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Varieties of Antifascism

In response to:

The Conscientious Spy from the November 19, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

I was, to say the least, very surprised to read Stephen Toulmin’s attack on Robert Williams [NYR, November 19, 1987] for describing the International Workers’ Aid of the 1920s–1930s as Moscow-controlled. Williams “implies,” according to Toulmin, “that the IWA was among ‘dozens of front organizations publicly opposed to fascism and secretly funded by the Soviet Union.”’ This is, according to Professor Toulmin, to “caricature the democratic antifascist movements as financed by Moscow gold,” adding that “serious historians today need to pick their words more carefully.”

Well, as a serious historian with a book on precisely these subjects about to appear from Transaction/Rutgers,* let me pick my words as follows. If anything, Mr. Williams is incorrect in describing the International Workers’ Aid as “secretly funded” by Moscow. Any “serious historian” on the Communist movement would have pointed out to Professor Toulmin that the International Workers’ Aid was an open branch of the organization known by its Russian initials as the MOPR, the International Class-War Prisoners’ Aid, head-quartered in Moscow, and dedicated to succoring Communist and labor prisoners around the world. The better description might have been “openly funded.”

Professor Toulmin elsewhere in his review criticizes the “tunnel vision” that led Mr. Williams to describe Alan Turing as nothing more than a “cryptographer,” ignoring Turing’s work as a computer theorist. Professor Toulmin seems to suffer from a similar, or perhaps opposite, kind of myopia in theorizing, outside his own field, about organizations like the International Workers’ Aid.

Stephen Schwartz

Institute for Contemporary Studies

San Francisco, California

Stephen Toulmin replies:

My difficulty with Robert Williams’s book did not have to do with his remarks about International Workers’ Aid in particular, but with the lighthearted manner in which he equated the whole antifascist movement of the Thirties with that part of it which the Russians undoubtedly controlled. Tarring all the liberal and social democratic opponents of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco with the same brush as their Communist allies is as illegitimate a move now as it was back in the Thirties.

  1. *

    Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM (with Victor Alba).

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