Wednesday, December 03, 2003

In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage is a "fun" book. That is to say, it's polemical, brisk, and terse. It's on a fairly limited subject, so we're not talking "twelve-hundred-page-catkiller" here. The authors have an agenda, they're not shy in expressing it, and they support their contentious argument thoroughly. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how many minds In Denial is going to change. I fear it'll just make the rounds of the readership of the Weekly Standard and the National Review.

Basically, it's an expose disguised as historiography. For a while there, I thought it was going to be comprehensive historiography - an analysis of schools of thought and so on. But there isn't enough here to make a full, balanced portrait of the study of American Communism. There's pieces missing, as if somebody had told the authors to cut the non-sensational parts of the discussion in favor of more red meat about "espionage denial" and red-diaper-baby historians. I'm a little sorry that I didn't get to read that book - the balanced historiography - because I think I would have found it interesting. The problem there being, I would have been one of only two dozen who would have, I suppose.

The authors are first-tier scholars, who were among the group who gained access to the ex-Soviet archives of the Comintern and CPUSA held in the former Soviet Union. They've got a long, distinguished, and much-reviled CV on American Communism. They represent what's called the "Traditionalist" school of the history of American Communism and anti-communism. The authors are irate with the "revisionist" control of the professional organs of American history. Among other things, they point out that "revisionists" control the journals and departments.

They like to use the term "espionage denial", in explicit comparison with "Holocaust deniers" like David Irving, whose failed libel prosecution of historian Deborah Lipstadt is discussed in some detail in the book. They rage, with some justification, that "revisionists" can continue to publish lies about the crimes of Communism that, if they were lies about Nazism, would put them utterly beyond the pale. This is an acceptable characterization for the historians of Russia and world Communism. I'm not sure that a comparison of the denial of Communist treason and the denial of the mass genocides of Nazism is as justifiable as a comparison of denials of mass democides, Right and Left. They try to stretch their point by including a minor slaughter of American Communists - mostly Finn-Americans repatriated to Soviet Karelia in the late 20s and early 30s - in their discussion, and listing those 144 murders in an appendix as victims of American Communism. While the crime is, indeed, horrific, it doesn't measure in the scale of mid-century democidic outrages. The Jim Jones butchery, for instance, dwarfs the Karelian betrayal by a factor of four. And I have to wonder why this is addressable to American Communism rather than the Soviets who actually murdered them. It's roughly similar to a hypothetical mass-murder of Unreconcilables in Brazil after the Civil War, by Brazilian slave-owners. An outrage, but difficult to blame directly on American slaveocracy advocates.

That brings us to a more striking parallel, which one finds at the end of In Denial. After comparing the bad scholarship, bias, and bloody-mindedness of "revisionist" historians to Holocaust deniers for the bulk of the book, they shift in the last chapter to a comparison with the "Lost Cause" school of American Civil War history. The authors quote Stephen Vincent Benet extensively, and make the argument that the CPUSA "revisionists" can be understood as a latter-day "Lost Cause" school - ideological partisans (including some actual participants in that Lost Cause) of the defeated party dominating the historical discussion of that concluded conflict. They note that "Lost Cause" history was written in the service of a current project - the continuing attempt to "Redeem" the South from reconstruction, to suppress the ex-slaves in a new racial system. The new "Lost Cause" is also in service of a current project - the continued pursuit of an America of "social justice", via control of the educational system. It's a fascinating line of argument, and I rather wish that they had pursued it, instead of the less-fruitful "espionage denial" concept which dominates the book.

None of the above criticism should detract from my endorsement of their central argument, which is that leftist bias in the historical profession is alarmingly inclined towards outright falsehood in the pursuit of ideological rigour and current projects. The fact that so many historians of American Communism and the anti-communist era are so attached to debunked and mendacious ideas - that the CPUSA was a "bottom-up" organization, that Communists weren't spies, that their treasons were not important, that anti-communist measures were more dangerous than the treasons they addressed, that anti-communists were un-American tyrants - is disturbing and worrisome. It leaves me much more inclined to support academic reforms.

I have to wonder if the American educational system needs a touch of modern McCarthyism, to keep it honest.

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