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Jewish World Review April 24, 2001 / 2 Iyar, 5761

Linda Seebach

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A historian disowns his radical origins


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- I have to like a book with the in-your-face title "Commies," written by Ronald Radosh, who used to be one.

His book is one of a lengthening series about left-to-right political conversions. Pilgrimages in the other direction are about as common as refugees from Florida fleeing to Cuba. The subtitle is "A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."

"Leftover left": I like that too.

Radosh was born to be Red. His parents, active in the radical trade-union movement, traveled to the Soviet promised land in 1924, and came back as starry-eyed as when they left. He has a picture of himself in 1939, age about 18 months, bundled in a stroller for the annual May Day parade through the New York garment district put on by the Communist party.

His parents sent him to Camp Woodland, established by the Communist Party, where "the new democratic personality would be molded to fit the socialist paradise to come."

The molding was in part musical, nurtured by camping trips and weekly sing-alongs with Pete Seeger. "Songs are weapons," Seeger told the Woodlanders.

Now it's funny. Tom Lehrer nailed the radical pretensions with "We are the Folk Song Army," and "singing Kumbaya" is shorthand for knee-jerk, feel-good leftism. Wasn't funny then.

The ideal of Radosh's childhood was his mother's cousin, Jacob Abrams, who earned a footnote in the history books when he was convicted of violating the 1918 Sedition Act and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The conviction, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, was the occasion for a ringing dissent by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, familiar from First Amendment arguments, that "we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions we loathe and believe to be fraught with death."

Everybody quotes that. Radosh quotes the rest of what Holmes wrote about Abrams. "Now nobody can suppose that the surreptitious publishing of a silly leaflet by an unknown man" could in any way hinder the success of American arms. Abrams was protesting American military intervention in Siberia after the Bolshevik Revolution, and called for a general strike.

Abrams' sentence was commuted on condition he leave the country, and he eventually ended up in Mexico, where he was friends with Trotsky.

After Trotsky was killed, his widow gave Abrams a set of Trotsky's favorite Mexican-made china, which eventually came to Radosh's parents and then to him.

"Often in later years," Radosh writes, "I would serve cake to my Stalinist friends on these plates, and after they admired the beauty of the design and craftsmanship, I would tell them whose dishes they were eating from, and watch them turn pale."

Two things you will notice: Radosh knew everybody who was anybody on the left, and he's a wonderful storyteller.

So I'll just tell you he has stories about Elisabeth Irwin, the radical high school affiliated with the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village, and the time he traveled to Washington, D.C., with his schoolmate Mary Travers to picket the White House for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and how he infiltrated other student groups as a member of the Labor Youth League at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He published his first story in the "Daily Worker," and played at hootenannies with Bob Dylan.

Radosh got his Ph.D. in history at Madison, joined the faculty at the City University of New York, and continued to be active in leftist politics during the Vietnam War. But his change of heart began in Cuba. In the early '70s he was part of a delegation that spent a month there, and when he came back he published an article, still in support of the Cuban revolution, but suggesting it would be stronger if it were less repressive.

Disagreement on the left isn't tolerated, as others who have made this philosophical journey have painfully discovered. The response from former colleagues was bitterly hostile.

Radosh's alienation from the left grew with publication of "The Rosenberg File," which he co-authored with Joyce Milton. The Rosenbergs' sons had sued for release of all the FBI files on the case. Like other supporters of the Rosenbergs, he assumed the documents would vindicate them. Instead, he realized, the Rosenbergs were guilty of espionage as charged.

"The reaction to `The Rosenberg File' made me finally move on to consider the ultimate heresy: perhaps the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg case, but about most everything else."

Perhaps, he said, the entire socialist project was wrong.

Indeed. And "leftover left" is a suitable tag for those who haven't figured it out yet.



Linda Seebach is an editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Comment by clicking here.

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