THE CAUSE THAT FAILED
Communism in American
By Guenter Lewy
Oxford. 359 pg. $24.95
THE AMERICAN Communist Party has not had any influence over mainstream American politics since 1948, but it continues to haunt current political debates. In The Cause that Failed: Communism in American Life, political scientist Guenter Lewy argues that the failure to exclude Communists from the New Left doomed that movement and its descendants to inevitable failure.
The first part of Lewy's book is a credible but unoriginal history of the American Communist Party from 1919 to 1948. Departing from the sentimental revisionism of Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism or the documentary Seeing Red, Lewy portrays the party as a conspiratorial body willing at Stalin's behest to transform itself overnight from an enemy to a tacit ally of Nazism. But because Lewy relies exclusively on secondary sources, he has very little to say about American Communism after 1948. The reader gets no sense from this book about the party's membership, leadership or aims after 1948, making it difficult to evaluate Lewy's warnings against Communist influence. And to make matters worse, Lewy barely acknowledges the transformations in world communism wrought by Mikhail Gorbachev, implying that perestroika, glasnost and "now thinking" should be grouped with the '30s Popular Front as simply another tactical maneuver in the Soviet quest for world domination.
Lewy is at his best explaining the debates about McCarthyism in the '50s. He observes that the New Left's unwillingness to exclude Communists -- its anti-anticommunism -- was largely the result of its having grown up in the shadow of McCarthyism. The founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) came to see the Communists as victims rather than as victimizers. They scorned the Soviet Union and American Communists, but they had even more contempt for those liberals and conservatives who appeared obsessed with the communist menace, whether at home or abroad.
Lewy's contends that this attitude toward communism -- and the resulting refusal to exclude Communists from its ranks -- predisposed the '60s New Left eventually to embrace anarchic violence and Third World totalitarianism. By failing to exclude Communists, Lewy argues, SDS and the antiwar movement opened themselves up to and became contaminated by groups like the Progressive Labor Party (PL) that in many of their activities and beliefs mimicked the Communists. "The policy of nonexclusion guaranteed that the antiwar movement came to be dominated by the most radical elements," Lewy writes.
There are several problems with this argument. First of all, SDS's failure to exclude the Communist Party had no direct effect on the organization, since the party itself was still in disarray and disdainful of the New Left. Secondly, SDS and the antiwar movement could not, as Lewy suggests, have excluded organizations like PL or the Young Socialist Alliance from their ranks on anti-Communist grounds. However screwball their ideas, these organizations were not tools of a foreign power, but, like SDS itself, were expressions of an indigenous radicalism. As a mass organization without a fixed doctrine and with a commitment to internal debate, SDS was in no position to exclude them. Lewy slides over this point by incorrectly describing all these organizations as "Communist."
Perhaps most important, the New Left's early impulse toward nonexclusion was fundamentally different from its later impulse toward Maoism and other forms of Third World totalitarianism. The former impulse was based on an application of democratic principles, however wrongheaded; the latter on a rejection of democracy. The former stemmed from Kennedy era-idealism; the latter from the embittered millenarian frenzy of the late '60s -- a period of spontaneous urban riots and of a continuing war, which peaceful protests had failed to halt. LEWY also condemns organizations like Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), SANE, and the American Civil Liberties Union for abandoning their earlier policies of Communist exclusion. However, Lewy's portrayal of them appears colored by his personal, unscholarly disagreements with their program. Lewy implies that after forsaking anti-Communism, these organizations failed, becoming part of the "ghetto of the radical left," but all of them enjoyed popular revivals during the '80s.
Moreover, these organizations never suffered from infiltration by Communist, Maoist or Trotskyist sects. ADA, the ACLU, and to some extent SANE were swept up in the splits that divided the Democratic party between followers of George McGovern and Henry Jackson. They opposed intervention without advocating a model of society based on China, Cuba or the Soviet Union.
In Lewy's eagerness to link these organizations to the unsavory left, he begins to sound like a rightwing crank. Lewy berates ADA for giving "top rating to several congressmen whose political record is outright procommunist." Lewy's alleged reds are Congressmen George Crockett and Ronald Dellums. But he fails to prove these astounding charges, relying instead on anecdotal hearsay such as a letter that one of Dellums' aides wrote describing the congressman as a supporter of Cuba's Castro and Grenada's Maurice Bishop.
This kind of ideological mudslinging is more appropriate to a John Birch society tract than to a book published by Oxford University Press. Lewy has some interesting things to say about anti-communism and McCarthyism, but they are vitiated by his unwillingness to apply the same scholarly standards to his discussion of the New Left and left-liberal present that he insists correctly upon applying to the Communist past.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of In These Times and the author of "William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of Conservatives."