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The Nation’s Top 50 Progressives… and Socialists and Communists

Did Katrina vanden Heuvel think no one would notice her magazine's affinity with friends of Joseph Stalin?

By 3.30.12

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The left-wing magazine The Nation has published what it deems America's all-time, most influential top 50 progressives. The list is very revealing. I will not mention all 50 names, which you can review for yourself, but a few are especially interesting.

For starters, it's fascinating that The Nation leads with Eugene Debs at number 1. Debs was a socialist -- a capital "s" "Socialist." Fittingly, it was 100 years ago this year, in 1912, that Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket, placing fourth in a contest dominated by a progressive Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, and a progressive Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. Today's progressives get annoyed if you call them socialists. Well, then, why is a pure socialist the no. 1 "progressive" on The Nation's list?

Of course, progressives really get annoyed if you suggest they bear any sympathies to communism. That being the case, two other "progressives" on The Nation's list are quite intriguing: Paul Robeson and I. F. Stone.

Paul Robeson was a communist and gushing admirer of Stalin's Soviet Union, a proud recipient of the Kremlin's "Stalin Prize." Even the New York Times could not help but admit that Robeson was "an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union." When Robeson in 1934 returned from his initial pilgrimage to the Motherland, the Daily Worker thrust a microphone in his face, and Robeson glowed about the new world he had discovered. The Daily Worker rushed its Robeson interview into print, running it in the January 15, 1935 issue under the headline, "'I Am at Home,' Says Robeson At Reception in Soviet Union."

The Bolsheviks, explained Robeson, were new men, unshackled by the glories of Stalinism. When he got there, Robeson said he had not been "prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow." He had been "aware that there was no starvation" in Russia, but was bowled over by the "bounding life," "endless friendliness," and "feeling of safety and abundance and freedom" he found "wherever I turn."

Paul Robeson had discovered sheer equality under Joseph Stalin. When asked about Stalin's purges, which the Daily Worker's faithful comrades characterized as warranted executions of a "number of counter-revolutionary terrorists," Robeson retorted: "From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!"

Paul Robeson was deadly serious. To shoot such malefactors, said Robeson emphatically, was "the government's duty." How dare anyone oppose "this really free society" run by Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrenti Beria, the NKVD, the GRU, and regulated by the vast Gulag archipelago? Any such villain, by Robeson's estimation, ought to be "put down… with a firm hand." Robeson hoped that "they [Soviet authorities] will always do it" -- that is, always employ such just executions.

Robeson told the Daily Worker that he felt a "kinship" with the Soviet Union. It was "a home to me." So much so, in fact, that Robeson moved his family there.

It would take almost a half century more, after Robeson's death, for Communist Party USA to publicly concede the obvious: Paul Robeson had been a longtime secret member. In May 1998, the centennial of Robeson's birth, longtime CPUSA head Gus Hall finally, proudly revealed the truth.

In this birthday tribute to "Comrade Paul," Hall and CPUSA came bearing gifts. "We have a birthday present for Paul that no one else can give," said Hall, "the full truth and nothing but the truth." And what's that truth? "Paul was a proud member of the Communist Party USA," stated Hall unequivocally. Paul had been a man of communist "conviction." This was "an indelible fact of Paul's life," in "every way, every day of his adult life." He "never forgot he was a Communist." A teary-eyed Hall recalled that his "own most precious moments with Paul were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA."

None of this, naturally, is mentioned in The Nation profile, which blasts anyone who dared consider Robeson a communist. Such people, of course, are pure retrograde, Neanderthal McCarthyites.

Instead, The Nation insists that "comrade Paul" was a "progressive." That is particularly remarkable for another reason: a frustrated Gus Hall had warned about progressives trying to portray Robeson as one of their own. A vigilant Hall said that communists "cannot allow … liberal, progressive" forces "to turn Robeson into a liberal. The real Robeson was a revolutionary, a Communist…. Paul Robeson was one of ours -- a Communist leader, a beloved comrade."

Nonetheless, modern progressives continue to do just that. Such are the witting depths of their self-delusion. They believe what they want to believe.

And that brings me to I. F. Stone.

Stone is listed at number 26 on The Nation's list. Likewise, there is no mention of words like "communist" or "Soviet Union" anywhere in his profile. That's no surprise. Stone has been hailed by liberals for decades as the literal "conscience" of journalism. The Los Angeles Times dubbed him the "conscience of investigative journalism," and CNN's Larry King called him a "hero." When Stone died, an Oliphant cartoon showed him outside the Pearly Gates, with Saint Peter telephoning God, "Yes, THAT I. F. Stone, Sir. He says he doesn't want to come in -- he'd rather hang around out here, and keep things honest."

But we now know that Stone was not always so honest. At one time, he was a paid Soviet agent. In their latest work, published by Yale University Press, historians John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev conclude that Stone was a "Soviet spy." In an article excerpted from the book and published in the April 2009 online version of Commentary magazine, they wrote: "To put it plainly, from 1936 to 1939 I. F. Stone was a Soviet spy." Also closely studying Stone's case is Herb Romerstein, the authority on the Venona papers. In The Venona Secrets, Romerstein and co-author Eric Breindel wrote: "it is clear from the evidence that Stone was indeed a Soviet agent." One of the stronger confirmations from the Soviet side is retired KGB general Oleg Kalugin, who stated flatly: "He [Stone] was a KGB agent since 1938. His code name was 'Blin.' When I resumed relations with him in 1966, it was on Moscow's instructions. Stone was a devoted Communist." Kalugin added that Stone "changed in the course of time like many of us"; in other words, he did not remain a communist -- but for a time he was a Soviet agent.

None of this appears at Stone's "progressive" profile at The Nation.

And speaking of progressives with communist sympathies, also on The Nation's list is Margaret Sanger. Like Paul Robeson and numerous other hope-filled leftists, the Planned Parenthood matron sojourned to Stalin's Potemkin villages in 1934. "[W]e could well take example from Russia," advised Sanger upon her return, "where birth control instruction is part of the regular welfare service of the government." Sanger enthusiastically reported this in the June 1935 edition of her publication, Birth Control Review.

The Planned Parenthood founder was, however, taken aback by the explosion in the number of abortions once legalized by the Bolsheviks. No fear, though. Sanger offered this stunning prediction: "All the [Bolshevik] officials with whom I discussed the matter stated that as soon as the economic and social plans of Soviet Russia are realized, neither abortions nor contraception will be necessary or desired. A functioning Communistic society will assure the happiness of every child, and will assume the full responsibility for its welfare and education."

This was pure progressive utopianism, an absolute faith in central planners.

Even guiltier of such misguided Soviet infatuation was John Dewey, founding father of American public education, who was so suckered by the Soviets that I would need a few thousand words here just to detail the outrage (click here and here for more). Oh, yes, Dewey is also on The Nation's list of influential progressives -- at number 5.

Overall, the number of socialists, communists, and Soviet sympathizers on The Nation's list is dizzying: Upton Sinclair, Henry Wallace, W. E. B. DuBois, Norman Thomas, Lincoln Steffens, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenreich.

Thus, I'm compelled to ask: Is this "progressivism"? Is progressivism synonymous with liberalism, or is it to the left of liberalism? Is it socialism? Is it somewhere on the spectrum between socialism and communism? Does it include liberals, socialists, and communists?

I ask progressives, I plead with them: This is your ideology, could you better define it, if that's even possible? Or is the definition of progressivism always progressing? Actually, it is always progressing -- which is precisely the problem with this train-wreck of an ever-elusive ideology.

The Nation's list of leading American "progressives" is an illuminating insight into the American left and the very essence of "progressive" thought -- whatever that might be. Take a look at it, study it, think about it. This is truly a teachable moment.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.