Lessons from the Red Decade
The conservative denial of Islam’s threat reminds me of the left’s denial of the threat of communism during the Red Decade. Both the New Republic and the Nation in the 1930s believed that the Soviet Union was a noble experiment. Frank A. Warren, III, in his classic study, “Liberals and Communism: The ‘Red Decade’ Revisited,” covers the evolution of the left’s assessment of the USSR during the Great Depression.
During the 1920s there was considerable enthusiasm for the communist “experiment.” Even the most august of American philosophers, John Dewey, upon returning from a visit to the USSR, wrote apologetically. Warren notes: “Equally significant was Dewey’s conception of Russian society as an economic and cultural experiment – ‘the most interesting one going on upon our globe.’” John Dewey was quoted from his book, Impressions of Soviet Russia (L&C p.63 all page numbers are from the 1966 edition). “A new type of human nature was being created, Dewey said, cooperative instead of individualistic and selfish. A ‘collective mentality’ was replacing ‘the individualistic psychology.’” (p.64) Dewey and a few other moderate liberals came to their senses by the mid-1930s – however, they were the exceptions.
Oswald Garrison Villard … when he visited Russia in 1929, he had pronounced it ‘the greatest human experiment ever undertaken,” and like Dewey wished it well. … Although he disliked the dictatorial practices of the Russian rulers, he believed that, in contrast to Mussolini, they were selflessly working for the good of the masses.” (pp.68-69) Roger Baldwin “justified Russia’s repressions in terms of her revolutionary aims. Whereas violations of liberty would have been intolerable in the Western Democracies, they were ‘weapons of struggle’ in the transition to socialism in the Soviet Union.” (p. 64) In 1931, “Stuart Chase asserted that the Five-Year Plan had made the Russian world ‘exciting, stimulating, challenging,’ while for Americans the world was “dull and uninspired, wracked with frightful economic insecurity.” (p.66)
“When Sherwood Eddy called the Five-Year Plan the ‘boldest experiment in history,’ and when Bruce Bliven [of The New Republic] extolled Russian industrialization as ‘one of the most desperate ventures’ of all times, they were recording the dazzled feeling shared by the admirers of Russian planning.” … “Bliven and Soule … were ecstatic over collectivization … blamed the Ukrainian famine of 1933 on counterrevolutionaries. … for Anna Louise Strong, Stalin was always right – whether he was moving swiftly against the kulaks or ordering a slow-down. In her writings, collectivization became a great Soviet morality play of good triumphing over evil. [Maurice] Hindus had been so overwhelmed by the amazing feat of collectivization that, while he innately sympathized with the suffering of its victims, he was convinced of the long-run good of what was happening. … [P72] Force had been used, he admitted, and famine had occurred. But peaceful and voluntary methods would have delayed development for more than a decade. … Louis Fisher, with his cold, hard acceptance of power, ‘historical necessity,’ and the fait accompli, and Walter Duranty, who justified every maneuver by the ‘time-table of the revolution.’” (pp.70-72)
Had enough? No?
“George S. Counts described the ‘new man’ as ‘sturdy, confident, class-conscious, socially-sensitive and practical-minded.’ … the Five-year Plan had displaced man’s ‘I’ as ‘the center of things.’ The concept of the ‘new man’ was closely related to the belief that Russia had created new motives for individuals. In 1934 Sherwood Eddy reported the replacement of the old selfish profit motive by cooperative, creative, and humanitarian motives and incentives.” (p.73)
“The editors of The New Republic said that Soviet diplomacy, because it was ‘direct and [p75] honest,’ was ‘the best in the world.’ … The New Republic’s [view was that the] basic belief that a workers’ state was nonimperialist and nonaggressive because it had eliminated the principal cause of war under capitalism – the profit motive. Russia, the editors said, was ‘no longer an imperialist power,’ but the ‘world’s first communist state.’” (p.74) “The editors of The New Republic wrote: ‘Stalin is not and never has been a dictator in Russia, in the same sense in which a Mussolini … is a dictator.’” “Instead, there was a dictatorship of the Communist Party; Stalin, according to Davis and Bruce Bliven, could be deposed any time the Party was dissatisfied.” (p.77)
“Finally, the rough edges of the dictatorship were excused by a concentration on the future. Louis Fischer reported that the goal was to establish the first socialist democracy, and even Sherwood Eddy, who shabby criticized the dictatorship, could still speak of its democratic aims.” “Roger Baldwin claimed more liberties for the Russian people under the dictatorship than anywhere else in the world: the ‘fundamentals of liberty’ were established on economic grounds-‘the only ground on which liberty really matters.’" “… Walter Duranty stated that the Russian masses were not ready for independent self-government and that the dictatorship was acting as a ‘tutor and guardian’ while they prepared themselves for it.” (p.78)
“The editors of The New Republic were willing to temporize earlier. Bliven and Soule did not like the absence of civil liberties, but they refused to make any outright condemnation of Russian justice.” (p.81) “Stalin had been largely responsible for what they believed were the remarkable Russian achievements, they were predisposed to favor Stalin…” In Feb 1935, “… the editors of The New Republic clearly stated their position: civil liberties were not the only standard, ‘or even the major standard,’ for judging countries. They justified their double standard in regard to Germany and Russia by the ends in view: whereas Germany aimed at a perpetual autocracy, Russia’s goal was a classless society.” (p.189)
“… why so many were willing to overlook, or at least to tolerate, the terror and repression of the Communist regime. There was, of course, simply irrational, blind faith in the aims of the Revolution – much more prevalent in the fellow travelers than in the Russian sympathizers. An analysis of the more rational attitudes of the Russian sympathizers, however, reveals two specific reasons. The first was the tendency to regard Russia as an experiment (a tendency often sneered at by the Communists, who apparently believed her ‘proven’). Like Dewey in 1929, they were misled by their belief in pragmatism and instrumentalism. It was the resulting emphasis on the application of the scientific method to social problems that caused them ultimately to mistake mass control for social experimentation.” … “The very fact that they believed Russia to be an experiment removed them from the need to evaluate it. As an experiment it was not in its final state, but in the process of achieving it. Hence any ‘imperfections’ in the soviet system could not be criticized in the same way as in another system. Final judgment could be suspended until the experiment was over and the system, like any scientifically developed phenomenon, had been perfected.” (p.85-86)
“Harry F. Ward distinguished between the transitional ‘group’ dictatorship under Communism and the perpetual ‘personal’ dictatorship of the ruling class under Fascism.” “The New Republic editorialized simply: ‘Fascism constitutes an international danger, and Communism does not.’ The Nation summed the whole matter up: Fascism and Communism were as different as ‘night and day.’” (pp.112-113)
Then came Stalin’s Terror, the Purge, and the trumped up trials used to convict and kill his real and imagined enemies. “The veteran crusader for social justice, Upton Sinclair endorsed the trials and his opinions were duly printed.” (p.166) “In September 1938 [Maxwell S.] Stewart wrote in The Nation that the ‘average worker’ had been pleased by the purges for they had come ‘exclusively from below.’” (p.167) By this time John Dewey was the lead critic of Stalin’s repression. Had The New Republic and The Nation “been genuinely interested in discovering all possible evidence, they would have supported the Dewey-led investigation. Instead, despite their claim of “agnosticism,’ they actually sided with the Soviet government in their tendency to assume that the defendants were guilty of ‘something’ and therefore punishable. But to accuse Bliven and Soule and Freda Kirchwey of merely whitewashing the trials is to underestimate their differences with the Communists and fellow travelers.” “The Communists and fellow travelers ‘applauded’ the trials; The New Republic and The Nation ‘regretted’ them.” (p.178)
“On August 24, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was announced.” “The Communist line immediately changes from a support of collective security to a call for strict isolationism in America. The slogan of dictatorship versus democracy was replaced by a denunciation of the imperialist war. The pro-New Deal policy was discarded for opposition – the New Deal was the ‘War Party’ and the captive of the reactionaries.” (p.193)
Finally, left-liberals started to face the fact that Stalin wasn’t a very nice guy. However, it wasn’t communism that was the problem – just Stalin. In today’s terms, they would say he hijacked communism. “In answer to the Stalin-haters, they [TNR] asserted that, though Stalin was indeed a tyrant, Russia had made great economic and cultural advances. It was ‘absurd to identify 170,000,000 people with one man.’ Stalin would not live forever. Americans were urged to focus on American problems and not to think primarily of what was happening in Russia.” (p.208)
The author, Frank A. Warren, III, is a left-liberal and professor at Queens College in New York City. He is writing his book in response to Eugene Lyons’ The Red Decade. Apparently, he thinks Lyons has gone too far in his description of the left-liberal’s infatuation with communism. At the end of the book he gives the following summation: “The New Republic and The Nation did not ‘applaud,’ ‘bless,’ or even ‘approve’ the murders and liquidation in the same way as Soviet Russia Today. They rationalized them, apologized for them, and showed an amazing default of the moral imagination.” P225 “Liberals who were vaguely sympathetic toward socialism were influenced by Russia because they believed she was a socialist state. But for such liberals the precise theory of Communism mattered less than Russia’s ‘planned’ economy – planned, of course, for the people and not for the capitalists.”
Communism has led to the deaths of over 100 million. Yet even today, the left cannot face its guilt in supporting the most murderous regimes in human history. Now, what road was paved with good intensions?
This is why I believe we must understand Islam better than the current conservative and left-wing intellectuals. Our actions and inactions, no matter how well intentioned, may very well lead to the opposite of what we cherish. The blindness of the intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s helped communism expand over half of Europe and Asia. Today, we are actively helping several Islamic countries – we sold F16s to Pakistan recently. We believe democracy will solve everything but democracy is only the hiring process of the chief civil servants. What they do with that power depends on their philosophy of a just society. Don’t assume it is the same as ours.