Ron Radosh

How One Left-wing Academic Star Portrays Lillian Hellman as a Role Model for Today

If you want to know what is wrong with academia, look no further than a long article that appears in The Chronicle Review, the weekly magazine of the academy’s major publication, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Keep in mind that most professors subscribe to it, as do the presidents and deans of every institution of higher learning.

The article in question is written by the outgoing president of the Organization of American Historians, Prof. Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia University, who is author of a new biography of playwright Lillian Hellman, titled A Difficult Woman. Using her forthcoming book as the excuse to get some free publicity for her thesis, Kessler-Harris has written a piece titled “Lillian Hellman’s Convictions.” (Unfortunately, the magazine has chosen to put her article under a firewall, and to read it you will have to either purchase it or wait for them to eventually post it.)

What Kessler-Harris addresses is what might simply be called the question of Stalinism, and how she sees anti-Communists using the term to oppose people like Hellman who, she thinks, was unfairly called a “Stalinist” by her opponents. She writes:

I found myself asking the questions that others had posed before me. Did she deserve the epithet? Was she or wasn’t she a member of the CPUSA? How active was she? Did she follow the party line? When did she quit? Did she, in the end, come clean? Did she repudiate her former connections, turn in known Communists? And, finally, the litmus test for morality and ethics: Did she, when she learned about the evils of Stalin and Stalinism, distance herself from the CP, join the anticommunist crusade? Like everyone else, I wanted an answer to the key question: What did she know, and when did she know it?

Let us, for a moment, dissect the above paragraph. The key part is where she asks did Hellman “join the anticommunist crusade?” Obviously, by asking it in this manner, the author makes it quite clear that if Hellman had done that, it certainly was a bad thing to have done. Yes, Kessler-Harris acknowledges that there is plenty in Hellman’s life “to deplore as well as to admire.” But on that question of anti-Communism, she argues that “the cold war is over,” and scholars should neither celebrate or condemn “the virtues of my subject,” but simply ask, “So what?”

What she says she wants to do is “place communism in the context of a dynamic, many-faceted, rapidly changing century; to separate the history we write from our own hopes and fears; to recognize how communism…has shaped our efforts to interpret a difficult century.”

Let us ask another question. Substitute fascism or Nazism for Communism in that above sentence. Would she not condemn without reservation any historian who did not view it with absolute horror, not to speak of celebrating it? At the start of her article, she refers to “the distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm,” who still in his 90s defends completely his years of subservience to the Soviet Union, and who in his writings regularly bemoans the Soviet Union’s collapse. What, then, makes him so “distinguished”? I know that Hobsbawm was knighted by the queen and is highly regarded, but many writers have written boldly of his giant blind spot about Communism. Aren’t they right to have done that? Is he to be so easily excused for his continuing adoration for Stalin’s leadership of the old totalitarian state?

Kessler-Harris purports to be above all of this. She writes that we no longer have to situate ourselves on the left or the right, “as sympathizers or as apologists, that time is now past.” We can, now that the Cold War is over, “move outside old debates…and…start seeing the 20th century with fresh eyes.”

I’m certain Prof. Kessler-Harris thinks she does just that, especially in her book on Hellman. (I am in the process of writing a review of it for The American Spectator.) So let us evaluate what Kessler-Harris says in this lengthy article, and see whether she is successful in doing what she claims.

First, she says Hellman was briefly a Communist and later a “fellow traveler.” But she writes that this was “in the sense that she remained sympathetic to the broad goals of social justice for which she believed an abstract communism stood, and she courageously advocated peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union when many people believed that position to be close to treason.”

Now, most people define a “fellow traveler” as an individual who blindly supported the Communist line, and who regularly apologized for actions they knew were morally wrong and the consequences of which were horrendous for those who lived under the reign of Communist regimes. What Kessler-Harris has done is define it as one who supports a wonderful aim — “social justice.” I mean, who can be opposed to that? As for having courage to advocate co-existence with the USSR, is she kidding? Scores of people, including anti-Communist liberals, favored that, and wanted an arrangement that would keep nuclear war from breaking out. This is one of the great myths of our time — that favoring a policy such as “peaceful co-existence” was to brand oneself a Red. Remember SANE — the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy — which, by the way, had an anti-Communist clause attached to membership in order to differentiate its members from the Soviet fronts like the U.S. Peace Council, which sought to confuse people who wanted peace to join their group instead?

Later, she returns to Hellman, who she says was unfairly called a Stalinist. She writes that she showed “reprehensible behavior” when in 1938 she defended the “murderous purges that she either knew or should have known about.” She also supported the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, and never apologized for doing so. So what, then, is wrong with saying Hellman was a Stalinist, for a good portion of her life? And shouldn’t she be condemned, as Kessler-Harris does at that point?

Had Kessler-Harris ended with that paragraph, her article would be fine. But she then writes that Hellman’s “unapologetic communism signals profound frustration with democracy gone astray.” After all, our system was “controlled by the wealthy,” and all Hellmann wanted was a “ ‘better life’ that lies at the core of American radicalism.” Couldn’t one have sought a better life other than by joining the American Communist Party? No, Kessler-Harris writes that what we must see is that in the “turmoil of the 30s” there was a “desperate but unavailing search for alternatives that roiled the intelligentsia of her time.” And hence Kessler-Harris has the apology: “In Hellman’s mind…the good that the Soviet state might achieve, once its economy and social policies took shape, outweighed the condemnation of naysayers.” These were, she writes, “expressions of hope as much as indications of folly.”

Actually, what we see is the folly of a left-wing academic like Kessler-Harris, who obviously agrees that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs,” as the old rationale for Communism went. The problem, of course, is that they never got an omelet, as well as having destroyed not some eggs in the process, but millions of lives. This is supposed to be her idea of putting the Cold War behind us?

Next, Kessler-Harris praises the wartime Popular Front — the period of moral confusion in which liberals aligned themselves with Communists, thinking that their goals were one and the same. She sees this as a noble crusade for “antifascism and racial equality.” She notes that Hellman worked at the time with the black baritone, the secret CP member Paul Robeson, “against Jim Crow rules in the Army.” Doesn’t she recall how the CPUSA put racial equality on the back-burner during the war, instructing its cadre to ease up, since the U.S. had to work with the Soviets to win the war and calling attention to racism at home interfered with that effort?

Finally, she praises Hellman’s “insistence of the freedom of belief to the end of her days.” Here, she agrees with Hellman’s self-serving explanation that the Communists “never did any harm,” but of course, the anti-Communists supposedly did. So Kessler-Harris is really not putting the old sides aside, but in fact is endorsing one of them, the anti anti-Communist side.

Stalinism, she says, is meta-category,” a “label that trumps all others.” So let us not “play the Stalinist card” which allows historians “to overlook multiple and changing perceptions of self and others,” whatever that means. Let us not, she writes, “oversimplify the complex realities of American identity.”

Evidently, she does not taker her own advice. In her book, Kessler-Harris, writing about the anti-Communist social-democrat Sidney Hook, refers to him as a man who “earned his political stripes as an anticommunist and had since moved to the far right.” Actually, Hook was most well-known as a Marxist philosopher and a life-long social-democrat. That he accurately saw Hellman as a Stalinist leads Kessler-Harris to describe him without nuance as someone who was “far right.” Were Hook still with us, he would have penned an angry letter noting his belief in social-democracy, as well as atheism and secular humanism.

In what is perhaps the most telling paragraph in her book, Kessler-Harris writes the following:

In the late twentieth century, victory went to those who defined communism as the enemy of national security. Each new revelation of espionage, every document that revealed a close relationship between the Comintern and the CPUSA, strengthened the hand of anticommunists.

What upsets her is that Lillian Hellman is “forever viewed through the lens of a persistent communist threat.” So in fact, rather than being outside the fray — an impartial scholar that she considers herself to be — Kessler-Harris is a firm anti anti-Communist, writing to defend Hellman’s false belief that Communists did no harm to America, and to attack those who rightfully were anti-Communists. Her paragraph on the “victory” of those who proved through documents — I suspect she is referring in particular to Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes — that the Communists were playing a dangerous role in the United States is what really gets to her.

When she concludes that we should celebrate Hellman because she was proud of opposing only the opponents of Communism and rationalizing the Communists as well-meaning individuals, Kessler-Harris reveals that rather than being an impartial, above-the fray scholar, she is simply another member of left-wing academia whose members talk to themselves, bemoan the American victory in the Cold War, and eulogize apologists for Communism like Lillian Hellman as heroic.

Rather than one part of a group of historians who “distance themselves from those old debates” she is in fact a member of the group that continually seeks to besmirch those historians who are proudly anti-Communist, while seeing unabashed, unreconstructed Communists like Eric Hobsbawm as “distinguished.” Towards the end of her article, she notes that “a cultural icon as large as Woody Guthrie” now has his own Communist past “acknowledged,” and yet his Oklahoma birthplace is giving him a “tribute it long withheld.” Woody Guthrie, who wrote some great songs, was not the kind of CP activist who took part in the cultural wars in the way Hellman did, and the analogy falls totally flat.

In the end, Kessler-Harris sees Hellman as one who was marginalized because she saw America “in unconventional ways.” Nonsense. She was marginalized because many saw her as a mediocre playwright, as a liar and phony, and as an apologist for Stalinism. Try as she may, Kessler-Harris has not been able to rescue Lillian Hellman’s well-deserved rotten reputation.