On November 12, 1967, in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the Overseas Press Club invites three distinguished speakers to reflect on the momentous event.
The journalist Isaac Don Levine recalls his early encounters with Lenin and Trotsky. George F. Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union, outlines the effect of the revolution not on its people, but on foreign affairs. The philosopher and professor Sidney Hook questions the Soviet Union's most basic claims, to its embodiment of Marxist-Leninist principles, to its technological and industrial achievements, and to its political legitimacy.
The meeting begins with the reading of a statement from Alexander Kerensky. This former prime minister of the Russian Provisional Government bitterly recalls how the leaders of the February Revolution "wanted to create a new world overnight, "a utopia…and we were impatient. Thus, we were caught in the hands of demagogues." He castigates the "dead theories of Marxism" and lauds today's "movement towards freedom."
Levine then undertakes "a moral appraisal" of the Soviet Union. He focuses on the existence of dissidents like Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as the Soviet Union's leadership being unable to arrive at a clear method of succession, as evidence that what happened 50 years ago was a "rebellion against the popular revolution." He recounts how, as a young journalist, he was misled by Trotsky, who assured him that free elections would soon take place. He concludes by speaking of his recent visit to Russia, which he found "an unhappy land."
Kennan then speaks to what the Russian Revolution has meant to the outside world. He tries differentiating between traits that are typically Russian and those that are uniquely Soviet. Among the former are "love of display, passion for secrecy, the almost pathological preoccupation with espionage." The latter include "a systematic disrespect for objective truth" and "polemic distortion." While Kennan warns that today's Soviet leaders are still obsessed with the "dreams and postures of a romantic political youth," they do recognize the danger of nuclear war and are easier to deal with diplomatically. Thus, he assures the audience, "we can live side by side."
Hook begins his talk by brandishing the Kremlin's just-published "little red book." He asks if the costs of the revolution, in blood and suffering, were necessary. Only the Russian people can answer that question, he says, and because of censorship we don't know what they think. He attempts to debunk such myths as Stalin having "saved" his people from Hitler and the supposed efficiency of Russian agriculture and manufacturing. He turns around the commonly posed question of what challenges the Soviet Revolution presents to the West by asking what challenges does the West present to the Soviet Union? Free elections, he answers. The freedom to choose leaders and the freedom to change them.
During a brief discussion period, Tolstoy's granddaughter, Vera Tolstoy, laments the "50 years of suffering" inaugurated by the revolution. She reads several poems by underground writers and castigates the state-sanctioned poet Yevtushenko, calling him "all mixed up" and "afraid for his life."
Levine (1892-1981) was one of the first journalists to cover the Russian Revolution. After a period of initial enthusiasm, he became a vehement anti-communist. He was involved in the Alger Hiss affair, supporting Whittaker Chambers's assertions, and helped found the American Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia.
Kennan (1904-2005) began his career as a diplomat, writing the famous "Long Telegram," and as the unnamed author "X," the article "The Soviet Sources of Conduct," both influential documents espousing the far-reaching theory of "containment." As The Guardian summarized:
It was a detailed assessment of the psychology of the postwar Soviet regime, and recommended a number of principles to guide Washington's dealings with the Kremlin. Citing Stalin's belief that peaceful coexistence with the West was impossible because of its hostile encirclement of his country, Kennan stressed the Soviet dictator's determination to do everything to advance Soviet might and, simultaneously, reduce the strength of capitalist countries.
This proposal to contain Soviet expansion was, Kennan later felt, unfairly interpreted by being applied only in a military sense, whereas he had seen containment more as a social, economic, and cultural concept. Instead it became the justification for many Cold War conflicts, up to and including, it could be argued, Vietnam. Kennan eventually left the State Department and spent the rest of his career in academia. His books, mainly centering on history and foreign policy, won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award (twice), the Bancroft Prize, and the Francis Parkman Prize.
Hook (1902-1989) was a pragmatist philosopher who followed and expanded upon the concepts of John Dewey. A writer and teacher, Hook was also known for his activism. During the 1920s and 1930s he was an ardent supporter of the Soviet Union and of the American Workers Party. As with many intellectuals of the time, he renounced communism after the Moscow Trials and the Hitler-Stalin pact, beginning a long journey toward political conservatism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
… Hook sought to apply the pragmatic interpretation of ethics to diverse areas of social action including issues of educational policy, cultural freedom, and societal change. Hook's application of normative ethical judgments to contemporary social and political issues was marked by a significant reversal. …In the later phase of his career, after his reaction to the programs of the “New Left” in the 1960s, Hook's approach could be understood as a form of conservative liberalism. Hook's initial stress upon freedom of inquiry in education practice was augmented by his emphasis upon the continuity in the curriculum of Western humanistic cultural traditions… Accordingly, in Hook's final phase as a public philosopher, his writings were identified with the neoconservative movement.
In 1985 Hook was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.