In 1934 I came to Oxford from Edinburgh, where I had obtained my first degree. I found the place to be full of left-wing political feeling. The rise of Hitler had provoked many hitherto non-political young people to agitated concern about the future of Europe. The developing policy of appeasement; the ‘non-intervention’ policy of the British and French governments with respect to the Franco rebellion in Spain; the helpless feeling that the humane liberal traditions in which so many of us had been brought up were dangerously threatened: all of this had us seriously worried. It led many to believe that the only hope for Europe lay in the idea of a popular front in which all anti-Fascist forces would join with Soviet Russia to fight this evil. The Oxford Labour Club, to which I and all my friends in Oxford belonged, contained many members of the Communist Party who had joined because they believed Soviet Russia to be the only country that could be relied on to resist Fascism. Most of us at that time took a rosy view of the USSR and had no awareness of the cruelties of Stalinism. We eagerly read the publications of Gollancz’s Left Book Club and felt guilty at not going out to fight on the Republican side in Spain.
Shortly before the outbreak of the war I left my post as a young research fellow at Balliol and went to teach at the University of Chicago. I had published three books in my early twenties, one of which was an extended essay written for the Left Book Club; it did not take me long to find like-minded people among the students and teachers. I joined the League of American Writers (one did not have to be American to join: it was enough to be in the country), and supported its left-wing stance. I resisted the constant attempts of Trotskyists to persuade me to join them in denouncing Stalin and in categorising all existing governments as equally wicked. It was not only Trotskyists in America who believed that there was no real difference between the ‘imperialist’ powers of Britain and France and the Fascist governments of Germany and Italy. The questions remained theoretical, however, until the outbreak of war, when a large section of the American Left immediately denounced the conflict as an imperialist one, and devoted their energies to keeping America out of the war. This was also the aim of the ‘America First’ group, who were essentially right-wing and tended to agree with what Anne Morrow Lindbergh called (in a book of that title) ‘the wave of the future’. There was also a large group of German-Americans who supported Hitler.
The League of American Writers took a passionate anti-war stance. Its office-bearers insisted that there was nothing to choose between Hitler and the British Government, that this was a war in which two equally wicked empires were fighting for equally wicked ends, and that it was a matter of indifference to Americans which side won. This was not, I should make clear, the position of the vast majority of American academics, who actively supported the Allied cause. But the League were vocal in their opposition.
The Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 shook many of those who had believed in Stalin’s Russia as the great bulwark of Anti-Fascism, and many people (including myself) rapidly lost their naive enthusiasm for the USSR. The League of American Writers, however, did not change tack. Franklin Folsom, in this history of the League, puts the case for its consistent neutrality in a series of rather curious arguments. He concedes that the Moscow pact shocked some, but ‘the Soviet Union seemed to be a basically good society, and we hated to see some of the old revolutionaries turn against it, as the prosecutors of the Moscow trials claimed they were doing. I, and many others, assumed that those convicted were guilty as charged.’ Folsom was equally unmoved when Britain and her dominions were left alone to fight Hitler after the collapse of France in 1940. America’s duty was to keep clear. Only ‘weak-chinned, weak-kneed liberals, social democrats and self-seeking gentlemen of no principles’ professed to believe otherwise.
In Folsom’s unstructured account of the League’s history he comes back again and again to the question of the League’s Communist position. ‘Did the Communist Party control the League of American Writers?’ he asks at the beginning of Chapter Nine. He continues: ‘Most critics have answered this question with an accusatory “Yes”. I also answer “Yes”, but with a very specific definition of control.’ But he does not give a satisfactory ‘specific definition’. Again, in Chapter 15, discussing American attitudes to Britain in 1940, he asks whether the position of the League represented ‘blind obedience to orders coming from the Communist Party’ and answers: ‘Clearly, some Communists on the council did not want the League to take a stand against the pact and for Britain, and they acted in harmony with the policy that came to prevail in the Communist Party. I think, however, it is fair to say that they acted not on orders but as their consciences dictated.’ He does not say, nor does he deny, that the Communist Party gave such orders. He himself, for all his vaguely expressed doubts about the Soviet regime, remained deeply committed to it. After the dissolution of the League he worked for the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, and after the war he worked for two years as a staff writer for Tass, the Soviet news agency.
Folsom’s references to the defects of Stalin’s regime are curiously perfunctory. But at one point he actually asks himself ‘if the League’s policy would have been very different if it had accepted the dreadful truths about one side of Soviet life to which Trotskyists pointed.’ Does this mean that he accepts the allegations were ‘truths’ and were ‘dreadful’? By associating the allegations with the Trotskyists (as though they were the only people who made them) he seems to throw doubt on their reality, for the Trotskyists were always demonised by the Communist Party. But some of the most distinguished figures on the American literary scene were anti-Stalinist socialists who defended Trotsky. In 1937 William Philips and Philip Rahv had revived Partisan Review as a left-wing anti-Stalinist literary journal. The Committee for Cultural Freedom was founded in 1939 by the philosophers John Dewey and Sidney Hook with a similar programme. Lionel Trilling, James Farrell and Dwight Macdonald were among the many writers active on the anti-Stalinist left who were in conflict with the League.
Partisan Review posed a series of questions challenging the League to come clean on its position concerning ‘the character of the present war’ and the role of the Stalin regime. Folsom’s only comment on this is to observe that many of the writers sympathetic to the Trotskyists later became conservative. He never again raises the question of the ‘dreadful truths’, nor does he ever suggest that he and the League were wrong in their attitude to Britain in 1940. He insists that from the beginning of the war ‘France and England were hoping to turn the war against the Soviet Union.’ Indeed, he seems to have regarded Britain as some sort of police state (he had been at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar). He says that in 1936 the Foreign Office refused visas to British writers wishing to attend a writers’ conference in Spain, which is patent nonsense. Nobody needed a visa to leave Britain in 1936. I went abroad freely in 1936 and 1937 and no Foreign Office permission was required.
My own position in America in the early years of the war was not comfortable, in spite of the many friends I made and the kindness shown to me by my colleagues. I had not intended to spend more than a year or two in the country, but now I felt trapped: there was no transatlantic transport for civilians once war had broken out. I went to the British consul in Chicago and volunteered for war service, but was told to stay where I was for the time being as the talks on Britain I was frequently asked to give performed a useful service. (Eventually, after America entered the war, I was assigned first to British Information Services in New York and then to the British Embassy in Washington.) I expected my left-wing friends in Chicago to share my feelings about the importance of defeating Hitler. Most of the academics did, but some of the students and a surprising number of non-academic elderly Marxists active in political speech-making took the same line as the League. I used to be invited to political meetings where I expected to hear the kind of left-wing denunciation of Fascism that I had heard at Oxford, and was appalled to find myself in the midst of an anti-British demonstration. (Paradoxically, the right-wing Chicago Tribune was also bitterly anti-British.)
My own political views developed rapidly into a strong anti-utopian democratic socialism. I would argue with League supporters that long-term theoretical positions taken up by many Communists were unrealistic and absurd. One had to do the best one could in the short term. I had no such differences with the bulk of my academic colleagues at the University of Chicago. It was largely outside the university that I encountered members of the League and supporters of its political line. Within the larger American academic community – representatives of which I met at innumerable conferences – there were writers and critics who distanced themselves from the League’s position and, while not Trotskyism took a some-what benign view of Trotsky and a hostile view of Stalin. Lionel Trilling, whose commitment to the British liberal tradition is reflected in his book on E.M. Forster, became a good friend, as did Kenneth Burke, whose subtle critical mind abhorred any political sloganising. But the League of American Writers remained a constant and increasingly disturbing presence.
The great change in the League’s position came in June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. For Folsom, it was only the forced entry of the USSR into the war that made Britain give up her anti-Soviet stance. The war, he says, still involved ‘two sets of pirates’ (Germany and Britain) but the pirates ‘were no longer in sole charge’. After Pearl Harbour, a few months later, League members rushed to enlist in the armed forces. But, although Folsom accepted that this was now an anti-Fascist war, he continued to protest against British policy and helped to organise meetings attacking Britain for not opening a second front. The League, however, had now no function: the fact that it was dissolved in January 1943 indicates that its real function had been political and not literary.
It is a strange story, and Folsom’s telling of it, prejudiced and prevaricating as it sometimes is, does provide an accurate picture of the dilemma of the American Left between 1939 and 1941. It was not a uniquely American dilemma. A generation brought up on the anti-war feeling engendered by the aftermath of the First World War, a generation that knew the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and had read All Quiet on the Western Front, was deeply pacifist in feeling. When that pacifism was faced by the rise of Hitler and the Spanish Civil War, it was put under great strain and, except for those who joined the Peace Pledge Union, gave way to the notion of a just war. It was no easy transition. For Americans, with their strong tradition of isolationism and dissociation from the dynastic squabbles of the Old World, the transition was much more difficult, and if it had not been for Pearl Harbour, America would never have come into the war.
When I worked at the British Embassy in Washington, I wrote a paper on American isolationism for the Foreign Office in which I tried to convince my masters that this movement did not represent original sin but was a natural part of the great American dream of the creation of a brave new world. Emerson, in a declaration of literary independence, had declared that ‘we are tired of the courtly muses of Europe’ and Whitman had proclaimed the new universal humanity of the American ideal. There was anobility about this ideal, however naive it may sound to Europeans, and one strand of American isolationism has always related to it. Nevertheless, the intermingling of this tradition with a naive belief in the Utopian nature of Stalinist Russia produced a great deal of double think and double-talk. It is all in Folsom’s book, laid out in self-revealing detail. We may find it irritating, illogical, sometimes ignorant and sometimes not entirely honest. But that is actually how it was.