Yale University Press’s Annals of Communism series, begun in 1995, is among the most ambitious and influential scholarly undertakings to address the historical role of Communism and the Soviet Union. This helps explain why it continually acts as a lightning rod for scholars of all political stripes.
Until recently, the series had proven a significant liberal target. The book on Lenin’s secret correspondence was given to Harvard historian and Reagan adviser on national security Richard Pipes–a man who observed, back in the early eighties, that we might be living in a “prewar” rather than a postwar world. Pipes’s Lenin is a man of almost immeasurable and unmitigated evil. His rightful heirs, according to the book’s introduction, are not merely Stalin and Brezhnev but Hitler and Saddam Hussein.
Similarly, the project’s depiction of the role played by the American Communist Party has raised hackles even among those who might be expected to welcome it. Reviewing The Secret World of American Communism for The New Republic, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., anti-Communist extraordinaire, complained in that magazine that the editors, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Firsov, were “rather uncritical about American ex-Communists” turned anti-Communists. The editors allowed “unsupported scattershot accusations” to go unchallenged and blacken the names of innocent people and “able public servant[s].” Moreover, he noted, they displayed an unhappy tendency toward “exaggerating the importance of the CPUSA.”
The editors of these valuable documents, which do cast an important light on many hitherto unanswered cold war controversies, went beyond the evidence their material provided to claim exaggerated victories over their erstwhile intellectual opponents. As a result, right-wing ideologues at, among other places, the Wall Street Journal crowed, “Moscow Stooges Unmasked.” Newspaper accounts have falsely reported that the series has now settled the matter of the guilt not only of the Rosenbergs (which it has–yes for Julius, no for Ethel) but of Alger Hiss as well (which it hasn’t). (A few misguided reports have even insisted that the new documents somehow vindicate the paranoid witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy.)
One is immediately tempted, as is so frequently the case in these matters, to follow the money. The project has received extensive funding from such hard-line conservative sources as the Bradley, Olin and Smith Richardson foundations. They may have been attracted by the judgment of William F. Buckley Jr., who praised the series as “a historical juggernaut capable of refashioning the trendy history in which so many American scholars were once ensnared” and issued a special appeal for money in his syndicated column. But according to Jonathan Brent, the series editor at Yale, the perceived right-wing bent of some of the early books is a matter of happenstance. Pipes, a senior though extremely controversial scholar, was given Lenin because he requested the subject. The documentary history of the CPUSA went to Haynes et al. rather than, say, Ellen Schrecker because the historians were already working in the archives in Moscow and had discovered a trove of documents. According to Brent, forthcoming volumes by well-known scholars considered to be “revisionist”–including Sheila Fitzpatrick of the University of Chicago and J. Arch Getty of the University of California, Riverside–will demonstrate the series’ ideological breadth.