It's time to face old truths of Stalinism in America

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

April 18, 1999|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

Hilton Kramer's new book, and much else, can clear up the residual hypocrisies about a genuine threat.

What is Stalinism? Now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union a fast-fading memory, the question may seem academic. But once upon a not-so-distant time, Americans who believed devoutly that Joseph Stalin was a great and good leader wielded real power in this country's cultural life -- enough that they could make life difficult for those who dared to point out that their hero happened to be the world's most wanted mass murderer. What is more, the spiritual descendants of such folk continue to this very day to unwittingly do the bidding of a monster who died a half-century ago, but whose malign spirit lingers on.

Consider, for example, this year's Academy Awards ceremony, at which Elia Kazan was presented with the Irving Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement in film.

By all rights, the director of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront" should long since have been a shoo-in. But for years, Kazan was blocked from consideration for the award because he chose to testify before a congressional committee about his youthful involvement with the American Communist Party, and in so doing to identify other party members.

Given the fact that the Communist Party was officially committed to the overthrow of the U.S. government, and that many of its members doubled as Soviet spies, you'd think Kazan had done his fellow Americans a service. But because he "named names," his own name has long been mud among aging Hollywood liberals devoted to the principle that there can be no forgiveness for those ex-Communists who, disillusioned with the Soviet Union, decided that it was their duty to try to stop it from having its evil way with the West. As a Wall Street Journal headline writer concisely put it last month, "He told the truth -- they lied for communism. And he's the bad guy?"

Even more revealing, though, is the fact that an equally staunch band of young celebrity leftists organized an anti-Kazan protest on Oscar night, subsequently receiving sympathetic coverage from still younger TV and print reporters seemingly unaware of the fact that Soviet communism was not just another form of government, no better or worse than Western democracy, but the single most bloodthirsty entity in the history of the world.

This peculiar phenomenon -- call it neo-Stalinism -- is among the most troubling features of American intellectual life today. Just as Stalin's henchmen used to airbrush the images of murdered colleagues out of the photos in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, so do neo-Stalinists seek to conceal the skeletons in the closets of those Americans who played the Soviet game.

Ignorance is their secret weapon. Chances are you didn't know, for example, that Aaron Copland, America's greatest composer, was also a red-hot Stalinist who played a key role in the infamous "Waldorf Peace Conference" of 1949, at which American Communists and their sympathizers feted a delegation of top Soviets with shameless enthusiasm. And even if you did know it, you probably read about it in a book that encouraged you to dismiss Copland's Communist connections as a mere youthful peccadillo. (He was 48 years old at the time of the Waldorf Conference.)

Far more serious is the persistent willingness of neo-Stalinists to ignore the inconvenient facts about the so-called "Red Scare" of the '40s and '50s, when the now-notorious House Un-American Activities Committee was at the height of its influence. Did HUAC make mistakes? You bet. But as Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev explain in "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era" (Random House, 402 pages, $30), the files of the KGB reveal that virtually every well-known "victim" of the Red Scare was in fact a Soviet intelligence agent or source. Richard Nixon was right: Alger Hiss really did steal top-secret State Department documents, and Julius Rosenberg really did pass atomic-bomb blueprints to his KGB handlers.

Those four words -- "Richard Nixon was right" -- lie at the heart of neo-Stalinism. Latter-day apologists for Soviet communism may have a slicker line of patter, but they still believe, just like their predecessors, that there are no enemies on the left and no honest men on the right. If Nixon said it, then it has to be wrong, even if it was sworn to by 50 eyewitnesses and backed up with irrefutable documentation. Hence the steadfast unwillingness of aging leftists to admit that Hiss was a Soviet spy, and the equally steadfast unwillingness of their grandchildren to admit that it matters.

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