Encyclopedia of the American Left
edited by mary jo buhle, paul buhle, and dan georgakas
garland, 928 pages, $95
Out of all the tragedies and horrors of Communist rule in the last seventy years there emerges a blessing: the fact that Marxists and socialists were actually able to put their ideas into practice has meant that their defeat has been complete. In the East, as a result of glasnost, not only have the commissars and apparatchiks been vanquished, but their lies and subterfuges and subtle intellectual poisons as well. Not so in the West, where the compilers of volumes like Encyclopedia of the American Left are alive and well and enjoying the bourgeois privileges of campus careers. Unlike the formerly Communist East, where the socialist myth has been shattered beyond repair, in the West it only seems to feed on its own defeats.
Readers of this “encyclopedia,” edited by Paul and Mary Buhle and Dan Georgakas, will find the bloodstained intellectual legacy of Stalinism fully intact. In these pages—in articles written by their most dogged apologists—Communist agents like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs are still innocent; the Nazi-Soviet Pact and other Marxist atrocities are still remembered as well-intentioned “mistakes”; and the anti-Communist heroes of the Cold War, like Whittaker Chambers and Sidney Hook, are still forever guilty, their places of dishonor reserved for them in the Progressive Hall of Shame.
The editors of this volume—founders of the journal Radical America, and avatars of the new “radical history,” “radical economics,” etc., that have displaced professionalism in the far reaches of the American academy—dedicate their work “to Jenny and Jimmy Higgins.” While these names are inexplicably not explained by the encyclopedists in what their introduction describes as “the first comprehensive reference work on the history of the American left,” some readers will recognize them as the self-adopted symbolic identities of rank and file Communists. To be reverent, in this fashion, towards Stalin's groupies in our time is so perversely reactionary as to be radical indeed.
Unfortunately, the attitude that it reflects is so anti-intellectual as to render this volume practically worthless except as a kind of ideological palimpsest of a world now happily extinct. Thus, the reader will find the Hitler-Stalin Pact described as “the amazing countermove Stalin had apparently engineered” to stymie British perfidy—regretted not because of its consequences to Poland or the Baltic peoples or the other hapless victims of its cynical devices, but only because the shock of it caused disorientation and dissension in the Communist party's ranks, creating a “reservoir of suspicion [of Communists] . . . soon tapped by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others in the domestic Cold War.”
In keeping with the editors' principled anti-intellectualism, the author of the article, Annette Rubenstein, has not been selected because she is a diplomatic historian or a political scientist or the possessor of any academic expertise obviously connected to these events. The editors themselves identify her as “a veteran activist and literary scholar,” but even these are at best half-truths. Annette Rubenstein was the Communist Party's anointed “authority” on literary matters in the 1950s—a time when the Party had been abandoned by virtually all but the most pathetic intellectual hacks.
Half-truths, however, are the best a reader of this eccentric volume can hope for. Here is the way the entry for “Front Groups” (written by editor Dan Georgakas) begins:
Radical organizations often seek to influence political events by creating groups that deal with only one aspect of their general program. Such groups are called fronts. In this context front does not indicate a facade but a broadly-based coalition . . .
Not even Orwell could have improved on this.
And here is the way in which Irving Howe's political views are described by editor Mary Buhle:
Howe's versions of democratic socialism, often shifting subtly during his career, remained unsettled. By virtue of intellectual alliances and personal ties, he appeared prominently identified with [the] extreme rightward edge of liberalism in the pro-contra Cold War hard-line position of the New Republic, owned and directed by Howe's former student Martin Peretz.
This spasm of guilt-by-association should remind us that it was Stalinists who perfected the technique of the political “amalgam” (Def: indiscriminately linking one's enemies in order to tar each with the other's brush) and were thus McCarthy's teachers in this regard.
The editors of the Encyclopedia are actually fastidious in their preservation of Stalinist traditions. Leftists who have had second thoughts or don't fit the subtle orthodoxies the editors wish to perpetuate can simply vanish into thin air. (This, as Marxists would say, is no accident. The principal editor of the volume, Paul Buhle, recently published a book on radical history in Wisconsin during the 1960s in which every radical historian in Madison is duly described—except Ronald Radosh.)
Thus Eugene Genovese, Radosh, and other second-thoughters who had the bad political instincts to think for themselves might just as well never have been part of the New Left as far as this “comprehensive reference work” is concerned. There is an entry for politically correct Abbie Hoffman, but none for the incorrigible Jerry Rubin; an entry for Communist Party faithful Henry Winston, but not for Malcolm X; an entry for obscure Communist fellow travelers Modjeska Monteith Simkins and Stanley Nowak, but none for George Novack—one of the principal leaders of American Trotskyism—or Tom Hayden.
The same commissarial razor is wielded to prune the field of uncomfortable organizations, publications, and practices. Thus, there is an entry for “Party Organizer” but not “Party Line.” The most obscure Communist Party fronts receive full-entry treatment, while non-Party entities often are missing or treated in a secondary fashion.
Thus there is an entry for Toveritar/Naisten Viiri, a Finnish language pro-Communist magazine never important and long forgotten, but none for Telos; a full entry for the Congress of American Women, a defunct Communist front, but not the Congress of Racial Equality; a full entry for the National Women's Commission—a Communist Party apparat—but none for Weatherman (although Weatherman and CORE are treated as subordinate clauses of other entries).
One can only pity the poor students sent to the library by their New Left professors to consult this “reference.” Any person or library truly interested in the American Left will save the $95 and buy some other book (one is tempted to say any other book). Anyone curious about the closed, sclerotic, fundamentalist mindset of the contributors to this volume who wants to learn more about the nature of the chasm between the views of American neo-Stalinists and the real world they so desperately want to change will obtain a copy of the definitive analysis of this wearisome subject to date: “Jimmy Higgins”—The Mental World of the American Rank-and-File Communist, 1930-1958 by Aileen Kraditor (Greenwood Press, 1988).
David Horowitz is Co-Director of the Second Thoughts Project of the National Forum Foundation and coauthor, with Peter Collier, of Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties.