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Tuesday, February 1, 1994

The Rise and Fall of Leftist Radicalism in America

Engaging Reinterpretations of Twentieth-Century Events

Edward Walter’s The Rise and Fall of Leftist Radicalism in America is, in the author’s words, “a defense of liberal democracy and the United States as its foremost practitioner” from the onslaught of the leftist radicals, whose attacks he views as “devious, unfair, and unprincipled.”

What united the numerous strains of leftist radicals, says Walter, is not their vision of an alternative society but their uncompromising opposition to free market capitalism and, consequently, the United States. The primary reason that intellectuals, serious artists and writers as well as many in academe, harbor such resentment against American society, the author claims, is that, in contrast to, say, Europe where intellectuals are at least respected if not handsomely compensated, they see themselves as being neglected and even derided by the American mass media which, in its quest for profit, panders to the lowest common denominator. The irony is that while the anti-American mindset of some intellectuals stems from their feeling of being unjustly ignored, they actually have a significant, long-run impact on American attitudes and beliefs emanating from their strategic position as educators.

It is mainly for this reason, believes Walter, that a stable, prosperous, and open nation such as the United States finds itself beset with chronic, fundamental, and general opposition.

What most disturbs the author is the radical leftists’ unscrupulous, even Machiavellian, tactics, which Walter does a superb job of documenting. As Walter puts it, a moral principle “was hired like a cab to get the radical leftists to the destination they desired . . . and dismissed . . . when it would take them elsewhere. The destination was all that mattered.” The radical leftists hated America because it was capitalist, and thus intrinsically immoral; they embraced the Soviet Union since it was “anti-capitalist and anti-American” and therefore morally sacrosanct. The task was to defend the Soviet Union by adopting whatever “moral principles” the situation called for.

Walter examines the abuse of such terms as “liberty” and “democracy” running throughout radical leftist literature. Massive violations of civil liberties in the Soviet Union were rationalized by American leftists such as Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, who claimed that there were two kinds of liberty, economic and civil. The latter was more important than the former and since some violations of the former were necessary to achieve the latter, they were justified. America, by contrast, was a system based on the economic serfdom of capitalism.

And Yale sociologist Jerome Davis contended that although America may have political democracy, that was of little consequence since it did nothing to prevent “industrial autocracy.” By contrast, although the Soviet Union was “politically dictatorial,” that was unimportant in light of its democratic economic institutions. By such sophistries, Walter shows, radical leftists were able to posture as champions of liberty and democracy while simultaneously justifying political tyranny.

Walter appropriately describes the radical left’s track record as “shameful.” Stalin’s liquidation of millions of kulaks, or middle-class farmers, because they resisted agricultural collectivization was justified as necessary in order to eliminate the reactionary elements blocking the transition to Communism. A good end, pronounced Walter Durranty, Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, “justifies any means however cruel.” The treatment of tens of thousands who were executed or imprisoned during the Soviet show-trials of the 1930s was defended on the ground that the accused had not proven their innocence, thereby endorsing the legal principle that one is guilty until proven innocent. Moreover, radical leftists argued in a moral asymmetry of breathtaking proportions, Americans had no right to take the Soviets to task since the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s showed that the United States was just as bad. And besides, said writers like Corliss Lamont, Soviet oppression was made necessary by the imperialist threat of Western capitalism, thereby placing responsibility for Soviet police state tactics in American hands and conveniently exonerating the Soviet Union.

Yet, radical leftists repudiated these propositions when it suited them. During the McCarthy period in the early 1950s, radical leftists like Lamont defended the First Amendment rights of free speech and press on the ground that they were categorical guarantees, repudiating their earlier utilitarian position that an important end justifies the abridgment of rights. Congressional loyalty investigations were condemned because they violated the traditional presumption that individuals “are not guilty until evidence proves their guilt.” And the traditional American legal system, guaranteeing rights for the accused, was suddenly seen as not so bad after all.

Walter convincingly demonstrates that both the abuse of language and the misuse of ethical principles have been hallmarks of leftist radicalism down to the present. Although far from commendable, the record of the South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam war was far superior to the record of either the government of North Vietnam during the war or the government that replaced it following the war. And while hardly admirable, the record of the Shah of Iran, by any reasonable reckoning, was much better than that of the Ayatollah. Yet, in both cases, it was the former that was vilified and excoriated by the radicals while the latter was applauded and given every benefit of the doubt until there was no doubt left, at which time leftists turned their attention to other matters, such as El Salvador. The only explanation for such behavior, believes Walter, is the radical left’s hatred for capitalism and their desire to weaken U.S. foreign policy.

Walter is far from a mere cheerleader for America. He readily acknowledges that the United States made mistakes and at times these were serious. Vietnam is a case in point, and he is certainly no fan of McCarthy. But since policies are made by human beings and human beings are fallible, mistakes are to be expected in every society. What Walter stresses, however, is both the self-corrective character of liberal democracy, where wrongs can be peacefully corrected and the victims recompensed, and the fact that only societies in which free markets have flourished and natural rights have been respected have succeeded in improving the material positions of all its members.

The Rise and Fall of Leftist Radicalism in America provides the reader with engaging reinterpretations of the major events in twentieth-century America. Walter’s interpretations are compelling largely because, in contrast to the Machiavellian tactics of the leftist radicals documented in his book, his key terms are so carefully defined and consistently applied. []

The late David Osterfeld was a professor of political science at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana.