[sixties-l] Should We ex-Leftists be Forgiven?

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Wed Jun 06 2001 - 03:32:00 EDT

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    Should We ex-Leftists be Forgiven?


    June 5, 2001
    by Ronald Radosh

    IN HIS REVIEW of Commies, (NRO Weekend) Roger Clegg raises some points
    that go beyond the merit or lack of merit of my memoir, which as he
    writes, recounts my own "journey from left to right." Clegg says some very
    nice things about my book, and has penned what he himself says is a
    "favorable review." Nevertheless he seems to be upset about whether
    someone like myself, or let us say David Horowitz, should be forgiven for
    the path we took in our youth.

    What Clegg seems to imply is that forgiveness for early radicalism should
    not be made, especially since our "foibles were treason." This, however,
    is a harsh word, and should be used with some care. As the Venona files
    have shown, scores of American Communists did indeed betray their country,
    rationalizing their choice with the misguided belief that their treason
    was being committed for the betterment of mankind. That is why and
    indeed I argued this very point in The Rosenberg File Julius and Ethel
    Rosenberg could go to their death knowing of their espionage, but in their
    hearts believing that they had not sinned and hence not really betrayed
    their own countrymen. Similarly with a straight face and without even a
    wink, Alger Hiss to his dying day denied to one and all his own guilt.
    After all, if he owned up to his own "special work" (as the Communists
    euphemistically referred to their espionage) he would disappoint all those
    nave and not so nave "useful idiots" like The Nation magazine's Victor
    Navasky, who have made a career out of affirming the actual innocence of
    those everyone else knows were guilty.

    Indeed I agree with Clegg, and have argued many times, that a double
    standard exists when it comes to discussing and condemning the crimes of
    Communism and those of Nazism. Remember the shock and horror shown by New
    York's left-wing literati, when at the time of the Polish Communist
    government's crackdown on Solidarity, author Susan Sontag exclaimed at a
    Town Hall meeting that "Communism is fascism with a human face," a
    statement met with a chorus of boos and the fiery condemnation in print
    that went on for days.

    But fortunately many on the American Left paused before they acted to
    literally commit acts of treason. They were guilty of providing
    ideological arguments meant to rationalize Soviet crimes and gain the
    support by Americans for Soviet foreign policy. That was bad enough but
    it was far from the kind of action engaged in by a Julius Rosenberg or an
    Alger Hiss. And during the years of the New Left's heyday, its most
    fervent activists wished for the victory of the Viet Cong, and identified
    with their cause and their battle. Even Eugene D. Genovese a man whose
    own seminal essay for Dissent caused a storm even among the democratic
    Left and who wrote in its pages that Communist regimes, "in a noble
    effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression^broke all
    efforts for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less
    than three-quarters of a century," once uttered the famous words during
    a Teach-In on Vietnam that "unlike most of my distinguished colleagues^I
    do not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome
    it." Should Genovese too not be forgiven? Is his long and noble fight
    against political correctness in the universities and against the
    politicization of the historical profession to be unwelcome, simply
    because a few decades ago, he too believed in a Communist future?

    John Haynes, in his own letter to NRO Weekend, has already addressed the
    question of Clegg's missing the point of the parable of the prodigal son,
    and I will not reiterate it. But he does raise a valid point when he asks
    how I and others like David Horowitz, Eugene Genovese, and scores of
    others who a decade ago took part in David Horowitz's and Peter Collier's
    "Second Thoughts" conference in Washington, DC could have "gone so
    wrong?" There is no easy answer, and I thought that I was trying to
    discuss just what events in my own life led me to take the turn towards
    the Left. Everyone has their own story to tell, and what should be
    heartening to Clegg and others is that the American reality is such that
    if one is honest, it is rather difficult to continue to uphold one's
    youthful follies into mature adulthood.

    Finally Roger Clegg raises another question, which he puts delicately by
    writing that "the milieu of Commies is overwhelmingly Jewish and
    intellectual," which leads him to ask why so many Jewish intellectuals
    were enamored of the hard Left? It is a very good question, and he gently
    chastises me for ignoring it in my book. I did so because actually it is a
    question that others have taken up in many different places, and one that
    I did not feel was pertinent to discuss in a memoir, which was in fact a
    recollection of my life which, for better or worse, was lived in that
    Jewish milieu. Now, however, I wish to attempt a partial and incomplete

    My parents' generation who came to this country between the turn of the
    19th Century and the years before and after the First World War were
    recent immigrants who landed in the teeming Jewish ghettos like New York
    City's now famous and non-existent Jewish Lower East Side. Now the single
    memory of those years is the Tenement House Museum, which studiously
    recreates the typical apartment lived in by immigrant Jews during the
    1920s and early '30s. Poor and working-class, they made their living in
    the garment trades. The famed Triangle Fire of 1911, marked as a milestone
    in American labor history to this day, took the lives of largely female
    Jewish workers in the teens and 20's. Moreover, they came to this country
    as fervent believers in the ideologies that shaped them in the Old World,
    Communism, socialism, anarchism, Bundism, labor Zionism and the like. One
    of the most usual conflicts the young immigrants had was with those of
    their parents who were deeply religious and pious, and whom they rebelled
    against by breaking away from what they saw as the religion of the village
    shtetl, which they unfavorably compared with the modern life of the
    emancipated and secular Jew of cities like Warsaw. Exploited and
    alienated, they turned in the New World for hope to both trade unionism
    and socialism.

    Irving Howe, of course, discussed all this in his classic book The World
    of Our Fathers, which sympathetically and wistfully recalled the old
    struggles and attitudes. When their children emerged as the New Left of
    the 1960's, they automatically carried on the tradition. In fact, their
    parents had already moved out of the early ghettoes and into the middle
    and even upper middle class. No longer did they live on Orchard Street,
    but more likely, in Scarsdale, White Plains or Great Neck in Long Island.
    But in politics, they carried on their parents' commitments by moving en
    masse into the New Left. As Kenneth J. Heineman writes (in a book which I
    will soon review in these pages,) at a time when Jews represented three
    percent of the US population and ten percent of American college students,
    23 percent of young people from Jewish families "embraced the New Left."

    In elite institutions like the University of Chicago, a large 63 percent
    of student radicals were Jewish; Tom Hayden may have been the most famous
    name in the University of Michigan SDS, but "90 percent of the student
    left [in that school] came from Jewish backgrounds," and nationally, 60
    percent of SDS members were Jewish. As my once-friend Paul Breines wrote
    about my own alma mater the University of Wisconsin, "the real yeast in
    the whole scene had been the New York Jewish students in Madison." And he
    went on to note what he called the "rootless cosmopolitanism" of the
    Wisconsin New Left.

    Heineman attributes this to these Jewish students absorbing a "propensity
    to social activism" from their Eastern European backgrounds, despite the
    obvious assimilation of their parents and their own rejection of Judaism
    as a religion. Confronting what he calls a "culturally ambiguous
    environment" in this country, Heineman writes that attaining a higher
    economic status did not make them forsake their view of what a better
    society should look like. As late as 1946, one-third of America's Jews
    held a favorable view of the Soviet Union, which they foolishly thought
    was progressive because of the Soviet role in the defeat of Hitler, a fact
    which made them look the other way when Stalin was preparing his own
    pogrom against the Jews.

    There also existed what he calls "cultural anxiety." Social mobility for
    Jews came after World War II, and was marked by the attainment of
    positions in law, medicine and teaching but not in the corporate world,
    which was largely the domain of Protestant businessmen who barred the door
    to both Jews and Catholics. In our contemporary world, fortunately, this
    is no longer the case. A few months ago, an obituary appeared of the last
    living survivor of the Triangle Fire, a Jewish woman who went on in life
    to lecture throughout the nation to college students about the fire and
    the cause of labor, which eventually unionized the garment trades. The
    obituary ended with the amazing note that her granddaughter was one of the
    top executives in Hollywood of a major motion picture company! One can be
    assured that in the recent negotiations with the writers who were
    threatening to strike, we know which side of the issue her granddaughter
    was. And while she was in college, this young woman undoubtedly was not
    part of the New Left, as was her own mother's generation.

    Finally a word about the underlying tone of Roger Clegg's argument which
    is one in which he, a sound-minded conservative, sits in judgment against
    those of us whom he cannot seemingly excuse for once having gone so wrong.
    One could point out that in past decades, there were those conservatives
    who themselves took positions that they would regret when looking back
    years later. The balance of power between the US and the Soviet Union may
    have necessitated the United States making unsavory alliances just as it
    made during the Second World War when it embraced Joe Stalin but just as
    that did not mean one had to whitewash the Soviet record to support a
    military alliance, one did not have to rationalize apartheid in South
    Africa as some conservatives did in order to oppose policies that would
    have favored a Communist-led African National Congress. Nor did it mean
    that opposition to Communists within the United States meant that one had
    to support uncritically the crusade waged by Joe McCarthy, a man whose
    main contribution was to harm the cause of anti-Communism, and who
    nevertheless got the support of some who called themselves conservative.

    If I can forgive those who sinned from the other side and no, I do not
    equate the mistake of supporting Joe McCarthy with that of supporting Joe
    Stalin I hope that Roger Clegg and others can come to forgive those like
    myself who once foolishly supported the enemies of American freedom.
    Ronald Radosh is a regular columnist and book reviewer for
    FrontPageMagazine.com. A former leftist and currently Professor Emeritus
    of History at City University of New York, Radosh has written many books,
    including The Rosenberg File (with Joyce Milton) and, most recently,
    Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover

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