Vivian Gornick’s eternal Stalinist nostalgia

Vivian Gornick

We last discussed Vivian Gornick a couple of months ago, when we took note of a piece she’d written for the New York Times romanticizing Stalinism. Gornick’s exercise in nostalgia, we observed, was pretty much a boiled-down version of her repulsive 1978 memoir The Romance of Communism. In her piece, as in her book, she portrayed American Communists as superior souls, driven by convictions that the non-Commie rabble were too ignoble to possess.

When we weighed in on Gornick’s Times essay, we hadn’t yet caught up with another recent item bearing her byline – namely, an article for the Nation entitled “Getting Even.” The subject was Diana Trilling (1905-96), the occasion a new biography of Trilling by Natalie Robins entitled The Untold Journal.

Diana Trilling

Who, you ask, was Diana Trilling? She belonged to a circle of midcentury Manhattan writers who went by various names – sometimes the New York intellectuals, sometimes the Partisan Review crowd, and sometimes (by insiders) The Family. Among her fellow Family members were Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, and, not least, Trilling’s own husband, Lionel, who was a professor of literature at Columbia University and a highly respected literary critic.

Most of the New York intellectuals were leftists, but none of them were, like Gornick, Stalinists; several of them would have identified, for a time anyway, as Trotskyites, although the Trillings were more moderate in their politics, pretty much personifying the mainstream liberal anti-Communism of the day. Lionel’s most celebrated book, indeed, was a collection of essays entitled The Liberal Imagination.

Lionel Trilling

And Diana? She started out reviewing fiction for The Nation and went on to write social and cultural criticism and to publish three collections of essays, a biography (of a famous murderess), and a memoir. During her marriage to Lionel (who died in 1975), she also, as Gornick puts it, “kept house, organized their increasingly busy social life, and took an active hand in aiding her husband with his work.” That aid was by no means inconsiderable: Lionel was a subtle thinker but not a fluid writer, and Diana, by all accounts, edited him heavily and made him readable.

She called herself a “family feminist.” Any reasonable person would admire her as a model professional woman, one who managed to combine a respected career with a responsible family life. But this doesn’t do it for Gornick. In Gornick’s view, Diana Trilling wasn’t enough of a feminist – or, perhaps more accurately, wasn’t the right kind of feminist.

But even more troubling for Gornick than Diana’s take on feminism was her (and Lionel’s) view of Communism. Now, for any sensible person, the Trillings’ rock-solid anti-Communism is self-evidently admirable, especially given the tendency of many members of the New York crowd to look fondly on the Soviet Union (or, at the very least, to refuse to judge it harshly). Diana’s later distaste for the New Left and all its epiphenomena (hippies, student revolts, sit-ins, campus takeovers, the Black Power movement) also seems sane, mature, and prescient – especially, again, when viewed alongside the desperately puerile efforts by Family members like Norman Mailer to become a part of the youth movement and thus be seen as au courant, hip, with-it.

Joseph Stalin

It’s no surprise that Gornick, an old Stalinist, has a problem with Diana’s politics. Here’s what Gornick has to say on the topic:

Communism in the United States was the great bugaboo of Diana’s life. From the mid-’30s on, she saw it as a threat to American democracy worthy of the highest moral outrage. Making no distinction between communists in the Soviet Union and those in the United States, she described the Communist Party USA as the evil within that operated under a “chain of Communist command” and that was bent on “the entrapment of innocents.”

Whom does Gornick think she is fooling? It has long since been established that the American Communist Party’s every move was indeed directed by the Kremlin. Its members were, in a very real sense, in the service of evil. They were the tools of a monstrous totalitarianism. There was no operative distinction between Communists over here and over there. Diana Trilling understood that more than half a century ago; Vivian Gornick, now in her eighties, is still in some perverse kind of denial about it. Gornick’s indictment of Diana’s politics continues:

The Trillings

She often thought it more important to fight this evil within than to secure and protect civil liberties, and she could truly never understand why this made others see her as a reactionary. To read her today on communism (with either a lowercase or capital “C”) is jaw-dropping, alternately ludicrous and frightening. Not once in all of her red-baiting diatribes does an insight emanate from anything that might resemble an emotional imagination.

What is Gornick criticizing Diana Trilling for here? She’s criticizing her, apparently, for seeing Communism precisely for what it was, for looking at it with unblinkered eyes, for refusing to buy into any of the rose-colored propaganda that filled so many of the intellectual and literary journals of the time, for seeing through the efforts of American Communists to hide behind freedoms they had sworn to destroy. Gornick, whose view of Communism has been befogged by sentiment throughout her adult life, is criticizing Trilling for not sharing her own repellent delusions. Good for Trilling. Shame on Gornick. 

A thumbs-up for (believe it or not) the New York Times

Peter Andreas

On this site, we’ve long been critical of the New York Times for its consistent readiness to publish op-eds, memoirs, and even news stories that whitewash Communism. In recent weeks, for example, we’ve singled out Peter Andreas’s affectionate recollection of his Maoist mother and Vivian Gornick’s nostalgia, as her title put it, for the days “When Communism Inspired Americans.”

Harvey Klehr

So when the Times runs something sensible on the topic, we feel obliged to give the Gray Lady a tip of the hat. Such is the case with veteran scholar Harvey Klehr’s splendid, comprehensive articleAmerican Reds, Soviet Stooges,” which appeared in the Times on July 3.

Dalton Trumbo

While the Times, like many other liberal mainstream media, routinely likes to portray American Communists (such as the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) as essentially benign super-liberals who had little or or no real connection to the Soviet Union, Klehr, perhaps America’s leading expert on the topic, firmly corrects the record, stating flat-out that “the Communist Party of the United States of America was an instrument of Soviet foreign policy,” taking orders directly from the Kremlin on its policy positions and its choice of leaders.

Earl Browder

“In both 1929 and 1945, Moscow demanded, and got, a change of party leadership,” recalls Klehr. When Earl Browder fell afoul of Stalin and was ousted as party head, “virtually every Communist who had hailed Browder for years as the symbol of an Americanized Communism then shunned him. He was even forced to find a new dentist and a different insurance agent.”

Adolf Hitler

Klehr recounts other specific Kremlin-directed actions by the CPUSA, some of which we’ve discussed previously on this site – notably the Party’s shifting positions on FDR and the war with Hitler. “Anyone who remained a Communist for more than a few years,” notes Klehr, “had to be aware that the one constant [in the Party] was support for whatever policy the Soviet Union followed. Open criticism of the U.S.S.R. was grounds for expulsion.” Soviet lies were echoed faithfully. The CPUSA

insisted that the show trials during Stalin’s purges had uncovered a vast capitalist plot against the Soviet leader. Party members dutifully repeated Soviet fabrications that Trotsky had been in the pay of the Nazis. Worst of all, many Communists applauded the execution of tens of thousands of Soviet comrades, denouncing those who were executed as bourgeois spies and provocateurs. When Finnish-Americans who had returned to Soviet Karelia in the late 1920s and early ’30s to build socialism were purged, their American relatives were warned by party authorities to remain silent, and most did so.

Nikita Khrushchev

As Klehr notes, the CPUSA was funded by Soviet money – delivered, ironically, by two double agents who were really working for the FBI. Klehr also points out that hundreds of CPUSA members were also outright Soviet spies. As we’ve observed more than once here, it wasn’t until Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech,” in which he outlined in grisly detail the brutal crimes of Stalin, that many members of the CPUSA were convinced of what he had already been obvious for years to virtually all other sentient beings. Thanks to Khrushchev, CPUSA membership dropped from a high of nearly 100,000 to fewer than 3,000 in 1959.

Vivian Gornick

Peter Andreas to the contrary, American Communism wasn’t adorable. Vivian Gornick to the contrary, it wasn’t inspiring – except to a bunch of very troubled people whose twisted psyches caused them to prefer tyranny to freedom. A big thanks to Harvey Klehr for providing a timely reminder of the dark reality of the CPUSA – and, amazing though it sounds to say this, thanks, as well, to the New York Times for bringing his article to us.

The Gray Lady – or the Lady in Red?

The headline could hardly have been more repulsive: “When Communism Inspired Americans.” It appeared in the New York Times on April 29. The article, by Vivian Gornick, was an unashamed exercise in nostalgia for the good old days of American Stalinism.

Vivian Gornick

The piece was reprehensible, but it should not have been surprising. After all, the Times, which is often referred to as the Gray Lady, has often, over the decades, seemed to deserve, rather, the nickname “The Lady in Red.” Recall, for example, that it was the home base of none other than Stalin-era Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, this website’s own mascot, who, as we wrote in our mission statement, “did more than any of his contemporaries to spread Soviet propaganda under the guise of news – and to discredit colleagues who dared to tell the truth about the brutality of Stalin’s regime.”

Walter Duranty

Duranty, as we pointed out, “defended the Gulag (in which millions died), the forced collectivization of peasants (ditto), and the 1938 show trials (used by Stalin to wipe out potential opponents). He also vigorously denied the reality of the Holmodor, the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, which was deliberately engineered by Stalin and which also resulted in millions of deaths.” Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a Moscow correspondent at the same time, later maintained that the Times had published Duranty’s pro-Stalin propaganda even though it was “so evidently nonsensically untrue” not “because the Times was deceived” but because “it wanted to be so deceived.”

And Duranty was just the beginning. As Frances Martel noted at Breitbart, Duranty’s “style of fabrication” about Communism “continued well into the 1960s when writer Herbert Matthews leveraged his newspaper’s influence to promote the Cuban Revolution.” Throughout Castro’s reign, Martel observed, the Times “regaled Castro – who sent thousands, including Christians, LGBT Cubans, writers, and dissidents generally, to labor camps and killed thousands of others using firing squads – as a ‘victorious guerrilla commander in 1959’ and lauded the alleged ‘medical advances’ and ‘racial equality’ of communist Cuba in November when the Cuban government claimed Castro had finally died.”

Josef Stalin

The Times‘s publication of Gornick’s April 29 piece reminds us that the paper hasn’t changed its stripes. Nor has Gornick. The author of a 1978 book called The Romance of Communism, what she offered in her Times piece, all these decades later, was basically a thumbnail version of that book. She didn’t exactly defend or deny any of Stalin’s atrocities – she just swept them under the rug. Or, rather, she acted as if she and her family and their intimate circle of Communist Party members in New York had been totally unaware of all these well-publicized crimes against humanity until Khrushchev gave his so-called “secret speech” in February 1956. Yet despite those crimes, she sought, just as in her 1978 book, to depict mid-century American Communists not as totalitarians or world-class dupes but as moral exemplars – indeed, as the very noblest of souls.

Communism is every bit as vile an ideology as Nazism. Stalin took more even lives than Hitler. But while no self-respecting American newspaper would publish an old Nazi’s affectionate memoir of the Third Reich, the Times has always treated Communism differently. If Gornick’s piece wasn’t a good enough reminder of the Times‘s double standards on the Berlin and Moscow versions of totalitarianism, the newspaper actually published yet another such piece only a couple of weeks later. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

Halberstam: Ho’s happy hagiographer

David Halberstam

One last foray into the career of writer and journalist David Halberstam (1934-2007), who on his death, as we’ve noted, was the subject of breathtaking paeans throughout America’s mainstream media. The thrust of most of these glowing obits was that he’d been that rara avis, a brilliant investigative reporter who was, at the same time, one of the most incisive analysts of the events of the day.

On the contrary. Halberstam was celebrated in the usual places for one reason and one reason alone: because he provided a certain demographic (i.e. the kind of people who read the New York Times religiously and believe every statement they encounter there) with texts designed to confirm their lockstep prejudices and received opinions. Originally a cheerleader for the Vietnam War, for instance, Halberstam changed his mind about the subject exactly when all the right people in the U.S. changed their minds, and in The Best and the Brightest he told them exactly what they wanted to hear about the not-so-wise men who had led America into what he now professed to view as a quagmire.

The Best and the Brightest, published in 1972, was a huge hit and made Halberstam famous, as we’ve discussed. Another book of his, issued the year before, is less well known and deserves some attention here. It’s entitled, quite simply, Ho. Michael Lind, in his own 1999 book about Vietnam, described Ho as “perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of a Stalinist dictator ever penned by a reputable American journalist identified with the liberal rather than the radical left.” Bingo. For instance, the book “omits any mention of the repression or atrocities of Ho Chi Minh’s regime.” Lind reminded us that in 1945-46 Ho oversaw “a reign of terror in which thousands of the leading noncommunist nationalists in territory controlled by Ho’s regime were assassinated, executed, imprisoned, or exiled.” While Halberstam, in Ho, condemned South Vietnamese President Diem’s “massive arrests [of] all his political opponents,” he breathes “not a word” about “the far more severe repression in North Vietnam.” Some examples:

Ho Chi Minh

The Maoist-inspired terror of collectivization in the mid-fifties, in which at least ten-thousand North Vietnamese were summarily executed because they belonged to the wrong “class,” is not mentioned. Nor is the anticommunist peasant rebellion that followed; nor the deployment of the North Vietnamese military to crush the peasants; nor the succeeding purge of North Vietnamese intellectuals; nor the fact that almost ten times as many Vietnamese, during the brief period of resettlement, fled from communist rule as left South Vietnam for the North. The equivalent of Halberstam’s book would be a flattering biography of Stalin that praised his leadership during World War II while omitting any mention of the gulag, the purges, and the Ukrainian famine, or an admiring biography of Mao that failed to mention the Cultural Revolution or the starvation of tens of millions during the Great Leap Forward.

Michael Lind

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Halberstam omitted “mention of Soviet or Chinese support for North Vietnam after 1949”; failed to note that “Ho’s dictatorship modeled its structure and policies on Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union”; was silent about the fact that members of the Chinese and Soviet military actually “took part in the Vietnam War”; and so on. Lind examined the sources cited in Ho and noticed something very interesting: Halberstam systematically avoided citing “everything critical written about Ho Chi Minh” by those sources. In short, this writer who after his death was eulogized throughout the American media for “speaking truth to power” was, in fact, a happy hagiographer of a totalitarian tyrant.

Halberstam: misrepresenting the Fifties

David Halberstam

This week we’re according long-overdue attention to the handful of sane voices that rose in dissent against the almost universal (and thoroughly nauseating and reality-challenged) reverence, in American establishment circles, for the supposed lifetime of accomplishments by journalist and historian David Halberstam, that manifested itself upon his death in 2007.

Yesterday we cited Mark Moyar, who in a well-informed necrology in National Review mad a convincing argument that outright lies by Halberstam and a couple of other influential Vietnam reporters had helped destabilize the South Vietnamese government, cripple its war effort, cause the ultimate failure of the U.S. endeavor to repel Communists from the South, and lead to the disgraceful mistreatment of GIs when they returned home from that tragically failed conflict. As we noted yesterday, while Vietnam vets were shunned and despised after the war, Halberstam, who had played as significant a role as any in causing them to be despised, himself became the postwar toast of the American cultural elite.  

Hilton Kramer

But it wasn’t all about Vietnam. Both before and after the war, Halberstam seemed determined to poison Americans’ minds, on every front, about their own country and culture. In 1993 Halberstam published a book called The Fifties. Reviewing it, the respected critic Hilton Kramer said that it “in many respects reads like an overloaded 1960s political cartoon-strip about the history of the 1950s.”

Josef Stalin

Although Stalin had still ruled the USSR during much of the 1950s, and although the Soviet invasion of Hungary – to crush an attempt at democratic reform – occurred in the middle of the decade, noted Kramer, Communism was mostly “kept safely offstage” in Halberstam’s account. No, instead of focusing on “the real presence of Communist power in the world of the 1950s,” Halberstam paid attention to what he apparently viewed as “misguided American responses to Communism.” Kramer noticed that the entry for Communism in the book’s “very detailed index” consisted entirely of the words: “see McCarthyism, McCarthy era; specific countries and conflicts.” In short, Halberstam, in a book about the 1950s, was less concerned with the massive and evil reality of Communism than with a small-scale and arguably misguided reaction to it in Washington, D.C. (Stalin himself, observed Kramer, got much less attention in the book than Marlon Brando.)

And what of Halberstam’s treatment of America in The Fifties? During that decade, the U.S. had by far the world’s strongest economy and its best schools and universities. As Kramer reminds us, America was “the unrivaled center of the international art scene,” was producing literature and works of modern dance that no other country could compete with, and enjoyed an intellectual life so rich that virtually no one in the Iron Curtain countries could even imagine it enough to envy it. (One might also mention American film, television, and popular music, which during that decade became, more than ever, the common, cherished possession of the entire world.)

But did Halberstam dwell on any of this in The Fifties? No. Instead, complained Kramer with absolute justification, he served up a “Left-liberal mythology,” a portrait of

an entire society in the grip of politically inspired paranoid fear, abject social conformism, empty-headed consumerism, and spiritual sterility….His is a mind so completely saturated with the cultural clichés of the 1960s…that no other ideas have ever been allowed to violate its shallow certainties. The sheer spaciousness that came into American life in the 1950s after the ordeals of the Depression era an the fearful trauma of the war years is a closed book to him.

Kramer is right on the money. The Fifties was an appalling book when it came out, and to page through it now is to be even more appalled than one was at the time by its lethal combination of naivete, dishonesty, and simplification, not to mention its fierce determination to embrace every last left-wing stereotype about the 1950s, however absurd. This readiness to blow with the wind and to give elite readers what they wanted was precisely what made David Halberstam a hero to so many of them.

More tomorrow.

Always a Communist: Pete Seeger

The Weavers

As we saw yesterday, the folk singer Pete Seeger was, in the late 1930s, a slavish servant of the Kremlin line who was capable, at a moment’s notice, of making a 180-degree change in his position on any issue whatever. To continue the story: in the 1950s, he was a member of the Weavers, whose hits included the old tunes “Goodnight, Irene” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; in the 1960s, this time as a solo act, he became a symbol of leftist protest. Identified strongly with the civil-rights and Vietnam War eras, he co-wrote such songs as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which became hits for performers ranging from The Byrds to Marlene Dietrich. Seeger also helped make “We Shall Overcome” an anthem of the protest movement. (He claimed that he was the one who changed the auxiliary verb in the title from “will” to “shall.”) Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, he refused to answer questions; six years later he was found guilty of contempt of Congress, but his conviction was overturned. In November 1969, he led half a million protesters in singing “Give Peace a Chance” outside the White House.

Speaking to the House Un-American Activities Committee

According to some sources, Seeger became disillusioned with Communism, quitting the Party in 1949. Other sources, however, say that he considered himself a Communist all his life. “I still call myself a Communist,” he said in 1995, “because Communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” On the one hand, he went to Russia in 1965 and to North Vietnam in 1972. On the other hand, he sang at a benefit concert for Poland’s anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in 1982. At some point he also publicly apologized for having thought Stalin was anything other than a monster – but he watered down the apology by saying, “I guess anyone who calls himself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. ought to apologize for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks.”

Performing with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Arlo Guthrie in 1968

And so on, for several more sentences, the point being that everybody alive today has ancestors who did horrible things that need to be apologized for. The difference, of course, is that today’s Christians did not personally work with Torquemada or take part in the Crusades – whereas Seeger himself was a willing tool of Stalin, mindlessly following his orders and tailoring the message of his music to the Kremlin directives of the day. Then again, in 2007, heeding a critical article by historian Ronald Radosh, Seeger wrote “Big Joe Blues,” a song in which he accused Stalin of ruling “with an iron hand” and of having “put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land. / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race. / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place.”

Good try, but it could be argued that this is pretty weak stuff. Did Stalin really set humanity back “in the same nasty place”? Or did he, by injecting sheer terror into the daily lives of an entire country and by imprisoning, torturing, and murdering tens of millions, take it to places far nastier than those anyone else (excepting perhaps Hitler and Mao) had ever conceived of?

Hating free speech: Howard Biberman

Herbert Biberman

We’ve been looking at the Hollywood Ten, those unwavering devotees of totalitarianism, blind servants of Stalin, and out-and-out traitors who, after being held in contempt by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, spent a few years on the so-called Blacklist and later, in the 1970s, were gloriously rehabilitated, applauded by the media and by a new generation of Hollywood luminaries as heroes of the individual conscience, the life of the independent artist, and the First Amendment. Today’s subject: Herbert Biberman (1900-71), who after working in the New York theater in the early 1930s went to Hollywood, wrote several minor films, and married Oscar-winning actress (and fellow Blacklist member) Gale Sondergaard.

An APM button from the group’s “pro-peace” phase

In Hollywood, Biberman was a busy Communist bee. Among much else, he played a major role in a Soviet front group whose history of ideological shifts illuminates the way in which these groups perfectly mirrored the Kremlin’s own changing policies. Originally founded in 1933 as the American League against War and Fascism and conceived of as a means of preparing the Depression-struck U.S. for imminent Communist revolution, it encouraged workers to oppose FDR, whom it presented as oppressing workers and as being engaged in preparation for war. Two years later, however, having decided the U.S. was not on the verge of revolution after all, the Kremlin had the group’s name changed to the American League for Peace and Democracy and ordered it to support FDR and to boycott and propagandize against the USSR’s more immediate enemies, Germany and Japan.

Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop at the signing of the pact

Two years after that, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, forging an alliance between Stalin and Hitler, the American League for Peace and Democracy was renamed American Peace Mobilization (APM) and told to be pro-peace, pro-Nazi, and, once again, anti-American. After Hitler invaded Russia, however, the APM, under Kremlin orders, underwent another ideological make-over: now it supported the Soviet war against Hitler and equated Nazi Germany with the U.S. and Britain, representing Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill as equally imperialist and equally intolerable.

Some of the Hollywood Ten and their lawyers, December 1947

How does Biberman fit into all this? He was on the APM’s “National Council.” As Allan Ryskind writes in Hollywood Traitors, Biberman told an APM meeting that the U.S. had become “a colony of the British Empire” and that Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill were “making a deal for the money markets of the world” and sacrificing “the lives of millions of men” in the process. At an APM rally in Los Angeles, he received a standing ovation after savaging FDR and Churchill. The readiness of Biberman (and several other members of the Hollywood Ten who were also on the APM “National Council” or otherwise involved in the group) to instantly change their ideological tune, not once but several times, in accordance with Kremlin directives only goes to show that none of this had anything to do with individual conscience or personal philosophy – it was all about being robotic, lockstep soldiers who were prepared to believe anything that Josef Stalin told them to.

Biberman before HUAC

Later, after America had entered the war on the side of the USSR, Biberman was active in other Soviet front groups, among them the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization (HWM). These supposedly independent groups, which represented themselves as having been founded spontaneously by free-thinking individuals who, among other things, simply wanted to serve the war effort. In fact they were all branches of the same tree, following the same orders from the same masters in Moscow.

Albert Maltz

In 1946, like Alvah Bessie, Biberman stood up at a Communist gathering to condemn their fellow Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz for the high crime of having suggested that the works of Communist artists should not be straitjacketed by Kremlin ideology but should rather be allowed to deviate from that ideology in minor specifics as long as it served, on the whole, the general aims and principles of Communism. For Bessie and Biberman, Maltz’s suggestion amounted to heresy; after Bessie denounced Maltz, Biberman took his turn, “spout[ing] elaborate mouthfuls of nothing, his every accent dripping with hatred.” In short, despite the Hollywood Ten image that would take form decades later, he was very far from being a champion of free expression.