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July 30, 1999

How Liberals Funked It

Liberals spent the Cold War refusing to see communism for what it was. Hoover fellow Robert Conquest on “how the mind of the liberal became so much a subject of self-deception.”


A liberal is, by definition, one whose aim is the furtherance of ever greater political liberty, freedom of thought, and social justice. A number of those who thought of themselves as, and were thought of as, liberals became apologists for Stalinist or similar regimes whose most notable characteristics were extreme terror, narrow dogmatism, social oppression, and economic failure. That is, they were all that the liberal tradition opposed. How, and why, did a number of liberals explicitly, and a large swath of liberaldom implicitly, overcome this objection? How did this apparent paradox come to pass? Why in the 1930s and later do we find a sort of general infection of the atmosphere in which much of the intelligentsia moved? Even apart from those who became more or less addicted to communism, there was also a stratum that usually gave the Soviet Union and such regimes some moral advantage over the West.

First, of course, we should say that there were many liberals—and in general many on the left—who kept their principles unsullied and were often among the strongest opponents of the communist despotisms. Liberal is, indeed, a vague term. Many of us would take a “liberal” position on some issues, a “conservative” one on others—as most of the American or British people in fact do (an attitude shared by the present writer).

These two vaguely differentiated attitudes are the poles within the normal development, or balance, of a civic or consensual society. But all those with a reasonably critical intelligence, whether “conservative” or “liberal” on other issues, were hostile to the USSR. Those who supported it unreservedly were Communists; those who excused it may have thought of themselves as liberals, but to that extent they degraded the term.

The phenomenon we deal with here is what Orwell called “renegade liberalism.” He defined these renegade liberals with characteristic felicity, in the unused preface to Animal Farm, as those who hold that “democracy” can only be defended by discouraging or suppressing independent thought. His immediate concern was that “where the USSR and its policies are concerned one cannot expect intelligent criticism or even, in many cases, plain honesty from liberal writers and journalists who are under no direct pressure to falsify their opinions.” Elsewhere (in “The Prevention of Literature”), he comments, “When one sees highly educated men looking on indifferently at oppression and persecution, one wonders which to despise more, their cynicism or their shortsightedness.” And, he felt obliged to add, “it is the liberals who fear liberty and intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect.”

THE SLIPPERY CONCEPT OF EQUALITY

We can trace the roots of this aberration a long way back. Even before the First World War, L. T. Hobhouse in his classic Liberalism had written, “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid meaning.” “Equality” is a slippery word. In a general sense we may allow that genuine liberals—and others—are committed to a society of equal citizens. The liberal state may have a legitimate role in redressing poverty, making health care available, and so forth, but after a point we find that the liberté and egalité that proved incompatible in the 1790s are still awkward companions. And, as the liberal attitude became more and more concerned with the use of political power to promote equality, it tended to become less and less concerned with the liberty side; even domestically (in Thomas Sowell’s words), “the grand delusion of contemporary liberals is that they have both the right and the ability to move their fellow creatures around like blocks of wood—and that the end results will be no different than if people had voluntarily chosen the same actions.”

And when these liberals looked abroad they found a regime that claimed to have the same aims—and used the same, or much the same, vocabulary. If anything, from a skeptic’s point of view, the Communists overdid it (with the result that any country nowadays calling itself a People’s Republic or a Democratic Republic is known at once to be a ruthless dictatorship).

ROTTEN LIBERALS—AND THE VAST KLEPTOCRACY

Communists in fact despised liberals, even if not quite as much as they despised social-democrats. It was in his procommunist period that W. H. Auden wrote:

Because you saw but were not indignant
The invasion of the great malignant
     Cambridge ulcer
That army intellectual
Of every kind of liberal,
Smarmy with friendship but of all
     There are none falser.

“Rotten liberalism” was, of course, the conventional charge made by the Soviet Communists against those insufficiently ruthless in the repression of enemies of the people.

Moreover, Lenin’s own interest in the overthrow of the existing order was so intense that he did not spread his progressivism into any other fields and had nothing but contempt for modern art, free love, unorthodox medicine, and all the other paraphernalia. Communist artistic principles—socialist realism and so forth—remained overtly hostile to all the modernisms dear to many liberal hearts. The Communists’ attitude to homosexuality, at least after its criminalization in the USSR in 1935, was contrary to an important component of the liberal worldview—but Moscow did not lose the allegiance even of homosexuals such as Guy Burgess. The Soviets suppressed and maligned all the psychological views, Freudian and other, dear to Western intellectuals. And Stalin’s extreme anti-Semitism in the post–World War II years ran against anything describable as liberal.

But, some liberals felt, at least the Stalinists were not capitalists, not motivated by greed, which, taken as the defining quality of the economic system in the West, was thus the most detested of all vices for certain liberals. These were, in general, those who gained their income (and were highly competitive with rivals for it) in academic or media spheres, that is, money derived from, but not directly dependent on, “capitalism.”

Greed, it might be argued, is not as bad as mass murder. But in any case greed was equally prevalent in the mass murder societies. Corruption of every possible type has flourished in all the communist countries. It is not only that the USSR, for example, became a vast kleptocracy but also that even the supposedly pristine early revolutionaries were anything but immune. In fact, with few exceptions the victorious Bolsheviks lived comfortably through the deprivations of the postrevolutionary period. Milovan Djilas, then a Yugoslav communist leader, was shocked at how his victorious partisans, on entering Belgrade, seized villas, cars, women, and so on. The same was noted of the Sandinistas when they entered Managua.

THE SWING IN LEFTISH OPINION

The phenomenon of renegade liberalism arose in the early days of the Soviet regime. Lincoln Steffens, the fearless journalist exposer of American corruption, famously said of the USSR, “I have seen the future and it works.” He had seen nothing and that future didn’t work. But until the 1930s the Sovietophiles were a minority among liberals. It is in 1933 that we see a real swing in leftish opinion. The terror-famine early that year, in which millions died, had been widely and accurately reported in much of the Western press. But the Soviet government simply denied that any famine had taken place. President Kalinin, speaking of “political cheats who offer to help the starving Ukraine,” commented that, “only the most decadent classes are capable of producing such cynical elements.”

The Soviet story was supported—as we now know for disreputable reasons—by reporters such as Walter Duranty. Thus two versions were available to the American liberals. But it was Duranty who received the Pulitzer Prize—for “dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia.” The announcement of the prize added that Duranty’s dispatches were “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity,” being “excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” The Nation, citing him in its annual “honor roll,” described his as “the most enlightening, dispassionate and readable dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world.”

A banquet was given at the Waldorf Astoria in 1933 to celebrate the recognition of the USSR by the United States. A list of names was read, each politely applauded by the guests until Walter Duranty’s was reached; then, Alexander Woollcott wrote in the New Yorker, “the only really prolonged pandemonium was evoked. . . . Indeed, one got the impression that America, in a spasm of discernment, was recognizing both Russia and Walter Duranty.” This scene in the Waldorf was clearly a full-dress appearance of the liberal establishment. And all this was before Stalin and his Comintern had given up their overt hostility to social democrats and liberals and moved over to a popular front.

THE ACADEMIC FRONDE

From the start, it was not only the occasional corrupt journalist such as Walter Duranty but also a veritable Fronde of academics who were at least equally responsible for mediating the Soviet phenomena for the Western liberal intelligentsia. It would be supererogatory to present all the horrors of expert academe. Most notorious, of course, were the deans of Western social science, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who went to Russia, saw the system, and produced what purported to be a learned tome on the subject—Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?—which in its second edition, at the height of the terror, dropped the question mark.

Their massive exercise in drivel was largely based on believing Soviet official documents. They were, in effect, taken in above all by Potemkin paperwork—of elections, trade unions, cooperatives, statistics, all the documents of the phantom USSR.

Many others followed, such as Harold Laski, professor of political science at the London School of Economics and at one point chairman of the Labour Party. When Sir Bernard Pares, the West’s leading “Russianist,” arrived in Russia, his previous anti-Soviet feelings evaporated. As his son admiringly put it, he “had not left the Moscow railway station before his mind was flooded with the realization that the Bolsheviks were, after all, Russia.” He, Laski, the Webbs, and others all pronounced the show trials genuine exercises in truth and legality.

These were, indeed, individuals. The academic world, though liberal in a general way, was not as yet a scene of organized error on the communist regime. That came later and in particular in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

THE POTEMKIN PHENOMENON

The Potemkin phenomenon proper—the presentation of faked appearances of prosperity or social triumphs—was, of course, widespread in all the communist countries. Anyone who ever visited the Exhibition of Economic Achievements in Moscow will know the score. Similarly, when Vice President Henry Wallace, on a flight from America to China, was for a few days in the midst of the frightful Kolyma labor camps, the guard towers and barbed wires were torn down, the miserable prisoners replaced by strong and healthy NKVD men, and so on.

Many such stories could be told. Yet the most extraordinary are those representing the Soviet penal system as humane and progressive. The facts about the Gulag were already available in a number of firsthand accounts. But, entirely for deceiving the Western liberals, the Stalinists maintained some “model prisons”—in particular one at Bolshevo where J. L. Gillin, a former president of the American Sociological Society, noted that

In accordance with the spirit of the Revolution the terms current in capitalist penology are discarded. There are no “crimes”; there are “wrongs.” . . . There is no “punishment,” only “measures of social defence.”

One liberal visitor, Jerzy Gliksman, a progressive member of the Warsaw City Council, was thus deceived but later experienced the real Soviet penal behavior—described in his striking memoirs of the Gulag. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes of Havana two generations later, there were delegates living “in the hotels for foreigners who had no idea that the energy and water supply in the working quarters had broken down during the afternoon, that bread was rationed, and that the population had to stand for two hours in line for a slice of pizza; meanwhile the tourists in their hotel rooms were arguing about Lukacs.”

Even the actual optic nerves of Western viewers seem to have become distorted, with falsehood coming from both outside and inside. As Malcolm Muggeridge noted:

There were earnest advocates of the humane killing of cattle who looked up at the massive headquarters of the OGPU with tears of gratitude in their eyes, earnest advocates of proportional representation who eagerly assented when the necessity for a Dictatorship of the Proletariat was explained to them, earnest clergymen who walked reverently through anti-God museums and reverently turned the pages of atheistic literature, earnest pacifists who watched delightedly tanks rattle across the Red Square and bombing planes darken the sky, earnest town planning specialists who stood outside overcrowded ramshackle tenements and muttered: “If only we had something like this in England!” The almost unbelievable credulity of these mostly university-educated tourists astonished even Soviet officals used to handling foreign visitors.

GOGHDZE IS A FINE MAN

It was not only the facts about communist regimes that received such treatment but even Stalinist personalities. The French progressive novelist Romain Rolland described secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda (later shot) as sensitive and intellectual. Harold Laski had a long discussion with Vyshinsky, faker of show trials, whom he found “a man whose passion was law reform. . . . He was doing what an ideal Minister of Justice would do if we had such a person in Great Britain.” Vice President Henry Wallace later described Beria’s terror henchman in the Soviet Far East, Goghdze, as “a very fine man, very efficient, gentle and understanding with people.” Owen Lattimore saw I. F. Nikishov, the head of the most murderous camp system in the Gulag, as having “a trained and sensitive interest in art and music and also a deep sense of civic responsibility.”

H. G. Wells arrived in Moscow in 1934 full of hostility to communism and to Stalin. An interview changed that. Stalin, it is true, “looked past me rather than at me” but “not evasively.” He asked Wells’s permission to smoke his pipe and in this and other ways soon allayed Wells’s hostility.

I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest, and to these qualities it is, and nothing occult and sinister, that he owes his tremendous undisputed ascendancy in Russia. I had thought before I saw him that he might be where he was because men were afraid of him but I realize that he owes his position to the fact that no one is afraid of him and everybody trusts him.

Even Franklin Roosevelt—deceived indeed by Harold Ickes—was charmed by Stalin into speaking of his being above all “getatable”: the great British Russianist Ronald Hingley commented that “ungetatability” was one of Stalin’s central characteristics.

Among the most egregious of what I hope I may be excused as calling the Kremlin creepers was a number of those who would have been called liberal Christians. One might have expected a certain alienation from communism by any of them that had read Lenin’s virulent condemnation of all religion but particularly of sophisticated religion. The active persecution of religion in the communist countries might, you would also think, have also had an effect. But to take only one example—the World Council of Churches Central Committee’s meeting in 1973 passed a resolution deploring oppression in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, the United States, and elsewhere. An attempt by a Swedish clergyman to add the communist countries was defeated ninety-one to three, with twenty-six abstentions.


We might say that there are two sorts of liberal, as there are two sorts of cholesterol, one good and one bad.


Here again, the commitment has often been so strong that it is hard to imagine that complete conversion to communism has not taken place. A Communist once told me his method. First you explain to a Christian sympathizer that communism is compatible with Christianity. That accomplished, you explain that Christianity is not compatible with communism.

BUT WHY?

I started by advancing a general reason, or context, for these phenomena. I argued that they arose from an excessive regard for equality as against liberty. That is, people thought they saw a system, superior to our own, in which the abhorrent profit motive had been eliminated (in a sense so it had, but there are other ways of robbing the population). It was rather as if they would rejoice to find that a slum landlord had been replaced by a gangster extortionist.

But even this is hardly enough to explain how the mind of the liberal intelligentsia became so much a subject of deception and self-deception. We must inquire further.

That is so even when we consider the attraction of anything “noncapitalist”—even when we consider domestic resentment against “conservatives” on home soil—for, as Macaulay writes of British politicians in the eighteenth century, “it is the nature of parties to retain their original enmities far more firmly than their original principles.” But pas d’ennemi à gauche—the idea that the far left, even if wrong in some respects, when it came down to essentials was against the real enemy, the right—cannot sustain the procommunist liberal case. For not all on the far left were covered: Trotskyites, the POUM in Spain, Anarchists. If we ask why this did not affect some “liberal” minds, it seems that in the first two cases, at least, the Stalinist version (that these were not “left” at all but secret agencies of Hitler) had some distractive effect. Then again, the Trotskyites lacked the huge propaganda funding available to Stalinists everywhere, though the pervasiveness of a notion has traditionally not been the key point for critical minds. Where issues of fact were in question, the anti-Stalinist left was not only truer but also far more plausible.

We can list, in addition to utopianism and parochial partisanship, a number of other characteristics to be found, if not in all, than in many of the Stalinophiles (and Mao-ophiles, Castrophiles, and Ho-ophiles): in some cases vanity, in others pleasure at adulation, in others yet an adolescent romanticism about “revolution” as such. Nor should mere boredom be omitted, as Simone de Beauvoir once confessed, which may remind us of the attitudes of a certain type of French intellectual, different, but not all that different, from his American or British counterparts, as given by Herbert Luthy in the early 1960s.

For ten years the French intellectuals have discussed the big issues of the day so to speak in front of the looking-glass, in search less of facts and knowledge than of an attitude befitting their traditional role—of the “correct pose.”

THE HEROES OF THE ARGUMENT

Nevertheless, it might be argued that the true heroes of the long argument were not so much the committed anticommunist conservatives (who were, of course, right, and fully deserve the verdict in their favor as against the procommunist liberals) as those within the liberal intelligentsia who not only were not deceived but also fought for the truth over years of slander and discouragement. We might in fact say that there are two sorts of liberal, as there are two sorts of cholesterol, one good and one bad. The difficulty is, or has been, that good liberalism implies a good deal of mental self-control.

AND NOWADAYS?

Kenneth Minogue, the Anglo-Australian political scientist, has observed that “as radicals have lost plausible utopias of one kind or another—from the Soviet Union to Cuba—they have become more ferociously intolerant of the society in which they live.” There are plenty of up-to-date insane absurdities, such as John Le Carré writing (in a letter to the Washington Post) that capitalism was today killing many more than communism ever had; such as Nigel Nicolson in Britain saying that Solzhenitsyn had betrayed his country just as Anthony Blunt had his. And in academe we still find noisy cliques working to lower the Soviet death roll, to prove the West as the villain of the Cold War, and to call for “dispassionate” study of Stalin and Mao.

Such notions are, of course, not confined to campuses. We now get an allegedly historical film series sponsored by Ted Turner, which, with some concessions to reality, in effect tilts the balance against the West, Stalin offset by McCarthy, Castro better than Kennedy.

A WORD TO YOUNG LIBERALS

Can one offer any advice to the current generation of liberals? Well, one can advise them not to let passions provoked by the internal politics of their homelands go too far. Rhetoric of party faction is part of democratic life, but do not project it into your assessment of alien regimes and mentalities and do not accept accounts of these cultures provided by partisan sources without a critical assessment (a point that applies, indeed, to the acceptance of supposed facts in any field in which strong emotions prevail).

As to the academics criticized above, it seems that nothing is to be done. They are committed to their misconceptions. One can only urge their younger colleagues (even if hardly able to speak out frankly in an atmosphere of academic persecution, denial of tenure, and so on) that they should work at least at thinking independently, while biding their time.

Above all, as Granville Hicks, himself temporarily deceived, put it: “It is no defence whatever for an intellectual to say that he was duped, since that is what, as an intellectual, he should never allow to happen to him.”


Robert Conquest is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.


Excerpted and adapted from the New Criterion, February 1999, from an essay entitled “Liberals and Totalitarianism.”

Available from the Hoover Press are the Hoover Essays The Cold War: End and Aftermath and World War II and the Beginning of the Cold War, by Peter Duignan and L. H. Gann. To order, call 800-935-2882.