A Fellow Traveling
Ron Radosh seems an easy target, so easy that a toy pistol (or automatic writing) should be weaponry enough--and no need to bother Nation readers, keen folks that we are, with a detailed analysis of the turncoat's latest piece of folly.
It isn't that simple. Radosh's newest book can't be as facilely dismissed as one might like. About half of Commies is yet another red-diaper memoir, some of it vivid and charming, most of it familiar and unexceptionable. The book's second half, however, requires more attention. It contains some closely reasoned arguments, particularly about the Sandinista revolution and (yes, once again) the Rosenberg case. There are those on the left convinced that definitive judgments, one way or the other, on those issues have already been rendered.
But for those who remain less certain, Commies contains a critique that must be dealt with; Radosh's arguments may not convince, but they do trouble the waters. And they give some credence to his long-standing claim that he is not a knee-jerk right-winger but rather an antitotalitarian liberal in the tradition of those dissenters (Sidney Hook, say) who refuse to pledge automatic allegiance to every left-wing hero (Castro, say, or Daniel Ortega) who comes down the pike.
As a way of assessing Radosh's "antitotalitarian" credentials, I want to concentrate, as Radosh himself does, on the Sandinistas and the Rosenbergs. But first, it's important to emphasize that Radosh is an exceedingly slippery writer. Avoiding the heavy-handed polemical style of, for instance, a David Horowitz, he opts instead in Commies for quietly dropping in a loaded adjective here, subtly highlighting (or ignoring) a given piece of evidence there. This can sometimes make Radosh's biases difficult to detect, but they are decidedly present, and the reader needs to stay on steady alert.
This is worth spelling out in some detail. Radosh writes, for example, that Paul Robeson "squandered his early success by dedicating himself relentlessly to a vigorous defense of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin." This is not untrue, but neither is it the full truth. By choosing to remain silent after Khrushchev's 1956 revelations about Stalin's crimes (he did not, publicly or privately, "vigorously defend" against Khrushchev's indictment), Robeson did give his enemies ammunition, and to that degree can be said to have "squandered" his career. But he had already had his passport lifted and his concert bookings canceled. The conservative hound dogs, led by J. Edgar Hoover, had long since determined to bring Robeson down--not solely because he was pro-Soviet but even more, perhaps, because of his militant insistence on black rights, his socialism, his outspoken critique of American imperialism. In failing even to mention these other ingredients in the FBI's and CIA's hounding of Robeson, Radosh places the full responsibility for his decline on the man himself, letting the government's colonialist policies and vicious racism entirely off the hook.
Another example is Radosh's guileful treatment of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. "The local police," he writes, "stormed the Black Panther's home and killed him in the ensuing confusion." This makes it sound as if the police and the Panthers were equally muddled--and thus equally responsible for Hampton's death. But there are solid grounds for believing that the police deliberately set off on a mission of assassination and cold-bloodedly murdered Hampton in his bed.
It has to be said that the few African-Americans who appear in Commies are portrayed as either unlikable or downright villainous. Radosh refers at one point to the mugging of Conor Cruise O'Brien by "neighborhood black thugs." (Is it possible to believe that they may have been desperate, frightened and remorseful--something more than, other than, "thugs"?) Radosh describes John Davis, the project director of the American Negro Reference Book and a man for whom he briefly worked, as a terse martinet, who quickly and unfairly fired him and had no redeeming qualities. And he characterizes educator and anthropologist Johnnetta Cole, egregiously, as someone who cast in her lot with the cause of "Communist totalitarianism."
And that's about it for the African-American cast of characters who appear in Commies (except for a cameo appearance by David Dinkins: "Once David Dinkins became mayor, the city grew markedly worse"). It seems odd (I'm trying to be charitable) that Radosh can, impressively, find generous things to say about any number of whites, including William Appleman Williams, Michael Harrington and Marshall Brickman, with whose politics he disagrees, whereas if there are any black people he felt as charitably toward, they haven't made the final cut.