The Worst Policy
October 1, 1994        

Stephen Koch, director of the creative writing program at Columbia, has recently published Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West. It is full of fascinating details and provocative speculations about the long and sorry romance between Western intellectuals and Soviet Communism. Wells, Rolland, Gide, Mairaux, Hemingway: all duped, duped utterly, along with countless others, by brilliant, unscrupulous cultural double agents like Willi Munzenberg and Otto Katz. The Bloomsbury/ Cambridge milieu that produced Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt; the corps of literary auxiliaries in the Spanish Civil War; the creation of an American espionage and propaganda network in Washington and Hollywood: all these are fully and vividly evoked. Perhaps Koch’s most astounding contention is that the legendary Reichstag Fire trial was a fraud, a shadow play, and that long before the Pact, Hitler’s and Stalin’s secret police and propaganda services were cooperating extensively, “supplying each other with disinformation against each other’s domestic enemies. Thus, Stalin used the Gestapo to discredit and destroy [Marshall] Tuchachevsky and the Red Army general staff, while Hitler used the Comintern and the Munzenberg operation to discredit and destroy Ernst Rohm and the SA.”

Double Lives has taken its knocks from reviewers (see, for example, Elinor Langer’s essay in the Nation 5/30/94), and I’m in no position to comment favorably or unfavorably on its scholarship. But insofar as its purpose is to get leftish literary intellectuals thinking (and fuming) about our ideological ancestry, it is unquestionably successful. Trails of reflection lead in every direction; and since this is not a review, I’ll simply meander along one of them, without stopping to indicate the others.

Koch has some unkind words about a figure I’ve long found intriguing: Claud Cockburn, who in the ‘30s and ‘40s was, as Koch says, “the most visible and best-connected Stalinist journalist in England.” He was, Koch continues, “the perfect incarnation of a certain glib tone of sneering condescension -- the Cockburn tone was Bloomsbury vulgarized -- fused with a wholeheartedly Stalinist soul and mind. Guy Burgess talked very much the way Cockburn wrote.” (Mutatis mutandis, this is also true— although it is, I’d say, no more than one-tenth the whole truth -- of Claud’s no less brilliant son, America’s best journalist, Alexander Cockburn.) “In Claud Cockburn,” Koch concludes, “Stalin was in full and public possession of his man.”

This catalyzed my longstanding resolve to read Cockburn’s deliciously witty memoirs. There I found an episode that illuminates -- by no means simply or straightforwardly -- one of Koch’s chapter headings’: “Lying for the Truth.” During the Spanish Civil War, at the behest of Soviet agent Otto Katz, Cockburn concocted an account of a great Republican military victory in order to influence the French government to let a crucial arms delivery to the Republicans pass over the border. It worked; the fabricated story made a sensation, and the arms got through. Years later, when Cockburn revealed the truth, he was denounced by Richard Crossman, the British Labour Party leader and editor of The God That Failed, who had himself done propaganda work for British intelligence in World War II, but who had, he insisted in his defense, “detested” it.

"A comfortable ethical position [Cockburn replied], if you can stop laughing. To me, at least, there seems something risible in the spectacle of a man firing off his propaganda-lies as, presumably, effectively as he knows how, but keeping his conscience clear by “detesting” his own activities. After all, if he does not think the cause for which he is fighting worth lying for, he does not have to lie at all, any more than the man who sincerely feels that killing is murder is forced to shoot at those enemy soldiers. He can become a conscientious objector, or run away. Paris vaut bien une messe, and I do not recall that Henry of Navarre ever claimed that he had detested his own “cynical” behavior."

Through sheer literary bravado, Cockburn wins this round. But this is hardly the last word on “lying for the truth.” In another volume of memoirs (his wife’s), Cockburn tells another Spanish story. A left-wing American journalist has filed an accurate report about an imminent Republican defeat. Assailed by the Comintern agent Koltzov, one of Cockburn’s closest friends, he replies in admirable American fashion that “facts are facts, and the reader has a right to them.” Koltzov retorts scornfully:

"If you were a little more frank, you’d say that what you’re really interested in is your damned reputation as a journalist. You’re afraid if you don’t put out this stuff, and it comes through someone else, you’ll be thought a bad reporter, can’t see the facts under his nose. Probably in the pay of the Republicans. That’s why you, as the French say, have lost an excellent opportunity to keep your mouth shut."

This round is a little harder to call. The American is actually no fool, and the allegedly clever and dashing Koltzov seems a smug brute. But for me, the main interest of this episode lies elsewhere, in the light it throws on still another passage in the Cockburn memoirs. Claud is complaining that the West’s implacable mistrust of Soviet intentions was based on a failure of understanding:

"When the Russians talked of peace and non-aggression they meant it. They had to. Westerners hoaxed themselves into the idea that all this was a mere smoke-screen. The economic condition of Russia absolutely required not only peace but the maximum possible co-operation with the capitalist states in terms of trade and concessions to foreign capital operating in Russia itself."

This is largely true. When the Russians talked of peace and non-aggression in the 1920s and ‘30s, they did mean it; they did have to. But there is one disingenuous word in this passage: Westerners did not exactly “hoax” themselves into mistrusting the Soviets. They didn’t have to. The Communists were, as Cockburn and Koltzov forthrightly acknowledge, unashamed, uninhibited, and extremely skillful liars, a tradition stretching back well before the Revolution. It was only rational to disregard their protestations. True, enlightened Western diplomacy would have coopted and corrupted rather than confronted the Soviets. But enlightened diplomacy is rare in any age. At the very least, it was profoundly unintelligent of Lenin, Trotsky, Koltzov, Cockburn, et al. not to know who they were dealing with—not, that is, to recognize how vulnerable their chronic mendacity rendered their appeal to Anglo-American public opinion. In this case (in virtually all cases, I would argue, given unlimited space and less limited energy and ingenuity), dishonesty was the worst possible policy.

But even that is not the last word on “lying for the truth.” What is truth, anyway? Actually, I agree with Lenin, Trotsky, Koltzov, and Cockburn that truth is whatever serves the revolution; or as Trotsky put it in Their Morals and Ours “That is permissible which really leads to the liberation of humanity.” And I agree with Dewey, who in his reply to Their Morals and Ours rejected “as definitely as does Mr. Trotsky himself” all forms of “absolutistic ethics based on the alleged deliverances of conscience, or a moral sense, or some brand of eternal truths.”

Only, I don’t believe Lenin, Trotsky, et al. had a very well worked out idea of what might “really lead to the liberation of humanity.” In particular, they seem not to have seriously entertained the thought that the liberation of humanity was most likely a long way off and could only be delayed still further by starving, shooting, or imprisoning recalcitrant Russian peasants, workers, and poets. They were right in principle: the liberation of humanity is certainly worth lying and murdering for, if these can be shown (though I doubt they can) to be the best way of achieving it. But after all, the Bolshevik Revolution did not lead to the liberation of humanity; it led to ... Stalin. And Stalin led to contemporary, post-Communist Russia, quite possibly the most corrupt, violent, altogether wretched country on earth, at any rate in the Northern Hemisphere.

So what is the last word? For now, let it be the first word -- the first word, that is, of Double Lives. The book’s epigraph is Matthew 5:37: “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” This was not, of course, even Christ’s last word; he also said, “Be ye wise as serpents.” And as Koch acknowledges, many deep-dyed Stalinists were brave and selfless. But Christ’s injunction to singleness of heart has resonated down the ages for a good reason. With the rarest of exceptions, double lives are futile and self-consuming. Bad policy.