The Magazine

The Morning After

Intellectuals and the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By RONALD RADOSH
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The End of Commitment

Intellectuals, Revolutionaries,

and Political Morality

in the Twentieth Century

by Paul Hollander

Ivan R. Dee, 416 pp., $28.95

Twenty-five years ago, Paul Hollander wrote the path-breaking Political Pilgrims, a study of how scores of Western fellow travelers projected their hopes and dreams onto various totalitarian nation-states, and came back echoing Lincoln Steffens's famous claim, upon returning from the Soviet Union, that he had "seen the future and it works." Now, Hollander has turned his critical eye on a more fundamental yet connected phenomenon: How intellectuals and self-proclaimed revolutionaries have dealt with reality after the dream they so long believed destroyed themselves.

The views of the people he discusses here fall into two categories: Those whose commitments and beliefs--mainly in the Communist variant of "socialism"--remain intact despite the collapse of the societies they had believed embodied those ideas; and those who, in the face of what to most people was self-evident, undertook a wrenching reexamination of their views. (And here I must note that the author treats my own journey from the far left in a brief section.)

Hollander studies the roots of disillusionment in communism by looking at those who lived and developed their beliefs in the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European Stalinist states; those who came by their ideology in the Marxist-influenced Third World--Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, China and Ethiopia--and those who lived in what the New Left radicals used to call "the belly of the beast," in the advanced capitalist West, whose political system and democracy they despised, but who nevertheless availed themselves of its freedoms to promote their revolutionary agenda.

Of course, communism was a faith, a secular religion which provided its adherents a total belief system and a set of values--hence the terms "heretic" and "renegade," which are regularly used by the custodians of dogma against those who have begun to have second thoughts. The neo-Trotskyist historian Isaac Deutscher once titled an essay "Heretics and Renegades" to chronicle those he opposed who had quickly moved from minor heresies to complete rejection of Communist ideology. Despite the fact that Deutscher himself was considered by many followers of Stalin to be a renegade, that did not stop him from wielding his polemical axe against writers like George Orwell, whom he hated because Orwell defended the freedoms of the West and was fiercely anti-Soviet.

Nothing was more important for men like Deutscher than always to be known as a loyal man of the left; no proven crimes of Stalin or Mao could ever be enough to justify moving away from the insular world to which they had committed themselves. Orwell once quipped that some beliefs are so stupid that only an intellectual could hold them. What Hollander reveals is that some intellectuals were people like the self-proclaimed "contrarian" Christopher Hitchens, whose faith was only temporary and who bravely joined the ranks of those committed to the truth. Others, unfortunately, are like the celebrated British historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose unrepentant leftism and unabashed love for the Soviet Union remains intact. This is a man, writes Hollander, "who has held on to his convictions in face of the vast accumulations of historical evidence that should have undermined them." Hobsbawm acknowledges that the Soviet "experiment" led to millions dying; but that makes no difference, he has argued, since there was a chance that a new world might have been born had it succeeded.

It is no surprise that a true believer does not change in the face of reality; what is shocking is the appreciation and rewards bestowed upon Hobsbawm for remaining true to the totalitarian temptation. Hollander's analysis of what makes someone like Hobsbawm, clearly a smart and learned man, continually affirm his old faith is among the tightest and sharpest writing in the book. He reveals how Hobsbawm regularly subordinates "intellect to emotion," his beliefs predicated upon "the appeal of good intentions . . . a future superior to the present." He maintains his "abiding and profound loathing of capitalism," his contempt for which is only exceeded by his hatred for Israel, which Hobsbawm sees as a "militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state." For all of this, Hobsbawm holds over 20 honorary degrees, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is feted the world over, and has been honored by the British government.

Hollander's discussion suggests that, for many in the West, being true to your early ideals--however deeply flawed--deserves praise and support, while to become disillusioned merits only disdain and hostility. Those who did not have the chance to believe in the workers' paradise were those who actually lived in the midst of "really existing socialism," the reality being so far from the promise that it could not but affect the belief systems of honest intellectuals. Meanwhile, those living in the West enjoyed the benefit of the freedoms of their societies, and the tolerance of those who disagreed with them, and were insulated from the stark reality of life in Communist regimes.

Hollander catalogues a long list of the defectors and the disillusioned, among others, such early defectors as Alexander Orlov and Victor Kravchenko, the latter-day dissident Lev Kopelev, and the onetime high-ranking Soviet official, Alexander Yakovlev. In all their cases, the discrepancy between appearance and reality was too much to handle. These were men of high moral values, whose despair at what they were doing in the system overrode their human desire for material well-being. Others who declined to follow their path knew the truth, but preferred the various perks given to apparatchiks who played the game.

When Hollander shifts his focus to Third World socialism, readers learn how the duplicity and deception of the Communist regimes in Vietnam and China led to brave decisions to resist. In those places, acknowledging the truth meant not only deprivation, in the form of loss of access to special goods, food stores, and homes, but sometimes imprisonment under the harshest of circumstances.

Most interesting is the incredible story of Sidney Rittenberg, born in 1921 and now living the good life, where he serves as a consultant to American corporations that seek to do business with China. An American GI during World War II who served in China and stayed there to join the ranks of Mao's troops, Rittenberg ended up being arrested twice as an American spy.

His first arrest came in 1949, when he was put into prison and subject to
"re-education" until 1955, when he was released and told his arrest had been a mistake. Rather than leave and return home, his release reaffirmed Rittenberg's belief in communism, and he proceeded to rise in the ranks of Mao's hierarchy, becoming a top propagandist for the regime with a good home, car, and driver.

His single goal was to prove himself Redder than Red, to show the Chinese that he was a loyal Communist. It didn't work. Supporting both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg soon found himself one of its chief victims. In 1968, he was arrested in the middle of the night, and thrown into solitary confinement for 10 long years, only to be rehabilitated and released after Mao's death. A quintessential true believer, Rittenberg finally acknowledged that power had corrupted his beloved Chinese Communists. But history has its ironies. In Rittenberg's own words, he now makes a lot of money as "a sage and guide to the capitalist class," living in "relative splendor" in a beautiful home with a hot tub and gazebo in Seattle's finest neighborhood.

In Cuba and Nicaragua, Hollander tells the story of dissidents like Carlos Franqui and Heberto Padilla, the high-ranking defector Rafael del Pino, and the Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli, all of whom began by believing the myth of revolution, quickly learned that the reality was political repression enforced by the Communist leadership, and who saw firsthand that men like Fidel Castro were not selfless saints but megalomaniacal leaders who brooked no dissent and demanded total control over all aspects of personal and social life.

Turning to America and the West, Hollander produces the most satisfying section of his study. One might assume that the West would have had many more people who were disillusioned than those who were born into Communist states and for whom rejection of the system bore a greater price. But precisely because they lived in countries like the United States or Britain, the opposite was true: Living in prosperous democracies allowed these true believers to hold onto their illusions, given that the reality of "really existing socialism" existed only in their own minds.

Hence the strange case of the novelist Howard Fast. Fast first left the movement after Khrushchev's 1956 secret speech, and wrote a book about his disenchantment, The Naked God (1957). But decades later he rewrote it and published Being Red (1990), in which Fast reconsidered his early defection and emphasized instead what Hollander calls his "persecution as a Communist in the United States." The second time around Fast attacked what he called "the stream of anti-Communist lies"--which he had earlier demonstrated were anything but lies, thus revealing "the difficulty of making a total, definitive break with a cause and a belief system" in which he had a large emotional investment. The reader comes away with a greater respect for the achievement of other Hollander subjects, such as Eugene Genovese, Doris Lessing, David Horowitz, and other onetime young Communists who had the courage to rethink their early commitment.

These writers were able to avoid the trap of worrying about what Hollander calls "the abiding apprehension about becoming inadvertently associated with enemies of the left"--a trap, he shows, that affected the late Susan Sontag. Sontag bravely spoke up in defense of Solidarity during the years of the Polish repression, but later backed away from developing her critique for a projected essay because, as she explained, she did not want to give "aid and comfort to the neoconservatives." Even 9/11 failed to move her.

Most of the Western individuals who refused to reevaluate their beliefs did not have the excuse of saying they did not know the truth about life in the Communist regimes. What gave them pause was their ability to rationalize and ignore discrediting experience and evidence, all in the service of resisting disenchantment. The most important of these was the fixation of long-term goals. Like Eric Hobsbawm, they still believed that these goals were valid and achievable, hence the ability (Hollander writes) to "overlook the moral quality and degradation of the means, the human costs exacted in the course of striving for the long-term goals."

Hollander's contribution to our understanding of all this is marked by the attention he gives to those who refuse to question their assumptions, people like William Kunstler, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Bill Ayers, Tony Negri, Ramsey Clark, and Alexander Cockburn. This comes at the book's end, leaving readers with a sense of despair at how many influential figures of our day maintain the ability to hold onto myth--out of a feeling, Hollander suggests, that "objects of dislike or hatred are far more important than what they liked or admired."

Ronald Radosh, adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is working on a book about the Truman administration and the creation of Israel.