Then again, some things NEVER do.
It may be that the best book that will ever be written about today’s progressive mind-set was published in 1941. That in The Red Decade author Eugene Lyons was, in fact, describing the Communist-dominated American Left of the Depression-wracked 1930s and 1940s makes his observations even more meaningful, for it is sobering to be confronted with how little has been gained by hard experience. The celebration of feelings over reason? The certainty of moral virtue? The disdain for tradition and the revising of history for ideological ends? The embrace of the latest definition of correct thought? Lyons was one of the most gifted reporters of his time, and among the bravest, and his story of the spell cast by Stalinist-tinged social-justice activism over that day’s purported best and brightest—literary titans, Hollywood celebrities, leading academics, religious leaders, media heavies—would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t so eerily familiar.
Indeed, looking backward from a time when, according to surveys, more millennials would rather live under socialism than capitalism, it’s apparent that Lyons was documenting not just a historical moment but also a species of historical illiteracy as unchanging as it is poisonous, its utopianism able to flourish only at the expense of independent thought. On a range of issues, alternative views were defined as not merely mistaken but morally reprehensible; and among the elites who dominated the cultural sphere, deviants from approved opinion were subject to special abuse. Of course, having lived and worked in Soviet Russia, Lyons made distinctions about relative abuses of power. Under Stalinism, dissidents were liquidated, or vanished into the gulag; the American Left could only liquidate careers and disappear reputations.
Well, not as hideous as being gulag-ed or Holodomor-ed, admittedly. But ask any one of the many who have had their ability to make a living destroyed, their home violated and damaged, themselves and their spouses/children hounded and stalked everywhere they went by gangs of violent commie thugs about it sometime, and just let them tell you all about how much fun it was. You’re sure to get an earful about those wonderful, compassionate humanitarians.
He acknowledges that most who followed the leftist line meant no evil—he calls them the Innocents Club, “high minded, idealistic, eager to be useful…Not their hearts, but the organs located in their skulls, were at fault.” Still, he gives no one a pass. Decades before Tom Wolfe wrote Radical Chic, Lyons showed a special disdain for the wealthy who embraced radicalism to salve their guilty consciences. Perhaps the most prominent of these was Corliss Lamont, son of the chairman of J. P. Morgan & Company, who, as head of the Friends of the Soviet Union, emerged as the chief public apologist for Stalin’s crimes. As Lyons wrote, Lamont spared “neither his money nor his energy in defending the mass slaughter in Russia, and in damning those who dared examine that horror.” Affronted, the multimillionaire sued. The suit went nowhere, but Lamont’s grandson is today governor of Connecticut.
Given his intimate acquaintance with the Left, Lyons well knew what calumnies the publication of The Red Decade would bring down on his head. At the time, especially in elite circles, the charge of “red baiting” was akin to that of racism, sexism, or homophobia today; whether made in anger or with premeditated intent, it was enough to halt any challenge to the Left’s worldview. It was a weapon deployed, he wrote, by “literary critics, book reviewers and political commentators…a neatly contrived device for heading off free and uninhibited discussion of little things such as man-made famines, horrifying blood purges, forced labor on a gigantic scale.” In fact, in almost every meaningful arena of American life, those who “ran afoul of the revolution were made to feel the full weight of their crimes; they were ostracized socially, handicapped professionally and not infrequently stripped of their jobs as well as their reputations for ordinary decency.”
Lyons’s own world of book and magazine publishing was so dominated by leftists that former adherents who turned against the Party, deemed “moral monsters and turncoats,” could be made essentially to evaporate from mainstream view. He lists no fewer than 30 writers who suffered that fate during “the intellectual red terror,” including (as if to underscore the point for contemporary readers) such now largely forgotten former luminaries as Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell. He includes himself on that list. “The part I cannot induce the uninitiated to believe is how effective the terror could be,” he writes. “When you first met a particularly far-fetched libel on your character, it merely seemed funny in its absurdity.” But continually repeated, he adds, the lies take their toll, for wherever one tried to make one’s way professionally, “there were manuscript readers, casting directors, book reviewers who—consciously or by a sort of pack instinct—took their prejudices ready-made from the Popular Front comrades.”
For all the Left’s capacity to shape opinion in Lyons’s time, the power wielded by today’s progressives is even more malign, for its heavy hand is all but unconstrained by countervailing forces. For one thing, 70 or 80 years ago, organized religion held such sway in America that even committed leftists understood that it could be derided only behind closed doors; and while there were some prominent clergymen who fell hard for the progressive line, they usually made sure to do so only as private citizens. Even they would have dismissed as lunacy the possibility that one day not only their congregants, but entire religious orders, might be widely characterized as dangerous zealots for adhering to traditional beliefs, or that agencies of government would compel them to violate their most deeply held spiritual convictions.
At least rhetorically, the Communists of the late 1930s were, in fact, far less hostile to the American idea than are today’s run-of-the-mill progressives. In an age where Americans were raised to revere their country’s singular history, they all but wrapped themselves in the flag. “Communism Is Twentieth-Century Americanism” went the party’s famous Popular Front slogan, and they did not hesitate to name their Spanish battalions for Lincoln and Washington or the Party school for Marxist instruction after Jefferson. The contrast with today’s Left, which sees American history as a cavalcade of oppression, could not be more striking. Little wonder that today’s Democrats, seeking to stay abreast of their fervent base, are as publicly invested in identity politics and collectivist economics as the denizens of any faculty lounge.
Indeed, this speaks to the most striking difference between the world that Lyons described and the one we contend with today: it’s no longer a tiny, if disproportionately influential, political entity waving the Left’s banner; it’s one of the two major parties.
This article is both chilling and infuriating simultaneously. Communism’s enduring appeal for dopes and dupes across the globe is way beyond baffling. It’s a zombie ideology that never seems to die—no matter how abject its failure, how cruel and demeaning the life-circumstances and conditions it invariably creates—nor does it ever want for fools advocating the imposition of its misery on everyone else. It just keeps staggering blindly on, to blight everything it touches along the road to ruin.