Radicalism and Its Discontents

By the spring of 1939, Hofstadter's doubts about the Communist Party and his intensifying academic commitment led him to abandon political work. Although he had only been a party member for approximately one year, his involvement in left-wing politics extended back to the beginning of his undergraduate career in Buffalo in the early 1930s. Unlike his wife Felice, he had come to think of himself less as an activist than as a scholar. 

The wisdom of Hofstadter's disaffiliation from the Communist Party was confirmed when, in the summer of that year, the Soviet Union announced a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. For many on the Left, the announcement was stunning. Even many of those who already regarded the Soviet government with some ambivalence had still grudgingly acknowledged that the international Communist movement was the world's best-organized opposition to fascism. Suddenly, Hitler and Stalin were on friendly terms. In an instant, ideological clarity gave way to confusion, and the hopes of millions were betrayed.

By the fall of 1939, Hofstadter's tepid support for the Communist Party had shifted to outright opposition, but he still remained tied to a Left that was in near-total disarray. A letter to his brother-in-law, Harvey Swados, captures his sense of frustration at this time: "I hate capitalism," he wrote, "and everything that goes with it. But I also hate the simpering dogmatic religious-minded Janizaries that make up the CP [Communist Party]. I hate their regimented thinking... People like us grow up to believe in a certain set of values -- freedom of individual intellectual inquiry, scientific attitude of mind, respect for facts, a certain cultural latitude -- which the Stalins, Browders, Cannons and Schactmans [sic] dislike and will, if given a chance, stamp out... We are not the beneficiaries of capitalism, but we will not be the beneficiaries of the socialism of the 20th century -- if any -- any more than Kamenev & Zinoviev & Rykov & Bucharin were... So where are we and what do we stand for?" [23].