14 July 2009

Still Fighting Ancient Battles

The letter column of the newest issue of The Nation features an unhappy exchange between Eric Alterman, the magazine's media columnist, and Max Holland, a historian who objects to Alterman's characterization of his research on the case of I. F. Stone. Dead twenty years and probably best known as the author of a book about Socrates, Stone was a radical journalist and self-publishing muckraker who has become an object of fresh controversy because of the emergence of evidence identifying him as someone who provided intelligence to the Soviet Union during the 1930s. While downplaying the significance of whatever Stone did, Holland complains that Alterman has blindly denounced the new findings while indicting the character of Holland as a researcher by lumping him with right-wing cranks, and Alterman responds by doing just what Holland complained of.

It's a matter of indifference to me whether I. F. Stone had anything to do with the U.S.S.R., but I know that right-wingers have tried to wreck his reputation for decades, while liberals and left-wingers have doggedly defended it. Both sides act as if the stakes were higher than they seem. It reminds me of the infinitely-renewable brouhaha over Alger Hiss and whether he was a spy for the Commies. The Nation is a last bastion of belief in Hiss's innocence while most historians concede that he was guilty of something. Again, I wonder what the fuss is about, sixty years after the fact in Hiss's case. Why are Hiss and Stone considered relevant topics in modern magazines of political opinion? Just saying that one side or the other is objectively interested in The Truth doesn't seem to explain it adequately.

These are instances of the almost infinite scope of the conflict within the ideological bipolarchy of "left" and "right," with each side hoping that history will vindicate their present-day positions. On the "right," it remains important to prove that the Communist threat was as grave as claimed by such people as McCarthy, Nixon or Goldwater. It would be a long-sought coup to prove once and for all that a great critic of McCarthyism and the Cold War like Stone was not just wrong to belittle the Commie threat, but was consorting with Commies himself. The "left" has an equal interest in disproving this. To vindicate Stone against these charges would prove, to them yet again, that the Commie threat was a chimera conjured by liars in order to smear all dissenters from the Cold War agenda. Likewise, because the Hiss case made Richard Nixon a national figure, there's always been a desire to vindicate Hiss in order to discredit Nixon and the anti-communist movement he came to represent. Because the "left" seeks to minimize the influence of the U.S.S.R. over American leftists, they're hypersensitive to any charge of spying for Moscow and hopeful that most if not all such charges are false.

Why should disputes over whether people spied for a state that no longer exists matter today, except to scholars in archives? The answer is that the spectre of Bolshevism still haunts the left-right debate. There are people on the "right" who believe that any "leftism" is tantamount to hardcore vanguard-party Leninism, with all its awful consequences. They see a continuity between the leftism of the past and that of the present, and the "left" is partly to blame for that because too many people in the past were reluctant to denounce the U.S.S.R. because they thought doing so would discredit leftism as a whole. Today's leftists keep the ball rolling by going out of their way to defend people like Stone. By doing so, they associate themselves with the left of the past and open themselves to charges of still being soft on Bolshevism. What we need today are people (and here I'll leave labels aside) who will oppose the excesses of capitalism and the corporate corruption of government on the basis of today's evidence. We need a generation that will leave Lenin behind once and for all and leave anyone who had the least sympathy for him and his nation on the proverbial ash-heap of history. We ought to have authors and activists who are willing to concede every charge against Bolshevism and Leninism, because the quicker that's done the sooner we can move on to what's wrong with multinational capitalism or the American Bipolarchy. The guilt or innocence of I. F. Stone is a question for historians to answer objectively, without ideological axes to grind on his tombstone. For everyone else, it's a waste of time.

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