A Long March Off a Short Pier A Review of Ronald Radosh’s Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001) by Joseph R. Stromberg
In 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.
The 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.
Radosh 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: “u2018Songs are weapons,' he often said” (p. 17) and, indeed, he was right.
Paul 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 of uplifting.
So 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.
A Helpless Pawn of William Appleman Williams?
By 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.
Radosh 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.)
Radosh's 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.
Sex, Drugs, & Rock'n'Roll
Actually, 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.
Radosh 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.
From Woody Guthrie to Contra Dancing
Now 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.
Radosh's 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.
Coming Home to the Once-Hated Corporatist Center
Thus 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.
Ex-communist 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.
To 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,” Prophets on the Right (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), with chapters on Charles Beard, Oswald Garrison Villard, Robert Taft, John T. Flynn, and Lawrence Dennis.
Of 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 sharing.
Radosh 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.
I 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. 37).
Thanks, commies, for the folk song army, political correctness, and the destruction of private property in the name of “civil rights.”