I recently came across examples of a phenomenon that has intrigued me my entire adult life: the apparent soft spot that American “progressives” have in their hearts for Communism. One instance popped up in the February 18th issue of the New Republic.
The magazine’s editor, Martin Peretz, has written an essay about the plight of liberalism in the United States. Peretz is convinced that American liberals are in disarray, lacking leadership and an animating vision for the future, and is searching for ways to revive liberalism’s influence on society.
Let us leave aside for the moment whether he is correct about liberalism’s prospects and focus on his acknowledgment of the soft spot for Communism. Peretz: “Post this question at an Upper West Side dinner party: What was worse, Nazism or Communism? Surely, the answer will be Nazism.” Why is Peretz convinced that liberals will respond that way? Because, he says, liberals will argue that “Communism had an ideal of the good. This, despite the fact that communist revolutions and communist regimes murdered ever so many more millions of innocents and transformed the yearning of many idealists for equality into brutal assertion of evil, a boot stamping on the human face forever.”
You are entitled to your opinion; you are not entitled to your facts. You can’t argue with Peretz’s facts: Mao and Stalin butchered far more people than Hitler. Why, then, the difference in the liberals’ reaction?
Taki Theodoracopulos noted the same phenomenon in the February 14th issue of the American Conservative. He writes of a dinner he attended at Sardi’s in New York, after the opening night of the play Dame Edna on Broadway. Among his companions was “Joan Juliet Buck, an old friend and former editor of French Vogue. She wore a hammer-and-sickle pin on her hat.” Taki seized the moment. “How would you like it,” he asked her, “if I wore a tiny swastika on my lapel?” Ms. Buck was not pleased with the comparison. “It’s not the same,” she responded.
“But,” notes Taki, “I’m afraid it is. We are free to wear a pin that commemorates Communism, ignoring the enormity of communist crimes.” Again: Why?
I would wager that most readers of this column could come up with their own examples of the phenomenon. I can remember colleagues from my days as a teacher in a public high school in the suburbs of New York City, earnest women who would hang posters of Che Guevara in their classrooms and distribute to their classes magazines from the Red Chinese consulate extolling the idealism of Mao’s Red Guards. These teachers were hardly communist agents; they were suburban clubwomen who enjoyed Broadway plays and fine restaurants and Caribbean cruises. But they saw something noble, something good about these totalitarian tyrants. Why?
I can also remember a film prepared by ABC news for classroom use that was widely shown in New York’s schools in the 1970s: The People of the People’s Republic of China. It featured a young Ted Koppel, roaming China interviewing government officials, teachers and peasants, each of whom assured Koppel that Mao and the Red Guards were widely supported by the masses. Koppel was aware of the brutality of Mao’s regime, a reality now admitted to by the modern government of China. But, like Peretz’s and Taki’s dinner companions, he was willing to overlook it. Why?
Why did the same Americans who would castigate anyone who expressed the faintest sympathy for Hitler or Mussolini, make excuses for Mao and chant “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win” at their anti-war rallies, and journey to Cuba to chop sugar cane for Castro? Why the double-standard? Why would a teacher who displayed a poster of Castro in her classroom be defended by the teachers’ union, but not one who hung a Nazi or Ku Klux Klan banner? Why?
I submit that L. Brent Bozell, father of Brent Bozell III, the head of the Media Research Center, provided the answer back in the 1970s:
Liberals are coming to understand, even if darkly, that the logic of their analysis and ambition points them down a road they cannot follow: that the Gnostic dream of an earthly paradise can be realized (as the Communists know) not by changing society, but by changing man, by transmutative surgery on the soul. It follows that if Gnosticism is ever to triumph it will triumph in Communist form. Yet liberals instinctively recoil from that prospect; their sense of humanity, their residual attachment to the values and norms of the West, forbid the Communist solution. What a pickle to be possessed by a world view that demands the victory of your enemy! Men affected by such a neurosis go mad, and civilizations do also. And in the meantime they fight stubbornly but aimlessly, without hope and without purpose: a “twilight struggle.”
Bozell recognized the schizophrenia of the progressives. They do not share the communists' belief in violent revolution or totalitarian dictatorship. They reject the means that communists employ to realize their ends. But liberals and communists desire the same ends.
An overstatement? I say no. Liberals and Marxists share many of the same Enlightenment roots. Consider the promises of Marxism: a utopian vision of the perfectibility of the human race, a managed economy for the purpose of ending the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the end of the nation-state system and the establishment of a one-world government to promote the brotherhood of man, a secular society that will end the influence of the Church and religious authorities, control of the media and the schools for the purpose of transforming society in a “progressive” manner, the creation of a new communal consciousness to take the place of capitalism’s stress on the individual, a society where the limits of traditional morality and outdated views on the differences between the sexes will be replaced by the guidelines of “reason.”
Which of the above aspirations would not be championed in the faculty room at your local college or around the water cooler at the major news weeklies? You are right: not one. It is this overlapping of goals that accounts for the American liberal’s reluctance to treat Marxist revolutionaries, even brutal tyrants such as Mao, Stalin and Castro, as enemies. It accounts for the double-standard of the woman with Taki at Sardi’s with the hammer-and-sickle pin on her expensive hat. It is at the heart of the “blame America first” mentality among American intellectuals.
James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)