Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

Paul Buhle

OLDTIMERS, ACROSS GEOGRAPHICAL space and chronological time, tend to swat at each other, responding to insults both real and imagined, long past and present. I know that in my family, Ma and Pa did it with increasing vigor over the years. Probably not all of the swatting within the greatly diminished U.S., UK or any other Left can be attributed to political disappointment.

I’m not greatly offended by James Young’s swats, mainly just surprised. I was asked to write a review of a book’s second edition, something that is unusual and done, when at all, as a personal favor, and that was certainly my intent.

Now, very briefly (as I promised ATC’s editors) to the charges at hand. As a life-long syndicalist, ardent New Leftist and so on, I have never been accused (so far as I know) of idolizing the old USSR, etc. My interviews with dozens of octogenerian radicals, however, gave me a personal sympathy for people who were clearly wrong about Russia but often highly creative about a great many other things, from labor and anti-racist activity to the creation of films, plays, novels, music and so on.

Since the 1920s, what might be called Popular Front culture has been our most tenacious left-liberal popular culture and I would argue that it remains so even today. The events of 1989 were useful, in this quarter, because aging participants became more able to separate what was bad in their political lives from what was and remains positive.

Jim slams me on defending the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist, but for me, the heart of the matter was never mainly about the USSR. My mother, a nurse, was blacklisted in 1960 for talking about unionizing. My best friend all these years was blacklisted for years (and never regained his byline) for leading a newspaper strike in Wisconsin. Neither was remotely close to the CPUSA.

The future Hollywood blacklistees, I learned, not only wrote many of my favorite 1930s (but mostly 1940s) films, but also my favorite 1950s TV shows (while on the run from the FBI). Not to mention “MASH,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and a couple dozen other films that date are owed to the recuperated careers of the handful, including a couple directors, who could come back.

Do we have to give up “Norma Rae” and “Never On Sunday,” or for that matter the music of folksingers Pete Seeger or Harry Belafonte, because of a grudge against their pasts?

As for Jim Young’s comradely complaints about E.P. Thompson: they don’t sound comradely to me and they lead him into more peculiar polemics. My experience, after civil rights activity, came with the Vietnam War where Cold Warriors (Joseph Buttinger among them) ardently argued for the U.S. invasion/war, and those somewhat leftward (including Irving Howe, late in his life a friend of mine, and founder of a journal to which I contributed) argued that the war was a mistake but the United States should not leave. Until the Kent State Massacre, Howe’s attacks on the antiwar campus left marked a difference that remains, in memory, painful.

What all this has to do with my view of particular anti-communists and recipients of heavy CIA funds (surely not only my pet peeve), who were just as eager in my time to attack anti-corporate Third World movements in Guatemala or elsewhere as they had been to remind liberals of Stalin’s crimes before my time, I am not at all sure.

Jeez, Comrade Young, when someone is asked to review your books and does so with few complaints, try not to offer back a bramble for a rose!

ATC 146 web only, May-June 2010