IT HAD TO TAKE PLACE, and was only a matter of time. Since publication of my memoir Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, I received favorable and even enthusiastic reviews in the usual conservative publications including National Review, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal and Commentary, as well as numerous editorial comments by different columnists. I also was on scores of alternative radio talk shows, usually hosted by conservative or libertarian hosts, including Milt Rosenberg in Chicago, David Brudnoy in Boston, and this site’s own columnist Lowell Ponte. I cannot complain. I have received far more coverage than I thought would be the case, and most of it has been sympathetic and supportive.
But when and where would the response from the political Left appear? The answer was to come this past Thursday, when The Nation magazine posted two pieces from its July 16 issue on their web site. In addition, one of their magazine’s regular columnists, John Nichols, wrote his own screed, which appeared on the eve of my visit to Madison, Wisconsin, in that state’s major paper, The Capital Times. According to Nichols, my views changed because I wished to "follow the intellectual winds of each moment." In making that claim, Nichols carefully avoided all the reasons I set forth in my memoir about what events led me to change, as well as the reality that my academic career came to a grinding halt because I no longer held the acceptable politically correct views. He also accuses me of attacking Pete Seeger for "the consistency of his commitment to peace and social justice," ignoring that what I argued is that Seeger’s only consistency was to the current Communist Party line; that in fact, Seeger was antiwar during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact; pro-war after the Soviet Union was the ally of the United States; and anti-war during the years of the Cold War and Vietnam. To Nichols -a rather dense left-winger -it is good form to acknowledge that perhaps "Stalin was a bad guy," and then simply get over it, and move on to campaign for very American socialist causes.
Martin Duberman’s lengthy review in The Nation, however, aims for a more balanced response. Duberman, himself a noted historian and playwright, realizes that the crude polemics of a John Nichols will not be taken seriously. Indeed, he begins his discussion by even chastising the regular Nation readers who hate David Horowitz and I so much that they simply think anything we write can be dismissed by calling us turncoats. Indeed, he even starts by praising me for writing a memoir that he finds at times "vivid and charming," one with "closely reasoned arguments" and hence presenting a "critique that must be dealt with." They may not "convince," he writes, but "they do trouble the waters." This is as good as one can expect from any quarter of the far Left—and already— some website discussions find entries from Leftists who condemn Duberman for the terrible crime of being soft on me and even affording my ideas some limited credibility. So let me begin by thanking Martin Duberman for his effort, and even attempting to come up with some answers about what I have to say.
These, however well intended, collapse after close examination. As the biographer of Paul Robeson, Duberman is most upset at my comment that the brilliant African-American singer "squandered his early success by dedicating himself relentlessly to a vigorous defense of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin." Duberman admits that by not saying anything after the Khrushchev report about Stalin’s crimes in 1956, he can to a "degree" be said to have indeed squandered his career. But after acknowledging this, Duberman continues to apologize for Robeson’s behavior, just as he did in his biography of the singer. Duberman argues that at the time Robeson failed to criticize the Soviet Union, he already was the subject of a vendetta by J. Edgar Hoover, who determined to bring the singer down not because he was pro-Soviet, but because he insisted on "black rights" and "socialism," as well as because he had an "outspoken critique of American imperialism."
Duberman thinks I should have mentioned this, believing that these reasons exculpate Robeson. To Duberman, I let the U.S. government’s "colonialist policies and vicious racism" off the hook. In using this language, indeed in citing this as an excuse for Robeson, Duberman himself is engaging in precisely the use of the Stalinist logic long used by American Communists and fellow-travelers in the 40’s and 50’s. It used to be common, when those dreaded Trotskyists, not to speak of Cold Warriors, tried to bring up the Soviet gulag, the response would be "what about the lynching of black people in the South?"
In his essay, Duberman fails to bring up Robeson’s reprehensible behavior regarding Stalin’s impending pogrom against Soviet Jews, which the singer learned about when he traveled to the USSR for a concert tour in 1949. There, Soviet Jewish friends told him how bad things were for Jews in Soviet Russia, as Joshua Rubinstein writes in his new book, Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, (Yale University Press, 2001). Robeson asked to see the imprisoned (and soon to be executed) poet Isaac Fefer, whom he had met in the United States in 1943. The poet understandably asked Robeson to keep quiet about his fate, fearing that if he spoke out, retribution would be taken on his family.
When Robeson returned to the United States, he denied all reports of any Soviet anti-Semitism, claiming and lyingthat he had met "Jewish people all over the place" and had heard not one "word about it." Rubinstein, echoing Duberman, acknowledges that Robeson justified his silence on the group that "any public criticism of the USSR would reinforce the authority of America’s right wing," but he notes that Robeson "did not even alert his friends in the [Communist] party to what he knew, or search for other, discreet ways to help Fefer once he decided not to make a public appeal. As one party comrade said to the writer Howard Fast, ‘If you and Paul Robeson had raised your voices in 1949, Itsik Fefer would be alive today.’" As always with the Stalinist Left, the interests of the USSR and Stalin came before those of us who were oppressed, tortured and murdered by the dictator. The Soviet Union was perceived and evidently still is by Duberman as being on the "right side of history," and hence any of its sins had correctly to be covered up, since nothing would be worse than serving the interests of "American imperialism."
Nothing, however, is more silly in Duberman’s response to my memoir than his cheap shot accusing me of racism, by somehow only finding "generous things to say about any number of whites" but nothing equal about "any black people." It may not be clear to Martin Duberman, but I do not think in racial terms when I criticize those I disagree with. I am responding to their ideas, and not to their skin color. Thus he criticizes me for viewing the late John P. Davis, once a prominent fellow-traveler and head of a CP front group, as a "terse martinet" (his words). Davis was, in my estimate, a vile individual, and this is based on my memory of him, and has nothing to do with his status as an African-American. It is apparent that it is my criticism of their politics, and not race, that bothers him. Thus, he follows by noting that I view Johnnetta Cole "egregiously, as someone who cast in her lot with the cause of ‘Communist totalitarianism.’" But this is indeed what Cole has done, and anyone can learn this by simply looking at her record. Evidently, her status as a prominent African-American intellectual and educator (miseducator is what I would more appropriately term her) excuses her nascent Stalinism. Finally, I do have nice things to say about the late Bayard Rustin, whom I have praised many times in print. But Rustin, a moderate social-democrat and tough anti-Communist, evidently does not muster inclusion in Duberman’s list of "African-American cast of characters." Perhaps in his eyes, only apologists for Stalinism are true black people.
Readers of Commies already know that there are three major episodes in my life that forced me to reconsider my political views the Cuban revolution, my work on the Rosenberg case, and my travels to Central America during the decade of conflict in the 1980’s. Duberman discusses only Nicaragua and the Rosenberg case, and strangely, completely leaves out my chapter on and views about Fidel Castro and Cuba. I suspect this is because Duberman agrees with me on this issue, and prefers not to let Nation readers know this. How do I know this? A good part of my discussion of the Cuban revolution relies upon an account I first published back in the 1970s after my return from Cuba, and which I included in an anthology I edited in 1976, The New Cuba: Paradoxes and Potentials, now out of print. I began the collection with a selection from none other than Martin Duberman, called "The Questions Raised by Cuba." In that essay, Duberman wrote that the Cuban revolution, whose advances he took for granted, "has yet to find institutional means for ensuring that the people can have a direct and continuous voice in deciding national policy." And he asked the fundamental question. Believing at the time that Cuba had made "impressive headway" against disparities in income, job opportunity, health services, diet and education a list which today I and others would challenge — Duberman asked whether "other kinds of costs; [i.e., political repression and lack of democracy] seem to overbalance the material gains." As I suggest in Commies, I think we know by now the answer to his mid 70’s question, and it is a solid yes.
Turning to Central America and the Sandinistas, Duberman begins by noting that he is "not a Latin American expert." That, of course, did not stop the rest of the entire American Leftfrom Stalinist to Trotskyist to "democratic socialist" to some social-democrats, from unabashedly and uncritically giving their total support to Daniel Ortega and his attempt to install a Marxist-Leninist state in Nicaragua. On El Salvador, he writes that my argument "is in part persuasive," and responds that Jose Napoleon Duarte was, despite his good intentions, a proxy of the far right-wing. That is a fair argument, although I think he is wrong. But his claim that the FMLN guerrillas were not a pro-Soviet revolutionary group is not based, as he writes, on my belief that they did not "inspire massive and sustained support from El Salvador’s poor," but on the record of their politics and information that has appeared since the fall of the USSR showing the close connection of the Salvadoran rebels with the Soviets, East Germans and Cubans.
As for the Sandinistas, Duberman argues that my view of the commandantes as hard-line Marxists is shortsighted, and that, in fact, many left-liberals saw that view as exaggerated, since many democrats were in their ranks. Here, it is Duberman and the left-liberals he cites, including Irving Howe, who were misguided, and whose views constantly neglected frank confrontation with the Nicaraguan reality. Duberman, however, is going to find, I predict, sharp letters of attack from Nation readers for his saying I am partially correct. Indeed, he even goes to a man he calls a "respected expert" on the region, Professor Laird Bergad of the City University of New York, to read my pages on Nicaragua, and to obtain a response. Readers fully expect Duberman, and Bargad to say I am wrong. But the quote virtually leaps out, as the Professor tells him "Radosh is right. There were too many Stalinists among the leadership. By following the Castro model they did submerge democratic impulses, and their attack on the Miskito Indians was a huge blunder." Duberman, of course, says that the ousted "Somoza dictatorship [was] far worse than that of the Sandinistas," when in fact, it was comparatively moderate and merely authoritarian compared to what Ortega and company were instituting. But I must give Martin Duberman credit for praising me for having "valuably reminded the left in this country that we have all too often … uncritically … turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of repression," as well as resorting to what he calls "ethically dubious slogans" to excuse the repression. For Nation readers, this is strong stuff.
Finally, to the Rosenbergs. Here, Duberman is out of his league. His historical work is not concerned with things like the Rosenberg case, and his discussion reveals it. First, he repeats the canard that I, Harvey Klehr, John Haynes and Allen Weinstein have all asserted that the CPUSA was merely a "fifth column" for Soviet espionage, and hence the "implication that the anti-Communist crusade undertaken by McCarthy and others was therefore justified." No matter how many times Klehr, Haynes and I have gone to great lengths to show this to be false, it is still repeated, this time by Martin Duberman.
So let me make it clear. I agree with Klehr and Haynes, who wrote that for McCarthy, "anticommunism was a partisan weapon used to implicate the New Deal, liberals and the Democratic Party in treason." McCarthy, they write, used material "that was exaggerated, distorted and in some cases utterly false." They also write, and I concur, that the relations between the CPUSA and the Comintern "does not justify or vindicate McCarthyism." And moreover, they have pointed out many times that while the CPUSA was a recruiting ground for Soviet spies, it is obviously wrong to view it just through that lens. Nevertheless, Duberman, and his colleague Victor Navasky (who I will answer next week) continue to repeat what has already been answered time and time again.
As for the Rosenbergs, Duberman says that my co-author Joyce Milton and I uncritically accepted the reports of FBI agents at face value." But rather than deal with the Rosenberg case, he spends paragraphs about the various inaccuracies of personal agents’ comments on people and events he was researching, including inaccuracies about Paul Robeson. (He says that FBI reports erroneously said that Robeson had taken out formal membership in the Communist Party. But he does not comment that during the recent anniversary of Robeson’s death, the CP leadership claimed in print that indeed this is precisely what Robeson had done!)
Duberman is correct that FBI agents often did not get things right. But in writing our book, we never blindly accepted claims and theories of agents. Instead, we used the files in conjunction with much other material, often challenging and citing FBI errors, while at other times using the files and showing how other data corroborated material found in the files. Most of the files we used were not the type of file in which individual agents cited individual impressions as simple truth. His criticisms therefore are not apt and are beside the point.
As for the Venona files, here Duberman shows his further ignorance. That Eric Foner, whom he phoned, can say Venona only has led him to accept "the possibility" that Julius Rosenberg "may have engaged in some sort of low-level espionage" is itself pathetic. Foner, who despite all evidence cannot bring himself to acknowledge that Rosenberg was a master spy, is obviously, like Duberman, not really familiar with what the Venona files have to reveal about the Rosenberg spy ring. Readers of my introduction to the 1997 reissue of The Rosenberg File, as well as readers of Klehr and Haynes’ Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, know however that lots of detail is indeed offered as to what their ring gave to the Soviets. In no way was the result of Julius Rosenberg’s efforts "low-level." Rather, the Soviets were provided with such material as the design for the first MIG jets, the latest data on radar and sonar, as well as the "proximity fuse" used later by the Soviets to shoot down Gary Powers’ U-2 during the Eisenhower presidency. So Duberman, who has clearly not looked at this new material, is plainly wrong when he writes that "we can’t even be sure of the nature of that information" supplied to the Soviets by Rosenberg.
Finally, like Ellen Shrecker, Duberman resorts to the illogical and embarrassing apologia that even if they did spy and give the Soviets top secrets, we have to "feel compassion and extend some understanding" toward these spies, since they betrayed our nation "at enormous personal sacrifice," they believed erroneously that the Soviet Union stood "alone among the great nations in the 1930s and 40s, for antiracist, anticolonialist principles." In other words, they meant well and after all blacks were being lynched in the South! Yes, he really offers that up, and writes "gleeful crowds in the American South were still enjoying the community spectacle of a burnt, lynched black body." The old anti-Communist joke, it seems, is still relevant! For Duberman, what counts is their motivation those who spied for the Soviets did so not for "material consideration but humanitarian ones." For him, the motivation excuses everything; for me, the results, and not the motivation, is what should count. I could care less what good principles those who betrayed our country thought they were serving when they spied. Their actions harmed our country; their words and their thoughts only revealed their stupidity.
Duberman ends his assessment with the strange note, alluding to my mentioning how my son Michael at a young age was accosted on the West Side of Manhattan by bums whom the Left always defended as the "unfortunate homeless," with this strange and bizarre analogy. He writes: "If ‘unfortunates’ become ‘bums,’ is it any wonder that all Commies become spies?" Really, can’t Martin Duberman, a sophisticated historian, come up with anything better?