Review by Phil Shannon
12 July 2008
All Governments Lie! The Life & Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone
By Myra Macpherson
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
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.