Monday, September 5, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“DOUBLE LIVES – Stalin, Willi Munzenburg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals” by Stephen Koch (first published in 1994; later updated and revised; also published with the subtitle “Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West”)
It can be chastening to read a book which pulls apart methodically the delusions of an earlier age. It can be especially chastening if some of those delusions are still with us.
I first read Stephen Koch’s Double Lives a decade ago, and dipped into it again ahead of writing this notice. Stephen Koch is an American academic, critic and novelist attached to Columbia University. He has written books about Andy Warhol and other art icons. He has angered the admirers of Ernest Hemingway by writing a book (The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles) showing how complicit Hemingway was in Stalinist terror during the Spanish Civil War. Most controversially, he has written Double Lives.
Why should this book be controversial? Because it punctures many of the enduring myths of the 1930s.
A widespread myth says that, even if Soviet Communism was flawed, it provided a counter-balance to Fascism and Nazism. The myth says that the Popular Front of the mid-1930s, in which Communists and democratic parties of the Left joined forces for a few years, offered the real possibility of a push-back against Hitler. But, says the myth, such solidarity was scuttled when the duplicitous foreign ministries of Britain and France did a deal with Hitler at Munich in 1938. This left the Soviet Union without allies in a threatened war with Hitler. While the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 may be regretted, the myth says it was an understandable reaction to the Soviet Union’s desertion by the West, also known as the West’s abandonment of “collective security”.
Add to this the contemporaneous Spanish Civil War, with Communist-organised International Brigades fighting against Franco, and the myth comes up with a relatively benign view of the Soviet Union as something on the side of the forces of light.
Stephen Koch will have none of this and, with a wealth of solid research and detailed interviews to support him, sets out to show how easily Western liberal intellectuals were lured into this totally unrealistic reading of events.
Koch’s main purpose is to expose the duplicity of the Soviet Union, its secret services and its sympathisers in the years leading up to the Second World War. It is his main contention that from 1933 onwards, it was always Stalin’s intention to do a deal with Hitler. The “Non-Aggression Pact” (i.e. alliance) of 1939 was simply the culmination of years of practical, covert cooperation between the two regimes. It was not something resorted to after the British and French sell-out of Munich in 1938. Stalin’s aim was always to divert Hitler’s attention west. Hitler’s aim was to pacify Stalin for as long as it took him to subdue Western Europe. In playing this game, both Stalin and Hitler were aware that much of their mutually-hostile rhetoric was for display and public consumption only. Their secret services exchanged information (and prisoners) well before the open alliance of 1939-41. Stalin saw his main opponents, and the main people to be destroyed, as any non-Communist opponents of Fascism, such as Social Democrats and Labour Parties.
Koch says this mutually beneficial deal between the dictators was struck at the time of the Reichstag Fire trials of 1933. Three Communists (including the Bulgarian Stalinist Georgi Dimitrov, who later ran the Comintern) were put on trial by the Nazi regime but, thanks to the secret Nazi-Soviet deals already being struck, they were acquitted and flown to Moscow. Communist propaganda denounced the Nazi regime, but especially denounced “irresponsible” SA brownshirts and usually held back from criticising Hitler himself. Stalin was quite happy to have Hitler roll up and persecute the German Communist Party, which had the unhealthy habit of showing independence of Stalin. Hitler’s murder of Rohm and the brownshirt leadership was approved by Stalin, and was the direct model for Stalin’s terror directed against the “Old” Bolsheviks in the wake of the murder of Kirov.
Koch argues that the “Popular Front” strategy adopted by Stalin after 1935 was exactly what Dimitrov, said it was – a Trojan Horse designed to destroy any legitimate anti-Nazi activities by non-Communists. It was also an excellent cover for the most intense stages of Stalin’s Terror that were going on at the very time the Popular Front was operative. By having Communists so overtly opposing Hitler and Nazism, left and liberal intellectuals in the West would be deluded into seeing Communism as the noble opponent of tyranny, and would therefore be less inclined to investigate or criticise Stalin’s Terror. The received wisdom became “Any attack on Stalin must be an endorsement of Hitler” and we reach the stage where anybody opposing the Soviet regime was labelled “objectively fascist”.
“To a very significant degree, the Popular Front was a propaganda front for the Great Terror. Stalin’s campaign annihilating any vestige of independent political thought inside Soviet Russia coincides precisely with the campaign proclaiming democratic pluralism and openness in the West… The Front and the Purge were prepared simultaneously. The heyday of both was 1936 and especially 1937. By the spring of 1938, with the Moscow murders mainly complete, Stalin began to wash his hands of the propaganda operation. By the summer of 1939 he killed it dead.” (Part One, Chapter 5)
The “Popular Front” also coincided with the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, Communist activity methodically destroyed the non-Communist Left in the Spanish Republic by terror and murder. Hitler and Mussolini extended credit to Franco and their right-wing Spanish allies, but Stalin extended no credit whatsoever to his Spanish allies, even though his advisors told him that the Spanish Republic was being dangerously weakened by the political purges and was becoming less capable of fighting Franco. Essentially, this was because Stalin was not interested in a Spanish Republican victory, and certainly not in one in which Social Democrats or any of the non-Communist left had a say. When and if Franco was defeated, Stalin wanted a purely Communist Spain as a bargaining chip, which might again divert Hitler’s attention west and away from the Soviet Union. In Eastern Europe, the Popular Front served only to weed out and destroy non-Communists (such as a socialists who fought Dollfuss in Vienna) and prepare the way for the Stalinist states that followed the Second World War.
While these are Koch’s essential themes, he is just as concerned to show how Western liberals and intellectuals were seduced either into joining the Communist Party, or into sympathising with and advancing its aims while imagining that they held independent views. Koch is particularly good on what would now be called “spin” – the way apparently non-Communist front organizations and publications (even ones that occasionally offered mild criticism of the Soviet Union) could be relied on to popularise and publicise the Stalinist line in essential matters. In England, France and America, much “radical chic” of this sort reigned at the time of the Popular Front.
A sort of narrative holding this book together concerns the career of the German Communist Willi Munzenberg, companion of Lenin and covert propagandist for the Comintern from the early 1920s to the time when Stalin abandoned the “Popular Front” strategy. Munzenberg’s day was really over by the time of the Spanish Civil War. He died in France in 1940, fleeing from Nazi invasion. There is an outside possibility that he committed suicide, but it is more likely that he was murdered by Stalin’s agents, for in his last year Munzenberg broke with the Party-line and began publishing in the West lists of German Communists who had been destroyed by Stalin’s Terror.
Koch sees Munzenberg as the man who perfected the idea of the “cultural congress” as a vehicle for Soviet propaganda; and the technique of building public outrage at perceived injustices in western democracies as a diversionary tactic so that Western liberals and opinion makers would be less inquisitive about Soviet methods and motives.
Says Koch: “His goal was to create for the right-thinking, non-political West the dominating political prejudice of the era: the belief that any opinion that happened to serve the foreign policy of the Soviet Union was derived from the most essential elements of human decency. He wanted to instil the feeling, like a truth of nature, that seriously to criticise or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility.” (Part One, Chapter One)
Munzenberg was a master at creating “front” organizations and publications – he had a hand in the creation of the Left Book Club (based on the German Communist Universum Bucherei), Claud Cockburn’s political gossip sheet The Week in London, ”P.M.” magazine in the USA and Ce Soir in France. Koch adds “… certainly most of the people who poured their idealism into the Munzenberg fronts… had no idea that their consciences were being orchestrated by operatives of Stalin’s government.” (Part One, Chapter One)
Munzenberg cut his teeth in organizing outrage at the trial in America of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, who (as later revelations showed) were probably guilty as charged. There was, of course, a very devious purpose behind this organised outrage. In the 1921 famine in Russia, the overwhelming majority of effective relief had been provided by Hoover’s American Relief Administration and a Western European fund organised by Fridthof Nansen. Very little had come from the Communist Party or its overseas branches. America stood high in general Russian esteem because of this. Says Koch “For the world proletariat of 1925, the leading counter-myth to the myth of revolution was the idea of America.” It was therefore necessary to organise an event, which would present the United States as a land of injustice. The particular hypocrisy of Munzenberg’s campaign was, however, that Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists, not Communists, and in the Soviet Union anarchists were routinely imprisoned or executed.
Munzenberg’s lieutenant in Soviet propaganda was Otto Katz, who outlived Munzenberg only to die in the last round of Stalinist purges in the 1950s. It was Katz who rallied the support of the Hollywood left for his “Anti-Nazi League” which suddenly changed its name to the “League for Democratic Action” and began propagandising against a war with Hitler as soon as the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed. Indeed Katz’s apparatus now began denouncing France and Britain as warmongering states which should have reached a wise compact with Hitler the way Stalin had. This was too much for the novelist Thomas Mann who, with his brother Heinrich, had previously been co-opted into many of Katz’s “anti-fascist” activities. Seeing how duplicitous the Katz apparatus now was, Mann burst out “No Nazi – or Stalinist – agent in this country could have sown such evil propaganda against the democracies and the life-and-death struggle they are waging against the German regime as you do.” (Part Two, Chapter 9)
There are some grimly funny – or at least ironical - stories here. One concerns the Russian General Walter Krivitsky, who defected to the USA early in 1939 and immediately made public the fact that Hitler and Stalin were about to do a deal. Propaganda and front organizations went into overdrive, denouncing him as a fraud. Over 400 Hollywood liberals and showbiz radicals signed a public letter of protest (Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, Clifford Odets, Sinclair Lewis etc. etc.) at Krivitsky’s “lies”. It ran as a paid advertisement in bold type on the back pages of many newspapers. The trouble was, it appeared on the very same day that the front pages of the same newspapers were announcing, with astonishment, the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. This is a classic case of bad timing! (Part Two, Chapter 8)
And yet, dear reader, coming to the end of my summary of this worthwhile book, isn’t at least part of your mind saying that Double Lives must be the work of a right-wing writer who hasn’t understood the nobility of the anti-fascist movement?
The stereotype of an American book written against Communism is that it must be some sort of unreconstructed Cold War tract. Old lefties have become adept at saying that, yes, Stalinism was an evil but it was somehow detachable from the noble ideals of Communism. Anyone who says otherwise must be a crude McCarthyist. And, of course, evocation of the right-wing demagoguery of the McCarthy era is a very good way of making the old Hard Left look good. There is also the obvious fact that many of the diplomatic manoeuvres of the British and French governments in the 1930s really were dodgy, and the Munich agreement is nothing to be proud of. Like Stalin, the French and British governments were seeking to divert Hitler away from their patch. However, unlike Stalin, they never went into alliance with Hitler, collaborated with his terror system or helped him out with war materiel when he launched his first attacks.
If you have any misgivings about Koch’s book, I simply point to the wealth of verifiable research on which it is based and especially the interviews Koch undertook with key informants and witnesses. (One of his main interviewees was Willi Munzenberg’s widow, Babette Gross, a very old lady who had long since abandoned her Stalinism and developed into a devout anti-Communist.)
But how is this relevant to us?
Simple. The gross forms that modern capitalism can take, the widening of the wealth gap and the rise of right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump could be fertile ground for the myth that a decisive, non-democratic Left alternative is possible. I see this in many of the simplistic slogans that flood Facebook and other social media. We are urged to “Smash Capitalism”, but few coherent alternatives are proposed. A replay of the Left Delusion of the 1930s is perfectly feasible. For this reason, careful study of a book like Double Lives is an important political act for our own age.