When George Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46, the literary critic Edmund Wilson found it symbolically appropriate. For in the new postwar age of play-acting Stalinists, Wilson saw Orwell as the last prophet of commonsense independent-minded thought on the left.
But there was one who took up the baton. Robert Warshow, born 100 years ago, approached film, literature, and politics, with uncompromising honesty and complexity in a difficult time. Like Orwell, he did not follow any “line,” be it Communist or McCarthyist. Dead at 37, he left behind very little work—enough to be collected in one slim book. Nevertheless, his output is exceedingly relevant for our times.
Unlike many of the “New York Intellectuals,” that postwar brand of liberal but anti-Stalinist writers—peopled by such literary heavyweights as Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, and Dwight MacDonald—who dominated the opinion journals for a generation, and were then lionized by a generation of academics, Warshow never went through the obligatory Communist phase. While in college, he submitted articles to The New Leader, a social-democratic but fiercely anti-Communist magazine. After graduation, he worked for Commentary, then a liberal publication, as a managing editor. Hence, he could approach Communist politics without a sense of guilt or a need to overcompensate in his attacks on it.
Warshow’s particular métier was analyzing the Communist sloganeers that Orwell typified as “human gramophones,” and the damage they did to cultural and intellectual life. For him, the horrors of Stalinism weren’t limited to the purges, gulags, and mass executions and the American followers who defended them. It was the how it cut party members off from having any ideas connected to reality. He lamented that for his generation coming up in the 1930s the Communist Party’s influence was so great that it “determined what you think about and on what terms” well into the ’50s.
As Orwell sought to save socialism from Soviet influence, Warshow tried to save high culture from Stalinism. Because of Communist domination of culture, one could no longer have “free judgments,” he wrote. One could no longer connect literature to one’s own actual experiences. Instead, culture was boiled down to politically correct individual “responses” promulgated in the most vulgar terms by literary commissars.
In an astute analysis of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s prison letters, Warshow noted that the supposedly “confidential” letters—later published—between the two accused atomic spies and Communist Party members were not actually intimate personal documents—rather, they were tailored for the public consumption of the party faithful. Hence, they constantly avowed their innocence, all the while knowing they did give atomic secrets to the Soviets. Julius, with one eye on giving those who protested for him ammunition, peppered his letters with “frame-ups” and “American fascism” against “progressive” Jews like himself. (Communism was never mentioned, except in distancing quotation marks.) Even without the censorship of prison officials, Warshow saw that for them “the truth could not be told.”
What Warshow found most revealing about Julius was the place in one prison letter where he told his wife about cutting out a copy of the Declaration of Independence from The New York Times and taping it to his prison wall. He reported reading from it the rights of “freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and of religion.” Warshow pointed out that the declaration does not mention any of these concepts, and hence Julius could never have “read” about them. From this, Warshow concluded that the couple “had no internal sense of their own being but could only see themselves from the outside, in whatever postures their cases demanded”—in this case, a phony Americanism that in fact contradicted Rosenberg and the party’s actual beliefs and doctrines.
Warshow’s key target were “anti-anti-Communists,” who saw attempts “to expose the Communist menace” as more of a threat to American democracy than Stalin. Warshow denounced this “equation” as “clearly absurd and too often conceals a desire to remain ‘neutral’ in the struggle against Soviet totalitarianism.”
But Warshow had no radical past to lead him into the far right, either. In a review of My Son John (1953), an anti-Communist film so extreme that even some anti-Communists were embarrassed by it, he noted that the son, a thinly veiled Communist, and the father, a Bible-thumping American Legionnaire, were mirror images of each other in their fanaticism.
With its Our Town setting, the film took the familiar and “true” theme of a father laboring to send his son to college only to have the son, after graduation, if not before, rebuke the father’s values. But Warshow found “the hero” father no less “monstrous” than his Communist spy son. The father in frustration hits his son with the Bible and drunkenly roars patriotic platitudes. The pious mother, caught in the middle, sides with the father at film’s end, admiring his wisdom because he “believes what is in his heart.”
Warshow found the film repulsive not because it denounced communism but because it made anti-Communism one-dimensional and stupid. He did not quarrel with the film’s depiction of communists being part of a conspiracy, nor did he doubt the possibility that Communists would murder their own, as happened at the climax of the film. But he reminded audiences, based on his and their experiences, that Communists were “complex and their lives much duller.” What was needed, he asserted, was a film that exposed “the melodrama” of Communist fanaticism masquerading as dull government servants.
Warshow lived and died in age different from ours. As of yet, Russia hasn’t assumed the menacing dimensions of Stalin, nor is PC culture as oppressive as Stalinism proved to be for writers like Orwell or Ralph Ellison. But the problem of liberalism that Warshow analyzed and lamented in relation to radical politics remains. As in his time, some liberals today also view radicals as admirable because they are idealistic; even if radicals are proven misguided later and the liberals realize that they were duped (rightists do this as well, especially the social conservative faction). The very act of having ideals, even with no relation to reality, is still to be admired if one’s “heart is in the right place.”
Stalin is dead. But Warshow may have been correct in his analysis that the damage that communists did to liberalism continues on.
This article is part of a week-long Tablet series analyzing the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.