Novelist Stephen Koch’s Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals demonstrates that the Popular Front was indeed the epitome of the anti-fascism of the Left, but not in the way it is typically portrayed.
The opening of the Moscow archives allowed much information to come to light which helps put the period in much clearer perspective. The Popular Front was from beginning to end a lie. At no point did Stalin confront Hitler directly. He could be energetic against Fascists Hitler also hated, such as Dollfuss. He could posture and manipulate against figures Hitler supported, such as Franco. But against Hitler, the avenues for making a deal were always kept open.
Koch explains much that is otherwise odd and mysterious. Such as the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. The Nazis seized Georgi Dimitri, heat of the Western European section of the Comintern. A man full of useful information. Yet the Nazis did not interrogate him. He was put on trial – and acquitted and later released. It was part of the shadow fencing between Hitler and Stalin. For they had various joint interests – such as destroying Rohm and the power of the SA.
The shadow fencing continued. The Nazis were helpful when Stalin wanted to destroy Marshal Tukhachevsky supplying forged evidence that he was a German agent. They both desired the same thing – a weakened Red Army.
For that was the single greatest usefulness of the Popular Front to Stalin – providing cover for the Great Purges. The Popular Front made fellow travelling OK and provided a cover against any criticism of Stalin, the show trials and the Soviet Union – for such criticism betrays the anti-Fascist cause. It is a profound to delusion to think that the Popular Front was the ‘true’ Left and the ‘real’ reaction to Nazism. It was merely a temporary, and profoundly dishonest, interlude before Stalin reverted to Lenin’s policy of splitting the Left into the bit they could control or manipulate and the part they denounced because they couldn’t.* An accommodation with Hitler was always Stalin’s hope, because that way he could send his two enemies – Hitler and the Western democracies – at war with each other. (And, of course, hope to pick up the pieces afterwards: which he did, but not quite the way he originally intended.)
Hence also Stalin’s policy towards the Spanish Civil War. Stalin was a great deal less helpful to Republican Spain than Hitler and Mussolini were to Franco. It was much more important that Spain be looted for all he could get (such as the Spanish gold reserves) and that any independent Left revolutionary activity be destroyed than the Republicans win. Indeed, Franco’s victory was convenient since it strengthened the Fascist powers against the West and made the clash between the two that Stalin wanted more likely. Soviet policy in Spain looks hamfisted until one frees oneself of the delusion that Stalin’s prime goal was a Republican victory.
Koch has a novelist’s eye for character and motivation. Part of the joy of the book is the insight into historical figures, based on voluminous research. The book provides yet more evidence, if any was needed, on how utterly vile Lenin was. One of Willi Munzenberg’s first jobs as a Soviet apparatchik was to organise “proletarian” assistance for the Volga famine. (For centuries, Russia had been a food exporter: one of the first “achievements” of the Bolshevik regime was to completely destroy that capacity – hence jokes such as if the Soviet Union took over the Sahara, within five years there would be a shortage of sand.) Lenin presumed that the capitalist West would react the same way he would to such an event – think the death by starvation of millions was a small price to pay to discredit and undermine an enemy. (He had welcomed a much smaller famine in 1891 on the grounds it would weaken the peasants’ attachment to the Church.) Lenin was highly embarrassed when the West and the Orthodox Church organised huge relief efforts.
Anyone who understands the logic of the politics of total control understands what happened next to the non-Bolshevik Soviets involved in this humanitarian effort. They were shot or imprisoned of course. Lenin had the “bourgeois” organisers arrested, launched a brutal attack the Orthodox Church, the local helpers of Western agencies were persecuted. Their great crime? Providing an alternative source of moral authority to the Bolsheviks. (Anyone who thinks the persecution of Falun Gong is not inherent in the logic of Leninism has not been paying attention.)
Lenin updated Robespierre’s political model without making Robespierre’s mistake – he never permitted a source of power and authority he did not control.
Koch is very good in explaining the notions of lying for the Truth and oppressing for Liberation. Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 weren’t imagination, they were reportage (as so many commentators from out of the Soviet bloc reported).
The Revolution was such a profound goal, such a Higher Truth, that any action was permitted to advance it. The release from tiresome “bourgeois” morality was clearly a profound release: I am so moral I am released from any obligations of morality. I am an Agent of History. I am part of Wisdom and Understanding Personified. The attraction was deep and, to many, clearly irresistible.
The passing parade of historical characters is also very much part of the fun of the book. Thomas Mann comes out very well, loathing Nazism and Stalinism with equal intensity and being perceptive about both. John Dos Passos was faced with a test of moral courage in his trip to Spain and passed magnificently. Fritz Lang seems to have been a well-meaning innocent. Andre Gide was ultimately his own man.
Others come out much less well. Hemingway’s womanising, vanity and sadism made him easily manipulated. Lillian Hellman comes across as completely vile: Mary McCarthy’s damning
every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'seems to have been about right. The various second-rank characters which found their metier in conspiracy also come across as quite despicable.
Koch’s novelist’s eye is expressed in lucid prose. Koch ponders the connection between Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt:
In preparing this book, I have met many agents of influence who worked for various governments within the Munzenberg tradition. More than one has left me with a troubling, nameless after-image, the sense of some shadow hovering over our talk. I’m tempted to call that lingering shade the ghost of Guy Burgess. Repeatedly, it comes cropping up again and again: the same glib charm. The same startling but too-glancing erudiction and intellectual range. The same enthralling capacity for gossip; the breezy knowing of everybody and everything. Often, the same elegance—though often a failed elegance, growing a tad seedy, a little dirty or sloppy, or out of date, or somehow off. Often the same sexual gamesmanship—whether heterosexual or homosexual is incidental. Often, a small river of alcohol flowing nearby. These men (the ones I have met have all been men) who began life dazzling everyone with their promise. Like Guy, they set out with the very grandest of connections in the world of politics, the intellect and the arts. And then—Koch is also very alive to the power of Munzenberg’s efforts as the organiser of Popular Front propaganda and manipulation of intellectuals resting on kernels of truth, big and small. Nazism, after all, was vile and worth opposing.
We might be tempted to call it the Burgess curse. The same desolation, often accompanied by alcoholism. The same deepening obscurity covered by one lurching move from one doubtful option to another, and the same shabbiness of promises worn down, then worn thing, and at last worn out. They strike one as men whose double lives were born in a fatal disjunction between their great expectations and their true secret selves. For them, failure began virtually at the moment of early success, back when splashy debuts looked like achievement. Their failure would be failure felt before it was seen as promise and loss mingled in bafflement.
For many such people, work in the secret world can be wonderfully restorative. It places them in the realm of power. It is almost like the old days of promise. Once again, their hand is on the pulse. Secretly, they can feel it, there again. Except by that time, the work of ruin is very nearly complete. Those whom the gods have wrecked with promise, they next make spies.
But if Guy Burgess was failure’s tragic creature, Blunt was spiritually tied, and absolutely so, to success. He could not, would not, and did not fail: ever. Success defined Blunt’s life as firmly as failure defined Burgess’s. It may well be that the secret of his prolonged shadowy love for Burgess can be located in this odd coupling of shabby ruin with the impeccably achieved.(Pp227-8.)
And to other subtleties: the point of fellow travelling was precisely not to be mere mouth pieces, but to be convenient mouth pieces. Given who they were and where they lived, ideas that undermined the Western democracies were much more valuable than extolling the Soviet Union. Much of the book is based on interviews with Munzenberg’s widow, Babette Gross. She rattled off the memes of fellow travelling:
You do not endorse Stalin. You do not call yourself a Communist. You do not declare your love for the regime. You do not call on people to support the Soviet Union. Ever. Under any circumstances.Memes that have had lasting resonance long after the Soviet Union was no longer a plausible beacon of anything. They operate today as the West confronts an enemy entirely analogous to Nazism (except with greater ambitions, though less resources) and the Left is divided, as it was then, between those for whom September 1 1939 was enough and those for whom June 22 1941 hasn't happened yet.
You claim to be an independent-minded realist. You don’t really understand politics, but you think the little guy is getting a lousy break. You believe in open-mindedness. You are shocked, frightened by what is going on right here in your own country. You are frightened by the racism, by the oppression of the workingman. You think the Russians are trying a great human experiment and you hope it works. You believe in peace. You yearn for international cooperation. You hate fascism. You think the capitalist system is corrupt.
You say it over and over again. You say nothing, nothing more. “Ja, Ja,” she ended wearily, “You say all of that”. (Pp240-1.)
Much is set out in the book. Stalinism was active in Hollywood. Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. (Which does not make, of course, Joe McCarthy any less a vile buffoon.)
Koch is also perceptive on the role of Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury circle into distilling and setting in motion what might be called elitist progressivism, where one simultaneously commits oneself to “progressive” causes but does so in a way which actually buttresses one’s sense of belonging to an elite. (Partly because, as Koch points out, they did belong to an elite in a genuine sense.)
As I read about various intellectual tropes that Munzenberg invented or manipulated, and disseminated with such proficient ease, how little things have changed was quite striking. The dynamics of hard left thought and propaganda are essentially the same (Tariq Ali provides a contemporary example.)
It also struck me how one can identify two different types of ex-communists. There have been those who reacted in horror at what they tied themselves to as events, great or personal, opened their eyes from Kronstadt onwards. Then there are ex-communists who drifted away because it was not a satisfactory vehicle: not, in various senses, good enough for them (or perhaps merely inconvenient).
The former became stalwarts of the opposition to communism (Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham …). The latter major players in cultural institutions (in Australia, people like Philip Adams, Prof. Stuart Macintyre, Allan Ashbolt).
One of the fundamental differences in political understanding is between those who are still lost in the “good intentions” model of Leninism and the Soviet Union and those who see its story as profoundly revealing. Who count lives and actions as more important than failed purposes.
The book is about far more than Willi Munzenberg. Yet his story is at the centre of it. Munzenberg had a fatal disability. He had a connection to Lenin that did not go through Stalin. In the world of Stalinism, that was almost invariably a death-sentence – Stalin’s great innovation to Leninism being to apply to fellow Bolsheviks the political techniques Lenin applied to everyone else. No alternative source, or even patina, of moral authority was permitted. As Stalin moved towards consummating the desired deal with Hitler, Munzenberg became increasingly a marked man: especially after the fall of his patron Karl Radek. Munzenberg struggled against his fate, building up his visibility even further, ignoring the increasingly urgent summonses to Moscow, breaking with Stalin, establishing links with Western secret services (aware that their penetration by Soviet agents made that a difficult game). He disappeared after the Fall of France. In October 1940, his hanged, decomposing body was found by French hunters in a forest. Koch thinks suicide is possible (a final act of control and defiance) but, on the evidence, murder by the NKVD more likely.
An indispensable “Munzenberg man” who remained true to Stalin was Otto Katz. He survived his boss’s fall and helped organise the Stalinist takeover of Czechoslovakia. He then became dispensable and was arrested as part of the post-war purges. He understood the role – apparently, when arrested, he confessed in the lift. He was tortured anyway, made his standard confession in the dock and was hanged the next day. The image of the ashes of him and his fellow “conspirators”, dumped in a rubbish heap and blowing away in the wind, is the final image of this very revealing book.
*After the Sydney University Philosophy Department had split into the “conservative” Department of Traditional and Modern Philosphy and the radical-Left Department of General Philosophy, Professor David Armstrong of Trad&Mod told Imre Lakatos of the split. That is very good, Lakatos opined. When David Armstrong queried why it was good to have a seceding radical-Left Department, Lakatos replied with mordant émigré humour about the seceders, When the Revolution comes, they will be shot first.