Communism and the Left
On the evening of February 6 at Town Hall in New York City, various elements of the American left (spanning Gore Vidal and PATCO and including E.L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut and Pete Seeger) came together to show support for Solidarity in Poland and to condemn the martial law regime in Warsaw. The secondary purpose of the meeting was, however, to transcend the hand-wringing platitudes of the Reagan Administration and to create some distance between radical Americans and the evident hypocrisy of "Let Poland Be Poland." This duality was most eloquently expressed by Carlos Fuentes, who sent a long message culminating in the admonition: "Let Poland be Poland--yes. But let El Salvador be El Salvador."
This broad consensus was abruptly--some have said rudely--disturbed by a speech by Susan Sontag. With her permission, we reprint her version of the speech so that readers can form their own opinions of it. But those attending the meeting, as well as the Soho News, which reprinted the speech without obtaining the author's permission, agree that she also said the following:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
Unlike the Reader's Digest, we are happy to enter the lists about this or any other period of modern history (even periods of history that took place before Sontag was born, and that are thus not covered by her own personal experience and confessional). We also welcome the spirit in which she challenged the left to examine its own record. If the comments beginning on page 231 are any indication, there are few takers for the equation she makes between Communism and fascism, however these overworked terms are defined. But the left should not make the mistake of attacking Russian despotism purely for the sake of symmetry.
The issue of "double standards" is an exceptionally difficult one. Our contributors take up the challenge, both implied and overt. --The Editors
Susan Sontag has written many books of fiction and nonfiction, and directed three films. Her most recent books are I, etcetera, a collection of stories, and Under the Sign of Saturn, a collection of essays.
We meet here tonight to express our solidarity with the people of Poland, now languishing under the brutal oppression of what one can only call--if that word has any meaning--a fascist regime. To protest the infamy of the Jaruzelski junta is not a difficult position to take. No sentiment could be more mainstream. "Solidarity with Poland, solidarity with Solidarity" is a call launched by dozens of governments in the rich world, a call that has resounded in public meetings held since mid-December in every major city in Western Europe and a few in North America. It is legitimate to ask: What is the point of our meeting? To add our voice to the chorus of indignation? I do not offer this hypothesis with irony. That may be indeed just what we are doing--and quite rightly so. But it is my understanding that those who have organized tonight's meeting, and most of those who are speaking here, have a somewhat different purpose. It is, of course, to express our condemnation of the crushing of the democratic movement in Poland. But it is also to distinguish ourselves from others in the chorus of virtuous indignation, to stake out a different kind of support for Poland than that tendered by, say, Reagan and Haig and Thatcher.
With this purpose I am wholly in agreement. Otherwise I would not be speaking here. One of the many excellent reasons for detesting the Reagan Administration is the utter hypocrisy of its support for the Polish democratic movement. Being a citizen of this country, I cannot help but single out Reagan--Reagan the union-buster, Reagan the puppet master of the butchers in El Salvador. But it is worth remembering that the entire economic and political leadership of capitalist Europe and North America bears great responsibility for what has happened in Poland. Poland was not just done in by a fascist coup engineered by the Soviet Union--using Russian-authorized tanks with Polish rather than Russian markings. Banks and tanks did Poland in, to use my friend Joseph Brodsky's formulation. The Polish debt continues to be refinanced by the Western governments, grain continues to be sold to the Soviet government, the French government--most eloquent of all the hypocrites--signs a vital commercial treaty with the Soviet government a few weeks after the Polish events. In other words, business continues as usual. Landing rights may be denied to Aeroflot and Lot at Kennedy Airport, tourism opportunities for Polish diplomats stationed here may be restricted, cultural exchanges may be pared... That is the kind of retaliating the Western democracies are prepared to make for the enslavement of Poland. That...and a lot of rhetoric.
We tonight are adding our rhetoric to the avalanche of good words about Poland--but, as I say, in the hope of distinguishing our position from the official hypocrisies. I would also hope, however, that we do not let our sense of whom we oppose on our side of the frontier between capitalism and Communism lead us into certain hypocrisies and untruths.
I have the impression that much of what is said about politics by people on the so-called democratic left--which includes many people here tonight--has been governed by the wish not to give comfort to "reactionary" forces. With that consideration in mind, people on the left have willingly or unwittingly told a lot of lies. We were unwilling to identify ourselves as anti-Communists because that was the slogan of the right, the ideology of the cold war and, in particular, the justification of America's support of fascist dictatorships in Latin America and of the American war on Vietnam. (The story, of course, starts much earlier, in Europe in the late 1920s, with the rise of fascism, whose principal war cry was anti-Communism.) The anti-Communist position seems already taken care of by those we oppose at home.
I want to challenge this view.