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Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2001
Review by Irwin Silber
The great virtue of Commies, Ronald Radosh's self-serving Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, is that it clears up any remaining ambiguity as to his niche in the political spectrum. It also manages to demolish the dubious notion that his work is that of a “distinguished conservative scholar and historian.”
Radosh's politics were always paper-thin and had more to do with his acknowledged ambition “to become a leader in the American Communist movement” than with any readily apparent interest in their substance. Radosh seems to have accommodated himself with ease to the politics of such disparate groups as the Communist Party's Labor Youth League, the editorial board of Dissent, Democratic Socialists of America, and even a fairly brief membership in the Communist Party. Ironically, his timing in this latter enterprise was somewhat off. For while the Communist Party's ranks were being decimated by the departure of more than two-thirds of its members in the wake of the Khrushchev Report and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Radosh chose that moment to join the rapidly disintegrating organization. (Perhaps he thought the mass exodus would make it easier for him to realize his dream of becoming a leader.)
But nothing worked for the Red Diaper wunderkind whose goal in life seems to have been to be number one of something—anything. The holy grail of distinction as one of America's leading revolutionaries continued to elude him. In time, Radosh found greener pastures on the right where, to the delight of his new comrades, he discovered his niche as the scourge of the Left.
Now, with Commies, Radosh's politics are barely distinguishable from the standard ravings of the lunatic right. Certainly the right considers him—along with his “lifetime friend” David Horowitz —one of theirs. But there is little reason to take Radosh's politics seriously. Their main purpose is to provide the rationalization for his present comfortable place in the right-wing pantheon. (In his overly generous review of Commies in the Nation, Martin Duberman seems to have missed this point.) There is nothing measured or complex in Radosh's hysterical critique of the Left. Shadings and nuance are concepts with which he is apparently unfamiliar.
Thus, to Radosh, the Old (Communist) Left was nothing but a pack of agents for the Soviet Union and any attempt to dignify their activities in various social movements as anything but pro- Soviet ploys is naïve or worse. The New Left “sought to demolish America from within” but failed because “so many stood solidly behind America while we tried to bring it down.” (The unexpressed but unmistakable implication here is that the Left's opposition to the Vietnam War was treasonous.) Radosh's “leftover Left” fares no better. It is a mishmash of wrong-headed causes, among them “radical feminism, ultra-environmentalism, pro-Arabism, political correctness (and) the new anarchism,” whose main activity seems to be running off to join those “who trash Starbucks and picket the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the institutions that for them symbolize the abiding evil of big corporations and international capitalism.” (We are left to wonder what these institutions symbolize for Radosh.)
Political positions at the macro level are framed completely by anti-communism—a sweeping catchall that lumps together all those who oppose U.S. imperialist power and arrogance as enemies of America. Apologizing for his sins of the past, Radosh now believes that Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War was preferable to a Loyalist triumph. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the NFLM in El Salvador? Tools of international communism. Salvador Allende? Cuba's “asset in Chile.” Cuba? A corrupted revolution. The African National Congress? Beyond the pale because of its ties to the South African Communist Party.
Radosh's credentials as a serious historian are even more dubious. His near-manic view of anything closely or distantly touched by American communism, socialism, or radicalism may serve as an aphrodisiac for those who get their jollies listening to Rush Limbaugh. But anyone expecting to encounter the work of a “distinguished conservative scholar and historian” is bound to wonder whether we are talking about the same Ronald Radosh.
Like many other mediocrities on the right, Radosh is a whiner, constantly asserting that because of the left he has become “a pariah in the world of academe.” As a case in point he cites his rejection for a teaching job in the history department of George Washington University. “If I had still been a Communist writing left- wing history, I probably would have breezed in. But faculty members practicing a politically correct version of McCarthyism blackballed me.”
The real story, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (June 7, 1996), was somewhat different. There was no opening in George Washington's history department. Rather, Radosh was seeking a special seat ear-marked for him alone in exchange for which the conservative Olin Foundation would offer the university a grant to cover his $100,000 a year salary. Outraged by this naked attempt to buy an ideologically motivated appointment, the history department decided by a 17-3 vote that it was an offer that had no way written all over it.
Characteristic of Radosh's approach to facts in Commies is a reckless aptitude for invention, embellishment, snide speculation and—for a historian—an incredible panoply of source and reference-free assertions. Perhaps his favorite evocation of truth is that he enjoys the gift of a photographic memory. This talent came in handy in an incident involving Radosh's good friend and fellow right-winger, David Horowitz.
In his book, Radical Son, which recounts a similar journey from left to right, Horowitz makes mention of his brief experiences at the left-wing children's Camp Wo-Chi-Ca. (Wo-Chi-Ca stood for Workers Children's Camp.) Among his camp memories? “Every summer there would be a campfire dedicated to the ritual burning of comic-books that were ‘imperialist' or had anti-Communist themes.”
This passage came to the attention of June Levine who had been both camper and counselor at Wo-Chi-Ca for many years and was writing a book about the camp with her partner Gene Gordon. After checking with scores of ex-Wochicans (this writer among them), they could find no one who had ever seen or heard of comic-book burnings— ritual or otherwise—at Wo-Chi- Ca. Accordingly, they wrote to Horowitz asking for his source and received the following remarkable reply: “I was at Wo-Chi-Ca three years (1949, 1950, 1951). I only attended two weeks a summer and I have no personal recollection of any comic book bonfire. I went on Radosh's word about this (he was particularly insistent that I include it). Radosh has a photographic memory, and I have never found him to be wrong.”
Levine and Gordon then asked Radosh to comment on Horowitz's assertion. After a long delay and a second query, Radosh replied acknowledging that he had never been to Wo-Chi-Ca. But, he added, “I did see at (Camp) Woodland a Wo-Chi-Ca yearbook or publication that we looked at while preparing a Woodland book of similar nature. The Wo-Chi-Ca book had a full page about the protest against comic books, including photos of campers throwing their comics in a campfire. I do indeed have a photographic memory and am not making this up.”
Levine and Gordon were not impressed by Radosh's “photographic memory” and responded by saying they had copies of all the Camp Wo-Chi-Ca yearbooks and could not find any photos of campers tossing comic books into campfires. They called the supposed book-burning a libel. To which Radosh replied: “There is so much about Wo-Chi-Ca that is deserving of it having a bad name that I hardly think my story is so profound that it alone “libels” the camp. Indeed, a camp that was part of the Stalinist network and was part of a movement effort to create cadre for the international movement is far worse a crime than my remembrance of what I once read…. Bonfires or not—and I readily admit that perhaps I was wrong about that—the camp did have a policy of asking their campers to turn in the offensive comics and to ‘combat the influence' of their pernicious ideas. No patriotic Captain America comic books for the little Reds in residence.”
Frustrated by having to drop the juicy book-burning charge, Radosh's reference to Wo-Chi-Ca in Commies was to report that the campers had once “solemnly” recited, “We pledge ourselves to combat the influence of jokes, comic books, newspapers, radio programs that make fun of any people.” To Radosh, this statement was presumably prima facie evidence of how the camp recruited cadre for the international movement.
Another example of Radosh's gift for embellishment and invention of “facts” has to do with the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and me personally. According to Radosh, “Silber blasted the Weavers as racists for singing the songs of Negro America without having a black member…. Shortly thereafter, Silber created a Weavers copycat group called the Gateway Singers, whose female singer was black.”
There are several lies and misstatements of fact in those two sentences.
1. I never called, let alone “blasted,” the Weavers as racists for not having a black member. When Pete Seeger was organizing the Weavers, I did urge him to try to make it an inter-racial group. (Remember, this was a time when the music industry was 99 percent segregated. There were even separate locals for black and white members of the Musicians Union.) Although the group made an effort in that direction, it never worked out.
2. When the Weavers' first record album appeared, it was reviewed in Sing Out! (of which I was then the editor) most favorably by Fred Moore, an African-American. Moore's one caveat was that their rendition of the traditional blues, “Easy Rider,” didn't “make the grade,” suggesting that this was almost an inherent problem for any all-white group undertaking to sing traditional African-American songs. The article was quite controversial and the pros and cons of Moore's view were debated in Sing Out! for the next several months.
3. The charge that I “created” a copycat group is sheer fabrication. the Gateway Singers were formed in California sometime in the early 1950s ten years before I had ever been to that part of the country. It was an all-white group. Later on, one member was replaced by a black singer. In neither case did I have anything to do with the group.
4. Just to keep the record straight. I did write a critical review of a Weavers' song folio because it credited a pair of white Tin Pan Alley song-writers with having written several traditional black songs.
Just one more personal note. In Commies, Radosh writes that Silber was “the first to condemn Bob Dylan for ‘betraying' the folk movement by going electric.” The presumable source for this assertion is a rather well-known “Open Letter” I wrote to Bob Dylan in 1964 more than a year before he shocked many folk fans with his switch to electric rock. There can be little doubt that Radosh was familiar with the letter, but there is no reference to electricity in it. My concern, rather, was with Dylan's abandonment (and subsequent belittlement) of political songs—a disappointment I felt keenly because his had been such a powerful and poetic voice in tearing the mask away from U.S. hypocrisy.
All this is ancient history of course. But it is worth citing as an example (far from the only one) of how our “distinguished” scholar feels free to “improve” on the facts—or invent them—as a means of juicing up his ideological agenda.
In a similar vein but of far greater import is Radosh's view of the murder of Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, which he describes as a “shootout in Chicago during which local police stormed the Black Panther's home and killed him in the ensuing confusion.” But it has been amply demonstrated by now that there was no confusion on the part of the Chicago police who enthusiastically carried out an assassination of the enormously popular Black Panther leader who had become a thorn in Mayor Daley's side.
Radosh makes much of his folk music credentials, hanging out with Woody Guthrie in Washington Square, taking banjo lessons from Pete Seeger, playing guitar with John Cohen, introducing Bob Dylan to a topical talking blues and song-leader at an adult left- wing summer camp. He even wrote an article, before he saw the right-wing light, on “Commercialism and the Folk Revival” for Sing Out! magazine. Radosh also recalls a field trip to a steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for Camp Woodland youngsters in which “left wing” songs like “Dark as a Dungeon” were sung to a group of “bemused” coal miners. (Although it was popular both on the left and to country music fans, the news that “Dark as a Dungeon” was a left-wing song would have come as quite a shock to its author, one-time Kentucky miner Merle Travis.) The youngsters also sang what Radosh calls “the best-known of the Communist anthems of the 1930s” —“Which Side Are You On?” In retrospect he wonders at the “incongruity of a bunch of middle-class New York City high school kids singing… to actual coal miners who probably envied our chances in life, and yet were thankful that they had a job and a decent wage.”
What's wrong with that picture? Nothing much. Only that far from being a communist anthem, “Which Side Are You On?” was written by Florence Reece, a coal miner's wife from Harlan, County, Kentucky and it was the theme song for every coal miner's strike for the next 30 years—and many another strike besides. Did Radosh drop that out of his memory? Hard to believe for someone singing in left and Washington Square circles back in the 1950s.
While left-bashing is clearly Radosh's self-selected mission in his new ideological life, sex runs a close second. “God bless the Communist movement,” he says, “for giving me my very first sexual experiences from among a group of ‘liberated girls' I found time to romance when not engaging in fundraising for the Daily Worker or riding in American Labor Party sound trucks during election week.”
In time, Radosh would honor the sexist maxim that “the reason so many of us went to demonstrations was that it was a good way to get laid.”
“My major preoccupation,” Radosh writes, “aside from socialism, became looking for new women. There was the neighbor from upstairs, a woman 15 years younger who regaled me with stories of her group sex soirees. There were academics, Movement women, assorted hippie types, dancers, editors and historians.”
But in keeping with his general proclivity for name-dropping, Radosh turns out to be a kiss-and- tell lover—especially if his partner has some recognition in the movement. What could the poor guy do? Women on the Left just kept throwing themselves at him. Or so Radosh would have us believe. He sums these women up in brief terms. One is promiscuous. Another is “a hot number.” He names names, an act of male cock-crowing justified, we must presume, because, when it comes to fighting and exposing Communists, there are no holds barred.
Finally we come to that refuge of the scoundrel determined to smear no matter what—cheap shots. Two examples will suffice although Commies is replete with them.
On Pete Seeger, for whom Radosh appears to have a particular venom: “Vietnam is something Pete Seeger would have had to invent if it hadn't existed. For it was Vietnam that brought Pete back into the mainstream.”
On Arthur Miller who was the speaker at Radosh's graduation from Elizabeth Irwin High School after the school authorities had turned down Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. “Miller's leftwing credentials were impeccable. In his speech he told us never to accept ‘half a loaf.' We took that to mean that we should have demanded that DuBois speak…. But a short time later, we learned what Miller must really have been thinking about. As the whole world was soon to know, he left his wife, a simple social worker, for America's leading Hollywood beauty queen, the incomparable Marilyn Monroe— the ‘whole loaf' incarnate.”
That'll show 'em. Z
Irwin Silber was editor of Sing Out! Magazine (1951-1967), writer and executive editor for the Guardian (1968- 1979), associate editor of Crossroads (1990-1995), author of numerous books, including: Songs of the Civil War (Columbia University Press) and Socialism: What Went Wrong? (Pluto Press). He is currently working on Press Box Red: Conversations with Lester Rodney.