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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

“The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War”, by John V. Fleming

368 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393069259

The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War by John V. Fleming is a brilliant analysis of the literary, philosophical, and political dimensions of four classic works: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler; Out of the Night by Jan Valtin; I Chose Freedom by Victor Kravchenko; and Witness by Whitaker Chambers. Former Communist Party members all (three of whom had worked for Soviet espionage before turning sides), the authors themselves were as controversial as the books they wrote, fanning ideological debates about “facts” and “credibility” throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Fleming even-handedly discusses the complex political background, entering a life-or-death debate which is crucial to understanding the Cold War and its aftermath, down to the present. He shows why the works should be read and re-read as literature, not just as the important historical documents they are. For example, he demonstrates why Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is justly held to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, and his placing it in context (during the ascendancy of Hitler and Stalin) is almost as fascinating as the breathtaking story within the novel. Throughout, Fleming writes with an entertaining and witty style that will engage any reader.

The author'’ recounting of the works of Koestler, Valtin, Kravchenko and Chambers should induce, in the very least, a curiosity to explore the writings themselves. Telling the tales from the perspective of one who is familiar with the texts that, in turn, influenced these men, Fleming offers invaluable insights. Because Marxist thought and its varieties of socialist offspring are by no means simply things of the past, the writings examined by Fleming retain much relevance. His essay on Whittaker Chambers’ masterpiece is itself worthy of multiple reads and reflection, for Chambers identified a war between two worldviews: that of unfettered idealism; and that of fractured reality. The former perspective leads to a kind of phantasmal irrationality necessitating absurd apologias; the other can lead either to unwholesome despair or informed action (and, there is a third way, that of profound neglect). The majority, those who follow the third path, currently imperil civilization. In the war of the worldviews, it may not be overstatement to declare Chambers’ Witness and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago the most important books of the 20th Century. Thankfully, their courageous efforts inspired action.

This is a superbly researched and well-written book, and even at this late date it’s hard to believe so many otherwise intelligent people were taken in by massive evil that was communism – but Fleming vividly recreates a very interesting slice of history, allowing the reader to see how so many were duped, thus making these four books so necessary and important.

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