Commentary Magazine


Liberty and the Liberal

To The Editor:

Mr. Joseph L. Rauh Jr., in his letter in the May COMMENTARY, fully exposed the feebleness of Mr. Irving Kristol’s civil liberties article published in the March issue of COMMENTARY. Mr. Kristol’s rejoinder, however, contains one statement so extraordinary, so disingenuous, and so symptomatic that I trust you will permit me to make a few words of comment on it.

Mr. Kristol had originally asserted that the “major segment of American liberalism” had gone down the line for Stalinism, swallowing Soviet concentration camps, the liquidation of the kulaks, the purges, etc.; the New Dealers, he said, were “stained with the guilt of having lent aid and comfort to Stalinist tyranny.” Mr. Rauh in his letter pointed out that the New Dealers had, in fact, done none of these things. Mr. Kristol in his rejoinder sought to “prove” his charge by citing the fact that 400 American liberals signed an open letter in 1939 defending the Soviet Union.

No doubt Mr. Kristol counted on the ignorance or the gullibility of his readers. I have just examined the list of the 400 liberals. Of the 400 names, the single one which can possibly qualify as a New Dealer is that of Professor Robert Morss Lovett, who subsequently served as governor of the Virgin Islands. This fact amply suggests the character of Mr. Kristol’s argument.

Mr. Kristol does not seem to know what a New Dealer was. A New Dealer, by any sensible definition, was someone whose primary allegiance was to the New Deal. Let me name a few: Tom Corcoran, Ben Cohen, Leon Henderson, Harold Ickes, Harry Hopkins, William O. Douglas, Jerome Frank, Adolph Berle, Francis Biddle, Thurman Arnold, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, David Lilienthal, Marriner Eccles, Isador Lubin, Sam Rosenman, Paul Porter. . . . The list could be continued indefinitely. None of them signed Mr. Kristol’s document. None of them defended slave-labor camps or the Moscow Trials or the extermination of the kulaks. None of them contended for Soviet foreign policy or for American Communism. A few of them lent their names to organizations ostensibly devoted to useful American purposes, like the Lawyers Guild or the American Student Union; but as soon as Stalinist influence became evident in these organizations, the New Dealers left them.

A Few Communists wormed their way into the New Deal, of course, at the price of concealing their affiliations and their party views; this was to be expected. Communists in the same period infiltrated every important government, including the Nazi government of Germany. But, as I have sought to show elsewhere, the only New Deal agency where a case can be plausibly made for Stalinist influence on major policy was the National Labor Relations Board in 1939-40; even here it is not clear that the Stalinists had consistent or decisive influence; and, in any case, their role was known and their leaders were purged by the White House in 1940.

The essential inhospitality of the New Deal to Communism is amply and conclusively shown by the elaborately conspiratorial role the Communists had to take when attempting to penetrate the New Deal. They could hardly have been more clandestine in their operations, or have taken more precautions against exposure, if they had been infiltrating an administration headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The trouble with Mr. Kristol is that—as his citation of the 1939 pro-Soviet document shows—he identifies the Popular Front psychology, so prevalent among the New York intellectuals, with the psychology of the New Dealers. Mr. Kristol’s remarks are perfectly accurate when applied to the Popular Front mind; and the Popular Front mind, God knows, did a good deal to debauch American liberalism in t 30’s. It is these people who, in Mr. Kristol’s phrase, were “stained with the guilt of having lent aid and comfort to Stalinist tyranny.” It was also these same people who regarded the New Deal with patronizing contempt as an idiotic attempt to save a system already sentenced to death by dogma; it was these same people who understood nothing about the holding company act or rural electrification or compensatory fiscal policy—nothing about the New Deal except how to live off the writers’ and artists’ projects of WPA.

But the obsession with the Soviet Union which dominated New York in the 30’s was not shared in Washington. The New Dealers were busy a good twenty-four hours a day fighting unemployment, reforming the securities exchange, working out fiscal and budgetary policy, enacting decent labor and social welfare legislation, conserving the natural resources, and doing a thousand other things to keep the system going. The essential ideological difference between the New Dealer and the Popular Front intellectual was that the New Dealer believed that recovery and reform were possible within a democratic capitalist system, while the Popular Front intellectual believed that the capitalist system was finished. The emotional difference was that the New Dealer believed in doing concrete, practical things to save the nation, while the Popular Frontier luxuriated in guilt, dogma, and the politics of apocalypse. It is the old, crucial difference between the doers and the wailers.

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In Short, while the New Dealers were saving the system, the New York intellectuals were paralyzed by the hysterical vision that democracy and capitalism were through and that the proletarian revolution was about to take over. Too many New York intellectuals have the same vision and the same hysteria today—though what they once regarded with delight, they now dread. And they are not the slightest bit more reliable in their views of American politics than they were in the days of the Modern Quarterly.

At some point, it might occur to the New York intellectuals that, if the New Deal had not succeeded in restoring the national faith in free institutions, America would really have faced an internal Communist problem.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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