Communism and the Left
Andrew Kopkind is a freelance writer.
I hope I'm not naming names or giving hostile witness when I recall the day Susan Sontag and I huddled in a Communist/fascist air-raid shelter and waited for Freedom's fighters to pass out of danger overhead. Actually, they were Freedom's bombers--B-52s, or some such U.S. Air Force weapons system--and the bunker in which we hunkered was behind the Thong Nhat (Reunification) Hotel in downtown Hanoi. It was a few months after Tet, 1968, and as I remember it now, a good time, bad time, scoundrel time.
We had a busy schedule in war-torn North Vietnam, surveying the wreckage our country had caused, mingling with the populace and--Sontag's special assignment--interviewing American P.O.W.s. Two fragments of the conversations she and I had in all those weeks stand out in my memory. In the first, we marveled at the exhilarating spirit of common struggle and collective good will we encountered among the Vietnamese people. In the second, we quoted to each other a Talleyrand line that Bertolucci had used as an epigraph for his film Before the Revolution: "Those who did not live before the revolution can never know the sweetness of life." Sontag made mention of both those exchanges in her essay "Trip to Hanoi."
Surely a long parade of ironies has marched past us all since those days, but I hadn't realized how distracting it has been until I read the speech Sontag made at the Solidarity meeting. Between the Thong Nhat and Town Hall she seems to have forgotten that politics is history, not philosophy; that revolutions are responses to reality, not to theory; that the nature of all things is contradiction, not equilibrium. North Vietnam was, and is, a Communist state--proceeding (dialectically, dare I say the word?) in its development according to the forces and furies of the real world. Then, that society may have expressed more truth and justice (polarities Sontag proposes) than now, but perhaps less than it will in the future. And what about the truth and justice in Lyndon Johnson's democracy?
Yes, and no. The point is that it makes little sense to me to stop time and freeze place if there is still a vision of a human face. Sontag and I had a vision of a human visage thirteen years ago, and I knew then who the scoundrels were, and who the heroes.
David Hollinger is a professor of American history at the University of Michigan.
"I stretched out with an Ice pack on my forehead when I heard that Susan Sontag had said we must tell the truth about the Communists. It was all over, then: the exciting life so long led by left-of-center intellectuals, we happy frauds. We'd have to go straight now. You know, pious homilies, a subscription to the Reader's Digest and an open confession of guilt."
This little fiction is an attempt to imagine what it might be like to take Susan Sontag seriously. I cannot carry the effort any further, because the issues that most animate Sontag are, to me, remote. Somehow, I had the impression that a critical attitude toward Communism had been "in" for some time, and that it was no longer necessary to affect a heroic posture while criticizing Communism. Sontag reminds me of an observation often made about that magnificent radical Bertrand Russell: he remained always a Victorian because he continued to feel that refusing to believe in God was an act of supreme courage. I also had the impression that the genre of mea culpa into which Sontag's speech obviously falls had been laughed out of existence years ago by Harold Rosenberg's "Couched Liberalism and the Guilty Past" (a 1955 essay reprinted in Rosenberg's The Tradition of the New).
The much-ado-about-nothing feel of Sontag's speech is given off most strongly by her conclusions. She asks so very, very little of us. We are to "rethink our position," "abandon old and corrupt rhetoric" and "tell the truth." Only someone recently liberated from the mentality of the Popular Front could find these tasks so formidable. Perhaps I simply underestimate the number and influence of such people in our society.
Even if one were to concede that the obligation to speak the truth is so important that it cannot be affirmed often enough, it does not follow that we should count as an obvious "truth" Sontag's crude equation of Communism with fascism. The political scientists and historians who carry out the comparative study of Communist political culture are not fools by virtue of their attempts to discover the specific terms on which Communism interacts with particular national societies and is subject to the contingencies of history. If Sontag is really interested in "rethinking" her position, she could well start with some of their work, of which a fine example is Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation (Norton), edited by Robert Tucker. Many intelligent and informed efforts have been made to understand the relationship between Communism and fascism; it is to these efforts, rather than to the parochial and incautious after-dinner remarks of New York intellectuals, that The Nation would be well advised to direct the attention of its readers.