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May 5, 2004 1:29 am

Responsibility Left and Right ...

I've just finished reading John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr's book, In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage. It's an angry book and no easy read. If you are a right-winger or a connoisseur of attack endnotes pushed back-to-back as text and, then, themselves endnoted, you'll love In Denial. I'm neither of those things. Still, I'm an admirer of In Denial because its authors are essentially correct, even if they are Right.

Assume for the purposes of argument that Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union was the moral equivalent of Adolph Hitler's Germany. Collaboration with the former would be the moral equivalent of collaboration with the latter and apologias for either would be disgraceful. It's hard to disagree with that. Regular readers at HNN know pieces of Haynes' and Klehr's work that fed into this book. There were their critique of Paul Buhle in his Encyclopedia of the American Left and Klehr's review of Jerrold and Leona Schechter's Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History. Regular readers at HNN also know that In Denial has been widely ignored. Such ignorance is of a piece with the Journal of American History's and the American Historical Review's imbalanced treatment of Soviet espionage and the American Communist Party, which I blogged about here and here. My offer there to post a reply from any editor of either journal or any member of either journal's editorial board was met with silence. Paul Buhle promised in the OAH Newsletter 18 months ago to reply to charges by Haynes and Klehr"in some neutral venue", but he too has been silent. Neutrality is, apparently, ethereal. Delay reply long enough and you get a reputation as a gas-bag. Is it any wonder that the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History have had no review of In Denial? Well, journal reviews appear only slowly, as do answers from Paul Buhle. Apart from right-wing venues, we've had only Steve Whitfield's review of In Denial for American Communist History (subscribers only) so far. Rightly, it was a positive review, even if he is a Lefty.

So, whose work is under attack here? It's easier to say whose isn't. One of the defense mechanisms, invoked by Buhle and others, is that this is just another right-wing jab at the Left. Yes, its authors are scholars on the Right. But if they were merely attacking the Left, they wouldn't single out historians like Maurice Isserman, Tony Judt, Michael Kazin, Mark Naison, and Sean Wilentz as scholars on the Left who have been willing to confront the evidence from the Soviet archives confirming the activity of networks of spies for the Soviet Union recruited by their affiliation with the CPUSA in mid-20th century America. But if you are Herbert Aptheker, Paul Buhle, Peter Carroll, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Bruce Craig, Eric Foner, Michael J. Heale, Gerald Horne, Robin D. G. Kelly, Joel Kovel, Gerda Lerner, Norman Markowitz, Victor Navasky, Michael E. Parrish, Michael Rogin, Roger Sandilands, Ellen Schrecker, Athan Theoharis, or a dozen lesser lights, check the index to Haynes and Klehr's In Denial. They've left a shout-out to you there.

Having smote much of the profession's left cheek, I feel obliged to smack its right cheek, as well. Just for"balance," you understand. One of the silliest responses from those criticized by Haynes and Klehr was Ellen Schrecker's claim that Communism is no longer a"live issue.""Where is communism today? Where is the contemporary relevance?" Could such a response come from the mouth of anyone with a vital sense of history? What is to be treasured here is an attitude toward evidence, its recovery, preservation, and availability. That is exactly what is at stake in President Bush's nomination of Allen Weinstein to be Archivist of the United States. He is to be congratulated for his role in uncovering and using much of the evidence Haynes and Klehr cite from the Soviet archives. His unwillingness to date to make copies of his evidence available to other scholars, however, is evidence of his unfitness to become Archivist of the United States. Given this administration's proclivity for secrecy, the crucial role the next Archivist will play in the availability of presidential documents going back over the last 25 years, and Weinstein's own withholding of access to other historians, I would vote against his confirmation. There's a"live issue" for you, Professor Schrecker. Believe it or not, there are even bigger ones behind it than that.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 5/5/2004

Well, I don't think the war had to be against totalitarianism for totalitarianism to be the big winner. On a theoretical level, I don't put much store in colonialism. I simply note that those former colonies with greatest per capita incomes (relative to similar countries) and the greatest freedoms tend (and I do mean tend) to be those colonies with the greatest histories (in terms of duration and intensity) of European colonialism -- and I include in that calculus the great horror stories such as the Belgian Congo, though that would certainly run against the trend. And I don't mean to suggest for a minute that that tendency was the aim of colonialism, or even a major aim, but simply a salutary unintended consequence.

Arrayed against that is our history of relative anti-colonialism (outside the US, of course). There was the Philippines -- I hesitate to think what would be the case there without us, both in terms of slf-development, and in terms of their future under the Japanese guidance of an Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. And then there's Puerto Rico, which can have statehood or independence at any time of its choosing. We didn't participate in the Berlin Conference, and we didn't divide up Africa. And we didn't take a share of the Middle East after WWI. I remember an article on US imperialism from the late 80's, perhaps in the JAH, called something like "The Weakest Chapter", which seems to sum up our experience.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

The archivist of the United States ought to have supererogated.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2004

With regard to colonies, I think a pretty good argument could be made that the West wasn't fighting for colonies, and that the colonies, because of the growth of self-determination movements from the turn of the century, were becoming ungovernable (certainly unprofitable) to boot.

And the war wasn't against totalitarianism, either. Don't confuse rhetoric with reality. It was against unchecked aggression.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/5/2004


Ralph, your description of what you yourself would do is an example of supererogation, not a description of professional ethical standards.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/5/2004

Ralph, you're smudging the line again. You mention Weinstein and "documents", and "copies", and "notes". They are not the same, and he does not have the same burden in regard to all. He has a professional ethical requirement to make evidence he cites available to all. Period. Not the full extent of his files, not even all his documents, and certainly not his notes.

To the extent he wishes to vindicate his reputation, he will make his evidence available, as is his obligation under professional ethical standards. We seem to be arguing past each other. Weinstein has no professional ethical obligation to defend his reputation, nor to make anything available other than the evidence he cites, and notes are not evidence. It counts against his thesis that the evidence is not available to others -- a condition that obtains whether he makes his notes available or not, or even were there no notes. Some might consider it perverse of him not to do so, but one can even be perverse and be strictly within professional ethical standards.

Again, if he makes his notes available for research, what can that research demonstrate? Can it make and sustain any claim about the archival content?

I note with a certain sympathy Nabokov's reaction to making his drafts available to others. He said he was as likely to show them a handkerchief with sputum.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

Derek, Point noted and appreciated.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

The sneer at Marxists doesn't help here. Good ol' American capital bought Weinstein's access. If he has nothing to hide, he should make his notes available to others for research. Until then, he won't get my vote. What if I made photocopies of MLK documents otherwise not available to other researchers? What if I misconstrued their content? You're being obtuse, Richard. If what Weinstein cares about is making documents available to researchers, he'd make his copies or his notes available to researchers. The burden is his to vindicate his reputation. I can assure you that if questions were raised about my research, I'd be quite willing to make my notes, xeroxes, first drafts -- everything available to anyone who cared to look. I haven't anything to hide. Weinstein is obstructing the community of scholarship. He may be entirely within his legal rights and yet be in violation of professional ethical standards.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/5/2004

Ralph -- you know me, I'm nothing if not understated. Ahem.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/5/2004

I heard a very interesting point on television the other day -- during an interview with Niall Ferguson. He put forth the proposition (perhaps as another historian's) that the West did not win WWII. The West lost most of its colonies as a result or sequellae to the war, and half of Europe to totalitarianism, and China too to totalitarianism. Come to think of it, totalitarianism seems to have won WWII.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

Absolutely, Derek. If anything, you probably understate the point about the Soviet role in WWII. The Soviet Union took a much heavier beating than any of the western allies. With nearly 14,000,000 casualties, the Soviets had many times the losses of _all_ the other allies combined. Those losses probably shaped Stalin's determination that "never again" would a European power invade Russia -- thus the creation of a buffer zone of sympathetic nations in eastern Europe.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/5/2004

Ralph, in the course of a couple of sentences you moved from discussing Weinstein's notes, to discussing, as an analogy, MLK papers in your possession. MLK papers in your possession are evidence. If you cite them, you must make them available. Notes are not evidence, they are an aide-memoire, a construal of evidence.

What would it mean if Weinstein's text comported with his notes? Would it mean that the archive materials comported with his notes? No. Or if his text didn't comport with his notes, would it mean that it didn't comport with the archival material? Not necessarily. Weinstein doesn't cite notes in his book, he cites the archive file numbers. Your analogy does not strike me as apposite.

The fact that others are not in a position to verify or refute Weinstein's claims is most unfortunate, both for them and for him -- it undermines his epistemological foundation, and it is legitimate to point that out as a criticism. It is quite another thing to say he has withheld evidence, or that he has a duty to make his notes available -- his notes aren't evidence, and he has no duty to make them available. He most certainly has no duty to make his broader files available, as Sandilands claims, so that Hiss defenders can evaluate the broader "context" of Weinstein's claims -- no doubt there is a certain attraction to profiting from others' work (a most common affliction amongst Marxists), but we're not yet in a state where "the people" can make such a broad claim upon the labor of another.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/5/2004

It seems that it is long past time for Stalin's apologists (and the not quite apologists but not quite not apologists) to give up the ghost. However, one aspect that problemetizes Stalin as opposed to Hitler is World War II. Stalin was our ally. Military historians might take issue with the broadness of this statement, but it can be argued that without Stalin, the good guys don't win World War II. It can be further argued that ours would be a world not worth living in had Hitler and Stalin maintained their earlier agreement, or rather, had Hitler maintained the pact. In other words, the Third Reich was always evil. But in the greatest conflict in human history, Stalin was an evil bastard, but he was our evil bastard. He was one of the good guys. Even though he was a very, very bad guy.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

Richard, You are simply wrong about this. Weinstein's publisher bought his way into the Soviet archive. Otherwise, it is closed to other researchers. Weinstein's refusal to make his notes available to other researchers renders it impossible for them to evaluate the accuracy of his claims.
What if I cited archive file #s of the Martin Luther King Papers in my personal possession? What if I denied all other researchers access to the MLK Papers in my personal possession? What if I totally misconstrued what those documents said? What if I actually had no MLK Papers in my personal possession? You are being obtuse.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/5/2004

Ralph, I'm still at a loss to understand your gripe with Weinstein. Sandilands' gripe was that Weinstein hadn't made all his files available to Hiss' defenders. Weinstein's files aren't an archive to be poached by all and sundry, and Sandilands calling them an archive doesn't make it so.

I went back and read The Haunted Wood. Weinstein cites the KGB archive file numbers. The closure of the archives does not magically transform Weinstein's own notes into "evidence", nor into archives. I just don't fully understand your gripe. And just how Weinstein's refusal to turn his own work product into an archives makes him unfit as an archivist is likewise beyond me.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

Thanks, Ed. I know what you mean. Even as I wrote the post, I went back and forth on R and r, L and l. I guess I ended up with R and L because I needed to distinguish between Right as a political camp and right as in correct.

Ed Schmitt - 5/5/2004

Ever since I read it in the work of Gabriel Kolko, I've been bothered by the capitalization of "Left" and "Right" in categorizing political camps. It somehow sets them in stone as something fixed and monolithic, without variance or nuance. Over on Thomas Reeves's blog he does the same thing. Maybe it's just a pet peeve, but I also think it does a disservice to the cause of analysis. As John Dewey wrote, beware the debilitating dualisms. That said, I appreciate your comments on the book and your own regularly nuanced commentary.

chris l pettit - 5/5/2004

I would actually be one to claim that in terms of international impact and damage caused on a global scale there should be much more harsh rhetoric poured on Stalin. My reasoning is this: if you have the mayor of a town and he is oppressive and kills people and takes their land and whatnot, and is basically the most vile human you can think of...and then you have a president who is not as bad but close, and on a much greater scale...who has more effect and leaves a longer residue?

The fact that Hitler and Stalin were both morally reprehensible only adds to this. Hitler was active prior to the UN and international framework, indeed, the human rights framework and UN came directly out of WWII and the effects of Nazi atrocities. Stalin, while being active with purges prior to WWII, was also the architect of atrocities after the signing of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights...and his atrocities and oppression dominated a large portion of the world while Hitlers affected a much smaller area when one considers the geography and population comparisons of the situation.

So which is worse...the more morally suspect, or the one with the greater destructive impact as measured by broadness of effects and lasting power through history?

That being said...i do think the fact that Communism was easy to denounce and was universally despised in the West did well as the intrigue of the Nazi Aryan stance and lust for world dominance...for some reason this was more interesting than the purging of Communists by Communists (or at least that is how many saw it).

I should also mention quickly that one must define whether one is speaking of the US definition of communism (meaning the Soviet Union and Stalin) or actual communism as is defined in a dictionary or by theory. I guess there then is raised the question of failing to raise the evils of communism is an analysis resulting from someone using their perception as communism meaning Soviet totalitarianism to peruse and critique a piece describing communism as an abstract theory. Communism and Soviet totalitarianism under Stalin being two totally different things of course.


Konrad M Lawson - 5/5/2004

Thanks for posting this, it got me thinking about my own research a bit. I posted some thoughts:

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2004

not wanting Cliopatria to be a "religious site" and all that. But Barth is germane and germane because of the naivete of his position. We are, after all, talking about the transfer of atomic secrets in some cases. When Hitler or Stalin expanded their spheres of influence, they were not particularly disturbed to get an electoral mandate for their expansion. Whether an expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence had popular support was near irrelevant. Imperial powers do not rely on popular mandates. Hitler didn't ask for a plebiscite to justify his taking over the Sudetenland or Austria. Stalin didn't long condone free elections in eastern Europe. We didn't ask Iraq whether the Iraqi people wanted us to invade. We said they did and we did. The French collaborationists are hardly convincing evidence for your case. Occupying powers find local agents, as both Germany and the Soviet Union did wherever they went.
Nonetheless, without Soviet occupation of the United States, agents acting in loyalty to the dream of a people's republic, at the command of Soviet handlers and, later, at Soviet pay, were in places of strategic importance in the United States government. That was an accomplishment the Nazis had never achieved. Sure, we also had spies in the Soviet Union, but in that case it seems to me that a moral equivalence argument would be a bankrupt one.
Finally, you are right that there was a very powerful anti-Communist Left in the United States. It certainly was more effective in its anti-Communism than was a buffoon like Joseph McCarthy. Even so, we know now that the CPUSA secretly controlled the Progressive Party presidential campaign of 1948 and it was a major manifestation of the American Left after World War II.

Adam Kotsko - 5/5/2004

Since I like to talk about Karl Barth all the time, here is his response when a colleague rebuked him for not being as hard on Stalin as he was on Hitler, given that the two were morally equivalent. Barth agreed that Stalin was a moral monster and that the Soviet system was completely undesirable -- as did virtually everyone else in the West. Even if we now know that the number of Soviet spies in America was alarmingly higher than we once believed it to be, the fact remains that a proposal to convert America to the Soviet system would receive virtually no popular support.

The very fact that supporters of the Soviet Union had to maintain absolute secrecy stands in sharp distinction to the many prominent Nazi sympathizers throughout the Western world -- for example, the French were obviously all too happy to implement Nazi policies once they were taken over, and the Bush family's connections have been well-publicized (I cite this not to say that Bush is a Nazi, but because of the prominence of the people involved). Soviet communism was simply never as seductive as was Nazism, even if both ended up being equally destructive in objective terms. In addition, given the bipolar Cold War atmosphere, denouncing the Soviet Union effectively meant endorsing the United States, whose military actions ad extra were consistently brutal and destructive throughout the Cold War period, and, unfortunately, up to the present day -- which is not even to take into account the fact that a denunciation of Soviet communism was often taken to be an endorsement of American capitalism, which has its own very significant moral problems.

In short, though it's true that Stalin and Hitler were morally equivalent, the concrete political situation in the West meant that denouncing Stalin, whom virtually everyone could plainly see was an evil man, and Soviet communism, which virtually no one considered a desirable and preferable social order, was a distraction from more important tasks. That kind of strategic consideration, rather than some kind of denial of the evil of Stalinism, seems to me to lie behind intelligent leftist downplaying of the evils of communism -- although those few who genuinely believed Stalinism to be a good thing were clearly morally blind and worthy of denunciation, it seems very unlikely to me that "the Left" as a whole, or even in very significant part, shared that kind of attitude.