A serious writer of the left

July 12, 2008

All Governments Lie! The Life & Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone

By Myra Macpherson

Scribner, 2008

564 pp, $29 (pb)

Why was the prominent left-wing journalist, I. F. Stone, never called before senator Joe McCarthy's rabid red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the Cold War 1950s? "What was McCarthy going to do to me? Expose me?? It would be like exposing Gypsy Rose Lee. I was exposing myself every week anyway."

Stone's response may have been jocular from a journalist who had never hidden his disgust with the manufactured Cold War "red scare", but the battle waged by Stone against dissent-stifling witch-hunts was serious and courageous as Myra MacPherson's biography of Stone, All Governments Lie!, shows.

Born in 1907 in Philadelphia to Jewish exiles from czarist Russia, the teenage Isador Feinstein dumped the life of a petit-bourgeois shopkeeper in the family business for the world of left-wing flavoured books and ideas. He found a home in the handful of liberal newspapers that questioned the depression-era status quo, where he supported, but criticised from the left, president Franklin Roosevelt's reformist New Deal.

Describing himself as "a socialist by conviction but an individualist by temperament", Stone abstained from left-wing parties, unimpressed by either the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) with its "flip-flops on cue from Moscow" or what he disparagingly saw as the non-Stalinist revolutionary left's "Lilliputian universe of sectarians".

Changing his name to I. F. Stone (to avoid being dismissed as a "special-pleading" Jew in his stance against fascism), he exposed the pre-war indifference and anti-Semitism of US politicians concerning Hitler's persecution of Germany's Jews while US multinationals and banks did profitable business with the Nazi regime.

After the war, which the anti-fascist Stone supported as a troubled pacifist, he was faced with the demise of his liberal media haven and the rise of McCarthyism. His famous answer was I. F. Stone's Weekly, his self-published, twenty-year-long, four-page broadsheet that began with a modest 5,000 subscribers (including Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe) but which grew to 70,000 subscribers with a much further reach.

Stone was one of the few journalists to protest the McCarthyist hysteria, which "made a mockery of civil liberty, free speech, international peace, truth in government and a human society". The pensions of wounded World War II veterans who had been communists or Trotskyists were taken away and hundreds of writers, labourers, schoolteachers, cafeteria workers and others were sacked and blacklisted to intimidate thousands more into silence and conformity.

The bogey of "communism" was wheeled out to run flak for an imperialist US foreign policy aggressively pursuing "harsh and cynical collaboration with crooked and dictatorial elements" overseas.

Stone stood up to McCarthy and his FBI collaborator, the spy-agency director J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy and Hoover were both terrified of Stone's ridicule and McCarthy dodged those witnesses and accused who, like Stone, would have been tough, informed, articulate and, above all, mocking, adversaries in McCarthy's kangaroo court.

The Weekly's informed investigation, colourful style and open political commitment won Stone a dedicated readership, greatly boosted by the Vietnam War. Each year of this criminal endeavour in south-east Asia added 10,000 subscribers who came to the Weekly for the hard facts of a war that was being sanitised into irrelevance or fogged up into invisibility by Pentagon and Washington officials.

Stone became a major speaker at anti-war rallies and meetings, demonstrating the unity of journalism (when dedicated to exposing official lies) with political activism, a concept moribund through disuse in the corporate media world.

Stone was also to the forefront in covering the civil rights struggle for black equality in the sixties, explaining that the "pool of cheap labour" created by "white supremacy" was a driving force of discrimination in the north and the lynchings, burnings and Klan terror in the south.

As Stone and the Weekly hit retirement in 1972, Stone continued to oppose secrecy in government and the class wars of president Ronald Reagan at home and abroad before heart failure finally dimmed Stone's mind and body in 1989.

Politically, Stone was not perfect. Like many leftists of the 1930s, he supported the democratic socialist gains made by the Russian Revolution. Despite Stalin's assiduous grave-digging excavations, he was initially loathe to believe the negative news filtering out of Russia about Stalin's terror, discounting such reports in a capitalist media renowned for its anti-socialist bias.

In the '30s and '40s, anti-fascist unity was a value that sometimes meant ignoring ugly facts and Stone, who subscribed to the principle of "no enemies on the left", was silent on the fatal persecution of the Trotskyist and independent left during the Spanish Civil War by the Stalinists.

As MacPherson notes, however, Stone was never uncritical (in private) of the Stalinist bureaucracy, even in the '30s, and in subsequent decades he was publicly assailing police state repression in the Soviet Union, describing Stalin and his system as "rotten to the core" and belittling the "little Stalins" in the CPUSA.

Stone also derided the hypocrisy of those US journalists who were fearless critics of Stalin abroad, but who were nowhere to be heard at home, when the victims were sacked and driven to suicide as a result of HUAC and other investigatory witch-hunts or killed overseas by US bullets and CIA-sponsored coups.

Stone as "Soviet apologist" was always a fantasy construct of opportunistic right-wingers but even more phantasmagorical was the groundless slander, put about even now, that Stone was a Soviet spy. As MacPherson argues, today's conservatives have a vested interest in smearing Stone as a paid Kremlin stooge to justify the history and current activities of right wing witch-hunts and anti-democratic ideas.

Stone was, however, a proselytiser for a Jewish homeland in Palestine but, as soon as he began speaking up for the Palestinian Arab victims of Zionist terror and advocating a democratic peace in Israel, he was vilified by Zionist Jews, leading him to bitterly reflect on how "I was a hero when I spoke up for Jewish refugees, and then when I began to speak up on Arab refugees, I was not kosher any longer".

Stone was a believer in a just and democratic capitalism and he wanted the US to live up to its proclaimed ideals ("always the patriot, he referred to the United States as we", notes MacPherson) and the US's repeated failure to do so outraged Stone. As a liberal, his belief in the transformative power of reason and knowledge was affronted by the selfish power of those who believed in propaganda and profit.

The "Establishment media", said Stone, were compliant dupes in the failures of capitalism. Stone rejected the idea of the reporter as a "robot with no political passion". Journalists need accuracy and documentation but they don't need to be "neutral", he said, believing that journalists should use their influence for those on the losing end of power.

That such journalists are so rare today is a sign of the moral sickness of the profession and its corporate masters. "If you want to know about governments", said Stone distilling his philosophy of journalism, "all you have to know is two words, 'governments lie'."

These two words served Stone well in his fight for truth and humanity.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.