Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY, is the
author of more than twenty books. His biography Paul Robeson has
just been reissued, and his novel Haymarket is available in paperback.
His new book, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, will be
published by Knopf this spring.
Nearly fifty years ago, in Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse suggested that homosexuals (then the current term) might someday--because of their "rebellion against the subjugation of sexuality under the order of procreation"--provide a cutting-edge social critique of vast importance. Marcuse's prophecy may have come to pass. Or so some are claiming.
There is mounting evidence that a distinctive set of values has emerged among gay people (despite enormous variations in their lifestyles) in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary relationships, friendships and family. One even increasingly hears the claim that gay "differentness" isn't just a defensible variation but a decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range of human possibilities for everyone. That is, if the mainstream were listening, which it isn't.
The mainstream's antenna remains tuned to a limited number of frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics) is rooted in biology. Those queers who look and sound like "normal" people (or are at least able to fake it in public)--meaning, mostly, well-mannered, clean-cut white men and lipstick lesbians--are being welcomed into the mainstream in mounting numbers.
But the armed guards at the gates continue to bar admission to (as they might put it) overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers or dickless "men" and surgically created "women" delusionally convinced that they're part of some nonexistent group called the "transgendered." The mainstream somehow senses that the more different the outsider, the greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves that they prefer to keep under lock and key.
But what happens when "normal-looking" queers start asserting how different from you they actually are--and start lecturing you about how abnormal your own proclaimed normalcy is? Take, for example, the arguments that David Nimmons puts forth in his new book, The Soul Beneath the Skin. His focus is on precisely those privileged urban gay white men who, judged by outward demeanor, closely resemble stereotypical heterosexual males; they don't look or act at all like those phantasmagoric renegades, the transgendered. Yet according to Nimmons, standard-issue gay males have birthed a strikingly different (and, he claims, superior) set of personal ethics and community institutions. These are guys, for God's sake, who hang out in gyms and look like football players! Yet far from being your average macho Joes, their subculture is, Nimmons claims, marked by "a striking range of cultural innovations."
What are its chief identifying features? In the past, the question has typically been answered by referencing a set of negative stereotypes that emphasize an obsession with buffed bodies, drug-driven dancing marathons, "circuit" parties of profligate sexual excess, a devotion to consumerism that excludes politics and the life of the mind, and a ruthless narcissism that denies entry to its playgrounds to all but stunning young white male bodies reeking of Ecstasy and attitude.
In The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons builds a strong countercase, favorably contrasting gay male values with those associated with heterosexual men. Urban gay life, for instance, is notable for the absence of community violence. The gay male bar scene rarely spawns shouting matches, brawls or an exchange of blows. Our dances, parades, political rallies and marches are suffused with drama but nearly devoid of ferocity.
We also have a high rate of volunteerism. According to one large-scale study, the gay cohort volunteered 61 percent more time to nonprofit organizations than did the heterosexual one--and divided its charitable contributions nearly equally between gay and nongay causes. Gay men, moreover, consistently score higher than straight men on studies that attempt to measure empathy and altruism. We perceive discrimination against others more readily than other men do, and we're more likely to have friends across lines of color, gender, religion and politics. It's telling that during the trial of Matthew Shepard's murderers, nearly every leading national gay and lesbian organization publicly opposed the death penalty. Cruelly treated for generations, we practice tenderness and tolerance more than other oppressed minority groups--who tend to treat us with contempt and disdain.
Nimmons also applauds the premium that many (though certainly not all) gay men put on being emotionally expressive and sexually innovative--for the compelling way we've reworked the rules governing erotic exploration, friendship and coupledom. In regard to couples, he argues that the community ideal (even if only approximated in practice) is one of mutuality and egalitarianism--which again sets us apart from stereotypical straight men, some of whom spout egalitarian rhetoric but few of whom carry their fair share of domestic responsibilities.
I find much of what Nimmons has to say persuasive--indeed, a recent British study, Same Sex Intimacies, by Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan, confirms gay male distinctiveness beyond the borders of the United States. Still, I do have problems with some aspects of Nimmons's argument. The most serious derive from his lack of clarity about whether he's primarily defending the limited number of urban, privileged, mostly white men who make up the gym/circuit/Fire Island Pines crowd, or whether he's mounting a broader defense of gay male culture as a whole.
He wobbles back and forth, though he finally does seem more interested in sticking up for the small circuit set than in burnishing the image of the general gay male community. In my view, though, the distinctive set of values that he catalogues more justly apply to the latter than the former. I've made dozens of trips over several decades to the Pines, for example, and can say only that Nimmons's description of it as "a form of queer kibbutz" where "an easy male affection suffuses the air" is wildly at odds with my experience of it as a smug, fatuously snotty watering hole for the very rich or very beautiful.
I also think that Nimmons overdraws the contrasts between gay and straight men and overcredits our "stunning cultural accomplishment[s]." After all, Hugh Hefner made some contribution to the "erotic innovations" that so enthrall Nimmons. And experimental patterns in sexuality and relating date back at least to the countercultural 1960s (not to mention the nineteenth-century Oneida community, the Bloomsbury crowd or the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1920s). Nimmons also minimizes the notable shifts in attitude that characterize today's younger generation of heterosexuals. In simplistically insisting that "the icy winds of sexual repression...have swept across the [heterosexual] American landscape," Nimmons fails to understand how broadly attitudes about sex and gender have shifted, especially in urban areas, as traditional notions of what constitutes a "family" or a "viable" relationship come under increasing scrutiny.
Nimmons is better at delineating gay male distinctiveness than accounting for it. He establishes the fact of gay male peaceableness, for example--and does so with style and verve--but he's of little help in explaining it, other than to remark in passing that "gay men might be biologically a gentler species of male." But it seems to me far more likely that our nonviolent behavior originates in our historical experience. Having been subjected for generations to gay-bashing and police brutality, we've learned, out of prudence and fear, not to let our anger show in public. Tellingly, it does show in private: The rate of domestic violence among both gay men and lesbians ranks right up there with heterosexual violence. (The latest of many studies to confirm that is No More Secrets, by Janice Ristock.) We're not devoid of rage; we're unwittingly passive-aggressive, taking out the aggressive side in the comparative safety of our homes--or on ourselves, through the abuse of alcohol and drugs.
But Nimmons, prone to inspirational excess (as when he writes about "the centrality of bliss and play in our lives"--sure, try telling that to the legions of poor gay people), is impatient with introspection. He sneeringly refers, at one point, to "the reigning queer academic chatter--uh, sorry, discourse," showing no awareness of how much queer (and feminist) theory has contributed to the "new culture" whose virtues he trumpets.
Besides, he has ideological allegiances of his own, though he reveals them off-handedly. Phrases like "hard-wired," "essential components" and "innate tendency" are sprinkled throughout Soul, tipping Nimmons's deterministic hand. They're sprinkled, not boldly embraced, and Nimmons frequently inserts a tepid disclaimer to protect his flank: "There is much to argue with in any strict sociobiological view," he says at one point, but never tells us how much. He even drops in a little spiritualist fairy dust now and then, as when suggesting that those involved in the party circuit are, in their pursuit of "rapture" and "bliss," direct descendants of "ancient shamans."
No, we have to look elsewhere for deeper insight into the origins and significance of the gay male version of masculinity. I have two offbeat candidates in mind: Talmudic studies and relational psychoanalysis. The towering figure in Talmudic studies these days is Daniel Boyarin of the University of California, Berkeley. His 1997 book Unheroic Conduct is a work of immense importance, all at once astonishingly erudite, witty, playful and boldly speculative. As its reputation spreads, it's beginning to roil the waters far beyond Talmudic studies.
Boyarin's basic thesis--though this summary won't do justice to its supple byways--is that traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture produced, in opposition to the Roman model of the powerful, aggressive, violent warrior, a cultural ideal of masculinity that valorized gentleness, nurturance, emotional warmth, nonviolence, inwardness and studiousness. These characteristics were associated with sexual desirability, not sexlessness--in contrast to the somewhat comparably pacific early Christian model of maleness associated with the desexualized St. Francis. This doesn't mean, Boyarin emphasizes, that orthodox Ashkenazic culture was sympathetic to women (who were excluded from power) or to homoeroticism (though male sexual attraction to other males does not seem to have been considered abnormal).
By the nineteenth century, the now stereotypical figure of the "feminized" Jewish man had become, in the minds of many Jews, a roadblock to assimilation; a successful effort (joined by Freud and Theodor Herzl, among others) was made to discredit the once-privileged model of a gentler, more nurturant masculinity as either the pathological product of the Diaspora or a figment of the anti-Semitic imagination.
Boyarin wants to reclaim the earlier tradition. He believes, and I'd agree, that restoring the once-revered model would greatly help to destabilize binary notions of gender, would emancipate men and women from roles that currently constrict their human possibilities. The critical recovery of the past would, in Boyarin's words, make for the redemption of the future. The implications of Boyarin's work are breathtaking. By reclaiming a radically different--and socially constructed--model of masculinity, he wreaks havoc with simplistic biological determinism and offers us a previously unsighted path toward social change.
As a champion of the gentle, inward male, Boyarin has to confront the macho muscularity of the circuit culture, and he does so in a typically nuanced way. Himself an openly gay man, Boyarin has no trouble appreciating, on one level, the beauty of the gym-built gay male body. But unlike Nimmons, who uncomplicatedly exalts it, Boyarin warns that the emphasis on powerful muscularity reinforces "the dimorphism of the gendered body and thus participates... in the general cultural standard of masculinity rather than resisting it." In contributing to the notion that only one kind of male body is desirable, the gym stud-bunny is helping to reinforce the valorization of "topness" over receptivity that already dominates our culture, sexual and otherwise.
The macho-looking gay male is also serving another negative function. The gym-built body, imitative of stereotypical maleness, all but announces that "No Sissy Lives Here," thereby encouraging gay men (including the stud-bunnies themselves) to bury and deny the gender-discordant traits that made so many of us feel painfully different in childhood--to repudiate, in other words, "woman-identified" aspects of the self. ("Gender-discordant" is a necessary but troublesome term, implying as it does that we know what a gender-concordant model looks like and that it exists cross-culturally and is superior. The fine essays in Matthew Rottnek's Sissies and Tomboys further explore these issues.)
I suspect that if we really do care about breaking down the gender binary, the place to look for inspiration is not Gold's Gym but the increasingly visible transgender movement, offering as it does a radical remodeling of traditional "masculinity" and "femininity." Transgendered people and gender-discordant gay men are notably absent from Nimmons's book. So, too, is any discussion of lesbian culture ("Lesbians and gay men inhabit radically different worlds," is Nimmons's weak justification). Not accidentally, those who are transgendered, gender-discordant or lesbian are also rarely seen, if not actually barred from, the circuit party network. Yet all three belong at the heart of any comprehensive discussion of a "new" gay culture.
The extent of gender discordance among gay men hasn't been a front-burner topic since the early 1970s, when radical gay liberationists championed an androgynous ideal. It's time to stop avoiding the topic. Boyarin has provided us with a historical context for dealing with it, and the psychiatrist Richard Isay (among others) has offered us some provocative contemporary data.
In a 1999 paper in the journal Psychiatry, Isay insists that all of the several hundred gay men he's treated over the past thirty years exhibited gender-discordant traits in childhood. (Such traits, it should be pointed out, are not confined to children who later develop a same-gender erotic preference: Some fifteen years ago, Richard Green, in his much-contested book The "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development of Homosexuality, found that roughly a third of the gender-discordant male children he studied became, as adults, heterosexual in orientation.)
If one accepts--as I do, but Isay does not--the queer theory argument that "male" and "female" gender roles are not to any significant degree intrinsic--that is, biologically determined--but are primarily, and perhaps even exclusively, the products of learning and repetitive performance, then "gender discordance" becomes something of a non sequitur: Where all boys are capable of (perhaps even, in the earliest years, inclined toward) a female-identified--which may be the same as saying transgendered--self-image and presentation, then no particular gender configuration can legitimately be seen as "deviant." Boyarin's Ashkenazic Jews--men whose avoidance of what we call "rough and tumble" play would, by contemporary standards, be branded as "sissy"--were in their own culture esteemed as ideal representatives of maleness.
That model of manliness has nothing in common with the currently fashionable incantation--itself harking back to Jungian twaddle about "anima" and "animus"--that men "need to get in touch with their feminine side." No, it's about the need to reinvent for everyone, male and female, more fluid, expansive self-definitions; it's about moving beyond gender conformity, beyond gender itself, to molding individually satisfying selfhoods.
Isay's concern is with current suffering, not with a futuristic path that might circumvent it. "Gender-discordant" boys, taunted at school and berated at home (especially by their fathers), internalize the view that something is "wrong with them," that they're "not OK." And most of them, from an early age, struggle to divest themselves of the disapproved behavior--of all traces of effeminacy. The psychic cost, as Isay points out, is high. In repudiating aspects of the self that could be read as feminine, the male (straight or gay) does deep injury to his affective life, including the loss of emotional expressiveness and resilience, possible separation trauma from the forcibly disavowed yet still adored mother, and the need to avoid relationships that might evoke any resurgence of "feminine" traits.
Such speculations should, at a minimum, make us ponder precisely what is "transformative" (as Nimmons and others claim) about the gym/circuit culture. Is it expanding our range of expressive options--or narrowing them? I think we should be wary, too, of the paeans to "erotic adventuring" that fill The Soul Beneath the Skin (and much of gay male discourse). I used to write such paeans myself, so feel free to chalk up my current uncertainty to the onset of old age and the loss of vital fluids.
We need to keep in mind that there's enormous variation in how gay men conduct their sexual lives. Even before AIDS, only about 20 percent of the gay male population pursued erotic exploration in any sustained way--about the same percentage as those who chose celibacy. Still, even among long-term gay male couples, roughly three-quarters of them define "fidelity" in terms of emotional commitment rather than sexual faithfulness--a much higher percentage than is found among either lesbian or heterosexual couples.
Nimmons considers this rescripting of monogamy in primary relationships a "creative" phenomenon. Certainly there's plenty of evidence to support the view that monogamy is comparatively rare among animal species. In their recent book The Myth of Monogamy, the husband and wife team of David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton offer a barrage of information to the effect that monogamy is "not natural" and certainly "not easy." But Barash and Lipton also argue that there is no better alternative, "that open, unstructured, and nonrestrictive sexual relationships" do not make people happier.
Nimmons is certain they do, and it's a view widely shared among his crowd of urban gay men. They could be right, but the argument needs to be mounted, not merely affirmed. When Nimmons claims that gay men have built "the most complex, flourishing, nuanced sexual culture the planet has known," it can only mean he's never heard of the Kama Sutra.
And although it may be true that gay people talk "a whole lot dirtier with spouses and lovers" than straight people do, I wouldn't be too quick to equate that with either "a stunning cultural accomplishment" or a revolution--no, not even if we include such additional innovations as "fuck buddies," "orgy rooms," "glory holes" and "lube guns." Personally, I'd rather reserve the word "revolution" for that halcyon day when we manage to eradicate racism, poverty and the subjugation of women.
To be sure, the pursuit of bodily pleasure is, given our puritanical traditions, decidedly a force for good. But too self-congratulatory a focus on glutes and orgasms often seems yoked to an undernourished political sense that comes across, ultimately, as a form of provincialism light-years removed from any concern with the survival issues that dominate and defeat most of the planet's inhabitants--including most of its gay people.
Celebrating what is special and innovative in urban gay male life is a needed antidote to generations of negative stereotyping. But simply affirming our cultural achievements won't cut it. We need to weigh them against theories and evidence that don't simply reflect our community's self-referential values. A concrete example of what I have in mind would be to incorporate into our debates about, say, primary relationships the writings of Stephen Mitchell, one of the founders of relational psychoanalysis and among the very first to challenge the once-standard view of homosexuality as pathology. Mitchell's new, posthumously published book, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, is not aimed at a gay audience, but the questions it raises assuredly apply.
The book throws unsettling light on the dynamics of longstanding relationships, unsettling because Mitchell turns some cherished formulas on their heads--like the view, shared by many gays and straights alike, that erotic excitement and domesticity cannot coexist for long. The usual explanation for their incompatibility is some version of "familiarity breeds boredom." But in Mitchell's view, turning off to our primary partner is essentially a function of risk management. We separate sex and love because otherwise the stakes would be too high--too likely to heighten dependency and vulnerability, too threatening to our (illusory) sense of being in control of our lives.
And, Mitchell points out, this is more true for men than women. The macho masculinity we privilege in our culture, Mitchell argues, is "easily destabilized by dependency longings." Most men cannot risk monogamy. And we give them an easy way out: Our cultural script tells men that for them (unlike women), sexuality is rapacious and indiscriminate; that the male libido demands adventure.
Mitchell reports that when his patients "complain of dead and lifeless marriages, it is often possible to show them how precious the deadness is to them, how carefully maintained and insisted upon." Long-term partners "collapse their expectations of each other," he writes, "in collusively arranged, choreographed routine."
We then relocate our sexual desire away from our primary partner, telling ourselves that he or she has become too familiar to ignite desire--whereas in fact we're fleeing the threat of deeper knowledge of the other and deeper exposure of ourselves. We refuse to acknowledge that our partner, far from having become wholly known or from being securely centered, is a mysterious multiplicity of selves. But armed with our denial of the other's (and our own) potential, we rush off to our one-night stands, threesomes and orgies. Nimmons relabels erotic adventuring "diffuse intimacy" (the "diffuse" part, anyway, is unassailable), and urges us to applaud it. Yet in light of Mitchell's sensitive distinctions, the applause seems too sweeping, too psychologically naïve.
I'm deeply committed to ending the era of gay apologetics. But we need to be on guard against the temptation to replace it with an era of extravagant self-congratulation.
We regret that space considerations permit us to print only a few of the many letters we received on Martin Duberman's "A Fellow Traveling," his review of Ronald Radosh's Commies, and Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts," an essay on the new McCarthyism, both in the July 16 issue. Among those we're unable to print (but which may be read on our website) are letters from victims of McCarthyism, letters on the merits (demerits, actually) of the Hiss and Rosenberg convictions, scholarly letters filling in missing pieces of cold war history (including one from a Navy veteran who served in the Office of Strategic Services) and a letter finding a "cold war ghost" in the actions of "those who rule the National Pacifica Radio Board." Radosh invites readers to his website to read his answer to Duberman's review. We accept, and we invite readers to our special website letters page to read more on this topic. --The Editors
I would like to thank Martin Duberman for trying to be evenhanded and fair in his discussion of my memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. I suspect that many Nation readers will be angry that he did not deliver the hatchet job expected by so many of them. Nevertheless, I have many points of difference with both him and Victor Navasky, whose piece appeared in the same issue. Rather than take up the limited space allotted in the letters column, which would not allow for a substantive answer, I refer interested readers to my archive at frontpagemag.com, where they will find my answers to both Duberman and Navasky.
I thank Victor Navasky and Martin Duberman for their sane and cogent analyses of the new anti-Communism. As a veteran of union organizing during the Great Depression and of military service in World War II, I long ago concluded that Communism and anti-Communism are equally absurd. They are absurd in being essentially theological, in the outdated mode of the Crusades or of Cromwell's Puritanism. Both Communism and anti-Communism derive tests of faith syllogistically from shaky first principles. Thereupon their opposing heresy-hunters are off and running. Heretics are judged to violate vague notions called loyalty and security. Our nation's Founding Fathers omitted these notions and defined treason narrowly and precisely. Later the notion of loyalty tests died with rejection of the Alien and Sedition Acts; died again with revulsion against the Palmer Raids; and died a third time with the deserved unpopularity of Joe McCarthy. (Espionage is another matter. Insofar as there really are national secrets, they must be protected, but only with strict observance of due process.) I began to recognize Stalin's paranoia and cruelty with Trotsky's murder and the "treason" trials. Nevertheless, I must raise a query about Sidney Hook's dictum that "the first priority" of our time has been "the defense and survival of the West." Did not the Red Army, despite Stalin's crimes, help to meet that priority?
JOHN M. PICKERING
Martin Duberman and Victor Navasky leave out one important point. During the cold war many anti-Communist liberals and leftists, with some very few honorable exceptions, spent more time inveighing against "domestic totalitarianism" on the left than they did agitating for peace and social justice. For all of their well-meaning ideals, those anti-Communist liberals did no more to advance progressive causes than did the right-wingers who were using anti-Communism to impede those causes.Meanwhile, rank-and-file Communists, as well as other leftists, without regard to who did or did not do what and with which and to whom, were among the most dedicated, passionate and successful people working for peace and social justice. And they and their political descendants remain so today.
Chevy Chase, Md.
The Soviet Union is no more, nor, effectively, is the CPUSA; yet the indefatigable experts on the Red Menace keep clambering over old battlefields and, with the help of such imperfect tools as the Venona Project, constructing new ones.
Victor Navasky and Martin Duberman adumbrate admirably the pathological nature of this quest, the dishonest methods employed by its practitioners, the absurdity of regarding Communism solely as a security threat and the American CP as just a tool of Soviet foreign policy. But both writers are guilty of some serious inaccuracies. Thus, while Irving Howe objected to Ronald Radosh's portrayal of the Sandinista regime as composed of "ultrarevolutionary Marxist-Leninists," it is absurd to suggest, as Duberman does, that Howe would warn Radosh not to criticize the Sandinista regime while they were "under attack by the American empire." I happen to know something about it, as I was close to Howe and wrote a few pieces for Dissent after visiting Nicaragua and interviewing some of its leading players.
In general, terms like "Marxist-Leninist" and "Stalinist" are often used incautiously vis-à-vis Central American revolutionary parties. There were certainly Marxist-Leninists among the Sandinistas, but the Sandinistas were a motley lot, and "anti-imperialism" or "anti-Yankeeism"was more relevant to their collective ideological makeup than the verities of Marx and Lenin: It could hardly be otherwise. Nor is it true that the Sandinistas simply followed the "Castro model." Rather, they tried to combine it with those of Eastern Europe's "people's democracies" and, curiously, with more authentic stress on democratic principles. Even the Polish elections of 1989, which brought Solidarity to power, stipulated that 65 percent of all seats in the new Parliament would be held by Communists and their allies.
As for the American CP, however small the number of members Moscow tried to recruit--successfully or not--few of them were starry-eyed idealists fighting for social justice, organizing unions (as long as they could control them) and joining Pete Seeger in singing "We Shall Not Be Moved." Almost all desperately believed that the Russian CP was always right and that frequent changes in the party line were explainable by the Russian comrades' superior wisdom. (Doubts and hesitations would be suppressed--though luckily not altogether banished.)
Hence the outrageous justifications of Stalin's heinous crimes, hence the inquisitorial means used against suddenly out-of-favor figures, and the groveling mea culpas by those who had, poor souls, defended the new enemies when they were still revered leaders.
During my many years as a Sovietologist, I got to know not a few ex-Communists, some of whom (Joe Starobin, for instance) became good friends. It was precisely their original commitment to a noble cause that made many realize that they had been serving false gods. Still, for a long time they had belonged to a party that was, in the words of French CP head Maurice Thorez, "unlike any other political party," a description that fits the American CP as well as the French. Exposing one set of simplifications is no reason for espousing another.
Washington Township, N.J.
Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts" was as cogent and historically focused as anything I have read on this topic in a very long while. The old left, social idealists like me whose beliefs were contoured by the Depression and World War II, made mistakes, but we were never ideological "shills," as a Nation essayist recently called us. We believed in fundamental human rights for all Americans and, yes, in peace, and we put our youthful energies and our hearts into trying to move our country toward those goals. Espionage was never part of it. We bore harsh criticism for our efforts and some of us suffered severe punishment. It was not that we were wrong but that we underestimated the enormous power of the right wing, which distorted and misrepresented who we were to the American people. By raising the specter of espionage, they were able to successfully market their own antihumanist agenda and have been doing it ever since.
Misjudging the right was a mistake as destructive as the misplaced trust we put in our own demagogues, but at least our efforts were honest. That is not true, I believe, of most of this era's facile-tongued critics with their skewed hindsight, dishonest representations and scrambled historiography.
Victor Navasky is right that historians obsessed with Communist Party espionage have been unable to offer a convincing answer to the question, What was the essence of the Communist Party USA? The Comintern, Profintern (Red International of Labor Unions) and CPUSA archives in Moscow are vast, and are perhaps even more riddled with difficult problems of evidence and verification than most historical archives. It still seems to me, as someone who has done extensive research in those archives, that to focus selectively on some documents implicating certain CP leaders in espionage seems wildly misdirected and disproportionate. Even at the level of leadership cadre, the emphasis on espionage does not hold up very well. After all, even CP leader William Z. Foster (whom Harvey Klehr himself identified in his book Communist Cadre as the single most influential leader in the party throughout its history because of his degree of involvement with its everyday governance) has not been identified as connected with the espionage apparatus, nor has he been implicated in the Venona dispatches. Significantly, Foster, despite his shortcomings as a party spokesman, was primarily involved in labor organizing, the party's self-declared most important mission. Productive research into the party's goals and mission must begin by rejecting the functionalist and unilluminating "spies or dupes" dichotomies of the McCarthy era.
Pine Plains, N.Y.
The Haunted Wood was formed under conditions that should be known: The co-authors are not really co-authors. There was the researcher, Alexander Vassiliev, who spent two years in the KGB archives gathering the material, and the editor, Allen Weinstein, who put the book together. Vassiliev had virtually no say on what went into the book. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Vassiliev, an ex-KGB colonel, seems to have been overwhelmed by Weinstein's reputation, his rhetoric and by the prospect that Weinstein kept dangling in front of him of making big bucks from the book. Also, he was in England, and Weinstein was in the United States, dealing with editors and publishers.
The uneven collaboration unfortunately weakens the book in more ways than one. The heavy anti-Hiss slant is pure Weinstein; the substitution of Hiss's name wherever Vassiliev wrote "Ales" was not Vassiliev's idea. Victor Navasky (and everyone else) should know that Vassiliev told me that in the KGB files "I never I saw a document where Hiss would be called Ales or Ales may be called Hiss. I made a point of that to Allen. It might be important for you." Ah, yes. Just slightly.
Left out of the final copy is the list of code names that Vassiliev found in the archives. It is, according to Vassiliev, a list of names and code names of US sources and Soviet operatives who worked in the United States. Besides names that have been noted in various other books, such as Silvermaster, Bentley and Golos, the following appear: Alger Hiss, given the code name Leonard, noted as a former official of the State Department; Harry Dexter White, "Lawyer," noted as dead; Whittaker Chambers, code-named Karl. A measure of the limits of Vassiliev's understanding of US political history (and this underscores how Weinstein took control of the book) is that, according to Vassiliev, this list "was composed in connection with Bentley's defection," and of course Bentley defected in 1945, Hiss resigned from the State Department in 1947 and White died in 1948.
Also on the list, according to Vassiliev, is Noel Field, code-named Ernst, an idealist of whom much has been written, most of it wrong. Field was an authority on disarmament, an idealistic "Quaker communist" who, offered the German desk at the State Department in 1936, turned it down to work for the League of Nations in Geneva (not exactly the smartest thing to do if you are a Russian spy). By the late 1940s Field was in Europe working for world peace and by 1949 had been picked up by the Russians and thrown into a Budapest prison, accused of being an American spy.
But back to The Haunted Wood. Accompanying a photo there's a caption that reads, "Three high-ranking Soviet agents in policy-making position in the wartime Roosevelt Administration--Laughlin Currie, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White--all provided Moscow with crucial documents...." Vassiliev says he never saw a document, or reference to a document, supplied by Hiss in the files.
Am I the only one who thinks that "Ales" might be almost anyone except Alger Hiss? Without any special knowledge of the field, it seems unlikely that any competent espionage organization would assign a code name so easy to decipher. (Not to mention Alger's willingness to identify himself this way.) Have the readers of the Venona files found other cases of similarly transparent anagrams? If not, maybe they should wonder why an exception was made in this one case, or if in fact "Ales" continues successfully to conceal the true identity of the real spy: Bill Buckley, perhaps, or Fala.
ROBERT M. FLANAGAN
I make no claim to be either a historian or an intellectual. But after reading Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts," I wondered, Why would Hiss's name be mentioned at all in the Venona communications if he were innocent? To excuse that use of his name by saying the spies were not supposed to use real names is begging the question.
THOMAS BRYAN WARREN
Another "cold war ghost" occurred to me while reading Victor Navasky's article: To this day, civilian federal government agencies spend millions each year on security clearances that invade the privacy of career federal employees who have absolutely no access whatsoever to national security information. These costly and intrusive investigations are based on an Eisenhower executive order that created a cottage industry for the FBI and the OPM, who conduct the background checks.
New York City
Thanks to all who sent their thanks. Here I'll only say to Thomas Warren that my point was not that "spies were not supposed to use real names" but rather that under the informal rules of Venona, real spies were never referred to by their real names, only their code names. Thus the cryptic Venona reference to "Hiss" by his real name gives rise to the inference--to be weighed along with other evidence pro and con--that he was not a spy.
And to Abe Brumberg, whom I admire, I'll say only that while I may indeed be guilty of "serious inaccuracies," I can't find them in his letter. I didn't suggest that hard-core Stalinists and Moscow-recruited spies sang along with Pete Seeger (although they may well have), but rather that 99.9 percent of the CPUSA were not spies, and many of them did row the boat ashore (Hallelujah!) with Peter. I don't doubt that some of them were apologists for the party line.
New York City
To John M. Pickering: In insisting that "Communism and anti-Communism are equally absurd," you're equating Communism with Stalinism and ignoring communism with a small c. Those who did and do believe in lower-case communism are part of a complex lineage--an intertwined, shifting mix of Fourierist, anarchist, Marxist and socialist traditions--whose first principles, far from being "shaky," as you blithely state, are solidly rooted in the belief that (to employ one common formulation) the "highest social priority should go to the needs of the least fortunate." Nothing theological about that: It's about the distribution of opportunity and wealth right here on earth.
To Abe Brumberg: I knew Irving Howe only slightly, but through the years I read (and agreed with) his extended, sophisticated critique of Stalinism--which makes me suspect that you're right in saying it would have been out of character for him to warn Ronald Radosh (as Radosh claims) against attacking the Sandinista regime while it was "under attack by the American empire"; but I can't prove it one way or the other.I also accept your corrective that the Sandinistas combined a "Castro model" with that of the Eastern European "people's democracies," though I'd still question how much "democracy" that represented.
We agree that only a small number of those who joined the American CP became spies for Moscow, but I don't share your certainty that among them only a "few...were starry-eyed idealists fighting for social justice." How can you know that for sure? Where is the evidence to back your claim that "almost all...believed that the Russian CP was always right"? I doubt we'll ever have the documentation needed to prove or disprove such statements, given how many CP members are dead and how inordinately difficult it is to measure and quantify human motivation. In saying this, I acknowledge that my own opinion is also impressionistic--based, that is, on a selective list of readings and interviews that I could never prove are "representative."
And finally, to Ron Radosh: Yes, I've caught some hell from fellow leftists for being "too soft" on you in my review. That didn't bother me overly much until I went, as you directed, to your far lengthier response online. It contains so many startling misstatements about what I believe that I have to wonder, after all, whether I didn't give you too much credit for veracity. I never thought I'd have to set this particular record straight, but here goes: I've never believed, let alone "still" believe, that the Soviet Union was on the "right side of history." Nor do I believe, as you suggest, that "only apologists for Stalinism are true black people." Really, Radosh, that is a bit much!--even for someone who can claim that the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua "was comparatively moderate and merely authoritarian" when compared with the Sandinistas! To prepare me for your kind of "history," I'd better start reading more novels.
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.
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.
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."
Many left-liberals, including Irving Howe (rightly, in my view), rebuked Radosh for taking an exaggerated position, pointing out that the Sandinista leadership included many democrats as well, and that in any case, the Sandinistas should not be publicly criticized while "under attack" by the American empire. Radosh replied, with some justice, that the same adamant advice (and ostracism) had been handed out by American leftists fifty years earlier to those who, like Emma Goldman, pointed to the betrayal of the Russian Revolution.
Not wanting to rely solely on my own limited knowledge of Central America, I asked the respected expert Laird Bergad, director of the CUNY Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, to read over a few of Radosh's pages on the Sandinistas. "Fundamentally," Bergad told me, "Radosh is right. There were too many Stalinists among the leadership. By following the Castro model they did submerge democratic impulses, and their attack on the Miskito Indians was a huge blunder."
Bergad also felt, however, that although some of Daniel Ortega's acts were regrettable, Radosh overuses Ortega as the personification of the Sandinista regime. And we would do well to remember, Bergad added, that the Sandinistas were responsible, after all, for overthrowing the feral Somoza regime--a dictatorship far worse than that of the Sandinistas.
We should also add, on Radosh's side, that he has valuably reminded the left in this country that we have all too often in the past greeted insurgent movements uncritically and turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of repression; when the evidence could no longer be dismissed, we've sometimes resorted to ethically dubious slogans like "you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs" or "the revolution may be less than perfect but we have to maintain solidarity with those resisting the encroachments of the American Empire."
As for the Rosenbergs, Radosh's name has been centrally connected to their case for some twenty years. The 1983 book The Rosenberg File, which he wrote with Joyce Milton, billed itself as a disinterested, scholarly "search for the truth," and indeed the book's conclusions could be considered moderate--that is, when measured against the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the case in the early 1950s, when the Rosenbergs (who were executed in 1953) were denounced for having "stolen the secret of the atom bomb" and given it to the Soviets--"the crime of the century," J. Edgar Hoover called it.
By the time the Radosh/Milton book appeared, public views had become less apocalyptic. It was understood by then that there hadn't been any single secret central to making the bomb, that the Soviets' own scientists had already made headway toward producing atomic weapons--and the spy who had most helped them was not Julius Rosenberg but the British physicist Klaus Fuchs.
In general, The Rosenberg File confirmed those views. It insisted that Julius had run a spy ring, but that the evidence of Ethel's complicity was weak; that a scientific sketch obtained by David Greenglass (Ethel's brother) and passed through Harry Gold to the Russians was in fact of low-level importance and certainly not the secret for making an atomic bomb; that both the prosecutorial and defense lawyers--indeed, almost everyone involved with the case--had behaved badly, depriving the Rosenbergs of a fair trial.
In Commies, Radosh claims that when The Rosenberg File was published in 1983, he "never received an iota of public support from the democratic socialist intellectuals." (But, weirdly, he then goes on to mention favorable treatment in print by Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, historian Maurice Isserman and James Weinstein--hardly chopped liver in democratic socialist circles.) In this regard, Radosh singles out for special attack the historian Eric Foner and The Nation's Victor Navasky.
Foner's paramount sin seems to have been his ongoing insistence (one that I share) that the Communist Party USA was not simply, or even primarily, a recruitment agency for spies but rather contained a broad spectrum of idealistic left-wingers who joined the party for reasons that had nothing to do with espionage. Radosh's anger at Navasky focuses on his 1983 review of The Rosenberg File in The Nation, which, according to Radosh, attacked the book in "the crudest of political terms."
To evaluate Radosh's claims, I not only read Navasky's review but asked both him and Foner to respond to Radosh's complaints against them in Commies. I asked them, too, whether the publication two years ago of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, had to any degree changed their minds about the culpability of the Rosenbergs and, more generally, about the amount of espionage engaged in by members of the CPUSA. (Venona analyzes the nearly 3,000 pages of deciphered cables between Moscow and its US agents--some 350 people, in the authors' estimate.) When Venona appeared, it was widely hailed in the mainstream press as having conclusively demonstrated that the CPUSA was indeed a significant "fifth column" working against our country's interests, with the added implication that the anti-Communist crusade undertaken by McCarthy and others was therefore justified.
First, the matter of Navasky's 1983 review of The Rosenberg File. I found it subtle and evenhanded--not by any fair-minded stretch a "crude" political attack. Time and again, in fact, Navasky actually gives Radosh and Milton the benefit of the doubt in weighing their claims against those of Walter and Miriam Schneir's protestations of Rosenberg innocence in Invitation to an Inquest. Navasky even cautions the reader, and more than once, that his own political views may be affecting his evaluation of the evidence. But the review does target what I believe is Radosh and Milton's central weakness as historians: They have a low tolerance for ambiguity. They prefer to see--and proclaim--absolute truth where others would be more likely to see uncertainties. This shows up most clearly in their penchant for accepting the reports of FBI agents at face value.
As someone who has worked with FBI files for a biography of Paul Robeson, and also in researching the early years of the gay movement, I can testify to the frequent inaccuracy of agents' reports, and their sometimes laughable distortions (which don't make them any less dangerous). In regard to the gay movement, I've read FBI reports that defined transvestites as "a militant group of women," referred to the early 1970s countercultural university of "Alternate U" as "Ultimate You" and mislabeled the gay Marxist study group Red Butterfly as prototypically anarchist (they "do not recognize authority of any kind").
As regards Robeson, FBI headquarters learned from its various agents, along with much else, that Robeson had taken out formal membership in the Communist Party (which he never did); that he and his brother Ben "do not get along" (it was Robeson's wife, Eslanda, who didn't get along with his brother); that the union members who volunteered to form a cordon around Robeson during his dangerous Peekskill concert, and who held various political allegiances, were all "Communists endeavoring to recruit delegations." One FBI agent even managed, during the run of Othello on Broadway--in which Robeson co-starred with Uta Hagen and Joe (José) Ferrer--to report that he hadn't been able to identify the "Joe" mentioned in a phone log, though he thought "Joe" might "possibly [be] associated with Paul Robeson's show."
None of which is to say that the FBI didn't often get things right, only that its agents were and are human, with blind spots, prejudices, areas of ignorance and ambitions to make a mark or please a boss. Too often Radosh and Milton relied in The Rosenberg File on a single agent's report, uncorroborated by independent evidence, treating it as the full story, unblemished and unbiased.
In Commies, predictably, Radosh hails the release of the Venona files as conclusive proof that Julius Rosenberg committed espionage; "all doubts," Radosh writes, "have been laid to rest." But not everyone is convinced, and besides, Radosh is strangely mute about whether Ethel should be regarded as guilty; far too often he writes about "the Rosenbergs," lumping husband and wife together as co-conspirators, whereas many of us feel that although Ethel may well have had knowledge of her husband's work, any evidence that she directly shared in it is weak; that she may in fact have been framed by the US government; and that the depth of her involvement, in any case, hardly deserved the death penalty.
As to Julius, the Venona evidence has changed minds on the left. Navasky, for example, told me that he has shifted "from agnosticism to the belief that Julius did something." And contrary to Radosh's portrayal of him as Julius's rigid defender, Foner (before the release of the Venona files) never claimed that Julius was innocent, only that the case against him had not been proved. Since Venona, Foner's opinion has, he told me, "to some extent changed," but only toward accepting the possibility that Julius (not Ethel) may have engaged in some sort of low-level espionage. Walter and Miriam Schneir, writing in these pages, noted that although the account would be "painful news for many people," as it was for them, Venona had convinced them that while there was no evidence against Ethel, and key elements of the atomic spying charge were not confirmed, "Julius Rosenberg was the head of a spy ring gathering and passing nonatomic defense information."
Yet we can't even be sure of the nature of that information: We still don't know what portion of the total number of Venona documents transmitted to the Soviets by US espionage agents has in fact been released. Nor do we know how or why particular code names in the documents have been linked to given people like Julius Rosenberg. Radosh and others feel entitled to declare that the Venona material has "proved conclusively" Julius's guilt, but they can't tell us precisely what sort of "secrets" Julius was guilty of passing to the Soviets.
In addition, if we put aside nationalistic fervor, we might dare raise a broad question that Radosh, the zealous patriot, refuses to go near: Why do we seem unable to feel some compassion and extend some understanding toward those who chose, often at enormous personal sacrifice, to give primary allegiance to a country that they believed (however mistakenly, we might feel today) stood, alone among the great nations in the 1930s and '40s, for antiracist, anticolonialist principles (gleeful crowds in the American South were still enjoying the community spectacle of a burnt, lynched black body)?
The principles, we now know, were mostly window dressing in the Soviet Union; beyond the windows stood the most ghastly horrors. But the point remains: If someone managed to produce a statistical study of those Americans who became espionage agents in the 1930s and '40s, my guess is that the motivation of the larger portion by far would turn out to have been not material considerations but humanitarian ones. (Awright, Ron, fire off that outraged Letter to the Editor, in which, once again, you applaud Sidney Hook's dictum that despite its "failings, drawbacks and limitations, the defense and survival of the West was [and must remain] the first priority....")
Toward the end of Commies, Radosh concludes that "the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg Case, but about most everything else...the entire socialist project was wrong." He doesn't offer his definition of socialism, but I have always been drawn to the one that stresses ends, not means: "The highest social priority must go to the needs of the least fortunate."
And that can be "wrong," it seems to me, only if, like Radosh, you believe our country is under attack from within, which at the present moment he defines as attack from "radical feminism, ultra-environmentalism, pro-Arabism, political correctness [and] the new anarchism"--meaning the young protesters "who trash Starbucks and picket the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund."
And what about poverty, healthcare, racism and the like? Well, what we do, it seems, is simply change our vocabularies. Here is how Radosh works the trick: "Walking our son, Michael, to public school we were often accosted by bums--or the unfortunate homeless, as some of my friends called them." If "unfortunates" become "bums," is it any wonder that all Commies become spies?