All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1974

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1974/9

In the beginning there was the romantic tradition. The artists, worshipping clay, paint, decibels or words (as the case might be), retreated to their garrets with confused feelings that the French Revolution, which was supposed to have brought about a universal enlightenment, had misfired. The new Bohemians may have considered themselves to be socialists, anarchists or radical democrats, but they actually hungered without knowing it for an aristocratic order that would support them with a quite old-fashioned patronage. That was the way it had been before the damnable bourgeoisie began to scramble for capital to start factories — the “Satanic mills” — and that was the way it should be again.

The romantics were subsequently joined by the Fabian liberals, who sought to use government as a “planning” instrument to refashion society in accordance with supposed scientific principles. Calling themselves intellectuals, the romantics and the Fabians (or Progressives, as they were known in America), were actually short on analytical ability. They couldn’t understand the emerging capitalism that had unshackled the producer after Napoleon had completed the wrecking of the old feudal world.

That was how things stood when, at the end of World War I, the Bolsheviks grabbed the levers of power in Russia, quite in defiance of Marx’s theory that the “revolution” would first come in the industrialized countries. The scene was set for the rise of the Fellow-Traveller. The noncomprehending intellectuals (who was it said “thinking is too important to leave to the intellectuals”?) reacted to the emergence of the Soviet State in a variety of ways, but on one thing they were agreed: the “experiment” in the land of the muzhiks was something to be coddled and protected.

In a remarkable book called The Fellow-Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (Macmillan, $8.95), David Caute follows the fortunes of three or four generations of intellectuals who were bemused by the Portent in the East through all the hot and cold war days of the middle twentieth century. The story, as Mr. Caute presents it, has the attributes of a great tapestry. The characters come and go, some of them changing their minds, some persisting to the end in holding that Statist Communism, though it might not be considered a good organizational form for a Western nation that had known habeas corpus and other liberties, is an acceptable order for a backward nation that has yet to achieve its industrial revolution.

Biographical Material

As a collection of interweaving biographies The Fellow-Travellers is fascinating. If you want to know whatever became of such Germans as Lion Feuchtwanger, Arnold Zweig, Heinrich Mann and Ernst Toiler, all of whom trusted the Soviets to save their Fatherland from Hitler, you’ll find it here, with a liberal garnishment of historical irony. The British Fellow-Travellers — Harold Laski, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the poets (Auden, Spender), the detached socialists (Orwell was the greatest of them until he went to Spain and saw what the Stalinists were doing) — were more interested in Lenin and Stalin as planners than as anti-Fascists. The Fellow-Travelling French, from Anatole France and Romain Rolland on down through Andre Malraux and Andre Gide to Jean-Paul Sartre, were more abstract about it all (Anatole France was looking for a new breed of eighteenth century philosophe, Rolland was for universal peace, Malraux wanted adventure, Gide and Sartre had moral and existential preoccupations). The Americans—Lincoln Steffens, Anna Louise Strong, John Dos Passos, Corliss Lamont, Malcolm Cowley, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Max Eastman — got into the Fellow-Travelling act mostly for idealistic motives. They didn’t fear Hitler as the Germans feared him, nor were they particularly interested in turning their own nation over to a Fabian bureaucracy, even though many of them came to accept the New Deal as a domestic substitute for more orthodox socialism.

Shock Waves of Change

What is deficient about Mr. Caute’s vast canvas is its failure to be incisive about the social shocks that brought intellectuals into the Fellow-Travelling orbit or propelled them out of it. The shocks began quite early in the game, with the breaking of the Kronstadt sailors’ mutiny against Bolshevism. The 1929 depression was the biggest shock of all. Then came the counter-shocks: the Soviet man-made famine of the Thirties, the purges, the Moscow trials, the triumph of ugly dictatorship in the person of Stalin, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Many of the American idealists—Max Eastman, Isaac Don Levine, Edmund Wilson, J. B. Matthews, Dos Passos, even Louis Fischer—got off the train at one point or another because they couldn’t stand the sight of torture.

Max Eastman once wrote a great essay on the “motive patterns” that brought people to socialism in his time. Some were looking for freedom, others were more interested in order. Naturally the freedom-lover would react to a purge, or a fostered famine (breaking eggs to make an omelette), or the creation of an all-devouring Ogpu, in a different way than a “planner” with a bookkeeping mind would react.

If Mr. Caute had applied Eastman’s motive-pattern test to his characters, he would have come up with more convincing explanations for the evolution of such “defectors” as Dos Passos or Malraux. And he would have been able to come to grips with the nature of many a Fellow-Travelling compromise. In Spain, Fellow-Travellers put up with the Stalin terror because they considered Franco the greater evil. So it was, all through the West, after Hitler had attacked Russia. Even such a freedom-lover as Winston Churchill could be a Fellow-Traveller on the pragmatic theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The McCarthy Period

Mr. Caute is at his best in dealing with the Germans, especially the German Jewish intellectuals. They needed Soviet help to get rid of the Nazis. But when it comes to understanding the so-called McCarthy Period in America Mr. Caute misses the whole point. With Hitler out of the way, there was no pragmatic reason to regard the Soviets as friends. It was not mere “witch-hunting” that accounted for the U.S. concern with the behavior of Fellow-Travellers such as Owen Lattimore. The Soviets in the Cold War period, and the Maoists in China, were — and still are, for that matter — pushing for international domination, and the influence of people like Lattimore made it difficult for the U.S. to formulate a foreign policy that would be an adequate check on Communist expansion.

McCarthy was not a particularly intelligent student of Communism, and he couldn’t do arithmetic. But there was no academic or journalistic “reign of terror” in the U.S. in the early Fifties. As a matter of fact, anti-Communist writers had difficulty getting their books published, and the only professor that lost his job during the so-called witch-hunt period was Willmoore Kendall of Yale, who made the mistake of exposing himself as a McCarthy sympathizer.

Hollywood, of course, was a different story: the pro-Communist film writers did have boycott troubles. But Morrie Ryskind could tell David Caute a thing or two about the long period in the Thirties and Forties in which the Fellow-Travellers arrogantly squeezed the anti-Communists out of the studios. What the Fellow-Travellers in Hollywood got in the McCarthy period was a bit of belated poetic justice.

Mr. Caute writes beautifully about the general Fellow-Travelling ambivalence. But, when he deals with the American scene, he is a bit ambivalent himself.  

  • 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.