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A Cold War Over the Cold War? | The Nation

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A Cold War Over the Cold War?

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Yale University Press's Annals of Communism series, begun in 1995, is among the most ambitious and influential scholarly undertakings to address the historical role of Communism and the Soviet Union. This helps explain why it continually acts as a lightning rod for scholars of all political stripes.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Until recently, the series had proven a significant liberal target. The book on Lenin's secret correspondence was given to Harvard historian and Reagan adviser on national security Richard Pipes--a man who observed, back in the early eighties, that we might be living in a "prewar" rather than a postwar world. Pipes's Lenin is a man of almost immeasurable and unmitigated evil. His rightful heirs, according to the book's introduction, are not merely Stalin and Brezhnev but Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

Similarly, the project's depiction of the role played by the American Communist Party has raised hackles even among those who might be expected to welcome it. Reviewing The Secret World of American Communism for The New Republic, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., anti-Communist extraordinaire, complained in that magazine that the editors, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Firsov, were "rather uncritical about American ex-Communists" turned anti-Communists. The editors allowed "unsupported scattershot accusations" to go unchallenged and blacken the names of innocent people and "able public servant[s]." Moreover, he noted, they displayed an unhappy tendency toward "exaggerating the importance of the CPUSA."

The editors of these valuable documents, which do cast an important light on many hitherto unanswered cold war controversies, went beyond the evidence their material provided to claim exaggerated victories over their erstwhile intellectual opponents. As a result, right-wing ideologues at, among other places, the Wall Street Journal crowed, "Moscow Stooges Unmasked." Newspaper accounts have falsely reported that the series has now settled the matter of the guilt not only of the Rosenbergs (which it has--yes for Julius, no for Ethel) but of Alger Hiss as well (which it hasn't). (A few misguided reports have even insisted that the new documents somehow vindicate the paranoid witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy.)

One is immediately tempted, as is so frequently the case in these matters, to follow the money. The project has received extensive funding from such hard-line conservative sources as the Bradley, Olin and Smith Richardson foundations. They may have been attracted by the judgment of William F. Buckley Jr., who praised the series as "a historical juggernaut capable of refashioning the trendy history in which so many American scholars were once ensnared" and issued a special appeal for money in his syndicated column. But according to Jonathan Brent, the series editor at Yale, the perceived right-wing bent of some of the early books is a matter of happenstance. Pipes, a senior though extremely controversial scholar, was given Lenin because he requested the subject. The documentary history of the CPUSA went to Haynes et al. rather than, say, Ellen Schrecker because the historians were already working in the archives in Moscow and had discovered a trove of documents. According to Brent, forthcoming volumes by well-known scholars considered to be "revisionist"--including Sheila Fitzpatrick of the University of Chicago and J. Arch Getty of the University of California, Riverside--will demonstrate the series' ideological breadth.

Perhaps, but Brent's comments to a reporter do give one pause. In a published interview, he attributed complaints about the series to the alleged fact that people "want to think Nixon is bad and Hiss is innocent. The Vietnam War was evil...so Communists were good. It is a simple binary logic that dominates our political life, our intellectual life." Sure, academia is not Main Street, but it is hard to imagine a place outside of Havana and one building on West 23rd Street where, as Brent apparently believes, the idea that "Communists were good" dominates political life.

Given the project's hard-line bona fides, it came as a shock to many recently when The New Republic's Jacob Heilbrunn accused it of having "caved" in to the ethos of "historical correctness" governed by "revisionists who dismiss as cold war humbug the notion that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian country." Heilbrunn's outrage was prompted by Yale's denial of an application by his former professor, Vladimir Brovkin, to edit a three-volume history of the gulag. His article charged that Brovkin had been politically blackballed because of his allegedly unfashionable anti-Soviet views. But Heilbrunn turned out to be shooting in the dark. All the names on the evaluations Heilbrunn examined were blacked out, but, according to Brent, only two of the five rejection recommendations came from alleged revisionists. Historians whom Brent insisted had no discernible ideological predilection wrote the other three. Some objected to the proposal itself, while others expressed concern that Brovkin had little experience writing about the gulag and seemed insistent on fitting whatever documents were to be found into a preconceived ideological box. According to editorial committee member Mark von Hagen, who is the director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute and not generally considered on the "revisionist" team, it was the "gray" that was missing. "Even with an issue as brutal and repressive as the gulag, there are still going to be gray areas," he said. "And that's what we expected the archives to show us." No one has yet been named as the editor.

Heilbrunn's attack began yet another tempest in the teapot of cold war re-enactment and was quickly parroted by Murdoch- and Moonie-sponsored pundits on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, even conservative historians, including Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Richard Gid Powers, objected in letters to The New Republic. The latter termed the accusations "absurd" and existing "only in the imagination of the pathologically suspicious." In a letter to about a hundred "friends," John Ryden, director of Yale University Press, insisted that "TNR's Editor-in-Chief Martin Peretz has admitted that the Heilbrunn piece is unfounded and should not have been published." Peretz says this is "absolutely false," a view he expressed in a letter to Ryden. But Brent, who spoke at length to Peretz, assures me that it is true and points to the considerable space offered to respondents in the magazine's letters column--with only a pro forma response from Heilbrunn--as evidence of Peretz's contrition.

Robert Conquest, a conservative historian of the Soviet Union who recommended Brovkin to Yale, calls Heilbrunn's article "unfair to Brent" and "exaggerated" with regard to the alleged power revisionists exercise in the field. (Conquest is also highly critical of Ryden's response, however, which he terms "unsound in several respects.") Von Hagen, who spoke at length to Heilbrunn for the piece, called it "a political hatchet job" conjuring up an "inexcusable and willful misreading of what I, for one, and many others attempted to explain" in a letter The New Republic refused to publish. Heilbrunn sought to mock von Hagen by quoting a review in which he noted that the gulag contained "the kinds of criminals who are incarcerated in every viable state." The quotation, however, which was repeated in an idiotic Washington Times rewrite of the Heilbrunn article, is deliberately deceptive. Heilbrunn chopped off the part of the sentence that explained, "the camps held not only large numbers of falsely accused citizens and political oppositionists...." In other words, the Soviet scholar was guilty of nuance.

Much of the rest of Heilbrunn's argument is also devoted to highly selective and misleading quotation. In another case, he quotes one of the anonymous reviewers of the Brovkin proposal claiming to Brent, "you will piss off a lot of people, even more than were angry about the Pipes volume." Heilbrunn does not inform his readers that this scholar also recommends that Yale find a reviewer from the "non-Brovkin/Pipes camp...who will say, yes, this is a valuable scholarly enterprise, even if I would do the volumes differently." A reviewer is held up for ridicule because he wrote that prisoners in the gulag were sent there by the Soviets "in accordance with the laws of the land." But of course they were. The laws may have been horribly repressive, but they were laws nevertheless. The fact that Brovkin's proposal seemed to slight the legal aspects of the system was, according to some of his readers, one of its most serious weaknesses.

Brovkin (who, ironically, published a book with Yale in 1997, The Bolsheviks in Russian Society) says he agrees with every word of Heilbrunn's piece. The publisher, he insists, "caved in to the pressure of the apologists of Stalinism. This has nothing to do with objectivity; it is with pleasing the right people. The revisionists don't want to write about repression." He implied to me that he is considering some sort of legal challenge to Yale as well.

What, ultimately, is at work here? Well, Brovkin left Oberlin (where he taught Heilbrunn) for Harvard but did not get tenure there, despite Pipes's sponsorship. He has since had trouble finding a permanent academic home and is understandably upset at Brent's apparent reversal of sympathy. His former student Jacob Heilbrunn used his position as an editor of The New Republic to insist that this series, which even editorial committee member von Hagen admits has leaned "right of center," has allowed itself to be pressured by the forces of pro-Stalinism. Perhaps Brovkin is truly the best person to edit the Yale series on the gulag. (Conquest says he "would be surprised if Yale finds its paragon" of gulag studies.) But Yale could hardly be asked to ignore the recommendations of its editorial committee. And if that committee were truly dominated by alleged apologists for Joe Stalin, Klehr and Haynes point out that "neither our volumes nor Pipes's would have seen the light of day."

The entire debate brings on an uncomfortable déjà vu sensation, as if we had suddenly reverted to the twilight zone of the bad old days of the Reagan cold war (and before), when matters of evidence and scholarship were considered subservient to ideological reliability. It also recalls the same period when even-the-liberal-New-Republic could be found attacking the right from the even-further-right, thereby helping to delegitimize anyone and everyone occupying the left of center. This time, however, there's not even a cold war to justify it. No doubt the series will respond to future criticism of its conservative thrust by observing, Attacked by the left and by the right.... We must be doing something right.

Tragedy? Farce? Kabuki Kommunism? Keystone Ideological Kops? One searches in vain to find the proper theatrical metaphor to do justice to the weirdness of this bit of post-cold war political warfare and the nearly mummified sentiments it has placed on display.

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