This is not a book about the Communist Party and its discontents but a lecture on the need to keep the tattered faith at whatever cost to one’s integrity. Rapidly expiring all over the world, this faith, strange to say, is alive and well in literary America. As Al Bernstein — the possessor of a shrewder, stronger intellect than his wayward son-impatiently observes, “the right premise” – the Communist Party’s premise – is “the premise of a lot of recent books about the period.” Thus, the standard academic work on the subject of American universities in the loyalty oath era –No Ivory Tower by Princeton professor Eleanor Schrecker — is written from this neo-Stalinist perspective, as are most other recent studies written by academic leftists about the early Cold War security conflicts.
Even more striking support for Al Bernstein’s perspective is offered by the notices of Loyalties in the most prestigious book reviews in the Sunday New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. In each, Carl had his literary knuckles rapped by leftist reviewers who chided him for not justifying his parents’ Communist politics enough. Thus, Paul Robeson’s neo-Stalinist biographer Professor Martin Duberman complained in The Washington Post’s “Book World:” “In his dedication, Carl Bernstein asserts that he is proud of the choices his parents made. But he never provides enough argued detail about what went into those choices to allow most Americans to join him – as surely they should – in his approbation.” Indeed.
What are the tenets of the neo-Stalinist faith that has so unexpectedly resurfaced in American letters? Basically there are two. The first – that Communists were peace-loving, do-gooding, civil-rights activists and American patriots; the second – that they were the innocent victims of a fascist America. Carl has it down pat: “‘It was a reign of terror.’ I have never heard my father talk like that, have never known him to reach for a cliché. But this was no cliché.” (emphasis in original). Correct: it was not a cliché; it is a lie.
No, Carl, we in America didn’t have a reign of terror, not the way that phrase is understood to apply to the Stalinist world out of which our families both came and where it means blood in the gutters. In America, my mother elected to take an early disability retirement from the New York school system rather than answer questions about her membership in the Party. But with the help of Party friends and liberal sympathizers she immediately went on to other other, better careers, as secretary to the head of the National Lawyers Guild and research librarian for Planned Parenthood. Your father became a small-time entrepreneur and you got a job (through his personal connections) as a reporter at the Washington Star. When, later, you were at the Post and about to help topple a sitting president during the Watergate scandal, you went to managing editor Ben Bradlee to reveal the terrible secret about your parents’ Communist past, and what did he do? Remove you from the case? No, in horrific, anti-Communist, paranoid America, America home of the McCarthy reign of terror, the editor of The Washington Post told you to get on with the story. And what did you learn from that? Exactly nothing.
And that is my final complaint about Loyalties and its pseudo-account of the anti-Communist era. As in all the recent rewrites of this history, whose premise is to keep the faith, the reality of the post-war domestic conflict between Communists and anti-Communists goes unreported. In a fleeting episode in Loyalties, for example, Carl’s friend and former boss Ben Bradlee recalls over dinner that he had always thought of progressives like Carl’s parents (whom personally he did not know) as “awful people.” Even in the jagged structure of this book, the observation is jarring. But even more unnerving is the fact that the famous investigative reporter of Watergate does not pursue the remark to inquire what memories might lie behind it. The same lack of inquisitiveness is seen in his feeble efforts to understand the nature of his parents’ true commitments. He describes his mother, then in her 70s, as a woman who is “very forgiving.” But when she refers to a political adversary of 30 years ago as a “vicious bastard,” her son simply ignores the emotional signal, and misses anything that it might tell us about the polarized psyches and virulent hatreds of progressives like his parents.
Elsewhere, he describes how his grandfather would take him to a Jewish bookstore to buy the Yiddish-language Communist newspaper Freiheit. “Until the day he died in 1967 he had no use for the [non-Communist] Forward – or the [non-Communist] Socialists. ‘Fareters,’ traitors of the cause, he called them, and he didn’t much like having any of them into his house….” This life-long hatred towards non-Communist leftists, coupled with casual vitriolic abuse, was a staple of the personalities of Bernstein’s parents and of the other “victims” of the postwar “purge.” In attempting to explain to Carl, at another point in the text, why Al Bernstein joined the party, family friend – and fellow Communist — Bob Treuhaft observed: “There was a feeling that unless you joined and were with us you were the enemy.” Carl lets this one slip by too.
There were many enemies of progressive activists John L. Lewis, head of the CIO’s United Mine Workers, was once a party ally, but when he refused to go along with the Communist-supported no-strike pledge after the German invasion of Russia, the party attacked him as a “pro-Nazi” who was committing “treason.” The Communists also routinely denounced civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the organizer of the war-time March on Washington, as “a fascist helping defeatism,” because Randolph refused to shelve the struggle for civil rights – as the party demanded – in favor of joining the effort to help save the USSR from defeat. So much for the fantasy that Communist Party members were at bottom only unionists and civil-rights activists, or that progressives love peace.
Not only were progressives not libertarians, they were also, despite their pious wails later on, notorious masters of the political blacklist in all the organizations they managed to control. It was partly for these reasons that when the loyalty boards and the congressional committees finally did come to town, there were a lot of people – a lot of liberal people – waiting to settle scores with the Communists. To them, Communists were not the civil-libertarian idealists of Carl Bernstein’s book but political conspirators who had infiltrated and manipulated and taken over their own liberal organizations and subverted them for hidden agendas; who had slandered, libeled, and blacklisted them when they had opposed the party line; who had lied to the public, pretending that they were not Marxists or loyal to Soviet Russia when questions about their political affiliations were asked.
The Communists lied to everyone then, and the new keepers of their faith are still lying today. “If you’re going to write a book that says McCarthy was right, that a lot of us were Communists, you’re going to write a dangerous book,” Al Bernstein had warned. Look, for a moment, at this logic: To admit that they were Communists is to lend credence to the claims of Joseph McCarthy. Why is this dangerous at so late a date? Is not McCarthy himself the most irretrievable political corpse of the McCarthy era? It is dangerous to progressives to admit the truth not because it will bring persecution but because it will remove the final veil that allows a progressive life to appear to be more than simple service to the totalitarian cause.
It is not fear of smearing “innocents” that haunts the political left when it looks at its disgraceful past; it is something more like the fear that haunted the conscience of deconstructionist scholar Paul De Man: embarrassment over a terrible guilt. “‘Look,’ [Al Bernstein] snapped, ‘you’ve read Lillian Hellman’s book. She skirts these questions [about Communist Party membership] very neatly. She’s too sharp to leave herself open to that kind of embarrassment.’”
As always, Al Bernstein’s old Stalinist politics reveal a sharper judgment than that of his born-again son. Embarrassment is the problem – not a sham reign of terror; it is the shame of possible exposure as having been a loyal supporter of a mass murderer like Stalin for all those years. The struggle now is not over the fact, but what it actually meant to be a Communist then and an apologist for Communists now. Civil rights, trade unionism, human brotherhood, and peace: That’s what we were – they now stubbornly claim as their final fall-back position – that was our cause. Communism? Marxism? Socialism? Those were incidental – irrelevant to who we were and what we did.
Loyalties reveals the secret of how the progressive left aims to be born again – by erasing the embarrassment of its disreputable past; by hiding the shame of having supported Stalin and Mao and Fidel and Ho and all the terrible purges, murders, and other despicable means that finally served no beneficial ends. The ultimate embarrassment is of having been so stubbornly and perversely on the wrong side of history; of having embraced “solutions” that were morally and politically and economically bankrupt in the great struggles of our time. As Joseph Stalin was the first socialist to truly understand, the airbrushing of history is the only sure means to preserve the honor of the left. In this, as no doubt in other things in his undiscovered life, Al Bernstein follows right along the Stalinist path. And his son walks in lockstep behind him, picking up his mess.
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