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International Socialist Review Issue 12, June-July 2000

Rehabilitating McCarthyism

By William Keach

FOR ALMOST fifty years, the words "McCarthy" and "McCarthyism" have stood for a shameful period in American political history. During this period, thousands of people lost their jobs and hundreds were sent to prison. The U.S. government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Communist Party (CP) members, as Russian spies. All of these people were victims of McCarthyism, the witch-hunt during the 1940s and 1950s against Communists and other leftists, trade unionists and civil rights activists, intellectuals and artists. Named for the witch-hunt's most zealous prosecutor, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), McCarthyism

was the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history. In order to eliminate the alleged threat of domestic Communism, a broad coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and other anticommunist activists hounded an entire generation of radicals and their associates, destroying lives, careers, and all the institutions that offered a left-wing alternative to mainstream politics and culture. That anticommunist crusade...used all the power of the state to turn dissent into disloyalty and, in the process, drastically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable political debate.[1]

Since the 1950s, most Americans have condemned the McCarthyite witch-hunts and show trials. By large majorities, Americans oppose firing communists from their jobs or banning communist speakers or books.[2] But over the past several years, increasing numbers of historians, writers and intellectuals have sought to minimize, explain away and justify McCarthyism. A spate of books and articles touting new historical evidence has tried to demonstrate that communism posed a real danger to American society in the 1940s and 1950s. They argue that even if some innocent people suffered and McCarthy was reckless, he was responding to a real threat.[3] As a result, Joe McCarthy doesn't look so irresponsible in hindsight.

The tendency to go soft on McCarthyism has been evident in popular culture as well. The presentation of a special Lifetime Achievement Award to director Elia Kazan at the 1999 Oscar ceremony is the most flagrant and controversial example. Another example of the current vogue for McCarthyite apologetics, William F. Buckley Jr.'s recent The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy, deserves special--and contemptuous--notice. The novel is an open, unabashed effort to turn McCarthy into a misunderstood, unappreciated hero.

It's not surprising that self-identified conservatives like Buckley would want to rehabilitate one of their heroes. But what is most disturbing about the efforts to restore McCarthy's good name has been the pathetic response of many on the left. Anti-McCarthy historian Ellen Schrecker urged a cease-fire on criticism of Kazan's award on the grounds that we should "separate Kazan the informer and Kazan the artist."[4] Even worse, Miriam and Walter Schneir, who established a case for the Rosenbergs' innocence in Invitation to an Inquest,[5] now say they were wrong. "Twenty years ago, I would have said that there weren't a significant number of American Communists who spied," liberal historian Maurice Isserman told the New York Times Magazine. "It's no longer possible to hold that view."[6]

In all of the charges and countercharges, it is easy to lose sight of what McCarthyism meant to millions of ordinary Americans. Miriam Zahler, the daughter of Detroit Communists, recalls:

My worst nightmare when I was seven or eight was that my mother would be taken the Rosenbergs had been from [their children]. Ethel and Julius were at the very center of my terror...I asked my mother why the Rosenbergs were in jail. For passing out some leaflets, she said; I concluded that if the Rosenbergs were in jail because they passed out leaflets, my mother, who also passed out leaflets, might be arrested too...

I was overcome with fear that my mother would not return from the June 14 [1953] demonstration [for the Rosenbergs]. I went into her bedroom closet and stood among her clothes and cried...My father tried to persuade me to come out, but I stood in the closet and wailed that I wanted my mother back--as if she had gone to meet the fate of the Rosenbergs, who were, in fact, electrocuted within the week.[7]

The tendency to rehabilitate or excuse McCarthyism raises important questions that socialists, and the left more generally, need to take up in a sharp and unequivocal way. Whatever their stated motivations, today's apologists for McCarthyism are justifying the political climate that terrorized millions like Zahler. It is crucial, therefore, for socialists and others on the left to confront those who are trying to dig up the stinking corpse of Joe McCarthy and breath new life into it.

Anticommunist hysteria in the 1940s and 1950s

In one sense, what we call "McCarthyism" represented the 1950s version of the antiradical campaigns waged by the U.S. government since its founding. An earlier period of anticommunist paranoia immediately followed the Russian Revolution. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson authorized his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, and Palmer's young assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, to conduct brutal raids on immigrant radicals and to jail and deport hundreds of left-wing "subversives." In 1938, during the second term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created to investigate supposed threats posed by subversive political organizations. At this time, the Communist Party in the U.S. (CPUSA) enjoyed high support in the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and in other political movements. On the eve of U.S. entry into the Second World War, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien Registration Act (better known as the Smith Act), which made a federal crime of advocating or belonging to an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The first prosecutions carried out under the Smith Act, in 1941, were directed against 29 members of the Socialist Workers Party. Some of the accused had played leading roles in the great 1934 "Teamster Rebellion" strike in Minneapolis.[8]

In another sense, McCarthyism marked a unique departure from earlier antiradical campaigns. Unlike earlier "red hunts," McCarthyism went far beyond curtailing the activities of radical political activists. It aimed to enforce an ideological conformity throughout society in order to mobilize the U.S. population behind the U.S. side in the Cold War with the USSR. In March 1947, Democratic President Harry Truman announced the "Truman Doctrine," committing the U.S. to intervention against "communism" around the world. To fight the Cold War, the U.S. had to maintain a huge military establishment on a near-permanent war footing. Supporting that military establishment required the diversion of billions of dollars from pressing domestic needs. To sell this kind of sacrifice to a population that had just emerged from the Second World War, Truman would have to "scare hell out of the country," said Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.).[9] Anticommunist hysteria served Truman's purposes.

Ten days after declaring the "Truman Doctrine," Truman issued Executive Order 9835, setting in motion a program to hunt down any "infiltration of disloyal persons" in the federal government. Not long thereafter, Attorney General Tom Clark announced his list of "subversive organizations," membership in which would brand anyone as disloyal. Historian Howard Zinn writes,

Though Truman would later complain of the Űgreat wave of hysteria' sweeping the nation, [he]...was in large measure responsible for creating that very hysteria. Between the launching of his security program in March 1947 and December 1952, some 6.6 million persons were investigated. Not a single case of espionage was uncovered, though about 500 persons were dismissed in dubious cases of Űquestionable loyalty.'[10]

Subsequent events--like the 1949 Russian atomic tests, the 1949 victory of Mao's Communists in the Chinese Revolution and the 1950˝53 Korean War--heightened the hysteria against "communism."

In 1947, HUAC launched its notorious investigation of the entertainment industry, with a particular focus on Hollywood. The appalling practice of blacklisting writers, directors and actors suspected of having ties to the CP began in this year. A group of ten screenwriters and directors who were summoned to testify before the committee (the "Hollywood Ten") refused to answer questions about their own political allegiances and those of their colleagues. "The Ten included some of the most talented writers in Hollywood, and politically the most active," wrote Victor Navasky.[11] Because of their unwillingness to cooperate with HUAC, the Hollywood Ten were charged with contempt of court, fired by the studios they regularly worked for, and imprisoned. Their sentencing led Hollywood bosses to conduct an anticommunist purge of their own. Actors and writers were forced to declare in writing that they had never been members of the CP. In the years that followed, many refused and had their careers destroyed. Others, like Elia Kazan, became part of Hollywood's complicity with U.S. state repression.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required all union officials to sign a non-Communist affidavit affirming that they did not belong to or sympathize with any communist or subversive organization. Unions whose officials refused to sign the affidavit were denied any government protection through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Unions that failed to sign the affidavits could not participate in NLRB elections or appeal to the NLRB to hear their complaints of unfair labor practices. Section 9(h) of the Taft-Hartley Act was especially damaging to left-led unions and eventually became a tool used by the leadership of the CIO itself to expel its left-wing members.

HUAC began seriously targeting suspected Communists within the federal government in 1948. Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor and former CPUSA member, accused Alger Hiss, then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official, of being a CPUSA member and spy. Newly elected Rep. Richard Nixon led the attack on Hiss in HUAC. Hiss was indicted and, after two trials, was found guilty of perjury and sent to prison in 1950. Hiss, who died in 1996, maintained his innocence until his death.

In 1950, Congress passed the Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, establishing a Subversive Activities Control Board to monitor and track down left-wing radicals. It required registration of all "Communist organizations," strengthened existing espionage laws, amended immigration and naturalization laws to restrict the entry into the U.S. of presumed subversives, and made it possible for the government to detain "suspected" spies and saboteurs in times of emergency. Truman signed the McCarran Act into law in 1952.

The repressive apparatus that grew from these laws spread throughout all levels of government and all major institutions. State governments, colleges and universities, trade unions and civic organizations purged workers and members who refused to sign loyalty oaths. The repression reached absurd levels. People applying for licenses to fish in New York reservoirs had to sign loyalty oaths. Physics students at the University of Chicago feared that signing a petition calling for the installation of a Coke machine in the laboratories would signal their "disloyalty."

Liberal organizations offered little resistance--or joined wholeheartedly with the witch-hunters. United Auto Workers (UAW) President Walter Reuther, a former member of the Socialist Party of America, launched an extended campaign to oust Communists and their allies from his union. Morris Ernst, New York co-counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and a founder of the National Lawyers Guild, helped J. Edgar Hoover and the Roosevelt administration with their surveillance of communists. "His reputation as a civil libertarian made him particularly useful to Hoover, who often turned to him for help in dealing with the liberal community," Schrecker writes.[12] In 1948, liberal icon Thurgood Marshall, the leading lawyer for the NAACP and later the first Black Supreme Court justice, expelled W. E. B. Du Bois and other less famous members of the NAACP because they were Communists.[13] Marshall fingered many suspected radicals in the NAACP to the FBI.

McCarthy began his first term in the Senate in 1947, the year of the Hollywood Ten tragedy. On February 9, 1950, he entered the national limelight with a speech before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he proclaimed: "I have here in my hand a list of 205--a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." Reelected in the Eisenhower-Republican landslide of 1952, McCarthy became chair of the Government Operations Committee and launched his anti-Communist crusade in earnest, holding widely publicized hearings and calling a wide range of suspected "enemies of the American way" before his committee.

But McCarthy's crazed rise to power quickly got the better of his political opportunism. In April 1954 he accused none other than Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens of concealing evidence of espionage activity allegedly uncovered at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. The army and its key government supporters struck back, formally accusing McCarthy of improper use of his investigative powers. McCarthy was technically cleared of these charges in August 1954, but in December of that year the Senate voted to condemn him for contempt of an elections subcommittee investigating his behavior in office. For a while an effective attack dog in the government's campaign to crush radical left politics, McCarthy had shown himself to be an uncontrollable and embarrassing extremist who had to be taken down. When the Democrats regained control of Congress in the 1954 midterm elections, his power and influence diminished still further. He died in 1957, debt-ridden and disgraced in the eyes of most Americans.

This short history of McCarthyism suggests some general points.

First, "McCarthyism" is not simply a synonym for "intolerance." That's why it's nonsense when conservatives label feminists and antiracists as "McCarthyites" because they supposedly uphold "politically correct" (PC) orthodoxies--like intolerance for racism or sexism. McCarthyism stands for the entire apparatus of repression set up in the 1940s and 1950s. The real McCarthyites had the full weight and power of the government behind them. Yet the "PC" bashers--themselves supporters of Cold War conservatism and defenders of real McCarthyism--argue that those who challenge conservative ideas are guilty of McCarthyism.

Second, while McCarthy himself was a Republican, and while right-wing Republicans used McCarthyite tactics to discredit Democratic Party liberals, the Democrats supported the witch-hunts just as much. HUAC and the Smith Act were both products of the Roosevelt years. As early as 1936, near the beginning of his second term, Roosevelt authorized J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to renew the hunt for leftist subversives. Both major parties in the U.S. were committed to defending the system that gave them their power, and both prosecuted the Cold War. Both were willing to exploit anticommunist paranoia to their own political advantage. As David Caute puts it, Truman's administration "manured the soil from which the prickly cactus called McCarthy suddenly and awkwardly shot up."[14] McCarthyism was not some bizarre, extremist aberration. The highest levels of the U.S. government and the employers supported it.

Third, McCarthyism had a far greater impact on ordinary Americans than it did on prominent and famous people. McCarthyism is often remembered as an attack on the creativity and free speech rights of academics, writers and intellectuals like the Hollywood Ten. While it was certainly that, it was much more. Thousands lost their jobs and saw their families' lives ruined. Organized labor was "the most important institutional victim of the Cold War red scare," in part because some labor leaders, with their ties to ruling-class politicians, "collaborated with the witch-hunt," according to Schrecker.[ ]"McCarthyism weakened the entire labor movement, damaging Communists and anti-Communists alike."[15] But by the end of the 1950s, Communists and other leftists had been driven out of or marginalized in most unions. As a result, McCarthyism boosted the control of conservative business unionists in the labor movement. It constricted labor's organizing agenda and weakened its confidence to take on the bosses. Labor's long decline in American life began with the triumph of McCarthyism. We are still paying the price today.

Post˝Cold War historians: Justifying the anticommunist cause

A major source of the current tendency to soften and qualify condemnation of McCarthyism is the work of academic historians. Some of these historians are outright reactionaries. Others are former Cold War "Sovietologists" and "Russian specialists" who have responded to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 by burying themselves in the past and insisting that the old "Communist threat" was even more severe than we realized. Conditions following the breakup of the Soviet Union have resulted in "a flood of scholarship" and "a replay of old battles."[16]

Serious recent attention to McCarthyism dates from Richard Gid Powers' 1995 "neoconservative" Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism.[17] Powers' book has been widely influential and needs a close critical look. But to take in the full political spectrum of the new scholarship on McCarthyism, we must begin by looking even further to the right, at Arthur Herman's Joseph McCarthy: Reexaming the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator.

Herman, a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia and the coordinator of the Western Civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, has written the academic equivalent of Buckley's novel The Redhunter. His book is an unabashed 400-page effort at rehabilitation. For Herman, McCarthy may have occasionally exaggerated and even lied in hounding down suspected Communists, but he was fundamentally "more right than wrong in terms of the larger picture."[18] Herman wears his right-wing political bias on his sleeve. McCarthy, he says, "is part and parcel of what modern conservatism is all about"; he "fed the rebirth of American conservatism" at a crucial moment in its effort to challenge New Deal liberalism.[19]

Herman's exuberant enthusiasm for McCarthy stands in apparent contrast to Powers' perspective in Not Without Honor. McCarthy was an ignorant and irresponsible fanatic, says Powers. McCarthyism disgraced and "irrevocably split the anticommunist movement." Powers contends that

McCarthyism, red-baiting, and blacklisting were only one aspect of [the anticommunist] struggle and that the movement was in fact composed of a wide range of Americans--Jews, Protestants, blacks, Catholics, Socialists, union leaders, businessmen, and conservatives--whose ideas and political initiatives were rooted not in ignorance and fear but in knowledge of and experience with the Communist system.[20]

Powers' argument is important precisely because it condemns McCarthy. The strategy goes like this: With the shameful and disgusting record of McCarthy acknowledged and out of the way, anticommunism can be cleansed and celebrated as the noble cause it truly is. To sophisticated anticommunists like Powers, the anticommunist cause must be rescued not only from McCarthy, but also from his most fanatical 1950s supporters--anti-Semites, racists and bigots. So Powers merely repackages the standard argument of liberal anticommunists--the Hubert Humphreys and Harry Trumans--of the 1950s. "A persistent complaint of liberals was that Joe McCarthy, by his inaccuracies, damaged the legitimate cause of anti-Communism. The legitimate cause expressed itself by sending old ladies to jail on the solemn finding that they were a clear and present danger," noted a well-known liberal journalist of the time.[21] That the 1950s liberal argument can become the 1990s neoconservative argument shows just how little different was the attitude of liberals and conservatives to anticommunism.

Given the right-wing bias of so much of the recent historical scholarship on McCarthyism, Ellen Schrecker's 1998 Many Are the Crimes has to be regarded as a valuable and welcome alternative. Her uncompromising exposure of McCarthyism in all its forms is admirable. Her account of the effects of McCarthyism in and on the labor movement is indispensable.

"[T]here was not one, but many McCarthyisms," Schrecker asserts in her "Introduction," "each with its own agenda and modus operandi."[22] She is much more accurately informative than Powers about liberal anticommunism and its relation to the right-wing persecutions led by HUAC and later by McCarthy. Nevertheless, in referring to the various strands of U.S. anticommunism as "many McCarthyisms," she tends to blur important distinctions among the different sources of active opposition to the CPUSA. Schrecker's blurring of the differences within U.S. anticommunism reflects some actual historical blurring. Wherever their starting point, all of the different "McCarthyisms" ended at the same place.

All forms of anticommunism revealed the core politics of the individuals or groups in question. Liberals rightly opposed the oppression and brutality of Stalin's regime, but they also supported the U.S. in the Cold War. They believed that U.S. capitalism could be made fair and humane. Liberal organizations, such as organized labor, the NAACP and Americans for Democratic Action, supported the witch-hunts because they wanted to demonstrate their "loyalty" to the United States. Moreover, those organizations' leaders (like Reuther and Marshall mentioned earlier) found that McCarthyite repression helped them to isolate and drive out militant opposition to their policies. The Taft-Hartley Act gave "responsible" union leaders a number of tools to use against militants in their ranks.

All of the recent historians of McCarthyism and anticommunism, including Schrecker, make use of previously secret evidence from the files of the KGB, the CIA, and other such entities concerned with Cold War espionage and state police activities. Most prominent among the academics who have specialized in studying the Cold War archives are John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Their most recent book, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, has received a great deal of attention.

Haynes, a historian at the Library of Congress, and Klehr, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, have been turning out books on Soviet spies and the CPUSA right through the 1990s. In 1995 they published The Secret World of American Communism; in 1998, The Soviet World of American Communism. All of their recent books are published by Yale University Press, apparently the upscale publisher of choice these days for anticommunist, anti-left academic wisdom.

In their most recent book, Haynes and Klehr focus on the recently declassified Venona Project transcripts. Venona was a top-secret government operation. Started in the 1940s, it involved cryptanalysts, linguists and mathematicians who were dedicated to decoding some 3,000 intercepted Soviet intelligence cables sent to supposed agents and sources in the United States. Truman himself seems to have been unaware of Venona. Drawing primarily on the Venona files and cross-referencing them with the recently and selectively opened KGB and CIA files and archives of the CP of the Soviet Union, Haynes and Klehr claim to have confirmed a vast network of U.S. citizens (most of them CPUSA members or fellow travelers) working as Soviet spies.

Haynes and Klehr's characteristic method of argument involves the selective quoting or paraphrasing of translations of the Venona cables. We are never presented with the entire text of a cable, either in Russian or in English, so that we can judge the accuracy of the conclusions based on them. If, for example, you want to test the validity of Haynes and Klehr's assertion that the Venona material "unmistakeably showed that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent,"[23] you won't find the full evidence quoted in the book. What we get instead is a narrative of what Haynes and Klehr think--and want us to think--peppered with references to particular cables that are never quoted:

Among the Venona cables...there is a KGB message dated November 14, 1944, and devoted entirely to the work of Julius Rosenberg. Among other matters, it reported that Ruth Greenglass had agreed to assist in Űdrawing in' David [Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother], and that Julius would brief her before she left for New Mexico.[24]

The footnote to this passage simply says "Venona 1600 KGB New York to Moscow, 27 November 1944." Why should we take on faith Haynes and Klehr's version of what this cable says? This method of selective quotation and drawing exaggerated conclusions based on the barest evidence is typical of their other books as well.

A recently declassified FBI report originally distributed on February 1, 1956, indicates that the bureau's leadership seriously doubted the reliability of the Venona decrypts. Alan H. Belmont, third in the FBI line of command at the time, says in the report that the Venona messages "are, for the most part, very fragmentary and full of gaps." He goes on to doubt that they would ever stand as evidence in a court of law.[25] Even though the FBI doubted the Venona transcripts, Haynes and Klehr consider them a "smoking gun."

The two authors accept this flimsy evidence because it bolsters their case against the CPUSA. Haynes and Klehr make a pro forma repudiation of the excesses of "demagogues such as McCarthy."[26] But their real agenda supports McCarthyism. Their shiftiness is so flagrant that it produces a kind of doublespeak:

To say that the CPUSA was nothing but a Soviet fifth column in the Cold War would be an exaggeration; it still remains true that the CPUSA's chief task was the promotion of communism and the interests of the Soviet Union through political means. But it is equally true that the CPUSA was indeed a fifth column working inside and against the United States in the Cold War.[27]

Haynes and Klehr revive the exaggerated rhetoric of McCarthyism even as they try to give the appearance of rejecting it. But they focus on the key question underlying all of the debate about McCarthy: What was the real nature of the CPUSA, the most important radical force in American life in the twentieth century?

The CPUSA: Stalinist conspiracy or fighter for the working class?

Historians of American communism have traditionally fallen into one of two camps. "Orthodox" writers like Haynes, Klehr and Theodore Draper have stressed the CPUSA's connections to the USSR. In this view, the CPUSA acted as a satellite of the Kremlin, and its members acted as "agents of Moscow." Not all, but many of the historians in this camp see the CPUSA as essentially an espionage organization from top to bottom, mechanically and slavishly following the dictates of Stalin and his henchmen.

The other historical camp, the "revisionists" like Isserman, Mark Naison, Robin D.G. Kelley and Roger Keeran, turn the orthodox perspective upside down. These historians, many of them influenced by the New Left movements of the 1960s, downplay the CPUSA's connections to Moscow. To them, the CPUSA was a party made up primarily of serious and committed workers and activists who accomplished very important gains for labor and civil rights. In its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, the CPUSA provided a vehicle to express a genuine American radicalism, the revisionists argue.[ 28]

These academic battle lines provide grist for debates in journals and magazines. But both provide a one-sided perspective of the CPUSA. To truly understand the CPUSA, one must start with an understanding of the "dual role of the Communist parties in the West--as agents of Moscow and as a collection of fighting individual militants, strangled by the same bureaucracy."[29] The party was neither completely an agent of Moscow nor completely an expression of American workers' radicalism. It was both, and the tension between these two elements contributed to its demise.

At the time of the stock market crash of October 1929, CPUSA membership stood at about 7,000. Yet despite its small size and its Stalinist perspective, the CPUSA established a real connection with and helped to lead the upturn in working-class struggle in the U.S. that began in 1934.[30] It played a key role in the formation of the CIO in 1935 and in the building of the UAW and other major unions in the late 1930s. There can be no doubt that the party included many dedicated working-class organizers and militants. The party grew to involve as many as 100,000 members by the end of the 1930s.

A similar perspective is warranted when we look at the CPUSA's role in fighting racism and other forms of oppression. Books such as Naison's Communists in Harlem During the Depression and Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression show how effective the CPUSA was in organizing Black resistance to racism in housing, transportation and employment, and in attracting Black workers to the industrial unions in the 1930s. Black membership in the CPUSA rose from fewer than 1,000 in 1930 to more than 5,000 in 1939.[31] No wonder major Black artists and intellectuals such as Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes joined the CPUSA. The CPUSA also involved thousands of its members, Black and white, in theater, book clubs and poetry readings.

As the Depression bit in the early 1930s, the party followed Stalin's "Third Period" perspective, which urged it to denounce all liberals as "social fascists." It tried to build Communist-led "Red" unions, rather than attempting to organize from within existing unions. In 1936, Stalin--looking for alliances with the main capitalist powers against Hitler's Germany--dictated a shift to a radically different "Popular Front" perspective. During the Popular Front period, the CPUSA sought to accommodate itself to the very liberal politicians and labor leaders whom it had before denounced as "social fascists." This meant supporting the Democratic Party. In 1936, the CPUSA ensured Roosevelt's reelection by blocking the formation of a national labor party.

From the mid-1930s on, CPUSA collaboration with the Democrats and the U.S. government was coupled with a willingness to undermine the radical left and workers' organizations when it suited the party line to do so. This was especially the case during the Second World War, following the collapse of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1941, when Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union meant that the USSR and the U.S. would become allies. CPUSA cooperation with the Roosevelt administration went beyond all-out support for the war effort. In 1941 Earl Browder actively helped the government use the Smith Act to prosecute members of the Socialist Workers Party, some of whom had led the "Teamster Rebellion" of 1934.[32]

CPUSA members were avidly recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA, to spy for the U.S. in the Second World War. Carl Marzani, the CP's section leader in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, served throughout the war in the research and analysis branch of the OSS economic division.[33] Such collaboration was undertaken, of course, in the name of Popular Front antifascism, but the victims of OSS espionage were often "subversives" from the left rather than from the far right. The appalling political consequences of such collaboration were felt within the CPUSA as well. In early 1942, following Japan's December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, the CPUSA expelled all of its Japanese members. And the party remained silent on the U.S. government's policy of forced evacuation and incarceration of some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry.[34]

During the war, the CPUSA used its influence with the most committed and militant trade unionists to win support for wartime speedups, strike bans, and wage controls. The CP's superpatriotism helped bring the trade unions in line behind the U.S. war effort. Needless to say, this is one Moscow-directed CP policy that doesn't come in for criticism from anticommunists like Haynes and Klehr.[35] But it had grave consequences for the party after the war, as pro-CP historian Roger Keeran notes:

The dogmatic adherence to a policy of labor sacrifice at a time [as the U.S. turned the tide against Germany and Japan] when neither domestic nor international conditions clearly warranted it, inevitably eroded the influence of the Communists and CIO leaders as well.[36]

The party's flip-flops and its support for government repression against the Trotskyists and Japanese Americans left it few friends when the U.S. government turned on it.

During the 1930s and 1940s, revolutionaries correctly distinguished between the militant fighters at the base of the CPUSA and the party leaders who carried out Moscow's orders. Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky urged U.S. Trotskyists to fight to win members of the CPUSA to break with Stalinism:

I think that we can hope to win these workers who began as a crystallization of [the October Revolution in Russia]. We see them negatively; how to break through this obstacle. We must set the base against the top. The Moscow gang we consider gangsters, but the rank and file don't feel themselves to be gangsters, but revolutionists. If we show that we understand, that we have a common language, we can turn them against their leaders.[37]

Trotsky viewed Stalinism as "a current in the workers' movement" that had to be fought politically. Trotskyists wanted to win CP militants to fight for a genuine socialism against the U.S. and Russian ruling classes.

Unless one understands CPUSA history from the point of view of the dual role of the Western Communist parties, it's easy to fall into one of the other two historical camps. Seeing the CPUSA only as an agent of Moscow leads directly to McCarthyite conclusions. But refusing to acknowledge the stranglehold Stalinism held on the CPUSA also leads to the wrong conclusions. Many of the writers who have emphasized the party's "Americanism" have been caught short when confronted with allegations of CPUSA spying for the USSR. That explains much of the weak-kneed response of figures like Isserman and the Schneirs to the rehabilitation of McCarthyism.

Most historians now agree that by 1945, two years before McCarthy was even elected to the Senate, Soviet spy networks in the U.S. had been effectively stymied or dismantled.[38] As Isserman observes, "The average Communist in 1944 was far more likely to be a fur worker or a public school teacher than a policy maker in the Treasury Department" in a position to steal government secrets.[39] At most, a few hundred--out of more than 100,000--members of the CPUSA spied for the USSR.

While this may be true, it's beside the point. Debating the extent of CPUSA spying puts the discussion where the neo-McCarthyites want it. McCarthyism wasn't really about espionage. It was about enforcing an ideological straightjacket on U.S. society during the Cold War. McCarthyites didn't ban books and films because their creators handed state secrets over to the Russians. The threat of "reds under the bed" whipsawed ordinary Americans into accepting McCarthyism's restrictions on their rights and freedoms. As Chris Harman explains:

As ideological conformity was imposed on either side of the "iron curtain," a generation grew up under the shadow of "the bomb." Anyone in either camp who dared to oppose this monstrosity could expect to be labeled a supporter--or even an "agent"--of the other. All too often this labeling was accepted by those in opposition. Many socialists in the West and the Third World were misled into believing the rulers of the USSR were on their side, while many dissidents in the Eastern bloc believed Western leaders who claimed to stand for "freedom" and "democracy." Those who stood out against this nonsense at the beginning of the 1950s were tiny in number.[40]

The fact that some members of the CPUSA spied for the Soviet Union is evidence of the party's political bankruptcy. It doesn't indicate its members' total dedication to and complicity in Soviet espionage. And it is certainly no basis for thinking that the McCarthyites were somehow justified in their motives, if not in their tactics. It's as if the discovery of a few Japanese spies during the Second World War justified herding 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps during that period.

Rehabilitating McCarthyism and the current political climate

The current campaign to rehabilitate McCarthyism is only the latest battle in the conservative ideological offensive of the last two decades. In the early 1990s, right-wingers determined to wipe out the memory of 1960s struggles launched attacks on so-called political correctness. As politicians from both parties moved to cut the U.S. welfare state, they produced books like The Bell Curve to "prove" that affirmative action and antipoverty programs couldn't help people who were genetically destined to remain poor.

Most of today's so-called experts on Russia, the CP and McCarthy now have either an explicit or veiled anti-left agenda that is not merely a matter of academic scholarship. Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, puts it this way: "What is happening today is an effort to deny the legitimacy not just of those who favored the Communist Party but the entire left-wing political movement in the post˝Berlin Wall moment. The whole anti-racist, anti-capitalist impulse in American life, which reached its apogee in the 1930s and Ű40s, is on the line."[41]

This makes it all the more important that socialists and others on the left who understand the historical and political significance of McCarthyism condemn it openly, in all its forms. We must stand up against all those who promote it, apologize for it, concede to it in any way.

McCarthyism wasn't just directed at those in the CPUSA prepared to follow Stalin's wishes to the letter. It was directed against rank-and-file CP activists who had fought long and hard in the labor and civil rights struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. It was directed against others on the left, from liberals in the university and the government to Trotskyists and other radicals and revolutionaries. It severely weakened the labor movement and contributed disastrously to a decline in union power and militancy that we are only now beginning, slowly, to recover from.

Socialists make no compromises with McCarthyism or with Stalinism. Not only is there no contradiction between an uncompromising, unrelenting protest against McCarthyism and a rejection of the corrupt, self-defeating politics of Stalinism. These positions go hand in hand. They are both essential in today's fight for workers' self-emancipation and socialism from below.

1 Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998), p. x.

2 National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey on-line database at

3 See Ethan Bronner, "Rethinking McCarthyism, if not McCarthy," New York Times "Week in Review," October 18, 1998, and Jacob Weisberg, "The rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy," New York Times Magazine, November 28, 1999, pp. 116˝23. The latter title appears on the cover; the inside title, significantly, is "Cold War without end."

4 Quoted in Elizabeth Schulte, "A back-stabbing rat," Socialist Worker 315, March 12, 1999, p. 9.

5 Miriam and Walter Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983). The book was first published in 1966.

6 Isserman quoted in Weisberg, p. 156.

7 Miriam Zahler, "A poisoned childhood," Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left, Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, eds. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1998), pp. 207˝208.

8 Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, p. 104. According to Schrecker: "In October 1939, Trotsky apparently accepted an invitation to testify before HUAC, but had to postpone his appearance because of the State Department's refusal to give him a visa. He was about to give a deposition to a member of the HUAC staff when he was assassinated. One wonders what the old revolutionary would have said; it is even more interesting to speculate about what would have been done with his statement" (p. 81).

9 David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), p. 30.

10 Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 420˝21.

11 Victor S. Navasky, Naming Names (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), p. 79.

12 Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, p. 82.

13 See Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (New York: Random House, 1998), pp. 168˝69.

14 Caute, p. 28.

15 See Ellen Schrecker, "McCarthyism's ghosts: Anticommunism and American labor," New Labor Forum, Spring/Summer 1999, pp. 7˝17.

16 Quoted by Bronner in "Rethinking McCarthyism, if not McCarthy."

17 See Sam Tanenhaus, "The red scare," New York Review of Books, January 14, 1999.

18 Arthur Herman, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator (New York: The Free Press, 1999).

19 Weisberg, "The rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy," p. 121.

20 Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), back cover (paperback edition).

21 Liberal writer Murray Kempton quoted in Michael Ybarra, letter, "The red scare," New York Review of Books, November 18, 1999. Available on-line at (as of February 20, 2000).

22 Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, p. xii.

23 John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 6.

24 Haynes and Klehr, Venona, p. 309.

25 Quoted in Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, "Cables coming in from the cold," The Nation, July 5, 1999: p. 26.

26 Haynes and Klehr, Venona, p. 17.

27 Haynes and Klehr, Venona, p. 7.

28 For a helpful overview of these historians, see Lee Sustar's "Communism in the heart of the beast," International Socialism 68, Autumn 1995: pp. 81˝92. In addition to the studies of Isserman, Naison and Kelley already mentioned, Sustar cites Robert Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workes Unions (1980, 1986) and Fraser Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (1991). This body of work was sharply critical of, and in turn attacked by, Theodore Draper, author of The Roots of American Communism (1957, 1985) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960, 1986). Draper has been the most influential and relentlessly anticommunist of the Cold War liberal historians.

29 Tony Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow: Essays on Revolutionary Socialism (London: Bookmarks, 1982), p. 99.

30 Sustar, p. 81.

31 Ahmed Shawki, "Black liberation and socialism in the United States," International Socialism 47, Summer 1990: p. 57.

32 Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), pp. 123˝4.

33 Isserman, Which Side Were You On?, pp. 182˝4.

34 Isserman, Which Side Were You On?, pp. 143˝45.

35 In fact, discussion of the CP's contribution to the Allied war effort is conspicuously absent from Klehr, Haynes and Kyrill Anderson's Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

36 Roger Keeran, The Communists and the Auto Workers Unions (New York: International Publishers, 1980), p. 237.

37 "Discussions with Trotsky," Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939˝1940, Naomi Allen and George Breitman, eds., (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p. 282.

38 See Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--the Stalin Era (New York: Random House, 1999).

39 Isserman, "They led two lives," New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1999: p. 35.

40 Chris Harman, A People's History of the World (London: Bookmarks, 1999), p. 546.

41 Quoted by Bronner in "Rethinking McCarthyism, if not McCarthy."

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