Like a Rock

Was I.F. Stone a subversive or a patriot? Scott McLemee examines the evidence.

October 11, 2006

When the bulky page proofs for Myra MacPherson’s ”All Governments Lie”: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone, published by Scribner, landed on my desk a couple of months back, I started reading it while wearing, so to speak, two different hats.

One was the hat of a general-interest reviewer for newspapers – an anti-specialist, at least for the duration of any given article. In discussing the book, it would be necessary to assume that many readers have never heard of Stone. At the peak of the Vietnam War, his muckraking newsletter I.F. Stone’s Weekly -- launched in 1953 and proudly advertisement-free, supported entirely by subscriptions -- reached a circulation of 70,000 copies. For a long time, “Izzy” Stone was very hard of hearing, which meant press conferences weren’t that useful to him. He compensated by reading widely. In particular, he examined government documents very carefully, gleaning bits of truth from their studied evasions.

“My credentials as an expert are slim,” he admitted in an essay from 1969. “I always loved learning and hated school.... I looked down on college degrees and felt that a man should do only what was sincere and true without thought of mundane advancement. This provided lofty reasons for not doing homework. I majored in philosophy [at the University of Pennsylvania] with the vague thought of teaching it but though I revered two of my professors I disliked the smell of a college faculty. I dropped out in my third year to go back to newspaper work. Those were the twenties and I was a pre-depression radical. So I might be described I suppose as a premature New Leftist, though I never had the urge to burn anything down.”

Which brings me to that other hat I wore while reading "All Governments Lie" -- the one with all the dust on it from hours in the archives, studying the history of the American left. The biographer does a good job of setting the record straight on claims that Stone was a secret member of the Communist Party, or a spy for the Soviet Union, or both. Evidence suggests that the KGB would have been happy to recruit him, but never actually did. As for the American satellite party, it’s clear that Stone kept his distance and considered the American Communists somewhat ridiculous.

As a book for the general reader, MacPherson’s book can be highly recommended. She debunks some myths. But a scholarly contribution to the history of the American left, the book is not.

The actual mistakes are, for the most part, small. An unwary reader might walk away from her account thinking that the Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs had an important hand in editing the widely circulated Midwestern radical newspaper The Appeal to Reason. (He didn’t, though he wrote for it.) Nor does it fill a specialist with confidence to read the assertion that Earl Browder was deposed as head of the American Communists at the end of World War II on the grounds of being “pro-Western.” (This is an oversimplification so extreme that it would take a short article just to explain why it’s inaccurate.)  

More problematic is the lack of a feel for Stone as a product of the culture and politics of his day. Stone was (as the passage quoted earlier may suggest) a maverick intellectual who went from studying philosophy to reporting the news. But he did not become a true-believing convert to any particular doctrine.

He indulged some illusions about the Soviet Union until he actually visited it in 1956, whereupon they vanished. “I feel like a swimmer under water who must rise to the surface or his lungs will burst,” he told his readers after returning home. “This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men.” While 1956 may seem rather late to have drawn such a conclusion, it does not mean that he had been, up to that point, a devotee of Joseph Stalin, overtly or covertly.

There were plenty of non-Communist (indeed, utterly non-Marxist) “progressives” who rationalized away Soviet faults in ways that didn’t fit the Cold War script very well at the time. One of them, for instance, was Joseph McCabe, a prolific and encyclopedic author in England whose writings had a large circulation in the United States from the 1920s through the early 1950s. McCabe had once been a Catholic monk but lost his faith. He never embraced the alternative doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. But the fact that both the Vatican and right-wing Protestants loathed the Kremlin was good enough for Joseph McCabe. It meant that the Soviets must be doing something right.

Presumably a lot of his readers felt the same way. We are talking about something that is less rigorous and coherent than a formal ideology. It is the attitude that, in effect, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or close enough. The new biography of Stone makes every effort to stress his independence -– his deep-seated aversion to following party lines. That is a worthwhile and necessary clarification. But it will take another sort of book (one attending to historical nuances) to show how much Stone had in common with other non-Communist “progressives” of his day, both for good and for ill.

Wearing two hats at once can be uncomfortable, and it is probably not good for either hat. But while reading "All Governments Lie" -- here’s the review, by the way -- something else proved distracting. It appeared that almost none of Stone’s own work was still in print. And reading him is an education in itself. Any reporter or historian -- hell, any citizen -- can learn something from the example of Stone’s writing, with its wry skepticism, its willingness to consult specialized books and foreign newspapers, its keen eye for the telling fact that has been sunk in the vat of official waffle-batter.

Collections of his articles appeared in Vintage paperbacks some 30 years back, and are worth the effort to track down. But now, fortunately, we have The Best of I.F. Stone, a volume just issued by Public Affairs Books. The press was founded by the former I.F. Stone’s Weekly intern Peter Osnos, a senior fellow in media at the Century Foundation.

“Izzy was an iconoclast,” Osnos told me in a telephone interview. “He was skeptical, though not cynical. He had the capacity, in fact the urge, to take positions that confounded people. Sometimes he drove his friends crazy. But he wasn’t a bully, and I think that’s the important thing. A lot of debate today has a strong element of what I’ve come to think of as Stalinist vituperation -- and that’s on the left and the right. It’s not just that the other person is wrong, you know, but also stupid, ugly, and maybe a spy.”

There is plenty of irony and indignation in Stone’s work. “But he didn’t denounce in rage,” as Osnos puts it. "He said that to be human was to be guilty. He seemed to be working out of the great central European Jewish tradition that was both moral and intellectual. What made Izzy remarkable and unusual was that he had a scholar’s mind in a newspaper reporter’s body. He loved getting the story. He loved writing on deadline. But he combined a sense of the past with a sense of the moment. It was a very unusual combination.”

It also gave Stone a depth of vision that seems prophetic. "I like Myra's title for the biography," said Osnos. "But people should keep in mind the full quotation: 'All governments lie,' Izzy said, 'but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.'"

As an antidote to my own growing tendency to idolize the man, it made sense at one point to track down what has become a rather notorious item: the article often called his tribute to Joseph Stalin. It ran following the dictator’s death in March 1953. Stone had started publishing his weekly newsletter just a few weeks earlier. I went to the library in search of the original text. The article itself was easy enough to find, because it ran on the front page.

It is also available in The Best of I.F. Stone. So henceforth there is no excuse at all for yanking things out of context –  which, it seems, has been a routine practice in quoting this article. My expectation, based on those accounts, was to find that Stone had published something akin to, say, W.E.B. DuBois’s rather nauseating gush of pablum about Stalin at the time. (The full text is not available online, but representative excerpts are available here.)

Well, it isn’t. Certainly his comments show too much skepticism about the reports of Soviet concentration camps, which were accurate. But in calling the dictator “one of the giant figures of our time” and a “great leader,” Stone was simply echoing the tones of Allied propaganda a decade earlier. “After all,” he wrote, “it is fortunate for America that when Stalin’s regime met the ultimate test of war, it did not collapse like the Czar’s.” If it had, “the war against the Axis would have lasted a lot longer and cost a great many more American lives....”

Stone attributed the regime’s brutality to the history and culture that had spawned it -- and he quoted the Christian philosopher Nicholai Berdyaev, “the wisest of the anti-Communist Russian emigres of our generation,” to bolster the claim. Nothing in Stone’s so-called “tribute” suggests that he accepted Stalin’s doctrines as the key to world politics. But he recognized that its influence was a fact of life

“This is a movement,” he wrote, “with a philosophy comparable to the great religions in its capacity to evoke devotion, and based on certain economic realities which give it a constructive function. It has proved itself capable of industrializing Russia and opening new vistas to its masses, and this is its appeal to similar areas in Asia. This is a challenge that can only be met by peaceful competition, for only in peace can the West preserve what it has to offer, and that is the tradition of individual liberty and free thought.”

A few pages later in The Best of I.F. Stone, you can read an account of visiting Moscow following Krushchev’s famous “de-Stalinization” speech. The visiting journalist tells Soviet citizens that the “thaw” will mean nothing if they don’t acquire the right of habeas corpus. Fifty years have passed. There must be people who can read that passage now without tears in their eyes. But given the news lately, I am not one of them.


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