During the last few weeks, an exceptionally portentous fight has broken out owing to a recent long and juicy article in the Spring 2010 edition of City Journal by Claire Berlinski. This essay was angrily dissected in several rebuttals by Ron Radosh in Pajamas Media, and by others on the Humanities Net internet site, the History of Diplomacy (H-Diplo). The conflict concerns whether or not both academic historians and their reading public have been fully informed of documents surreptitiously copied from the closed archives of the former Soviet Union, and now under wraps in Russia. Berlinski’s initial article, A Hidden History of Evil, reported that historians in high places had ignored the documents made available by researcher Vladimir Bukovsky (once an inmate of a Soviet psychiatric hospital) and Soviet dissident Pavel Stroilov, the latter in exile in London. First noting the world-wide obsession with Nazism (neglecting even more numerous Soviet atrocities), the opening paragraph ends with this remark: “The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.” Moreover, in her concluding paragraphs, she speculated that utopian theories had more appeal than we have admitted; hence she concludes that there is broad resistance to exposing the crimes of the now-darkened Gorbachev and his predecessors: “Indeed, many still subscribe to the essential tenets of Communist ideology. Politicians, academics, students, even the occasional autodidact taxi driver still stand opposed to private property. Many remain enthralled by schemes for central economic planning. Stalin, according to polls, is one of Russia’s most popular historical figures. No small number of young people in Istanbul, where I live, proudly describe themselves as Communists; I have met such people around the world, from Seattle to Calcutta.”
In the process of formulating his set of responses claiming that the not-so-sensational “Top Secret” documents were either already known to reputable scholars, or were understandably not commercially appealing to publishers, Ron Radosh contacted leading figures in Soviet Studies, including Jonathan Brent, Mark Kramer, and John Earl Haynes, in effect putting them all on the spot, whereupon they described in detail what had been translated and where (most of) the materials could be found. The Radosh piece concluded that Berlinski’s argument was so weak as to be unpublishable. Berlinski then replied to Radosh, sticking to her guns. Radosh fired back again, while today City Journal, defending its reputation as a reliable conservative publication, published a long series of comments by leading figures in the imbroglio. Having placed this riposte on her Facebook page, Berlinski stated that she would no longer be involved in “petty” squabbles of this nature, reiterating a statement that she had made in her second article in response to Radosh. (All these publications are posted on my Facebook profile. For other significant comments by scholars, see the archives of H-Diplo.)
Although curriculum formation in the interwar and Cold War periods is my field of interest, diplomatic history and primary sources in the Russian language are not in my skill set, but I do know many of the participants in this now polarized debate, owing to my research into the Cold War Melville revival and long association with leftists and, more lately, neoconservatives. I am struck by several matters having to do with censorship:
1. The institutional constraints on all historians, including professional and emotional investments in earlier publications regarding the facts of still controversial subjects, i.e., I am told on good authority that historians are not given to revising the earlier work that made their reputations, even when new contradictory sources appear; if true (and it sounds accurate to me), this is an unbearable fact; and
2. Berlinski’s suspicion that [social democrats and today’s Communists] are ideologically incapable of confronting the full horror of the Soviet past, an opinion that finds resonance in her supporters; and
3. The vexed issue of “American exceptionalism” as fought over in the Texas textbook wars. (For a review of Joan Hoff’s book on the Faustian character of U.S. foreign policy, see this review by diplomatic historian Thomas M. Nichols: http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/roundtables/PDF/Roundtable-IX-23.pdf.) This last point may be the most relevant context that explains why the fight between Berlinski and Radosh has taken on such a high profile and is being hotly argued, for Cold War revisionist historians such as Joan Hoff remain in the saddle, and we are witnessing major backlash from conservatives. (By revisionists, I refer to the 60s generation that argued that U.S. imperialism, as embodied, for instance, in the lout Joe McCarthy, was responsible for the Cold War.)
These interests of mine are too big to flesh out in a short blog, but I do want to comment on a brief interchange regarding the fracas between two Facebook friends of Berlinski’s, whose names I have chosen to withhold. The back and forth seemed to come at me out of nowhere. Indeed, I nearly fell over when I saw this:
[commentator #1] “The dirty little secret in this issue which no one EVER talks about, is the, let’s call it coincidence, between the disproportionate involvement of Jews in the Marxist movement in the past and currently and the disproportionate number of Jews in academia and the media elites seems to bring any investigation of the evils of communism to a shuddering halt.
The same people have no problem correctly criticizing the Governor of Virgina for his inability to recognize the unmentioned slavery that underlay his celebration of Confederate month.”
[commentator #2] “There was also a disproportionate number of Jews in anti-communist political writing and theorizing… and I would guess a disproportionate number of Jews who are writing about the evils of hiding communism’s sins.
And I doubt the academics who are Jewish who are active in the “the commies meant well; let’s move on to other things” are motivated by any wish to protect Jews from scrutiny. Many people of that tendency are also anti-Israel; it’s a way they can prove that they have transcended petty ethnocentric concerns.”
[#1]“…you’re right. You are guessing. And since the field of “anti-Communist political writing” is such a tiny percentage of political writing by the elites, that just goes to prove my point.
I have been part of this scene for 50 years and I am not guessing. You might as well face it. If it makes you feel any better, there were also a way disproportionate number of Jews against Nazism.
There is nothing wrong with the inescapable fact that our ethnic heritage heavily influences us, except trying to ignore it. It is this kind of bald intellectual dishonesty that pollutes the entire field.
I assure you being a descendant of several Confederate generals makes me look at the Battle Flag and hear Dixie differently than you….
If I had been living in the Pale of Settlement getting whacked by the Tsarist Cossacks on a regular basis, I would have been an eager Communist Party member too and I my pride in the ideals of that revolution might have taken generations to wash through my family.” [end FB excerpt]
I should begin by saying that #1, descendant of Confederate generals, regards himself as “a Zionist” (in a message to me). Notwithstanding his support for Israel, he both blames and does not blame Jews in academia and in the media for the ostensible cover-up of these eye-opening Bukovsky-Stroilov materials. The Jews cannot help being influenced by their “cultural heritage.” Moreover, Jews are “disproportionately” involved in controlling educational media, Hollywood, and publishing, as well as disproportionally involved in “the Marxist movement.” The Jews (though not in the majority) are so powerful that they have sealed our lips, except for his. This claim reminds me of a book written by UC Santa Barbara professor Albert S. Lindemann, Esau’s Tears: The Rise of the Jews and Modern Anti-Semitism (Cambridge UP, 1997). Lindemann considered himself a friend of Jewry, yet his statistics could be deployed to buttress the argument of #1, or for that matter, the notorious Kevin MacDonald (author of a trilogy ending with Culture of Critique). Jews had too much power after their emancipation (look at the omnipotent Frankfurt School!). Could not such claims imply that the Holocaust was rational, given the pushiness of the Western European Jews, and the nature of the Jew-polluted Soviet regime (and here I refer solely to MacDonald, not Lindemann, though some may find the implications of Esau’s Tears troubling).
What #1 and other readers may not wish to see is that membership in Marxist-Leninist organizations meant the renunciation of religion and nationalist identities of any kind, and after the late 19th century, that meant compulsory anti-Zionism. One enlisted in the internationalist brotherhood of proletarians: there, and only there, was the seat of loyalty, forget cultural heritage. For anyone to assert that Marx, the open antisemite (though leftists hotly deny this), was any kind of Jew is to imagine a racial essentialism that must trump the cultural inheritance that #1 postulates in his own case and to that of a group he has not studied, but believes he understands and is sympathetic toward. Yet, even such a friend to the Jews as Paul Johnson in his history of the Jews refers to persons with Jewish parents as Jews, even though they have renounced any “particularist” (i.e., non-internationalist) identity. This can only mean that Jews are a race, not a religion or persons devoted to a particular set of moral values. Yet Johnson refers to the Soviet officials of Jewish background as “Non-Jewish Jews.” Of course, in his defense, antisemites don’t make these fine distinctions because they are ardent believers in racial character, which can never be thrown off.
If there are any dirty little secrets to be found here, it is the fact that “Jews” are not powerful enough to control either Hollywood, or the media, or academe, or Wall Street (I threw that last one in, don’t blame #1), and especially can they not control their mothers. Ideology and/or the profit motive, yes. Jewish power and solidarity? You have got to be kidding or a born-again populist. Start reading every entry on this site starting May, 2009.