When Susan Sontag Told the Truth about Communism

It would be hard to exaggerate the Left’s evasiveness, before the fall of the Soviet Union, about the evils of communism. In this centenary year of the Bolshevik Revolution, there are other anniversaries we could note. One is that, 35 years ago, Susan Sontag shocked and dismayed her fellow leftists with her famous declaration that “Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.”

Sontag (1933-2004) bequeathed that phrase to future political discourse at a rally in support of Poland’s Solidarity movement at the Town Hall on West 143rd Street in Manhattan. At the time, the “fascism” of President Reagan required those on the Left to close ranks and mute any qualms about state socialism in order to “not give ammunition to the enemy.”

This holding back on their part was what Sontag took aim at. The author of Notes on Camp (1964), Against Interpretation (1966), and Illness as Metaphor (1978) cultivated the reputation of someone who had courageously left the Left—more than once. She made a name for herself by playing the contrarian, jettisoning, on certain occasions, her own previously stated opinions.

The Town Hall address was the most salient example of this. The 1982 rally for Solidarity, the labor movement that had been banned by General Jaruzelski when Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland, had actually been organized by an American Trotskyist.[1] The idea was to point up the evils of a Stalinist regime while also bashing the imperialist United States. Attendees included Gore Vidal, Pete Seeger, and representatives of PATCO, the union of air-traffic controllers whom President Reagan had just fired for going on strike.

Sontag began her remarks in just that spirit, fluently condemning American right-wingers; but when she went on to castigate left-wingers for their dread fears of being perceived as conservative, catcalls and booing began to be heard in the hall. Before an audience of increasingly angry “anti-anti-communists” (even outright pro-communists), Sontag blasted intellectuals who refused to take a public position against the bloodletting and the persecution of oppositionists that had gone on from Cuba to Cambodia.

“With Town Hall in an uproar,” wrote her biographers Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, “Sontag got up and left.”[2]

One of the few in the audience who cheered was D. Keith Mano, a writer for National Review. “Given the intellectual eating habits of her audience,” said Mano, “it had been a brave endeavor. I felt both impressed and grateful.”

The Town Hall address contained several heresies. One, of course, was the “Fascism with a human face” line. It got everyone’s attention, but so did an insult that she aimed at her fellow intellectual journalists: that the conservative Reader’s Digest gave a more accurate picture of life under communism than the “anti-anti-communist” Nation magazine, for which she had been writing since the early 1960s.

This raised the hackles even of a supportive Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was an authentic and very public anti-Stalinist who likewise criticized his fellow leftists for their shameful silence about the misdeeds of dictatorships of the Left. He was instrumental in getting Sontag’s Town Hall address published in the Nation. Still, he fumed about it:

Having tried to open a debate on the responsibilities of the left, Sontag has done her best to close it again by ill-tempered and ahistorical remarks about fascism and the record of the Reader’s Digest . . . Let us be charitable and assume she was trying to galvanize an audience by deliberate exaggeration.

It isn’t charity, however, but giving credit where credit is due, to recall bracing words uttered a full seven years before communism’s collapse. Sontag caused a firestorm for telling her comrades, among other things, that:

We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough. Which is to say that our priorities were wrong. The result was that many of us, and I include myself, did not understand the nature of the Communist tyranny. We tried to distinguish among Communisms—for example, treating ‘Stalinism,’ which we disavowed, as if it were an aberration, and praising other regimes, outside of Europe, which had and have essentially the same character.

The general reaction on the Left was as hypocritical as it was harsh. Safely out of earshot of their fellow leftists, those who shared Sontag’s sentiments nevertheless blasted her for publicly expressing them. Others simply called her a traitor to her Progressive principles, a renegade who was lurching to the Right—thus proving her assertion that many of her confreres tied their Progressivism to supporting or at least giving a wide berth to the world communist movement.

Martin Peretz, the editor of the New Republic, found the intellectual gymnastics of Sontag’s Town Hall speech confusing; and Mano, while praising her for having the guts to discommode her own side, on second thought judged the speech “a semantic swindle.”[3] It was, however, vintage Sontag. An all-too-familiar adage about white culture being the source of the world’s evils was her coinage, as well—one that has been popping up ever since Sontag wrote, in a 1967 symposium in Partisan Review, that “The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads.” True to form, this was a statement that she later wanted to walk back. “She came to regret that last phrase, and wrote a whole book against the use of illness as metaphor,” wrote Eliot Weinberger in 2007 in the New York Review of Books.

During the 1960s, it somehow wasn’t enough for Sontag and other intellectuals, such as the critic Mary McCarthy, to take issue with the U.S. military action in Vietnam. They had to talk themselves into positively supporting the communist North Vietnamese. In her 1969 book, Trip to Hanoi: Journey to a City at War, Sontag admitted that “some of what I’ve written evokes the very cliché of the Western left-wing intellectual idealizing an agrarian revolution.” Nonetheless, she went on, “I can only avow that, armed with these very self-suspicions, I found, through direct experience, North Vietnam to be a place which, in many respects, deserves to be idealized.” (Emphasis in original.)

“Coercive, authoritarian” America was contrasted with a North Vietnam whose government was noble: “Much of the discourse we would dismiss as propagandistic or manipulative possesses a depth for the Vietnamese to which we would be insensitive.” Even as American prisoners of war were being tortured by their captors, Sontag parroted the statements of her Vietcong and North Vietnamese minders, writing: “They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, ‘because they’re bigger than we are,’ as a Vietnamese army officer told me, ‘and they’re used to more meat than we are.’ ”

The North Vietnamese, in the aftermath of conquering the South, had killed more of their own citizens in the first two years of their reign than those who were killed in the entire Vietnam War. Yet Sontag stood by her praise of Ho Chi Minh almost 20 years after Trip to Hanoi was published, as evidenced by the fact that she allowed a reprinting of her worshipful treatment of this U.S. adversary without any updated adjustments. (The refusal to make editorial corrections did not hold in the case of the Town Hall address; before she would allow the latter to be printed in the Nation, she demanded that the Reader’s Digest remark be excised.)

From there she segued into praising Cuba with the same “good versus evil” script, the same Manichean outbursts, and the statement (in 1969) that Fidel Castro’s regime was “astonishingly free of repression.” But her eyes opened to the realities of Cuban communism. A supporter of gay rights, she blasted the Castro regime in 1984 for its persecution of Cuban homosexuals and continued, in the wake of her Town Hall address, to lacerate revolutionary tourists for so studiously looking the other way. The American Left’s “discovery that homosexuals were being persecuted in Cuba shows, I think, how much the Left needs to evolve,” she said.

Sometimes Sontag was able to thread the needle and genuinely embodied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of “a first rate intelligence”: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” At other times she was too obviously laboring to transfix the reading public with catchy paradoxes.

Sontag’s status as a “complex” thinker was, ultimately, undermined by how consistently she depicted the United States as the villain of history. This reflex was still there when New York and Washington were attacked on September 11, 2001. While her comrade Christopher Hitchens sided with his adopted country against the terrorists who rammed airplanes into the Twin Towers, and the “Islamofascism” they represented, Sontag blamed the attacks on U.S. policies. She even praised the terrorists for being more courageous than Americans because of their willingness “to die themselves in order to kill others”—unlike her countrymen, “who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky.”

Count Susan Sontag as another eloquent writer who ended up mired in the moral confusion on which anti-Americanism tends to be based.

[1] Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (W.W. Norton, 2000), p. 219.

[2] Rollyson and Paddock, p. 221.

[3] Rollyson and Paddock, p. 223.