One of the early war horses of of the American Right, Eugene Lyons has not yet gotten his due. He would never have called himself a conservative, nor be called a conservative by most of us who haggle over such things. But having been a commie–”I thought myself a ‘socialist almost as soon as I thought at all”–he could spot them from any angle and over great distances.
His great book, The Red Decade, will turn three score years and ten in a couple of months. It is a great book, a true tour de force, and if we are to understand the cultural mess we are in at the present age it would behoove us to read it again as it approaches its golden years.
Lyons spent roughly the first thirty-six years of his life as a tireless journalist for Soviet and communist causes–the “innocence” of Sacco and Vanzetti, “justice” for the “working man,” and the like. He would probably have become a “secret courier” to Moscow had not the Italian police blown the whistle on him. He wrote for TASS, the Daily Worker, and was the UPI’s man in Moscow for over six years. Unlike silly progressives like Lincoln Steffens (“I have been over into the future, and it works”), however, Lyons actually saw the terror around him.
Returning to the United States in 1934, he went through an ideological detoxification while writing two exposes of the Soviet paradise, Moscow Carousel and Assignment in Utopia, the latter being powerful enough to influence George Orwell and Whittaker Chambers. Chambers called it “one of the books that influenced my break with Communism.” It also got him elevated, along with James T. Farrell and Max Eastman, to a lead position “among the rats who have been campaigning with endless lies and slanders” against the Soviet Union, by none other than the American “Commissar of Culture,” Mike Gold of the New Masses. Eventually, writes George Nash, “In the decade after Yalta, Lyons, Eastman, [Freda] Utley, and [John] Chamberlain would help to create the conservative intellectual movement.”
The Red Decade is powerful precisely because it pays relatively little attention to politics. Lyons’ writes in the Preface to the second edition (1970), “Never before–or since–had all areas of American society been so deeply penetrated by a foreign nation and a foreign ideology Never before had the country’s thinking, official policies, education, arts and moral attitudes been so profoundly affected by the agents, sympathizers and unwitting puppets of a distant dictatorship.” Lyons knew instinctively that culture precedes politics, an insight accepted early on by communists all over the world. He describes a “long march through the institutions,” Soviet-style, meaning the gradual insinuation of Proletarian Culture, or “Prolecult” into especially our high-brow institutions. Our proletariat, such as it was, of course “was snugly oblivious to the whole pother.” Real commies and the thousands of “Innocents Clubs,” as Lyons calls them, were rarely authentic workers.
Lyons covers communist activity in labor unions, journalism, schools and universities, the legal and medical professions, art, music, theater, youth organizations (over which the Russians retained fierce control), wealthy fellow-travelers (“penthouse Bolsheviks”), religion, friends of Spanish “democracy,” “peace” groups and a dozen other cultural institutions susceptible to Prolecult. In every case he names organizations and names names. To those of us who have studied American communism for several decades, it is astonishing that he got every name right.
The literary crowd started in the 30s to beat up on Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Thornton Wilder, and Booth Tarkington, among others. Their continued popularity was especially galling to the new class of communist commissars of culture, who wanted art to be a weapon in the revolution. Frost refused to be either a “prude” or a “puke” and ridiculed childish Marxists. Freud threw Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination across the room as he finished it. Cather in Not Under Forty divided the literary world into forward and backward-goers, and countered herself among the latter. Tarkington stuck to his guns, writing novels that appealed to ordinary Americans who in their guts understood that the Depression was not about economics, but about the moral choices we make.
The communist Granville Hicks, riding the tide of critical glory on the Left, summed up “The Case Against Willa Cather” and the communist Mike Gold ridiculed Wilder, Frost, and Tarkington in The New Masses, which eventually became The Partisan Review (1936), and functioned for several years as the commissariat of literary political correctness. They branched out to Hollywood, where, as Lyons demonstrates, seven of the later “Hollywood Ten” were dedicated to Soviet aims. Innocent victims of the blacklist, indeed! The League of American Writers topped it all off with a ruthless campaign to discredit any literary artist who refused to line up for the Soviet program. Mike Gold wrote, “The best American writers of the past 15 years received their inspiration, their stock of ideas, from their contact, however brief or ungrateful, with the left-wing working class and this Marxist philosophy.”
Eugene Lyons also gives credit for much of the heavy lifting against the Prolecult to the Committee for Cultural Freedom, the founder and leader of which was none other than John Dewey. There were honest liberals, and even some honest socialists in the 30s. Some of the names on what Lyons calls in that period a “true Roll of Honor” were: Sherwood Anderson (novelist), Carl Becker (historian), Sinclair Lewis (Pulitzer Prize novelist), John Dos Passos (novelist), Morrie Ryskind (journalist and labor leader), George S. Schuyler (black journalist, maybe the most courageous of all), and Dorothy Thompson (journalist). All of them had flirted with the Left, and many of them remained social democrats until their dying day. But it is important for us today to understand that there were men and women who had clear vision about one of the greatest spiritual crises in the history of our civilization.
The sad thing about what Lyons had to report was that the “real victims were the fellow-travelers in Stalin’s entourage, self-deluded and self-righteous.” It’s sad not only because of the human cost to countless families who bought the ideological line, but to the whole progressive self-delusion that has slopped over into our culture even after the fall of communism. Lloyd Billingsley starts his masterful book Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s with a moving description of today’s fellow-travelers assembling on October 27, 1997 to pay tribute to the docu-drama Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist. As Eugene Lyons would respond, the “communist planetary system is with us despite the ending of The Red Decade.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.