Liberals and Communism: The “Red Decade” Revisited
The Communist Controversy in Washington from the New Deal to McCarthy
Fairness requires a historian to resist easy judgments after the fact. Yet his eagerness to avoid the temptation to condemn the past by “hindsight” may only deliver him into a form of neutrality in which he excuses everything on the grounds that our predecessors were too benighted to be expected to arrive at the truth; they must be judged “by the standards of their own day.” What looks at first like historical “objectivity” reveals itself as a particularly insidious kind of condescension, compared to which even “hindsight” begins to seem preferable.
It is easy to see why the history of the Thirties and Forties—the “red decades” of American politics—should so often have been approached from one or the other of these perspectives. The sudden reversal by which the Soviet Union, a wartime ally, became a national enemy made heretical sympathies that had lately been not only tolerated but, at times, encouraged. In the late Forties and early Fifties the question of “loyalty” dominated American politics, giving rise to a debate that has not yet exhausted itself; a debate that the books by Warren and Latham, regrettably perhaps, will help to perpetuate.
On the one hand, the liberals of the Thirties and Forties were accused by their critics of moral blindness to the crimes of Communism, or worse, of knowingly abetting them. On the other, it was said in their defense that the monstrous character of the Soviet regime did not reveal itself until the end of the war, that everyone had been equally deceived (just as one party to another debate holds that everyone was deceived about Hitler); and that in any case those who spoke well of Stalinism were more interested in reforming America than in promoting the fortunes of the Soviet Union, indeed saw very little connection between the two. These judgments are almost equally unfair. The first, by reading back the conditions of the cold war into the period of the Popular Front and the Second World War, misrepresents the flavor of those years and makes it impossible, short of positing a conspiracy, to understand why so many people should have been attracted to Communism. The other clears liberals of conspiracy only to endow them with an almost unlimited simplicity about politics that is hardly flattering, and, flattering or not, is no more plausible, on so grand a scale, than the theory of a global design in which American liberals faithfully carried out the parts they were assigned.
THE ALTERNATIVE to all this would seem to be the achievement of a perspective that will minimize the importance of a particular type of moral judgment—the attempt to fix blame, the search for personal villains—without, at the same time, imagining we have rid ourselves of judgments altogether. The books by Warren and Latham, one dealing with liberals who in one way or another sympathized with Communism, the other with actual Communists, show what can be gained, and what cannot, by scrupulous scholarship and a determination …
Liberals & Communism December 29, 1966