False Messiahs

by Christopher Hitchens

The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism

by J. Hoberman • Temple University Press • 300 PP • $34.95 • October

I Married a Communist • Philip Roth • Houghton Mifflin • 323 PP • $26.00 • October

In A Ripple from The Storm, the third volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, the protagonist Martha Quest is listening to her future husband, Anton Hesse, as he addresses a Communist Party cell meeting in the sweltering colony of "Zambesia" in the early years of World War II:

"The motives of men making history in the past were often good; but the ideology of reformers often had no connection with what they actually accomplished; this is the first time in history that men can accomplish what they mean to accomplish; for Marxism is a key to the understanding of phenomena; we, in our epoch, see an end to that terrible process, shown for instance in the French Revolution, when men went to their deaths in thousands for noble ends–in their case, liberty, fraternity and equality, when what they were actually doing was to destroy one class and give another the power to destroy. For the first time consciousness and accomplishment are linked, go hand in hand, supplement each other…." And Martha felt as if a light had been turned on for her.... She herself need not dwindle out (like her father, for instance) savage with the knowledge of belief betrayed. There could be no more misguided passion for the good, or soured idealism.

With the other half of her brain, Martha Quest registers that there are no Africans in the Party, that the members are at odds with one another, that the group’s popularity is due purely to Soviet military successes at Stalingrad, that the pamphlets from Moscow cannot be read, let alone sold, and that the magnetic Anton, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, is hopeless in bed.

Doris Lessing was hardly two years out of the Communist Party when this novel was first published in 1958. In 1980, an African nationalist party led by professed Marxists actually did take power–through electoral means–in Zimbabwe. And that week, I had lunch with Lessing in London. She was still ready to raise a glass in salute to the end of Southern Rhodesia, but that was about the extent of it. She chose Bertorelli’s restaurant in London because it had been her hangout after she’d been deported from the colony. "The Communist Party Writers’ Group used to meet here–funny, really, because they all had writer’s blocks and writing crises created by the fact that they were communists in the first place," she said. She told me how she’d met Gottfried Lessing, a communist Jewish emigré, in Rhodesia during the war and become his unhappy wife. In 1945, he’d left her and the colony and returned to East Germany. As a Stalinist diplomat specializing in Africa, he had much later been killed while serving as the envoy of the German Democratic Republic to Idi Amin. I was just digesting this story when into Bertorelli’s came Edward Thompson, then the leader of the Euroleft in the campaign against Cruise and Pershing and SS-20 missiles; he was accompanied by Rudolf Bahro, recently released from an East German jail to which he had been consigned for writing The Alternative in Eastern Europe, the first, best, and least-known prefiguration of the implosion of the Soviet empire, an event still nine years ahead of us. They joined our table, which swiftly took on the agreeable shape of an ideological blur. A few days later, Doris sent me a proselytizing packet of books on Sufism, the partly cultist and quasi-Islamic religion that was probably adopted by Sabbatai Sevi, the most prominent of the "false Messiahs," when he gave up his highly successful campaign to inspire the Jews of Smyrna and Salonika with his godhead in the seventeenth century.

There was a time, not so long ago, when millions of people believed quite literally that Anton Hesse’s words were true, and true in the scientific sense. I have used Doris Lessing both as a personal illustration and because her phrasing of that mentality is the most artistically exact version that I know. The death of Communism was also the end of teleology: to be messianic today is to believe in the Rapture or the restoration of the Second Temple, not the reign of reason and justice on earth. (Even the pseudo-Hegelian Francis Fukuyama, following the recent market meltdowns in Asia and Russia, has revised his prediction of an "end of history" to depend on the stable inauguration of neoliberalism.) When the great modernist Vladimir Tatlin constructed his spiral tower in honor of the Communist International, he chose as his model some medieval Tuscan studies of the Tower of Babel–the site that the united peoples of the earth once selected for nothing less than the storming of Heaven itself.

Both of the books in front of me–J. Hoberman’s Red Atlantis and Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist–are works of retrieval and of the imagination, though only one of them is fictional. Both are ostensibly concerned with the period in the recent past when communism appeared simultaneously as a possibility and an actuality. And both focus on the complex ways in which that ideology inflected, and was inflected by, "the Jewish question."

J. Hoberman may be, for all I know, like B. Traven in adopting a nom de plume where the first or given name is an austere initial. Like Traven, who was a German socialist emigré, he understands the centrality of Germany in the Marxist universe. Best known as a gifted movie critic, he has produced a subtle and deep autopsy report on socialist realism and communist aesthetics. He opens in Berlin, following a long tracking shot from Wim Wenders’s 1987 film Wings of Desire as it in turn follows the Wall:

Anticipating the loss of a loss,Wings of Desire is particularly attached to the weed-and-debris emptiness of the unnamed wasteland around Potsdamerplatz. A wound in the city, the relentless Wall here transversed the obliterated Third Reich command center, including the Chancellery, Gestapo headquarters and the Ministry of Aviation, slicing across streets, sidewalks, trolley tracks, cemeteries, the remains of Hitler’s bunker. The Wall incorporated entire buildings–the back of the Reichstag itself. Only a visiting architectural radical like Koolhaus could dare admit that it was "heartbreakingly beautiful."

Khrushchev’s misguided conceptual bravado beggared the most audacious, relentlessly serial conceits of environmental artists such as Christo or Richard Serra. For gonzo urban planning the Wall surpassed even the most megalomaniacal visions of Robert Moses and Nelson Rockefeller.... But then...the Wall was itself a work of art. It belongs with the never-built Palace of the Soviets, the Jewish autonomous oblast of Birobidzhan, Franz Kafka’s posthumous career as a dissident writer, the Second Reality of Socialist Realism, the Crime of the Century, and the wreckage of Communist fantasy itself, submerged now in History’s secret depths.

You may smile at any comparison between art and the Wall. When I crossed at a gate near the Reichstag in 1977, the only artifact called to mind was the Richard Burton—Claire Bloom film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Everything seemed scripted as if to confirm and conform. But on the Eastern side, I noticed a verse from Bertolt Brecht unobtrusively displayed. "Great Carthage fought three wars," it read. "After the first war, it was still strong. After the second war, it was still inhabitable. After the third war, nobody could find it at all." In a manner both grandiose and pathetic, the German communists were trying to seize hold of and tame the stream of History, if only by damming it.

Zooming back and forth from Berlin to Moscow to the Lower East Side, J. Hoberman has compiled the best evocation of the lost world of Jewish communism since the historian Raphael Samuel’s memoir of working-class East London in New Left Review. As Hoberman notes, after the defeat of the German and Austrian and Bohemian left in the 1930s, the Jewish left was compelled to migrate eastward to territory much less historically hospitable. Not that this exile was a mere transplant. The old cry about "Judeo-Bolshevism" was, in a sense, a psychologically skillful taunt. It might not be true, as some British Tory papers alleged, that Lenin and Trotsky erected a huge statue of Judas Iscariot in the center of Moscow. But it is true that fleeing Czarist and White officers brought their only lasting literary creation–The Protocols of the Elders of Zion–with them as they moved west.

The traffic in the opposite direction was more wholesome. Established in 1921, the Yiddish Theater in Moscow was the first state-subsidized Jewish theater in world history. Its star performer, Sholem Mikhoels, was known in every Jewish ghetto and tenement from Warsaw to Brooklyn. This was the milieu of Sergei Eisenstein, Marc Chagall, and Isaac Babel in the brief but vivid period when "cosmopolitan" was an insult hurled at the communist authorities rather than by them. Indeed, some of the more secular Jewish Marxists resented the cultural emphasis on shtetl and schmaltz and Sholem Aleichem and would have preferred more emphasis on the New Man and the Jewish proletarian.

In a bizarre and disturbing way, the Judeo-Bolshevik phantom became a scapegoat of Stalinism as well as of fascism. When the great and bloody Georgian turned on his own "enemy within," anti-Semitic innuendo was a useful weapon. Babel, Mikhoels, and the rest were all tortured and liquidated by Stalin, and the treason trials offered a pretext of "anti-Zionism" so transparent and contemptuous that the arraignments might have taken place near Passover in the old Pale of Settlement. By another tragic warp in history, many of the Red Jews who returned to Eastern Europe during the war by hitching a lift with the Red Army found themselves convenient victims when the new "People’s Democracies" felt insufficiently popular. Stalin’s death in 1953 coincided with a wild and paranoid inquisition into a sinister "Jewish doctor’s plot." With the Khrushchev revelations, the communist diaspora finally began to wilt on the vine, though it wasn’t until the Six Day War that the Yiddish-speaking contingent of the American Communist Party developed terminal disagreements with Moscow Center.

The Red Army’s defeat of Nazism and its rescue of many surviving European Jews still counted for something. But in order to get to Berlin, the Red Army had had to pass through Prague and Warsaw and Budapest and a few other places, and with the exception of Vienna it did not withdraw from them. The literary reaction to the Stalinization of Eastern Europe, then, took many forms but one of them was an evocation of the old ironic, cosmopolitan culture of Mitteleuropa. An essential figure in this was Franz Kafka, whose haunting ambivalences–not just about communism and Zionism but about modernity itself–could scarcely be mentioned in the sports-crazed and norm-driven regimes of the "People’s Democracies." Hoberman rightly stresses the vital importance of the 1963 Czech writers’ conference on Kafka in incubating the Prague Spring; the mere mention of his name was enough to get the cultural commissars reaching grimly for the internal telephone. Hoberman could have added that Georg Lukács, the eminent Marxist literary critic and model for the fanatical Jesuit Naphta in Mann’s Magic Mountain, was incarcerated in a castle for his participation in the failed Hungarian revolt of 1956. After a long spell in which he was kept in uncertainty about the charges against him, he was heard to remark: "So, Kafka was a realist after all."

The revived dissident writing from the East, which began to make itself felt after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968–the event above all others that broke the mainspring of communist allegiance among intellectuals–was collected and presented by Penguin Books in the early 1980s under the title "Writers From the Other Europe." The series editor was Philip Roth, who also conducted a number of interviews with the more salient authors. Roth, who might without undue irreverence be described as the Kafka of the Catskills (hey, it’s no worse than the "Raskolnikov of jerking off"), was well suited for the project. In his 1985 novella, The Prague Orgy, he anticipated what Czech dissidents later called the Republic of Absurdistan, where even dissent became a sort of practical joke, and reversed the idea of the Jewish tourist finding a consoling Yidishkeit in the "socialist camp" (the "camp" element being the only operative one).

The best summary of the series, and the one that gave it an immediate appeal to the New York intellectuals, came from Milan Kundera in the interview with Roth that composed the afterword to Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Though decidedly pessimistic about the cultural annihilation of Europe by Asiatic Russia, Kundera managed to wound the image of communism very gravely by contrasting its constipated "internal affairs" censoriousness to the internationalism that had once been among its proudest and loudest claims. By proclaiming the "normalization" of Czechoslovakia, the communists had not just come up with a uniquely ugly term. They had declared themselves a status quo power. They had abandoned any notion of a better future in favor of an increasingly insincere exhortation and steadily diminishing returns.

The dissident authors, powerless though they were, still had something to look forward to–almost any future was better than the arid, annihilated present–and something to practice, namely the power of words. The mocking and literary character of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was the perfect revenge on the mirthless, jargonized repression of 1968. As Roth had put it, contrasting Eastern writers with their Western counterparts: "There nothing goes and everything matters. Here everything goes and nothing matters." The literary dissidents allowed writers everywhere to square their shoulders in solidarity and to feel an authentic pang of envy for authenticity.

The inquisitors and bullies and heresy-hunters in Roth’s new novel, however, are operating not in some paranoid postwar Eastern European political slum, but on the legal and congressional platforms of the most prosperous and victorious and just plain lucky society that has ever existed–the United States of the 1940s and 50s. (The title is a deliberate evocation of the lurid prose in Reader’s Digest of that epoch.) Set in the gritty shores of New Jersey, I Married a Communist is Roth’s attempt to recapture a time when things did matter in America–mattered not just for the wider society but for the future and the aspirations of the boy Nathan Zuckerman. For this kid, ideas had consequences. By allowing himself to be impressed by Ira Ringold, an energetic Newark Jewish plebeian who has fallen during the war for Earl Browder’s slogan, "Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism," the boy gets to meet Paul Robeson and Henry Wallace; gets to understand something about liberal cowardice; and gets himself and his higher education blighted by the blacklist. There seem to be two "messages" here. First–you can never afford to relax and should probably keep a suitcase under your bed. Second–the left-liberal idealism of American Jews was no disgrace, and parts of it can be rescued from–and for–history in a way that isn’t perhaps true for their cousins in Mitteleuropa.

The novel is mostly enacted in huge swathes of first-person narration by Zuckerman’s ex-teacher Murray Ringold, Ira’s brother. (Young Zuckerman is a good, indeed almost masochistic listener.) Nathan learns that brave Ira was a social climber, interested in moving from Newark to the better salons of Manhattan–even "marrying out" to a famous shiksa thespian (who’s actually a closeted Jew)–and also a member of a Soviet spy ring. Looking back on it all–the combination of idealism and cynicism–Zuckerman goes all cosmic, gazes at the sky, puts things in perspective and realizes that the forces of the universe are indifferent to human striving. The conclusion makes the perfect coda to American Pastoral, Roth’s wised-up, contrived novel of the 1960s gone awry, in which the question, "Was it good for the Jews?" is asked about this decade for the first and the longest time. (I exempt the kvetching of Martin Peretz, who piled in behind the Jew-baiting Nixon because he thought he was sound on Israel. Talk about assimilation.)

In The Great American Novel, published in 1973, Roth has the following exchange:

"Isaac–listen to me, for a Jewish pois’n dis is de greatest country vat ever vas, in the history of de voild!"

"Sure it is, Dad," said the contemptuous son, "as long as he plays the game their way."

America may indeed be a surrogate Promised Land, but even at its most surrogate it has Birobidzhan beaten. Both Hoberman (who quotes this passage) and Roth have a certain nostalgia for the days when Jewish social conscience was at the cutting edge and when even the most cautious suburban Jewish liberal could feel that he had somehow "earned" the Jew-hating diatribes of congressmen like Theodore Bilbo and John Rankin. (Remember how Alex Portnoy swelled with pride when the C.I.O. Political Action Committee gave him an award for defending the First Amendment?) This attitude also explains why writers like E.L. Doctorow still express more dislike for the finks than the spies when it comes to the Rosenbergs and why Hoberman and Roth want to remind us that free-thinking teachers and librarians were perhaps more enthusiastically witch-hunted than amateur secret agents and Hollywood biggies.

Hoberman exits his narrative with a long meditation on the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel, whom he views as both guilty and framed. He tells the story as Kafka might have, replete with insects and political metamorphoses and abrupt, arbitrary injustices. And none of the actions or the players make sense unless they are justifying themselves in the name of the unborn or of tomorrow. "Whoever has lived for the future and has fallen for its beauty is a figure hewn in stone," said the writer Julius Fucik in 1943. The words "fallen for" have acquired an additional resonance with time. Even the Jews who worked to electrocute the Rosenbergs–Judge Irving Kaufman and the morbid, fanatical Roy Cohn–justified their short-term deeds through an overarching Cold War theory, a theory reinforced by their fears that Jewish Red spies put all Jews in a ticklish position. This slightly shamefaced conviction (the Jew as spy and traitor playing to the stereotype of dual loyalty) is intrinsic to the social origins of neoconservatism. Interestingly, it also mirrors the participation of American Jews in a communist movement that was partly an expression of revolt and partly a path to assimilation. •

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