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Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2000 /24 Teves, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Ending the Argument

With the millennium wound down, so should the century-long debate over Marxism -- AMID ALL THE HOOPLA over the end of the millennium and the lists of the great people who have influenced it, I haven’t seen any top 10 lists about the great debates of the century. Allow me to suggest that naming the most bitter argument isn’t too difficult.

For most of the last 100 years, people have talked themselves blue in the face over the merits of economic systems: namely, socialism versus capitalism.

Though it may be hard for some young people to understand, at the last turn of the century, and for a long time afterward, socialism was the opiate of the intellectuals (to steal a phrase from Karl Marx, the man who deserves the title of the self-hating Jew of the millennium).

And why not? It offered a system of government where intellectuals got to tell everybody else what to do and how to live. This is a factor that may account for the lingering popularity of Marxist thought among many university faculty members.

Advocates of capitalism spent most of the century on the defensive. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, socialism seemed the only answer to many who cared about the plight of the poor. Capitalism’s emphasis on individual rights and initiative was lost amid discussions of its many flaws. The inevitable march of history was, our intellectuals told us, sending it to the dustbin of history alongside feudalism.

Debates on this issue were particularly bitter among Jews, as our status as victims of the European world put many of us in a mood where any revolutionary ideology sounded good.

Variants of this intellectual battle raged mightily — especially in the first half of the century — until that blessed day 10 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell and, not too soon after, the Soviet empire (the “socialist motherland”) crumbled.

Today, the great myths of socialism are as dead as Leonid Brezhnev. Though Marxist tyrannies still exist on the planet in places like North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and China, the argument has largely been settled. Communism wasn’t the revolutionary wave of the future. It was, instead, a nightmare vision of human suffering, with some putting the final death toll as high as 100 million people.

But somehow the end of the Soviet Union hasn’t ended the argument. Many of those who had once placed their hopes in various aspects of Marxist ideology are still alive and well and doing their best to place the good old days of the struggles in the rosiest light. And so, the romanticizing of the old left continues apace.

A recent example is the newly released film “Cradle Will Rock.” The movie, which is a confused pastiche of 1930s cultural battles, centers on the original production of Philadelphia-native Marc Blitzstein’s agitprop musical of the same name by a federally-funded, Depression-era arts project. Though you have to know the history behind the events depicted to fully understand the story, the movie attempts to lampoon the incipient right-wing McCarthyism that ended the Federal Theater Project and to lionize “Cradle’s” creators.

While there are some wonderful characterizations of famous people in the film, such as the actor/director Orson Welles, the young Nelson Rockefeller, Mexican communist painter Diego Rivera and Mussolini’s Jewish mistress Margherita Sarfatti, this is not a serious look at either intellectual or cultural history.

Though popular actor Tim Robbins — who doubles as writer and director of “Cradle” — may fancy himself the reincarnation of the great Orson Welles, it is hard to take seriously any movie whose most searing dramatic moment features a ventriloquist’s dummy singing the Communist hymn, “The Internationale.”

But what is significant about the movie is the fact that Robbins and the people who financed it — as well as the critics who have praised it — see in this story a worthy parable for our own contemporary arguments over government arts funding and intellectual freedom.

The villains of Robbins’ film are just as one-dimensional as those in Blitzstein’s own theatrical depiction of industrial strife. Fascists and censors loom over the film’s intrepid artists with the same sort of heavy-handed dialectical precision as those in Blitzstein’s mythical “Steeltown,” where labor organizers seek to overthrow tyranny and to triumph in the clenched-fisted — the Communist salute — finale.

Though the film deserves some credit for resurrecting the memory of a talented but mostly forgotten artist such as Blitzstein, there is a subtext to all of this that is merely hinted at but never fully or honestly explored. Many of those involved in the play, such as Blitzstein, were dedicated Communists who did allow the party to dictate artistic decisions just as much as the bad guys who ran the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. The fact of their affiliation was not incidental to the politics of 1937.

And, despite the nostalgia for the idealism that characterized the Old Left (though they were not then nor are they now the only people with ideals), their politics are no more worthy of celebration than the racism or lack of a social conscience on the part of their contemporary foes.

The point is, why are we even bothering to refight the intellectual battles of that era? Robbins isn’t alone in his obsession. A recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine misleadingly titled “The Rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy” dealt with what was called the “nasty, never-ending battle over American Communism.”

Weisberg was bothered by what he considers the lack of historical perspective of many of those who have engaged in the recent debates on this topic. Though acknowledging that all the accusations about Soviet espionage were true, he favors a “less judgmental” approach to the topic.

Perhaps I lack Weisberg’s pose of Olympian detachment, but if any topic cries out for a “judgmental” attitude, it would seem to me to be a movement that fronted for mass murder, no matter how idealistic its members were. But he is right about one thing in his conclusion — “the cold war is over now.”

Maybe it is time for the combatants to acknowledge that the argument of the century is over. Some people — the Marxists and their sympathizers — were proved wrong. Others — the critics of the Old Left, such as George Orwell, the liberals who battled Communism and the conservatives who championed libertarian ideals — won.

The problem is, a lot of the people who pose as the arbiters of culture in our society just won’t admit it.

Though assaults on the truth — whether from the left or the right — must never go unanswered, this is an argument that is over. Despite the empty-headed nonsense about the era that still finds its way out of Hollywood, the verdict of history is in.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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