The Corner

Whittaker Chambers Is to Blame for the Tea Party?

A friend sent me a link to Cass Sunstein’s absolutely ridiculous column last week, but I didn’t have a chance to get to it. And now The Weekly Standard and Walter Russell Mead have beaten me to the punch. But while they both do a good job, I don’t think either go nearly far enough.

In his column, Sunstein runs through the basic facts of the Hiss-Chambers case, which I don’t need — I hope — to rehash here. But at the end of a column titled, “How the Alger Hiss Case Explains the Tea Party” he writes:

Most of those who have carefully studied the case, and who have explored evidence emerging long after the trial itself, have concluded that Chambers was telling the truth and that Hiss did indeed perjure himself. But the legacy of the case extends well beyond the issue of Hiss’s guilt.

Chambers’ broader charge — that liberalism was a species of socialism, “inching its ice cap over the nation” — polarized the nation. His attack on the patriotism of the Ivy League elite reflected an important strand in American culture, and it helped to initiate suspicions that persist to this day.

Liberals are no longer much interested in Hiss’s conviction, yet they are puzzled, and rightly object, when they are accused of holding positions that they abhor. We can’t easily understand those accusations, contemporary conservative thought or the influence of the Tea Party without appreciating the enduring impact of the Hiss case.

The Standard’s “Scrapbook” responds:

To sum up, even though Chambers was correct to point out that influential American liberals were hiding their true intentions to seize the levers of power and undermine constitutional government, Chambers is responsible for poisoning the well. And this is somehow the genesis of the bitter partisan divide we’re saddled with today. 

The Scrapbook then goes on to point out, rightly, that Obama himself has done little to dispel the idea that liberals harbor secret motives they are unwilling to state plainly to the American people.  Meanwhile Mead does yeoman’s work defending the true nature of the tea parties. 

But neither of these worthy rebuttals mention an important element. The notion that liberals were sympathetic to extreme left-wing views (of Marxist, Soviet, or national-socialist origin) hardly hangs on charges made by Whittaker Chambers. The Road to Serfdom made essentially this charge five years earlier, as did countless writers on what is sometimes called “the Old Right.” The charge wasn’t always that liberal fellow-travelers had a secret agenda. Hayek’s argument was more sophisticated than that, even in The Road to Serfdom (his least sophisticated book, if you ask me). Rather, part of the charge was that liberals were blind to the dangers of their own thinking. The very mainstream liberal urge to plan peoples’ lives for them (which Sunstein fully represents in his writing) is ill-equipped to stop at the edge of tyranny.  

Still, you hardly needed to be paranoid to think liberals had a soft spot for totalitarianism. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s — when Chambers was still a paid Communist spy and journalist in good standing — countless liberals gushed over the exciting “experiments” going on in the Soviet Union (not to mention fascist Italy and Nazi Germany). In his 1932 book A New Deal, Stuart Chase — the Cass Sunstein of his day — asked “Why should Russians have all the fun remaking a world?” From my book:

To be sure, not all left-leaning observers were fooled by the Bolsheviks. Bertrand Russell famously saw through the charade, as did the American socialist Charles E. Russell. But most progressives believed that the Bolsheviks had stumbled on the passage out of the old world and that we should follow their lead. When the war ended and Progressivism had been discredited with the American people, the intellectuals looked increasingly to the Soviet Union and Fascist Italy as exemplars of the new path that America had foolishly abandoned after its brilliant experiment with war socialism.

Nearly the entire liberal elite, including much of FDR’s Brain Trust, had made the pilgrimage to Moscow to take admiring notes on the Soviet experiment. Their language was both religiously prophetic and arrogantly scientific. Stuart Chase reported after visiting Russia in 1927 that unlike in America, where “hungry stockholders” were making the economic decisions, in the Soviet Union the all-caring state was in the saddle, “informed by battalions of statistics” and heroically aided by Communist Party officials who need “no further incentive than the burning zeal to create a new heaven and a new earth which flames in the breast of every good Communist.”40

That same year two of America’s leading New Deal economists, Rexford Guy Tugwell and Paul Douglas, pronounced themselves awed by the Soviet “experiment.” “There is a new life beginning there,” Tugwell wrote in his report. Lillian Wald visited Russia’s “experimental schools” and reported that John Dewey’s ideas were being implemented “not less than 150 per cent.” Indeed, the whole country was, for liberals, a giant “Laboratory School.” Dewey him- self visited the Soviet Union and was much impressed. Jane Addams declared the Bolshevik endeavor “the greatest social experiment in history.” Sidney Hillman, John L. Lewis, and most of the other lead- ers of the American labor movement were effusive in their praise of “Soviet pragmatism,” Stalin’s “experiment,” and the “heroism” of the Bolsheviks.41

W. E. B. DuBois was thunderstruck. “I am writing this in Russia,” he wrote back to his readers in the Crisis. “I am sitting in Revolution Square . . . I stand in astonishment and wonder at the revelation of Russia that has come to me. I may be partially deceived and half- informed. But if what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears in Russia is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.”

The suspicion that liberals were secretly — or not so secretly! — sympathetic to policies that would, at minimum, do terrible violence to democracy and the constitutional order was alive and well long before the Hiss trial because it was a reasonable suspicion! The significance of the Hiss trial lay, at least in part, in the fact that the liberal elite couldn’t deny it anymore. But even a year before the trial many prominent and patriotic liberals recognized that American liberals had to confront the fact that many liberals were more sympathetic to Communism and the Soviet Union than was healthy. That was why, a year before Chambers testified before Congress, Americans for Democratic Action was formed: to give form to liberal anti-Communism, a cause rejected by The New Republic and The Nation at the time.

I could go on. But I want to switch to another problem with Sunstein’s odd lament. Again, he writes: “Liberals are no longer much interested in Hiss’s conviction, yet they are puzzled, and rightly object, when they are accused of holding positions that they abhor.” Yeah, okay. That’s fair. But it’s an odd lament coming from a former aide to a president who, as a matter of daily practice, accuses his opponents of holding views they abhor. It’s also odd that Sunstein has to go back more than a half century to gripe about this sort of thing, when every day leading Democrats, liberal writers — and the agitproppy network MSNBC — insist that the conservative agenda boils down to restoring Jim Crow, “white supremacy” (as Chris Matthews says on an almost-weekly basis), and even slavery. (Some liberals even see a black conservative from Georgia and tea-party hero as proof the tradition of Ku Klux Klan is alive and well). When liberalism finds ideas this stupid and fact-free reasonable, it’s got better things to do than whine about the legacy of the Hiss case.  

As I’ve been saying a lot lately, behind every double standard is a single standard. It’s not that liberals hate name-calling, it’s that they hate the idea that they can’t have a monopoly on the practice. 


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