Thursday, September 17, 2009

The political pilgrims

"I have been over into the future, and it works." -- Lincoln Steffens, 1921, after a visit to the Soviet Union.

(Joseph) Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) was an American journalist, a notable practitioner of the genre known as muckraking. In 1910 he covered the start of the Mexican Revolution and began to see revolution as preferable to reform. In 1919, he visited the Soviet Union. Not long after, it seems, he made his famous remark about the Soviet regime (sometimes amended as “I’ve seen the future, and it works.”). It has been alleged that he scribbled this comment down on a train in Sweden before he had even arrived in the USSR. If so, this would be a revealing instance of the tendency of Western enthusiasts for Communist regimes to form their opinions before even visiting their utopias.

Other visitors--not too many--to the emergent socialist polity were more clear-headed. In August 1920 Bertrand Russell traveled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government. He met Lenin and had an hour-long conversation with him. In his autobiography, he mentions that he found Lenin disappointing, and that he sensed a vein of "impish cruelty" in him. Lenin had early formed the opinion that he could manipulate Western visitors to become “useful idiots,” naive supporters of his regime. Not Russell, though, for his direct experiences effaced his previous tentative support for it.

All the same, a great many intellectuals in the West were prepared to write a blank check to the “Soviet experiment.” This support increased exponentially with the beginning of the World Depression in 1929, a disaster that ostensibly proved Marx correct. Those who supported the USSR without becoming members of their national Communist parties were termed “fellow travelers.”

An appalling example of this species was Walter Duranty (1884–1957). a British journalist who served as the New York Times Moscow bureau chief from 1922 through 1936. Astonishingly, Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for a set of stories written in 1931 on the Soviet Union. Eventually, Duranty's reporting fell into disrepute because of his mendacious reports denying the famine in Ukraine.

In the reporting that won him the Pulitzer Prize, Duranty held that the Russian people were "Asiatic" in mentality. That meant to him that they valued communal effort and required autocratic government. In his view, individuality and private enterprise were alien concepts to the Russian people which only led to social disruption, and were unacceptable to them just as tyranny and Communism were unacceptable to Westerners. Later, this assumption of cultural difference has been deployed to suggest that the Chinese do not want democracy--when they clearly do.

In a 1931 article in the New York Times, Duranty noted the Soviet actions in the countryside that eventually led to the famine in Ukraine. He asserted that the kulaks, i.e. the allegedly rich peasants who opposed the collectivization of farming had been an "almost privileged class" under Lenin. Duranty said that just as the Bolsheviks had eliminated the former ruling class of the Czarist regime, so would the same fate now befall the kulaks, whom he numbered at 5,000,000.

He said that these people were to be "'liquidated' or melted in the hot fire of exile and labor into the proletarian mass." Sometimes Duranty claimed that individuals being sent to the Siberian labor camps were given a choice between rejoining Soviet society or becoming underprivileged outsiders. However, in a rare admission, he also said that for those who could not accept the system, "the final fate of such enemies is death."

In 1932, reports of famine in Ukraine started appearing from courageous journalists such as Gareth Jones of The Times of London and Malcolm Muggeridge of the Manchester Guardian. Yet in a NY Times piece on March 31, 1933, Walter Duranty characterized the assertions as a scare story without foundation. For his part, Muggeridge, who had secretly visited Ukraine for The Guardian, called Duranty "the greatest liar I have met in journalism."

In his New York Times articles, Duranty repeatedly denied the existence of a Ukrainian famine in 1932–33. In print he claimed that "any report of a famine is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda," but admitted privately to William Strang (in the British Embassy in Moscow on September 26, 1933) that "it is quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year."

Odious as he was, Duranty had many acolytes. The naive Joseph E. Davies, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936—1938, positively represented both "Russia and its people in their gallant struggle to preserve the peace until ruthless aggression made war inevitable," and Stalin as a "decent and clean-living" man and "a great leader."

Many reporters of Duranty's time slanted their coverage in favor of the Soviet Union, either because the capitalist world was sinking under the weight of the Great Depression; out of a true belief in communism; or out of fear of expulsion which would result in the loss of livelihood.

Despite a much shorter stay in the Soviet Union than Duranty, the great French writer André Gide was not so easily fooled. Together with many others during the 1930s, he briefly became a fellow traveler, though he never formally joined the Communist Party. In 1936 Gide was invited to tour the Soviet Union as a guest of the Soviet Union of Writers. Disillusioned by what he saw, he subsequently became critical of Soviet Communism. He made a clean break with it in his book “Retour de L'U.R.S.S.” (Back from the USSR) in 1936. As he pungently remarked, “I doubt that in any other country today, even Hitler’s Germany, is the human spirit less free, more restricted, more fearful (terrorized), and more shackled.” Searingly honest, Gide’s findings prompted a rain of sexual invective from French Communists and their allies, who alleged that Gide, a homosexual, was only interested in satisfying his own lusts. (This phase of the French writer's career has been thoroughly documented in the little-known monograph of Rudolf Maurer, "André Gide et L'URSS," Bern, 1983).

A important center of opposition to the Soviet Union was the dissident movement led by Leon Trotsky. Eventually some Trotskyists, such as James Burnham, found their way to a more critical view, but it must be remembered that members of this faction were also Marxists. It has even been said that if Trotsky had prevailed over Stalin in the 1920s his regime would have been even more oppressive.

Still the Trotsky question induced some disquiet among Western sympathizers of the USSR. The [John] Dewey Commission (officially the "Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials") was initiated in March 1937 by the "American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky." Following months of investigation, the Dewey Commission made its findings public in New York on September 21, 1937. The commission cleared Trotsky of all charges made during the Moscow Trials and, moreover, exposed the scale of the alleged frame-up of all other defendants during these trials. Among its conclusions, it stated: "That the conduct of the Moscow trials was such as to convince any unprejudiced person that no effort was made to ascertain the truth.” Although the hearings were obviously conducted with a view to proving Trotsky's innocence, they brought to light evidence which established that some of the specific charges made at the trials could not be true. The commission concluded: "We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups."

Unfortunately, Leon Trotsky was murdered by a Soviet agent in August 1940 in his home in Mexico City.

By the end of the 1930s a benign view of the Soviet Union had become entrenched in elite Western circles. Their were several reasons for this unfortunate view. 1) Many had become disenchanted with the inequalities of Western democratic countries and the poor performance of their leaders in the face of the World Depression. They were convinced that there must be a better approach. 2) Since the eighteenth-century, Western intellectuals had been anamored with the idea of progress. In his own day Karl Marx had placed the arrival of a post-capitalist society in the future. Yet with the establishment of the Soviet system, the future, it seemed, was now. 3) The USSR was difficult of access. Even on the ground, visitors’ movements were tightly controlled. Moreover, as we have seen, one could not trust observers like Walter Duranty, even though they bore the imprimatur of supposedly objective news sources like the New York Times. 4) After Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 it was taken for granted that the Soviet Union was a necessary bulwark in the struggle against Nazism and Fascism.

This last reason was rendered inoperative, at least for a time, when news appeared in the last week of August 1939 that Stalin had reversed himself and agreed to a pact with Nazi Germany. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, colloquially named after the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, was an agreement officially titled the Treaty of Non-Aggression between the Third German Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and signed in Moscow in the early hours of 24 August 1939 (but dated August 23). Each signatory promised not to join any grouping of powers that was "directly or indirectly aimed at the other party." In addition to stipulations of non-aggression, the treaty included a secret protocol dividing Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, anticipating potential "territorial and political rearrangements" of these countries. Almost immediately, in September 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded their respective sides of Poland, dividing the country between them. Part of eastern Finland was annexed by the USSR after an attempted invasion. This was followed by Soviet annexations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and eastern and northern Romania.

The pact remained in effect until 22 June 22, 1941 when Hitler implemented Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union. During those twenty months, though, Western Communists had the daunting task of explaining how the USSR, the supposed bulwark against Fascism, had become its ally.

These events opened the eyes of many observers. Yet the window of opportunity closed again, especially after the United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, in alliance with Britain and the USSR. For the duration of the war criticism of the Soviet Union became virtually taboo.

The dislodgment of the massive tangle of illusions generated by the USSR and its supporters was a difficult matter. Some adepts remained enthralled until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991--even after as new utopias were detected in various parts of the Third World. This is the story of the political pilgrims, expertly told in Paul Hollander’s book of that name (1981; fourth enlarged ed. 1997).

“Political Pilgrims” shows how Western intellectuals embraced Marxist tyrants at the very moment their colleagues were rotting in prison cells, while the common people everyone claimed to be concerned for were starving. The book relates how cultural and religious leaders from the West, including many familiar names, visited the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. These accomplices told appalling lies to flatter their hosts and express their contempt for Western society. The motives remain the same, but the objects of the pilgrimage are constantly changing--from the USSR to Mao’s China, then North Korea (briefly), followed by Castro’s Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and now Venezuela. The leftist film maker Oliver Stone has produced a movie extolling Chávez’ Venezuela. A similar service has been performed by the journalist Chesa Boudin, scion of “Marxist royalty” in the United States.

Right-wingers tended to oppose the USSR as a matter of course. Generally speaking, their views enjoyed little credit because of their poor command of the facts. The real turnaround was achieved by two types of writers. First, there were those who had been True Believers, but had gradually distanced themselves from the “God that failed.” Second were the defectors--individuals with a direct knowledge of Soviet tyranny who somehow managed to get out and tell their stories.

This remarkable development has now been told in a gripping new book by John V. Fleming, "The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War.” This work focuses on four influential books that informed the great political struggle known as the Cold War: "Darkness at Noon" (1940), by Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian journalist and polymath intellectual; "Out of the Night" (1941), by Jan Valtin, a German sailor and writer; "I Chose Freedom" (1946), by Victor Kravchenko, a Soviet engineer; and "Witness" (1952), by Whittaker Chambers, an American journalist. The authors were ex–Communist Party members whose bitter disillusionment led them to turn on their former allegiance with powerful literary weapons.

Fleming’s most remarkable discovery is Jan Valtin (pseudonym of Richard Krebs), who was a German sailor and hardknuckled Communist organizer in the seaports of northern Europe. After many adventures, Valtin wrote an enormous volume spilling the beans on Communist subversion from the bottom up.

Koestler, who had been a science writer in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler, went on to write a number of illuminating books, notably “The Act of Creation” (1964), which proposed an original theory of scientific creativity. He committed suicide in 1983.

The Ukrainian engineer Kravchenko wrote his expose “I Chose Freedom” after a daring 1944 escape from a Soviet trade mission in Washington D.C. He later died of suicide after failing to establish a business in Bolivia.

Long a prophet without honor in his own land, Whittaker Chambers was ultimately successful in his effort to expose Alger Hiss as a spy for the Soviet Union. Fleming shows how Hiss's supporters shamefully deployed homophobia in an irrelevant effort to discredit Chambers.

Writing with great verve, Fleming is able to limn the overall history of our recovery from the Great Delusion of Communism in these four lives. Alas, I am not sure whether we have truly recovered, even now.



Blogger Burk Braun said...

What a fascinating topic! Might I suggest that a general respect for German phlosophy and Hegel in particular laid some of the groundwork for this sorry episode in human affairs / delusions? The attachment to "systems" of philosophy that posit rules of historical development and human progress was apparently extremely captivating. Marx took it and ran with it into new utopian directions, resolving the truly dire and horrible conditions of workers and the downtrodden of his time into a system that, for all its economic idiocy, was extremely seductive to the philosphically (read idealistic, and otherwise theologically...) inclined. Perhaps another case of rhetoric in philosophy outcompeting analysis.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

This point, the Marx-Hegel link, is well taken. While much has been written on the connection, I think that the best source is the magnum opus of Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) on Marxism as a philosophy (three volumes). On the idea of the seemingly inevitable sequence of historical epochs, see the major essay of Isaiah Berlin on "Historical Inevitability." Doubtless many victims, like the fictional Rubashev of "Darkness at Noon," felt a certain consolation in cherishing the illusion that they were but tokens in the vast panorama of human history. Alas, this view also enabled them to excuse the crimes of the Party.

There has been some interesting work on Marxism as a religion. This is a seductive view, but I do not find it quite convincing.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I was expecting to encounter Victor Serge here, if not the recetly deceased Trotskyite turned neocon Irving Kristol.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whittaker Chambers reviewed Valtin's book for Time:,9171,772654,00.html

- David Chambers |

7:00 PM  
Blogger Malcolm Arnold said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:03 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I think that your surmise is correct. Duranty first approximated to the truth, and then decided to censor himelf.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Malcolm Arnold said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Malcolm Arnold said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this post.

I am very confused by your post as the timelines and information conveyed appear to be inconsistent or raise important questions. I think there may be a tie-in that is missing.

Please would you explain how William Duranty could win a Pulitzer Prize for stories published in 1931 which note the conditions which lead to famine, "He said that these people were to be "'liquidated' or melted in the hot fire of exile and labor into the proletarian mass" and then turn around in 1932 and deny that all of this was happening?

Your story conveys that Durant reported these horrible conditions and then it seems he changed his public story while conveying privately such conditions still existed"admitted privately to William Strang (in the British Embassy in Moscow on September 26, 1933) that "it is quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.""

I am confused. Were the stories by Duranty in 1931, listing these horrible conditions, saying that such liquidation measures were necessary to get to some type of utopia that he supported?

The way your story is currently written, it gives the impression (to me at least) that Duranty was initially reporting horrible conditions that would lead to extermination and then, for some unknown(at the time) and unstated reason in article, decided to publicly lie(report) about the conditions.

Please could you clarify this for me.

Thank you.

7:49 AM  

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