The Costs of McCarthyism

Alan Wald

Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America by Ellen Schrecker (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1998) 573 pages, $17.95 paperback.

Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism by Daniel Horowitz (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998) 354 pages, $29.95 hardcover.

MANY ARE THE Crimes is far more than just an incisive diagnosis of the interlocking components of the historical era known as “McCarthyism.” Yeshiva University historian Ellen Schrecker has also produced a unique anti-witch-hunt study acknowledging that the vast majority of the legal targets of repression were, as the McCarthyites claimed, variously associated with the Communist movement.

Indeed, it is precisely because Communist Party members and sympathizers had been so central to pro-labor, antiracist, antifascist, and radical cultural movements in mid-century that the anti-Red assault, reaching its height between 1946 and 1956, constituted such an enormous blow to the entire infrastructure of the U.S. Left.

To state frankly that the problem with McCarthyism is not merely its “excesses” and “mistakes”—that is, its occasional targeting of non-Communist liberals—raises the possibility that one might discuss candidly the activities in which Communists and their supporters engaged, and then judge whether such activities merited the resulting persecution.

For Schrecker, this approach is most effective in her treatment of how and why Communism came to be the obsession of the repressive apparatus of the national security state. Such a clarification helps her to specify the mechanisms by which McCarthyism operated in tandem with business, educational institutions, the church, and the culture industry.

There exist several earlier studies that are well-researched and exciting, especially David Caute’s dramatic and compelling The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (1978), but also other respected books theorizing about the social basis and appeal of McCarthyism.

Yet Schrecker’s positing of a symbiotic relationship between the witch hunters and the “witches” opens the door to new kinds of thinking about the meaning of the events of that era for the U.S. Left. Her view is that we may avoid a modern-day replay only by facing the facts necessary to understanding how the repression actually worked.

In a strategy that shuttles between very specific analyses of select episodes and cogent generalizations about larger forces at work, Schrecker divides her book of ten chapters into four major units. These treat the relationship between the Communist movement and those who set out to destroy it; the propaganda about and reality of “The Communist Threat”; the strategies engaged by the FBI, McCarthy, and employers to smash those who would not cooperate with the witch hunt; and the longer-term consequences of the repression.

It is crucial to Schrecker’s argument that “McCarthyism” be understood not merely as the dangerous antics of one bizarre senator. The term became popularized as a symbolic representation for the long wave of post-World War II political repression, which had prewar antecedents.

Even more troubling, McCarthyism was a reactionary anticommunist crusade that had a significant component of liberal and social democratic apologists. Its immediate impact was its quashing of free political discussion, the hounding of thousands of leftists, and the destruction of scores of left-wing institutions. The long-term effects are still being felt.


Schrecker maintains that the key development enabling this attack occurred prior to McCarthy’s prominence. This was due to the ascendancy of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI during the 1930s. In fact, if she had her choice, the phenomenon would be known as “Hooverism,” with McCarthy’s contribution merely one aspect of the antiradical assault.

The situation in the United States contrasts with that of other liberal democratic nations (England, France, Italy, Canada), which did not combine their anti-Soviet foreign policy with such rabid anticommunist domestic repression. Here, anticommunist activists like FBI director Hoover “seized the opportunity . . . to sell their supposed expertise about Communism to the rest of the political establishment, whose members . . . knew little about the enemy they claimed to oppose.”

The subsequent onslaught of “Congressional hearings, criminal prosecutions, loyalty screenings, FBI investigations, Supreme Court decisions . . . alerted the rest of the nation to the alleged threat. . . and thus cleared the way for the other sanctions . . .” (xv).

One of the most impressive features of Schrecker’s method is her use of the “New History” of U.S. Communism. This approach is noteworthy for its employment of the “bottom up” perspective of social history and the attribution of greater individual agency to militants who saw the movement as a means to fulfill their political ideals and emotional needs.

Her understanding of U.S. Communism, rather than being derived exclusively from documents and policy decisions, is of a “complicated and contradictory . . . political movement that was both subservient to the Kremlin and genuinely dedicated to a wide range of social reforms, a movement whose adherents sometimes toed the party line and sometimes did not even receive it.” (xiii)

Thus her narrative of “The World of American Communism” begins not with a pronouncement from Moscow but with a young Croatian named Steve Nelson who arrived in Philadelphia in 1923 to work as a carpenter. Schrecker describes why Nelson chose to join the Communist movement before she moves to an overview of the history of the Party and its political dependence on the USSR.

This latter aspect—the Party membership’s complete defense of the Soviet Union—became one of the key features rendering the Party vulnerable to McCarthyism’s demonizations. Schrecker is unambiguous in the horror she feels about what occurred in the USSR:

The terror that the Soviet government unleashed against its own people during the 1930s and 1940s was a genuine atrocity. An entire generation of communist leaders was put on trial, falsely accused of collaborating with enemies of the regime, forced to confess, and then shot. And millions of other people were executed or died in the slave labor camps of the Soviet Gulags. (20)

Hence the examples that Schrecker provides of secondary Party leaders who rationalized the trials are aimed at suggesting how idealistic people are subject to the same human frailties as anyone else who makes a passionate commitment, and who subsequently cannot accept contradictory information.

One instance is that of Peggy Dennis (wife of Party leader Eugene Dennis), who actually saw friends disappear while she was in Moscow. Dennis came to accept such horrors as part of the terrible cost “of building an oasis of socialism in a sea of enemies.” (20)

In the case of John Gates, a political commissar for the Party-led Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain, it seemed inconceivable that Stalin would have forced people of such stature to confess to such extraordinary crimes: “Could such vileness be perpetrated by the man who was doing more than anyone else in the whole world to help democracy in Spain?” (20)

Dennis and Gates were typical in their pro-Sovietism in their being motivated neither by a desire for violence nor an opposition to democracy. They rationalized what others recognized as mass murder out of a belief that the USSR represented something precious, a fragile experiment that must be given the benefit of the doubt due to its professed humanitarian goals and beleaguered circumstances.

Strength from Unity

So, to what extent were more rank-and-file Party members mere soldiers in Stalin’s army, unthinkingly carrying out orders from above? In Communist Party centers like New York City, where the chain of command was clear and direct, political flip-flops and undemocratic decision-making were often tolerated by members because they saw the extraordinary strength that came from unity, especially when faced by powerful enemies.

On the other hand, in regions such as Alabama, lines of communication were hazy and Party members regularly developed their own tactics. Moreover, “influential” figures in the labor movement, as well as some lawyers and other professionals operated with quasi-independence from “Party discipline” for various reasons.

In any event, what made one part of the Communist movement, formally or informally, was always a personal conviction that the Party and Moscow stood almost alone against fascism, racism and exploitation. Thus an ordinary Party supporter who aided the international communist movement did not necessarily think of himself or herself as “subversive” to the United States, but of demonstrating the highest expression of genuine patriotism and loyalty to all humanity.

What about the secrecy (lying about one’s membership, the frequent use of “Party names”) for which Party members would later pay such a price? This kind of clandestinity was not employed by Communist Party members to such an extent in other bourgeois democracies. It seems likely, therefore, that the prevalence of such practices was primarily a response to U.S.-style political repression. Antiradical violence was especially virulent in the South and rural areas, where Communists were often beaten and sometimes killed.

Yet there was not always agreement about whether U.S. conditions required one to mislead people regarding one’s ideological and organizational commitments. Communist union activists, for example, were divided between those who thought that an open proclamation of their Party affiliation would hurt effective action, and those who believed that their secrecy was creating distrust (and depriving the Party of garnering the real credit it deserved).

Most significant for the McCarthyites, a small number of Party members were also secretive because they spied for the KGB (the Soviet secret police) or carried out missions for the Communist International (as did Steve Nelson in the early 1930s).

The Party’s clandestine aspect is what accounts for McCarthyism’s emphasis on “exposure” of crypto- Communists as its major tactic. This work of unmasking present and past Party supporters was carried out largely by the red-baiting industry, a collaborative network among the FBI, labor leaders, journalists, priests, ex-Communists and ordinary private citizens that emerged to point the finger at targets for the assault.

One of the figures involved, a former member of the Lovestone faction (a grouping expelled from the Party in 1929), Benjamin Mandel, had inside information from years of work as a functionary. Others simply collected names from left-wing publications and letterheads of groups supporting Party causes.

Referring to the scholarship of political scientist Michael Rogin, Schrecker additionally argues that such anticommunist business operations fed into the American public’s “countersubversive imagination,” a longstanding national tradition of fear that “some kind of alien external force had entered the body politic and threatened to destroy it from within.” (47)

Bigotry was another factor assisting the witch hunt, because many on the left were born in Eastern Europe or children of recent immigrants. Moreover, an attack on the Left coincided with the antilabor policies of big business.

Crucial to the law enforcement component of the McCarthy era was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, an empire-builder who operated under the ideology that Communism was a threat to Western Civilization. The federal government entered the anti-Red crusade in a complicated way, due to the fact that the FBI possessed considerable independence. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not particularly obsessed with Communism, but he was willing to spy on and harass the Left, doing much to give Hoover his start.

It was also under Roosevelt, in 1938, that the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities (then called the Dies Committee and later HUAC) was created, ostensibly to investigate “un-American” propaganda but soon focusing on alleged Communist influence in CIO unions and New Deal agencies.

Criminalization of the Party

Yet this 1930s development was not on the same plane as the outright criminalization of Communist affiliation that occurred in the post-World War II years. The new stage would be achieved by the widespread dissemination of the idea that the Party was a criminal conspiracy under Soviet control.

Anticommunist Hollywood films, sensational spy and Smith Act trials, lurid published testimonies of former Communists, distortions of passages from Lenin’s writings, misogynist propaganda claiming that Communist mothers were neglectful and made domineering wives, anti-Semitism (portraying Communism as especially attractive to Jews who didn’t fit in with U.S. society), racism (depicting Communists as stirring up race hatred and luring African Americans males with white women), were all part of the antiradical propaganda offensive.

In Schrecker’s assessment, such efforts paid off as the Cold War intensified:

Americans at every level of society genuinely believed that Communism endangered the nation. The perceived threat was quite specific: subversion, espionage, and sabotage. Communists would try to overthrow the government or at least undermine its policies on behalf of their Soviet masters. They would spy for the Kremlin. And if war came, they would try to sabotage the nation’s defense industries and other vital facilities. (154)

As a consequence, it was not long before suspected Party supporters “had few rights that any official body had to respect” (190).

Schrecker holds that the 1949 Smith Act conviction of the Party leadership (“The Dennis Case”) was the triumph of Hooverism, the centerpiece of the FBI’s educational campaign. The Party leaders did not respond like many of the other accused Communists in Hollywood or in academe, who tried to defend their rights under the First Amendment, or, if they wanted to avoid “naming names” as well as imprisonment for “contempt,” used the Fifth Amendment.

Instead, Eugene Dennis and the others openly proclaimed their Communist convictions and their right to hold them before the American public. Of course, the strategy failed, due largely to the massive ignorance and prejudice of the frightened population. Thus the scene was set for the following year, when Senator Joe McCarthy emerged as a national figure to drag the crusade farther into the gutter than ever before.

Schrecker concludes her extraordinary survey with a meditation on the subsequent fear that “blossomed during the McCarthy years and reverberates to this day.” (360) She reports that several of the people she approached for the purpose of sympathetically telling their stories—people accused of espionage such as Judith Coplon and Harry Magdoff—refused to cooperate.

Others granted interviews but remained coy about whether they had ever been Party members, even if the reference was to forty or fifty years earlier. At this late date, and with a crying need to clarify the record, such responses seem misguided in light of Schrecker’s good-faith effort to fairly represent the Communist experience.

Still, the price paid by victims of McCarthyism is sufficient to cause one to have some degree of compassion for such reticence. Schrecker estimates that about 10,000 to 12,000 people lost jobs; a few committed suicide and some probably died from stress related to persecution; scores were imprisoned where they became subject to racist practices, murderous attacks and poor medical treatment; hundreds were injured by right-wing mob violence following a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York; an unknown number fled to Europe and Latin America; and there was considerable psychological damage unleashed on family members of the persecuted.

Schrecker also emphasizes the grave consequences for U.S political life due to a generation of labor, civil rights and socialist activists being harassed into silence, or excluded from liberal organizations due to the fear that past affiliations of former Communists might be exposed in order to discredit the causes in which they were now involved.

McCarthyism deserves a good bit of the blame for the U.S. government’s ill-informed and retrograde foreign policy, the diminishment of social content in Hollywood films, a decline in the quality of critical-minded education, and so forth.

Friedan and the Cold War

Schrecker’s observation about the narrowing of the political culture of the 1950s are demonstrated by Daniel Horowitz’s sensitive study of the impact of the Cold War on the creation of Betty Friedan’s “Second Wave” feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Through a meticulous examination of available portions Friedan’s private papers and a cautious reconstruction of the most elusive years of her life, Smith College historian Horowitz defends a striking thesis: Friedan’s book became a best seller among middle-class liberals precisely because it eschewed the author’s Old Left experiences that had made such a project possible in the first place.

In other words, without a substantial training in the culture and institutions of the Old Left, Friedan might never have produced this challenge to the “false consciousness” of the image to which women in bourgeois society were expected to conform (“the feminine mystique”).

At the same time, due to McCarthyism’s assault on the left, Friedan perhaps semiconsciously self-censored herself into writing a liberal, not a radical book. The Feminine Mystique blames individual women for their psychological malaise, and urges a middle-class professional career as the way to independence and fulfillment.

Notions that men and women might share housework (or that some collective solution might be developed), or that workplace alienation might be a problem for women, too, receive little consideration. The book’s perspective contradicts the class-based and race-conscious critique of capitalist society evident in Friedan’s earlier writings.

Horowitz’s study is in the form of an intellectual biography that takes its theme from his contrasting of Friedan’s 1973 claim that she “wasn’t even conscious of the woman problem” before the 1960s, and his discovery of her authorship of a 1952 pamphlet published by the United Electrical Workers (a Communist-led union) called UE Fights for Women Workers.

The pamphlet argues against gender-based wage discrimination and praises women “fighters” who “refuse any longer to be paid or treated as some inferior species by their bosses, or by any male workers who have swallowed the bosses’ thinking” (1). Friedan’s pamphlet was used for a 1953-54 course at the Party’s Jefferson School on “The Woman Question,” taught by Eleanor Flexner, who would herself publish the first scholarly history of the women’s movement, Century of Struggle (1959).

Horowitz begins with the birth of Bettye (the final “e” was dropped when she graduated college) Goldstein to a well-to-do Jewish family in Peoria, Illinois in 1921. His narrative climaxes with the publication of her best-known book, and is followed by a twenty-five page conclusion bringing Friedan’s career up to date.

This breadth is important to his concern that Friedan’s left/labor associations not be seen as the sole explanatory factor for her intellectual work; for example, Friedan’s awareness of her mother’s frustration at abandoning her own journalism career and her economic dependence on her older husband were surely formative influences.

At the same time, Horowitz is skillful in recreating the various subcultures in which Friedan lived and worked throughout her life, so as to take into account the full range of ideas to which she was exposed.

The first several chapters cover Friedan’s family life, teenage and college years. As a high school student in the late 1930s, Friedan was conscious of labor struggles, anti-Semitism and the fight against fascism in Spain, all reported by the school paper and literary magazine to which she contributed.

When she entered Smith College in 1938, the environment was even more politicized, and she was progressively drawn into the antifascist and pacifist milieu. Studying her published writings, student essays and other materials, Horowitz surmises that she became “fully radicalized” in 1940-41, during her junior and senior years. She studied with Left professors and her essays showed a Marxist approach, as well as a concern with the oppression of women. Soon she became outspoken on academic freedom and the rights of workers.

During the summer of 1941 she attended the left-wing Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for eight weeks, and that fall she threw herself into support efforts for the unionization of maids at Smith. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Friedan endorsed the U.S. war effort.

A graduate student in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1942-43, Friedan participated in an informal seminar on Marxism and psychology. She also began an affair with David Bohm, a graduate student in physics who soon joined the Communist Party and who worked under the radical scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

FBI records, which must always be viewed skeptically, state that in this period Friedan herself sought membership in the Communist Party (she claimed to already hold membership in the Young Communist League), as well as a job writing for the Party’s West Coast newspaper, People’s World. The report asserts that her membership application was opposed on the grounds that the movement was already top-heavy with intellectuals, and that she was told that she would have greater influence on behalf of the Party if she gained prominence in the field of psychology.

Although Friedan did, in fact, excel in her academic studies, she claims in The Feminine Mystique that she turned down a major fellowship and quit school at the behest of her lover, who didn’t want the competition. Horowitz, however, observes many other factors at work at the time, including a near-breakdown at the news of her father’s death (shortly after they quarrelled), a growing desire for activism, and an awareness that the anti-Semitism in the academy limited job opportunities. Moreover, her relationship with Bohm soon ended.

Popular Front Journalist

In 1943, Friedan moved to New York City and started working for the Federated Press, an independent news organization that served Communist and other Left-led unions. Three years later she switched over to the UE News, publication of the Communist-led United Electrical workers.

It is Horowitz’s argument that these nine years as a “Popular Front labor journalist” allowed Friedan “to gain perspectives central to her development as an activist, intellectual, and author” (102). By examining Friedan’s writings, and through interviews with people who knew her, Horowitz establishes that Friedan at times “articulated a clearly feminist position” from a class conscious and antiracist perspective (109).

Friedan would later blame her departure from Federated Press on the return of male war veterans to the staff. But Horowitz shows that the issue actually involved the seniority rights of James Peck, who had been imprisoned as a draft resister, as well as personality conflicts with editor Marc Stone (brother of radical journalist I.F. Stone). While Stone may well have harbored anti-female attitudes, he also regarded Friedan as ultra-radical at a time when the Federated Press was under increasing attack from the Right.

During her years working for the UE, Friedan contributed to the Communist Party’s New Masses (under the pseudonym Lillian Stone), and participated in a milieu in which women’s issues were frequently discussed. Friedan’s job ended in 1952 as the pressures of McCarthyism caused a crisis in UE membership.

As before, Friedan would later blame her unemployment on male chauvinism. In 1947 she married Carl Friedman, who changed his name to “Friedan” when he launched a career in theater, and she insists she was fired from the UE News because she became pregnant with a second child.

Yet Horowitz finds a more complicated situation, including evidence that she wanted to leave due to the difficulty of caring for two children while maintaining full-time work, but also due to general demoralization about the future of unions as instruments of social change.

Simultaneously, many of Friedan’s friends, associates, and former teachers came under political attack, going to prison and losing their jobs. Friedan’s one-time Berkeley boyfriend, Bohm, was hauled before HUAC in 1949, where he was accused of spying, and then barred from entering the Princeton University campus where he worked. Although never convicted of any crime, Bohm eventually felt forced to flee to Brazil, Israel and England. Before his death, he refashioned a career as a leading New Age philosopher of science.

During the 1950s Friedan combined the raising of three children with community activism and various kinds of journalism. Moving to a residential area of Queens, she edited the Parkway Villager for several years, and in 1956 the Friedans relocated to Rockland County, where Betty knew such 1950s radicals as Herbert Gutman, Harvey Swados and C. Wright Mills. Her articles appeared frequently in mass circulation periodicals such as Parents’ Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, and Good Housekeeping.

Friedan’s claim in later years that she had been held captive to suburban conformity in the 1950s is called into question by her teaching of writing classes at New York University and the New School for Social Research, and especially by her creation of an “Intellectual Resources Pool” in Rockland County.

This alternative institution brought artists, scientists, scholars and writers (including her radical friends) into the public school system, and also established mentor relationships and adult educational programs.

Horowitz presents a masterful chapter on “The Development of The Feminine Mystique,” demonstrating ways in which it grew out of—and yet masked and somewhat negated—her decades-long ties to the Old Left. The book was partly a response to McCarthyism. It was also affected by her disintegrating marriage.

On the one hand, what Horowitz describes as her central thesis—”that women would achieve emancipation only when they entered the paid work force”—came from Friedrich Engels. (201) But Friedan reworked the argument so as to appeal to middle-class readers, which also caused her to interpolate a startling homophobia through her warning that frustrated wives might turn their sons into homosexuals.

Revising the understanding of women’s history evident in her UE News writings, she ignored race and class aspects to talk of women’s long search for personal identity and growth. Horowitz notes that Friedan’s assumption, like other best-selling popular social criticism of the 1950s, was that “America’s main challenge was affluence, not poverty. Consequently, the problematic group was white, middle-class suburban people, not inner-city African Americans or rural poor whites.” (208)

Some references to antiracism and class oppression actually began to emerge in first drafts of The Feminine Mystique, but were dropped, along with a mention of the Communist movement’s interest in certain concerns of women.

Hidden Political Background

Horowitz’s provocative book about Friedan joins a growing number of other essays, dissertations and oral histories demonstrating how “Second Wave Feminism” was preceded by several decades of Old Left Feminism. Moreover, Second Wave Feminism was also, in part, a product of Old Left feminists who had gone underground for a while, but who now welcomed, fully embraced, and sometimes played leading roles in the revival of the movement.

Some, like Friedan and poet Eve Merriam, continued to hide their political background; others, like historians Gerda Lerner and Eleanor Flexner, maintained, in their writing, a high degree of continuity. Perhaps the most poignant part of Horowitz’s landmark study is the Introduction where he describes the moral dilemma he faced in identifying Friedan’s past political affinities in our continuing anticommunist culture.

On the one hand, there remain vicious neoconservative elements ready to oversimplify the Old Left experience of a figure like Friedan for the purpose of smearing the radical movement as a whole. At the same time, an understandable fear of such stereotyping, combined with genuine disillusionment (if not also feelings of betrayal) about aspects of the Old Left’s world view, encourage former radical participants—and their friends and family—to vigorously deny any such connections.

Thus Horowitz, once he disclosed the thesis of his book, was ostracized by Friedan and a number of her friends; he was also denied access to sections of her correspondence that might cast more light on the subject.

Such hostility has continued since the book’s publication, with two of the most prominent reviews, in Lingua Franca (April 1999) and The New York Times (9 May 1999), attributing to Horowitz opportunist motives and sensationalist claims that are nowhere in evidence in the book. In part the reviewers disparage Horowitz’s argument on the grounds that Friedan simply doesn’t fit their conception of the fullblown “Communist” paradigm, but also because they doubt that the Old Left really did much to empower women.

Of course, the point of the work of Horowitz, Schrecker and the most outstanding scholarship on the U.S. left is precisely that this paradigm is largely a Cold War fabrication, and that the accomplishments of the Old Left were always compromised by material and ideological constraints.

One did not have to hold a Party card or be a dour hack with no independent ideas to partake in the prevailing Old Left worldview that Marxism was a guide to history, the labor movement a force for progress, and the Party and Soviet Union in the vanguard of the struggle for peace and justice.

Nor did one have to live an ideal post-1960s feminist existence to receive certain benefits from having participated in a class-based antiracist movement in the 1940s and 1950s that at least had a notion of “male chauvinism” and talked about women’s rights.

The Independent Left

The costs of McCarthyism, then, must also include the severe damage done to our understanding of the continuity of U.S. radicalism. Rather than an aberration due to economic crisis and cultural rebellion as in the 1930s and 1960s, the Left tradition—including an ongoing resistance to patriarchy and racism—is as constant as the capitalist system which is largely responsible for producing such inequalities.

Yet Schrecker’s approach to assessing these costs may be somewhat complicit with this amnesia, due to a blind spot regarding political perspectives outside the alliance of Communists and liberals that she admires.

Missing from Many Are the Crimes are the voices of the 1950s Marxist Left that were independent of pro-Sovietism or liberal reformism. In the period under discussion, such trends, while dwarfed by the Communist movement, were certainly active and vocal, even if assaulted by the Communist Left (as crypto-fascist) and the right (as crypto-Communist). By and large they are associated with figures such as A. J. Muste, Sidney Lens, David Dellinger, and several remarkably well-edited publications variously identified with the Trotskyist movement.

In my view, Schrecker narrows the political spectrum far too much at the outset of her book by identifying large “C” Communism with Party membership, small “c” communism with the Party-led movement, and Marxism-Leninism with the Third International. (4)

This conflation of the diverse communist movement of the 1920s and after into the official Comintern-led Communist movement restricts far too much one’s vision of revolutionary Left political categories. It also renders it difficult to grasp that the political faction led by Stalin that came to power in the USSR and Comintern was but one expression—largely produced by historical conditions of economic underdevelopment and hostile encirclement—of what was originally a much broader political movement that held the potential for other outcomes.

While there may exist no consensus on all aspects of left-wing terminology, I think that it would be more accurate to use the small-”c” “communism” in the twentieth century to describe a revolutionary trend that embraces the October Revolution (which would include Council Communism), and to use “Marxism-Leninism” to apply to a range of factions in the Bolshevik movement (including Trotskyism, Bukharinism) as well as to later developments (Titoism, Castroism).

Surely Schrecker must be aware that individuals who broke away from both the U.S. Communist Party and the Communist movement would sometimes still identify themselves as small “c” communists to indicate commitment to the original ideals of the Bolshevik revolution but not the Stalinist distortion. (See, for example, the concluding remarks of former Harlem Party leader Howard “Stretch” Johnson in the 1981 documentary “Seeing Red.”)

Why delegitimize non-Soviet communist positions and concede to the “Evil Empire” theorists that all Communisms and Marxism-Leninisms are identical with the Stalin variant?

Schrecker then confuses the matter further by gratuitously inserting into her narrative the standard laundry list of anti-Trotskyist slanders from unidentified or unreliable sources. These include the claims that Stalin “adopted the revolutionary line that Trotsky had previously advocated” when he made his violently left turn in 1928 (11); that Trotsky was in the act of aiding the witch hunt committees when he was assassinated (81); and that Trotskyists (whom she frequently confuses with the deradicalizing group that became known as the “New York Intellectuals” after its break with Trotskyism) coined “Stalinism” as an “epithet” to establish a “complete identification between the Soviet regime and the American CP” (81).

In a softer tone, very much in contrast, she describes the Communist response to the indictment of the Trotskyists under the Smith Act in 1941 as one of failing to speak out against the prosecution. (104) In truth, the Party actively aided the government’s case and enthusiastically applauded the verdict!

Readers of her book will be hard-pressed to find evidence that Schrecker believes in the possibility that Marxist critiques of Stalinism in the 1950s could serve any function other than red-baiting.

Far Left Perspectives

Such lapses are regrettable, for the perspective of the non-aligned Far Left and of revolutionary pacifist movements of the Cold War era may offer some fresh thinking from the point of view of those who lived through the historical experiences.

For Schrecker, what is crucial is the validity of the Communist-liberal alliance to which she rightly attributes a central role in reform movements before McCarthyism. Indeed, for her the greatest cost of McCarthyism is that “The disappearance of the communist [sic] movement weakened American liberalism.” (412)

Thus, in judging the validity of the various trials and investigations, her focus is largely on how much damage the Party’s tactical mistakes, and especially its espionage activities, actually did to U.S. national interests:

But were these activities so awful? Was the espionage, which unquestionably occurred, such a serious threat to the nation’s security that it required the development of a politically repressive internal security system? (178)

At the present time, available information from Soviet archives and the FBI files persuade Schrecker that the answer is “no.” Of course, other scholars vehemently disagree with her assessment of how espionage affected the pace of development of the atomic bomb in the USSR and other matters, and new archival materials might persuade her to change her mind.

Schrecker is more than justified, however, in proceeding with caution regarding the sudden “boom” in the marketing of various secret police archives. Even as new holdings are disclosed, there are also questions about their legitimacy: many archival deposits are still partial; some are open to only select researchers; in some cases there may be financial incentives to produce certain kinds of “sensational” materials; there is a tendency in some reports to confuse an informant (Soviet agent) with the source (a person providing information, but who may not realize where that information is going); and there is a strong possibility of error in the mechanisms by which information translated from codes is transformed into identifications and narratives.

No one should uncritically embrace the claims of professors making new careers as the “first” or “exclusive” purveyors of these previously unavailable documents. Marxist scholars specializing in this era will of course want to take all new information into account. Yet there is no reason why further “revelations” about Alger Hiss and others should play a decisive role in assessing the character of U.S. Communism.

Even if it turns out that hundreds of individuals (the maximum figure suggested to date) tried to assist the Soviet Union by passing U.S. government classified information, the larger movement (which in the decades of its heyday easily affected a million U.S. citizens) is already established as an indigenous radical trend that chose to subordinate its general political orientation to its idealized view of the Soviet leadership.

The story of the U.S. Communist-led Left is far more about the Betty Friedans than the Whittaker Chamberses.

From this perspective, the overriding issue for Left scholars today should not be whether liberalism was corrupted by Communist espionage. The challenge should be to develop a balanced and fair-minded critique of the Communist experience that is unequivocally based on the interests of ordinary citizens of all nations.

Crucial is that the concerns and needs of common working people—including the inhabitants of colonies as well as former colonies, who are often subject to extreme racism and super-exploitation—are often quite different from the interests of the ruling elites of the U.S. government, big businesses, or the conservatized trade union bureaucracy. Those empowered by the capitalist system tended from 1917 onward to oppose Communism and the Soviet Union for their own reasons.

Moreover, there is also the question of whether one agrees with Schrecker that the ultimate tragedy of the anti-Communist assault was its weakening of liberalism. This view assumes that the social gains before McCarthyism were the self-generated product of a militant liberalism, rather than the consequence of an independent, often extra-parliamentary Left that threatened the system and forced liberalism to make concessions.

In the literature of the independent Marxist Left of the 1950s, what one finds are not judgments about the “guilt” or “innocence” of Party members from the point of view of the interests of the capitalist state. The revolutionary socialist authors were too aware that at that time the U.S. government was not only destroying the domestic labor and civil rights movement, but also using force and violence to extend its domination in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Indeed, revolutionary Marxists held that it was the exploitation, racism, warmongering and imperialism of the U.S. system that drove millions of people world-wide to look for assistance from the USSR and to succumb to the delusion that the Soviet system was the answer. The United States and other powerful capitalist states to a significant extent created Stalinism—through their opposition to justified social revolutions and national liberation struggles, which thereby forced the leaderships of such struggles into militarized and monolithic systems beholden to Stalin’s aid. Thus, opposition to Stalinism in ways that strengthened this oppressive power (for example, “critical support to the West”) was a self-defeating proposition.

For example, the Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon polemicized in a pamphlet called American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism (1947) that “Nothing is better calculated to lead the opponents of Stalinism in the United States astray than the simple description of this monstrosity as the agency of a foreign power . . . .” (30) Communism in the United States, although even more so in Europe, was also a genuine social movement with a base in the working class; it had won that base over decades because it seemed to provide an alternative to the bosses.

Hence, the appropriate approach to opposing Stalinism was to put forward a more attractive and effective policy for working-class liberation than did the Communists. This was a difficult but necessary objective for authentic anticapitalists of that time.

In particular, due to the Party’s political subordination to the USSR on international issues, the Communists were constrained from developing policies that put U.S. working-class interests first, especially in the era of its World War II alliance with the U.S. government.

Of course, it would be foolish to claim that such Marxist writings of the Cold War years provide all the answers then or for now. Cannon’s followers in the Socialist Workers Party seem to exaggerate in judging McCarthyism an “independent fascist movement” (Murry Weiss, “The Problem of Smashing McCarthyism,” Fourth International, Winter 1954), and even in declaring McCarthy himself “the fascist beast” (Murry Weiss, “McCarthyism: Key Issue in the 1954 Elections,” Fourth International, Summer 1954).

This view was disputed at length by the followers of Max Shachtman (see Julius Falk [Julius Jacobson], “McCarthy and McCarthyism” in New International, January-February 1954 and “Joe McCarthy: From Star to Bit Player,” New International, Spring 1955), although McCarthy’s authoritarianism was not denied. Shachtman himself, however, seems to have engaged in some polemical overkill of his own when he argued that the Communist Party was an “anti-proletarian current in the labor movement but not of the labor movement (“A Left Wing of the Labor Movement?” New International, September 1949).

Other informative perspectives on the nature of McCarthyism and the Communist Party appear in the pages of American Socialist (see especially Jules Geller, “McCarthyism—the Threat and Answer,” American Socialist, January 1954, and George Clarke, “The Secret of McCarthy’s Formula,” American Socialist, February 1954).

Among the most useful writings in popularizing an independent Left viewpoint on Communism were books by Sidney Lens, especially The Counterfeit Revolution (1952), and, later on, The Futile Crusade: Anti-Communism as American Credo (1964), The Promise and Pitfalls of Revolution (1974), and Unrepentant Radical: An American Activist’s Account of Five Turbulent Decades (1980).

The analysis of Bert Cochran, in the chapter called “Communist Party—Structure and Function” of Labor and Communism (1977), and the earlier chapter “Liberals and the Cold War” in Adlai Stevenson: Patrician Among Politicians (1969), is also indebted to this earlier tradition of which Cochran was once a part.

The present trend among Left historians of the domestic Cold War is rather disconcerting. It seems as if every year a new layer of radical scholars and journalists repudiate an earlier position—admitting that the Rosenbergs were Communists (which was denied for a long time); conceding that Julius Rosenberg was “guilty”; acknowledging that many of the claims of famous informers such as Elizabeth Bentley are now corroborated; and first denying and more recently acknowledging that there were links between the Communist Party organization itself and espionage.

In contrast, the independent revolutionary Left of the 1950s never doubted the possibility that, due to genuine anticapitalist revulsion and fear of fascism, all sorts of people might do what they could to oppose these forces. Some might well be driven to aid a country, such as the USSR, that they perceived as having the only government pledged to resist the Nazis, give aid to the revolt against colonialism, and allegedly “struggle for peace” against nuclear war.

If the Rosenbergs and Hiss did refuse to “confess” such assistance in order to keep from being forced to implicate others or fan the flames of international war in the atmosphere of hysterical repression, socialists might be forgiven for showing them some degree of sympathy for their courage and loyalty to idealistic beliefs, however tragically mistaken many of those beliefs turned out to be.

So far as I can tell, there was no way that the capitalist courts of the 1950s could have factored such misguided ideals into the judgment process. After all, an aim of those courts was precisely to terrorize targeted individuals into implicating their friends, comrades and even families as part of a vast conspiracy of foreign agents.

Instead, the focus of the independent and revolutionary Marxist Left at that time was on liberation. This meant exposing the fraudulent and biased nature of the court proceedings, warning against the reactionary trends that the anticommunist campaign was engendering in American political culture, and, above all, struggling to formulate the political strategy that might most effectively empower ordinary working people in the United States and elsewhere.

This legacy contains plenty of errors, heavy doses of sectarianism, and not a few illusions of its own. But it is a precious acquisition of the U.S.Left, especially for those looking beyond liberalism toward transformative solutions and authentic internationalism.

ATC 85, March-April 2000