The Magazine

Useful Idiots

Stalin's willing intellectuals.

Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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Double Lives

Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals

by Stephen Koch

Enigma, 421 pp., $18

Willi Münzenberg was a brilliant German revolutionary who became communism's successful promoter-organizer in the democratic world. His great achievement was the invention of the idea of the "popular front" in the 1930s--the era in which Western intellectuals adopted the slogan "no enemies on the left" and made Red-baiting a cardinal sin. Münzenberg's propaganda and organizing ideas on behalf of the Soviet Union, heavily financed by Moscow, reached everywhere. As a friend of Vladimir Lenin, whom he had known and admired before the Revolution, Münzenberg was appointed, writes Stephen Koch, "the de facto director of the Soviet Union's covertly directed propaganda operations in the West."

Koch's Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals is a treasure house of information about a time in which famous American and European intellectuals knowingly supported a murderous totalitarian regime in the name of democracy. In America, the Communist slogan became "Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism," and banners so inscribed were mandatory exhibits during the Popular Front era. (There was even a ribald parody, composed no doubt by a Trotskyite, called "The Girl with the Popular Front.")

Münzenberg was an elected member of the Weimar Reichstag. After Hitler's coup d'etat in 1933, he fled to France where he lived until his mysterious death at the age of fifty-two in 1940 while the Soviet-Nazi Pact was in effect. I say mysterious because his decomposed body was found in a forest near Paris, at a time when both dictators would have wanted him dead but Stalin even more so. Around his neck was a noosed cord. Stalin believed that Münzenberg was a secret Trotskyite, says Koch, which undoubtedly led to his death.

Everybody (except Trotskyites) was welcome in the Popular Front. Münzenberg's appeal to intellectuals went like this: Of course, we disagree about capitalism, about minorities, about taxes, about a lot of things, but we can agree and work together to fight racism, fascism, and Nazism, even though we are Communists and you are not.

Then Münzenberg or his subordinates would produce the rabbit out of the magician's hat--an organization with secretaries, mimeograph machines, phones, meeting rooms, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, the works, and above all, professional revolutionaries, fulltime, just as Lenin had demanded in his famous cookbook, What Is To Be Done? Koch shows that the seduction of the intellectuals helped the Soviet Union to an unimagined degree through espionage and systematic betrayal of America.

I can give firsthand experience about how Münzenberg's Popular Front worked. In the spring of 1936, a Communist friend phoned that several of his friends had decided to fight "reactionary" alumni associations by organizing a national liberal alumni association to be headquartered in New York. Since I had been editor in chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator a couple of years earlier, and since I was beginning a short career as a fellow-traveler, I was invited to the organizing meeting in some Manhattan Upper West Side hotel. I was delighted to see a few Columbia alumni plus about seventy-five alumni of other schools.

We organized ourselves on the spot as the "Progressive Intercollegiate Alumni Association." The chairman, a Methodist minister from Columbia's Teachers College, was already in place. Nobody thought of asking, least of all me, how the minister had become chairman. After a couple of biweekly meetings, at which we passed long-forgotten resolutions, I was told in a whisper after adjournment by a lady, the wife of a Daily Worker editor, that it had been decided to let the organization die. She had gone around to several individuals like myself and told them the party's over.

Well, I asked, who decided to let the organization die? No answer. The new approach, the lady told me, would be for members to join existing alumni associations and conduct the fight from within. Why should we disband when we were doing so well? I remonstrated. She didn't tell me that the party line had switched (on Moscow's orders) from Third Period confrontation to Popular Frontism. She turned away. I shouted back at her: "Shouldn't we at least have a meeting to discuss it?" No answer. "Well, I'm coming to the next meeting and will ask for a vote," I told her. She shrugged and kept walking.