Witnesses: A Greatest Generation of Anti-Communists
The year now coming to its end has marked the centenary of three fine British anti-Communist writers: Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Malcolm Muggeridge. Each tried his hand at different kinds of writing, but I do not think it seriously unfair to tag them by the work they are best known for — as, respectively, a novelist, an essayist, and a journalist. All three writers lived among contemporaries held in thrall by the illusion of progress and social justice in the Soviet Union. All saw through that illusion very early. They were, you might say, premature anti-Communists.
It is not altogether coincidence that three of the West's clearest voices for reason and liberty were born in precisely the same year. The observers best placed to witness, and reflect on, the tremendous events of the 20th century's first half were the generation that came of age in the aftermath of WWI, Western civilization's greatest crisis. To have been born in the early years of that century; to have had one's childhood memories formed before the cataclysm; to have entered adolescence as the war was being fought; to have seen the shattered, disoriented post-war world with the receptive eyes of early adulthood — to have been part of that demographic cohort was to have had a grandstand seat at one of history's most gripping spectacles.
One of the commonest trajectories for this "witness generation" passed into, and then out of, an infatuation with Communism. Muggeridge lost his illusions earlier than most, as a result of spending the winter of 1932-33 in Moscow. If Orwell ever was enamored of Communism, his eyes were opened by the opportunism and cruelty of Stalin's agents in the Spanish Civil War. Arthur Koestler, born in 1905, tells us he resigned from the Party in 1938 because of Spain, though he did not completely lose faith in the USSR until the Nazi-Soviet pact a year later. That pact was the breaking-point for many — notably James Burnham, another member of the 1905 cohort. Also from that cohort was the French writer Raymond Aron, whose book The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) was described by Roger Kimball as "an indispensable contribution to that most patient and underrated of literatures, the literature of intellectual disabusement." Those whose faith was deeper hung on for longer: Frank Meyer, born in 1909, described himself as a "dedicated communist" until 1945, and a "doctrinaire socialist" for some years afterward. Not until 1952 did he vote Republican for the first time.
Not all of this witness generation fell into the category of the disabused. Evelyn Waugh seems never to have felt the slightest attraction to any variety of leftist thought. His published writings take on Marxism mainly from a Catholic point of view, but as Donat Gallagher remarks in his notes to The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, "[H]e had been a conservative before he became a Roman Catholic, and his conservatism developed independently of his religion." (Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930.) By 1944, when he was supposed to be assisting in British liaison efforts with the Communist partisans of Croatia, Waugh had, according to his brother officer the Earl of Birkenhead, advanced to such a "detestation of communism" that he could not bear to be in the same room as a partisan. Says Birkenhead dryly: "One could not fail to recognise that holding these views so strongly, he could be of little, if any use as a liaison officer with communist allies."
Waugh's case illustrates the point that it was not only the year of one's birth that helped determine one's perspective on events, but also the place. For Europeans, especially Jewish Europeans like Koestler and Aron, taking sides was not a matter of mere intellectual inclination, but was pressed on one by circumstances. Koestler, at age 13, lived through the Hungarian "hundred days" — Béla Kún's Red Commune of 1919 — and lost schoolfellows to the fascist reaction that followed. He notes a key development from the period: In the war and the post-war disturbances, urban bourgeois like his family became closely acquainted with working-class people for the first time.
In 1919, the intelligentsia suddenly discovered the suburban [sic — factories and workers' housing were built in a ring around central Budapest] proletarian as he really was in flesh and blood and sweat; and this discovery opened a flood of generous impulses and new vistas of human fraternity.
In Britain it was possible to maintain some detachment for a few years longer. During his time at Oxford in the mid 1920s, Waugh seems not to have thought about politics at all. Orwell, at Eton during and after WWI, testifies to the willful indifference of his classmates to the great events taking place across the Channel: "Among the very young, the pacifist reaction had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. [Officer Training Corps] parades, and to take no interest in the war, was considered a mark of enlightenment." He goes on to note that the war dead soon had their revenge: "As the war fell back into the past, my particular generation, those who had been 'just too young,' became conscious of the vastness of the experience they had missed …" It was probably not until the National Strike of 1926 that leftist ideology took a serious hold among thoughtful young British people.
In the United States, the disruption caused by the war was less, and the post-war clamor for new social arrangements was soon overwhelmed by the prosperity of the Harding-Coolidge years. Only when the Great Depression arrived did American intellectuals sign up for Communism in large numbers. (Though Whittaker Chambers, born 1901, had joined the Party in 1924. Frank Meyer joined while studying in Britain in 1931.)
In 1949, six ex-Communist intellectuals recorded their personal disabusement in The God That Failed. Of the six, four had birth dates between 1900 and 1909: Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, and Stephen Spender. The book was born out of a conversation between Koestler and British social democrat Richard Crossman (a 1907 baby), most particularly out of a remark by Koestler that "[Y]ou comfortable, insular, Anglo-Saxon anti-communists … hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies — but, when all is said, we ex-communists are the only people on your side who know what it's all about."
Although this is all ancient history now, humanity has not yet managed to shed the weaknesses and temptations that led so many of the witness generation astray. Gullibility, misplaced idealism, an essentially romantic cast of mind toward the wretched of the earth — a "poetic" style of politics, Aron would have said, as opposed to the more useful, but less exciting, "prosaic" style of bourgeois democracy — all are still with us. As the present decade rolls along and the centenaries click by, we should remember, and pay tribute to, that Greatest Generation of anti-Communists — and give thanks for so many clear-eyed witnesses having been born at the right time.