Wednesday, October 7, 2009

An explanation of sorts

One of the great mysteries of modern history is the difference between the ways Nazism and Communism are viewed in the West (not in Eastern Europe where they have suffered from both) not only in terms of their record in issues of human rights but also as enemies of western democracy. People who denounced Nazi spies and supporters are applauded as heroes; those who denounced Communist spies and agents are seen as rather difficult, distasteful and treacherous towards their friends.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the ever present issue of “McCarthyism” and its progenitor the crucial Hiss case. In The Conservative Turn Michael Kimmage traces the growth of modern conservatism in the United States through the careers of Whittaker Chambers, who deliberately set out to create anti-Communist conservatism, and Lionel Trilling, who tried to lead liberalism away from supporting Communism. Of the two, I’d say, Chambers was more successful.

As he launches into his discussion of the Hiss case, Professor Kimmage writes (pp. 204 – 205):
Chambers won the Hiss case in court. His adversary, Alger Hiss, was convicted of perjury, sent to jail, and then to a kind of professional purgatory. The Ware circle that Chambers had helped to assemble in Washington, D.C. was devastated by the Hiss case. After World War II, American communism broke up for good, not just as a party but as a political movement.

A strenuous anti-communism advanced in tandem with the careers of senators Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, both of whom Chambers knew personally. The Hiss case lent domestic or internal immediacy to the Cold War, distinguishing it from World War II, which could easily be construed in nationalist terms, as us versus them, whether “they” were the Germans or the Japanese.

The Hiss case revolved around the figure of Alger Hiss, who was not simply an American citizen accused of treason but a prince of the American meritocracy. The list of those who believed in his innocence was awesome: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and many other luminaries. Even as resolute an anti-communist as Richard Nixon was, according to his own description, inclined to believe Hiss because he knew so many people who were friends with both Hiss and Hiss’s brother Donald.

Chambers was a wilfully marginal figure with his low voice, his potentially foreign accent, his suits – invariably described as rumpled – and his memorably bad teeth. To Triumph in the Hiss case, Chambers had to upend the established symbolism of success and failure, insider and outsider. To banish Hiss from political life, which the Hiss case effectively did, was potentially to banish anyone from public life.
Unfortunately, this is only partially true. Hiss may have been banished from political life and a few other people disappeared as well but “public opinion”, that is the media and academia as well as political hangers on has refused to accept the upending of the established symbolism. Hiss is still seen as a martyr, Chambers as a psychopath and McCarthyism the greatest evil in the world. All of that despite the overwhelming evidence we now have that even McCarthy’s accusations were largely correct, though his scattershot attacks did him or his cause no favours.

Chambers told the truth as did Elizabeth Bentley but that cannot be accepted by those who prefer to see the social structure the right way up. That is what we are still fighting against.


  1. This might interest you

  2. One of the characteristics of modern pinkery is a fear of making Communists unhappy. This does not mean that they are totally unwilling to do so (e.g., the Cuban embargo is still in force, there are troops in South Korea), but there are few rebuttable presumptions which are stronger. After all, Communists are for peace, equality and social justice -- just ask them -- and that is the most formidable of trinities.
    Parenthetically, Chambers disliked McCarthy and blasted him privately.

  3. Chambers found all politicians rather unlikeable and who can blame him. He thought McCarthy was a liability, that Nixon was not really a conservative and Eisenhower, whom he supported while Buckley did not, to be rather a lightweight. All accurate enough, but people like Chambers are not what everyday politics needs.

    Thanks for that link, therewaslight. It's a fun piece. Not sure it gets us anywhere but the story is not going to die.

  4. I have long wondered about the vitrol reserved for the nazi while commies are viewed romanticaly, I consider the Nazi movement to be the lesser of 2 evils and I can see it as the reaction to political correctness. The big problem with Hitler is he blurred the real political meaning of fascist and most people think of the methods of control (the same but perhaps lighter than stalin) and bully tactics (like obama) and not the govenrment/industry relationship. As for communism being broken up for good,I wish, all that happened is the party assimilated the liberal party. I have not seen a genuine liberal politician since the days of Cyril Smith and Mr Thorpe whom, by the way I would trust before any latter day lib, democrat, lab or tory.