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May 22, 2009, 9:03 am

Michael Kazin on Guttenplan on Stone:

Stone, like many intellectuals of his generation—his fellow Jews in particular—long believed that Communism, whatever its faults, was the best hope for a future free of ruthless competition, racial hatred, and war. Not until he visited the USSR in 1956 did he declare the whole enterprise to be bankrupt. He then confessed in his Weekly, “I feel like a swimmer underwater who must rise to the surface or his lungs will burst. . . . This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men.[”] Of course, by that time, Soviet leaders were finally admitting that Stalin had been a tyrant, and rebels across Eastern Europe were organizing resistance to the regimes imposed on them by the Red Army.

Guttenplan is careful to note that Stone traveled the wide, relaxed orbit of the Popular Front rather than within the far smaller and more rigorous nucleus of journalists who hewed to the American CP. He reported and wrote opinion pieces for the New Republic, the New York Post, and The Nation—never for the Daily Worker or the New Masses—and was always passionate about exposing “people who push other people around,” as the motto of one of his outlets, the New York City daily PM, put it. His journalistic reputation depended on mining key sources within the government as well as among radical activists. Guttenplan astutely traces Stone’s long hot-and-cold relationship with Harold Ickes, the interior secretary who was a mainstay of the New Deal. In his diary, Ickes called the reporter “a clever little Jew . . . [who] seems to know pretty well what is going on here in Washington and is a fearless writer.” There was little trust on either side, but in the age-old dance of politicians and the press, each man proved quite useful to the other.

The Popular Front helped make the United States a more tolerant, more democratic society—and put pressure on New Dealers like Ickes to dismantle barriers between people the government deemed worthy of its help and those it ignored. Knowing that the tyrants in the Kremlin smiled on its activities does not negate the fine work of writers like Stone and of such artists as Dorothea Lange, Paul Robeson, and Orson Welles. As Guttenplan makes clear, the movement mattered more to America than did the party that spawned it….

Still, one thing is not in doubt: Stone longed all his adult life for a socialist future—and yet came to believe that every government that professed to share that dream ended up betraying it. Perhaps the best way for Stone’s many admirers to emulate him in our postsocialist world is to be as skeptical about those in power who seem to agree with you as about those whom you rightly detest.

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