Author, educator, and historian Ronald Radosh has never been afraid to tackle difficult subjects, having written highly acclaimed books on the Rosenberg spy case, the Spanish Civil War, and the demise of the Democratic Party. In May, IWF hosted a lively lecture by Radosh at the National Press Club, where he described his life’s intellectual journey from Left to Right, based on his new book Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left (Encounter Books). IWF National Advisory Board member and syndicated columnist Linda Chavez introduced Radosh by noting that, “in all his writings, he is uniquely able to lay bare the mists that shield the Leftist agenda and its protectors.”
This book does have a lot of sometimes humorous, sometimes bizarre anecdotes in it. But even though I filled the book with anecdotes, what I’ve tried to do is something very serious. I tried to trace my life, from elementary school on, describing the very politicized environment I was brought up in.
So let me start at the beginning with a brief introduction to my family and the world and the culture in which I was raised. My father was in a trade that now barely exists — millinery, the making of ladies’ hats. He learned the trade in Poland in the old country and then brought his skill to this country, where he became a major designer. He was also very close to the Communist party. I was not literally a red diaper baby, as neither my mother or father ever joined the Communist party officially, but my father was the classic ultra-fellow traveler, the person who joined and participated in all the party’s front groups, met with the Communist leaders, took part in their campaigns, and yet was always hesitant to join the party itself. But the Communist party never would have had much of an impact in the United States if it didn’t have the scores of fellow travelers that it did to rely upon. My mother was much closer to the Jewish anarchist community in New York than to the Communists, although it was really one large circle — the circle described by Irving Howe so well in The World of Our Fathers. This milieu, of trade unionism, Yiddish Theater, Yiddish culture, The Daily Forward, the Lower East Side, was their world.
What you have to realize is that, in the basic sense, the Communist movement really is like a religion or a culture. It is a religion with its own saints and, of course, its own heretics and its own doctrines and catechisms — Marxism, Leninism, the Dialectic. It is also an entire cultural world of friends, parents, and other families.
This culture included a number of special summer camps for kids. They weren’t all political, but the Communist and Socialist movements both had their own networks of summer camps. In fact, there were two Jewish summer camps for kids that were on opposite ends of the same lake. The Workman’s Circle Social Democrats had a camp and the Communists had Camp Kinderland. Predictably, students at the rival camps would take boats out onto the lake and launch vicious raids on each other. For the Communists, it was a very testy situation to have Social Democrats at the other end of the lake.
The most hard-line of the camps was Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, which sounds like an innocent American Indian name. In fact it stands for Workers Children’s Camp and was highly politicized. Camp Wo-Chi-Ca was set up by the Communist party and was dogmatic and sectarian. For example, campers were not allowed to read comic books. Campers had to relinquish their comic books and then write essays about the racist and reactionary themes in the stories. Particularly offensive was a comic book hero like Captain America, who encouraged American patriotism.
Camp Woodland for Children, which I attended, was much looser. Woodland epitomized the culture of what we call “the popular front” of the mid 1930s and then of the World War II years. It was not formally set up by the Communist Party, but the leaders, founders, and directors of the camp were all dedicated Communists.
Most summer camps had what they called an “Olympics” every year, where the campers joined either the blue team or the red team and then engaged in sports competitions and “color wars.” Not Camp Woodland. The camp’s directors did not call our summer contest a color war because that was bourgeois. They called it the Summer Youth Festival-named after the World Youth Festival that the Soviet Union and its front groups would sponsor in all the Communist nations after World War II. The two most popular teams at Woodland-the teams everyone wanted to be a part of-were the People’s Republic of China or the Soviet Union. Of course, nobody wanted to be the United States.
After the sixth grade, I did not attend public school. Already comfortable in the culture of the Left, my parents sent me to the Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village. The school was named for Elisabeth Irwin, an educator associated with John Dewey in the 1920s; Dewey had served on the Board of Directors of that school. The elementary school that most Elisabeth Irwin high schoolers had attended was called the Little Red Schoolhouse, and it quickly became apparent that the name, which of course defined the traditional American school in the small town, had another meaning as well. We called it the Little Red Schoolhouse for Little Reds. If you look through the Little Red Schoolhouse alumni book, which was published two years ago, you’ll find a who’s who of the American Far Left-the children of William Kunstler, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie went there, as did Mary Travers, Angela Davis, and Kathy Boudin (currently serving a life term in prison for her role in the Weather Underground’s robbery of Brinks).
Here is just one quote from the recent 75th anniversary book: “In January of 1945, we voted to finish History with Russian History instead of American History. We were all Left-leaning progressives and thought Russia was great and Communism a noble experiment. We flirted with Communism as an alternative.” Another entry: “We served coffee to the Phelps Dodge strikers and worked hard for Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election.” Another former student claimed that “Our teachers were victims of McCarthyism and could teach nowhere but at Little Red and Elisabeth Irwin. We were the embattled ones fighting for righteousness and the First Amendment.” Now of course, in effect, the school hired almost exclusively teachers who had either been kicked out of the city school system for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities or for being clearly far Left or pro-Communist teachers.
So how did the process of sowing the seeds of doubt about this culture begin for me? One major thing was the Rosenberg case. I published a preliminary article on the subject in the New Republic in 1979 with a friend of mine. Eventually, my co-author Joyce Milton and I reached the conclusion that Julius Rosenberg was in charge of a major Soviet espionage network and that, although his wife Ethel Rosenberg didn’t do anything herself, she was fully aware of what was going on and was an accessory. It was also clear that there was a larger espionage network that was never detected. This really was a clear case of Soviet espionage activity in the United States.
Now you have to bear in mind that when I wrote The Rosenberg File, even in 1983, I still considered myself very much a man of the Left. At that point I was no longer in the pro-Communist Left, but I was still in the Democratic Left. In fact I was a member of Michael Harrington’s organization, originally called the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and later the Democratic Socialists of America. But I believed that if a Left was going to be built in America it didn’t have to be built on the myth of the Rosenbergs’ innocence. I quickly found out that this attitude was going to get me in a lot of trouble. The attacks were vicious and unrelenting. I received calls in the middle of the night from people condemning me as a traitor and even worse. It turned out that because I argued that the evidence demonstrated the Rosenbergs’ guilt, that meant I must be serving the ends of the Right.
Others were more blunt. They said they didn’t care what was true and what was false — they needed the Rosenbergs as heroes for the cause, therefore they had to be innocent. I was trying to tell the historical truth. Among the Left, there was no interest in truth.