Review of “Out of Bondage” by Elizabeth Bentley

Ms Bentley was an Communist Party USA (CPUSA) member who was an active Soviet spy for most of a decade. Her story is perhaps a micro-version of the entire relationship between American Communism (aka progressivism) and the Soviet variety.

Many Americans joined the CPUSA and many spied for the Soviets. Many (if not all) also eventually broke with the Soviets. Obviously, these people were not all identical. They did not all come from the same background. However, when one reads their memoirs, one notices a lot of similarities. Ms Bentley is, in my opinion, the quintessential American Communist. In a way, her story is the story of them all and it’s laid out – in detail and in a matter of fact way – in this nearly forgotten book. Conservatives want you to remember Whittaker Chambers and progressives want you to remember Joseph McCarthy (if they want to remember anything at all). I would like you to remember Elizabeth Bentley.

Ms Bentley came from good Puritan stock. Wikipedia describes her family as "strait-laced old family Episcopalian New Englanders." I could not possibly improve upon that description. When she first joined the Party, Bentley took the name "Elizabeth Sherman" because she was a descendant of Roger Sherman (the dude who signed the Declaration of Independence). In sum, people do not get more American than Bentley.

Communism (the ideas of which she never repudiates in her book, at least) was her way of "reconciling" "Christian ethics" with "industrial civilization." As one of her fellow CPUSA members who was in the process of becoming a minister says, "Communism is the Christianity of the future . . . I, as a potential Christian minister, must per se be a Communist." Like so many Communists of her era, Ms Bentley became a Communist to fight Fascism. Critically, for Bentley (and so many others see my reviews of Budenz’s books, for example), Communism was both patriotic and Christian.

Ms Bentley works for a while in various New-Deal-related jobs, as do so many Communists of that era. If you read enough of these sorts of memoirs, you can’t help but wonder if the New Deal was just a large plan to employ lots of Communists and Communists-sympathizers.

For a while, her story is relatively uninteresting and remains typical of the average US Communist (she uses the term Communist or "progressive" (including the scare quotes) interchangably). She works for an Italian library, which handles some fascist propaganda. She reports on the propaganda to the Party. Occasionally, she see some indications that she may be spying for the Soviets (not the CPUSA, which she believed – at the time – was distinct from the Soviets). She never quite put the pieces together until she met Jacob Golos.

At this point Ms Bentley’s story deviates from the normal and gets really interesting. She and Jacob Golos fall in love. Golos ran several operations for the Soviets – including founding the CPUSA. Golos’ operations included setting up (apparently) legitimate businesses that funneled money to the Soviets. Golos also ran several spy rings, some of which were specifically tasked with infiltrating the USG. Bentley became more and more involved with Golos and they began to co-manage these spy rings. When Golos died, Bentley took over his spy rings and ran them herself.

The spy rings included Julius Rosenberg’s, Nathan Silvermaster’s (a group which included Harry Dexter White), and Victor Perlo’s.

It may be worth linking to the stories of some of the people that Bentley worked with. At the time, everyone accused Bentley of lying. Thanks to Venona, we now know better (or at least we should). Spies that Bentley had contact with or knew of (besides the three mentioned above) include: Mary Price (who was particularly valuable as Walter Lippmann’s secretary), Julius J. Joseph (who had access to the US intelligence agencies’ information on Russia), Leonard Mins, George Silverman, Lauchlin Currie, Duncan C. Lee (a direct descendant of Robert E. and assistant to the founder of the OSS), William W. Remington (Wikipedia notes that his death is "one of the few murders attributable to McCarthyism"), Frederick Vanderbilt Field, Helen Tenney, John Abt (his jobs included chief counsel of CPUSA, Chief of Litigation for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, assistant general counsel of the Works Progress Administration, counsel to Senator La Follette’s Committee and special assistant to the United States Attorney General – a resume doesn’t get more American than that!), Charles Kramer, Maurice Halperin, Robert Miller, Fred Rose, and Anatoli Grosky.

Take a few minutes to skim those entries. I have not edited any of them. Pay attention to the Americans and notice where they came from and, more importantly, where they ended up.

Back to Bentley. Essentially, if there was a government agency, she and Golos had a source inside it and were getting accurate, up-to-date information on its activities. As Bentley says, "I doubt if there were very many people who were quite as well informed as we on what was happening in Washington." She also notes in passing that, "sometimes [Golos] and I were actually horrified at the ease with which notorious, open Communists wandered into sensitive departments [of USG] and obtained positions."

The big sources were Harry Dexter White (who was able to get incredible things and place people in all sorts of agencies), Nathan Silvermaster, and William Ludwig Ullmann. Ullmann was eventually in a position to obtain all sorts of information on US military capabilities via his position in the Pentagon. He knew about D-Day four days ahead of time, and he supplied the Soviets with the US plan for the occupation of Germany. At one point Silvermaster gets busted by the FBI, but the insiders pull together and get him reassigned to the Department of Agriculture (apparently that was sufficient punishment).

When Golos died, Bentley began to slowly break with the Soviets as she began to realize that the Soviets were not sufficiently concerned with bringing Communism to the US. Instead, the damn Soviets wanted to strengthen the position of the Soviet Union – she considered this a betrayal of the Communist cause. At this point, Bentley breaks with the Soviets. In order to protect her agents from the Russians (whom she fears), she decides to talk to the FBI. When Bentley did defect, reports of her defection immediately reached Moscow via Kim Philby. That may or may not surprise you. As always, do remember that Joseph McCarthy was crazy. (Hysterically, Bentley talks about the beginning of a Communist "witch hunt" of Soviet spies in government).

Bentley’s break with the Soviets is thus a perfect encapsulation of the Cold War. Note that she doesn’t ever repudiate her original ideas (hence unlike Whitaker Chambers, she is not a conservative icon) – in fact, she breaks with the Soviets because she believes that they do not actually agree with Communist ideas. Bentley’s break (and the Cold War) are best understood as a war between rival branches of the same original ideology.

36 Responses to Review of “Out of Bondage” by Elizabeth Bentley

  1. As always, do remember that Joseph McCarthy was crazy.

    Can you clarify? Schizophrenic? Acrophobic? Thought he was a turnip? My impression of him was that he was wrong about whether or not liquor was one of the four food groups, but right about pretty much everything else.

  2. Five Daarstens says:

    Foseti:

    Very good post, important history.

  3. Samson J. says:

    What are the ethics of lying and spying? Is it ever a noble thing to do – in the sense of “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it”? Would you do it, for a cause you really believed in? I wouldn’t.

    Communism (the ideas of which she never repudiates in her book, at least) was her way of “reconciling” “Christian ethics” with “industrial civilization.”

    I love the number of scare quotes in this sentence. I can never get enough of trying to understand what drew these people to communism.

    • I can never get enough of trying to understand what drew these people to communism.

      Niceness… in a hurry.

      • Foseti says:

        Generally, they start by being anti-fascist. The communists really capitalized on that. Then they got sucked into the movement. Only slowly did they realize they were actually working for the Russians. At that point, some broke, but others accepted the Russian propaganda that they had been steeped in.

      • Gilbert Pinfold says:

        Issues with their fathers.

    • Foseti says:

      I sincerely believe that the vast majority of them thought they were saving their country.

      • Samson J. says:

        From…?

        I guess it’s just an awfully hard exercise to put yourself in their shoes and “pretend” that you don’t know what communism is actually going to wreak in the 20th century.

      • Ex communist here:

        No they did not think they were saving their country.

      • Gian says:

        But fascism got started as a movement to save the European Catholic civilization from the Jew Commissar. It was purely reactionary in being a reaction of Russian Revolution and Communist revolts and bloodbaths in 1918 in Germany, Hungary and Soviet moves on Poland.

        So the motivation of being anti-fascist was (1) Being Pro-Bolshevik
        and not vice-versa.
        (2) Being against European Catholicism: rather the default position of Anglospheric Protestantism.

        (3) An intellectual position that realized that Fascism was a false friend to Catholic culture. I doubt a lot of Americans would have taken such a position in 30’s. In 50’s this position is exemplified by Buckley for example.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Communism is the Christianity of the future”

    If only he knew…

  5. sconzey says:

    This is erm… wow…

    Orthopedia anyone? 😛

    • sconzey says:

      By which I meant to say:

      “All this fascinating information needs to be documented in some kind of centralised browsable repository.”

    • I believe Moldbug used the term “Antiversity”, but Orthopedia will do. But if I understand the point, then yes, as it seems that more and more reactionaries seem to be coalescing, even from diverse paths, toward a common (and correct) narrative, I have to wonder the time isn’t ripe for Orthopedia to arise. And I also wonder where “listener supported” Reactionary Public Radio (RPR) has been all my life?

  6. hugsb says:

    Reactionary Public Radio. Yes, it’s time.

    Although instead of those Johnny-come-lately Stuarts, it should be dedicated to old King Alfred.

  7. rightsaidfred says:

    Makes me wonder what the Communists could have accomplished if they had played their cards a little bit better, i.e. not kill so many people and let a little more crony capitalism flourish.

    • sconzey says:

      Haha, quite. It does seem like the reason Communist China has survived while Communist Russia did not, is that the Chinese were less idealistic…

  8. idealart says:

    “Bentley’s break (and the Cold War) are best understood as a war between rival branches of the same original ideology.”

    Which ideology? Liberalism?

    • Foseti says:

      At the time it would have been uncontroversial to call it “communism.” Bentley considered herself one and the Russians considered themselves communists as well. Neither of them ever actually changed their opinions.

      Bentley refers to almost-communist-Americans as “progressives.” That seems like as good a label as any.

  9. dearieme says:

    What were her views during the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

    • Foseti says:

      At first she was pissed. She then came to believe that the best way to support Communism – for the time being – was to support Russia, and the best thing for Russia was to – temporarily – make peace with the Germans.

  10. Thomas Fink says:

    I can never get enough of trying to understand what drew these people to communism.

    What were her views during the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

    I was a communist in the seventies. In Germany. But I don´t think that matters. To be a communist was everywhere the same. The seventies were the last times when you could imagine that something like the working class exists. And that it has a historic mission. And that you as a communist belong to the vanguard of this mission. And when you still could meet fighters of the old struggles in flesh, plan together with them the final defeat of the bourgeoisie. This had a special taste. It was in an odd way religious. What a great and omnipotent feeling to belong to the vanguard. Always you had to check the newest directives from the Central Committee or the Polit Bureau. The enemies of today could become the comrades of tomorrow. Shaping reality by ignoring reality through mind bending is a secret pleasure, which conservatives who struggle so hard to get some sense out of reality cannot understand. Even long time after I quit I liked to read the many party papers of all the fractions especially about the in fights.
    In hindsight I call it the talmudic mindset. And this mindset has indeed certain addictive features.

    • idealart says:

      “Shaping reality by ignoring reality through mind bending is a secret pleasure, which conservatives who struggle so hard to get some sense out of reality cannot understand.”

      I agree. Conservatives should study mind bending. If for no other reason than to “get” progressivism. Modernism is a mirror-image doppleganger to story-telling. In modernism, or what they refer to now as post-modernism, there is no meaning only irony. Wherever you look for meaning it vanishes. This creates a mystery in which the shamans of modernism rejoice. Its curious that the communists rejected modernism in favor of social realism. They viewed it as bourgeois and decadent. Early Russian communist artists like Naum Gabo are now models for race and class warfare waged by totalitarians hellbent on destroying the West. What a hoot.

      You cannot reason with people who arrive at their position through unreason. Conservatives keep trying to put meaning into progressivism where there is none. Only envy. They try to find stories where there is no story. They flatter themselves by projecting carefully reasoned arguments onto their opponents where none exist and are laughed at. This increases their befuddlement. The progressive then compounds this bewilderment by mimicking reasoned arguement in perverse ways.

  11. […] – I find it totally implausible that a ideological group hostile to the American way of life could take over the State Department. Totally implausible. […]

  12. […] is hard to explain. If you want to understand it, the best way to begin to try is to read this book (my favorite from the […]

  13. […] is hard to explain. If you want to understand it, the best way to begin to try is to read this book (my favorite from the […]

  14. […] (for example, here’s one from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the German Wars, and the Cold War). Mr Douthat’s list may provide you with multiple viewpoints on why the US should invade […]

  15. […] If only someone had said something. (Citing Bentley warms my heart). […]

  16. […] is known as the Cold War.  Although there are several personal stories that describe this split, this one is the best (Whittaker Chambers’ memoir is great, but he leaves the movement altogether, so I […]

  17. […] one year ago, in March of 2012, I made the following comment over at Foseti’s in response to […]

  18. […] not sure that’s true. They broke with the Soviets, but many never changed their basic worldview or any of the specific […]

  19. Erik says:

    Still rereading for some slow history.

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