Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Crying out

Radicalism | Is seeing believing? Or does believing lead to seeing? Part four of a pilgrim's slow progress

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

The theological debate between evidentialists and presuppositionalists shows no sign of abating. Do we come to Christ because the evidence demands a verdict? Are we only open to the evidence because God has disposed us to believe it?

In three installments so far (WORLD, Aug. 9, Oct. 18, Jan. 31), I've placed before you the background for a case study: me. I've described going to Yale as an 18-year-old atheist, moving politically to the left, bicycling across the United States, newspapering in Oregon, and at age 22 joining the Communist Party USA (CP) and heading to Moscow.

There I filtered everything through neo-Marxist assumptions. Religion, for example, was still the pain-killing opiate of the masses, and Russians with their painful lives needed the religion of Lenin. The two neon signs above Moscow buildings in 1972 proclaimed "Slava Lenina" (Glory to Lenin), but so what? Better that than selling soap. Sure, churches like St. Basil's had turned into museums of atheism full of fawning references to Soviet leaders, but propaganda of some kind we would always have with us, and better to worship Man than god, right?

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In my own mind I was not like the lying pro-Soviet writers of the 1930s. Sure, Lion Feuchtwanger rhapsodized in Russia about "the individual's feelings of complete security." Sure, Maurice Hindus said, "The dictatorship . . . actually overflowed with kindness." Sure, Walter Duranty of The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for praising Soviet prison camps as places where "the labor demand exceeds the supply" and inmates have the satisfaction of working "for the good of the community." Sure, those were lies and Communists were still lying in 1972, but I saw myself as a realist: Yes, Communism had problems, but capitalism was worse.

I thought the United States needed to lose its power in the world, so helping the Soviet Union was righteous. The CP wanted me to do my part by spending some time in Moscow as a purportedly independent journalist. There I would be given access to Soviet officials and could build a reputation as a foreign correspondent that would allow me to catch on with The New York Times or some other influential gazette.

My orders were to stay at the Hotel Berlin in Moscow: There "someone will contact you." The mystery was intriguing, so I walked blithely around Red Square and wondered: Was that man in the gabardine suit a spy? How about Tatiana over there-was she my agent? It turned out that no one was. The communications mix-up (God's mercy, I later realized) turned my Moscow stay into farce. A visit to the Moscow offices of OVIR, a Soviet internal control agency, produced stares as blank as those of waiters in restaurants when asked how long it would take to heat and serve the soup.

But for the grace of God and the inefficiency of man, I would have been a Soviet agent. As it was, I disappointedly left Moscow after a week and adopted Plan B: Return to the United States and hook on as a reporter for the Boston Globe, where I had been a college intern and correspondent. I did not disclose my CP membership, but my stories regularly emphasized the dark side of capitalism and received good placement. A front-page story about agriculture in western Massachusetts became a tale of small farmers ruthlessly deprived of their land by big capitalists. A front-page story about Portuguese immigrants became a saga of capitalist sweatshop exploitation.

Academia also beckoned: Why not become a tenured radical, turn a generation of students into disciples, and be a journalist on the side? When the University of Michigan gave me a hearty fellowship I left the Globe and enrolled in a summer Russian language class at Yale, both to satisfy Ph.D. language requirements and to improve communication with my Soviet big brothers.

One morning my language teacher, a Russian émigré, mentioned the starvation of millions that accompanied institution of the Soviet collective farm system in the 1930s. He concluded, "If Communists ever come into power in this country, I'll cut my own throat." That afternoon, as was my custom, I hung out at the Communist Party's Angela Davis bookstore located just off the Yale campus. I told the teacher's story to a young Communist woman. She replied, "That old fool, when Communism comes to this country he won't have to cut his throat, we'll do it for him."

At the University of Michigan in September and October 1973, professors complimented me on the Marxist analysis I offered in history and film classes. Meanwhile, I attended meetings of the Ann Arbor chapter of the Communist Party youth organization, the Young Workers Liberation League. We learned about key targets for Communist activity over the next decade: Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Nicaragua. I did my bit by setting up a University of Michigan short course showing how foreign leaders viewed stupidly insular Americans: Its highlight was a visit and speech by Georgi Arbatov, the Kremlin's expert on American politics.


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