All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1971

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1971/6

There are affinities between the nineteen thirties and the nineteen sixties. There are also some sig­nificant differences. Nobody has, as yet, done a searching compara­tive essay on the two benighted epochs, but in default of the omis­sion the republication of Eugene Lyon’s study of the thirties, The Red Decade (Arlington House, $8.95), after being out of print for thirty years, offers the best possible perch from which to view the disastrous period that is just behind us.

The parallelism between the two decades is apt. In the thirties we had terrible domestic troubles and the growth of an isolationist spirit. But the rise of European Fascism and the ferociously mili­tant expansion of Japan broke in upon our home-grown concerns. We were induced, partly by fear and partly by feckless diplomacy that set the stage for Pearl Har­bor, to substitute Dr. Win-the War (Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s characterization) for Dr. New Deal.

During the whole period, as Gene Lyons points out, our cul­tural life was subjected to the Machiavellian penetrations of a foreign power that used a bewild­ering variety of “Innocents Clubs” and “transmission belts” and other “fronts” to lead artists, journal­ists, scientists, teachers, labor leaders, and important political figures around by the nose. We ended up in a war for “democ­racy” that enabled the malevolent Josef Stalin to move further to the West in Europe than the Turk had ever been. We frustrated the Japanese attempt to dominate the Asian mainland only to see China fall to Mao Tse-tung, who believes that all power comes from the bar­rel of a gun and is bent on putting that gun in the hands of Red guerrillas everywhere from Tierra del Fuego to Timbuktu.

The New Isolationism

In the sixties our domestic troubles were of a different order, but their impact on our spirit was even more appalling than the effect of the street corner apple-selling and the CIO strikes of the thirties. The new isolationism grew as our difficulties in maintaining the 1945 division of the world became more onerous. We haven’t had to face a big confrontation with the Mos­cow or Peking totalitarians, but that will come (with either a Munich or a war) if we lose faith and credibility in Vietnam and the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile our cultural life is subjected to the Machiavellian penetration of poly centric radicals who owe spir­itual allegiance to Brezhnev, to Chairman Mao, or to Fidel Castro and the shade of Che Guevara. The modern “Innocents Clubs” are manipulated by a variety of off­shore interests, which makes for a confusion but does not lessen the danger. Both the confusion and the danger are compounded by the insidious growth of the drug cul­ture, which spreads an apathy that hurts the possibility of a return to sanity.

Oddly enough, one reads Gene Lyons’s study of the thirties with a good bit of nostalgia for a period that combined, in Max Eastman’s description, “the charms of the South Sea Bubble and the insane pathos of the Children’s Crusade.” As Mr. Lyons says in his author’s preface to the new edition, “liter­ally millions of Americans, some knowingly and most innocently, allowed themselves to be manipu­lated by a small group under tight control from Kremlin headquar­ters.”

But the Muscovite Comrades could not have pulled the wool over the eyes of thousands of liberals from Eleanor Roosevelt on down if the Idealisms of the thirties hadn’t been compelling. After all, Hitler was a monster. From a safe distance at a Manhattan cocktail party held to raise funds for Loyalist Spain one could feel that in offering money to support the Abraham Lincoln Brigade one was doing the work of the Lord. It was only after the courageous John Dos Passos had come back from Spain with the report that the Stalinists had usurped control of the Republican armies that one could see how the American lib­erals had been gulled. In reading or rereading Lyons it is the sur­face innocence of the thirties that induces the nostalgia. Bliss was it in that dawn to have been inno­cent. It took time for most of us to discover what was going on in the depths.

The Unmentionable Famine Three Million Starve

My own disillusionment with the Soviet utopia came in the middle thirties when Walter Duranty, the cynical Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, remarked casually to Simeon Strunsky and myself in the Times elevator one day that three million Russian peasants had died in a man-made famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33. The magnitude of Mr. Duranty’s figures was appalling, but even more appalling to me, as an ideal­istic young journalist, was the fact that Duranty had never breathed a word about the famine in print. (After all, he had his return visa to Russia to consider, and what did the truth matter as against that.) Mr. Lyons lets the worst about all of us in the thirties be set down for posterity by printing the lists of those who signed the petitions and open letters that characterized the age. He is always generous, however, in telling when a Clifton Fadiman, or an Edmund Wilson, or a John Dewey, came to his senses and got off the Musco­vite train. He dates my own con­version to common sense accu­rately, even though he wasn’t aware of the reason for it.

The communists in the thirties had a virtually unshakeable grip on New York publishing, the American Newspaper Guild, the CIO unions in plants with a mili­tary defense potential, the youth movement, the liberal magazines, and some of the New Deal bu­reaucracies. Sometimes the grip was exercised directly, through card-carrying operatives. But more often the control was indirectly applied through trusted fellow-travelers, as I came to know as a member of the Time, Inc., News­paper Guild unit.

Stalin Joins Hitler — Saws Off Liberal Limb

One could say, as it was often said in the thirties, that collabora­tion with the communists in a “front” was both honorable and harmless as long as it was a mat­ter of fighting Nazis. But the day came when the perfidious Stalin signed his notorious pact with Hitler. On that day it was too late for the “four hundred fools” to recall their letter to the Nation expressing an ineffable trust in Stalin, a letter which happened to appear on the newsstands at the very time the headlines in the dailies were proclaiming the news of Stalin’s abrupt switch. Gene Lyons extracts the last bit of far­cical comedy from the discomfi­ture of the Stalinoid liberals in 1939 when their master sawed off the limb on which they were crowded. But Lyons is also aware of the tragedy involved when the supposed cream of a country’s in­telligentsia can be deluded into thinking thistles can grow figs.

Let us come back to the sixties, when the figs-from-thistles illu­sion started to take hold all over again. The big question is what happened to an educational system that failed to make use of Mr. Lyons’s book during all those years between 1940 and 1971. If it had been read in the colleges, wouldn’t there have been a little more skepticism among the young about the aims and uses of the New Left? Since the gods them­selves contend in vain against thick-headedness, the availability of one good book probably would not have made a tremendous dif­ference. But it might have saved a few promising boys and girls from going along with the move­ment that wrecked Columbia Uni­versity and precipitated the trag­edy at Kent State.

Again, if Gene Lyons’s account of the euphoria that accompanied the birth of the Popular Front in 1935 had been digested by our leaders, would we now be taken in by the ping pong diplomacy of the Red Chinese? Ping pong may be useful to us to the end of driv­ing a wedge between Peking and Moscow, but Mr. Lyons warns us to be sure of our motivations whenever we deal with totalitar­ians.

Student Violence by Ed­ward Bloomberg (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1970, 91 pp. $3.25)

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

Most analysis of campus turmoil seek to locate responsibility for it off campus. They blame the war, or the “Establishment,” or “the system.” But Professor Bloom­berg, of the University of Cali­fornia at Davis, declares that campus violence is the natural consequence of a generation of teachers who have indoctrinated students with relativism, envi­ronmental determinism, and a re­jection of the past.

Most professors do not condemn violence for “absolute relativism is the fashion right now. Few intellectuals would be prepared to defend anything as absolutely true or absolutely good. The result is that many feel — without knowing precisely why — that nothing can be really false or evil. Therefore nothing is absolutely forbidden.”

What, then, is the connection between the relativism of the col­lege faculties and the absolutism and dogmatism of the radicals. In this instance, Professor Bloom­berg points out, “the former en­courages the latter. The relativism of adults prevents them from con­demning any behavior at all, even their own vilification. Students are thus free to follow their own inclinations wherever they lead.” The unfortunate result is that many academicians are not even prepared to speak in behalf of academic freedom, which has been destroyed at too many campuses.

Those who believe in relativism, charges Professor Bloomberg, have abandoned the mission of the Academy: “reason is now in low repute with the New Left. It is relativism and its result, authoritarianism, which have giv­en reason such a bad name. In relativism there is no truth. How, therefore, can reason, as it claims, discover truth? In authoritarian­ism, truth is absolute, but only authority can discover it. As there will inevitably be a conflict be­tween authority and reason, the former rejects the latter.” Thus, the barbarians storm the academy, and the faculties, devoutly believ­ing that nothing is right and noth­ing is wrong, do nothing to de­fend it.

Professor Bloomberg carefully examines other logical contradic­tions and double standards in the New Left lexicon. Unlike radicals of the thirties who compared the American society to the allegedly idyllic life in Russia, today’s radi­cals use no culture, past or present, as a point of comparison. When asked to what they are comparing American institutions, radicals have no answer. “It is,” Professor Bloomberg declares, “to their dreams that they are comparing them.” He notes: “Here we see an obvious contradiction, for they insist on the one hand that if the United States is not perfect, it is perfectly corrupt (which of course does not follow), while demanding no such perfection of themselves…. One cannot penetrate radical `thought’ without understanding that it applies relative — and ex­tremely lenient — moral standards to radicals, but absolute — and in­transigent — ones to society (the `system’). Radicals generally couch their complaints in Marxist terms…. This explains the amus­ing references to the exploited workers, supposed allies of the students in the revolution. There is of course no group less revolu­tionary (or less exploited) than American workers, but when you accept a dogma you cannot make an exception of its fundamental thesis.”

Dr. Bloomberg is especially good in his analysis of environ­mental determinism. If “we” are wholly innocent and yet the situ­ation is so very bad, our troubles must be the fault of “the system”; human nature has been corrupted by evil institutions. This Rous­seauistic theory has always bred violence, leading those who em­brace it to conclude that their societies must be destroyed at all costs in order that human nature might display its pristine good­ness. Student violence in con­temporary America is sparked by a theory few students understand and fewer apply.

Students for a Democratic So­ciety and others of the New Left are inconsistent when they con­demn everyone in the so-called “Establishment.” “Logically, they (the Establishment) too should be seen as victims of society rather than perpetrators of evil. This contradiction points up one of the strangest aberrations of the SDS: They arrive at two humanities, the good ‘people’ and the evil `pigs,’ in the fashion of those who believe man is evil. This permits them to treat ‘pigs’ as totalitari­ans treat the general population. Since, in fact, practically all Amer­icans do fit into the pig category (most of us favor the system and own property), most of us are only getting what we deserve when we are treated violently. Pigs `should be put in pig pens,’ as SDS members are wont to say. Love becomes hate, and utopia becomes a concentration camp.”

Professor Bloomberg demolishes a number of other such building blocks of radical philosophy. But the blame for campus violence does not rest with students who are immature and uninformed about both political systems and political theory. The responsibility lies elsewhere, and it is to his colleagues on the nation’s college faculties that Professor Bloom­berg turns in assessing the real responsibility. Wrong ideas have gained ascendancy, and our col­leges cannot resume their true educational function until sounder ideas replace them.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.