Commentary Magazine


Red Hunting in the Promised Land, by Joel Kovel

After the Fall

Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America.
by Joel Kovel.
Basic Books. 331 pp. $25.00.

In 1988, Joel Kovel, the Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies at Bard College and a well-known practitioner of “psycho-history,” helped to orchestrate a conference at Harvard University that attracted 1,000 academics, community activists, and students. Dedicated to the proposition that anti-Communism had deformed American political, cultural, and social life, the conference alternated between blaming anti-Communism for all the evil in the world and hailing its imminent collapse before the triumphant march of the forces of progress and light.

It was, instead, the Communist world that fell apart within three years. Yet Kovel, only briefly daunted, has now set out to repudiate in theory a set of ideas—anti-Communism—that has been vindicated in practice. Red Hunting in the Promised Land offers a breathtaking, even lunatic, reinterpretation of American history in which anti-Communism emerges as the defining American character deformation as well as the founding principle of a corrupt American order. (Kovel spells it “anticommunism” throughout to distinguish it from “anti-Communism,” which he pretends to concede is a “more or less objective dislike of Communism”; but since he never identifies a single “anti-Communist” in that sense, it is a distinction without a difference.)

The book is organized around a series of psychobiographical portraits meant to illustrate a typology. Thus, Kovel gives us Father Charles Coughlin (anti-Semitic anti-Communism); George F. Kennan (elite Puritan anti-Communism); John Foster Dulles (apocalyptic Christian anti-Communism); J. Edgar Hoover (sexually repressed anti-Communism); Senator Joseph McCarthy (inquisitional anti-Communism); Hubert Humphrey (liberal anti-Communism); Walter Reuther (labor anti-Communism); Arthur Koestler (ex-Communist anti-Communism); and James Angleton (paranoiac anti-Communism).

According to Kovel, the political views of each and every one of these individuals were almost wholly irrational, stemming from deep psychological flaws and weaknesses. In Hubert Humphrey, for example, anti-Communism was “a ritual of male bonding within which the signifier ‘father’ links Hubert Humphrey, Jr., Hubert Humphrey, Sr., Lyndon Johnson, and the whole ethos of America as a land where ‘real men stand tall’ and stand together.” For J. Edgar Hoover, anti-Communism “might be interchangeably a womb or anus in addition to having moral and racial implications.” And so forth.

The disease, it seems, has an etiology. Fittingly enough, the “first red scare” was “the encounter between Puritan and Indian.” In that encounter, the Puritans, to avoid facing their own hidden attraction to the primitive communism of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America, defined the Indians as “the Other,” pretended they had no civilization, justified their destruction, and then congratulated themselves on their own superior morality. Just like anti-Communists in the 20th century.

What is to be done? Outliving the fall of Communism itself, anti-Communism ensures the triumph of business elites, the “worship of the almighty market,” and the glorification of consumerism. Indeed, by linking America’s future to its past, “anti-Communism destroys time itself.” Only by finally slaying this dragon will Americans have any hope of escaping “a world headed toward ecological destruction while it consigns billions of human beings to brutal poverty.” Yet consider the odds against this happening:

Germany can admit the Holocaust and Russia the crimes of Stalinism, but America, the “Redeemer Nation,” has never been able to take responsibility for starting and sustaining the nuclear arms race, or for using the weapon as an instrument of policy.

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It would be fun—on second thought, it would not be fun—to catalogue the idiocies of this book, which range from gross errors of fact, to fabrication of evidence, to the author’s apparent belief that his own psychological ruminations constitute historical proof. (Kovel asserts at one point that he “can testify from direct experience that a shadow of unimaginable dread seemed to have arrived, unbidden, to curse our existence in the postwar era.”) But the simple point is this: after the fall of Communism, we were told confidently that now the anti-Communists of the West, having lost the object of their hatred and thus their very reason for being, were headed for a deep moral and spiritual crisis. From the desperation manifest on every page of this book, it would appear that the shoe is very much on the other foot.

About the Author

Harvey Klehr is Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.




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