‘Red Diaper Babies’
this lively and interesting memoir of his life and changing political
views, historian Ronald Radosh sheds much light on the ideological
politics of the American Left from the 1950s into the 1990s. Radosh
and his generational cohort were products of the Eastern European
Jewish community of New York’s garment district. Even more importantly,
they were a subculture within a subculture: the proverbial hard
Left of card-carrying Stalinists.
Red Diaper babies, as they were later called, were a pivotal factor
in the now-receding Sixties. As Radosh shows, he and his friends
grew up in an insular, self-protective, and besieged culture in
which everything was politicized and one’s life choices had to do
with finding the best way of assisting the triumph of communism
in the United States. One of Radosh’s uncles fell in Spain, fighting
with the (aptly named) Abraham Lincoln Brigade. His cousin, Jacob
Abrams, a left-anarchist living in Mexico, tried to warn the author
about the drawbacks of Stalinism.
attended an elementary school largely implicated in the Red subculture
(PS 173), followed by the "little Red schoolhouse," the Elisabeth
Irwin private school in the upper grades. Summers were spent at
youth camps in the Catskills, where woodcraft took second place
to ideological moulding, partly at the hands of the Red balladeer,
Pete Seeger. Of the latter, Radosh writes: "‘Songs are weapons,’
he often said" (p. 17) and, indeed, he was right.
Robeson and Huddie Leadbelly were party heroes, and the Reds were
undertaking to create what Tom Lehrer later derided as "the folk-song
army." A number of good banjoists came out of these efforts, as
the commies wished to infiltrate Bluegrass music, perhaps out of
some institutional memory of coalminers’ strikes combined with a
paternalistic view that Appalachian whites needed an unusual amount
far, it is all good clean fun, except for the Stalinism, although
Radosh’s account suggests that Joe McCarthy was not exactly wrong
about the domestic presence of disciplined
cadres of party animals. As Radosh tells it, the ordeal of Julius
and Ethel Rosenberg was a central, formative event in his circle.
It is the best part of the book that Radosh knew all the
commies the real, honest-to-Joe Stalinists and lets
us in on their cultic secrets. Radosh names names. Most of these
people are still left of center.
Helpless Pawn of William Appleman Williams?
1955, Radosh was ready for college, and chose the University of
Wisconsin, the only school with a chapter of the Labor Youth League
(yes, a front), of which he was already a member. There he studied
under such historians as Merrill Jensen, an old-line Beardian, and
George Mosse, a Europeanist and socialist. More importantly, he
fell in with the emerging Wisconsin School of revisionist historians
presided over by William Appleman Williams, a Midwesterner who was
more Beardian than Marxist. This began Radosh’s transition from
the Old Left CP to the New Left.
next earned a Master’s in History at Iowa, where he did some political
work on the "civil rights" front, and undertook a doomed first marriage.
He returned to Wisconsin to work on his Ph.D. under Williams. There
he threw himself into the work of the New Left’s best scholarly
journal, Studies on the Left, alongside Martin Sklar, James
Weinstein, and others. By now, he was convinced that the writings
of the Trotskyoid historian Isaac Deutscher provided a bridge away
from Stalin and exposed Stalin’s crimes. (Evidently, the works of
Emma Goldman, William Henry Chamberlin, and Victor Kravchenko had
been burned in a library fire.)
dissertation was on Samuel Gompers and the US labor movement, which
he presented as corporatist in character and fully supportive of
US Open Door empire. This was Williams’ interpretive framework,
which Radosh now dismisses out of hand as "fatally flawed" (p. 70).
Evidently, US foreign policy has always been benign and merely reactive
to foreign threats. I may be wrong, but seems to me that here, as
in other of Radosh’s writings and interviews, Williams the
only one of these people who was never a Stalinist
is singled out for criticism. Go figure.
Drugs, & Rock’n’Roll
Radosh’s "Williamsite" dissertation, published as American Labor
and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Random House, 1969),
was rather good, even if he now discounts it. Ph.D. in hand, Radosh
found a teaching position in New York City at Queensborough Community
College. There he fell prey to all the radical temptations of the
tempestuous Sixties. His marriage, buffeted by the ill winds of
crazed feminism, sexual license, and such, came apart. For a time,
Radosh went from Studies on the Left to being a stud on the
Left. Eventually, he met his future second wife. Historians might
better stay away from this sort of writing.
was also becoming acquainted with the editors of Ramparts,
the hard Left glossy monthly of the period, and further revising
his views. What is most interesting is Radosh’s claim that he and
his confreres were knowingly dishonest in their political
and campus activism. At this remove, that seems a fair reading of
the Sixties. One can only hope that their writings took place on
a more Platonic plane. There is much entertaining material here
about the lunatic subdivisions of the New Left SDS, PLO,
and the lot.
Woody Guthrie to Contra Dancing
we come to Radosh’s further disillusionment in Russia, so to speak.
A literary terrorist tour of Cuba in 1973 shattered more of his
illusions. He began to see Castro’s experiment as just another police
state. Now, Radosh began moving toward the social democratic Left
associated with Michael Harrington.
writings on the Rosenberg case first with Sol Stern in 1979
and then with Joyce Milton in 1983 (The
Rosenberg File) put him even more at odds with his
former allies. (Eric Foner, sainted PC commissar for US history
and Reconstruction fabulist, is mentioned.) Visits to Nicaragua,
beginning in 1983, turned him against that revolutionary regime
and led him to support US funding for the Contras. Needless to say,
he was hardly on the radical Left at all at this point.
Home to the Once-Hated Corporatist Center
Radosh’s not-very-long march from Bolshevism ended in the general
neighborhood of Sidney Hook. Reading this interesting book, I was
led to wonder if the subtitle should not have been "how I took decades
to figure out the obvious about Uncle Joe," or "how I decided to
settle for second thoughts, when third or fourth ones might have
been called for." Viewed from the Right, Radosh’s great trek seems
to have seized up a bit early. He does not tell us much in these
memoirs about what he thinks of his earlier historical older works.
In an interview in Continuity (#13, Spring-Fall 1989), he
seems to shrug off all those efforts as youthful indiscretions.
memoirs are a interesting literary form. Arthur Koestler, Whitaker
Chambers, Burnham, and Frank Meyer each handled his political conversion
in his own unique way. Murray Rothbard once noted that ex-vegetarians
did not usually set themselves up as anti-vegetarians and
preach to non-vegetarians about the vegetarian menace. Yet ex-communists
always went in business to advise and exhort those who had remained
immune to the lure of the Internationale.
mention Rothbard is to bring to mind the lost weekend Radosh spent
as an near-ally of right-libertarian anti-imperialists in the mid
sixties. Bob Dylan appears in this book, but Rothbard and his associates
do not. Yet Radosh
wrote on FDR’s foreign policy for Rothbard’s Left and Right
(3, 3 [Spring-Autumn 1967]), edited a book with Rothbard, A
New History of Leviathan (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), on
the rise of US corporatism and empire (to which Williams contributed),
and wrote a thoughtful and friendly survey of right-wing "isolationists,"
on the Right (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), with
chapters on Charles Beard, Oswald Garrison Villard, Robert Taft,
John T. Flynn, and Lawrence Dennis.
this political lost weekend there is not a trace in this memoir.
Could it be that the politically shipwrecked Radosh, having washed
ashore near the New Republic, Al Shanker, and the Olin Foundation,
is more ashamed of once consorting with right-wing libertarians
than of having been a Stalinist? Similarly, while we learn much
of the dishonest capers of the Left in the Sixties, the Vietnam
War, which was for many people a problem worth pondering,
seems largely absent. Yet it was the opposition to US foreign policy,
briefly shared by the New Left and the Old Right, which made Radosh’s
association with the latter possible. Perhaps there can be too much
writes that he failed ROTC one semester in college because in answer
to a question calling for a strategy of aerial bombardment of Russia,
he put, "I wouldn’t" (p. 59). He may have done so for the wrong
reasons, but I have no problem with the sentiment. I wouldn’t, either.
Nor should we starve the Iraqi people because their leader drew
the wrath of Uncle a decade ago. At political dead center, they
may not see it that way. Somewhere on his pilgrimage, I fear, Radosh
mistakenly concluded that all historical criticism of US foreign
policy is tainted by its brief association, for some persons, with
Reds. That is not the only conclusion he could have drawn.
should not like to close on a negative note. Radosh’s
work on the Rosenbergs and the Spanish Civil War have their
merits. His suspicions about the former resulted in part from personal
knowledge of all those commies an intellectual form of insider
trading no more immoral, as such, than the other kind. One of the
most important insights to be gained from Radosh’s book is that
the whole tedious, relentless politicization of everyday life, which
bids fair to make life in America unbearable, began inside
the Communist Party USA. Already in the fifties, loose charges of
"racism" were in use to silence opponents and win arguments (p.
commies, for the folk song army, political correctness, and the
destruction of private property in the name of "civil rights."
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the
Ludwig von Mises Institute and
a columnist for Antiwar.com.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com