Book Review Essay - Spain Betrayed, by Ronald Radosh

I first met author Ronald Radosh nearly 30 years ago at a convention of historians when he was supposedly on the left. It was a meeting I would come to regret. My doctoral dissertation was soon to be published as a book, and Radosh began denouncing it. I wondered how he had seen it. I soon discovered from a mutual friend that he had gotten an advance copy from the New York Times for the express purpose of blasting it. My friend showed me a letter where he called me something like a liberal wolf in socialist sheep’s clothing and accused me of being aligned with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and George Kennan in a plot to discredit William Appleman Williams. I contacted the New York Times and the review was never published, to the chagrin of my publishers, who thought a hatchet job review in the Times was better than no review.

Subsequently, when my book was published and I was coming up for tenure, gossip was circulated that Radosh had accused me of plagiarizing from an unpublished Master’s Thesis of his, which I had cited. When I indignantly contacted him about this, he denied that he had made any such charge, but continued to denounce my work. I eventually got tenure, after two failed attempts (I never really thought the gossip had much to do with my difficulties).

Meanwhile, I entered a period of detente with Ronald Radosh. I next met him in June, 1978, at a rally in Union Square commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When I told him I was going to visit the Soviet Union in the summer for the first time, he went over the top and told me that it was my duty as someone on the left, to demonstrate against Soviet repression in Red Square, no less.

Ronald Radosh was never a good historian in my opinion, when he was either on the left or on the right. His work was heavy-handed and descriptive in its use of materials. The ideas were drawn from others, William Appleman Williams, primarily, when he was on the left, and those professional anti-Communist writers, both old and new, whose specialty is political conspiracy and spy stories, now that he has made his way to the red-baiting right.

As an historian, he is very much in the tradition of what Gore Vidal called the scholar squirrel; someone who hoards documents the way a squirrel hoards nuts, lining them up mindlessly and assuming that the documents themselves have all the answers.

Radosh also has the very ugly habit of seeing himself as the victim of unfair attacks and conspiracies, from establishment liberals when he was on the left and from anybody and everybody to the left of him today.

Coming from a CPUSA family, he wrote with Joyce Milton, a journalist, The Rosenberg File, which sought to use FBI documents to defend the guilt of Julius Rosenberg and the existence of far-reaching Soviet espionage activities, which constituted the reason for existence of the Communist Party USA. When many writers, myself included, took issue with his arguments and evidence, which fitted nicely with the cold war revival launched by the Reagan administration, his rather Nixonesque response was that the 'left' was out to get him.

Since then, Ronald Radosh has acted as a sort of comic right-wing vigilante, advancing himself with conservative establishments and searching for old and new Reds to offer up as sacrifices to the Church of St. J. Edgar, the blessed Red-baiter.

In 1996, a book of his denouncing left influence in the Clinton administration (strange since Clinton is widely and rightly considered to have been the most conservative Democratic president of the 20th century) was disseminated by Republicans and even mentioned by Republican candidate Bob Dole, who, as I remember, referred to the author as 'Ronald Kardash' (perhaps the high point of Radosh’s long quest to gain attention from well-known people, first on the left, then on the right).

Recently, Radosh denounced a former student of mine, Alan Singer, a dedicated educator and activitist now a professor at Hofstra, for actively criticizing the Bush administration’s policies in the wake of the September 11 attacks under the auspices of the Heritage Foundation.

When I was at City College, I remember reading about a man named Pfefferkorn, a Jew who converted to Christianity and then spent the rest of his life seeking to destroy all Jewish texts during the Renaissance. Erasmus, the great Renaissance scholar, fought him fiercely and said of him, 'he was a bad Jew and a worse Christian.' Whenever I now think of Ronald Radosh, I think of Pfefferkorn and believe that he and the far right deserve each other.

All of this is a prelude to Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, a selection of documents from Soviet archives, some which are interesting in themselves, which Radosh and his associates have put together the way the House Un-American Activities Committee used to publish Soviet and Communist Party documents, using the sort of analytically biased descriptive commentaries that one usually finds from police agents.

Radosh has worked with Mary Habeck, Coordinator of the Russian Military Project at Yale and Gregory Sevostianov, referred to as editor-in-chief of Modern and Contemporary History magazine and a member of Russia’s Academy of Sciences. Since I do not believe that Radosh reads Russian, they and others have apparently translated the documents, to which he brings all of the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet conventional wisdom that he can muster.

The documents as I read them show that the Soviets were supporting the Spanish Republic and the Spanish Communist Party and opposing POUMists, anarchists and others. Nothing here is new. Nor should anyone be surprised that the Soviets were seeking to use their involvement in Spain to advance their overall collectively security policy.

Given where Radosh stands politically today, his revival of the contention that the Spanish Communists and their Soviet allies suppressed a great anarchist peasant revolution in the countryside is rather hilarious. Might not Radosh’s new found friends at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute come to the conclusion that the man who titled his unintentionally funny memoir, Commies, (as if there were people interested in his poor man’s God that Failed interpretation of himself) is a crypto-Red, or at the very least, an agrarian reformer, maybe even a secret Trotskyist who will advance the permanent revolution when and if the Bush administration makes him director of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

To be serious for a moment, which this work really doesn’t deserve, the Spanish Republic without Soviet aid and the support of the predominantly Communist International Brigades would have perished in 1936. On the other hand, if socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum had the courage to stand with his Communist allies against the capitalist class of his own country to send the French army across the Pyrenees to aid the Republic when Franco launched his coup, Spanish fascism would have been crushed in 1936.

Soviet policy was to develop collective security alliances with the non-fascist states, England and France, and aid the Spanish Republic, hopefully making it into an example of successful collective security. For Stanley Baldwin and his successor Neville Chamberlain, Spanish fascism, even German fascism, were very preferable to the victory of the Spanish left, and certainly to the increased influence of the Soviet Union. Insofar as Spain was 'betrayed,' its own landlord and capitalist classes, the Roman Catholic Church, the British Empire which put forward the 'non-intervention' policy which aided Franco, who had all the military assistance he needed from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and all of the powers, including France and the US, who went along with the British policy, both in Spain and at Munich, betrayed Spain and their own people by doing business with Hitler

The complicated and sometimes brutal and sleazy internal power struggle that Soviet officers commented on in these documents is the stuff of politics in most places and most times. Were Radosh and his collaborators not committed to transforming these documents into an anti-Soviet catechism complete with a myriad of deadly sins, they might have made use of them to add something to our understanding of the political history of the Spanish Civil War.

Rather like the Nazis, who planned after they had won the war to create a meticulous museum of European Jewry in Prague as a record of a 'dead race,' to show to the world the 'facts' of its evil and why it was destroyed, Yale University Press, true to its university’s founding in colonial times as a right-wing religious alternative to Harvard has dedicated itself to publishing a long documentary series on the global Communist movement, of which Spain Betrayed is probably a typical example, from a perspective that portrays it as a 'dead' and 'evil' movement.

The Nazis lost the war of course and never got to build their museum of horrors. Yale will produce its documentary history, which, if this work is an example, will provide catechistic commentaries for amateur and professional anti-Communists, along with sources that serious scholars will eventually use to write serious scholarship, after disassociating themselves from the authors of the Yale histories. Like many ordinary people through the world living under regimes which bombard them with crude anti-Communist propaganda, many who read the Yale histories will probably learn to read between the lines and find that Communists the works seek to demonize both interesting and worthwhile

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.

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