The Truth About Evil

by Michael Kelly, from the Washington Post

Some months ago, I wrote a column in which I expressed revulsion at an affectionate feature in the New York Times about a small band of elderly communists and socialists who do good works among the downtrodden of Los Angeles and, by the way, still revere Marx and Lenin. For this, Sam Tanenhaus, author of an estimable and honest biography of Whittaker Chambers, takes me politely to task in the current New York Review of Books.

My finger-pointing, says Tanenhaus, is emblematic of a regrettable "revival of the familiar cold war Manichaeanism, whereby the entire burden of world communism is laid crushingly upon every [Communist Party] member or sympathizer."

This is a debate worth having, for it is central to the intellectual and cultural history of this century. It has been, you have to admit, a pretty Manichaean sort of century: good and evil in the form of democracy and totalitarianism duking it out for global domination; concentration camps; gulags; a couple of hundred million dead -- that sort of thing. The good was not absolute (we had Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn on our side, alas), but the evil was pretty close to pure.

American liberalism came to terms with one face of the century's evil --that of the Nazis and their allies - - immediately, honorably and unequivocally. The fight to destroy the Nazi version of fascism was waged in such unabashedly Manichaean terms that we called it The Good War (we were not being ironic either; only Parisians and a few guys at Oxford knew about irony back then).

And organized American political liberalism -- that is, the Democratic Party and the labor movement -- also came to terms soon enough with the communist version, and firmly rejected it. But the treatment of communist fascism by liberalism's intellectual and cultural establishments -- as distinct from its mainstream political bodies -- has been profoundly different.

The intellectual and cultural elites have never come to terms with communism as an evil on a par with Nazism and, more important, with their role in supporting, or at least tolerating, that evil. This failure, which is one of immense moral dimensions as well as rational, persists. (Witness the 24-part CNN television series on the Cold War, a history massively distorted by the light of moral equivalency that shines in Ted Turner's dim, dim bulb of a mind.)

The failure persists and adapts because it is too large to come to terms with. Coming to terms means not merely admitting the fundamental evil of the communist system and its root philosophy (as opposed to admitting the evil of one or another communist tyrant) but also admitting our own sympathetic complicity. It means not merely reassessing the century's political figures but its intellectual and cultural figures too. It means reassessing us.

And this is a tremendously painful prospect, because it is a tremendously personal one. There were never many Nazis or Nazi sympathizers in America and very few political, cultural and intellectual figures of note among them. But such is not the case with communism.

Twentieth-century political, cultural and intellectual history is thickly peopled with respected and even revered figures -- labor leaders, progressive reformers, novelists, playwrights, artists, luminaries of the news and entertainment businesses -- who were deeply supportive of a system and philosophy that we now know beyond doubt was every bit as monstrous as the Nazi regime, was morally indistinguishable from the Nazi regime. And on the more intimate level, when we talk about American communists or communist sympathizers, we are talking about family.

So when we contemplate admitting the full profundity of communism's evil, we are contemplating a radical reevaluation of everyone who traveled some distance with that evil. We are talking about reevaluating Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck and Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin. And we are talking also about reevaluating Uncle Harry and Aunt Edith and Grandpa and maybe even dear old Dad.

What further complicates matters is we know that Uncle Harry and Aunt Edith are good people. They sided with the communists because they sincerely believed in the promise of communism to address the wrongs of our own society -- its gross class inequities, its racial oppression, the rough cruelties of capitalism.

But the fellow travelers were wrong, and in their wrong, they helped to perpetuate a system that caused immense human suffering. To say this is not to gainsay that most Communist Party members and sympathizers were motivated by the desire to make a better world, nor is it to lay the whole burden of communism's crimes on their shoulders.

It is simply to say this: At some point it becomes a seriously immoral act to refuse to acknowledge the truth. At some point, you have to ask whether it is morally acceptable to regard those who yet refuse to come to terms with communism other than as people who have chosen to adhere to known evil. And that point has been long passed.

* * *

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.



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February 1999