It’s a pretty familiar idea that the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 caused much disillusionment on the American left. Suddenly, Stalin was no longer leading the struggle against fascism. The Popular Front collapsed. Communist party members and fellow travelers had either to abandon their beliefs or to leave the organization that had given them hope. What never occurred to me until I read See What I Mean? was that right-wingers faced the same problem. They lost a hero when Hitler scrapped his longtime struggle against communism (and its purported Jewish masters) and made a deal with Stalin. I don’t have numbers on this of course, but I’m guessing many became confused and disheartened.
See What I Mean? By Lewis Browne. Random House (1943), 245 pp.
In the late 1930s PR guy Clem Smullet, having worn out his welcome in Hollywood, needs to find a job. His kindly landlady, Mrs. Gunderson, sets him up with John Christian Power, leader of a flegling anti-semitic movement called “the Crusade.” Power, tall, ascetic and deeply committed to his beliefs, has enough charisma to gather dues-paying followers. His grim security chief, Captain Cleaver, has less interest in Jews than in recruiting a private army. Power’s cynical events organizer, Doc Gribble, has no ideological concerns at all and cares only about making money. Broke and intrigued, Smullet becomes the Crusade’s publicity director and joins its inner circle. He’s nonetheless a bit leery about what he may be getting into.
Smullet tells this tale from his jail cell, so readers know right away that things are not going to turn out well for him. He’s not an entirely reliable narrator. On one hand he promises to tell the inside story of the Crusade with complete truthfulness. On the other he claims “incidentally” to demonstrate his innocence of all the charges leveled against him. In particular, Smullet seems to want his audience to believe that the movement in its early days differs little from other offbeat attempts in California to address pressing social problems. The narrator never changes his voice, which stays close to comic patter no matter what he’s talking about. So the book remains a fun read even when it’s making references to people and events of seventy years ago. Modern readers may hear an echo of politics in our own time, especially in the Crusade’s efforts to rouse anger and designate enemies.