As archives and witnesses in formerly Communist lands have become available to historians, we better understand the significance played by Western intellectuals promoting the Soviet agenda. In Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals (New York: Enigma Books, 2004; completely revised and updated), Stephen Koch details the tangled web of espionage and subversion spun by one of Lenin’s and Stalin’s premier agents, Willi Munzenberg, a German communist who “covertly directed propaganda operations in the West” (p. 5). He mastered both the arts of spreading propaganda and enlisting fellow travelers, shaping public opinion through various “Popular Front” mechanisms to garner support for the Soviet position.
“He wanted to instill the feeling, like a truth of nature, that seriously to criticize or challenge soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility” (p. 15). He did so by co-opting public opinion in democratic countries and then denying he’d actually done so. “He organized in all the media: newspapers, film, radio, books, magazines, the theater. Every kind of ‘opinion maker’ was involved: writers, artists, actors, commentators, priests, ministers, professors, ‘business leaders,’ scientists, psychologists, anyone at all whose opinion the public was likely to respect” (p. 15).
He shrewdly manipulated scores of left-leaning intellectuals, fellow travelers whom he disdainfully called the “innocents.” He played upon man’s hunger for righteousness, for an inner sense of making the world a better place. “More than perhaps any other person of his era, he developed what may well be the leading moral illusion of the twentieth century; the notion that in the modern age the principal arena of the moral life, the true realm of good and evil, is politics” (p. 20). Thus the “lost generation” of the ‘20s—writers and artists such as Lincoln Steffens and John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht and a cadre of Hollywood screenwriters and wealthy donors cultivated by another Soviet agent, Otto Katz—were Munzenberg’s primary targets.
Hemingway, an “unchallenged celebrity” in the ‘20s and ‘30s, was as important to Munzenberg as Andre Gide (the French novelist). His literary style, providing a model for scores of writers, elicited an acclaim from all quarters. He became “the most influential moralist of the Word in his era,” and, consequently, “all three of the principal leaders of the Hollywood Popular Front—Lillian Hellman, Dashiel Hammett, and Dorothy Parker—were writers whose prose vulgarized Hemingway’s style” (p. 309). Hemingway’s prominent role in supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War opened the door for Soviet apparatchiks looking for propaganda opportunities. He was not himself a communist, only one of the “useful idiots” so easily manipulated by Munzenberg’s men.
Since the Bolsheviks saw America as a serious threat to their endeavors, it was necessary to awaken a “worldwide anti-Americanism,” to “instill a reflexive loathing of the United States and its people” (p. 41). Alienated intellectuals, looking for righteous causes, were easily massaged by Munzenberg’s ministrations. The celebrated Sacco-Vanzetti case, for example, was almost wholly his creation, and he worked through a committee led by Gardner “Pat” Jackson, a prominent liberal of the day who persuaded Marion Frankfurter, the wife of Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard law professor who later became a Supreme Court Justice, to rally support for the accused killers. When Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Professor Frankfurter wrote an impassioned defense of them that appeared in the Atlantic and was widely circulated to assail the injustices of the American judicial system.
During the ‘20s and ‘30s Munzenberg also promoted pacifism in the West, seeing it as a way to weaken (and if possible disarm) the democracies that might oppose the USSR. Communists, of course were not pacifists! They relished “class war” and attained their dictatorial goals through violence. But they knew how “peace” and “non-violence” appeal to idealists, so they frequently worked through “innocents” intent on making the world a paradise through good intentions. Bolsheviks such as Munzenberg thus easily found cooperative mouthpieces for their cause among Quakers and like-minded liberal Christians who made opposition to all war an item of faith.
The world changed dramatically when Hitler seized power in the ‘30s. Munzenberg fled his native Germany and found refuge in Paris, where he continued his subversive activities, promoting the Soviet agenda. The Reichstag Fire in Berlin, for example, generated an enormous propaganda war as various factions (both Nazi and Communist) were blamed and political advantages gained in the aftermath. Sitting in exile in Switzerland, Thomas Mann, the great German novelist, concluded that “’in the final analysis the origin of the fire may itself remain as mysterious and elusive as the intellectual and subjective line dividing National Socialism from communism. As I see it, the unconscious meaning of the trial lies in its exposure of the closeness, the kinship, yes even the identity of National Socialism and communism. Its “fruit” will be to push to absurdity the hatred between the two camps and their idiotic determination to annihilate each other, when in fact there is no need for such enmity. They are kindred though divergent manifestations of one and the same historical situation, the same political world, and are even less separable than are capitalism and Marxism. Symbolic outbreaks like the Reichstag going up in flames are, we sense, even if we cannot prove it, their joint work’” (pp. 132-133).
In England, Munzenberg’s apparatus drew wealthy, privileged students into the “Cambridge Conspiracy.” Similar work was done in “every country of interest to the Bolsheviks” (p. 180). In America, recruiters targeted Ivy League colleges. Elite, gifted youngsters easily adopt an “adversary” or “counter-cultural” stance regarding the “establishment” that enables them to live so comfortably. This adversary culture appeals especially to “vigorous intellectual and artistic” youngsters who relish a radicalism that seems to represent “freedom and truth.” They want to “tear aside the bourgeois façade” and stand strong for “the deepest truth” ever known (p. 189). Thus young men in England such as Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, Americans including Alger Hiss and Michael Straight (whose family owned the New Republic magazine) were recruited for the communist cause. Young women too played an invaluable role. Ella Winter served as Felix Frankfurter’s secretary at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, “guided the steps” of her first husband, the famous muckraker, Lincoln Steffens, and ultimately became “one of the most trusted party agents for the West Coast,” working with special effectiveness within the Hollywood community.
Given their elite standing, these youngsters naturally enjoyed easy entry into the highest realms of government, academe, the media and arts. And they were ordered to ever support the Soviet cause and undermine Western democracies. They were, of course, never to admit this. Willi Munzenberg’s widow, Babette Gross (an invaluable source for this book) remembered these agents’ approach: “You do not endorse Stalin. You do not call yourself a Communist. You do not declare your love for the regime. You do not call on people to support the Soviets. Ever. Under any circumstances” (p. 249). Rather: “You claim to be an independent-minded idealist. You don’t really understand politics, but you think the little guy is getting a lousy break. You believe in open-mindedness. You are shocked, frightened by what is going on right here on our own country. You are frightened by the racism, by the oppression of the workingman” (p. 250). But in fact, all of these agents took their orders from Moscow!
In time Munzenberg, along with virtually all veteran Bolsheviks, fell from Stalin’s favor. He managed to avoid execution through various shrewd maneuvers, but he died (hanged under mysterious circumstances) soon after German forces invaded France in 1940. Double Lives reads much like a mystery novel, but it deals with some of the most historically significant currents of the 20th century.
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Martin Amis is both the son of a highly acclaimed novelist and himself an accomplished writer. In Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (New York: Hyperion, c. 2002), he ponders the incredible slaughter of millions of innocent Russians by Joseph Stalin and the equally pernicious failure of Western intellectuals to discern and denounce it. His famous father (Kingsley) was for years a “fellow traveler,” supporting the USSR until he became disillusioned with Stalin. Troubled by this, Martin tries to look back and summarize the enormity of the Stalin’s genocide and simultaneously fathom the complicity of his English enablers.
Most of Amis’s information comes from the path-breaking historical work of Robert Conquest (a family friend) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who have documented how ruthlessly Stalin followed this prescription: “’Death solves all problems. No man, no problem’” (p. 57). Murder, on a mass scale, marked his regime and explained his lengthy reign. But the value of this work is not its information, which has been widely available for decades. What Amis provides, in a non-systematic way, is insight into the support Stalin enjoyed around the world, for it was his “ideology” that justified his atrocities. Thus the same intellectuals who staunchly condemned the Nazis often defended the Bolsheviks.
As Orlando Figes explained it, “’the Bolshevik programme was based on the ideals of the Enlightenment—it stemmed from Kant as much as from Marx—which makes Western liberals, even in this age of post-modernism, sympathise with it . . . even if we do not share its political goals; whereas the Nazi efforts to “improve mankind,” whether through eugenics or genocide spat in the face of the Enlightenment and can only fill us with revulsion’” (p. 85). In fact, the Bolsheviks were far worse than the Nazis. “Nazism did not destroy civil society. Bolshevism did destroy civil society” (p. 88). Thus Germany, her basic institutions and traditions intact, recovered quickly following WWII, whereas Russia still welters in the wasteland created by Lenin and Stalin.
One mark of that growing wasteland appeared early as Russians quickly failed to reproduce themselves. “Since 1917 the Bolsheviks had systematically undermined the family. Divorce was encouraged (to achieve it you were simply obliged to notify your spouse by postcard); incest, bigamy, adultery and abortion were decriminalized; families were scattered by labor-direction and deportation; and children who denounced their parents became national figures, hymned in verse and song” (p. 154). Cultural chaos so quickly consumed the land that within two decades the regime decreed abortion illegal and Stalin suddenly appeared as a champion of traditional family life! Then the Germans invaded and WWII began and Stalin revoked many of the restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church, appealing to the ancient religion in his war with the Nazis.
He did so, however, with a severely depleted military. Amazingly, his brutal purges in the ‘30’s led to the following reductions: “3 of the 5 marshals; 13 of the 15 army commanders; 8 of the 9 fleet admirals and admirals Grade I; 50 of the 57 corps commanders; 154 of the 186 divisional commanders; 16 of the 16 army political commissars; 25 of the 28 corps commissars; 58 of the 64 divisional commissars; 11 of 11 vice commissars of defense; 98 of the 108 members of the Supreme Military Soviet” (p. 175). That the officer corps, generally the least political of the public servants, would be so savagely dismembered bears witness to the nature of Stalin’s tyranny. “One soldier likened the purge to ‘a Tartar massacre,’ but even this understates the case. As Roy Medvedev put it: ‘Never has the officer corps of any army suffered such losses in any war as the Soviet Army suffered in this time of peace” (p. 175).
Thanks to the American and British armies, of course, the Axis powers were defeated and Stalin laid claim to much of Eastern Europe as well as reestablished his dictatorship following WWII. And strangely enough, Amis says, Stalin proved to be “an extremely popular leader” (p. 212). Millions were sent to their deaths in the camps, millions were deliberately starved, but the leader remained popular! He did so by manipulating public opinion. He, like Hitler, mastered all the means of propaganda, the “hypnotic power of mass ideology” (p. 213). “The love for Stalin: it is very nearly the saddest story of all” (p. 213).
But why Western intellectuals joined the Russian masses, loving Stalin, remains a mystery to Amis. He describes, but fails to explain this phenomenon. I suspect he lacks the philosophical and theological acumen to rightly diagnose the powerful allure communism posed for intellectuals who had abandoned the principles of Western Civilization. But he does at least divulge the disillusionment many, like him, now share as they reflect upon the past century.
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One of the few journalists to clearly see—and honestly report—conditions in Stalin’s Russia was Malcolm Muggeridge, whose novel, Winter in Moscow (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., c. 1987; first published in 1934 by Eyre and Spottiswoode, London), was based upon his observations as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in 1932 and 1933. Reared in a socialist home, married to the niece of Beatrice Webb (an eminent socialist who routinely praised and defended the Bolsheviks), Muggeridge arrived in Russia with great expectations, confident he’d find the dreams of himself and his father fully fulfilled. He even considered becoming a Russian citizen and devoting the rest of his life to the socialist cause. But he’d barely arrived before he was overwhelmed with the reality of what had happened, the misery of the “workers’ paradise,” the illusions of Marxist slogans. So instead of writing an encomium to the endeavor, he drafted one of the most searing indictments of the Soviet system written in his era. In his introduction to this edition, Michael D. Aeshliman notes that “A.J.P. Taylor, one of the finest English historians of our time, wrote in 1965 that this novel was ‘probably the best book ever written on Soviet Russia’” (p. vii).
The novel is loosely structured around a corps of English visitors’ and journalists’ activities in Russia. Representative of the thousands of “political pilgrims” who toured the country was a woman, a devout feminist, who was delighted “to find that so many things she believed in had been put into practice—co-education, sex equality, humane slaughterer, family allowances, communal kitchens” etc. (p. 24). Another, an Anglican clergyman, “by nature mild and gentle,” who had no faith in either the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Virgin Birth he officially upheld, sought a better world in Russia and agonized over the “intolerance and cruelty” so amply evident under Stalin’s rule, but he took comfort in the fact that every home “had its wireless, and its gramophone, and its shelves of revolutionary literature” (p. 38). Coming to Russia for a brief visit, knowing what they wanted to see and seeing what the tour guides chose to show them, they generally returned home with glowing testimonials for the communist system.
Western journalists too gave Stalin support. They were epitomized by a man Muggeridge called “Jefferson”—clearly the celebrated, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who (while millions of peasants died) merely acknowledged that there was “’a shortage of some districts’” that might in “’certain very rare’” cases be called “’a famine. But, as I said in a piece I sent a few days ago, you can’t make omelettes without cracking eggs’” (p. 90). Years later, Muggeridge would say that Duranty was “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism” (p. xix). Evaluating another journalist, who solemnly praised Duranty, Muggeridge said: “The old man embodied in himself the character of his age. He was the decadence of European civilization getting a last sensation out of the establishment of Asiatic barbarism in Russia. Lines on his face traced out a record of the world to which he belonged. Co-education in creases round his nose. Votes for women wrinkling his forehead. Pacifism the slobber of his lips” (p. 93). He was, in short, “bloated, inflated, but with no core” (p. 93).
One of the characters, Wilfred Pye, representing Muggeridge, “had a simple mind” and went to Russia intent on finding the truth. “Obviously, Pye thought, I must see where people eat; how they eat, and what they eat” (p. 127). He’d always sided with the poor and dispossessed, and Bolshevism seemed to him a fully admirable movement. “It was the future; hated by all save the far-seeing and the pure of heart; hated by all save Pye and his great English Liberal newspaper” (p. 128). To him the helpless were always righteous, the impoverished were always victims, and the pursuit of justice required the transformation of society. He was proud of standing up for the “weak and oppressed, [and] when he looked at a map it was not countries he saw, but wrongs sprawling across five continents” (p. 128).
Arriving in Russia expecting to find a paradise, Muggeridge had to do little more than stroll about Moscow to see its refutation. “He saw hunger everywhere” and wondered how the Dictatorship of the Proletariat could feed him and Western journalists while allowing masses of Russians to go hungry. Determined to see more of the country, he traveled extensively and discovered, to his horror, that famine was everywhere and, worse yet, “it was organized from within” (p. 138). Peasants were dying in what had once been the bread basket of Russia, and it was clearly an officially-orchestrated starvation of the people. As Pye analyzed it, he realized that: “Marxism, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’s religion, is the most urban religion that has ever existed. It was born in underground printing presses, in dingy lodgings and cafes and hotels. Its prophets were wanderers from one European capital to another whose dreams, like themselves, were rootless” (p. 138). In the deepest sense, the Bolsheviks warred against the “earth; with the nature of things and people; with life itself, that their embodiment involves” (p. 139). In the service of an abstract ideology, Marxists easily denied both God and Reality and sought to destroy all created goods that challenged their agenda.
Muggeridge rapidly discarded his illusions in the face of the monumental evils he witnessed. One of his characters finally concluded: “Every tendency in himself, in societies; the past and the future; all he had ever seen or thought or felt or believed, sorted itself out. It was a vision of Good and Evil. Heaven and Hell. Life and death. There were two alternatives; and he had to choose. He chose” (p. 226). He chose to deal honestly with reality rather than blind himself with ideological rhetoric, to tell the truth rather than toe the party line. Walking about the decaying city of Moscow, he realized that the “litter of ideas in his own mind was the litter of ideas outside. Rootless, unreligious ideas. What a blight they had been! Piling up into shadows whose darkness cloaked a reversion to savagery. Piling up into a Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (p. 232). Under the Bolsheviks utopia had triumphed, consummating “all the dingy hopes that have echoed and re-echoed over Europe for a century” (p. 234).
When he tried to publish what he saw in Russia, his articles were disbelieved and he was called a liar. The Guardian fired him and when he returned to England he was blacklisted and virtually unemployable! Only celebrations of Stalin were allowed! But Winter in Moscow was published and remains for us one of the few truthful descriptions of what life was really like in those years.