“More and more, the categories we think by are forms of darkness. Yet we keep using them as if fearful of the deeper darkness we’d inhabit if we had to front this life without them.”
—Jack Beatty, “The Category Crisis,”
Atlantic (March 1986)

An open letter to Jack Beatty, Editor, Atlantic Monthly

Dear Jack:

    I hope you will overlook this example of what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier. I should have thought of your little essay “The Category Crisis” when you said laughingly, but not amusingly after a few moments’ conversation at the Newport party, “Oh, you’re a professional anti-Communist.” I was surprised at your remark. After all, you were putting me into a category not in a sociological but rather a judgmental spirit. I muttered something about your being a professional anti-anti-Communist; we went off and talked about something else.

When I came home, I went back to your article (I admire some of your things and file them under the category “Beatty,” even though it may not be as significant a category as “anti-anti-Communist”), and I began to categorize my thoughts:

1. I began to think back and wonder why you used that particular phrase: professional anti-Communist. You might have said, “Oh, you’re an anti-Communist.” But you couldn’t. If you had, I would have said, “Well, aren’t you?” Now that might have been awkward for you to answer. Nobody in his right democratic mind can today be a pro-Communist (unless he calls himself a Marxist, which in some leftist circles is regarded as a code word for being a Communist) or a neutralist, unless you’re a symmetrist, which is difficult—you know, Sakharov, Solidarity, Stalin, Afghanistan, the lot. But to admit you are an anti-Communist would put you into my category, which wouldn’t do at all.

2. I don’t imagine we’ve seen each other more than three or four times since we first met back in the mid-1970’s. Now, since we have only seen each other a few times in a decade, how would you know I was a professional anti-Communist, not just a plain, nonprofessional anti-Communist?

3. Does the term “professional” refer to expert knowledge about what, say, Bukharin said to Trotsky or Stalin in 1921 about Kronstadt or about Lenin’s first words at the Finland station? In other words, is a Sovietologist like Adam Ulam or Richard Pipes a professional anti-Communist, because each draws terrifying conclusions from his reading?

4. Is it possible that the adjective “professional” is in truth a put-down? It could imply that I make a living by exposing, explicating Communist chicanery. But suppose the things I wrote about Communism or the USSR were poorly paid for, and I made a good living on the Chicago options market or going short on IBM at the right time. Would I then be not a professional anti-Communist but an amateur anti-Communist? Or, perhaps, because of my writings I am rewarded with a good deal of prestige among professional anti-Communists (without necessarily being one), which might be glory enough?

5. Just what is the border line between anti-Communism and professional anti-Communism? Is Reagan a professional anti-Communist, or don’t Presidents or statesmen like Kissinger or Shultz count? What is the essential difference between an anti-Communist and a professional anti- Communist? Do you go from one category to the other by some criterion? Is William Buckley a professional anti-Communist or is he an editor-novelist whose themes deal critically with totalitarianism?

6. Does the expletive apply to, say, Soviet emigres like Dmitri Simes, Solzhenitsyn, and Ladislav Bittman, who make a great deal of money writing about the USSR—much of which is hostile—or does the expletive apply only to Westerners? In other words, a victim of the Bolshevik system who escapes has the right to be a professional anti-Communist but not, say, Norman Podhoretz, whose parents only escaped the Czarist system. (I suppose one could have called the prerevolutionary Lenin a “professional anti-Czarist.” He certainly made his calling a profession, according to his What Is to Be Done?)

7. Is there a category like a “professional anti-Fascist”? Or a “professional anti-apartheidist”? There are a good many people today who are making a pretty good living on the apartheid issue, and yet they are curiously reticent, when it comes to the suppression of civil freedoms in the Soviet Union. In other words, does the word “professional” only go with anti-Communist? Could you be a professional anti-anti- Communist, for example? If that category could be clearly defined, there would be plenty of candidates.

8. Supposing I got into a debate with Michael Parenti or some other Institute for Policy Studies Sovietophile, or with Howard Zinn, and I called them “professional Marxists,” would that have any relevance to our debate? Could I be called a “professional anti-Marxist”? Is Kenneth Minogue, in light of his book Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology a professional anti-Communist or a professional anti-Marxist? Or both?

9. Is the expletive “professional anti-Communist” intended to weaken any opinion of mine critical of the USSR, however informed, logical, or thoughtful it might be? After all, you didn’t intend the use of the word “professional” as a compliment. Therefore, whatever I might say about the USSR need not be given credence since what I am saying is only what is to be expected from a professional anti-Communist. But, then, isn’t your response to be expected from a professional anti-anti-Communist?

10. Is the phrase “professional anti- Communist” intended as a political category, or is it really a category which grows out of the left-liberal culture fathered so successfully by Jean-Paul Sartre? The phrase “anti-anti-Communist intellectual” is certainly a category in culture, although those so denominated (by professional anti-Communists?) are usually involved in politics, too.

11. Anyway, what’s wrong with being a professional anti-Communist? If that category includes as role model Joe McCarthy, then we have the old problem—an example, a “for instance” is not a definition.



Are you sure you mean, as you wrote in the Atlantic: “Better that the world be wrongly intelligible than not intelligible at all”? That statement, I would say, clearly leads to concentration camps and even death camps. I agree with Bertrand Russell: “It is better to be clearly wrong than vaguely right.” As you can see, you’ve set the gray cells churning, and I hope this letter will start yours churning, too.




                                       Arnold Beichman,
                                       Research Fellow

P.S. As I was rereading the letter, I wondered why, in the 30’s, one never heard the phrase “oh, he’s a professional anti-Nazi.” The phrase wouldn’t have made any sense. If a were getting a salary, tant mieux. Somehow, the word “professional” has become a limpet adjective in liberal culture, attachable only to “anti-Communism” but never to other intellectual politics. Imagine a putdown of Ralph Nader as “a professional consumerist.” Such a phrase might even be regarded as a compliment. It’s like the cant phrase “Red-baiting.” (I have also been called “a professional Redbaiter.”) Fascist-baiting, Pretoriabaiting, Pinochet-baiting—nonsensical phrases. The word “professional” can be very flattering when it is used without a noun—as in, “he’s a real pro,” “he is every inch a professional,” in reference to a doctor or a lawyer. There’s nothing necessarily derogatory about calling someone a professional politician. Yet you and I know that to call someone a professional anti-Communist would hardly be regarded as a desirable encomium. How is it possible that a “halo word,” in Harold Lasswell’s phrase, like “professional” becomes a “boo-word” when it prefixes the category “anti-Communist”?