On the evening of February 6 at Town Hall in New York City, various elements of the American left (spanning Gore Vidal and PATCO and including E.L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut and Pete Seeger) came together to show support for Solidarity in Poland and to condemn the martial law regime in Warsaw. The secondary purpose of the meeting was, however, to transcend the hand-wringing platitudes of the Reagan Administration and to create some distance between radical Americans and the evident hypocrisy of “Let Poland Be Poland.” This duality was most eloquently expressed by Carlos Fuentes, who sent a long message culminating in the admonition: “Let Poland be Poland–yes. But let El Salvador be El Salvador.”
This broad consensus was abruptly–some have said rudely–disturbed by a speech by Susan Sontag. With her permission, we reprint her version of the speech so that readers can form their own opinions of it. But those attending the meeting, as well as the Soho News, which reprinted the speech without obtaining the author’s permission, agree that she also said the following:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
Unlike the Reader’s Digest, we are happy to enter the lists about this or any other period of modern history (even periods of history that took place before Sontag was born, and that are thus not covered by her own personal experience and confessional). We also welcome the spirit in which she challenged the left to examine its own record. If the comments beginning on page 231 are any indication, there are few takers for the equation she makes between Communism and fascism, however these overworked terms are defined. But the left should not make the mistake of attacking Russian despotism purely for the sake of symmetry.
The issue of “double standards” is an exceptionally difficult one. Our contributors take up the challenge, both implied and overt. –The Editors
Susan Sontag has written many books of fiction and nonfiction, and directed three films. Her most recent books are I, etcetera, a collection of stories, and Under the Sign of Saturn, a collection of essays.
We meet here tonight to express our solidarity with the people of Poland, now languishing under the brutal oppression of what one can only call–if that word has any meaning–a fascist regime. To protest the infamy of the Jaruzelski junta is not a difficult position to take. No sentiment could be more mainstream. “Solidarity with Poland, solidarity with Solidarity” is a call launched by dozens of governments in the rich world, a call that has resounded in public meetings held since mid-December in every major city in Western Europe and a few in North America. It is legitimate to ask: What is the point of our meeting? To add our voice to the chorus of indignation? I do not offer this hypothesis with irony. That may be indeed just what we are doing–and quite rightly so. But it is my understanding that those who have organized tonight’s meeting, and most of those who are speaking here, have a somewhat different purpose. It is, of course, to express our condemnation of the crushing of the democratic movement in Poland. But it is also to distinguish ourselves from others in the chorus of virtuous indignation, to stake out a different kind of support for Poland than that tendered by, say, Reagan and Haig and Thatcher.
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With this purpose I am wholly in agreement. Otherwise I would not be speaking here. One of the many excellent reasons for detesting the Reagan Administration is the utter hypocrisy of its support for the Polish democratic movement. Being a citizen of this country, I cannot help but single out Reagan–Reagan the union-buster, Reagan the puppet master of the butchers in El Salvador. But it is worth remembering that the entire economic and political leadership of capitalist Europe and North America bears great responsibility for what has happened in Poland. Poland was not just done in by a fascist coup engineered by the Soviet Union–using Russian-authorized tanks with Polish rather than Russian markings. Banks and tanks did Poland in, to use my friend Joseph Brodsky’s formulation. The Polish debt continues to be refinanced by the Western governments, grain continues to be sold to the Soviet government, the French government–most eloquent of all the hypocrites–signs a vital commercial treaty with the Soviet government a few weeks after the Polish events. In other words, business continues as usual. Landing rights may be denied to Aeroflot and Lot at Kennedy Airport, tourism opportunities for Polish diplomats stationed here may be restricted, cultural exchanges may be pared… That is the kind of retaliating the Western democracies are prepared to make for the enslavement of Poland. That…and a lot of rhetoric.
We tonight are adding our rhetoric to the avalanche of good words about Poland–but, as I say, in the hope of distinguishing our position from the official hypocrisies. I would also hope, however, that we do not let our sense of whom we oppose on our side of the frontier between capitalism and Communism lead us into certain hypocrisies and untruths.
I have the impression that much of what is said about politics by people on the so-called democratic left–which includes many people here tonight–has been governed by the wish not to give comfort to “reactionary” forces. With that consideration in mind, people on the left have willingly or unwittingly told a lot of lies. We were unwilling to identify ourselves as anti-Communists because that was the slogan of the right, the ideology of the cold war and, in particular, the justification of America’s support of fascist dictatorships in Latin America and of the American war on Vietnam. (The story, of course, starts much earlier, in Europe in the late 1920s, with the rise of fascism, whose principal war cry was anti-Communism.) The anti-Communist position seems already taken care of by those we oppose at home.
I want to challenge this view.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Polish events. But, I would maintain, the principal lesson to be learned is the lesson of the failure of Communism, the utter villainy of the Communist system. It has been a hard lesson to learn. And I am struck by how long it has taken us to learn it. I say we–and of course I include myself. I can remember reading a chapter of Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind in Partisan Review: When it came out in 1953, I bought the book–a passionate account of the dishonesty and coerciveness of intellectual and cultural life in Poland in the first years of Communism, which troubled me but which I also regarded as an instrument of cold war propaganda, giving aid and comfort to McCarthyism. I put it on my student’s bookshelf. Still a student (though an unofficial one) twenty-seven years later, in 1980, on the eve of my first visit to Poland, I took down my old copy of The Captive Mind from the shelf, re-read it (for the first time) and thought, and thought only: But it’s all true. And in Poland, I was to learn that Milosz had, if anything, underestimated the disgrace of the Communist regime instilled by force in his country.
I have asked myself many times in the past six years or so how it was possible that I could have been so suspicious of what Milosz and other exiles from Communist countries–and those in the West known bitterly as “premature anti- Communists”–were telling us. Why did we not have a place for, ears for, their truth? The answers are well known. We had identified the enemy as fascism. We heard the demonic language of fascism. We believed in, or at least applied a double standard to, the angelic language of Communism. Now we take another line. Now it seems easy to do so. But for many decades, when horrors exactly like, no, far worse than, the horrors now taking place in Poland took place, we did not meet to protest and express our indignation, as we are doing tonight. We were so sure who our enemies were (among them, the professional anti-Communists), so sure who were the virtuous and who the benighted. But I am struck by the fact that, despite the rightness of many of our views and aspirations, in particular our sense of the madness of a nuclear war between the superpowers and our hopes for reforms of the many injustices of our own system, we were not responding to a large truth. And we were countenancing a great deal of untruth.
The émigrés from Communist countries we didn’t listen to, who found it far easier to get published in the Reader’s Digest than in The Nation or the New Statesman, were telling the truth. Now we hear them. Why didn’t we hear them before, when they were telling us exactly what they tell us now? We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough. Which is to say that our priorities were wrong. The result was that many of us, and I include myself, did not understand the nature of the Communist tyranny. We tried to distinguish among Communisms–for example, treating “Stalinism,” which we disavowed, as if it were an aberration, and praising other regimes, outside of Europe, which had and have essentially the same character.
At the beginning I called the brutal oppression under which the people of Poland are languishing “fascist.” This is true in the sense that all the normal pretenses of Communist ideology have been abandoned. The methods and even the language are those of fascism: the demand for “normalization” and “order,” the re-legitimizing of anti-Semitism, military rule presented in the guise of a “Committee for National Salvation.” The similarities between the Polish military junta and the right-wing dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and other South American countries are obvious. Indeed, future fascist coups d’état will certainly imitate the Polish coup. No despot had ever thought of turning off the phones for an indefinite period, of forbidding the sale of gasoline to all private cars, of stopping the sale of rucksacks and of writing paper, Draconian measures that are not for twenty-four hours but, simply, a new way of life. For the imposition of martial law on December 13 has resulted in a perfect stalemate. It is, plainly, unlivable. And yet, despite the early promises of the government, it cannot be lifted. The present government has not only adopted the standards of fascist rule; it has offered fascist rule a whole arsenal of new techniques.
All this is obvious, or almost, when one uses the word “fascist” to describe the present Polish government. But I mean to use the word in a further sense. What the recent Polish events illustrate is something more than that fascist rule is possible within the framework of a Communist society, whereas democratic government and worker self-rule are clearly intolerable–and will not be tolerated. I would contend that what they illustrate is a truth that we should have understood a very long time ago: that Communism is fascism–successful fascism, If you will. What we have called fascism is, rather, the form of tyranny that can be overthrown=-that has, largely, failed. I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies–especially when their populations are moved to revolt–but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.
This, I would argue, must be the starting point of all the lessons to be learned from the ongoing Polish events. And in our efforts to criticize and reform our own societies, we owe it to those in the front line of struggle against tyranny to tell the truth, without bending it to serve interests we deem are just. These hard truths mean abandoning many of the complacencies of the left, mean challenging what we have meant for many years by “radical” and “progressive.” The stimulus to rethink our position, and to abandon old and corrupt rhetoric, may not be the least of what we owe to the heroic Poles, and may be the best way for us to express solidarity with them.
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.”
Aryeh Neier is a member of The Nation‘s Editorial Board.
Like Susan Sontag, I read Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind in the 1950s. My reaction was different. Milosz seemed to me then to be telling the truth about Communism. I don’t recall a time when I had a different view of Communism. There have been many times since the 1950s when I have been angry at friends and colleagues on the left who have seemed willfully to ignore or to try to explain away Communist tyranny. That anger has been tempered, however, by the awareness that mainstream American anti-Communists have given anti-Communism a terrible name. I find it uncomfortable to associate with their anti-Communism, and while this has not deterred me from frequently and vehemently expressing my own anti-Communist views, it has forced me to exercise care about when and where I do so. I have expressed these views in the pages of this magazine, but I would not care to in the Reader’s Digest.
As Sontag is well aware, mainstream anti-Communism is not concerned with promoting liberty. Far from it. Rather, it has been a pretext for suppressing liberty at home through loyalty investigations, political purges, surveillance and dirty tricks, and for doing worse abroad through the bombardment of Vietnam and Cambodia, the “destabilization” of Chile and the arming of murderers in El Salvador. The atrocities committed by anti-Communist’s do not mitigate in the slightest the evil of Communism. Nor do they excuse those among us who have been apologists for Communist oppression. But they do explain the reluctance of many on the left to shout “me too” when mainstream anti-Communists proclaim the evils of godless Communism.
The tragedy, of course, is that because mainstream anti-Communism is not really concerned with promoting liberty, it reacts tepidly to such assaults on liberty as the Jaruzelski regime’s attempt to crush the freedom movement in Poland. Some mainstream anti-Communists may even be pleased that Communism has revealed its repressive character in Poland, since this exposes the hypocrisy of Communist denunciations of US actions in El Salvador. By the same token, one guesses, that General Jaruzelski and his friends in the Kremlin are glad that the United States is so compromised in El Salvador that it lacks the credibility to rally world opinion against martial law in Poland.
I applaud Sontag’s effort to recapture anti-Communism from Reagan, Haig and Thatcher. As she knows very well, of course, this has been tried by others without notable success. Even so, the stakes are high enough to make it worth another try.
Daniel Singer is a freelance writer born in Poland and based in Paris. He is the author of The Road to Gdansk (Monthly Review Press).
I had crossed the ocean for nothing. Here I was back in Paris five years earlier, listening to the recantations, rhetoric and crude oversimplifications of the new philosophers. There was, however, a difference. The Parisian Columbuses discovering the gulag in the 1970s were unknowns requiring Madison Avenue methods to get into the limelight. Susan Sontag needs nothing of the kind to capture attention. But the following notes are not about Sontag the writer and critic, merely about the strange, or maybe not so strange, speaker with whom I shared a platform at the Solidarity meeting at Town Hall in New York City.
As a good nouvelle philosophe, Sontag used the tactics of collective guilt. We had turned a blind eye to Soviet inhumanity, she argued, addressing an audience of which part was too young to be accused of such sins, while another part had spent a great deal of Its energy denouncing Soviet crimes in the name of socialism. Being myself the son of a zek, I gained no merit from knowing about Russia’s concentration-camp universe. I am in the more comfortable position of assuring Sontag that the problem of fellow travelers is not as simple as it is now being painted by ex-Stalinists converted to the capitalist creed; assuring her too that it was most difficult for a socialist to remain critical and unattached during the years of the cold war. Today, fortunately, it is easier to proclaim a plague on both their houses, though she may no longer be interested. Having discovered the root of all evil in “Communism,” she has, I fear, chosen her side.
In any case, she has assimilated the peculiar logic of Parisian turncoats. Because we were stupid, we are wise; because we were blind, we are seers; because twenty-seven years earlier she did not take the book of Czeslaw Milosz in earnest, Sontag is now entitled to preach about Poland and the nature of Communism. Not even a decent interval of modest silence? Converted sinners tend to show too much zeal. Her Parisian predecessors had chanted “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Lin Piao,” and then, just reversing the order and arguing in equally primitive fashion, they presented Marx as the founder of the gulag. Sontag has improved the device. Her whole speech was designed to hammer home the unexplained and unqualified message: “Communism is successful fascism.”
Thus Brezhnev, Jaruzelski, Reagan and Sontag agree on at least one point, namely, that what is being built in the countries of “really existing socialism” is called Communism. They apparently also agree that there can be no other Communism than that. Sontag made it plain that she was not only referring to Stalinism old and new. Her other catchy definition, “fascism with a human face,” was obviously meant for stubborn suckers like myself who refuse to swallow the cheap, fashionable equation between Marx and the barbed wire.
Yet let us be serious for a moment. Susan Sontag, as far as I know, does not come from a working-class family. If, on getting involved in politics, she chose the left rather than the right, it was, I suppose, because like so many of us, she had certain aspirations toward equality and social justice. She, too, must have dreamed of a classless society of equals, of immediate producers taking their destiny into their own hands, of the vanishing division of labor and the withering state. I did not hear the faintest echo of such preoccupations in her speech, and this was not because she was improvising in a fit of indignation over Poland. Hers was a carefully worded statement. Indeed, I was taken in by her adroit Introduction and naïvely applauded as she claimed to be glad to speak at a meeting so different from Reagan’s show. The meeting was different, but her speech was not. If I recollect it correctly, what followed the introduction could easily be printed in, say, Commentary. As she recited her written text, the title of an essay kept running through my mind: “Heretics and Renegades.” Heretics, I still think, are the salt of the earth.
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.
Philip Pochoda is a senior editor at Doubleday/Anchor Press.
In 1919, attempting to sanitize if not satirize his still very precarious revolution, Lenin boldly defined the newly emergent Communism as “soviets plus electrification.” The enormously heterogeneous experience of Communism since that time has withstood encapsulation in anything like so fatuous a formulation until we were treated to Susan Sontag’s recent rhetorical nugget: Communism…is fascism with a human face.”
Grant the bravery of constructing a resonant aphorism purporting to convey the whole nature and history of Communism since the Russian Revolution, both in and out of the Soviet Union; grant further that at least a half (though not a three-quarter) truth is contained within that aphorism; and further admit that the sole evidence provided in its behalf is that it is articulated in the context of a recantation by a minor celebrity, then you have at least some idea of the difficulty of responding to this pretentious and portentous assertion. For while its daring and wit intimate a moral seriousness informed by chastened intellectual and political passion, its intrinsic banality, its evisceration of historical context and contest, and its collapsing of political and logical categories resurrect the crudest version of the cold-war mentality, the level of political caricature maintained so steadfastly in…the Reader’s Digest, that celebratory organ of McCarthy (Joe), Hoover (J. Edgar), Whittaker Chambers, William Westmoreland and Henry Kissinger.
The God That Failed theme has worn a little thin by now; it is a long time since anyone believed that the Stalinist god did or should succeed in the West. But were all Communist aspirations, all Communist actions, all Communist ideals, without exception, fascist? Can we not preserve a valued place in our political pantheon for Imre Nagy’s Hungarian comrades in 1956, Alexander Dubcek’s Czechoslovak allies in 1968, Salvador Allende’s Chilean forces of 1971, not to mention countless other liberationist and antifascist fighters around the world? Sontag, the converted absolutist, having now undergone the traditional ritual of public mea culpa, demands we %abandon all such qualified and qualifying illusions. communism, all Communism, is Stalinist; Communism, all Communism, all Communisms, are “utter villainy.” Here we have, in undiluted form, the political mentality that characterizes the place where Reader’s Digest wisdom and the Russian émigré celebrities (but not Medvedev and Sakharov) converge, and that Sontag lauds at the expense of The Nation.
With our moral sensibilities fully absorbed by the overriding issue of “utter villainy,” it must seem slothful if not sinful to attend to mere “relative” villainy. Joseph Brodsky (he of “banks and tanks”) warns us to forego our concern over American intervention in El Salvador–obviously a venue of mere second-rate villainy. And we remember all too well the saintly Solzhenitsyn’s fervent encouragement to America in Vietnam–Solzhenitsyn the orchestra leader of the “utter villainy” theme, who sponsors rather a return to czarist theocracy.
At this late date we should not need Sontag to further enlighten us on the horrors of Stalinism or on the frequent absence of humanitarian motives in Russian activities at home and abroad. But what we do desperately require in a time of mounting hysteria and war drums is to resist the barbarous assault on valid historical discrimination and political judgment that she so cavalierly commends. Before succumbing to the Reaganite mentality of the Reader’s Digest and Alexander Haig, we might at least consider that Auschwitz and Dachau were the triumph, the fulfillment, of Mein Kampf, whereas the gulag and December 13 are the unspeakable, if all too common, travesties of the Communist Manifesto. And if Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and even Hannah Arendt are not sufficiently persuasive to Sontag–now no doubt happily entranced by “Life in These United States”–she might spend some time reading the recent debates and condemnatory resolutions of the Italian and Spanish Communist parties regarding the military seizure of Poland. I, for one, should hate to see Sontag, long one of the most valued assets of the American left, allow herself to become caricatured as Norman Podhoretz with a human face.
Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Nation.
I was at the meeting, and I have spent ten years working for the New Statesman and The Nation. I was pleased that Susan Sontag invited the left to criticize its own record on Stalinism, and I see no sign that she has moved noticeably toward the Manichaean anti-Communism of the bad old days.
The Polish workers movement is a cause in its own right. It should be supported without any throat-clearing about El Salvador. We do not have to prove that we are not reactionaries–it was never demanded of Walesa that he denounce Pinochet (though it would have been nice if he had). Surely I am not the only socialist who finds comparisons between Solidarity and the fate of PATCO to be grotesque? The rights of highly paid Reaganite air controllers may have been violated, but the rights of Polish coal miners and ship-builders have been abolished. It is, really, casuistry to mention them in the same breath.
Having tried to open a debate on the responsibilities of the left, Sontag has done her best to close it again by ill-tempered and ahistorical remarks about fascism and the record of the Reader’s Digest. (Actually, if the Bolsheviks had not won the civil war, the word for fascism would be a Russian one and not an Italian one.) Let us be charitable and assume that she was trying to galvanize an audience by deliberate exaggeration. Aren’t there some people who wish that what she said was even more untrue than it is? Are there not “intellectuals” who condemn Stalinism for the sake of symmetry, or because it embarrasses the left and encourages the right, rather than because it is a deadly foe of socialism and democracy?
Actually, the real trahison in the Polish affair has come from the liberals, not from the left. It is the George Kennans, hostile to socialism as an idea, who have found the excuses of Realpolitik for Soviet conduct. But on the left, too, there are some who divert an argument about Polish self-determination into an argument about the hypocrisy of Reagan and Haig. By doing so, they devalue solidarity with Solidarity, and I think Sontag was right to say so.
The speech I gave at Town Hall has now flushed out a fascinating array of responses. Furious to find that the dreadful Soho News printed a taped–and cut–version of my speech (after I’d refused to give them the text and told them I was publishing it elsewhere), I am glad to be printed in The Nation. In their introduction, the editors write as if The Nation chose me, but It is also I who chose to have my speech in The Nation. Even Aryeh Neier cannot forbear sanctimoniously pointing out that he has expressed anti-Communist views in The Nation but would not care to have them appear in the Reader’s Digest. Well, does he imagine that I feel differently?
Most of the respondents say that the issue I have raised is not a problem, or that it is a problem already dealt with. I think it is a problem, and take as further evidence of that the anger I have aroused, and the low quality of all but two of the responses. Singer complains that he has crossed the ocean for nothing and belabors me, in true apparatchik fashion, with the suspicion that I may not be of working-class origin. Hollinger, stretched out with an ice pack on his forehead, calls it much ado about nothing. Andrew Kopkind, the noted disco expert of the 1970s, reminisces about our good old days in Hanoi in 1968, and observes that truth and justice proceed “dialectically.” Diana Trilling welcomes me to the ranks of her anti-Communists (thanks, but no thanks), and quarrels with me because I do not find Reagan “sincere.” While most of my respondents profess to find banal homilies or a defection to reaction (plus a subscription to the Reader’s Digest) in my plea for intellectual honesty, she finds “the weary rhetoric of Communist invective.” (Trilling’s response is the most mind-boggling of all.) The responses of Aryeh Neier and Christopher Hitchens are the only ones that I can take seriously, and I thank them for their courteous and thoughtful comment.
Daniel Singer, David Hollinger, Philip Green and Philip Pochoda insist on their “good” Communism. But the necessity of liberation struggles and the virtues of the Italian Communist Party are strictly irrelevant to what I was saying. (When I talk politics with friends in Italy who are in the party, I usually find myself in large agreement with them. They talk like social democrats; so do–am–I.) My argument is about countries in which a Communist–that is, a Leninist–party has taken power and rules. The fact that every one of these countries is a tyranny that oppresses workers and corrupts intellectual life and free inquiry seems not to have led Singer, Green, Hollinger and Pochoda to draw any conclusions about Communism as a system. It has me.
I do not find it any evidence of the virtues of the Communist tyrannies of Eastern Europe that they inspire heroic, unsuccessful revolts (1956, 1968, 1980-81). Unlike Green, I believe that “the violent suppression of organized labor” is not a feature that distinguishes the regimes of, say, Argentina and Chile from those of, say, Eastern Europe, but is, rather, a perfect description of what goes on, more intelligently, more systematically, in Communist countries. Neither the ruling elites nor the enslaved and disaffected people of Eastern Europe can be called “Marxist”; and if and when these oppressed manage to overthrow their tyrants, it will not, I fear, be to embrace an alternative of our liking. What is brewing in Eastern Europe is not democratic socialism. The centrality of a particularly fervent Catholicism to Solidarity is not an accident or an instance of cultural lag; and, in Russia, among those who are not cynics or merely demoralized, new converts to religious fundamentalism outnumber the liberals and democratic socialists a thousand to one. Green does not understand the corrupting effects of decades of Communist despotism, and of Communism’s ideological bankruptcy. He asks–only rhetorically, alas: Is it now proved that we have been wrong to be hopeful that out of Communism something much better might emerge?. Yes, it is now proved. We were wrong. It is the people who live in those countries who tell us that.
Wonderful to hear, each of my respondents claims to have never been deceived by the nature of Communist tyranny. Indeed, most claim that they were always anti-Communists. But I could say the same. I was never a Communist (and therefore am not now a “repentant” ex-Communist of the god-who-failed variety) nor a Trotskyist or Maoist. Neier points out that he thought Milosz was telling the truth in the early 1950s. But I hardly thought Milosz was lying. Nevertheless, detesting the reactionary uses to which anti-Communism is put–that is, for the very reasons Neier mentions in the next paragraph of his response–I bracketed what Milosz and the other émigrés were saying. That is the phenomenon I was addressing. I was always–virtuous label–an “anti-Stalinist.” But, like many people on the democratic left, I did not understand the essentially despotic nature of the Communist system (that is, a country–any country–ruled by a Leninist party). One of my points is that the word “Stalinist” is, finally, irrelevant to the discussion of Communism. Whoever limits the iniquities of Communism to Stalinism or finds hope in the “hypocrisies” of Communist leaders (who betray their “ideals”??) has really missed the point.
The response typified by Singer, Pochoda, Hollinger and Green expresses exactly the attitude I am attacking. I find it dishonest, demagogic, untrue, deeply complicitous with tyranny and, last but hardly least, not in the interests of the democratic left. Singer is perhaps the easiest to decipher. He is the man who, at the Town Hall rally, declared that although he wishes that Solidarity members had adopted the “Internationale” as their anthem, he understands why they did not; unfortunately, it happens to be the anthem of the oppressive state, the state-which-pretends-to-be-Communist. I do not wish the members of Solidarity had sung the “Internationale. ” I do not think that they were mistaken in not doing so. Neither do I wish to hear it sung by the democratic movement in El Salvador, whose struggle to overthrow the tyranny backed by the American government I passionately support.