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Before the Hive

(Reprinted from SOBRANS, August 2001, pages 3–5)
Beehive Over the past twenty years I’ve often written about “the Hive” — my nickname for the informal body of opinion comprising liberals, socialists, outright Communists, and various other strains of “progressive” opinion.

Like an odor, such folk are easier to sense than to define. They include assorted activists for specific causes, as well as more passive enablers, especially in the news media. The Democratic Party is their chief American organ.

The Soviet Union, until it collapsed, was the Queen Bee of the Hive. The Worker Bees of the West took their bearings — though not their orders — from the great socialist motherland. They operated sympathetically, but independently. Most of them would have felt insulted if their Soviet allies had tried to push them around.

The Hive was not, and is not, a conspiracy; it’s more a pattern. Naive anti-Communists, seeing the pattern, have mistaken it for a conspiracy. The Bees, on the other hand, have made their own mistake. Knowing that they aren’t parties to a conspiracy, they fail to see the evident pattern of their collective behavior. By sheer, insectlike instinct, they obey not the dictates of a foreign power, but the internal logic of their own nature, their yearning for a secularist and socialist political order.

This yearning drew the Bees to Communism at one period in modern history, but it also survived the institutional death of Communism; though Communism was profoundly attractive to the Bees as long as it appeared viable, Communism as such was never the essence of the attraction. Its powerful appeal, during the naive phase of the Hive, was simply that the Soviet Union under Stalin looked like a winner — a huge and altogether successful experiment in “building a new society” on progressive lines. It was also frightening, and during the 1930s, dubbed “the Red Decade” by Eugene Lyons (in his scathingly witty book of that title), it wielded incalculable power even in this country. Such people, Lyons wrote, “were drawn to the Great Experiment by its magnitude and seeming strength. Under the guise of a nobly selfless dedication they were, in fact, identifying themselves with Power.”

[Breaker quote: Remembering the Red Decade]In fact, the Communists and pro-Communists of the Red Decade were distinguished by their real and virtual allegiance to the Soviet Union and to Stalin himself. Though they may have thought of themselves as internationalists who transcended national loyalties, they actually transferred their patriotism to a specific foreign power, which they defended, justified, and celebrated at every turn. It seems almost unbelievably naive now, but the evidence Lyons amassed is undeniable. The Red Decade is packed with the insane eulogies to Stalin and Soviet Russia that gushed from American liberals in those days. A new civilization was being born ... Russians were enjoying unprecedented freedom and prosperity ... A new Renaissance was thriving ... Industrial production was booming ...

All lies and fantasies — the very opposite of the indescribably grim truth. The vast and cruel tyranny was claiming millions of lives, most of them due to a policy of forced famine; the survivors lived in utter poverty, due equally to tyranny and incompetence; art, culture, and intellectual life were being crushed, along with religion. Civilization itself was being murdered in Russia, with the vociferous approval of free men in the still-civilized countries to the West.

A few honest visitors told the truth. But they were shouted down, drowned out, vilified by the organized Stalin apologists. These included not only party hacks, but prominent and often gifted writers, intellectuals, and opinion-makers: Lincoln Steffens, Louis Fischer, John Strachey, Maurice Hindus, Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, Theodore Dreiser, Dashiell Hammett, Paul de Kruif, James Weldon Johnson, Archibald MacLeish, George Soule, Langston Hughes, George Seldes, Richard Wright, Newton Arvin, Van Wyck Brooks, Kenneth Burke, Erskine Caldwell, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Irwin Shaw, Irving Stone, Vincent Sheean, Upton Sinclair, Carl Van Doren, Louis Untermeyer, William Carlos Williams, Lillian Hellman, Henry Roth, Max Lerner, Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner Jr., and Nathaniel West.

All in all, an impressive roster. No wonder it took a bold man to defy the engineered consensus that Stalin and Communism were the wave of the future, the harbingers of universal human destiny. Who could suppose that so many leading intellectuals were prostituting their minds for the sake of a single foreign tyrant? They seemed to speak for enlightenment itself.

It’s easy to suppose, now, that Communism was a minor part of American life in the Thirties. We have all been taught that McCarthy Era hysteria grossly magnified the reality. It didn’t. Through his iron (though hidden) control of sycophantic intellectuals, labor unions, and other forces, Stalin wielded enormous power over millions of Americans, most of whom had no suspicion of his reach, or of his sinister influence over their opinion leaders.

Stalin was Communism. Or rather, Communism became whatever Stalin said it was. Indifferent to theory, contemptuous of abstractions (and intellectuals), he had a crude and undistracted appreciation of power: how to get it, how to wield it, how to keep it. His method was simple: terror. He murdered those who resisted him; he also murdered those who assisted him, lest they acquire some claim on him. His ruthlessness was felt through his whole global network, and was emulated by his cadres abroad. Where murder wasn’t possible, character assassination would do. The most severe punishments were meted out to defectors, and the dread of Stalin’s (or his underlings’) revenge did wonders for party cohesion.

“Our own American Popular Front,” Lyons wrote, “though never officially in power as it was in France and for a brief period in Spain, penetrated, in various degrees, the labor movement, education, the churches, college and non-college youth movements, the theater, movies, the arts, publishing in all its branches; it bored deep into the Federal Government and in many communities also into local government; it obtained a stranglehold on great sectors of national and local relief setups and made-work projects through domination of the Workers Alliance, capture of key jobs, and other stratagems. At its highest point — roughly about 1938 — the incredible revolution of the Red Decade had mobilized the conscious or the starry-eyed, innocent collaboration of thousands of influential American educators, social workers, clergymen, New Deal officials, youth leaders, Negro and other racial spokesmen, Social Registerites, novelists, Hollywood stars, script writers, and directors, trade-union chiefs, men and women of abnormal wealth [my emphasis]. Its echoes could be heard in the most unexpected places, including the supposed citadels of conservatism and respectability.” Apart from its omission of journalists, this is a pretty fair catalogue of the constituent Bees of today’s Hive. Of course time has added some new categories: feminists, homosexuals, environmentalists, and the like.

[Breaker quote: Stalin's impressive roster of intellectuals] Lyons added that “the complex communist United Front tinctured every department of American life while it lasted and has left its color indelibly on the mind and moral character of the country. Our labor movement, politics, arts, culture, and vocabulary still carry its imprint.”

If the Hive is spontaneous, the Red Decade was conspiratorial. Stalin and his helpers were able to manipulate “a horde of part-time pseudo-rebels who [had] neither courage nor convictions, but only a muddy emotionalism and a mental fog which made them an easy prey for the arbiters of a political racket.” The dreaded charge of “red-baiting” (the forerunner of “McCarthyism,” but far more deadly) was enough to cow into silence most criticism of Soviet Communism. And of Stalin himself. Anti-Communists risked, and often received, ostracism, vicious slander, and personal harassment. It was unnerving even to those few who had the nerve and stature to withstand it; and it was especially effective in deterring the far more numerous weak and timid souls from following their example.

Lyons’s book is a shocking reminder of how powerfully Communism gripped American public opinion, through publishing, entertainment, the labor movement, and higher education. Today Communism is dead — and yet it isn’t. The power that was once concentrated in a few Red hands is now diffused among countless others, but, though it doesn’t exactly terrorize, it still intimidates. As Charles Peguy presciently put it nearly a century ago, “We shall never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of seeming not sufficiently progressive.”

During the Red Decade, Soviet apologists deemed old scruples out of place when measuring the Soviet achievement. “On the contrary,” as Lyons observed, “the more distasteful the chore, the greater the credit.” Repression, purge, forced famine were alternately denied and defended. The ten years of the Red Decade were “the years of the apotheosis of Stalin. The Revolution had been reduced to one man; Marxism, Soviet style, was just another name for the whims and blunders of one man; the Communist International and all its myriad appendages were literally nothing more than his private racket.” Today’s Hive is thoroughly decentralized. Yet it still maintains its own highly effective discipline. It has refined ideology into a sort of etiquette. “Progressive” opinion enjoys the aura of politesse; whereas “reactionary” views are felt to be ignorant and boorish.

The New Deal proved hospitable to Communist infiltration. Franklin Roosevelt, though sometimes wary of open association, praised Stalin’s 1936 constitution — sufficient proof, by the way, that he had no grasp whatever of the U.S. Constitution. Joseph Davies, his ambassador to Moscow, wrote a famously fatuous book, Mission to Moscow, in praise of Stalin’s utopia. Such cabinet officers as Frances Perkins (who, Lyons wrote, “seems to live in dread of criticism from the Left”), Harold Ickes, and Henry Wallace were always ready to lend their names and persons to Communist-front groups.

As for Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyons captures her essence: “The First Lady of the land became almost standard equipment in setting up any new Innocents’ Club or in bolstering the prestige of an old one; her sympathetic heart, her social-worker enthusiasm and ideological naivete made her a perfect subject for communist hoaxes.... In the inner circle of activists, I was told, she was regarded as one of the party’s most valuable assets.” One precious detail emerged long after Lyons’s book was published: Mrs. Roosevelt, attending a diplomatic function, insisted on being escorted by Alger Hiss.

Stalin could count on his cadres, fellow-travelers, and dupes to follow every twist and reverse in his party line, but he finally demanded too much even of the most gullible. He destroyed his own Popular Front when he made his pact with Germany in 1939 and joined the rape of Poland. At that point even many hard-core Communists, hating Hitler even more than they loved Stalin, at last broke away in disgust.

From that moment, mechanical pro-Communism in America was a thing of the past. The Soviet Union lost nearly all its American loyalists. Many of them would still pine for an “ideal” Communism, and continued to regard Soviet Russia as vaguely progressive, but the old thrill was gone forever.

During World War II Stalin enjoyed a temporary reconciliation with American liberal opinion; through no fault of his own, Soviet Russia was invaded by its German allies (as Lyons had predicted) in June 1941, and in December the United States entered the war on Stalin’s side. U.S. Government propaganda lied to the American public about its “Russian friends” as shamelessly as the Communists and fellow-travelers had lied during the Red Decade. At the war’s end, the fruits of victory in Central Europe were too sweet for Stalin to bother hiding his true colors, and American illusions were no longer possible.

[Breaker quote: The burden of having a soul]Today the liberals have run out of utopias. Russia is Russia again, having renounced the Red dream after terror devolved into shabbiness; China, though semi-Commie, can be nobody’s ideal; Cuba is both brutal and squalid. Even Sweden has lost its charm.

The Hive no longer believes in socialism, though it keeps moving spasmodically toward it out of old habits. The victory of market capitalism is too clear, and planned economies have proved embarrassing. The Bees have to settle for keeping the welfare state — also semi-disreputable — and making hay on abortion, sodomy, environmentalism, smoking, whatever promises to allow some incremental government growth. During the impeachment battle they defended Bill Clinton with the same solidarity with which the old Left defended Stalin, but it wasn’t really the same. Stalin was, after all, a far more inspirational figure.

But the residue of the Red Decade is still with us, just as Lyons said sixty years ago. The Hive bears traces of its ancestry. It still believes reflexively in the state, vilifies its opponents, and, above all, keeps its gains. It practices not only a “politics of personal destruction,” but a politics of general destruction, in which all social relations are determined by force. It believes in power and nothing else.

Having said all that, I think the strongest resemblance between the old Left and the Hive lies in their shared hatred of human individuality. To become a Bee in this Hive is to surrender, voluntarily and eagerly, your own personality; to submerge the self in a collectivity; to prefer the buzzing cliché of the group to individualized thought and expression; to take satisfaction in belonging, and conforming, to a powerful mass, while punishing others for failure to conform. This is not only a political but a spiritual condition. It was true of the Stalinists, and it’s true of the Hive. All the names have changed since the Thirties, yet you get the eerie feeling that the old Stalinists and today’s Bees are somehow the same people.

The similarity to an insect colony — where the individual exists only functionally, being both indistinguishable from and interchangeable with its fellows — is not superficial. It’s of the essence. To be an insect is to be relieved of the burden of having a soul of your own.

Joseph Sobran

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