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A Fellow Traveling | The Nation

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A Fellow Traveling

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At this point, I suspect, readers of The Nation are impatiently wondering why I ever suggested in the first place that Commies should be taken seriously. Only, I meant, in part--the part that focuses on the civil war in El Salvador, the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua and the Rosenberg case. It's time to look more closely at each.

About the Author

Martin Duberman
Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY, is the author of more than twenty books. His biography...

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I am not a Latin America expert, and perhaps for that reason alone I pretty much believed what I read at the time in the left-wing press about events in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Namely, that José Napoleon Duarte was simply a tool of the right-wing military, and that the guerrilla assault on his rule was in the name of democracy and thus wholly justified. And additionally, that the successful Sandinista revolution against the brutal Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua was an uncomplicated triumph for the good.

These views were common on the left, despite some dissenters, and to a considerable extent they still are. Radosh's argument is that our enthusiasm was naïve and misplaced--and he includes himself among the naïfs. In the early 1980s Radosh still thought of himself as a person of the left, though he had begun to waver ideologically. Nonetheless, he organized a folk music benefit on behalf of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (the political body allied with the FMLN guerrillas), attended any number of street demonstrations on their behalf and insisted that the armed rebellion against Duarte was "an indigenous protest against a repressive government" that ruled in the name of landowning oligarchs and a vicious military.

That the military death squads were omnipresent and the landowning class determined to yield no ground is not in dispute, certainly not by Radosh. But much else, he argues, is. Duarte, he reminds us, was himself once a political exile from military dictatorship and saw himself, not inaccurately--as we should have understood--as a social democratic reformer who was out of sympathy with the Salvadoran right wing.

Radosh's argument here is in part persuasive: One could even agree that Duarte had decent instincts and did not regard himself as a tool of the ruling military/landowner clique. Yet that doesn't mean that the policies he adopted didn't end up serving the right-wing cause, making him, despite his intentions, their proxy. And it certainly doesn't mean, as Radosh apparently believes, that the left-wing guerrillas in opposition to Duarte were "a pro-Soviet revolutionary group." The proof of that, according to Radosh, is that they failed to inspire massive and sustained support from El Salvador's poor. But it can also be argued, as Radosh does not, that the guerrillas were simply too factionalized and ideologically divided to animate a mass movement.

Radosh gives far more attention in Commies to the Sandinistas. Once again, he started out a supporter, thrilled that the Front for National Liberation had, in armed conflict, toppled Somoza's cruel dictatorship, believing that the Sandinista regime would be democratic and pluralist, and appalled that the United States was backing the contras in a brutal civil war. But in 1983, on assignment for The New Republic, Radosh went to Nicaragua for a firsthand look. And what he concluded, over a period of time, led him to change his mind.

When the Sandinista regime proclaimed a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties and political rights, when it jailed some domestic dissidents, including labor militants, and when it attacked the Miskito Indians on the Caribbean coast, Radosh decided--too uncomplicatedly, I believe--that the Soviet Union had become the Sandinista Front's material support and Castro's Cuba its political model: The front had fallen into the hands of "ultrarevolutionary Marxist-Leninists."

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