- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

By Lee Congdon
Northern Illinois University Press, $40, 223 pages, illus.

The carnage of World War I unhinged many minds and led some Europeans and Americans to debate how best to enslave themselves. Was it to be along the lines of Russian communism, or would Italo-German fascism better fill the bill? Down to 1939, democracy had all too few defenders. The war had taken many of the finest, and the survivors often found it difficult to make themselves heard. With the fate of Western civilization at stake, the debate was ferocious, and far-reaching.
In his new book, "Seeing Red: Hungarian Intellectuals in Exile and the Challenge of Communism," Lee Congdon, a professor at James Madison University, explores the contributions to the communism-fascism-democracy debate of Hungarian intellectuals in exile in Britain and the United States. The best known among them was Arthur Koestler, a journalist by trade and Stalinist by conviction. In Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War, and incidentally to do a bit of spying for the Comintern, he ran afoul of the Franco forces, who arrested him and promised him a firing squad. Attempting to preserve his sanity, Koestler painstakingly reviewed his schooling in mathematics and at a given moment recalled Euclid's proof that it is possible to say something meaningful about the infinite prior to confronting it at first hand.
That recollection, and the shock of his sudden release from prison, generated what Koestler later described as a "change of personality." Mr. Congdon points out that it was really a change of heart, and he notes that Koestler neither "abandoned the communist ideal … [nor] recognized that … [it] was itself the source of the crimes committed in its name."
Unable to overcome all his illusions, Koestler became a "crusader without a cross." At Christmas of 1940 he published "Darkness at Noon," a powerful work of fiction closely based on a recently concluded Soviet purge trial. Koestler explored the Stalinist perversion of civilized norms and alchemic transformation of abstract ideas into their opposites at least to the satisfaction of the party. The novel became one of the central texts of the Cold War, and the left naturally reviled him. Oddly enough for one who could tolerate Jean-Paul Sartre at such close range for such a long time, Simone de Beauvoir howled that Koestler's anti-communism "made him irrational, maybe even insane." Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of the truly crazed philosophers of whom the Sixth Arondissement is so fond, assailed Koestler's insistence that "proletarian" violence had no claim to virtue.
Among the other Hungarian exiles active in the great debate, the most sympathetic figure was the eminent physical chemist Michael Polyani. Dismayed by the rapturous nonsense about the USSR that Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw and others were purveying, he turned his talents to philosophy and social studies. He came to see his life's mission as ministering to the "sickness of the modern mind." But it was one thing to refute eccentrics and buffoons, quite another to counter the preaching of scholars who, awed by what they believed to be the success of the Soviet system, wanted to subject society to scientific control. In "Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy," Polyani "drew an important distinction between private freedom and public liberty," and in shorter works he attacked the claims of J.D. Bernal and other British Marxists that scientific creativity is the product of a deterministic world.
Of Karl Polyani, Michael's younger brother, his wife said that his "sacred hatred" was "directed against market society." A social anthropologist and economic historian, Karl agreed with the European left that, because the Soviet Union was the main bulwark against fascism and Nazism, much had to be forgiven. Sharing that view were the art critic Frederick Antal, whose work Anthony Blunt admired, and the writer Aurel Kolnai, a devotee of G.K. Chesterton. Not far from this camp was Tibor Szamuely, whose "The Russian Tradition" appeared regularly on the reading lists of courses in Russian history in American colleges and universities in the 1950s and 1960s. As Mr. Congdon points out, Szamuely's preoccupation with the tsarist past led him to a grave underestimation of the "murderous logic of communist ideology."
Some of the Hungarian right-wingers had sinister backgrounds. In 1944 Imre Lakatos, then a communist, persuaded a 19-year-old female party colleague to commit suicide when it appeared that she, and the party cell, might be exposed. After the war Lakatos won a Rockefeller fellowship.
Loudly and incessantly proclaiming hatred of communism, he taught at the London School of Economics and was a visiting professor at several institutions in the United States.
As Mr. Congdon skillfully demonstrates, the Hungarians embraced Western democracy but brought to it the anti-democratic assumptions of Central European politics. That was a recipe for at best authoritarianism. Whether of the left or the right, that was the dish most of them preferred.

Woodford McClellan is writing a book on the Communist International (Comintern), 1919-1943.

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