Communism and the Left | The Nation


Communism and the Left

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Philip Green is a member of The Nation's Editorial Board and author of Pursuit of Inequality (Pantheon).

There are three main points in the part of Susan Sontag's remarks that constitute her nostra culpa. One is partially reasonable, one superficially plausible but in the end quite wrong and the third ridiculous.

Yes, many on the non-Communist left in this country, including contributors to The Nation, have often been too hopefully equivocal about Communism; the resulting double standard has done serious damage to the left's reputation and thus to its fortunes as yell. But that is no excuse for burying the entire left under that dishonest rubric "we." As a democratic leftist, for example, I decline Sontag's invitation to jump aboard the bandwagon of guilt. My anger at the suppression of liberty in Poland is no more nor less than it was at the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Most of my friends felt the same way that I did then and now, and we never hesitated to speak out.

But, yes, no matter how anti-Communist we were, part of our anger and desolation certainly sprang from a feeling of betrayed hope--hope that out of Communism something much better might emerge. Is it now proven that we have been wrong to be at all hopeful?

On the contrary, most of us also think that the nature of the Eastern European rebellions is precisely what has illuminated a crucial difference between Communism and fascism. The neofascist regimes that Jeane Kirkpatrick is so fond of have been much less successful than Communist regimes at producing revolts of an organized, democratic working class aimed at the creation of economic democracy. These regimes (e.g., Chile's and Argentina's) are built around the violent suppression of organized labor. In Communist Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the hypocritical Marxism of the ruling elites is an unremitting provocation, in constant danger of being taken seriously by the people. Thus, those regimes have generated three exhilaratingly promising revolts in twenty-five years, none of which was anti-socialist and all of which attempted a welding of Marxism and liberal democracy. These revolts were also successful in their own (and our) terms, in the sense that they could only be crushed by direct Soviet intervention or indirect Soviet threats--not by an allegedly "totalitarian" regime forever impervious to change. The very title of Czeslaw Milosz's book thus betrays the untruth of Sontag's use of it. Communism does not produce "captive minds" any more than does fascism, and these days quite possibly less. It often produces democratic socialist rebels.

There's a further crucial distinction that follows from this. It can be put simply: as a democratic leftist, I have benefited from both the critical and the reconstructive analyses of many ex-Communists. I've never encountered either by an "ex-fascist." Fascists or their caudillo-style imitators totally reject the democratic world view. Communists allege that they embrace it and then horrendously betray it. Over the years, many of them discover what they've done and begin the painful process of change. They become democrats, often in the name of "authentic Marxism." Can we imagine a fascist becoming a democrat in the name of "authentic Hitlerism" or "authentic National Socialism"? Thus, though the antidemocratic triumphs of what Rudolph Bahro calls "really existing socialism" are the only triumphs that have so far occurred in the name of socialism, democratic socialism remains on the agenda--and more so rather than less so because of Poland! It would be otiose even to state that the obverse is true with fascism.

Finally, I don't know which émigrés Sontag could find only in the antidemocratic Reader's Digest. I do know, though, that she could have learned many other "truths" from that magazine, such as that "International Communism," China not excepted, is a monolithic conspiracy directed from Moscow; that she herself was not an opponent of the Vietnam War but rather an agent of the Kremlin; and all the other formulations of the "professional anti-Communists." At least the émigrés and dissidents The Nation has published over the years, and whose books it has reviewed frequently and often favorably, are democrats. Contrarily, American or Russian, the right is anti-democratic. Its truths, such as they are, are always encapsulated in a larger lie. If Susan Sontag really needed to learn from the right, that was her problem, not ours.


Diana Trilling is the author of Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).

In 1950, writing about the Hiss case in Partisan Review--this was before the McCarthy period, with its epochal division between anti-Communists and anti-anti-communists--I asked whether anyone was prepared to say when It was too late to come to an understanding of the true nature of Communism. It was plain, I think, that I believed that it was never too late.

The flurry over Susan Sontag's recent remarks about Communism in Poland indicates that today, more than thirty years later, with Hungary and Czechoslovakia behind us, with the Twentieth Party Congress behind us, with the Cultural Revolution and the "boat people" and Laos and Cambodia behind us, with Daniel and Sinyavsky and Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov behind us, with Afghanistan behind us, it is still a major shock to hear of an important defection from the ranks of intellectual sympathizers with Communism. It apparently still constitutes an act of moral courage to see and admit the obvious.

In obedience to my own instruction, I welcome Miss Sontag into her new difficult life as an anti-Communist. I must nevertheless admit that I should feel more secure about her future political course if her language rang fewer bells from the Stalinist past. Miss Sontag (mistakenly) calls Communism a variant of fascism; we recollect that Stalinism called democratic socialism a variant of fascism. Miss Sontag accuses Communism of having borrowed much of its virtue from its opposition to fascism; her own statement rests heavily on antifascism to validate her anti-Communism. Reductively, Miss Sontag speaks of "professional anti-Communists" without telling us how they are to be distinguished from the amateurs; just so, Stalinism presented anti-Communism as one of our better-paid lines of work. Especially when she writes about Reagan, Miss Sontag allows the weary rhetoric of Communist invective to substitute for political truth. She calls Reagan a hypocrite in his foreign policy. Reagan is no more a hypocrite in his foreign policy than in his domestic concern for the rich. Indeed, I've never known a President more dismayingly sincere in his purposes.

No, it is not the "when" of Miss Sontag's recognition of the evils of Communism that bothers me. It is the "how."

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