Friday, December 26, 2014

Communists of New York

America’s fascination with the anti-communist era after World War II has finally begun to fade. The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent brief opening of Soviet government’s most secret archives, the publication of the Venona files along with the work of scholars such as Ronald Radosh, Allen Weinstein, Harvey Klehr, and others put an end to arguments that raged for years. Was Alger Hiss a spy? What about the guilt of the Rosenbergs? Was the Communist Party of the United States an arm of the Soviet state? These and many other issues that divided the nation have been resolved. Those who were suspicious of communist infiltration in the United States, and were vilified for saying so, were right; the left, with few exceptions, was wrong. Today even the Red Diaper generation and angry New Leftists of the 1960s have grown old and no longer seem eager to re-fight lost battles now lost.

Yet a young historian from Australia, Phillip Deery, has decided to take a fresh look at communism and fellow traveling in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His book is built around the cases of six individuals who were caught up in political and legal controversies over communism in New York City, thus his title, Red Apple. The key figures whom Deery describes as “living on the left”—a nice way of saying that they were either communists or dedicated fellow travelers—are a doctor, Edward Barsky; the writer Howard Fast; two college professors from New York University, Lyman Bradley and Edwin Burgum; the lawyer O. John Rogge; and, in something of a reach, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Deery’s theme is to look at how what he calls the “limits of tolerance and the boundaries of political debate” affected the lives and careers of these individuals—wrecked their lives, in his view. The five chapters examining these figures vary in quality, and the link between them is tenuous at times. The two chapters on Barsky, Bradley, and Burgum are the weakest, dealing as they do with three individuals who were relatively insignificant, politically and otherwise. Barsky, Bradley, and Burgum are tied together by their connection to the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, a communist front organization created in 1942. Ostensibly designed to help Spanish Republicans fleeing Spain after the Civil War, the JAFRC was typical of the pro-Communist groups that thrived during the years when the United States and the Soviet fought together in World War II.

Barsky was chairman of the JAFRC while Burgum and Bradley were members. By refusing to testify to various congressional committees and invoking the Fifth Amendment, all three fell afoul of the anti-communist atmosphere of the times and placed their careers in jeopardy. Interestingly, all three seemed content with the choices they made, which was typical of the mindset of the fellow traveler or outright communist. These people believed they were morally right and justified in what they did, thus they saw themselves as both victims and martyrs.

The three remaining chapters are of more interest. Howard Fast was one of the most successful writers of his era, the author some 60 novels, including the hugely popular Citizen Tom Paine and Spartacus. A dedicated American communist, his books were particularly popular behind the Iron Curtain. Spartacus sold over 800,000 copies in East Germany alone.

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