We’ve been pondering The Nation, America’s top left-wing weekly, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Founded as a respectable organ of liberal opinion, it became, in the twentieth century, a megaphone for fans of Soviet Communism. A generation ago, on the brink of the fall of the Iron Curtain, The New York Times’s Richard Bernstein summed up where The Nation stood during the Cold War:
The Nation often argues…that the United States is at least equal as a menace to the world as the Soviet Union, perhaps worse; that the United States has been the primary culprit in fueling the arms race and that it has fomented much of the atmosphere of the Cold War; that the United States has perpetrated injustice in places like Central America and the Middle East because of blind anti-Communism.
Bernstein was actually being rather kind here: in fact, during the Cold War The Nation was fiercely, brutally “anti-anti-Communist,” smearing every critic of Communism as a hysterical McCarthyite reactionary. Routinely, the magazine’s contributors wrote about the anti-Communist “witch hunt” of the 1940s and 50s as if the presence of Communists in Hollywood, in Washington, and in New York media and intellectual circles were a feverish figment of paranoid far-right imaginations. In fact, more than a few of the Nation writers who pontificated piously about the presumably fascist “witch hunt” were themselves card-carrying Communists. The anniversary issue of The Nation includes a self-righteous piece by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo about the Hollywood blacklist; it was not accompanied on its first printing, and is not accompanied now, by any acknowledgment that Trumbo was a devoted Stalinist, who in the service of his appalling political loyalties was prepared to do far more than simply blacklist his ideological opponents. The anniversary issue also presents a 1956 piece by W.E. B. DuBois complaining about the lack of attractive choices in the current presidential contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson; there is no mention here, either, that DuBois, at the time he wrote that article, was also a convinced Stalinist, who would have been glad to see the U.S. under the thumb of the mass-murdering Soviet dictator rather than in the hands of Eisenhower or Stevenson.
We’ve noted that the back pages of The Nation were ideologically sealed off from the front — but not always. In a theater review from 1964, reprinted in the anniversary issue, Harold Clurman praises Fiddler on the Roof — set, of course, in Tsarist Russia — as an admirable representation of the joy of collectivist living. Note that Clurman wrote this review just a decade after the death of Stalin, who’d murdered millions through forced collectivization (which The Nation, by the way, had applauded): “Is it any wonder,” wrote Clurman breathlessly in his review of the musical, “that an audience, living in one of the most heartless cities of the world at a time of conformity to the mechanics of production, an audience without much relation to any tradition beyond that expressed through lip service to epithets divested of living experience, an audience progressively more deprived of the warmth of personal contact and the example of dignified companionship, should weep thankfully and laugh in acclamation at these images of a good life lived by good people?”
Clurman seems to have missed entirely the point that the characters in Fiddler on the Roof were poor, tormented victims of Tsarist tyranny and that, at the end, when they’re forced by that tyranny to flee their beloved village of Anatevka, the good news is that they’re all on their way to America, where — as the audience knows, but they don’t — their descendants will enjoy a degree of freedom and prosperity beyond those villagers’ wildest dreams, will escape the Jew-murdering totalitarians of twentieth-century Europe (including not only Hitler’s minions but also the Communist masters of the Gulag), and will one day be able to attend a Broadway play reminding them of just how lucky they are to be living in 1960s America and not turn-of-the-century Russia.
Tomorrow: The Nation from the 1960s to 9/11.