One balmy night in mid June, I dined at Giannino Restaurant in Harvard Square with a communist. Well, a former communist, anyway.
Ronald Radosh’s new memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left (Encounter Books), traces his transformation from staunch communist (during his student days at the University of Wisconsin) to anti-communist stalwart. He has written several previous books and articles — most notably The Rosenberg File (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983), in which he and co-author Joyce Milton document the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — that have earned him the enmity of his former friends on the left.
Radosh has much in common with his friend David Horowitz, the Salon columnist and conservative provocateur. Both were red-diaper babies, the sons of supporters of the hard left. Several years ago, Horowitz discussed his similar ideological transformation in his own memoir, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey (Free Press, 1997). But the two former leftists diverge in a number of ways. Horowitz broke with the left in the early 1970s after a falling-out with the Black Panthers; Radosh’s disaffection came later, as he was still battling aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the mid ’80s. Also, Radosh, who remains pro-choice and a registered Democrat, doesn’t feel quite comfortable in Republican circles, where Horowitz makes his ideological home today. “I’m not so enamored with Trent Lott and all these conservative Republicans,” said Radosh, noting that the Republican leadership leans farther right than he does on social issues. “Horowitz is a bona fide Republican stalwart and I’m not.”
But get Radosh talking about the old-time left and you’ll get a sense of why he’s become controversial in some circles. Take, for example, his response to the allegation of Robert Meeropol — son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — that his parents’ trial was marred by anti-Semitism (see “Capital Offense,” TJI, June 1). Radosh — whose association with the Rosenberg family goes back to the 1950s, when his parents gave the orphaned children’s adoptive parents an old foot locker for summer camp —describes in his book the moments after the Rosenbergs’ execution when he marched with other protesters to New York’s Lower East Side. When city police appeared on horseback to disperse the demonstration, he and his friends saw them as modern-day embodiments of the Russian Cossacks who persecuted Jews before the Russian Revolution.
Yet speaking with hindsight, Radosh now rejects the idea that anti-Semitism played any role in the conviction of the Rosenbergs. “I’m sure there was some anti-Semitism, people saying, ‘Look at these Jews,’” he conceded, but added that this paled before the anti-Semitic purges in Stalin-controlled Czechoslovakia. “If Meeropol is repeating this stuff now, he’s repeating crude communist propaganda from the 1950s,” he said.
Radosh has retained the seasoned communist’s flair for arcane theorizing and doctrinal debate. He is quick to distinguish the actions of the Trotskyists from those of the communists during the 1960s. And his remembrance of his work in the anti-war movement seems to miss the forest for the trees. “We were fighting the Trotskyists and the big mobilization, trying to create a radical anti-war movement instead of just saying ‘Get out now,’” he said.
He has also retained an old communist’s disdain for the counterculture and its leaders, such as Abbie Hoffman. “The counterculture had no influence,” he sniffed. “They were going to transform America into revolution. Instead everything in the counterculture was co-opted by the system. It brought in all their music and their clothes. There was nothing the system couldn’t absorb that they were doing.”
The most powerful aspect of Radosh’s story involves his disenchantment with the hero of many on the New Left, Fidel Castro. Castro seemed to offer a dynamism and charisma missing in the stultified Soviet system. But Radosh began to have second thoughts about Cuba during a trip there in the 1970s. In his book, he recounts a visit by his delegation to a Cuban mental institution. Radosh asked a doctor giving them a tour of the facility how he happened to interact so well with the patients. “I’m a patient myself,” the doctor said. “I’m a homosexual, and that is why I’m confined here.”
Radosh believes that his transformation has given him a purpose in life. “My calling has been to attack the old left, destroy its myths,” he said. And he predicted that “people are going to be stunned by the revelations” from his next project, a study of the Spanish Civil War based upon the Soviet archives: “The facts are that they were all fighting for Stalin and a totalitarian state in Spain.”
Radosh bade me farewell that night to make an appearance on WBZ Radio with David Brudnoy. He asked if many old leftists listened and called in. I told him that some do. “Good,” said Radosh, eager to return to battle.