Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, by Ronald Radosh, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 216 pages, $24.95
Ronald Radosh is an academic historian, author of several respectable (if not always respected) books on the critics, allies, and enemies of American foreign policy. He is also a former leftist who has joined the political right. The second description, in itself, tells us little: There are many lefts and many rights, especially now that the events of 1989 have turned the political spectrum into a Jackson Pollock painting. Once the world gets turned upside down, you never know where the people who once sat securely atop it will fall.
Those interested in the myriad political journeys American intellectuals have taken should be interested in Commies, Radosh's memoir of his path across and out of the radical left. As a case study, it's invaluable: an exemplary text as notable for what it skirts over as it is for what it says.
It's also less academic than one might expect from a book by a scholarly historian. Commies is crammed not with pedantic footnotes but with gossip, much of it gratuitous and most of it highly entertaining. Here we are told that Mary Travers (the feminine third of Peter, Paul, and Mary) displayed a "precocious sexuality" at Elisabeth Irwin High School, which she attended with Radosh; that Bianca Jagger may have had an affair with the Sandinista commandante Tomas Borge; that at the first wedding of Michael Lerner, later to invent Hillary Clinton's "politics of meaning," the cake bore the slogan "Smash Monogamy." Bob Dylan has a cameo, as do Henry Wallace, Pete Seeger, a dope-dealing descendent of Wendell Willkie, and Barbara Garson, author of the delightfully libelous LBJ-bashing play Macbird, who by Radosh's account climbed into bed with him 15 minutes after they met.
In a book stuffed with embarrassing anecdotes, my favorite involves Robert Scheer, a former editor of the New Left magazine Ramparts, who now appears in such reputable outlets as the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio. In the early '70s, Radosh claims, he attempted to interview Scheer for the Pacifica radio network, only to find that the man "would talk on the record about only one topic—the only one that mattered—the realization of the socialist utopia in Kim Il Sung's North Korea." According to Radosh, the discussion lasted more than two hours, yet never strayed far from Scheer's hobbyhorse; the results proved too weird for even the famously tolerant Pacifica to play.
How much of all this scuttlebutt is actually true? I have no idea. I e-mailed Scheer to ask for his side of the story; he replied that he remembered no such interview, that he has to "wonder why there is no written record of my having said anything like that," and that he never regarded North Korean communism as an ideal. Others have issued similar denials and semi-denials of Radosh's stories, leaving future historians with a mess of contradictory accounts to sort through. Like all good gossip, Radosh's tales come with the faint suspicion that you're being had.
Weaving through all this tittle-tattle is a narrative. In just over 200 pages, we watch a young Stalinist evolve into a New Leftist, into a social democrat, and, finally, into a member of David Horowitz's circle of fiercely repentant refugees from radicalism.
Here's the tale in brief. Radosh was born in the late '30s to a pair of immigrant radicals, both of them sympathetic to the Soviet Union. He went to a socialist summer camp and to a private high school, the latter a refuge for teachers who had refused to sign the public schools' loyalty oath or to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. As a teenager, Radosh joined the Labor Youth League, sort of a junior wing of the Communist Party; he became a full-fledged member of the party as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin.
Radosh's portrait of life as a young Red is engagingly written, filled with vivid characters (such as his mother's cousin Jacob Abrams, a Bolshevik-hating anarchist exiled to Mexico City) and enjoyably odd details (such as the teacher who tried to relate everything he taught to dialectical materialism—including geology). Refreshingly, he is generally able to criticize the Stalinist subculture in which he was raised without defending McCarthyism and its excrescences.
Returning to Wisconsin for graduate school in 1961, Radosh studied under the historian William Appleman Williams, a non-Communist radical in the American populist tradition. He grew disillusioned with orthodox Marxism, adopting first the pro-Soviet but anti-Stalinist views of Isaac Deutscher, and then a more eclectic New Left socialism. In the '70s, Radosh and some comrades tried to launch a radical third party, and when that failed he joined the Democratic Socialists of America, a group aimed at pushing the Democratic Party to the left.
He also found himself increasingly alienated from the radical milieu. In the late '70s, after more than a decade of work criticizing U.S. foreign policy, Radosh started writing about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Communists executed in 1953 for stealing nuclear secrets. For the Old Left—including the young Radosh—the Rosenbergs had been martyrs, victims of the same National Security State that had given the country loyalty oaths and Joe McCarthy. Radosh launched his investigations expecting to conclude that the couple was innocent. Instead, he uncovered a different story: Julius Rosenberg really was guilty, and Ethel was probably an accessory to the crime.
To be sure, the new account—showcased most prominently in The Rosenberg File (1983)—didn't make the American authorities look much better. Ethel had played, at worst, a minor role in the affair, but she still faced the death penalty. Why? Because the government thought that would pressure Julius to confess. Furthermore, the pair was put to death under a law intended only to execute those who committed espionage for a wartime enemy. Yet the spying had taken place during World War II, when the Soviet Union was still an ally. So why were they killed rather than imprisoned? To make a political point.
That may sound like useful fodder for the anti-anti-Communists, but it was small comfort for those with an emotional investment in the innocence of the Rosenbergs. Nor did it please those who liked to believe that Soviet espionage was a myth and that the only crimes of the Cold War were committed by the West. Radosh was fiercely attacked, and even some figures who privately sympathized with his views were too cowed to defend him publicly. (Michael Harrington, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, allegedly told Radosh that he "always knew" the Rosenbergs were guilty, "but we're trying to get former Communists who have left the party but are still pro-Soviet into our organization and I can't do anything to alienate them.")
Meanwhile, Radosh was having second thoughts about another leftist shibboleth: the revolutionary government in Nicaragua. He traveled there several times during the '80s, discovered that the Sandinistas were repressive, and stopped supporting their regime. At first he balanced his critique of the Sandinistas with criticisms of the U.S.-backed contra rebels. Then he convinced himself that the contras had evolved into a genuinely popular movement, and endorsed them outright. With this, he managed to estrange himself from those leftists too young to care about the Rosenbergs.
By 1993, the onetime radical was conservative enough to take a six-month job with the United States Information Agency. These days, among other projects, he writes regularly for David Horowitz's Heterodoxy and Frontpage.
Yet Radosh's first friendly contacts with the right did not come in the '80s or '90s. They came in the '60s, when the group around the journal Studies on the Left, which included Radosh, pioneered the idea of "corporate liberalism." This was the notion that, as Radosh puts it here, "the dominant worldview of American political leaders was not one of laissez faire, but rather a managerial form of liberalism." In its "cruder form," Radosh continues, the theory "was used to argue that in the United States, the true enemy of the left was not the 'reactionaries,' i.e. old-style Republicans and conservatives, but rather the liberals who comprised what they liked to call the 'vital center.'"
This stance allowed a certain measure of cooperation between the Studies leftists and Murray Rothbard's circle of isolationist libertarians. Rothbard contributed to Studies on the Left, and in 1967, Radosh in turn contributed to Rothbard's Left and Right. In 1972, the two co-edited A New History of Leviathan, with contributions from both sides of the anti-liberal aisle; three years later, Radosh published Prophets on the Right, a sympathetic study of the conservative critics of American imperialism.
Virtually all of this is missing from Commies. Perhaps Radosh felt he did not know enough gossip about the libertarians to include them. More likely, it would have unduly complicated his conversion narrative to acknowledge the existence of anti-imperialists outside the left.
It is such carefully obscured complications that make this book worth reading, even after the gossip has been absorbed or forgotten. At times, Commies seems less interesting for its insights than for those moments when insight suddenly, intriguingly disappears.
Consider Radosh's adventures in Nicaragua. This was not the first socialist regime in Latin America that Radosh visited: In the mid-'70s, he tells us, he and some other leftists toured Cuba. He entered the island expecting to find a vibrant social model; he left it with a considerable collection of doubts. The defining moment of his trip came after a tour of a Cuban madhouse, where a doctor had bragged that "in our institution, we have a larger proportion of hospital inmates who have been lobotomized than any other mental hospital in the world." Most of the tour group was horrified, but a revolutionary loyalist stood up for the asylum. "We have to understand," she explained, "that there are differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies."
Radosh wrote about his doubts in the pacifist magazine Liberation, prompting a horde of hostile letters. But he remained a supporter, albeit a critical one, of the Cuban regime, and he did not sever his ties with the left. The Sandinistas were autocrats, but they were never as oppressive as Castro. So why did they prompt the ideological shift that Cuba didn't?
The answer may have something to do with the intervening contretemps over the Rosenbergs: It's harder to feel loyal to a movement when large segments of it are already attempting to excommunicate you. But Radosh did not merely attack the Sandinistas. He supported U.S. aid to the contras. A man who for his entire life opposed American intervention abroad—a leftist who had found more to admire in the isolationist critics of World War II than in its socialist supporters—was now calling for military action against a sovereign country. This clearly represents more than disillusionment with Third World revolution or left-wing groupthink. It's a fundamental shift in a political worldview. Yet Radosh never explains what provoked it.
Meanwhile, he attacks anyone on the left who disagreed with his take on Nicaragua—even where the actual disagreement is hard to discern. He thus writes with considerable venom about Paul Berman, a lefty journalist who, Radosh claims, refused to criticize the Sandinistas when Radosh urged him to. "Eventually," Radosh adds, "Paul Berman would become something of a critic of the Sandinistas, and would use this as proof of how he exemplified a truly independent and critical left wing. But his tepid criticism would be too little and too late, coming after it could do any good." The problem: Radosh says he asked Berman to criticize the Sandinistas in 1987. That's a year after the latter published a much-debated article in Mother Jones that, er, criticized the Sandinistas. Just when exactly is "too late"?
Radosh never mentions the Mother Jones article, nor Berman's earlier criticisms of the Sandinistas in The Village Voice. One gets the impression that Radosh didn't merely want people on the left to attack the Sandinistas; he wanted them to adopt his own critique, including his support for the contras. (Of course, one needn't even be a leftist to oppose contra aid. Conservatives as well as leftists can wonder why the U.S. should meddle in another nation's affairs; conservatives as well as leftists can object to contra atrocities.) Perhaps there is more to Radosh's unkind words than he is letting on, a personal reason for his attacks on Berman (who himself has evolved from an anarchist into a social democrat, a supporter of "humanitarian" wars, and a voter for Al Gore). Or perhaps Radosh became as narrow-minded in his pursuit of a contra victory as his erstwhile comrades had been in their defense of Soviet spies and socialist lobotomies. Either way, he sometimes sounds as rigid as the left he abandoned.
Commies is, at its best, a study of the mind-numbing effect of dogma, of the ridiculous things people can bring themselves to do or think because of the intellectual systems they subscribe to. It is also a study of how loyalties—personal, political, social—can disguise themselves as ideology, with similarly deranging effects. In a quieter way, it shows how a man perspicacious enough to see these faults in his former comrades can fail to see them still lurking within himself.