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Apr 1, 1977

Diggins, Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History

“Those who opposed communism…on principle, the individualists and isolationists of the Old Right, were [also] opponents of [the Cold War.]”

Up From Communism:

Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History

By John P. Diggins

Reviewed by Leonard Liggio / Harper and Row, 1975 /$20.00

 

The final struggle will be between the communist and the ex-communist.” Ignazio Silone’s famous words introduce John P. Diggins’ “intellectual history of the ‘final struggle’ in America.” Diggins believes that before we can understand the Cold War and the New American Right which has its roots in the Cold War, it is necessary to understand “ex-communism.” “The rise of the New American Right out of the ashes of the Old American Left was one of the great political surprises of our time,” Diggins writes. This evolution of the New Right from its political ancestor, the Old Left, is one of the most important events in contemporary intellectual history, yet it has received practically no attention from scholars. Up From Communism unfortunately only scratches the surface of the subject, but still, it makes for an important beginning.

Before the Old Left itself emerged in America, in reaction to World War I and the Soviet Revolution, there was an Original Left that was, as Diggins describes it, anarcho-libertarian, and which was at least decentralist in orientation when it was not that developed. One of the failures of Diggins is that he does not see the difference between those who were part of that tradition, such as Max Eastman and John Dos Passos, and those whom he studies who only knew the Old Left. But those were two quite unique universes.

“Communist factions and battle lines became the basic categories within which liberat intellectuals operated.”

Woodrow Wilson’s repression during World War I split apart the popular base from the Original Left’s intellectuals, and this popular base then moved to adopt an external substitute in the Soviet Revolution and the Soviet Communists’ view of American politics. The implications of this were enormous when, in the 1930s, the Communist Party adopted New Deal politics in domestic and foreign policies, and became the tail of New Deal liberalism. With that, communism, which had formerly been isolated from the mainstream of American intellectual life, became the reference point for New Deal liberalism. Communist factions and battle lines became the basic categories within which liberal intellectuals operated. As a result, the radicalism which was to the left of New Deal-Communist liberalism was excluded from consideration by the latter’s control over the media.

Those radicals, who stemmed from the Original Left in America’s heartlands, attacked the collectivism and centralization of the New Deal liberals. They became the mass base for the Old Right, which emerged in opposition to the New Deal. When the New Deal became defined by the liberals and Communists as “left,” the media naturally called the anticollectivist radicals “right.” In fact, the liberal control over the media was so great that not only was the radical Old Right excluded from it, a New Right drawn from a dissenting wing of the Old Left was substituted for it, as well. This can be seen most clearly in the case of National Review for, as Diggins writes, “about half of National Review’s editorial board was … Stalin’s gift to the American Right.” Stalin was said to have made a “revolution in one country,” but his meddling in foreign Communist parties created ex-Communists who in America became his “Greek gift” to the American opponents of liberal corporatism.

One of the most memorable points in Diggins’ book is his recounting of the incident of about 1930, when the leadership of American communism attending a Comintern meeting in Moscow were denounced by Stalin for holding that the revolutionary crisis in America was not immediate. After the denunciation, Stalin walked past the Americans and held out his hand to Edward Welsh, an American black. Welsh asked loudly: “What the hell does this guy want?” and would not shake hands with Stalin. The spirit of America’s Original Left is caught in that episode. One further step was necessary to recapture that Original Left: asking why an American radical would be seeking advice in any place but America.

Diggins concentrates on Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, Will Herberg and James Burnham. In opening the book, I started reading part three, “To theNational Review,” since the earlier chapter headings did not connect with “right” in my mind. Later, I asked “why am I reading about these debates about communism when I wanted to read about the ‘right’?” Diggins presents these debates with clarity and intelligibility, and explains the roots of the New Right in these issues.

 

Max Eastman was an important figure in the Original Left, “the anarcho-libertarian Left of the pre-World War I years.” Eastman’s masterful critique of the Hegelian dimension in Marxism is lucidly presented by Diggins, and it alone was worth the price of the book. Eastman was the “first American to grasp the connection between Hegel and Marx [and] went on not to reaffirm it but to repudiate it.” Sidney Hook, “tempted to see meaning, as well as method, in the dialectic,” defended Hegelianism. Eastman said: “We have to choose between Marxism as a Hegelian philosophy, and Marxism as a science which is capable of explaining such a philosophy.” Eastman noted the important distinction between Marx, historical materialism, and modern socialism based on Engles’ dialectical materialism.

Eastman saw Lenin as the Marxist who repudiated Hegelian Marxism, but with Lenin’s, death, he sided with Trotsky, claiming that in America, “I was the Left Opposition.” The opposition of communists to Stalinism created a new central category in the intellectual debates of the period. “To the Old Left in general and to Eastman, Hook and Burnham in particular, the problem of understanding Stalinism became almost the problem of understanding history itself.” All history’s validity “was manifested in the ‘contradictions’ of the Soviet bureaucracy. Many of the intellectual origins of what came to be called, misleadingly, I believe, ‘anticommunism,’ lie in this philosophical debate over the nature of Stalinism.” It is important to note that what passed for “anticommunism” during this period was actually only “anti-Stalinism,” and the cold warrior positions of these “anti-Communists” had little to do with anyreal opposition to collectivism. Those who opposed communism and collectivism on principle, the individualists and isolationists of the Old Right, were at the same time opponents of militarism, interventionism and the Cold War. They opposed Stalin and the domestic system of the Soviet Union, but saw that war would actually prove a far greater threat to American liberties than anything happening inside the Soviet Union.

John Dos Passos, “the novelist-historian of anarcho-individualist sensibilities,” never joined a Communist group, and thus had very different reactions to world events than those who did. Unfortunately, Diggins does not bring this out enough. He indicates that Dos Passos, unlike the other radicals who became conservatives, never changed his views: he was never a Communist, he was always an anarchist. Dos Passos had been influenced by the Original American Left before American entry into World War I, and emerged from that crusade to make the world safe for democracy holding “war horrifying, the state a monstrous fraud, and society the spectacle of oppressed humanity. Everywhere he saw power beating down upon the individual; nowhere could he find freedom.”

 

Dos Passos opposition to New Deal liberalism was rooted in his view that no radicalism would be successful unless rooted in the productive middle-class majority. He advocated a cooperative commonwealth against the New Deal, of which he wrote Edmund Wilson: “The upshot of it is that you and me and the Forgotten Man are going to get fucked plenty.” In opposition to the Popular Front and the Communist party’s support of New Deal war policies, he turned to the libertarian tradition in American history, exponents of “total statelessness”: Roger Williams, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. His novels, exploring the concept of the “two nations” in Ameica, caused Jean-Paul Sartre to say that he regarded “Dos Passos as the greatest writer of our time.” Diggins finds Dos Passos’ later works less important. Yet, Jay Pignatelli in Chosen Country (1951) and Jasper Milliron in Midcentury are strong characters, Milliron representing the continuity of commitment to productivity through technological innovation against the financial “saboteurs” of productivity whose heroism is summed up in writing off loses through tax loopholes and who could contribute more by private games of Monopoly.

A major deficiency of the Diggins book is an absence of discussion of Dos Passos’ strong activity against the Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His debate with Edmund Wilson over the latter’s Cold War and the Income Tax deserved much more discussion. Dos Passos’ disappointment with the Silent Generation of the 1950s made him negative toward youth, and prevented him from seeing that “the New Left was protesting, in addition to the Vietnam War, the very abuses of power that he had raged against his entire life … . He seemed unaware that the Students for a Democratic Society had openly denounced authoritarian communist regimes in Eastern Europe.” When some of the New Left became Marxian, he observed that a “Left that is really new might be worth having.” Diggins concludes: “Dos Passos’ libertarian and Buckley’s authoritarian conservatism added one more ingredient to the mesalliance of the intellectual Right in America.”

Will Herberg viewed the New Deal as beneficial to monopoly corporatism, and criticized the manipulative role of the Communists in integrating labor into liberal corporatism. He flayed the Communists “for supporting Roosevelt and failing to see the threat of fascism in the expansion of executive power.” Herberg withdrew into religious analysis, and focused his attacks on Pelagianism with its free will and its positive attitude toward man.