Confound It

Eric Alterman is charmingly courteous in introducing his criticisms, and he announces an intention to pull his punches (which, by the time he's through, makes me wonder what an unpulled punch might be), but then, having worked his way through the formalities, he delivers his verdict: "Paul's review does an extreme disservice to the truth -- and a massive favor to its enemies -- with his faulty reading of the never-ending, but almost entirely bogus controversy over whether Stone ever willingly spied for the Russians or cooperated with the KGB in any way. He did not, and it is a damn shame that Paul implies otherwise" -- and so forth, all in reference to something I have written in The New York Times Book Review about I.F. Stone.

Such is Eric Alterman's judgment. My eyes light on that peculiar phrase, "almost entirely bogus." Why the "almost"? Because there is a problem here. Stone has been accused of having, in Eric's words, "cooperated with the KGB." Eric says, "He did not." I will quote Myra MacPherson's new biography, All Governments Lie!: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone. MacPherson interviewed Oleg Kalugin, a retired major general in the Soviet KGB. Kalugin knew Stone in the 1960s. MacPherson writes: "Kalugin characterized Stone as a 'fellow traveler who began his cooperation with the Soviet intelligence long before me, based entirely on his view of the world.'"

Stone did cooperate with the KGB, then. At least, he did in the opinion of the KGB. It is true that Kalugin's claims have some peculiarities. In the same paragraph of the new biography (pages 326-27), MacPherson refers to the Venona transcripts -- the FBI's transcripts of decoded Soviet documents. The Venona transcripts cite somebody called "Blin" or "Pancake," whom the FBI thought might have been Stone. MacPherson observes that, in her words, "Blin/Pancake was mentioned only briefly in Venona transcripts and there was no corroboration of anything." Describing her own interview with Kalugin, she writes, "Did he have actual information that Stone had ever cooperated with Soviet intelligence? `No. What I told you is what I know.'"

Such was Kalugin's answer to MacPherson. His "no" in this sentence might appear to contradict his earlier statement that Stone "began his cooperation with the Soviet intelligence long before me." But the implication in MacPherson's text is that, in saying "no" to MacPherson's question, Kalugin meant to explain that he had "no corroboration of anything" to be found in the Venona transcripts. He merely had his own information: "What I told you is what I know."

And what did Kalugin know?

Kalugin knew about his lunches with Stone, beginning in 1966. According to MacPherson, these lunches took place "about once in every two months" -- which MacPherson somewhat oddly describes as "infrequently." The lunches continued until 1968. Kalugin specified that Stone had no secrets to impart. Kalugin said, "Stone had no access to classified documents. He did not steal anything." Of what use was he, then, from the KGB's point of view? "It was his brain." That was Kalugin's purpose, of course -- to pick Stone's brain. But there was more. Kalugin said: "'He was a link and was willing to perform tasks.' Such as? Stone would 'find out what the views of someone in the government were or some senator on such and such an issue.'"

Do these revelations indicate that Stone did anything illegal? Engaged in espionage? A spy is presumably somebody who steals documents or obtains information that is passed covertly and illegally to a foreign government. MacPherson's book contains not even the slightest implication of theft or anything covert. MacPherson herself denies emphatically all such accusations. Nor do I describe Stone as a spy in my review in the Times. I accept MacPherson's judgment on this particular point.

But let us not blink away some ambiguities. MacPherson refers to Herbert Romerstein, one of Stone's most ferocious accusers, who has used the word "spies" in regard to Stone and other people. MacPherson asked Kalugin: "What about Romerstein casting Stone and others as 'spies'? Said Kalugin, 'That's his view. I am biased in the opposite direction -- these people were sympathizers of the cause in which I had profound faith.'"

The cause in which Kalugin had profound faith was presumably the Soviet Union. What has MacPherson reported, then? That Stone, according to Kalugin, engaged in "cooperation with the Soviet intelligence" for a long time, and did so on the basis of shared ideals. He did not steal documents or run around like a spy. He offered his brain. And these regrettable phrases: "He was a link and was willing to perform tasks." He investigated the views of influential people.

Does this really strike Eric as nothing at all? A well-placed secretary might be able to pilfer valuable documents. Stone, instead of being a secretary, was one of America's most astute political analysts -- someone whose expertise consisted precisely in accurately defining other people's views and weighing their significance. The KGB, in Kalugin's account, seems to have known exactly what could be gotten from I.F. Stone. He was given the task of discovering the views of senators and government people. Such were his "tasks," which presumably he performed. MacPherson argues in Stone's defense, "Kalugin agreed that Stone was doing nothing more than probe for information he would use in his work." But this remark merely demonstrates that Kalugin asked Stone to conduct the kinds of inquiries that Stone would find useful for his own work, as well. The "tasks" were evidently well-designed for the man.

Eric points out that "Kalugin cannot remember a single thing of importance that Stone might have said." But nobody has accused Stone of passing along sensational secrets. His skill consisted of deciphering the byzantine maneuvers of Washington bureaucrats and politicians, which are normally dull and unsensational and might well be unmemorable. Eric observes that lunch with foreign officials is nothing unusual, and this is true. He tells us that he himself has lately had lunches with a press attaché from France and a consular official from Russia. Eric asks, "Do these lunches make me a spy as well? If so, is it for France or Russia?" But the only purpose of this wisecrack is to direct our attention away from those very remarkable and unusual words, "cooperation with the Soviet intelligence," "willing to perform tasks," and "find out the views," together with the comment about a shared "sympathy with the cause in which I had profound faith." The words of a KGB major general, unfortunately, describing his dealings with Stone.

Eric's defense of Stone consists, in the end, of overstating the accusation and understating the evidence. Eric makes it seem that I have accused Stone of espionage, and then makes the evidence look like nothing more than lunch. But the reality that I draw from MacPherson's reporting seems to me in between. Stone was not an espionage agent, but there was more than lunch in his "cooperation with the Soviet intelligence" and his performing of "tasks." A lunch might consist of sparring back and forth -- the friendly exchanging of opinions. But agreeing to go out and help a KGB officer perform his duties by finding the answers to various questions about senators and government officials -- that is something else. And there is the awkward reality that Stone's "cooperation" in regard to these "tasks" appears to have gone on for a considerable portion of Stone's career.

Then again, Eric proposes yet another defense, which is to suggest that Stone had no way of knowing he was dealing with the Soviet intelligence network, neither in his 1940s relations with a Soviet news correspondent who was evidently an agent (a topic I did not touch on in my piece), nor in his lunches with Kalugin in the 1960s. Does this seem plausible? Was Stone genuinely unaware? For decades? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Stone did not, in fact, realize what was going on -- did not realize that, in finding out information, he was doing favors for the KGB. Does Eric's defense consist, in that case, of telling us that Stone's years of "cooperation with the Soviet intelligence," the performing of "tasks," and so forth (I apologize for repeating these terms, but I think it's better to stick to Kalugin's exact words) were merely a long-lasting accident? But how could such an accident have occurred, and have kept on occurring? A puzzling question. But there is an obvious answer.

Stone plainly looked on the people with whom he cooperated as comrades -- as fellow-thinkers, even if, being a notorious free spirit himself, he could not possibly have agreed with these fellow-thinkers on every point. The emotional quality of his feeling of solidarity or comradeship is demonstrated -- proved, I would say -- by MacPherson's account of how those lunches and the cooperative relation came to an end. This took place in 1968. It was because of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Stone had broken with the Soviet Union once before, back in 1956, when the Soviets had invaded Hungary. Stone was furious about that. Evidently he decided to forgive the Soviets. But the invasion of Czechoslovakia was too much. Kalugin told MacPherson the story. At a lunch in 1968, Stone said: "Listen, this is the last time I see you guys. You betrayed me once, you betrayed me now, and I don't want to see you again." He refused to allow Kalugin to pick up the check. He said, "No more blood money!" Dear readers of TAP, dear readers of I.F. Stone, does that dialogue sound to you preposterous? Does it sound un-Stone-like?

Those are the angry remarks of a principled man. I think it was admirable of Stone to break with "you guys" (a phrase which, by the way, suggests that he knew very well that, in lunching with Kalugin, he was lunching with more than a lonely individual). But his claim that he had been betrayed can mean only that, until then, he felt that he and the Soviets did share some principles. Surely that is why he maintained his "cooperation with the Soviet intelligence." He kept up his "cooperation" because his principles led him to do so, and when he finally realized that the Soviets had betrayed his principles, and had done so not once but twice, he stopped. I find it hard to come up with any other interpretation.

Eric chastises me for aiding the bad guys of American politics right now. My review, he says, "will undoubtedly comfort the likes of McCarthyites like [Robert] Novak and the crazed Ann Coulter in their effort to smear Stone in particular and liberals in general."

But with all due respect and honest affection, I think that Eric Alterman is the one who is comforting the McCarthyites and the crazed. Eric offers some wise and nuanced comments about the disastrous influence of Communism on American life, and I honor him for these comments, which even today come with a price in certain corners of New York. But I worry that, perhaps out of the very loyalty to his old mentor that he invokes at the start of his response to my Times review, he has ended up blinding himself to the obvious gist of those fairly straightforward comments from the KGB. Eric doesn't want to downplay the miserable effect of Communism on American liberalism and the left; and yet, neither does he want to draw some obvious conclusions.

In my Times piece, I didn't even glance at Stone's book on the Korean War or at his book The Truman Era, with its forthright applause for the American Communist Party and its role in Henry Wallace's third-party movement. These books and several other writings are excruciating to read today. These must surely be the writings that Eric has in mind when he speaks of Stone having made a tragic and massive mistake.

But, given that Stone did in fact write these things, why should we be surprised to learn that he acted on the principles that he expressed in his own writings, and ended up performing tasks for the KGB out of a spirit of friendly cooperation? And if he was doing these things and writing these books, why shouldn't the term "totalitarian" apply -- not to everything that Stone did and wrote, but to this one aspect of his work? And if we are going to indulge in a little anger, how about some anger on behalf of the much-maligned anti-Communist left that Eric rightfully praises?

In my Times piece I quoted Stone sneering a little bit at someone named Boris Shub, an American Menshevik -- that is, an American with Russian Menshevik roots. Boris Shub wrote a book in 1950 called The Choice, about how America ought to treat the Soviet Union. Shub was against mere "containment," which he thought wasn't working. And he was against launching a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, which he thought was insane, and which, in any case, was only going to unite the Russians against us. (This was the part of his argument that Stone approved).

Shub favored, instead, lending aid and support to the sundry Russian socialists (Shub used that word, referring to the Mensheviks) and to democrats and trade unionists who could be found in the Soviet Union, in spite of Stalin. Shub wanted to help these people because he hoped that, with support from the United States, they might be able someday to overthrow the Communist government.

Dear fellow liberals and Mensheviks of today, do you want to know how America should treat the Islamic Republic of Iran? Read Boris Shub's Menshevik tract, The Choice, from 1950. It's just that, in order to respect Boris Shub, you will have to ignore I.F. Stone's remark about Shub as a supporter of counter-revolution. Does this comment of mine make me a right-winger, an unwitting ally of the crazed Ann Coulter, etc.? My comment makes me a Menshevik. Have I dredged up Stone's remarks about Shub from one of his more obscure and foolish writings? No, I have dredged it up from a new book called The Best of I.F. Stone.

Eric complains about my comparison of Stone with Jean-Paul Sartre, but, on this point, I have to protest on Sartre's behalf. Sartre was a fellow traveler of the Stalinists during some periods, and, later on, like Stone, he wrote idiotic salutes to Castro and other Communists. But if Sartre was sometimes dreadfully wrong, sometimes he was magnificently right -- just like Stone. Sartre was wrong about Soviet Communism and right about French imperialism.

I'm grateful to Eric for saying nice things about my book Power and the Idealists, but he has forgotten that, in the opening chapter, my book describes how Sartre in old age came out in favor of a humanitarian campaign to rescue the Vietnamese Boat People who were fleeing the Communist dictatorship. This was the humanitarian campaign that had been organized by Bernard Kouchner with the support of André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy and other people from the younger, anti-totalitarian generation in France. To support this campaign was brave and free-thinking and right, on Sartre's part. And it offered one more way in which Sartre's political trajectory resembled Stone's. For Stone, too, condemned the "totalitarianism" of Vietnamese Communism, and he did so in exactly that same year, 1979, and, in doing this, he exposed himself to some of the same boos and accusations that greeted Sartre from the reactionary left of that time.

(On the topic of 1979 I am chagrined to confess that I have made a factual error in the Times, about which I've already alerted the editors. In recounting Stone's brave and admirable protest, which consisted of signing a letter organized by Joan Baez, I referred to a valuable earlier biography of Stone by Robert C. Cottrell, Izzy, and I said that Cottrell had failed to mention Baez's letter. This was a mistake. Cottrell's book says nothing about Baez herself in regard to the letter, and Baez's name does not appear in the index. But Cottrell does discuss the letter.)

In any case, 1979 was a year in which Stone and Sartre, both of them, lined up with the anti-totalitarians, and not with the totalitarians. A year of left-wing lucidity. Maybe 1979 marked the start of the modern era -- the era in which a commitment to human rights began to trump, in some quarters of the left, an older left-wing commitment to anti-imperialism. Stone and Sartre had been, both of them, retrograde figures during some periods of the age of Stalin. But now both of them pointed to the future.

Is it logically impossible to condemn Stone for his recurring and active sympathies for the Soviet Union and other dictatorships, which I describe as his totalitarianism -- and, at the same time, to praise him for his instincts for freedom? Eric seems to balk at my paradoxical evaluation -- though he himself grants that Stone was contradictory. I see that Father Richard John Neuhaus, in his blog at First Things, likewise balks -- though Neuhaus objects from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Eric describes my review as "about the most confounding I've ever read" because of my insistence on praising and damning Stone in the same breath. Neuhaus, in commenting on my review, prefers the word "incoherence," which amounts to pretty much the same thing. Neuhaus regrets that I say anything at all in favor of both Stone and Sartre, given what he calls their "deep corruption of intellect and soul."

But I think that a confounding incoherence is sometimes perfectly accurate. During the last century, the history of a good part of the American left, sometimes including its overtly liberal portions, has been, in fact, confoundingly incoherent. The best and the worst have marched arm in arm. An absurdity -- and yet a reality. Stone was confounding. There's no point in making lawyer-like arguments to prove otherwise. He loved freedom. He did favors for the KGB. My head aches. We may succeed in deceiving ourselves on this paradoxical topic, but we will never succeed in deceiving anyone else.

How would Stone himself respond to these current dreadful allegations, if he were still alive? I take him at his best: He would royally denounce himself. I hope so, anyway. But it's not up to him. It's up to us. Let's unconfound our own world of American liberalism and the liberal left. Eric Alterman has written many acute things over the years, and one of his finest works is his study of American opinion journalism, Sound and Fury, from which I have learned a great deal. I encourage the author of that very worthy book to write a scholarly second volume containing a historical study of the disastrous and sometimes hard-to-see influence that he has rightfully attributed to the Communist movement. Such a book might be difficult to write. It would be an anti-sentimental book. But it might clear away some debris.

Paul Berman is a writer in residence at New York University, a contributing editor of The New Republic, the author of Power and the Idealists, and the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems.

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.