic Bolshevism. (And he did not say a word about the
German persecution and murdering of Jews.) There, in a nutshell, we
may find the essence of the Germans' tragedy.

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