The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2018

REFERENCE DESK
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God that Failed, The
Lee Congdon - 11/01/10

A symposium of confessional essays by ex-communists and fellow travelers, The God That Failed (1949) helped to make anticommunism intellectually respectable. Richard Crossman, a socialist and member of Parliament, conceived the idea for the book in reaction to Arthur Koestler’s taunt that he was like all “comfortable, insular, Anglo-Saxon anti-communists. You hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies—but, when all is said, we ex-communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about.”

In addition to Koestler, the Hungarian-born author of Darkness at Noon (1940), Crossman recruited two other “initiates,” or ex–Communist Party members: Ignazio Silone, a former leader of the Italian Party and author of Bread and Wine (1936), a classic novel of politics; and Richard Wright, the black American author of Native Son (1939). To complement the testimonies of these men, he solicited essays from three “worshipers from afar”: French novelist André Gide, American journalist Louis Fischer, and English poet Stephen Spender.

Like the collection’s title, now a familiar metaphor, Crossman’s section headings were designed to place primary emphasis on communism’s religious character. And with good reason, for one contributor after another likened his commitment to the devotion others reserved for traditional creeds. Koestler set the tone by reporting that he embraced the new religion because he “lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.” Others, too, called attention to the spiritual crisis that deepened at the time of the Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, and the Spanish Civil War.

In common with other, less savage, gods, communism demanded total obedience, even when that meant sacrificing the intellect. In the beginning, therefore, the converts viewed Soviet realities through rose-tinted glasses and “reinterpreted” evidence of communist tyranny. The ends, they persuaded themselves, justified the means.

In time, however, they came to believe that the means dictated the ends and began to reclaim their heritage as critical intellectuals. Silone awoke from his dogmatic slumber after being asked to denounce, sight unseen, a document from Trotsky’s pen. When Gide traveled to the Soviet Union in 1936, he was appalled by the hospitality extended to him; unlike other political pilgrims, he could not square his privileged status with communism’s egalitarian rhetoric. The scales fell from Fischer’s eyes in 1939, when he received word of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

Despite their loss of faith, however, the contributors to The God That Failed did not enter the conservative ranks; instead, they retreated to liberalism or democratic socialism. But precisely for this reason, they served as independent witnesses to a communist threat that, during the 1940s and 1950s, preoccupied many spokesmen on the American Right, some of whom—Will Herberg, James Burnham, and Whittaker Chambers, for example—were themselves ex-communists. However much men such as these dissented from the anticommunist Left on a range of other issues, they could enlist The God That Failed in their effort to make anticommunism central to a new American conservatism, one that was confrontational at home and interventionist abroad.

Further Reading
  • Crossman, Richard, ed. The God That Failed. New York: Harper, 1949.
  • Deutscher, Isaac. “The Ex-Communist’s Conscience.” In Russia in Transition and Other Essays. New York: Coward-McCann, 1957, 203–16.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. “To Moscow—and Back.” Nation 170 (1950): 88–90.
  • Podhoretz, Norman. “Why ‘The God That Failed’ Failed. . . .” Encounter 60 (1983): 28–34.
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