It may be that the best book that will ever be written about today’s progressive mind-set was published in 1941. That in The Red Decade author Eugene Lyons was, in fact, describing the Communist-dominated American Left of the Depression-wracked 1930s and 1940s makes his observations even more meaningful, for it is sobering to be confronted with how little has been gained by hard experience. The celebration of feelings over reason? The certainty of moral virtue? The disdain for tradition and the revising of history for ideological ends? The embrace of the latest definition of correct thought? Lyons was one of the most gifted reporters of his time, and among the bravest, and his story of the spell cast by Stalinist-tinged social-justice activism over that day’s purported best and brightest—literary titans, Hollywood celebrities, leading academics, religious leaders, media heavies—would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t so eerily familiar.
Indeed, looking backward from a time when, according to surveys, more millennials would rather live under socialism than capitalism, it’s apparent that Lyons was documenting not just a historical moment but also a species of historical illiteracy as unchanging as it is poisonous, its utopianism able to flourish only at the expense of independent thought. On a range of issues, alternative views were defined as not merely mistaken but morally reprehensible; and among the elites who dominated the cultural sphere, deviants from approved opinion were subject to special abuse. Of course, having lived and worked in Soviet Russia, Lyons made distinctions about relative abuses of power. Under Stalinism, dissidents were liquidated, or vanished into the gulag; the American Left could only liquidate careers and disappear reputations.
It’s not surprising that during those desperate Depression years, the program of the Communist Party USA would have held such wide appeal, especially among the young. Who else stood up so adamantly—or at all—against Jim Crow? Who stood so fearlessly on the front lines with labor against the power of rapacious big-business capitalism? What other party spoke so passionately for peace and justice? Soviet Russia was nothing less than the future of humanity! There, all were free and equal, poverty and oppression banished, and food, lodging, and health care guaranteed! As screenwriter Richard Collins would later recall of his time in the party, Communism was, for its devotees, “a cause, a faith, and a viewpoint on all phenomena. A one-shot solution to all the world’s ills and inequities.”