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The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War
by John V. Fleming
W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2009
(362 pages, $27.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Richard M. Reinsch II
In his highly engrossing book, The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War, John V. Fleming, professor emeritus of literature at Princeton, recovers four texts—Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) , Richard Krebs’s Out of the Night (1941), Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom (1946), and Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (1952)—that unmasked the existential truth that Communism offered to its believers. In many respects, Fleming’s task is immensely complicated. Most contemporary observers struggle either to recall or to imagine the paramount threat once posed to American security by the armed doctrine of Soviet Communism. Equally distant are the compelling moral and spiritual attractions that this ideology offered to men and women of learning and sensitivity who occupied formidable intellectual and political posts.
The Stalinist jurisprudence of the second half of the 1930s, known as the Moscow Trials or the Purges, unites the four texts in Fleming’s study. The Purges’ surreal destruction of huge numbers of military and political leaders who had led the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 demonstrated the crushing dexterity of the laws of revolutionary history. Having destroyed much of the first generation of Soviet leadership, the Purges revealed Communism as a monstrous fraud, and because of them, the authors in Fleming’s study severed their commitments to Communist ideology.
One cannot overstate the influence of Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon, on French thought. Writing as an ex-Communist but still a man of the Left, Koestler produced a novel that sold over two million copies in France at a time of economic devastation. Leading French Communists, having correctly judged the moral suasion of the novel, attempted to stop its publication by viciously attacking the book and its author. The novel excelled in its use of the Purges as an anvil upon which it delegitimized the Soviet revolutionary ideal. Koestler’s literary presentation permanently stained Communist parties in the West.
Fleming focuses on the binary moral conclusions voiced in the novel by an NKVD (secret police) interrogator, Ivanov, to the prisoner Nicholas Rubashov, a former high-ranking Soviet official who had helped establish the Soviet state:
There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or sacrificial lamb.
Viewed as too simplistic by many of the novel’s critics, Ivanov’s separation of the Jerusalem-Athens ethical continuum from the Berlin-Moscow will to power cogently raised the question of human significance within Communist revolutionary ideology. If one pillar of Western civilization is that a good end never justifies an evil act, then Communism, rather than alleviating human suffering and misery, accepted their necessity in its universal quest of collectivist liberation.
Koestler’s novel enraged the intransigent French Left in its depiction of the Purges. Rationalizing that the accused were, at a minimum, subjectively guilty of thwarting Stalinist rule, the leftists saw the tortured confessions extracted from them as confirming this convoluted judgment. Fleming notes that many French and other Western Communists cognitively insulated the Soviet experiment from criticism for its human rights abuses in the Purges.
Reasoning that, within capitalist regimes, notions of legal innocence or guilt were merely the effects of material inequalities, many Communist intellectuals held that the Soviet regime’s pursuit of egalitarian ideals made the Purges objectively defensible. The same could not be maintained for courts in liberal democracies, or so it was argued. The Purges had served the ineffable progress of the Soviet regime, and as such, were lifted beyond good and evil. Thus, through his novel’s depiction of the false confession, apology, and execution of Nicholas Rubashov, Koestler indelibly turned this fact of Stalinist rule against the regime’s intellectual defenders in France.
The now forgotten Richard Julius Herman Krebs (alias, Jan Valtin) was a former German Communist street fighter who escaped to the United States in 1938. In his autobiography Out of the Night, first published in 1941, he described his life in the vast tentacles of the Soviet Comintern. Greatly assisted by the anti-Communist writers Eugene Lyons and Isaac Don Levine, Krebs chronicled his life in and exodus from Soviet Comintern duplicity and Stalinist oppression.
The larger impact of Krebs’s written testimony was the disruption it caused in American opinion towards its wartime ally. While Krebs falsely reported aspects of his biography—the wife and child he abandoned in Europe, among other sordid details—his writing challenged American complacency regarding the Soviet Union’s aims against American interests. Krebs’s claims regarding Soviet duplicity, which became commonplace during the Cold War, were explosive in 1941, when disbelief or naïveté prevented many policymakers and opinion leaders from discerning the truth about Soviet motivations.
The full measure of Krebs’s account unfortunately emerged after Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941, when the United Front of the West and the Soviets against the Nazis became imperative. Thus, the book’s narrative maneuvered within uncongenial circumstances, to put it mildly. Even within the hopelessly strange world of political revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries that Fleming’s book must travel through, Krebs is easily the least sympathetic figure portrayed.
Krebs’s chief significance emerges from his depictions of Soviet Comintern machinations and from the heated rancor his book inspired among the Left in America. Thus, when measured by the sales of his book and by the vehement responses of his critics (Dorothy Day held him “morally responsible” for the deaths of striking miners in West Virginia) Krebs emerges as a unique if now forgotten voice who vividly highlighted Communist barbarism despite his own deficiencies.
In his autobiography, I Chose Freedom, Victor Kravchenko related the events of Soviet rule that he, as a Russian industrial engineer, had observed and, in the case of the Ukrainian famine, participated in. Kravchenko worked in Washington, D.C., as a Soviet official in Lend-Lease operations, and from this position he defected via a New York Times press conference on April 4, 1944. Having launched himself into an American scene fully open to the record of Stalinist brutalities, Kravchenko unleashed a torrent of facts that, if true, meant the Soviet Union was a monster.
Published in 1946, Kravchenko’s autobiography covered the Ukrainian famine, the Purges, and the establishment of the Gulag system, detailing the barbarities of these ongoing nightmares. To an American audience, his book also telegraphed the Soviet Union’s malevolent motives toward its wartime ally, and the fact that it had actively used Lend-Lease operations, among other efforts, as a basis for espionage. In this sense, his book anticipated the split in Soviet-American relations following the war.
But Kravchenko’s narrative left its deepest scar in France, where its impact was as profound as Koestler’s. His indictments of Soviet Communism jarred a French Communist movement that had recovered its strength because of its work in the heroic French Resistance. French Communism’s unofficial journal, Les Lettres francaises, alleged that the book’s major themes, the Purges and the Ukrainian famine, were fraudulently depicted. Kravchenko responded with a libel suit. Fleming describes the ideological militancy that Kravchenko’s book encountered:
The Communist Party was one vast textual community and laboratory of social organization so certain of the benefits of its “model of betterment to society at large” as to attempt, from highest moral principle, to impose it by persuasion, fraud, assassination, revolution, or Soviet invasion. This Marxist textual community was not only persuaded that it had a program for the betterment of society: it was persuaded that it had the only such program.
Against these forces Kravchenko held to a resolute manliness, a truthful biography, and an excellent lawyer, Georges Izard, a thorough anti-Communist and practicing Roman Catholic who was led by religiously grounded ideas.
The libel trial was a contest over the atrocities of Stalinist rule. The personal testimony of Kravchenko’s witnesses regarding the interrogations, the executions, and the disappearances of spouses and relatives in the Soviet Union overwhelmed the relentless strategy of denial pursued by his opponents. Vindicated by the court’s judgment, Kravchenko, like Koestler before him, stripped French Communism of its moral authority. Communist intellectuals in France would continue their Marxist theorizing for decades, but never again would they have the same level of national prestige.
Turning to Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography, Witness, Fleming goes beyond matters of political conflict and discusses the book through the Christian concepts of “conversion, penitence, and resurrection.” This approach is suggested by a passage in the prologue to Witness, “Letter to my Children,” in which Chambers himself alludes to several different literary and biblical figures:
In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return. I began to break away from Communism and climb from deep within the underground where for six years I had been buried, back into the world of free men. . . . [A] title of an Ibsen play I have never read [When We Dead Awaken] somehow caught and summed up for me the feelings that I could not find any other words to express—fears, uncertainties, self-doubts, cowardices, flinchings of the will—natural to any man who undertakes to reverse in mid-course the journey of his life. At the same time I felt a surging release and a sense of freedom, like a man who bursts at last gasp out of a drowning sea.
Chambers is not only like Lazarus in having been liberated from ideology by divine grace, but he is also like Jonah in that he has burst out of “a drowning sea” with a prophetic mission. And in undertaking “to reverse in mid-course the journey of his life,” he also resembles Dante, who began composing The Divine Comedy when he was 35 years old, halfway through the biblical threescore and ten, Fleming notes.
As part of his ongoing conversion, Chambers offered penance by informing on his past underground activities for the Soviets. One consequence of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948, which eventually sent Alger Hiss to prison, was the abrupt end of his successful journalism career at Time magazine. Fleming concentrates on Chambers’s still relevant theological and philosophical argument that the West must reject socialism in the name of something other than modern liberalism. Chambers believed that modern liberalism emptied man of both the vertical and horizontal loves—toward God and toward his fellow man—that inform his being and make his life livable. Chambers further intuited that freedom itself becomes impossible under the anthropological terms posed by much of the Continental Enlightenment and its more potent ideological relative, Communism.
Alger Hiss’s conviction for perjuring himself regarding his espionage led to more than the exposure of the perfidy of a New Deal golden child, Fleming notes. For Chambers, this seemingly discrete event led to a wholesale suspicion of American Progressivism’s political goals. Fleming’s excursus of Chambers’s conflation of the New Deal with socialism suggests that this was more than an overly aggressive indictment of New Dealers. As Chambers wrote:
The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.
Chambers thus presaged the vigorous scholarly attempts to mark Progressivism as a bastard political theory that must be excised from American constitutionalism. While not equating New Dealers with inveterate socialists, Chambers notes their susceptibility to political ideals of a socialist bent. The somewhat benign disposition of certain New Dealers towards Soviet political aims invited Chambers’s criticism, which focused on American Progressivism’s idealistic adherence to final progress through political power. This historical-teleological understanding of politics shared with Communism a deep-seated allegiance to salvation by technique.
Such forceful reasoning made Chambers’s Witness the soul of the emerging postwar American conservative movement, uniting its disparate groupings into a fighting faith against its two foes: Soviet Communism and Progressivism.