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Liberals & Communism

In response to:

UnAmerican Activities from the October 6, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

I was suspicious when I read in Christopher Lasch’s review of my book (Liberals and Communism, October 6) that I had dealt with Walter Lippmann—when I hadn’t. I then proceeded to read that I had discussed liberals who had “embraced Communism” and had made a “total commitment” to Communism—hardly the case; that I had little insight into supporters of collective security, as witness a quote from a magazine opposed to collective security; and that I showed no awareness of the lack of liberal alternatives to the cold war—even when my last section was, albeit briefly, about just that. I quickly realized that Lasch, rightfully disturbed by the sterility of “containment” liberalism and how it reinforces the know-nothing anti-Communism of conservatives and reactionaries, was simply using the review of my book as a vehicle to express his political concerns, however much that might distort the book.

The charges levelled at the book by Lasch were: (1) It insisted “again and again” on the ulterior motives behind Soviet foreign policy and was overly preoccupied with how liberals aided the Communists and Stalin; (2) It made anti-Communism “the only criterion of political virtue” and opposed policies simply because Russia favored them; (3) It overlooked the arguments in favor of the Popular Front; (4) It did not raise the relevant questions about cooperating, in crises, with movements where there are disagreements on objectives and tactics. I can only answer these points briefly.

(1) There is one paragraph on the generally accepted reason for Russian support of collective security—hardly a matter of “again and again”; nor is the book preoccupied with how liberals aided Stalin or the Communists (though I was disturbed—preoccupied if you will—with how certain liberal apologetics lent credence to the Communist version of the Moscow trials or the Spanish purges. Is that so awful in terms of the Thirties?). It is preoccupied with weaknesses within the social philosophy of liberalism—such matters as the bifurcation of economic and political democracy.

(2) There is nothing in the book that makes anti-Communism the “only criterion,” although I do consider a certain type of it a political virtue. (To give up anti-Communism because it has been misappropriated by liberals, conservatives, and reactionaries would be to accept their definition of what Communism is and what the world is all about and this I refuse to do.) Because I found Dewey more perceptive than The New Republic on the Moscow trials or the Stalinist dictatorship in general is no reason to conclude that there is anything to indicate that I was critical of policies simply because Russia advocated them. I am dubious, in retrospect, of collective security, but for reasons that have very little to do with Russia (though she was not, as Lasch says, “unequivocally committed to an anti-Fascist foreign policy”).

(3) In Chapter 6 I gave an account of why the arguments for the Popular Front seemed so persuasive to many liberal of the Thirties, but what Lasch seems to want to assert is that these arguments should have persuaded me. Quite simply: they did not. On this I stand with the Socialists of the Thirties (the “carefully developed ideology”—with all its faults—of any of the Socialist factions during the period did, in fact, point “toward some other policy” and any of the policies these factions arrived at were, I believe, preferable to the Popular Front). His question that seemed to suggest necessary support of the Popular Front if one supported our participation in World War II is irrelevant. There is no necessary connection between the two issues even if one confuses, as I suspect Lasch is doing, the issue of the Popular Front and the issue of collective security.

(4) I accept the relevance of Lasch’s concern with the possible grounds for liberal-Communist cooperation, but I do not think that I treated the matter as a “simple choice.” I tried to show the difficulties of the choices against the background of the depression and the rise of fascism. And if I criticized those liberals who gave what I considered wrong answers to such questions, I tried to do so with an understanding of the contemporary conditions, but with an awareness that there was a radical anti-Stalinist left and a liberal anti-Stalinist left, both of whom gave wiser answers. Indeed, it was often the easy answers to such hard questions as Lasch poses that disturbed me—perhaps it wasn’t always my political awareness that was limited.

Frank A. Warren

Queens College

Brooklyn, New York

Christopher Lasch replies:

Mr. Warren’s hair-splitting doesn’t alter the main point, that he is too obsessed with the specter of Communist totalitarianism to be able to write fairly about liberalism in the Thirties. Indeed his letter, in which he speaks feelingly of his refusal to “give up anti-Communism,” as if it were a drug or a necessary part of one’s diet, reflects the same quality of mind as his book. And since Warren still does not indicate how the “carefully developed ideology” of the Socialists was superior to the ideas he condemns, or, indeed, how it even differed from them, except in being anti-Communist, one is justified in asserting that the general tendency of his argument is to make anti-Communism the ultimate test, if not the only test, of political wisdom.

Warren’s claim that he devoted only a single paragraph to the ulterior purposes behind Soviet policy is extremely disingenuous. His account of the collective security issue—his whole book—is colored at every point by such considerations. His attack on Eugene Lyons’s argument that support for collective security meant support for Soviet totalitarianism forces Warren to argue on Lyons’s grounds. He takes for granted that whatever the Russians did they did for bad reasons and confines himself to showing that many liberals “favored collective security for non-Communist reasons,” in supporting collective security, therefore, they were not “simply serving the interests of Soviet foreign policy.” “Even when a liberal obviously duplicated the Communist position, it should not be assumed that his motivation came only from his agreement with all things Russian.” Many liberals who supported collective security, Warren insists, “never accepted the Communist line.” Reinhold Niebuhr and Archibald MacLeish, for instance, “might have been willing to participate with Communists in collective security endeavors, but their position seems to have been arrived at without any particular Communist influence.” “The Communists’ support of collective security no doubt helped sustain The Nation in its belief, but of itself did not determine that belief.” I think it is fair to say that the effect of these remarks, and of innumerable other remarks in the same vein, is to divert the reader’s attention from the question of whether collective security had any intrinsic merits and to rivet it on the question of whether people who supported it were Communist-inspired and whether their support played into the hands of the Soviet Union.

The effort of trying to refute a conspiracy theory inevitably makes the question of conspiracy the center of attention. “The major purpose of this book,” Warren says in his introduction, “is to gauge the nature and extent of Communist influence on liberal thinking in the thirties”—not, please note, to explore “weaknesses within the social philosophy of liberalism,” as Warren claims in his letter. Those weaknesses interest him only insofar as they help to explain why so many liberals were blind to the menace of that evil thing, Communism. Thus Warren (although he says he did not treat the choices of the period as simple choices) chides the liberals of the Popular Front for believing that “a good cause would not be corrupted by Communist participation.” “One marvels at the lack of political sophistication,” says Warren. But he hastens to explain that “this was not the result of any deliberate Communist trickery; it was part of the liberals’ own social philosophy.”

If Warren had really wished to explore the “weaknesses within the social philosophy of liberalism,” he would have asked not only why a few liberals idolized Stalin but why so many more of them idolized Roosevelt; why they found it so easy to move from a shallow “disillusionment” with America in the Twenties to the equally shallow admiration of the New Deal and the virtues of American “democracy”; why so many liberals opposed collective security until it became too late for any measures against Fascism short of total war and then accepted the morality of total war with surprisingly few reservations; why, after sentimentalizing the Soviet Union as a partner-in-arms in the holy war against Fascism they went to the other extreme and helped to make anti-Communism the basis of American foreign policy, with disastrous results; and why they deluded themselves, all along, that real progress was being made in America, under a succession of liberal Presidents, toward justice and equality, so that as long as the Democrats stayed in office everything would be for the best in the best of worlds. If Mr. Warren did not choose to write this particular book, that was his privilege; but he should not claim, now that it suits his purpose, that such a book was the one he actually wrote. What he wrote was a stirring indictment of Communism, a stirring defense of anti-Communism, and beyond that, a refutation of a conspiracy theory which had nothing to recommend it in the first place.

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