Eighty years ago, many American intellectuals, particularly those who regarded themselves as the vanguard of progressivism, were devout Stalinists. That is, they believed—and believed passionately—that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, not the United States, represented the wave of the future. Guided by Joseph Stalin, the USSR was pointing the way to more humane, equitable, and peaceful global order. During the 1930s, according to Lionel Trilling, in his day the very embodiment of highbrow sophistication, “a large and influential part of the intellectual class” treated Stalinism as “sacrosanct.” Belief was mandatory. To hold a contrary view was to risk becoming a pariah.
In September 1932, to cite one example, a manifesto signed by several dozen leading lights of the American literary scene described the Soviet Union as a place where unemployment had been “wiped out” and a “cultural revolution of many dimensions has been won on many fronts.” In the USSR, “for the first time in recorded history a civilization has emerged unified by a living faith in man’s ability to create a classless society.” The signatories—including such notables as Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Sydney Hook, Langston Hughes, Lincoln Steffens, and Edmund Wilson—urged “writers, artists, scientists, teachers, engineers,” and all “honest professional workers” to vote for the Communist Party in the upcoming presidential election. A Communist victory, they said, would enable the United States to embrace the Soviet model and Soviet policies, thereby ending the Great Depression and advancing the cause of social justice.
American intellectuals of this era saw Stalin himself as a model of enlightened leadership. Simply put, he was The Man. The Soviet chief was all but single-handedly transforming his country into a worker’s paradise. In 1933, when the Nazi Party gained power in Germany, Stalin’s standing in the eyes of his American admirers increased further. Fascism seemed everywhere on the rise. Stalin alone appeared to grasp the threat. He alone possessed the courage and the will to address it.
So when the Moscow Trials of 1936-1938 suggested that the Soviet leader might not be Mr. Nice Guy after all, American Stalinists rushed to his defense. “A Statement by American Progressives,” signed by the likes of Nelson Algren, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, John Howard Lawson, Dorothy Parker, George Seldes, and Irwin Shaw, paid tribute to Stalin’s stupendous achievements, which included:
the peaceful and progressive solution of the problems of all minority peoples and nationalities within its borders; the magnificent gains in industry and agriculture; the increase in the standard of living; the growth of educational and cultural opportunities and health facilities; the active participation of the overwhelming majority of the people in the processes of social development; [and] the sane foreign policy that makes the Soviet Union an outstanding leader for the preservation of peace.
The guilt of those Stalin was hauling into the dock was incontrovertible. The “sheer weight of the evidence,” the Americans insisted, showed that those being purged—their loyalty to the revolution hitherto unquestioned—were getting what they deserved. The accused had “resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs.” By extension, anyone disputing these propositions was both an enemy of truth and an ally, whether witting or not, of Hitler and Mussolini. Among progressives, dissent on these matters was not to be tolerated. To publicly express a different opinion was to invite expulsion from the ranks of the intelligentsia.
In fact, of course, the Soviet Union was a brutal and oppressive police state and Stalin a mass murderer with megalomaniacal tendencies. Indeed, soon after the American progressives issued their endorsement of the Moscow show trials, the USSR and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact, spelling the doom of Poland and much else besides.
If the Thirties were, as W. H. Auden wrote, a “low, dishonest decade,” one contributing factor was smug American intellectuals who enthusiastically bought into and promoted one of the 20th century’s most grotesque deceptions. American Stalinism represented the abandonment of critical thinking in pursuit of truth—the intellectual’s proper function—in favor of a bizarre, if momentarily fashionable, ideological fetish. Whether directly or indirectly, Stalin’s American acolytes inflicted incalculable damage on the cause of liberty, social justice, and simple decency.
I submit that something similar is occurring today. Ours is another low, dishonest era, for which progressive intellectuals will one day have much to answer. Not unlike the Stalinists of the 1930s, many of today’s most prominent writers and thinkers—that “herd of independent minds,” in Harold Rosenberg’s derisive description—have forfeited any actual independence of mind in favor of fashionable ideological fetish.
As was the case with the American Stalinists, they demand conformity and permit no dissent. Rather than socialism as interpreted by Marx and further refined by Lenin and Stalin, their agenda centers on demolishing traditional norms related to sex, gender, and sexuality, all in the name of perfecting freedom.
In their ranks, the spirit (not the substance) of American Stalinism has found a rebirth. Like the devout Stalinists of yore, they see utopia just around the corner. Their latest version looks to uninhibited sexual expression, compulsory diversity, and infinite choice on all matters pertaining to personal identity to make things right.
The contempt for bourgeoisie values cultivated among American Stalinists back in the 1930s—due process and the presumption of innocence, for example—finds its counterpart today in contempt for the so-called heteronormative order. As was the case during the Moscow Trials, accusation suffices as evidence of guilt, even when it comes to doling out punishment, shunning and public humiliation have today replaced exile and execution.
As evidence, consider the treatment accorded to Katie Roiphe for having published an essay in Harper’s magazine (where I am a contributing editor) that failed to offer an unequivocal endorsement of post-Harvey Weinstein attitudes regarding sexual assault and harassment. Even before her essay appeared, Roiphe was subject to vicious attacks based on rumors of what it might contain. As one anticipatory executioner tweeted, “man if katie roiphe publishes that article she can consider her career over.” The Old Bolsheviks who fell afoul of Stalin back in the Thirties might have sympathized with Ms. Roiphe’s plight.
Today, cultural progressives are riding very high indeed. For proof, spend a couple of days perusing the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post or taking in the latest hot movie or TV series. Ironically, the incoherence of the Trump presidency and Donald Trump’s amply documented record of morally repugnant behavior have boosted the progressive cause even further. If progressives have seemingly emerged triumphant in the culture wars, then surely Trump deserves credit for carrying them across the goal line.
We may doubt that the utopia imagined by today’s progressives will ever make its appearance. In Trilling’s judgment, the leftist intellectuals of the 1930s, enamored with Stalin’s USSR, gave birth to a politics marked chiefly by a “dull rigidity.” For all of their ostensible “solicitude for mankind [sic],” they lacked wit, imagination, and creativity, not to mention a minimally adequate understanding of human nature. They were not only misguided, but also boring. It was only a matter of time before they got their comeuppance. So, too, with today’s cultural ideologues.
Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.