IF THERE IS ONE THING that defined a liberal or left-wing intellectual in the 1930s and '40s, it was his or her strong, if not passionate, views about the Soviet Union. To some, the Soviet Union was a cruel travesty of liberal and/or socialist values, a system deserving scorn and detestation. Many non-Communist intellectuals, however, saw it as a noble, if somewhat flawed "experiment," or at the very least as the one bastion against fascism and reaction. The latter were, in the parlance of those days, the "progressives." The others, wishing to dissociate themselves from right-wing anti-Communists who lumped together (as they do to this day) Social Democrats, left-wing socialists, and Communists, called themselves anti-Stalinists. It is to those two groups, their voluminous writings, disputations, and verbal battles that William O'Neill's book is devoted.

A Better World falls--if only for chronological reasons--into two fairly distinct parts. The first deals with the "progressives," the second with their adversaries. In the 1940s Stalin (through no choice of his own) joined forces with the Western democracies. Encouraged by a wave of admiration for America's new allies, and in small measure by the Roosevelt administration that regarded a sense of common purpose to be good for public morale, the "progressives" set about to depict the Soviet Union in glowing terms and to rally public opinion. Their most notable achievement was the creation of the Progressive Party, with Henry Wallace as its standard bearer. But Wallace's presidential campaign of 1948, which demonstrated at once his ineffable innocence and cynicism, was also, as O'Neill correctly observes, "the death rattle of the old progressivism." By that time the cold war was on, and public opinion had swung from adulation of Russia to unbridled hostility. In addition, many progressive intellectuals finally awoke to the iniquities of Stalin's regime, and broke ranks with the Communists. And so the turn came for the anti-Stalinists both to reflect and mold public opinion or at least some segments or it.

To read the first few chapters of this painstakingly documented, lucid and sagacious volume is to be struck again by the capacity of many otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people to fall prey to pernicious myths, to embrace views boasting neither substance nor logic, and to engage in blatantly mendacious rationalizations. A good historian--and on this showing O'Neill, who teaches at Rutgers University, is preeminently that--requires no political legitimation for pursuing the truth. But since some of the survivors of the progressive era are still wedded to the double standard (e.g., criticizing, however rightly, American foreign policy while justifying Soviet behavior, be it in Afganistan, Poland, or the Middle East), and since some (such as Lillian Hellman) not only distort their own past but wrap themselves in a mantle of righteous martyrdom, it is useful to be reminded of a time when so many of America's leading intellectuals went out of their way to defend Stalin's tyranny.

Appalled, as some of them were, by the Nazi-Soviet pact, they sprang into action again as soon as the Nazis broke it. The fact that Soviet soldiers were now pitted against the Germans served to confirm their view that communism and Soviet Russia remained a legitimate component of the "Left." Any criticism of it, therefore, had to be condemned. The New Republic and even more so The Nation--and in New York the daily PM and later its short-lived offspring, The Compass--vied with each other in discovering fresh virtues in Stalin, or in Soviet collective farms, or, as the Germans retreated, in the blessings that Soviet bayonets brought to the peoples of Eastern Europe. As evidence of Moscow's imperial ambitions began to mount, progressive writers chose either to deny the obvious, or to maintain that the evidence was still not "conclusive"--or in the end to justify Soviet actions on the ground that any criticism of it would "drag us closer to a third world war." (No such "fear of war," O'Neill notes in one of his scalding comments, had kept progressive "from attacking Nazi Germany a decade earlier. It was still a matter of whose ox was being gored.")

One of the singular merits of A Better World is to remind us that the tendency to romanticize the Soviet Union was not confined, as the current neoconservatives would have it, to "knee-jerk liberals." It characterized a good part of the conservative establishment as well. This was true of The Saturday Evening Post, Time, and even that bastion of philistine anti-communism, Reader's Digest. A number of clergymen joined in the chorus, one of them declaring that while "God intended America to spread the demand for liberty and vital religion," it was also His design to have Russia "promote economic justice and racial equality." Several publishers deliberately avoided taking on books that might give offense to the Kremlin. Not a few bankers and businessmen contributed heftily to Wallace's campaign. And for its part Hollywood produced several films that would make even the Soviet practitioners of "socialist realism" blush with embarrassment.

In dealing with the "progressives," as well as with their critics, O'Neill is scrupulously fair and objective. His account of the sordid chapter of "who sold out China," for instance, makes it clear that it was the progressive-oriented scholars and journalists, despite their record as Soviet apologists, who were right in maintaining that Mao Tse-tung was not a loyal ally of the Soviet Union, and that indiscriminate support for the Kuomintang was bound to end in disaster. At the same time, he also observes rightly, that "it would have taken heroic objectivity for any anti-Stalinist" who read some of the progressives' writings on the Soviet Union to have any faith in their interpretation of China. However correct their assessment of the strength and popularity of their Chinese Communists, and however well taken their advice not to support a bankrupt regime but to try to influence the inevitable winner, it was tainted by a set of moral and ideological maxims that most Americans found difficult to digest.

The chapters on McCarthyism, the "red scare" of the early '50s, and the excesses of the "anti-anti Communists" are equally fair- minded and judicious. O'Neill is critical of Truman's loyalty program, of the wholesale dismissal of hundreds of university teachers on the grounds of membership in or sympathy for the Communist Party. He deplores the "obstinate and intolerant" tone of some of the anti-Statinist publications of that time, and the witchhunts conducted by the Subversive Control Board and sundry congressional committees. He also, rightly again, calls attention to the Communist Control Act of 1954 that was introduced into the Senate by no less a liberal luminary than Hubert Humphrey, a measure as appallingly illiberal as anything the late senator from Wisconsin ever tried to achieve.

Some of the reviews of A Better World have criticized its author for ostensibly justifying the persecution of "left-wingers" in the "entertainment business." The charge has no substance. O'Neill flatly rejects the notion that fellow-travelling screen-writers, actors, and the like (and there were not a few of them) were guilty of "subversion." Yet he is equally scathing about their claim that they were high minded "liberals" and as such victims of American "fascism." Had the notorious "Hollywood Ten," for instance, not taken the Fifth Amendment and candidly affirmed their political convictions, they would have earned marks for probity and very likely have avoided criminal prosecution into the bargain. O'Neill has no use for that whole "dark period" in which witless anti-communism obliterated the crucial distinction between opinions (however odious) and treason. But neither does he waste much sympathy on those who, if given a chance, would have denied their opponents their human rights nor on their present-day apologists, eager to cast them in the role of libertarian heroes.

In his final chapter, O'Neill asserts that the battles between the progressive intellectuals and their critics are largely a thing of the past. Yet he also points out that the progressive mentality, with its tendency to glorify revolution and "progress" regardless of human cost is still extant. Nowadays it takes the from of apologias for Castroism, for the PLO, and even --in one particularly shocking case he cites-- in a defense of the monstrous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. In point of fact even the defense of "historic Stalinism" (to use O'Neill's term) is not as infrequent as he suggests. True, for the average liberal intellectual Stalinism is no longer a meaningful issue. But in the academic community a palpable effort is now being made to "reexamine" Stalinism, and present it in a far more "objective"--that is to say favorable --light.

In a recent issue of the quarterly journal Slavic Review, for instance, one eminent scholar argues that Stalin's policies of the 1930s (collectivization, industrialization, and mass terror) were designed above all "to give substance to the dictatorship of the proletariat" by promoting the "social mobility" of workers, and to create a"new managerial elite." This effort to confer terminological respectability on the practice of climbing over mountains of corpses is matched by yet another scholar, who has argued that in some essential respects the Soviet political system is not much different from that of the United States. Yet another has objected to the term "Stalinist terror" as specious and misleading. All this is going to have even less of an effect on the views of the American public than the progressive rhetoric of the 1930s and '40s. Yet it indicates that old myths, unlike old soldiers, neither die nor fade away but cling tenaciously to life--albeit, as some philosophers might put it, on a "higher" (that is, more abstruse) level. Which is hardly a cause for rejoicing.