TNR’s Progressive Dupes

The New Republic's little-known history of propaganda peddling for brutal communist regimes.

“I am a patriot for Russia; the Future is there; Russia will win out and it will save the world. That is my belief.”

—Lincoln Steffens, popular 1920s journalist for The New Republic.

Martin Peretz is stepping down as editor-in-chief of The New Republic. As noted at FrontPageMag last week, he is assuming the title of editor-in-chief emeritus, an honorary position, though he is retaining his popular blog at TNR’s website. I’m sure the reasons for this are varied, but it seems the culmination of a long-term falling out between Peretz and the hard Left. More than that, it says a lot about the status of the Left in general, particularly the direction of the “progressive” movement over the past 100 years.

For the record, I’ve never met Martin Peretz, nor even exchanged an email with him, but I can say this much: In my opinion, Peretz single-handedly saved and brought broad respectability to The New Republic. He bought the magazine in the mid-1970s. By the late 1980s, when I started subscribing as an undergraduate, it was a bulwark of thoughtful liberalism, and regularly full of surprises. TNR’s contributors argued logically, methodically, with facts. It was a refreshing change from the emotional outbursts I usually encountered from liberals. My files are still packed with TNR articles from that period.

In fact, in one of my courses, I still use a handful of TNR pieces on the first Gulf War, dated 1990-91, from Morton Kondracke, David Korn, a superb analysis by Stephen Solarz, and the second-to-none reporting from Kuwait by the late Michael Kelly, God rest his soul. It was wonderful work, and much less predictable and more interesting than what was being published by the flagship of the right, National Review—with no disrespect to NR.

And when it came to competitors on the Left, from the crazies at The Nation to the silly New York Times—which always feigned the appearance of objectivity, like CBS News—you could trust The New Republic. One had faith that its writers thought things through.

So valuable was TNR to me personally, that when I entered grad school in the early 1990s, and was virtually penniless, it was one of only two subscriptions I kept.

That turned out to be a wise choice in another important way that speaks to Martin Peretz’s leadership. The post-Cold War TNR was, at long last, and long overdue, excellent on the sins of communism, giving seminal books like The Black Book of Communism the exposure they desperately needed among an American Left that always viewed Joe McCarthy and anti-communism as a greater concern than Joe Stalin and pro-communism. In the 1990s, TNR made amends for more recent Cold War meanderings, such as its juvenile April 4, 1983 editorial ripping “Reverend Reagan” for his “Evil Empire” speech, and, further back still, for the scandalous nonsense that filled its pages from the 1910s to 1930s.

As to that older history, it’s especially revealing of what Martin Peretz changed at TNR. What the early TNR reported on Bolshevism and the Lenin-Stalin state was outrageous. In a just world, the magazine would not have survived the ignominy that should have come its way. If a conservative magazine had a similar track record regarding the far Right, it would have never survived.

I had known some of that history, but I was floored to see just how bad it was when I was researching Dupes, and, specifically, digging into the Soviet Comintern Archives on Communist Party USA, where TNR frequents the files. Without revisiting all of that here, here are just a few examples from those opening decades, smack in the middle of Lenin’s and Stalin’s unholy rampage:

From the outset, TNR peddled gibberish on Bolshevism. A very strange April 6, 1918 editorial, titled, “For and Against the Bolsheviki,” dubbed the Russian Revolution “one of the great enterprises in the history of human liberation.”

Given such optimism, it’s no surprise that numerous TNR editors, regulars, and contributors did pilgrimage to the Soviet Motherland, where they were paraded from Potemkin village to Potemkin village by master manipulators. From the likes of Lincoln Steffens to John Dewey, they came home with fatally flawed reports glowing about the Brave New World they encountered.

As to Dewey, progressive godfather, Columbia University celebrity, founder of public education, and guiding light of our teachers’ colleges, I cannot do him justice here. He requires a good hundred pages. He was completely duped, swallowing every heaping spoonful of propaganda fed to him by his handlers. Worse, he compounded the manipulation by spreading his errors. Where? In the pages of The New Republic, where he cobbled a six-part series in late 1928 upon return from the USSR. TNR provided the progressive’s progressive with a platform where, in effect, he likewise misled legions of additional progressives, allowing them to share in Stalin’s manipulation.

“[T]he outstanding fact in Russia is a revolution,” declared the Columbia professor, “involving a release of human powers on such an unprecedented scale that it is of incalculable significance not only for that country, but for the world.”

Dewey aside, here are two examples from the 1930s, both TNR articles that I found specifically in the Comintern Archives on CPUSA. The fact that the articles were in those archives suggests that one of the comrades in CPUSA liked them enough, or found them useful enough, that they were channeled to the party masters in Moscow.

One of the documents is an article titled, “The Communists Meet,” June 15, 1932, written by Michael Gold, a TNR contributor, communist, and a founding editor of New Masses. Reporting from Chicago, Gold underscored the comrades’ vigorous efforts to recruit black Americans. “I love the Communist Party,” Gold quoted one woman as saying. “We Negroes love the Communist Party.”

The article is actually a re-typed excerpt, headlined “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE,” presumably by CPUSA (though that isn’t entirely clear), from where it was distributed to (among others) the Comintern.

Another document from the era is a December 1, 1937 editorial from TNR titled, “Witch-Hunting in Massachusetts.” Here we see, long before Joe McCarthy, and long before Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (I have much to say about Miller), the American Left reflexively referred to any inquiry about whether American communists were privately serving the USSR—at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge—as nothing more than a mere witch-hunt. That was always the communist line fed to progressives/liberals, who bit every time.

Why is that particular TNR editorial in the Comintern Archives on CPUSA? Perhaps the CPUSA boys wanted to impress their bosses in Moscow with evidence of their yeoman’s work successfully duping progressives/liberals.

That brings me back to Martin Peretz, who was one man of the Left who was no dupe. Peretz redeemed TNR from the institutional dupery it had suffered from the outset. The pro-communist nonsense definitively ceased under his editorship.

It took The New Republic a long time to recover from its mistakes at the start of the 20th century. What a shame if the publication’s progressives regress to where they once were—that is, prey to predators on their extreme Left.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.