Review by Caleb T. Maupin
“Alger Hiss and the Battle for History” by Susan Jacoby
Susan Jacoby is hardly an unbiased observer of world events. Her text is open about its blatant partisanship, though given “credibility” by her numerous academic honors and positions in the billionaire owned capitalist press.
Jacoby’s work is not, as it projects to be, a history of the Alger Hiss case and its impact on U.S. politics and thought. It is rather a work of narrative agitation, to push the very desperate concerns of the moderate liberals among the capitalist class about George W. Bush and his strategy of rule, and to promote putting a more “sensible” and “uniting” face on blatant anti-Communism and imperialism.
Jacoby’s thesis is a confusing one to begin with. She maintains that Alger Hiss, the low level state department employee accused of being a Soviet Agent was in fact guilty of espionage. However, she argues that the fact that conservatives, particularly Neo-Cons, used Hiss’s case to lump liberals with “the enemy” did more damage to “the fight against Communism” than Hiss himself.
One issue regarding the Hiss case that Jacoby never addresses is that Alger Hiss was not only accused of being a spy, but of being a “secret member” of the Communist Party, USA. The fact that no one has ever been convicted of spying while being at the same time an active member of the CP, is a fact she never raises.
Jacoby’s work never challenges the assumption that the Communist Party, a political organization, the Soviet Foreign Intelligence were linked because they both were Pro-Soviet.
Sadly, this is just the beginning of the many problems with Jacoby’s supposed “intellectual history” of the Hiss Case.
Beyond the University Cafeteria…
Jacoby’s work is loaded with typical, non-factual, non-cited, anti-Communist assumptions. She maintains that Stalin’s “economic policies” were a disaster, repeating this statement as if it is common knowledge several times. She is just repeating a common misperception, which is contrary to all actual statistical analysis of the Five Year Plans and the economics of USSR, which by all accounts was experiencing economic growth, uninterruptedly until the 1980s.
Jacoby, who apparently lived in the USSR briefly while working for The Washington Post, is either lying or willfully unaware that Stalin’s USSR had full employment, full housing, and universal literacy. The “failed policies” Jacoby speaks of tripled Soviet life expectancy, electrified the whole country, built railroads through barren countryside, gave indoor plumbing to millions, and multiplied the number of Universities and Schools by huge numbers.
The USSR, under Stalin’s “failed economic policies”, reached the level of economic development of western Europe in less than 10 years. It then built the war machine that defeated the Nazis, and entered the world stage as the rival “superpower” to the U.S.
Jacoby makes numerous references to Sputnik, but it never occurs to her that 20 years prior to being the first people to launch a spacecraft, the Soviet Union was an agrarian third world country where automobiles were extremely rare, even for high ranking government officials.
The influence of her assumptions about Soviet economics make her analysis of “intellectual history” in the U.S. quite hollow.
Jacoby writes with shock, almost as if writing an expose, about how popular Communism was among intellectuals during the 1930s. You can tell that Jacoby, despite doing her best to explain this, is puzzled and disturbed at the thought of anyone being drawn to Marxist-Leninist politics, especially a “smart person” like herself.
Jacoby is also quite defensive about the fact that so many left intellectuals were Communists, and spends much of book doing her best to try and explain and apologize for the fact that so many people within her strata of “educated people” and “intellectuals” believed in Communism.
In Jacoby’s desperate assessment, the horrors of fascism and the economic crisis, but nothing else are responsible for Marxism-Leninism taking root among so many. The only reason that millions in the U.S. became Communists because they were poor and hated Nazis.
If Jacoby were capable at looking beyond her desperate, defensive anti-Communism, she might see other reasons.
The fact that while the U.S. and all of Europe were in an economic collapse, the Soviet Union was the only country on earth in a state of industrial boom is never listed as a reason. The fact that millions and millions of workers were not just reading books about Socialism, but fighting against capitalism is lost on her as well.
Jacoby is confused as to why the intellectuals like Irving Howe were huddled in rival university cafeteria alcoves to the majority of their classmates, who were “Stalinists.” If Jacoby bothered to look outside of the University and Cafeterias, she might get a better insight into why.
Outside of the University Cafeterias were the picket-lines of striking workers led by Communist unions, and unemployment councils returning evicted families to their homes. At the same time as mass battles like 1931 Hunger March, the Bonus March, the San Francisco General Strike, the Flint Sit Down Strike, the Toldeo Auto-Lite Strike, and so many others epic battles between capitalists and workers raged on, far off was the Soviet Union with 0% unemployment, an economic boom, and Communist International, urging the people of the world to join their revolutionary example.
This certainly had an impact on the growth of Marxism-Leninism in the U.S., but this is something Jacoby will never acknowledge.
The fact that the Communist Party was one of the only consistently Anti-Racist political movements at the time never enters Jacoby thinking either. In fact, for Jacoby, a supposed “intellectual historian”, Black intellectuals like C.L.R. James, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. Dubois are quite invisible.
The only intellectuals Jacoby considers of interest are those from the milleau Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Whittaker Chambers. With this point of focus, is it any shock that Jacoby has no understanding of Marxism and its history?
“Otherwise Intelligent People…”
Jacoby makes statements for which she should be ashamed.
She says for example: “Fascism makes Communists out of otherwise intelligent people.” Was Albert Einstein, viewed as one of the smartest men in history a “otherwise intelligent person” when he wrote “Why Socialism?”, a Marxist essay for the Communist magazine Monthly Review in the very period she speaks of.
Did many admire the Communist Party’s anti-fascism? Of course. Why? Because the Soviet Union was the only country in the world to oppose the Italian Fascists march into Italy. While the western powers were doing their best to prop up Hitler, from the moment Hitler took power, until 1939, the Soviet Union was desperately trying to build an alliance of “democratic forces” against Hitler, to which no other country would agree.
Jacoby acts as if the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 was somehow proof that Stalin’s anti-fascism was insincere. She is unable to recognize that this pact prevented Hitler from marching into the USSR, and caused the already growing tensions between the U.S., Britain, and Germany to grow.
Jacoby doesn’t realize that until 1939, most of the forces predicting a “world war”, suspected that all “great powers” would gang up on the Soviet Union, as Hitler had advocated from the moment he took office and begged the Pope to call a “Holy Crusade Against Bolshevism.”
Jacoby also claims that “everyone with a Brain” abandoned Communism in 1956, when Khruschev revealed Stalin’s alleged “crimes.” I wonder if Jacoby considered W.E.B. Dubois, one of the most respect African American scholars to have been without “a brain.” He not only remained supporter of the Communist Party in the dark periods of 1956. He officially joined the party in 1961 with a symbolic letter making clear that he was a Marxist-Leninist to his core.
Pablo Neruda remained a committed supporter of Stalin until his death. This widely renowned poet, in Jacoby’s eyes was “without a brain” for not running in cowardice in 1956 with John Gates.
The list of people that Jacoby, a cheap bourgeois scribbler for the Zionist tabloid known as the Washington Post, considers “without a brain” could be miles long. Only in the United States could such sweeping statements be accepted without laughter.
To dismiss all post 1956 Marxist-Leninists, even those who denounced Stalin but remained within the ranks of Communist organizations as mentally challenged shows how credible Jacoby really is, no matter what one thinks of Communism.
Know Your History!
Jacoby’s anti-Communism, and therefore, willful refusal to learn the actual history of this movement, taints her entire book.
Her biographical account of Whittaker Chambers, the informant who fingered Hiss as a Soviet agent, seeks to discredit chambers by pointing out that he joined the Communist Party in 1925, before it was “fashionable” for intellectuals to do so in the late 1930s.
She claims that in this period all the CPUSA did was “berate” its members with ideology.
Jacoby needs to open any basic history of the Communist Party, even those written by the Party’s greatest enemies to see how wrong she is.
From 1922-1928, the Communist Party engaged in its biggest internal fights and rectification struggles. James P. Cannon and William Z. Foster were pushing for the Communist Party to maintain its radical opposition within the Trade unions, battling Jay Lovestone and John Pepper who wanted the party to break its loyalty to Comintern and practice “American Exceptionalism”, and preach nonsense much like Jacoby’s own liberal constitution worship.
In 1928, James P. Cannon led an exodus of hundreds of Communists in New York and Minneapolis who were expelled for being loyal to Leon Trotsky.
Stalin, delivered a series of speeches directed at Communist Party in the U.S., guiding its political actions and internal struggles from afar, in 1926, just a year after Whittaker Chambers joined.
1925 was the height of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) that waged a “save the union” campaign inside the United Mine Workers Union, struggling against the moderate John L. Lewis, before his more radical period in later years.
William Z. Foster emerged to lead the Communist Party in 1928, and from then to 1932 he traveled throughout the U.S., in and out of prisons, building the Trade Union Unity League, the Young Communist League, and a mass presidential campaign, nearly dying of a heart attack in the process.
Jacoby thinks that when Chambers joined the party, at the period in which it was having its most intense infighting, and about to embark on its most intense period of “outfighting” to date, that nothing was going on, because no NYU faculty had yet been approached to join a “popular front.”
The fact that this passes for “intellectual history”, Jacoby’s alleged specialty, is tragic. Simply opening an issue of any Communist publication from 1925 would render her arrogant assumptions about the CP’s activity as totally indefensible.
Jacoby’s disinterest in what Marxist-Leninists think even hurts her own credibility.
Imagine how much more insight her book could contain if she bothered to learn what Communists were actually thinking and doing, not just beat the cold war drum that all reds are “bunch of dupes for Moscow” in order to maintain her credibility.
Selective Compassion for McCarthy’s Victims
Jacoby’s writings on the McCarthy period are equally filled with omissions. Her books talks about how horrific it was for liberals to be labeled as “disloyal” for their historical links with the Popular Front. She weeps for Arthur Miller, Adlai Stevenson, and numerous other “good people” who got mistakenly lumped with the “bad people” in the Communist Party by the right-wing.
In all her writing about the constitution and the need to protect civil liberties, Jacoby gives no mention about the 1948 Foley Square Trial, where Communists were put on trial for nothing other than their political beliefs. If her liberalism and democratic principles are sincere, why is she not outraged that hundreds, if not thousand went to prison during this period for the crime of discussing and distributing political ideas and literature with which the government disagreed.
During the 1950s, in many public libraries, Communist books were separated from other books and locked in special cabinets. In order to check them out, one had to show ID so your name could be handed over the FBI.
Being a Communist Party member made one unemployable, not just on Harvard’s faculty, but in most factories, schools, offices, and places where ordinary workers who “thought wrong” would try to seek employment.
Jacoby is not outraged by this at all. She is outraged that cold war liberals like Adlai Stevenson got their feelings hurt by Richard Nixon who accused them of being “soft on Communism” and used Alger Hiss to make the point.
She is also outraged that liberal professors who had been on the margins of the Communist Party’s “popular front” were unfairly discriminated against for it.
As far as Jacoby is concerned, Communists are pure evil and worthy of all kinds of persecution. The only error is that “good people” got hurt in the process of taking away the civil liberties of “bad people” who deserved it.
A Warning To Her Own Class
The basic conclusion of Jacoby’s work is this: “Alger Hiss was guilty, but the fact that so many defend him decades later is because the right-wing utilized the case to viscously demonize the left. This showed a danger in U.S. politics.”
Jacoby is urging the right-wing to tone down their viciousness, because it causes a negative reaction. Jacoby is not terrified of the right-wing, she is terrified of the reaction to their viciousness as it exposes the true nature of the society we live in.
Jacoby is calling for unity among capitalists, and ordering the right-wing to stop being so divisive what should be a “united effort” against workers and oppressed people.
Jacoby’s work, published in 2009, right after Obama assumed the white house, makes total sense. Jacoby was part of a chorus of capitalist intellectuals who were in unison declaring the neo-conservative experiment a failure, and seeing that it was much better to have someone like Obama who talked with less ugliness and hatred, but carried out the same policies, and served the same class.
Jacoby, like her entire class, sees that something is stirring from below in the U.S., and that Bush’s style “bring ‘em on” rhetoric will not contain. Jacoby, who visited the USSR, when “rabble” and others she deems “without brains” ran and operated the means of production, knows that the dangers are far worse than a few conferences on the innocence of Alger Hiss.
The fears of Jacoby and her ilk are even more intense than before, with the domestic Wisconsin uprising, and the Arab Spring internationally.
To Jacoby, the explosion from below could mean that soon the horror of justice and equality may remove the capitalists and their hired brains like her from power.