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Department: Great Escapes
Mike Shotwell visited his stepfather Orville many times in the California nursing facility where he spent his final weeks. Although Orville and Mike's mother had been divorced for more than two decades, Mike had continued his relationship with this man whose persona had so heavily influenced his formative years. Orville's old Bible still lay on his nightstand, the one he always said he used "for historical reference," and on a few occasions, Mike read aloud from it at Orville's request. It was a curious request, though, as Orville Olson had been a sworn Communist and avowed atheist all his adult life, never visibly wavering from fealty to figures such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao right up to his death in 1986.
Article originally appeared in
An Unhappy Home
Mike was seven in 1949, when his parents divorced and Orville entered his life. Two years later, Orville moved the family from Minnesota, where he'd been deeply involved in anti-American espionage and Minnesota politics, to California, where he secured a plodding, safe job and continued the same subversive work. To the public, Orville was a "Progressive Democrat," but in private he was thoroughly Communist in outlook and practice, and was in fact designated by the KGB as a "secret communist."
This was the era of Congressional hearings on Un-American activities, and with the Communist threat being taken seriously, Mike was instructed not to discuss the family's political views with the outside world. Offhand remarks, he was told, could have consequences. But when the revolution came, the story went, his step-father would be an important figure in the new government—the grand "Soviet America" that would triumph and be allied with the USSR as part of the unified, worldwide Communist state. When that glorious time came, everything would be "peace, love, and sharing," and all things would at last be set right.
Orville was a true believer, and Mike's mother went along somewhat mindlessly but wholeheartedly, like a good comrade. Mike, too, went along, partly because it was what his parents told him, and partly because he really had no choice. For as in any Communist enclave, in the Olson home, everything was about the revolution. Dissent was impermissible, as it implied ignorance and faulty thinking, unthinkable charges to be accused of.
After graduating from USC, Mike spent two years in the Peace Corps in Venezuela, and on returning to the U.S., he went to work as an architect in Los Angeles. Still in his twenties, in many ways he had everything going for him. He had a high-profile job that he enjoyed and that afforded him the "good life," but despite all that, he just couldn't shake a pervasive malaise. After a short-lived marriage, he sought counseling to help him sort things out.
Fortunately, the blend of good therapy and his own dogged determination to understand the world as it actually is enabled him to gradually bring the strange world of his upbringing and the radical ideology that had governed it into better focus. By 1980, things were looking up. He had remarried, and he and his wife Gwyneth had connected with a large Episcopal church in Pasadena, where he was baptized. He'd opened his own architectural practice in 1976, the same year they got married, and now they had a growing young family.
Separating Politics from Religion
As a new Christian and overall rational thinker, he wanted to learn more about the roots of Christianity. So when his church offered a class on the historical Jesus, he was naturally interested. But as he took in the content of the course alongside the latest scholarship he was reading in Biblical Archeology Review, it seemed to him that the authors of the course could hardly be called "Christian." They took a decidedly secular approach to the subject—not only to the biblical narratives in general, but to the divinity of Jesus in particular. And no one in the class seemed to have any problem with that. If Christ wasn't crucified and resurrected, Mike thought, now starting to take a skeptical approach to his church, then why is this church even in existence?
He thought about some of the big forums it had held, such as hosting Bishop Desmond Tutu from Africa and other high-profile, left-leaning theologians. These were the early Reagan years, and the former actor, California governor, and liberal-Democrat-turned-conservative-Republican was generally despised among the California left. One Sunday, as the sermon started bleeding into yet another rant against Reagan, Mike looked over to Gwyneth and said, "Let's just get out of here."
All his life, politics and (atheist) religion had been fused together. This is how it was with Marxism as practiced in the Soviet Union. When you're an atheist, all the problems in your world stem from man-made, misordered societal structures, and your redemption story—the grand vision in which you invest all your hope—is the revolution. When Mike was a boy, his family had attended a Unitarian church for a while. Everyone there was an atheist, sermons were political diatribes, and "fellowship" consisted of social gatherings with allied leftists. Orville had said it was a church for the intelligentsia, but Mike only found it depressing.
As for this Episcopal church, granted, it wasn't a front for atheistic Communism, but here again was this fusing of left-leaning politics and religion! He did not need some religious authority preaching to him about saving the world through changed government. He'd had more than enough of that growing up. Besides, he already had a Savior, thank you very much.
To most Americans today, the world of underground Communism is history little known and best forgotten. But it's a world that Mike knew well as a child and has now studied in depth as an adult. More important, it's a world that is very much alive today, just in a different guise, because the ideologies of it have taken deep root in the popular zeitgeist. Since it's only a matter of time before bad roots produce bad fruit, and in order to give Americans a clearer window into that world, he's written Immersed in Red: My Formative Years in a Marxist Household.
More than just a memoir, though it is that, Immersed in Red is something of a post-mortem analysis of Cold War Communism in America. The content is drawn from extensive interviews that Orville gave in his later years, KGB and Comintern files and intelligence decrypts that became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and testimonies of former operatives from both sides of the Iron Curtain, but it is all made personal and accessible by virtue of Mike's unique vantage point. Here are some of the traits of that world he brings out:
• Marxism is a religion.
Everything—all history, all people (including Jesus Christ himself), all actions, and even the very categories of good and evil—are interpreted through the lens of the Marxist worldview. Atheism is the assumed "theology," and following atheism, the chief article of faith is that all of the miseries of the human condition can be cured by the right man-made social and economic arrangements.
• Communism is a whole-life mission.
According to the American Communist Party's Manual of Organisation (1935), the single goal was "the establishment of a Socialist Soviet Republic in the United States." Since socialism "can be won only through revolution . . . it is essential, first, that [workers] be ready to sacrifice their lives." Members took an oath pledging ultimate loyalty to the Party, because, "From these comrades, the Party demands everything."
• Life is cheap.
Since the revolution is the most important end, all means are permissible and people are expendable. If something advances the revolution, it's good. If it hinders it, it's bad. The only thing that is not permissible is dissent.
• Nothing is certain, and no one is fully trustworthy.
"It's a world completely intertwined in obfuscation, lying, cheating, storytelling, and disinformation," he says, and all American Communist operatives worked for the Soviets. For example, at the direction of Moscow, Orville had been heavily involved in the 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign in Minnesota. And there were high-ranking infiltrations in the Roosevelt administration. Through underground channels, massive amounts of classified data were delivered to Stalin, seriously undermining American interests during times of war.
• The end justifies the means.
When Communist atrocities such as Stalin's purges came to light, Orville would dismiss reports as either false (just U.S. propaganda) or maybe somewhat true but insignificant. Eggs must be broken, the saying went, if you're going to make an omelet. Everyone knew and accepted the reality that some people simply would not conform and would therefore have to be eliminated.
There are differences, Mike points out, between Orville's brand of Marxism and the more subtle (and more widespread) strain today. Orville was a true believer in the Lenin-Stalin script, where the workers of the world were going to unite, overthrow the bourgeoisie by whatever means necessary, and then reengineer society. This would happen first through the benevolent dictatorship of a leader such as Lenin or Stalin, and after that, the utopian "dictatorship of the proletariat" (the working class) would arise, and a classless society would rule supreme.
Beginning in the 1930s, though, a more discreet script came to America. It sought the same end, but instead of promoting violent uprising, Cultural Marxism aimed at a gradual transformation of every aspect of society through "the long, slow march through the institutions." Mike devotes a whole chapter to Cultural Marxism, which came to America through a cadre of European intellectuals fleeing Nazi Germany. According to journalist and writer Ralph de Toledano, an expert on the development and influence of the Frankfurt School, "The destruction of the West, from which a phoenix-like Marxist Utopia would arise, was to be achieved by the combination of Neo-Marxism, neo-Freudianism, Pavlovian psychology, and mass brainwashing, wrapped up in what is euphemistically known as 'Critical Theory.'"
But Critical Theory is really nothing more than a concerted attack on everything good about Western civilization—Christianity, the family, sexual restraint, morality, capitalism, patriotism, and more. Rather than razing a standing structure, Cultural Marxism is infesting it with a thousand termites.
Fortunately, the Marxist designs on Mike Shotwell—and thus far on America as a whole—have failed to produce the Marxist end, which is always destruction. The words Mike uses most to describe that world are grim, self-defeating, and self-loathing. He's eternally grateful to the decent and God-fearing people who helped pull him out of and away from it all, and he hopes Immersed in Red will illuminate this movement whose long hangover is still being felt today. With that knowledge, perhaps a new generation may know the truth and be set free. •
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