The Left’s Omertà

By Kindred Winecoff

You can’t be a star for what you say, only for the way you say it. Far from being driven apart by differing opinions, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Robert] Conquest were drawn together by their common love of language. The long consequence of their encounters in those years can be enjoyed in the opening pages of Hitchens’ little book Orwell’s Victory (2002) [ed.: Why Orwell Matters in the U.S.], where its author is to be found conceding that Conquest might have had a point about the Bolsheviks all along. But those who never doubted that he did can’t expect credit for having been right. What we can expect is to be dismissed for having been on the Right. To be a liberal democrat was considered reactionary then, and to have been so then is to be considered reactionary now. People who have abandoned erroneous opinions would be giving up too much if they ceased to regard people who never held them as naive. As Revel pointed out, the Left demands a monopoly of rectification.

— Clive James, criticizing one of his friends while writing on Solzhenitsyn, As of This Writing, p. 225 of the 2003 Norton hardback.

I have enjoyed and profited from much of Corey Robin’s writing, but lately he’s been tilting at windmills just a bit. Last year he famously charged Hayek, and with him the rest of the right — the definition of which seems to be those for whom Robin does not care — of pronounced übermenschy tendencies. The convoluted and conspiratorial reasoning of that essay was more reminiscent of a Dan Brown plot or a Glenn Beck chalkboard than Robin’s earlier work. I objected to that article at the time and hoped it was just a misfire, but since then he’s conjured more and more smoke from less and less fire. The Petreaus Affair was, quite simply, not worth the time and effort that was put into it. The BDS/ASA kerfluffle, in which Robin insisted that boycotts were unprincipled only if they were in response to other boycotts, was even more absurd. (If you don’t support BDS and the ASA boycott guess what! You’re a “latter-day McCarthyite“. There should be a version of Godwin’s Law for McCarthyism, which we’ll come back to in a minute.)

Now he has written this:

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

Which led to an exchange somewhat limited by the 140 character cap:

As I said, I understood Robin’s attempt at making a point. But the point is invalid, and Robin’s blind spot is disturbing. If Kazan’s testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) evidenced a public disaster then the disaster had occurred well before Kazan entered the room. Kazan’s choice was to speak truthfully to a democratically-elected legislature — at a time when the Democratic party controlled the House, Senate, and Presidency — that was investigating sabotage against the government of the United States, or to defy it. At first he defied it. Under increasing pressure he named eight names, all of which were already known by the HUAC. Of those, one was already dead, another also testified and contracted with Kazan to name each other so both would avoid blacklists (they did), and the others continued to work on the same New York stages that Robin indicates were more than good enough for Kazan. Kazan’s reputation was the most damaged of any as the result of this event. So where’s the public disaster?

All of those Kazan named were members of or fellow travelers with the same American communist party (CPUSA) that was allied with Stalin before and after the war (including before, during, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and that had “tried” Kazan via an internal judicial proceeding for the crime of being insufficiently activist when doing so would have cost Kazan his career at a stage when he wasn’t well off. Kazan kept his ideals but left the Party as a result. It is worth repeating: Kazan’s livelihood was threatened by American communists in the 1930s, well before Congress came calling. If the CPUSA had been successful in their longer-term revolutionary aims his livelihood — and given the Stalinist proclivities of the American Party at the time, perhaps his life — would have been jeopardized once again. Even after leaving the Party Kazan remained an ideological communist until the Hitler-Stalin pact destroyed what illusions still remained. That was his Kronstadt moment, as it was for many communists.

So what principle was at stake for Kazan, exactly, that he should have sacrificed his own interest to avert “public disaster”? To defend those who had previously bullied him and would undoubtedly do so again if given the chance? To support the members of and sympathizers with a Party that had stuck with Stalin through his murderous show trials, his cynical alliance with Hitler, and his imperial occupation of Eastern Europe? What kind of principle is that? Or, as Kazan put it to Arthur Miller,

To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else… I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.

This is not hard to understand. There are some people in my life for whom I would sacrifice quite a lot. There are others for whom I would sacrifice a much smaller amount. And there are still others for whom I would sacrifice nothing, because they have wronged me and those that I love or because they espouse principles that I find repugnant. By all accounts, Kazan considered the question in earnest and recognized no principle worth defending. From my vantage point it is difficult to disagree: CPUSA was a repugnant institution, and members of repugnant institutions should not be guaranteed lucrative positions in glamorous industries if only they can convince everyone to hide the fact of their membership, whether it has lapsed or not. Still, rather than acting vindictively, Kazan testified in a way that would cause the least pain for himself and for those around him: he named names already named. He then used the career he saved to make numerous movies from the perspective of the non-communist and non-authoritarian left, including Viva Zapata! the year after his HUAC testimony and On the Waterfront the year after that.

I will agree with everyone who says that the HUAC over-stepped its bounds by miles, that many or most of the members of the HUAC were more concerned with political gain than principle, and that the entire scene was noxious. But the left’s valorization of all those who refused to testify before HUAC and vilification of those who did raises a different set of questions. Who today would side with Alger Hiss over Elia Kazan? Because when Hiss perjured himself concerning his own espionage — as the result of a libel trial Hiss initiated against Whittaker Chambers, it must be remembered; he brought it on himself in more than one way — he not only bamboozled the left but also catalyzed HUAC into the McCarthyite machine in the first place. (It also jump-started the previously mediocre career of Richard Nixon.) And it was a perjury. Nor was Hiss the only one. Had Harry Dexter White lived a bit longer he would have become even more famous than Hiss.

Kazan was brought before HUAC four years after White lied under oath and then died under the strain and two years after Hiss was convicted. In between those two events Richard Nixon graduated from the House to the Senate and McCarthy went on the war path. Both of those events would have been much less likely had the postwar left not unthinkingly supported Hiss. Meanwhile, Kazan did not commit espionage, falsely accuse others of libel, perjure himself, or otherwise discredit the anti-communist left for decades. He did not create a political launching pad for McCarthy and Nixon. He did not reveal any new information. It is quite possible that he did not even materially injure anyone’s life or reputation, at least beyond the extent that he would have been injured had he refused to name already-known names. And if Kazan repudiated the CPUSA — an organization that acted in secrecy with the avowed goal of demolishing the non-Soviet left and destroying the American state — by 1952 it was certainly worth repudiating. According to the International Committee of the Fourth International (in a post pillorying Kazan’s defenders, no less):

Tragically for them and the working class as a whole, the Communist Party by the time of the blacklist had been destroyed as a vehicle of progressive social change. It was a Stalinist party, with a cynical and treacherous leadership, loyal to the twists and turns of the bureaucracy in Moscow.

How is this not worth denouncing? The Trotskyists may be biased but they are not wrong. And yet it is Kazan who is scorned rather than Hiss, despite the fact that the latter did exponentially more damage to the credibility of the left than the former. Kazan contributed to the purging of Bolsheviks from the left — a necessary precursor to the social democratic gains of the succeeding decades — at the expense of making eight members of America’s upper class slightly less materially comfortable.

Why is this so objectionable? According to Robin, it is because Kazan acted in his “private interest” while being interrogated by a government action that he opposed and initially resisted. Robin believes Kazan should become an object lesson for why the Right is wrong. Nevermind that Kazan remained a liberal all his life. Nevermind that Kazan’s testimony, in the context in which it was given, was not merely a question of private interest. Had Kazan wanted to do more damage to the left he undoubtedly could have.

Corey Robin’s post is mood affiliation in pure form. I have no idea what Robin actually thinks of Hiss. Everything he has written about this period acknowledges only reactionary suppression, never the possible reasons for it. The index of both his books contain no mention of Hiss, Google reveals nothing written by him on the subject, and the proceedings from this conference have transcripts for every single speaker but Robin. The silence is curious for someone who has written so extensively on the issues that Robin has, especially when his indices reveal multiple entries for Chambers, communist collaborators, and the Red Scare. Robin is definitely not ignorant. The question is whether he is credible. He increasingly reads like an out-of-time 20th century apologist for anything that is not Right.

Of course, Robin is only using Kazan to discredit Madison and then, via some unclear transitivity, modern-day right reactionaries or maybe the entire structure of American governance. But why? Madison was one of the strongest of the nascent America’s republicans, and in the snippet Robin pulls (as elsewhere) he essentially adopts the language of Rousseau. Here is what happens during the elipses in the quote Robin provides above:

… to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other…

That is, Madison wishes for a broad distribution of power, and constant competition among those who would seek it, so that none of them may ever fully obtain it. Robin finds this objectionable because private power is one part of that equation. This is expressing too much and too little all at once. Can private interests cause public disaster? Of course. Does this imply in any way that private interests ought to be abolished? There is not a single data point in history that recommends this conclusion. The irony in all of this, of course, is that Robin finds Kazan’s collaboration with the government objectionable. If a democratically-elected government in which all branches are controlled by the only left party with substantial popular support does not meet his criteria for “public interest” then what would? It was 1952… the other options were not appealing.

Christopher Hitchens once displayed the attitude Clive James criticized by writing about the “loyalty oath”: “If Hiss was wrong, then Nixon and McCarthy were right. And that could not be.” But it was, in this case even if in no others, and it remains so, and Kazan either knew it or sensed it. The movement that coalesced in defense of Hiss’ fabrications is not worth defending now. It galvanized all the worst reactionaries in the postwar era. It contributed nothing to the improvement of the lives of the working class. None of the names Kazan gave were even a part of the working class, nor did they represent it. Meanwhile, the language is important: only the credulous take loyalty oaths. Kazan broke omertà 62 years ago, and Robin isn’t finished with him yet. 

The nice thing about history is that we get to see how it ran. It turns out that the greatest period for the working class occurred in the United States in the twenty years after Kazan testified. This flowering was not a product of CPUSA agitation but of the incrementalist liberals like Kazan that they opposed. Meanwhile, a short four years later, another Kronstadt moment would occur. At that moment who was overdue for reflection: Kazan or his former friend Arthur Miller, who attacked Kazan by writing The Crucible? They later reconciled, and once Miller finally got around to protesting the suppression of expression in the USSR his works were subsequently banned. He at least learned the lesson. (Sort of. He refused to put his name to an open letter protesting Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie.)

The journalist Elmer Davis once wondered “How long will these ex-Communists and ex-Sympathizers abuse the patience of the vast majority which had enough sense to never be Communists or Sympathizers at all?” Quite a long time, apparently. Robin’s ability to castigate the usual suspects — Burke, Buckley, and Bush — has always been impressive, but by this stage one wonders if he’s run out of turf. When he has moved into new areas he has displayed reactionary tendencies of his own: if it ever was Right it can’t ever be right. This is demoralizing for those of us who identify with the left but have no interest in genuflecting to “radical” absolutists of yesteryear or today. In the end such demands will only produce ambivalence in many, as they did in Kazan:

I don’t think there’s anything in my life toward which I have more ambivalence, because, obviously, there’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names. On the other hand . . . at that time I was convinced that the Soviet empire was monolithic…. I also felt that their behavior over Korea was aggressive and essentially imperialistic…. Since then, I’ve had two feelings. One feeling is that what I did was repulsive, and the opposite feeling, when I see what the Soviet Union has done to its writers, and their death camps, and the Nazi pact and the Polish and Czech repression…. It revived in me the feeling I had at that time, that it was essentially a symbolic act, not a personal act. I also have to admit and I’ve never denied, that there was a personal element in it, which is that I was angry, humiliated, and disturbed–furious, I guess–at the way they booted me out of the Party…. There was no doubt that there was a vast organization which was making fools of the liberals in Hollywood…. It was disgusting to me what many of them did, crawling in front of the Party. Albert Maltz published something in few Masses, I think, that revolted me: he was made to get on his hands and knees and beg forgiveness for things he’d written and things he’d felt. I felt that essentially I had a choice between two evils, but one thing I could not see was (by not saying anything) to continue to be a part of the secret maneuvering and behind the scenes planning that was the Communist Party as I knew it. I’ve often, since then, felt on a personal level that it’s a shame that I named people, although they were all known, it’s not as if I were turning them over to the police; everybody knew who they were, it was obvious and clear. It was a token act to me, and expressed what I thought at the time….
I don’t say that what I did was entirely a good thing.

What’s called “a difficult decision” is a difficult decision because either way you go there are penalties, right? What makes some things difficult in life is if you’re marrying one woman you’re not marrying another woman. If you go one course you’re not going another course. But I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn’t betray it.

A vibrant 21st century left does not need to assume every position of its 20th century forebears. It can, and should, be reflective. It can, and should, be willing to acknowledge the gains made by the liberal capitalist compromise. And it can, and should, acknowledge that loyalty oaths and secrecy pacts were mistakes of the past, while openness and transparency — even in the face of persecution — is self-recommending. Rather than excoriate a potential liberal ally for making a reasonable choice under duress sixty years ago we can, and should, try to build broader coalitions rather than narrower. Any left that seeks to sublimate all private interests into knee-jerk collectivism in the 21st century, or any other, is doomed.