Before the Hive
SOBRANS, August 2001,
Over the past
twenty years Ive often written about the Hive
my nickname for the informal body of opinion comprising liberals, socialists,
outright Communists, and various other strains of progressive
Like an odor, such folk are easier to sense
than to define. They include assorted activists for specific causes, as well as
more passive enablers, especially in the news media. The Democratic Party is
their chief American organ.
The Soviet Union, until it collapsed, was the
Queen Bee of the Hive. The Worker Bees of the West took their bearings
though not their orders from the great socialist motherland. They operated
sympathetically, but independently. Most of them would have felt insulted if their
Soviet allies had tried to push them around.
The Hive was not, and is not, a conspiracy;
its more a pattern. Naive anti-Communists, seeing the pattern, have
mistaken it for a conspiracy. The Bees, on the other hand, have made their own
mistake. Knowing that they arent parties to a conspiracy, they fail to see
the evident pattern of their collective behavior. By sheer, insectlike instinct, they
obey not the dictates of a foreign power, but the internal logic of their own
nature, their yearning for a secularist and socialist political order.
This yearning drew the Bees to Communism at
one period in modern history, but it also survived the institutional death of
Communism; though Communism was profoundly attractive to the Bees as long as
it appeared viable, Communism as such was never the essence of the attraction.
Its powerful appeal, during the naive phase of the Hive, was simply that the Soviet
Union under Stalin looked like a winner a huge and altogether successful
experiment in building a new society on progressive lines. It was
also frightening, and during the 1930s, dubbed the Red Decade by
Eugene Lyons (in his scathingly witty book of that title), it wielded incalculable
power even in this country. Such people, Lyons wrote, were drawn to the
Great Experiment by its magnitude and seeming strength. Under the guise of a
nobly selfless dedication they were, in fact, identifying themselves with
In fact, the Communists and
of the Red Decade were distinguished by their real and virtual allegiance to the
Soviet Union and to Stalin himself. Though they may have thought of themselves as
internationalists who transcended national loyalties, they actually transferred
their patriotism to a specific foreign power, which they defended, justified, and
celebrated at every turn. It seems almost unbelievably naive now, but the evidence
Lyons amassed is undeniable. The Red Decade is packed with the
insane eulogies to Stalin and Soviet Russia that gushed from American liberals in
those days. A new civilization was being born ... Russians were enjoying
unprecedented freedom and prosperity ... A new Renaissance was thriving ...
Industrial production was booming ...
All lies and fantasies the very
opposite of the indescribably grim truth. The vast and cruel tyranny was claiming
millions of lives, most of them due to a policy of forced famine; the survivors
lived in utter poverty, due equally to tyranny and incompetence; art, culture, and
intellectual life were being crushed, along with religion. Civilization itself was
being murdered in Russia, with the vociferous approval of free men in the
still-civilized countries to the West.
A few honest visitors told the truth. But they
were shouted down, drowned out, vilified by the organized Stalin apologists. These
included not only party hacks, but prominent and often gifted writers,
intellectuals, and opinion-makers: Lincoln Steffens, Louis Fischer, John Strachey,
Maurice Hindus, Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, Theodore Dreiser, Dashiell
Hammett, Paul de Kruif, James Weldon Johnson, Archibald MacLeish, George Soule,
Langston Hughes, George Seldes, Richard Wright, Newton Arvin, Van Wyck Brooks,
Kenneth Burke, Erskine Caldwell, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Irwin Shaw, Irving
Stone, Vincent Sheean, Upton Sinclair, Carl Van Doren, Louis Untermeyer, William
Carlos Williams, Lillian Hellman, Henry Roth, Max Lerner, Heywood Broun, Ring
Lardner Jr., and Nathaniel West.
All in all, an impressive roster. No wonder it
took a bold man to defy the engineered consensus that Stalin and Communism were
the wave of the future, the harbingers of universal human destiny. Who could
suppose that so many leading intellectuals were prostituting their minds for the
sake of a single foreign tyrant? They seemed to speak for enlightenment
Its easy to suppose, now, that
Communism was a minor part of American life in the Thirties. We have all been
taught that McCarthy Era hysteria grossly magnified the reality. It didnt.
Through his iron (though hidden) control of sycophantic intellectuals, labor unions,
and other forces, Stalin wielded enormous power over millions of Americans, most
of whom had no suspicion of his reach, or of his sinister influence over their
Stalin was Communism. Or rather,
Communism became whatever Stalin said it was. Indifferent to theory,
contemptuous of abstractions (and intellectuals), he had a crude and undistracted
appreciation of power: how to get it, how to wield it, how to keep it. His method
was simple: terror. He murdered those who resisted him; he also murdered those
who assisted him, lest they acquire some claim on him. His ruthlessness was felt
through his whole global network, and was emulated by his cadres abroad. Where
murder wasnt possible, character assassination would do. The most severe
punishments were meted out to defectors, and the dread of Stalins (or his
underlings) revenge did wonders for party cohesion.
Our own American Popular
Front, Lyons wrote, though never officially in power as it was in
France and for a brief period in Spain, penetrated, in various degrees, the labor
movement, education, the churches, college and non-college youth movements, the
theater, movies, the arts, publishing in all its branches; it bored deep into the
Federal Government and in many communities also into local government; it
obtained a stranglehold on great sectors of national and local relief setups and
made-work projects through domination of the Workers Alliance, capture of key
jobs, and other stratagems. At its highest point roughly about 1938
the incredible revolution of the Red Decade had mobilized the conscious or
the starry-eyed, innocent collaboration of thousands of influential American
educators, social workers, clergymen, New Deal officials, youth leaders,
Negro and other racial spokesmen, Social Registerites, novelists, Hollywood
stars, script writers, and directors, trade-union chiefs, men and women of
abnormal wealth [my emphasis]. Its echoes could be heard in the most
unexpected places, including the supposed citadels of conservatism and
respectability. Apart from its omission of journalists, this is a pretty fair
catalogue of the constituent Bees of todays Hive. Of course time has added
some new categories: feminists, homosexuals, environmentalists, and the like.
Lyons added 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 character of the
country. Our labor movement, politics, arts, culture, and vocabulary still carry its
If the Hive is spontaneous, the Red Decade
was conspiratorial. Stalin and his helpers were able to manipulate
a horde of part-time pseudo-rebels who [had] 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. The dreaded charge of
red-baiting (the forerunner of McCarthyism, but far
more deadly) was enough to cow into silence most criticism of Soviet Communism.
And of Stalin himself. Anti-Communists risked, and often received, ostracism,
vicious slander, and personal harassment. It was unnerving even to those few who
had the nerve and stature to withstand it; and it was especially effective in
deterring the far more numerous weak and timid souls from following their
Lyonss book is a shocking reminder of
how powerfully Communism gripped American public opinion, through publishing,
entertainment, the labor movement, and higher education. Today Communism is
dead and yet it isnt. The power that was once concentrated in a few
Red hands is now diffused among countless others, but, though it doesnt
exactly terrorize, it still intimidates. As Charles Peguy presciently put it nearly a
century ago, We shall never know how many acts of cowardice have been
motivated by the fear of seeming not sufficiently progressive.
During the Red Decade, Soviet apologists
deemed old scruples out of place when measuring the Soviet achievement.
On the contrary, as Lyons observed, the more distasteful the
chore, the greater the credit. Repression, purge, forced famine were
alternately denied and defended. The ten years of the Red Decade were the
years of the apotheosis of Stalin. The Revolution had been reduced to one man;
Marxism, Soviet style, was just another name for the whims and blunders of one
man; the Communist International and all its myriad appendages were literally
nothing more than his private racket. Todays Hive is thoroughly
decentralized. Yet it still maintains its own highly effective discipline. It has
refined ideology into a sort of etiquette. Progressive opinion enjoys
the aura of politesse; whereas reactionary views are felt to be
ignorant and boorish.
The New Deal proved hospitable to Communist
infiltration. Franklin Roosevelt, though sometimes wary of open association,
praised Stalins 1936 constitution sufficient proof, by the way,
that he had no grasp whatever of the U.S. Constitution. Joseph Davies, his
ambassador to Moscow, wrote a famously fatuous book, Mission to
Moscow, in praise of Stalins utopia. Such cabinet officers as
Frances Perkins (who, Lyons wrote, seems to live in dread of criticism
from the Left), Harold Ickes, and Henry Wallace were always ready to lend
their names and persons to Communist-front groups.
As for Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyons captures her
essence: The First Lady of the land became almost standard equipment in
setting up any new Innocents Club or in bolstering the prestige of an old
one; her sympathetic heart, her social-worker enthusiasm and ideological naivete
made her a perfect subject for communist hoaxes.... In the inner circle of activists,
I was told, she was regarded as one of the partys most valuable
assets. One precious detail emerged long after Lyonss book was
published: Mrs. Roosevelt, attending a diplomatic function, insisted on being
escorted by Alger Hiss.
Stalin could count on his cadres,
fellow-travelers, and dupes to follow every twist and reverse in his party line, but he
finally demanded too much even of the most gullible. He destroyed his own Popular
Front when he made his pact with Germany in 1939 and joined the rape of Poland.
At that point even many hard-core Communists, hating Hitler even more than they
loved Stalin, at last broke away in disgust.
From that moment, mechanical
pro-Communism in America was a thing of the past. The Soviet Union lost nearly all its
American loyalists. Many of them would still pine for an ideal
Communism, and continued to regard Soviet Russia as vaguely progressive, but the
old thrill was gone forever.
During World War II Stalin enjoyed a
temporary reconciliation with American liberal opinion; through no fault of his
own, Soviet Russia was invaded by its German allies (as Lyons had predicted) in
June 1941, and in December the United States entered the war on Stalins
side. U.S. Government propaganda lied to the American public about its
Russian friends as shamelessly as the Communists and
fellow-travelers had lied during the Red Decade. At the wars end, the fruits of
victory in Central Europe were too sweet for Stalin to bother hiding his true colors,
and American illusions were no longer possible.
Today the liberals have run out of utopias.
Russia is Russia again, having renounced the Red dream after terror devolved into
shabbiness; China, though semi-Commie, can be nobodys ideal; Cuba is both
brutal and squalid. Even Sweden has lost its charm.
The Hive no longer believes in socialism,
though it keeps moving spasmodically toward it out of old habits. The victory of
market capitalism is too clear, and planned economies have proved embarrassing.
The Bees have to settle for keeping the welfare state also
semi-disreputable and making hay on abortion, sodomy, environmentalism,
smoking, whatever promises to allow some incremental government growth. During
the impeachment battle they defended Bill Clinton with the same solidarity with
which the old Left defended Stalin, but it wasnt really the same. Stalin
was, after all, a far more inspirational figure.
But the residue of the Red Decade is still with
us, just as Lyons said sixty years ago. The Hive bears traces of its ancestry. It
still believes reflexively in the state, vilifies its opponents, and, above all, keeps
its gains. It practices not only a politics of personal destruction,
but a politics of general destruction, in which all social relations are
determined by force. It believes in power and nothing else.
Having said all that, I think the strongest
resemblance between the old Left and the Hive lies in their shared hatred of human
individuality. To become a Bee in this Hive is to surrender, voluntarily and eagerly,
your own personality; to submerge the self in a collectivity; to prefer the buzzing
cliché of the group to individualized thought and expression; to take
satisfaction in belonging, and conforming, to a powerful mass, while punishing
others for failure to conform. This is not only a political but a spiritual condition.
It was true of the Stalinists, and its true of the Hive. All the names have
changed since the Thirties, yet you get the eerie feeling that the old Stalinists and
todays Bees are somehow the same people.
The similarity to an insect colony
where the individual exists only functionally, being both indistinguishable from
and interchangeable with its fellows is not superficial. Its of the
essence. To be an insect is to be relieved of the burden of having a soul of your