"Communism is fascism . . . the most successful variant of fascism . . . fascism with a human face."

It has been five weeks since the writer and critic Susan Sontag spoke those words at a rally of support for Poland's Solidarity movement, but the echoes have not stopped rebounding through the halls of New York intellectualdom. Mary McCarthy, William F. Buckley Jr., Noam Chomsky, Diana Trilling, Jessica Mitford, Jaocobo Timmerman, Andrew Kopkind and Paul Robeson Jr., among others, have taken up their pens in reply. The debate has consumed vast portions of The Village Voice and The Nation. Sontag has filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the Soho News--"the dreadful Soho News," she called it--for reprinting her speech without permission. For unrelated reasons, the Soho News ceased publication yesterday--story this page.

The world is not unanimous in its belief that whatever concerns these people and publications should automatically concern us all. Clearly, private grievances, willful misunderstandings and plain old loquaciousness have played their parts in the Sontag contretemps. But even in its most loud-mouthed and convoluted moments, this debate illuminates an important fact of life about the American Left circa 1982: The recent histories of Czechoslovakia, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Poland may have eroded the last vestiges of overt sympathy with the communist world, but there is intense disagreement still about how communism should be viewed, and about how--and in whose company--it should be opposed.

In some ways, the argument parallels those of the '30s, '40s and '50s over Stalin's purges, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the postwar campaign against a domestic "communist menace." But unlike many of the anticommunists whose views were forged in those times, Sontag was never a communist herself "and therefore am not now a 'repentant' ex-communist of the God-who-failed variety," she writes.

Jarring phrases and concepts have been part of Sontag's arsenal since her emergence as the promoter/analyzer of "camp" (or "the good taste of bad taste") in the early '60s. Her 1966 collection of essays, "Against Interpretation," established her as a leading light among avant-garde critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and she has written novels and made movies as well. None of her work has been directed at a mass audience but, remarkably, Sontag's name and face have become known well beyond the intellectual circles in which she has traveled.

In the 1960s and early '70s, Sontag was one of the American radicals who sent back enthusiastic reports of life in Cuba and North Vietnam--and her recent speech clearly reflected that experience, but without mentioning it explicitly.

She says she intended to "make a little trouble" when she addressed the Feb. 6 rally, but "I think that most people have forgotten or don't know what the context was. I mean, I was talking at a political meeting, and talking to some people, not everybody."

The rally had been called, according to its chairman, Ralph Schoenman, "because we felt it was essential for the left to take up the cause of the Polish workers . . . to deny to Cold Warriors the support of a workers' mass movement in Poland which they would be the first to suppress in the United States, just as their clients are doing in Turkey and El Salvador."

Knowing she would be one of 20 speakers--the others included Kurt Vonnegut, Pete Seeger and Gore Vidal--Sontag says she wanted to say something "a little different." She was concerned that leftists meant to "co-opt" the Polish workers' movement without fully acknowledging its character, "and I thought in that situation it might be useful to represent the point of view that people in Poland have about what they've done or what they want. They are not Marxists. They are not communists. They are not socialists. They hate that system. It's very useful to remind people that there is a gap between people in Eastern Europe and people on the American Left."

The beginning of her speech was very much in the overall spirit of the evening. She condemned the Reagan administration and "the utter hypocrisy of its support for the Polish democratic movement." But then she urged her audience "not to let our sense of whom we oppose on our side of the frontier between capitalism and communism lead us into certain hypocrisies and untruths."

Old News

It was important to remember that "people on the left have wittingly or unwittingly told a lot of lies," she said. They had been deluded by "the angelic language of communism." She recalled her own refusal to believe what emigre's wrote about life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the 1950s and '60s. "We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love truth enough . . . The result was that many of us, and I include myself, did not understand the nature of communist tyranny. We tried to distinguish among communisms--for example, treating 'Stalinism,' which we disavowed, as if that were an aberration, and praising other regimes--outside of Europe--which had and have essentially the same character."

This phase of her speech provoked immediate boos and hisses. The problem was "bad cultural associations," as "Ragtime" author E.L. Doctorow, another of the night's speakers, puts it. The audience at New York's Town Hall included some with vivid memories of the McCarthy era and a correspondingly low tolerance for any effort to identify Americans as "soft on communism." In that vein, writer Jessica Mitford said Sontag was "out to get the liberals along with the communists," and "she is not the first one . . ."

Others objected to Sontag's communism/fascism equation. "We don't need new semantic adventures in search of new definitions in order to identify the enemy," wrote the exiled Argentine journalist Jacobo Timmerman. "Communism is an enemy because it is communism, not because it has borrowed from the fascist arsenal."

Still others dismissed Sontag's message as old news. "Nobody substantially under 75 really needs to be taught" the evils of Soviet-style communism, said Doctorow. And rally organizer Schoenman went even further. Since Sontag "has supported Soviet dissidents over a period of years," he said, "she was confessing to things of which she has not been guilty. It was, ironically enough, a statement curiously like those one hears in totalitarian societies where people confess to views they have not held, having been persuaded or coerced by others to a sense of guilt entirely displaced."

Not all of Sontag's critics have been so willing to exonerate her for her past pronouncements. Sociologist Paul Hollander, in his book "Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba," chastised Sontag for such effusive statements as these: "The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality, and freaking out. They are not linear, desiccated creatures of the print culture . . ." "The phenomenon of existential agony, of alienation just doesn't appear among the Vietnamese . . . The Vietnamese are 'whole' human beings, not 'split' as we are . . ."

"People like Susan Sontag, they should really have no political standing in the world," says Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of The New Republic who is teaching a course on ideology at Harvard this semester. "At some point, people's reputation for political prognostication should be exhausted."

Sontag points out that most of her positive comments on Cuba and North Vietnam came in the Khrushchev era, "when it seemed that there really was a possibility of a more liberal policy in the Soviet Union." But this is offered only as a partial defense. In her speech, she said she had asked herself "many times" why she had refused for so long to believe the testimony of dissidents and exiles about the communist world. "Why did we not have a place for, ears for, their truth? The answer is well known. We had identified the enemy as fascism . . ."


Since the speech, Sontag has tried to clarify and, to some extent, moderate the passages that caused greatest offense. Communism has become "objectively fascistic," she says, but "of course its origins are different." She never meant to deny an idealistic element in the history of communism, she insists. "That is the great tragedy of our century, that some of the best people in the world have been part of these movements. But I think that one honors them better by pointing out how bad the system is."

She has also retrenched slightly on her controversial reference to the Reader's Digest. "Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman," she had asked. "Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?"

The current issue of The Nation includes a comic compilation of Reader's Digest headlines from the '50s, ranging from "Red Slave Drivers and Sadists" to "Stalin's Plans for the U.S.A." to "Red Spy Masters in America" by J. Edgar Hoover. But Sontag contends she was referring only to the two magazines' coverage of life behind the Iron Curtain. "I'm not associating myself with other things," she says. "I've been pilloried as a reader of the Reader's Digest. I don't read the Reader's Digest."

She has also reemphasized her differences with the liberal anti-communists of earlier generations--for example, Diana Trilling, author of "Mrs. Harris." "In obedience to my own instruction, I welcome Miss Sontag into her new difficult life as an anticommunist," Trilling wrote after Sontag's speech. "Thanks, but no thanks," Sontag replied. (Along with her welcome, Trilling had said she would "feel more secure about Sontag's political course if her language rang fewer bells from the Stalinist past." Sontag called this accusation "mind-boggling.")

The lawsuit against the Soho News has generated its own controversy. "I am a writer and it seems to me I should have the choice of having my entire speech printed in the place where I want it printed," says Sontag. The place she wanted it printed was The New York Times, but her suit charges that the unauthorized Soho News version caused The Times to lose interest. (Ultimately, Sontag had the speech printed in The Nation, while omitting the Nation/Reader's Digest comparison, which she says was extemporaneous. And Nation editor Victor Navasky reinserted that passage in a preface.)

"I'm not a litigious person," says Sontag. "This is the first lawsuit I've ever brought in my life and I hope to God the last one." The Soho News could have quoted 60 or 70 percent of her speech "and I in no way would have objected to that," she says, but as it is, "they have kidnaped my speech and presented it outside of its context."

"What a crabbed view of political discourse," Nat Hentoff counters in the current Village Voice. "This was not a recital of literary readings. Sontag, among many others, gave a speech in a public forum about a public issue. She gave it, as they say, with an intent to persuade, and therefore could not have been distressed at the possibility her speech would be reported to those unfortunate souls who were unable to be at Town Hall that night."

An irony of Sontag's lawsuit is that her lawyer, Leon Friedman, is fighting a similar action filed by former president Gerald Ford and his publishers against The Nation, over its unauthorized use of excerpts from the Ford memoirs.