On Serwyn Bialer
To the Editor:
In one respect, Nick Eberstadt’s review of Seweryn Bialer’s book, The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline, is very clever and very evil [“The Latest Myths About the Soviet Union,” May]. In a most skillful way he manages to leave in the reader’s mind the impression that what he regards as Bialer’s misguided views have something to do with his Communist past and his current access to the Soviet elite, but without writing the words directly. Planting thoughts of this sort while avoiding libel is a considerable talent.
It is all done with suggestive but elliptical references: Bialer as “no ordinary refugee,” but a man who had been very important to the Polish regime, one of the first to have joined its apparat, and who had risen amazingly fast and done exceptionally well. Bialer’s early association with the Citizens’ Militia is introduced with a sly reference to “the Polish police,” evoking for a lingering instant not the militia or street police, which this organization was, but the political or security police. How odd, Mr. Eberstadt implies, that someone who had been so much a part of the East and then turned his back on it would be welcomed by Soviet intellectuals and political figures thirty years later. How in tune, he stops just short of saying, that a subtle, misleading book like Bialer’s appears in an era when the Soviets have become so skilled in manipulating innocent and gullible Western audiences.
I am writing not because underhanded innuendo like this matters to its target or because it is anything other than a bizarre, almost laughable outrage for anyone who has even the most fleeting acquaintance with Bialer. My distress has to do with the mode of argument. Are we, in some quarters, sinking back into a period when attacking the substance of an argument is not good enough? When analyses are not merely to be disputed, but their author’s character blackened?
Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union
New York City
To the Editor:
As long-time readers of COMMENTARY, and admirers of Nick Eberstadt’s work, we were more than a little disturbed by his essay on Seweryn Bialer’s The Soviet Paradox as were also others to whom we have talked.
We do not feel expert enough to discuss the issues, but we can discuss the tone of the article. It is, we fear, rather snide, as well as dangerously close to being ad hominem. There are times when such tones are appropriate. We have as little patience as any of your readers with members of the self-righteous Left who do not have the decency to apologize for their past sins even as they commit new ones. However, Bialer is a quite different case. One may disagree with him but it is impossible to deny his commitment to freedom. He has no illusions about the Soviet Union, and strongly acknowledges the moral superiority of a liberal democratic order.
Mr. Eberstadt has an excellent reputation among a broad public which he has influenced in important ways. Essays of this kind may bring kudos from a relatively small group which feels very intensely about the issue involved. But in the long run it will, we fear, only reduce his effectiveness within the broader public he seeks to convince.
Please leave articles of this type to magazines like the Nation .Nick Eberstadt, COMMENTARY, and Seweryn Bialer all deserve better.
Nick Eberstadt writes:
I find it somewhat peculiar that both Robert Legvold and Messrs. Stanley Rothman and Stanley Elkins have focused so closely on questions of personality, to the exclusion of all other issues in the article to which they object. “The Latest Myths About the Soviet Union,” as its title alone should suggest, was not a personality profile.
Mr. Legvold does not address any portion of my critique of Bialer’s arguments—arguments, it should be noted, with which Mr. Legvold’s name has sometimes also been identified. Moreover, Mr. Legvold poses as the defender of a colleague unjustly accused, yet he does not challenge or contradict any of my statements about Bialer’s life story, most of which (as it happens) came directly from Bialer’s own congressional testimony, and all of which are relevant to the authority he commands as an interpreter of the Soviet system. (Mr. Legvold does raise a point of interpretation about the Citizens’ Militia; he may be unaware that what he calls “street police” were the principal instrument by which the Polish state destroyed all independent political parties and liquidated all organized resistance in the period from 1945 to 1951.)
Insofar as it fails to dispute my argument or even question my facts, Mr. Legvold’s letter would itself seem little more than an ad hominem attack. This style of discourse is disappointing in a scholar, not to say in a man of Mr. Legvold’s considerable reputation.
I thank Messrs. Rothman and Elkins for their kind estimation of my writings.