June 24, 2019

THE RED DECADE, REDUX: Journalist Eugene Lyons’s chronicle of the 1930s Left remains startlingly relevant today.

It may be that the best book that will ever be written about today’s progressive mind-set was published in 1941. That in The Red Decade author Eugene Lyons was, in fact, describing the Communist-dominated American Left of the Depression-wracked 1930s and 1940s makes his observations even more meaningful, for it is sobering to be confronted with how little has been gained by hard experience. The celebration of feelings over reason? The certainty of moral virtue? The disdain for tradition and the revising of history for ideological ends? The embrace of the latest definition of correct thought? Lyons was one of the most gifted reporters of his time, and among the bravest, and his story of the spell cast by Stalinist-tinged social-justice activism over that day’s purported best and brightest—literary titans, Hollywood celebrities, leading academics, religious leaders, media heavies—would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t so eerily familiar.

Indeed, looking backward from a time when, according to surveys, more millennials would rather live under socialism than capitalism, it’s apparent that Lyons was documenting not just a historical moment but also a species of historical illiteracy as unchanging as it is poisonous, its utopianism able to flourish only at the expense of independent thought. On a range of issues, alternative views were defined as not merely mistaken but morally reprehensible; and among the elites who dominated the cultural sphere, deviants from approved opinion were subject to special abuse. Of course, having lived and worked in Soviet Russia, Lyons made distinctions about relative abuses of power. Under Stalinism, dissidents were liquidated, or vanished into the gulag; the American Left could only liquidate careers and disappear reputations.

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In one sense, the book could hardly have appeared at a more propitious moment. As Lyons wrote in his introduction, it was originally to go to press on June 22, 1941—the very day that Hitler stabbed his ally Stalin in the back by invading the Soviet Union, thereby necessitating a wholesale revision of the CPUSA’s line on the European war. Already that line had drastically changed once, only two years earlier, instantly moving from die-hard anti-Nazism to adamantly antiwar, when Stalin shocked the world by signing his infamous nonaggression pact with Hitler; as a result, thousands of anguished party members had quit, and multitudes of fellow travelers quietly slipped away. But the hard core had rationalized, casting Stalin as a master statesman who had done what he had to in defense of the world’s lone socialist republic, and now they rationalized again. As Lyons observes with bemused contempt, though on that same June 22, the Communist front American Peace Mobilization had been in the midst of a “peace vigil” at the White House, for this “disciplined, obedient and fanatically self-righteous army,” the “ ‘plutocrat’ war was magically transmuted into a people’s war for freedom and justice.” The new demand was that America immediately get into the fight!

The British left’s (also Stalin-approved) 180-degree pivot at this moment was of course the origin of Orwell’s “Oceania has always been/has never been at war with Eastasia” leitmotif in 1984. Read the whole thing.

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