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Historian Deplores Colleagues' Portrayal of Communism
By Sean Grindlay
October 1, 2003


Frustrated by what they see as "shoddy scholarship" and widespread bias, two historians have presented a candid critique of their profession's treatment of Communist history. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are the authors of the newly published book, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage (Encounter Books). Haynes, who is 20th Century Political Historian at the Library of Congress, discussed the work at the September 25 AIM/McDowell Luncheon.

Haynes said that the book, which focuses more on historians than on history, is a "blunt and therapeutic" work intended to "spark debate" concerning the history profession's treatment of Communism.

Haynes began his talk with a basic chronology of Communist studies. When American scholarship on Communist history began in the 1950s, historians generally took a liberal but critical approach to Communism. Despite the lack of resources, Haynes stated, historians such as Theodore Draper produced works that were models of historical scholarship.

Matters changed greatly in the 1960s, Haynes said, when the history profession was infused with hundreds of radical scholars. These "revisionists," as they came to be known, began to rewrite much of the history of the Communist movement in America, casting it as a benign and natural evolution of the liberal tradition. The American Communist Party (CPUSA), the revisionists claimed, was an autonomous organization that received no subsidies or marching orders from Moscow. American Communists began to be portrayed in history books as noble idealists oppressed by capitalist America.

Over the next couple of decades, revisionism became more and more institutionalized in the history profession, and traditionalist historians-those who took a critical view of Communism-found it increasingly difficult to have their work published. The Journal of American History, for example, which bills itself as "the leading scholarly publication in the field of American history," published its last traditionalist essay on this subject in 1972, Haynes stated.

The worldwide collapse of Communism, however, dealt a setback to revisionist dominance. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, historians gained access to a wealth of formerly classified Soviet documents. In 1992 Haynes and Klehr themselves began studying documents in the Comintern Archives in Moscow; there they found information devastating to the revisionist account of the history of American Communism. Moscow's subsidization of CPUSA, for example, was not right-wing paranoia (as revisionists had previously claimed), but indisputable fact: Haynes pointed to a note from former CPUSA Chairman Gus Hall acknowledging his receipt of $3 million from the Soviet Union.

In light of this and other powerful evidence, many revisionists have had to modify their treatment of Communist history, Haynes said. A few were so influenced by the Moscow records that they have even joined the traditionalist camp.

In general, however, revisionists have tried to salvage their portrait of Communist history by ignoring or distorting recent evidence, Haynes lamented. One historian, after finally admitting that Moscow had been subsidizing CPUSA, insisted that the subsidies were unimportant because they did not compromise the party's "autonomy." Another revisionist wrote that "thousands" were executed in the Stalinist Great Terror of the 1930s-literally true but greatly misleading, as records show that the death toll reached well into the millions.

Soviet espionage in America, Haynes said, is one area where many historians have been especially biased; in fact, the bulk of In Denial deals with this "lying about spying." Haynes himself has found (in Soviet telegraphs decrypted as part of the Venona Project) overwhelming evidence that hundreds of influential Americans-including high-ranking government officials Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White-served as spies for the USSR.

Faced with such revelations, revisionists have gone from denying Soviet espionage to rationalizing or redefining it, Haynes reported. These American Communists were not spies, some of them insist, they were just internationally minded "progressives" who "exchanged information" with their friends from Russia. Some revisionists go so far as to claim that by helping to break the atomic monopoly and restrain American "aggression," Soviet spies contributed to world peace and even helped the U.S. (If that was the case, Haynes quipped, maybe America should have joined the Soviets in awarding the spies medals.)

Thus, although traditionalist historians have gained some ground since 1991, revisionism is still alive and kicking, Haynes asserted. In fact, revisionists still dominate history faculties and academic journals, and some traditionalists have left the field of Communist history due to intimidation or lack of publishing opportunities. Among the news media, too, there is a subtle pro-Communist bias. Haynes spoke of his frustration with, in particular, New York Times obituaries, where known Communists are not identified as such and are depicted more as victims than as villains.

Historians' continued denials of Communist treachery, and their tolerance of biased and deficient scholarship, constitute an "intellectually and morally sick situation" in the history profession, Haynes charged. He hopes that his blunt book will force historians to confront and alter the way they deal with Communism in their work.

But the issue, Haynes claimed, is of importance not just to historians. By presenting a sanitized, romantic history of Communism, revisionists help to pave the way for future radical and totalitarian movements. (As George Orwell wrote: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.") All those who value truth and appreciate the lessons of history would do well to read In Denial.

Sean Grindlay is an intern at Accuracy in Media. He can be contacted at sean.grindlay@aim.org