The Magazine

Speaking Volumes

Four titles that helped the good guys win.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."