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Speaking Volumes

Four titles that helped the good guys win.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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The Anti-Communist Manifestos

Four Books That Shaped the Cold War

by John V. Fleming

Norton, 368 pp., $27.95

A distinguished medievalist now retired from Princeton, John Fleming appears an unlikely candidate to write a fascinating account of four books that helped make anti-communism a powerful intellectual and popular force. An expert on Chaucer is not usually a source of insight on the primary ideological war of the 20th century. But his careful reading of these books' themes and how they were received demonstrates that some intellectual distance from a topic can provide fresh and surprising insights.

Fleming's interest in the topic was sparked by his hobby as an amateur bookbinder. One day, in the process of recycling old book covers while discarding the books themselves, he began to read the contents of a rather large book instead of destroying it. It was Jan Valtin's Out of the Night. Enthralled by the story, and embarrassed to learn that he had never heard of the best-selling book from 1941, Fleming recalled an earlier conversation with a onetime colleague who had praised another book he had never read by a Russian defector, Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom.

Since he had, for years, taught Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon in a course on European literature, and knew how controversial Whittaker Chamber's Witness had been, Fleming decided to analyze the role of these four books in teaching Americans and the West about communism.

Although he consulted a variety of sources and archives, particularly to uncover details about Valtin and Kravchenko, Fleming deliberately avoided producing a scholarly monograph, eschewing footnotes and writing in a conversational style, moving in a sometimes-meandering path. This yields some of the charm of the book, as Fleming digresses on the nature of autobiography or the etymology of Latin phrases used by Chambers. It also produces its only major flaw, an occasionally rambling style, exacerbated because the book ends rather abruptly, with no concluding chapter or summary.

There have been a plethora of books and articles documenting the powerful Communist influence in literature and the arts. A generation of historians has excavated, praised, or publicized the "Communist turn" among American intellectuals and denounced, derided, and ignored their opponents. Although a popular stereotype has anti-communism as the province of anti-intellectualism, Fleming notes that these four books are the most outstanding representatives of a genre that changed the way the citizens of democracies thought about communism. All were wildly popular, serialized in the mass media, making best-seller lists, and earning their authors money and plaudits. They were also wildly controversial, stirring up fierce debates, lawsuits, and torrents of denunciation.

With the exception of Koestler's novel, Fleming argues, none of the books has gotten the credit it deserves. All four were powerful literary works which stand out in sharp contrast, not only to the many pedestrian (or worse) examples of anti-
Communist memoirs or exposés, but also to the large number of extravagantly praised paeans to communism. One of the wittiest and most perceptive comments Fleming offers is his remark that while history may often be written by the winners, the story of the literature of communism and anti-communism has been written "by the losers, most of them sore losers at that." As a result, the reputations of these writers, as well as some of the literary brokers, journalists, and editors who assisted them, men like Max Eastman, Isaac Don Levine, and Eugene Lyons, have been ignored or minimized.

Despite his admiration for their message and writing, Fleming is hardly hagiographic. He catalogues the tortured and sometimes scandalous lives of these authors, noting that great literature is not necessarily produced by upstanding, or even attractive, human beings. Koestler abused women, Valtin and Kravchenko treated those who aided them shabbily. Chambers was a dour, paranoid man with a tendency towards pomposity. (Fleming does note that the paranoia of ex-Communists was often richly justified.)

Their human flaws, however, were hardly the reason they were so viciously denounced. Most of the French intelligentsia, with the honorable exception of Raymond Aron, savaged Koestler. It was not that his descriptions of the Soviet purge trials and denunciation of Communist morality were incorrect, but that they provided aid and comfort to reactionary American imperialism. Jean-Paul Sartre memorably explained that "every anti-Communist is a dog."

Simone De Beauvoir, who had a torrid affair with Koestler, at first praised Darkness at Noon; later she denounced it, part of her "habit of reading and liking books, only later to discover that she was supposed not to like them." Such sentiments testify to the hatred and venom with which all four of these books were received on the political left. Chambers was called a pervert, a fantasist, and a "moral leper." Kravchenko was denounced as a thief, a deserter, a warmonger, and, to boot, "a mentally unstable alcoholic and moral degenerate." Valtin was described as a Gestapo agent, and efforts were made to deport him.

The most serious charge brought against the three authors who wrote autobiography was that they were frauds. Chambers, as every literate American knows, accused Alger Hiss of having been a Soviet spy and testified in two trials and before congressional committees and a grand jury about their relationship. For decades his detractors have labored to discredit him. A website hosted by New York University to this day continues to propagate absurd and ever-more elaborate conspiracy theories to explain away the mountains of evidence that Hiss was guilty.

Although Fleming discerns a few fictionalized elements in Witness, he argues that, over the years, evidence from a variety of sources has buttressed its truthfulness. But he bases his arguments not on the details of the case but the style and texture of the book. Chambers portrayed his fellow Communists as interesting, individualistic men and women, many of whom he continued to admire, even if he deplored the ideal to which they had committed themselves. The "thick description" of the book, with a plethora of names, dates, places, and details, very few of which have been successfully challenged, is a powerful argument for Chambers's veracity.

Kravchenko's veracity was tested in a landmark libel trial that arose from his book. An engineer, he had been sent to the United States in 1943 to work for the Soviet Purchasing Commission and had resolved to defect, which he did the following year. He was, in many respects, Fleming writes, the "very paradigm of 20th-century Russian history." A Ukrainian born in 1905, he had experienced the Bolshevik Revolution, benefited from a Soviet technical education to become an engineer and an expert on pipe-rolling, served as an executive, and witnessed the horrific sufferings caused by the famines of the 1920s, the purges of the '30s, and World War II, during which he had briefly served at the front. Unlike Valtin, whose tales of derring-do often invite skepticism, Kravchenko painted a chilling and utterly believable picture of life in a repressive and evil regime.

After a French Communist newspaper published a scathing review of I Chose Freedom by a supposed American journalist named Sim Thomas that claimed Kravchenko was not the author but a CIA stooge, and that his stories of Soviet labor camps were fictional, he sued. The trial in Paris in 1949 marked a turning point in the fortunes of the French Communist party. While the Soviet disregard for civil liberties could be (and was) excused by many intellectuals on the grounds that the Soviet Union faced a crisis, or lacked a tradition of individual rights, the testimony of dozens of survivors of the Gulag offered on Kravchenko's behalf was devastating.

Particularly riveting was the testimony of Marguerite Buber-Neumann,
former daughter-in-law of the Jewish theologian Martin Buber and wife of the German Communist Heinz Neumann, whom Stalin had purged and murdered. Buber-Neumann had served time in the Gulag and then been handed over to the Nazis after the Hitler-Stalin pact and survived Ravensbruck. Her argument that there was no difference between the two regimes made a powerful impression in a country with fresh memories of Nazi concentration camps.

For the first time, leftwing French intellectuals had to face the testimony of those who had endured the reality of Soviet communism. Kravchenko's legal victory, followed by another by one of his French supporters, discredited communism and its apologists as no other event until the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

Most readers will be least familiar with Jan Valtin, the pseudonym for Richard Krebs, a German-born functionary for the Communist International, whose adventure story offered "a thrill a minute" with "battles, street brawls, deceptions, betrayals, and narrow escapes galore" with interludes of sex and tragedy. A Communist waterfront organizer and thug, Valtin described escapades including a conviction in Los Angeles for assault, for which he served time in San Quentin. Deported, he worked for the Communist underground throughout Europe before being arrested and tortured by the Nazis.

He claimed to have pretended to work for the Nazis in order to escape their clutches. Resuming his Communist allegiance, he was denounced by his former comrades, who issued a wanted poster with his picture. Signing on as a seaman under a pseudonym, he jumped ship and illegally entered the United States in 1938. An illegal alien who had been convicted of a violent felony, imprisoned, and deported, he produced a book filled with details about a life of deception and illegality carried out for the party.

Valtin was a pen name and the Communist press at first denied that his story was true. He was quickly identified as Krebs, and critics anxious to discredit him attacked him as a Gestapo agent and traitor. There were demands for his deportation, and he was briefly detained at Ellis Island. Valtin, who had harbored literary ambitions ever since he took courses while imprisoned at San Quentin, had wavered between writing an autobiography with novelistic features and a novel based on his own life. Fleming convincingly demonstrates that he took some liberties with the facts of his life (including false claims that the Nazis had murdered his wife), exaggerated his own importance in the Comintern, and may even have briefly worked for the Nazis. Valtin himself later admitted that his character in the book was a composite of people he had known. Fleming concludes that the book is "morally true though often novelistic in detail."

Koestler and Chambers were both intellectuals who wrote intricate and allusive works. Dealing with their books, Fleming deploys his skills as a student of literature, offering nuanced and learned accounts of their literary techniques and references. Chambers, in particular, performed the rare feat of writing a very complicated book that appealed to a mass audience. Witness, Fleming judges, is "perhaps the greatest American masterpiece of literary anti-communism," deserving of being included among the great autobiographies of the modern age. Even readers immersed in the minutiae of the Hiss-Chambers story will find new insight in Fleming's dissection of Chambers's intricate thoughts on penance and his use of Christian imagery. Koestler, by contrast, remained to the end of his life a secular humanist. Despite this fundamental divide, Fleming finds a "philosophical identity" between them on the relationship of means and ends.

Valtin and Kravchenko were assuredly not intellectuals. Critics questioned whether either of them actually wrote his book. Fleming carefully parses the contributions of translators, ghostwriters, and editors to their finished products, crediting what they added, but concluding that in both cases the final voice was genuinely that of the listed author, even if some liberties were taken with the facts, particularly in Valtin's case. Whatever their books lacked in philosophical depth, they provided detailed and horrifying portraits of lives lived under Communist discipline.

Koestler went on to write numerous books on a variety of themes before committing suicide in 1983 with his wife. Chambers retreated to his Maryland farm, dying of a heart attack less than a decade after Witness was published. Valtin quarreled with many of his former supporters, wrote two poorly received novels, and died in 1951. Kravchenko wrote a book about his libel trial and then invested in a mining business in Peru that failed. He committed suicide in 1966.

Their collective legacy is that books matter. Although these four writers were hardly the first to make the arguments, they popularized and cemented in the public mind a number of impressions and lessons about communism. Koestler insisted that Communist morality was fundamentally at odds with traditional notions of individualism and human dignity. Valtin taught Americans that the Communist movement was a worldwide criminal conspiracy. Kravchenko drove home the fact that the Soviet Union was a vast slave empire. Chambers spotlighted the dangers of Communist internal subversion.

Twenty years after the implosion of communism in Europe, these are lessons worth remembering.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory and the author, most recently, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.