Paul Robeson, Stalinist

Paul Robeson

In a splendid article that was posted recently at the American Interest, historian Ronald Radosh provided a useful reminder of the career of one of the most prominent and hard-core Stalinists of yore: Paul Robeson, the great black American singer and actor who starred in the 1936 film version of the Kern/Hammerstein musical Show Boat and the 1933 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. Radosh began his article with a question: “Can a man endowed with genius squander it through extreme political blindness?” Radosh is not exaggerating when he describes Robeson as a genius; nor is he exaggerating when he goes on to state that “Stalin had few more loyal devotees in America than Robeson.”

The reason why Radosh’s article is so important is that Robeson, since his death in 1976, has frequently been memorialized as one of the major black American artistic figures of the last century. For example, since this year “marks the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s graduation from Rutgers University,” that institution “is pulling out all the stops to celebrate.” Now, there is no question but that Robeson was indeed one of the great American artists. Radosh sums up his rapid career rise:

Robeson with Hattie McDaniel in Showboat

As an undergraduate, Robeson was class valedictorian and a ranked All-American football player. After graduation, he went on to Columbia University Law School, where he earned his law degree while playing football in the NFL. He then became an actor, appearing in Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and used his remarkable bass-baritone to establish himself as a popular singer. After moving to Britain in 1928, he appeared in Jerome Kern’s Showboat, stopping the show with his famous rendition of “Ol’ Man River”; later, he played the titular role in Shakespeare’s Othello on Broadway. And he did all this while both suffering from and actively fighting the scourge of American racism.

Robeson as Othello

Robeson, then, assuredly deserves his tributes. But what is almost always ignored by those who celebrate his legacy – or, sometimes, mentioned in passing or even represented as some kind of virtue – is his reprehensible, undeviating devotion to Stalin. It was a devotion that persisted even though, as a frequent visitor to the USSR, he saw things that made it clear to him that it far from a paradise – that it was, indeed, a nightmare on earth. One American acquaintance of his who had relocated to Russia was executed by Stalin on trumped-up charges, but Robeson remained stalwart in his Stalinism. Other Americans who, seduced by Communist rhetoric, had foolishly moved to Russia but later realized their mistake, begged Robeson in vain to help them get out. Asked about Stalin’s show trials, Robeson said that “anyone who lifts his hand against” the Soviet government “ought to be shot!” He called Stalin “wise and good.” When his 11-year-old son asked him why he had not stood up for an innocent friend convicted in one of Stalin’s trials, Robeson explained that “sometimes great injustices may be inflicted on the minority when the majority is in the pursuit of a great and just cause.” Or, as Stalin put it, you’ve got to break eggs to make an omelet. And every time he returned from the USSR to the US, he dutifully parroted Kremlin propaganda.

There’s more, much more. Read Radosh’s entire piece. It’s devastating. And it’s important, because almost invariably, when Paul Robeson’s artistry is remembered, his chilling reverence for a totalitarian monster is dropped down the memory hole.

David Karr, KGB creep

David Karr

In his new book The Millionaire was a Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr, Harvey Klehr, the distinguished historian of Communism, recounts the colorful, sordid, and altogether unlikely story of a man who, born into an ordinary middle-class Brooklyn family in 1918, was, in turn, a writer for Communist newspapers like the Daily Worker, an employee of the Office of War Information in Washington, a flunky for the syndicated D.C.-based columnist Drew Pearson, a PR guy in New York, the CEO of a major defense contractor, a corporate raider, a Broadway and Hollywood producer, the general manager of the George V Hotel in Paris, and – finally, from 1973 until his mysterious death in 1979, which has been attributed variously to the CIA, the Mossad, the Mafia, and the KGB – a Soviet spy.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy

Along the way, Karr acquired a multitude of friends, enemies, and acquaintances in high places, becoming a target during his years with Pearson of Senator Joseph McCarthy and columnist Westbrook Pegler; after relocating to France, he became a business partner of Aristotle Onassis and a friend of Kennedy clan member Sargent Shriver, who introduced him to famous oil tycoon Armand Hammer. In turn, Hammer, who had enjoyed close ties to the Kremlin since 1919, and who helped fund Communist operations in the U.S. and Europe in exchange for business concessions in the Soviet Union, introduced Karr to Soviet officials and ended up with a lucrative job helping U.S. firms set up business in the USSR. It was Karr, for example, who set up the financing for the first Western hotel constructed in the Soviet Union.

Harvey Klehr

What exactly did Karr do during his brief stint as a KGB agent? He provided his Kremlin bosses with inside information on the presidential campaigns of several Democratic candidates – Shriver, Henry Jackson, Jerry Brown, and Jimmy Carter. “He tried to insinuate himself in the Gerald Ford White House,” said Klehr in an interview. “He probably also worked for the Mossad.” Was he a convinced Communist, betraying his country in the name of principle, however misguided? No. Throughout his life, Karr seems to have been a man who believed only in advancing his career and lining his pockets. Almost certainly, he committed treason – serving the interests of America’s totalitarian enemy – only because it was profitable. When you think about it, becoming a Kremlin pawn was the natural last act in the career of this sleazy, thoroughly unscrupulous character.

Putting the pink in Pinkham

Sophie Pinkham

When we wrote on Tuesday about a recent New York Times piece praising the Soviet Union’s space program for its supposed sensitivity to questions of sexual and racial equality, we frankly didn’t know much of anything about the piece’s author, Sophie Pinkham. So we looked up her archive at The Nation. Wow.

In a 2015 piece, she wrote about commemorations in eastern Ukraine and Moscow of the 70th anniversary of Germany’s 1945 surrender to the Soviet Union. Her point of view on matters Ukrainian and Russian was crystal clear – and downright appalling. Pinkham cited with obvious sympathy a comment made that day by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, then head of the “Donetsk People Republic,” a part of eastern Ukraine that declared its “independence” in 2014 after being “liberated” by Russia: “Seventy years ago, Soviet heroes had defeated the fascists, he declared, and now their children and grandchildren were fighting fascists once again; the generation of victors had raised a generation of heroes.”

Vladimir Putin

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin “was surrounded by veterans and foreign dignitaries from China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Egypt,” but “[m]ost European leaders skipped the parade to protest Russia’s actions in Ukraine.” Here’s the key part: “For many Russians, it looked as though the once-Allied nations had forgotten that it was the Soviet Union that rescued them from Nazism, at the cost of tens of millions of Soviet lives.”

Again, wow. Pinkham, plainly, is one of those Soviet sympathizers who always love casting the USSR as a “liberator” of Europe and as having played a far more crucial war in the Allied victory than the US or UK. In fact, of course, Stalin and Hitler – or, more specifically, Molotov and Ribbentrop – signed a cynical 1939 pact in which they agreed to carve up Poland, and Stalin didn’t go to war against Germany until the Nazis violated the agreement by invading Soviet territory. Stalin’s subsequent conquest of the countries that became the Warsaw Bloc wasn’t a war of liberation; it was a war of defense that ended up turned subjects of one kind of totalitarianism into subjects of another. Finally, despite the sheer size of the Red Army that admittedly made a huge difference in the victory over Hitler, the best historians of the war agree that if America hadn’t invested so much of its resources in providing massive supplies of materiel to Stalin, the Western Allies would have made it to Berlin before the Soviets, and it would have taken the Soviets a lot longer to push back the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front.

But hey, don’t get Pinkham wrong. She’s no Putin fan. Putin, she complains, “is continuing the process of privatization that began with Yeltsin. Even as the Russian government insists on its symbolic association with the Soviet past, it is moving toward a neoliberal social model antithetical to Communist ideals.” Don’t rush past that one: “Communist ideals”! Pinkham also takes seriously all the Soviet-era rhetoric about “friendship” between Soviet republics (“Stalin died in 1953, but the friendship of the peoples lived on”).

Vladimir Lenin

Likewise, she buys all the bushwah about the dictatorship of the proletariat. In a 2017 piece, Pinkham wrote that after the Bolshevik Revolution, “Lenin was virtually alone in his insistence that power pass into the hands of the workers immediately.” Her whole understanding of the early history of the USSR, indeed, is founded on the rock-solid belief that Lenin was a supremely good guy, devoted to “a utopian philosophy that sought to eradicate human suffering.” How, then, she wonders, could he have taken such an “insouciant attitude toward mass death”? Even after a century during which Communism has been put into practice all over the world, and always with disastrous results, Pinkham has still somehow failed to grasp that it’s not about eradicating human suffering but about eradicating humans.

Later in 2017, Pinkham reviewed Red Famine, Anne Applebaum’s history of Stalin’s deliberately engineered famine in the Ukraine. The book, complains Pinkham, “is distorted…by [Applebaum’s] loathing of communism.” Imagine writing that sentence! Imagine a graduate student at Columbia University (that’s what Pinkham is) complaining in a respectable publication that some book is marred by its author’s “loathing of Nazism.” But needless to say, Pinkham is hardly an exception to the rule in the academic history field. Her number is legion. This is the kind of history that is being taught to college kids nowadays. And it’s a big reason why they react to far-left presidential candidates not with horror but with hosannahs.

More praise for the USSR at the Times

Walter Duranty

On this site, where our task is to record the antics and inanities of those who have taken it upon themselves to defend the indefensible, all roads, or at least so it can sometimes seem, lead back to the New York Times. It was the Times, after all, that gave us our mascot, the world-class lickspittle (and Pulitzer Prize winner!) Walter Duranty, who while serving as the Gray Lady’s Moscow correspondent during the Stalin era shamelessly defended Uncle Joe’s evil Gulag, his brutal policy of farm collectivization, and his outrageous show trials – and, not least, covered up his deliberately engineered Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor. Millions died; Duranty lied. And what makes things all the worse is that, far from being an exception to the rule at the Times, which countless low-information readers continue to view as a newspaper of record, Duranty was a proud and consistent exponent of an ignoble and longstanding Times tradition: the reflexive whitewashing of totalitarian regimes.

Herbert L. Matthews and friend

The Nazis, too, benefited from the Times’s weird compulsion to sugarcoat monstrous tyranny – reports on the Third Reich’s treatment of Jews were routinely suppressed, softened, and relegated to short articles in the newspaper’s back pages. Decades later, similarly, Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews gave so much positive coverage to Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution that the National Review, borrowing a familiar classified-ad tag of the day – “I got my job through the New York Times” – ran a parody ad featuring El Comandante himself; in 2007, Reason ran a piece about Matthews headlined “Fidel’s Favorite Propagandist.”

Vivian Gornick

Three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Times hasn’t stopped looking for aspects of Soviet life to hold up for praise. A couple of years ago we took note of a sickening Times piece by Vivian Gornick entitled “When Communism Inspired Americans” – a serious effort on Gornick’s part to paint American Stalinists as heroic believers in noble ideals, rather than as the unquestioning toadies of (and lying apologists for) a mass-murdering dictator. Also in 2017, we commented on an instant classic entitled “Why Women Had Better Sex under Socialism.” In this masterpiece of buffoonery, Kristen R. Ghodsee, a professor (what else?) at the University of Pennsylvania, maintained that women in the Soviet Union not only had more rights than women in the democratic West but also had more orgasms.

Sophie Pinkham

Gornick’s and Ghodsee’s pieces were part of a Times series commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Now, to celebrate the fiftieth year since Apollo 11, the ever-reliable Times has run a piece by one Sophie Pinkham arguing that, even though America beat Russia in the race to put a man on the moon, the U.S.S.R. won what she calls “the Space Race for Equality.” Meaning what? Quite simply, that the Soviets “sent women and people of color to space years before the U.S.” As Pinkham explains: “The Cold War was fought as much on an ideological front as a military one, and the Soviet Union often emphasized the sexism and racism of its capitalist opponents — particularly the segregated United States. And the space race was a prime opportunity to signal the U.S.S.R.’s commitment to equality.”

Hero of equality

Pause for a moment, if you will, over those last words: “the U.S.S.R.’s commitment to equality.” Not its alleged or claimed or supposed or pretended commitment. Pinkham – a grad student at Columbia University who has written for such far-left organs as The Nation and London Review of Books – is apparently trying to sell the Soviet Union to us as a beacon of equality. Yes, in a way we suppose men and women were equal under Soviet Communism – equal, that is, in their utter lack of human rights and democratic freedoms. Men and women alike were woken in the middle of the night by KGB agents and beaten, tortured, or imprisoned, without being officially charged or tried, for having been overheard voicing some complaint or for having otherwise found their way onto the government’s radar. Men and women alike were condemned to death by starvation in the Holodomor, were sent away for years at a time to the Gulag, or were simply lined up against walls and shot in cold blood.

That’s Soviet equality, folks. Yet after Columbia awards a Ph.D. to Pinkham – who, in her recent photos, appears to be too young ever to have experienced Communism firsthand in the U.S.S.R. or its European satellites – she will earn a living telling generations of students at some prestigious college or other that Soviet Communism was synonymous with social equality. Caveat emptor.

A Hobsbawm hagiography

E.J. Hobsbawm

Back in 2016 we spent five full days on the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm, who had died four years earlier at the age of 95. As we noted then, Hobsbawm’s demise was followed by a tsunami of praise. In the Guardian he was described as “arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind”; the New Yorker called him “refreshingly serious—intellectually curious and politically engaged,” a man who “was in it to change the world.” The Independent told its readers that he was “one of the greatest British historians of the 20th century.”

The obituarists for these and other prominent media did not ignore the fact that Hobsbawm was a lifelong Communist – a passionate admirer and fierce defender of Stalin who even, in a 1994 TV interview, expressed support for Stalin’s murder of millions. What they did was find ways to minimize it, or excuse it, or even praise it. One necrologist spoke of Hobsbawm’s “Marxist ideals.” Another depicted him as a victim of anti-Communist prejudice. Can you imagine any of these publications referring seriously to “Nazi ideals” or “anti-Nazi prejudice”?

A.N. Wilson

The novelist A.N. Wilson was almost alone in explicitly condemning Hobsbawm for his politics, pointing out that “if some crazed Right-winger were to appear on BBC and say that the Nazis had been justified in killing six million Jews….We should be horrified, and consider that such a person should never be allowed to speak in public.” But what happened to Hobsbawm after that interview? As we wrote in 2016: “His career soared. He was offered (but rejected) a knighthood. Later he accepted from Tony Blair the title Companion of Honour. Oxford gave him a prize worth half a million pounds. As Hobsbawm got older, the media increasingly described him as the country’s greatest living historian. All this despite the fact, as Wilson pointed out, that Hobsbawm never learned the lessons of the century he had lived through.” Nor was he even a good historian: his books, as Wilson bluntly put it, were Communist propaganda. He “quite deliberately underplayed the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939-40.” He was silent on the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviets murdered 20,000 Polish soldiers. And he “deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties” and “the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945.”

Richard J. Evans

If we’re returning now to the subject of Hobsbawm, it’s because another famous historian, Richard J. Evans, FBA, FRSL, FRHistS, FLSW, has published an 800-page biography of him. Evans is best known for his three-volume history of the Third Reich – which has been described as definitive – and for his court testimony defending a writer’s characterization of David Irving as a Holocaust denier. In all his writings on Hitler’s regime, Evans has made it clear that he is not a fan. He sees Nazism for the evil that it is. He does not buy into the notion that, in writing about a Nazi, you can set aside his Nazi beliefs, or contextualize them or relativize them, depicting them as just a minor or incidental part of his personal makeup. You can’t conclude that, his Nazi convictions notwithstanding, the most important thing about him is that he was a devoted husband and father, a good friend and neighbor, a man who loved his pets and was, as the British say, clubbable. No, a Nazi is, first and last, a Nazi. Evans understands that.

David Pryce-Jones

Confronted with the case of Hobsbawm and Hobsbawm’s Communism, however, Evans is able to take a totally different approach. In a blistering review of Evans’s book for the June issue of the New Criterion, yet another historian, David Pryce-Jones (who, as it happens, is also an FRSL), laments that Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History makes Evans “look either a dupe or a fool of the higher sort, in any case earning him a reputation no historian would want to have.” Describing Hobsbawm as “the foremost Communist apologist in the Britain of his day,” Pryce-Jones observes that if Hobsbawm had been a Nazi, “Evans surely would have thrown his doctrine back into his face. Instead, he defends the indefensible with this hagiography.” Although Hobsbawm, after joining the Communist Party as a student at Cambridge, “never deviated from the Party line,” Evans “can still write this utter absurdity: ‘there was no sense in which [Hobsbawm] was an active or committed member of the Party.”

Josef Stalin

As for Hobsbawm the man, Pryce-Jones, who is now 93 and who actually knew Hobsbawm, provides a valuable corrective: “In my experience, Hobsbawm was nothing like the genial and popular figure depicted by Evans.” At one dinner they both attended, Hobsbawm sang the praises of Castro’s Cuba; another dinner guest, a former British ambassador to Cuba, demurred, providing chapter and verse on Cuban perfidy, but to no avail. “All American propaganda, according to Hobsbawm.” There was more: Hobsbawm and Pryce-Jones just happened to be neighbors in a certain Welsh village, where, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hobsbawm, like any half-mad local crank, “would stop to tell me at the top of his voice with expletives in front of surprised farmers how superior Communism was to the nationalism that replaced it.” Pryce-Jones concludes by underscoring a point that is somehow missed by people like Evans and the writers of Hobsbawm’s admiring obituaries: namely, that this was a man who, if the Soviets had conquered Britain and given him the power to do so, would have ordered them all sent to their deaths.

Those adorable Communists

In late June, when the Guardian sent a reporter to cover the annual convention of the Communist Party USA, the article that resulted was surprisingly sympathetic. No, let’s revise that a bit: the level of sympathy would have been surprising had the piece appeared in some other British newspaper – say, the Telegraph or the Times. But it would probably be naïve to be surprised by a friendly account of a CPUSA clambake in the Guardian.

Written by one Eric Lutz, the article said nothing particularly negative about the party or its ideology. On the contrary, Lutz seemed to strive to present the CPUSA as a longtime victim of unfair prejudice. The subhead, for example, noted that the party had been “derided and feared for 100 years.” The first sentence called the party “one of American politics[’] biggest historical bogeymen.” Lutz quoted, without comment, a line from a CPUSA official’s convention speech in which he assured America that “the [C]ommunist [P]arty isn’t out to hurt you….It will set you free.”

Moreover, Lutz seemed pleased to be able to state that the party was looking to “a brighter future…at a moment in American politics in which democratic socialism and progressive ideas are increasingly finding a home in the mainstream of the Democratic party.” And when he reported that convention delegates “sought to send the message that their party has been the most consistent champion of [progressive] ideas [and] has been on the right side of some of the most consequential ideological battles of the last hundred years,” there was no indication whatsoever that Lutz wasn’t totally convinced. Neither he nor his editors found it necessary to remind readers of the hundreds of millions of human lives snuffed out by murderous twentieth-century Communist regimes. In a time when the vast majority of mainstream news media in the U.S. and Britain seem incapable of reporting on Donald Trump or the Republican Party or Brexit voters without a condescending sneer, there was not a whiff of skepticism in Lutz’s report on the American Communists.

Far from it. Apparently to show that Communists have been in the vanguard of the advancement of black Americans, Lutz noted that the father of one convention speaker, Pepe Lozano, had “rallied Mexican and Puerto Rican voters to support Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor” in the 1980s. Lutz went on to quote, again without a hint of doubt or dispute, Lozano’s claim that the CPUSA had played a major role in “profound American struggles for democracy.” For anyone who knows anything about the subject, the very idea that American Communists ever sought to advance democracy is obscene on the face of it. Whole books – extremely well documented books, some of them based on Soviet archives – have vividly shown just how thoroughly controlled the Cold War-era CPUSA was by the Kremlin and just how determined the party was to crush liberty and destroy its enemies. For the Guardian to drop all these facts down the memory hole is disgraceful.

“Communism,” wrote Lutz, “has long been regarded with fear in the US, viewed as antithetical to American values and democracy.” The implication here, of course, is that Communism isn’t antithetical to American values and democracy. What to say about the fact that a sentence like this could appear, in the year 2019, in a major British daily? Is Lutz a fool or a liar? “[I]t can be striking,” he observed, “to hear Americans openly discuss their support for communism.” Not “appalling”; not “disgusting”; not “vomit-inducing” – no, “striking.” Imagine a writer for any major conservative newspaper reporting on a neo-Nazi rally in this way. Nazism is – as it should be – beyond the pale. Why does Communism – an equally evil totalitarian ideology, and one that caused even more deaths than Nazism did – still get this kid-glove treatment?

The man who was America’s “most dangerous Communist”

Herbert Aptheker

Very few members of the general public remember him now, but in his time Herbert Aptheker (1915 – 2003) was a very big deal indeed, and to this day he is a revered figure in the academy. He is considered a pioneer in the historical study of slavery in America – more broadly, in the general history of black Americans, and, more narrowly, in the history of slave revolts.

But he was not just a scholar. He was a devout Communist. David Horowitz called him “the Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual.” J. Edgar Hoover once said that the FBI considered Aptheker “the most dangerous Communist in the United States.” In 2015, Harvey Klehr, the historian of American Communism and of Soviet spying in the US, described him as “an ideological fanatic who squandered his talents as a historian, gave slavish devotion to a monstrous regime, and lacked the intellectual courage to say publicly what he wrote privately.”

Harvey Klehr

Indeed, as Klehr noted, Aptheker “joined the American Communist party (CPUSA) in August 1939, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, just as thousands of other disillusioned Jewish Communists were leaving.” And good Stalinist that he was, he parroted Uncle Joe’s calls for peace with Germany and, when the Nazis violated the pact in 1941 by invading the USSR, immediately reversed his position, calling for the US to fight shoulder to shoulder with the USSR and UK.

Aptheker’s whole adult life revolved around the CPUSA. As a student he was active in CPUSA front organizations, taught at the CPUSA’s New York Workers School, and was a regular reader of the CPUSA’s Daily Worker and New Masses and a contributor to other CPUSA rags. After the war, in which he fought on the European front, Aptheker settled in the American South, becoming an “education worker” (which is something like a “community organizer”) and working for yet another CPUSA front. From 1948 to 1953 he was a staffer at the CPUSA’s literary journal, Masses and Mainstream; from 1953 to 1963 he edited the CPUSA’s ideological monthly, Political Affairs; and from 1957 to 1991, he was a member of the CPUSA’s national committee, on which he was considered was the party’s leading “theoretician.”

Aptheker, Hayden, and other Hanoi travel companions

While the USSR lasted, nothing shook his devotion to it. He was always prepared to defend Stalin’s atrocities, and when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, he wrote a book justifying the invasion. He also penned a defense of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. If the Kremlin was incapable of doing anything of which Aptheker would not approve, the U.S., in his view, could do no right. For him, the Marshall Plan amounted to “renazification.” And of course the Vietnam War was, in his eyes, a pure act of imperialist aggression. In 1966 he and Tom Hayden – the California radical who was then Jane Fonda’s husband – made “solidarity” trips to Hanoi and Beijing.

Eldridge Cleaver

In 1966, while remaining a CPUSA stalwart, Aptheker ran for Congress as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, whose candidate for president of the U.S., two years later, was Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader and convicted rapist who would later become involved in a shootout with Oakland police and flee the country to escape a murder rap.

Eugene Genovese

Under the pro-Marxist dispensation on post-Vietnam American campuses, Aptheker’s academic career thrived: he taught at Bryn Mawr, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, at CUNY, at Yale, at Berkeley, and at Humboldt University in Berlin. Yet he should never have been considered a serious historian: he consistently twisted or suppressed or invented facts to suit his ideological purposes. (Recall that a habit of focusing on the worst of America, including its history of slavery, was a key CPUSA activity.) Klehr acknowledges that “Aptheker deserves credit as a pioneer in the field of African-American studies,” but notes that “his work later came under sustained attack by far more accomplished historians who argued that he had overemphasized the significance of slave revolts and misjudged the militancy of most slaves. Even his fellow Marxist, Eugene Genovese, who praised Aptheker and sought to integrate him into the historical profession, offered a devastating critique of his thesis.”

Bettina Aptheker

Aptheker did not quit the CPUSA until after the Soviet Union had fallen, leaving him without a lodestar. To be sure, once the USSR was dead, and exposed to the world as, indeed, an Evil Empire, he felt obliged to cough up a few public recriminations, admitting, for example, that the CPUSA (contrary to his decades-long claims) had always been controlled and funded by the Kremlin. “In short,” wrote Klehr, “he confirmed much of what the ‘right-wing reactionaries’ had said about the CPUSA and the Soviet Union for decades.”

There was more. After his death, in 2003, it emerged that this man who had spent most of his life celebrating a monstrous tyranny had himself, in his private life, been a monster: his daughter, Bettina, in a memoir, revealed that he had sexually abused her from the time she was a three-year-old toddler until she was thirteen years old.

Evil takes a variety of forms.

“Democratic socialist”? Nonsense.

Bernie Sanders

It was never a secret that Bernie Sanders was a socialist. In college he belonged to the Young People’s Socialist League. After graduating he lived on an Israeli kibbutz that flew a red flag and was founded by Stalinists. During his unsuccessful 1970s runs for the U.S. Senate and for Governor of Vermont, he called for the nationalization of all banks and utilities. Later he produced “radical film strips,” i.e. propaganda, for distribution to schools and made a hagiographic documentary about Socialist icon Eugene V. Debs.

Noam Chomsky

Finally managing to get elected to public office, he served as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981 to 1989, during which time he openly identified as a socialist, established price controls, hosted a foreign-policy speech by Noam Chomsky, made life difficult for local business people with his chronic hostility to free enterprise, worked with the Soviets and East Germans to defeat Reagan’s military build-up, went to Nicaragua to attend a celebration of the Sandinista government, visited Cuba, publicly praised Fidel Castro, and honeymooned in the USSR.

In 1990 he ran for the U.S. House on the Socialist ticket and won, becoming the only Socialist in Congress. During most of his tenure in the House and then in the Senate, he was a voice for radical-left ideas but, until his run for present in 2016, maintained a relatively low national profile, although he did promote and support measures to cut the U.S. intelligence budget, praised the socialist regimes in Venezuela and Ecuador, and became the first U.S. Senator to support the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Fidel Castro

Yet despite his radicalism, and despite his lifelong acknowledgement that he is a socialist, Sanders has always called himself a “democratic socialist,” a term which is plainly intended to distinguish him from out-and-out Communists. At a TV forum in April, he told a questioner that he never supported the Soviet Union. For anybody who is even superficially familiar with his personal history, this seemed a highly dubious claim. It became even more dubious, however, when, just a couple of days later, a film emerged of a 1986 lecture in which Sanders praised the Cuban Revolution. In the lecture, given at the University of Vermont while Sanders was mayor of Burlington, he recalled “being very excited when Fidel Castro made the revolution in Cuba,” adding that “it seemed right and appropriate that poor people were rising up against ugly rich people.” In the same speech, Sanders also said that he had been disgusted by President Kennedy’s anti-Communism.

John F. Kennedy

Reporting on the film, which was posted on Twitter, the Daily Mail noted that this was “not the first time that 30-year-old clips have surfaced showing Sanders making controversial remarks about American foreign policy toward communist countries in Latin America.” During his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2015-16, recalled the Mail, somebody had dug up a 1985 video “in which Sanders is seen heaping praise on Castro,” celebrating the dictator’s “policies on education, health care and society in general.”

Needless to say, such video evidence makes it hard to take seriously Sanders’s insistence on qualifying the socialist label, when applied to him, with the word “democratic.” There was, after all, nothing democratic about Fidel Castro. No lover of freedom who knew the truth about Castro and his regime could possibly admire him. And no freedom-lover could possibly have responded to JFK’s hard line on Soviet totalitarianism with anything but approval. That Sanders, a man with such a manifest and enduring affection for Communist tyranny, could be a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States is reason for alarm.

Great! Another movie with a Stalinist hero

When, other than under the Third Reich itself, did any major film producer ever release a movie in which the hero is a devoted Nazi? The answer, of course, is never. If any such picture ever hit the theaters, it would be universally denounced as an endorsement of totalitarianism.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

But for some reason the same doesn’t apply to Communists. For decades, Hollywood has made one picture after another in which out-and-out Stalinists were treated sympathetically and their poisonous nature of their political beliefs was totally whitewashed. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) depicted the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not as villains but as victims. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) portrayed the Hollywood Ten, all of them card-carrying members of the American Communist Party who were taking orders from Stalin, as First Amendment heroes. Four years ago, Jay Roach’s Trumbo essentially turned Cold War screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who in real life was a hard-core Stalinist ideologue, an unquestioning supporter of Uncle Joe’s Gulag, show trials, and summary executions – into something resembling a classical liberal.

The real-life Melita Stedman Norwood

The latest contribution this reprehensible genre is Red Joan, based on the life of Melita Stedman Norwood, a London woman whose secretarial job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association provided her with access to her country’s atomic secrets and who spent decades of her life working for the Soviet Union, first as an NKVD spy and later as a KGB agent. The material she passed to the Russians enabled them to produce a copy of the UK’s atom bomb. Incredibly, not until 1999 – years after the fall of the USSR – were her espionage activities publicly revealed. Also incredibly, she was never prosecuted for her crimes.

Trevor Nunn

Directed by 79-year-old Trevor Nunn (who is best known for directing plays on Broadway and in the West End), written by Lindsay Shapero, and starring Sophie Cookson (as the young spy) and Dame Judi Dench (as her older self), the movie has been shown at film festivals and will be released in the US and UK on April 19. The key point is that Nunn treats this traitor – who in the film is given the name Joan Stanley – as a hero. And reviewers have bought into it. The Hollywood Reporter called Red Joan a “good old-fashioned British spy thriller …with a bewitching female heroine.” It’s “a story of ideals and self-sacrifice that seem impossibly distant in the current day and age.” While stealing state secrets, Joan “demonstrates nothing but courage, intelligence and furious conviction.” She is “every inch a heroine.” Variety, while finding the film “flat,”also had no problem describing Joan as a heroine.

Judi Dench as “Red Joan”

In real life, Norwood was the daughter of Commies – a red-diaper baby – so loyalty to the Kremlin came naturally; the only motive she ever gave for having betrayed her country was that she was, indeed, a convinced Communist, full stop. Apparently in order to give Joan Stanley a more appealing motive for treason, Shapero’s script depicts her as being influenced, in her callow youth, by a couple of appealing friends who are German Jews and devout Communists – and whose Communism, as is so often the case in these movies, is equated with opposition to Hitler. At the same time, Shapero plays down her protagonist’s Communism, investing Joan with the belief (never held by the real Norwood) that giving atom secrets to Moscow would deprive the West of a monopoly on nukes and thus make the world safer.

After perusing the idiotic reviews in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and elsewhere, we were pleased to encounter at least one critic who had his head screwed on right. Calling the film “Operation Whitewash,” the Daily Mail‘s Guy Walters described it as “preposterously sympathetic to a woman who betrayed Britain’s most precious state secrets to Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil and murderous men who has ever lived.” Bingo. Why is this so hard for some people to see?

The best spy ever?

Richard Sorge

We’ve written about a few spies on this website, but Richard Sorge, the subject of a new biography by Owen Matthews, was not just any spy. As Joseph Bottum wrote in a recent review of Matthews’s book, An Impeccable Spy, Sorge was “possibly the greatest spy who ever lived.” A German nationalist in his youth, he emerged from World War I (and a subsequent doctoral program in political science) as a diehard Communist. Moving to Moscow, he was hired by the Soviets as a spy and sent back to Germany to work undercover as a journalist and pretend to be a loyal Nazi even as he was spying not only on the Nazis but on their Japanese allies.

He was so good at posing as a Nazi that Goebbels became a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance.

Joseph Goebbels

That wasn’t all. He infested the social and professional circle of Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe with fellow Soviet agents. The German ambassador to Japan, Herbert von Dirksen, trusted him so much that he became a fast friend, appointing Sorge to an intelligence post, and giving him “the run of the German embassy.” (Apparently the ambassador didn’t know that Sorge had bedded his wife.) For eight years, as Bottum puts it, Sorge “managed to convince the Germans that he was working for them, the Japanese that he was an important Nazi to whom secrets could be revealed, and the Soviets that he was their man.” It was thanks to him that the Kremlin learned about the establishment of the Axis alliance, about a German-Japanese pact banning the Comintern in those countries, about the Japanese decision not to attack the USSR through Manchuria, and about the planned German invasion of Russia in 1941. Meanwhile Sorge led a social life that makes at least a few of the James Bond movies look tame and unimaginative.

It all had to come crashing down eventually, and so it did. After the Japanese secret police heard one of his secret radio transmissions to te Soviets, they arrested and tortured him, wringing from him a confession before he was hanged in 1944. Although he had provided the Soviets with an extraordinary amount of useful information, and although he proclaimed his undying loyalty to the Communist cause even as he was being executed, the Kremlin repaid his intense devotion by arresting his wife after his death on charges of being a German spy, which she almost certainly was not.

East Germany issued a commemorative stamp hailing Sorge as a hero of the Soviet Union

Whether Sorge really was the greatest spy ever seems doubtful. Does the best spy ever end up being caught and hanged by the enemy? Never mind: if not the greatest spy, he was surely one of the most colorful ones. There’s enough material here for a thrilling spy movie. It has sex and skullduggery, drinking and carousing, Nazis and Commies, glimpses of two world wars and a gallery of famous historical figures, plus a whole bunch of picturesque international settings. There’s everything, in fact, except somebody to cheer for: Sorge was, after all, spying against two of the most loathsome regimes in history on behalf of another of the most loathsome regimes in history. What, after all, to make of a German who spied against Hitler to help Stalin? The Soviets, in later years, made him a national hero; to those of us today who despise both Hitler and Stalin equally, he remains one of those puzzling figures whose contempt for one form of totalitarianism was equaled only by his adoration for another form of it.