Repeating the Mistakes of Yesterday’s Communists
Revisiting the case of Bertram Wolfe, who was horrified to realize the fundamental evil of leftism — the cause to which he had dedicated his life.
History does not simply repeat itself, wrote Karl Marx. It often happens that the first round of a phenomenon is a tragedy; the second round is a farce. So is it today as millions of young people devote themselves to extreme left-wing causes, including the destruction of their own countries, democracy, and liberty all in the name of some utopia that will never be attained and whose promotion will make human life worse.
Here is how Bertram Wolfe, one such person of that earlier generation, later wrote of his infatuation with Communism in the 1920s and 1930s:
Dreams of cosmopolitanism and internationalism … in an ever more open society, dreams of … curbs upon dictatorial power and autocratic power, dreams of the final abolition of serfdom … of a greater respect for human life and human dignity, of gentler and juster laws, equal for all and binding on all, dreams of liberty, equality and brotherhood and of a new humanity, free in spirit and intelligence, free in critical inquiry mastery to an ever greater extent of nature, of man’s own nature, and his social institutions.
For me, as for most sensitive persons, the existing society had many obvious defects … shortcomings from our dreams of perfection. One felt superior when he noted and criticized these imperfections and offered a learned-sounding…remedy that cured everything at once. … How nice to think that one had answers to all problems, cures for all ills, a simple, certain, manifest remedy backed by books of enormous learning. … And how wonderful, when one did not understand the past or the present, to be so certain of the future.
After twenty years devotion to the cause — he and his wife even choosing not to have children in a misguided effort to devote themselves to the world’s betterment — Wolfe broke with Communism over his disgust at the 1930s Soviet purge trials that framed and murdered the very leaders who had made the Russian Revolution. But it took almost another decade for him to repudiate Marxism and understand where he’d gone wrong.
Typical of the radical in transition, he at first berated his foreign hero — in this case, Stalin — for letting down the cause, telling a 1938 rally:
He has made infinitely harder the task of those of us who love the Soviet Union and would make the world understand its wonders of achievement, of those who would defend it against attack from the ruling class of all lands.
But then he came to comprehend that this was no miscommunication but the fundamental evil of the cause to which he’d devoted his life. He was horrified to discover that he had been helping tyranny when he thought he was helping to create a better society.
Then, Wolfe crossed the line from having been almost always wrong to being almost always right. The cause of that transition was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the September 11 for that generation.
Wolfe’s background had equipped him to comprehend what few others saw: the Allies would win the war but afterward the USSR would be Europe’s most powerful country and would extend its empire ever further westward. If Stalin wasn’t stopped, the result would be another terrible war.
Wolfe could find no one willing to publish these ideas until May 1943, when a small magazine accepted such an article. Wherever Wolfe spoke, Communists disrupted the lectures. Hecklers called him a fascist and Trotskyite, but ultimately, due to the USSR’s own actions, America woke up and understood that this analyisis was right. Wolfe’s book on the USSR explaining his views, Three Who Made a Revolution, sold just one hundred copies the first year, 1948. By 1970, it had sold 300,000.
All of these things, along with the USSR’s repressive, dictatorial nature, may seem obvious today (for the relatively few who still remember them), but they were barely known in 1948, the year that the Communist-front Progressive Party ran a serious, though ultimately failed, presidential campaign. In theory, the United States might have had a soft-line, basically pro-Communist president in the midst of the Cold War.
How much would that have changed history, how far might the United States have been fundamentally transformed! But the Progressive effort then was far less sophisticated and the identity of the enemy abroad and at home was becoming increasingly clear. Of course, too, back then the Progressives neither captured the Democratic Party (which is why they had to run separately) nor intimidated America’s great liberal leaders, among them the incomparable Harry Truman.
Wolfe’s task was both easier and harder than that of his spiritual successors. A single ideology, party, and model country exercised a stronger pull and discipline in his time, but it also was an idol more easily shattered than the varied ideas, loyalties, and groups that characterize what I call today’s “third left” (after that of Communism and the New Left).
In Wolfe’s time, Robert Minor, editor of the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker, publicly declared: “Honesty is a bourgeois virtue.” Today, hundreds of mainstream media journalists and editors implicitly accept that they should report only what supports their political views and use their positions to attack those holding different ones.
How little has changed in essentials, how little has been learned from that past. It is vital today to understand the story of Communism: its big promises based on humanitarianism and its very different performance; the power it exercised in intellectual circles in the West despite being deeply wrong both morally and in terms of its prescriptions; the fellow travellers and well-meaning fools who slandered opponents and silenced critics; the culture of lying on behalf of a “good cause.”
Yet where in our schools and universities, in our public debate, are the lessons of Communism taught? How are people being inoculated against an “idealistic” ideology that did so much harm in the name of doing so much good? Are people learning about apologists for foreign states and movements, the concealing of crimes, the foolishness of the intellectuals, the belief that the more government control the better, the failure to understand that the far left was as much an enemy of liberalism as the far right, and the other mistakes involved in that experience?
But it is more than that. There can be no better explanation of the left-wing fellow travellers with revolutionary Islamism or the mlticulturalist and plitical correctness advocates with reactionary Third World regimes and cultures than Malcolm Muggeridge’s critique of fellow travellers with Stalin’s USSR:
There were earnest advocates of the humane killing of cattle who looked up at the massive [secret police] headquarters with tears of gratitude in their eyes, earnest advocates of proportional representation who eagerly assented when the necessity of a one-party dictatorship was explained to them, earnest clergymen who walked reverently through anti-God museums and reverently turned the pages of atheistic literature [Today it is the exact reverse! -- BR], earnest pacifists who watched delightedly tanks rattle across the Red Square and bombing planes darken the sky, earnest town-planning specialists who stood outside overcrowded ramshackle tenements and muttered: “If only we had something like this in England!”
And what better remark on how Western apologists for Islamic and Arab nationalist tyranny function can there be than what Wolfe wrote in response to the report of a 1952 British mission about how wonderful life was in the USSR:
Mr. Cadbury is slandering the Russian people by saying that they are “content” with the way in which they live. The hundreds of thousands that have died in purges [or been] … sent to concentration camps demonstrate that the Russian people are not the ignorant cattle that Mr. Cadbury suggests they are. So do the hundreds of thousands of … escapees testify to the fact that this people like any great people knows what freedom is and what slavery is.
Anyone care to substitute the word “Iranian” for Russian?
(Quotations from Robert Hessen, Breaking with Communism: The Intellectual Odyssey of Bertram D. Wolfe.)