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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?