Carl Bernstein’s Communist Problem & Mine

The past is prologue to the future.

The article below appeared in the July 1989 Issue of Commentary.

Note: A number of books have appeared recently, including most notably Paul Kengor's book The Communist, which are about Barack Obama's Communist mentor, and also the progressive communist milieu that our 44th president grew up in, along with his closest advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett -- a community to which he remains loyal today. I thought it might be useful to those first being introduced to what I like to call the "neo-communist left" to read a piece I wrote a few years ago about Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein and his Communist father, and about my own experience in the Communist left as well. It is particularly the disloyalty and fundamental dishonesty of these people, these Communist progressives which I think should most interest readers in the context of the political and economic crises we are facing today. – David Horowitz.  


Carl Bernstein’s Communist Problem & Mine

More than a decade ago, when I was in my late 30s and living in California, I was visited by an elderly woman named Ann Colloms, the mother of my best childhood friend. Like my own parents and, indeed, all the adults I knew in the years when I was growing up, Ann had been a member of the Communist Party. She had come to discuss an incident that occurred when she was in the Party and that still troubled her now nearly 20 years later. Although I still considered myself part of the left at that time, I had already developed some publicly expressed doubts about the radical heritage we all had shared, and it was for this reason that Ann now sought me out: to confess her complicity in a crime committed when she was a Communist long ago.

Ann and my parents belonged to a colony of Jewish Communists who, in the early Forties, had settled in a 10-block neighborhood of working-class Catholics in Sunnyside, Queens. The members of this colony lived two lives. Outwardly they were middle class: scrupulous in their respect for the mores of the community and unfailing in their obedience to its civil laws. They always identified themselves publicly as “progressives,” espousing views that were liberal and democratic. They thought of themselves (and were perceived by others) as “socially conscious” and “idealistic” and were active in trade unions and civil-rights groups and in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

The picture is consistent with that myth now struggling to be born in our literary culture that these people were small “c” communists whose belief in democratic values outweighed their commitment to big “C” Communism. But this is a myth, with malevolent implications. In fact, the members of this colony like Ann and my parents also inhabited another, secret world as soldiers in the Third International founded by Lenin. In their eyes, a sixth of humanity had entered an entirely new stage of history in Soviet Russia in 1917, a triumphant humanity that would be extended all over the world by the actions of the vanguard they had joined. The world of liberal and progressive politics may have been the world in which outsiders saw them, but their secret membership in this revolutionary army was the world that really mattered to Ann and my parents and to all their political friends. It was the world that gave real significance and meaning to what otherwise were modest and rather ordinary lives.

In their own minds, Ann and my parents were secret agents. When they joined the Communist Party, they had even been given secret names for the time when their true objective would require them to abandon the facade of their liberal politics and go underground to take the lead in the revolutionary struggle. (My mother’s secret name was “Anne Powers,” which always struck me as terribly WASPY.) All their legitimate political activities were merely preparations or fronts for the real tasks of their political commitment, which they could discuss only with other secret agents like themselves. Their activities in the democratic organizations they entered and controlled and in the liberal campaigns they promoted were all part of their secret service. Their real purpose in pursuing them was not to advance liberal or democratic values but to serve the interests of the Soviet state – because in their minds the Soviet Union was the place where the future had already begun. For those in the Party, the revolutionary role was not the kitsch fantasy it seems in retrospect, but something that was very real and ultimately sinister. The story that Ann told me was proof enough.

No more than five feet tall in her stocking feet, Ann had been a high-school teacher of foreign languages. Her only flirtation with a reality beyond the prudent bounds of her middle-class existence was, in fact, her membership in the Communist Party. But even her Party life – despite its little Bolshevik rituals and conspiratorial overtones – was organized around activities that were quite unextraordinary: raising funds for the volunteers for loyalist Spain, marching for civil rights, and playing the part of a loyal cadre in the New York City Teacher’s Union, which the Party controlled. But on one occasion Ann was chosen for a task that was not like the others, one that would burden her with guilt for the rest of her life.

In 1940, the Party selected Ann, then a new mother, for a special mission. The nature of the mission required that its purpose not be revealed, even to her, and that its details be concealed even from her Party comrades. In any other area of Ann’s life, the suggestions of illegality and the dangers inherent in such a proposal would have provoked intolerable anxieties and suspicions in a person of her middle-class temperament and sheltered experience. But it was the Party that had made the request. And because it was the Party, the same elements had an opposite effect. The fear that was present only emphasized the importance of the cause that beckoned. The prospect of danger only heightened the honor of receiving a call from the vanguard Party. She understood instinctively that it was the very insignificance of her life up to that moment -- its unobtrusiveness -- that suited her suitable for the task she was being called perform. It was the Party that spoke, but it was History that called, and she answered.

Ann agreed to undertake the mission. She left her infant son with her husband in New York and took a plane to Mexico. There she delivered a sealed envelope to a contact the Party had designated. After making the delivery, she flew back to New York and resumed the life she had lived before. It was as simple as that. Yet it was not simple at all. As Ann soon discovered, she had become a small but decisive link in the chain by which Joseph Stalin reached out from Moscow to Cayocoan, Mexico, to put an ice pick in Leon Trotsky’s head.

One of the most disturbing elements in Ann’s story lay in the fact that she had waited so long to tell it, and then only to me, privately. It had been 20 years after Khrushchev’s Report exposing to the Party faithful the crimes that Stalin had committed. It was at that time that she and my parents had left the Communist Party. Twenty years later she had come to me to tell her story and relieve her guilt. But neither she nor my parents had ever thought to tell me this or similar stories to warn me of the minefields I might encounter when, as a young man, I started on my own career in the left. Nor had they ever told their stories publicly; nor would they approve of me doing so now. The attitude of Ann and my parents towards historical truth was a telling one. Like thousands of others, they had left the Party, but they could not leave the faith.

Al Bernstein, the father of Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, had been a member of the Communist Party and a secret agent in the same way that Ann and my parents were secret agents. Like them, Al Bernstein is one of those progressives who left the Party but could never leave its political faith. When Carl Bernstein approached his father about a book he intended to write on “the witch-hunts leading up to the McCarthy era,” Al Bernstein stonewalled him, refusing to be interviewed, even though it was his own son. He did not approve his son’s proposed quest for the truth about his Communist past. He did not want his son to discover the truth about his experience in the Communist Party or about the Party’s role in American life. He did not want him to write about it. To even ask the questions his son was asking, indicated that his political attitude was incorrect: “I think your focus on the Party is cockeyed. You’re up the wrong tree. The right tree is what people did.... I worry about your premise. The right premise, the premise of a lot of recent books about the period, is that people were persecuted because of what they did, not because of their affiliation. Because once you admit affiliation you get into all that Stalinist crap.” (emphasis in the original)

Not to accept the “right” premise was more than politically incorrect; it was dangerous: “The premise people eventually accepted after the McCarthy period was that the victims weren’t Communists. If you’re going to write a book that says McCarthy was right, that a lot of us were Communists, you’re going to write a dangerous book.... You’re going to prove McCarthy right, because all he was saying was that the system was loaded with Communists. And he was right."

In Al Bernstein’s view, even though McCarthy was right about the presence of Communists posing as liberals in the political woodwork, and even though virtually all of McCarthy’s targets were Communists, the fact that they were Communists (who lied about being Communists) had nothing to do with their being singled out: “Was I ‘oppressed’ because I was a Communist?... No. It was incidental. I was ‘oppressed’ because of what I did, because I was affiliated with a left-wing union.”

We should not be misled by the fatuousness of this catechism. The sacrament the father rams down the throat of the son is brutal as well as tasteless. In point of fact, Al Bernstein was a Communist; he was not merely "affiliated with" the United Public Workers of America; he was a leader of the union. The United Public Workers of America was not merely a “left-wing union” but a union under Communist Party control. And the fact that it was a union under Communist control – despite Al Bernstein's protestations – made it a different order of union entirely than other unions that were not Communist-controlled.

The difference was manifested most dramatically in the Cold War year 1948, which began with the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Coming 20 years after Munich, this event sent shock waves through the capitals of the West. In an effort to halt the march of Soviet power, the Truman administration announced it was launching the Marshall Plan – an economic-aid program to revive the war-shattered economies of Western Europe and to shore up its democracies against their own Communist threats. While most American unions supported the Marshall Plan as an economic boon for their members and a necessary defense measure for the West, Al Bernstein’s union did not. Along with all the other Communist-controlled unions in America, Al Bernstein’s United Public Workers attacked the Marshall Plan as a Cold War plot and launched an all-out campaign against it. On the political front, Al Bernstein and his comrades bolted the Democratic Party and organized the Progressive Party candidacy of Henry Wallace in the hope of unseating Truman and ending his anti-Communist program. Their actions were in fact a Soviet-orchestrated plot to sabotage the defense of Europe against Soviet aggression.

Most unions were not agents of the Soviet Union like Al Bernstein’s was. In response to their sedition, Al Bernstein’s union and other Communist-controlled unions were purged from the CIO. They were purged not by McCarthy or by Harry Truman and his Loyalty Board but by patriotic unionists like Philip Murray and Walter Reuther, who were liberal socialists who would not go along with the Communist betrayal of their country and their union members in the service of the Soviet Union. Phillip Murray, who is cited in passing in Carl Bernstein’s Loyalties for his principled opposition to the Loyalty Boards, also told the CIO convention in 1948 that he opposed the Communists “because they have subverted every decent movement into which they have infiltrated themselves in the course of their unholy career.”

At 70-plus years of age, more than three decades after Senator McCarthy’s death, Al Bernstein is still actively practicing his old Stalinist deceits, still taking the Fifth Amendment towards any inquiry, however innocent, into his commitments and beliefs, still hiding his Communist agendas behind a liberal facade. And not only to the world at large but to his own pathetically inquisitive son. To be called a witch-hunter by your father, while only trying, however ineffectually, to sort out the Oedipal tangle must be a daunting experience.

Carl, whose memoir is utterly innocent of the vast literature on American Communism (which refutes virtually every page of this little book he took eleven years to write), measures the dimensions of his filial love in a passage that occurs a little less than halfway through the text: “Many years later,...[I] realized that it is my father for whom I write, whose judgment I most respect, whose approval I still seek.” Loyalties is little more than a unilateral withdrawal from the Oedipal struggle.

In the end, it is the sheer desperation of this filial hunger that overwhelms the text Carl Bernstein intended to write and that explains the deficiencies of the preposterous book he has had the bad judgment to publish as Loyalties (even the title – originally Disloyal – has been changed to fit the fashions of the paternal party line). He resists his father’s “correct premise,” manfully at the outset. But by the final chapters of Loyalties he has capitulated and even joined up. Al Bernstein’s Communist Party loyalties didn’t matter (either to him or to those who pursued him), Carl avows. He and all the other agents of the Communist cause were targeted solely for their activities on behalf of trade unionism and civil rights, and the internal security program of the Truman administration “really was a war against liberals.”

This is not a book about the Communist Party and its discontents but a lecture on the need to keep the tattered faith at whatever cost to one’s integrity. Rapidly expiring all over the world, this faith, strange to say, is alive and well in literary America. As Al Bernstein -- the possessor of a shrewder, stronger intellect than his wayward son-impatiently observes, “the right premise” – the Communist Party’s premise – is “the premise of a lot of recent books about the period.” Thus, the standard academic work on the subject of American universities in the loyalty oath era --No Ivory Tower by Princeton professor Eleanor Schrecker -- is written from this neo-Stalinist perspective, as are most other recent studies written by academic leftists about the early Cold War security conflicts.

Even more striking support for Al Bernstein’s perspective is offered by the notices of Loyalties in the most prestigious book reviews in the Sunday New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. In each, Carl had his literary knuckles rapped by leftist reviewers who chided him for not justifying his parents’ Communist politics enough. Thus, Paul Robeson’s neo-Stalinist biographer Professor Martin Duberman complained in The Washington Post’s “Book World:” “In his dedication, Carl Bernstein asserts that he is proud of the choices his parents made. But he never provides enough argued detail about what went into those choices to allow most Americans to join him – as surely they should – in his approbation.” Indeed.

What are the tenets of the neo-Stalinist faith that has so unexpectedly resurfaced in American letters? Basically there are two. The first – that Communists were peace-loving, do-gooding, civil-rights activists and American patriots; the second – that they were the innocent victims of a fascist America. Carl has it down pat: “‘It was a reign of terror.’ I have never heard my father talk like that, have never known him to reach for a cliché. But this was no cliché.” (emphasis in original). Correct: it was not a cliché; it is a lie.

No, Carl, we in America didn’t have a reign of terror, not the way that phrase is understood to apply to the Stalinist world out of which our families both came and where it means blood in the gutters. In America, my mother elected to take an early disability retirement from the New York school system rather than answer questions about her membership in the Party. But with the help of Party friends and liberal sympathizers she immediately went on to other other, better careers, as secretary to the head of the National Lawyers Guild and research librarian for Planned Parenthood. Your father became a small-time entrepreneur and you got a job (through his personal connections) as a reporter at the Washington Star. When, later, you were at the Post and about to help topple a sitting president during the Watergate scandal, you went to managing editor Ben Bradlee to reveal the terrible secret about your parents’ Communist past, and what did he do? Remove you from the case? No, in horrific, anti-Communist, paranoid America, America home of the McCarthy reign of terror, the editor of The Washington Post told you to get on with the story. And what did you learn from that? Exactly nothing.

And that is my final complaint about Loyalties and its pseudo-account of the anti-Communist era. As in all the recent rewrites of this history, whose premise is to keep the faith, the reality of the post-war domestic conflict between Communists and anti-Communists goes unreported. In a fleeting episode in Loyalties, for example, Carl’s friend and former boss Ben Bradlee recalls over dinner that he had always thought of progressives like Carl’s parents (whom personally he did not know) as “awful people.” Even in the jagged structure of this book, the observation is jarring. But even more unnerving is the fact that the famous investigative reporter of Watergate does not pursue the remark to inquire what memories might lie behind it. The same lack of inquisitiveness is seen in his feeble efforts to understand the nature of his parents’ true commitments. He describes his mother, then in her 70s, as a woman who is “very forgiving.” But when she refers to a political adversary of 30 years ago as a “vicious bastard,” her son simply ignores the emotional signal, and misses anything that it might tell us about the polarized psyches and virulent hatreds of progressives like his parents.

Elsewhere, he describes how his grandfather would take him to a Jewish bookstore to buy the Yiddish-language Communist newspaper Freiheit. “Until the day he died in 1967 he had no use for the [non-Communist] Forward – or the [non-Communist] Socialists. ‘Fareters,’ traitors of the cause, he called them, and he didn’t much like having any of them into his house....” This life-long hatred towards non-Communist leftists, coupled with casual vitriolic abuse, was a staple of the personalities of Bernstein’s parents and of the other “victims” of the postwar “purge.” In attempting to explain to Carl, at another point in the text, why Al Bernstein joined the party, family friend – and fellow Communist -- Bob Treuhaft observed: “There was a feeling that unless you joined and were with us you were the enemy.” Carl lets this one slip by too.

There were many enemies of progressive activists John L. Lewis, head of the CIO's United Mine Workers, was once a party ally, but when he refused to go along with the Communist-supported no-strike pledge after the German invasion of Russia, the party attacked him as a “pro-Nazi” who was committing “treason.” The Communists also routinely denounced civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the organizer of the war-time March on Washington, as “a fascist helping defeatism,” because Randolph refused to shelve the struggle for civil rights – as the party demanded – in favor of joining the effort to help save the USSR from defeat. So much for the fantasy that Communist Party members were at bottom only unionists and civil-rights activists, or that progressives love peace.

Not only were progressives not libertarians, they were also, despite their pious wails later on, notorious masters of the political blacklist in all the organizations they managed to control. It was partly for these reasons that when the loyalty boards and the congressional committees finally did come to town, there were a lot of people – a lot of liberal people – waiting to settle scores with the Communists. To them, Communists were not the civil-libertarian idealists of Carl Bernstein’s book but political conspirators who had infiltrated and manipulated and taken over their own liberal organizations and subverted them for hidden agendas; who had slandered, libeled, and blacklisted them when they had opposed the party line; who had lied to the public, pretending that they were not Marxists or loyal to Soviet Russia when questions about their political affiliations were asked.

The Communists lied to everyone then, and the new keepers of their faith are still lying today. “If you’re going to write a book that says McCarthy was right, that a lot of us were Communists, you’re going to write a dangerous book,” Al Bernstein had warned. Look, for a moment, at this logic: To admit that they were Communists is to lend credence to the claims of Joseph McCarthy. Why is this dangerous at so late a date? Is not McCarthy himself the most irretrievable political corpse of the McCarthy era? It is dangerous to progressives to admit the truth not because it will bring persecution but because it will remove the final veil that allows a progressive life to appear to be more than simple service to the totalitarian cause.

It is not fear of smearing “innocents” that haunts the political left when it looks at its disgraceful past; it is something more like the fear that haunted the conscience of deconstructionist scholar Paul De Man: embarrassment over a terrible guilt. “‘Look,’ [Al Bernstein] snapped, ‘you’ve read Lillian Hellman's book. She skirts these questions [about Communist Party membership] very neatly. She’s too sharp to leave herself open to that kind of embarrassment.’”

As always, Al Bernstein's old Stalinist politics reveal a sharper judgment than that of his born-again son. Embarrassment is the problem – not a sham reign of terror; it is the shame of possible exposure as having been a loyal supporter of a mass murderer like Stalin for all those years. The struggle now is not over the fact, but what it actually meant to be a Communist then and an apologist for Communists now. Civil rights, trade unionism, human brotherhood, and peace: That’s what we were – they now stubbornly claim as their final fall-back position – that was our cause. Communism? Marxism? Socialism? Those were incidental – irrelevant to who we were and what we did.

Loyalties reveals the secret of how the progressive left aims to be born again – by erasing the embarrassment of its disreputable past; by hiding the shame of having supported Stalin and Mao and Fidel and Ho and all the terrible purges, murders, and other despicable means that finally served no beneficial ends. The ultimate embarrassment is of having been so stubbornly and perversely on the wrong side of history; of having embraced “solutions” that were morally and politically and economically bankrupt in the great struggles of our time. As Joseph Stalin was the first socialist to truly understand, the airbrushing of history is the only sure means to preserve the honor of the left. In this, as no doubt in other things in his undiscovered life, Al Bernstein follows right along the Stalinist path. And his son walks in lockstep behind him, picking up his mess.

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