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Red Decade: Fear of Truth Then and Now

Red Decade by Eugene Lyons

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The other day at a charitable club luncheon, during a conversation criticizing the current administration, a frail old lady said she was usually afraid to express her critical opinions, even though in the club and in the community she’s generally surrounded by other like-minded old ladies. Reassuringly, the three other ladies of age at her table said, "No! You have to say what you believe!"

How could this be so? Red Decade: The Stalinist Penetration of America, published in 1941 by Eugene Lyons, suggests that the great ideological conflict of the last century has survived in somewhat different guise in this one.

Lyons, an American journalist, spent a lot of time in Russia and wrote about it, but Red Decade is about the influence of the Communist International on American culture in the 1930s.

American communists — not only party members but “fellow travelers” etc. — organized, wrote, spoke, and acted on direction from Moscow. But two major events caused confusion among the ranks: the horrendous famine engineered by Stalin, which killed millions (Stalin was responsible for many more deaths than Hitler), and the 1939 Soviet-Nazi pact.

At first the Comintern was an ally of Nazi Germany, and promoted

“defeatism to the French, immediate negotiated peace to the British, anti-Yankee sentiments to the Latin Americans, rigid isolationism to the people of the United States. … indistinguishable from the Nazi line: non-intervention in European affairs, promotion of strikes in defense industries, class and group hatreds.”

So when the Soviets formed a pact with Germany, loyal party members and apologists were stunned. It wasn’t just that they had to consider another new political maneuver. If they had any sense of what was going on in Nazi Germany, they’d had to dance around it as they had done with Stalin’s mass starvation and purges. Some did, but some began to reconsider, at their own political cost.

Journalists like Walter Duranty weren’t just reluctant to criticize Stalinist Russia, they denied the mass murders, in Duranty’s case in the pages of The New York Times. Some people actually defended it. Lyons named names. Some people, however, began to rethink their party loyalties, and Lyons was one of them. But the dual poison of rationalizing evil, and attacking those who did not toe the party line (and where do you think that expression came from, as well as "politically correct"?) rather quickly seeped into the culture at large, until even the average non-political American hesitated to question popular opinion. Alongside the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, anti-Communist opinion quickly became an object of derision and insult: ad hominem accusations of witch hunts (though there were witches in government positions) and red-baiting eclipsed discussion of ideas or even facts.

“Whenever the communists are under fire, it [being called a “red-baiter”] has served to divert attention from the subject matter to futile discussion of personal motives, the critic’s private life and other deliberate tricks of befuddlement.”

Sound familiar? Our current leadership is Alinsky-bred. Another technique is to compare any criticism of the foreign tyranny with some flaw in the United States, however far-fetched the analogy:

“When they mention millions of corpses in a Ukranian famine, they are told off neatly with a scathing reference to the Okies in California.”

These rhetorical tricks preclude honest discussion because emotional commitment to the imaginary future communist Utopia doesn’t admit to a reasonable or moral consideration of imaginary ends and real-life means.

“During the Red Decade we are confronted, in the main, with a horde of part-time pseudo-rebels who have neither courage nor convictions, but only a muddy emotionalism and a mental fog which made them an easy prey for the arbiters of a political racket.”

It wouldn’t matter so much, except for those millions of dead bodies.

“The fact is that the complex communist United Front tinctured every department of American life while it lasted and has left its color indelibly on the mind and moral attitudes of the country. Our labor movement, politics, art, culture and vocabulary still carry its imprint.

Just because the Red Decade ended three-quarters of a century ago, that doesn’t mean it is ancient history. What, for instance, was the reason for giving the Nobel Prize to a newly elected president who hadn’t accomplished anything noteworthy? Why was the same prize given to a Marxist named Rigoberta Menchu for a fictitious “autobiography”? Fiction can transmit truth, but why call it fact?

As for art, it is no accident that Obama’s iconic campaign poster looks like the famous college dorm room poster recommending that Che Guevara viva, or perhaps suggesting that he does live on. In our hearts and minds. Guevara was a killer too. He didn’t achieve Stalin’s millions, but his heart was in it, and leftists either ignore that fact or rationalize it. All for the greater good.

During the first Obama campaign, a student from Africa asked in an NKU class why Republicans are reluctant to say they are Republican. The short answer is they’re afraid of being called racist (and that includes conservative black Americans, who are subject to racial insults). The long answer requires understanding the legacy of the Red Decade.

But isn’t communism dead? The Soviet Union is no more, and China is adopting capitalism, if not democracy. Red Decade is instructive because it details the mechanisms of so-called “revolutionary” activity that persists here and everywhere, to suit the ambitions of various politicians. The late Hugo Chavez is a good example. A former “innocent” or “useful idiot” named Brandon Darby had his eyes opened after a harrowing month in Venezuela in 2006. The painting of Chavez at the Darby link, by the way, imitates Chinese People’s Republic propaganda art.

Young idealists are easily seduced by the leftist dream of an economic paradise that will eliminate poverty. Older ideologues become attached to that dream, and more entrenched in their social and professional allegiances.

Even the erstwhile “Liberation Theology” Christians ignored Christ’s words that “the poor you will always have with you.” The Red Decade is what happens when people grasp at simple shiny ideas they think are new and ignore an ancient history of experience and wisdom.

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