Commentary Magazine


Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy, by Carey McWilliams

Flying off the Broomstick
Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy.
by Carey McWilliams.
Little, Brown. 361 pp. $3.50.

 

When Lincoln Steffens, after his trip to Russia, announced “I have seen the Future and it works,” he coined an epitaph that may appropriately be inscribed on the tombstone of 20th-century liberalism. For what he gave expression to was nothing less than a systematic derangement of the senses, a daring adventure in hallucination, whereby the categories of space were converted to the categories of time, enabling a whole generation to gaze eastward toward Russia and see nothing but the Future.

History has known many such derangements, but until our time they have been generally regarded as a prerogative peculiar to religions: the Jew looking to Zion, the Catholic to Rome—they too claimed to see the Future. Liberalism, on the other hand, had from its very beginnings set a premium on sobriety, orderly sensation, and consecutive thought, had celebrated plain evidence and rational judgment, and had indeed defined itself in terms not of what men think but how they think. Where, then, did Lincoln Steffens acquire that faith which surpassed reason, attached itself to authority, and discerned the Future where there was only Communist Russia? How did liberalism transform itself from a critic of revealed doctrines to the ally of one particular doctrine, namely Marxism? How did it come about that that apotheosis of liberalism, Harold J. Laski, could write a book comparing Communism with primitive Christianity, thinking that the establishment of such a comparison in some way justified the former, whereas liberalism had always regarded the victory of Christianity over classical culture as, in important respects at least, a catastrophe? The historian of the future will find this a rich and perplexing subject, as rich and perplexing, for example, as the transformation of Aristotelianism—which denies revelation—into the dogmatic keystone of Catholic theology. And he will find Carey McWilliams’ Witch Hunt an illuminating source book, all the more illuminating in view of the favorable reviews it has called forth from, among others, a liberal professor at the Yale Law School, the chief editorial writer of a nationally famous liberal newspaper, a distinguished British liberal journalist, and, amusingly enough, the New Yorker.

It is only as an exercise in dogmatics that one can comprehend this book and its purpose: to undermine the old order in favor of the new. As a political tract it is quite simply bewildering: its concepts are not the concepts of politics as that subject is usually understood; its use of fact is not in accord with the canons of the older journalism, its vocabulary is defined by novel rules of semantics. Mr. McWilliams’ premises are such that, no matter how unfolded, they omit generous portions of reality; yet he is certain that he has explained everything—he is clairvoyant as only the blind can be, and as unimpressionable as a paranoiac. It is perhaps only a natural and inevitable consequence that he should consider much of the world as rather mad, and as proof point to a “prevalence of witches,” that is to say, a prevailing heightened consciousness that there are Communists among us who are up to no good. It is a fundamental article of faith with him that “without a witch hunt there would be no witches,” and that these are figments produced by the fevered imagination of a loyalty “inquisition” into which America has now organized itself.

Now, whether or not there actually were people who thought themselves witches in the early centuries of the post-medieval epoch is an interesting question and one that cannot be answered with so peremptory a negative as Mr. McWilliams thinks. More interesting, however, is the question of whether or not Communists really exist today or whether they have been invented to satisfy the calculating sadism of the “inquisitors.” The logic of his position compels Mr. McWilliams to insist that they have been invented, that there are no Communists, and that those labeled as such are only “nonconformists.” The “inquisition” is thus clearly revealed as an attempt by the “ruling class” to impose an ideological conformity for the benefit of “free enterprise,” for which end this same “ruling class” must surreptitiously whip up a mass hysteria.

The rhetorical forms with which this argument is pursued are worth some attention, for they serve to introduce us to that mentality of the Future which has already so damagingly affected the past and present.

  1. The Bland Omission: The names of Alger Hiss, Klaus Fuchs, and Joseph Stalin do not appear in the book; probably, if pressed, Mr. McWilliams would admit their existence but would almost certainly deny their relevance.
  2. The Concealed Definition: Mr. McWilliams is unequivocally against persecuting “heresy,” a term whose meaning he never fully specifies. But since there is no record of his having defended the right of free speech for Fritz Kuhn or Father Coughlin, or of his ever having protested against the persecution by Communist regimes of what they call heretics, it would seem that he is only against persecuting Communist heretics, and that when he uses the word “heresy” he means “Communism.”
  3. The Artful Analogy: “Lattimore faced the same dilemma that Harry Bridges faced in his recent trial; he could not prove that it was true that he was not a witch.” It might indeed be difficult for an ordinary man to prove that he is no witch; but why should it be so difficult for a public figure, whose opinions and utterances have been faithfully reported for years, to show that he is not a Communist or a Communist sympathizer?
  4. The Disingenuous Platitude: “Dictatorships are brought into being by social conditions and not by evil notions or dangerous thought.” If among “social conditions” Mr. McWilliams means to include conspiratorial parties aiming at despotic rule, he is quite correct. But one has the distinct impression that he intends the phrase exactly to exclude such a reference.
  5. The Specious Parallel: “The issuance by President Truman of Executive Order No. 9835 on March 22, 1947, setting up a federal loyalty program, marks the beginning of an American obsession with loyalty that, in broad outline, parallels a similar Russian obsession dating from the ‘all-out campaign’ against the Leningrad Literary Group in August 1946.” The difference between losing one’s job and losing one’s head does not evidently fall within this “broad outline.”
  6. The Fateful Cliché: “Freedom is indivisible” is the best example. This permits Mr. McWilliams to dismiss recent gains in civil rights for minorities because they happened concurrently with a few cases of violation of the civil liberties of individuals. (In his more theoretical mood, he explains that these gains were deliberately offered by the “strategists of American reaction”—otherwise unnamed—in order better to carry out their campaign against civil liberties.)
  7. The Neat Non Sequitur: “To admit that a Communist cannot be a loyal American is to concede a prime tenet of the capitalist ideology, which is that not only Communists and Socialists, but all those who reject the philosophy of ‘free enterprise,’ are ‘bad security risks.’” How does such an “admission” lead to such a “concession”?
  8. The Interrogative Theory of Proof: Mr. McWilliams devotes a chapter to the animadversions of Congressman Dondero on modern art, which he feels have had a disturbing effect on the artist in America, who presumably reads the Congressional Record at breakfast. His “proof” takes the form of a question: “To what extent have artists as a result of his attack, turned away from certain modes of expression and certain themes and subjects?” This question, strangely enough, is not directed to behind the Iron Curtain, where modern art is actually prohibited.
  9. The Raised Eyebrow: Mr. McWilliams thinks it odd that “we find it far more objectionable when a totalitarian regime openly suppresses a paper than when one disappears by merger in this country.”

_____________

 

These devices of rhetoric can be endlessly catalogued, and some ambitious textual critic could choose a less rewarding vocation. But what is more important are the underlying premises that support this cockeyed world. One such premise is the non-existence of American democracy: if anything bad happens—if a Congressman or Senator is dishonest and vicious, if a college president is cowardly, if a cabinet member is narrow-minded—it does not happen because people are often dishonest, vicious, and cowardly, and because where the people rule such traits will be in evidence; it must be part of an oligarchic plot whose workings are concealed from us but about which Wall Street is fully informed. A second premise is that if anything unpleasant happens in America, it can only portend something worse, and every misstep must bring us closer to perdition—before we are saved we shall all have to go to hell; there is about Mr. McWilliams’ indictment an air of gratified pessimism, none of righteous indignation.

Perhaps the most important premise is that which sets up a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane—the East and the West. The former is beyond human judgment—it is still too early to say, it is a society. with growing pains, you can’t make an omelette, etc. The latter is not only eternally judged but eternally condemned: the existence of dissent and dissatisfaction, no matter by whom or for what purpose, is in itself a verdict against the status quo, and every accusation is a presumption of guilt. Such a premise is essential to the strategy of Communism, which, in seeking “proselytes of righteousness” among Western intellectuals, aims to provide a set of axioms on the basis of which an unreal political situation is fabricated whose prime characteristic is that Communism ceases to be an issue. So long as Western intellectuals discourse on truth, freedom, and equality, and so long as this discourse evades the issue of Communism and Soviet power, the Communists have already gained an advantage. Since no society can be shown to live entirely up to its ideals, the greater the blind and mechanical stress on these abstract ideals, the smaller the possibility of what the Communists wish to avoid at all costs: any mere comparison of political realities—the reality of the life of an American worker, farmer, or intellectual with their Soviet counterparts, for instance.

To the cultivation of a state of mind that disregards such realities, that sees the world only through the bifocal lens of the Future, books such as Mr. McWilliams’ make a significant contribution.

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