Red or Dead: How Stalin Re-Defined American Liberalism


In his book Disinformation, Ion Mihai Pacepa recounts the story of the Ukranian folk singers known as lirniki and banduristy. In the mid-1930s Stalin’s government announced the First All-Ukranian Congress of Lirniki and Banduristy. These folk singers, mostly blind men who wandered the countryside,

“…came to the Congress from all over the Ukraine, from tiny, forgotten villages.  There were several hundred of them at the Congress, they say.  It was a living museum, the country’s living history. All its songs, all its music and poetry. And they were almost all shot, almost all those pathetic blind men killed.”

Americans fail to grasp socialism because, to Americans, the political is simply one aspect of culture. To the socialist, however, the political defines culture. Everything is political. And that is why pro-Stalinist liberal American intellectuals justified rewriting history to defend Stalin, the ruthless murderer of millions including blind music men, as a revered left wing icon.

The American Liberal love affair with Marxism is rooted in the social justice movement of the late Victorian era. Turning to government to solve social and economic issues paved the way for welcoming socialism into the intellectual fold. According to early 20th century liberal intellectual Diana Trilling:

“If we can say, as I think we can, that before this century the source of all political idealism was (however remotely) religion, I think we can also say that in our own century the source of all political idealism has been socialism, and, since the Russian Revolution, specifically the socialism of the Soviet Union.”

Yet, even liberal progressives championing socialism from the safety of American shores could not fully weather the storm caused by Stalin’s Moscow Trials. One ice-axed Leon Trotsky later and the American socialist movement was up in arms, divided over Lenin versus Stalin, arguing that the Georgian dictator was perverting Marx’s perfect plan.

Whittaker Chambers, 1901-1961

Whittaker Chambers, 1901-1961

When Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist spy, finally took the stand to bear witness against Alger Hiss and the communist infestation in the American government, the battle over Stalin and the future of liberal socialism reached its zenith:

“The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.”

Stalinist Liberals hurled accusations toward their anti-Stalinist counterparts of being “reactionary” in French Revolutionary terms. Being considered “conservative” in the slightest sense was a tremendous insult; as Diana’s husband Lionel observed in his 1950 release The Liberal Imagination, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” These intellectuals would go on to review Chambers’s subsequent bestseller Witness, not in terms of its truth-telling, but in light of the pro- and anti-socialist battle raging within the liberal world. According to critic Hilton Kramer:

“The response of the liberal anti-Communists to Witness was very different – and far more honorable, of course – yet the effect was also in the end to place Chambers outside the boundaries of enlightened intellectual opinion. Because they believed that Chambers was telling the truth about Hiss – and indeed about Communism – it became the primary task of the liberal anti-Communists in dealing with Witness not to defend Hiss but to rescue liberalism from Chambers’s sweeping attack on it.”

The Crisis over socialism transcended the political definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” and manifested itself in the heart of American intellectual culture, because to socialists, culture is another manifestation of the political. And, to be anything less than liberal was declasse. Therefore, as Diana Trilling observed, to be a true liberal, one must embrace socialism, regardless of Stalin’s nasty habit of murdering anyone who got in his way:

“But the task of persuading the liberal who is not afraid of Communism that he should be afraid of it is a gigantic one, and one which involves changing a climate of opinion and feeling over the whole of our culture.”

This past week, Obama Czar Cass Sunstein resurrected Chambers and Hiss to provide his fellow liberals with an explanation as to why the Tea Party insists they’re all socialists, or as he put it, “accused of holding positions that they abhor.” This far into the Obama Administration, it would appear as if Sunstein himself longs for simpler times, when culture wasn’t so political, prior to the era when liberals were either red or dead.