The faculty at Bard College, a liberal arts school at Annandale, NY, includes a scholar who glories in the title Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies. Anyone aware that Hiss was a Washington bureaucrat who spied for the Soviet Union will consider this as sensible as a John Dillinger Chair in Business Ethics or a Jack the Ripper Chair in Criminology. But at Bard College, no one is laughing, least of all the occupant of the chair, Joel Kovel, who believes the Soviets were never a threat to the Americans and that criticism of communism was the product of hysteria. His views resemble those of Hiss, and he's not lonely. Hard as it may be for outsiders to imagine, a lingering affection for communism remains part of American university life.
Elements of farce have been threaded through the history of this issue since the 1940s. Half a century ago, the late Leslie Fiedler, who had a nasty way of stating truths many of us would rather have avoided, remarked on the peculiar double bookkeeping of those who defended accused Soviet spies. They somehow found it comfortable to say both "They didn't do it -- it's a frame-up!" and "After all, they had a right; their hearts were pure."
History has played out precisely according to Fiedler's script. American leftists insisted for decades that Hiss was falsely condemned. When a mountain of evidence proved the case against him (and many others), the defenders began suggesting that maybe spying actually didn't matter. In the pages of The Nation, the innocence of Hiss was proclaimed obsessively for four decades. When that position finally became untenable, Victor Navasky, long-time editor of The Nation and now also a
Columbia journalism professor, asked: "Espionage, is it really so wrong?" (If he'd thought of that 25 years earlier, his writers could have been saved the trouble of producing all those Hiss-exonerating articles.)
In the 1990s the American historian Eugene Genovese, having turned against Communism, wrote: "In a noble effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression, we broke all records for mass slaughter ... we have a disquieting number of corpses to account for." But many historians have worked hard to avoid that moral accounting. Their studied, purposeful evasion of reality is the subject of a persuasive study by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage (Encounter Books).
Haynes and Klehr have written books on American communists as they appeared in the Soviet archives and in the intercepted Venona transcripts from the 1940s. But despite everything, many other historians persist in showing American communists as good-hearted, noble citizens who often sacrificed themselves for a great ideal. It's like the romantic myth of the Old South, Haynes and Klehr argue, an attempt to cast a favourable light on a despicable cause by arguing for the nobility of those who pursued it. Haynes and Klehr also compare these historians to Holocaust deniers who invent fanciful explanations for damning evidence and ignore inconvenient testimony.
Even when these historians accept the newly re-affirmed facts, they may retain their old prejudices. Haynes and Klehr quote Gerda Lerner of the University of Wisconsin, who confessed two years ago that as a Communist she "wanted the Soviet Union to be a successful experiment in socialist democracy and so I checked my critical facilities ... It is easy to see now, in hindsight, that that was a serious mistake, but it was not so easy to see it then." (Actually, it was, for those who were not brain dead; but that's another issue.) It goes without saying, but Lerner says it anyway, that she continues to despise the United States. The fact that the communists were wrong about everything doesn't mean that the Americans were right about anything.
Long ago, Senator Joseph McCarthy did American communists the enormous favour of setting himself up as their enemy. He stamped anti-communism with his personality (which on his very best days was unappetizing) and it has never freed itself from his smarmy embrace.
When a young reader of today encounters an anti-communist opinion uttered in 1950 or 1960, the word "McCarthy" suddenly appears before the reader's eyes and the opinion is immediately discounted. This emerges at its clearest in the arts. If a young art critic, working through Clement Greenberg's criticism, discovers that Greenberg turned violently against Stalinism, that seems to prove that Greenberg (rather than being intelligent) was an opportunistic Cold Warrior. Young movie critics receive with their mother's milk the view that those who testified against communists before congressional committees (even great artists, such as Elia Kazan) were villains, while the mostly mediocre film people persecuted by Congress were heroes and martyrs.
Because of McCarthy, passionate anti-communism came to be considered proof of embarrassing bad taste. People considered it small-minded, nasty and provincial, like McCarthy himself. This attitude has never really changed. Today, despite the revelations of its monstrous crimes, communism still has many hard-working academics on its side, now labouring, without much opposition, to provide the old-time admirers of Moscow with the retroactive moral upgrade they continue to believe they deserve.