Politics & Policy

I. F. Stone and the Left’s Cultural Amnesia

Modern liberals face the fact that one of their heroes was a Communist spy.

Journalist I. F. Stone died 20 years ago, so it seems pretty unusual that anyone would care about any new revelations pertaining his life and work. Especially when those revelations only confirm what intelligent observers have long suspected: I. F. Stone, beloved journalist of the American Left, was a Soviet spy.

Many details have been the source of these suspicions. As a journalist in the 1930s, Stone worked for the then-liberal New York Post, but was fired in 1939 for espousing views that were seen by the paper’s editor as excessively pro-Stalin. Stone quickly found a home at The Nation, and later the defunct leftist paper P.M., where pro-Soviet views were encouraged.

Stone was involved with — though he never joined — the Communist Party USA. And perhaps most important, no one much denies that Stone had regular contact, over a long period of time, with a Soviet press attaché who was an undercover KGB agent. Stone had been given the codename Blin, Russian for “pancake,” and his name was mentioned in a number of KGB documents, known as the Venona Papers, that were declassified after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Profs. Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes — scholars who’ve previously done extensive work on Soviet espionage — examine the Stone case in their new book, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. The book is also co-authored with Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent turned journalist. Vassilev is in possession of detailed records from now-closed Soviet archives that convincingly demonstrate that from 1936 to 1939 Stone was on the Soviet payroll. (The relevant excerpt from the book has been published by Commentary.) Stone was a spy, case closed.

Except it’s not. Rather than deal with the facts at hand, the American Left once again appears to be stricken with willful blindness. The fact that a beloved godfather of the left-wing press was in reality a traitor, in league with an enemy that represented an existential threat to America, simply does not jibe with the purported purity of the Left’s political motives. Therefore, Stone must not have been a traitor.

DEFENDING THEIR HERO

Stone’s high status among the Left is not in doubt — though, to be fair, he has this status in part because he moderated his pro-Soviet views slightly after the ’40s. His I. F. Stone’s Weekly, and his outspokenness in the Vietnam era, made him a darling of the New Left.

Just a few years ago, a former Washington Post reporter published a hagiography of Stone, All Governments Lie!, that dismissed concerns about his Soviet ties. According to Booklist, Myra MacPherson “offers a penetrating look at one of the nation’s most respected journalists and a tour de force of five decades of challenge to the principles of press freedom in a democracy.” High praise, considering Stone was an agent of a foreign power that had neither democracy nor freedom of the press.

Since the latest revelation, the attempt to reconcile Stone’s espionage with his mythic status has produced some frankly laughable contortions. The Nation’s Eric Alterman, a former protege of Stone’s, rushed to his mentor’s defense at the The Daily Beast. Was Stone a spy? For Alterman, it depends on what what the meaning of spy is:

Stone is identified by Soviet agents as having “assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of such tasks: talent-spotting, acting as a courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing private journalistic tidbits and data the KGB found interesting.”

First off, none of those activities comport with my — or Dictionary.com’s — definition of the word “spy.”

While we’re on the subject of semantics, perhaps Alterman should consult the Dictionary.com entry for “obfuscation.”

Alterman then puts an unrealistically charitable spin on Stone’s relations with the Soviets, with Stone’s purity of motive being his operating assumption. (See Ron Radosh’s skillful dissection of Alterman’s defense of Stone.)

But Alterman has some stiff competition from the left-wing watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting: “The Commentary writers gloss the phrase ‘channel of normal operational work’ as meaning that ‘Stone had become a fully active agent.’ If you enter ‘normal operational work’ into Google with ‘KGB,’ you get two hits, one to the Commentary article and one to Stone’s Wikipedia article quoting Commentary; if you put those key words into Nexis, you get no hits at all. So the implication that this is how the KGB routinely describes its operative work is dubious.”

This is the fourth book Klehr and Haynes have written about Soviet espionage, a topic that is by definition shrouded in a degree of secrecy and requires a great deal of research. But because FAIR could not find any support for their case against Stone without leaving their desks, the charges are suspect? What about the fact that a former KGB agent co-authored the book? Do you suppose Alexander Vassiliev has some familiarity with the terminology used in Soviet espionage?

NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT

This is simply the modus operandi among much of the American Left — never, ever admit anything that might make the figureheads or historical motives of the movement look bad.

The same Venona Papers that raised initial doubts about Stone seemed to totally vindicate reformed Communist — and later, National Review editor — Whittaker Chambers’s accusations that high-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. And New York Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus’s seminal 1997 biography of Chambers helped cement consensus on the issue. However, as late as 2007, Victor Navasky, Columbia journalism professor and longtime editor of The Nation, was insisting that the case against Hiss “has never really been proved.

In 2005, a letter written by leftist muckraker Upton Sinclair was discovered, in which Sinclair confessed that Sacco and Vanzetti’s lawyer had told him the pair was guilty. Nonetheless, Sinclair went on to write the novel Boston, a thinly fictionalized account of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial that represented the killers as innocents railroaded for their political views. Sinclair justified his decision thus in a letter to a friend at the Socialist Daily Worker: “The next big case may be a frame-up, and my telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the victims.”

In 2007, one of Sinclair’s other novels was turned into the Oscar-winning movie There Will Be Blood. Of the thousands of words critics spilled about the film and its political overtones, no one seemed much concerned with considering Sinclair’s motives or lack of integrity.

Rather than accept the fact the Black Panthers were a criminal enterprise, a recent book written by Congresswoman Barbara Lee actually goes so far as to assert that a number of individuals likely killed by the Panthers were really done in by the FBI in an attempt to discredit the organization. After combing Lexis-Nexis, it doesn’t appear a single reporter or news organization highlighted, much less tested, the veracity of this absurd claim — other than, well, me.

It was considered impolitic during the election to discuss how for years our current president shared an office with an unreformed domestic terrorist. The Left insisted that William Ayers was now a respectable educational scholar.

However, Ayers’s adopted son, Chesa Boudin, has just published a book that gives new insight into how reformed the Ayers household was. Boudin was raised by Ayers and his wife after his own parents were jailed. As members of Ayers’s notorious Weather Underground, Boudin’s parents teamed up with the Black Liberation Army — a radical group mostly comprised of ex-Black Panthers — to rob a Brinks truck. Three security guards were killed. And yet, Boudin has parlayed his family story into sympathetic New York Times profiles, dates with Hollywood actresses, and judging by his latest utterly hacktastic book, a completely undeserved Rhodes Scholarship. If you think that’s judgmental, go ahead and suffer through the bits where he obliviously brags about how his Marxist grandfather repeatedly helped Castro’s murderous regime, and makes insane rationalizations such as, “Certainly violence is illegitimate when it targets civilians or intends to cause generalized or widespread fear, but my parents never did either of those.”

And those are just more recent examples of the Left’s obdurate unwillingness to confront their movement’s troubling history of excusing sedition and violence.

As if this tendency weren’t intolerable enough, the Left never fails to seize the opportunity to insist that it’s the gun nuts on the right that are the real danger. One of the Left’s premier think tanks recently attacked the Politico’s Mike Allen for sensibly dismissing the Department of Homeland Security’s concerns about returning Iraq vets becoming right-wing terrorists.

And judging by the comments on the Center for American Progress’s website, plenty of people agree. Here’s just the second one down: “Someone should tell Mike Allen that in reality, right wingers are historically violent. Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, James Kopp, Paul Hill, etc are all right wing murderers. How many left-wing ‘radicals’ have committed murder? Ask him to name one.” If you know who James Kopp and Paul Hill are off the top of your head, but can’t name a single left-wing radical who has killed someone — well, congratulations! You are officially and totally blinded by ideology.

It’s certainly true that violence and attempts at political subversion are associated with extremists across the political spectrum — if you want, you can certainly find examples of this on the right. But notably, apologias for those people are much, much harder to come by. By comparison, The Nation has a couple hundred thousand readers, even though much of the masthead is still in denial about how much their fellow-travelers did to aid and abet a regime that killed 40 million people.

As for the question of whether Mike Allen can name a left-wing radical who’s committed a murder, it’s all but certain that he can — personally, I’d start with Lee Harvey Oswald.

None of this is to suggest that the American Left is inherently violent or treasonous. But the Left can’t claim to uphold the values of I. F. Stone as they envision him — a crusading defender-of-democracy — without reckoning with the Communist spy he was in reality. Political sympathies shouldn’t prevent anyone from seeing the truth about a man even 20 years after his death and 70 years after his misdeeds. If you can’t admit the truth when it’s inconsequential, it hardly seems surprising you would justify doing something terrible when it serves your interests.

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