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Saturday, September 1, 1990

A Reviewers Notebook: Breaking With Communism


Like Whittaker Chambers, Bertram D. Wolfe, when he broke finally with the Communist Party, did not return from hell empty handed. He and Jay Lovestone, as leaders of American Communism in the Twenties, spent years trying to convert Stalin to their idea that America was “different.” All they had to show for theft many trips to Moscow was expulsion from the party in 1929. But meanwhile Wolfe had had plenty of time to see how Communism worked, or didn’t work. His experience made his first book on Russia, Three Who Made a Revolution, a triple biography of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, a classic.

During the Thirties, when he was becoming an expert on Spanish and Latin American literature, Wolfe kept hoping for a reconciliation with Stalin. The Moscow purge trials disillusioned him but not all at once. He worked on an autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries, which he left in a two-thirds finished state when he died in 1977 at the age of 81. The early reviewers of the book were left wondering how to date Wolfe’s final conclusion that Communism would destroy human liberty if it were not vigorously opposed.

What was needed was a documentation of Wolfe’s letters, speeches, and Voice of America scripts. Here is where Robert Hessen of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, California, stepped in. Poring through 61 linear feet of Wolfe material in the Hoover Institution archives, Hessen has, in effect, completed the Wolfe autobiography. His book is published as Breaking With Communism: The Intellectual Odyssey of Bertram D. Wolfe (Hoover Institution Press, 311 pages, $24.95 doth, $18.95 paper).

Hessen warns his readers that Wolfe’s most important friendships, with Sidney Hook, Edmund Wilson, and Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, leave barely a written trace. But there is enough written evidence in the Hoover archives to date Wolfe’s break with Communism as coming on March 13, 1938. The bullet that ended the life of Lenin’s favorite theorist Nikolai Bukharin ended Bert Wolfe’s hopes that a peaceful world would ever be possible under Communism.

Bukharin had been one of the theoreticians who went along with Lenin in the NEP period, when capitalism had a brief recrudescence in the Russian countryside. On July 16, 1971, Wolfe wrote a letter to Stephen Cohen of Princeton detailing the way in which Stalin, a master of chess moves, managed to undermine Bukharin. Other letters to Cohen, who was writing a book on Bukharin, are equally revealing. To Cohen, Wolfe wrote that Bukharin, “the good Bolshevik,” was the “most decent and humane of the Bolshevik leaders.”

In a letter to Leonard Wilcox, Wolfe painted a masterly portrait of V. F. Calverton, who maintained an apartment on Morton Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he staged brilliant parties that brought unorthodox manuscripts to his Modern Monthly. I lived just around the comer on Barrow Street, and had the good luck to be invited to the Calverton evening sessions and to the monthly luncheons at Teutonia Hall underneath the Third Avenue Elevated. The luncheons and dinners were mildly alcoholic. Discussions eventu ally became good Modern Monthly articles. Stuart Chase was one of Calverton’s discoveries. Calver-ton would have disliked being called a capitalist, but he was a born entrepreneur who kept the left-of-center writers of the day from falling into rigid molds. If he had survived his leukemia I am sure he would have become a leader of a New Right.

In 1951 Bert Wolfe gravitated to work as a Voice of America script writer. One of his more notable coups was his revelation of the murder of the Polish army officers in the Soviet Katyn Forest. Germans insisted it had been done by the Russians. In this case the Germans happened to be right.

The diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings found on the dead bodies in the Katyn ended abruptly at a cold- weather date in 1940 when the Russians still held Katyn. Stalin asserted that the Polish officers were killed by Hitler’s men in August 1941. Yet they were wearing cold weather clothes, and in no pocket was there a scrap of paper dating later than early May, when scarves are still welcome in the Katyn climate.

Eugene Lyons, writing in Don Levine’s Plain Talk magazine for October 1949, was ahead of Wolfe’s Voice of America account of the Katyn Forest murders. But Plain Talk had few readers; Wolfe was the first to bring it to the attention of thousands. The Soviets have now admitted that they did the killings. The May Reader’s Digest has published a full account of the Katyn Massacre by a roving editor, Rudolph Chelminski, who first heard of it from his Polish-born father.

How Wolfe, an intelligent man, could have stayed with the Soviets for all those years of the Twenties and early Thirties may seem an insoluble mystery to many. But the Wolfe case was far from being unique. It was an emotional commitment to pacifism that brought Wolfe into the Far Left fold in World War I times. He stayed there, as did many others.

The nicest touch is added to this collection of Wolfe papers by editor Hessen, who quotes John Maynard Keynes as saying, “What do I do when I discover I am wrong? I change my mind. What do you do?”


  • 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.