… “The Ex-Communists” expounds a text that was first a single sentence in an Easy Chair, in “But Sometimes They Vote Right Too.” My friend Charles W. Morton, the associate editor of the Atlantic, spotted a sermon in it and asked me to write the sermon.
(from the Preface to The Easy Chair, 1955)
And now that we have a bumper crop of volubly penitent communists, I am unable to see on what grounds we are asked to respect their intelligence, whose sole claim to respect is that they have recanted ideas which only fools would ever have accepted.
(from “But Sometimes They Vote Right Too,” Easy Chair,
Harper’s, November 1950)
(first published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1951)
A stanza from a currently unfashionable poet ends, “The way is all so very plain / That we may lose the way.” Several stanzas farther along the phrasing changes a little: “So very simple is the road / That we may stray from it.” The poem happens to have a religious theme but what it says holds true for some crucial acts of the intelligence.
A number of intellectuals who were communists have lately been explaining why they no longer are: discussing the reasons that led to their conversion and those that have produced their apostasy. The theological terms apply, for it is apparent, and indeed was apparent all along, that the phenomena are primarily religious. The typical ex-communist American intellectual in fact has experienced two conversions; whereas evangelical doctrine holds that to be saved you must be born a second time, salvation has required him to be born a third time. Such an experience puts the greatest possible strain on the personality. There can be only compassion for the agony he has felt, the double disillusionment, the necessity of twice rebuilding his shattered personal world. And his careful analysis of his experience can be valuable and useful.
Embracing communism, like religious conversion, is an act of the total personality. It is packed with private and even unconscious as well as rational and objective reasons, with emotion as well as intelligence. What the apostates have been saying shows that frequently intelligence played only a small part in it. Yet it played some part and they are eager to show that it was decisive in their apostasy, their repudiation of communism. I propose to discuss only their intelligence. We will agree that the American intellectual who became a Communist was, typically, a generous, warmhearted man, an idealist deeply disturbed by the catastrophe of the modern world and deeply concerned for the betterment of mankind. But how good was his thinking?
The question is given more point in that frequently an odd claim accompanies the ex-communist’s confession of error. In a book which I will return to presently Richard Crossman puts it forthrightly. Ignazio Silone, he remarks, “was joking when he said to Togliatti that the final battle would be between the Communists and the ex-Communists,” but we must understand that there is a great deal of truth in the joke, in fact it is no joke at all. Only one who has wrestled with communism as a philosophy — unhappily Mr. Crossman’s prose turns opaque here — but, he implies, only one who has come close to accepting it as a philosophy “can really understand the values of Western democracy.” And, climactically, “The Devil once lived in Heaven and those who have not met him are unlikely to recognize an angel when they see one.”
Mr. Crossman was never a communist but he here voices in good faith the mingled snobbery, arrogance, and unreality that make communist thinking so hard to deal with as idea. The road to an understanding of democracy crosses the communist east forty. Before you can add a column of figures correctly you must first add them wrong. He who would use his mind must first lose it. Various ex-communist intellectuals are offering themselves on just that basis as authorities about what has happened and guides to what must be done. Understand, I am right now because I was wrong then. Only the ex-communist can understand communism. Trust me to lead you aright now because I tried earlier to lead you astray. My intelligence has been vindicated in that it made an all-out commitment to error.
The thesis thus abuilding gets indirect support from others. Diana Trilling isolates for examination one group of American intellectuals, those who during the trials of Alger Hiss hoped that he would be proved not guilty. She makes bold to say that this hope expressed an unconscious absit omen! They had come so close to accepting communism that they could see part of themselves in Hiss; they felt that only the luck of the draw had kept them from the prisoner’s box; there but for the grace of God went they. And Alistair Cooke sees the Hiss trials as symbolic: an entire generation of American intellectuals was on trial, for an entire generation had been at least in part disposed to take the same fork at the crossroads. In the historical context, that is, in the United States during the nineteen-thirties, the acts charged against Hiss were, though not innocent, at least logical for intellectuals who were doing their utmost to understand and repair the world. Way back in the upcountry where the height of land separates the watersheds, there is only a narrow space between the rivers that reach the sea so far apart.
There is only a narrow space too — and a good many have crossed it — between this and the conclusion that whether or not to embrace communism was the master problem of the American intelligence in our time. As a corollary, everyone who was truly intelligent and tried to grapple with the modern world must have been powerfully impelled to accept the communist explanation and to support its measures. Conversely, anyone who never felt the powerful attraction of communism must have been insensitive or unintelligent or both, and at any rate was not deeply engaged with the problems of the time. Here is the kind of distorted simplification that did turn some minds to communism. A historian cannot let these ideas go unchallenged, for though they are wrong they might get lodged among the accepted ones that are brought to bear on the past.
What, in sum, is the recusant communist now saying? That he has come to understand that communism is an abhorrent dictatorship, a corrupt power which destroys freedom, robs human life of dignity, and obliterates the institutions of Western civilization which embody its morality and justify its hope. Step by step, conclusion by conclusion, affirmation by affirmation, he draws up an indictment of communism that corresponds in every particular…to what? To what the non-communist American intellectual has said about it from the beginning. Just how is this wisdom when voiced by a man who spent years convinced that it was nonsense? The ex-communist pleaded error; he was deceived. There should be some presumption in favor of the intelligence that was not deceived.
We need not distinguish between those who became members of the party and those who, remaining outside it, accepted communism, followed the party line, and put their minds at its service. The number of American intellectuals who did either was very small, though high-church Republican politics finds a useful technique in representing it to have been enormous. The communist intellectual was a tiny subspecies; the generality of American intellectuals were never tempted to accept communism but instead recognized it for what it was, understood it, and opposed it. The unfolding of events vindicated their judgment – proved the accuracy of their analysis and the justness of their conclusions. The ex-communist has now added an independent if belated justification. With ideas, empirical demonstration is the payoff, and serves as at least a rough gauge of intelligence. If the side of a cube is twelve inches square the man who measures it and says that it is twelve inches square is right. A man who for some time maintains that it is a half gallon in the key of C-sharp and blue at that is not displaying conspicuously penetrating intelligence when he finally picks up a ruler.
The conversions were a phenomenon of the nineteen-thirties; we may safely disregard the rare intellectual who turned communist before the economic collapse. In the bewilderment and panic of the time the bases of conviction were brought into question. As some economic and political systems crumpled and those of the United States were grievously strained, as misery and want and despair spread more widely here than ever before, as the Nazi totalitarian joined Italian fascism (and Russian communism) in a reversion to tyrannies supposed to have disappeared permanently from the civilized world, as another and greater war seemed to threaten, as belief and courage weakened — as the world of the nineteen-thirties revealed itself, a man whose trade was to use ideas had to determine which ideas could deal with it. The one who embraced communism did so in a belief that (Russian) communism was the wave of the future: that it promised a better economic order, that it offered the best possibility of social justice, that it was a force for peace.
The generality of American intellectuals held that this man was wrong. They said the same thing of converts to creeds which only a historian now remembers. Minute groups of true believers found a light in such aberrant gospels as Social Credit, Technocracy, Distributism, “Christian Collectivism,” Monarchy (oh, yes, it is on the record and very winsome it is too), and a number of fantasies which declared that mankind was going to be saved by the abandonment of machine production, the restoration of handicrafts and the subsistence farm, and perhaps the reinstitution of Negro slavery. They appeared to have no commensurable quality, and yet if you followed them far enough you found them all converging. Eventually each of them substituted for law the will of whichever group was to hold power, abandoned representative government, impaired or destroyed individual freedom, and either repudiated the immunities of citizenship or undermined their safeguards. The typical intellectual said of them that they were not workable but he said something else which got to the heart of the matter in the first instance: that they began by giving up what alone could give value to anything they might salvage. The experience of the United States, of Western man, he said, was that nothing worth having could be bought at the price of freedom, citizenship, and government by law. And, he said, that goes for communism.
The evidence, the ideas, the experience on which he based his judgment were equally available to all minds. The communist must be granted some allowance for the anesthetizing power of any gospel and for the fact that his gospel and for the fact that his gospel was a mechanical formula. It explained everything; the mind that accepted it was not required to inquire critically into realities, it need only apply the formula. And his gospel was authoritarian as well as infallible; criticism of any kind was deviationism. Nothing else in the history of thought has so completely stifled critical inquiry, which non-communists take to be the essence of the intellectual process.
Communism made its American converts not as a system of thought but as an eschatology, a millennial faith. And here the evidence available to everyone included, by the nineteen-thirties, more than a decade of the U.S.S.R. It also included the content of American history.
The communist needed no knowledge of history and no understanding of experience, since his formula would reveal the meaning of either wherever he might apply it. This turned out to be a handicap; it blinded him to a defect in the millennial apocalypse. The non-communist intellectual understood that neither a proletarian revolution (such as the convert was predicting) nor one corresponding to that of the Bolsheviks would occur in the United States. Neither was of our nature or in our kind. If a revolution were going to occur here it would have to be in a pattern established by our inheritance. Our revolutionary radicalism would not suffice; their model was the I.W.W. (syndicalist and therefore anathema to communism) and no imagination could conceive of its seizing decisive power.
A native revolution must be by political fission followed by political coalescence, the model of the Civil War. And in the thirties for this single possibility one or the other of two developments was a prerequisite. There must first be either an overwhelming defeat in war or an absolute collapse of the economic and social system. Clearly, no nation was going to inflict the former. The communist assumed that the latter was inevitable; his formula explained that it was a part of the process of history, the decay of capitalism. But the non-communist dismissed this as fantasy; he knew what it left ot of account. This was crucial knowledge and the judgment was a crucial test of intelligence.
That is: he knew the richness of American natural resources and the power of the productive plant. He knew the flexibility and responsiveness of the political system which had been developing for a century and a half. He knew that the political system was capable of resisting and containing great strains, whether social or economic, while readjustments were worked out. He knew that it had held while fundamental readjustments were being worked out in the past. He concluded that such a revolution as might be in store for the United States would consist only of a redirection of political control. He knew our history held a series of such revolutions, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Lincolnian, the unlabeled one that implemented the Grangerite-populist revolt, Wilsonian. In all of these the social and political freedoms had been preserved and redirection of political control enabled the enormous natural wealth to resolve the conflict and work out the required amelioration. In all except the Lincolnian the social fabric had been kept intact. He judged that the possible revolution, and the one to work for, was the characteristic American revolution by “reform.” The communist formula said that reform was impossible: the non-communist pronounced the formula defective.
What followed was the most fundamental, the most widespread, and the most thoroughgoing reform in American history. To call it the New Deal obscures the fact that it was a sweeping revolution which had already begun to gather momentum when Roosevelt took office and some fundamental parts of which were unrelated to the movement he headed. All that need be said of it here is that it worked. It demonstrated that the generality of our intellectuals had correctly analyzed the situation, and the generality of them had some part of it. (Historically, as against popular cliché, though the influence of the American intellectual on politics has fluctuated, there has never been a time when it was not considerable.) The revolution expressed the non-communist intellectual as a type. The communist intellectual had only two concerns in regard to it: to explain it as evidence of the progressive degeneration of democracy and to convert it if he could to the service of Russian foreign policy.
There was, however, an even more basic act of the intelligence.
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.
The enemy was not fascism. It was absolutism. The non-communist intellectual clearly understood that what the communist intellectual was glorifying in Russia and working for here was dictatorship. And dictatorship always means abrogation of law, government by force, destruction of private and civil liberties, slavery (alias forced labor), forced starvation, mass murder. The master question of our time was never: Is communism the way out? It was simpler: Does freedom count?
No matter how inscrutable the future, the axiom at the basis of American experience is that freedom counts most of all. That the defense of freedom comes before anything else. Right there the non-communist intellectual took his stand. Whatever threatened freedom must be fought totally, first, wherever, in the immediate instance, from then on. The communist intellectual decided that the concept of freedom was a bourgeois sentimentality, that communism had established the necessity of destroying it, and that his job was to make use of American belief in freedom as an instrument for the destruction of freedom.
The choice offered the intelligence was as clear and simple as the quoted poem says.
The sequence of events that led the ex-communist to his break with communism may provide a scale of comparative intelligence, though on the other hand it may be an index to his capacity for self-deception. The recusants usually name three turning points or dramatic revelations of the truth: the great state trials (though they had been going on for some years before they caused any apostasies here), the treaty of nonaggression with the Nazis, and the attack on Finland. The non-communist grants their power of disenchantment but finds them no more revelatory than the massacre of the kulaks, forced collectivization of agriculture, planned famine as an instrument of government, police terrorism, transportation, forced migration, labor camps, execution for dissent, any other kind of liquidation, the treatment of the Spanish anarchists, or any other tyranny in the functional dictatorship. In this judgment, though he derided it throughout, the recusant communist now heartily concurs. But the non-communist thought of him, the communist convert, as having repudiated intelligence, and thinks of him now as having lived in a delirium which he took to be a vision of a better world.
A non-communist finds the serial apologia of the recusants astonishing. Here for instance is a gently, unworldly literary man, one of the first who “jumped off the Moscow express.” (The phrase is Mr. Cowley’s but I am not referring to him.) His activity as a communist was not important. It consisted of slanting book reviews, helping to prepare for the Party control of entirely insignificant organizations, writing resolutions which various “fronts” adopted and everyone disregarded, proclaiming his faith, and maintaining his doctrinal orthodoxy through the innumerable zigzags of the Party line. The long agony that preceded his break with communism and the despair that accompanied it were a profoundly moving tragedy. But, in his new enlightenment, what has he found out? Why, that freedom must not be given up, that treason is evil, that murder and terrorism must not be condoned, that communism is not democratic, that democracy is precious. That is his harvest from two dark nights of the soul, from a second birth and a third one. See it as pitiful waste or see it as the innocence of a saint, but what is it as intelligence? Where, for God’s sake, where was he when they were distributing minds?
Or take the anthology of apologias from which I have already quoted Mr. Crossman, The God That Failed. There has been little discussion of its one truly shocking revelation. The talented authors, like all recusants who preceded them in print, describe in detail the process that led them to renounce communism, the slow, painful achievement of the stand which the non-communists had originally taken. But in doing so they also detail the reasons that had induced them to accept it. And they reveal a shocking simple-mindedness, a shocking surrender of intelligence, a shocking inability to grasp reality.
Richard Wright’s admission of what his mind would accept as true, for instance, is almost benumbing. One searches fruitlessly for comparison — Santa Claus, the stork brings the baby, pie in the sky by and by? Or Ignazio Silone’s consternation when a communist assembly laughed at a delegate who protested, “But that would be a lie!” He discloses a credulity for which there is no word but infantile, a credulity that blocks off not only the critical faculty but the perception of reality. He had studied communism for years. he knew its doctrines and techniques and was acquainted with its activities everywhere in Europe. He had not only known Lenin and read his texts on revolution by conspiratorial elites but had had firsthand reports from his lieutenants on what was actually being done. Yet he was capable of believing that this was not a shooting war but boys playing with cap pistols. Somehow dictators, like children making their first communion, would be good and would use power only cleanly and justly. Communism would purify itself. It would restore “the possibility of doubting, the possibility of making a mistake, the possibility of searching and experimenting, the possibility of saying ‘no’ to any authority.” Living in the presence of an absolutism never exceeded in history, of a ruthlessness greater than the civilized world had seen for centuries, of millions already killed or enslaved, he hung up his stocking to be filled with sweetness and kindliness. Even after experiencing communism at first hand, he believed that machine guns would turn into cap pistols if you only affirmed they must – and had to be told that he was a counterrevolutionist. Benignancy, magnanimity, altruism, greatness of hope — yes, all these are there. But intelligence?
The sinister part of the book is the introduction by Mr. Crossman, an editor, a member of Parliament, never a communist, and never a mature mind, either — sinister because though it analyzes and rejects the communist intellectual’s fallacies, it retains unmodified most of the assumptions from which they originally issued. But the absolute disclosure is Louis Fischer’s chapter; there has been no document of equal naïveté since Marjorie Fleming. The summary of his career as a correspondent distorting and withholding facts is unremarkable, for when a mind is put to the service of an absolutism, that is what becomes of intellectual integrity. (A commonplace cry at the mourners’ bench: oh, yes, brethren, I lied but I had faith.) The point is that year by year this mind made out what the facts were and insisted on believing that what they were instead was what they could not possibly be. I must understand them as something else; it really is a cap pistol to the eyes of faith, the earth is flat for I can see its edge, and I must purge myself of doubt. When the job is finished at last all will be justified. Believe altogether that this is not so and on the Day of Jubilo it will prove not to have been so.
This may represent some vibration in the central nervous system but it is not intelligence. And what realization does he reach when at last a sign is given him? “No dictatorship is a democracy and none contains the seeds of liberty,” and “There is no freedom in a dictatorship because there are no unalienable rights.” Yes. Where had he been?
We are asked to respect these men not as believers but as mind. So to Arthur Koestler. Since he apostatized he has written a brilliant novel and several others not quite so good. And admirable artist, he evokes reservations as a thinker — as a reporter on Israel, as the compounder of a psychometaphysics. But he illustrates the usefulness of the ex-communist intellectual. He described convincingly what communists have done, what they feel, what they think and believe, what their methods are, how they behave. And yet is “convincingly” the exact word? Whatever any ex-communist can tell us truly about communism will be useful. But it will always be a little suspect too. His recantation says explicitly that he was once easily deceived and thought badly. However brilliant, he had a conspicuous gift for illusion, for spinning beautiful fantasies out of abhorrent facts, In what he now tells us about communism, how can we be sure that he understood his experience or is able to report it reliably?
That, however, is up to us; it is an ordinary problem for the critical intelligence. But one possibility of danger latent in the ex-communist intellectual cannot be ignored….In the sum, probably, our American ones were not very important, did not do much harm, were nowhere near so great a danger as a widespread fearfulness now assumes. Conceivably, it may prove in the end that only those who were engaged in espionage did any harm at all….But they were communists and it was only because their ideas were not accepted that they did no harm. Their ideas were dangerous and will remain so even though they may be wrapped in tissue of a different color.
Let James Burnham show how. As an expounder of communism he offered s the poison that kills freedom, representative institutions, democratic life, the integrity of individual men on which the existence of free society depends. His recantation describes communism as exactly that. But he has devoted himself to offering us the same stuff out of a differently labeled sac. If you drop the word diamondback and substitute for it Crotalus adamanteus you have changed only the words, not the effect. What the sac holds is still poison to freedom, free institutions, democratic society.
The convertites confess that once upon a time they were not very bright. What we must remember is that once upon a time they were authoritarians.
“The flight from freedom.” They have given that old phrase a new currency to explain what happened to them. To explain what, in another renewal of a familiar phrase, they call la trahison des clercs. Freedom lays on anyone a heavy burden of obligation, it is the heaviest of all burdens, and perhaps we should feel compassion for a man who could not bear up under it. But the point about the ex-communist is that he did not bear up under it, a little while ago. He fled from freedom to the absolutism that relieves a man of responsibility and his mind of obligation to do the mind’s work. His but to accept and obey; the authority, the gospel, the Party would take over. By this act he repudiated everything for which the free intelligence, democratic society, and the dignity of the individual stood. His confession says in humility and grief that now he has learned better.
But the original problem is still there. It has not changed since the nineteen-thirties. It has not changed since Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It has not changed since mankind began to work out the conception of free men in a free society. The enemy is still the same: absolutism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, tyranny, whatever threatens freedom. And the burden that freedom lays on the human mind and soul has not decreased; it has grown heavier. The strength of every honest man is needed in its support. There is no impugning the honesty of a man who says, “One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see.” There can be only rejoicing that he has found his sight. But what about his strength? The essence of his plight, and of ours who must appraise him, is that neither was there any impugning his honesty when he was blind. Freedom was once so intolerable a burden that he fled from it; will it again prove too much for him? Not as a penalty for error or as a punishment for sin but as a precaution against a known and self-confessed weakness, he must be put to a double scrutiny in whatever he tells us or proposes. His courage failed once; in what he now offers us has he succeeded in deceiving himself into some other acceptance of the gospel of despair?