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

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.