Part Of Our Time

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John Patrick Diggins, a man I consider a mentor, once told me of an encounter he had with liberal journalist Murray Kempton in the 1970s. Kempton knew of Diggins’ work on communists-turned-conservatives. “I see you like to write about people who change their mind,” he said, following up with: “I like to write about people who don’t change their minds.”

At the time of the meeting, Kempton had subscribed to “anti-anti-communism,” and readers would expect him to laud communists who stuck to their guns, as he often did. Especially in the case of Stalin suck-up Lillian Hellman. But this was not always so.

Sixty years ago, when he sat down to write “Part of Our Time,” a study of American communists during  the 1930s, or their zenith decade, he attacked those who subscribed to the then current view that America was about to be overwhelmed by a fifth-column conspiracy by limiting supporters of Stalin to “a very few.” At the time, he scorned them. Finding them “terribly flawed” for succumbing to a “gospel which had no room in it for doubt or pity or mercy.”

Kempton writes the best example of these hatreds in his chapter on Hollywood communists. When Albert Maltz — a much-awarded writer and a representative of the more “liberal” wing of the Communist Party — sought to urge Marxist writers in 1946 to shed this “strait-jacket” and depoliticize their writings, the Party brought out the heavy lumber, arranging a meeting that was more like “two minutes hate” than a debating society. Leopold Atlas, a witness who would leave the party over this, noted the “bitter vituperation and venom,” the accents “dripping with hatred.”

This approach is also seen today in the “do what I say, not what I do” hypocrisies of liberals such as Micheal Moore and Steven Spielberg who travel first class and collect guns.

Then, these castigators of the free expression pleas of Maltz — who ultimately broke under the onslaught — would claim to be defending this right when subpoenaed by House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) a year later. Tasked with investigating communist content in films, HUAC would find more inhuman tone than Marxist messages. An example would be Marching Song (1937) — written by the ayatollah of the Hollywood Party, John Howard Lawson. The film contains a scene that best exemplifies this when, one of the Party members sends his girlfriend on a dangerous mission:

Girl: Don’t worry about me.

Member: I’m not worried about you. What bothers me is the printing press. If they follow you and find it, they’ll bust it into a million pieces.

Kempton reserved his biggest scorn for how these supposed Marxists exhibited class snobbishness. J.Edward Bloomberg, who labored just as hard as anyone for the Party, was nevertheless barred from attending an anti-fascist meeting because he only made a thousand dollars a week. Non-Party member Ginger Rogers typified such liberal elitism when she held an antifascist meeting while urging members not to tread on her new carpet.

At the time, Kempton was part of the liberal anticommunist movement founded by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but with his sense of irony and nuance, he was more Arthur Koestler than Schlesinger.

While others such as Richard Nixon and the anticommunist right attributed Soviet Spy Alger Hiss’ turn toward communism in the 1930s as merely symptomatic of how close being a New Dealer was to being a communist Schlesinger countered that it was a case of frustration. They were being seduced by the same kind of simplistic answers the right subscribed to. Kempton found that in Hiss’ “shabby genteel” upbringing. Orphaned as a child after his father committed suicide, he had been raised by aunts who, according to Whittaker Chambers, Hiss hated, dubbing them “the horrible women of Baltimore.” Hiss was typical of this class, fighting tooth and nail for what little they had. In his case, it was his hard-won reputation as a Harvard gentlemen, and he would never allow anything, especially service to a grubby Stalin, to threaten it.

Despite its relevance for our times, Kempton’s effort is a time capsule document of the roaring economy of the 1950s. Unlike our own creaky one, communists of the Great Depression would see their dreams filtered through an economic materialism fulfilled via capitalism:

“Its wealth, its resources, its almost universally exalted living standards would not have seemed him possible except in the triumph of his own revolution.

If only we had an economy that could today counter such collectivism.